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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


(That's Panamanian for ketchup.)

So let's catch you up on life. Like I said, I wrote a bunch of stories out that are now locked in my tablet until I return to the US in a few months and get the charging port on it fixed. In the mean time, life goes on.

I spent nearly the entire month of January in the city with a skin infection on my leg and figuring out the legal stuff with the lost check. On the 22nd we had a regional meeting and then after that we went on a couple day hike up to a peak in the Darien. I spent 2 nights in the Darien wearing a hoodie, being chilly. CHILLY. I never imagined it was possible. It was beautiful up there! I went immediately from there to PCV Ben's site to help him and his community build their very first composting latrine! Seeing the idea planted into a new community's brain and hearing that rumors about my project had reached them was definitely a major highlight of my service.

February came and went before I had a chance to even flip the page in my wall calendar. I took 5 teenagers viz public transportation to a youth leadership/health camp about 3 hours from our community and facilitated that camp for a total of 40 youth from all over the Eastern half of Panama. Life lessons learned included things like 'how to flush a toilet', 'how not to get HIV/AIDS' and 'how to set a goal'. We had a blast, and I wrote lots of stories about it. Also, I learned some cultural lessons like what to do when one of your teenage girls gets possessed by a demon. You'll have to ask me about that story in person sometime.

I took the 5 teenagers home to leave with 3 10 years olds 36 hours later for the Costa Rican border, again via public transportation. I met up with other PCVs and together we wrangled dozens of 'pollitos' or 'little chicken's across the country to an ultimate frisbee camp for a week. They loved it, I loved it, and I have never been so tired in my life.

While at frisbee camp, the Peace Corps office moved heaven and earth to get the funds back for my project, so that on our way home from camp I ordered materials to start the last round of latrines. I collapsed into my hammock on Saturday the 15th of February and don't remember accomplishing anything before Tuesday when materials started arriving. Wednesday the 19th seven other PCVs arrived to help with the construction. 5 were there to learn how to build them and to talk about the future of their projects (they are new EH PCVs) and 2 were my neighbor PCVs Danielle and Ben. They were there for 5 days and we got some serious work done, and I think they learned a lot. I am excited for the work they will do in their sites!

I don't remember the rest of February. I think it is safe to say that I was either asleep or building latrines!

The first few weeks of March were lots of slow work days and hanging out in Playona. There are lots of other projects going on right now, including rumors of installing electricity (!) so getting people to work was a challenge. I celebrated Fat Tuesday with a family dinner in Danielle's site and when school started I tried getting the ultimate frisbee team organized again.

March ended with a trip to the city for our Close of Service Conference where the PC staff tries to help us mentally prepare for the last few months in country and readjustment back to the US. It was a great chance to see the rest of my group and celebrate a lot of the successes we have had in country.

Immediately after the conference I took my jungle family out to the islands of San Blas for the vacation my Nebraska family missed out on. It was paradise. I don't know why I left! 4 days and 3 nights on an island in the middle of the Caribbean with fresh fish and seafood = AMAZING. My friends and I took lots of pictures to share with my family back home!

This post is kind of cut-and-dry, but like I said, I have forever-and-a-half to share the rest of my stories. For now, I am going to just enjoy the moment in Panama, because before I know it I'll be back in the good ole US of A.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Life Keeps Happening

It's a funny thing. Every day I wake up and life just keeps happening. It's astonishing really.

So, my tablet died, again. I wrote literally 15 pages of stories to post. It was going to be happy reading time for all! Then a few days ago, I turned my tablet on and it only gives me a black screen. It's a fun time. So...going to be in the city this week to see if they can be recovered. We'll see. Not gonna lie, not hopeful. The stories will happen someday. I'll have years in the US to recount them. :)

Until then, I hope all is going well. The next few months and weeks will be insanity until the finish, so all thoughts, prayers, positive energy and warm wishes are appreciated as I finish my 2 year adventure in the jungle and prepare for my next adventure stateside. Tentative arrival to the US is August, for now. It's going to be a roller coaster, but I am excited for it as well.

Also, I think I am going to be doing some EPIC international traveling on my way home via Central American and Europe. Then, drum roll please, I will be moving to...


If you live in that city, please save me a place on your couch. I plan on rolling in around Labor Day.

I love and miss you all.

p.s. My latrines are almost done. So, so, SO CLOSE. I'll let you know when that glorious day arrives, but it is rapidly approaching! (FINALLY!)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

I am Still Alive

I have roughly 7 half-written blog posts in the works. Life is good, but stupid busy somehow. Get excited for the stories.

