Friday, December 4, 2015

A Stroll Across a Bridge

Day 10- August 16, 2015

A morning rainstorm and physical exhaustion from crossing the country on public transport kept us sleeping until 10am. We finally got up and started figuring out the details of the border crossing. Ben planned the first few days of the trip while I made oat pancakes and eggs. We received news from our travel buddy Seneca that he had been offered a job with the EPA! We were excited for his opportunity, but disappointed as it meant he wouldn’t be joining us as the third musketeer.

Leaving Changuinola at 12, we arrived at the border by 1. Whilst getting the stamps and tax paid was not intuitive nor straightforward, crossing into Costa Rica was as simple as strolling across the bridge. The moment seemed so anti-climactic. I stopped halfway across the bridge and looked around. This was it, after living in Panama for 3.5 years, I was leaving, and all I had to do was walk across a pedestrian bridge. There wasn't even any mud to contend with, border police to argue with, and the sun wasn't even broiling my insides yet. 

 A two-hour bus ride brought us to Hone Creek, home to a Costa Rica PCV who let us use her house, even though she wasn't there. We dropped our bags then went to the grocery store- our first test in managing the local currency, colones. With some confusion we acquired some food. “1,000 colones is 2.2 dollars…so this peanut butter is really cheap! It’s only 3,000 colones!”  “Amber, that’s almost 7 dollars.” “Oh, right. Never mind.”

Back at "home" we made stir-fry for dinner and went to sleep early. Costa Rica felt exhilaratingly different, but comfortingly familiar.

Today I am grateful for all of my memories of Panama...

...and for the adventures that await in Costa Rice and beyond!

Also, Costa Rican currency is a work of art!

Distance Traveled Today: 58.3 km
Total Distance Traveled: 945.3 km

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Crossing the Isthmus

Day 9- August 15, 2015

Up at 6, we ate quickly and were in the bus terminal at 8. Disappointed to find there was no daytime direct bus to Bocas, we settled for the longer Panama-David-Changuinola route. After 11 hours on a bus, the last 5 of which were incredibly trying due to an over packed bus going through mountain passes, we collapsed into beds at the Volunteer house of Chang just before midnight. Ben felt sick, I was exhausted, and it was raining. 

On the way, we finalized our travel adventures wish list. Adventures should include, but are not limited to:

    Scuba Diving
    Tequila Night in Mexico
    Visit at least 1 PCV per country
    Climb an Active Volcano
    Cliff Jumping
    See Aztec Ruins
    See Mayan Ruins
    Swim in Lake Nicaragua
    Artisan Markets
    Art Museums
    Theatre & Concerts
    See a Jaguar
    Ride Sea Turtles
    More Scuba Diving
    Visit a Brewery
    Get Lost in the Jungle & Survive by our Wits
    Kick it with the ‘Gente’

Looks like a good start.

Today I'm grateful my entire life fits into one backpack!

Distance Traveled Today: 647 km
Total Distance Traveled: 887 km

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Third Goodbye

Day 8- August 14, 2015

Maybe my host brothers were on to something- I woke up on the floor. My knots loosened in the night so my day started with my back straddling uneven floorboards and my feet up in the air. It’s a great way to start a travel day.

We dashed off to see Victor before breakfast. We took pictures with him and his family and he gifted us GIANT cucumbers. All four of them were 3-5 inches in diameter. Diameter, not length. Back at Yuli’s, we had a fried breakfast smorgasborg of fried tortillas, fried corn mash, fried dough, fried plantains, cucumbers, and coffee.

My last visit was to my second host family, the retired pastor and his wife. We chatted for awhile and he ranted about the terrible water system project the government had installed. He was right, it was a terrible system for the community, but every other person in town had ranted to me about it in the last 36 hours so I had trouble mustering up empathy. I gave Jorge a Spanish/English Bible, each page listing the verses side by side in each language. I told him to practice his English for my next visit!

Then it was time to go. A flurry of handshakes, high fives, hugs, and then I was at the river. Bombelé had put a special little seat in the front of boat just for me. It was the first time I disliked how short my boat ride was. It was the third time I’d left this community indefinitely. While I can’t say I was used to it, it wasn’t as apocalyptic as it felt the first time or two.

The rest of the trip to Panama City was straightforward and quick. Leaving Playona at 10, we were at the hostel in Panama City by 5pm. While making dinner that night, we bumped into an RPCV back for a visit. He’d finished his service the year prior and backpacked Central America just like we were about to. We shared our dinner with him and he shared his adventures with us.

