Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Panama Trip 2016

It had been 2.5 years since my time serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer Panama. In June 2016, my husband Ken and I decided to visit the community in which I worked.  It was a sweet visit where we spent a week renewing friendships and making new friends, most notably with the Peace Corps Volunteer who is currently serving in the community, Maria.

Here we were, waiting for the bus on our way out of Boston. We're carrying boxes of books (we'll describe why shortly).

 On Friday June 17 we left Boston for Panama City. That night we made it as far as Santiago, 4 hours' bus ride west of Panama City. We stayed the night in Santiago, and in the morning we continued our journey and met our friend Raul in the town of San Felix.

With Raul S., a contact in ministry with the Peace Association of Ngäbe Evangelical Churches. (AENGPA)
 Through an organization called the Gospel Coalition's Packing Hope program, we were able to take some books on theology to Panama to give to our contacts in ministry there, to distribute to pastors and lay leaders at some conferences later in the year. At least some of these books are available for purchase locally, but this program was accessible for us than buying them in Panama. We hope the ideas in the books will be helpful for our friends in the Panamanian church and encourage them in their walk with Jesus. We have so much to learn from their faith as well!

From San Felix we went up into the mountains to visit our other friends in the community I used to be a part of, in the Comarca Ngäbe Bugle. A "Comarca" is roughly equivalent to an Indian Reservation in the USA. We participated in a Father's Day celebration at the local church that I used to attend. We saw many dear friends from my time there, especially the women's group that I was a part of. Because it was Father's Day, the fathers got to swing at the piñata with a stick! Though it was the kids who scrambled for the candy that spilled out. I said that Ken and I weren't fathers but we were just there to enjoy the food. :)

Friends from church. Pastor Camilo is on the right.
 Maria lives in a lovely new house. She has adopted my cat, Mechi. She has made firm friendships with her new host family. She is midway through her two years of service and is working on health education and water systems. She was our gracious host during our stay as well.
Maria (in the black dress), Ken, Susan, Mechi the cat, Celia, and Nelva
Maria prepares a meal at home under the cat's watchful eye

Our friends Minsdo and Tito organized a community party for us in coordination with Maria. Ken said that we gave ourselves a task to work on, by preparing for the party! On the day before the event, we bought chickens from local farmers. We said we'd contribute the chicken, and the community members contributed rice, seasonings, drinks and everything else to make a feast.
Marilin and Mikaela volunteered to help us carry chickens to the venue
Ken's first time killing a chicken

Preparing to pluck the slaughtered chicken by dunking it in boiling water

Ken and Maria try their hand as butchers
Washing out the chicken parts
The following day, we had our party! We saw some of my dear friends and neighbors- over 200 people attended.

Federico and Beni (foreground) were my closest neighbors and good friends
We danced a traditional line dance called the "Jegui," and then some more modern dances as well.
Jegui dance: this particular one is meant to be the form of a wave advancing and receding on the beach

Dancing Jegui

We danced with the teachers at the primary school
We even had sack races. People were a little shy to get started but then were really competitive!
Rigoberto and Ken compete
I, Maria, and Migdalia get ready to race
You can't beat the enthusiasm of these little girls in the sack race! 
We were the recipients of so many gifts: the gifts of time, of food, even of clothing! It was lovely but it was also very humbling. Were we there to just eat and drink and receive gifts, and then leave? I remember my time in Panama very fondly and so do many people in the community.

Emilsa gave this handmade bag, or chackra, with stripes made with natural dyes

Eufemia gave me a handmade dress and shirt!

Migdalia made this beautiful shirt as a gift for me
After the party, we spent the night with our friends Lidia and her family. We stayed up late drinking cacao (a traditional pastime) and talking about the successes and challenges of the past few years in the community. What will be next? Maria, the current Peace Corps Volunteer, has been working with community leaders to continue improving the village's health.

We spent a night at the beach at Las Lajas, a resort community on the Pacific coast, and then headed back to Panama City. On the morning of our departure we enjoyed breakfast with Amilcar, a friend from the community who is now teaching at a private elementary school in the City.
Ken, Amilcar, Susan at Subway (really!) in Panama City
We also ran into our friends Mariela and Orlando in Panama City. Even though I spent my Peace Corps service in Panama in one little farming village, it felt like we had friends all over the country! Our week was at an end and we returned to Boston with grateful hearts, and considering what our relationship with the community might look like in the years to come. As our friends said, "Cuando vienes otra vez?" "When are you coming again?"

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mangrove frolics

Well, my time in Panama has come to a close. I’m back in Portland at my folks’ house, with a box of souvenirs and dresses. In the last hectic weeks of packing, getting ready to move, and saying heartfelt and tearful goodbyes to my friends, I found I had a few more stories to tell on this blog. Here’s a couple of them!

