Friday, August 8, 2014

A Third Year In Panama

I haven’t really talked about what my job as Sanitation Coordinator is. I coordinate sanitation, obviously. But what that means is that any Peace Corps Volunteer that wants to do a latrine project works with me to help make their project as sustainable, effective, and self-sufficient as possible. I share with them resources and best practices I have learned from my personal experience and the experiences of others, and together we try to make the process better in a multitude of different ways.

This job is personal to me, because it plays on what I learned in Playona. It also works to address a huge global development issue of sustainability and capacity-building. What does that mean?

“Handouts are bad.” Most people have heard that. They have heard that giving people free things is counterproductive and does not actually help them. Hand-washing is important, and most people have heard that too. But like hand-washing, just because they know something is bad doesn’t mean they actually do anything about it. (How many times have YOU washed your hands today?) Many governments still do handout projects. Many development organization do too. Frankly, they are a lot easier. It is hard NOT to.

Try as we might, even as Peace Corps Volunteers, sometimes we mistakenly do too. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. We’re trying to establish a buy-in, to address a need the community recognized rather than to give a free unasked for gift that might be culturally or environmentally wrong.

Panama has a lot of latrine projects that are not well cared for or used correctly because they were too much like handouts and not enough like empowerment projects. I am working with PCVs here to improve how we implement latrine projects and to renovate the training materials we use to prepare a community for said project.

Yes, we’re building latrines to improve people’s health, but that’s not the REAL goal. The real goal is to empower people to make positive changes in their lives for themselves and their community. By ‘capacity-building’ we mean to foster leadership and support education. This is where theatre comes in.

Throughout my service in Playona, I noticed that the most effective parts of our training seminars, the most memorable pieces from our sessions, were the skits and role-playing. Watching skits and then pushing the community members to re-enact them, not only teaches the material but also engages them on an emotional and physical level. I am rewriting the training curriculum for sanitation projects to include a lot of skits and role-plays, to give community members a voice. It forces them out of their comfort zone and gives them time to practice teaching the material and leading the discussion in their own home.

Theatre also does something incredibly special. All of us within the performing arts cherish the ‘magic of theatre’- that invisible bond that is created not just amongst the ensemble, but with the audience as well. It’s a relationship, a connection, and a social equalizer that brings everyone in the room down to the same level to share what it is like to be a human being. I can see no demographic that needs this kind of connection more than the people who live in developing countries. They truly believe that they are incapable of improving their lives and themselves. They truly believe that they must wait for the government or white people to give them things. They truly believe they have no power and no voice, that they are insignificant to the world at large.

I want to host a Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) Theatre Camp for teenagers, a place to give them a chance to tell their stories and find their voice. I want to use theatre to train leaders and inspire behavior change. I can write a lesson plan anywhere, but I want to test these sessions and seminars in neighboring communities with other PCVs to see what actually works. I want to teach PCVs how to be better actors and better improv players to give our skit performances even more of an impact. For that, I need more time.

My successor for this Sanitation Coordinator position will not leave their community until August 2015, so the beautiful thing is, I can take more time. That’s exactly what I decided to do. I have requested to extend my service (this time it was my idea!) through next August. If approved, it means that I will finish my service in Panama on August 7, 2015.

Making that decision was not easy. It was a sacrifice to know that I am missing yet another year of major life events for my friends and family. It means missing many more birthdays, a fourth Grand Assembly, and some holidays. I will get a special leave that will allow me to be home from Thanksgiving through New Years’, which I am incredibly excited about.

However, I realize that it is an emotional strain on many, many people and for that, I am incredibly grateful for your enduring support and encouragement. I miss Mom, Dad, Nathan, Grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I miss my Rainbow Girls and Masonic family. I miss my theatre family and colleagues. I miss so many friends from the different phases of my life. All of these amazing people made this decision challenging as it becomes harder and harder for us to share our lives together when time and distance are so actively trying to separate us.

I hope that each and every one of those people understand how much I love and appreciate their role in my life and how incredibly grateful I am that this news has been met over and over with overwhelming optimism and reinforcement. Despite its challenges, I truly feel like this is where I am meant to be right now, and hearing that my friends and family are overwhelmingly supportive of my decision is priceless. Thank you.

