On March 1st, the Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary and like all birthdays and anniversaries, this gave me a chance for some much-needed reflection. On the 1st, I was helping out with the technical training for the new group of volunteers in Metetí, in the Darien (Panama’s easternmost province). Helping out with the tech training allowed me to focus on myself, how I have changed, and most importantly on Peace Corps service.
What did I find? Although service can be frustrating, draining, confusing, depressing, and a whole slew of other feelings, my choice to join the Peace Corps is still the best decision I have ever made. I won’t lie and say that I have changed the world or that I will any time soon, but my vision and perception of things has began to shift. I see indigenous rights, natural resources, the Bible, Americans, language, dignity, education, food, etc, in such a different light.
In terms of my impact in Soloy, I don’t think a Peace Corps volunteer’s impact can be measured and I don’t know if I will ever be able to assess how I have “helped”and I can only hope that I haven’t hindered anything in Soloy. There are so many more things I need to do and community projects I hope to be a part in.
So, as Peace Corps turns 50, as new volunteers arrive, and as I approach my one year mark, my only conclusion can be that I have long way to go and I am happy to have so much more time in Panama.
Coming up to my 6 month mark in site, I feel like my outlook has changed so much. The first 4 months in site were really hard and as cliché as it sounds, I did really feel like I was on an emotional rollercoaster. And although I know things will still be hard, recently I have never felt so happy in Panama. I am starting to really fall in love with Soloy and the Ngabe culture and I cannot even begin to describe how happy I am.
Summer (the dry season) has arrived in Soloy and I think this has a lot to do with my new positive outlook. I feel giddy and smiley all the time. With summer has come the wind from the mountains and it feels so fresh and different. You can really feel the change of the seasons. December is orange season here and little kids run around with orange pulp all over their cute faces and you just can’t help but feel like everyone is in on the same joke and smile along with them.
Quick post to sum things up: Thanksgiving was awesome and life in site has been going really well. I am practicing my Ngabere, teaching Adult ESL, spending a lot of time with my community members, and am generally happy.
Here are some pictures to give you an idea of what my life looks like:
On the Thanksgiving hike
At language training in Hato Chami, in the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle
Chris eating the most amazing breakfast at the Quetzales Eco Resort
Independence Day Parade
At the Parade
I feel closer to life in Soloy. This thought occurred to me while I was walking in my handmade leather sandals, wearing my homemade nagua, and using my chacra (woven purse) that is made out of fibras from plants in Soloy. I feel closer to those who fabricate the products I use everyday. The honey I use in my oatmeal is from the Comarca and the coffee I drink every morning has been grown, harvested, and toasted by the local coop in Soloy. When I go to town meetings, I recognize almost everyone present and more than likely, I will hold their children at some point during the meeting. Children and elders are such an integral part of life here. Each day, I talk to, smile at, get frustrated with, etc., at least 50 kids. Each week, I make coffee for my seventy-year-old neighbor (who has more wrinkles than I have ever seen). We have slow-paced conversations about where T-shirts come from and how they are made. My daily habits, rituals, happenings seem so much more infused with life: hyper local food, holding babies, grassroots organization, brindando cafe a viejitos, homemade clothing, the abundance of free range chickens…
Sadly, being so close to life means I also feel that much more closer to death. On Friday, a woman and her nephew drowned in a neighboring community when the river rose too quickly. This is the third drowning I have heard about during the month of October. As I was walking to the school this morning, a little girl pointed out a large bundle wound up in a hammock. It was the body of the woman. Due to the lack of roads, she was carried down the mountain in a hammock by her family members. It was a sad reminder to me that you cannot have life without death, and I have never felt so close to either.
