Tuesday, August 18, 2015

RPCV LIFE: A Journey Across Central America

I am going to attempt to post daily summaries and highlights of the Central America adventure. They obviously won't be posted in a timely or consistant manner, but hopefully I can keep my mass posts sequential. It's a roughly 2 month journey from the jungles of the Darien to the chaos of Mexico City and then onto life in the US.

Start Date: August 7, 2015
End Date: October 2015

Here we go!

Day 1 
Woke up with a terrible sore throat, headache, and slight fever. Less than 24 hours after my Close of Service, I found myself in the Peace Corps office getting antibiotics for strep throat. Met with Ben afterwards to rearrange our Darien visit plans, then slept...for the rest of the day.

Day 2 
Woke up at 10am, feeling human again but not great. Laid around the hostel all day until 3pm when I went to the market and mall to get some stuff for travels- shirts without holes, stains, or mold; sandals; and a Kuna headscarf. Back at hostel, made mac n cheese for dinner and repacked.


Day 3
An uneventful, albeit early, Darien bus trip got me to Meteti by 1pm, where upon stepping off the bus, an Embera woman I didn't know saw my paruma and made it her personal mission to make sure I got a ride to Nuevo Vigia. We found some teachers and a few hours later I was sitting in Fuljencio's house chatting about life. Spent the evening visiting houses with Ben and eating lots of fried plantains. Slept at his neighbor Enilda's- 10 of us in one room! (so glad I had a hammock!)

Homeless, Jobless, and Content

written on August 6th

Ask the Google for advice or support to reach your goal and you will be utterly overwhelmed with quotes, photos, blogs, how-to formulas, and advice. These are helpful references for life, and I love to collect the quotes. They inspire me to keep going.

In November of 2009, I started applying for the Peace Corps. Today, the 6th of August, 2015 that adventure ended. For the last 6 years, the driving force of my energy has been to reach this very moment. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful it has been and how much I have learned. I am incredibly grateful and overwhelmed by the amount of love and support shown to me by Panamanians, Americans, and fellow Volunteers. Peace Corps really is the toughest job you'll ever love.

But what happens now?

Let me be real with you for a bit. I don’t have a plan. I don’t know where I will live. I don’t really know what kind of job I want to do, and I am grateful that I qualify for medicaid for health insurance. I don’t know how to use a smart phone, let alone set up a plan for one and pay the bill. I don’t know what city, state, or country I want to live in. I don’t know if I want to go to grad school and if I did, what I would study.

What am I working for? What is my goal? Where am I going with my life?

Three years in Panama has changed the way I look at everything, and potential life plans I had before no longer seem to fit. More unsettlingly, I realize now how dramatically a person's values, desires, and perspective can change in just a few short years. Perhaps there is no such thing as a life plan.

Reaching a goal comes with a great rush of dopamine, but it is very short lived. The reality is that after a few minutes or hours, maybe even give it a day or so,  you’re left with this unnerving feeling of...nothing. It’s like being lost in your hometown, or having to give an impromptu speech on a foreign topic. The anxiety is real. I hesitate to publish this post because I am afraid of the ulcers and cardiac stress it will put on my parents, whose primary goal has always been to keep me safe, secure, and provided for.

However, for a woman that has been incredibly goal-oriented and driven since about ten years old, there’s another feeling too… freedom.

I don’t have an office to be at on Monday. I don’t have a supervisor to report to or a deadline to meet. I don’t have a house to clean or rent to pay. I have no bills to pay right now at all. I don’t have clients or children or pets to care for. I have a backpack, hammock, and shoes. I have 2,236.4 miles from the Darien to Mexico City and nowhere to be for a few months. I have enough money for bus tickets, food, a flight home, and maybe even a few other adventures. I have at least one good friend with whom to share the journey, and know I will make more along the way.