A World Cup Experience

***Before I say anything, I would just like to state for the record that I am a publicly declared World Cup fan poser. I have never cared about futbol in any context before I came to Panama, and I can neither confirm nor deny that my fandom will continue after my PC Service.***

The World Cup is a big deal to everyone in the world who does not live in America. According to some of my social media updates, I guess maybe even America got somewhat into it this year. If you are a devoted US soccer fan, I don't want to offend you, but American fans are posers compared to Panamanian fans. Before you get all worked up about that statement, take a deep breath. It is maybe not a bad thing you don't take it quite this seriously, nor is it bad that you just don't have to make these kinds of sacrifices to be a fan. In America, it is just easier. For a couple of those true soccer fans out there, I am sure that if you were put in the middle of the jungle or on an island in the middle of the ocean, or on the side of a mountain you would do these things too.

First, let me remind you that in my blog post from October 2013, I wrote about the first soccer game I ever attended (other than my little brother's YMCA games of first graders). That game was the Panamanian qualifying game for the World Cup against the US. In order for Panama to go to the World Cup, underdog Costa Rica had to beat Mexico and underdog Panama had to beat the US. With 2 minutes left in the game, it was announced that yes, Costa Rica had beaten Mexico, and Panama was up by 1 point. In less than a minute, the US scored TWICE and the game ended. Panama was eliminated. It was a national tragedy. We still don't talk about that game.

So Panama doesn't even have a team in the World Cup. All of this hullabaloo over a tournament that Panama doesn't even get to play in. Since they don't have a home team to root for, allegiances have been declared for Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, and the US.

In May I bought a fake Brazil jersey. I am going to unabashedly tell you that I bought it because it was yellow and green and I wanted a yellow shirt to go with my paruma skirts. Every time I wore it, without fail, I would get comments from "fellow" Brazil fans. (It feels weird to say "fellow fans" because it implies that I am a fan of Brazil, when really I am just a self-admitted yellow shirt fan.) So I started paying attention to the World Cup mostly just to make sure when it was and was not safe to wear my yellow shirt.

The first week of the tournament, there was no school. I think that was a coincidence. Either way, it meant that the streets of my town were dead during the first round games. It was the perfect time to go to the store! Absurdly loud televisions blared competing games and throughout each day I would hear the iconic GOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!!! shouted by the announcers.

One weekend during the point system play, I found myself at an international hostel where the television was constantly crowded by European surfers rooting for their teams and cheering their rivals losses. I’ve never learned so much about a sport so fast.

The last week of June, I traveled to an island in the middle of the Carribbean to build a latrine with them. No electricity, separated from land, I did not expect to find that the locals knew much more about the tournament than I did. They had a radio going the whole day while we were working, listening to the various games. On the day of the Colombia game, we broke for lunch early just to catch the start of the game. As the rains moved in, we lingered for hours. The entire family, several neighbors, and two gringas laying on the floor of their wooden hut, straining to hear the radio over the rain, drinking hot coffee. Colombia won that day. J

A few days later, I stood on a crowded dock waiting for my boat amongst many strangers watching Argentina take on someone from Europe. When they scored, people were jumping up and down, and the dock swayed with it. When the boat arrived, I think I was the only one who noticed.

On the day of Argentina-Switzerland game, my roommate Ben and I decided to figure out how to make the television our landlady loaned us work. A late-nineties box TV, sitting on the concrete floor in our spare bedroom (our house is a mansion compared to what our huts were) and an antennae sticking out of the avocado tree in the backyard. Eventually we got the screen to stop rolling and we sat on the floor eating our rice and lentils watching the game. When Argentina scored the one goal of the game, our neighbors started screaming with glee.

