The Small Differences

There are differences between Panama and the United States that make my days more enjoyable, drive me nuts, or I’ve been here so long I’ve stopped paying attention to them. This is a random list of things I thought would be interesting to know is different here in Panama. It’s hard coming up with the list because a lot of differences fall into “I’ve stopped paying attention to them” category. If I remember more, I’ll follow up with another post.
Checking bags: This was the original inspiration for this post and will probably continue to drive me nuts until the very end. When visiting shops, anything larger than a convenience store, you’re generally required to check all your bags. This would be fine if I was just carrying groceries but more often than not, I’m carrying my life with me including clothes for a few days, my laptop, and other expensive stuff. More than once I’ve walked away from a store not wanting to risk having my bag get stolen.
American currency: Surprisingly, Panama’s currency is the US dollar. This isn’t like Cambodia where people prefer American money to Cambodian money, Panamanian bills just don’t exist. However, there are Panamanian equivalents of each of the 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, and $1 coins.
Fruit trees: Fruit trees are everywhere! I’ve had oranges, mangoes, bananas, and several other fruits I cannot remember their names directly off the trees. It will be a sad day when I have to buy fruits from the store again.
Speaker mode: It’s not uncommon to walk around blasting your music through your phone speaker instead of using headphones. This is quite enjoyable on my walks in and out of site as well as around site.
Non-refrigerated foods: You’d be surprised how long stuff will last even though it says “refrigerate after opening.” I’m slowly pushing the boundaries on this and so far I’ve realized American cheese, BBQ sauce, mustard, and hot sauce don’t need to be refrigerated. The cheese only lasts a few days but it’s still edible. Eggs are pretty awesome in that you don’t actually have to refrigerate them. And milk, if you buy it in small cartons, can be used individually for macaroni and cheese and cereal!

Six Months in Site

It’s now been almost six months in my site and I figured it would be a good time to update you guys on what I’ve been working on in and out of site.

Work Stuff

The first few months, usually about three or four, of Peace Corps is mainly about adjusting to the culture, learning the language and meeting the community. While doing these tasks we work on PACA tools which is a set of tools used to gain information about the community and identify needs. For my community it was water and latrines.

The first few months flew by pretty quickly and were broken up by Thanksgiving, family visit, and two weeks of additional training. This past Sunday I organized my first water committee meeting. Before the meeting I went to my water committee president and asked him to notify the community of the meeting.

Sunday morning I woke up early and spent several hours preparing the presentation. At two I headed to the church to setup for the meeting, I brought crackers and juice for the early birds to wait while the others slowly trickled in. Panamanians operate on “Panamanian time” in which instead of the phrase “early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable” it is “early is unheard of, on time is early, late is on time”. How’s that for a mind boggle. So at 2:20, after 20 minutes of waiting and not a single person showing up, I pack up and head home. At 2:40 the president arrives.  Turns out he only told the committee of five. So only 1 in 5 people showed up… not as bad as the entire community of 100 not showing up. With the meeting a bust, we decide to hold elections for the following meeting and we’ll get some more intersted people involved.

This is roughly an equivalent encounter for many volunteers. The going is rough and if it was easy, well, I wouldn’t be here. So I’ve decided to turn to other projects.

My first attempt at stepping outside of my main role was to contact all Engineers Without Borders chapters working in Panama. Ten total. So I get to messaging them all and one group requests my help. I offer help in ways I can such as knowledge about culture, language, and hardware store prices/materials. We work together for some time and they invite me to travel with them and help out. I got rather excited at the possibility of a week in an indigenous community and I happily accepted. Sadly, it turns out that there was an incident with a volunteer being in the wrong place at the wrong time two years ago and Peace Corps had pulled out of the area, the same area I’d be passing through. Peace Corps refused my work request and my involvement into that project sadly fell through.

