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."

Friday, May 9, 2014

The New Address

Lic. Amber Naylor
Entrega General
San Felix

It is almost as easy as the previous one, just one extra line. And now I even live in the same town as my post office, so that is exciting.

Life update coming soon, but for now, at least I can start getting snail mail again!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A New Adventure

This morning, I officially accepted the position as National Sanitation Coordinator for Peace Corps Panama! I will be living on the western side of the country, supporting current latrine projects and assisting current PCVs to prepare, manage, and sustain sanitation projects. It is a unique opportunity because it is a job that the Panama has not had for quite some time, and they are hoping to make it a permanent position.

The bottom line? I will be here in Panama until October 11, 2014.

I am still sad about the evacuation from my old site and can't wait to see my community again for my goodbye party in May, but I am also very excited about this opportunity. It is a way to continue the work I have been doing in a more stable region, and to further develop the Environmental Health program, so that one day in the future when Peace Corps is allowed to return to my region, they will be trained and ready to pick up where all of us have left off.

On a personal note, it will also give me a chance to get to know the other side of the country, to work with a lot more Volunteers, and since I will be living in a community with electricity, running water, and internet, it will be much easier for me to start thinking about life after Peace Corps.

It will take some time for the job to get processed and my housing to get lined up, so for now I will continue being homeless, living in a hostel in Panama, but at least now my life has some direction again. I am incredibly grateful for the time I had with Playona and for the opportunity to continue my Peace Corps service in Panama.

“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” 

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Becoming Homeless

On Tuesday, March 18th there was a security incident related to drug trafficking in the Comarca. On Thursday, March 20th I left Playona. On Monday, March 24th, the 6 of us PCVs in the area requested a meeting with the PC office to talk about it. They assured us that it was an isolated incident, that our security was their top priority, and that they would look into the situation further. In a follow up meeting on Wednesday, March 26th, they said the the border police, US embassy, and the PC office would be doing 3 separate investigations and evaluations of the area and that we all needed to be out of site until April 7th in order to give them time to assess the area. Our impression as Volunteers was still that we would be cleared to go home on the 7th.

In the meantime, we finished our Close of Service conference, enjoyed a long weekend in paradise in San Blas, returned to the city long enough to do laundry, and then traveled down to the Azuero Peninsula to distract ourselves on the Pacific beaches near Pedasi. We stayed at an Eco Lodge where we spent a few days surfing, kayaking, reading in hammocks, and watching movies. On the way home we got a ride with another traveler from the lodge who offered us a free trip right to our hostel, and bought us lunch. She said she was hoping to not have to do the drive by herself, and we were excited to forego the long 7 hour bus ride.

On April 7th, we met with the Country Director and Asst. Country Director who told us their decision was the close the area of Cemaco and restrict it as a red zone for the next year. In a year or so, they would assess the area again and consider sending future PCVs, but for now, none of us were going back. They then held individual meetings with each of us to present us with our options, but I was not interested in thinking about that yet. That afternoon we had a few logistical meetings to coordinate the evacuation of all 6 sites in 3 short days. I spent the evening making phone calls to alert my community what was going on.

Tuesday Danielle and I went to Meteti with a staff member. Wednesday morning we evacuated Danielle's site, and we did mine in the afternoon. The teachers heard about my leaving and organized a last minute goodbye for me by cooking the traditional Panamanian party food- rice and chicken. My incredibly short 3 hour visit was not very party like. We packed my house, I visited my host family, I talked to all the latrine owners about finishing their latrines, and then we had a community meeting. The staff member explained the situation and I told them that I was going to be allowed to come back for a one day goodbye party in May. It was a very short meeting and left most of my community members in shock. I tried to eat some rice and chicken and visited with the teachers, then went back to my house, put my kitten in a bag to bring him out to Meteti, (Jaguar was apparently hit by a car in my absence) and we drove away.

Thursday the rest of the group went to evacuate 2 sites and I stayed in Meteti. There was apparently a coronation of some priests for the Catholic church at the Meteti basketball court, and 15 girls from my community were invited to come out and do some traditional Embera dances for the celebration. I spent 2.5 hours sitting on a concrete bleacher in the sun with my girls, being the troublemakers in the back of the service and getting glares from the nuns. After the service the wife of one of the presidential candidates bought my girls and I ice cream, and we walked to the church for lunch and the girls' performances. They had to leave at 3 to go back to Playona and I went back to my hotel to shower and nap.

The crew from the Comarca showed up shortly after 5 and we went out to our usual hangout  'restaurant' for dinner, then had a dance party and hung out at Aja's house for the night. At 1AM we realized we were locked out of our hotel and considered scaling a wall, but then found a hidden unlocked door.

The next morning another group went out to evacuate the last two sites, and I spent the morning watching Pirates of the Caribbean with a few PCVs. After lunch with Danielle, Ben and I got on the bus and left the Darien, getting to the hostel at 8 that night, where other PCVs were waiting to see us. The rest of the Comarca crew showed up shortly after 9 in a super packed SUV.

And then we were homeless.

We spent the weekend in Panama City hanging out and starting to think about what life had in store for us next, knowing that the office would be waiting for us to make those decisions on Tuesday, April 15th.