That afternoon was the US-Belgium game. We took the table out of the kitchen that the stove was on, put it in the living room, invited the other Volunteer in town over, and bought Miller Lite- the only American beer sold in Panama. With our America tshirts, we sat patiently through the entire 90 minutes of tie and then agonized through the overtimes. We didn’t know enough about how overtime worked so we didn’t know how much time was left. It made for a very stressful, hopeful, disappointing, and frustrating game as we tried to tell ourselves we could come back from a 2-0 deficit to win. Even the Panamanians were confused. A neighbor came over in the middle of the 2nd overtime to give us her condolences on our loss. Our response- BUT ITS NOT OVER YET! Another often shouted phrase was, ‘How much time is left? Should I be worried? I DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL RIGHT NOW!’ In the end, we lost and America went home. Wah wah.

Friday was the 4th of July and a BBQ at a Volunteer’s. It was also the Colombia-Brazil game. This PCV did not have a TV so the neighbor brought over his old one- a television that was definitely older than I. We thought it was only black and white but after it got hit by a stray bean bag, popped from green and gray into color. We watched most of the game scrolling by as the picture rolled, but it cleared up enough to see who had the ball and whether or not a score had been made. To our disappointment, Colombia lost.

I spent the afternoon on the beach while Netherlands and Costa Rica battled it out. That was a highly anticipated game for Panama, especially here in Chiriqui as we border with Costa Rica. We kept checking in with different hotels for the score. To my Dutch roommate’s excitement, and the rest of the country’s dismay, Costa Rica lost.

The day of the Brazil-Germany game I wore my yellow Brazil shirt, just because I could. Besides, I ought to at least support my own continent. I had to travel to Panama, so I spent the first half of the game on the bus. When we got to the bus terminal in Santiago for our 20-minute pit stop, I got off the bus and kept getting lots of sympathetic or embarrassed looks from people. I couldn’t figure out why. Then realized…Brazil was down 0-4. I stood in line to get lunch and realized that I was out of cash…I only had 70 cents. I bought a plate of plain rice and sat down to watch the game. The entire terminal was huddled in front of the flat screen, and the Brazil section made room for me. As I ate my rice, Germany scored 3 more times. A guy that had been in line behind me gave me a package of cookies and said, ‘I’m sorry’ it was that sad and pathetic. The team just completely fell apart. After that day, I had to put my Brazil shirt away for a few weeks.

A few days later Argentina and the Netherlands faced off. Riding the buses through Panama City that afternoon was a piece of cake because there was no one on them. I got to Cinco de Mayo, a long road full of stores, shops, and street vendors with ten minutes of play left in the game. We walked down the road, going from one huddle of Panamanians to the other to watch the game unfold. There were masses of men, women, kids, old people, young people, store workers and customers pressed together in front of every television. No one was watching or talking about anything else. When my group hit the end of the road, we went straight to the lobby of our hostel were many other PCVs and the rest of the hostel guests were watching the game. The Panamanian working at the hostel that knows me well gave me a free beer and I squeezed in to watch the last of the overtime and penalty kicks. Sorry Europe!

I didn’t take the time or effort to watch the Netherland-Brazil game to compete for 3rd place. I didn’t have the time to watch Brazil get stomped on again, which is what happened.

The Volunteers of San Felix all got back to town within 12 hours of the World Cup Finals. With houses full of dirty laundry and empty of food, we went to the local ‘Bar Grace’ to watch the game on the projector. A local recognized us and gave the 3 of us his table when we walked in and we cheered on Argentina, hoping they would take down the German powerhouse. It was a good fight and we all had fun. Within seconds of the game being over, Panamanian typico music (high in volume and accordion, low in anything else) was blaring and it was back to Panamanian business as usual.

If you ever have the opportunity to watch the World Cup in another country, take it. Especially if you can do so in a rural area of a developing country. Listening to stories about entire communities piling into a house to listen to the radio, sharing money to buy gas to run the generator for the TV, and climbing to the tops of hills to get signal are priceless to experience first hand.

Friday, August 1, 2014

My Environmentalism Soapbox

Hey friends.

I try not to use my blog to soapbox, because having political agendas and liberal/conservative propaganda shoved down your throat is what your Facebook news feed is for. So I'm warning you, this post is about environmentalism, climate change, and proof that these threats are not abstract concepts you should be moderately concerned about in the way that you worry your diet coke's might give you cancer. It's real, I've seen it. I also don't have any solutions to the following problems, I just need to rant about them for a bit. Here goes...

