Swear in

October 23rd, 2009 | derekaugustbloor

On October 22, after 10 weeks of training, we were officially sworn in to the Peace Corps.  The ceremony was held at the U.S. Ambassador’s house in the middle of Panama City.

Group 64- nobody dropped

Group 64- nobody dropped

swear-in-017

Afterward we all went out…

we don't get out much...

we don't get out much...

The Site Visit

October 22nd, 2009 | derekaugustbloor

After the beach we returned to Santa Clara to go back to the grind of training.  A few weeks later we went to 2 day a conference to meet our community counterparts.  These counterparts are people from our community who will help us get aquainted to the area, help us with potential projects, and basically hold our hands during the first few months.  This conference was one of the most awkward things I have ever had to endure.  The trainees arrived together chatty as usual as we enterd the building.  We found a room full of campesinos sitting in silence.  It was interesting to see the many cultures panama has to offer sitting in one room.  There were Ngabes, Emberas, Latinos- all from the most rural and secluded parts of the country.  Many of these people, my counterpart included, had never left their region of the country…so this was the furthest away from home they had ever been.  These people tend to be shy in the first place so conversation had to be forced.

some campesinos

some campesinos

My counterpart is a very pretty Ngabe woman.  When I found her, she was needless to say very quiet.  Ngabe was her first language but she has learned Spanish very well.  The only communication was me asking questions and her giving me one or two words answers.  I was conscious to give her time to ask me stuff but no- it was an interrogation. I was a little worried at how our initial interactions went…

After the conference each trainee and his respective counterpart left to visit their individual sites for a week….

I was not exactly sure what to expect when I arrived at my community. I was shocked to find a gravel road that ran up to my site. Many volunteers have to hike a couple hours through the jungle to get to their communities. There were even power lines that ran along the road- but there were is no power in my community.

the road to my site- i think alcohol was involved here

the road to my site- i think alcohol was involved here

They have a functioning aquaduct which seems proplerly maintained…all the pipes were buried underground which is rare for the campo.  We even have a sidewalk.

Most of the houses are built on stilts because there is a ridiculous amount of rain in the region. They told me that last year there was sitting water about 4 feet high off the ground for 2 weeks. There is a school with about 60 kids from my site and neighboring communities. The land surrounding my community is covered in jungle with wild banana, lemon, orange, and plantain trees. It seemed to me that most of the families have small farms in the area around the community.

a nice day

a nice day

 

the main walkway in my community

the main walkway in my community

 

During my visit, my guide and I visited almost every one of the 18 houses in the community. I decided at this point that I want to learn the Ngabe dialect. Most of the people speak both Ngabe and Spanish and I could probably get by on just using Spanish…I just want to earn their respect. When we were visiting I would throw out some of the generic Ngabe phrases I know and the people were tickled pink…especially the older people.

One day my guide and I went to her farm with some of her brothers and cousins for a work day. Just so you know a farm in Panama is different from a farm in the states. Here, a farm is basically jungle with random fruit trees and vegetables scattered throughout dozens of acres. There are no rows of crops or nice irrigation systems- at least not in the campo.

the farm

the farm

Anyway we were going to “chopear” which is basically cutting unwanted weeds and grass from under the trees. I got a bunch of laughs when I pulled out my machete- it was too big and too shiny and brand new. Even worse, it was clear that I had no idea how to use it. They tried showing me and I got better but my performance was no where near theirs. Its really amazing what they do- they can cut 3 feet tall grass so short that it looks like a golf course when they’re done. After 2 hours we stopped- I think it was because it was obvious I could not keep up. The rest of the afternoon they showed me the farm and we drank coconut water. From a hill, I could see all the San San Pond Sak preserve which borders my community until it reached the ocean. It was beautiful.

the preserve

the preserve

During this visit we were also supposed to find out where we are going to live during the 1st three months in site. Peace Corps requires us to live with a host family or multiple host families during our first 3 months before we live on our own. My counterpart offered me 1 of their 2 rooms for the first month in exchange for food. I shouldn’t have to pay more than $30 for this. I feel bad though because all 7 of them will be sleeping in the next room on the floor.

my room for the first month...note the brand new machete

my room for the first month...note the brand new machete

I lucked out because my counterpart’s husband is a “chainsaw man”. He rides his bike looking for trees that are ready to bed cut and made into material. I went to work with him one morning and was blown away at what I saw. He had cut a gigantic tree down days before and was in the process of making the 2 x’s.

the dog doing its part

the dog doing its part

 

He just used a string line and his chainsaw and turned this tree into perfect wooden studs and planks. He said the tree in this picture cost him $100. I will need to build my own house during these three months and he told me he would help me with this.

