CLOSING THOUGHTS

End of service thoughts on my personal journey, Peace Corps the organization, and my reintegration into US life…

On April 28th I signed the requisite paperwork and officially ended my time as Peace Corps Panama Volunteer.  Which still isn’t real for me.  Saying goodbye to the people of El Cedro was incredibly difficult.  It’s impossible to describe the whirlwind of emotions I felt and still feel.  Something unexpectedly profound was the way in which the sadness brought on by my departure highlighted the depth of friendship and connection I ultimately found in this small community in the cultural heartland of Panama.  It was impossible, especially for me, to not constantly question myself and my impact in El Cedro.  But having to say goodbye brought out the best in me and the best in my Panamanian family and friends.  We acknowledged, like we never had before, the impact we had on each other.  We often struggled to express ourselves, to eloquently say goodbye.  But even in silence we acknowledged the mutual gratitude and sadness inherent in a friend’s goodbye, even if we both hoped: que no sea un adios, pero un hasta luego. I am still struggling to put some final thoughts together about my experience.  But I guess it should be…there is no finality to my experience—it will continue to affect me for years to come.  This wasn’t some finite adventure, some break from ‘the real life.’  The lessons I learned here won’t be bottled up and saved for a rainy day.  On the contrary, the past two years of my life have felt more real, more genuine, and the personal change brought on by the incredible challenge of this experience couldn’t feel more relevant.  I feel as if I have been inspired to adopt a new, or perhaps evolved, lifestyle.  I feel ready to accept and engage my ignorance, I feel genuinely able to listen to someone I disagree with and be open to the possibility of being proven wrong—or at the very least to let nuance enter the equation.  And at the same time I feel more confident in myself and my beliefs than I ever have before.  I don’t know what my future holds, but whatever it does I want to let this feeling take root and grow.  I feel humbled and I feel empowered, and when I recognize these traits coexisting in my lifestyle, I feel grateful.

In the Peace Corps I was looking for connection.  I wanted to immerse myself in something new, to feel deeply connected to a new perspective and feel it change me.  But being open to that idea is different from committing to making it reality.  Which is to say that it has been extremely difficult.  For me.  The people in Panama keep their doors open, they wanted to let me into their community, their circle.  They were, for the most part, ready.  But it’s hard to walk into a new life when you’re not ready to be absolutely open with yourself.  Which I often wasn’t.  I was so ready to experience a connection that transcended cultural borders, but I was naïve to the extent to which doing so requires a self-assuredness that can withstand frequent if not constant testing.  Sticking out, being an outsider…being a gringo.  For a surprisingly long time, conversation topics circle around your race, your country, your climate, and how you fit into their conception of gringo.  And when you develop confianza and conversations get deeper, it’s remains difficult to shake the feeling that you’re performing, being judged as a general and faithful representative of the other.  At which point I think most non-white males will probably be like, ‘welcome to the fucking club.’  Or not even, because Peace Corps service is 27 months and I can at any time go back to the land of ultimate freedom (for white dudes).  Or because I was a diplomat with mad privileges.  (Question: is it horribly ironic that I can never spell the word privilege?).   So yeah, not trying enter my struggle into any competition here but shit, it was a struggle.

In almost every interaction, I could overthink how my words and my actions were contributing to their idea of an American, of the Peace Corps, of an environmentalist—of any part of my identity. What am I proud about, what do I want to share?  What would cause friction? Which begs the question how do I actually fit in these categories, what is my identity?  I certainly don’t have concrete answers to these questions, but I’ve learned that I don’t need to.  I shouldn’t.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to put this experience into words when caring and curious friends or family ask.  And I keep coming back to this: I feel open to the ambiguity of life.  On my good days, I embrace it.  I feel a patience in my soul that wasn’t there before.  Clarity doesn’t come from avoiding the unknown or from forcing through a shallow sense of understanding.  Clarity requires embracing of the lack of clarity.  Which for me personally has been a profound realization—to have learned this lesson through experience, through genuine human connection.  It was so hard to identify and overcome cultural gaps when I felt I needed absolute clarity, or some sense of ‘full’ understanding, before taking action.  But I found the most empowering kind of common ground is that which comes from mutual humility.  We should accept and embrace our differences, but ultimately accept that we will have blind spots, misunderstandings that come from a certain degree of ignorance towards the successes and struggles of the other.  To accept, and embrace this reality is to be truly willing to change, to forge connections through differences, rather than despite them.

It seems to me that Peace Corps is having an identity crisis.  Is it a cultural exchange organization forging friendships across the world, or is it a development organization helping poor communities grow?  Peace Corps tries to be both, with the logical connection being that to help communities grow in a sustainable fashion we have to focus on capacity building and behavioral change, which naturally requires a degree of friendship and trust.  But I think PC can often come up short in forging this connection between friendship and productivity.  Because if you focus on developmental projects, you run the risk of becoming too focused on quantifying your impact, and you can lose sight of the lesson I talked about in the last paragraph.  There is a humility, a patience required when developing a relationship with locals.  You need to listen and try to understand the gaps in understanding—only then can you work towards sustainable development.  Peace Corps the organization, we the volunteers, and the people of the host country all have goals.  And while ideally they all match up, it is not always the case.  Site development is the process the PC office takes in identifying communities where volunteers serve—working with locals to define expectations and identify projects/roles for the volunteer to undertake with the community.  But there are two variables I want to mention that make this process very difficult: 1) An underfunded and understaffed PC office and 2) Power dynamics between poor communities and outside institutions—which make it very hard for rural Panamanians to feel comfortable expressing their true feelings rather than just trying to impress the outsider who has resources.  Expectations are a powerful thing, and I think because of these two variables/problems expectations can become twisted.  Annnnnyway…

In Peace Corps, and perhaps in development work in general, there exists a bubble—a limited community of peers who via their similar experiences, can understand each other’s successes/challenges/failures with a sufficient degree of nuance.  Which is not to promote an idea of insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it is the reality.  I’ve gone through my share of tough times here in Panama, questioning how or why to go forward with a project, or even a friendship.  And in these times I’ve called a fellow PCV friend rather than a family member or a life-long friend from home.  I know we didn’t have to devote time to jump cultural gaps, differentiating our separate environments as we compare and contrast experiences.   In my Peace Corps family, there has always been a deep sense of solidarity among us.  We were alone in our communities but together in the struggle to forge connections with, and hopefully empower, Panamanians.  We got it…and can’t help but think that our loved ones at home maybe didn’t get it, at least not to the same extent.  So when we needed to talk something out, or share ideas, or just rant, we find wisdom in each other.  Which is to 1) give a semi bull shit excuse for not updating my blog more and 2) Express my uneasiness about getting back home and trying to explain my experience.  Because in reality these two years have been a non-stop roller coaster of many, many experiences.  And when I get hit with the predictable questions that we as PCVs often view as cliché (Do you feel different? What was your favorite moment?  How is Panama different from the USA?), I really don’t know how I will respond.  I look forward to figuring out how to answer these questions; practice expressing myself will hopefully help me better understand how I have indeed changed.

I am especially looking forward to reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen in over two years.  No matter the context, I think people change a lot in their mid-twenties and I can’t wait to see how my friends have grown and how are relationship can reach new (perhaps adult!?) levels.  Before heading back stateside though, I’m going to wander in Colombia (and maybe Peru and beyond?) to explore a connection with new parts of Latin America.  I’m super excited to use my Spanish to hopefully transcend the typical tourist experience, and I absolutely can’t wait to meet up with my brother and some friends and travel together!  I’ll be back home at some point and can’t wait to catch up with you all in person!

En paz y amor

-Jeff

The Cool Air of Las Minas

My nostrils tingle as I breathe in the cool morning air of Las Minas.  The smell of pines brings with it hints of childhood nostalgia.  Part of my being is transported to fall in the northeast.  I suspect part of me longs for seasonal change; perhaps it’s the part of me that is and always will be connected to my family and the environment that raised me.  Homesickness, I suppose, in an instinctual sense.  But in this moment I contemplate how truly cold the tropical air feels as it fills my lungs, and I revel in the opportunity to be rooted elsewhere.  My body is telling me I’ve adapted, changed, evolved.  My mind runs with it and I feel myself smiling.  I feel disconnected from the political disillusionment of my country and connected to a new culture boundless in its ability to reach inside me and pull my heart strings in new directions.  As I wait for the bus to Los Pozos to take me towards home, I give thanks for the chance I’ve had to make a home elsewhere, and to live away and apart from the shame of my homeland.  Like never before I feel ready to engage and explore the Panamanian inside me, and leave the Gringo behind.