Deforestation is big and scary.

The Azuero peninsula is a legit-for-reals victim of deforestation. A hundred years or so ago, it was as dense of a jungle as the Darien. Now, it reminds me of Nebraska, mid September. Brown, fields, and still ridiculously hot. It's too late for the Azuero, no really. It's all farmland. There's very little jungle left. But the Darien, now there is still a lot primary rainforest there...for now. In the dry season, bridges are built by logging companies to cross the rivers. The indigenous people are ok with it because they can't afford to build the bridges themselves and it makes life more convenient. Then the logging trucks come in and drive well up into the heart of their reservation and cut down trees that are at least my height in diameter, if not 2 of me. MASSIVE, hundred year old trees were chopped up, chained to flat bed trucks and hauled away where some outside logging company makes lots of money for them. It's sad, and the big trucks really do look like big evil monsters. Not to mention they go flying through the communities at speeds fast enough to squash kids like bugs. It hasn't happened yet, but its only a matter of time.

Waste. So much waste.

My 80 year old landlady yells at my roommate and I because we refuse to throw our organic trash away. Mostly, we don't want to throw our food scraps and eggshells in the trash because it will attract bugs. But its also because that organic stuff doesn't need to be encased in plastic and thrown into a landfill or burned. Give it a week in this tropical climate and its already compost. After 2 years of smelling grilled trash from my neighbor's burn piles, I am allergic to creating trash. Packaging makes me cringe. In Playona, the options were throw it in the river or light it on fire. GAH! Landfills don't work because it is a flood zone. I once saw a 2 year old sucking on an old, opened, half burned BATTERY. Then there was the time I found a 4 year old using a used condom as a balloon. TRASH IS A PROBLEM. Moving to the other side of the country has only proved that no where in Panama has figured out what to do with it. Ugh. My only solution thus far has been to create as little trash as possible.

In the US, we have a convenient barrier. A person never has to contemplate, do I contaminate the river or the air today? because of trash pickup and the existence of landfills. While this is great and reduces littering, it is also a big enabler. It enables us to guiltlessly create so much more trash than any other country.

Climate Change is for real and serious.

I was visiting an agriculture PCV the other day and told me about a conversation he had with one of his neighbors. He lives in the indigenous reservation of the Ngabe-Bugle, the largest indigenous group in Panama who live and farm in the mountains. They have little access to the outside world and typically get through 6th grade in education. The farmer told this Ag Volunteer about how serious climate change was, and was asking what he could do to stop it. His trees (I forget which fruit) that used to bloom in March, now bloom in October.

I don't know the science behind all of that so I can't prove the definite connection between climate change and this farmer's crops, but his story is not unique. If you tell a rural farmer here about climate change, their response is, 'Well, yea, we know. We see it happening.' Coming from a country where a large portion of the population either labels is as a conspiracy or doesn't understand its severity, that was shocking to me. I expected resistance, or at least some hesitation. Instead, telling them that climate change is happening is like saying the sun is in the sky. Well, yea, we know. We can see it right there!

In the US, I lived my life as if nature was one of my toys, one of my gadgets for entertainment. When I wanted to enjoy it, I went camping and hiking and swimming. The rest of the time, I lived in a bubble to keep it out, to prevent it from intervening or interacting with what I was doing. Caring for it meant at most cutting the grass and raking the leaves. Separating my plastic bottles from the rest of the trash was gold star worthy.

In Panama, nature dictates my life. The river determined whether or not you could travel, fish, or do laundry. Rain determined whether or not you could work, whether or not you had water to drink. The sun forced you to take breaks and dusk sent you home. I respect it a lot more now that I ever have before, because I can see the firsthand the effects my life and the lives of those around me are having on it. In the US, cities create concrete walls between the humans and nature so they can't see the affect they are having. But just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there.

I don't have the solution to environmental conservation, so I can't say "Follow these 3 easy steps and the world will magically be all better". I just...needed to get that out there. Play nice with this earth friends, she's the only one we've got!

