Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hasta luego, Panama

Saying “See you laters"

My favorite goodbyes are those super silly ones where you make a big deal out of a “goodbye” and then accidentally run into the person the next day.  That kind of situation has happened to me frequently, so I try to not make such a big thing out of “goodbyes” and instead leave with a genuinely hopeful “see you later.”  Even so, the “see you laters” I’ve had to say recently have left me hurting.

I came back from my last agribusiness charla in Bocas del Toro (which by the way, went amazingly well) with the goal of visiting every single house in El Harino one last time.  I had three weeks left.  Between bridge work days, school and church activities, rainy season downpours, and people not being home, I managed to hit most of them, and even those I missed I was able to reach with notes about my upcoming “farewell” events.

Giving my last agribusiness charla in Bocas
Huge Bocas crowd
Bocas after-party (Work hard, play hard!)
Bridge work day
Compost with the middle school
One of the hardest houses to say “see you later” to was my first host family.  I lived there during my first 1.5 months in El Harino and I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming group.  I stayed there for hours with the kids crawling all over my lap, reading stories, and looking at photos.  They told me they plan to frame a couple they have with me in it.  I talked with Antonia about her recent snake bite incident (she spent five days in a hospital in Chorrera) and about her fifth baby due to arrive late June.  I talked with Ceferino about his farm’s progress (he’s had a lot of luck lately with papaya!) and about how well his fish tanks are doing.  MIDA recently promised to bring him even more fish, but he expressed skepticism that MIDA would come through.  While I hope they do for his sake, I can’t help but be annoyed that they continue to only help the two families in El Harino of the same political party as them.  I am leaving information on pending fish projects to my follow-up volunteer and considering that the political party in power here in Panama is now changing, I am curious to see how MIDA will function under new management.  Anyways, after a few more jokes about fitting 4-year-old Rebeca in my suitcase, I said “see you later” to a beautiful home.  As soon as they were out of sight, I couldn’t hold back my tears.  I wonder when the next time I make that hike will be…

Flashback photo of when I lived here in June/July 2012
Flashback photo of when I lived here in June/July 2012
After making the rounds to visit as many houses as I could, came the Despedida “Goodbye” party that El Harino threw for me.  We got to combine it with a one-day visit from Heather, El Harino’s previous Peace Corps volunteer, which helped lighten the mood.  Nevertheless, for me it was a very sweet, but also sad event.

Cute decorations and cute kids
This 8-year-old cried when reciting a poem to me so of course I broke down as well
What party would be possible without arroz con pollo?
By far, the best letter I have ever gotten.  Ever.  From an 8th grade boy.  Rough translation (that doesn’t do the cuteness justice):
I write this letter to Lila to say goodbye from the community El Harino.  Lila, you were and are a good Peace Corps volunteer in El Harino, you participated in all activities in and different parts of the community.  I appreciate you because you held trainings that grabbed peoples’ attention like your motto “Save now and you’ll have for forever” and the training about coffee and others.  For this I congratulate you for everything that you’ve done in El Harino and I’m sad because you’re leaving the community.  I would like you to stay more months, but you can’t.  Ciao Ciao Lila, hope everything goes well.  We’ll remember you always, Ciao.  In this letter Elian Valdes, student of Wuendoli Martinez at the El Harino School, says goodbye and so does my family.  Ciao Ciao Lila.  I hope your favorite team wins the world cup (I’m going for Uruguay).  Hope everything goes well.  God bless you and your family always.

I had a few days in between my Despedida and my actual departure from El Harino.  During those days I hosted many visitors and was invited to a few more personal despedida meals at close families’ homes.  I was gifted more food (plantains, oranges, bananas) than I had time to eat and tried to give things away to other visitors.  I was told many times in different words how much I was appreciated and how I had brought new ideas and taught new skills to people in El Harino.  This was all again very sweet and sad.  Throughout the week the comic relief was provided by my shower, which decided to completely break and flood my house.  My landlord and neighbors repeatedly tried to fix it, but each fix lasted no longer than a day (or 20 minutes) before the tube busted open again.  This made packing up more challenging, but gave me an excuse to sweep the floor very clean.

