This year Thanksgiving came with a different feeling for me. Since moving to Panama nearly six months ago, so many of my previous thoughts and beliefs have been challenged, and my eyes have been opened tremendously.
I’ve always been aware that I was blessed to have what I did: a healthy family, wonderful friends, and nice material possessions. However, until this year I never would have thought to give thanks for the simpler things in life- a bed, access to an education, medical care, ease of communication, and just to have been born in a nation where many of these things are simply a given.
In the past six months my “normal” has shifted. In my town there is no electricity, no internet, no health care center, and no high school. There is no variety in available foods, and there are many times when the only thing people have to eat are the bananas they grow on their farm. I can’t call my parents whenever I want, I don’t have a bathroom, and I have no bed.
While it’s certainly tough to wake up to this new normal everyday, it has also given me a much broader perspective, of which I am so thankful for.
This year I’m still thankful for my family, friends, and the support they are constantly giving me. But I’m also thankful for all of those little things- a few moments of signal to call home, an air mattress so that I don’t have to sleep on the floor, and community members who invite me into their house and don’t hesitate to share what little they have.
Sometimes, time goes by so slow here that two years seems like an unfathomable amount of time. Other times, I realize that I’ve been in my site for three months and am approaching six months in country, and I don’t know where the time has gone!
Due to a pretty nasty set of abscesses (little scratches or bug bites that get really infected due to the unsanitary water) I got to move out of my host family’s house and into my very own house about a month ago. Though I will always appreciate the perspective I gained by living with my host family, I am so much healthier and happier in my own place. I’ve even started gaining back some of the 15 pounds I lost while in my first month in site, which the locals never fail to point out.
As expected, my first month in site went really slow. However, after spending a lot of time visiting neighbors, getting to know people, and building relationships, work has been picking up and I’ve been a lot busier. In fact, I just organized my first program- Chocolate Day- and it was awesome!
Before starting any projects, volunteers are required to spend the first three months learning all about their communities and then to have a community meeting to discuss both what they have learned and what the community’s priorities are. It’s really important to focus only on projects that the community has interest in, because if you as the volunteer are the only one who is dedicated, the project will die when you leave.
My community meeting went better than I expected; my boss from Panama made the 12 hour trip to be present and about 30% of the community hiked up to an hour to be there as well! During the meeting we planned several trainings for cocoa producers, the first of which took place about a week later.
Sadly, when it comes to work there’s a pretty big divide between men and women. To target both groups during my Chocolate Day, I hosted a training on farm planning and finances in the morning, and then a baking class in the afternoon. While the women and I waited on our fresh brownies to bake over the fire, we talked about value-added products and how the women could take initiative to earn a higher income from their families’ cocoa harvest.
Though I still have rough days where the little (and big) things get to me, I am so thankful for all of the support I’ve received from friends, family, and the Saint Vincent community! Every day things get a little easier, and I have so much to look forward to: more community trainings, a Christmas visit from my dad, and youth camps that I’ve been selected to facilitate in January and February. Bring on the work, Panama!
- When speaking Spanish, “fake it ‘till you make it.” When speaking the local indigenous language, give your sweetest southern smile and cross your fingers they understand your Spanish.
- Regarding food, America is as good as it gets. Though the local rice/beans/meat/bananas dish is pretty good, living in the country means pretty much nothing except boiled green bananas, and occasionally rice or chicken. And obviously, nothing can replace Chick-fil-a or the Shack’s Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone bars.
- Panama has incredible eco-diversity. In my village alone I’ve seen sloths, toucans, poison dart frogs, and tons of other animals. We live in a protected forest, and thankfully the locals are both proud and protective of their natural resources.
- English is really, really hard to explain, and teaching is hard work. After lesson planning, class time, and evaluations, I have so much more respect for people who have the gift (and job) of teaching!
- Rural Panama reminds me of what I picture 1950’s America to be like. Everyone knows everyone, and you should expect to have a conversation with anyone you may pass during your commute.
- While kids can sometimes be annoying, they also will generally be the first to become friends with you, and will share a wealth of local knowledge… like where the snakes live.
- It’s really hard to go from a 19 hour semester with two jobs to life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. When there’s work, there’s a lot of work, but when there’s not, there’s a hammock. You should invest in a good hammock.
- After living with the locals, you will feel both incredibly grateful for what you have, and probably even a little ashamed of the wastefulness of Americans. We truly are so blessed to have been born into what foreigners seem to see as the land of plenty.
- Having a pet makes somewhere foreign feel a bit more like home. Thanks to my host family, I now have a 1 month old puppy named Massy, and people have already started asking if he’s going to be going home with me in two years.
