Monday, December 5, 2011

That's all there is

It still seems strange that this chapter is over, but I'm glad to have the blog as a record of where I started and ended up. Thank you to everyone who has kept up with me and my adventures for the last couple of years. It's been a lot of fun keeping track of the experience for people who are genuinely interested and take the time to read about a corner of the world totally different than their own. Thanks. I won't be blogging here anymore, so for newcomers who want a re-cap, or readers who caught some but not all of the story, here are a few posts that, together, might make something of a summary.

1. Why I joined the Peace Corps.- July, 2009
2. Llega la gringa.- October, 2009. My first visit to the community. Skimming over this post again reminds me of how much a volunteer's perspective changes over 27 months.
3. The Doctor is Out.- February, 2009. An introduction to traditional health beliefs. Reader favorite!
4. Saving Sloths, An Illustrated Tale. June, 2010. Living in the rainforest has so many benefits.
5. One Year In. August, 2010.
6. Distance. September, 2010. A learning experience for everyone involved.
7. Cati Quiero Pintar and Visitor's Pass. October 2010 and July 2011. To help you get a better idea of the true daily experience.
8. Latrine Project Continues. June, 2011.
9. Singing Kids and Dancing Kids. September 2010 and September 2011.
10. Why Participatory Community Development Is Hard...and Right. August 2011.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The very end

Where to begin when you're telling the very end of a story?

I spent a dreamy last week in Quebrada Pastor. I stared at the greenness of all of those hundreds of thousands of leaves. I listened one last time to the arrival of a rain storm, hearing it hit the zinc roof of my neighbors two seconds before it hit mine. I wanted to talk to everyone who defined the last two years, to spend one last hour in their houses, to share one more meal. I tried my best to say something to let them know what this experience had meant. My words were jumbled. I did a bad job, but they nod, and there was as much understanding as there ever was.

This life, which became normal and routine, would all of a sudden seem foreign and strange the second I stepped back home. And I hate that it's that way. That such a beautiful, complicated, challenging experience already seems to me like a dream.

In those last few days, the tension hung. The kids visited even more than usual, snuggling extra close, attaching themselves to me, trying--and succeeding-- to prolong their already too-long visits. Some adults did the same, only slightly more subtly, and I did it right back to them.

Friday morning arrived, and all of my bags were packed and waiting. My closest friends came over one last time. I said goodbye to my host family and it seemed too simple and too big all at once. I felt like a traitor. I lived in this place for two years, trying to learn about them, be like them, get them to like me, and like them back, and maybe after all that, do some work. And then it was ending and I go back to a place that they don't know and act like someone who isn't exactly their Cati. I didn't want to stay anymore, but leaving didn't feel good either.

My neighbors walk me down to the bus shelter. Every time I looked at someone's face I started to cry, and I noticed the adults wouldn't look at me either. But the kids kept staring. They've always been the best at that. One boy asked his dad, why I was crying. His dad explained that I was sad to go, and the boy asked, "Then why doesn't she stay?"

Truthfully, I looked forward to leaving for weeks. I wanted to go. But all of a sudden, when faced with the fact that a bus would be coming within minutes and taking me away, I couldn't believe how all my reasons for leaving suddenly seemed less important than this one reason for staying: This is way harder than I thought.

A bus pulls into sight. My neighbor asked me if I'm going to get on. The thought that this was the very very end, and hearing that he was thinking for a second that it might not be, shattered any control I was trying to maintain.

Hugs and kisses from people I never hugged or kissed before. The sweetest, comforting words from people who are usually too stoic to say those kinds of things. One last squeeze for the kids who are reaching their arms up, hugging me on their tiptoes. Those liquid eyes were never afraid to stare into mine, and they weren't then. And me, I couldn't say anything. I couldn't even look. The only thing I managed to get out was "Thank you" as they helped get my luggage on the bus, told me they'll see me, and made me promise to call.

Then I'm on the bus, and it's moving away. Everyone's waving. And then I'm gone, and the story is over.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Puerco de Paz

You may remember that last fall, I purchased a piglet for $25. I did this with the carnivorous intention of raising him 'til he was big and fat, and then killing him for my despedida. Goodbye parties are a big tradition in Panama, and I wanted to make sure there would be enough food to feed the flocks. Plus, it was a good conversation topic. People found it hilarious that I owned livestock and enjoyed asking me how fat he was getting. His name was well-known around town. Puerco de Paz means Peace Pig and is a play on the words for Peace Corps in Spanish, which is Cuerpo de Paz. It was impossible to mention him without grinning just a little.

Purchasing this piggy was perhaps one of the best decisions of my life. The day before my despedida, he was brought down from his house on the hill and my neighbors and BFF's Julio and Rosita took charge of the subsequent slaughter and preparation. Good thing, because when initially face-to-face with the 80-pound hog, I got cold feet and contemplated going into town to buy chicken. I learned a lot of things in Panama, but Intro to Butchery is a course I missed.

The plan was to smoke him that night, and the next day prepare a barbeque sauce, reheat and serve. I purchased some screen and, using tall stakes, we set up a grill of sorts, perched high above Rosita's cooking fire. Over the next eight hours, we smoked two batches of pork, and oh my goodness, did it taste good. The guilt I had over watching my baby get killed in cold blood slid away as the smoky smells of his roasting flesh filled the air. Yummo!

