Friday, May 29, 2015

3 Days to Go!

Buenos Dias!

This is Andrea and Katy, writing from San Felix in Panama. We both arrived on Thursday and spent the entirety of this day traveling by bus from Panama City. We had quite the journey. What was supposed to be a six hour trip turned into nine hours when the bus broke down and we were stranded for a while. We had a fine the time though, especially at lunch. Katy ordered a dish she described as ‘tasting like chicken’ but unbeknownst to her was actually cow stomach. Both of us were incredibly excited for what was to come. The night before, we had stayed up late talking about our plans for the camp and our goals in the next week. Both of us utilize theatre as a means for social justice back in the states, and when we heard about Amber’s camp, wanted to help in any way we could.

Currently the rain is coming down here in San Felix. We are staying at Amber’s house tonight, and she has been kind enough to treat us to a spaghetti dinner. Tomorrow we meet the Peace Corps Volunteers and get to begin the first of our theatre training sessions. We hope to make it a fun experience for the Volunteers, and have many games planned.

Thank you so much for your support!

Andrea and Katy

Friday, May 22, 2015

9 Days and Counting!!!

Those exclamation points are mixture of joy and fear at the moment. Fear because no matter what you do, at this point in the game it seems like there is never enough time. However, I slept really well last night knowing that the "TO DO" list is officially shorter than the "DONE" list.

After the grant was filled, there was a delay in Washington. The funds finally arrived in Panama on the 20th, so camp t-shirts have been designed and ordered, materials and prop lists have been compiled, and we have reservations for kids at hostels from one side of the country to another.

Matt is bringing 5 teens from just outside the Sambu Reservation of the Embera-Wounaan in the Darien. It is a three-hour boat ride to his community, and his kids have never left. They will start their journey Saturday the 30th at 4am to make it to camp by Monday, but Matt can’t wait to show them the Panama Canal, mountains, and you know, cars.

On the other side of the country in Bocas, near Costa Rica, Alex has too many kids in her town that want to come to camp. The ones who complete all the preparatory trainings and homework get to go, so we’ll see early next week who the final teens are.

On the nearby Kusapin peninsula in the Caribbean, Dylan’s 4 teens are the envy of the school. Thursday they have a meeting with the head of the local medical center to talk about community health issues and the role of a health promoter.

In the Ngobe-Bugle reservation, just a couple mountains over from where camp will be, Katie is busy building a new water system with her community while holding the training sessions with her teens on Sundays. They finished their prep work last week and are eagerly counting down for the end of the trimester and camp!

A few weeks ago Meredith, Ben, and I held the trainings for the 10 Alto Caballero kids. Their favorite part of the sessions? The skits of course! They couldn’t stop giggling long enough to read their part most times, but were very excited about learning more about theatre!

Meanwhile, Hennessy and Meredith are arranging the food and preparing host families for their short-term adopted sons and daughters. Ben, Justin, and Leigh are preparing their sessions and mentally preparing themselves for a week of high-energy silliness.

Katy graduated from SLU with her degree in acting last week, and Andrea is working on a few different shows in Chicago. Both of them fly to Panama next week Thursday where I will meet them in the City and bring them west to prepare for camp. We had a great skype date yesterday full of questions about packing, water, creepy crawlies, and culture.

Finally, I’m compiling all the session materials, scripts, props, and trying to find all the last minute i’s and t’s to dot or cross. Mostly it feels like my job is to fight with Microsoft Word over formatting. It’s not my favorite part of the process, but it’s almost over.

Thus far we have a lot of great activities planned, we’re under budget, and we have such a great team of caring leaders that no matter what, the kids are going to have an amazing, once in a lifetime experience. That’s where the joy comes in.

Alex and her teens discuss bacteria and hand washing!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Another Shameless Plea for Money

Everyone and their uncle has a cause that needs money, I know. I come from the performing arts where ideas are grand and budgets are small, if they exist at all.

But really, in the next week we need $1,800. Crazier things have happened in the universe, so I am confident that we can make this goal. We've raised well over half in just two weeks.

Let's make art!


