Day 35 - Service Training - Cultural Week

We completed our Cultural Week in The Darien. We were at another volunteer´s site. The Volunteer and the Regional Leader for The Darien and Panama East were both there. It was fun. We stayed with a host family that had four - 20 something kids living at home. It was a good experience. One night we watched a movie in Spanish with English subtitles that translates, more or less, to ¨The Jungle of Columbia´s Drugs¨ or something like that. It must have been made in Columbia and it was just terrible. Later on we watched most of an illegal, theater dubbed copy of ´The Fast and the Furious III´ in which you could see the shadows of the people in the movie theater move around or hear people cough or what not. It was in English with Spanish subtitles. At the end of the movie the DVD just crapped out, so we don´t even know how it ends.

We did more than just watch movies with the family. One of the Spanish instructors came out with us and she taught Spanish for three hours a day, usually in the morning. Then in the afternoons we did little activities like working with the school garden, visiting a women group´s garden and making totumas (bowls made from the fruit of a tree, picture right). We talked Spanish a lot. I can now see why volunteers get together with other volunteers just to speak English. I think Jeff and I both gained confidence in our Spanish and improved our ability to speak quicker with a bit more fluidity. By no means are we fluid, but we aren´t quite as halting as we used to be. It takes a lot of brain power to translate constantly.

We tried to glean more about our site, since both the Regional Leader and the other volunteer had visited the area. However they were illusive. They told us we´d just have to wait for our site visit.

As it turns out, I won´t have to go cross country alone like I had feared. Jeff goes all the way to Pananome with me, and then we split up for the last hour or so of the trip. I finally got an itinerary for the Technical Week. I feel a lot better now that I know the plan. There were a lot of emails going on clarifying details, so I think I was not the only one worried about how to get there. However, lacking email in the site we visited, I didn´t get all the information until today, Saturday at two o´clock. We need to be in our technical training location by three on Sunday.


Day 28 - Service Training - Site Announcement

On Wednesday we officially found out our site location. We are going to be North in the province Panama Este (Panama East), in a little town. Here´s the only decent map I could find. Ignore the solar eclipse stuff. We will be North of Chepo (almost in the middle top of the map). That is kind of near where we´ll be. You´ll have to click to enlage the image.

Here’s the site description straight our of my book:

Located in a beautiful valley, one will find your town along with three other
communities. The valley is unique in that it has a microclimate due to an
opening to the Caribbean which allows cooler, moister air to ender the valley,
keeping it generally greener and cooler year round. An added benefit of this
microclimate, apart from cooler, more enjoyable temperatures is a very rich and
diverse flora, making it a great place to enjoy Mother Nature. At the west end
of the valley, are the headwaters of the beautiful river, which make for a great
adventure for anyone who loves hiking or horseback riding followed by a
refreshing swim in the pristine waters. The whole valley is accessible by foot,
but if you enjoy horseback riding, this might be your preferred method of

So I guess we could own horses if we wanted. They are only about $100, or so I‘ve heard.

We will be about a three hour trip out side of Panama City. There is a 1 hour trip from Panama City to a neighboring large city by bus. Then a one and a half hour trip in a Chiva (a 4 wheeling truck with the bed set up for passengers, very uncomfortable and very crowded). That’s the least exciting part of our trip and the last leg that should take us into our town.

We get a cooler climate, which I am thankful for because sometimes it’s too hot and humid in our host community to sleep. There are also two Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in our site. At the top of the valley (about an hour’s walk from our village) Earth Train has set up camp. They are working to create sustainable living for the people in their area as well as reforestation. Word of mouth has it, that they have built an aqueduct that brings water down to their village while simultaneously turning a water turbine. This turbine gives out 5,000 watts of power. Enough for every house to have a light bulb, and run Earth Train‘s computers. The best part is they are USA based, so there will be some native English speakers to help me perfect my Spanish. Earth Train is also bringing in four high school students, for a semester, to work with them and teach them about sustainable living and develop leadership skills.

The second NGO is CREA. I’m still not sure what that stands for, but they are specifically sustainable agriculture techniques. Hopefully these two NGO’s will be a great boon to our projects with Peace Corps as well as friends.

