“What did you do for two years in Panama?” = DOS

Every Peace Corps post (country) is set up differently and within Panama each volunteer has a unique experience. At the end of service volunteers are required to write a Description Of Service (DOS) which is filed at PC Headquarters in Washington DC. That DOS is the only official documentation of our service. We are told that Headquarters will save it for 65 years. The first PC volunteers started in 1961. Assuming that they made them those files are still somewhere in DC.

“What did you do for two years in Panama?”

Not surprisingly I have heard this quite a few times in the last two weeks, and I try to keep my answers short. I know people are genuinely interested but I could spend hours on anecdotes and usually that would be too much. I tend to get sidetracked and it is hard to concisely sum up the past two years. My DOS is not a record of stories, events and life it is not even a full record of the development work I accomplished. It is as succinct an answer as I can give for the preceding question. Below is a slightly edited version of my DOS.

Dates of Service: May 16, 2007 – July 16, 2009

Peace Corps Panama group #59 the day we flew into Tocumen airport in Panama City.

Pre-Service Training

Using a competitive application process, Peace Corps (PC) selected me to serve in the Community Environmental Conservation (CEC) sector in Panama. Foy served in the Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) sector. We arrived in Panama May 16, 2007 and began an intense 10-week training program. We received 125 hours of Spanish language instruction, 40 hours of individual instruction with a Spanish tutor, and 110 hours of technical training. The technical instruction topics for the CEC sector included teaching methodologies, working in the public schools, working with environmental groups, and introduction of appropriate technologies. In the evenings after eight hours of formal classes, Foy and I would sit down with our Panamanian host family and work together on activities to increase cultural and language immersion.

Our host family during training. Sergio, Xiomara, Julia, Verin (Rin), Virginia and little Anna (Kiki).

Community Assignment
Looking out over El Valle on the last day we were there

On July 26, 2007, our group of 32 new recruits was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteers. Foy and I were assigned to live and work for two years in the rural community of El Valle de Madroño.

A view of the whole town from higher on valley side.

El Valle is in the Mamoní river valley on the edge of the continental divide. The town is surrounded by farms, cattle pastures and tropical rain forest. Humidity from the Caribbean makes the climate constantly moist, with daily rain year-round. Once each day, a four-by-four truck provides transportation to and from the sparsely populated area. The community consists of a school and about 20 people, plus up to 40 more living within an hour’s walk. Local families make their living primarily by selling culantro (a spice similar in flavor to cilantro) as a cash crop.


This is the most people we saw on the transport. 33

Our house had a concrete floor, a zinc roof and board walls with gaps between the pieces. We had plenty of cold water but it went out with some frequency because heavy rains could easily damage the aqueduct. We used a latrine and did not have electricity or cell phone signal. The view from the wrap around porch is one of the things in Panama that I miss most. Rent was only $25 per month.
As the first volunteers to live in the area, achieving integration and building trust were slow processes. I spent hours each afternoon sitting on porches talking with community members as I sketched their portraits. After six months, we organized the stories and information gleaned from these visits into a community analysis which Foy wrote out and later typed for the PC office. Gradually, I was invited to work in their fields and help fix the aqueduct. With that base, I began working in the school, starting with maintenance and fixing the school’s plumbing. Eventually Foy and I coordinated with the school to teach a three-hour organic agriculture and gardening class once a week. Outside of school hours I implemented several secondary projects. I offered English language classes for two hours twice a week for six months. With the help of fellow volunteers, we co-led an AIDS / Sexual Health seminar. And, in conjunction with the NGOs Earthtrain and Global Brigades (GB), we organized a group of women to sell ornamental plants to a gallery in Panama City.
Children at the school making organic liquid fertilizer.

