Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Muchachas Guias = Girls Scouts

Happy New Year everyone! So I will start the new year off with telling you about the Girl Scout troop or "Muchachas Guias" that I started in my community. I held the first meeting in October and we do 2 meetings a month. So far we have done activities like making cookies as a fundraiser :), we've done a raffle of 50 lbs. of rice (here in Panama if your meal doesn't include rice, its not a meal), we've recycled my old cereal boxes (I eat a lot of cereal-it's just like college all over again) to make note book covers, we've talked about over-hunting and its effects on the food chain, environmental conservation, self-esteem and more.

This past weekend we had our swearing-in ceremony where 11 of my girls became official Girl Scouts. We will have another ceremony in March or April as a lot of girls are away visiting other family outside of the community as we are in the middle of their summer vacation. At the end of this month I will take some of them to girl scout camp which is made possible by donations received through various sources - one of them being our sister troop in Houston, TX.

Our sister troop in the states donated money, friendship bracelets, and string to make bracelets. The goal of the partnership is to share cultures. My girls have learned a lot from me about my culture and I love the fact that they now ask me questions about girls their age in the states. Each troop has made a book for the other troop. Our book showcased the lifestyle here in Panama showing that living off of the land and very few monetary resources (most of these girls' fathers make $5 max a day when there is work), these girls still have fun and are happy. From the states we learned all about their aspirations for when they grow up. I wanted my girls to see girls their ages with big dreams. Below are some pictures so you can meet the girls!

(above) In the midst of our ceremony/me giving each of them their girls scout scarves.

(above) At the front of the church (where we decided to do the ceremony) holding up the Panama Girl scout flag. The blue flag in the back is the symbol for girl scouts worldwide (la bandera mundial).

(above) All sworn in! I'm so proud of my girls!

(above) Just finished a batch of cookies!

(above) Selling the cookies on a Sunday after church in front of the school.

(above) I've never seen my cereal boxes-turned notebook covers so decorative!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

So what else do I do down here?

Here is a small write up that I did for some internal documentation here in country that I thought you guys might enjoy!

As a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer I work with the local cooperative to improve business practices and general book-keeping. On top of that I work with the local youth at my school teaching them environmental education and have also started a local Muchachas Guías (Girl Scouts) chapter. One of my side projects that definitely feels like my main project when it is actually taking place is giving HIV/AIDS prevention presentations.

To date, I, along with a team of other volunteers, have given these types of presentations in three communities including my own and two others up the mountain about an hour and a half from where my community is. Over 700 students (ranging from 7th grade to 12th grade) have listened to these 3 rounds of presentations and have learned/been refreshed on what is HIV/AIDS, how it is transmitted, and how each of them can prevent it. The fun part about these presentations is that as volunteers, we don’t just stand in front of class and speak at the youth for two hours but we involve them with activities ranging from having them act out how the virus affects the body, an interactive discussion about bodily fluids and whether or not they transmits HIV, a demonstration on how to properly use a condom, and another activity in which they learn how easy it is transmit the virus while at the same time learning how to prevent transmission.

The response that I have received from teachers and principals has been 100% supportive and sometimes there isn’t enough time to give presentations to the younger kids at the request of the school faculty. As the students from the interior tend to get embarrassed easily, we encourage them to write down a question that they may have during the presentation on a piece of paper that we have handed out at the beginning. At the end of the presentation the slips of paper are collected and I along with the other presenters go through the round of question and answer. The questions these students ask are genuinely important questions and I feel that without this activity the students would only learn half of what we are trying to teach them.

Through these presentations the students’ awareness level of a disease directly affecting their country’s population is heightened and they learn what they can do to prevent the disease from spreading to each other. Also, before each presentation we (the volunteers) find out the availability of condoms in that specific community and provide that information to the students. The condoms are usually available in the local Health Center but not all the time. Something else that these students gain is an indirect sex education as we talk about the methods and bodily fluids of transmission. We also make it a point to talk about whether the students are prepared to raise a family and provide for kids in the event that they were having/thinking of having sexual relations. In this case we talk about other consequences of having sexual relations other than contracting HIV. All in all, educating some of Panama’s youth about HIV/AIDS has been a very rewarding experience for me and although there will be many who don’t apply what they’ve learned in these presentations, there will still be those few who do and for those students I gladly give my time and energy.

Please note that I am one of many volunteers in Peace Corps Panama who give HIV/AIDS presentations of which our Gender and Development Committee (GAD) supports.

