Embassy Family

As perviously mentioned PC introduced us to an embassy family.
JJ and Marcela with their children, baby Daniel and Isabella
This is our third stay at their house and as before they are generous and genial hosts. I have no problem offering help or resources to other people, but it makes me uncomfortable accepting the same in return. They do not expect payment, but I get twinges of conscience taking what is so freely given. That aside I really enjoy visiting them. JJ and Marcela are close to our age and feel more like friends than host parents. I feel more relaxed in their home than crammed into a hotel. Also, it is ever more difficult to find available rooms in the city and prices go up accordingly. Trying to find a place to stay that we can afford is a stress I do not miss.

Having made the full group shot I could not resist making a Panamanian portrait of us. Marcela saw it and asked "Are those your parents?"

Day 358 - Volunteer Service - Amargo Plant

This is a local fruit. The camposinos call it amargo which means bitter. I asked a local MIDA (Ministry of Agriculture) Employee and see called the plant balsamina. You can eat the red seeds inside. They are a little sweet. The leaves are also brewed as a tea for an upset stomach.

Day 358 - Volunteer Service - El Salto (The Waterfall)

 The very first time we visited our village, we were taken to see El Salto, the jump, which is what they call the waterfall.  For along time I didn't know what they were talking about because they would say "the place where the water jumps" (el lugar donde el aqua salta).  We walked along the road the cars take.  It was about a 45 minute walk.  It is beautiful, but we don't want to spend an hour and half round trip walking there with frequency.  
Then Teri visited and we thought, we should take her to see El Salto.  Instead of walking the road we decided to walk along the river.  By following the river it is only maybe 20 minutes away.  So I think we'll be visiting there with more frequency. 
We spent an afternoon frolicking in one of the pools near the end of the cascade.  Little fish nibbled us.  Then we had ourselves a little photo shoot.  With something this beautiful close by it is easy to take it for granted.  For more beautiful pictures visit our online gallery
When we started walking back we encountered Junior lavaba oro (washing gold - or I suppose a less direct translation - panning for gold).  This is a favorite pass time of the men,  It's kind of like playing the lottery.  If they are really lucky they just might hit the jackpot.  (He is wearing pants in the picture, I know it is hard to tell.)


Day 354 - Volunteer Service - Article 4

This article appeared in the Ames Tribune Newspaper on April 25, 2008.

Panama's threatened environment

Two days ago, another truck-load of illegal wood rolled out of town. Wood harvested at the edge of a river on Earth Train's 4,000 acre Upland Rainforest Campus. It is really sad to see these massive tree trunks on a flatbed truck go by with six Panamanians and their chain saws.

What can I do? I guess the best would be try to help this family find a way to make a living that isn't illegal and damaging to the community and environment. The problem is that nothing pays like the black market.

In Panama, it is illegal to sell or buy trees without a permit. The National Environmental Authority, the agency authorized to police these matter is underfunded and understaffed and may be prone to bribery or negligence. It often happens that people get permits for certain trees in the local ANAM office and then go up into the mountains, far away from ANAM employees, cut whatever trees they want and sell them without penalty.

Panama is plagued by environmental problems such as deforestation and soil erosion, stemming in part from poor enforcement of its laws. Panama has set aside about 30 percent of its land for habitat protection.
Earth Train is an international organization that works with youth to develop the skills, experience and global network necessary to become effective leaders for environmental stewardship and positive social change. Earth Train is managing and restoring 8,000 acres of Panamanian pasture and forest land. The area is threatened by cultural and value conflicts. There's poverty, social inequity and threatened environments.

Earth Train's land borders Kuna Yala, the semi-autonomous ancestral territory of the Kuna tribe. The indigenous Kuna call it the divine Madre Tierra. Many thousands of migrants see it as the promise of tierra propria, meaning cattle, crops, increased economic security or just plain survival.

Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to Aug. 2009.