For now, not having a plan IS the plan, and I love it.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Panama's Lessons: Volcán Barú

Panama...or Middle Earth?
For 3 years, I listened to other Volunteers talk about their journeys: from miserable, soul-crushing freezing rainstorms to life-changing sunrises. Every climber had a morsel of advice, a nugget of wisdom, and well wishes for their successors. They discussed the best gear, snacks, and hiking styles. In an amiable one-upping contest, they detailed the challenges they faced and overcame. Some played it off as an afternoon stroll; others dramatized it into a battle of life or death on the steeps of Mount Doom. Everyone was glad they did it, but most admitted they would never do it again.

Not for a second did I believe I could be one of those people.

When I was first told about this volcano upon my arrival to Panama, I was content to admire its beauty from afar. The first time I saw the volcano myself, a stark peak disappearing into the cloudy sky, I was anything but motivated or intrigued. It was formidable and unfriendly. It was neither something I aspired to do nor believed I physically could.

Those who chose to climb it were impressive and seemingly untouchable. Not to mention completely crazy. Clearly only the super athletic, protein-shake types could ever manage it. The people who can climb a whole volcano in the dark all night without sleeping are strong, dedicated, persistent…and crazy.

After a 3-year stare down with the big rock, I psyched myself up for it. On June 14, 2015 at 5:40am I became one of those people. Well, partially. You expend the last of the last of your reserves to go up the last kilometer, pulling yourself up on your hands and knees. Thus you don’t realize after the sun makes its grand debut, it’s time to come back down. It would be 12:25pm before I made it down and really became one of those people.

By ‘I’ I mean WE, because I would not have made it without the companionship and encouragement of my hiking buddies- my cousin Melinda and fellow PCVs Michelle and Christina. Shout out to these ladies- they are incredibly impressive!

If you want the fully dramatized tale of my Volcán adventure, I would be happy to detail the 13 hours of hiking, sweating, freezing, and mind numbing “just put one foot in front of the other”. 13 kilometers up, 26 km round trip. And the conditions that night were perfect. Cloudless sky producing a breathtaking sunrise with a view of the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans.

But this post isn’t about the hike itself. With more than 3 years in Panama, my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer is quickly coming to a close. In the next few weeks I’m going to do a series of reflections and life lessons. If that volcano taught me anything other than what the depths of physical exhaustion feels like it’s this:

The limit does not exist.

Nothing about anything I’ve done before suggests that doing an all-night volcano hike would be something I’d accomplish. Up until the moment I did it I wasn’t sure I actually could. I just put one foot in front of the other and trusted the rest would work itself out.

If you had told me in high school I would be fluent in Spanish, I would have haltingly called you ‘loco’. If you had told me my first week in Panama I would live here for 3 years, I would have peed myself. If you had told me my first day in site I would help my community build 22 composting latrines, I would have fainted. If you had told me in my freshman acting classes I would create a camp to teach teenagers acting, I would have laughed in your face.

“Epic accomplishments are just a bunch of mundane and ordinary things done over and over again.”

There is no such thing as extraordinary work. There is just ordinary work done with extraordinary passion and persistence.

To learn Spanish, I just kept talking. And talking. And talking. To serve for 3 years in Panama, all I did was get out of bed each morning and take the day as it came. To build the latrines, I focused on one batch of cement at a time. To bring the theatre camp to life, I sent one email after another ceaselessly. To climb Volcán, all I did was put one foot in front of the other.

All I have to do is show up and do my job to the best of my ability. Some days the best I can do is sit in the hammock. Some days I need Google translate to buy breakfast. It doesn’t matter. When I show up and do my job, the rest works out. Maybe not how I thought it was going to work itself out- sometimes “working itself out” looks more like “utterly failing” but things balance out in the end.

On my second day in Panama, I sat on the edge of my bed and decided to ET. (Early Terminate, quit Peace Corps) My Spanish wasn’t good, I knew nothing about the job I was assigned to do, and making new friends is always intimidating. However, having never been out of the US before, I decided to stay in Panama for a couple of weeks so I could at least sightsee a little more first. (By the next day, I had changed my mind and I’ve never regretted it.)