Tech Week

October 22nd, 2009 | derekaugustbloor

After this week all the Environmental Health trainees, 17 of us in all, visited a large Ngabe community in the Comarca which had about 8,000 Ngobes. This 6th week of training is known as the dreaded tech week. During this week there are no lectures or language tutoring. It is all strictly hands on work. I, personally, had been looking forward to some labor work after the past few weeks of mostly “classroom” study.

home stay in the Comarca

home stay in the Comarca

 

 

We surveyed a mountain with a water level and ended up barely finishing 2 pit latrines and 2 composting latrines.

aquaduct surveying

aquaduct surveying

 

 

It ended up being a lot more work than I had thought- mixing concrete on the ground and sawing dozens of pieces of wood with a hand saw gets very tiring. These activities took place about 2 miles from our host houses so we lost a few hours each day just hiking to the jobsite. By the end of the week, we were all ready for a break.

a finished latrine-of course it had to rain all week

a finished latrine-of course it had to rain all week

 

 

After tech week we were given a free day before needing to return to Santa Clara. Our Environmental Health group and the other training group unanimously decided to go to Las Lahas. This is a small beach town located in southwestern Panama. There is nothing there but a beach and a few scummy bars- it was exactly what we all needed.

Lahas...and one of the healthiest looking dogs in panama

Lahas...and one of the healthiest looking dogs in panama

 

 

The Cabanas were made of bamboo and were located literally on the sand. Some actually got flooded when the tide came in. The waves were the biggest I have ever swam in and some of us rented surf boards for the weekend.

the cabanas

the cabanas

 

 

The only downside was that a friend was able to get some internet on his phone at a bar and I was told Tebow had a nasty concussion or something from the game that night…..

100_0386 a few pounds lighter

 

Site Announcements and Culture Week

October 22nd, 2009 | derekaugustbloor
Well it turned out that my dream had come true. A couple weeks later we were informed where our sites were and a few recommended projects we could do there.

my community

my community

 

I found that I am assigned to serve in a small Ngabe community in the province of Bocas del Toro- very close to the town called Changuinola. My community is thought to have about 300 Ngabes and about 75 Latinos. Ngabes are part of a prominent indigenous group that live in Bocas del Toro and the Comarca. They have their own dialect but most speak Spanish as well. They even have a representative in the Panamanian government. Anyway my site borders the San San Pond Sak preserve which consists of mangroves, monkeys, manatees, jungle cats, toucans and a variety of parrots. I read that all the houses must be built on stilts do to the seasonal flooding which happens every year….I have been thinking about getting a small boat.

During week 5 of training, all the trainees whose sites are in the province of Bocas del Toro visited Isla San Cristobal for what is called culture week. The purpose of culture week is to see the province where we will be serving and how the people there live.

San Cristobal is an island in Bocas occupied by Ngabe communities. My experience here was unforgettable. It could have been considered a vacation when compared to the grueling schedule of normal training in Santa Clara.

Isla San Cristobal

Isla San Cristobal

 

We had classes on the Ngabe culture and language and attended artisan workshops. We learned about the medicinal plants of the area and were allowed to take naps throughout the day. We also took a hike through the jungle and visited another Ngabe community on the other side of the island.

wooden plank walkways-typical in bocas

wooden plank walkways-typical in bocas

 

My host family was once again perfect. There was a mother and father with 5 kids total. The Ngabe are known to be shy people but the father in the house loved conversing with me. He grew up in Bocas and spoke Ngobe and Spanish perfectly and was able to communicate in English, French, and Creole. Bocas is a melting pot due to proximity to Caribbean islands and the Chiquita bana farms located throughout central America.

me and some of my host family in bocas

me and some of my host family in bocas

The family had very little money, but we ate lobster and drank this chocolate water concoction everyday. These 2 staples, seafood and cacao, are abundant in my region.

my room...i got the bed
my room

More on training

October 22nd, 2009 | derekaugustbloor

Training itself has been intense. We have 4 hours of Spanish tutoring and 4 hours of technical training Monday through Friday and Saturdays are usually reserved for agricultural training.

tech-soft

The Spanish has been phenomenal- we are in classes of 2 or 3 with a tutor. Its amazing how fast you can learn with this kind of individual attention. The technical training themes change from week to week, getting more and more intense as training progresses.

tech training


Spanish tutoring
spanish tutoring
We began with soft skills including small project management and leadership roles. Since then we have been trained on how to build and maintain aqueducts, pit latrines, composting latrines, and the infinite uses of a machete.