The bus arrives, and I take the last remaining seat, forcing the pavo to stand—to hunch, really—next to the door.  He’s basically on top of me but I smile, recognizing this other part of me that has adapted. Personal space matters much less and I feel oddly independent relying on public transportation.  I know the way, I’ve taken it countless times.  I’m not thinking, not stressing about the future. The novelty is long gone, now comfort is found here in familiarity. I’ll be home soon, and on the way there I’ll gaze upon those rolling hills and we’ll continue our conversation.  The pasture will be browner, and I’ll lament the end of the rains, try to ready myself for the thinning of the cows.  I’ll find a towering tree in the distance and let its flourishment fill me with hope.  I’ll wonder if that epic mango tree will fruit before May.  I’ll get lost in the landscape, content with the knowledge that the underlying mission of this ride will be completed soon: I’ll get home.

We hit a bump, and the pavo falls on to me.  I smile and respond to his apologetic hand motion, no se preocupe. As the young man returns to his hunched position next to the door, the text of his shirt speaks to me.  It’s the deep, judgmental voice of an old uncle.  It hits me less like a pinch to the arm than a slap in the face, violently waking me from that dream of new belonging, that myth of separation.  On the shirt is a printed version of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancocks and all.  I am American.  I can’t leave behind my identity as ashamed gringo, can’t pick and choose which parts of my identity I want to keep.  It all comes together.  Like this document itself, printed on the shirt of a young Panamanian 241 years later.  Enlightened idealism written by racist white guys: America.  My heritage.  The privilege and the shame belong to me as does the idealism and patriotism.  I can engage with each part of my identity to varying degrees but I can’t just pretend parts of it don’t exist.  It all works together or it doesn’t work.

The bus speeds along the curves of the road, my eyes following the valley to the north as I continue to ponder place and identity.  Place and identity: ideas that have defined this underlying anxiety I’ve been living with recently.  Part of me has felt at home here in Panama, but my impending departure has been limiting; how rooted do I really feel here?  If I could fully embrace my Panamanian life, I have felt like doing so would constitute a kind of denial of my identity as an American.  And focusing on my future as a concerned American citizen is important to me, but it distracts me from the present moment, a moment filled with potential.  Part of me is here, part of me there.  I was been paralyzed by the idea of the absolute; this feeling that I should give all of myself here, or all of myself there.  The anxiety was feeling half-rooted in two places.  In this bus, however, it has been made clear to me that we are all partially rooted in many places.  We are all humans, connected to each other and our environment in unquantifiable ways.  To feel torn between multiple places is to feel a deep connection to multiple places.  To feel confused about what parts of my identity to explore is to have a more diverse and beautiful identity; to have a new perspective, a widened worldview.

The air conditioning of the bus breaks, and the windows are promptly opened.  The pavo has sit down in a recently vacated seat, I’m in the perfect spot to coger all of the fresco brought by the wind.  I’m at the top of the Peace Corps Rollercoaster, the wind blowing away my anxiety and opening me up to the moment.  The unseen momentum of my recent experiences finally created this moment of clarity, I understand where I am.  I am in the present, soaking up Panama. I am in the past, figuring out what my American heritage means and I am in the future, pondering what it should mean going forward.  I’m ready and grateful to do all at once.

Can I be an ashamed Patriot? Political Ramblings from Panama

Hey all,

It’s been awhile (7 months?!) since my last post–which fits into my family’s ‘no news is good news’ cliche.  I’ve certainly faced a lot of challenges, but overall these last few months have been a productive and transformative period for me.  I assure you I am working on a more traditional blog-post updating y’all on my life here in Panama. But for now I’ve got something even better!  Without further adieu I present my rambling, though hopefully interesting, essay on Peace Corps, politics, and what it means to be an American who is both proud and ashamed of that title. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Reconciling American Shame and Patriotism

Peace Corps calls itself an ‘apolitical organization.’  Which is funny.  Because c’mon, everything is political.  We live in an incredibly interdependent and interconnected world, and we are all affected by policy, or lack thereof.  Of course, that isn’t normally our definition of the word political.  It’s normally the eye-roll-followed-by-big-sigh version of the word, which doesn’t necessarily reference policy at all, or even morality for that matter, as much as a game in which we’re told to pick sides.  This is the political that rubs us the wrong way—politicians take a tragedy and politicize it by framing it in a certain way to promote a not-necessarily-connected-at-all agenda.  Citizens are told to support a candidate not because of their values and achievements, but because they’re blue or red, or even just because they’re not red or blue.  I feel like this is the dominant understanding of the word ‘political’—the conversation stopper, the please stop categorizing and silently judging me and let’s talk about something else version.  In this sense Peace Corps is apolitical, because it doesn’t want to pick a side, throw itself in the middle of a petty fight, a game, between sides of our political establishment.  Which makes sense, especially hoy en dia.  But in the other sense of the word, the something that is connected to and therefore has something to say about government policy or lack thereof understanding, Peace Corps is totally political.

What we do, as PCVs, isn’t compatible with the nationalism and xenophobia espoused (publicly or deceptively) by people on both sides of our neoliberal political establishment.  Our work has a lot to say about our relationships with other countries, which if heeded properly would have a profound effect on policy.  We believe in fostering understanding and mutual support between different countries and cultures.  We (for the most part) don’t march into communities with a preconceived notion of what is best for them—we listen to them first and try to act on their ambitions.  In short, we try not to be paternalistic.  PC is a weird organization really, contrarian in many ways to the USA’s normal approach to foreign affairs.  I think this is partly what drew me to become a volunteer.  PC is a far cry from the military, and it was something I could be patriotic about.  How much the PC reality reflects its goals, and the extent to which it is crippled by the system it exists in, is something I think about a lot.  PC is a part of the US government, but the development theory of the PC is not the development strategy of the government overall.  This is why it’s funny to me when PC sells itself as apolitical.  Sure, it doesn’t publicly take stances on issues or align itself with a political party, but in different ways it is both connected and disconnected to the state and the policies that govern it.  Which means its successes and shortcomings, in the right context, have a lot to say about how we should, and should not, approach development and foreign policy in general.

PCVs in Panama are of course here to help Panamanians reach their potential.  But I would say most of us will come back to America eager to tell friends and family that Panamanians have things to teach us as well.  I have met all sorts of beautiful people where I am living—humble, loving, and profoundly connected to their land and their people.  I think about what it means to be American, and while I’m blessed to have the family and friends that I do, I can’t escape the feeling that internationally, being American means being a selfish rich white guy who closes himself off from the reality of the suffering in the world.  I’m generalizing a bit and definitely letting my white male guilt out a bit.  But hear me out.  I think it’s pretty self-evident that the more someone closes him or herself off, the more likely it is for ignorant and hateful worldviews to take hold in said person.  And for all the potential connections globalization brings, technology has an incredible capacity for distracting the masses—not because of anything inherent of technology but because of who owns and controls it.  Basically since Raegan, politics and Big Media have together perfected the art of distracting and or deceiving the American people.  (Oh wait, I can just bullshit the American people on TV and win an election in the process?! Sweet!)  Which is, of course, just like, my opinion, man.  But the point is this—globalization/technology hasn’t inherently meant more connection and understanding between cultures.  We all have the potential to reach out to someone different, someone or some people we could learn from, but many of us stay isolated, basing our worldview from what Fox News shows us.

So here I am in Panama, being asked to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  Even in the campo (super rural), news of Trump reaches the gente.  Which shit, makes me ashamed.  Not a new feeling, being ashamed to be American, but it reaches new heights (or depths) for me when in a Latin American country the USA has consistently deceived and manipulated since the 19th century.  In a weird way, some Panamanians remind me of some well-minded but still woefully ignorant Americans—they still think of America as a morally enlightened land of opportunity and the rise of Trump has caught them off guard.  So what do I do?  How can I speak my belief (that Trump is not an aberration) while maintaining a sense of patriotism?  Can I be ashamed and patriotic at the same time?  Ultimately, I have to be, because my patriotism is what drives me to be ashamed.  More on that later.

At the heart of my personal reconciliation of American patriotism and shame are two important distinctions.  First is to distinguish patriotism from nationalism.  Take the Olympics—perhaps truly unique in its capacity to inspire patriotism in disillusioned Americans like myself.  It’s hard not to get caught up in it all.  I will always remember watching Michael Phelps in 2012, and it just didn’t make sense how nervous I was during his races, and how pumped I was when he won.  It set off something natural; this inherent connection to my birthplace, where I was raised, the environment I depend on—my country.  But in so many fellow Americans this patriotic thrill takes a nasty twist, and a hate fest ensues, pointed at countries and cultures we don’t actually know much of anything about.  In a recent ThinkProgress article, author Laurel Raymond quotes political psychologist Daniel Druckman: “Patriotism is love for our country or shared affinity for being Americans, without dislike for others. We don’t need enemies to be patriotic,” said Druckman. “Nationalism, on the other hand, depends on enemies, and is the combination of ‘I love my country’ and ‘I have disdain for Russians’ [for example].”  This strikes me as an obvious distinction but I think it’s important to keep in mind how easily patriotism can turn to nationalism.  Like if you’re using Fox News bits as evidence for your arguments…it’s a slippery slope.

