When I left El Harino, Panama in June 2014, I did not think I’d get to visit once a year, and while it’s a trend I won’t be able to keep up, I feel lucky I’ve had these opportunities so far. In May 2015, I squeezed in a couple-day visit after completing a short volunteer consulting project with a team of Wharton MBAs working with a youth empowerment NGO in Panama. This year the reason for my visit was Ana Victoria’s wedding, a wonderful college friend who happens to be Panamanian.
The timing of this trip was odd for me. I graduated from Wharton in May, prepared to spend the summer job-hunting. But I was lucky enough (after rounds of cover letters and Skype interviews) to find something much quicker than expected. So with two suitcases and some temporary housing lined up, I moved to San Francisco in June to begin working as a Research Associate at Earth Innovation Institute. EII is a small nonprofit with big goals of bringing together diverse stakeholders to promote sustainable land use and rural development. We mostly focus on agriculture and deforestation issues as they relate to climate change in tropical regions. While my Spanish has come in handy, I am also trying hard to remember some Portuguese and hope to travel to Brazil for work at some point. So far, I am finding the work interesting and definitely challenging. I am still learning how I can apply my diverse background and skillset (including ground-level field work and MBA frameworks and connections) to my work at EII as effectively as possible. So in the midst of starting this new job in June, adjusting to the routine of a normal, working-adult life, and getting my bearings in San Francisco (which I am absolutely loving!), I left for three weeks of travel in August. This definitely felt a bit disruptive, but hey, I’ve always been the type to cram in as many experiences as possible ;)
Having relied on whatsapp messaging to communicate with Cristín (a 20-year-old that I know checks his phone at least once a month) to confirm I could stay with his family, I showed up to El Harino with my old backpack and some touristy gifts from San Francisco. It’s amazing how names of places and people you haven’t thought of in so long can come back to you so quickly. How familiar sights make your eyes light up over things you never realized you missed. How after months of planning and worrying over details and logistics and feeling the pressure of an incredibly tight schedule, instantly none of that matters when you climb out of the back of a chiva in a quiet jungle community and the pace of time all but stops. How sounds of birds and insects and música típica on the radio and the rhythm of how people talk couldn’t sound more normal and soothing as they reach my ears. So comfortable. So at home.
|New sign, same place|
Since it was so hard to communicate that I was coming, many community members didn’t know I would be there. Kids at the school saw me arrive and word quickly spread. “Llegó Laila.” “Lila arrived.” My first afternoon I stopped by the end of an event at the Catholic church and got to see many people at once. We caught up a bit, got stuck inside during a downpour, and I left with plans to attend a 15-year-old’s birthday lunch the next day. True to his word, the 20-year-old with whatsapp had told his family I was coming and they had reorganized their sleeping situation to clear a bed for me. They made me dinner (rice, fried egg, and tomatoes – yum!) and we stayed up telling stories until I could barely keep my eyes open (probably not long after 9pm haha).
|Hanging with Cristin's grandma on the porch|
The next day I set out to visit as many houses as I could (including the 15-year-old’s birthday house). On a normal day in Peace Corps, I would hike to around 4 or 5 houses in a day when I was spreading the word about an upcoming workshop or meeting. But since this visit was so short, I managed to make it to 9 different houses in one day. This was physically exhausting, but at least I got lucky with the weather, and the day passed without a single downpour. As I went, I tried to subtly check up on some of the projects I’d worked on while I was there. My host family’s fish pond is still going strong. Success!!! A few women are still working on their home gardens, but many told me that this year the dry season had been particularly bad and they were just now thinking they can return to working on them. Others had more excuses like that they were moving houses so it didn’t make sense to work on a home garden until they moved, or that they now had goats that kept getting in the way. All understandable excuses that I found in no way surprising.
|Happy Birthday Ariel!|
|Martina's garden 2.5 years ago (top) vs. now (bottom). Clearly less of a priority at this moment.|
My replacement volunteer is almost at her two-year mark and the community sounds happy with the work she’s done towards a big aqueduct project, but the project is going slowly (again, not surprising). Hopefully, the community can stay organized and keep pushing for this project after the volunteer leaves. After all, Peace Corps volunteers were never meant to have a permanent presence in a community; but rather, to come in, help motivate people to get some things started and to keep them going on their own. It’s often a question of priorities, coordination, and pace.
