Saturday, July 31, 2010

I am writing this from my new apartment in Durham, North Carolina. Tomorrow I am transitioning to the next chapter of my life, as a Peace Corps Fellow at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. I’ve been back in the States for nearly three weeks now, reconnecting with friends and family. To my surprise, many of them have followed my blog the past two years and have requested that I write a “last entry.” It pains me to remember the day I had to say goodbye to Embera Drua, and I’m just beginning to really process the incredible experience that I have lived the past two years. Nevertheless, here it goes…

Leaving Embera Drua was the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I had been so busy finishing up last minute projects and passing things off to community members, the sadnesses of my leaving didn’t hit me the last day as I packed up my house. Nearly every community member stopped by for a solemn visit as I moved out of my little jungle abode. In the evening, Embera Drua’s leaders organized a big community meal of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). Before the meal, each leader of Embera Drua took a moment to thank me for my service and say goodbye. The tears finally came as the woman got up to speak, and I completely lost it when my female students spoke, thanking me for all that I had taught them. Each person that spoke truly touched my heart, and moved me to reflect upon the relationship that I had had with each of them.

After dinner, some men put together an impromptu Embera music conjunto and there was dancing. Miguel Flaco gifted me the flute that he played with that night. I packed it, the perfect souvenir from my last night in the village.

At the culmination of my two years in Peace Corps, I am ready to close my service and embark on the next chapter of my life. I have undergone all emotions associated with integrating into a new culture: honeymoon phase, resentment/annoyance, and full acceptance and immersion. Yet I will honestly hold my years in Peace Corps Panama as some of the best years of my life. I can not recall a time in my life where I have felt so happy, fulfilled and at peace.

I will carry with me the beautiful memories of my service. I will remember how special it was to:

Wake up every morning in my own hut in the jungle, that I helped to build. Fall asleep in my hut every night, listening to the sound of the river’s rapids. Enjoy the simple things. Sit and really listen fully to a story from an elder. Spend time playing with a child, with no where else to be. Cook from scratch everyday. Go to bed shortly after the sun goes down, and get up when it (and the roosters) rise in the morning. Think. Read. Just be alone with yourself and your thoughts. Live with a beautiful indigenous culture that understands and respects nature, and is at such harmony with its surroundings…

Peace Corps has provided me such perspective on (albeit cliché) “what really matters.” As I re-acclimate to life in the United States, I am thankful for my country yet also somewhat saddened by its self-centeredness and shallowness. I think about the issues I used to stress about as a young professional in America, and I am proud to say how much the focus of my energy and attention has shifted. I take the lessons learned in Panama with me, as I chart out the type of American I want to be and what kind of life I want to lead.

Moving forward, Peace Corps has guided me in answering the impending question of “what I want to do with my life.” I especially picked Duke for its concentration in Social Entrepreneurship. My ultimate goal is to find a connection between business and the social issues that have become so close to my heart. I look forward to working with like-minded students and professionals over the next few years.

With so many thoughts, but nothing really left to say, I end this Panamanian Adventure.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Second Year Whirlwind...

It has been six months since the date of my last blog entry. I am officially a terrible blogger. The past six months have been a whirlwind, that’s for sure.

December 2009: Trip home to Chicago and New York for Christmas and New Years

I spent Christmas in the States, and as I wished, I got my white Christmas. Then I came back to Chicago for New Years. It was a wonderful trip home, and it was so good to catch up with friends and family. But I had forgotten what those winters are like up north. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy getting back to warm, sunny Panama after the Holidays….

January: Leschmaniasis

I am the only Peace Corps volunteer to have a repeat case of Leschmaniasis. The durned little parasite just wouldn’t die, so I had to go back for another round of 20 IV treatments at Paitilla Hospital in Panama City. This time around, however, I got to stay with dear Kate Jostworth in her sweet ex-pat apartment (complete with a kitchen and laundry machine!) It was much more comfortable then my budget hotel experience in November 2009. Kate has a wonderful group of friends in Panama City, and I had a great time playing city girl with her for 20 days (IV strapped to me and all!)

February: Visitors Galore!