If you want more concrete examples of how to play nice, here's 50 ways to start...

Healthy Women's Artisan Seminar

One of the first things I was able to participate in after moving to the west side of the country was the National Healthy Women's Artisan Seminar put on by the Gender and Development program within Peace Corps Panama. A little over a year ago I wrote a blog about the dramatic saga that took place in my community while trying to get 2 women from Playona to travel across the country to attend this seminar. Claudia made it, Eugenia did not. (Here's the link to the full story: )

This year, I did not have women to send to the seminar, but I was invited to be a facilitator for the week. No Embera ladies made it, but there were 25 rural latino and indigenous Ngabe-Bugle women. The Ngabe Bugle are a large indigenous group on the west side of Panama that culturally are the opposite of Embera. They are quiet, reserved, and shy. They are incredibly conservative and have strict gender roles. They are also very, very poor. While the Embera have little money, the jungle they live in provides them with an abundance of food. You don't go hungry in Embera land. In Ngabe land, missing meals is normal. They have a phrase that directly translates as "There is July in our household." It means that the house is empty of food, since July is in-between-crops month.

An example: I was on a crowded bus the other day. A Ngabe woman about my age got on with her 3 kids, 2 preschoolers and a 6ish month old in her arms. They stood in the aisle between the seat next to me and the other bench of seats. There was a couple on the other bench eating a piece of fried chicken. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and it smelled GOOD. It was making me hungry. The little boy looked up at his Mom and said, "I'm hungry, I want some." Mom hurriedly and quietly shushed him and told him, "We already ate today. You'll get oats tomorrow at school." Sad day.

So that's a little context into the home life of these indigenous women. For a lot of them, the prospect of coming to a seminar is exciting just because it is 3 guaranteed free meals a day.

So Monday afternoon the ladies start arriving. We sat down at tables to get to know them and paint their nails. We had to reassure them that this week was a girls week only: there would be no men present, so it was a safe place where we could be ourselves and talk about anything. Some women were still hesitant to let their nails get painted, so we told them that we had nail polish remover so that we could remove the polish at the end of the week so that they couldn't get in trouble with their fathers, husbands, or other family members for it.

It was exciting to talk to them and paint their nails for them because I could see that they felt so rebellious and glamorous. I was sitting with 5 women, a 16 year old pregnant girl, two women in their thirties, and 2 older women that don't remember their age. (50s? 70s? It's impossible to tell.) All were Ngabe. We talked about how many kids each one had, and one of the older ladies told me the life story of all NINE of her children. After painting one woman's nails, she just sat there sheepishly grinning and looked at them for quite awhile. I don't think she's ever worn nail polish before.

Tuesday and Wednesday were filled with sessions on artisan crafts- teaching them how to make wire jewelry, how to make jewelry out of recycled trash, how to make sombreros from weaving leaf fibers, and how to make purses out of plastic bags. We also included sessions on self-esteem and values, on money management, good business practices, and customer service. The women were very engaged and active during the training sessions, but really just wanted to spend more time being crafty.

We continued working on crafts in the evenings, many women working and chatting right up until curfew. It was awesome watching leaders arise from within the group. We had a Ngabe woman that had attended the seminar last year return this year to teach the women how to crochet hankies and help out with a nutrition seminar.

Thursday we talked two big topics: domestic violence and sexual health.

We spent the morning talking about DV and presented the cycle of violence to them and talked about the characteristics of emotional & physical abuse. We had them draw a picture of what DV means to them and I was skeptical. These were really quiet, reserved women. Getting them to fill out their workbooks throughout the week was an uphill battle- and that was easy stuff. I thought that there was no way they would draw anything. I was wrong.

Every woman had a picture, and every picture had a real life story. I mean, I know domestic violence is everywhere, I have seen it in my own community, but the fact that every single woman there was either a victim or personally knew a victim was shocking. As PCVs, we tread lightly around some of these topics because we have neither the training nor the resources to really tackle them head on. So the purpose of the session was to raise awareness of what it is and how the cycle of abuse works, and to show them that this is a global problem that tons of women face, that they are not alone.