From here I continued chasing every possible lead and decided to get involved with VAC, the governing body for Peace Corps volunteers. I ran and was elected for treasurer. I’m responsible for the money obviously, but also in working on various merchandise to sell, organizing Thanksgiving, being the bridge between volunteers and the staff, and generally helping to serve the volunteers in the best ways possible. This has thankfully opened up a whole new door of possible work and if I cannot help the communites directly, I can help improve volunteers’ situations so they can better help their communities.

Potential Work

Recently I got the opportunity to get involved with another Engineers Without Borders project. I’ll be headed to a volunteer’s site to help translate the community analysis interviews between EWB and the community.

The neighboring community had volunteers for six years and the lady who works at the health center is very motivated. I hope to help her fix the solar panel and vaccine refrigerator setup and to also start a recycling project.

Her sister is currently running for the Panamanian equivalent of leader of the county in which I live. She would like to try and start a water project in another neighboring community. I’ll either work on that project as my own or help develop it for Peace Corps for a future volunteer.

It’s surprising how quickly after the fatal blow to my first EWB project that new work popped up all over the place. I’ll definitely try and get myself involved in as much work as I can while here.

Outside of Work

I’ve been keeping very busy outside of work. I’ve already mentioned by book reading at this point (closing in on 20!). I’ve also put up some painting and drawings I’ve done. Since having my point and shoot camera stolen during carnival, I decided to start using my fancier DSLR and finally learn how to use it. That’s been going pretty well so far and I’ll post some pictures soon enough from it. My garden has also been taking off. I’ve got roughly 8 feet by 4 feet of garden with beans, Jamaican Tea, peppermint, lemon grass, spinach, squash, tomatoes, spicy peppers, and one or two other things I’m forgetting. I’ve already consumed my first tomatoes and drank lemon grass tea. I’ve also been working on my cooking. In China I was lazy and continued to cook like an American but a lack of nearby food stores and electricity has caused me to change my ways here. I’ve started learning how to prepare and combine various vegetables, make sauces, utilize spices, poach eggs, etc, etc. Hopefully by the end of my service I’ll be growing and eating awesome FREE meals. My sombrero is coming along. I finished weaving the required 40 feet of material but I need to get the mold to get the actual sombrero shape going. Last but not least are the random skills I’ve been working on. These include sewing, juggling, whistling with fingers and telling the time/directions from the sun.

In closing

I’ve surprised myself in being able to keep up my work habit without a set schedule. Hopefully things will improve within site with regards to work but if not, I’ll continue the hunt outside and keep busy with my hobbies inside.

Poco a Poco

It’s been almost nine months since I first arrived in Panama. In less than nine months, I went through the highs, lows, and everything in between while living in Shanghai, and then I moved home. Here however, I’ve gone through the same motions and haven’t even hit the halfway mark. I’ve also been presented with a much more raw living situation in which I cannot run away from my troubles and instead must face them head on. A somewhat comparable situation as expressed by Cheryl Strayed in the book Wild…

 The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.

To generalize my situation a bit, I challenged myself at every turn… I had just finished school with an amazing final year, lived abroad in China and started an English language group there, why couldn’t I achieve here and now as well?

Over the months I continued to challenge myself and snowball my thoughts into greater and greater frustrations. I compared myself to other volunteers and found faults in myself, looked at where I should be, and realized I’d fallen quite short. I blamed myself, became frustrated, angered, I felt a whole wave of disappointing emotions about myself.

Out of all boo-hooing however, I began to shift my perspective and look inside and I started to realize something… Well, a few things. The first being that I am not other volunteers, my community is not their community. As I progressed from here, I continued to have more realizations about my situation. Most importantly of which is that so long as you’re moving forward, you’re moving forward. If you fail, get up try again. You’ve traveled a path to failure but you have eliminated that path and you’re one step closer to success. If you pause, pause for good reason. And if you’re moving ahead, even at a slow pace, it is progress. As I’ve started to say in my day to day living and doing, “Poco a Poco”, or “little by little”.

