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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": October 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Travelling Riverside Blues

I am officially a Volunteer.

This past Thursday, I was sworn at the Ambassador's residence with 46 other Volunteers and the President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli.  The whole thing went down pretty quickly, with two Volunteers giving short speeches and Martinelli giving an excellent and encouraging speech of his own.  Afterwards, he hung out around the food and shook hands and took pictures with everyone.  My picture is in the hands of another Volunteer and will posted here as soon as possible.

I am currently in the "official" Peace Corps hostel in David (a large city in the west of Panama), about an hour and a half from my site.  Tomorrow morning, I'll ride to the riverside once more to begin my two years of service.  Training has been exciting and educational and I hope to impart some of my skills on the small businesses of Soloy. For now, I leave you with a few pictures from training.

A City Under Construction

My host family..and my mustache.

The infamous abuela.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Over the Hills and Far Away

Welcome to Soloy - the natives are friendly
Soloy begins where the road ends.  And when I say the road ends, I mean that it runs directly into a river, which is impassable for most cars, for most of the year.  For about twenty minutes leading up to this point, there are dozens of small shops, restaurants, and street-side vendors - most of whom sell roughly the same products.

Temporary Residence (if you look close, there is a naked baby)
Located in a valley, Soloy serves as a commerce and education hub for the towns in the mountains surrounding it.  People walk down anywhere from two to nine hours to buy food, artisan goods, use the health center, or go to school.  Many people live in an area near the schools temporarily for most of the year so that their kids can attend the large local high school or primary school; they call it temporary housing, to me it looks more like a shanty town and I admire their commit to educating their children.

Coffee before liquid - just one group to work with
From my perspective, this is very exciting, as there are lots of potential small businesses to work with.  I spent the better part of my three day visit going to each business and introducing myself.  The town has had several Peace Corps volunteers in the past (there is actually another volunteer living in the town right now, teaching English), so they are used to us being around but I am the first volunteer sent to work primarily with the businesses. During my walkabout, most people seemed interested and a few owners literally wanted to get started right then, so I might have an opportunity to hit the ground running (which is rare in Peace Corps).

The first three months, I will be living with three different host families.  I stayed with the first during my visit, again sleeping on a table with some cardboard and a thin pad on it.  This doesn't bother me.  There are about 15 people living in the house, which is probably about as large as most American living rooms (I asked my host brother how many people live in the house and he said, "Many."  This doesn't bother me either. The latrine is under the same roof as the shower and only about six feet from the house, so cleaning does not feel very cleansing and when it rains (which it does most of the day, every day), it smells like latrine from my room.  While I have sworn to separate shit from shower in my own house in the future, this situation doesn't bother me that much either.  It's the mud that gets me.

House left, shit-shower right
The whole house is surrounded by mud, such that it is impossible not to submerge one's foot in it when entering or exiting.  This is largely true around most houses in the area, though somehow the locals manage to keep their feet clean.  It's amazing.  I will have to investigate this phenomenon further and possibly even write my graduate school thesis on it (I have not yet applied, or even thought about grad school, but I figure that would be a unique topic).

Most significantly I feel however, is during my visit, I felt the first pangs of fear and apprehension since I have arrived in Panama.  So far, I have eagerly adopted the culture, piled-driven my way through the training and generally just felt pretty comfortable.  However, this past weekend, I realized I was going to be living like this for TWO years - and it's probably not going to be as easy as I thought.  OK, I know this is probably something I should have already come to terms with but it hit me like a big, angry, drunk guy and I wasn't expecting it.  However, after a few hours of heavy thoughts and feeling sorry for myself, I traded my purse for a machete, stroked my gristly beard, and went out into the town in search of a business to talk to.

Hopefully these types of bell-jar* moments will be few but I think I got my first taste of why Peace Corps says this is "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love."  But without fear, one cannot be courageous and without a challenge there cannot be progress.  So I'll just have to do what over 200,000 other volunteers have done in the past and find my own way of getting through the rough days and weeks in the valley.  I'll probably listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin.

*This is kind of an obscure reference but it's a term I've decided I will use consistently.  The Bell Jar is a book by Sylvia Plath (fantastic book) about getting clinically depressed.  According to her, severe depression can descend on you like a bell jar, warping your view of the world and trapping you for an indeterminate amount of time. While I would not compare what I will go through to clinical depression, I do want to borrow the bell jar metaphor to describe sadness striking without warning and clouding one's view of the world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gallina Brujas and No Thank Yous

This week, I chased a magical chicken and began learning an indigenous language. 

