Tag: Peace Corps Panama

First Site Visit {PST Week 8}

First Site Visit {PST Week 8}

Sweat was pouring down the temples of my forehead and I was breathing heavy as I dragged my feet up another hill. My nagua was completely soaked and weighing me down with the sweat that streamed down my body. My guide was marching ahead, unphased by how tired I was after pasearing all day. He looked back at me as we arrived at another house and said, ¨last one,¨ and I was so stoked. I thought my stomach was going to explode if I received one more bowl of rice or coffee so I was looking forward to the day being over. I sighed as a woman handed me another bowl of rice and a cup of coffee, gave myself a pep talk, and downed the food and drink. I told myself first impressions were everything; I just had to do this one time so I don’t insult the gente. Since food is all they have to give, by rejecting the food they offer, in a way you reject the person or family also so it’s important to just do your best to smile, force it down, and tell them it’s bonänte.

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I was ecstatic to finally meet my guide and find out where I would be living for the next two years. I had no fears about meeting the people and the site in general, but I was psyching myself out over the hike into my site. One of my compañeros that had visited my site for their volunteer visit told me that my hike-in was brutal and wished me luck. I had a lot of stuff I was carrying into site and I was worried about the weight and my guide not helping me carry my bags.

We stayed in a hostel overnight to rest for the hike the next morning. I couldn’t sleep, and I was counting down the hours until I would have to make the trek with my heavy bags up the monte. It was 6 AM when my guide asked if I was ready to go; physically I had been ready to go with my clothes on since 4 AM but mentally, not even close. I asked my guide how long was the hike, ¨a little over an hour,¨ which meant in Ngobe time, probably around 2 hours.

We climbed in a busito, which drove us into the Comarca and started up the mountain. I looked out the window and saw a magnificent lush, green valley below with majestic mountains that extended for as far as the eye could see. The sun’s rays was peaking over the crest and the fog was beginning to dissipate, and I was in total awe as I realized somewhere along the horizon, I was going to be living in this area for the next two years. I couldn’t believe how blessed I was to have been picked to live is such a beautiful place.

Arriving at the bus stop, my nerves set in and I had to take some deep breaths to calm myself. We had to get to site and we had a meeting with the entire community planned right off the bat. I wasn’t worried at all about meeting new people, I just wondered if I could make it up the mountain with my bags for the next two years. The first 45 minutes was rolling hills; I had my giant backpacking backpack on my back, another big backpack strapped to my front, and a mini-pack hanging off my side. It was probably close to 70 pounds, but I managed the rolling hills. What got to me was after we waded through the river and we had to walk straight up the mountain for another hour. I was incredibly frustrated but I hung in and made it to site after close to two and a half hours.

Everyone was so excited when I showed up to the community meeting in a nagua and I gave my speech in Ngobere:

Köbö kuin dere! Ti ka Anna. Ti nunanka California, Estados Unidoste. Ti ta sribire Cuerpo de Pazben. Ti nunai nete ka kröbu krakwe. Ti sribidi nö kukwebdta. Böri kuin!

Good afternoon! My name is Anna. I’m from California, USA. I am working with Peace Corps. I will live with you for two years. I will work with water and health. All is well!

The gente errupted in total applause and cheers at the end, and the community decided to give me a Ngobe name, Meli, so I am no longer Anna Harris these next two years, but Meli Klauböda. The next few days I paseared in the village to get to know the people and get a feel for what the community was like, and also had my first work junta to clear the ojo de agua to make way for work in the aqueduct. I’m really excited how motivated the people are to work among the 4 different pueblos I’ll be working with and to see what these next two years will hold.

Harvest Season {Month 4 – October 2017}

Harvest Season {Month 4 – October 2017}

I thought it was the end; this wasn’t how I wanted things to be. 