Some of my dearest friends, Jacqui Vainik and Kim Lapaglia, and new friend, Jordan Wilkie, came to visit in February. We joined up with the other 2/3 of my trio, Elena and Kate, and some of their extended friends for carnival. It was a blast! We all crammed into Roberto’s house in Last Tablas again this year, and again his family was amazing to us. The next day we all took a boat ride to Isla Iguana, off the Pacific Coast. We spent the whole day recovering from the fun and working on our tan.

Friends loved the village as well! Eliecer taught Jordan to spear fish. Kim got to go on a canoe junta and iguana hunt! It was so wonderful for them to get to know my village so well. I’m so glad that some of my closest friends from home have gotten to know my village and Embera family.

March: Close of Tranchichi Tourism Group’s First Financial Year (March 2009)

It’s been a steep learning curve for our tourism cooperative. Before this year, finances were scribbled on bits of paper. Money from tourism entries was literally falling out from behind our treasurer’s loin cloth. We now do accounting and payroll via solar panels on our little Mini Dell Laptops. We’ve come a long way, indeed!

Although our finances are well managed, we still have a long way to go in accounting. IPACOOP came for its first year follow-up in February and nailed us for not keeping our books. Fair enough. Due to some hurtful gossip against her, the cooperative’s accountant had renounced her position. Still, our treasurer and I had been keeping good electronic records of everything. The corresponding paper receipts are another story (dear, dear Embera friends…so wonderfully active, so poorly organized). Still, we have all the information to retroactively register 2009’s incomes and expenses in our official IPACOOP books.

Next step: Building our 2009 Income Statement and Balance Shirt. March will be a busy month…

Moving Forward: Amy plans for Grad School

It looks like I’ll be attending Duke’s Fuqua School of Business next year, beginning in August 2010. I am thrilled; this MBA program has been my top choice. The school awarded me a Peace Corps Fellowship, in collaboration with their Center for Social Entrepreneurship. As much as I dread the day I have to leave Embera Drua, I can honestly say that I am thrilled about starting my next chapter….

New York at Christmas

Isla Coiba with Jacqui and Jordan

The Embera Amy

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Canoe Construction

Our tourism group, just formed into a cooperative this year, recently received approval for a $10,000 loan to improve our infrastructure. This was a really exciting process to be apart of during my second year of service. It’s really given the community, and its brand new cooperative, a motivating push forward.

Myself and the cooperative’s treasurer, Auristo Valdespino, had identified a real problem with our finances; our external rentals for canoes and motors had become an astronomical cost (approximately 10% of our operational costs). Canoes are incredibly labor-intensive, and motors are difficult for the village to finance. Consequentially, the village only had a few boats and motors available to the tourism cooperative. The rest had to be rented (at $20 a pop) from Latino villages downriver. The problem was a cyclic; as we were constantly having to shell out money for rentals we were barely making a profit, let alone saving money to finance the acquisition of new boats and motors.

As a new cooperative, we applied for a loan through IPACOOP. Myself and Auristo put together an analysis of the financing needed and loan repayment, demonstrating that with the money saved from having our own internal canoes and motors we could easily pay back our loan within 2 years.

So construction begun! And what a process it has been. We purchased 2 Suzuki motors, at HP 30, 50 life jackets and 1 canoe from a neighboring village. Internally, we’ve been hard at work on two more canoes. We just finished a canoe in the mountain about a half hour from the village. Its our biggest yet: 10 armspans, with the capacity to hold 16 tourists! And we’re hard at work on the next one, which will be a smaller boat that will consume less gas in the event an agency only calls with 2-3 visitors.

Below are some pictures from the “junta” (communal work day) when we took the canoe out of the mountain. It was the most incredible thing I have witnessed to date. As the certified village photographer (and the curious little PC worker who likes to tag along on manly mountain endeavours), I went to the mountain with the men of the village at 6 am. They had to first flip the canoe. Then, looping rope on trees on either side, they had to slowly ease it down one of the steepest inclines in the area. Halfway down, the weight of the canoe snapped the tree supporting it, and it flew down the mountain, nearly taking out the “catchers” that guide its front nose. It crashed into a tree at the hill’s base, with such force that it became deeply embedded, and we had to run the half hour back to the village for a chainsaw to take out the second tree.

The reversal, coming up the hill and into the village was the biggest feat, however. The women, who had been up cooking since 4 am, met us at the top of the hill to help with this part. With all the men of the village behind the canoe, pushing it uphill, every woman and child positioned themselves along a rope to pull the canoe uphill.

