Saturday, July 3, 2010

Closing an experience

I finished my Peace Corps service in Panama on June 10th 2010. The last few months of my peace corps service passed at a unimaginably fast rate. They were filled with so many emotions and happenings, that I could hardly take a moment to breath and write them down.

A few last thoughts and happenings.

Packing and the yard sale. I had a great big yard sale on my lawn of all the things in my house. Everything went at 25 cents to 50 cents, a few prized items at higher prices. Everyone came over and bought what they liked, while I served popcorn and juice. Everyone went home feeling proud about the things they worked hard to purchase instead of fighting over the items that I could have given out for free.
For the last few weeks, I had a constant stream of visitors at my house. As soon as one visitor went down the steps, another came up. We talked of how much we would miss each other and how we would all cry on my leaving day. They asked me not to forget them and who I would speak their indigenous language with when I arrive to the states.

The going away parties. I had three days of parties before my departure, filled with delicious traditional foods, long speeches, and beautiful handmade gifts. We had a big party at the school. The community members took their turns saying words of thanks. And then it was my turn and a knot grew in my throat and I started to cry. I mumbled my way through my speech that I had written, unable to calm my sobs. It was an inevitable goodbye, but that doesn´t make it any easier. A handweaved bag with a home grown cucumber was one of my favorite gifts. We had a pinata and we did a rendidtion of the traditional Ngobe dance called the Hegi or gwara.

At the goodbye party with my women´s artisan group, we ate until we couldn´t eat anymore and we watched parts of movies using a small generator. We watched the first twenty minutes of the Michael Jackson film, and the adults giggled at the pelvic thrusts on screen. The group gave me a nagwa, the traditional dress, made with the loving hands of each of the women. Now when I look at the dress, I will think of each of them. It was a motivational party because although it was goodbye, the day also served as a work party for the new artisan house where the women will sell their goods in the future. It brings a tear to my eye that I will not be here to see all of the advancements and the impacts of my time here, but it makes me feel proud to see the community take ownership and continue into the future with motivation and hope. I look forward to returning in the future and seeing all the changes.

One of the hardest goodbyes was with my sidekick Placido, my 16 year old neighbor that I could not imagine my service without. He helped me pack my bags and clean my house. On my last day, he specially cooked me a lunch of boiled green bananas and a piece of beef that was from the cow that died that morning up the hill. And he sat down with me in my house and gave me a 5 minute speech of all the reasons he wanted to say thank you to me. And then I said all my thank yous. And we stayed composed, although there were a lot of internal tears.

Guillermo and Anselma and their family. I love this entire family so dearly and they are my closest friends here. After I left to go to Panama City to finish up officially in the office, I returned to say one last goodbye. And Guillemo called out ¨aye mere tikwe¨ with the most endearing tone, as a family calls out to a family member who has been gone for some time. And it was just like that.

With all my bags packed, my dearest friends Guillermo, Anselma and Placido helped me down to the school to wait for a taxi to come. I waited with them on my either side, hugging my shoulders. Placido suddenly said, is that a grey hair that you have? I said that I had never had a grey hair before, so it couldn´t be. Not 30 seconds later, Anselma pulled two bright white hairs out of my head. I was astounded.
There are a few ways to look at this.
1. The Peace Corps has aged me, which in some ways I believe is true. Physically but also emotionally and mentally, in wisdom and maturity.
2. The way the ngobes see it is that if you are really kind to others in your life, you will live to have many a white hair.

My service was an incredible experience, one that I would not change for anything in the world. I have so many friendships and I have grown in ways that I could never imagine. I can hardly explain the love I feel for these people.

So I will miss here. But it now time for me to transition on. Thanks to all of you who have supported me throughout my time here.
For those who would like to continue to read about my experiences, head to
where you can trace my journey back to the US by bike, supporting sustainable agriculture projects along the way.
Muchas Gracias

Saturday, April 24, 2010

medicinal treatments

There was a little lady,
who got bit by a sand fly,
that bit a sloth,
who had the leishmeniasis protozoa parasite,
and I don't know why she got bit by that fly,
perhaps she'll die.

Well, not really die, just get her flesh eaten away slowly by those little protozoas. I recently found out that I was hit by the "bite of the vine", otherwise known as leishmaniasis in scientific terms. It comes from a little bite from a sand fly who has bit a sloth infected with leishmeniasis. It starts as just a little bug bite and begins slowing opening wider and deeper. This part is not the troubling part. Those wounds can be healed. This is a common ailment in my community, many adults have scars on their faces and children have little marks on their faces. It advances slowly and when I first began to suspect something, many community members began commenting on my little wounds. They were sure that it was leishmaniasis, but not to worry, because there are many natural cures. In my time visiting around I was offered various medicines, truly out of the hearts of my friends. Here are a few of the examples (some do not qualify as natural)

