The Great Banana Railroad

If you live in the USA you’ve probably eaten a Chiquita banana before. Did you ever wonder where that banana came from? How it got to live in your local supermarket and then move to your kitchen counter? I’m here to tell you all about it. I got a chance to travel to the province of bocas del toro for a vacation. Bocas is on the border of Costa Rica and it’s very different from the part of Panama that I live in. It rains frequently (even in the dry season) and because of that  everything is very green. It’s also home to massive banana farms–some of which are independently run but many of which are owned by Chiquita.

These farms stretch as far as the human eye can see and you can bet people aren’t hefting bananas on their backs to take them to the Chiquita plant for processing. Instead they travel down what my friend Bennett and I fondly call “the great banana railroad.” The GBR is basically a long conveyer system that carries the bananas from one location to another. It’s sort of like a ski lift. There’s one point where it connects to cross the road and Bennett informs me that she’s had to wait for bananas to cross the street before her bus was allowed to pass. I unfortunately saw no bananas on the move but I did get to check out the tracks! 

This is where the bananas would cross the road


After they travel down the track the bananas are deposited in the Chiquita plant where they go through processing. I’m not quite sure what happens there as we could only look from the outside but it seems that the bananas take a bath. 

After a relaxing dip they’re strung up to dry and then packed into boxes and sent off to the hungry people of the world! Banana farming is the main source of income for people living out in that area. Most bananeros (banana farmers) live in bocas during the week and travel home to visit family on weekends and holidays. Many of the men from Bennett’s community work on the surrounding banana farms. While Bennett and I were strolling through the banana trees we noticed that one had fallen and taken its bushel of bananas down with it. We tried to lift it to absolutely no avail. That bushel had to weigh at least 40 pounds! So props to all the bananeros that probably hoist those things on the reg. And thanks for all the fruit! 

The heaviest bananas

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Seasons of love 

525,600 minutes

525,000 moments so dear

525,600 minutes

How do you measure, measure a year? 

February 24th, 2016 I touched down in Panama for the first time. It’s true what they say about Peace Corps: “The days are long but the weeks are short.” As I officially pass my one year mark in country I want to take the time to reflect back on some of the moments that have helped to shape both me and my service. 

Getting ready to fly to dallas for staging

I’ve tried keeping a journal while here in Panama and I’m a bit penosa (shy/ashamed) to admit that I haven’t been quite as dedicated as I had hoped to the cause. It’s hard to remember specific moments because over time things weave into one another and while that probably makes for a great blanket it’s a shit tapestry (we’re gonna pretend that metaphor makes sense). First I want to look alllllll the way back at training and the time I spent living in a community with other volunteers. A truly formative moment for me was getting gripe (the flu). It started one evening when I felt cold-I was actually freezing. That doesn’t really happen in Panama. I told my host mom Mabel that I was cold and asked if I could use another blanket for my bed. She promptly (and appropriately) freaked out and put her hand to my forehead. Needless to say I was burning up. I took a pill and went to sleep. 

Mabel’s son, me, and Mabel

Not too surprisingly, I woke up the next morning feeling like a plague victim. Unfortunately, I didn’t have data on my phone so I took myself to language class and talked to the LCF’s about my general feeling of death until someone procured a phone for me to call the PCMO’s. At this point I was in tears for no reason(the reason was actually  because I was super sick and it’s stressful to be sick and speak another language and not have your mom) and other volunteers had convened realizing that I was sick. Vickie’s (one of the LCF’s) husband ended up driving me to Chorrera to the clinic and, amazingly, he spoke English. Not only was he able to help me calm down but he was also able to help me communicate everything I needed to at the desk in the clinic. I also had volunteers texting me that day asking if I was feeling better and just generally being amazing people. This experience helped me to just trust in other people and ask for help when I need it. Trust me-here in peace corps asking for help is a skill you need to learn quickly. 

The other amazing TELLS volunteers

Eventually we all got through training and were sent off to our new communities to live and work! This is where one of my next formative moments happened. My host family in La Pintada has been truly amazing (It almost feels strange to refer to them as a host family at this point because they feel like my real family). During the sombrero pinta’o festival my host family and all of my barriada (neighborhood) made a giant float to participate in one of the many parades. While that was happening my host sister started teaching me to dance pollera-suspicious? Yes, very.