Friday, April 10, 2015

Acting Out Awareness: Camp for Youth Health Promoters

On August 28, 2011 I closed my last show with the Santa Fe Opera, and I have not been working in theatre since. For the last 3 years, I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer working within the extremely remote, impoverished indigenous reservations of Panama to improve personal and community health through education and infrastructure. 

The work is hard, trying to convince an illiterate population that invisible bacteria will make you sick or mixing concrete in the tropical heat. At eight degrees off the equator, the sun is a whole different ball game. I've had my fair share of jungle illnesses and injuries. Yet for all the sweat and other unmentionable bodily fluids, I've loved every minute of it. Building relationships with community members, kids, and being adopted into another culture is an experience unlike any other. For every 1 thing I managed to teach them, they have imparted at least 10 things to me.

Pretty regularly our hammock conversations come around to, Amber, what do you do? What did you go to school for? What is your job?

Where to begin? How do I explain the magic of theatre, the joy of being a stage manager, or the creative process of the designer to a population that has never heard of the performing arts? 

I'm a storyteller. I'm an architect. I make movies. I'm a project manager. I'm an artist. I'm a teacher. My answers vary, depending on the context and what response will have some kind of meaning to them.

Now, after 3 years, I finally have the opportunity to share the theatre with them, to show them another side to who I am and what it is that I really do. From June 1-5, an unlikely collaboration of Peace Corps Volunteers, the Panamanian Ministry of Health, and theatre professionals from the United States will come together to create Acting Out Awareness: Camp for Youth Health Promoters. 

We will train 40 youth from some of the poorest communities in the country how to use theatre to promote health awareness about HIV, hand washing, and safe drinking water- three of the greatest threats these communities face each day.

However, for this camp to happen, we still need to raise $3,845.00 and we need to do so quickly- within the next 15 days- so that we can receive the funding in time for camp. 

While HIV is not yet epidemic in Panama, the number of cases in this country have increased 500% in the last decade.

Every minute, 4 children under the age of 6 die from illnesses that could have been prevented with basic hand washing and access to clean water.

In addition to addressing important health concerns, this camp gives us a chance to empower teenagers through theatre games, performances, dance, and gives them an opportunity to stand up in front of their peers to tell their own story. For a whole week, these students will have a chance to just be kids- to learn, grow, and play. This truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Please donate at the link below, in the name of Meredith Comnes, the Volunteer hosting the camp in her community. No donation is too small. Please help me share the magic of theatre with the youth who need it most.

Alto Caballero, the community hosting the camp has already donated $2,000 worth of materials and labor. This project has been my source of inspiration and hope throughout the past year and I am so excited to finally see it coming to life. 

We are so close, please help us get the rest of the way!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Latest Obsession

Last week, someone asked me how long I had been living in San Felix. I said about 6 months. Yesterday I looked at a calendar and realized that on the 21st of April I will have been there a year.  Clearly, my concept of time is a little distorted! So when I say I have recently become obsessed with TED talks, you should probably understand that I mean about a year ago.

A big part of my job as sanitation coordinator is to work with other Volunteers to improve how we train our community members. We are trying to slay the giants of apathy and learned helplessness. Hence, I have done a dissertation's worth of research on behavior change and leadership. I have no title, certificate, or important signature's to validate my work, just a stack of books about my height and a hard drive full of TED talks. 

On their site, they describe themselves as 'a nonprofit dedicated to spreading ideas'. 

TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. On, we're building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world's most inspired thinkers — and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED and TEDx events around the world, all year long...TED is owned by a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation. Our agenda is to make great ideas accessible and spark conversation.

For a Volunteer looking for a free education on global development, leadership, and basic psychology it's a perfect starting block. Everything I have done in the last year has been inspired and influenced by the work of these amazing creators, thinkers, leaders, and teachers. Of the nearly 100 talks I've watched so far, here are my 5 favorites, which have impacted how I work, live, and learn. Enjoy.

Every Kid Needs a Champion (and every grown up too!)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Living out of a Backpack

As of today, I have spent two entire weeks sleeping in the same place. 14 nights in my bed. This hasn't happened since July.