It was the dead of the night when I was stirring in my hammock, and I felt a rush of a burning sensation in my throat, rising to my nose, and foam bubbling out of my mouth. My eyes shot open immediately, awakened by the searing pain. My instincts told me to excise the fluids, but there was a thick mucus blocking my nasal passageways. I couldn’t exhale, and my body wouldn’t let me inhale either. I was trying with all my power to cough, but it was as if my lungs gave out on me.

I was running out of time, out of oxygen; panic set in and I started flailing my limbs every to move and get out of my hammock. I had moved too close to the edge too quickly, lost my balance, and slammed into the ground face-first. I whimpered as tears streamed down my face, soaking into the earth, wondering if these were my final moments. Finally, some of the foam and stomach acid drained out of my nose and mouth and I was able to manage a cough. I attempted to vomit all of the contents in my throat, then at last took a sweet breath of fresh air. I had survived.

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My first full month in site had its ups and downs trying to integrate and getting used to being so isolated from other Peace Corps Volunteers. Luckily the harvest season was upon us and I was able to immerse myself in agricultural work; harvesting rice, pilaring rice, clearing the monte, and planting beans for the next harvest, to name a few activities.

The Ngobe women are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Not only do they tend to all the house work and care for the children, but they also work in the fields, side-by-side with the men. During work days, we harvest rice by using a special tool to cut the stalks for 10 hours straight. We get small five minute breaks every few hours to drink chicha de maiz, a sour-tasting fermented corn juice.

The next step is pilaring rice, which usually takes place after work days in the long, dark hours of the night until 1 AM, using only the light from a dim torch to help see. Before pilaring the rice, the grain needs to be prepared and separated from the stalk by either sifting with feet or using half a coconut shell. Pilaring, or plundering the rice grains, takes place in a large wooden hourglass shaped bowl and the grains are pounded with a giant log to open the shells. Pilaring rice is the ultimate bicep and tricep workout, and after about 20 plunders, I’m completely worn out and my arms feel like jelly but the Ngobe women can pilar rice for hours on end.

Since my previous volunteer was still in-site and finishing his projects, he hosted an Ultimate Frisbee without Borders tournament at the school with the kids. I was able to meet another volunteer, who has become a really good friend of mine, and experience another Peace Corps program, which was refreshing for me to see since all I had been doing in the community was harvesting crops and other agriculture. We also had our first regional meeting, along with agency days to meet various organizations we’ll be working with these next two years, but unfortunately I was hit hard by a plethora of sicknesses all at once – fever, diarrhea, infected bug bites all over my legs, and gastrointestinal issues – so I was sent to Panama City to see specialists.

Check out next month’s post to find out more on my medical condition and read more about my activities in site, Overcoming Sickness {Month 5 – November 2017} and Latino versus Ngöbe Food!

Officially a Peace Corps Volunteer {Month 3 – September 2017}

Officially a Peace Corps Volunteer {Month 3 – September 2017}

“Does Meli drink coffee?” my neighbor asked my previous volunteer. Tikön looks over at me and I nodded. 

“Good, because that’s all we have to give,”

Tikön and I sat on a bed that’s essentially wooden slabs thrown together like a table, but since there was no other place to sit the bed became our chair.

“Meli, nete,” my neighbor says as she hands me a tall cup of coffee. I take a sip, and it’s the taste I’m becoming all too accustomed to: a burnt corn “coffee” blend with heaps of sugar that I know my teeth won’t thank me for later. 

My eyes glanced over the cup of coffee and three kids were standing before me, visibly sick, staring at me with their giant eyes in curiosity and stomachs extremely bloated from malnutrition and hunger. 

My neighbor’s words rang in my head as I was thinking about poverty in the Comarca; contemplating the fact that all that they had was coffee, and they were generous enough to make me a cup to welcome me into the community while their children were starving. It was a new-found motivation to be able to bring water to the community and return the generosity that was so selflessly shown to me. 

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I was so excited to find out that I’ll be living in the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé in the mountains of Chiriqui for the next two years! Reality set in when a few days later and a guide from each of our community was going to come to Panama City to essentially pick us up and take us to our sites. Everything was happening so fast and it was really going to be the first time I would be alone with gente. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. Will I have a good guide? Will my community like me? Will I like the site?