When I got home from work on the 8th latrine, I collapsed on the floor of my hut and tried to figure out how to cancel the rest of the project because I was tired of the arguing, the heat, and the community politics. I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and went to bed even though it was only 6pm. The next morning, I ignored the protests of my aching body and rolled out of bed.

When my theatre camp grant application was delayed for the third month in a row, I sat on a crowded bus of strangers and cried for an hour because I was tired of the red tape struggle and was doubting whether it was all worth it. When I got home, I had an email from Katy talking about how excited she was to come be a part of it, which kindled my motivation again.

When we reached the 2km mile marker on the hike, I opened my mouth to tell the group I didn’t think I could make it, that I should turn back. Before I said a word, Michelle asked me a question about a project and I simply forgot to quit.

In the last 3 years I have been faced with real physical, emotional, mental, financial, social, spiritual, personal, and professional limitations. They don’t matter. Most of them are lies stemming from insecurity and the rests are curves in the road at most. A non-athletic artist-type from the flattest state in the Union can still hike a volcano.

The cliché “you can do anything you set your mind to” is incredibly true- but it says nothing about the amount of work that’s going to take. If you want it, you’ll have to fight for it- and it is rarely ever exciting, high-impact work. Most of it comes down to washing dishes, hauling water, waiting for the bus, chatting with friends, answering emails, scratching bug bites, and sweating your butt off.


There’s exquisite beauty in the “mundane and ordinary”, and these days I try very hard to cherish each of those moments. However sometimes, you just have to make it to the next mile marker. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and never, ever, ever give up.


We just *BARELY* made it in time for the sunrise!

You're not at the summit until you reach the cross.

It's cold! I'm exhausted! We made it!!!!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Performance

In a two-hour blur, all of the week’s hard work came to life. Each performance had more energy, excitement, and comedic timing than I’d ever seen of them in rehearsal and the audience loved every minute. As PCVs, hosting a meeting of 10 people is common, and an audience of 30 is a great success. While we started with a crowd just shy of 100, by the night’s peak there were over 130 in attendance from babies to grandparents. Dozens of people walking down the street stopped in the middle of the road to watch- incoming cars had to honk to get the bystanders to move they were so enthralled.

The show started with a song by 13 year old Fidel “I Want to be an Adventurer” about the rugged Panamanian life with a flag cape, backup drummers, and dramatic gestures. The first play, Tres Hijos, was an adaptation of the three little pigs. Instead of a wolf blowing down the house, a parasite comes and attacks those who do not properly wash their hands! Made up of teens from Alto Caballero, their parents and families loved seeing their kids in the limelight.

We continued with a play written, directed, and acted out by the teens from Bahia Azul in Bocas del Toro about a little orphan boy who had an elaborate costume made out of an old rice sack! Bochinche was the next play, also of teens from Alto Caballero. In Spanish bochinche means gossip, and the play was about how gossip and little lies, particularly regarding HIV and sexual activity, can have severe negative consequences on one’s health, reputation, and relationships. The energy and sass the teens brought to this performance really amped up the comedy.

The Ngäbe-Bugle audience went wild for the cultural dances of the visiting Emberá and Wounaan participants. The group from the Darien was younger than the rest by a few years, had an exhausting 3-day journey to get to camp, and were a minority among minorities. It was so amazing to see the support one indigenous group showed for another as they cheered the tiny dancers on. While they had been quiet throughout the week, they came to life with the support of an enthusiastic audience. At the end of the night Yadilma, a 14 year old Wounaan girl, rushed up to the microphone to express her gratitude towards the community for receiving her and her friends so warmly and graciously.