One is patriotic because he or she loves his or her country, its land and its people.  But I can’t say I love, or even endorse, what we do as a country.  Our actions as an international power whose politics are controlled by money and covered in a thick coat of shallow neoliberal rhetoric, well, make me ashamed.  But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost faith in the ideal of America.  America the republic of freedom and equality is still an ideal, one we may never reach, but it still carries immense power, especially internationally.  We are a country of immigrants with a complicated past, and to fulfill our American destiny we have to be both physically and emotionally OPEN to all other potential immigrants who also have a complicated past.  This, or some slightly dumbed down Spanish version of it, is what I keep coming back to when a Panamanian asks me about Trump and or America.  Of course I’m not going to vote for Trump, I’m ashamed he’s even a possibility-and I’m ashamed of what we’ve done in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are a diverse and beautiful country fighting with the reality of our great potential.  For me, the Peace Corps at least runs away from, if not directly against, our country’s path in terms of foreign policy.  It is derived from, and represents the ideals of America, if not its present reality.

I recently read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and the author John Perkins makes a similar distinction between what America was supposed to be versus what it is becoming globally.  He talks openly about his guilt over what he did to destabilize countries like Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Panama.  He is certainly trying to right his wrongs, but underneath his writing is an inherent patriotism in the American ideals he feels he was betraying for so long.  He differentiates between the republic and the empire:

The republic offered hope to the world. Its foundation was moral and philosophical rather than materialistic. It was based on concepts of equality and justice for all. But it also could be pragmatic, not merely a utopian dream but also a living, breathing, magnanimous entity. It could open its arms to shelter the downtrodden. It was an inspiration and at the same time a force to reckon with; if needed, it could swing into action, as it had during World War II, to defend the principles for which it stood. The very institutions — the big corporations, banks, and government bureaucracies — that threaten the republic could be used instead to institute fundamental changes in the world. Such institutions possess the communications networks and transportation systems necessary to end disease, starvation, and even wars — if only they could be convinced to take that course.

The global empire, on the other hand, is the republic’s nemesis. It is self-centered, self-serving, greedy, and materialistic, a system based on mercantilism. Like empires before, its arms open only to accumulate resources, to grab everything in sight and stuff its insatiable maw. It will use whatever means it deems necessary to help its rulers gain more power and riches.

Preach, Mr. Perkins!  While I pretty much agree with what he is saying, it does say something that he refers to the ‘American republic’ in the past tense.  To him, it does seem the global empire America has taken over, if not outright buried the American dream.  Which, especially given his experience, is a completely reasonable stance to take.  America is a global power, and overall our political system is really good at deceiving, or at least distracting, both Americans and international citizens from the real motives behind many of its actions.  But that doesn’t mean the American dream, the republic Perkins talks about, is dead.  The idea of America as a truly free and equal country is still very much alive, which means we can still reach for the ideal.  Progressive, grassroots movements are learning how to take advantage of technology, and we continue to push back against the status quo, against the powers that be.  Which makes me damn proud to be an American.

In the present I foster patriotism through my understanding of Peace Corps as a promoter of a non-traditional development model, and a vehicle through which we can talk about the failings of American foreign policy.  I think my work as a volunteer does reflect American ideals and in this sense can run contrary to the political status quo.  Maybe it’s a step too far to say American ideals contradict the American reality—it’s easy to get caught up in Trump fever, congressional incompetence, and a history of paternalistic if not criminal foreign policy.  There is a large group of individuals like myself and organizations like the Peace Corps who are working to foster cross-cultural understanding and interdependence.  Many of us whose patriotism is based on our capacity to listen rather than our capacity to point guns.  Maybe we are more than America the ideal, maybe we are just living in a different American reality—perhaps the real, though less visible one.  In the end, it is patriotism that calls me to feel ashamed because when American action matches its reputation as a paternalistic global empire, the America I identify with gets lost in the shuffle.  I want to call out, voice my shame, to point out the significance of equality and freedom and how those ideals become perverted if we aren’t connected to other cultures and open to their wisdom.  It feels like a catch-22 sometimes, because my patriotism leads me to voice my disillusionment, and in my expression of shame my patriotism gets lost if not outright challenged.  But that’s the way it is—protest is patriotism.  Chill out Peace Corps, I’m not saying you symbolize protest…or shit, maybe I am…

Ultimately I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes—that “real journeys answer questions that in the first place you didn’t even think to ask.”  Life in a Latin American country during this crazy election cycle, while doing Peace Corps work, posed a new question in a new context: can I be both proud and ashamed to be American? What does that mean in Panama? In the end I’ve found that my patriotism can’t exist without my shame—my idealism can’t exist without some degree of realism.  And when the subject of politics or America-Panama relations come up, I try to honor the coexistence/codependence of these two feelings.

 

 

 

Eco-stove Project Update!

Happy Spring to those living in a place where spring is a thing!

Down here in Panama, it’s been hot and dry, and I haven’t much enjoyed watching the steady browning of the landscape.  Luckily the brownness of the hills in Herrera does NOT serve as a metaphor for the state of my projects and PC life in general.  To the contrary, I feel as if my so-called project seeds have been planted, and are ready to grow into successful, blooming project flowers.  In particular, our ecological stove project has been approved and posted online, and it needs to be watered…with money!  Through the PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program) grant framework, all you lovely (and perhaps slightly privileged?) people reading this can donate to the cause.

In short, the Ecological Stove Project will benefit 30 households and 110 people in a rural Panamanian community, providing them with a brick stove that requires less wood and produces less smoke.  As mentioned on the grant page, “The objective of this project is to enable community members to continue the cultural tradition of cooking with ‘fogones’€™, but in a way that reduces firewood consumption, reduces smoke inhalation, and provides a sturdy and therefore safer surface to cook on. Therefore the project is tasked with reducing the community’s reliance on small-scale deforestation, decreasing smoke-related health issues, and building community member€™s capacity to organize and lead projects on their own.” Each stove costs approximately $120, including labor costs for the local stove technicians.

Price Breakdown:

PieChartPriceBreakdown

 

Here’s the longer version:

Background — On July 31st, 2015 the community voted to have an ecological stove project as my main project in the community.  A similar project was started by the last volunteer, principally in two sectors of the community. This project will continue stove construction in the other sectors of the community focusing on the most rural areas with the most need.  Located just north of Rio La Villa, and containing the Cerro Peñon forest reserve, the ecological health of El Cedro is very important, but also vulnerable.  Continued construction of ecological stoves will help slow the rate of deforestation, because they can decrease the use of firewood by up to 70 percent.

Implementation — The project will be implemented based on frequent communication with a regional representative of MIAMBIANTE who has a lot of experience working with Peace Corps Volunteers. When the funding arrives, he will help coordinate material drop-off points, and make a schedule for stove construction workshops. The project will be focused on three sectors of the community—the two most rural and needy areas, and the central sector where many community leaders live. First, one individual from each of these sectors will be trained in stove construction by MIAMBIENTE. Then through a series of community meetings, a stove construction schedule will be made. Each household has agreed to provide a sack of cement, the requisite ash and sand, and manual labor from at least one member of the family. This family representative will work with his or her sector’s trained technician, and myself, to build the stove. I will also schedule an individual meeting with each family representative to reinforce the importance of proper stove use and maintenance.

Capacity Building and Sustainability — At least three community members will be trained in stove construction, and at least one member of each benefiting family will be involved in the building of their stove. During the process, each family representative will receive training in stove maintenance and I will reinforce this knowledge with a follow-up meeting. This meeting will stress the importance of stove-maintenance, and its connection with slowing deforestation rates and preserving environmental sustainability. Therefore, families will be able to maximize the life span of their stove, and appreciate its environmental value. Additionally, those who receive technical stove-building training will learn from and interact MIAMBIENTE, forging a connection between the community and the Ministry of the Environment. As such, the community will be able to ask for outside help (transporting materials for example) without relying on a Peace Corps Volunteer. I will hold a series of project design and management talks so community members develop confidence and leadership skills, the goal being that the community starts a self sustaining stove group that can raise funds and interact with MIAMBIENTE to repair old stoves and build new ones for those who do not receive on as a part of this project.
So, each household will have a representative educated in stove use and maintenance.  A select group of locals will become stove technicians, and will be able impart their knowledge in stove construction and maintenance to family and friends.  These technicians, along with select community leaders, will be trained in project design and management–hopefully leading to a community group responsible for repairing damaged stoves and potentially obtaining funding for new stoves.  Community members will be provided with a much stronger stove model that will reduce firewood consumption and smoke inhalation.  With proper maintenance, it is estimated that these stoves can last 15 years.