boa oil
manta ray cartilage
raw cashew juice
tree sap
battery acid
Nail polish

I tried a few and do not doubt the healing abilities of these treatments ( maybe the battery acid) but through Peace Corps I am required to receive the western medicine treatment. At first I was opposed to the idea, wishing to cure it in my community, but as I began to read more about it, I became more convinced of the seriousness of the issue. As I said, the sores are not the worrisome part. Truly what is worrisome is that the leishmaniasis may come back in another form in the future and begin to eat the cartilage of your nose, ear or roof of your mouth. And after seeing a few people with flat noses that looked as if they had been eaten off, I was convinced.
So now I am receiving 20 days of IV treatment for 2 hours a day. It was difficult to explain my necessity to leave for three weeks to my community member and this came at a poor time, with only 2 months left in my service. But now that I am here, I am enjoying the luxuries of the world including internet, electricity, hot showers, and flushing toilets. And for the moment, it is pretty nice.
Before I left my community, my close friend and "little brother" Placido told me that they figured out why I got so many bites of the vine. It must be because I walked over a tree that had got hit by lightning without tying two banana leaves together after crossing. And then he handed me a little film canister of a botanical medicine made out of leaves and cacao to take with me for my treatment. It just goes to show, that no matter what people or place, as human beings, we will always search for a reason and a cause. Another one of those things that crosses all boundaries.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A hike across the divide

About a month ago, I went on incredible three day hike from the top of the panamanian mountains down the famous cricamola river and to the caribbean. The cricamola is the river where the majority of the ngabe people living in the province of bocas del toro retreated to when the spaniards came. Later, many ngabes migrated from the river to the rest of the Bocas del Toro province in the 1950s and 60s when the banana company sent boats up the river to look for workers.

So three girlfriends and I and a wonderful ngabe woman from Kat's community set out on this adventurous hike. We started up in the cold windy rainy mountains, hiking downward, following the river and watching it grow from little creeks to a rushing river with rapids and later to a wide meandering river. We had to cross the river walking over and over, and then later when it got to big, by pieced together bridges and by ziplines.

(daily commute to work anyone?)

We saw the culture changing from the ngabe style of living in the reservation on the pacific side (with nagwa dresses and round houses on the ground) to the ngabe bocas style (with bocas house dresses and raised square wood houses).

We stayed in schools and houses along the way. Many were curious about why we were there, some openly welcoming and others retreatingly scared. We met kind old men who yelled out to us in ngabere, pleased that we could speak their language a little. We met inventive young farmers, excited little children, and a wonderful old women who invited us to be her children for life. We even met a young ngobe boy in charge of a zipline crossing who was more like a troll in his demeanor. A few asked whether our backpacks were full of money. Unfortunately we only had dirty clothes and cans of tuna fish to show for. But it makes you think of the image of tourism and what are effective ways of supporting communities along the way. These communities are incredibly isolated. In order to get out to go to larger towns to get merchandise for their stores, some would have to walk for a day and a half and then take a long boat or truck ride. We saw families on their way out to visit other family or to buy more merchandise.

(Kat and Kate in their Ngobe hiking clothes)

(Yes that is a pig crossing the river)

I think my two favorite memories were at our first zipline crossing, watching parents send their children across in a chakra hung from the zipline and later seeing a young women in a traditional pink nagwa flying across the the beautiful turquoise river on the zipline. It was an amazing hike, challenging, a few sicknesses along the way in our group, both overall, incredible. When we arrived in Kankintu, the ngabe city in the jungle, we were amazed by the sidewalks that seemed to appear out of the no where. It is a small city 5 hours up river by boat or three days walking but has a small university, restaurants and lots of people. The night we got there, it was the day that women were in Kankintu to collect their welfare checks. At 8:30pm there were still women in line. Those that had already received their checks were with their husbands, browsing the different street vendors that set up on the side of the sidewalk with flashing lights selling everything from radios to undies and shoes. It was quite a sight. The next morning at 5:00am, we left in a big dug out canoe headed to the ocean, we even got a coffee break halfway down river. Incredible.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The best use of the chiquita banana logo

