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Slip slip slipping

September 10, 2010

Literally slipping on mud and figuratively slipping further into the mind of someone in the PC. As I mentioned, this past week I ventured out with a fellow trainee to meet a real, live volunteer in their natural habitat. Some traveled far and wide to get to know the greater outdoors – anywhere from a day and a half to get to Bocas del Toro or 7-8 hours to get to Darien. However, for Andrea and me, it was as simple as taking the bus 1 ½ hour from Panama toward Colon, getting off the highway at Rio Gatun, walking 100 feet to the river, hopping on a dug-out canoe and going ten measly minutes upriver. However, don’t be deceived, fair readers, because at that point we were transferred to a whole new world of the Embera people.

Immediately I took in the peace and tranquility of this community of about 120 inhabitants. It contrasted greatly with the Reggaeton-blaring, tricked-out, pollution-emitting Diablo Rojo that dropped us off a few minutes away. The traditional Panka (palm leaf) houses are posted up on stilts and are wide open (see photo below of Alyssa’s hut). The houses are right along the river and back up against El Monte, or jungle. I found it absolutely beautiful. So you see how I’m slipping further into the Peace Corps mind-set? Why come all this way just to live the same way that I did before? So let the challenge of not having amenities begin!

Alyssa (the outgoing volunteer) had a particularly notable and exciting project with the community. When she arrived two years ago, the community had just been given a grant by USAID to turn into an eco-tourism site. They built a tourist house complete with flushing toilets and showers, built a community house, pathways, signage, and invested in marketing. Naturally, the community members see no need for such niceties and are pleased to bath in the river and use latrines. It has absolutely transformed the town and they now have a steadier source of income. Of course, there are trade-offs with welcoming tourists into their community, but part of Alyssa’s role (which she is especially proud of – and should be), was ensuring that the community’s interests were represented and that they had control of prices and the volume of tourists that can visit. Additionally, an Engineers without Borders chapter from her university has committed to installing solar panels so that the families will have electricity for the first time. This will elevate their status as an Eco-tourist site and permit them to be leaders in clean energy, operating independently of the local grid system. Although experimental and potentially risky (for example maintenance costs may become too high), this project may have transferability to other small communities that live off the grid and could set an example of innovation in this field. Whew – she rocked her service.

Let’s sum-up the highlights:

  1. Paseando – Basically the Panamanian word for walking around and talking to people. I loved hanging out with Olga, the oldest woman in the community, and dining on her delicious bananas and guaranaba. Yup, bananas. I decided that I like cooked bananas. Yet unable to eat them raw, so I’ve still retained some of my old ways.
  2. Hiking into El Monte – IMPRESIONANTE WEON is what the Chilenos would have said. Just imagine hiking practically vertical in mud, then hiking downward, then through a creek, then having it rain like cats and dogs all the while that the locals – Isabel, Mario and their kids – were cutting down a tree to make a canoe. When it started raining most kept working but Isabel and her son macheted some palm leaves into an umbrella for us Gringas. We hiked back after the rain subsided, but they stayed until dark and hiked back in the pitch black darkness.
  3. Learning the history and traditions of the community – the Embera botanical treatment to prevent body hair from growing (and it works!), how the community began in the 1970’s when Mario’s father moved from Darien, how they succeeded in preventing the Cervecia Nacional from usurping the land for industrial use, and the difficulty of establishing land rights.

As you may note, it is quite a dynamic community. I give it approval (per photo below … which i think is hilarious)

Someone asked me to describe what my day is like in the training community. For better or worse, it is probably the exact opposite of what we can expect once we arrive to our site (Nov 1!!). We have structured language classes and technical sessions from 8-5 from Mon-Fri to learn how to apply PC materials in the Panamanian organizational and business culture. Our families cook our meals and we are shuttled where ever we go as a group. Its been a great opportunity to get to know the group and build strong connections. However, we are prepared to slow our pace once we get to site. After all, the first project is Proyecto Amistad (Project Friendship… which sounds like a US military operation name) where we are encouraged to focus on getting to know community members, economic structure, and organizations for the first 3 months. I get to connect to internet for about 1hr once a week. So keep emailing me and please just excuse the length of time that it may take to respond!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kristin permalink
    September 18, 2010 1:33 am

    Now really jealous of the hiking and getting to know the locals. Very cool in being a part of helping the community model and sustain clean energy. I’ve heard that once communities have access to power that especially education thrives as there are more hours to study after the daylight chores are completed. Awesome, can’t wait for the next installment!

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