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.
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!
- 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 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!)
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.
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.
Monday-Friday I have classes and training sessions, while the weekends are kept open for field trips, additional training, and an occasional off day. Almost nobody here speaks English, so we have four hours of Spanish each day. Four hours of class sounds like a lot, especially for a newly graduated 22 year old, but it´s actually really awesome. My 3 classmates and I have class on a neighbor´s porch and spend the time chatting about random topics and doing assignments that really help make life in a Spanish speaking country easier.
We also have technical training, where we spend the other half of the day learning about Panamanian agriculture and agribusiness. So far it´s been really interesting; today I even got to eat raw sugarcane from our garden! Next week (Week 2) I’ll be spending four days shadowing a volunteer who works on a cacao plantation in a gorgeous region called Bocas del Toro, which I doubt I could be anymore excited about. Then during week 4 we’ll be traveling back to Bocas del Toro as a group for Technical Week, during which we’ll get to practice all of the agriculture techniques we’ve been learning. We’ll also get specialized training in the production, management, and business of specific Panamanian staple crops like coffee, cacao, and plantains.
Finally, after hearing our site placements (where we will be working for the next two years!) in Week 6, we’ll each spend week 7 getting to know our future co-workers, host families, and community members in whatever village we´ve been assigned to. After that we’ll have another week of training in our current village, a week to wrap up everything in Panama City, and it will be time to be sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers!
As I'm preparing to leave for Panama, I thought I'd share the top five reasons I decided to join the Peace Corps after college.