Friday, July 25, 2008

About a month in-site, work is really starting to take off! Just 2 weeks ago, I began my English classes. From Monday- Friday, I teach 3 different classes: Level 2 for those with some (although limited) knowledge of the English language (mostly self taught!), and Level 1 for women and Level 1 for men (so that the kiddies are never home alone). So far, it has been a fantastic experience. I never would have thought I’d enjoy teaching so much. The first few classes were a bit shaky, with my 40 plus students starting right at me, propped forward in their seats with shiny new notebooks open, eager to learn. Intimidating? Yes. But now I love the energy of the classroom; it allows me to share my love of languages with others interested. I love the concentrated stares on my students’ faces as they struggle with English sounds, and the look of complete satisfaction when they can finally wrap their tongue around the funny new words. My heart just melts every time I go to the river in the morning to bathe, and kids greet me in a dozen little voices with “Good morning, teacher!” And I seriously think I teared up the other day when I hear our boat captain confidently ask a tourist “Where are you from, sir?”

It’s still incredibly early in my service, but I am absolutely amazed by the perseverance of my community members. Most of my students haven’t even made it to 6th grade. And Embera is everyone's first language, so most people barely even understand the workings of Spanish.

Other than teaching, I have been keeping busy with other projects. Our tourism group is currently in the midst of forming a cooperative, so I’ve been meeting often with the government co-op agency, as well as a professor from a local university who’s volunteering his time to put together a feasibility study for us. Our treasurer has given me his archives from the past year, and I have been sorting through our incomes and expenses. I’m impressed, with just a pencil, paper and basic 10-key calculator, our treasurer does a darn good job. But we’re hoping that in the near future, from various inquires to NGOs, we’ll eventually be able to secure a computer. This would be fantastic. Not only would make our co-op’s accounting so much easier, but those few, strong-willed students who continue their studies past 6th grade could have access to the programs as well.

What else? Ah! Construction on Amy’s jungle hut is nearing. The past week was a full moon, therefore a good time to cut materials, bug-free. As all the men in the community were going up river to do some cutting, I felt I had to try my hand as well. Heck, I wasn’t going to sit on my “trasero” while the rest of the world was working on MY house. Most of the women in the village thought I was nuts, but I set out on a cutting trip the other day. And it was great! I live in a National Park, so the primary jungle that surrounds us is absolutely picturesque. I did have one HUGE scare though, when all the men had me absolutely CONVINCED that a far off brustling in the trees meant a tiger (yes, tiger) was nearing. I nearly wet my pants. And after catching my breath, yelled fiercely in the only Embera I know. Another reminder of my trip: the mountain is STRAIGHT UPHILL, and 3 days later, my body is still aching in ways it’s never ached in all my years of sports and physical activities. But we proudly came back with 2 “palos” for the cross section of my roof, and I couldn’t be happier. In just a few weeks, when all materials are collected, a construction “junta” should follow. I can’t wait.
Below are some pictures from community life: my mother and I at home making some chicha de maĆ­z (corn drink) and fishing up river with my host family.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


I was incredibly hesitant to take my beloved laptop out of hiding, but I think the benefits of my journaling thoughts, experiences and emotions far outweigh any surprise that my host family may have of an over-connected “gringa” living amongst them. It’s now a huge relief to be able to chronicle freely, what I’ve been doing and thinking since I first arrived in Embera Drua.

My site visit a few weeks back was fabulous. Yes, the jungle stills scares me. But I’m very influenced by first impressions and that has been fantastic; I can’t even explain how welcomed I felt in my first week here. My first canoe ride up the Chagres River and to my community intimidated me (it was also storming, and the canoe shook wildly as the men pushed our way upriver). The other community members laughed at my nervousness the whole way up. Finally, we rounded the last curve of the river, and I saw the community for the first time. Embera Drua is positioned high up on a hill over the river, its little thatched huts peering down over the edge. Carrying my luggage, the men in the boat led me up the steep mud staircase, across the open cuadro and to my host family’s house. Before I had even set my bags down, I was greeted by my host dad, Adan. He’s an older gentlemen, with a perpetual ear-to- ear grin that shows off a mouthful of gold teeth. He immediately pulled a plastic chair across the palm wooded floors and instructed me to be sit down beside him. Sonia, my host mother, curled up in a chair beside him. They proceeded to discharge a laundry list of questions, not the intrusive kind, but of the welcoming “can’t wait to get to know you” nature. I instantly knew I would like living in their house.