I know, right. In fact, from October through January, I never spent more than 5 nights in any single place. That's...insanity. It totally explains why the last thing I want to do right now is leave my house, for nearly any reason.

Therefore, loyal blog readers, I apologize for the lack of updates in the last 6 months. It's embarrassing. The down side is I am so behind I don't even know where to start. The up side is I have done a lot of great things and have learned some valuable skills living on a bus. I have been taking advantage of every opportunity in Panama I can.

So...let's tackle the last 6 months shall we?

First, I'm really good at traveling. I can pack for anywhere, for any amount of time, in about half an hour. Tops. Just grab tons of underwear, 2 pairs of shorts, some parumas, a shirt for every day (but never more than 5), a bar of soap and your phone charger. If it's bien metido (way out there), bring bug spray and rubber boots. If it's something fancy, bring your razor and eyeliner. If it's winter, grab your only pair of jeans and buy a long-sleeve shirt at the airport.

When it comes to the act of traveling, it's better to travel independently in groups. Wait...what? Lemme explain. It's always nice to have a friend with you on the bus so that you don't have to snuggle with an old man and his chickens on the seat. It is helpful to be in a group of people who somewhat know where they are going and how to get there. Having a buddy to make sure you don't get left behind while peeing behind a tree is important. I've been that girl chasing the bus down the Inter-American Highway.  

But as far as the act of traveling in Panama, sometimes you just have to get yourself where you're going. Shove yourself into that bus and just trust your friends will get themselves on too. You get YOU on the boat/bus/truck/plane, then you shamelessly flirt or distract the driver to do whatever you have to do to get him to wait as long as possible. Especially when the bus is pulling out and you are holding a random woman's 6 month old child because she hasn't come back yet. She dropped him off, said 'Cuidalo' (take care of him) while I assumed she went to the bathroom. But now that you mention it, she didn't mention for how long she wanted me to care for him...For a few frightening minutes, I thought that kid and I were about to get real close.

You know the disoriented feeling you get the first time you wake up in a new place? I have effectively disabled that function. To be more specific, maybe it's not disabled, just the new normal. Open my eyes...what country am I in right now? Oh right. Seattle. Chicago. Bocas. Darien. Chiriqui. Omaha. Sioux City. Lincoln. Panama. Those aren't even countries. That's my point. Just open your eyes and roll with it.

Going back to the US for 6 weeks really brought some of these new traveling 'skills' to light. I hadn't really realized I was doing them, I just always did them. For example, I had silverware with me at all times. Apparently that's not really normal. There was a purpose, of course. You would also never go anywhere in Panama without snacks. Even if you are going to visit a Volunteer that has a store- you just never know. When the bus will break down, when you will miss the boat, when the PCV will decide that a spoonful of peanut butter is a good enough dinner. It's better to be prepared. Quaker oatmeal cookies, apples, bananas, peanut m&ms, and cans of tuna with saltines are the best travel snacks, fyi.

"Where are these snacks coming from?" was a regular comment throughout my US travels. Apparently, its unusual to take snacks with you unless they are being transported in a diaper bag. Whatever, I was prepared for anything. Besides, whose gonna pay $12 for your silly airport snacks?! Leaving Panama for the US, security saw my diplomatic visa and pulled me ahead to the front of the line, and I ended up waiting to board sitting between two suits, also with diplomatic visas. While they sat there with their rolling leather suitcases matching their shiny leather shoes, I sat there with my muddy little purse and a plastic grocery bag of bananas and tuna. Which I ate, much to their dismay.
One of them gave me the side-eye from behind his newspaper. When he realized that I saw him watching, he asked, 'So...are you a Peace Corps Volunteer?'

When I said yes, he gave a knowing nod, then went back to his paper. The way I see it, he was in luck. I had showered that morning using shampoo AND conditioner, and had spent all my time in air conditioning after that. What more could he expect?