First work junta clearing out the ojos de agua with the women in my community

It was a relief when I met my guide for the first time and he seemed tranquilo, but really quiet. It was his first time ever leaving the community further than the closest town, so I understood the city must have been overwhelming. I exhausted all my questions so I just let things be after that. After a day and a half of ice breakers at the office, we got the motion to head to our sites. The guides were in a mad rush to get out of there and I had no idea what was going on, but I was trying to stay calm.

Meeting my previous volunteer, Tikön, and his host sisters

We headed out on the six hour bus ride to the Comarca, and I tried sleeping but I was worried about the hike into my site. One of my friends who visited the previous volunteer for their site visit said that the hike was brutal. And I was probably carrying about 60 pounds of stuff to begin the moving process from the training community to site. By the time we arrived to the closest town to site, it was 7 PM and pitch black. There was no way we would be able to make a hike like that so we stayed at a hostel for the night.

In the cancha of our training community

I was freaking out on the inside when the morning came; my bag was heavy and I wasn’t confident that I could carry it up the monte and this was the last time I would see my friends and the first time I would be alone with gente. As soon as it was daybreak, we headed out. Sitting in the busito climbing up the winding road, I looked out the window to an incredible view of the lush monte and valleys below. I was incredibly excited I get to live in such a beautiful place, which reassured me that the Comarca was the right place for me.

Ready for our Despedida! Wearing traditional Ngöbe clothes

We arrived at the entrance of the community and I took a deep breath and braced myself for the hike ahead. There was a gringo that got off the busito as well and I was staring at him in awe, but also really confused what he was doing here. My brain had been constantly translating Spanish and Ngöbere so when he spoke English to me, my mind was blown and I forgot how to respond. “You must be the new volunteer in the area. I’m in the community down here working with Bridges to Prosperity but I hear your community is waaay up there.” Thanks for the reminder that I have a brutal hike.

Everyone going to Ngöbe sites

Normally I don’t sweat, but my heart was pumping and streams of sweat were dripping down my face and body. With my 60 pounds of baggage, the hike was just as awful as I imagined it would be. I thought to myself, my legs are going to be in amazing shape after these two years. Two hours later and sopping wet from crossing a river, we made it to the community. My guide immediately took me to my host family’s house so I could change and get ready for the meeting at the botiquim (communal meeting house). From far away I heard a salimando (a unique yell that people use to greet each other) followed by my name. Who knew my name and why are they so excited to see me? I realized it was my previous volunteer, Tikön, and I was just as excited to see him too.

The ladies heading to Ngöbe sites!

I didn’t have service in site, so knowing that I’ll have Tikön as someone to talk to during my first few months in-site when I can’t talk to anyone else was extremely comforting and made being at site so much better. To read more about my experience my first time visiting my site, read  http://bayousolar.com/csreco/satoyama/ here.

Women of WASH at swear-in

The last couple weeks we spent finishing up all our classes of PST and celebrated our leaving the training community with a despedida, where we performed various dances of the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé. Our final week we moved the rest of our things to the dorms in Panama City to take care of office things and officially swore-in as G81 Peace Corps Volunteers!

G81 Peace Corps Panama Volunteers!
Tech Week {PST Week 6}

Tech Week {PST Week 6}

“Edi! How do you like it here?”

I looked up from my bowl of rice, chicken feet, and boiled yuca, trying to make out the voice that was talking to me. It was the black of night, and there wasn’t a light to be found except from the glow of the embers beneath fogon. I was trying my best to figure out how to eat the skin off the chicken foot and was not focused on conversing with the Ngabe host family that was letting me stay at their penca casita. Half slurping the skin off a chicken foot that was hanging out of my mouth, I replied, “I really like the Comarca and hope I get to live in a site like this one.”

“We really like you and would love for you to stay here and live with us forever!”