My last task before sleeping was to repack. It was a highly frustrating process because I couldn’t eliminate enough stuff. There would be mountains and beaches, so I needed hot and cold clothes. There would be hiking and museums, so I needed outdoor and city gear. There would be 8 different countries of parasites, so I didn’t dare part with any of my meds. I got my bag to close easily but it was still uncomfortably heavy.

I gave up and went to bed cranky.

Today I am grateful the bittersweet ending is also the beginning of a new adventure!

Distance Traveled Today: 240 km 
Total Distance Traveled: 240 km

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Claudia's Special Day

Day 7- August 13, 2015

Standard Emberá morning: 6am, rice and chicken for breakfast, doing laundry in the river by 8am. My “little sister” 15-year-old Miliana, 13-year-old Celideth, and 19-year-old Melis, joined me and we quickly got sidetracked storytelling and teasing each other.

After hanging out the laundry to dry, changing, and having another cup of coffee in the hammock, I heard a motor on the river so I set off down the bank to see if Ben had arrived. Halfway there, I heard Misael calling my name, “Djabawera! Who are you looking for?”

I looked up and saw him sitting in Yesmelida’s house with Ben, each working his way through a plate of rice, beans, and fried plantains. Laughing, I ran up to join them and was handed my own bucket to sit on and plate of food. Misael retold us his version of the story of his house collapse from the week prior while we played with the puppies and toddlers in the house. When we were quite full but started to suspect that Yesmelida might cook again, we made our excuses and left.

Our next stop was to pay a visit to Claudia.

Claudia was born around 1980 in the jungle of Colombia. She didn’t know her father and her mother died when she was very young. Her grandmother raised her in a small village until she was 13. From there she was sent to a small city to live with her aunt and work. She married at age 15 and moved with her husband Olbidio, then about 20, back to a small Emberá village. Their son was born in 1996. All of this took place amidst the Colombian civil conflict between the government, FARC, and various narco trafficking cartels.

In 2003 she was among a group of 35 Emberá who decided to flee the violence. In the middle of the night, they filled 7 wooden canoes with themselves, a little food, and a few material possessions. They paddled downriver, day and night, for 9 days until they reached the Panamanian border. They spent a few days at the checkpoint, getting refugee papers. They had to sell all of their boats and nearly everything they had brought with them in order to pay the entrance tax allowing them to live in Panama as refugees. From there they walked, the group swelling to hundreds. Sometimes she tells me it was a few hours, sometimes she tells me it was a few days. I’m not sure she remembers anymore.

The group arrived to the first Emberá community on the North end of the reservation, Canaán. A dozen tribal leaders representing different communities were there, and each selected a number of families to adopt into their village. Playona, then just a village of 100, all very poor subsistence farmers, adopted 16 families. They crowded the families into the canoes and brought them downriver to the village where the community donated homes, food, and firewood. The families were given their own plots of land to farm and the children were enrolled in the school.

Yet it wasn’t a neat and tidy transition for anyone in the community. Government and international agencies donated aid projects for the refugees, but the Panamanian Emberá took them for themselves. The Panamanians, already poor, felt threatened by the Colombians, afraid they would steal their resources and bring the drug violence into their community. 

I arrived in Playona eight years later. By the time I got there, the community had driven out all but 5 Colombian families. Some had saved enough money to move farther into Panama, others had decided to go back to Colombia, despite the continued violence. At my first women’s meeting, without my knowledge, the Panamanian women refused to let the Colombian women attend. Whenever there was a crime in the region, it was blamed on the Colombians. Some people even told me I shouldn’t go visit the Colombian corner because I would get kidnapped.

Despite all of this, Claudia and Olbidio managed to open a successful store in town. It was the only one with refrigerated items, consistently stocked, and open all the time. Their son completed his education through middle school and started working. Olbidio attended a local community college and finished his degree in community development. Meanwhile, Claudia ran the store, dawn to dusk, every day of the week. She learned how to make the traditional woven plates and baskets, so between customers, she made some of the best quality crafts in town. This year, the tenth anniversary of their arrival in Panamá, her and her family received Panamanian citizenship.

Claudia was my best friend in Playona. She wouldn’t let me buy things from her store unless I asked for them in Emberá. She loved to tell me about Colombia- the good and the bad. Every time we talked she reminded me how lucky I was for my life, but not in a self-pitying or jealous way. She wasn’t bitter about the way her life had turned out, I think she prefers her quiet homely life, but I could tell she also loves to live vicariously through me.

