Wow, how the time flies… I’ve been in Panama almost three months now. For a while I thought training would never end, but we all made it through. The last week was actually pretty awesome. We hosted a “despedida” (going away party) for our host families in the training community, and then headed back to the Peace Corps offices in Panama City. It was great to be back in the dormitories. There is never a shortage of fun times there. We had some wrap up sessions, but for the most part everyone was just ready to hit the beach for the post swear in party.
The commencement ceremony was pretty chill. I’m not really into the pomp and circumstance, but I suppose formalities and rituals are somehow psychologically important. It makes us feel official and purpose-driven. (doesn’t it?) My group chose me to give the speech for our sector, which was truly an honor to me. I really enjoyed it. It was the first time I had ever given a big speech in Spanish in front of a large audience. I got a copy of the brochure as soon as I took my seat, anxious to see when I had to be ready. I glanced to the bottom of the brochure, quickly realizing that my speech followed those of the United States Ambassador to Panama and the First Lady of Panama! No pressure, right? I didn’t realize how many people were in the room until I stood in front of the podium and saw this sea of eyes and fancy cameras staring me down. I wasn’t really nervous, but more so surprised that people were actually paying attention rather than staring at the ceiling. My speech went great. I enjoyed myself and I’m really glad to have had that opportunity.
After the ceremony, everybody headed downtown for dinner and dancing. Fun times were had. The next morning we packed up and headed for the beach for two days of R&R before saying goodbye to one another and heading to our sites. We slapped on some SPF 45 and had a great time swimming, volleyball-ing and cooking out. It was fantastic.
As excited as I was to get to my site, I was very sad to say goodbye to everyone. I already miss these folks!
I arrived to my community almost a week ago. My town, Vallerriquito, is located in the Los Santos provence of the Azuero peninsula on the pacific coast. The Azuero is known for its traditional culture and crazy parties during Carnaval and Fiestas Patronales. The economy is based on cattle ranching and small-scale agriculture. As one would infer, the communities here are quite rural. Vallerriquito is no exception. There are 200-250 people living here and everyone knows everyone. Most families here own cattle ranches which surround the central part of town. All of the cattle farmers belong to the same dairy producers group, ASPROVA, (Vallerriquito Producers Association) which sells milk to Quesos Vallerriquito, the local cheese cooperative. They make a crumbly yet moist white cheese that is sold to various markets within Panama. I eat it every day and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of doing so.
Apart from cattle, there is a catholic church, which the entire community attends, and a public school that encompasses all grades. There are a hundred or more students, but most of them come from surrounding communities. Many of the students are “internados,” meaning they live at the school Monday through Friday.
That’s Vallerriquito in a nutshell. I’m staying with host families the first three months, then I’ll be moving into a house where a married couple of Peace Corps volunteers is currently living. They are very nice, warm people and the community is already sad that they are leaving soon.
During my two years in Vallerriquito, I will be working with ASPROVA on a cattle and forestry grant from the United Nations Development Programme. Due to rampant deforestation in the area, the cattle lack sufficient nutrition during the dry season which results in poor milk production. I will be assisting my Panamanian counterparts with the management of the UNDP reforestation project. The project includes both economic and environmental incentives: reforestation promotes better nutrition for cattle which will improve milk production and hence serve to augment current income generation for the local cattle farmers; equally important, reforestation provides more habitat for wildlife, improves the soil quality and protects the watershed on which humans and wildlife depend.
I’m taking things slowly these first few weeks in site. Right now, I’m focused on getting to know the community in order to prepare my community analysis. That is a huge project in and of itself, and will consume the majority of my first three months.
So that’s my life in the Peace Corps as of now. Things are good. Thanks to everyone for keeping in touch. I miss you all, and I really appreciate the Facebook messages and blog comments! I hope everyone had a great Fourth of July and is doing well. I hope to talk to you all soon (or at least Facebook stalk you)
Peace and Love.