It was so much work, and I hurt for days afterwards. Still it was one of the best days I’ve had in the village so far. It was a beautiful thing to see everyone in the village, and both main families, come together to complete this arduous project.

Below are also some pictures of the finished product. Eliecer and I have been the official boat painter; he’s painted the body and I’ve stenciled the letter of the cooperative’s name: Tranchichi Embera Drua, R.L.
Phase 1: Two New 30 HP Motors and Lifejackets for Tourists

Phase 2: Canoe Junta
One, two, three, FLIP!

Shimmeying the canoe down the mountain- with only a rope, 4 guys bulaying and a few (very courageous/drunk) guys catching it at the bottom...

Rope burns on the trees used. Explains why the tree snapped from the weight of the canoe, and why it went flying down the mountain.

When the rope snapped, and the canoe went flying, the force embedded the canoe in this tree. We had to run the 1/2 hour back to the village for a chainsaw to fix it.


Heev- Ho Amy!

To get the canoe up the last uphill incline to the village, we had all the men below it pushing...and every woman and child on a rope pulling it up into the community. Go Werara! (Ladies)

7 hours later, WE MADE IT. My happy village. :)

My stellar paint job. Coopereativa Tranchichi Embera Drua, R.L. SO Official :)

Finished product, and one of our proud captains!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Halloween and the Trio's Island Retreat

So once again a blog post is months overdue! Here are some pics of Halloween in the village this year. Although it isn’t widely celebrated in Panama, I thought it would be a fun cultural exchange. So I taught the kids how we celebrate Halloween in the States. I bought ghords (orange pumpkins are imported here, and quite pricey), and we carved jack-o-lanterns. It was a blast. At night, I dressed up in a bird costume and we made popcorn on my stove and the kids danced around in my hut. On repeat was one of their favorite songs: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Just goes to show how far his legacy has gotten....

Also this month, I went to a tiny island off the Caribbean coast of Panama, Isla Grande, with my Panama Trio (Kate and Elena). It was a wonderful time, and a perfect weekend break from service. Isla Grande has a unique ambiance; we stayed at a funky little cabana resort, Cholita’s, and we spent the majority of our only night on the island at a hole in the wall beach bar with Bob Marley’s face adorning every possible wall. Pics of the weekend are below.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

El Camino Real

In August, myself and Eliecer, several other PCVs, and an Embera guide hiked the Camino Real. The route, stretching from our inland indigenous villages out to the Carribean coast, follows the Spaniards first attempt at land crossing out to the Caribbean. In 1555, they created a primitive push-and-pull railway across this jungle path, to bring the gold and riches from Latin America to the coast for exportation to Spain. Hundreds of years later, that railway has become overgrown and unchartered jungle. Only a few adventure-seeking tourists attempt to follow the railways tracks per year. I’m not quite sure how this self-proclaimed city girl, never having camped before in her life, was somehow finagled into attempting it. I guess I figured I’ve come so far as to live in the jungle, why not camp out there for 4 days…just me, my backpack and some buddies?

My fellow PC hikers and I kicked off our voyage with an Alcohol and Domestic “charla” (PC lingo for rural “chat”) in my community. I used the other volunteers, from a variety of different sites and sectors, as my outside “experts” to approach this very sensitive subject. Unforunetly, alcohol abuse and domestic violence are both are big problems in rural Panama, and especially in indigenous areas. The chat went really well, and was attended by nearly all of my community. I think that our group did an excellent job of intertwining important information with some humorous role play situations, which really held everyone’s attention. And I think it did make a notable difference; last month our tourism cooperative leaders decided to put a hefty fine on anyone caught driving the cooperative-owned motors drunk.

After finishing up that skit, and a nutrition chat in Elena’a site, Embera Puru, we began our long hike. The hike was absolutely unreal. It was a real physical challenge for all of us; we hiked straight uphill the entire first day, and spent the entire second day fording some scarily-flooded rivers. Yet it was so worth it, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that pristine. From a historical perspective, it’s incredible as well. We followed the old iron tracks for over 2 days of the hike; the railway is now overgrown with massive tree roots, and the old railcars and wheels are half-buried in rivers and streams. The contrast of the railway in otherwise untouched jungle is so intriguing, and written descriptions just can’t describe it. Below are pictures.