That evening a Ngabe lawyer- yes, an indigenous woman who went to law school- came to talk to the women. She was dressed in the traditional Ngabe nagua (a long dress with triangle patterns) and she explained the legal system in Panama and what a woman's options are if she wanted to report abuse. She has an office nearby and works specifically with domestic violence cases. The women were very engaged and asked tons of great questions. When she asked for questions, there were a couple of women who raised their hands not to ask a question or get feedback, but simply to tell their story. The lawyer ended up spending the night at the seminar with us in order to give women more chances to talk to her and ask questions.

Between those sessions, we spent the afternoon talking about sexual health. I was co-facilitating that session with another Volunteer and a doctor from the Department of Health. The doctor called with a conflict the day before, so we had to scramble to replace her. We found the HIV/AIDS education specialist from the nearby clinic and asked him to put together a presentation on the different kinds of contraception. He came and talked to the women for a little over an hour about the different kinds of contraception available in Panama, especially for the rural and indigenous regions. Again, I expected the women to stonewall us, here we were asking them to not just talk about sex, a highly taboo topic, but we were asking them to talk about it with a man. Again, I was surprised. We gave them all little slips of paper so they could ask their questions anonymously, but most didn't have a problem just asking directly.

After a break, we met up again and I did a game with them that simulates how STI's spread using glitter. We then practiced putting on condoms and that was weird- here I was, a twenty-something teaching women my mom's age how to use condoms. While a lot of these women were passed the child-bearing stage of their life, our goal was to get them to teach their children and grandchildren. Although, those poor kids who had to be taught by grandma how to use a condom! It's better than getting HIV though...

It was a really fun week and I learned a lot working with those women. It was also a great cultural introduction for me since I have worked very little outside the Embera culture thus far in my service. One of the best parts of the week was seeing the change that would come over women when they would work on or show off their crafts. Art really is empowerment!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

May and June and July Happened?

So moving from the border of Colombia to nearly the border of Costa Rica has been challenging and awesome. Challenging because it was unexpected, unwanted, and unasked for, and awesome because it has great people, more conveniences, and a really cool job.

Most of May and June were spent trying to get my bearings, from figuring out where to get groceries to how to get the internet to work, to figuring out the new bus routes. Then there was my job, getting a job description written, coming up with some goals, and establishing not only a work plan, but a reporting method for it. I visited several regional meetings to get to know the PCVs in other regions of the country better (I knew almost no one outside of my training group unless they lived in the Darien, we were very geographically isolated).

Panamanian elections happened and Varela won, a surprise I think. He was the third party candidate, but with a campaign video like this, and election day on May the Fourth, we should have probably seen this coming:

Welcome to Panamanian politics. I am ok with it because his wife bought me ice cream once. For reals! Also, his campaign slogan is '100% water, 0% Latrines" which I not only think is laughably impossibly, but I don't think that flush toilets are the right answer for much of Panama. But what do I know, I am not a president. Regardless, it is good that the work of my sector will be getting some attention (AKA money) in the next five years, so maybe some PCVs can defy the odds and trying to get that money going in the right direction. May the force be with you, friends. You'll need it.

I helped facilitate the Healthy Women's Artisan Seminar the first week of June and it was so great it deserves its own blog post. Then I went to Coiba where I did the BEST snorkeling ever and saw the entire cast of Finding Nemo. Sharks, dolphins, sting rays, fish of every color, it was beautiful and amazing.

The end of June I went to an island in the Carribbean (I know, my life is SO HARD) to teach a community how to build composting latrines. It rained the entire time I was trying to work with them, and the mud round our work site (since the island is swampy mangroves & marshy) became almost knee deep MUCK. But, the latrine got built successfully and the Volunteers and her community members felt confident about continuing the project, so that was a win. I went there thinking I would be there for 4 days, and then due to the weather was there for 8. The last day was too muddy to do ANYTHING so they took me to the bat cave.