On Tuesday, during my lunch break, all of a sudden, my entire family began to mobilize in the direction of the backyard.  They put one dog in the house and sent the other after the chickens.*  My abuela turned and told me to start running.  I wasn´t sure exactly what I was supposed to do but we appeared to be rounding up the chickens for some reason, so I grabbed two lengths of plastic piping and went after the chickens, trying to wrangle them to a central location.  Being inexperienced, confused, and generally less country than my family, I was in the middle of what could only generously be called a sub par job of rounding up the chickens, when one particularly fat chicken ran past me, the dog in hot pursuit.  My host family was screaming at me to grab the chicken so I began running with the dog (btw dogs and chickens are way faster than you might think).  The chicken managed to duck under a large tree, with branches hanging near the ground, thereby evading the dog. 

Determined to be a contributing member of the family, I went headfirst into the tree and found nothing but branches.  My host mother came down the hill, holding another fat chicken by its wings, laughing at my ineptitude.  She asked me where the chicken went and I told her it went into the tree and disappeared.  She took a look for herself, then her and I (and the dog) checked the area but could not find the chicken.  Still laughing, she looked at me and exclaimed, "Es una bruja!" (literal translation - it´s a witch!, more appropriate translation - it´s magical!).  We gave up and went back towards the house in search of more chickens. 

It turns out the end goal was to catch three plump chickens so that we could eat them.  My abuela gave me a hard time for a good twenty minutes when I got back but it was a fun experience.  The next day, I had rice and chicken for lunch and my host mother informed me that I was eating the gallina bruja (witch chicken) - they found it the next day.  In an interesting twist, it was the most difficult piece of chicken I have ever consumed, with skin so tough I had to remove it just to get to the meat. I guess the magic works after death.

On a completely unrelated note, I began learning Ngöberre this week.  It is an indigenous language (think Cherokee or Apache) that will be spoken at my site. Older people and particularly older women tend to speak less Spanish and more Ngöberre, and I will be working with a women´s artisan group so I hope to get a good grip of the language (most volunteers find they can get by with only a handful of phrases but they also say that people may trust/open up to you more if you can speak Ngöberre so I want to try).  Here are some interesting points about the language that reveal a lot about their culture:
- Family and Friend is the same word
- There is no word for sibling (you don´t say, I have three siblings, you say, I have two brothers and a sister)
- There is no word for word
- There are three extra vowels that indicate a deeper, guterral sound - ä, ö, and ü
- There is no way of saying nice to meet you (mucho gusto)
- They refer to people who speak Spanish (including Panamanians) as cockroaches (sulias) and Spanish is called the cockroach language (suliare)  -  years of oppression will do this
- There is no way of saying thank you (I told my abuela this and she said, matter of factly, that I was just going to have to teach them to say thank you - reminded me of my own grandmother (hi Nana))

Next week, I visit my to-be site, so I probably won´t blog again until the end of the month.  Take care, and keep an out for brujas. 

*I would find out later that this was a security measure in favor of the chickens - one dog will round them up, two will commit mass murder.   

Friday, October 1, 2010

Misty Mountain Hop

Get yourself a tasty drink because this is going to be, in terms of length, the “Free Bird” of blog posts.

This past week, I slept on a table.

Last week, myself and 25 other aspirantes (trainees) went to Hato Chami*, a town of about 2,000 people in the mountains of the Ngobe Bugle Comarca in Chiriqui. There are many things I could talk about, but I think it is best to take some paraphrased thoughts out of the journal I have been keeping (special thanks to Nick Larigakis for the quality, leather bound journal):
“This is my first full day in Hato Chami…it’s about 6:00pm and I am writing by candlelight, sitting on a crooked wooden chair on a dirt floor. I am writing on a bed, which currently doubles as a table. The people here sleep on them with a little sheet on top of them and no matting of any kind between them and the wood. Six (possibly seven) people sleep in this room, and for the next week, that includes myself and Greg, a 48 year old computer guy from Chicago**. There are seven children watching me write this entry, which may seem strange (watching someone write in a journal is probably about as exciting as looking at a pile of bricks), but at least six and up to ten children tail Greg and I at all times, no matter what we are doing – our own curious, wide-eyed, malnourished entourage.

Our host family’s home consists of two structures, one for sleeping and one for cooking. The “sleeping” house has a zinc roof, dirt floors, and two rooms – the large one that I am in and a smaller, separate room for the parents. The “kitchen” is another hut, with a thatch roof and a stove (think of a campfire on top of a table) and doubles as a living room, as the family spends most of their time seated around the room, socializing, singing, and eating. Btw, my Ngoberre name is Ticho and Greg’s is Chewy (hahahaha). Last year, they wanted to name one of the aspirantes Wedgie, which she politely turned down.

