Thursday, June 17, 2010

The End of an Era

(My buddies, Florentino and Mariano, on top of Cerro Duima. A special goodbye hike we made to the top)

The latrine project is done. The beekeepers had another successful harvest this year and are going to start selling at a new hostel in Western Panama to diversify their sales. The coffee farmers had some hiccups, but are well positioned for the future. I’ve said my goodbyes, shed an exorbitant amount of tears, and moved out my little bamboo hut in Cerro Iglesias.

I am fortunate to have had an incredibly positive Peace Corps experience. If I didn’t have some amazing new adventures to look forward to, I might feel this loss more strongly, but overall, I feel ready to move on. That said, Cerro Iglesias will always be a part of who I am and will hold a special place in my heart.

My final week in site was action packed and memorable. The community organized two major despedidas, one in the upper part of the community and one in the lower part. They were very formal events, complete with songs, prayer, speeches, tons of food, a piñata, gifts, and of course, all of the wonderful people that have made these two years so special for me. It was all really touching and I’m glad that this experience has finished up on a really positive note.

(The piñata that looks strikingly like a gringa at one of the goodbye parties at the school)

On my final day in site, I had what equated to a living wake and invited everyone over to say their final goodbyes and to check out my front porch sale- with blowout prices. I had accumulated so much stuff over two years, despite living pretty minimalistically. Everything was sold at super cheap prices, nothing much surpassed 50 cents, except the big ticket items like my gas stove ($25). I wanted to eat my rooster that day, which I have been fattening up for months now, but I was too busy playing hostess. When my neighbor stopped by that evening, I was sulking on the porch, having sold all of my pots and pans-not realizing that I might still need to eat before I left the next morning. She told me I was not so smart for doing that and then walked away. A few minutes later I heard a loud “baa-gock!” come from the cacao tree behind my house where the rooster sleeps. I laughed because I knew what was about to happen. About two hours later, my neighbor came over with a steaming bowl of rooster soup and yucca! It was a really nice gesture and I was so thankful to have such a wonderful dinner with my neighbors on my last night in Cerro Iglesias. Food doesn’t get much more fresh and local than this!

In the morning a whole crew of my favorites in town came over to help me with my bags. We waited for the chiva under a zinc roof while the rain poured down around us. As the car pulled up, I got in, knowing it would be my last time, but couldn’t really convince myself of it. Tears rolled down as we pulled away. I’ll be gone for a little while, but this is not goodbye. I will be back. Mego will return, someday.

I feel like I should have some big epiphany now that it’s all over. I’m sure that I’ve changed in many more ways than I know. I’ll probably realize it more when I finally settle back into life in the States. I leave Cerro Iglesias with the slightest twinge of guilt that afflicts most Peace Corps Volunteers- the feeling of receiving more than you could ever give.

Thanks to all of you that have read this blog, followed my pictures on Flickr and supported me over the past few years. A special thanks MANY of you that came to visit!! I am so glad that I got to share this experience with you. Your support has been vital to my success and sanity in Panama.

This will be my last post on this blog, as I have reserved it for the 27 months of Peace Corps only. The next adventure starts soon and is very much inspired by my Peace Corps service. A group of friends and I are riding bicycles through Central America in an ambitious effort to continue development and capacity-building work at the grassroots, level, while enjoying the beautiful scenery and culture that this part of the world has to offer. Follow my next journey

(My knitting group ladies, coming by to buy the last of the yarn)

(Comarca girls- my main support network! Andi, Kat, Aleah and Meredith)

(One of my most adored families in Cerro Iglesias- Los Sire)

Agribusiness Seminar

For the past year of my Peace Corps service I have been a co-coordinator for the Agribusiness Initiative within Peace Corps Panama. In May, we put on a 4-day seminar to train farmers from the Comarca on farm planning techniques, small business skills and legal procedures. The goal of the seminar was to give farmers the tools needed to plan for the future and keep track of costs in order to maximize yields and to make smarter decisions that will lead to higher profits. It was a lot of information, but we kept it fun and dynamic. I was so thrilled to see the culmination of a years worth of hard work and planning finally come to fruition. Over the years to come, this Initiative should grow within Peace Corps Panama and should be able to reach more farmers with tools and knowledge to improve yeilds and profits.

Here are some photos of the event:

(A session on money management)

(Another brilliant puppet show to highlight the process for obtaining legal documents for small businesspeople in Panama)

(A team-building activity "the human chair". We also did the human table, but sadly, no photos)

(The participants with their certificates after completing the 4-day seminar)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Who am I?

(The view from my porch)

As I wrap up my time in Panama, I am realizing this transition period from Ngöbe culture to Gringolandia is going to be a bit harder than I thought. I’ve spent the last 2 years trying so hard to fit into this culture. Just as I’m starting to really get used to it, it’s time to leave and go back to the world of flush toilets and hot showers. I’ve taken on a new identity here and I think the thought of loosing it has put my mind in a scramble.