Second host-family cutie
Second host-family special goodbye dinner (including fish from a fish tank and veggies from a garden).

Two cultural differences made all these “see you laters” tougher for me:

1) Everyone wanted my stuff.  After two years working to show people I am not just some white person here to give handouts, I suddenly found myself bombarded with questions like: Can I buy your cooking pot? You have a radio, right? How much for your mattress?  When someone moves homes in the US, it is not culturally appropriate for their friends and neighbors to act like such scavengers, but here, I just had to get used to it.  I sold a few bigger items to the first people who asked me and held off on the rest until the day before I left.  My “garage sale” went alright and many stayed to spend extra time with me and brought me more going-away gifts.  People said the things I gave away /sold will remind them of me.  I had to laugh when I saw a grown man snag my purple AYSO soccer jersey from 7th grade.

Dollar store on the left, free stuff on the right
2) People here don’t usually hug.  They always say hello and goodbye with a limp handshake.  There was no way I was going to accept this with my “see you laters” so I went in for the hugs with mixed results.  Some were super awkward because people literally don’t know how to position their arms (not to mention the considerable height difference).  But some were great and even included a kiss on the cheek (or two, or three … weird?).  Even after my “won’t take no for an answer” hugs, some still felt compelled to close with their typical handshake.  To each his own.

My last few days in Panama were spent in the capital city going through Peace Corps' tedious Close-of-Service process.  This involved paperwork, interviews, medical tests, etc.  Sounds fun, right?  Luckily, several other volunteers were also COS-ing with me so we actually did have some fun and supported each other through it all.

Receiving my Peace Corps certificate of completion from Panama's Country Director
Last night dinner with 20 volunteers

Moving on

On a personal level, I have formed meaningful relationships in a foreign world and have been truly happy for two years, despite the hardships.  Leaving is painful and I predict reverse-culture shock will be … a shock.

On a professional level, I have learned that while there are no perfect solutions to international development problems, I now have a much deeper understanding of their complexities and their possibilities. I look forward to applying what I know and expanding on it at Wharton / UPenn as I pursue my MBA and focus it on social impact and sustainable development.

I am heartbroken and excited to be moving on. I would do it all again without changing a thing.  Thanks for following along and accompanying me through what has been an awesome adventure, a learning experience, a roller-coaster, a dream.  I couldn't have done it without your support.

Remember my number that I had since I was 16? That number is mine again.  Call it!  Keep in touch.  Hasta mañana.

I will miss this view from my window

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Checking things off...

Agribusiness Seminars: COMPLETE

As part of my obligations as Agribusiness Coordinator and with the help of funding from people like you, I took on the task of organizing three regional agbiz seminars that all took place in the last few months.  Throughout the process I learned a lot, worked hard, and feel I pulled them off to the best of my abilities.

Biggest seminar we had in Bocas del Toro

Analyzing weekly expenditures
After picking my host-communities for each seminar in the provinces of Veraguas, Bocas del Toro, and Panama Oeste, the first obstacle I faced was scheduling.  Between Panamanian holidays, Peace Corps events, and the travels of my fellow volunteers, it was literally impossible to pick dates that worked for all parties involved.  All scheduled dates were changed between one to three times and still there were conflicts, some that we were only informed of when a seminar was less than a week away.

Smallest seminar in Veraguas
Checking my phone hill once a day to coordinate with other volunteers who also don’t have signal was challenging.  We attempted to confirm the number of attendees and facilitators, host-families for lodging, cooks and ingredients, transportation, etc.  But most of these things ended up changing last minute anyway.