Day 343 - Volunteer Service - Photos

More new photos with captions for your enjoyment. This is the walk of The Virgin of Guatalupe from our town to a neighboring town. You can read more about it in the comments of our photos. In the new photo link.

Visitors, T-shirts, and the Hair Buzzer

The month of April has brought us our first volunteer visitors. Teri stayed for two nights then our regional leader Alison visited. We took some photos of us and Teri playing in one of the nearby waterfalls but they are good enough to deserve their own post.

This is Alison making a sour face, but I only took one photo so... Foy looks happy!

This is part of the view from our porch. For about half an hour in the early morning when the sun breaks over the valley everything is golden. Just a bit more incentive for anyone who is considering a visit.

In the process of getting a masters degree in illustration I ended up with a masters degree in Photoshop (best image editing program ever) as well. There are many subgroups in PC, and each group commemorates its existence by making t-shirts. Photoshop is good for many things not the least of which is making t-shirts. When someone says ¨Who can do the t-shirt design?¨ This string of somewhat related facts plus my love of praising my own abilities leads me to say ¨Oh! Oh! Me I could do that. It will be a snap.¨

We made a special trip to the PC office in Panama so I could use their computer with Photoshop to finish our regional t-shirt. It only took three separate visits and five hours to put it together.

These are all the volunteers currently living east of Panama City. They are my regional PC family. Why are they all cut out looking with deadpan expressions on their faces?

Because, this is a example of the family portraits that can be found in most Panamanian homes.

PC brings in two new groups of volunteers every year. This fellows name is Franklin, and he works with volunteers in training. He has a constantly, overwhelmingly cheerful attitude, and speaks nonstop English in an understandable but very distinct accent. One of his favorite exclamations is ¨OH MY GOD!¨ During training enough of our group became sufficiently enamored with Franklin to select him as our Group 59 shirt.

In the first ten weeks of training when we learned that our site does not have electricity. I asked my mother to mail me a battery powered hair buzzer. Apparently this is hard item to come by. She eventually found a battery powered beard trimmer in one of those ¨gifts for that guy you can´t think of a gift for¨ magazines, and mailed it as a Christmas present in early December. The box arrived in February and when we got back to our site we mentioned that we had gotten our Christmas gifts. The next quest being ¨What did you get?¨I listed our haul. That same afternoon this teenager showed up on our porch and asked if I would give him a hair cut.

He asked what the charge was, and foolishly I said nada. As we have mentioned before there are only a few teenagers in our town, and none of them girls. Without girls to annoy, TV to watch, or video games to play, cutting hair is about as fun as it gets. They asked to borrow this new source of amusement that very day. The next day when they did not bring it back I went to retrieve it. I tried it out when they handed over, and it made a sad little buzz the batteries being nearly dead. The buzzer runs on two AAAs and that is enough for a limited number of full hair cuts. One of the boys had not had his turn yet and asked if I would cut his hair. We went back to my porch and I told him the batteries had enough strength to start but not to finish. He was sure I could get the job done so I proceeded about half way until the machine could no longer cut through his thick black hair. Over the next several weeks the boys pestered me to get them more batteries, but I staunchly refused. The first set only lasted one day, and I did not want to get into the trap of buying a never ending supply.

Several weeks later I cut my own hair using the batteries out of one our head lamps. We didn´t have any meetings coming up for a bit so I decided to shave my head. When our neighbors next saw me they told me without reservation that it looked awful. I don´t think it looked that bad. The boys asked why I had ¨cut to zero with the Gillette¨ and not used ¨the machine¨. I told them the batteries were all used up. Ingenuous and ingenious. All along they had been waiting for me to buy more batteries. Knowing that I was willing to suffer such an awful fate before purchasing new batteries they were forced to by their own.

I do not care to guess how many batteries have been drained since but only the soccer ball is borrowed with more frequency. Since Feb. they have probably each had more than ten haircuts, and when like Barbie there is just not enough left to cut they have gone around and cut small children's and parents' hair, just for the fun of it. If I chose to train barbers instead of teaching English or working on environmental projects I think I would face far less resistance.


