Friday, July 12, 2013

Biggest Success to Date!

            GAD Camp…I’ve been talking about GAD Camp non-stop since November 2012. GAD stands for Gender and Development and is an organization, composed of and run by current Peace Corps Volunteers. Its mission is to educate and promote women's rights and the awareness of gender issues among the women, men, and youth of Panama through training, conferences and workshops. The group also focuses on educating Panamanians on health and social problems that touch men, women and families. And, GAD Camp plays a major role in GAD’s work in Panama.
            One objective of the camp is to provide the students with the knowledge and tools needed for the development of future leaders. Students will learn about self-esteem, goal setting, decision-making, conflict resolution, and project design and management, often using well-known Peace Corps Panama tools like "EMART" and "POCA". The planning and development of a project to be carried out in their communities will further enhance the participants’ leadership skills. Another key objective is to teach sexual education in a manner that highlights family planning, HIV/AIDS, and sexual health. In the end, the hope is that the students will be able to utilize their decision-making tools to make healthy decisions as it relates to their sexual health and future.
            Back at the end of November I found out that my community’s youth applicants were not accepted to the January conference in San Felix. In response, I immediately began to plan a second GAD Camp West (two already existed in the country, but this would be the second western regional GAD Camp for 2013). My determination did not wane and I submitted a Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) proposal with Jacy Woodruff, whose site would host the weeklong camp.
            In April we hosted a Training of Trainers (TOT) for the facilitators in Jacy’s site, Quebrada el Bajo, during which we discussed all the material to be covered during the camp. My mind also raced through all the possible scenarios of disasters and accidents that could happen. My mind continued to race as I thought of the appropriate and reasonably feasible responses to said mishaps, considering we were hosting almost 35 students from other communities in Bocas del Toro, the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle, Veraguas, and Chiriqui in a community located 20 minutes up a river by boat from the nearest “town,” 45 minutes from the nearest hospital, and over 3 hours from the nearest decent hospital. I should say that, despite all my worries, I think my first-aid kit was only touched by a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who was not used to Bocas food or water.
            Once we discovered that the kids desperately wanted to shower (or rather bath in the river) in both the morning and evening and that they needed to do so in order to even begin thinking about enjoying the conference, everything in the conference went well. Despite only having one urinal and one flush toilet, that clogged one morning forcing Jacy to purchase a plunger in the nearest town, Chiriqui Grande, the sanitation system went fairly smoothly. Meanwhile, the PCVs happily used her composting latrine. Sleeping in the school on thin foam mats posed no problem. And, no one complained about the food, as often these participants would consider themselves lucky to be eating three whole meals daily. I cannot speak highly enough about the PCVs that helped make the camp the fun and energetic conference that it developed into. The student groups enjoyed a photo scavenger hunt, water balloon fight, and relay races during the Olympics. The final evening saw some brave participants share their gifts in the talent show. 
            In the end, 44 youth participants, ranging in ages from 12 to 18, were educated in self-esteem, self-image, values assessment, realistic goal-setting, personal development, along with HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy awareness. Finally, the participants divided into groups according to their communities and formulated a plan to execute a community project. In Quebrada el Guabo, Sarah’s community along the Changuinola River in Bocas del Toro, the participants have decided to start a school garden. In time, they are hoping to sell the products to fund various student activities. On Isla San Cristobal, the participants from my community, Valle Escondido, and San Cristobal have already reenacted the self-esteem and self-image presentations given at the camp. This weekend we will be deciding on an August date to visit the San Cristobal middle school in order to cover the remaining topics related to sexual health.
            For the many PCVs never hear “thank you” from community members, I want to share a Facebook message (yes, a Facebook message). During the camp we not able to cover the internet objective of visiting an internet cafe, so I taught one of my youth participants how to open both Gmail and Facebook accounts afterwards. The youth participant, Luis, had wanted to open a Facebook account for many months, and upon returning to internet on his own he wrote this message to me:
“Quiero darte las grasias por dame la oportunidad da participar en la conferencia. Te aseguro que voy a luchar por lograr lo que quiera. Fue impresionante. Nunca lo olvidaré. Gracias por pensar en mi futuro. Dios te bendiga.”
This Facebook post translates to:
“I want to give you thanks for giving me the opportunity to participate in the conference. I assure you that I will fight to achieve what I want. It was impressive. I will never forget it. Thank you for thinking of my future. May God bless you.”