(above) Bridge over a river we had to cross to get to a community to give an AIDS/HIV presentation.

(above) Bet you didn't know that the soil is so fertile here that I found this tree that grows kids. Kids almost ready to be picked.

(above) Eating dinner with an indigenous family. The lady was really a lot nicer than the picture makes her seem :)

(above and below) Mid presentation...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sustainable development - tougher than you may think

Do you know what August 13th was this year? I'll tell you. It was my one year anniversary of stepping foot in Panama. Thats right. I've already been here over a year. My total service lasts about 26 months and I'm down about 13 so I'm halfway there! To think that I'm halfway to the end of my service kind of scares me. Don't get me wrong, I can't wait to go home and continue my normal life but sometimes I ask myself (like now) by the time I have to leave, will I have made a difference like I have come here to make? Will I walk away satisfied with my work and the impact I have made? Will I have trained enough people to truly make my work sustainable?

These are questions that run through my mind all the time and although I have 13 months left, I have to remind myself of something that we all realized while going through training. In many cases, we will leave our communities not knowing the difference we have made. Our impacts on the lives of these Panamanians won't always be apparent in the time frame that we are here to share and live with them. This is always hard to remember because as Americans we grow up in a results oriented world. If you don't deliver the results, nobody can measure your success or productivity. Here in Peace Corps its all about the process. Its how you do things and who/how you teach to be able to "measure your success." I put "measure your success" in quotes because that is another subject all together. How to measure the success of a Peace Corps volunteer is something that Washington has been working on for years and as of right now we have a useful tool for just that but as you can imagine, evaluating Peace Corps volunteers in the work that we do isn't anything that can be set in stone as there are so many variables to each project and each community.

About 28 years ago in my community there was a Swiss nurse that came and taught about the importance of healthcare. Now if you could see my community now which is still pretty rustic, you could only imagine how things were 28 years ago. As I was speaking with one elderly woman about her (now grown) children she mentioned that because of the Swiss nurse's advice on giving birth in a hospital instead of at home, she ended up having her last 2 kids in a hospital. Long story short, one of the babies was in very critical condition, wouldn't come out and had the cord wrapped around her neck. The old woman (who wasn't old at the time) was also in very bad shape and told me that if she wouldn't have taken the advice of the Swiss nurse and gone to have the baby in a hospital, she and her daughter would have died. This is just ONE story from ONE woman on whom this Swiss nurse made a difference. I can go on with other examples about the nurse and about the former volunteer who was in my community for agricultural reasons (I work with businesses and community groups) and the effects that they had on the people of my community. I'm sure that I know more about the difference they made on these people than they themselves ever did.

What I'm trying to say is that I have to continuously remind myself to keep on doing the good work I'm doing without thinking about the long term effect I will have made on this community because unless I go back in 20 years, and even then, I won't know about the differences I've made on other people's lives. Thats hard for me because as I see changes and improvements made, these things motivate me to do more. So because I don't immediately see them, I have to assure myself that the differences I make and the lives I touch will be evident long after I leave.

On a lighter note, here is another glimpse into Panamanian culture as far as some food is concerned. I get a vegetable truck in my site selling great veggies 2-3 times a week but to get fruits I have to buy them hours away and bring them into site or wait for the individual fruit seasons. So far mango season was good to me as I have a huge mango tree in my front yard. The only problem was when the kids would come steal them until I made it a rule to give me one everytime they came to knock them off the tree :) It was pretty convenient to just go outside and pick up my fruit off the ground to eat instead of buying it at the store. Here are some examples of some mangos that were gifted to me. Super grande...

Below is only one of the best new fruits that I have come across called Mamon chino. It doesn't grow in my site but the season is among us and these make their way into the veggie truck as well. This is what the hairy little thing looks like...

To eat it, you tear it open to find an egg shaped seed with juicy jelly-like goodness surrounding it.

As my neighbor Roger demonstrates, you suck on it until you can't anymore and spit out the seed. Super yummy but I think I've eaten way too many this year. I'll hold off for more until next year. It has a sweet taste. coming up very soon is orange and mandarin season. I'm in luck because I have various orange and mandarin trees in my yard. Time to start enforcing my fruit rule with the kids again.

(Below) Who knows what this crop is? Its rice. So part of my job is to integrate myself in the culture and people as much as possible. People don't want to work with the American who shows up and starts bossing people around. They build a respect for the American who works as hard as they do and makes an effort to get to know them and their culture. This strategy helps us as volunteers integrate and have validity when its time to do our own work. This particular activity of integration involved me volunteering to go cosechar arroz (harvest rice) with my host brother. This involved me getting all decked out in my long pants, long sleeves, sombrero, and rubber work boots.