The next play, of teens from nearby Cerro Ceniza, was Vamos al Rio. In rural Panama, “going to the river” with someone means more than just washing up. In this play a teenager and his girlfriend go to the river in the middle of the night- only to get caught by his parents already there! A hilariously awkward discussion of the birds, bees, HIV, and relationships followed. Heliodoro, who played the father, stole the show and the audience was rolling out of their seats laughing. The cast ran offstage to a standing ovation and tackled me in hugs, giggles, and giddy chatter. I can’t wait to visit Ceniza to see them perform it for their own community!

Abraham and Astry, both of Alto Caballero got lots of cheers for their Bachata dance while the group from Bahia Azul prepared their play, Sueños de Agua. An adaptation of Dicken’s Christmas Carol, a lazy water committee president drinks a little too much homemade corn brew in the fields and has 3 strange dreams that lead him to have a change of heart and overhaul the town water system. The community members laughed at all the colloquialisms and empathized greatly with the struggles of having an effective committee. Still in a lighthearted mood from the previous play, the sudden revelation the little girl had died in a cholera epidemic was an unexpected and dramatic twist of events stunning everyone into silence. It was the most poignant moment of the evening.

Bella, a 15 year old girl from Ceniza sang ‘La Mil Rosa’ acapella beautifully before the Darien group returned with their play Sistema de Defensa. When the worm monster attacks, look to Rambo Cloro to disinfect, boil, or use UV rays for protection! It was a very physical play with great costumes and again, I was blown away by the unprecedented energy the actors put into it. While Sistema cleared, Jose Pablo, the muchacho of muchachos, sang ‘Esperanza’, a crowd favorite. What he may lack in vocal training he more than makes up for in commitment and passion!

Margarita Cochinita was the play presented by the teens from Quebrada Pastor. A little girl with lots of cochina (dirty) habits gets sick from not washing her hands and the health promoter and doctor help explain how invisible bacteria affects us and is defeated by hand soap! Just one day prior, not one person in this 13 minute play was memorized (it wasn’t required due to short rehearsal time) but come show time, there wasn’t a single script onstage!

Abraham performed again, doing an impressively self choreographed hip hop dance to ‘Somebody’ that had everyone on their feet and recording on their phones. The final play of the evening was once again local Alto Caballero teens. Amigos Nuevos tackled the stigmas and prejudices that HIV-positive individuals face on a daily basis. In the end it was decided that everyone could be friends; it would just take some education, effective communication, and time to adjust.

Heliodoro returned to recite a patriotic poem, “Land of Panama” while the rest of us lined up and prepared to come on for the finale. We adapted the popular Enqrique Iglesias song ‘Bailando’ to be ‘Lavando’ about handwashing, complete with lyrics about diarrhea and flatulence, dance moves like the Carlton and grapevine, and a lot of freestyle.

The evening ended by presenting certificates to all the participants and with various people rushing onstage to thank us for bringing this camp to Alto Caballero. One man said, “Rich people pay lots of money to travel to cities to see art like this. We’ve been blessed tonight to have it come to us and my only regret is that the rest of the town isn’t here to see it. They really missed out on something beautiful. I am so impressed with the work these teenagers have done in such a short amount of time. They are so talented and intelligent and I am proud to welcome them into my community.”

The post-show adrenaline rush provoked an epic onstage dance party while the older people went back for more food. In a flurry of dance moves, high fives, hugs, and handshakes it was suddenly over.


To say it was a dream come true would be an understatement.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Day 4: Countdown to Show Time…

The countdown to a 7 o’clock GO.

13 hours (6am): The facilitator alarm goes off at the school. One person rolls over and turns it off. All continue sleeping.

12 hours (7am): Sleepy teens start arriving for the day’s activities. Barely moving facilitators stumble off towards coffee and breakfast.

11 hours (8am): Only 30 minutes behind schedule, morning warm ups begin led by Justin and Katy. They focus on voice work because with an outdoor space, projection is vital. The teens duke it out in a tongue twister competition, then stand on one side of the basketball court and recite their lines to the facilitator’s on the other side loud enough for us to hear.