The chicken foot dropped back in my bowl and I looked around the dark area in bewilderment. Did they really just say that? Considering everything I’ve heard about the Ngobe-Bugle people, they’re very reserved people so I was surprised they openly wanted to welcome me into their home like family so quickly. Later that night, they presented me with the most beautiful gift; a bright sky blue nagua with carefully crafted dientes of lime green, red, and black. I felt so at home during Tech Week that I started to imagine what life would be like for two years in the Comarca. 

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It was 3 AM and I was up, packed, and ready to head out. It was the first day traveling to Tech Week in the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle, and we had to catch the diablo rojo to ride an hour and a half into Panama City. From there we took a bus for 6 hours west to the entrada of Tole and then a chiva for another hour until we came up to the most beautiful view of all of the lush, green valley out to the ocean. It had been an extremely long day, so after making a very long, muddy hike, my roommate, Shelby, and I arrived at our host family’s bamboo hut.

Host family gathered around the fogon & eating area

Inside, the family had sectioned off a section for Shelby and I by hanging up blankets as a barrier. There were two beds that looked more like wooden tables, since they were just slabs of wood without any sort of mattress or blanket. The more comfortable option was to sleep in a hammock, so Shelby and I strung them up along with our mosquito nets. For dinner, our host family gave us a giant purple potato each, along with hot coffee. My mind immediately zoned in on the coffee; my first test. Everything I learned during PST so far about drinking the cafe or chicha was that the water is probably dirty so you need to cloro it, you’re probably going to get a parasite if you’re not careful with what you drink. What do I do about this coffee though? I sighed, accepted my fate that I will probably contract some sort of parasite at some point anyways, and drank it. This is my life now, I thought to myself.

Tech Week was filled with tons of projects that wore me out after each day; throwing the plancha for an aquaduct tank, constructing the frame for the tank, building latrines, and clearing out the ojos de agua. I think we made so much ferrocement that it is forever ingrained in me. And I also have a new-found appreciation for those spinning self-mixing concrete contraptions. When we weren’t involved in our main projects, we played soccer with the gente, learned how to make soap, hiked around the monte, and went to the school to present a charla to the kids. It was a full and exhausting week, but we learned so much about our future work in our communities.

Pouring concrete for the plancha for the aqueduct tank
Rodding the freshly poured concrete
Mixing concrete by hand
The finished plancha!
Pouring concrete for the latrine seat
Comarca vistas
Constructing the frame of the aqueduct tank
Futbol game with the gente
I just really liked the essence of this photo
Apparently I wasn’t muddy enough…
Post-futbol muddiness
Nagua from my host family
WASH women in the school
Teaching the kids about WASH in school
Charla about latrine usage
Another beautiful morning in the Comarca
Volunteer Site Visit {PST Week 4}

Volunteer Site Visit {PST Week 4}

As I was sitting with the indigenous Ngobe women making chakaras under a giant, majestic “grandmother” tree like in Pocahantas, I took a step back and thought to myself, what an incredible opportunity it is to be here, to learn from the gente, and to integrate into a seemingly disappearing culture. It was at that point I realized how “present” I was – how much less I thought about the past or the future, but how much I was enjoying life in the present moment. I realized at this point in my life, I am exactly where I need to be.

Making chakaras with the Ngobe women

During our 4th week of PST we have the opportunity to visit a current PCV at their site to get a taste of what everyday is life. After learning about the diverse groups of people in Panama I really hoped that I would get to visit an indigenous site, and I got exactly what I wished for.

I visited Sophia, also a surfer from California, at her site in the mountains of Chiriqui of the CNB. Having only been in the city around Panameno Latino culture, I had no idea what to expect. It was a 6-hour bus ride to the entrada, where I met Sophia wearing a nagua – I was in awe she wore her dress for everyday life, but it’s part of the integration. We went to the grocery store for food and she was really stoked when she saw vegetables, and quickly grabbed them. I realized how scarce food is in the Comarca, and as a PCV you scavenge anything you find.