I have been in Soloy for about 6 weeks and while I am slowly falling in love with some aspects of my new life, I still can’t shake some of my American views that frustrate me so when they clash with my new Latino-indigenous surroundings. Time has become my biggest battle and each week, I find a new way that time is frustrating. The first couple of weeks, time was frustrating because it moved so slowly. Afternoons felt like they went on forever and I kept trying to fill up my days in order to make them pass by more quickly. Oddly enough, all of those long afternoons became a month and now 6 weeks in, time has taken on a whole new form. Now, it moves quickly and all the sudden I am feeling the American need to rush all of the time. I still can’t shake my need to create ordered to-do lists and to arrive to meetings on time. This is completely ridiculous since it is known by everyone in my town that meetings always start roughly two hours late, which, if I wasn’t being so American, is pretty awesome.
Besides time, my life is starting to become real here and it feels good to feel like I have a place. Whenever I walk down the long road to the high school, people stop me and talk to me and although it can be frustrating when I am in a pointless rush, I feel like people are warming up to me. Yesterday, I little boy was worried the river would take me away and earlier in the week, my favorite store owner enquired as to whether or not I would dance with him at the huge party which took place on the weekend. I visit with people, attend 5 hour meetings, drink a lot of really sweet coffee (and sometimes toast it myself), and play soccer. Sometimes I eat rice for breakfast (I can no longer imagine meals without rice) and a lot of fried eggs. I guess when I put it in writing, all my time frustrations are ludicrous in comparison with how fortunate I am to be living in Soloy, eating fresh foods, and listening to amazing stories.
I am finally in site and I had a pretty classically cheesy Peace Corps moment. My site is a semi-urban indigenous town called Soloy in the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle. There are about 6,000 permanent residents and up to 10,000 during the school year. Soloy is beautiful and anywhere you look, you could take National Geographic-esque pictures. The Ngabe indians are the largest indigenous group in Panama and achieved their own territory in 1997.
Yesterday, my community guide, Juan Carlos, took me on a hike to the lookout post that the local tourism group built and also to a gorgeous waterfall. The hike up to the lookout was exhausting, but the view was unbelievable. The earth here is red clay and Panama is so amazingly green during the rainy season. On the way to the waterfall, he showed me an awesome plant called “dormidona” or sleepy plant. When you poke the leaves with a stick, they wilt, and actually look like they are falling asleep! I was so excited, I spent about 10 minutes poking every plant I saw. He said that women will bathe their children with the plant if they have trouble falling asleep. On the way down to the waterfall, I found a white stone that looks a lot like quartz and Juan Carlos showed me all kinds of plants and fruits. He also made me a walking stick with his machete, which made me feel even more like an adventurer. We crossed a bunch of rivers and it occurred to me that my new favorite activity is washing my feet in the river. At the foot of the waterfall, he jokingly asked me what a girl from Michigan was doing down in Panama, and instead of feeling sad or thinking about how far I am from everyone I love and am in love with, it made me really happy to realize how far I have come and that I am exactly where I want to be.
I have been in Panama for about 3 weeks now and it’s amazing how much time I have actually had to think about my choice and my new life. Training is intense and although my brain has been over saturated with knowledge, I find myself reflecting almost constantly. With all this reflection, I don’t think I have adequately taken the time to realize how happy I am to be in Panama. I am so fortunate to be here and to be doing this as a job. I had one of those cheesy ”I love my life moments” when crossing a bay in the Caribbean on small boat. I can’t believe my job training includes swimming in the sea and learning amazing customs. I am also starting to take pleasure in so many minor things. Example: I secretly kind of like it when the little lizards fall off the wall and the funny noise they make. I like the chickens and even the shower is growing on me. I like sitting with my host family (an elder couple) and just listening to their stories and hearing about their views.
All of this is not to say that life hasn’t been really infuriating or hard at times. I miss living on my own and cooking my food. I wish I was surrounded by people who know my history and I know theirs. It’s tiring explaining where you are from every day. But I realized during all my daydreaming that soon Panama and the Peace Corps will become a part of my history and I felt really comforted by that.
Sorry if this post was chaotic. Writing in internet cafes is a little distracting, especially since I think there is a kareoke bar next door. Oh well, I love and miss you all!