My main frustration with these seminars was their generally low attendance.  At each seminar about 10 or more “confirmed” participants backed out either by not showing up or by telling their volunteer that they couldn’t make it.  In the U.S. this does not happen.  If an event has been on our calendar for weeks or months and we commit to going, we go (unless something really urgent comes up).  But that is not the case here.  Leaving home to take a quick trip goes against local culture.  Even though we tried to make it easy (all expenses-paid, accompanied by a known volunteer), we were still asking people to do something outside of their comfort zone.  While many admitted the idea sounded worthwhile and that they were interested in learning about what we had to offer, when the day actually came, many just couldn’t go through with it.  Disappointing, but in truth not all that surprising, and certainly understandable.

Very high facilitator to participant ration.  I think this helped the participants!
For those participants who did show up, they seemed to get a lot out of it and have a good time.  The people willing to leave their houses seem to be the ones most eager to learn and to share their experiences.

Working hard
Earning free calculators by answering quiz questions
Passing the coin down the line through clothes gets people laughing every time.  Gotta love ice-breakers.
We covered topics like farm planning, keeping inventories, working in groups, using a calendar, using a calculator (really hard for some!), keeping track of cash flow, setting personal budgets, creating a marketing plan, calculating cost of production (another tough one, especially without good records), adding value to products, customer service, market analysis, and an intro to legal topics like contracts, loans, and becoming incorporated.  Whew!  The two days were jam-packed and people loved the skits and games we relied on to liven things up.  We emphasized that we knew we were throwing a lot of information at them at once and that this is not easy stuff (learning to track inventory when you’ve never seen a spreadsheet before is not easy!).  We know it’s impossible for them to implement everything we went over immediately, but rather we hope they will do so little by little and ask their volunteers for help along the way.  At the end, many commented that they were glad they came, learned things they didn’t know before, and were happy they’d had the opportunity to meet new people from other communities.

Analyzing markets
Calculator practice
Learning the consequences of signing contracts without reading them.  Those participants owed us some sodas and some jumping jacks!
I could not have pulled off these seminars without the help of some amazing colleagues.  My hosting volunteers were all incredible.  They jumped through hoops to get their communities ready to host these events, opened up their homes to us facilitators, and spoiled us with some of the best cooking I’ve had in years (THANKS: Neil, Viole, Brennan, Sara, Paul).  One such host had come down with the flesh-eating parasite leshmaniasis, but even he introduced me to his community before leaving to get treatment, and he let us live in his house without him during the seminar.  Brennan, you are such a trooper!

Brennan's home, minus Brennan 
And a huge thank you to all of my co-facilitators (Soraya, Lauren N., Leanne, Mary, Abby, Zoe, Elena, and Lauren H.) who helped bring people to the seminars, present the material, and keep me sane.  I worked with both volunteers from my training class and from the newer group and all agreed that working with farmers to develop these basic business skills is extremely rewarding (despite the frustrations).  Two of my facilitator helpers will be taking over as the next Agribusiness Co-Coordinators for the coming year.  As hard as it is for me to admit I’m leaving soon and wrapping up my work, I am happy knowing I’m leaving this role to such intelligent, dedicated individuals.  Good luck Abby and Elena!

Abby and Zoe presenting in Bocas

Elena using volunteers to show how contracts tie people together 
Before completely retiring from the Agribusiness Coordinator gig, I have one more site visit planned for the end of May in Bocas.  Megan, the volunteer there had tried to send some participants to our Bocas seminar, but they’d all canceled on her last minute.  She really thinks her community would benefit from this material, so we are trying again  I have had decent luck with site visits in the past (in the Darien and the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle), so hopefully people in Megan’s community will be able to sacrifice a few hours to attend an event right in their village.  The downside to this approach is that I will have less time with them so we will have to cut out a lot of info and that they don’t get to hear about experiences of farmers from other places.  Nevertheless, we’ll have the chance to target our presentation for their specific interests and hey, it gives me an excuse to visit Bocas one last time :)

And just like that, events that have been on my calendar and items that have been on my to-do list for so long are rapidly getting checked off.  Who knew time could go by this fast?

