Thursday, May 5, 2011

Just a typical workday...

April has passed in the blink of eye... and May has arrived bringing with it baseball and some hot hot weather! It also signals the halfway point of my third year extension, just six months left. My job as regional coordinator has been very different from my first two years and I have gained a valuable new perspective on Peace Corp and development work. A lot of people ask if this job is more 9 to 5 or Monday thru answer is usually "sometimes but...well not is kinda hard to explain." So, I took some along my camera on a recent site development trip to try to better explain what I am doing in beautiful Panama.
Back home a "business trip" usually involves driving and flying to meetings usually wearing heels and a suit. Here the preferred modes of transport are usually 4 wheel drive vehicles, hiking, public buses and my personal favorite boats. Professional attire usually means a polo shirt and jean skirt. Here I am traveling to a community meeting with a few other volunteers and Peace Corp staff.
There are three meetings that myself and the staff have with a community before they are eligible to receive a volunteer. The first meeting I visit the community, usually with other PCV's who live nearby, to walk around talk with local leaders and generally check it out to gauge interest in Peace Corp. If that visit goes well, I set up a second meeting where the program assistant comes out and talks more about what is Peace Corp, who are the volunteers and what are the commitments the community has to make to work with Peace Corp. The third meeting is then with the director who talks about the project the community was to work on with a volunteer. The above photo is of one of the programming assistants, Antonella, presenting the information at a school.

Plenty of space to park and its free. No need to read the parking rules here. Complete with security guards and everything!

Back home, an early wake up call usually means rushing to get to the airport or jumping in your car to make it somewhere on time. While waking up early never gets easy, it doesn't hurt when you are treated to sunrise over the Caribbean. I will miss being out in nature almost everyday....except when the weather is bad!

These next few months will be full of visiting volunteers, working out in the campo, and helping to train the next group of regional coordinators. I am trying to enjoy my last few months here, while still planning for what is to come.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Panama Carnival Tour 2011

Panamanians love to celebrate and have a good time. Any reason to call up some friends get a caja (case) of beer and put on some music and it is a party. Even my neighbor tells me that ever Friday is Sabado Chiquito or little Saturday...that alone is reason enough to celebrate right?! But a party that lasts that lasts for 5 nights and 4 days, you can guarantee they look forward to that all year long and pull out all the stops. I know we have Mardi Gras in the US, but I have never experienced a entire country shutting down to party. Carnivals happen all over, from huge New Orleans style celebrations, to smaller Carnival like fairs, to neighborhood gatherings. Here in Panama key elements of a good Carnival include water, music, dancing, street meat, reinas (queens-in both senses of the word), and a beer or two. To celebrate Carnival has its own verb, "Carnavalear" or "To Carnival" action, one says "Carnavaleando" or "Carnivaling". "Estoy carnavaleando!" or "I'm carnivaling!"

One of my favorite outfits! The Geisha Reina.

After a little convincing from my friends and remembering that this is my last year here in Panama, I headed down to what is considered the heartland of Panama, an area called the Azuero. It is a big peninsula that juts out into the pacific side of the country. It is also home to the biggest Carnival in Panama, in the town of Las Tablas. There are almost no hotels in the area, and to take advantage of the huge influx of visitors, local families rent out there homes. They literally clear out everything and move into the backyard for 5 days. Several Peace Corp volunteers who live in the area, rented out houses so it was one big sleepover.

Carnival kicked off Friday night March 4th with parades and a huge dance party that went all night. Then Saturday day was the start of the culecos or huge tanker trucks filled with water that are parked all around this huge square. In between getting sprayed, dancing and eating, the floats start to come through. Here in Panama, there is Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo. These are the two queens and each one has their own floats, outfits and bands. After the culecos end for the day everyone goes home to nap, eat and get ready to go out again that night. Another huge dance party Saturday night followed by another Sunday of culecos...all until the party comes to an end Tuesday night.
A view from one of the tanker trucks looking out over the streets in Las Tablas. The band for one of the floats is in the middle.

I left the party Sunday afternoon with my friend Joanna, but on our way back we decided we hadn't had enough Carnival. So we called up a few other friends and went to another party in a town called Dolega, in the province of Chiriqui. This one was much more mellow, more like a fair. There was still culecos, lots of music and food. We even decided to go back that night to go dancing. While i was dead tired on Tuesday as I headed home, I was so glad i got to experience not one, but two very different Carnivals.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New Digs

I know, I know....I have been a huge disappointment to my loyal blog readers! Not writing an update since September is inexcusable. But I am back on track and realize that just because I no longer live in my community, lots of great things are still going on here in Panama. So, whats been going on in the four months since I last updated? Lets recap.