To get here involved about an hour and a half horse ride up and down some mud slippery hills and some breathtaking views that I unfortunately didn't get to take pictures of for fear for my life when I thought the horse was going to break a leg walking down some pretty sketchy slopes full of rocks and send me screaming off the side of the mountain. But no worries, I lived to tell the tale.

(above) This is my host brother. He is about 38 years old and I went with him and a couple other people. You chop the rice off by using a special knife that you hold in one hand.

(above) Here I am with my rice. I should probably give up on wearing hats forever because I end up looking like this or Abe Lincoln. I'm only smiling because I know we are leaving VERY soon. Its really not that bad but when you do it for hours at a time in the hot Panamanian sun, thats a different story.

(above) Here is some of the rice that we harvested. He will bundle them together, put in a bag so they can later be dried out in the sun and then have the women take the rice out of the shell using a "pilon." I'll try to get pictures of this soon.
All in a day's work here in Panama!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It sure has been a minute!

Ok so yes, I know that it has been forever and a day since my last post so I should have a million updates for you, right? Not really, not much time for that but I will do my best...
Lets start with what I have been promising for a while. My house! So I moved into my own house in March. On a Peace Corps frame of reference, I would say my house is pretty nice. I've adjusted to it and am completely comfortable. I have 2 bedrooms, one of which I use for storage and a main area that spans the width of both bedrooms that I use as a kitchen and a general area. We can't forget my porch which is probably where I spend the most time (the hammock is really the only comfortable seat in the entire house). I had a man in my community build me a bed and its great! I bought a full sized matress and college style fridge (it really was no easy feat to get those things to my house much less my actual site) and I live well. I have my own outdoor latrine and I have one faucet in my front yard that will provide water at least every other day for about 30 minutes, sometimes longer if I'm lucky but since the rain is starting I am starting to have water on a daily basis. Hallelujah! I worry about water a lot less now since the rainy season somewhat started. The longest we went without water in the dry season was 4 or 5 days but luckily there is a natural spring nearby where we also get water. I'm also lucky to be an hour and a half from the nearest city that I could always go buy drinking water if the situation was bad enough but luckily that hasn't been the case. I'll stop yapping and let you see for yourself....

So you may have noticed a quarter of a million kids on my front porch, that wasn't for effect, I really do have kids come hang out and visit all the time. Is it nice sometimes? Yes. Do I get tired of it sometimes? I'll let you answer that one on your own.
Come to think of it, I don't know if I have given you a breakdown of what I actually work on in my community. My community has a Cooperative which in this case is a store (1 of 5 in the area) that last made a little over $90,000 in sales. We sell dry goods (can food, rice, bread, sugar, cooking oil, etc.), we have a super mini pharmacy area, we sell sandals, meats (pork, chicken, fish, beef) and also a hardware section. There have been some major losses in the last couple of years and questionable administration and also a change in the board of directors. I work basically as a consultant to the Board of Directors, the Vigilance Committee, and the Education Committee working with them on basic business skills and making them think about different perspectives they wouldn't have considered otherwise. We have recently purchased a cash register, the manager quit, we've hired a cashier and new manager and the Board of Directors (here in Panama called the Directiva) are taking a more hands on approach to the business. Changes in profit are yet to be seen but we have high hopes for the rest of this year and the years following.
Other than the store, I am still trying to get my environmental group at the school off the ground but have come across different hurdles that I am trying to deal with. At the school in March, I along with 4 other volunteers conducted an HIV/AIDS Prevention presentation for 7th through 12th graders (about 350 kids) and will soon be doing the same in other schools in nearby communities. I am also involved with Peace Corps Panama Gender and Development group serving on the board of 5 members. As a team we are involved in supporting volunteer projects and training volunteers to train Panamanians in life skills, leadership, promoting gender equality and to host an annual GAD (Gender and Devopment) Conference for Panamanian youth all over the country full of activities to promote self esteem and educate them on the above mentioned life skills and leadership (this will happen next March).
Also since my last post, I have gone to the states to see one of my best friends graduate from grad school in Cali (Go Marc!) and to hang around the Bay Area to celebrate the graduation and back home to spend time with the familia.

(above) The girls and I hanging out doing some wine tasting in Napa Valley!

(Above) The familia. Yes, Daisy (15 yrs old) is still kicking it at home.