Peace, love, and gaff tape.

Friday, January 17, 2014

If You Don't Like Something, CHANGE IT. If You Can't Change it, Change Your ATTITUDE.

Maya Angelou said it first. But Brandon Valentine said it most.

Let me Tell You About Brandon.

Leaving for Peace Corps was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. After 48 hours of basically no sleep, being overwhelmed with facts about Panama and general security procedures, dealing with staging in Washington DC, I was greeted in Panama by this warm, enthusiastic smile at the Panama City airport. 

Brandon was the first person I met in Panama. I was almost deliriously sleepy, and emotional train wreck, and in complete state of shock at the time. We had just arrived at the training compound for our introductory first few days in country. At the end of his welcoming and logistical spiel, I approached Brandon. I had an envelope of documents our staging coordinator had asked me to hand off to him. He thanked me profusely for handing him the envelope and asked me my name. I told him, and he replied, 'So you're my other Nebraskan!' and told me that he had grew up in rural Nebraska as well, that his parents were teachers now in Omaha. He pulled me into a giant, warm hug and said, 'Welcome to Panama. I am so glad to have another Cornhusker here with me!' I had traveled over 2,000 miles, but already, I felt at home. I knew I was where I was supposed to be.

I felt like I had a special connection with Brandon because of this moment, because of our shared Nebraskan roots. I did. But yesterday, at his memorial service, I realized that EVERYONE felt like they had a special connection with Brandon. He was one of those bright, positive, and energetic people that you just wanted to be around.

He was my training manager, and his sessions were bright spots in the midst of the tedious monitoring and evaluation seminars and anti-jungle fever lectures. Whether he was teaching us the sign language of public transportation or how to deal with domestic violence, he was a wealth of information and support.

Brandon grew up in Nebraska, and joined the army after that. He was a PCV in Jamaica and loved being a Volunteer so much he served again in Panama for another full 2 years, and then extended to be a regional leader. He was promoted from regional leader to training manager in 2011, and he served us faithfully and enthusiastically until he died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm on December 22nd, 2013.

There are no words to describe the impact Brandon had. In our society, we tend to get caught up on someone's accomplishments, on their resume or list of successful projects. I have no idea what Brandon did or did not accomplish in his life. I do know that he was one of few people who could make an impact, who could change the world, simply by walking into a room. Brandon was amazing not for the outcome of the things he did, but simply for being the man he was. A father, a husband, an American, a Nebraskan, a Panamanian, a coworker, a friend, a leader, an adviser, a true Peace Corps Volunteer at heart.

Brandon would tell us, 'The world has too many people that want to change the world. What it really needs is people that want to change themselves.' My service in Panama has done nothing if not teach me the truth to this statement daily. We are not in control of anything or anyone. We are not in control of society, nature, time, or happenstance. The only thing we can control, the only thing we can change, is how we react to the things beyond our control. And that tiny change can have a dramatic impact.

Yesterday was a memorial service for Brandon. The entire Peace Corps office staff attended, Peace Corps Volunteers from all over the country in every group and every region showed up to honor his memory. But what really got me, what sent goosebumps down my spine, were not the Americans in attendance. It has been 6 years since Brandon left his Panamanian community, and yet many of them showed up to share their love for their redheaded Nebraska son. Counterparts he worked with for just a year-maybe less- from various Panamanian government agencies traveled out to share their memories of this great man. The people of Panama truly loved him. Panama and America grieved together over their shared loss.

Brandon was a bright spot in Peace Corps Panama. He was constantly smiling, I can hear his laughter in my head, and his words of encouragement and support had no end. He was silly, and a prankster. He was real. He'd tell you what was up, he would let you know when you needed to suck it up and tough it out, but he would do so in a way that you felt like your struggles were understood, valued, and important. He cheered with you in your successes and motivated you in your moments of failure. 

Like I said, I felt like I had a special connection with Brandon. It turns out, Brandon had the ability to make everyone he met feel special and important. It takes an incredibly special person to be like this. Peace Corps, the people of Panama, the United States, and Nebraskans, lost an incredibly special person, but I don't feel the sharp pangs of grief one might expect from such a tragedy. I don't feel like crying when I think about how he is no longer a part of this world.

Why? Not because I don't care. Because he lived his life with such joy, such light, such enthusiasm for life that I cannot help but smile every time I think of him.

When I grow up, I want to be just like Brandon.