- Long days, especially those in which there isn’t work to do, will make you feel sad, lonely, and homesick. Thankfully, the locals will also feed you way too much, treat you like their own family, and make sure that you feel welcomed. So far, life as a Peace Corps Volunteer has a nice way of balancing itself out.
After a long two months of training (and an even longer 13 months of application processing!) I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer on August 22, 2013.
The ceremony was held at the Ambassador's house in Panama City, and in addition to the snazzy hors d'oeuvres (I ate so much... so much) we also had an impressive guest list: The Ambassador, the Director of Peace Corps Panama, the Vice Minister of Health, and the Minister of Agriculture.
As if I wasn't already dealing with the full range of emotions in the days leading up to our swear in ceremony, I volunteered to speak on behalf of the agricultural program during the ceremony... in Spanish.
Thanks to countless presentations at the McKenna School and years of 4-H Public Speaking, I wasn't too nervous about my speech. However, I definitely underestimated the added challenge of presenting in a foreign language. Those little butterflies that normally don't affect my presentations scrambled a few words, which was a little disappointing for the perfectionist in me.
Regardless, I'm really glad I had the guts to speak that day. If you're curious about what I said, you can check out the english version on my personal blog!
After nearly a year and a half of torturous waiting, I finally found out that I’ll be spending the next two years working in a small indigenous community in Bocas del Toro, Panama and I couldn’t be more excited. My community members grow cocoa, coffee, and bananas and my primary responsibilities will be to help them improve their products, identify buyers, establish contracts, and teach basic business and financial management skills. I’ll also be working to support a women’s artisan group, improve community gardens, potentially start a small agro-tourism project, and facilitate English/ngäbere language classes (English for them and ngäbere for me!)
This past week I actually got to visit my community, and it could not have been a more exciting or humbling experience. During an introductory meeting, each person in attendance stood up one by one, introduced him or herself, and then told me how thankful he or she was that I had come to live and work with them. They told me that since I had made the sacrifice of leaving my family and culture, they wanted to be a new family for me, and that they promised to protect me and help me throughout the next two years. Hearing such encouraging sentiments almost made me cry- it was like I had gained a huge family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins in less than half an hour.
Not everyone in my community was able to make it to the meeting though, so one of my neighbors offered to take me “pasearing” in order to start trying to get to know more people. To pasear means to walk around, let yourself in to a neighbor’s home or porch, and have a little chat with them. Whereas Americans might consider this type of behavior inconsiderate, it’s seen as rude if you don’t pasear here in Panama. Each family I visited offered me some type of food or drink, and by the morning’s end my belly was filled to the brim with locally grown coffee, hot chocolate, bananas, rice, and other delicious snacks.
While the entire week was filled with fun moments and good conversation, my favorite memory was a prayer I overheard while in bed one night. One of the community members who had graciously offered me a room for the week was saying his evening prayers, in which he thanked God for bringing me to them and asked that He keep me safe and happy over the next two years and beyond. I don’t think I can put into words how that simple prayer made me feel because it is I who is truly blessed and humbled by this experience.
I’ll be permanently moving to my site in two weeks, and I can’t wait to get to work and to share with you what the next two years hold!
As part of our two month long training, our group recently attended Tech week, a weeklong intensive agricultural training session at a Peace Corps site in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.
The Comarca is the indigenous reservation here in Panama, but there are three parts for the three separate groups: Ngäbe-Buglé, Kuna Yala, and Emberá-Wounaan. Although the culture completely varies from region to region, Ngäbere people are generally known as being conservative and reserved; many places in the Comarca are also very impoverished, as was the town we visited.
The houses were made with wood or plastic tarp walls, dirt floors, and zinc roofs, though many homes didn’t even have four full walls. The living situation definitely made the week a trying one; while I had gotten used to not having running water, the muddy floors, un-cushioned, wooden beds, and chickens that slept (and pooped) in my room sometimes pushed me to my limits.
Just when I would get down and start feeling sorry for myself, the kindness of the local people really overwhelmed me and reminded me why I’m here. We each lived with host families for the week, and mine went above and beyond to give me everything they could. They cannot afford to eat meat except on special occasions, yet they slaughtered chickens so we could have good food AND all seven of them slept in one bedroom so that another Peace Corps girl and I could have privacy in the other room. They even bought hot chocolate to make for me when it rained so that I wouldn’t be cold.
When we weren’t immersing ourselves in the local culture, we were out in the fields learning about Panama’s major crops from agricultural experts who traveled all the way to our village to help with our training. In the five days we were there we worked with rice, corn, yucca, plantains, beans, and even gave our own agricultural charlas, short educational presentations, to interested locals.
Tech week was exhausting in every possible way. Between the physical labor and lack of nutritional food (I think I got 1 non root vegetable the whole week) I was constantly tired, and the mud floors really, really bothered me- I could never be clean! However, tech week was also a great learning experience; I got to experience the success of a volunteer’s hard work and I got to see how dedicated Panama’s volunteers are- not only to their communities, but also to each other. Now that is something that I cannot wait to be a part of.