We all know the logo. We are all very familiar with the stickers on the bananas. The region I live in is home to Panama's major Chiquita banana plantations. From my house I can see the flat lands filled with bananas and the big Chiquita banana boat come in every friday to pick up a shipment of bananas. When I ride the bus to the regional capital I see fields and fields of bananas covered with blue bags. When I stay in Changuinola, I can hear the crop duster planes flying over. Occasionally a bus is stopped by the cables of bananas crossing the road.
The majority of these bananas are exported. People here eat bananas too, but mostly just the ones they grow in their farms. They say their own bananas taste better than the company bananas because they are organic. Here families survive eating bananas as the main carbohydrate source. The Ngobe word for banana, Mrö, also means food. But not ripe bananas. Boiled green bananas. Mmmmmm. Some times they even make banana balls, which are made by boiling green bananas, mashing them together into a meatloaf shape and wrapping them in banana leaves to take as a snack. Later you can slice the loaf like bread. Being here, I have grown to appreciate and love all the different types of boiled bananas. Often time in the states, we only know one type of banana. But there are so many different flavors and textures of banana.
Recently, Chiquita has had extra bananas, so they drive them around in a truck to the rural communities, trying to sell them at a low price. The truck arrives and the driver yells "banano, Banano, Banano".
When families have no bananas to harvest from their farm, they scrounge up whatever money they can find and buy a sack of bananas. Can you imagine buying a sack full of bananas? So lately we have had a plethora of chiquita banana stickers.
A few days ago, I saw a homemade kite, out of sticks and a plastic bag, held together with about 20 chiquita stickers.
The next day, my neighbor came over to tell me that his little brother had a bott fly in his head (this is a nasty little grub that grows in your skin after a fly lays its egg in your skin). I asked how they were going to get it out. He told me they were going to use a chiquita. I said "chiquita what" (chiquita also meaning something little in spanish). He said, no silly chiquita, you don't know what chiquita is? You know, the thing stuck to the banana? OOOOOOh. Then I understood, since often what is recommended is to put duck tape over the bite so the grub cant breath and dies and comes out of the skin. But I still was in amazement of the creative use of a chiquita banana.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tomatoes and notebooks for all!

Isn't that what we want for everyone in the world? In my two years here, never have I been able to say that our school garden is successful. But right now, we have tomatoes for everyone! A success! From January to March is summer break here in Panama and all the kids are out causing mischeif with their slingshots (at least they ate the poor parrot), or sitting around lazily in the house. So I looked at the kids and I looked at the school garden, both in disaray ( i no longer know how to spell well in any language, english, spanish, or ngobere). And so I said to myself, now is the time.
So I bought a fence for the garden, because without it there is no hope as long as the pigs, chickens and cows are still around. And I bought some school supplies. And I rounded up those hardworking kids early on a saturday morning and told them that they could work to earn their school supplies. So we weeded and planted and cleared the grass and trellised the tomatoes. And now every saturday I have 15 to 20 students ages 6 to 17 working in the garden and saving up points to earn notebooks, pencils, erasers, rulers, and toothbrushes. And although the project is currently not sustainable as I am the one buying the school supplies, at least the students are learning that they can make a future possible, that their work is worth something and best of all, that they can grow delicious vegetables. Three have already started their own gardens. So for now I am taking the kids off the trails and putting them in the garden and in school!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chocolate's path

My community is made up of families who grow and harvest cacao (cocoa), then sell their dried and fermented beans to the local cooperative. The cooperative then sells the beans to many international chocolate companies. One of these companies, Theo Chocolate, happens to be located in Seattle, where I went to university . Theo chocolate buys cacao from the cooperative and makes delicious fair trade and organic bean to bar chocolates. When I visited home over the holidays, I had the opportunity to visit the Theo Chocolate Factory for a tour. I got to take all sorts of photos and brought chocolate back to Panama. Since I returned, I have able to share the photos and chocolate with producers, letting them see a little more of what happens to their product after it leaves the farm.
Also during my visit to the states, I brought chocolate and photos of cacao production here in Panama, explaining and sharing the background of cacao with many friends and family, to show where chocolate comes from. Connecting all the dots, we can raise consumer awareness, increasing support for organic and fair-trade chocolate and helping to improve the lives of small producers in developing countries.
We are currently working on sending photos and stories from the Ngobe culture and cacao to Theo Chocolate to share with their consumers. In addition, I am working on creating a lesson plan on chocolate to share with schools in the states so that kids can understand part of the path those little snickers bars took to make it into their lunch boxes!
Little by little, I am sharing with all parts of the chain, from producers to consumers to make us all a little more aware!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Back in the swing

After a fabulous trip home to the states, I made it back to my community and am here in full swing again. And there were lots of smiles from the candy canes that I brought back for all the little children.
Since being back, I have been having dreams of delicious food. I awoke this morning after having dreams about apples and about cheese. I went straight to the grocery store when I got to town today.
My trip home gave me a chance to think and reflect. And one of the things it made me think on is to renew my sense of wonder and ask more questions. To pretend like I am new again and ask all the questions that I don't know the answers to.
This week I learned new medicinal uses of cacao. That when a person has bad dreams the first born of the family crushes up a dried cacao bean in water, and after straining the water, applies it to the one cursed with bad dreams. The same medicinal treatment is given to women who get sick during their pregnancy. This was used in the past and is still practiced today.
It makes me so happy to learn more and more about the cultural importance of cacao. That it is not just a cash crop exported for the developed world, but that it is used here and has been traditionally used in the culture. More to come on chocolate soon. So eat up and get your good antioxidants in and now you know what to do when you have bad dreams!