Yes, the bat cave. Thousands of bats. It was cooler and less...icky? than I expected. When you say, 'Let's go see a couple thousand bats' my gut reply is 'Uhh, no.' But the people were convincing and I am really glad I went. There was even a part in the cave where the floor drops out and you have to wedge yourself into a crevasse to pass to the next section. Terrifying. Worth it.

Oh, the World Cup happened. It also needs its own post. Seriously.

I spent the 4th of July playing ahem, BEAN BAG TOSS (or cornhole for those that don't know its proper name) and Frisbee games at a PCV's house here in San Felix. We grilled pork, made a bunch of guacamole, red/white/blue rice krispie treats made with cornflakes since Panama doesn't have rice krispies, and I made chocolate cake. I'm telling you, my new life is super fancy.

The neighbor brought his television circa 1970 over (I am actually not exaggerating) and we spent a good amount of time searching the yard for the best place to put the antennae so that we could watch the soccer game.

I spent the following week in Panama City doing my paperwork to close the grant for my project and to finally put an end to the check debacle from last January. That was a hug relief to have it behind me! I also spent time with the PCVs from my training group. Once upon a time, I would have been leaving Panama with them, but as always, fate intervenes and makes its own plans. It was great to see them and I had fun celebrating the completion of their service. It is weird knowing they are no longer with me here in Panama, but at the same time I am still very excited about my job and I am glad that things worked out the way they did. I miss my family and life in America, but being in Panama feels right for now. Siguemos en la lucha, pues! (We continue in the fight!)

Oh, and this happened. This is a classic example of pop america getting translated hilariously wrong in other languages. What you are listening to is a guy who called in to the DJ (In the Dominican Rep, I believe) to request his favorite song. He doesn't know the name of the song, but knows the chorus...'Estos son Reebok o son Nike' (Are these Reeboks or Nikes?) and somehow, this amazing DJ, figures out what song this guy is thinking of...

I will never hear that song the same way again. (Btw- they're Nike!)

The Party of a Lifetime

I have the best teachers in the world. In Playona, that is. I mean, I had some great teachers throughout my life, but in my Embera community, these teachers are top notch. They show up to class and care about whether or not their students know how to read. They are concerned about the well-being of the community. They volunteered to help chaperone when I took 16 kids to an ultimate frisbee tournament out of town so I didn't have to coach and supervise my team of 12 year olds alone. (Thank God!) They also put together a presentation for my goodbye party, in Spanish, a despedida.

I had been out of site since March 19th, with the exception of 3 terrible hours on April 9th when I removed all of my belongings and Peace Corps Staff announced to my community members our removal. By the time May 15th came around, I was dying to go back.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival that morning was the wall-sized butcher paper mural in the town meeting hall that said, "Thank you Licda. Amber Naylor! We wish you good luck and success! Remember us, don't forget us, and carry us with you in your heart always! With love, the teachers and students of Playona"

The teachers had found 4 women to cook the arroz con pollo, the Panamanian party dish of rice, chicken, veggies, and orange MSG. When I handed them 45 pounds of chicken and 50 pound of rice, they realized they needed more help. Many of my ladies volunteered immediately for the chance to get to cook for me one last time. They laughed, joked, shooed kids and dogs, and posed for pictures for me. I left the women working and stumbled upon the best going-away present imaginable, all of the finished composting latrines.

At 1pm the school gathered the whole community into the town hall and did a presentation for me. Each grade sang a song, each teacher thanked me for what I had done and shared fun memories, and then different community members were given a chance to do the same. Some of the little girls did the traditional Embera dances for me and the teenage boys played flutes (albeit hilariously terribly!) with them.

After that I presented each family with a certificate honoring the work they put into the project. The average family had accumulated 145 work hours, and the project president topped out at almost 250 hours. I then presented 5 awards to people that were just really outstanding to work with. We ended it with a video slideshow of my time in Playona. Then it was time for some delicious arroz con pollo!!!

I also had a chance to play some games with the kids and prepare them to come out to Meteti for the Darien Ultimate Frisbee tournament, visit some of my favorite people's houses, and get painted one more time.