Somehow I still don't have the hang of the awkward certificate hand-off formality

Summing up / Assignment Description

In January 2012 I received an assignment description from the Peace Corps for the Sustainable Agriculture Systems Program in Panama.  Doing some house-cleaning, I recently stumbled upon this document and was struck by how accurate it was in regard to how my service has gone.  No one can say I didn’t know what I was getting into!  Here are some excerpts that I find sum up my service particularly well …

It is hard work organizing people, planning, enduring physical labor in the sun, rain, and mud, but the rewards are great.

Consider yourself lucky; Panama is a country with great cultural, biological, and linguistic diversity all in an area the same size as the state of South Carolina.

You will work closely with agencies and community leaders to provide training and to promote greater use of sustainable practices that allow families to make better-informed decisions about their production systems and community projects.  Helping farmers realize what options exist to complement their traditional practices allows farmers to form solutions to their own problems.

In order to accomplish its goals, Peace Corps/Panama will ask you as a Sustainable Agriculture Systems Volunteer to perform some of the following work:
-         ---  Work with local farmers in activities such as clearing land with a machete, planting with a coa (planting stick), weeding, and harvesting in order to build working relationships and your understanding of traditional farming methods.
-         ---  Promote the establishment of rice and/or fish tanks to ensure that families have food and protein all year round and demonstrate the advantages and benefits of these techniques.
-         ---  Implement and promote the establishment or improvement of home and school gardens to improve nutrition
-          Help farmers analyze their market options evaluating quality and quantity of production required and the transportation cost of the different market options.
-          --- Train farmers in quality control methods and marketing techniques.
-          --- Identify, train, and encourage successful farmers, who will become promoters of the project techniques, within their communities in the future.
-         ---  Act as a liaison, facilitator, and promoter to help communities receive assistance, implement planning systems, and establish working relationships with appropriate agencies.

Sustainable Agriculture Systems projects are very demanding physically, and Volunteers will need to tolerate vigorous physical exertion in a hot-and-humid climate.

It is often said that being a Volunteer is a 24/7 job; but it is the toughest job you’ll ever love!

Assignment in the SAS program is physically challenging due to these extreme living and working conditions.

In the campo, Panama’s countryside, life moves at a much slower pace than in urban areas.  A rural Panamanian’s conception of time and work will likely differ from yours.  For example, meetings often begin late and plans can be arbitrarily put aside without reservation or prior notice.  A key part of the Volunteer’s successful adaption to Panama is having the capacity to understand that things will not always go as planned.  Patience is essential.  Remember that community members; time-frame is different than yours.  PCVs work in the community for two years and sometimes expect activities to go quickly, while community members are there for a lifetime and have other priorities.  It is important to try to place yourself in the shoes of your community partners in order to better understand their actions and motivations.  Panamanian farmers do work very hard.  In order to gain their respect and trust you will have to do the same while also demonstrating cross-cultural understanding.

You must be sure that you are willing to commit yourself to twenty-seven months of service in a foreign country, living in conformity with a culture that is completely different from your own.  Many Volunteers have difficulty adjusting to the slow pace of life, work, and lifestyle change.  You may have to explain the purpose and mission of Peace Corps and your role as a development worker many times, and to many different people.  You may feel a lack of understanding and technical support from your counterparts at times.  You may also be annoyed by frequent delays in most daily activities from cooking, to public transportation, to organizing a meeting.  You will also be frustrated by lack of privacy, and the local perception that you are a rich foreigner.  These obstacles to accomplishing goals can be very formidable.  Results will be hard to see at times.  But the underlying key to satisfying work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is the ability to establish successful interpersonal relations at all levels.  This will require patience, sensitivity, and a positive professional attitude.

And despite these challenges, most Volunteers agree that the rewards are very well worth the challenges.  While tangible results may be hard to see at first, with time, the impact you have had will show in many ways.  Small changes of attitude or working techniques in local partners will become apparent as you spend more time in your community.  You will find this to be a great source of satisfaction.  When large projects are slow in developing, smaller activities that succeed can provide you with a great sense of accomplishment and can even help facilitate larger goals.  Relationships formed with members of your community will become one of the most rewarding aspects of your work, and the impact you have on your neighbors and colleagues will be lasting.  You will most likely be the only American working in your community, and you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable scrutiny a foreigner receives.  However, because of the extra attention, the work you do and the relationships you make will long remain in the memory of your community.