            I want to give one final shout-out to everyone that made this camp financially possible. Thank you for contributing to the PCPP! The kids learned a lot and had a lot of fun in the meantime. Finally, thank you to Hostel Heike in Bocas del Toro for funding the t-shirts that we gave to the kids. It all meant a lot!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Partying with the Parents in Panama

            It's been far too long... The title might be a little misleading, because I consider "partying" now to be enjoying the comfortable life, such as good food, a nice bed, and few extra touristy destinations. This past April was dominated by a whirlwind road trip of Panama with my parents. Starting in Panama City, we both cruised through the locks of the Panama Canal and watched other boats cruise across the Canal from the Panama Canal Museum. Most people would only do one, but then again they probably were not traveling with two civil engineers and one very obliging wife and mother. After a few nights in Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City with the colonial architecture, my parents and I rented a car and headed toward the Azuero Peninsula, the heartland of traditional Panamanian culture. En route, we stopped in La Pintada, Cocle, where rolling cigars and weaving sombreros pintados (painted hats) are good sources of income. We visited Joyas de Panama and learned about the cigar making process, and we learned about the variations in quality and designs of sombreros pintados from a local artisan. One hat had a price tag of $300, and supposedly the finely woven hats can be flipped over and will hold water.
Arriving late at night in El Puerto in the province of Los Santos near Guarare, we found a gem at the Casa del Puerto. The owner, Bonnie, is an Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) from the late 60’s who worked in the neighboring town with the artisans. She has now returned to the area where she runs a hotel and leads personal tours to homes of pollera artisans, some of the same women she worked with some 40 years ago. The pollera is the traditional dress of Panama for big cultural celebrations (
After extending our visit to El Puerto for an extra night, we loaded up the car and headed on to Boquete. Now, a very, very popular town for tourists and retired ex-pats, Boquete is a town with a cooler climate, set among the mountains of Chiriqui, the main food-producing region of Panama. Among the highlands of Chiriqui, many coffee farms produce high quality coffee beans. As I sit here writing this in my hut, I ‘m enjoying the coffee given to us at the end of our tour at Casa Ruiz.
After Boquete, we had a small adventure taking a “shortcut” across the mountains, or rather the continental divide of Panama, to the province of Bocas del Toro. Dropping the car off in Changuinola, we arrived in Bocas in the early evening, and the moment we stepped back in Bocas Town on Isla Colon I felt as if I were home again (despite the impressive amount of tourists that walk the streets daily). The tour of Panama, while only skimming the surface, still showed the great diversity of Panama and its various cultures. Having visited all the key beaches last year with my parents, we opted to enjoy one day of walking around, one day in my site, and one day at the Örebä Chocolate Tour. Again, my community loved seeing my parents and as my dad’s fourth visit, he had an extremely hard time saying goodbye. In the end, he admitted that he hoped to return yet.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

What a Great Start to 2013: University of Nevada-Reno in Valle Escondido

Wow, it's been a while...As every Peace Corps Panama Volunteer knows, November and December bring holiday after holiday, and in Panama, or at least in our communities, the holidays last for more than just one day and the extended holidays mean little to no work is going to get done. For Valle Escondido, composting latrine construction had been put completely on hold. The community needed a jump-start.
            Last May a group of Hydrogeology graduate students from the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR) came to Valle Escondido as a service trip for their student group, Student Association for International Water Issues (SAIWI). The group, which I knew through a classmate at Notre Dame, had a wonderful time working with the community learning about life as a Peace Corps Volunteer and life in general in the developing world. The three students enjoyed the experience so much that they recommended a second group to come back during their Winter Break. From the same student organization came three more students interested in water resources and public health protection. Having fundraised the previous year to pay for flights and materials, the group arrived eager to work, to build two composting latrines, and to learn about Valle Escondido.
            Frankly, I started out worried because I had just arrived back at my site after a trip home to the States for Christmas and because New Year’s festivities in my site seemed to still be going strong three days later. I didn’t know if I would have gasoline, let alone a boat and boat driver, available to go pick up materials on Isla Colon, where the group was waiting for me. Luckily, in the late afternoon the tienda owner, Renato, was able to pick up more gasoline and transport materials back to the community.
