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A Week in the Life

December 14, 2010

Every time that I read a Peace Corps blog, I always think that it is fine and interesting but am always left wondering what someone in the Peace Corps does day-to-day. With this in mind, I bring you a week in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. On my first day in site (approx. one month ago… only 23 to go!), I was struck with the sudden realize that I don’t have a fixed schedule nor any structured activities planned. It was up to me to go out there and meet people who would want to work with me. On Day 1, I wrote in my journal:

“Now I am sitting at about 9:15 in the morning on the first day of work and I guess I’d have to admit that I’m a little overwhelmed and it is paralyzing me into inaction. I’m not really concerned, however, because I know that I will get the hang of this within a few weeks.”

I am glad to report that I did get out and meet people that day. And now, a few weeks later, here is what “the swing of things” actually looks like:

Thursday, Dec 2: Switch Host Families and go to the Town Dance

Time to switch host families! For the month of December, I am living with Lucas and Domi, and their four kids. There are three boys and all have the first name Lucas. Lucas Esteban is 15, Lucas Edward is 12, and Lucas Javier is 3. Mai Beth is the lone girl and is 4. The family runs a small tienda (store) from their house that gets pretty good business because its located on the main road near the elementary and high school. Lucas also raises cattle and grows enough corn, platanos, and beans to sell each year.  On top of that, he attends the University in town that is training teachers in bilingual education. As a result, though he does not speak any Ngäbere, the indigenous language, he is now learning it for the first time. The house has a concrete floor and wood siding that is painted pink. Wood walls divide the inside of the house into a large living space, the tienda, and a small room where I will live. The kitchen is in a separate hut outside. It is comfortable and I don’t have to wear shoes when I’m inside!

Photo Caption: Lucas Edward by the family house ready to rope some cattle. We live in the pink part. The dining area and kitchen are toward the back. Right: Domi and Mai Beth running the store, located in front of the house.

As soon as I settle in to my new digs, it is time to go check out this baile (town dance) that everyone is talking about. The title of the event is Homage to Educator’s Day and Mother’s Day. Chico Dorindo, a supposedly very famous Panamanian singer, will be playing his first show in the Comarca. The event also featured Decima, a traditional Panamanian form of lyric poetry, where three singers switch off inventing lyrics to a set beat. Think rap battle only singing to guitar rhythm. I loved this, it was awesome.

At about 11:30 pm, Dorindo comes on and everyone pairs up and starts dancing to Panamanian Tipico, traditional music that uses accordion, bass, and hand drums. The atmosphere is similar to how Prescottonians feel when a good country western band playing at Matt’s on a Saturday night. Or the way Seattleites feel during a good show at Tractor Tavern or Connor Byrne. The band plays until sunrise, which is typical for dances like this in Panama. I head home tuckered out from dancing at around 2:30, which I explained was Gringo bedtime in the states since all parties are mandated by law to end at that hour.

Friday, Dec 3: Pasear

I was invited to eat lunch with Gertrudis Rodriguez and his family. They are among the founding families and I hadn’t yet met them, so I was looking forward to it. I head over around 12 and, while he has disappeared for some reason, much of his family is there eating food and drinking leftover chicha, a fermented corn drink, from the night before. Yup, they are drinking at noon. I hang out there for several hours as different neighbors and kids stop by to visit.

In Panama, walking around to visit people in their homes has its own verb: Pasear. Though it usually does NOT include chicha, I have been spending a lot of time paseando (visiting) community members this way for the first few months. It basically consists of sitting around, drinking coffee, and talking sporadically about life – family, kids, America, Peace Corps, their work, my work, etc. Making time to get to know people is really valuable, and they really open up after you take the time to visit them in their house. I hope that it will engage them more in community matters and encourage them to come to meetings and seminars that I will have in the future.

Photo Caption: Just me and my awesome new hat, being awesome.

Saturday, Dec 4: El Monte

Wake up bright and early to head to el monte, or the family farm, with Recilia and Efigenio. They are starting a bean project with some other family members that they hope will be profitable in the next few years, and want to show me the land. Harvest is in January, and for now they are fertilizing the plants so they will produce more beans.  They are using chemical fertilizer supplied by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. While they would like to switch to organic, they don’t have enough start-up capital to purchase it or the agency support to get it for free. Photo Caption: Family farms are usually located on steep hills and valleys, as shown here.