Outcome — First and foremost, the desired outcome of this project is to provide families with a safer and more environmentally-friendly cooking stove—one that decreases respiratory issues and firewood consumption while preserving the cultural tradition of cooking with fire.  Additionally, this project will be used to train community members in stove construction and project management—the goal being that community members develop the skills and attitudes necessary to take leadership roles in future projects.  30 stoves are being requested under this project, but over 80 households have expressed interest.  Therefore, the ultimate goal of this project is to provide a sustainable project framework from which the community can continue working with stoves with less reliance on Peace Corps volunteers and resources.

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The Eco Stove! (needs ash in the middle to maintain heat/protect outer bricks)

So, that’s my focus in site right now!  If you’d like to donate and or spread the word here’s the link:  Ecological Stove Project 

Thank you all for reading and considering helping my community raise the funds for our ecological stove project!  I plan to update you all on the progress of the project aqui mismo on my blog, but don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions about the project or about PC life in general.  I hope to write a more extensive blog post soon, but as always no promises : ) This week I will be near Panama City helping out the new group of volunteers with their training (so I will be available via whatsapp and facebook!).  I can’t believe I’m already in one of the ‘older’ groups in PC Panama, imparting my experiential knowledge to a new group of awesome volunteers.  I’m excited for the opportunity, and being in this position is cause to think back on the year I’ve already spent here and how much I’ve grown in the process.  Can’t wait to really get started with community projects and also make connections with a new group of conservation volunteers … Pa’lante!

In peace and love

Jeff

 

 

One Year

Aloha everybody!

Today marks a year since I left the states (Como pasa el tiempo!) and despite (or perhaps because of) the struggles I’ve grown a lot and can’t wait to see what the next 15 months in Panama brings!  Without further adieu…

It seems as if my blog is becoming quarterly publication.  What can I say, life happens. Asi es la vida. There was the PC holiday celebration in Chiriqui in early December, my family’s visit, the Cerro Hoya Summit to Sea Trek, Carnaval…  Mucha cosa. And in between all this, I’ve been in site trying to translate my newfound sense of belonging into productive projects.  A lot of fiddling with grant logistics for our eco-stove project, so I’m consistently telling folks that we’re still waiting for money—which, actually, isn’t fun at all.  Luckily, here in the campo, they’re used to waiting mucho tiempo for government projects.  So when I say we might not start until April or May, some people respond: Ay, ahora mismo (oh, just now). Still, I feel uncomfortable with the fact that the community is dependent on funding (through Peace Corps resources).  But that’s the idealism in me coming out.  The reality is that it’s a project la gente genuinely want; one that empowers them to continue a cultural tradition in a more environmentally sustainable and healthier way.  Entonce’ alli vamo.’  So there we go.

I have also been trying to motivate a few men to revive (or restart) their group of land owners, hopefully so they can manage a forest-protection project.  Very difficult.  In this stage of my PC service especially, there aren’t always clear next-steps for what to do on the community side of things.  My project goals are relatively well defined in terms of what needs to happen outside of the community—obtain funding and or program applications, solicit agency support, etc.  But while my main goals (in community) are more important, they are much more general—gaining trust and familiarizing myself with community dynamics—so I’m the one defining strategies and measuring progress.  In other words, I’m my own boss (okay, to a certain extent…).  I definitely struggle with this and have started to think about my PC service in terms of cycles.  A cliché, but apt, dicho (saying) is that PC service is like a roller coaster.  There are different stages of my service, and especially with the projects I’m trying to bring to my community, I don’t feel like I have much control over these stages or cycles (whatever you want to call them).

In my last post, I expressed some frustrations but was, all in all, feeling optimistic.  I was more comfortable in my community and my project visions were starting to clarify.  I would say that the last few months have been more frustration and less optimism.  When it came time to reach for the incremental goals for my projects, I realized that I still had a lot more to learn about my site and the people.  I’m always figuring it out as I go, but I’ve been struggling a lot lately to actually get stuff done.  There are a lot of different factors that I won’t go into detail about, but my approach has been to identify the factors and what they mean for my future approach while acknowledging that this job is f***ing hard, and keep doing what I can each day.  There are good days and bad days but I think in general there are longer term cycles of positivity and negativity.  It’s actually kinda like depression.  Which may seem like a super negative comparison but stick with me.  I don’t want to totally open up about my depression on the interwebs but what I will say is that it exists in cycles, and the rough cycles sometimes have logical reasons but most of the time don’t have any discernible ‘cause.’  What helps me is to 1) acknowledge the down cycle and be patient with myself 2) try to identify causes and solutions and 3) try not to get discouraged if/when I don’t identify clear causes and just soldier on.  Life happens, keep trucking forward one day at a time.  I’ve adopted pretty much the same approach with down times in PC service.  A lot of times I know why I’m frustrated with my projects or with community members, or whatever; but overanalyzing the obstacles doesn’t do any good.  I do my best to acknowledge them, and work through them, rather than getting caught in a downward cycle of negativity.  To be honest, easier said than done.  And again we come back to our cliché but always helpful PC dichos: asi es la vida; poco a poco.

Now to the more positive, fun section of this post!  I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences with amazing people recently, which have helped me re-energize and appreciate how lucky I am to be down here.  The high points on the roller coaster ride, you might say…Way back in early December we had the PC Panama holiday celebration in Chiriqui, the western most province of Panama, to celebrate Thanksgiving and the holiday season in general.  Almost all of the 200+ volunteers in Panama came to Cerro Punta, a beautiful mountain town near Volcan Baru (the highest point in the country) and crammed into a super nice hotel/resort type place.  Some of my closest friends and I stayed in one of their cabins, a 40 minute walk up into the rainforest.  It was breathtaking.  And cold.  Not winter in VT but still, we used a wood stove!  It really took me back to the time I spent in the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Volunteers came together for a talent show, sports competitions, and, most importantly, an amazing Thanksgiving meal.  In fact, it was the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had—sorry not sorry family back home!  Good times, though I must say after the cold of Chiriqui I felt like I was re-entering the Azuero for the first time again when I returned to site.  So. Much. Sweat.  Bummer I wasn’t playing in any pick-up basketball games cause no one on defense would have wanted to touch me…Will knows what I’m talking about ; )

And then in late December my family came and visited me!  My hard-working brothers each took a few days off so we were able to have the whole family (minus the Mia pupster) down here for a few days, including Christmas.  Christmas on the beach did not suck.  We rented a house near Pedasi, a smaller scale tourist/surfing town in southern Los Santos.  The house was a part of a reforestation project, which are few and far between here in the Azuero, so it felt nice to contribute to the cause.  Then we traveled to my site and spent a few days there.  The whole family got to see me in my element, at least for a little bit.  I really enjoyed being translator and having my family meet some of my friends in the community.  I feel like to a certain extent, I needed their visit for a confidence boost—I can speak Spanish pretty well, and I have made friends and gained trust within the community.  It was very fun and very rewarding.  After the brothers headed back for the states, my parents and I headed west to Chirqui.  We spent a few days in a super-resorty place on the pacific coast.  It was beautiful but kinda surreal #incountrycultureshock.  We then headed up to Boquete, a mountain town that could justifiably be labeled as gringolandia—a relatively recent development when white people discovered the amazing coffee that is grown there.  Met up with a good friend of mine who happened to be traveling there with his family as well, and we had some great times on NYE.  May have compromised the next day (or two) but hey, carpe that diem!  Before my parents headed back, we spent some time in Panama City doing touristy things which was really nice—I saw some parts of the city I had never seen before and probably wasn’t going to without visitors willing to pick up my bill : )  I’m really thankful to have such an amazing family and was really lucky they came down for the holidays.  Turns out they weren’t even missing a white xmas back in VT!  Famwy Sewfies:

In mid-January my life changed.  Damnit, I hate that cliché…your life is always changing! But still, it helps describe my emotions, verdad?  The Cerro Hoya hiking trip was a super fun, challenging, rewarding, transformative 5 day hiking trip organized by our fearless regional leader Michael and my good friend Christo.  Christo is now the volunteer in the site Michael was in for two years, and is continuing one of his main projects—the Cerro Hoya Summit to Sea Trek.  Cerro Hoya is a forest reserve in the southwest corner of the Azuero peninsula, by far the biggest and most biodiverse forest in the area.  But not many people know it even exists.  So the trip is to educate volunteers about the beauty and environmental significance of the area so they can bring that knowledge back to their respective communities.  It also builds the capacity of a few local residents to be Eco-guides.  Our eco-guide for the trip was Mingo, who grew up in the bosque and possesses an incredible amount of knowledge about the flora and fauna of the forest.  His innate geographical knowledge is also remarkable.  We spent four days hiking, averaging about 8 hours a day, and once we reached the rainforest on the second day the trail was barely, if at all, discernable.  But Mingo always knew exactly where we were, where we were going, where the closest water source was, etc.  He can also track animals and pointed out to us evidence of jaguars and wild pigs which, needless to say, was really f***ing cool.  It was absolutely beautiful hiking through a tropical rainforest, and doing it with beautiful people really made it special.  We hiked all day, fell on our asses consistently, joked around, talked about conservation and our lives in our respective sites…the ten of us really connected and I think we all returned to our sites reenergized—which is pretty telling considering that we had just hiked through a rainforest, Mingo leading the way with a machete to clear the trail.  Definitely the most challenging terrain I’ve hiked, and therefore the most rewarding experience I’ve had in the wild.  I must admit I was sometimes frustrated by the lack of a trail, but most of the time it was fun and, more importantly, we were minimizing our environmental impact.  We were learning about, and experiencing, the beauty and significance of the forest without bringing any of the negatives often connected with eco-tourism projects.  The last day we hiked from close to the summit all the way down to the beach, and on the way down we got to see a group of Great Green Macaws, an absolutely stunning bird whose population is steadily decreasing.  The moment really put everything into perspective for me—the natural beauty, the amazing people I was with, and the common problem we are all trying to fight in our own small way.  No matter what the future was going to bring, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time with the right people.  I think the trip may come to define transformative moments/experiences for me, something I think we should all consistently seek—it was challenging and humbling, but ultimately empowering.  And there you go, Peace Corps in a nutshell…

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Before I sign off, I want to give a shout out to both mis hermanos.  Brian is currently killing it for the Bernie campaign, working an insane amount of hours for the only worthy Presidential candidate.  He was a big part of Bernie’s resounding victory in NH and is now in MA where things are looking good.  Keep up the good work bro!  And Eric is doing amazing things with his studio Future Fields and his band Madaila.  I joke that I have declared myself the unofficial head of Latin-American outreach for Madaila, because I am constantly showing the band to my friends down here—yes, because I want to help my brother, but also because the band is toooooo legit!  It’s really fun watching my friends react to the music, i.e. “holy shit dude, I didn’t realize your bros band was, like, professional. Imma buy their album on itunes.”  So yeah guys, I’m broke and am waiting on my commission ; ) But in all seriousness, my brothers are absolutely killing it in el norte and I couldn’t be more proud of them!  Les extraño y les amo mucho!

In peace and love…

-Jeff aka Jeffrey aka Yefri

 

The Hills of Herrera are Green

Hello beautiful people,

It’s been almost 3 months since my last update (sorry!), and while I’m still firmly in the preliminary stages of my projects, a lot has happened.  Lots of parades and parties celebrating Panamanian culture and history, more time with fellow PCVs, new proyectitos in/around my house, and even rainstorms in the Azuero.  Wait, what?  Yeah, seriously.  Now while riding in the bus through the hills of Herrera, trying to keep my lunch in my stomach, I can look out the window and gaze upon green pastures and even some healthy trees.  It’s a welcome change in scenery, and a nice reminder that seasonal change, albeit less frequent or dramatic, still occurs here.  In my time in Panama, the northeast has experienced the end of winter, spring, summer and now fall.  Without the change that each season brings, my internal clock has felt off.  For a while I almost felt like I was in an endless summer, and it was hard to appreciate how much time I had actually spent here in Panama.  But, I have spent half a year living in my community.  Which, with the arrival of the rains and the subsequent greening of the hills, finally feels about right.  I am not the same person in the same summer.  I’ve been here for a while and a lot has happened.  For all the doubts I’ve had and will continue to have—about myself, my role in my community, Peace Corps’ role in Panama—I know this:  A lot has happened; I’ve been (and will be) here for a while; I’m challenging myself and learning; I’m gaining people’s trust, slowly but surely.  The hills of Herrera are green.  It won’t stay so for long, but in a weird way this green-scape has helped me put my service into perspective.  I’ve done a lot of the groundwork and things are changing.  The grass is still greener on the other side, but now the other side is the future of my service, and I’m starting to catch glimpses of it.

 

Way back in the beginning September we had IST (in service training), two-weeks of extra technical training.  We worked in gardens, made compost, learned about tree nurseries, and (most importantly for me), built an eco-stove.  It felt good to get my hands dirty and learn with my friends.  I left IST feeling much more qualified to start stove and reforestation projects in my community.  I’m still feeling out community dynamics, and contemplating my role here, but when I do think we are ready to start en serio, I’m confident I’ll be ready.  The highlight of the two-week period was definitely my birthday.  It was our second night of a week-long stay in Chepo, a community a few hours from me, high up in the hills of western Herrera.  We were each staying with a host family, and the night of my birthday my host family happened to be celebrating the 1 year birthday of its youngest member, Jeans Cadet (for the record, Jeans Cadet barely edges out Usnavy for first place on my list of ‘Merica-influenced Pana-names).  I hung out with some of my friends, ate the traditional Panamanian birthday meal of arroz con pollo y ensalada de papas, watched an evangelical-preacher-clown entertain the kids, and upon returning to my temporary home ate 4 pieces of cake. Good times with friends, good times with new Pana-friends, and lots of cake.  I didn’t really have any expectations for the day, and ended up having an awesome (and properly weird!) Peace Corps birthday.  Side note: Panamanian piñata tradition dictates that the batter can see, but a long rope be used so someone can tug on it just as the bat is swung.  So there’s always an interesting sub-plot going on between the (kid) batter and the (adult) rope-holder trying to induce a swing-abanico.  A special bonus is when the piñata is filled with flour in addition to the candy—invariably the kids with the most candy are covered with flour.  Really great stuff.

 

The day after IST ended, six of us walked down to our friend Jack’s site, about an hour walk from where we were in Chepo.  It was really cool to see Jack and his gente in their community, it’s bien metido (out there!), meaning less outside-world influence and real tipica culture.  We had a junta to re-cement Jack’s porch floor—meaning we slowly worked, pretty much winging it the whole time, learning along the way while sipping on some chica and chatting it up with his curious neighbors.  Super fun time.  And now I kinda know how to make and lay cement!  My friend Andrew and I decided to walk back up to Chepo the next day, and a few hundred yards from Jack’s house I broke a bridge and fell into a shallow river.  Yup.  Granted, the word ‘bridge’ in this context is generous at best—it was basically just one long tree branch to walk on, and another one for a hand-rail thingy.  Right as I was telling Andrew how sketchy it seemed, it snapped and I fell down like 10 feet back-first.  Thank whatever powers there be that I was wearing a stuffed backpack.  Ended up with a few scratches, wet clothes, a lot of adrenaline, and a funny story.  Didn’t even break my computer or phone.  That afternoon I even lived up to the ‘’stinky white person with a large backpack’ stereotype so, you know, I can cross that off my bucket list.

 

Coming back from IST, I did have a little trouble getting back into a routine in El Cedro.  Including my medical visit to Panama, I had been out of site for the better part of a month.  After spending nearly every day of 3 months trying to integrate into the community, people had gotten used to seeing me.  So while on the one hand it was a bit frustrating having to explain that I hadn’t actually abandoned them, I really saw that people had come to value my presence.  Always good to be reminded of that fact, because I tend to overlook it while stressing about my role in the community and how I should present myself.  But my neighbors and fellow community members were super direct and kind of funny with me.  “Oh we thought you were lost!”  “Good to see you, we thought your country had called you back to service!”  So I inevitably smiled and did my best to explain that I was sick and then had a two-week long training.  For the most part, people understood and didn’t seem disappointed at all.  They were glad to see me back and healthy.  Which, again, felt great.  So site-absence-guilt mostly gave way to feasibility/tangibility-of-projects-stress.  These are two PC emotions that constantly ebb and flow and balance out the fuck-it-I-need-a-day-off-to-chill-feeling.

At the end of September we (volunteers from the Azuero) had our regional meeting on Isla Cañas, in order to coordinate with an event MINAM (Ministry of the Environment) was putting on there.  Regional meeting itself is not super exciting, but no matter where it takes place it’s always nice to check in with friends and get advice from more experienced PCVs.  Extra bonus being on an island, swimming in the ocean, and seeing mama sea turtles lay eggs.  Also got to experience my first matanza—a day long party that begins by slaughtering a cow and subsequently eating said cow in a variety of forms.  Didn’t get to see the actual killing (unfortunately?) because the cow drowned on the way out to the island…but it still tasted great!  The matanza was followed by a baile which was good fun and offered me an opportunity to practice my tipico dance moves outside of my own community.

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turtle momma layin her eggs!

