Monday, October 3, 2011

Water Committee Seminar

Photos from my water committee seminar in August! Sorry they're so delayed!

The End

At the beginning, two years seemed interminable. I really thought that it would never end. And then, when the end finally came, it was abrupt and surreal. One day I just packed everything up and got on a bus, and that was that. Standing by the road and waiting for the bus with my neighbor Marta, her kids and my friends Yasmila and Rudolpho was the hardest part of the two years. Every second that we stayed on the road, I felt the tears welling up inside of me and knew that the moment I actually climbed onto the bus was going to be a disaster. I cried, Marta cried, Lily (Marta's daughter) cried, Yasmila cried. Then I got on the bus and was gone. The end. Almost like it had never happened.

Except it did.

A couple weeks ago, I was talking to Marta about the end, and going back and all my hopes and fears. She told me that when I first got here, she thought that American's were "special". She said that she thought we were different and better than Panamanians, and how could we have anything in common? What would we talk about? I asked her, with a laugh, whether I had proved that we aren't anything special. She laughed and told me that, by being her friend, I was even more special to her.

But, when I thought about that afterwards, how she thought that all American's were "special", I realized that that's how I thought of myself when I got here. I was special, independent, individual. Not better or worse, but different, unique. However, to live in Panama, or as a Peace Corps volunteer anywhere, I had to learn how to be one of many. I had to unlearn my individuality, and learn how to function as part of a community. Even when it came to selling my house, the house I paid for and for all intents and purposes belonged to me, the community had to decide whether I was allowed to. At the beginning, that would have enraged me and my American sense of entitlement to what's mine. But after two years, it was only mildly irritating.

I may be unique and have my own attributes that I contribute to the world, but I'm not alone in it. I have learned how to appreciate the opportunities that being born in the U.S. has given me and responsibility that comes with that. But more importantly, I've learned in these two years what I missed by being born at the top of the pyramid. I learned the struggle and the joy of living in a developing world. There came a moment in my service when I surrendered to the struggle, when I let go of all my American structure, and just started flowing with the current of Panamanian life. That was the moment that I fell in love with Peace Corps, Panama and my community. And that was the moment when I was able to relate with everyone on a personal level. That was when I stopped being special, and just became another person trying to live.

The life lessons of Peace Corps were plentiful, but I think the humanity and interconnectedness of living in rural Panama (or rural anywhere) is what I will cherish, and miss, the most.

It's been a pleasure, Panama. Thank you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

7 weeks

The reality of "the end" is slowly settling on me, and it's not entirely sad. Whenever I talk about it with my town, they always say the same thing, "Mali (how they pronounce my name) se va, y nunca vuelve mas!" Molly will go, and won't come back anymore. I try to assure them that, someday, I will return and visit them. But, not even I know if that is going to happen. I hope it does, and I will try as hard as I can. But life keeps going regardless of our plans. At least for some of them, I have to accept that this will probably be the last time I'll see them. That's hard to think about. Especially with the people that I have close and personal relationships with. Saying goodbye to them will probably be one of the hardest things I have ever done.

On the flip side of the sad coin is the stuff I'm excited for, or at least going to be relieved not to have to deal with anymore. The most maddening of those things, and the thing that I've never really gotten accustomed to or even indifferent about, is Panamanian's inability to show up on time, and their inability to tell you that they never intended to show up at all. Whaaa...? As a very punctual and reliable American, I have a hard time with this one. If you say you're going to be there, you show up. If you sign a piece of paper stating that you will be able to attend, and intend to participate, YOU SHOW UP. If you're not going to show up, do not do any of the above, just say, I won't be there. Let me explain a little more...

My last order of business, project, goal, whatever you want to call it, in my town is a water committee seminar that was scheduled to begin last Sunday. I have 5 members on my water committee, and one plumber. All were slated to attend. 3 showed up. And of the other three, their excuses were varied. One didn't have an excuse, just didn't come; one said he had a "cold"; and one said that he wasn't well informed, and went out to his finca (farm) instead. I don't believe the guy with the cold was sick at all, and the guy that said he wasn't informed just straight up lied. I, needless to say, was pissed. I kind of lost it in front of the other three members and another volunteer. We decided to invite other people from the communities at large, and reschedule for the two days this weekend, and two days next weekend. Which is, ultimately, better for me. I'd rather have it done with in 10 days rather than 4 weeks. But still, the reason for the rescheduling of the seminar is completely maddening.

There are a lot of things on both sides of the coin. There are plenty of things that I am so excited to not have to deal with (Latino men, useless government employees, rats, cockroaches, sweating) and things that I'll miss (speaking Spanish, gifts of food from my neighbors, walking into anyone's house at whatever hour, the beach). I guess what it boils down to is that this is just another end, and another beginning. As frustrated as I am right now, I'm trying to soak up all the good stuff before I leave. Because I know the day will come when I'll only remember the good stuff, and regret wasting my last couple months. Regardless of how bad I want it right now, when it comes closer, I'll resist the end. So I'm trying to enjoy right now. Right now becomes yesterday and last week and last year so fast that it takes a concerted effort to stay in the moment. That's my only goal for these last few weeks.

Here's to the end...and the beginning.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Reflecting on the good ol' days

I’m filling in temporarily for my regional leader while he’s in the States on leave. So, I had to attend site announcement in the city last week to represent the Darién and welcome our new volunteers. Four new trainees (they’re trainees until they swear-in at the end of the month) are coming out to the Darién. I paired up with another volunteer (who was also representing his region, Colón, because they don’t have a regional leader) to have a discussion about cultural differences, they’re communities, and what it’s like to be a volunteer in general. Jeff (the other volunteer) and I were tag teaming to answer questions, and as we explained and talked to them, I wave of memories washed over me from being a trainee. All the questions they asked made me smile, because all I could think was, No matter what I tell you, you’ll have to go out there and figure it out for yourself. Honest answers are hard to give without scaring them, but no one wants to give a dishonest answer. One trainee asked Jeff and I how their first visit to their site was going to be. Without hesitation, Jeff said “overwhelming” and I added “awkward”. The 6 trainees just stared at us as we proceeded to tell them that they shouldn’t bother asking questions, or trying to figure it all out that first visit because no one will tell them what’s what on the first visit. I thought about my first visit to my site and how alien everything was, and couldn’t help reminiscing and reflecting on how far I’d come. My first visit to my community went like this:

I got off my bus with my community guide, and two gigantic duffel bags full of things that I dragged all the way from the States and were, unbeknownst to me, mostly useless. All they saw were the two gigantic bags, this tall, white, clueless gringita, and thought “oh, poor thing, she’s so far from home!” Some of the men might have thought “YES! We have a gringa! Maybe she’ll fall in love with me and take me back with her…” The only reason I know what they were thinking is because they’ve since told me. And, yes, the men really think that—to this day. There was a community meeting, where they spoke in almost entirely Wounaan. At the time I thought that the meeting was going really well, and my community guide was doing a great job, but I’ve since learned that he changed the plans mid-meeting and told everyone that I was going to live with his family instead of the other families originally on my list. But, that first week was just a visit, so I was staying with this old, semi-ridiculous, but very sweet and accomodating (almost) midget named Chucula (nicknamed for his penchant for a sweet, thick beverage made from ripe plaintains). Chucula had a hacking cough at the time, and would hack all night long, get up at 4am, start singing religious songs (poorly, but not lacking in enthusiasm), and generally banging around, making it almost impossible for me to even fake sleep past 6am. At which point, he would, with a grin on his face, thrust a huge plate FULL of fried plaintains, fried fish, fried yucca and sometimes beans into my hands. He always looked really disappointed when I only managed to eat a quarter of it. After food and coffee, I would go walk around and just sit silently in people’s houses while I tried to keep up with them. They would try to teach me things, or show me things, but honestly the language barrier was a real issue at the time. I generally felt like a deer in the headlights hoping the car would just speed up and get it over with. At the end of the week, I was relieved to go back to the trainees, and my training community, and exhausted at the thought of doing that for two years.

I was in such a daze, frankly, I have no recollection of having conversations with anyone. I remember thinking “This will never feel like home, and I will never have friends here.” When there’s such an extreme communication barrier, it’s hard to imagine ever connecting with anyone. I thought they’d never understand me, or me them. Now, after almost two years, I can’t even talk about leaving with them because if I start crying about it now, I won’t stop. Those are the things it was difficult to convey to these trainees. I didn’t know how to tell them that, by the end of their two years, they’ll have inside jokes with their neighbors, they’ll be godparents, they’ll learn to love the Panamanian food (even the copious amounts of rice), and that they’ll value the trust they build with their community members because they know how hard fought it was. The day someone comes over to their house and tells them something personal, something embarrassing, something intimate, they will guard that knowledge as though it were gold, and they will never betray that trust, because that’s all we have at the end of the day.

These were the things that I could not say to the trainees, because they don’t see individuals, or relationships, or even love and friendships as their end goals. They’re still thinking in terms of their “project frameworks” and “knowledge, skills and abilities”, and all the acronyms that Peace Corps loves to use. How do you tell someone that, in two years, they will leave here feeling like they're leaving behind their own family? We always think we know everything, until we don’t. Right now those trainees think that they’re sole purpose is to work in their sector, improve their communities, and “help” people. How do you tell someone that they’ve got it backwards: that they’re going to need a lot more help than they’re community members will? There’s no way to tell someone truths that they have to discover for themselves.

So, in the end, we didn’t, really. Jeff and I told them that they had two years to find their own answers to all their questions. We did tell them not to take the failures personally, enjoy the successes, and have fun whenever they can. Projects, seminars and trainings come and go. But fun? Fun is forever.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Jumping on a moving train...

I witnessed an extraordinary thing on Sunday. I was going over to the school to use the internet and get some work done, and I stumbled upon a Padres de Familia (our PTO) meeting. I stuck around for a few minutes to see what was going on, because they seemed to be in the midst of some kind of training. There was charla paper (poster paper), markers, and a woman from my town was leading an activity. It was a good seminar, addressing a major issue: that encouragement and positive reinforcement, even in the face of failure, is always more beneficial than corporal punishment or verbal abuse. Simple enough concept, but most Panamanians are raised to fear their parents retribution if they come home with bad grades rather than seek out their help when they struggle in school. So, most Panamanians raise their kids that way thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.

The woman leading the group is named Yasmila. She’s someone that I trained to give some of the health seminars earlier in the year, and she initially told me that there was no way she would be able to get up in front of her community and present. She did though, and her presentations went well. I asked her what this training was about, and she told me that the Education Ministry wanted all of the Padres de Familia groups to receive trainings on emotional intelligence and communication. She told me, “Molly, I never would have done this if you hadn’t taught me how and told me that I could.” I just smiled at her, but inside of me, my heart swelled up. She probably thought nothing of the comment, because she turned away to help a group with their activity, but with those words she validated my entire Peace Corps experience. All I could think was, I am Charlie Sheen and I am WINNING! I was so proud of her, and by extension (and my unadulturated egoism) myself, that I stayed until the end, just to see how well it was received. Everyone was so communicative and participative, it was a delight to see. They never would have participated had that same training been facilitated by some nameless Education Ministry official. But because it was Yasmila, someone they know and trust, they all listened and responded and took it to heart. I loved it.

My service has been peppered with these kinds of experiences. Successes that I can’t claim as my own, but I helped facilitate in some way. I had another one last week with my water committee. There’s a cattle rancher that lives above my water source (which is a large, protected area quite a ways from my community) that’s been taking liberties with our property. He’s chopped down and either sold or used several hectares of trees. My water committee asked me to write some letters for them so that they could go to ANAM (National Environmental Agency) and the local authorities and file a report. I obligingly did so, and they turned them in and diligently followed up (which in itself was a win because almost no one follows up after turning a letter in). Last week the ANAM official went with them to the area, examined it and sided with my water committee. This does not happen much here. Bribes are pretty common, and land designated to water sources are regularly plundered for their natural resources (namely, wood) while authorities look away. The fact that the official sided with my committee is amazing, much less that he went out there at all. I was pretty impressed, and proud of them. Once again, a win, but one I can only really take 5% credit for.

Now, I know that the point of Peace Corps isn’t that, at the end of it, I can claim sole credit for a wide array of projects and accomplishments. In fact, that’s probably the mark of an extremely ineffective volunteer. The whole point of it is that internal capacity is being built and my community members feel more empowered to create the future that they want for themselves. By that estimation, I feel pretty effective. I have community members that have really started taking initiative since I’ve gotten here, partly because they were already go-getters, partly through some influence I’ve had on them, and partly because of some intangible X factor. I have a friend that put it nicely: when I congratulated him on organizing and motivating his community so successfully, he said, “I didn’t really do anything. The whole thing feels like a train that was already moving down the tracks, and I’m just hitching a ride for a little while.” It’s true. My train may be moving a little slower than his, but, in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m just here paying witness to their lives unfolding. I cannot dramatically change the course of their collective train, but my influence has little, lasting effects in the direction they choose to go. It is a sobering, humbling, and yet hopeful thought.

The influence that we have on people is so nuanced that, oftentimes, we don’t know we’ve done anything until much later. I probably won’t see the majority of the effects, since my time is winding down, but I'm encouraged by these little, bite-sized wins. They always happen right when I need them, too. When I'm bored, or feeling useless, suddenly I get a tiny reminder of why I'm here, a taste of my example rubbing off. That little success is like a drug, and gives me just enough of a high to keep me working until the next success. That feeling of pride in my community members and my work is what has kept me here for the two years. And it's what I'll remember when I'm back home.

Friday, May 20, 2011

MORE pictures!

These photos aren't mine, but what's cut and paste for anyway?

There are some very pretty underwater shots of bright fish. I was too nervous to take my underwater camera underwater after the last time--when I took it underwater and it died a million little deaths. Bummer. Fortunately, Kate and Bracken's underwater camera is still going strong.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


These are the photos that I tried to post last time, but didn't take. Enjoy!

May 18, 2011