It's true that in Peace Corps we tend to glorify our 'rugged'-ness and frugality. I know a few ladies who went months without washing their hair to save money on shampoo. I have seen facial and body hair that surpassed all boundaries. I know a guy that hikes an extra hour to get in an out of his community in order to save $1.50. (His hike could be 90 mins up a mountain, but to save money, he takes the 2.5 hour route) Admittedly, we're a little ridiculous.

It is easy to get caught up in the stereotype that Volunteers like being smelly and cheap, or that we think it makes us superior. It's not so much that we value it in so much as it becomes so ingrained into our daily lives that we just embrace it. We can't change the fact our houses have dirt floors and we bathe in Nesquik rivers. We can change how we deal with it. So we have disgusting competitions I won't subject you to the details of. We establish bizarre grooming and spending habits.

Visiting the States, I thoroughly enjoyed my hot showers, lotions, clean toenails, and wearing makeup without it melting off. I had no regrets spending my money on fancy coffees, beautiful produce, and spectacular beers. Oh man, breweries. There aren't words to describe how much I miss great beer. I enjoyed spending time on my appearance and spending money- but I didn't feel pressured by it. I had as much fun dressing up for beers as I did the night I went bowling without makeup on. I equally enjoyed dinner out for sushi as I did making canned bean burgers in my friend's kitchen.

During the world cup, I ended up at a bus stop with only 25 cents for my dinner. In the States, I spent roughly 80 times that for food and drinks during a football game. In one instance, I was wearing the my favorite t-shirt with rainbow-colored mold stains in the armpits. In another, I was wearing a cute new sweater.

My point is that both were great memories I'll always have. It's not about being frugal, it's not about splurging. It's not about what you look like or how you smell. Real friends will sit next you anyway. (Although, if they are worth their salt, they will tell you when you need to bathe!)

Living out of a backpack is to constantly be reminded that's about taking full advantage of the opportunity in front of you because it won't be there tomorrow. So catch that sunset. Buy that beer. Go play frisbee instead of washing clothes. Embrace the mud between your toes, until the next hot shower comes along.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Today is a Very Special Day

December 1st is my birthday. I turned 26 today. Over the years, I have learned that it is a very common birthday, and I have had the privilege to befriend several of my birthday buddies, all of whom are wonderful people. But as great as we are, we are not what make today particularly special.

Today is important because it is World AIDS Day.

I know, another calendar day hijacked by a social awareness cause, but this one is different. It is easy to talk about hand washing- it is simple, straightforward, and is appropriate to talk about at all dinner tables. However, HIV is a virus that is most commonly transmitted through contact with sexual fluids- and that comes with a huge stigma. A stigma that keeps conversations about it not just away from the dinner table, but out of the family, school, church, community, and government. It’s literally killing us.

HIV/AIDS seems like ‘old news’ in the US. We’ve all seen Rent. It’s been a global epidemic for thirty years- that is longer than I have been alive. I don’t know a world without AIDS. Yes, medical treatments have improved greatly in my lifetime, and discrimination against those living with HIV has decreased within the US. But we’re not there yet.

AIDS was the cause of 10% of all deaths in 2013, the second largest killer in developing nations, and still in the top 10 of the developed ones. There are still 35 million reported people in the world who live with HIV/AIDS, and of them, 1 million of them are US citizens.

In Panama, a country of just 3 million people, there are 16,000 reported cases. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Read that statistic again. 16,000 reported cases. If you don’t know what HIV is, you won’t get tested for it. If you don’t get tested, you don’t get treated, and you transmit then die of AIDS without anyone ever knowing.

My favorite toddler in Playona is Bello. If I thought I had any sort of resources to do so, I would have adopted Bello in a heartbeat. He lives with my host family, because for the first year of my service his mother was very sick, and then in July 2013, she died. Her cause of death is ‘unknown’ but her symptoms make AIDS a definite possibility- particularly since just days before she died, she went to the doctors and they said they could do nothing for her.

“Was it cancer? This? That?” I ask my host family. No, the doctors said it wasn’t. I ask if it was HIV. “Our race cannot get HIV. She couldn’t have had that.” I will never know if Bello’s mother was HIV positive, because even if she had been tested, her family would never admit to it. Even though Bello, his brother, and his father are at risk, they will not get tested because they do not believe they can contract the disease, or they are afraid of the discrimination would come with it. Only in Panama, right?