The end of September gave way to October and I began thinking seriously about the eco-stove project.  I started pasear-ing more and started having informal conversations about stoves.  I’m still working on a list of interested households so yeah, it’s a slow process.  But I kind of honed the process by mid-October.  I walk all around the corregimiento (which is pretty spread out), and visit with people who are home.  I ask about their current stove situation (gas stove vs. wood stove), try to get a feel for their economic situation, and ask if they’d be willing to help either build the stoves or help organize the logistics.  A big shout out goes to Javier, a community counterpart who walked around with me my first day making the list.  He took the lead explaining the project, and in turn I learned a lot of related vocabulary and phrases—a lot of times you have to learn through experience because the dictionary won’t include a Panamanian-campo translation—which gave me the confidence to continue the process alone.  But as always, we continue poco a poco.

October 19 is Founders Day of Los Pozos, the district in which El Cedro is a part.  Which is a big deal.  Allow me to generalize: most Panamanians work very hard.  Most Panamanians also love to party.  And here in the campo of Herrera, parties are done right—that is, tipica.  Let me take you through my experience that day.  I slept in a bit that morning, which means I got up around 8 (Yeah, a lot has changed).  I hopped in the back of a pickup truck, and chatted with some guys who both had their party shirts hanging from the top of the ‘cab.’  Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in Los Pozos, already buzzing with people getting ready for the parade.  For this parade, each town has an ox cart (actually pulled by ox!) with all sorts of decorations representing the culture of their town.  Standing on the ox cart amidst the decorations, each town has a reina (queen) wearing a tipica dress and absolutely covered in make-up.  Our town also had a speaker system on the back of the cart, hooked up to an accordion player and tipica singer.  A bunch of people from each town march behind their ox cart, everyone bien vestido with their tipica clothing.  I did my best to fit in, and ended up impressing a lot of people by accepting a few tragos of seco (Herrerano of course) and dancing quite a lot.  Parades in Panama, I’ve noticed, tend to drag on and on and eventually die out rather than end at a specific time.  No different in Los Pozos.  After a couple hours of drinking, dancing, and avoiding ox shit, I was exhausted and super happy for the parade to be over.  I went home super contento, and random people still talk to me about my dancing that day.  Good times! Next year I’ll have to stay for the nightcap dance as well.

 

November in Panama, even in the Azuero, is when the rainy season really gets going.  Especially as of late, it will rain all afternoon and night and occasionally all through the day.  Rain means cooler weather, greener surroundings, and the opportunity to slow down and reflect in a relatively guilt-free manner.  Suffice to say, I love it.  Sometimes it can be frustrating getting stuck out in the rain but most of the time I’m sweaty and uncomfortable and welcome the chance to get soaked and make people gawk at the gringo mojado.  November is also a big month for national holidays here.  The 3rd is Independence (from Colombia) Day, the 10th is the Uprising of Los Santos (when it became its own province) and the 28th is Independence from Spain day.  For the 3rd, I went to the town’s celebration at the school and the mini-parade that followed.  Small-scale but still very cool and people seemed happy to see me there.  In the afternoon I participated in what can only be described as a very strange campo tradition.  In the morning, a number of guys take a super long tree-trunk and take all the bark off.  They then scrub the tree down with oil and soap to make it slippery before sticking it in a hole about a meter deep.  Oh yeah, a bag of prizes is taped to the top. It had to have been like 25 feet in the air.  I could bull shit about the values of having to work together as a team to figure out a way to the top…but really it’s a crazy, kinda dangerous task of muchachos climbing up each other trying to get to the top of a lubed tree trunk.  Hilarious stuff.  Naturally, I stepped in and served as one of the four big guys on the bottom—supporting the 5-6 people above us.  Each time someone slipped or the guys at the bottom tired, everyone came crashing down on each other.  So yeah really good times especially cause I didn’t break my neck!  On the eve of the 10th I went to a tipica concert in Los Santos and saw Samy y Sandra, one of the more popular groups in the country.  Super fun and we even got to meet Sandra!

Here in the Azuero, it’s hard not to jump right into the culture during October and November—much celebrations, many fun, wow.  As the end of the year approaches though, I really want to feel more productive in my community.  Last week we had a Project Management and Leadership conference and I brought a community member with me.  He’s already motivated to be a leader and I think he learned a lot.  Hopefully he applies it to get his community group up and running again so we can start a reforestation project.  My focus remains the stove project, and it’s a slow process.  But when I slow down and reflect I realize I want it to be that way.  I do feel a lot more comfortable in my community, and I think I’m starting to really gain their trust.  I’m always learning about community dynamics, but it’s important to recognize that I’ve already learned a lot.  I have hunches about which people will be good to lean on for project support.  I am comfortable with my stove-project-Spanish-vocabulary and I am much better at explaining it now.  I have a list of 55 people who want to receive an eco-stove, and that list will probably end up being close to 70.  Which is…daunting.  But as a PCV I have a lot of resources—fellow volunteers, my program director, the grant process woman, gov’t agencies—and I’m confident that I’ll figure out how my community and I fit in with all those other pieces.  As I spit in the 3PCVs latest rap song (seriously haha!): Peace Corps ain’t no walk in the park, but I know that I won’t be left in the dark.  Seguimos adelante…

En paz y con amor

-Jeff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Months

August 27.  Six months I’ve been in Panama.  ‘Damn, time flies’ is my initial reaction, quickly followed by ‘no shit it’s been a while, man!’  My PC experience frequently presents these kind of situations, when I experience two almost diametrically opposed feelings simultaneously.  Happy and frustrated.  Challenged and bored.  Critical and understanding (of others).  I’m an indecisive person so I’m somewhat used to being uncertain about something, like being presented with a philosophical argument and not knowing whether or not you agree because you don’t feel like you actually understand what the author is trying to say.  Or, more practically, not wanting to make a decision on which hotel room you want—again because you just don’t have enough information and don’t want to feel like you’ve made the wrong one later on, when more information is presented.  Normally, indecision refers to making choices, at least conceptually, about something to do.  Something in the near future that threatens your reputation as a decision maker.  But as a PCV I’ve felt an indecision more describable as ‘being in limbo’—indecisive about how I feel.  It’s not like I have to make a choice and will be mad if I’ve made the wrong one, but that I’ve experienced an overload of information (feelings) and can’t begin to digest them into an intelligible pattern.  My day will end and I’ll feel something mildly describable as the ‘FUCK’ that was frustrating!’ feeling.  But then I’m happy or proud with the way I dealt with it.  Or disappointed.  Or both.  I’ll feel super productive, then a stray thought will have me feeling lazy again.  Keeping a journal helps me digest everything that’s going on but I can’t escape this being ‘in-limbo’ with how I feel.  It’s not frustrating all the time, and it is actually pretty interesting.  I know I’m challenging myself and I know that each day is an opportunity for growth because nothing is predictable, not even how I feel about it.

For the record, I do not believe in the self-helpers who claim you can choose to be happy.  I believe that only in a certain sense do we control our outlook on any given moment.  Somethings just produce instinctual feelings, and you can only control (sometimes) how you react to those.  In other words I don’t think we control our feelings in the moment, but we do have a say about our feelings about the moment, and how we put those moments into a larger pattern of feelings during a day, or week, or month, etc.  So yeah, I have bad moments, days, and sometimes weeks. Integrating into Spanish speaking community in the Panamanian campo is hard.  I can’t always avoid cultural misconceptions and incongruences.  In other words, shit happens.  Expectations are smashed.  I’m getting used to this reality, and I know it’s a valuable experience.  But damn, trying to even out the roller coaster of emotions is tough.  I always try to keep things in perspective and suspend judgement but that often leaves me with this feeling of being in limbo.  Does my attempt at open-mindedness sometimes encourage a lack of productivity?  How should I feel about that if so?  It’s practical and I’m learning little by little…but should I be more idealistic?  This is what I mean by in limbo.  It’s weird and sometimes frustrating but I think, if I’m explaining myself well, it can be seen as a really crucial part of the Peace Corps.  There’s such an openness to the process. The integration process is our own, we have to blaze our own path.  There is and will be indecision about what I’m doing and how I should feel about that.  But because of that I’ll always try to consider everyone and everything around me.  About their feelings, their realities, and about my role in the ultimate PC goal of behavior change.  So many questions and uncertainties, but if anything is certain it’s that I will be a much better person for my time in the PC.  I can always remind myself of that.

Now to a more traditional update of what’s up with Jeff in Panama.

At the end of July I had my community meeting.  We had discussions about community geography and seasonal and personal calendars.  Then we selected three top priority projects: ecological stoves, reforestation, and protecting a 500hectare area of forest in the community.  In the end I was happy with the results of the meeting, but I was a bit disappointed with the level of participation from community members.  I learned some valuable lessons about how to plan events and who to do it with though : ) So yeah ecological stoves was always going to be a project, because many people in my community still use the ‘traditional stove’ which actually isn’t a stove at all.  Just a fire with some rocks around it.  So stoves, if properly built, significantly lower the amount of wood needed to start and maintain a fire, as well as decreasing the smoke that drifts into people’s houses.  It will be interesting finding funding and resources, but I have some ideas floating around and I hope to start rolling on the project pretty soon.  Still though, it’s important to take my time learning about resources and funding options because I want to effectively work with my people in a way that empowers them to continue the project when I’m gone.  This thinking applies to every potential project we do.  It’s often idealistic but in this situation that’s the best way to start.