            The following day my community had magically recuperated and together with the UNR group we broke ground on the first latrine of the trip. From day one the group worked hard to communicate in Spanish and to build relationships with my community members, and they did so flawlessly. By the third day, we had my counterpart, the obligatory worker on the part of the latrine owner, a third worker found by my counterpart, and three more young men that simply enjoyed working with this UNR group. With each increasing day the community fell more in love with the outgoing, charismatic group. Community members invited us to go swimming in the ocean, to visit their fincas, and to learn about the cacao process.
            Within four days we had the first latrine base built and plastered with the frame of the privacy structure in place. The afternoon of the fourth workday happened to fall on January 7, the day of the College Football National Championship between Alabama and Notre Dame. The entire group went to Isla Colon to watch the game. Although it turned out to be a sad day for Notre Dame fans, I was happy to be able to share the game watch with my dad. After a day of much needed rest for the group in Bocas we quickly started the second latrine. With an excess amount of workers, we divided duties so that some worked on ferrocement toilet seats, some finished another latrine that simply lacked the seats, and some continued working on the principal latrine. I primarily worked with the ferrocement seats and taught the group and community members the details of forming the seat shape, plastering the inside and outside of the seat, and making the urine diversion piece. On the other hand, Poli, my community counterpart, led the construction team at the principal latrine. Each member of the UNR group synched well with the community members and the assigned work. More importantly, younger community members, or the future community leaders, were freely giving their time and simultaneously learning both construction and project management skills.
            Peace Corps has three main goals: (1) to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, (2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and (3) to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. This UNR SAIWI group did an impeccable job at achieving Peace Corps Goals 2 and 3. The effort they put into practicing Spanish, getting to know the names of everyone they met, and showing flexibility with food and work schedules demonstrated some of the best qualities Americans can portray here in Panama. My community members felt comfortable talking with each member of the SAIWI group and walked away from the experience with good memories and new friendships. Also walking away with new friendships, the group felt proud what they accomplished while working “shoulder to shoulder” with my community. They took away a better understanding of the developing world, international development work, and the strong sentiments felt by my community for them. The group took pieces of Panamanian and Ngabe culture back with them: photos of dancing tipico, balls of cacao, the traditional woven Ngabe bags (chakra), and memories of all the small children coloring in my house. Finally, the cultural sharing will continue because before leaving I set up e-mail and Facebook for their three closest friends in Valle Escondido.
            In the end, the trip resulted in three fully completed composting latrines, one Tippy-Tap presentation, new friendships, and three community members with Facebook. I’d say it was a pretty successful start to 2013, and I can only hope that the group members might add some of their own stories to my blog…

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Madagascar, Well Worth the Wait!

            Brace yourself. It's a long one, and it's all about my trip to visit Brad in Madagascar. After more than 30 hours of traveling, I had passed from Panama through the States through France to Madagascar. Waiting for my luggage in order to pass through customs seemed like an eternity, but finally I had arrived in Antananarivo. I couldn’t have been happier when I cleared customs and saw Brad waiting for me outside the airport.
            We only stayed two nights in Antananarivo before heading north, but Brad introduced me to the beauty of the French pastry. My question is why. Why didn’t the Spaniards or Americans leave behind something so appealing to the taste buds like that in Panama? It’s unfortunate for Panama. While in Tana (the capitol’s nickname), I met Jonathan, Brad’s NGO counterpart who graduated from the MI program and returned to Madagascar to work for CARE. I was happy to start putting faces with the names Brad had mentioned for the past year.
            So, I thought transportation was bad in Panama, but in reality it’s beautiful. Busses in Panama actually leave within a half hour of the time they say they are going to leave. Buses in Madagascar do not. Brad and I spent over 24 hours in a bus as we traveled north towards Ankarana. Ankarana is a national park with interesting geologic features and a plethora of interesting animals. Tsingy are limestone formations that spike out of the ground to form what looks like a maze of limestone valleys and crevasses. Here, we also saw the baobab, the trademark tree of Madagascar. In other parts of the park, we saw a ring-tailed mongoose and, of course, lemurs. Only found in Madagascar, the lemurs were the main attraction, but while eating our lunch we might have been the main attraction for them. These lemurs liked to get up close and personal as they almost managed to steal Brad’s and other visitors’ food.