International Organizations

Beyond life in El Valle, we found opportunities to work with international organizations and universities. We assisted students from Iowa State University and McGill University as guides. We translated for U.S. medical clinics and for the first Global Brigade to operate in Panama. Building on our connection with Global Brigades, we served as a coordinators, leading student groups from University of Texas-Austin and University of California-Berkeley. Through these collaborations a strong partnership has been forged between Peace Corps Panama and Global Brigades. In written feedback, the majority of students from one group indicated that they had decided to pursue international volunteer opportunities based on their positive interaction with us.

Me with students from Berkeley.

Teaching Peace Corps

Recognizing that current volunteers are potent tools for teaching new volunteers, we participated in the Peace Corps’ Training of Trainers seminar and became part of a select group that assists with Pre-Service Training of incoming volunteers. In addition to Pre-Service Training, we also led seminars at In-Service Training and the All-Volunteer Conference. As two of the four directors for the National Seeders program, we led the regional seeder representatives and were responsible for seed collection, and organized forestry and garden seed distribution to all of Peace Corps Panama.


I sought to make use of my background in illustration during my Peace Corps service. I created covers, illustrations, logos and layouts for Peace Corps Panama and other U.S. and Panamanian publications including:

- Cover and layout for PC - Gender And Development Volunteer Cookbook,
- Cover for PC -AIDS/Sexual Health manual,
- 21 Illustrations for PC - Project Management and Leadership manual,
- Logo and brochure for PC - CEC sector,
- Logo for Asociacion Agro-Pesca Eco Turistica Quebro,
- Illustrations and articles for La Viana, and
- Articles for The Ames (Iowa) Tribune. (Foy’s mother did an excellent job putting this together and submitting the articles.)
Language Proficiency

With the exception of interacting with U.S. university students, all daily interaction, communication and projects were conducted in Spanish. Our fluent understanding and use of Spanish was a critical part of our success in Panama. In the end I received a rating of Advanced on the Spanish LPI (Language Proficiency Index). The LPI has nine ranks. Nine is Superior, eight is the average speaking level of Panamanians and I got a seven, which is accurate. The Spanish I spoke with our neighbors is not the same Spanish that the LPI is designed to measure. I am proud of my score and also a little proud to speak “Panamanian Spanish” with the equivalent of a country drawl.


Before and After Peace Corps Pictures

These are side by side comparisions of the day we arrived in Panama May 16, 2007 (left) and the day we left Panama July 16, 2009 (right).

This is all the stuff we brought and all the stuff we took with us. We left with a bit more, an additional cat, and a red box. Check out the color difference in Jeff's big backpack.

Despite the fact I am hefting everything in the right picture, I actually couldn't carry everything by myself much farther than to the ticket counter. Luckily I had lots of help to get me and the cat to and from the airports. Thanks Marcela! Thanks Mom and Dad and Sarah!


Day 800 - Civilian - Article 25

This article was published in the Ames Tribune on August 1, 2009.

Guest commentary: Here is where I want to be

We have been back in The States about five days now. We are resuming our life as we left it two years ago.

Well actually it is more like life ten years ago. Jeff is staying with his mom. I'm staying with my parents. It's just like when we were dating in high school. I have to ask to borrow the car and sneak in when I come in late so the dog doesn't bark.

People told me to expect culture shock. They told me hot showers, all white people, normal food and houses would seem strange. And they do.

Then there are little things like the sparkly rings on the stewardess' fingers. I don't think I have seen anybody wear diamonds or gemstones in a long time, well, real ones that is. One of the first things Jeff did was get our rings out of the bank deposit box. My real wedding band feels heavy and smooth compared to the sterling silver band I was wearing.

I am surprised every time hot water comes out of a faucet.

I also find I am still translating things in my head. Before ordering ice-cream I considered how to say "twist cone" in Spanish.

Flying into Iowa, I knew the straight roads and flat scenery would be home. However it was the winding rivers and the water towers that made me tear up.

Everyone seems extra friendly and I don't feel self conscious talking to strangers. I don't have to worry about them hitting on me, or not understanding what I am saying. And I am no longer trying to guess what they really want to know, and if a direct response will be offensive.