Other things I got caught up on kept me feeling like I was on a bittersweet roller coaster. The good parts included that there are plenty of cute new babies to play with, kids graduating from middle school have been sent to continue on in high school, and the community may begin recycling soon (I'm a little confused as to how). One particularly tough story almost caused me to burst out crying on the spot. Esteban, a great guy who was always smiling and ready to work, drowned last year. He fell crossing on a terribly dangerous board that was thrown across a creek. I remember using that board a couple times and hating it. He apparently did so at night after a few drinks. He left behind Ercilia, his pregnant wife and 3 young girls. Ercilia’s father drowned crossing a different river when I was living there a few years ago. Ercilia’s first husband was killed in a mudslide. I didn’t get to see Ercilia on this visit, but I can’t even imagine how these losses have affected her. I did get to see Esteban’s mother María, who seems different but ok. Hopefully the support of their families and the community will get them through.
|Three years ago, one of Esteban's adorable little girls|
|I asked about this new structure near the town center and was told it is to begin collecting recycling that the government will come pick up.|
I heard from some that the bridge project that Siobhan (the volunteer in my neighboring community) and I helped support has been a success. This bridge is over the river where Ercilia’s father had drowned. People now use the bridge frequently, which was good to hear.
|Siobhan and me at the bridge site a couple years ago that has since been completed.|
The community may get electricity (someday) soon(ish). CRAZY! I am slightly skeptical about how soon this will really be, but if the utility company is starting to make promises about it, I’d guess it’s possible within the next few years.
My community members were clearly happy to see me, and this made me happy. They seemed really excited that I’d come back and that I haven’t forgotten them. They made jokes about me staying another two years and already asked when I’d be coming back again. It is really nice to feel so welcome and cared for there. At the same time, it was interesting how little they asked about my personal life. They all asked about my family especially those whom they’d met like my mom and sister, and they loved hearing that I now have a nephew that I speak to in Spanish. But they didn’t ask about my work and only one blunt 11-year-old asked if I was ever going to get married (I said yes, but not yet!). I brought up my job a couple times, but didn’t get far with it. “Oh, you have a job now?” “Yes.” “In an office?” “Yes, in an office. Monday through Friday.” And that was that. Other questions about if I’d seen the previous volunteer (Heather, who lives in Florida) or if it is the rainy season now too in San Francisco (SF doesn’t have seasons) served as reminders of the vastly different worlds we live in, and how no matter how much people in El Harino care about me, there are parts of my life that are just too un-relatable to try to explain.
|So good to see these faces again. The one on the left is the one who can't understand why I'm not married yet.|
Overall, I left this brief visit to El Harino with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to be there again, to jump worlds, to breathe deep, and to sit with Martina on her porch for hours drinking coffee while time stops.
|Breakfast at Martina's|
On to Peru
After a few days in Panama City celebrating Ana Victoria & Martin’s beautiful wedding, I headed off to meet my mom with Ashley in Peru.
|I can't thank the Chiari's enough for their hospitality. Such a lovely wedding!|
Ashley, my mom and I took a four-day tour around rural Peru, stopping at farms to learn about local crops and business. We also went hiking to see waterfalls and endangered bird species. The last day of the tour was to see Machu Picchu! The tour company we used was a Peace Corps friend’s startup called Keteka, which focuses on off-the-path, socially-responsible tourism, which I try to support whenever possible. I am so lucky that Ashley and my mom were willing to try this out and roll with the adventures that ensued.
|Peruvian landscapes at 14,000 feet|
|Ashley and I made it to the top of the peak behind us (Machu Picchu Mountain). Exhausting, but totally worth it.|
Last stop: Mexico
After saying goodbye to Ashley (always hard), my mom and I made it to Guadalajara. My mom patiently waited for me to catch up on work emails before we spent the weekend touristing around Guadalajara, seeing some cultural sites and learning about how tequila is made in the town of Tequila (which was far more interesting than expected, considering neither of us love tequila that much). When it was time for my mom to leave, I was once again struck by how lucky I am to have such a supporting and adventurous mama. Love you!
|Piggies all around Tlaquepaque. Locally called "tocinarte" meaning "bacon art"|
|Visiting the Herradura distillery|
|Learning about the agave plant and how tequila is made|
My alone time didn’t last long, as later that night my coworkers arrived to the hotel for the Governors’ Climate & Forest (GCF) Annual Meeting – A conference with government leaders, nonprofit organizations (like mine), and a few private sector representatives from all around the world. The main theme of this organization is that climate change can be more effectively and efficiently tackled at subnational levels than national (so working with states and provinces instead of countries). The following four days were beyond exhausting and definitely interesting. With such a mix of cultures and languages, discussions were often chaotic, but the importance of having those face-to-face interactions seemed worthwhile. While the main events and panel presentations continued on, side meetings were actually where most of the tangible actions and agreements were taking place. I felt my Wharton networking skills turn on, met fascinating people, and held conversations that switched from English to Spanish to Portuguese to Indonesian without warning (I got pretty lost during the Indonesian parts). We discussed so many different projects, approaches, initiatives, strategies, policies, etc. that my brain struggled to process how we can possibly make real progress with such disorganization. Many high level declarations and promises rang out with optimism. But the question of how to implement them continues. As a relative newbie in the world of international climate change discussion, I left the conference feeling glad that so many others are committed to solving such complicated problems, and feeling that we certainly have our work cut out for us…
|Our organization hosted a panel on the role of indigenous peoples in forest protection. Yes, that room is called the "Lila Room"|
|Government officials discussing the importance of subnational involvement in climate change|
|Coworkers from SF and Indonesia catching up in Mexico|