Here in Panama I am constantly explaining my role to everyone I meet:
No, I am not a tourist.
No, I am not a CIA agent.
No, I am not a missionary.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am Kati, a development professional, here to support community agriculture groups become more profitable and to be the good face of the American people abroad. To my community, however, I am Mego. Mego is my Ngöbe name that was given to me upon my arrival two years ago and what most people know me as in the community. Mego has taken on a bit of a different identity than Kat and I’m not sure how she is going to go back to the States after playing the role of Mego for the better part of two years. Mego wears colorful zig-zaggy nagwas, speaks enough Ngöbe to make people laugh, always has dirty feet and always carries a camera. Mego lives alone and cooks on a gas stove, so people think that’s weird. Mego lives in a house that she made out of bamboo with a million dollar view of the Pacific Ocean, which she observes from her hammock every afternoon. Mego loves white rice, 15¢ cookies, thick corn drinks, and starchy palm fruits. Mego hikes about two hours to work each day and kills snakes on a regular basis. Mego is the highest paid person in her community and a local celebrity. Mego is not like Kat at all.

The world of Mego is about to change drastically as she becomes Kat again. She’ll be getting on her bicycle and riding through Central America before she starts graduate school for environmental economics at Duke University in August. Kat will miss Mego very much and will always envy the awesome, simple life that Mego had in Cerro Iglesias.

(Mi Mamá y hermano de la Comarca)

(Pifa!! Starchy palm fruits that are life-sustaining here)

(Victoria- my hero)

(My closet- never again will it be so vibrant!)

(My Comarca family)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cacao’s role in life, death and in fending off the boogeyman

(Ripe cacao ready for harvest)

Cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, has played an important role in the religious and economic history of Latin America for thousands of years. Cacao seeds, were once so valued that they were traded as currency in Mexico. While they might not be quite as valuable today, they are still an important part of the economy and culture in many places, including Panama.

The Caribbean side of the Comarca and the Bocas del Toro region depend heavily on the export of cacao as a major income source, while on the Pacific side of the Comarca, coffee is the main cash crop. On both sides of the Comarca, however, cacao also serves an important role in the spiritual lives of the Ngöbe people. Cacao seeds are toasted, ground and consumed as a hot or warm drink -- not as the sweet chocolate we know and love in the States. Unlike the saccharine coffee that is custom here, they take their cacao with no sugar and definitely not with milk (they probably would if they had milk though). Although the majority of people here in the Comarca now believe in some form of Christianity, cacao is still an important part of life and death rituals. For example, when a child is born, the entire family stays up for four nights drinking hot cacao in order to ward off evil spirits that might injure or kill the baby. In death, as soon as a person is buried, the entire community comes to join the family in a cacao drinking ritual for four nights. Again, this is to ward of the evil spirits that might not let the soul pass into the afterlife. One month after the death of the family member, everyone reunites one last time to stay up all night and drink cacao together. This brings a sense of closure to the loss and signifies that it is time to move on.

(Another ripe cacao pod ready for harvest)

These evil spirits that afflict the young and dead are known as the choka (pronounced “cho-gwa”) and are a huge perceived threat in the Comarca. A choka has it has been described to me in many forms. The first and most common are the choka that affect newborns and the recently deceased, but they can also come unexpectedly to wreak havoc on the healthy and fit. The choka can take the form of the devil, a demon, a witch, a ghost, a possessed animal or- in my interpretation- the classic boogeyman! The only prevention method one can take is to drink 4 cups of bitter cacao before walking alone through the woods or being anywhere alone. The seven snakes that I have killed in my house have been blamed on the choka. Their suggestion to this bizarre snake invasion? Burn tobacco and drink cacao, four cups every night for a week.

If you ever see a dog that is wandering around without an owner or a chicken that appears out of nowhere and seems to have no home, it’s probably a choka and one should take extra precautions to not be terrorized. The worst kind of choka that I’ve heard about comes in the form of a person, the size of a small child but with a long tail. This is the most dangerous kind, as they will violate men or women, turning their victims in to chokas also. The prevention and cure, again, is drinking four cups of bitter cacao. I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of why the number four seems to keep popping up in their cacao rituals. No one around here can tell me why either- “it’s just what we do,” they tell me. In any event, I have developed my own ritual of drinking delicious cacao (although I prefer it with milk and honey)- which has a ton of health benefits and has the added perk of protecting me from the boogeyman! I am so fortunate to have lived in the land of coffee, chocolate, and honey for the past two years!

(Cacao pods and coffee being harvested at the same time)

Latrines are done!

(Welcome to the Inauguration of the Latrine Project!)