Keep on in the direction of success and sooner or later, through all the downs and depressions, you’ll find you’re way there.

The End of an Era: Pictures!

So I took the opportunity to celebrate Carnival in Panama this year. On the second morning, with only having consumed two beers, I ventured out into the festival. With my camera hidden in a pocket, within a pocket, woo hiking shorts, I thought I was safe. Oops. Within ten minutes my camera was gone. Luckily, I was uploading pictures at some point in the past and forgot to put my SD card with months of photos back into my camera after uploading them and so I only lost about three weeks worth of pictures. Guess you won’t be able to see pictures of my awesome two weeks of technical training where I lived on top of a mountain overlooking the entire town. Just imagine it, you’ll do fine! Anyways, here are the remainder of the pictures from the camera I didn’t upload as well as pictures from my new “camera”, my phone.

Just kidding, looks like everything since my last photo update on this blog is gone. So enjoy these pictures from my phone!

Click the link at the end of the post to continue viewing the pictures.

Not much of a selection choice at the jukebox.

After a “hard day” of training

A really random finding. During in service training I stayed with a host family in a neighboring volunteer’s community. This was on their wall. This dog is from my hometown, of like less than 10,000 people.

Casco Viejo in Panama City

Got to check out a guy that made masks for some parades and events in Panama. 

Another random hobby. I learned how to make origami flowers. I decided to make 50 for Valentine’s day for everyone since we were doing a card exchange during training. See finished product below.

Making a ferro-cement tank to hold water for the community we worked in during in service training.

Prepared for carnival.

There was a security check to get into carnival. Look at the awesome line.

One day during training there were posters to be given out. There were only 6 so we decided to have contests to see who won them. This was for farthest paper airplane. This one didn’t make it so far.

Hanging out with a friend while he sells artisan goods from his community.
Right in the middle of the water spraying during carnival. There were giant water tanker trucks with hoses on top that sprayed everyone.

Good thing I had a water proof case.

Snuck up onto a stage to see the crowd from above.

As we were leaving carnival we ended up accidentally on a bus in the wrong direction. Ended up at this “beach.”

First thing I consumed from my garden. This is lemon grass and it makes for a good tea.

Burning trash for the first time!

Current garden. There’s vine beans to the left, tomatoes in the top left, lemon grass to the top right, and more vine beans at the bottom right. This was before I overhauled and doubled the size of my garden.

Clearing the land for a second plot of land. What horribly exhausting work.The sun didn’t help either. The next day it poured, which would have been nice.

Taking a break to see some sort of religious parade thing going on in my community. That’s about as much as I know.

Went to enjoy Carnivalito, or little Carnival, in La Pintada. What interesting rides.

That Ferris Wheel looks very safe.

Street meat! Reminds me of China.

My third collection of plants I’m growing. I have squash, tomatoes, spinach, culantro (not cilantro), and something else I forgot. 

Taking a break from my garden to wait out the rain storm.

This is Saril or Jamaican Tea. It’ll make for great tea during Christmas next year.


Helping out my tomato plant.

I made these. First thing eaten from my garden.

Beans to give away to other gardeners. I don’t have the patience or space to plot enough land to grow and eat these.

This is what has collected/grown inside my “filter” on my tap in the past two months.

Look at those tomatoes! Disregard the burnt bread I don’t have a toaster.

Finished garden with fencing to stop the horses and hopefully dogs from entering my garden.
What a name!

Throw Away Culture

So I’ve run into a bit of writer’s block for the past couple of months and have resorted to mostly just posting pictures and stuff that’s easy to submit without thinking too much. I forced myself to start writing on the first topic that motivated me a little bit. It’s not the best but I’d like to talk about it and try and get back into regular writing.