I also had a visit from my fiance to celebrate my birthday abroad:

(above) We hiked up from my site to see a nice view :)
Sorry to take forever to post. I'll have some more random stuff for you soon!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Easter in the campo

Happy late Easter everyone. So this year as my family was getting together for the traditional family reunion with fun filled activities and easter egg hunt in Texas, I was in my community learning all about Catholic Panamanian traditions.

It all started with Palm Sunday where everyone brought palm leaves and attached to them were bags of beans, corn, and other things that the people are getting ready to plant so that the father of this catholic church could bless their future crops for good yield this year. Pic below shows everyone in the park with their palm leaves getting blessed by holy water. I was gifted a palm leaf so the father could bless and then I could keep in my house until next year. I was told it was for the witches...

The Thursday before Easter was a celebration at church that I didn´t go to but was told that various people got their feet washed as a representation of the message. Then on Friday, everyone met at church at 7am to carry a cross that was made by some people in the community to one of the hills in the area. I was told that we got lucky because this year the hill was close by (an almost 2 hr hike).

(above) Here we are about 15 minutes into the walk. Two men are carrying the cross and the rest of those participating from the community (over 100 people) are behind me. You see that peak in the distance? That´s the hill we´re heading to. You may also notice the machinery in the distance as well (we just got a road and they are finishing it up). This is also the road to my house.

(above) Now its the lady´s turn to carry the cross. I went next with another 5 young women.

(above) Almost there.... There are a lot more people you can´t see who haven´t made it up the rocks just yet.

(above) We made it on top, the father gave his last of 14 (yes we stopped 14 times) messages and we sang the last of the songs and said our 14th ¨Our Father¨ prayer, a hole was dug and bing bang batoboom here is the cross on the hill. My house is down there somewhere in the distance.

On Saturday night at 10:30pm to about 1am we had another (the last) church mass of the Easter season where people from all over hiked over 2 hours to come. This was called a fogata and there was a big bon fire.

To experience Easter in another country, in a different religion with different traditions where the people are humble and depend on the land to live was something that I never imagined to experience. An experience like this brings you back to reality so while I as a child was getting dressed up in my Easter dress concerned only with hunting eggs with candy and confetti, there are other children around the world helping their parents get the seeds to the farm ready to be blessed by the father so that they can have enough food to eat throughout the year. Just one of the MANY experiences that has and will shape me for the rest of my life.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Aquí en la lucha