What else do I know? We do not have a Ye Ye site. (Ye Ye is a preppy, ritzy type of deal in Panama. Most Americans are Ye Ye.) In our village some of the houses have running water. However, the water is not potable. We will not have electricity. I guess we should figure out how to get that solar panel to work. We’ve heard we should use the panel to charge a car battery and then charge our computer from that. I’ve also heard tell that some company makes a Nalgene like bottle with a solar panel built into the lid. The solar panel, when charged, powers a LED that shines into the water which defuses the light, creating a lantern. Supposedly this little lamp can last up to eight hours when fully charged. Just a hint incase someone is thinking of something to send us.

We get to officially visit our site in week 8 of 10, which would be the second week in July.


I wake up between 3-4am each morning because our bed makes my back hate me. This morning around 3:20 while standing it the little space next to our bed trying to stretch out the elusive muscles in the middle of my back, I decide as long as long as I’m up I should visit the bathroom. We don’t really have a “bathroom”. The latrine is about 20 feet from the far side of our house, but the tricky part is that our house is in lockdown mode.
With very little noise, in the complete darkness, I exit our room cross the living room and feel for the big chair. Why the big chair? Because, after 9:30 each night our family double locks the door, sets a long 2x4 to cover the crack at the bottom, then places the large living room chair to block the locked door. I stealthily move the chair and 2x4, unlock the door, and flip the deadbolt open. The opening in the porch is covered at night by a large board held up by a tree stump so I hop over the low porch wall and walk the length of the house. As I reach the corner of the house the roosters start to crow.

I don’t think our family has a rooster to go with their chickens, but there are plenty around and when one starts up they pass the message like dogs howling at the moon. I don’t know why they started up at 3:20 am. The sun wasn’t coming up, but contrary to popular belief roosters do not crow at sunrise. Well they do, but they also crow all day, whenever the feel like it. I can hear one now as I type this. Gallos tontos. (stupid roosters)

I stop and listen thinking, gallos tontos, then turn the corner and step on a board that clicks against a cement block three feet from our host parents bedroom. Two seconds later the light comes on over my head followed by three other lights, one for each side of the house. I scamper through the dewy grass to the latrine, and sit there reviewing my options hoping the lights go off. Julia, our host mother, comes out with a roll and asks “Does Foy need toilet paper?” I pop my head out and tell her that “There is some here already. Thank you.”

In a way it is comforting that so little noise can bring Julia out to see who is there in the middle of the night. This place must have been like Fort Knox for the boyfriends of their three daughters.

The latrine is clean, well ventilated, and other than toilet paper, empty. With no other options I peak at the house and Julia bless her soul is not to be seen. With long even strides, barely bothering to concealing my predicament, I cover the distance to the porch, over the wall, and into our room in record time.

I tug on a pair of boxers.

Then I head back out to lockup and reset the blockade. The exterior lights flick out one by one and my little adventure is done.

Foy has recommended that I not share my little story too freely in the community due to the speed gossip travels, but in retrospect I thought it was amusing enough to earn a post.


Day 29 - Service Training - The Implosion

I walked out of language class this afternoon in tears of exasperation . It’s been coming for a while. The majority of my frustration is because I don’t have a place to be alone here. It’s something I need. Even our bedroom which does have a door, only has walls to about seven feet and then is open to the sloping zinc roof. Not having my own time and space was okay for a while.

I imploded today, for a number of reasons. Not having alone time being the greatest. But also, Jeff didn’t come home for lunch today, I didn‘t realize he wasn‘t coming back. He’s a good part of what keeps me going. Also, in technical class, we tasted a bunch of coffee and I think the caffeine wore off right about the time language class started. The last straw, so to speak, was discovering during language class that Jeff and I are all the way out in the province of Darien for our Culture Week. Jeff and I travel all the way out together, because we are the only Asprirantes in the Panama Este province. Then after that week, we go strait to Technical Week separately. I go across country over to a town which is on the corner of the provinces Colce, Herrera and Veraguas. It’s a long way to go by myself. This maybe the first solo trip I take. I found out about all this traveling today, less than 39 hours before we commence travel.

If there is anything I have learned about Peace Corps it is to be ready for anything, because they tell the volunteers very little and/or very late. I like having a plan, or at least knowing the plan. I’m sure that someone at PC headquarters rationalizes this mental limbo the volunteers are in as “good training for when they get to their site and things don’t go the way planned”. Maybe they don’t even know they create this psychological halfway house. Or maybe they realize we all have to go through it and just try to minimize.

