I’m having a great time in Panama.
I’ve been in Vallerriquito for a month and a half now. The first three months of service, Peace Corps volunteers are required to live with host families in order to facilitate cultural integration into the community.
The first month, I stayed with an elderly couple, Amynta and Fermín that lives in the center of town, near the church. They are about as old school Panamanian as you can get and I love them to death! Fermín takes care of the cows in the morning and brings the milk back on his horse to send to the cheese coop, each morning saving a bucket to bring back to the house. We don’t pasteurize or homogenize the milk, so it is a bit filmy on the top and never really completely dissolves into the coffee. It’s kind of neat to finally understand the term ‘skim milk;’ the top layer is very fatty, and you can literally skim it off the top. We just leave it in, because that’s the part with the most love inside. (-:
So, Amynta and Fermín were great. Things were slow, and at times boring, but I have always held a strong conviction that elderly people are a great source of knowledge and wisdom. I made sure to do more listening than talking, and I was rewarded with some beautiful stories about rural Panamanian life in the mid to late twentieth century, before people had latrines, let alone water and electricity. I spent a lot of time in the university reading about Latin American history and development, but the stories I have heard here are so much more personal and rich, and often tragic; it’s the perfect compliment to formal education. I’m trying my best to keep my ears peeled for more of these stories. I’ve noticed that you can’t really ask for them, because they just sort of happen. Amynta will be shucking corn or stitching a straw hat on the porch, and then suddenly she stares off at the church steeple, looking as if it were farther than it actually is. Her eyes narrow, and she falls back into a memory about the way the trails used to be many years ago, or something about the way a rice peeler would sound as the horse turned the cranks by circling the machine with a rope tied to it’s harness. It’s all so enchanting.
For the last couple of weeks, I have been with my second host family: Alexis and Kenya, and their son Boris, whom they affectionately call ‘Borito.’ Alexis’s brother lives next door, along with his wife and two girls. Boris senior, Alexis’s father, and his wife, Aida live across the street. It’s essentially a family compound. They share one pick-up truck among them and their cattle graze upon the same lot of grass.
This family lives about three kilometers outside of the main town area. We are really in the boonies, although running water and electricity have been installed within the last decade or so. The water isn’t treated here or in the main town, but it comes from a natural well, which is clean. The cold showers are refreshing as long as you bite the bullet and get soaked all at once. It’s kind of like jumping into the gulf at the beach.
Let’s talk about the food!
As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a serious lack of vegetables here for American standards, though the locals don’t seem to mind a bit. It has been a big adjustment for me. I eat more rice than I could ever imagine possible. That said, I have gotten to try some new things. We do eat lots of fruit. I get bananas two or three times a day and I really don’t ever get tired of it. They come fried, boiled, salted, with cinnamon, dried, plain, etc. Kenya, my current host mom, sort of reminds me of Bubba from ‘Bubba Gump Shrimp Company’ by the way she often recalls the various ways she can cook bananas. Speaking of shrimp, we eat those too! There is a creek on the farm and we go ‘cameroneando’ at night to catch them. They have florescent eyes, so we just shine the flashlight into the creek and pick up whatever glows bright red. It’s so much fun!
We also eat a lot of local meats, and, by local I mean whatever runs through the yard. We actually have some squirrels here, which I did not expect in a tropical climate. They are not as smart as American squirrels. It’s easy to kill them with rocks. After you cut out the meat, you can fry them with a little oil and then add soy sauce. It’s actually kind of tasty, although there are lots of bones, sort of like quail. (Amanda Clonts, if you are reading this I want to cook this with you when I come back!). We also eat a soup made out of pig neck and one time we had boiled armadillo meat with fried rice. I don’t care for either of those. The armadillo has a pungent taste (and smell) and made me a bit sick to my stomach. Tripe (cow intestines) is also available as in most of Latin America.
Geez, there’s so much else I wanted to talk about, but this post is getting long and my time is running short…
The day I ate the armadillo I went to play soccer with the kids afterward and sprained my ankle. It hurt so bad!!! Hahaha… No worries though. That was a week ago and I am walking around now fine with my ace bandage. I even got to brand a cow yesterday! I imagine it was more fun for me than for the cow.
Today I am in Las Tablas (the provincial capital of Los Santos) checking email and Facebook as I do every couple of weeks. There is a nice hotel restaurant here that has good cold water, strong fans and lots of veggies! They always hook me up! Mmmmmm…
I hope everyone is well back home. Thanks so much to everyone who is keeping in touch, you guys are the best! Last but not least, Happy Birthday, mom!
Peace and Love