I want to thank everyone for all of their support on this latrine project, both for your financial contributions and your sweat labor! I still do not know who the donors were for the grant, but I thank you all for providing the funds for this project. Special thanks to Cory, Aleah, Kevin, and Iyi for helping me out with the construction and to Tara, Nick, George and Bill for coming in the spirit of helping out until plans fell through! All 20 latrines were finished on time and it was a really positive learning experience for everyone. We had an inauguration party for the project which everyone just thought was hilarious. If anyone ever needs a latrine built for them, I might just be your resident expert. Peace Corps gives you the opportunity to learn all sorts of things you never thought you'd need or want to know.

Here are several pictures throughout the process and simple instructions to make your own latrine =):

Step 1- dig a 9-15ft hole:

(15 footer!)

(Measuring the hole. I had a contest with a $5 prize for the person with the deepest hole)

Step 2- cover the hole with large sticks, but leave an opening for the seat and then cover with any old material you have

(Covering hole here with an old Feliz Navidad piece of plastic. Santa Claus was buried in the latrine floor!)

Step 3- cut the rebar with a handsaw

(Miguelito cuts the rebar into 8 pieces)

Step 4- Lay out the rebar on top of the covered hole, make the handles for each of the 4 corners so that when it fills you can pick it up and use it again over a new hole

(the bucket in the middle just holds the place of the seat, which is attached after the cement is poured on the floor)

Step 5- mix the cement with sand, rock and water that you haul on your back from the river!

(This is where it starts to get tough)

Step 6- pour the cement in the mold for the latrine floor

(smoothing out the cement)

(team effort)

(Couldn't reach that far corner, so I got in the bucket/seat place holder)

(looking good!)

(Making my mark)

Step 7- take lots of pictures

(Take pictures of the finished product- shown here: Miguelito and Iyi)

Step 8- move the latrine floor if you didn't construct it directly over the hole

(These floors weigh about 800 lbs)

Step 9 - Let dry, attach the seat, put up roof and some kind of walls and you're all set!

(anything can be used to make walls- old clothes and blankets, bamboo, palm leaves, etc.)

(this one came out really nice!)

(some don't need four walls if they face the woods)

Thanks again to everyone who helped out!

Saturday, May 1, 2010


(Scenery at Isla Coiba)

My time is quickly coming to an end in Panama and I have made sure to squeeze in some traveling over the past few months to see the amazing geographic and cultural sites of this country. I’ve visited some beautiful beaches and islands in both the Pacific and the Caribbean, as well as crossed through the mountains and over the continental divide through the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé.

More photos, of course are on Flickr. Click here for the link.

Santa Catalina/Coiba:
My cousin Tara and her 2 friends, Nick and George, came down for a wild visit during Carnaval. We had too much fun in Panama City, roughed it in my site and then checked out Santa Catalina (a sleepy surf town) and Isla Coiba (once a prison, now national park with virgin forests and picturesque beaches).
(a private cove where the monkeys roam)

(the boys try their hand at surfing)

(island hopping in the Pacific and hours away from the mainland)

(snorkeling and SCUBA dives)

(Tara, Nick and I in rehab at the prison on Coiba)

Hike over the Continental Divide:
I went on a 3-day adventure to hike with some friends from the continental divide in the Comarca region from the Chiriquí side over to the Bocas side. We followed the Río Cricamola starting from the headwaters and ended in the remote Ngobe city of Kankintú. From there, we took a dug out canoe out to a bay that leads to the Caribbean Sea. Along the way we stayed in schools and with a nice family that let us sleep in their house and even cooked us rice. Chlorine did not seem to be strong enough to kill the parasites in the water, however, so we ended up with angry stomachs for the next month... well worth it!
(Victoria, our guide, looks down the valley to a remote community on the edge of the river)

(One of several sketchy bridges made out of sticks and rope)

(Canoe ride over to the other side of the river at a point where it was too wide to cross)

(Melissa on one of many river crossing on a rustic zip line)

(A mother sends her infant daughter in a bag on a sketchy zip line across the raging river all by itself (so nerve racking for the unaccustomed gringas!)

(A typical home in a community we hiked through and stayed at our first night)

Panama City:
While I don’t recommend Panama City as an international destination for nightlife or culture- with the right crew and creative minds, you can always have a good time.
Group 61: 1980s Prom Party Bus:

(no explanation)

Isla Escudo de Veraguas:
I visited the gorgous national reserve called with my friends: Andi, Kate and Kate’s very generous parents.

(Above: Sea turtle; Our 5-star hotel; Kate and I in our ridiculous hats bought especially for the trip)

I am still convinced that my community, Cerro Iglesias, is the most beautiful spot in Panama. As such, I will be spending as much time there as possible because my service is ending in just a few short weeks!

(View of the Pacific through the banana plants from my house in Cerro Iglesias at sunset)