I now share a bedroom with Adan and Sonia’s two teenage daughters, Yamileth and Yarisel. They’re lovely. And I feel incredibly lucky to have a host family that actually has an enclosed room, as most Embera houses are simple, one room huts. All my meals are now with my host family, which usually consist of some version of fried fish from the river and sliced, squashed and fried plantains called patacones. I pay my rent to my host family in food instead of money; when I first arrived I brought with me some staples that are harder to find in the river and jungle: rice, oil, lentils. I also keep a stash of granola bars at all times, for “emergencies” as I call them, but really just relief from grease overload.

My community seems thrilled to have a Peace Corps volunteer. On the second day of my site visit, our chief (Noko) introduced me at a community meeting, and then himself and various members of the tourism board explained how long they’ve waited for a volunteer and how much work there is to be done. First and foremost, they’re incredibly enthusiastic about learning English, as they have boatloads of tourists, mostly from North America and Europe, arriving each day. Additionally, the community has many different tourism projects in mind and even underway; examples include an artisanry cooperative, use of a newly donated computer for accounting, and even a solar panel project. Everywhere I’ve gone my first few weeks here, someone is bringing up another different community needs and/or project ideas. Although a bit overwhelming (how many of these are actually feasible/needed/or even real), I’m so thankful there’s such strong work ethic and forward-thinking in my community.

Highlights of my site visit included:

-Helping my host family to unload a canoe full of supplies to stock their small, community store. It was storming (yet again), and my host father parked his canoe at the point in the river with the steepest incline up to the community. And my host father gave ME the large carton of eggs to carry. Seriously, was this a joke, or some kind of test to see if I could really be their adoptive daughter? I made it safely, but my host mother watched me teeter on the way up, and followed directly behind me, a box of oil over her head, making sure I didn’t fall back down.

- A visit up the mountain, with host brother Joel and host cousin Johnny, to learn where the villagers usually can catch cell phone signal. After a half-hour uphill trek, muddy from the rain (and stupidly attempted in Reef sandals), I began to check my messages. No sooner had I begun, when I hear this deep, vibrating hooting all around me, which nearly knocks me back down the monte. Yes, there I was, checking my messages amongst the mountain monkeys. I quickly finished, and attempted to head back down the monte, but my Reef sandal slid straight ahead of me in the mud, carrying my legs straight forward and sending me down the monte on my back. Joel and Johnny lingered up at the top of the hill, dying of laughter. When we arrived back to the village, Johnny has to tell EVERYONE about how the “gringa got scared and fell down the monte.” (Note: Instead, I now catch a boat down to the port to check messages, or if it’s sunny I can sit on the aqueduct’s water tanks, tilt my head to the side a bit, and SOMETIMES catch a bar or two).

-Bathing in the river when the aqueduct dried up (which happens a WHOLE lot). Funny that when my host mom first told me there wasn’t water, I just about died. I asked where I could bathe, and she pointed "pa 'alla" and down the river. But after making my way down that muddy staircase, and then down onto the sandy beach and the perfectly calm, undisturbed river, I realized I was in my own, private National Geographic special. And bathing in the river is a fantastic excuse for an early morning swim. Until the tourist boats show up, that is. From then on, I prefer faucets and water jugs.

Below are some photos from my community, including my counterpart, Johnson, the head of the tourism group, our chief, some women traditional dancing, and some little Embera wera (girls).

Friday, July 4, 2008


As of this past Thursday, I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer! Our swearing-in ceremony was fantastic. This year was the 45th anniversary of Peace Corps Panama, so our swear-in was a very formal and festive occasion at the ambassador’s residence in Panama City. Over 80 returned Peace Corps volunteers flew in for the ceremony, including those who served when Peace Corps first entered Panama in the 60s. It was incredibly exciting and inspiring to meet with returned volunteers. Many even brought their spouses and children with them on their trip and traveled back to the site they worked at over 40 years ago. The Worldwide Director of Peace Corps, Ronald Tschetter, came to the ceremony as well. It was such a special occasion, and I think all of us swearing-in were re-motivated and inspired from the energy of the event.

Below are some pictures from Swear-In: myself and some fellow TEA-ers, Ron Tschetter, and various shots from the ceremony. I gave the speech on behalf of the Tourism and English Advising group. It was a huge honor, and although intimidating to follow the speeches of the ambassador and Worldwide Director, I think it went really well.