She teaches me so much


About 6 days before the festival was supposed to start my host family finally let loose the secret; I was going to be on the float! Not only that but I was going to be the reina(queen)! To me this was a huge deal. I felt so honored that I was being involved in something so culturally significant and I really felt like I was a part of the community. I got to wear a beautiful pollera and we even made it through the parade before it started raining (the float behind ours was not so lucky). It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had so far. 

With my host fam before getting up on the float

The last moment is a more recent one.i just finished up my children’s English course and on the last day I wanted to see if the niños had really learned something. We had worked on the alphabet, numbers, and the phrase “how are you” with the response “I am happy/sad/angry.” It was a short course only totalling up to four hours but it was fun and English-filled. I never spoke to the kids in Spanish but instead used big gestures and movements to communicate my meaning. 

Everyone loves a good bingo review!

We played bingo and by just watching the kids fill up their boards I could tell they had learned a little.  After playing some more games I gathered everyone in a circle to close out the course. I asked each kid individually “how are you” and every single one of them replied “I am happy!” And while that may not seem too big it was for me. They responded without my prompting, without my writings the sentences on the board, and without me having to repeat myself. I call that a major teacher-win!

A few kids from my class

There have been a lot of ups and downs this year but I’m happy to say that the ups have been pretty high and the downs have been pretty shallow. So today, 365 days after arriving to Panama, I’m glad to have experienced  each moment that has made up my service. I’m extremely thankful to live in a community that has been such a good fit for me. I’m grateful for my kittens, friends from home who have visited, and my newfound love of coffee. And I’m grateful for each and every one of you who reads this blog-who supports me wether or not you know me. So thank you; here’s to another year! 

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Photo Friday! 

I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work with such a wide range of age groups here in Panama. I started my kids English course and, later that day, I gave a speech at the university of Panama on “How literature makes you a better global citizen.” And, in true Peace corps fashion, everything went awry. My computer couldn’t connect to the projector; no problem, let’s use Yuliana’s  computer. Hers won’t play my video in PowerPoint. Okay, will it play it outside of PowerPoint? It will! We’re ready to go! Andddd then the power went out. But you can’t let little things like that stop you when you have have a presentation to give! I looked up the transcript of the video I wanted to show and gave my presentation in the dark. At the end, right as Yuliana handed me a certificate for my presentation, the power came back on. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there so if you find it let me know! 

You can’t tell but the power is out in this photo

University students listening to my presentation

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My first Thanksgiving away from home

Thanksgiving, turkey day, mashed potato day, día de acción de gracias; these are all of the names I heard for the holiday that we Americans celebrate on he fourth Thursday in November. For the past several years I’ve celebrated thanksgiving with friends and family, often preceding the actual day with a “friendsgiving” at someone’s apartment. I’ve never spent a thanksgiving away from my family before and I’ve certainly never spent one out of the country. Luckily I have an amazing group of friends here in Panama and we all got together to celebrate. Some highlights include:

  • Eating stovetop stuffing that tasted just like home
  • Eating pumpkin pie with whipped cream
  • Eating caramel apples and pretending it was fall 
  • When the hammock Erin and Dillon were in fell and showered us all with styrofoam

That last one took us all by surprise but luckily we had a good laugh and no one got hurt. Plus the styrofoam created a nice white thanksgiving-guess we’ll have to replicate it for Christmas! 


I didn’t know how I would feel today but I can honestly say that I wasn’t sad. I didn’t miss home any more than usual and I got to spend time with a group of people that I’ve really grown to care about. Not only that but I got to stuff my face and show off my mashed potato and gravy making abilities (all made from scratch)! So I’m thankful for my Peace corps family, I’m thankful to be in Panama, I’m thankful for my real family, and I’m thankful for American food. 

I sat on a gas tank for dinner

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Photo Friday! 

So throughout the past week we had the sombrero pinta’o festival! The last day of the festival was the 19th-founders day! La pintada was founded October 19th, 1848. We ended the festival in a traditional way-a parade with marching bands and dancing! My elementary school participated as did several schools and organizations from surrounding regions.​​​​

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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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Photo Friday! 

Today’s photo Friday is an appreciation post for the thing that can cheer me up (most of the time). Valentine and Luna! Peace corps pets can definitely be a challenge-I’ve had to find people to take care of them while I’m away, I paid to get them spayed and neutered, Valentine managed to get out of the house the other day, the lost goes on. But it can also be really great-I get a ton of kitten cuddles all the time, it’s fun seeing them run around the house, they even kill tarantulas! 

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