            I think Panama has some of the most beautiful Peace Corps sites to offer, but I’m not sure any of them can really compare to Brad’s friend’s site, Ampasindava. Megan lives in paradise. A few steps from her house one can see a fantastic view of the beach, water, and islands in the distance. Having received funding from French ex-pats, the community had built two separate sets of bungalows, and we the ones with a view. Essentially unknown, not on any map, this community is gorgeous and full of very welcoming people. Hanging out with Megan’s host family, I smiled and nodded to any Malagasy spoken to me, but I sincerely enjoyed playing with the kids in the water and on the beach despite the language barrier. Eating fresh fish with coconut rice, smelling ylang-ylang, and seeing a massive turtle just strolling on the beach made this stop on our trip a one of a kind experience. In short, her site was a major highlight of the trip.
            From Megan’s site, we took a two-hour boat ride with her host family to Nosy Be (let’s just say it was a small motor). Despite Nosy Be offering a large tourist market, her community rarely makes the trip to the island. I couldn’t resist comparing how my community is so heavily influenced by the nearby touristy island, Isla Colon. Landing in Hellville, we took a taxi to our splurge spot of the vacation, Andilana Beach. The crescent-shaped beach was breathtaking with the picture perfect sunsets. To top it all off, the town offered more amazing French food. Simply put, Andilana was a picture of paradise.
            After paradise came another very long bus ride back to Tana and onward to Moramanga, Brad’s banking town. Although sad to leave paradise, I was excited to meet several of Brad’s good Peace Corps friends: Corey, James, Sam, and Travis (or Peace Corps Bob...). They had been in the city to help translate for a Habitat for Humanity group, and we caught them on the tail end of their stay. Brad and his friends seemed more than happy to show me around to their favorite pastry shop, internet café, and restaurants. You can begin to see a theme in this vacation…
            From Moramanga we moved on to Brad’s site, Lohariandava. Situated on the rail line, the town is much larger than most Environmental Health sites in Panama, but it also serves many communities in the commune. I was surprised to find stores that sold food, clothing, and other household itesm. Besides the standard necesitites, the food sold included mufugasy (Malagasy bread, which is actually fried balls of rice), heavily sugared coffee, and other “street food.” The clothing sold included lambas, a sheet of brightly colored fabric that traditionally serves as a wrap skirt or baby carrier if tied around the waist and chest. My tiendas that sell the rice, sugar, cookies, and sodas (I’m lucky to say one sells cold sodas) paled in comparison. Other highlights of the stay in Brad’s site included a visit to a neighboring community, about an hour hike away, and a dinner with the doctor who lives next door to Brad.
            Because of the crazy, sporadic schedule of the trains (counter-intuitive, I know), we chose to backtrack to Andasibe, a national park closer to Moramanga. Andasibe is truly an amazing national park with a wide variety of animals, especially lemurs. The main attraction is the indri, which Lonely Planet describes as looking like “small children dressed in panda suits.” And, you could hear the indri calling from our bungalow in the evenings and mornings.
            I’m going to brush over the mess that was the disappearance of my camera. I don’t want to dwell on the bad memories or on all the beautiful photos that were lost. But, from Andasibe we headed to the east coast, specifically Tamatave and Foulpointe. In Foulpointe, we spent one night at in a beachfront bungalow, but after killing 10 cockroaches in one night we decided to make a move. Even as Peace Corps Volunteers, we still have some standards (but we may have been OK with only 5 cockroaches). Anwyay, after the move, we ate shrimp, mussels, and coconut treats on the beach as vendors walked up and down the sand offering their tasty treats. Wooden dugout pirogues painted brilliant colors dotted both the beach and horizon. We were again amidst a Malagasy tropical paradise.
            We realized that Frenchmen like this tropical paradise for another reason when we sat down at an Italian restaurant in Tamatave. Older Frenchmen sat at the tables with multiple young Malagasy women at their side. Dinner became quite the experience as Brad and I were directly confronted with Madagascar’s sex tourism.