Upon arrival, I gave Claudia my presents from my trip to Colombia- a rosary from Bogotá, postcards of the country, and a piece of Colombian candy. She was so happy she almost cried. Claudia ushered us upstairs to her kitchen to feed us big bowls of plantain chicken stew with rice and cold soda. She was babysitting a 4-year-old girl and 10-month-old boy for her neighbor who was off harvesting plantains. The tiny humans spent the afternoon jumping, squealing, laughing, and climbing all over us while I taught Claudia to make cacao brownies.

By the time the brownies came out, Ben was asleep in the hammock with the toddlers passed out drooling on the floor underneath him. Claudia and I laughed at the scene as we scooped ourselves generous portions of chocolate goo. (Her stove didn’t heat properly so even after 2 hours the mix never really set up.)

We reminisced about my time in Playona and Claudia almost choked on her brownie laughing when she remembered the time my mom came to visit and was afraid of the rooster. The conversation lulled for a minute and we each stared off across the treetops, lost in our own thoughts. Then Claudia said,

"Amber, I'm alone here in my house most days, running the store. But today, with you two here visiting and cooking with me, was a grand day. Today has been very special for me, and I’ll never forget it. Thank you, djabawera."

Don’t worry Claudia; I'll never forget it either.

From there Ben and I went to the middle of town where we took turns playing volleyball and chatting with the spectators. The kids told me, "We want you on our team, even though you're not very good." I'll take that as a compliment. At dusk we played- I mean, bathed- in the river then hung out at Yuli's with the boys (my other host brothers were there since my host mom was gone). I made everyone cacao drink and we ate it with bread for dinner. At bedtime, the boys marveled at our fancy hammocks and were terrified of how we sleep in the air. They happily curled up on mattresses on the floor below.

Today I'm grateful for this amazing lady!

Monday, November 30, 2015


Hey friends, there was an unexpected delay in posting. Hopefully now we are back on track, a story a day, Monday through Friday.

Day 6- August 12, 2015

By 8am, I was sitting in a hammock under Irasema’s hut, eating a bowl of cold rice with my left hand while licking guanabana juice oozing out of the fruit and running down my right arm. Ira was telling me the story…

The chainsaw broke agai.  Misael was there with the boys, taking it apart to find the problem. The girls were down at the river doing laundry, thank God. Bombelé, Chicheme, Elpidio, Chibigí, Bichichí, Flore…all the guys were here arguing about how to fix the motor. I was in the hammock when all of a sudden there was a huge crack, and the floor was gone. I screamed so loud! Those men went rolling to the ground like toys. Elpidio slid down head first. So dangerous. We are so lucky. I told Misa a hundred times that we needed to replace that room. The floor had so many holes! Imagine, that post in the corner just slipped off and everyone came sliding down. No one was hurt. I couldn’t believe it. The chainsaw should have taken Elpidio’s head right off. The floor just disappeared, leaving me hanging there above nothing.

And that was why we were crouched underneath the hut, rather than eating inside it, and I for one, was grateful for it. I caught up on the rest of the latest gossip, including sad news that my host mom was out of town with her two youngest boys. Her oldest, my 16-year-old host brother Sami, had been ill for a month and was hospitalized in Panama City. I was very disheartened to hear the news. Not only because Sami was sick, but also because I wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye.

The rest of the morning was a flurry of house visits and plates of food as I tried to say hi to everyone and tolerate the heat. Mid-afternoon I returned to Ira’s to teach her how to make brownies from cacao. Word (and the chocolaty scent) spread quickly so by the time they came out of the “oven”, there was a crowd of ladies and babies huddled around the oven. When I asked Iritzel if she liked the brownies, her face flushed bright red, a grin spread across her face and she nodded- not even daring to look up and take her eyes off the treat.

I left the ladies to finish off the treats. I had to meet with the community leaders one more time. We talked about the community’s desire to continue working with Peace Corps and to pursue the composting latrine project. We filled out some paperwork for Peace Corps and talked about the work for future Volunteers. I handed over my copies of the project documents and we shook hands.

Dark was overtaking the town by the time I had a chance to head down to the river, so it was a quick bath before scurrying back up to my Aunt Yuli’s house for dinner. We settled in with fried plantains and tea while watching an hour of the fifth Twilight movie run off the generator. Just another day in the jungle.

Today I am grateful to see that Naked Baby
has his life together and is wearing a full set of clothes!
You go, Naked Baby!