Love those teeth! 

I organized a series of talks on dental health with Jeff, the new Volunteer and my replacement, at the local elementary school and gave away some donated toothbrushes to 127 children. The toothbrushes were donated by a visiting group from Emmaus Baptist Church in Moore OK, and Dr. George Brant, my Portland dentist.  (The brushes from Moore were repurposed donations from tornado relief efforts, after a devastating tornado hit the town in May!). We talked about consuming sugar, the damaging effect of bacteria on the teeth, cavities, and the importance of brushing and visiting the dentist. (There is a dentist at the government health clinic in a neighboring town, and she loaned us her demonstration mouth with teeth, which was pretty fun).  We acted out a game with us and kids pretending to be a toothbrush protecting teeth from bacteria’s attack.  We also made up a fun song: “Brush, brush, brush my teeth! I want to brush my teeth and always have them! Brush up and down, inside and outside!” Some families in the community have good oral hygiene and others do not, and money is generally tight in all families. I think a lot of the kids were hearing for the first time about how and why cavities form. It was a fun activity and a good way to introduce Jeff to the school-kids and teachers.

Toothbrush defenders!

A  different kind of day...

It’s an old tradition in my area of Panama, which is up in the hills a day’s walk from the Pacific Ocean, to spend a few days in the dry season down at the beach hunting crabs and iguanas and even boiling seawater to make salt. It’s like a family vacation. Jeff and I were invited to spend a day hunting at the beach, though we skipped the salt-works (nobody does that anymore). A pick-up truck dropped off 10 Ngabe friends, Jeff, and I for a day of traditional fun at the mouth of the San Felix River, a place called Playa Boca Viejo. The group brought jugs of water and a couple large cook-pots, and pitched a tarp near the beach to make a shelter. After a round of cacao, a drink made from unsweetened chocolate, we were ready for the day. We trudged through a mangrove swamp in the morning, searching for iguanas that live in the trees. Mangroves are a special kind of tree that grow in saltwater wetlands, and the area was very muddy and smelled like sulfur! 
Crossing a creek on just a few branches- a little iffy!
Where is that iguana now?
Slingshot pros
The sun was warm and we hadn’t brought enough water to stay adequately hydrated. Julia carried cacao in a jug and shared it around in a plastic cup, which was much appreciated. My companions shot four iguanas with slingshots and we cooked them for lunch, along with crabs.

Julia and I hold up an iguana

I think iguana tastes a little bit like turkey.
In the afternoon the women and I walked along the high tide line, searching for beach crabs under pieces of driftwood. You have to flip over the driftwood and if there happens to be a crab underneath, dart in to grab it before it runs away! There’s a special way to hold the crab to pin down its pinchers, and then you drop it in your sack. I caught 4 red crabs and 3 hermit crabs. One of the crabs I caught pinched me hard on the index finger- and even when I pulled off its leg, the detached claw kept pinching! I had to cry out “Help! Ayudame!” because that crab was about to run away and its leg was still biting me! My friend Mikaela came and rescued me and showed me how you can bite the crab claw in your teeth to get it to release. We had a good laugh. It wasn’t even a big crab like the ones my friends were gathering, which means they’re very skilful!  


Meanwhile, the men looked for a different kind of crab that lives in muddy holes back in the mangrove swamp. After four hours searching for crabs, we returned to our lunch site where the men were running and playing soccer with the energy of boys. We finished off with another round of cacao and leftover rice.

My neighbor Tito goofing off in the surf
 When I got home, tired, muddy, and sandy, I headed right to the creek to take a cold shower in the dark!  We carried live crabs in sacks to our respective homes and ate them later. Now I know that you can get a hermit crab to leave its shell by holding a flaming stick to the shell, and they are small but delicious! In summary, it was a fun trip to the beach, I learned about important traditions, and it was certainly very memorable. I'm glad we don't have to rely on my hunting and gathering skills to earn supper. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Learning the A, B, C

"Mi Corazon": my gangsta tattoo thanks to Kelsi and a Crayola marker.
When I arrived in Panama and first visited a Volunteer, Catherine described how she'd been teaching the 6th graders at her local school about sexual health. I thought that was neat, but wondered if I'd ever be up to it. After all, I'd had little experience giving talks at all, much less in Spanish and on awkward topics. But in my time here, I've grown in a lot of ways, and one of those is in willingness and ability to talk about sexual health. My Peace Corps friends have convinced me that reaching out to kids and adults in this matter is important and gives information that Panamanians typically don't receive in school or even at the health center. Peace Corps has a lot of ideas for giving engaging presentations on this topic, and I've had the chance to practice by helping out other Volunteers with their own activities., several of them dealing with preventing teen pregnancy and HIV. Now that the pit latrine project was scheduled to finish up, I considered what I could do next to round out the end of my service.

