Adapting to the Culture

> Taking showers with a bucket of cold water aren’t that bad anymore and I actually tend to look forward to them on days where I’m filthy.

> I’ve grown to dislike hot showers which I never thought could be possible.

> I no longer see Spanish as something that is “external” and needs to be learned, it quickly becoming a part of who I am.

> I find myself judging foreigners as if I was a Panamanian, wondering what the hell they’re doing out here.

> Plate after plate of rice doesn’t bother me so much anymore.

> Air conditioning is weird. 

> I’ve grown homesick for my first host family when I’m out in other parts of the country.

> However, internet will always be like crack to us and I don’t believe many of us will be able to break the addiction.

Personal, Cultural, or Universal

One of the most eye opening things I learned during my training is whether to classify an action as personal, cultural, or universal. A basic example of this would be a person, named John, that sings. Does John do this because he personally likes to, does he grow up in a culture that enjoys to sing, or does the entire universe love to sing? Even with a basic example, the boundaries of where this action lies are blurred. There could be cultures that look down upon singing and therefore don’t enjoy it, maybe everyone in the entire universe likes to sing.

Even though there aren’t clear cut boundaries, it is something helpful to keep in mind when approaching difficult situations. For example, if you’re in another country traveling and your being harassed, stop and think before jumping to classify these people with sweeping generalizations. I’m going to say for curtain, this doesn’t fall under universal. There’s a chance it’s a cultural thing and this group of people just doesn’t like you. Realistically though, in the majority of situations, it’s just a personal action. So, before saying that everyone that lives in X country is rude, stop and think to yourself, is it personal, cultural, or universal?

An Update on Panama

So this past weekend, I officially became a Peace Corps volunteer which was pretty awesome! However, I had a minor(and to my sister, yes I do mean minor!) neck injury some time back that I got checked out and it has finally been decided that physical therapy is in order to tackle this issue head on before I end up four hours outside of the city and away from a physical therapist. Therefore, I’m hanging out in the city for some time to take care of that. Already had two days of therapy and I’m feeling better.

As far as the state of this blog, I’m going to attempt to start writing a book. I’ve been tossing around the idea in my head now since I backpacked through South East Asia and really want to try it out. At the very least, it is better to try and fail than to never have tried before. Therefore, I’m going to shy away from sharing stories here. I’ll continue to give life updates, post pictures, and some stories every so often but if I am successful with a book idea, you can read about it all there! …or if I fail you can read about it here.

So that’s about all for now, don’t really have any fun stories to report since I’ve been hanging out in a hostel most of the time or any pictures either. Expect some in the coming weeks though!

The Awesomeness of my Site

> Amazing mountain views everywhere. It doesn’t take very long to find yourself standing at one.

> The food producing plants. I’ve seen oranges, bananas, plantains, coffee, papaya, mint, lemon grass, sugar cane and others I’ve forgotten to mention. My region is also the orange capital of Panama.

> A waterfall with a swimming spot at the bottom. Don’t think I have to say much more about this.

> Ice cold Coke within twenty minutes of walking. …Enjoy the little things

> Tea every night. I’ve had some amazing tea so far made from lemon grass, mint, and cinnamon.

> Orange juice! This sounds strange but 99% of all ‘juice’ in Panama, and other parts of South America, have the ingredients for these drinks listed as “Water, sugar, …” My site was the first time I’ve had fresh juice since arriving.

> Electricity from sundown until about 9pm. It’s nice to have just enough electricity to charge your electronics but not enough that you’ll end up watching movies and mindlessly browsing the internet the entire day.

> Cell service within walking distance. I only have to walk about 5 minutes to get service whereas other volunteers need to walk one or several hours.

> Clean drinking water that doesn’t need filtering. Of course I am there to work on water, only a third of the community right now has access to this amazing water.

That’s what I’ve gathered thus far from only 4 days in site. Can’t wait to see what other hidden treasures my community has in the coming months.

The Next Step

Today marks both two months in country and my last night in my training community, Santa Rita. For the next few days I’ll return to Panama City for a few days of administrative meetings and then on Thursday, I officially become a Peace Corps Volunteer! I’ll spend the weekend relaxing with my fellow volunteers and then finish moving my stuff to my community.

My first three months in site will be spent with a new host family. I will work mainly to understand the community through a set of tools known as PACA. I’ll focus on creating a daily and yearly schedule of the community, a map, and assess the needs of the community so that I can begin working on projects in the future. During this time, construction will both begin and end on the house I will live in after the first three months.