Both Recilia and Efigenio are teachers. I find it impressive how many teachers double as farmers. Since they have more disposable income than most, they have the capacity to invest in small projects such as these, though not on a very large scale. They’ve asked me to start working with them so that they can become more organized and systematized.  Though I know little about beans, their agricultural knowledge combined with my business knowledge will hopefully produce good results (haha pun intended).

Sunday, Dec 5: Tole

The tourism group meeting is coming up on Monday and I want to help progress things along. They’ve hand- drawn brochures to advertise their tourism excursions, and the government tourism agency will print them for free as long as we provide a digital version. Since no one else owns a computer, I offered to make an electronic version on my laptop using my top-notch, super professional software: Publisher. Haha. I’m lucky that my friends here own a house in Tole, the larger hub town outside the Comarca that has electricity. I head down there for the evening, work on the brochure, and absorb some florescent light into my skin. It was lovely.

Photo Caption: Left – The tourism group is called Bäri Nuäri Excursions and the Chichica flower will be the logo. Right – Pena Blanca Mountain as seen from Chichica. The group offers an a guided hiking excursion to the summit.

Monday, Dec 6: Tourism Mondays

The tourism group meets every Monday morning. They are in the process of forming a tourist cooperative and are seeking government support to build cabins to finally start bringing tourism to the Comarca. The land is beautiful here and has a lot to offer. They have day hikes, an overnight hike to the top of the tallest mountain in the Comarca, and cultural presentations (artisan work, traditional medicine, local agriculture) with Ngäbe families. Right now, with the encouragement of Hector, a consultant from the Authority for Tourism in Panama (ATP), are planning a Tourism Fair in February in Chichica. This is a huge commitment that requires a lot of resources. Right now, everyone is enthusiastic and I hope that they remain so that this can finally become a viable business!

In the afternoon, I have a meeting with Profesor Miguel Zurdo. He is a geography teacher at the high school, and will be my main counterpart for the Youth Agricultural Cooperative that we are starting at the high school. We discuss different types of projects that the coop could potentially pursue: a school store, a savings and loan program, an agricultural project, etc. He favors opening a school store and supporting it with an agricultural project. I like the idea as well and also hope that a savings and loan program can be integrated so that the students can learn about banking.

Tuesday, Dec 7: Women’s group

I leave the house at 8:30 for the hour-walk to Cerro Algodon, a community right next to Chichica. A women’s group has recently formed in order to start a savings and loan association. I arrive at 9:30 and hang around until the meeting finally starts at 11. This is how it works here. Time is just a number and meetings start when they start. I’ve accepted this cruel fact even though it means that I always show up about an hour and half before anything starts. The group has about 55 members who meet once a month. Each brings between $2.50 and $10 to put away for savings. Using the group funds, they buy supplies in order to sell food during events in town. At the end of the year, they will divide up the profits among the members according to their participation.

Wednesday, Dec 8: Mother’s Day

I agreed to help Profesora Evey with food preparations for the annual Mothers Day celebration. As you can see from the photos, this entailed making A LOT of food (for approximately 500 mothers). Everyone gathers at the elementary school and there is a raffle for presents. There are enough presents that every mother receives one – from sewing machines and mattresses, to blankets and plate sets. The event starts at 3:30 and lasts until about 9:30. Since I’m also helping to serve food, I have to just hang around until it finally starts being served around 6 pm. Miraculously, a community member had bought a newspaper from that day! After the first round of raffles, I hide away in a classroom and catch up on the news. Apparently the climate change conference is underway in Cancun, there’s tension on the Korean peninsula, China called its Nobel Prize for Peace winner a clown, and Panama and Colon regions are flooding like crazy. I don’t miss the news, but it never really seems to change anyways.

Photo Captions: Top, Left: A whole cow´s worth of beef. They killed it the day before and it was enough for all 500+ attending. Top, Right: Pots are set up on large rocks with firewood underneath. Bottom: All the mothers sit, staring at all of the presents that will be given away in the raffle.

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