I spent my last hour at my host family's letting the boys take pictures with my camera and playing with the babies. Finally, my host dad reminded me that I really had to leave to make the last chiva to Meteti. I got lots of hugs and high fives and then he took me to the port. The chiva was late, so I had time to sit there with a couple of my community members and chat for a bit before the truck showed up. Throughout my entire service, I adamantly didn't drink in my community because it is a controversial topic. (Either you are an alcoholic and going to hell or Christian and sober, there's no middle ground) But when the guy running the shop at the port offered me a free beer, I accepted it.

My chiva driver took me straight to the Volunteer house in Meteti where several of my Darien friends were waiting with dinner. We had a relaxing night chilling in hammocks and going to sleep early before the big Darien Ultimate Frisbee Tournament!!!

Finishing the Project

On Monday March 16th, I had tried to hold a work day. We were over halfway through building the last 6 latrines. Only 2 people showed, of the 36 workers there should have been and over the last several weeks I had been running into this problem consistently. Nearing the end, families were getting tired. It had been several months of hard manual labor. That afternoon I called an emergency mandatory meeting and had a chat with all of the project families. I asked them who the project belonged to, and we again talked about how this was not Amber's latrine project, that this was Playona's project. The health committee started this project before me and they would continue it after me.

I clarified that the project was not about who has spent more hours working for who, but about improving the health of their children, their families, their neighbors and friends. We reflected on the trainings where we learned that the issue of child malnutrition and illness was a serious life-threatening risk in the community. I asked them to think back to the health seminar and picture the health goals they set, and we talked about how even if your family has a latrine, unless your neighbors do too, you and your family are still at risk.

I explained to them that they were the one large scale, completely successful composting latrine project in the entire country of Panama and that other communities were looking to them to be an example. Their eyes widened to hear that the failure of composting latrine projects in Playona would not just affect them, but the entire Comarca, the entire Darien, and the entirety of Panama. I told them I didn't want to blame anyone, that I understood that everyone was busy and had a lot of responsibilities, and we were all tired. I asked them for more communication and more participation. If the planned work days were bad for their schedule, we could change them, but they couldn’t continue to plan work days and just not show up for them. Without better communication and renewed motivation, the project would fall apart.

At the end of the conversation, the usually boisterous and argumentative, always shouting group of Emberá were quiet. They agreed with what I was saying and decided to commit to finishing this round of latrines within the week. The next day, 15 workers showed. Wednesday, we were back down to 3. Thursday, what ended up being my last day in site, there were 7 workers. I wasn't sure my conversation had worked. Thursday afternoon I was asked to leave my site due to security concerns in the region. I left the project in the hands of the Health Committee and reviewed what needed to be done in about 5 minutes before I had to leave. 

In the following weeks, I was evacuated from my site and relocated on the other side of the country. When I was escorted back to get my stuff, and to explain to the community why I no longer lived there, the latrines had not been touched in my absence and my health committee was nowhere to be found. In the shock and confusion, one of my latrine owners came up to me and said, "Amber, what happens with the project now?" All I could do was tearfully apologize and say that it was up to them now, that I could no longer be a part of it.

When I came back for my goodbye party in May, I had no idea what to expect. I had been able to communicate very little with my community in my months away. While the women began cooking my goodbye meal, I walked over to my house where a bunch of my guys were finishing my latrine. It had been half built when I left in March. That morning, they put the finishing touches on my latrine and proudly showed off the other completed latrines, as well as the 22 post-construction surveys I had left with them. I was speechless. They put aside their family feuds and community politics to work together to finish the project for my goodbye party. I have never been so proud of them. They did it. I was not even there, I was barely able to call them during my time away, but they made it a priority to get it done so that I could be sure to see them. 

My Health Committee president, Victor, told me, "You worked so hard on our latrines, I just wanted you to be able to use yours one time before you left!" My counterpart, Atilio, said, "We are serious about the project. We want you to take pictures of our latrines and show your bosses that we are committed and dedicated to the health of Playona. It's super important." And my second host dad, Jorge, said, "I am sorry that you have to go. I was looking forward to having time to hang out with you and have you teach me how to make sandwiches in your last couple months. But I am very grateful that I had the chance to build my latrine with you. Thank you."