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