After those first three months, I’ll have established myself within the community and will know what direction to start taking my projects. The remainder of my time in Panama will be to work towards completing the goals set during the first three months.

First Week in the Community

This past week I got my first chance to visit the site that I’ll be living at for the next two years. You can read more about my site at the blog post here and see the pictures that accompany this post here. All day Thursday we had presentations with our community guide in Panama City and then left early Friday morning for our sites. It was a 3 hour bus ride and then about a 20 minute slightly difficult, but not too difficult walk, into the community. I stayed the first week with my guide but will be moving in with a host family when I return next week.

We spent the rest of the day lounging around on Friday, and then Saturday morning we got to work. Each day from Saturday on was pretty much structured the same. My host family would wake up before I did, probably around 6am and I followed at about 7am. We would eat breakfast, shower, get ready, and by 8am we would be off for the day’s work. Hard work would be done straight through until 1pm, at which point we would return home for lunch and spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Our activity for Saturday afternoon was pasearing in the community. Pasearing is Spanglish word that generally means to walk from house to house, stop and talk for a bit, possibly have a quick snack or drink, and then move on to the next house. This is the foundation for many of the relationships I will develop over the next two years. Our community was rather small and we were able to pasear almost the entire community in four hours. Their Spanish accent is very different from where I am staying now and I was barely able to communicate. Thankfully, I have an amazing guide and he did all of the explaining for me. After this time we returned home to relax for the rest of the day.

Originally this relaxing drove me nuts and the first two days I was out of my mind with how much free time I had. After the second day though, I completely flipped my perspective and am grateful to have it. The first two months in the country have been completely nonstop and in my free time, I made a list of all the things I could do once I got to site and now I have the time to do those things! I managed to finish a book and a half while there, worked on Spanish, wrote lots of stuff, swam in the lake, and relaxed and did nothing.

The second day was church followed by a water committee meeting where again, my guide was awesome, and presented all the information he had learned in Panama City to the community. I gave a little introduction about myself but I didn’t understand about anything the other community members said which was rough. However,  the meeting in general seemed to be a success and the community is glad to have me.

Monday afternoon we went and checked out the local school and health center. Both were places I had, by chance, visited during my first tour of a volunteer’s site and the volunteer joined me for the day. I got to meet all the teachers and students in the school as well as the doctor who works in the community. There is also another volunteer who just started working on a farming project at the school and I hope to help him with that when the time comes.
Tuesday, my last day in the community, we got to tour the water system. This trip took almost three hours to tour both water systems but was well worth it. I finally got the chance to understand what I’ll be working on for the next two years. I’m excited to get back to start working on it.

And that was my trip to my community. I left early Wednesday morning back to my host family community. 

Photo Post of my Site Visit

If you cannot tell from this picture, there are spikes sticking out of this tree. I inquired to my guide what the hell terrible tree would have spikes like this and he replied that it was an orange tree. Oh. To add to that, my region is the orange capital of the country, guess I’ll just have to watch out for these spikes since oranges are so awesome. 

One of the many awesome views in my community. 

This is us walking down what one other volunteer called “that big hill” It’s hard to tell from the picture but it’s a pretty steep incline walking it. Luckily, my house will be on the top of the hill and the road that continues away from the hill isn’t that steep. 

Sugar cane

This is a sugar mill. You run the sticks from the previous picture through the middle, where the guy in the red shirt’s head is covering and out comes the liquid you see below. 

After straining, it’s ready to drink, and it is absolutely amazing. I probably don’t want to drink so much since I’m pretty sure it’s sugar overload. 

This is the river I had to cross to get to my guide’s house. It’s generally not so menacing looking, this was after a downpour that lasted about an hour and a half. 

Another amazing view. I’ll have to get another picture without such thick fog. 

It’s hard to tell here but this is the top of the waterfall right after the rain. There’s a better picture further down from the bottom up.

Here is a picture from the bottom of the waterfall looking up. That pool at the bottom is almost twelve feet deep and the perfect temperature. I do believe this will be my favorite place to hang out for the next two years, except for in the dry season because the other rivers in the region dry up and people come here to bathe. 

I’d grown to hate dogs in Panama because they’re generally useless in my host family community because they don’t act to protect anything and they just walk around being dirty and they fight a lot. Dogs out in the countryside are much more awesome. This guy here joined us every day when we went off to work. My guide told me that as soon as dogs see a machete they get really excited. I do believe now that I’ll be getting myself a dog for adventures and a cat to eat all the mice and cockroaches. 