            From Tamatave we made the sad trek back to the capital. While cherishing my last moments in Madagascar, I couldn’t help but be thankful for car emission standards in the US and Panama. Brad and I said each night that we had to get Tana out of our noses. Gross! While in Tana, I met more PCVs and I was also lucky enough to meet up with Meghan, another USF MI student, and her family. Brad and I toured the city a bit, which included a visit to the Queen’s Palace and to several markets in order to shop for gifts. While this has been a long-winded entry, I’m happy to finally tell everyone about my visit to Madagascar. I had a wonderful time with Brad, and I only look forward to when he will come to visit me in Panama at the end of our Peace Corps services.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Reno to Panama: Building Latrines and Friendships

            So... It’s been a while. Thinking back to May and June, I had the wonderful opportunity to host a visit from University of Nevada – Reno’s Student Association for International Water Issues (SAIWI). Headed by my friend from Notre Dame, Lindsay, the group consisted of two other Masters students, my dad as their advisor, and my uncle as a short-term volunteer. Having raised money throughout the year, the group funded their trip to Bocas del Toro, two latrines, the aqueduct survey, and some water quality tests. The arrival of family and friends to work alongside both my community and me was a welcomed adventure and certainly a learning experience for all. For the first week before my uncle left, I hosted the five visitors in my house. Sadly, they came at a time when the sand flys and mosquitoes were relentless. Despite wearing DEET and using these incense spirals that locals call mechita, the girls, my dad, and my uncle all got eaten alive. One of the major learning experiences was the change of pace for the visitors. Anyone stepping off the plane from the US in a Caribbean locale will notice the change of pace, but coming to terms with the slow pace of materials transportation, community participation in construction, and communication during a project with a finite timeline will certainly test the patience of the unaccustomed. I now have a better understanding as to why people may think I am crazy for doing Peace Corps. For them, my living conditions are like camping for two years (and I like to think that I have a pretty nice set up).
            During their two weeks of camping, the group did an excellent job of adjusting. They learned to cope with the heat, the ever-present children, the slow pace, the cold showers, and my less than perfect composting latrine whose urinal seems to clog fairly often. In the end, the girls played an integral role by constructing the ferrocement toilet seats for the two latrines, while my dad and I managed other aspects of the construction. During this visit, the importance of learning the language became especially clear to me as I translated for the girls and sometimes clarified my dad’s misunderstanding of my community’s Spanish. For instance, when you look up “ahora” in the Spanish-English dictionary, the translations says “now,” but in my community “ahora” or “now” really means like “five hours from now.” If you want to say “now” you better use “ahorita.” Have to love the linguistic intricacies of Panama. In short, the time in my community was an excellent learning and cultural sharing opportunity that, fortunately, was also very productive.
Despite the challenges faced by the group, sharing my Peace Corps experience was extremely gratifying. Finally, I have a group of family and friends that know exactly what my life is like in Valle Escondido. On the final day that the girls were in my community, they were able to work with the women as they toasted cacao, peeled the shells, and ground the cacao. The time in Valle Escondido culminated with a despedida, or a going away party, filled with smiles, dances, and a movie. A group of youth danced in their polleras and guayaveras for the group, and then they turned the tables on my dad and the Reno girls. Forced to the dance floor, my dad wore a hilariously small straw hat, while Lydia, Cassandra, and Lindsay put on the little girls’ polleras that barely reached their knees. With dance partners from the community, the girls and my dad had their first lesson in folkloric dance. Everyone enjoyed the show, and I’m grateful that the Reno group was such good sports! They were champs!
I can’t thank them enough for the time they spent in my community. My community members still ask about them and thank them for their donation of time and money repeatedly. I’m extremely, extremely happy to say that the SAIWI group is thinking of making a second visit to Valle Escondido in January! I only need to work on getting those darn sand flys and mosquitoes under control! Wouldn’t that be nice?!
Finally, I should mention that the one woman who received a latrine from this group has already put it into use. This latrine gives me hope that he project can be salvaged and is worthwhile. And, I have just received the funding for the continued work on the project. Thank you for your support!

Monday, May 21, 2012

How's Life?

            Life is good. Since my birthday I feel like life has kicked itself into full gear. Immediately after my birthday I traveled to Farallon, Cocle, where Peace Corps often holds training sessions for PCVs. In this case, I was there for Reconnect In-Service Training (or what we call IST). Did I mention that this training site is a convenient 20-minute walk away from the beach? And, yes I do feel like a spoiled Peace Corps Volunteer. Despite its close proximity to the beach, I learned a great deal at IST. For instance, I started off with a little refresher of the Spanish subjunctive and Ngabere. Then, the veteran EH PCVs went to work teaching us more about water committee seminars, aqueduct trouble shooting, rainwater catchment, ferrocement, NeatWorks, and latrines. NeatWorks is a computer program that can design a gravity fed water system, or what PCVs usually call an aqueduct, for you when provided with the surveying data, or essentially the change in altitude recorded using a water or abney level. Call me a nerd, but I thought it was cool, and I’m looking forward to using it to help both San Cristobal (my closest PCV Kim’s site) and Valle Escondido. Then, Louis, or Tolichi in Ngabere, talked about his work on composting latrines. Now is your chance to really call me a nerd because I am fascinated and extremely impressed with Louis’ composting latrine work in Bahia Azul. He has managed to adapt the compost latrine design to account for certain cultural factors of the Ngabes. In response to the water-washing habits of his community, Louis invented the Ngabe Bidet that utilizes a rainwater catchment system and retrofit toilet seat over the unused composting chamber. He has worked on other aspects of the design as well, including ferrocement seats, in lieu of the insanely heavy concrete seats. The lightweight seats will not be sealed with concrete to the base as is customary with the concrete seats, so these seats can be moved to allow for easier mixing of the compost. Now, the challenge for me is to get my community to accept a few changes to the design that they have been building for the past year and a half. Anyway, at the end of the training, I felt energized and excited to get back to site to get to work.