Each night of our hike, we set up camp along the side of waterfalls and crystal clear swimming holes. After a day trekking in mud and sweat, we refreshed ourselves in the water and then cooked a big meal together on our little camp stove. On the fourth day, we ended up at the Carribean coast, where we had a huge lunch and copious amounts of Panama beer. Then we stayed a few days at Brandon and Ashley’s site in Nombre de Dios, giving charlas in their school and enjoying the beautiful Carribean. It was Eliecer’s first time to the ocean! Most importantly, the beach time was much needed R&R after being in the jungle for 4 days. We had a great time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Night at the Chaman's

One of the most sacared Embera traditions is a chaman ceremony. Our chaman, Mamerto, is renowed for his healing ceremonies, a known as ''witch'' who uses his powers for good instead of evil. I've gotten to know Mamerto quite well. He's an excellent artisan, and has carved for me (I in return sought him the bonafide US army hat he requested from a supply store while on leave). He's one of my favorite people in the village, and I felt so privileged when we allowed me to sit in on one of his ceremonies.

Last week, a young Embera couple and their infant son came to Mamerto, concerned because the baby’s “soft spot” on his head was irregular, and his whole head swollen. He had been to the doctor several times for testing, and they were unable to determine a cause. They hoped that our renowed chaman, Mamerto, would be able to help them.

I arrived at Mamerto’s house at 8:30 to find him already sitting in front of a candle, with nearly a dozen empty beer cans in front of him, all covered with a thick palm leaf. He smiled as he invited me in, took another sip of his open beer, and clutched his cocobolo bastons. He had a collection- approximately 10. I noticed each was carved at a different height and held a different design (usually an animal, or a corresponding spirit) on its head.

To begin, he held the bastons to his chest, and blew out the candle. It was quiet and still. Then he began to chant, in a deep, monotone voice. He chanted in Embera, and furiously shook the palm in his head as he did so. Eliecer, next to me, explained hat he was calling the evil spirits in the area to a party. The chanting lasted approximately 20 minutes, and then Mamerto lit a cigarette. He invited the other men, Eliecer and the baby’s father, to smoke with him. He smoked slowly, pensively. Then he then began to chant, and shake his palm again.

Suddenly, he stopped. Surprised, I heard a light “bing.'' I looked all around, unsure where it came from, but it sounded like something metal hitting one of the pots nearby. At the noise, the infant wailed. Mamerto began to have a conversation, furious, although it was in Embera and I could not understand. Eliecer explained to me that a spirit had arrived, and that Mamerto was asking him what sickness the child had. The furious conversation, and then again chanting, continued. After nearly 2 hours of chain smoking and chanting, Mamerto stopped and went to pee off the side of the house. He came back, and then began to speak with the parents of the infant, asking various questions.

He asked if the grandmother, the mother of the baby’s father, had been around the infant. The couple responded yes. It came out that the grandmother had taken a certain type of plant, which is very powerful to the Embera. Mamerto asked them why she had taken it, if she knew the implications or if she had ingested it wanting to be a witch herself. He explained that it was through the grandmother, and the plant, that a evil spirit had entered the child and caused it harm. It was only through her, and the detention of this evil spirit, that he would be cured. The baby’s mother was furious, and she began to yell what sounded like a string of Embera obscenities at her husband.

I was confused. I left the house, tired, but in complete and utter awe of what I had seen and heard. Evil spirits or no evil spirits, I was shaken to the core by what I had just seen.

The chaman’s cemony is certainly one of the most powerful things I have been in my life. As I laid on my back on the floor of the chaman’s hut, between his wife, Dominga and Eliecer, I was struck by the magic of the whole process. The power of the ritual is palpable. The energy in the chaman’s chants and his tone, in contrast with the stillness of the night around us, is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I’m not religious, and I can only compare it to the way I felt nearly 6 years ago, when I was, for no reason at all, bawling at Easter mass on my trip to the Vatican. I am fascinated by the power attached to the meaning of a God, and a culture’s interpretation of the forces of good and evil in this world.