It was my first time in a chiva, a pick-up truck with a roll cage over the bed that you sit in, and it was a bumpy ride up dirt roads through the mountains. The hike-in was 40 minutes straight up the mountain, and I realized that if I got a hiking site there was no way I’d be able to lug all my stuff up the mountain and I’d have to get rid of as much as I could.

HIking into site

Sophia showed the elements of the aqueduct, we met the water committee, sat with the women and learned how to make a chakara, pasear-ed with the gente, and played soccer with the girls. It was a packed set of days, and I was exhausted. The slow pace of life became more apparent too; Sophia hosted a bread-making charla that was supposed to start at 8 but no one showed up until about 10, and then it took another 4 hours after that.

When I first learned about all the different cultures of Panama, I thought it would be amazing to be immersed in the Darien (region of Panama bordering Colombia). After visiting the Comarca in Chiriqui, and being a good halfway point between Panama City and Bocas del Toro (a popular tourist beach region on the Caribbean side, close to Costa Rica) and only 15 minutes from the beach on the Pacific – I think the CNB is the ideal place for me.

Ngobe children
Creepy Crawlies & The Comarca {Month 2 – August 2017}

Creepy Crawlies & The Comarca {Month 2 – August 2017}

I was stirring peacefully in my bed this morning, as the sun’s rays were peeking through my curtains and not a sound to be heard from the bar next door. Slowly awakening from my slumber, I was looking forward to finally having an ice cold shower with running water to wash my sandcastle of a hairdo. Bucket showers the past couple days have not sufficed to tame the medusa mess on my head. 

My eyes immediately shot open to the sound of a loud buzz next to my ear and I violently whipped my head to the other side to get away, yet it only followed. Immediate panic set in, was there some kind of insect stuck in my ear? Is it going to lay eggs and then in a day or two my ear will vomit a plethora of new beings into this world? 

And then, all was silent as I settled back into my pillow. I lay motionless in bed as my eyes carefully inspected my mosquito net, waiting for the enemy to make its next move. I heard a slight whimper of a buzz and saw from the corner of my eye that there was a beetle the size of a dime stuck in the ends of my tangled hair, attempting its final getaway, buzzing its last cry for battle. It dropped back to the earth in defeat, and it was no longer. 

 I sighed in relief, picked myself out of bed, and shuffled over to the bathroom hoping for running water. As I was looking at myself in the mirror, only being able to see from my mouth to my eyebrows, I whispered to myself, “this is my life now,” as I combed the beetle out of my hair and shouted “buenas” to my host mom. 

As I wiggled the knob for the shower, water began to stream through the nozzle. I took a deep breath before braving that first second of ice on my skin, then smiled at the thought of having running water. Today will be a good day. 

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I’ve been slowly adjusting to the world of tarantulas and cockroaches visiting me in the middle of the night along with ice cold showers, eating patacones (and not enough vegetables) almost every meal, and chasing down the “Pan Van” for chicheme.

The first week of August each of us PCT’s (Peace Corps Trainees) got to visit a current PCV at their site to get a taste of what life is actually like in-site. I visited Sophia in the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle of Chiriqui, which is a self-governing region of an indigenous people in Panama. She lives high up in the mountains where you can see the ocean from afar. I fell in love with the people, the culture, and the surroundings. My language teacher said that based on where we go for our volunteer site visit foreshadows where we’ll be placed for our service. If that’s the case, I’m super excited to be going to the Comarca, but we’ll see! Read more about my volunteer site visit  buy depakote er online here.

Volunteer Site Visit
Learning how to make a chakara bag with the Ngobe women

In mid-August all of us WASH volunteers headed back to the Comarca for Tech Week at another PCV’s site! The past month we’ve had tons of sessions on the work we’ll be doing at our future sites, so during Tech Week we finally got to put our new skills to work. It was a great experience to finally learn hands-on how to build an aqueduct, latrines, and make endless amounts of ferrocement. Plus, for me, being in the Comarca feels more like home than the training community in the city so I was happy to be “home.” Read more about Tech Week  http://whidbeywritersgroup.com/tag/resources/ here.

