Local History, Fried Squirrel and a Sprained Ankle

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

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Getting Started in Vallerriquito

Hola amigos,

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.

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Santa Rita Life

Santa Rita life

Our group has been training in Santa Rita for a month now. We are about an hour and a half from Panama City by bus, or about 50 minutes by car. Depending on whom one asks, there are between 700 and 1100 people living in this community. Although the community is small, we are only about a half hour away from the provincial Capital of La Chorrera, which has supermarkets, restaurants and a hospital. All of the Peace Corps trainees live within about 2 kilometers of each other and the school where we meet, so we can easily walk wherever we need to go.

During training we are all living with a host family, which is supposed to help us assimilate to the culture and food. My host family is pretty fun. The father, Alexi, is a plumber and the sole income source for the family while Magali is a home maker or “house-lover” as it is said in Spanish. They have two daughters: Alexandra and Alejandra; ten and four years old, respectively. I did my first guest teaching in Alexandra’s class and she is gifted in many areas. She loves math and wants to be an architect. Alejandra is one of the most mischievous children I have ever met! If I could introduce just one gringo idea to Panama, it would be the time-out and I would start with her. We live in a concrete block house with no air- circulation, toilet or shower, but I guarantee you there is no shortage of good time-out spots for the taking. I adore the girl to pieces, but she desperately needs some tough love. Hopefully she will find a way to channel her hyperactivity into some creative outlet. Or maybe she is just four years old and I am over-thinking it. I dunno.

The food in Panama is sort of hit or miss. There is a huge income gap between rich and poor people here, and the poorer people tend to have less understanding of general nutrition. The frustrating thing is that Panama has such an abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables, but they are so poorly utilized, especially among the poor. My host family, for instance, eats an overwhelming amount of starch and not much else. One night we ate ramen noodles and potatoes with rice on the side. The first couple of weeks were pretty rough, but I finally got up the courage to have a chat with them about nutrition. (Our cultural facilitator helped me out quite a bit. The last thing I wanted was to come across as some spoiled gringo.) The host families get an adequate stipend to feed us, but my family just wasn’t accustomed to incorporating vegetables into their diet. I decided to cushion the nutrition chat by making a delicious batch of fresh guacamole (which they had never eaten, nor heard of). The kids squeezed the limes and mashed the avocados, and I chopped the veggies. It was a great segue to talk about food groups. It worked out really well and now we are eating vegetables every day. They still eat rice three times a day, but I just eat a little bit and it doesn’t offend them. I feel like we have reached a happy medium, so things are good now.

In terms of amenities, we have electricity almost all the time and water at least a few hours a day. We fill buckets and barrels for drinking, cooking, bathing and laundry. It’s actually a pretty efficient system, given the limited resources. I was surprised at how easy it was to adjust to taking a bucket bath rather than showering. The cold water doesn’t bother me because it is usually hot outside anyway. We have a latrine (outhouse) which is not the funnest thing in the world, but it has proven to be a manageable adjustment. I hate to trivialize the experience, but it kind of feels like an extended camping trip. The lack of modern conveniences is not that bad at all; I would dare to say that it is refreshing. I feel good here.

Que mas, que mas…. Hmmm. We finished the school garden and compost project today, so i might put some pics of that on facebook and explain the project in another post. I leave for tech week tomorrow. We’ll be learning how to build stuff. (:

Thanks to everyone for reading. Let me know if anything happens in the states, or if we catch Bin Laden or something. Haha jk jk… I heard.

Peace and love.

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So far, so great!

Hi friends!

I´ve been trying to write this blog entry since i arrived in Panama…  Things have been super busy and fun since I arrived.  Today I´m in La Chorrera, which is the closest city to our training community.  We come here once a week for special sessions on safety and security, cross-cultural training, vaccinations and all sorts of other fun stuff.  I have a few minutes before the meeting, so I figured I´d drop you guys an update.  Here goes…

Staging and arrival in Panama
This has probably been the busiest and perhaps the most exciting month of my life. Ever since I arrived in Miami for staging at the end of April I have been surrounded by an amazing group of people.  The 43 people I met there have become my family in the last 3 weeks.  The application process and run-up to staging were very intense experiences in my life, and I was all of the sudden surrounded by this herd of people who had all left their families and friends to move to a much less developed part of the world for 27 months, just like I had.  Bonding ensued immediately.  Everyone here has a story to tell and life experience to share with others.  I really hit the jackpot with this new family that I have known for less than a month.

In the hotel conference room, we went over some logistics such as passports, visas, travel plans, etc. and did a variety of campy, lovey-dovey team-building activities.  The next morning we were off to Panama City, where two of our Panamanian Peace Corps Staff members greeted us upon exiting the airport terminal.  We breezed through customs and baggage claim (thank you, special Peace Corps Passports) and caught a bus to Ciudad del Saber, the compound in which we stayed for the first week.  CDS is an old US military base that has been converted into the diplomatic and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) hub for Panama and Central America.  The US embassy is there, as well as the UN building which houses UNICEF.  There are probably fifty or so NGOs that are based there as well.  We were right across from the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal.  It´s a busy place with lots going on, but you wouldn´t know it from the outside.  The buildings are somewhat spaced out with nice landscaping and nature trails all over the place.  Once you enter the compound it looks sort of like a nice college campus.

We were there for about a week attending logistics, medical, legal and educational sessions.  We usually finished around five or six o´clock and immediately got down to the business of having fun and bonding.  You can see some of these pics on my facebook album.  People here have quite eccentric tastes when it comes to leisure activities.  One girl is a professional hula hooper and taught me some pretty decent moves.  We had a Glee watching night which was actually my first Glee experience.  I was told I´m a gleek now- … It was the Lady Gaga episode and folks were pretty excited.

Wow guys… time flies.  I have to run (literally) to my meeting.  I´ll try to write more later.  Miss you, love you, mean it!

Peace and love.

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Ready… Set… Pack.

Hi friends!  Welcome to my new blog “On the Isthmus.” 

As most of my friends already know, the Peace Corps finally invited me to serve as a Community Environmental Extension Agent volunteer in Panama. (more details on the job later)  The application process was time-consuming and at times frustrating, but in the end things all came together as I had hoped they would.  In just a few days I’m off to Miami for staging, where I’ll meet the other forty or so volunteers in my group, then it’s a direct flight to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City the following day. 

All that’s left to do is pack, which is so incredibly scary and exciting at the same time.  Writing a packing list and gathering my clothes into the suitcase is the simplist task in the world, but I have found myself dreading the process!  It’s amazing how the most prosaic activity can jolt you into accepting reality.  I know that I will soon be feeling nostalgia for all of the great experiences I’ve had these last few years in Pensacola; Music in the Park, gallery nights, concerts at Vinyl, three dolla’ holla’ at HopJacks and of course beach days.  More than anything I will miss the evenings sitting in rocking chairs on a friend’s front porch, talking over a few beers.  Wow, that sounds really country.  (:

Well, enough with the touchy feely stuff.  I’m super excited to go and I really appreciate all of you who have encouraged me through this process.  You guys are the best! 

As time goes on, the idea is to utilize this blog to document what I learn and experience in Panama.  (You can only go so far with a status update, you know)  I intend to write about my projects as well as travel stories and the general ups and downs of entry-level development work while living abroad.  I might only have intermittent access to the internet, so I’ll shoot for at least one post per month.  (unless my hut comes with free wifi)  haha… I’m not sure if I will be in a hut or not yet, but it’s a definite possibility.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Okay friends, that is all for now.  Peace and love.

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