We attracted quite the crowd. Other neighbors and passersby seemed delighted by watching me rotate the meat over the smoky fire, and covering it back up with banana leaves. They said a lot of things like,

"Oh, look at Cati with all of that pork! She's crying from the smoke! What a great memory this is!"

And it was. Julio, Rosita, the kids and I stayed up until one o'clock in the morning smoking my dear puerco to perfection, all the while telling stories and jokes and enjoying each other's company. That night, I returned to the house with two five-gallon buckets filled with food.

In the morning, I prepared a barbeque sauce. I wanted to share something American in terms of cuisine at my despedida, but sometimes people scare easily when it comes to new, bold flavors, so I tried to keep it simple. The recipe was this:

1 part vinegar
1 part water
1 part ketchup
1 part sugar

Then I threw in some paprika, chili powder and a bit of bbq seasoning. That afternoon, we re-heated the meat in huge pots, threw on some sauce, and served it up with some rice and yucca. It was a hit.

I documented each step of the pig's demise, but I understand that some people might not want to be assaulted with such violent imagery. Therefore, follow this link if you want to see.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Man down outtakes

Young entrepreneur

One of the largest frustrations throughout my service was dealing with people constantly asking for free things. When I first moved into my house, every night the neighbors would send their children over to ask for cooking oil, matches, kerosene, packets of coffee, anything and everything. I knew that being a friendly neighbor and lending a cup of sugar now and then wouldn't work. To give one thing one time establishes the expectation of giving every time, every day. And while at first it was hard to say no to the kids, I knew they'd survived without my help and would continue to do so.

I came up with a few solutions to counter the barrage of requests for food or supplies. I always offered to buy produce from the families- bananas, otoe, wild peach palm, limes, whatever. I would be happy to act as a loyal paying customer, but would always refuse to hand out free money.

Few adults latched onto this, but the kids were captivated. I would pay them for the plantains they had in their house? Ten cents each! Their eyes lit up at the mere idea. Abdiel, my ten-year-old neighbor was my best supplier. If he needed a few cents for a pencil for posterboard for school, he would come over and peddle whatever he had in exchange for a quarter. Or he'd ask me if I wanted anything in particular when he knew his family was headed to the farm. Sometimes the kids would still ask for money for no reason, and I always responded that they had to find a way to earn it. Little Rosibel would busy herself washing dishes, or collecting trash. Milexi might find me some firewood or put some elbow grease into the pots and pans Rosibel just couldn't scrub clean. Asael would cut my lawn, and Nelson would stand there swinging a stick like a machete trying to convince me he was big enough for the job too.

As my departure from site approached, the kids started asking what would become of all the books, puzzles, and games I'd collected over the last two years. These requests were immediately followed by a demand of "give it to me!" which was always met by my explanation of a yard sale so that everyone would have a fair chance. I promised to sell all the "kid things" cheaply, between ten cents and fifty, but if they wanted something, they'd have to think and save their money for that day. This is hard. In a place where every nickel counts, and sometimes there are none at all, adults have trouble managing what little they have and planning for a rainly day. I was asking a lot.

Abdiel came by a couple of days before and asked about a game of Trouble I had. He'd had his eye on it since I bought it and had played it countless times while visiting. I told him it cost fifty cents, and he'd better start thinking about how he was going to get that money or else someone else would buy it.

I saw a mixture of excitement and defeat in his eyes. Fifty cents is a lot to these kids and I could tell he thought I was being unnecessarily miserly. Then he smiled and told me he'd figure something out and I better not tell anyone else the game is available.

Ten minutes later he came back with five pieces of wild palm and asked if I wanted to buy them. I handed him his quarter and he smiled and said, "Only one more quarter to go."

I heated up some refried beans to dip the palm in, and he came back over and sat down at the table with me. We talked for a few minutes before he said, "Give me an egg for my dad to eat with dinner? We don't have any meat to eat with the bananas." In my crotchityness, I reminded him that I just paid him a quarter, and the only person whose dinner I am responsible for is my own. If he needs an egg that badly, he should use his own money to buy it at the store across the street.

"If I do that I won't have the fifty cents to buy the game," he said.

I told him that's not my problem and reminded him he still had a few more days to earn more money. At that point, most other kids would have sensed their defeat and called me selfish or mean, but Abdiel just sat there quietly for a few minutes. I thought the conversation was over and was about to send him home when he said, "Well, what if I buy an egg for my dad, and then I could sell you ten more peach palms for five cents each and then I would have 50 cents?"

I wanted to hug him. And you know this early purchase was technically breaking the rules of the yard sale, but I was so proud of his problem-solving and resourcefulness that I said "It's a deal!" He grinned and ran off to collect my produce.

Somehow, that moment felt like one of the most successful in my entire service. In two years a boy went from only asking and expecting free things, to figuring out some simple solutions to earn what he needs or wants. It's a kind of empowerment even a lot of adults here don't feel. These quiet moments of tiny success are what made my service more rewarding. You never know how much you affect one person, and results are sometimes impossible to see. Peace Corps humbles its volunteers because it shows us how hard it is to do the smallest things, and how little change we can really spark in two years. I don't know if I really taught him anything or if he would have eventually figured it out on his own. Maybe I was just a supportive customer.

I hope he always stays as motivated and pro-active as he is at ten.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

QP Dance Troupe

They need some work on following choreography, but I still think Rihanna would be proud.


On a really hot day, nothing beats a trip to the creek with the kids to cool off. Of course, you have to be willing to share your shampoo and play at least 45 minutes of ¨Shark,¨ but that comes with the territory.