Not so much. In Namibia, the disease spread so rampantly through the country in the 1990’s because their society believed that having sex with a virgin would cure it. Yes, you read that correctly. And if it didn’t cure you, then it meant that she wasn’t a true virgin. I’m not going to get into how many levels of messed up that is, but it is the perfect illustration of what happens when we let stigma and discomfort keep us from talking about serious issues. Watch out, I’m going to talk about sex for a minute.

The Quick and Dirty About HIV/AIDS:

The disease is spread through contact between bodily fluids- blood, semen & pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. It is NOT transmitted through tears, urine, or saliva. One of those first four fluids from the infected person needs to enter the body of a healthy person (usually via more bodily fluids) in order for the virus to spread. So all forms of sex- anal, oral, and vaginal- can transmit the disease. If you choose to have sex, the best method to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is with proper condom use.

Blood-to-blood transmission of HIV in the States is not common, unless you are a drug user or sketchy tattoo artist, but if you were to have an HIV-positive family member or roommate, it is important not to share items that could come in contact with blood- razors, toothbrushes, manicure equipment.

Getting tested is incredibly simple and easy. Yes, getting poked with a needle once a year sucks, but dying because your immune system staged a mutiny is worse. Always get yourself and your partner tested before becoming sexually active. HIV can lie dormant in your body for years before you show symptoms.

HIV/AIDS victims are still people. With access to the right medication, many of them can live symptom-free lives for quite a long time. They can give birth to healthy HIV-free babies, and live long enough to raise them. The technology exists to help them, but right now many are too afraid of prejudice to seek it out. They deserve and need our respect, support, friendship, and love. We need to talk about this disease more, if not for us, then for them.

I talk about HIV/AIDS with kids, teens, and adults on an almost monthly basis. I can teach you the finer skills to putting a condom on a phallic-shaped jungle fruit. I play a great game with handshakes and socks, using glitter to simulate HIV transmission and we make jokes about people who end up with AIDS on their face. But this isn’t a laughing matter.

On September 15, 2014, my friend Patrick died of AIDS. He had been a fellow student with me in the theatre department (theatre family) at UNL and we did several productions together. Sometimes we bumped elbows as artist and technician because his artistic priorities and my technical priorities were not always the same, but we deeply respected each other for our passion to the art. He was a tremendously positive cheerleader for many of us within the theatre department and his sudden death was shocking and tragic. We had no idea.

On June 30th, 2014, Patrick didn’t know he was HIV positive. He would find out a few days later, but he would tell no one of his condition. It wasn’t until a few days before his passing, when he was hospitalized for the last time and no longer able to make decisions for himself that his family chose to share with everyone the news.

It is sad to hear about the death of a friend, but what is particularly heart wrenching about this situation is that for the last 2 months of Patrick’s life, in his most difficult moments, most of his friends, colleagues, and advisors were clueless to his suffering.

I never had a chance to talk to Patrick, I am sure that he had many reasons for choosing not to share his medical condition with others and I respect a desire for privacy. However, if any part of him chose to remain silent because he feared the stigma, the shame, the discrimination that still comes along with this disease, then I’m angry. No disease- not Leprosy, not Ebola, not mental illness and definitely not HIV can make a person into anything less than a dignified human being worthy of respect and love.

Since Patrick’s death, teaching kids about HIV/AIDS has become an entirely different experience. It’s not about handshakes, glitter, and this mysterious invisible disease. It’s about teaching kids, teens, moms, and adults to love themselves by using protection, love their families by getting tested, and to love HIV-positive individuals when they need it the most.

Today in West Africa it is estimated that 4 people will die of Ebola. And 685 will die of AIDS. It will be the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

My challenge for you is this: Every time you hear the word ‘Ebola’ this week, reply with a comment about HIV. Let’s get this out of the dark, both here and abroad. The developing world may seem galaxies away from your life, but American pop culture, media, and politics have global impacts. Let’s make my birthday a positive one.