October found me wrapping things up in San Cristobal and getting ready fo
r my move to Changuinola. It was a busy month as I was rushing to finish my last project of improving the artisan stores. The goal was to make our two stores more tourist friendly by painting them, making signs and putting up information about the community in English and Spanish along with the awesome community maps the kids created a few months prior. Below are a few picture of the finished product.
All in all they came out really great. It felt good leaving my women's group with a visible reminder of my time in the community. Aside from finishing that up, I spent a good amount of time visiting with people, taking family portraits and having a goodbye party! My party or "despedida" consisted of two huge piƱatas, lots of food and general chaos. It was a great way to go out. Below are photos of me with all the kids and also of my women's group in their traditional dresses or "Nagwas".

Needless to say it was very hard leaving my community at the end of October, but knowing that I would be able to visit over the coming year made it a little easier.

November found me jumping right into my new job as Regional Coordinator. I visited seven volunteers completing their first year to evaluate their progress and seven new volunteers who had been in site for one month. I also spent a week with the sub director of the sustainable agriculture program visiting meeting with communities who want a volunteer in the coming months. It was a great month of traveling and I got to be inspired by the work my fellow PCV's are doing.
December found me in the states for a month of much needed vacation! It was great to see family, friends and relax for the holidays. It made me look forward to coming home at the end of this year.

January found me back in Panama...and happily returning to my shorts and sandals! I visited a few volunteers and spent time organizing a tour of Changuinola for a new group of volunteers as coordinating our regional meeting which takes place every four months. I found myself visiting government agencies, booking meeting rooms and running all over town so that things went off without a hitch. All in all it is good to be back. I am happy with the work I am doing, but I am looking forward to see what this year brings. It will be full of transitions and for that I am grateful. To the left is a photo of my new even came with a dog!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What is better than 2 years in Panama? 3!

As my second year here is coming to a close, my friends and family have been asking THE QUESTION....¨So, when are you coming home?!¨ A few months ago the answer was ¨I am not sure, I might stay, who knows...¨ But I can now say that 2011 will find me here in Panama, extending my service for a third year. While most of my close friends and family know I will be staying, most don´t know exactly what it is I will be doing. So I have finally sat down to explain how my next year will be spent.

Here in Panama there are several options if you want to extend your service. You can stay on in your community for a few extra months or up to a year if you are finishing up a big project or working on something specific. For example, my friend Kaitlyn is staying for an extra five months to finish a project to bring rainwater collection tanks to her community. Another option is to take a coordinator positon for a certain project, but not necessarily working in the same community. For example, my friend Jesse (and closest volunteer) is moving to David (a large city) where he will be coordinating composting latrine projects that are happening around the country. His home will be in a city and he will travel to help people with construction and implementation. Peace Corp is going through lots of growth so there has been lots of opportunity to create your own job.

I have decided to go for option number three which was to apply for a postition as a Regional Leader or RL. Peace Corp Panama started the RL program and it is now used as a model for other countries as well. A RL is a third year volunteer who lives in a regional captial and acts as a liason with Peace Corp staff. Ideally, the will have lived for two years in the region as a volunteer, so they know the area well. I applied a few months ago and got the job! As the RL of Bocas Del Toro, I will have three main responsibilities.

First, is site development. This means coordinating with the various programs directors to find communities in my region who want volunteers and have work. I will be responsible to doing intial visits, talking with people, seeing if it seems like a good place to live, gathering information. There is a lot that goes into developing a community to recieve a volunteer but that is the simplified version of it. I am excited about this part of the job because it means getting out, hiking, boating, who knows...maybe even a horse ride, to meet communties. I have dedicated myself to one community for two years, so it will be great to see more of this area.

Second, is volunteer support. This involves a lot of things from personal support, to keeping track of them in an emergency, organizing regional meetings, offering advice, and letting people stay at my house sometimes since it is in the capital.

Third, is agency relations. This means maintaining a working relationship between Peace Corp and different government agencies that partner with us. (for example in the US this would be akin to department of health or EAP etc.). This helps us connect on projects and work opportunities that are happening in our area. I guess you could say I am the Peace Corp representative they would work with.

Needless to say, this was not an easy decision. I miss my family and friends and I know there are things I have missed out on. But, more than that it is a great opportunity for me to get more work experience and I owe it to myself to go after anything that is helping me to define who I am, my goals and helping me create a vision for who I want to be in the next several year. Plus it doesn´t hurt that I will now have a house with electricity and indoor plumbing.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


August. I knew this month was coming closer with every flip of my calender, but it snuck up me as it usually does. This year, August has brought with it many important milestones in my life. First and foremost, the 17th meant turning 29. Scary to think about entering the last year of your twenties. The twenties have been good to me and I don't want them to end. Secondly, the 14th meant exactly two years here in Panama. Those of us from my group (62) who have stuck it out, got together to reflect, talk about where we go from here and to celebrate our accomplishments. It is sad to think about leaving my community and not seeing the great friends I have made here on a regular basis. Third, and maybe the most exciting is that my mom is here visiting! She came to celebrate my birthday with me and see Panama. We spent some time in the mountains, three nights in my community and of course are seeing some of the beautiful beaches of Bocas.