            After enjoying the rare chance to video Skype with Brad and a Sunday full of baseball between my community and Bahia Honda, a community on a neighboring island, I went to work at Kim’s site. Both Eric and Ben from my training group, Group 69 Environmental Health, joined Kim and me in San Cristobal to investigate her aqueduct. Accompanied by four community members, we hiked to the spring source. First, we discovered that something (What? We don’t know…) is growing rapidly in the catchment tank. Second, fist-sized holes have formed in the catchment tank but had gone unnoticed because of the mud and debris surrounding it. I have to admit we are still troubleshooting all the possible issues with the water system, but I’m hoping that we’ve made it clear that poking random holes into the pipe is bad. Yes, they may have issues with trapped air, but they clearly don’t need holes that now have nice fountains squirting out of them. You know, just a thought. We also began surveying the mainline of the aqueduct with a water level. Unfortunately, the water level can only measure 15 m at a time, so for a system that is about 1.5 km, you can understand it may seem a little tedious. Plus, the community members probably now think all gringos, including their Volunteers, are crazy. On one occasion, I actually had to be pulled out of (or what I would consider to be rescued from) thigh-high mud. I’m sure I’ve never looked and smelled so lovely in all my life. Oh, and Ben took a video of it. Overall, the surveying was a good experience of working directly with the community and its water committee. Last week Kim and I finished the survey with a few community members and I hope that in the next week I can report back saying that I have written up an informe (one-page description of suggested improvements).
            After working in Kim’s site, Ben made a little visit to my site. He recorded a video of Hipolito (or Poli), my counterpart, describing a composting latrine. I loved watching Poli advertise the composting latrine as if he were trying to sell it. He would make such a good Peace Corps Volunteer! I don’t know what sparked the sudden movement, but that following Monday Poli and I began working on the half-finished latrines. Using the damaged, or let’s say less than perfect, cement, Poli and I attached toilet seats to the base, sealed concrete doors to the base, and built the frame of the casita (the privacy structure on the composting latrine).  Other odds and ends involved installing the urine diversion tubes and collecting several sacks worth of dried grass to line the base of the latrine. Poli really enjoys making jokes about putting the grass there so that the poop doesn’t plop down and stick to the concrete base. Gotta love campo-style potty humor!
            I need to jump back in time a little bit to say that while I was at IST, Ministerio de Salud (MINSA) came to my community and talked with some of the community leaders about dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases. The result was a push to clean up the trash in the community that often pool water and become mosquito breeding grounds. So, Sunday April 7 I was picking up candy wrappers, tin cans, bottle caps, and more candy wrappers. I made the mere suggestion that we have a trash collection competition amongst the youth for a prize, and a few signs and prizes later, we had 25 kids collecting mountains of trash from all over the community. Seeing the success of the competition, Rogelio, a community leader and my first host dad, wanted to reward the kids with more prizes. The following Monday he went to Bocas with two letters, one in Spanish written by the Kindergarten teacher and one in English written by yours truly. He took these letters to various businesses, restaurants, and hotels to ask for a few dollars of support. He received about $10 in total and couldn’t have been happier with himself. Additionally, some people gave him their phone numbers for me to contact them. As a result, that Thursday three Canadians came to visit Valle Escondido. I played the role of tour guide, but luckily they just wanted to see how the community lives and to take pictures.