I took my first “bucket shower” today, which for many in Peace Corps involves pouring water from a spigot into a bucket and then pouring the bucket over one’s head. For Greg and, it involves pouring water from a spigot into a large barrel, then dipping a yellow construction helmet into the barrel and pouring it over our heads. While this may sound primitive, it is surprisingly refreshing (except in Chami, you can see your breath and the water is a few degrees above freezing).”

Hato Chami - 3,000 feet up, the little white structures are houses
Greg and I have made our mark though song. On day three, while chatting with our host father, he asked us if we would sing for them. I am still taken aback by such direct questions, especially since we are repeatedly told this is an “indirect” society. However, in Panama, it is not rude to ask someone how much they weigh, how old they are, how much money they make, etc or simply to say something like, “You are looking very fat today.” Given this, I hesitated a little, then went and got my harmonica. Over the next few days, I did a lot of singing and playing, which is funny to me because I am not much of a singer nor harmonica player, and we managed to teach them the following: the chorus to “Whipping Post,” the LaLaLa part of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and the NaNaNa part of “Hey Jude” (our personal favorite), among some other parts of random songs. They loved singing along and this helped break the ice (ice that consisted of staring wide eyed at us for three straight days) and they even got up and sang for us in return. It was interesting hearing them sing in Ngoberre and I wondered what they were saying until they switched to Spanish and realized they were singing Evangelical hyms (so far, many people in Panama are either extremely Catholic, extremely Evangelical, or sort of Christian).

While the nights at our host family’s house were fun and educational, we learned the most during the day, during our hands-on tech training. This consisted of two primary activities: an analysis of and presentation to a local small business and two hours of teaching a grade school class. Myself and seven other trainees talked with a local honey producer, who showed and explained to us the honey-making process and talked extensively about his business. After a few hours of talking with him and using our Business and Organizational Capacity Assessment (BOCA) tool, we got together and prepared a diagnostic activity, which we presented for him the next day. Basically, we got him to identify some of his business’s weaknesses and walked him through the process of rectifying them. We were happy, because we had decided the day before that he really needed to draft a written business plan, so that he could get organically certified and get permission to sell his honey in supermarkets, and he ended up arriving at the same conclusion (without us directly telling him). It felt good to use the Peace Corps tools and I am excited to work with the businesses in my own community.

Teaching them to teach themselves

We were also given two hours, in pairs, to teach primary school students. Some trainees received a curriculum, while others (like me) were told to teach whatever we felt was best. Myself and a 23 year old to-be accountant from Arkansas decided on doing a poster contest, where we told the students (fifth graders) to split into groups and pretend their group owned a local store and they needed to make a sign that would attract more business. We also gave the students fake money and brought different colored markers and different sized paper, which they could “purchase” and use to make the sign. Afterwards, we went over the key vocabulary words in English. The idea was to teach the students about the concept of a budget (they had to choose between more colored markers or a bigger sheet of paper), some basic marketing concepts, basic math, and a little English. It was fun and my boss recommended that I work with kids as a secondary project once I get to site.

Overall, the trip was enlightening in that I got to use some of our development tools and experience life with poor sleeping conditions and without electricity or running water, which leads me to part two of this mammoth blog post.

I found out my site today - it is a large town called Soloy in western Panama, on the very west end of the Comarca described above, about an hour and a half east of David, one of Panama´s big cities and the capital of the Chiriqui province.  Strangely enough, I will not have electricity or reliable cell phone service but I am supposed to be teaching computer classes at a local school, which has internet.  Its tough to say until I get there but I may end up with no electricity but still have internet.  Interesting. 

Otherwise (and more importantly), there will be many work opportunities there, including: a coffee group, which is looking for leadership and basic management training, a cooperative looking to expand its local store, a woman´s artisan group, a church group working on development projects, another church group that runs basic internet and photocopying services and is looking for someone to help with computers and management, and finally plenty of opportunities to work with the school by way of technology classes and/or after school sports and other activities.  If all of this is true, I am extremely excited since I want a lot of diversified work.  We get to visit our sites in two weeks and move into them in four weeks.  Next week, many of us (including me) begin learning our local indigenous languages - I will be learning Ngborre. 

*Some facts about Chami - 95% poverty, 86% extreme poverty, most people have latrines and access to water but not all and many still use a river for bathing/drinking. 
**Unexpedtedly for me at the time, Greg has since become the first to leave - I wish I could explain why but I really didnt see it coming. We hope he is the last.   

A final word, I have many more pictures from my time here, but it literally took me 10 minutes just to upload the three posted above, so further visuals will have to wait.