Environmentally speaking, the ecological stoves project is concerned with lowering the rate of deforestation in an important watershed area.  My community and I also want to reforest by planting trees—my potentially idealistic hope is to do so with native plants rather than pine trees : ) but as always vamos a ver.  Many have the idea of planting in the same forested area they want to protect, which is great, but I’m also hoping to expand to people’s properties.  This will probably entail some educational talks or something of the sort so again, little by little.  In terms of protecting the forested area in the community…this project has already sort of begun, but I’m hoping to encourage community members to take over rather than relying on the Peace Corps Volunteer.  Educational outreach will probably also needed here, maybe in the context of PC PML conferences (Project management leadership).

The second week of August I moved into my own place.  I’m renting it at a reasonable monthly rate (so dirt cheap if I were in the states), and pay for electricity while the water comes with the monthly rent.  It’s centrally located, but just secluded enough to have some privacy.  It’s on a hill which means it often gets breezy—YES!  Had an adventure buying and transporting my bed frame, mattress, stove and gas tank, and general supplies all in one trip but I made it thanks to some helpful bus drivers and a few extra dollars in their pockets.

Matress, bed frame, stove and gas tank, and kitchen supplies, among other things, for the house

Matress, bed frame, stove and gas tank, and kitchen supplies, among other things, for the house

I have only spent a week or so in my new place, but it’s great.  Reclaiming my diet to a certain degree was awesome—vegetables are soooo good!  Cooking my own food and planning my meals ahead adds a welcome degree of responsibility to my living situation.  Spending over 100 dollars (that’s A LOT here) buying groceries made me feel like an actual adult!  And of course, a semblance of privacy when I need it!  So yeah feeling great about being in my own place.

my hammock and view from the back porch!

my hammock and view from the back porch!

However…I’ve spent the last 10 days in Panama City for medical reasons that I don’t feel comfortable getting into on such a public forum.  I’m totally fine, but being away from site for so long has me feeling pretty guilty.  I know I should have come here and I’m happy that I did BUUUT I’ve been out of site for a while and will only be able to stay there for a day before my group’s two week long IST (in service training) begins.  This being said I’m really excited about IST.  I will be able to see everybody in my group for the first time in 3+ months.  So much catching up to do! And of course more importantly : ) this is the week where we get more hands on training for potential projects.  We will gain experience and knowledge in eco-stoves, tree nurseries, and lots of other cool stuff that I need and want to learn.  My birthday is during this time and I’m grateful that I’ll get to spend it around my PC friends.  Not to brag or anything, but CEC group 76 is just the best.  Twenty six thoughtful, intelligent, caring people—my PC family.  Whenever I’m feeling lost, in limbo, or straight out frustrated I can always lean on my friends.  I love all of you at home but there’s so many experiences unique to PC Panama and nothing picks me up quite like catching up with a member of my PC family.

Con paz y amor

#feelthebern

-Jeff

PanaTunes

Hello readers.  Here is something I wrote a few weeks ago for the PC Panama newspaper/magazine thingy.  It’s supposed to be funny : )  At the bottom I included a ‘cultural glossary’

Tonight I sit on my bed, laptop in its natural position, electronically thumbing through the CEC google drive.  This has become a go-to activity for me.  The google drive exploration, though, is just a façade—a fleeting attempt to feel ‘productive’ in the traditional, entrepreneurial sense.  Really, I spend hours on my computer, unsuccessfully presenting (to myself, and my host family) an image of “Jeff the productive PCV pasaring la noche pensando sobre sus proyectos” so I can have some much needed alone time with my beloved music collection.

For the record, I am capable of enjoying tipica, and on a few occasions I even gave in to the power of a mid-song gritar, not yet possessing the required muscle memory to produce a sound even resembling what I was going for.  I can almost enjoy reggaeton—just have to not listen to the lyrics!  And romantica…I’m trying.  But for my continued mental health, I claim that I need my time with my varied collection of quasi-legally downloaded music.  It might be the most efficient way to re-energize my rather introverted self.  In this sense, you could say I’m being productive right now.  What a wonderful thing Peace Corps is, offering us the tangible experience necessary to expand our conception of ‘productivity’ to include spending a few hours listening to some heady Phish jams!  (Seriously y’all, I listen to a lot of other stuff too!)

Thus far, listening to “my” music has been a fairly private activity.  Party for the aforementioned reason of being and introvert and needing to re-energize, but also because I’ve considered the logistics of introducing my music tastes (in earnest) to mi gente.  A little background: I am often Jeffrey, the gringo from the country of Vermont where it snows year round.  Or Chefli, the student from New York.  You know how it goes, misconceptions happen.  The geographical, linguistic, cultural ones might be annoying at first, but they offer teaching points and start fun and rewarding conversations.  But explaining my music tastes?  Que?

When asked about tipica American music, I identified the genuinely American forms as blues, jazz and hip-hop/rap.  Yeah, turns out that using broken Spanish to explain how certain genres evolved from a history of oppression is rather hard to do when the involved person doesn’t know what those genres are.  Submitting to the power of the white lie, I started just saying I like everything.  “Even rock?” a woman sitting next to me on the bus once responded, to which I truthfully answered yes.  She smiled, “you must be enjoying this then,” she replied as the driver’s head continued to bump to the unmistakable beat of reggaeton.

So when asked about my personal music tastes, I’ve realized it’s much easier to just say “yea, I like tipica, the accordion is a cool instrument.”  For right now, I’m gonna stick to that strategy—talk Panamanian music and try to enjoy what people are playing.  And every few nights, I’ll privately dive into my collection of hip-hop, soul, jazz, rock, indie, and of course, Phish.  But at some point I’ll push the button and conquer the lure of the white lie.  And the moment I truly feel at home will be the moment when I get over my pena, and introduce a Pana-friend to the Halloween ’94 recording of ‘Divided Sky.’  That was one killer show, man.

Glossary

CEC Google Drive – where Community Environmental Conservation volunteers find lots of helpful information online

tipica – Traditional Panamanian music.  Usually with traditional drums and an accordion. Lots of gritars…

gritar – Traditional Panamanian working yell/cry.  Used to energize while working in the fields, and in tipica music

reggaeton – reggae with latin american hip hop twist…you can look this one up

romantica – normally guys singing (in abnormally high voices) super corny and or misogynistic love songs

Reflections, Emerging Themes

Hey y’all.  It’s been a while.  I’ve now been in site for over two months (WOH!), and slowly but surely I’ve waned of my addiction to technology.  Which I say mostly to excuse the long break in between posts.  I don’t believe that technology is a bad thing, or that it’s inherently addicting, but I’m glad that I’m living in the campo.  I can connect using cell data to check politics and sports via my iphone apps, but the internet isn’t strong enough for me to update the blog or watch videos or, you know, otherwise waste my time.  I’ve started a diary which helps me vent on frustrating days and pump myself up after good days.  There are still times when I want to share what I’m going through, and in these times (there has only really been two), I’ve sat down with my computer and reflected on some emerging themes I’ve been thinking about.  Now that I’m in my local city with a real internet connection, it’s time to share!

First set of reflections, from June 11th

Patience v. Productivity

Came to Pan y Cake for my internet fix…and there’s no internet today.  The ‘expect the unexpected’ theme is cliché and overused—not to mention something I think I’ve been acknowledging pretty well.  But really the saying is super general and doesn’t do a lot on its own to help understand cultural differences.  No matter what my expectations are, the fact remains that there is a serious lack of infrastructure here. Okay… using the qualifier ‘serious’ before ‘lack of infrastructure’ pretty much gives away my American heritage.  I come from an over-privileged, over-stimulated culture (for the most part), and have become used to the ease that comes with constant internet connection, transportation with a personal car, a functioning postal service, etc.  On the one hand, I’m glad to be away from it all, and I don’t think Panama should necessarily change and try to achieve the American standard of ‘efficiency.’  But the constant waiting game continues to bring up the question of patience v. productivity.  Does the lack of infrastructure help explain the super tranquilo, maybe too-patient lifestyle, or does the lifestyle help explain the slow infrastructure?