In July 2013, I organized an HIV awareness month in my district. The objectives of this activity were to train local people to facilitate HIV talks in fun and memorable ways,  to raise awareness that HIV is a growing problem in our district,  and to educate about and encourage prevention methods: abstinence,  faithfulness to one partner and condom use. There are 15 known HIV cases in our rural district,  a number that rises annually and which is infecting younger children (13 years old).  Parents are concerned for the health of the youth. Many community members work several months of the year outside the area and away from their families,  and risky conduct can bring HIV back home.  We wanted to dispel unneeded fear and empower locals to take on this problem.


To that end, I trained 11 community members as co-facilitators of the HIV prevention talks. Each talk was 2 hours long and covered the topics : What is HIV? How is it spread? How can it be prevented? We used games and skits to carry the message. We partnered with local schools to reach students and the parents' clubs, giving five talks that reached a total of 130 adult community members and 400 students 5th grade through 9th grade.

Our last talk, at the middle school, was the largest event, and included a march with the entire student body and their teachers through the community. The march snaked down the gravel road near the school as parents and community members crowded around to see. The teachers and students carried banners they'd prepared with prevention related slogans, and the school percussion band banged out a loud rhythm as it rounded up the rear. 

 I and other Peace Corps volunteers led the nearby students in a chant about the HIV prevention methods we were promoting:

“Give me an A. Abstinence!
Give me a B. Be faithful!
Give me a C. Condom! “
The enthusiastic sixth graders who were shouting the message broke down in giggles when they yelled “Condom!” So did I.


For the middle school event, we had some special visitors. I and the community facilitators were joined by two other Peace Corps Volunteers,  three staff from the regional office of the Ministry of Health, including the doctor and nurse that specialize in HIV treatment,  and three members of the Asociación Nueva Vida,  a non-profit from the provincial capital (David) focused on HIV prevention and support for the affected. The visiting groups co-facilitated the talks, and shared information that can help people affected by HIV connect with available resources. It was great to be able to collaborate with them.

Sixth graders and the presentation team for one of our HIV Awareness Events including the Ministry of Health and the New Life Association, with other Peace Corps volunteers Abe and Seneca and community facilitators.
Special thanks go to Peace Corps Volunteers Kelsi J, Seneca A, Abe M, and Jeff N, who helped with presentations and training, as well as Returned Volunteers Laura G. and Kate B. who gave me ideas based on HIV education activities and marches they'd done. The activity was substantially funded by sales of calendars facilitated by Peace Corps Panama Friends. You too can get one for 2014 and support future Volunteer activities (calendar will be available starting in November).

Coming up next:

My departure from Panama, after over 2 years of service, is scheduled for October 18th. I'll be heading back to Portland, Oregon for the time being and looking forward to catching up with family and friends!

Our community is lucky to receive the newly sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteer Jeff N., who will be working here until August 2015, if all goes well. (Wow, seems like a long way away, but my time here has gone so quickly!) He has a blog at and I know I'll be keeping tabs on it to see how the work is going. Jeff is a tall civil engineer from upstate New York. Being an engineer is certainly an asset here, as he'll have the chance to build and improve drinking water systems. Being tall is a challenge as all the homes are built for short people. Jeff  likes being in these beautiful mountains and is spending his first few weeks here adjusting to speaking Spanish exclusively with a healthy sprinkling of the native language, Ngabere. His native name is Chego. Mine is Begui. We have had a month here together for me to share work related information and introduce him to the community. He promises to teach me how to salsa dance. As an introductory activity, we gave a series of talks together about dental care and toothbrushing at the local school (more on that later!).

October 5th is my goodbye party (despedida, in Spanish) which the community is organizing to celebrate my service here and welcome the new volunteer.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

La fiesta grandisimo!

A skit: a happy family in their "house" (of raised arms) with a new latrine

On June 1st,  we celebrated the completion of the latrine project with about 500 community members. Together,  we've built 70 pit latrines! (Unfortunately one of those got buried in a small landslide from the steep  slope above;  we're considering how to replace it.) The project is now  done ; this month one of my remaining tasks is to visit each family, check in on their latrine (are they using it? Is the seat covered? Do they have a convenient place to wash hands? Does the family have concerns or questions? ) and also take a photo of the family next to the latrine.