P.S. I have some exciting news to share- I just learned where I will be living and working for the next two years! Keep your eyes peeled for a post full of pictures of my future home!
These past five months have been one amazing adventure that I will remember for the rest of my life. It has now come to an end as I have returned home to Maryland, after a very long 23-hour flight. I will be in Maryland for about only a month for summer break and then will return to Saint Vincent College to undergo my junior year.
It would be an understatement to say that my life has changed. Studying abroad has not only allowed my eyes to be opened of what lessons the world has to offer but it also allowed me to appreciate how thankful I am to have the family and college I have been blessed with in order to allow me to take on this opportunity and challenge.
This experience has been one big lesson. Australia has taught me so many things about myself as well as about my country and the world. I have learned there is more than one “right” way to live your life because cultures and customs vary greatly around the world. After being home for a few days all the lessons I learned while in Australia started to become very clear as I experienced some reverse culture shock.
On July 2nd I flew out of Newcastle at 6:30 in the morning and landed in Brisbane Australia, and then from Brisbane I flew for 15 straight hours to Los Angeles and landed at 10:30 am on July 2nd. It felt like I had time travelled! From there I had one more five-hour flight to DC and I was finally home. However, because I kept flying into the daylight the jetlag hit me hard! For about a week I would wake up around 3am and then go to bed around 4pm. My body just didn’t know what time it was anymore.
Once I got use to being in America and was not sleeping for most of the day I was able to look back and reflect on the things that I learned while abroad. One of the most prominent things was how to use the metric system. I learned that I am 180 centimeters tall and that 28 degrees Celsius is the perfect day. I also learned kangaroos are not everywhere like most people would picture Australia to be like. They are mostly only in the country and in open fields. The reason I did not see them very often is because I lived in a city. Australians also use strange names for things. For example, sometimes they call McDonalds, “Maccas,” and a gas station is called “servo.” Actually, they don’t even call it gas it’s “petrol.” I also learned a kebab does not come on a stick and it looks more like a burrito.
When I returned home one of the most frequently asked questioned by Americans was, “So, did you enjoy that shrimp on the barbie?” Whenever someone asked me this I always had to laugh because Australians do not say this…ever! First of all they don’t even call it shrimp, they call it prawns, and if you said shrimp they would most likely look at you very confused.
While living in Australia for almost five months I learned some very interesting things about their government and their educational system. First, Australian teenagers can be independent from their parents at the age of 18. They do not have to save for college and they do not need the assistance of their parents to help them pay for college. This is because of a program substantially subsidized by the Australian Government called “HECS.” Students are required to only pay interest free, ‘student contribution’ amounts for their units of study. They also do not have to pay their tuition for college until they get a job and start earning a certain amount of money. The rate of repaying the principal is based on a sliding scale tied to their income. If they never earn above a certain threshold of money or if they study/work in a field or geographic area of need, they will never have to pay for college. The thought is that if you go to college you will most likely earn enough money to pay for college. Once they are earning enough money, it is a small tax that is taken out of their paycheck to pay for college. The students told me it is so small and gradual that most of the time you do not even notice when they are paying for college. When I told my Australian friends how much my parents and I are paying for college they were in shock. The look on their face was priceless.
In American schools, as well as Saint Vincent, students study a variety of subjects outside their field of study. However, in Australia, the course schedule is confined to the field of study. If you are studying engineering, then you will only take classes that have to do with Engineering. When people would ask me what I was studying and I would say Communication, they would then ask me why I was taking primarily English classes. I would then have to explain how I needed core classes to provide a well-rounded education and to fulfill requirements to graduate. It seemed strange to them to take classes they perceived as unnecessary for their careers.
As a part of their courses they are required to go on placement. This is something they take five weeks off from school and they have what we would call field experience. They work in the area where they want to have a career and learn what it takes to actually be in that profession. You can travel to anywhere in Australia for placement. Some of my friends went 30 minutes away and others were a 5 hour plane ride away. They would be assigned a place and they had to work and live there just as they would as if it were their career.
Their government is different from ours as well. It is not a democracy; it has a constitutional and federal monarchy as well as a parliamentary system similar to England. This means that unlike the United States they do not have the choice whether to vote or not. They have to vote, and if they don’t they will be fined. If they are unable to vote on Election Day then they must fill out an absentee ballet. This also means that they have a Queen, and it is the same Queen as England’s. Therefore, as soon as she leaves England and steps on Australian soil she then becomes Australia’s Queen and not England’s.