The whole world is attached to their cellphones. I constantly see people texting and calling. It's amazing. The other night I was sitting at the dinner table while my sister and brother texted and my mom called her sister.

I have visited several grocery stores and bought cheddar cheese at each one. There must be five or six blocks of cheddar in the fridge now. I didn't feel over whelmed at all the choices like people often say they do after living in developing countries. Panama City has a lot of American options and we weren't that deprived. Panamanian food isn't that good, so I don't really miss any food.

I went to farmers' market with my mom and sister. We bought fresh picked sweet corn and tomatoes. At Wheat's Field, the local organic co-op grocery, we found nectarines that were so juicy the only way to eat them is outside.

There is a bit of sticker shock. One of my blocks of cheese was $8.50 for a half pound. I am also astounded by the pre-prepared and individually packaged stuff. Don't people cook anymore? I made my mom save the bacon grease. What? It's good flavoring for the lentils.

I had to do a double take when I saw a dog on a leash and a cat in a window.

I am fascinated by the lawns and well kept flower gardens. July is one of the most colorful garden months, but just the same, wow. I can't wait to go see Iowa State's Reiman Gardens. I'm a little rusty on plant names, but it is coming back.

I miss my porch, I miss boiling water for coffee, I miss the sun going down at 6:30.

Here is nice. Here is where I want to be. I am ready to be home.


Day 795 - Civilian - Last Day in Panama

We are officially no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. We finished our paperwork and got all one million signatures, closed two bank accounts and got our cat certified as healthy.

Jeff's flight left at 2:00 am this morning and mine leaves at 7:00 am. We should be home around 12:00 noon and 4:00 pm respectively.

We have a hilarious picture of us with all our bags, but I don't have time to upload it. We are each carrying 80 lbs checked luggage plus carry-on.

Just these flights and we will be back in The States.

Wish us luck!


Panamanian Recipes: Recipes from Panama

Panama may not be world renowned for it's culinary delicacies, but after two years of cooking in the campo, I have come across some pretty good eats.
Two pots, one of rice and one of pollo guisado cooking
over fagons (open cook fires). From Cooking in Panama
For me food is culture. Recipes can tell you a lot about a place and its people. Panamanian food is a mix of Spanish, Caribbean, and Mandarin flavors and is always served with a generous serving of white rice and a little bit of lime. If you want your own little slice link to the recipes below and get cookin'.


Panamanian Lemonade (Limonada)

During citrus season, December to March, you can't give a lemon away in Panama. So when life gives you limones make limonada! The word limon is used for lemons, limes and sour oranges. All of them work for this recipe.

An indigenous Nobe family shares a drink.
The touch that makes this lemonade Panamanian is raspadura instead of white sugar. Raspadura is unrefined pure can sugar that can be purchased directly from sugar cane farmers, or fruit stands and other local food vendors across Panama.
Traditionally sugar can is ground through a trapiche (image right) to extract the sugary juice. Then the juice is boiled down to a thick syrup that is cooled in special forms to make cakes of raspadura (image below left).
Raspadura is used in many Panamanian desserts, candies and drinks. Unlike refined sugar raspadura has nutritional value. High in calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Raspadura contains all the vitamins and minerals of the sugar can, but in a concentrated way. It is a nutritionally rich, natural, sweetener with a nutty flavor.
Substitute dark brown cane sugar or molasses if you can't get a hold of raspadura.


 5 cups water
1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 cake raspadura (about 1/2 cup)

  1. On the stove heat one cup water until boiling. Meanwhile cut the raspadura cake into small pieces. Remove the water from the heat and mix in the raspadura until dissolved. Substitute dark brown cane sugar or molasses if you can't get a hold of raspadura.
  2. Pour the syrup into your pitcher. Let it cool.
  3. Cut up your lemons and juice them into a bowl. Pick out all the seeds. *If you want to grow a lemon tree, plant the seeds immediately, they are only viable for a day or two.
  4. Add the remaining water and lemon juice to the raspadura. Mix.
  5. Serve as cool as your campo (country) kitchen with out electricity will allow.
I am working on writing up how to cook some of the classic Panamanian dishes. Food is very much a part of culture. If you want your own little slice of Panama try some of the recipes here Recipes from Panama.


