November 23, 2009

Nov 23, 2009

So –

we’ve been in our community for a month now, and are beginning to get the hang of it. The Peace Corps prefers that one stay with a host family for the first three months the volunteer is in his community, but we did not expect to, as there are two of us, which is twice the burden on a host family. Also, we are older and more likely to be finicky guests. So, we began to look for a place of our own right away. Ironically, we will probably end up staying in the home we originally moved into with the intention of staying only one month. We plan to continue to live with “La Profe”, a woman of 50 whose youngest son is moving out of the house in January to go to university. She will be living alone in a four-bedroom, two-storey house. She is very involved in the community. Everybody knows her and thinks very highly of her – exactly the kind of friend every Peace Corps volunteer needs. For many reasons, this is politically a very good place for us to live. In addition, the house is super-comfortable, she can help me with my Spanish, she is super-energetic and she is quite happy for us to be here as she moves into this new, childless phase of her life. She is the only member of the community we know who has a car, and loves to tootle around showing us cool stuff. Also, we can go grocery shopping with her, which will avoid our schlepping food 45 minutes on a bus, followed by a 15-minute walk from the main road to the house.

She goes into David every weekend. David is our provincial capital. It takes 2 1/2 hours to get there on a bus, and it is only 30 miles away! She can do it in 1 1/2 hours. We’ve spent the last week buying stuff for our room. We’ve also had satellite internet installed at the house. Hurrah!

The house is so fancy that we are embarrassed to talk to our volunteer friends about it. Living in this house will certainly shield us from the “Peace Corps experience” of living in difficult circumstances. About 70% of PC Panama volunteers go into indigenous communities, many without electricity or water, where the folks live in huts with dirt floors. We do not mind missing this part! On the other hand, we hope not to be part of the other extreme, the “Peace Corps lifestyle”, where the volunteer doesn’t really become involved with his community because he spends too much time away from it, hanging out with expats or just reading and isolating himself.

The group that invited us to this beautiful part of Panama is called APASAAC. They are a group of coffee growers who have decided to make this tiny town a model ecological community. Many of them are converting their coffee fincas into organic. At the same time, they are reforesting their part of this province, training other farmers and coffee growers in the use of organic fertilizers and bug repellents, etc.

We are learning their operation in detail before trying to give them any advice. They would like to accomplish many projects and hope to use our help in prioritizing these. They are quite well informed about many aspects of environmental awareness and improvement, and we do not yet fully understand how we can help them. But they seem to think we can.

The mission of the Peace Corps has three parts: 1) to meet a country’s expressed needs for technical assistance, 2) to share the culture of the United States with the host country, and 3) to share the culture of the host country with the people of our own country. Within this culture, family and friends are everything. Right now, we’re trying to build trust within the community so that the people will speak to us frankly. Eventually, they will let us know what they need and ask for our help in achieving an objective. By understanding them, we hope that we will know how to do that successfully.

Two of the important members of APAASAC are brothers, members of an extended family of 13 kids. Their father came here in the early 1940s and bought many acres of land. The land was divided up among all the children, and all but two still live here and grow coffee and various foods. Each of these children have children, many of whom are grown and have children of their own. Many live on our road, and I am still figuring out the family tree! Everybody seems to be everybody else’s cousin. There are several such large families in the community.

Right now, I am picking coffee a couple of mornings a week, which I really like to do. You get points for being a good worker, and I’m known as a good coffee picker because I only pick the ripest beans. The professional pickers pick EVERYTHING – green, immature beans, twigs, bugs, whatever. That is because they get paid by the basket. I don’t get paid at all, so there is no advantage to me to fill my basket indiscriminately!

Also, I’ve begun working one afternoon a week at the school, with the students who want to practice English. It is important to remember that in this culture, you learn stuff accidentally – for example, Gary and I were thinking about organizing a Panama Verde group at the school. Panama Verde is a student organization that works on environmental awareness and improvement, so we thought it would be a good adjunct for our APAASAC group. However, in one of our chat sessions, one of the students just happened to mention that there is an environmental student organization already in existence, just waiting for a new coordinator. If we had just jumped in with our brilliant idea of organizing a Panama Verde group, because that is what we already knew about, it would have been the wrong thing to do.

We’ve already met several members of that group. Many of the same kids who want to practice English are members. They belong to the most progressive families in the community and participate in many student activities. These are the kids who will be the next generation’s leaders, and the ones we want to spend time with.

One of the big projects APAASAC wants to do is community-wide recycling. Panama has no garbage pickup to speak of, and garbage disposal here is a really serious issue. This is a huge, multi-faceted project that will take much organizing. Gary is working a lot on it. The directiva of APAASAC would like to present the project framework to the other members of the organization at their General Assembly in January. So they’d better get busy!

There’s also a group that wants to learn how to make pizza and sell it at community events. This is a great project – it brings income to the group and will be perfectly sustainable. However, they have to get organized pretty quickly, as their first big even occurs on December 20. We’ll see how it goes!

Cheers, Peg

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