An Unexpected Ending

“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it's wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”  -Elizabeth Gilbert

On March 19, 2014, my friend Ken, a fellow PCV visiting my site to help me form an Ultimate Frisbee team, woke up at 6AM and went out to my porch hammock to read. I laid in bed half sleeping, half listening to the morning noise of my community- people walking to the river for their morning bathe, kids chasing each other with buckets sent to haul water for the house, the sounds and smells of my neighbors cooking. It was a cold morning, I was curled up in my fleece sleeping bag. It was probably 78 degrees Fahrenheit, but with the dry season's lack of humidity, that was pretty cold! I finally got myself out of my warm blanket and mosquito net, stumbled out to my porch, tripped over my cat and started boiling water for coffee.

I sat on the bench and watched the morning activity of my community for a few minutes, then we had oatmeal and coffee for breakfast. My neighbor boy Josecito stopped by for a few minutes before I shooed him off to go get ready for school. I was sweating by the time the Colombian kids crossed the soccer field headed to the school. Ken and I talked about all the things I needed to do that day. A few of my project guys showed up at 8AM telling me they wanted to work. I reminded them that I had my frisbee workshop and that while I couldn't work, that they could continue without me. They grabbed my tools and started working on the latrine behind my house.

I visited Claudia and reminded her that I would need to get her parumas later in the day to sell them at my Close of Service Conference (a week long seminar to prepare us for the last three months of our service in our communities). She asked me about the recent drug trafficking incident in another community, and I told her what I knew. She told me stories about what it was like living in the midst of FARC in Colombia, and why her and her husband chose to come to Panama as refugees. She was concerned that after everything they went through to get away from it, to get out of Colombia, that it would come back to haunt her again. I told her that it was one isolated incident, that PC had already told me that I could stay in my site, and that I had never felt unsafe in Playona. She agreed with me and smiled.

I spent the morning fixing the tubes on the composting latrine in the center of town, and resealing the back door after we took out the compost. I also went and visited the guys working- after a week of only having 1-2 people willing to work, I finally had 7 people working. We talked about the incident and they all reassured me that I was safe and then continued telling stories and making fun of each other as we worked on the latrine. I went to my host family's house and spent half an hour playing with the toddlers, holding my one month old baby brother, and talking to my host mom. We made plans to stitch together when I came back from my conference and the latrines were finished.

At 11:30, I went to the school during their recess and asked the principal if I could use her classroom for my frisbee workshop at 3. She gave me some chocolate candies and told me that would be no problem. Then Avelino, another teacher, stopped me and gave me a page long, handwritten letter asking me to be a guest of honor at the school's first ever student elections in April. He asked me to talk to them about what leadership is and what it is like being a role model. I told him I wouldn't miss it!

I returned to my house and had some phone calls from other PCVs in the area, they were all very concerned about the situation in the area and asked me to come to Meteti that night where they would all be. Since I had been planning on leaving at 6AM the next day anyway to get to Panama City, I decided that one more night wouldn't make a difference in the long run, and I would have a chance to see some PCVs from the west side that were visiting that I rarely ever saw. I agreed to come out, even though that would highly complicate my to do list. Ken started making lunch for us- fried plantains with guacamole, as well as a stir fry. I went and checked up on the latrine progress, finished the office latrine, and started packing my back for a week out of site. We were out of water, so we decided to bathe before lunch. I grabbed my empty water bucket and soap and went down the crooked cement stairs to wash a couple layers of cement and dirt off. Josecito was already out of class so he came over and climbed on us until we agreed to throw him a few times. Not wanting to be left out, Grismaldo swam over and joined in. I talked to a few of the women, the usual Embera conversation:
Hey Friend! Are you bathing?
Yes, I am bathing.
Good, bathe then.
Ok, are you bathing?
Yes, I am bathing.

I filled my bucket with water, put it on my head, and we walked back to my house. We ate lunch and I made some posters for the workshop. At 1 when school got out the kids started coming to my house every 10 minutes to ask when we were going to play.

Ken did dishes after lunch, and I cleaned up my house and hurriedly packed everything away into my little room. I left out a bag of cat food for Jaguar and her kitten, Rey Leon. (Lion King)

At 3 I grabbed my posters, tablet, a disc, camera, and whistle and walked to the school. I rang the bell at the school and blew the whistle, waiting for the kids to show. Two toddlers wandered over wanting high fives. We spent the next hour trying to round up kids. When we got 4 kids, we sat down to watch the videos about ultimate teams and to talk about what 'Spirit of the Game' is. They didn't want to participate so getting answers out of them was like pulling teeth, but we survived. We went to the field to start playing shortly after 4. We did huck drills, cutting drills, and played a game called 'Big Box'. We ended the practice with a spirit circle and talking about the upcoming frisbee tournament in Meteti. The last thing we did was a giant group high five, then the kids ran off scattering to the wind.

Just after 5, I walked into my house to see I had a missed call from my taxi driver saying that he was almost there. Javier showed up in the moment to work on my latrine, and I told him that I had to leave for my conference, but would be back in a week. I ran to Claudia's to get the paruma's from her and when I started leaving she gave me a hug- something that never happens in Embera land. At that point the taxi was there so I ran over, tossed my bag in the back and hopped in. As we pulled out of town a bunch of kids ran down to the road to wave me off. We literally drove off into the sunset.

That was my last day living in Alto Playona.