I find it fascinating the throw away culture that exists in the United States and other countries. Button comes off? Throw it away. Electronic device stops working? Throw it away. Dealing with the trash situation here in Panama has led me to discover the reuse culture that exists. Due to the fact that many do not possess the resources to simply throw it away and buy a new one, they have pursed different paths. Materials of potential use are saved for future application. One awesome resource I’ve seen recently was a broken washing machine converted to grind grains for consumption. Another avenue is repair. For many items that break or fall apart, there is a store you can go to get it repaired. Instead of spending $15 on a new pair of sandals, I got the bottoms replaced for $3. Instead of throwing out my fold up chairs, I had the fabric repaired for a few bucks. It’s rather amazing the easy measures one can take to avoid having something end up in the dump. The same can be done in the United States if you look just a little bit. And in the United States, the savings will be even greater and you can then travel to Panama, ha!

Books Read

I wanted to send a quick thank you post out to all those that have purchased me Kindle books so far. To this date, I’ve managed to read 17 books. It’s not looking like I’ll be joining the 100 book club during my service but I’m still set to read at least 50 books which is pretty awesome. Here are the books I’ve read so far and some of the great quotes I’ve found within them. Some books were read and then passed on so I do not have any quotes from them. I recommend all these books!If you’d like a specific book to read feel free to shoot me an email. (And yes, I didn’t have internet so I typed all these quotes up by hand instead of trying to copy and paste them.)
  1. “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” On the Road – Jack Kerouac
  2. River Town – Peter Hessler
  3. Catch me if you can – Frank W. Abagnale Jr.
  4. The boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba
  5. “There wasn’t a day on the trail when that monotony didn’t ultimately win out, when the only thing to think about was whatever was the physically hardest. It was a sort of scorching cure. I counted my steps, working my way to a hundred and starting over again at one. Each time I completed another set it seemed as if I’d achieved a small thing. Then a hundred became too optimistic and I went to fifty, then twenty-five, then ten. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten.” Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  6. “Sonu was enrolled in seventh grade at Marol Municipal. Though he couldn’t go to class because of his work, he registered for school annually, studied at night, and returned at year’s end to take exams.” Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo
  7. The Giver – Lois Lowry
  8. “Among those who signed up for the Peace Corps during the first five years of its existence, we were of an era when volunteers served in the “Wold West”: we were simply put on a plane and shipped abroad with anyone seldom checking on us, and certainly never a call or visit from parents.” Peasants Come Last – J Larry Brown
  9. The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman
  10. “When you choose one way out of many, all the ways you don’t take are snuffed out like candles, as if they’d never existed. At the moment all Will’s choices existed at once. But to keep them all in existence meant doing nothing. He had to choose after all. The Subtle Knife – Phillip Pullman
  11. “Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.” Quiet – Susan Cain
  12. The In Between – Goins
  13. “If you want to divert a mighty river into a different course, and all you had was a single pebble, you could do it, as long as you put the pebble in the right place to send the first trickle of water that way instead of this.” The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman
  14. “… I should have been there when this ninety-five-year-old man came hiking twenty five miles over the mountain. Know why he could do it? Because no one ever told him he couldn’t. No one ever told him he oughta be off dying somewhere in an old age home. You live up to your own expectations, man.” Born to Run – Christopher McDougall
  15. Oracle Bones – Peter Hessler
  16. “…mosquitoes so thick I have seen them put out a lighted candle with their burnt bodies” The Path Between the Seas – David McCullough
  17. “When we first begin fighting for our dream, we have no experience and make many mistakes. The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times” The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
  18. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha – Sarah Erdman
Books Unfinished or in Progress
  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M. Pirsig
  2. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature – David George Haskell
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things – Advice on Love – Cheryl Strayed
  4. “Columbus therefore cheated on his calculations, as the examining faculty of the University of Salamanca quite correctly pointed out. He used the smallest possible circumference of the Earth and the greatest eastward extension of Asia he could find in all the books available to him, and then exaggerated even those. Had the Americas not been in the way, Columbus’ expeditions would have failed utterly.” Cosmos – Carl Sagan
  5.   El Peregrino – Paulo Coelho