Their government system also differs from ours because they do not have Democrats and Republicans; rather they have the Labor party and the Liberal party. They also do not have a President. Instead, they have a Prime Minister. For most of my time in Australia they had their first female Prime Minister named Julia Gillard. She was faced with intense opposition throughout her tenure, but was able to push through several social reforms, including greater funding for education and health care for the disabled. However, it was her introduction of the carbon tax that displeased voters and eventually led the labor party to have Kevin Rudd return as Prime Minister towards the end of my stay in Australia.
Being home has required me to make a few adjustments to my lifestyle. I had gotten very comfortable with the laid back Aussie way of life. One of the first things that was hard to get use to was the fact that in America I actually had to wear my shoes everywhere I went. In Australia, they rarely ever wear shoes. It is a beach town so you can go to the mall, to class or walk around the city with no shoes and no one will look at you like you’re homeless. Students would bring their surfboards to class if they were going to the beach after class and that wasn’t strange either.
Now that I am home everyone always asks me, “Are you happy to be back?” My answer is always, “Yes, but I would go back in a heartbeat.” I have learned so much but there are still so many more things in this world that I would love to discover. This experience has a created a desire to widen my knowledge of the world through the experience of travel.
After our work in Taiwan, our group said goodbye to our friends from Cardinal Tien Nursing College and Fu Jen University, and flew to China. After a free day filled with visiting the Forbidden City, climbing the Great Wall, and watching a Chinese acrobat show, we spent our days volunteering at the China Little Flower orphanage. This orphanage specializes in caring for handicapped children. Unfortunately, for privacy reasons, we were unable to take any pictures at the orphanage, but Kate Blakely shared her thoughts on our experience there:
"As an early childhood education major, the part of the mission trip that I was most looking forward to was working at China Little Flower orphanage, but I was also dreading it. The thought of working with disabled, sick, and dying babies and toddlers was terrifying. But I was surprised - the children and caregivers were wonderful. China Little Flower takes the children that other facilities do not want or cannot take care of. Our group spent three afternoons feeding, snuggling, and playing with the children there. I really enjoyed the time spent there and was very sad to leave. The children were so full of happiness and life, despite the adversities. I pray that I will have other opportunities to work for China Little Flower orphanage in the future."
You can visit China Little Flower's website here: http://www.chinalittleflower.org/
Gardening played a rather large role in our time in Taiwan. When we first met with the students from Cardinal Tien Nursing College- a group of enthusiastic teenage girls- we visited an organic farming community. There we learned about the importance of organic farming as well as a general overview of the methods. We also got some hands-on experience. We tilled, planted, weeded, and fertilized, as well as created compost.
The temperature may have felt like 111 degrees Fahrenheit, but with so much fascinating work to do, there were no complaints. Afterwards we were rewarded with making and eating our own onion cakes and dumplings as well as other organic dishes that were prepared for us.
When we moved on up into the mountains of Taiwan, we got to try our hands at gardening again. There, the gardening group was brought to a field of weeds and asked to remove them all. It seemed like daunting work at the time, but with the help of our friends from Cardinal Tien, we got the work done in two days.
Despite the hot weather and the unhappy insects that we were stirring up, the work was rewarding, and the beautiful view of the mountains paired with the exuberance and happiness of the Cardinal Tien students made our efforts even more enjoyable.
As part of the Peace Corps Panama Pre-Service Training Program, each future volunteer is matched with a current volunteer in their sector and then spends a week with them getting to know what life is like as a volunteer.
For my volunteer visit, I got to go to a small indigenous village in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The volunteer I was matched with works in improving cacao production and management among farmers in her town, but she also works with tons of other projects in education and agri-business.
Getting to her site was a little rough. From Panama City we took a 7 hour bus ride to Davíd, where Peace Corps had a hotel room for us (Air conditioning! Internet! Running water!). After a relaxing night there, we had another 3.5 hour bus ride before meeting the volunteer for a 40 minute super strenuous hike uphill to the village.
The people there are Ngobe-Bugle, an indigenous group that speaks both Spanish and their traditional language- Ngäbere. It was really cool to hear them go back and forth in between the languages, and I'd love to learn Ngäbere if I were to get placed in an indigenous site!
While I was there we worked on building a school garden and also helped a local cacao farmer take inventory of the trees in his finca. Basic concepts like inventory and record keeping aren't always utilized among low-income farmers in Panama, so teaching them to implement these important tasks can make a huge difference. For example, the farmer we worked with estimated that he had 600 cacao trees, but after counting them we realized that he only had about 350. Without a proper inventory count, any budgeting and planning he does would be completely off.
Our advisor will be meeting with us over the next few weeks to process our visits and understand what we like and don't like so that she can place us in sites that we can be productive and happy in. I'm really excited to see where I'll be spending the next two years, and after this visit I'll definitely be crossing my fingers for Bocas!