By working in conjunction with community members and agency partners, you will be making a significant contribution to development in Panama.  Your ability to approach problems from a new perspective, use a variety of resources for information and ideas, take risks, and analyze and learn from your mistakes are all indispensable skills for dealing with the day-to-day challenges in your community.  Sharing these strategies with your co-workers will enable them to focus their development and tackle the long-term problems they face.

Being a part of the community is most important to your credibility and success.  Taking a long walk in the rain to see someone’s bean farm, attending the birthday party of a child whose parents you don’t know, and sitting through an 8 hour meeting that may not even pertain to your work will make all the difference to your community members.  We are here to gain the community’s respect and serve its needs pertaining to sustainable development.

But it is you, the PCV, who determines your experience no matter what country or project.  Patience, an open mind, a sense of humor, and a passion for rural community development work are keys to a successful adventure in Peace Corps.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Out and About in March

The Dirty D (Darien, that is)

The Darien province of Panama is located far to the east side, bordering Colombia.  In March I had the opportunity to visit what Peace Corps volunteers “lovingly” call the Dirty D.

My adventure was to begin visiting a friend in an Embera Indigenous village, where a women’s group had requested a training in basic business skills.  I hadn’t been able to reach this friend Bridget to confirm during the week prior to my trip, but this is not so unusual for Peace Corps volunteers, so I went ahead and hoped for the best.  As per her instructions, I arrived at a remote boat dock before 7am to look for boats heading to Sambu.  The first boat sign-up list was already full so I signed up for the second … except soon word started spreading that this second boat driver decided not to come that day.  So now what?  I heard some talk about taking a different boat to Garachine and then some form of land transport from there to Sambu (car? motorcycles? hmm).  After talking to a bunch of people, I was convinced this idea was worth a shot and by 9:30, I was finally out on the water.

At least waiting by the boat dock was pretty

Heading out
Around 11:00 we stopped somewhere for gas and a couple guys got off the boat looking for their own type of fuel.  An hour later the gas tank was full and the beer-wreaking dudes finally came back so we could continue.  Thankfully I had an umbrella to shelter me from the brutal midday sun and was also able to shade the older Embera woman sitting next to me.  Around 1:30 we reached Garachine and I helped that older woman and her daughter carry their stuff to where we were to get picked up.  They bought me a bottle of water as thanks.  Such a bonding experience!  So the large group of us heading to Sambu piled in the back of a cattle truck and marched onward.  It was all I could do to not smash my head against the metal cage bars as we bumped along (not such an issue for the shorter Panamanians), and by the end I was covered in bruises and a layer of dust (dry season in the Darien is dry).

I am too tall for this cattle truck
After reaching Sambu around 3:30, it didn’t take long to find Bridget who’d been patiently waiting for me all day to hike back 1.5 hours to her community Day Puru.  When we made it I had the worst dehydration headache I’ve ever experienced, but Bridget took good care of me and spoiled me with all kinds of delicious food and much-needed water-chugging.

Bridget cooking away
Bridget's scary (but typical) ladder for a her stilted house
Cute neighbors
The next morning’s business presentation went really well.  I helped the women’s group create a working mission statement and covered a bunch of my normal topics like how to evaluate which activities generate greater profits for them.  It was also an interesting experience for me to give a presentation to a group of women who were not all wearing tops.  Different culture!