So after realizing I needed to make a solo trip across Panama, Peter, the Country Director for Peace Corps, arrives. All the volunteers go on little walks with him, to get a little one-on-one time and get a little talk about sticking with our two years of service. It’s about this time that the tears start coming. He enters our language class and asks if I would like to take a walk now. Sure why not, I definitely don‘t want to be in class. I somehow managed to cry my way through the whole 15-20 minute talk. Peter was really good about it. He didn’t press matters. Afterwards, I didn’t go back to language class, I just picked up my books and started walking. I eventually walked myself home. I’m still not sure how to reset my mental state. I think writing this is helping. And, as always, sleeping it off seems to be one of the best answers for me. Also visiting this near by waterfall is always reviving.

I’m not rethinking being in PC. I want to be here. I have been told people from the USA need more alone time than practically any other culture. I’d believe it. Culturally here, there is more to adjust to than I have ever experienced before. With the pressure and frustration of learning a new language added on top, I’m actually surprised I haven’t imploded sooner. And I know I am not the only one. I’ve talked with many other aspirantes and they are also working through rough patches.

I debated about whether or not to post this entry at all. However, I feel it is important for people to realize that Jeff and I have taken big steps into integrating ourselves into the culture in Panama, but that there isn’t always and easy and clear path. We are acclimating to a lot of things and sometimes it seems we are walking blind up a slippery slope. But, we are making it.

We’ve been here over a month now. We only have to make it through two more months of training and then three months of living with a host family at our site. By November we should have a house of our own. Maybe by then I’ll be so intigrated into this culture that I won’t want alone time. (Um, yeah right.)


Day 24 - Service Training - Photos of Host Community

My posts have been sadly lacking in pictures. So here´s a post of all pictures. This is a quick tour of our host village.

Above: This is our house. The little cement slab with the stumps is where the men sit to shoot the breeze. It is actually much more breezy there than up on the porch.
Above: Jeff with the dogs. These two are four months old. Ken is the brown one and the white is Bobby.

Above: This is El Rancho Technico where we have our tech training four hours a day. Notice the hard metal folding chairs. Those are not my friends.

Above: Jeff with a chocolate bar. The name brand is Orley. It made me smile. Grandpa´s name was Orley.

Scroll down

I posted but the blog is in cronological order. To read about our Embera visit scroll down. Or Click Embera visit.


PC yahoo group

I have been lazy/busy and not typed up a post but I did ask about the yahoo group for PC Panama #59. Apparently you just need to send an email to PCPanama@yahoogroups.com and you will get an automatic response telling you how to join. Only family and friends of this trainie group will be able to find it because the group is hidden. You cannot search yahoo groups for it. One of the other trainies set it up for you all to exchange information and support.

An interesting side note: I really like mangos. Mangos hate me. Apparently the mango tree is in the same family as poison ivy so the leaves and skin of mangos can cause a poison ivy like response if you are sensitive to it. I happen to be very sensitive and not only do I get the rash but it spreads. Normaly I like to post with pictures but not to day. The medical people have some pills that are not as quick as what I have gotten in the past but they appear to clear up this problem. Thank god for small misfortunes. Sorry for any mis spellings. As of today no troubles not worries.


Day 19 - Service Training - Embera Visit

Our site visit was better than I hoped. We visited an Embera community. Since the site we visited is a touristy spot, we got a little mini vacation. There was lots of sitting in hammocks and napping. Jeff is going to write more about what we did, so I am just going to share this one little story.

On Sunday we hiked up into the mountain with Jeff and Cynthia, the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) we stayed with, to help their friend Francisco bring huge logs down to build his new casita (little house on stilts). He had a brand new beagle mix puppy. She was so cute! Her name is Lassy. She raced up and down the steep mountain trail. She’d be ahead of us and then behind and then cry when some one wasn’t keeping up and then be right where you wanted to walk. When we started bringing huge 20 foot long logs down the mountain she was right there too.

Eventually I got too tired to help. I only took two trips down with logs. Jeff took four, but then he was beat too. The PCVs suggested we just climb down to the river and float back instead of hiking back the way we came. This sounded like a good idea so Jeff, I and Cynthia slipped and slid our way down the steep slope to the river. Lassy came too. Francisco and Jeff (the other Jeff that lives there) stayed to bring down the last of logs. Once we got down to the river we all jumped right in to the refreshing water.

Everyone that is except Lassy. She wined and cried and ran along the bank as we started floating down river to the village. Eventually the bank became a steep wall, she was stuck. I kept thinking if we got far enough she would decide to swim with us. However, this just wasn’t the case. Cynthia wound up carrying Lassy in her arms as she waded down the river. About this time a canoe with two guys from the village and three tourist happen by. We must have looked so bizarre. Imagine in the middle of Panama seeing three Caucasian young adults fully clothed, and soaking wet, floating down the river and one of them carrying a dog.