Day 331 - Volunteer Service - Sage advice for incoming PCVs

**New Update***
Contacts are great, just make the extra effort to keep your hands and cases clean. I know PC says not to, but many PCVs use them. Jeff has gotten pink eye once. So now we use hand sanitizer before taking the contacts in or out. I say hell yes bring them. PS. Nobody checked to see if we had two pairs of glasses.

As far as computers, I say bring a nice cheap or old model. If it's a fancy computer say worth more than $500, get insurance too. Also backup your photos frequently. You don't want to lose those memories.
In response to the request by the Iowa couple coming to Peace Corps Panama (how cool is that?), I have prepared some sage advice.

What I wish I knew when I started training that I know now:
  • Do not judge your success as a volunteer by when you finish a project that brings X things to Y Panamanians. We like to have quantitative proof we are getting things done. But in the end, a Peace Corps Volunteer is here to share culture and insight change. Change that may take many more than two years to come.
  • The Peace Corps Office has a library. You just take and give on your honor.
  • Insurance - if you bring any electronics over $500, get insurance. Stuff gets stolen.
  • Couples go to really remote places. None of the five couples from our group have sites with electricity.
  • Panama City has a store called Riba Smith where you can buy all your weird american and organic food you can't find anywhere else in Panama.
  • Training is going to be stressful, know your limits. Sometimes you just have to take a mental health moment, then get back in the grind.
  • FYI - Peace Corps will force women to have pregnancy tests if they say they have had sex since their last period before they get the yellow fever or hepatitis vaccine. There will be a sneaky health form that will ask you these questions and others during your first week retreat.
  • Ask your cellphone provider to give you the code to "unlock your chip". Then you can buy and new chip for four dollars when you get to Panama and use your old cell phone in Panama. Not all cell phones work on the providers here, but it is a much cheaper option and you'll have a way nicer phone than the other volunteers, who bought the $30 model.
  • Peace Corps volunteers get half off all Chacos sandals. There's a special order form in the Peace Corps Office you fill out to get the discount.
What to bring, or not:
  • One head lamp per person. They are so useful!
  • Quick dry camping towels are wonderful in a humid climate. All of Panama is humid.
  • Quick dry clothing is also wonderful.
  • Short wave radio - you might just get NPR or the BBC
  • Board Shorts - Jeff lives in his.
  • Men's leather dress shoes - don't bother, Jeff's are just sitting molding in the closet. He wore them for swear in only. Some guys wore Chacos to swear in.
  • Duct Tape - It's expensive here, if you can find it. It is useful.
  • Magic Eight Ball - all signs point to maybe
  • Filter - don't bring one, Peace Corps provides them.
  • Pajama pants or shorts - you wind up sleeping in dormitories a lot.
  • White Clothes - don't bother they stain, 'nuf said
  • Dress Clothes - are lovely if they can also double up as everyday stuff.
  • Music and a way to play it. Sometimes it's the only thing that will keep you sane.
  • Black sharpie marker
  • Silica packets to put in with cameras and electronics to prevent humidity damage. Many cameras and computers are lost to humidity.
  • Jump drive or other USB memory device
  • Map of the world, so you can show where you live and just how small Panama is.
  • Ziplock baggies of different sizes
  • Pictures of your home and the state. We have a book of pictures of Iowa and our neighbors love to look through all the pretty pictures. Printed pictures of your family are also nice, especially when your laptop gets stolen that had all your photos on it.
  • Hair buzzer - two guys from our group had friends send them hair buzzers, so they could cut there own hair. This made them incredably popular with the Panamanians as well.
Most importantly don't bring anything you wouldn't mind losing. Stuff gets stolen, damaged or moldy. We took that mentality to it's extreme. We are wearing $10 silver bands instead of our real wedding bands. When we were robbed of our computer, it sucked, but we had our insurance and we brought the computer knowing it could get stolen or damaged.

Also, you might get inspiration from our packing posts: