change, peace corps

Look at where you are. Look at where you started

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

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Two years in Panama is drawing to a close sooner than I realized it would. Friends of mine are wrapping up their final projects in their communities, some have moved back in with host families, and everyone’s WhatsApp status is a despedida (going away party). In just a few short weeks almost everyone that came to this country with me will be leaving it and heading back to friends, family, and wherever they used to call home. I will be extending my service a year and will be continuing working with Peace Corps as the “Teaching English Coordinator.” No despedida for me for another 14 months or so. Why stay? Professional reasons: I want to explore my strengths and weaknesses in a leadership role, I want to continue improving my Spanish, I want to have another year of experience under my belt to make me a competitive applicant for jobs in the future. Personal reasons: I’m not quite ready to leave Panama, I’m not sure what sort of career I’m heading towards and I hope one more year of more job-specific work gives me the opportunity to figure that out. As most PCV’s will tell you, service doesn’t really seem to click into place until your second year. Then you’re left feeling like you have too little time to accomplish everything you dreamed you would. I’ve accomplished such a small portion of what I imagined yet at the same time I’ve done so much more than I thought I would. So how do you measure 2 years of service? In my case it looks something like this:

2 Cats adopted

1 national camp hosted

48 youth increased capacity in frisbee and leadership skills

4 English courses hosted

~25 people increased proficiency in English language usage

1 TESOL conference attended

At least 5 Teacher seminars that I can remember hosted

Well over 50 English Teachers demonstrated increased understanding of teaching methodologies

2 English Course curriculum’s developed

Countless plates of arroz con pollo eaten

1 time being the reina in the festival del sombrero pinta’o

1 hike up cerro orari

1 new family gained

Countless friends made

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Reina for sombrero pinat’o my first year

The past few months have been some of the most challenging for me so far. There’s a lot of doubt about whether extending is the right choice for me. It’s hard to see the friends I’ve made moving on with their lives and heading off to grad school and career’s knowing that I’ll be staying in the same house, in the same community, doing some of the same things. I’ve had people very close to me leave Panama for various personal reasons. As always, things here are in flux. As old friends leave, new ones are coming in. I was lucky to host the new TELLS group in my community for their practicum week and when they left I felt both exhausted and rejuvenated. Not only do I have a lot to offer them, but they have a lot to offer me. In my Peace Corps application, I had to write out my “why.” Why was I applying to this organization? Why did I want to go abroad for 27 months to a country I had never been to? Why did I want to spend 2 years of my life bumbling through Spanish and humidity and weeks of rain followed by weeks of no rain? Naively, I wrote that I wanted to create a positive impact on the world. I had some basic teaching knowledge and a go-getter attitude that I expected to get me far. And then, somewhat less naively, I wrote that I wanted to learn from the experience. I wrote that I expected to get more from it than I gave. That has been proven true again and again. The opportunities afforded me by the people in my community and by my fellow volunteers have been one of the largest parts of my service. I’ve walked in parades because community members have seen me and gestured for me to come participate with them, I’ve danced pollera because my host family wanted me to see what it was like to be the reina on a float during the biggest celebration my community hosts, I’ve gone out to the indigenous parts of Panama and talked to women about sexual health, the list goes on and on. I’m excited and anxious to start my final year here; to see what opportunities come my way and in what ways I change and grow. And my despedida will be amazing when it’s time for it.

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Before it’s Over

“I can see a world, beautiful and strange. Can you see it too?”

If you haven’t heard this song from the musical dogfight I recommend looking it up and then getting obsessed with the entire soundtrack. The past few weeks have been filled with opportunities, surprises, and a lot of positivity in general. This may be a longer post so try and stick it out with me.

First off, I visited Andrea out in her site! It’s a pretty little slice of Coclé and she took me up to the mirador so we could see  El Valle de Anton.  It was a cloudy day but we stood at the top of the mirador for a while just watching the clouds roll over the mountains. Plus the clouds made it pretty  fresca out which was a nice change from the general heat of Panama. I also met her host family and the family of some of the kids in her school. She lives over some lomas (hills) and I definitely got my workout in climbing them. I’ve grown way too accustomed to La Pintada which is very flat 

I’ve started doing some more stuff within the TELLS program too. I participated in a multigrado seminar with some fellow volunteers. Multigrado schools are schools that have multiple grades in one classroom-picture the old one room schoolhouse situation. They usually only have one or two teachers and those teachers teach all of the subjects. Unfortunately many of those teachers don’t know English. We had these seminars to improve their English skills and give them some tools that they could use in their classroom to teach English to their students. I also participated in a program called “Elige tú vida” or “choose your life” at Cherisse’s school. The whole seminar is done in Spanish and I’m pleased to say I didn’t really struggle with presenting in Spanish for 5 hours. We worked with a group of 8th graders and taught them about goal setting, future planning, and safe sex. We even got all of them to do a practice putting condoms on each other’s fingers without laughing! One thing did shock me about this seminar. We had a jar for anonymous questions so that the students could ask about things they wanted to know but didn’t want to say. We got about a dozen questions and all but one were variations on “what is sex? What is oral/anal/vaginal sex?” It shocked me to see how little they knew but it made me very glad that we were doing the seminar. Teen pregnancy is a problem in Panama and we’re hoping to help lower the teen pregnancy rate with programs like this. The students in our group were impressive. They were all respectful of one another and they all really wanted to learn about what we were teaching them. Now Cherisse keeps getting bombarded at school to do more Elige’s!

Our elige group

I’ve started my community English class and it’s going pretty well so far! I have a small group of 5 adults and I’m really glad to say they seem to be making progress. We meet once a week and the course will end in October. So far we’ve worked on introductions and greetings, numbers, feelings, and the verb “to-be” in the present tense. This week we’ll be working on family vocabulary and possessives. Our last class is going to be on Halloween so I’m trying to get everyone to dress up in some form of costume. Halloween really isn’t celebrated here but it’s my favorite holiday and I don’t want to miss out! My counterpart for my English course is a 12 year old boy named Isaac (pronounced E-sahk) who has an incredibly high English level. He’s really cool and so easy to work with. His passion for English is astounding-I hope he’s able to put it to use in the future.

The English crew

As usual there have been a lot of celebrations in my community. A few weeks ago we had one and unfortunately I can’t remember what we were celebrating for the life of me! But there were a lot of dance performances and they even brought out all of the girls that had been crowned reina in the past few years. Not only that but they brought out the woman who was first crowned reina for the celebration back in the 80’s! After watching a bunch of dance performances they had a small parade through the streets with music, dancing, fireworks, and a bunch of kids on a float. 

A few weeks later we had a celebration for a saint who protects the animals (I don’t remember his name). I could’ve taken my kittens to get blessed at the church but I was a little anxious about taking them somewhere where there would be a lot of dogs. Instead I went to an event they were holding in the casa comunal. People brought their pets and showed them off-some did tricks but most just sat around and looked cute. Isaac brought his dog muñeca and had her do a series of tricks that were all very good! One of them involved her putting her paws on his hips and walking like they were in a conga line!

Isaac and Muñeca the magnificent

Finally we had the sombrero pinta’o festival! This is the biggest celebration that my community does-its what we’re famous for. It starts on the 14th of October and goes through the 19th so it’s actually still going on. It’s set up like a giant carnival. There are rides, booths selling food, and game booths with cheap prizes. There’s even a betting wheel in the evening.

Derpy bear

Artisans come from all over to sell their wares and there’s a long stretch of people selling their sombreros. You could find sombreros as cheap as $10 and others that were upwards of $90. You could possibly even find more expensive ones-I wasn’t asking if the price wasn’t posted. I didn’t buy myself a sombrero but I did do a little Christmas/birthday shopping for family back home. People were selling tembleques and other things too. If my ears weren’t so sensitive I definitly would have gotten myself a pair of mini-sombrero earrings.

Some of the most colorful sombreros I’ve seen!

Women wear tembleques in their hair when they wear the traditional pollera

 

On the first day of the festival some volunteers came out and we wandered around the festival having a good time. They played games that I didn’t want to spend money on and we all rode some of the rides that were there. I’m pretty sure we had more fun on the bumper cars than any of the kids there! 

This marble game was a favorite among the volunteers

On Sunday I participated in the carreta-it’s basically a parade where people decorate cars and make floats and go down the main street. My amazing host family got me a pollera and I danced on a float that they made with a bunch of girls. After the carreta was over I got down and danced pollera with a bunch of people. It reminded me of a jam circle! I would be dancing and one guy would come up and dance with me for a minute or so. After that another guy would step in and that guy would step out. By the end of it I was exhausted. Another group of volunteers came out Sunday but, because I had so much to do with putting on the pollera and tembleques (a woman came out to dress me and put the tembleques in) and then actually being in the parade, I didn’t really get to hang out with them for too long. 

Me and my host family! Sans my younger brother

After all the tembleques were put in

I had the most amazing time being a part of this festival. I’m constantly amazed by how quickly my community and family accepted me with so much love and open arms. This opportunity really made me feel like a part of the community. Up on the float I constantly heard screams of “teacher!”and “Gabby!”and  when I turned there was a student or community member waving and smiling from ear to ear seeing me in full pollera. This is one of the experiences that I’m never going to forget. I’ll leave you with some other lyrics from the song. They’re all about meeting each opportunity that life hands you-something I’m trying to do in my time here.

“See a world, beautiful and strange, spinning off somewhere, saying meet me there!

Look, look, how fast it runs away, saying follow close, and reach for me, see that you’ve got so much more to be before it’s over”

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