I wish I had my camera.


I went in an added entries for dates back to May 29th. So you might have to do some back tracking to find them all. Or use this list:

Day 14 - Service Training
Day 13 - Service Training
Day 13 - Service Training (Second Entry for the same day)


Day 18 - Service Training - Embera Visit

I just wrote this for an email, but I think I´ll reuse it for a blog post in the interest of time.

It´s a really strange experience in Panama. I still feel like I am on vacation. We´ve been here three weeks, but we are always with someone who speaks English so it isn´t complete immersion yet.

We just spent the weekend visiting an indigenous community North of Panama City. We stayed with a currently serving volunteer couple. It was a lot of fun to see what they were up to. They are economic volunteers and are helping their community with managing tourism. They had lots of wonderful projects including building restrooms for the visitors and starting a Girl Scout troup.

All the other trainees each went to visit a different volunteer. We haven´t been back yet to see how their trips went (I´m at the bus station), but I´m sure ours was one of the best. We got to stay in a house on stilts with no walls and a thatch roof. It was amazing. The locals were very friendly and they have the most musical laughter, and they laugh easily and often. I felt really welcomed even with my poor excuse for spoken Spanish.

One day we hiked up into the mountain to help bring down big logs for house building. It was a lot of work and I couldn´t carry more than three down before I was exhausted. Jeff managed to carry down more bigger and heavier logs than me, and he has the bruised shoulders to prove it. Instead of walking back the way we had gone up, we cut down to the river and swam/floated back down to our community. We also visited a waterfall and took several motor canoes into different communities. I can´t wait to get my pictures posted, but I don´t have them with me. So I guess we´ll just have to wait until I get another chance.


Embera visit

In Peace Corp´s speak the people in group #59 are not volunteers, we are aspirantes (applicants) until we finish PST (Pre-Service Training) and are sworn in. Last weekend all the aspirantes were given a vacation from training. We all boarded Diablo Rojos (The busses in Panama. We will definitely have a post on these guys later.) and dispersed to current volunteers sites. Group #59 has five couples, we were lucky and got to visit one of the three available couples that are serving in PC Panama.

Friday afternoon we found our selves at the bend in the river that serves as a port and paid three dollars to have a man take us up the river in his dugout canoe with small outboard motor clamped to the back.

We visited Jeff and Cynthia. They are a wonderful couple from Texas who have nearly finished with their 27 months in Peace Corps. Like most people nearing COS (close of service) they say it passed too quickly. They live in a small Embera community and as we debarked I thought, "This is what I think of when I think of PC". We wandered up through the small village and found their house, but no one was home. The Embera speak Embera and Spanish as a second language and I was able to ask where our hosts were. They said Jeff had not told any of them that visitors were coming. So we must not be expected and no one would be home for a day or two. We climbed up into their house and fortunately Jeff showed up in less than an hour. The house they have built for themselves in the Embera style is quite nice.
They have running water and a generator for electricity in the evening if there are no tourists visiting the village. Their hammocks are magnificent and we spend the rest of Friday hanging out and talking to Jeff. Over the next two days I tried my hand at their version of spear fishing. We helped harvest some primary rainforest for a new house (carrying full sized logs down steep jungle slopes in tropical humidity is immensely hard work ). Then we visited a waterfall, and swam in the river.

The Embera have a friendly open way of interacting with each other. They were a little shy around me, but I enjoyed their tonal way of speaking. Jeff says some days when he is feeling frustrated, one of them will just come and give him a hug and it really brings up his spirit. Jeff is constantly joking and telling them extravagant obviously false stories and the children love to come visiting. The only words I remember in Embera are greetings. Phonetically spelled (misspelled) they are Mana Jaba (Hello my brother) and Jaba Whaina (Hello my sister).

I hadn’t realized it however, the constant classes and general tension of PST were starting to drain me. The relaxation and fun we had at our host couple’s site was exactly what I needed. The nature of our training is changing and next Wednesday, the 13th, is site announcements. Then we travel for regional and technical training for the next two weeks.
Sadly this week we lost two fellow aspirantes. One was very homesick and choose to go, the other had to go because student loans can be beastly things. It is surprisingly hard losing these people considering we have only known them for less than a month, but in situations like these strong bonds grow quickly. God speed and g’luck my friends.