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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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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