Presenting a charla on latrines in the local school
Post-soccer game
A beautiful morning in the Comarca
Throwing the concrete plancha for the aqueduct tank

Finally, at the end of the month we found out our sites! I am so excited that I’ll be living in the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle for the next two years! Having already visited two sites in the CNB, I know I’ll fall in love with the culture, gente, and overall beauty of it all. In early September I have my site visit and I can’t wait to see what life is life.

Site placement!

Check out next month’s round-up: Officially a Peace Corps Volunteer {Month 3 – September 2017}

Quote of the Month: “So, do it. Decide. Is this the life you want to live? Is this the person you want to love? Is this the best you can be? Can you be stronger? Kinder? More compassionate? So, do it. Breathe in. Breathe out. And decide.” – Meredith Gray

 

Top Things to do in Panama City on a Budget

Top Things to do in Panama City on a Budget

As PCV’s we’re always looking for the cheapest things to do and since we’ve lived relatively close to the city during PST we had many weekends of exploring. Here is a compiled list of top things to do in Panama City on a budget!

  1. Wander Casco Viejo: With Spanish Colonial buildings, Casco Viejo is filled with rich history everywhere. Be sure to grab a snowcone for $0.50 from one of the cart vendors! They fill a giant styrofoam cup with shaved ice, freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, and drizzle with icing.
  2. Grab a pint from La Rana Dorada: One of the best (and cheapest) places to grab a beer and pizza in the city during Happy Hour on Saturdays from 12 PM – 6 PM when all the house beers are half-off. The location in Casco Viejo is preferred over Via Argentina because it has a more open, inviting feel.
  3. Eat ceviche in Mercado de Mariscos: Nothing beats a meal of fresh ceviche for $3 and $1 beers to go with it! There are so many combinations, from shrimp to octopus to sea bass with a plethora of vegetables mixed in.
  4. Get a haircut on 5 de Mayo Street: Getting off the metro at 5 de Mayo, there are shipping containers blasting music, all lined up along the street and converted into spots where locals give haircuts. You can get the latest Panamanian styles for $5 and can even add-in designs.

What do you guys think? Have anything to add? Comment below!

Playa Farallon

Playa Farallon

Pre-Service Training (PST) is an intense three months of integration into Panama and learning about everything Peace Corps. All of us were feeling a ton of pressure and felt the need to decompress, so we headed to the beach! The best beaches from Panama City are only 2 hours away, so we hopped on a diablo rojo and then took a chiva to reach Playa Farallon. Playa Santa Clara is right next door, and is deemed one of the best beaches in all of Panama, but we decided to go somewhere a little off-the-radar.

The beach was exactly what we all needed to relax, and us WASHers had a great time getting to know SAS as well. In the past groups, WASH and SAS spent a lot more time together in PST, but since our group was split from the get-go into our training communities, we hadn’t had much time to bond.

Playa Farallon is a bit on the dirtier side, with trash everywhere but if you go to Playa Santa Clara it’s a lot cleaner since there are resorts nearby, it’s more centered for tourism, and there are a lot of water sports if you’re looking for more activities. We found a tienda close-by to buy some snacks for lunch to keep things on the cheap side.

Towards the end of the day, a storm rolled in suddenly; one minute it was bright and sunny, the next it was downpour. We all scattered for shelter and were trying to catch a chiva back to the city but none would stop. We waited two hours until a busito finally gave us a lift. Pro tip: Always bring your jacket in buses because they keep the temperature a frosty 50 degrees, and since we were soaked from the rain it made the ride even worse.

On the other hand, it was a magical day for other unexpected reasons that will be revealed in time…

“I like to live my life like I’m in the ocean, surfing the waves how they come, or just being one with the sea. You just have to let it flow.” -Arturo Arzon, 30 July 2017

Oh, and we decided to start a WASH calendar as a fundraiser for our projects. What do you think of Mr. July?