A highlight of the visit, was that my Mom and I planned an small afternoon workshop for my women's group. Being an artist and teacher, my mom really wanted to do something creative with them, Spanish or no Spanish she was pumped. We put on a workshop she taught them how to make fabric beads out of fabric scraps and straws, knot buttons, and a new wrapping technique that they can use for their necklaces and bracelets. It was great and the women were pumped that my mom actually came. Below are some photos of the visit and the activity with my mom.

Hope everyone is well! Sorry I haven't gotten to some of the questions that have been left, Erin...wink, wink....but I haven't forgotten!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Paradise Found

For as much as I get tired of the heat and the bugs, living in a tropical paradise does have its perks. Rain forest, animals, beautiful beaches...the list goes on. Fortunate for us volunteers we get the chance to discover all of the out of the way places other tourists do not often have the time or know-how to go see. In between the business seminars that I wrote about in my last post, I took a few days vacation to head out to Coiba, an island that is a national park in the Pacific.
On the map below you can see Coiba just above where it says "North Pacific Ocean"

Coiba National Park has been on my "Panama must see list" ever since I read about it in my guide book. The n

ational park includes Coiba island, 38 smaller islands and the surrounding marine areas within the Gulf of Chiriqui. In July of

2005 the entire park was declared as a UNESCO world heritage site for the rich biodiversity.

It is part of the Galapagos chain of islands and Coiba is the largest island in central america with an area of over 50 square miles. About 80% of the island is untouched forest and is home to rare plant and animal species found only on the island. It is surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific Coast of the America.

If that wasn't enough to make you want to go there, a

penal colony was built on the island in 1919. During the years that Panama was under the Dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, the prison on Coiba was a feared place with a reputation for brutal conditions, extreme tortures, executions and political murder. Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed in the prison during this period, but sources claim that the number could be close to three hundred. As such, the island was avoided by locals, and other than the prison, was completely undeveloped. The prison was closed down in 2004, but there are still police officers stationed there to protect the ruins, watch for poachers and to help the environmental authority protect the park.

Sounds pretty great right?! Scary prison ruins, snorkeling, undiscovered paradise. The only hitch, it is over two hours in a boat to get there, each boat is $500 dollars and the only place to stay is a few cabins that are near the ranger station. So when my friend Mateo organized two boats to go out, I said sign me up!
Me and 11 other volunteers spent two days snorkeling, touring the prison ruins, drinking pipas (young coconuts) and having a great time. We saw whales, dolphins, snorkeled with sharks, turtles, beautiful fish and incredible reefs. It really was the most beautiful and wild place I have been in Panama.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rumbo al Exito

Being a community economic development (or CED) volunteer here in Panama is a job that has many parts to it. Obviously the bulk of our efforts and work as PCV’s is focused on one community and often one group and one specific business. The range of projects amongst CED volunteers is pretty amazing. Some of us work with fisherman’s cooperatives, chocolate producers, farmers, artisans, tourism groups, and community microfinance. Big or small, Latino or Indigenous, CEDers work to help people improve their businesses, by helping identify areas that can be strengthened and teaching them the skills to do so.

In addition to the work we do in our communities, we often participate in and facilitate seminars which are designed to help us with our work. For example, a seminar that all volunteers attend with their counterparts is Project Management and Leadership or PML for short. (Side note: a counterpart is our main work partner in a community. Often the president of the group or someone motivated to organize a project. My counterpart is Esperanza, the president of my tourism group). PML teaches basic project planning and management skills such as time and money management, organizing a group, running a meeting and problem solving.

Recently, there has also been a push to develop a comprehensive seminar to teach professional business planning. Over the years PCV’s have worked to develop and adapt material to most effectively teach the material to people who often have no formal business training and little or no computer skills. Last year, I was able to participate in the seminar "Rumbo al Exito" or "Path to Success". With the vice president of my tourism group, Sergio, we wrote a professional business plan complete with full qualitative and quantitative analysis of the business. It was a lot of work, especially in Spanish but we both learned a lot. This year, those of us who took the seminar we asked to serve as facilitators. We had over 40 participants...20 volunteers and their counterparts took part in the seminar which took place over two in June and the other just finished up on July 9th. The first seminar focused on the qualitative information then in the month between they were required to gather information about all the costs. It was a lot of work, but a great experience. Below are some photos from the two seminars. Enjoy!

Pumping up the energy with some games or dynamicas. A favorite is a version of rock, paper, scissors called "hombre, tigre, rifle"
Maria, a officer from a IPACOOP (Panamanian government agency that manages cooperatives) and Ben G. talking about including salaries for your employees to your operating costs.

Teachers extrordinare! From left, Lisa S., me and Lisa A.

Part of the group hard at work. We divided up the room by type of business. This is the tourism table.