Being patient is good, and a lot of times being on “pana-time” is connected with people spending time with friends and family and not worrying about being perfectly on time for whatever obligation they’ve made.  If someone is relying on a bus/chiva to get them somewhere, for example, it seems that they don’t take the schedule into account even though they are clearly familiar with it.  They spend an extra 20 minutes with family or whatever, and then have to wait a few hours for the next bus and it’s no biggie.  Which is a testament to their patience but if I’m on the other end trying to start a meeting it’s like what the fuck? A microcosm of this phenomenon I’m trying to explain is the meaning of ‘ahora.’  Normally the word means now in Spanish, but here in the Panamanian campo it means later—like in a few hours…like maybe one, maybe six.  In the context of my sector, community environmental conservation, I already expect change to be a slow, methodical process…but the more I interact with my community the more I realize that there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of walk.  I don’t have grandiose expectations for my work—at least I don’t think I do—but I really want to make a tangible difference in my community members’ behavior.  Maybe this is too much to ask…I will probably build eco stoves and then assume that people are using less wood and creating less smoke—but will I realistically be able to connect the work with some sort of environmental conscience that goes beyond economic benefit? How hard will it be to organize successful charlas (talks) and how many will it take to make a difference?  I’m confident that these 2 years will be great for my personal growth—especially in terms of fostering patience and understanding—but I really want to feel I’ve been productive on behalf of my community as well.

English v. Spanish

This attempt to verbalize some of my main reflections so far brings up another theme—English eloquence leaving as I continue to work on my Spanish.  Sometimes it really feels like the two languages are competing in my mind.  Obviously, I’m so far away from being an eloquent Spanish speaker—some days I feel like I actually haven’t improved at all…but I often struggle to come up with a word in English when I already have it in Spanish.  Other times my spelling and or grammar in English just leaves me for a moment.  When texting or messaging with friends I often use there instead of their or they’re, or use our instead of are.  Oh, it makes me cringe!  And when I write in my diary or message friends I’ll find myself trying to say something profound and I just can’t think if the right combination of words to finish the sentence how I want to.  It’s especially frustrating on days when I feel like my Spanish hasn’t been improving.

Does introversion make my job inherently harder?

Um…yes.  But should I worry about changing?  I think that I should do my best to be more outgoing and confident with my Spanish, without worrying about ‘making the switch’ to being an extrovert.  It’s not going to happen, and besides, I don’t like looking at things on an either-or basis.  Some days are better than others; some contexts are better than others.  I tend to re-energize when I’m by myself but there are some community members I now feel comfortable around that I think I’m actually relaxing and not burning through my energy at a normally ridiculous rate.  Also it’s more effective (from a re-energizing perspective) to read or journal or meditate than it is to watch a movie or a tv show—although sometimes that is what I need to do.  Back to the point though, I think my job would be easier—or at least become easier faster—if I we’re outgoing in every interaction.  It’s just a fact that the best way to break through pena is to at least pretend that you don’t have any.  Some days I can do that…others I can’t.  Poco a poco but I think I can do better at trying to push myself a little more each day.

Being less dependent on technology…but it’s still really nice

I check facebook less, don’t aimlessly roam the internet, and don’t live chat with anybody.  I have a smart phone—as do many Panamanians—but there isn’t that much service in my site.  Which is nice because it forces me to read more books and connect with people rather than my device…but I do often get frustrated at the lack of service when I do have one of those itches to connect.  A lot of times this is connected to sports, which I could totally care less about.  Politics is normally something I’d rather tune out, but now that Bernie Sanders is running for President, the urge to keep myself educated is back and stronger than ever.  This is honestly one of my biggest sources of homesickness.  For once there is a political candidate that inspires real hope and promises real change.  People shouldn’t get caught up on his chances or any of the bullshit involved in the game that has become our political system.  If people vote for beliefs, for authenticity, for being a real person (like they should), he will win.  I joined the Peace Corps to experience something new—both because of the challenge and promise of excitement that comes from a new culture, but also just getting away from the one I had become so disillusioned with.  Now that Bernie is running, part of me wishes I was back in the states, bugging as many people as possible about Bernie.  What I keep reminding myself is that probably isn’t necessary in Vermont where he’s going to win anyway.  Also, thanks to technology, I can still share the occasional article on facebook/twitter and keep myself reasonably updated on things.  Lastly, I can bug my PC friends about getting an absentee ballot for the primary.  Shit, I hope that’s possible.  Mom? : )

And from just the other day, July 13th:

Community Analysis holy shit

I’m less than three weeks away from my community analysis meeting—when I host a community talk/event in which we talk about the environmental situation and ultimately choose what my primary projects will be as a PCV.  It’s not the be all end all of my service—I can start a new project later if people want—but it’s still pretty damn important.  Today I finished my invitation letters to the representatives of the ministry of the environment so hopefully I get those out soon and they show up because that would really help illustrate the legitimacy and importance of my position in the community.  My boss Amy will be there to help with Spanish if I need and also to help clarify my role.  I can pretty much guarantee that people will ask about teaching English, and I’m glad Amy will be there to say that’s not my job.  I might end up doing it anyway, but I still want to clarify that my main job is environmental.  I’ve found that people are very impressed when I say I have a degree in environmental studies.  In this culture it is more than appropriate to call myself an environmentalist (“soy ambientalista”).  But I still have a nagging self-confidence issue with that title, because this tropical environment is still very much foreign to me.  I have been and will have to rely on local knowledge, but at the same time things I know (and think are rather inherent) are not imbedded in the culture.  Case in point: importance of compost.  Most people here use chemical fertilizers, and if they know what compost is they are just not patient enough to stick with it.  Year after year, their soil gets a little worse, but they rely on ‘abono’ (fertilizer) as opposed to ‘abono organico’ (compost) to grow their plants.  A few locals have told me that each year of this pattern the height of their corn, for example, decreases a bit.  What I’ve realized is being a professional and inspiring behavior change will not require me to spit out a bunch of impressive, heady, environmental information.  It’s about listening, gaining trust, and being really persistent encouraging simple life changes.  And making the seemingly difficult seem rather easy.  Here’s to a challenge.

Welp, that’s all I had.  Right now I’m feeling pretty good.  I’m definitely being challenged on a daily basis, but I know I’m in the right place.  I know I will learn and grow a lot from my community, I just hope I can return the favor! Life has been a little slow these first two months, so I’m excited for things to speed up and for my job to start for real.  In about a month I’m planning on moving into my own place which I am very excited about.  My host family has been really nice, but I’m ready for more freedom and, actually, responsibility.

Here’s a few pictures:  One, some baby coffee plants I helped plant at a farm in my community (there were 300 in total!) And two, the local futbol field where I’ve been honing my foot skills and routinely scraping my legs after eating shit.  : )

IMG_1958 IMG_2065

100 Days

Hey everyone!

I’ve been in Chitre (the regional capital of Herrera) for the last couple of days, because we had our first regional meeting.  I got to meet up with all my fellow Group 76 friends from Herrera and Los Santos, as well as meet the other volunteers in the region who are in the middle of their service.  It was great to catch up with friends and relax a little bit.  Also, nothing like not having to think while speaking.  English is great.

After a day of meetings yesterday we went out to eat pizza together and then went to a bar to hang out.  As I was catching up and relaxing with friends I was told that we had now been in Panama for 100 days.  Wow.  I think I mentioned this in an earlier post, but while my days are challenging and feel long, it feels like the weeks/months fly by.  In comparison to our 2 year service, our group hasn’t spent that long in country, but looking back we have done a lot.  I feel really close to my group, and feel greatful to have made so many great friendships already.  I do sometimes get lonely/homesick in site but, thanks to the advances in technology and the accompianing requirements from the Peace Corps, most of my friends are but a text/phone call away.  Almost all of us have some semblance of cell service–some regular and strong, others like me, just know the right spots to go into the community if we need to connect/vent/speak in english for a while.

Little by little, I’m getting more comfortable in my community.  I try to push myself out of my comfort zone at least once a day, and I’ve found that my comfort zone is already starting to expand as I continue to learn about the culture and improve my Spanish.  Both cultural norms and campo Spanish certainly have the capacity to annoy me sometimes, but I have plenty of free time to read/meditate/watch a movie/etc.  I’ve been reading more than I have, like, in my life which feels really good.  It’s become a relaxing english fix–even if it’s non-fiction and or intellectual reading.  I finished Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, McKibben’s new book, and now I’m halfway through 100 Years of Solitude (in english haha!).  What has happened to me?!

Gonna keep it a quickish post today, as I have to travel back to site soon, but I’ll leave you with one of my favorite experiences in site so far.  Last Sunday I went camping, spending a day and a night in a beatufil forested area that many community members want to protect in an official manner (it’s the same area I walked around on that epic hike I talked about in the last post).  I did a lot of reading, enjoyed listening to the birds and bugs, went swimming in the river, and actually succeeded in having some relatively deep conversations with my guide in Spanish.  Here’s a picture!

deep in thought, enjoying nature : )

deep in thought, enjoying nature : )

Hope everyone is doing well wherever you are!

Much love,

-Jeff

p.s. I’ve now eaten 5 bananas in Panama (and, therefore, in my life) #personalgrowth