Business presentation
Women's group
After the talk, I was painted in the traditional style using a plant-based dye that lasts about a week.  Loved it!  After this short visit, I said goodbye to Day Puru and Bridget walked me back to Sambu so I could catch the 3am boat back out.  I wish I could’ve gotten pictures of that gorgeous, moonlit river journey…

Mixing the dye
Getting painted
Bridget showing me around Day Puru before heading out again
After this successful visit, I headed across the Darien to visit my friend Alex in a remote Latino site called Candelilla.  This time no boats were involved – just a bumpy chiva ride and a two hour hike.  Whew.  Alex joined the Peace Corps a year after me and having helped with her training, it was really cool for me to see her all settled in and working hard.  We tag-teamed an agribusiness presentation for the few members of her community that showed up (her community is small to begin with and suffers from the normal Panamanian “no-show” syndrome).

Agribusiness charla

Me, Alex, and her charla participants
Overall, I really enjoyed my Darien adventure, although I know I only got a taste of it all, and I was left in awe of how far out there some of these communities really are.  On a more serious note, several of my volunteer friends in a different region of the Darien were recently removed from their sites due to violence involving Colombian drug runners.  My heart goes out to them and their communities who are dealing with a very complicated situation.

Other March Events

In addition to my travels in the Dirty D, other events kept me out and about during most of March.

- I organized my first “big” regional agribusiness seminar in the province of Veraguas.  Unfortunately I unknowingly planned it in conflict with a regional pilgrimage festival honoring Jesús Cristo de Atalaya.  OOPS!  The low attendance was a big disappointment, but I feel we did the best we could with the information available.  I learned many good lessons that I will use in my next two seminars later in April and May.

I think the high facilitator to participant ratio helped people get a lot out of it

Seminar complete
- I attended a UPenn Wharton Global Forum in Panama City.  It was quite a shock to my system to preview the business school world I will join next year, but the speakers were interesting and I enjoyed the event.

This is the President of Panama
Fancy poolside dinner equipped with open bar and interesting performers
Meeting people
- Peace Corps Close-of-Service Conference occurs for volunteers three months before we actually leave.  The idea is to start getting us mentally, physically, and administratively (so much paperwork!) prepared to leave Panama. My official departure date has been assigned: June 27, meaning I need to leave my community to spend my last days in the Peace Corps office on June 22.  In one cheesy activity, we passed around a candle and shared whatever we wanted with the group.  I’m pretty sure this activity is designed to make us cry.  It worked.  We also put together this awesome video that I recommend watching (I come in at times: 6:05, 8:26, and 12:34): “Happy” Peace Corps Panama Group 71.

To celebrate the end of the conference and the last time we’d all be together as a group, I organized a party boat to take us on an evening tour of the Panama City bay.  Organizing this yacht had stressed me out for months, but it was totally worth it.

Yacht passing through the canal
Party planners making a toast
- Dani Dagan visited me!  We played with monkeys and did some other touristy things around and off the coast of Panama City before spending a couple days in my site.

Monkey friend
Touring a Wounaan indigenous village
Pineapple on Taboga Island
I want to say a big THANK YOU to all who had the chance to visit me in Panama: Dani Dagan, Molly James, Laura Holzman, Rebecca Powell, Aloni Cohen, Sadie Diaz, Marisa Gonzalez, Erica Goldman, and Ashley Thompson.  It really meant a lot to me.  I can’t believe that the next time I go to the airport it will be for me to really leave.  AHHHH!!!

- I got recognized by the Embassy!  Check it out in Spanish: Panama US Embassy

#ThirdWorldProblems (of a first world girl)

Oh yeah, remember this segment?  It’s back!

- I repeatedly hear a volunteer friend complain, “I am just so tired of cockroaches poopin’ on my clothes.”

- My new definition of “clean clothes” is: smells ok and has three or fewer visible stains

- My new definition of “nice clothes” is: my Peace Corps polo and/or any T-shirt with no holes or visible stains.

- The clothes on my line were almost dry before that downpour came.

- Any beverage with ice in it is fancy.

- Any wine that comes out of a bottle instead of a box is classy.

- The day we tried to teach community members how to use voicemail on their cell phones, we couldn’t find strong enough signal for them to activate their mailboxes.  We blamed it on the wind.

- How did a mosquito get me there?

- I once flicked a cockroach out of my plastic cup of wine and kept drinking