            I should also mention that the previous night the Artesanas (artisan group) met for the first time in three or so years. The Artesanas have decided to use the $60 that I got as a Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC) Grant to buy cacao from neighbors. The, the group toasts and grinds the cacao. From this ground cacao, the women form 4 oz (or there about) balls of cacao. Ultimately, these cacao balls are sold on Isla Colon for $1, so slowly but surely we are collecting money to buy poplin to make naguas. I hope to talk about the Artesanas more in a later blog because a lot of artisan training opportunities have recently developed.
            Back to the afternoon that the tourists left, I left with them and took the direct overnight bus from Almirante to Panama City. This visit to the city was for Training of Trainers (TOT). Sounds silly doesn’t it? Regardless, I am very excited to help train the incoming Group 71 Environmental Health Volunteers. Funny thing about this trip, afterwards I realized that Panama has changed me…I can’t even live in air conditioning. The overnight buses are notoriously cold, so I simply froze. I arrived in Panama City at about 5 am and hung around the terminal until 7 am when I took another bus headed in the direction of the Peace Corps Office.
            Probably only my dad and those who know my dad’s sense of direction can appreciate this story as pure evidence that I am his daughter, but I can say that I got on one of the right buses. The bus said “Gamboa,” as in Gamboa Rainforest, and this bus would pass the Peace Corps Office en route. Unfortunately, I learned that Gamboa is an hour away from the city. Standing in a packed school bus I couldn’t see out the windows as we passed the offices and continued on for another 40 minutes before turning around. I like to look at this little adventure as a nice tourist visit to Gamboa. From what I saw it looked quite beautiful! Plus, I still made it to my meeting at 9 am.
            Overall, life is just wonderful and in the next blog entry I’ll talk more about my most recent adventures.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Birthday Bocas-Style!

            I turned 24 on March 16…and I had just gotten used to saying I was 23. My original plan was to be out of site in Panama City for a medical appointment before going to Farallon in Cocle for Group 69’s In-Service Training (IST). So, I hadn’t told many people in my community about my birthday. But, because of continued protests, the same ones that kept me in David for five days with the GAD Camp participants, Peace Corps told me that I should not leave my site. Let me clarify that we were not supposed to travel on the Interamericana Highway, but luckily, roadblocks can’t stop the boat that goes from my community to Bocas. J
            Kim, my closest PCV, and I celebrated my birthday on Bocas with the owners of Lula’s B&B, who were celebrating their wedding anniversary. In short, the day was very relaxing. I talked with Brad and my parents, and of course, I used internet to my heart’s content. For dinner we went to a restaurant that was hosting an event to promote awareness of lionfish, or rather awareness that you can eat lionfish. Throughout the Caribbean, the Bocas waters included, lionfish are a poisonous invasive species, but apparently they also make a nice ceviche.
            I had debated and debated with myself about how I should go about sharing my birthday with my community. I worried about too many people showing up and not having enough cake or sweets for them, and I also worried about buying too much and my community thinking that I have an excessive amount of money. In the end, right before leaving Isla Colon for my community, I bought the largest cake that the bakery had. I’d recommend looking at my Facebook photo album so you can decide for yourself how many people this cake should have served. For a Ngabe community they take dividing treats seriously. Mainly, I informed my host families and a few of my closer friends from the community that night that I was celebrating my birthday with cake. I would say that at least 30 people, including children, arrived at my house, and then we even sent out several plates of cake to other families. It worked out perfectly as a mini-surprise for them. You may even call it a reverse surprise birthday party. Whatever you call it, the celebration was perfect.
I should say that before any cake was even cut, everyone was given the opportunity to say a little word. Many stepped forward with well wishes and blessings. And, each person gave me a hug. How much better can it get? Well, the Panamanian tradition is to smear icing from the cake on the face of the birthday boy or girl. Knowing this tradition might happen, I nipped it in the bud. Knowing the very chistoso (funny, joking) nature of my counterpart, I eyed him the entire time they sang “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and then in English. He smiled a mischievous smile (I wish I could have gotten a picture of it) but he held back in the end. Some of you may say, “Oh, that’s no fun,” but seriously I just wanted to eat some icing. Basically, I was happy to not have a cake and icing facial. In the end, I was very happy that I let one of my host sisters take over the camera, because the resulting photos are priceless. I’ll certainly cherish the silly photos of kids stuffing their faces with cake.
Then, the following night I showed “Happy Feet 2” on my laptop, so I had another 15-20 people in my house. In short, I just had a wonderful weekend with my community.