Princely brothers Nicolas "Responsibility" Flores and Norberto Flores

On our big celebration day,  all  families participating in the program were invited.  Organizing the party was a big endeavor,  but members of the latrine committee took on most of the burden. Several days before the event,  we gathered to chop firewood and erect a tarp shelter (our first tarp collapsed in heavy rain before we finished putting it up,  but happily the second attempt was more successful). That same day,  Ken arrived for his third visit to Panama.  On the eve of the party,  women marinated 120 pounds of chicken which would accompany 200 pounds of rice. They also prepared 100 gallons of "chicha,"  a traditional drink made from corn and sugar.

Tito, Ken, and Mikaela

On the big day, the highlights were presentations by each of four different work groups (families that had worked together on construction,  organized by a member of the latrine committee.)  Each group presented a flag with slogans about health and community values,  along with choreographed songs and dances. 
traditional "jegi" dance

One group presented a skit about the advantages of latrine use (compared with going in the bushes)  and used as a prop a toy model latrine that they'd constructed in the same manner as the real deal. 

Model latrine. They're saying "Oh, it's so heavy! I can't carry it!" (in jest)

A father and son sang a song in my honor,  about "Begui,  the beautiful woman who works hard."

There were also games such as eating an apple which was hanging on a string. The best ideas came from the community members: they really took it and ran with it.  I felt so proud and glad that others were there to witness the day.  The local officials were all present,  who had donated food for the event. It was a day to celebrate,  as one group's flag said, both Tradition and Progress.
"Sanitation, Tradition, and Progress."

Group flag captions: "Taking care of the Environment: Health, Responsibility, Friendship, and Punctuality."

The flag says: "Caring for the Health of our Children. Friendship, Cooperation, Responsibility."

 And in more general terms that's precisely where the Ngabe tribe seems to be: considering what they will keep from the traditions of  the  past while embracing the opportunities of the modern world. In the most broad terms, I hope my presence here, and that of the other Peace Corps Volunteers in this region,  empowers present leaders and children,  the leaders of the future, to navigate the difficult choices between Tradition and Progress to better the health and opportunities of the Ngabe people. That's a big goal: and I  think that building latrines here,  with your support,  is one possible step towards that end,  both for the experience that locals gain in project management and for the health benefits that latrines can bring. Thank you.

More traditional dancing!
Presenting certificates of appreciation to project coordinators

In other news, my boyfriend Ken and I enjoyed his nearly 2 week trip here: we went out to Bocas del Toro province on the Carribean side of Panama.  One area of Bocas, Isla Colon, is a huge tourist center and we spent a few days there enjoying restaurants and beaches.

We also got to get off the beaten track: There's indigenous people too, in the same tribe, but some parts of the culture and cusine are very different because they live closer to the sea. We visited friend and Peace Corps colleague Patricia in a village where she's working on similar water and sanitation issues to what I'm working on. The village is on a small Carribean island and is accessed through a dock hidden deep in mangroves.
One dock for the town- complete with a government-project sidewalk

Houses in this area are typically built on stilts (in my area, none are- usually dirt floors).

Trying out a local delicacy: banana "puddin' "
Patricia took us out for a paddle in a traditional dugout canoe, called a "cayuco" here.  In the shallow waters of the bay, we saw coral and neighbors were fishing for dinner.

This boat is made from a single tree.

Another highlight was enjoying our friend's special brownie recipe made with locally grown, organic cacao (chocolate). If you'd like to try some Bocas chocolate, look in a specialty grocery store for the Equal Exchange Panama Dark chocolate bar- it comes from the same agricultural cooperative that many villagers belong to. On another island nearby, there's a large Black population that speaks a unique dialect of English, descendents of Jamaicans and others who moved here generations ago to work at United Fruit Co. / Chiriqui Banana, a huge employer in the region.

This mural depicts different ethnicities that form this part of Panama. And also roosters, apparently.

Now that latrines are winding up, I'm working on organizing educational talks about HIV/AIDS in several neighboring communities during the end of July and maybe into August. It's a growing issue in the Comarca, the indigenous region where I live, and my larger community is something of a hot spot for HIV, unfortunately. These talks will probably be my last big thing to do here, my last project. We will be talking about "What is HIV/AIDS?" "How is it transmitted?" and "How can it be prevented?" I'm using some funds from Peace Corps Panama Friends' annual calendar sale to buy materials and snacks.

Condom demonstrations in a previous workshop with 9th graders at the local middle school

I hope to receive a "follow up" volunteer in August: my replacement who'll be here working another two years in my community!  We'll be here together for about a month and a half before I take off for Portland, OR in October. (During that time they'll stay with a host family, before moving into my house when I leave.)  It's not entirely certain if we'll get anyone, or who they'll be, until the training process (near Panama City) is complete and they come out here.

Lots of photos are in my Picasa albums: Ken's trip is here and the latrine photos are here.