I thought that I would take the time to make this blog a reflection on my experience here and my journey through Peace Corps up to this point...
April 11 will mark 8 months since I have moved out of the United States. Where these 8 months, have gone, you ask? Only God knows. Contrary to the answer you will get when asking my mom or my fiancé if this time has gone by fast, I can honestly say that this time has blown by. Day to day, it seemed slow especially in the first 5 months but taking a step back and realizing that in just 4 months I will have been living abroad for 1 year, the idea still amazes me.
Let´s be completely honest here, it has taken me the majority of these 8 months to get used to living far away from friends and family, to be stripped of all comforts while at the same time being forced to adjust to new ones. I´ve had to get used to living and working in a completely different culture speaking a different language, and I´ve grown close to fellow volunteers from all over the US who are fighting the same battles I am, both physically and emotionally, all over the great country of Panama. I can´t say that I am completely used to everything even at this point but I am adjusted and continually adjusting. Thats one of the many things that I have learned this far. You never really know what you are capable of doing until you try and I´ve surprised myself many times this far reminding myself that. I´ve learned that you can adjust to just about anything as long as you try and of course with my good friend ¨time.¨
On top of dealing with a new life, one thing that has been difficult to adjust to is hearing about friends and family and their triumphs and tribulations whether it be a new significant other, a new marriage, a new job, a new degree, a new hobby, losing a job, losing loved ones.... I think to myself, ¨I´m missing out on so much, everyone and everything is changing without me and I´m missing it all.¨ I´ve had a new revelation recently as I look over these last 8 months: I would be lying if I said that I haven´t changed and I´m the same person I was 8 months ago when I stepped onto that plane to leave everything I knew was safe and secure.
I´ve learned so much more about myself in this process, many perspectives have changed, there has been many times where I stop and either look at the scenery (looking out on the mountains/animals/people as I travel down the mountain from my community to Panama´s main highway -or- resting after climbing/scaling rocks/hiking to look up at an amazing waterfall which makes the pain in my legs worth it -or- waiting at a bus stop for 3 hours but not minding at all because nothing but the beautiful view of mountains and the continental divide surround me and that dirt road, I could pick from a million sights) or stop and think about what a mess I´ve gotten myself into and just laugh because never in a million years would I have pictured myself in a 3rd world country having to deal with some of the things I deal with over here (taking a day trip to the nearest city and after spending the better part of the day on the internet and eating a good meal, making the mistake to go grocery shopping before I look for a fridge and finding out that I needed to go to multiple stores to get the cheapest fridge but now I can´t because my groceries weigh a ton and like hell I´m going to lug all this stuff around OR pay a taxi to take me everywhere PLUS make it back to the bus terminal in time to catch a bus to my mountain entrance BEFORE the last truck makes the last trip of the day up the mountain to my community WHILE at the same time sweating my butt off walking in the Panamanian heat -or- jumping out of bed at 6:15am because the water came today and if I don´t hurry and fill my buckets with water for the next 20 minutes, I won´t have water to cook, wash dishes, drink, or bathe for the next 2 days without having to get water from the creek nearby) . So needless to say, as everything is changing back home, I am going through many experiences over here and growing mentally and emotionally at the same time.
The fact that I only have a year and a half left, you may think it sounds like a long time but with the plans that I have for my community, I now understand why the commitment is as long as it is. I feel like I am barely standing back up on my feet after having everything ripped out from under me and that took 8 months! So even though I am doing well, there still exists day to day frustrations that are quite annoying and there isn´t one day that goes by that I don´t think about home, my family, close friends, and the love of my life but overall, I´m on my feet here in Panama and as we say over here ¨Aquí en la lucha¨ (here in the fight/doing my thing/doing what I can). It has been an incredible experience (these soon to be 8 months) and I can´t wait for what the next year and a half have in store for all of us.
Thanks for your continued support and don´t think that since I am in another country, we can´t talk on the phone. I have cell reception about 95% of the time depending on travel situations. My cell number is posted on the top left hand corner of the screen and for you lazies out there, email works too ;) Below are some photos of random events that help keep us all sane down here on the isthmus. I hope you are challenging yourself in whatever you do because without the challenges, how can you know your true potential?
Much love from Panamá!

(above) Friends hanging out during training many moons ago.

(above) Hanging out at the beach hechando cuentas (telling stories).

(above) Celebrating at an Indian restaurant in Panama City after we ¨officially¨ became Peace Corps volunteers.

(above) The guys who dared to go against the ladies in a game the night before are here fulfilling their punishment for losing by wearing bikini bottoms and taking a dip in the ocean.

(above) Celebrating a birthday!

(above) Visiting Dylan´s site and using his hot plate to make tacos because he hadn´t bought a gas tank yet.

(above) Some of the gorgeous ladies of group 62 hanging out on the beach.

(above) Three of my neighbors after I told them to smile big so I could see their teeth.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Me? A Teacher? Who decided that?

Hello my deprived fans. I have been in my site for officially 2 months now and I can honestly say that I am happy to be there. My site is pretty big in scope and divided into several sectors. To get from the sector I live in to the center of the community, I hike about 15 minutes up and down hills. I realize that I haven´t done a great job of hanging out in the other sectors as much as I should but that´s what I´ll be working on over the next year and 9 months, right?

So to get familar with the kids in the community before school starts (Panamanian school year is March-December but for some reason the government pushed the start date to April this year), to be productive and pass time, and to help my name spread throughout the community, I started a short 3 week English course. In the mornings for 2 hours I teach 6-10 yr olds and in the afternoon I teach 11-17 yr olds. My class in the morning averages over 30 kids and the afternoon class averages to 20 students per class.

In latin american culture, its generally acceptable to show up late. If you tell someone to show up at 8am, showing up at 8:45 is pretty normal. They made sure to warn us about this during training since it directly applied to Panamanian culture. I´ll tell you what, these kids are really excited about English class because for my 9am class, I see kids passing my house on the way to my class when I´m standing in my pajamas outside brushing my teeth at 8:20! Its not unusual for some kids to come to my house and hang out while I finish getting ready and then we walk to class together.
(Above) Here is a pic of my morning kiddos.

So although I didn´t come to Panama to teach English, its a great way to get integrated into the community and my original perspective on teaching still remains... not the profession for me :)

You may have noticed that I mentioned my house. Yes fans, I HAVE MOVED INTO MY OWN HOUSE! I won´t dare put photos up until it is properly decorated so you might have to wait until the next post to see it. Having my privacy back after 7 months of being without it is absolutely amazing. Until next time... chao!