I feel so lucky to have experienced this ancient tradition here in my village, and am even more touched that I have reached a level of trust and respect with the people here that they were comfortable performing it in my presence. I know that it is my culture, or moreso the Western world’s religious influence, that has shamed many Embera from these beautiful healing ceremonies, and the truth and comfort they have brought to their culture for so many years.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Biggest Challenge, and My Biggest Success (Thus Far)

Outwardly, my small, tribally-run community appears simplistic and idyllic. Yet at the heart lies a microcosm of the larger issues a country or government faces: division, miscommunication, fraud and deception.

This past March I met with consultants from Impulso Panama, a World Bank-backed consulting firm that analyzes and advises Panamanian businesses. Fortunately, the organization is very supportive of the indigenous plight; consulting services are 100% subsidized for indigenous-run businesses. I saw the organization as an incredible opportunity for our community-based tourism group to receive professional business guidance.

Our community consists of two principal families, therefore I asked several individuals, and members of both families, to attend our first meeting with Impulso Panama in Panama City. The meeting went incredibly well; afterwards, myself and community leaders began to work up a proposal outlining the support we’d seek from the organization.

However, much to my surprise, the members of one family decided they had other plans. Having learned in our meeting that Impulso Panama supports both individual and community-owned businesses, they created and submitted a second proposal for a separate family-owned business, almost identical in nature to the community’s tourism group. This arrangement was made without the rest of the community's knowledge or consent.

Within a few weeks time the rest of the community pieced together their separatist plan. During a follow-up visit to Impulso Panama, consultants informed us that the seceding family had made numerous visits to the office on their own, misleadingly representing their family as the only members of the community.

I was devastated. How could half of my village have done such a selfish, underhanded thing to the other half? And as the point person for the community proposal, this transgression had perpetrated behind MY back, as well. I felt personally betrayed.

This was the single most trying moment for me yet as a volunteer. Fighting back the waves of emotion, when I arrived back to the community I met privately with the succeeding family, which included the community chief. I tried my best to gently explain to the family the conflict created by these two nearly identical projects. They insisted on the succession. I had to tell the chief that I admired his family's entrepreneurial spirit and that I wished him the best of luck. Yet I also had to tactfully assert that, as a Peace Corps volunteer, my allegiance would always lie with the community-based group.

Ultimately, Impulso Panama recognized the deep community division and refused to move forward with either project until the community reached an agreement, mediated by the regional Embera cacique (head chief). My community, with both families furious at one another, has refused to discuss this. Embera Drua has great ambition and also great internal division; this has turned the community into its own worst enemy. As a result, we've missed an incredible opportunity. This has pained me every day for the past few months.

However, this experience has taught me the most impactful lesson I've learned thus far in grassroots development: I can only push my community so far. The things that I want for them are not necessarily what they want for themselves. And change can only happen when they decide to band together and initiate it. I remind myself that I'm the catalyst for change; I can't BE the change.


After a very trying March and April, on May 15th our tourism group was finally approved as a cooperative! The community is thrilled. And I was too! My months of service were spent in meetings with IPACOOP and working on the feasibility study for the cooperative. And this is such a sucess for Embera Drua. For years they had been working informally in tourism, and now they really have their own business, legal and recognized by the government.

We had a wonderful ceremony on May 15th. The director and head honchos of IPACOOP in Panama City came to the village, and we had a beautiful ceremony where they handed us our "personería jurídica" (legal recognition). They also donated a new outboard motor to the group. It was a wonderful day. And I wore a chaquira for the first time in the ceremony! I felt like a REAL Embera wera (Embera woman).

The cooperative is a huge step in setting up infrastructure for the community. Yet my biggest fear as we move forward is that the community expects the cooperative to be "the answer to all their problems." IPACOOP brings excellent trainings and pushes the need to work more organized and formally, but I'm worried that the community will quickly become discouraged if they don't see changes overnight. IPACOOP will give us some good framework. But at the same time the community needs to stay unified and work together- hard(!) and in the same direction- if they want to see a difference. I can see that this coming year will be a real challenge.

Below are some other pictures of what I've been up to:

Computer classes: our leaders typing up their own letters in Microsoft Word!

Girl's Night: I had an arts and crafts and cookie bake night night in my hut with some supplies Momma Snyder sent down to Panama.

White Water Rafting Trip, and trip to a BEAUTIFUL waterfall, on the Chiriqui River with Peace Corps friends