Here we are clearing the path to the water system. More like, my guide and his father are clearing while I take pictures from behind. The path was only about a foot across and then dropped off on the right pretty steep through lots of branches. Good things I didn’t fall through. 
After slicing our way through the jungle, we got to the other side and found this barbed wire. This is generally used to mark territory and it makes sense to have but how the heck do they get it to such remote places!?

Here is a shot of the functioning water tank in our community. The water shooting out the top means the tank is completely full of great drinking water. 

Here is the water source. The general method is to find water leaving the side of a mountain, block it up with rocks and concrete, and then funnel that water into a tank. 
After making our way home, I took a shot of all the seeds that had managed to latch themselves onto my pants. I then spent the next twenty minutes picking them off. Next time, I’ll be going out with rubber boots and jeans because my guide and his father had in total about 5 seeds on them. 

The Technical Aspect of Tech Week

Applogies the pictures aren’t exactly in order. Sunday morning at 6am, the entire environmental health group gathered at the bus stop, waiting for a shuttle from Peace Corps to take us to the bus station in Panama City. Parts of our journey to our technical week training would be handled by Peace Corps while other parts it was up to us to manage. The trip from Panama east to Metati was on public transportation for about six or seven hours. At the Meteti bus station we met up with a chartered bus which took us the next half to the port where we then took four rented boat twenty minutes upstream to a volunteer’s site.
Once we arrived, we had quick meetings and then were led off in small groups to meet the families we would be staying with for the next week. Meeting host families is by far the most awkward experience Peace Corps has to offer. You show up at the door of a family, loaded down with way too many bags, and everyone initiates in awkward conversation for a bit before you put down your bags and then continue you in more awkward conversation for a bit. The awkwardness quickly dies down though and everything returns to normality.
For this week, we would be staying in an indigenous Emera community. Emera are known for their awesome skirts for women and wide open houses. By this I mean the windows are always open and there is only one “room” for the house. Everything is rather communal and private space isn’t really a thing. Since I arrived in Panama, I’ve been staying in a shared room and at this point it doesn’t really bother me. The only thing that bothered me was one family member that had a snore that could rival that of of a bull. Luckily, I had ear plugs (the snore still managed to peirce the ear plugs a bit), and I loved every other aspect about my family.
In total there were roughly eight or so family members consisiting of several sibligings, spouses, one child, and a grandmother. The exact relationship was lost on me since conversations were pretty loaded and it was hard to understand the language and remembering what was being said at the same time. The family earned their money through the running of a tienda, or small shop, as police officers in both Panama and locally, soldiers in the military, and as a doctor… this much I was able to understand from the conversations. The tienda point was the most important part though. This meant that every night I’d get an awesome beverage off of the shelf of the tienda to drink, hot chocolate in the mornings, Cheetos for dessert sometimes, and other similar goodies.
Here we are making a simple water level to measure altitude changes.

Testing the system out.

Making a mold out of clay to lay the concrete foundation in.



Molding the chicken wire to the base.



Here we are starting another project to build a soak pit. The goal of the soak pit is to move water away from a faucet so that it doesn’t sit and collect in puddles.



Laying the pipes for the soak pit.



This is the water pump that pulls water out of the river up into the water tank. Currently in need of an electrical wire.

There are some pretty cool PUR packets of chemicals that showed up during the floods in Panama of 2010. Add a packet to a bucket of water and it takes the river water you see in the previous picture, filters out the gunk you see in the fabric here and turns it into the water below. Quite expensive but useful during extreme situations.

Water is cleaned here before being put into the tank.

This is the gunk I talked about previously.

Here we are learning how to make modifications to PVC pipe. The modificaitons can be seen below.

Three types of pipe we learned to make.

Here we are returning to the tank. We filled a sack with rice husks and molded chicken wire to its form.

Adding concrete to the walls of the cloth to form the final walls of the tank.

Here we are mixing concrete.

Digging the foundation for a concrete slab outside of the latrine.

Mixing concrete with water.

More concrete mixing.


One Big Thank You Note

I originally wanted to say thank you individually through cards sent from Panama but I’ve since realized that it is just about impossible to get the letters out and even if I did there’s a good chance they won’t actually arrive safely in the United States. So, before it’s too late I want to say thank you to everyone for your gifts. The money has gone to the purchase of such awesome things as boots to trek in foot-deep mud, a 5″ Android Tablet to use as my computer, a machete to “mow my grass”, Harry Potter in Spanish, a basic smart phone to keep connected with the world, and many many more awesome things. I am grateful that all of you were able to attend and I greatly enjoyed my going away party. I hope all is well and I’ll talk to you soon.

Brazos y besos,
Travis