Mini Beef and Sausage Empanadas (Empanaditas de Carne y Chorizo)

Panamanians love empanadas for any meal, for breakfast, snack or as a side dish. Sometimes they have sweet fillings like pinapple or mango. They are commonly sold by street vendors for un medio balboa (fifty cents). These versatile pockets of goodness can be served for causal dinner or parties.
A Pananimanian wife prepares her estufa lorena
(mud clay stove) to make empanadas.

Emoabaduatas de Carne y Chorizo
1/2 pound of ground beef
2 tablespoons of oil with achiote
1/2 cup onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
1/4 cup green onion, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 spicy sausages (1 cup), diced 
1/2 cup white whine
1/4 cup raisins 
1/4 cup green olives, sliced
1 tablespoon corn meal
1 1/2 sticks cold butter 
1 3/4 - 2 cups flour
1 egg beaten

  1. Sauté the ground beef in the achiote oil until all the pinkness is gone from the meat.
  2. Add the onion, garlic and green onion. Sauté until the onions are transparent. Salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Mix in the olives, sausage, white wine and raisins. Cook until almost all of the liquid is gone.
  4. Add the corn meal with 3 tablespoons of water and mix well. remove the filling from the stove and allow to cool. The filling may be refrigerated until you are ready to use it.
  5. To make the dough, in a bowl use a fork to cut the cold butter into the flour, by adding the flour a half cup at a time.
  6. When the mixture is small crumbs add a tablespoon of cold water and mix the dough by hand. Continue adding tablespoons of cold water until a cohesive dough is formed. do not kneed the dough.
  7. Place the dough in the refrigerator to chill for 20 minutes.
  8. Roll out the dough on a floured surface. Cut into 3 inch wide circles with a knife or biscuit cutter.
  9. Fill one side of the circles with a spoonful of filling. Fold the circle in half and press the edges closed with a fork.
  10. Brush the empanadas with egg. Then bake for 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees fareinheight or until brown. 
This recipe came from La Prensa, one of the three Panamanian news papers. It was published in the La Mesa section on June, 7 2008.
I am working on writing up how to cook some of the classic Panamanian dishes. Food is very much a part of culture. If you want your own little slice of Panama try some of the recipes here Recipes from Panama.


Day 787 - Volunteer Service - Article 24

This article was published in the Ames Tribune on July 8, 2009.
Guest commentary: Diablo Rojos

The diablos rojos (red devils) days are numbered. These mobile cultural billboards of Panama are on the way out. The revamped old school buses are the public transportation for Panama City and much of the country.

Each bus is privately owned and the owner purchases a bus route from the government of Panama. The owner of each bus takes great pride in decorating his bus.

Several factors are influencing the demise of bright paintings on the buses. Rising gas prices are making the profit margins very small so there isn’t extra capitol to pay for fancy works of art. To increase profit, some are selling advertising space on their buses. Ads for grocery stores and politicians are becoming almost as common as scenes of Jesus on the cross and movie heroes.

Another influencing factor was a fire on a bus in October 2006 that killed 18 passengers, in part because it didn’t have an emergency exit. Now all buses must have a working back door with a usable window. The eye catching rear door portraits are disappearing.

This year the Panamanian government opened bidding on a contract to bring in 420 new buses. These so called diablos chinos (Chinese devils) will be owned and managed by the government. The government probably won’t be interested in paying for fancy paint jobs.

The first new buses hit the streets of Panama in May. The government is buying the routes back for $25,000 each, effectively taking these buses off the roads. What will become of these buses? I don’t know, but Panama won’t be the same without them.

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 August 2009.