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!