 

advanced tech
advanced tech

During training there are a few instances in which we are sent out of our beloved Santa Clara and into the campo (countryside). Our first expedition occurred during the 2nd week of training. Each of us visited a current volunteer’s site for 4 days to see how he or she actually lives during service. This first trip caused anxiety for some because it was our first time traveling around Panama alone. I was sent to a small Latino site located in the Darien (east Panama). I was a little surprised at what I had seen there. dariennn

Almost all of the primary forest was gone in order to convert the land into pasture for cows. The landscape was hilly and grassy and the whole village had a laid back and warm attitude.

the Darien

the Darien

 

The volunteer and I spent most of the time walking around the village and visiting with the locals. The houses are kilometers apart at times so this required lots of walking through cow and goat pastures, crawling army style under barbed wire. At one point we realized we were suddenly surrounded by about 200 cows with bulls peppered throughout. I felt a very uneasy feeling as I noticed the sheer size of these animals and the bulls with their pointed horns. What made it even worse was that the beasts were absolutely still as they stared at us crossing through their territory. The volunteer warned me of “mad cows” and handed me a rock the size of a baseball. He picked one up for himself and advised me to use it if it came down to it. I wondered to myself what the hell a rock would do if a bull felt so inclined. Needless to say we made it through but I will never look at cows the same way again.

cows

cows

One day we decided to trek to the rainforest to see a spring where the future aqueduct will begin. We had to hike about 2 hours across pastures to get to the beginning of a dense rainforest. Along the way we ran into some howler monkeys which was quite an experience- I have read that they are the loudest land animal in the world. During the hike we stumbled upon a vacant Kuna encampment. The Kuna are an indigenous group north of the Darien who refuse peace corps volunteers because they want to preserve their culture. They use this encampment as a place to sleep and smoke meats while they are out hunting in the jungle.

the kuna encampment

the kuna encampment

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Anyway we were checking out one of the huts when we heard voices nearby. The volunteer recognized the Kuna dialect and told me to be quiet and keep still. Apparently we were not supposed to be there. The Kuna are generally a friendly people and I am sure it would have been fine if they had spotted us- they pass through Pigandi frequently to get to the Panamerican Highway…But its still fun to say I hid from an indigenous people inside a hut in the jungle. They eventually passed through and we went undetected.

The visit to the Darien went well. Afterward we each had an interview with our sector leader to discuss our trip and if we could see ourselves in a site similar to the one we visited. I told him I would prefer one with more trees and a more interesting landscape. I did not want to have to hike a few hours to get to the bosque….

It begins with training…

October 22nd, 2009 | derekaugustbloor

My name is Derek Bloor and I am a Peace Corps volunteer in panama. I should mention that I am in the Environmental Health program. This is one of five programs in Peace Corps Panama. Our goals include constructing and improving potable water and sanitation systems, organizing and mobilizing health committees, and educating communities regarding proper health practices. We live and serve in the most rural and secluded areas of Panama for at least 2 years. However, when we arrive to our actual volunteer communities, we can work on any aspect of the community that we feel needs attention.

We arrived in panama city august 12th 2009. The first few days were spent in the city at fort clayton where we took care of logistics including vaccinations, a spanish language placement assessment, some general culture training, etc. We were then taken to Santa Clara where the 10 weeks of training began.

santa clara

santa clara

Santa Clara is a small “suburb” of panama city located about an hour bus ride north west of Panama City. All of the trainees, 36 in all, were matched up with host families in this quaint little town based on a vague questionnaire filled out months earlier. I must say that I really lucked out with my host family. There is a mother, a father, a 14 year old boy, and a 5 year old girl who thinks everything I do is the most interesting thing in the world.

me and the fam

me and the fam

We live in a concrete block house with a zinc roof and we have electricity all day long. We usually always have water and we were told we could drink it from the tap without treating it. I have yet to get sick but I cannot speak for the other trainees. We have 3 dogs that live outside and about 40 chickens that roam in and around the house. I am still waiting for my host mom to show me how to kill and prepare a chicken.

i had no idea they sleep in trees

 

 

i had no idea they slept in trees

 

 

 

I am also stunned at how the dogs never go after the chickens- it must be training that begins when they are puppies. I have heard stories of what Panamanians do to their dogs when they give in to their temptations.

the dogs- about to break into song

the dogs- about to break into song

There is no hot water and no air conditioning. I was amazed at how quickly I got used to it. The shock of suddenly being thrown into a new culture and living with total strangers made the loss of amenities seem trivial. My host mother has been extremely helpful with my Spanish and seems to be always willing and able to converse with me.

my house in Santa Clara

my house in Santa Clara

they discovered my camera...

they discovered my camera…

The food has been a bit of an adjustment. Breakfast usually consists of salchicha (basically a hotdog) with bread and lots of excellent coffee. For lunch I usually expect a huge hunk of white rice with yucca or some other root vegetable. At times, there is some chicken or carne mixed in. Dinner is usually the same as lunch with a little bit more meat. Sometimes my host mother makes chicha de nanse- its basically a pulpy juice made from these tiny nanse fruits…..its excellent. At times I go to the tienda and pick up the staples that I feel are missing from my diet. For the most part, I cannot complain about the food. After talking to the other trainees I have realized I am not a picky eater…..

the water fall in Santa Clara we had a sunday afternoon off

the waterfall in Santa Clara we had a sunday afternoon off