10 hours (9am): Leigh, Justin, Andrea, and I judge individual talent auditions and the youth pull out all the stops to get their songs, dances, poetry recitations, and skits into the night of performance. Meanwhile the other facilitators hold final scene rehearsals with their actors- many surprising us by being off book!

8.5 hours (10:30am): Tech rehearsal goes exactly how every other tech rehearsal goes- a lot of sitting around and waiting between one flurry of activity and the next. We plan out how to get on and offstage with the furniture/props in the dark without running into each other or falling off the stage. Ben, Matt, Hennessy, and Meredith go to great lengths to get a full set of speakers and microphones to work- a seemingly straightforward task that proves to be quite complex, involving lots of cables, three different sound systems, and a variety of music-producing devices.

7 hours (12pm): The actors break for lunch and the facilitators eat while simultaneously trying to make the sound system work, making props, and taping down cords.

6 hours (1pm): Everyone rehearses the Hand Washing Dance- it is miraculously better when everyone can hear the music!

5 hours (2pm): The one and only dress rehearsal begins. And it starts pouring rain.

What's outdoor theatre without a couple rainstorms?


3 hours (4pm): Dress rehearsal finishes with the show time being just under 2 hours (perfect!) We do an ensemble-building activity and share our individual talents we bring to the team. The actors go on break until 5:30PM call time.

2 hours (5pm): Some facilitators start setting up the arroz con pollo and potato salad for dinner, others finish making props, writing positive notes to their actors, getting travel reimbursements, and signing certificates. Alex creates a program and runs around town to as many copies printed as possible before the printer runs out of ink. Community members begin to arrive for the show!

1 hour (6pm): Peak chaos. With bellies full of rice and chicken, the actors get into costume and makeup while Panamanian party music blares from the sound system. Dozens of community members mill about eating, talking, and glancing curiously at the stage, not sure what is about to happen. Facilitators set out more and more chairs as the audience continues to grow.

15 minutes (6:45pm): All of the actors, captains, and facilitators gather in the ‘green room’ for warm ups and a good luck pep talk. The energy in the room is electric and the teens can barely contain their excitement. Outside the audience has swelled to over 75 people and the last rays of sunset dip below the horizon.

0 minutes (7:00pm): We’re at ‘places’ for the start of the show. Meredith and I walk onstage in the dark and Ben sets up the microphone for us to do the introduction. Hennessy turns on the lights and the audience lets out an audible gasp and ‘Woooow!’


It was as if in that moment, we knew all something magical was about to happen.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Day 3: Music, Monologues, and Monsoons!

Today was an exciting day! We started by playing trust games led by Leigh. The kids enjoyed them and started to build ensemble within their groups. After trust games, I taught everyone the choreography for the dance we will be performing on Thursday night. All the kids learned it really quickly, and four of them volunteered to sing the song while the rest of us dance at the performance.

After lunch, Hennessy taught the kids how to tell their own story. They spilt into partners and told each other about their happiest day. Then they told the stories to the whole group. Fidel, who won one of the spirit awards, told a story about when he gave a presentation for his class and he was scared at first, but then he did well and realized that presenting wasn’t scary.

Then Justin and I taught the group how to audition and give positive and constructive feedback. Four kids signed up for the auditions tomorrow and they are going to perform a variety of acts including poems or songs. If they do well at their audition, they will perform their act during the performance on Thursday.

At the end of the day we rehearsed the choreography on the stage, and then we moved into the classroom to play a rousing game of Cat and Mouse. After the game, we all sat down on the floor but suddenly a few of the kids in the corner stood up with a yelp. The room was flooding from the monsoon happening outside. We moved the kids into another room for the spirit awards and the facilitators cleaned up the flood.

Tomorrow is the last day of camp and the performance! We are all very excited!!


-Katy