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Archive for August, 2012

In the last post I mentioned that I felt a bit like a two year-old. Now, a few short weeks later, I feel like I’m at least four. I’ve managed to understand a few basic Embera sayings and verbs. So now I annoy my family every chance I get to announce things like “I’m going to bathe,” “I’m eating fish,” “This tastes good,” “I’m in the house,” or interrogate them with “where are you going?,” and “what are you doing?”.  But they’re good sports about it and they mostly find my accent entertaining. I think.

 I’ve been mostly able to learn the food words for Embera. I’ve added a few types of fish (though I have no idea what they translate to in English), chicken, etc. to my Embera lexicon. Food, however, is a little different in the jungle. In both good and bad ways.

Good: Everything I’ve eaten has looked exactly like the animal that it came from. This constantly reminds me of growing up when my brother and I thought all meat was chicken. Here it is very obvious what you are being served… Chicken neck, chicken feet, pork fat, fish (eyes and fins fried up with the rest of it). Trust me, you know. But, well, you know it’s nice to know what I’m eating instead of having to look at an ingredients list littered with names of chemicals that have more than 15 letters.  Plus, I mean I’d say 90% of all the food I’ve been given is absolutely delicious. It’s all because it’s mostly fried with like 3 tons of salt on it, but it tastes GOOD. And if it doesn’t I just add hot sauce.

Bad: What do Panamanians eat? Carbs, carbs and fried carbs. Rice, yucca (potato-esque), and platano (fried banana) are the staples. Sometimes I do get pasta (but always with a side of platano, as if I didn’t have enough starch in the pasta). Now, I think this disproves every major diet in America. I am eating not only carbs 24 hours a day but small mountains of carbs. Miraculously, I’m fairly certain I’m losing weight. I think the secret is living in 90 degree heat without an A/C unity. So next time you wanna drop a few pounds… just turn down the A/C. Works like a charm.

 The other bad thing… is sometimes the Embera, and really all Panamanians, like to eat weird stuff. I was served iguana for breakfast one morning. An in my community, they don’t even take the skin off. It’s just boiled reptile on your plate covered in whatever MSG “seasoning” packet host mom bought.  I mean, I’m fairly adventurous when it comes to food, but that one was tough to swallow (pun intended). 

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Well here we are, I’ve been in country about three months now. So training is over.  They let me and 43 other trainees become full-blown volunteers. Which means we all went to completely opposite ends of the country and will see each other only on occasion for the next two years.  So I left my safe little cocoon of other trainees and my host family in Panama City that I had grown pretty fond of, and set off to live in the jungle. 

Picture a jungle. Almost Amazonian. Tall trees, everything’s green, vines hanging over the river. You can hear the chirps of exotic birds, frogs and insects. Now imagine you’re riding in a hollowed out tree with a motor on it up a chocolate-colored river. Out of nowhere you see a clump of tin roofs on stilts. That’s where I live.

I got placed in a site in the Darien region of Panama (close to Colombia).  I live within the Comarca Embera-Wounaan (aka Panama’s version of an Indian Reservation). There are two tribes in this Comarca (Embera and Wounaan) and two “Areas.” I live on Rio Chucunaque with an Embera tribe, next to what is called the Darien Gap… from what I understand it’s kind of a no-mans-land that really translates to FARC territory. I don’t plan on vacationing there much.

So I got here and moved in with my host family that I’ll be living with until mid-October. They love to speak Embera. Which I spoke none of.  Until now. Mostly it still just sounds like crazy gibberish. My favorite word so far is “digida” (dig-ee-da) which means to/in the house. They use it ALL the time and its super fun to say.  

For me living here has kind of like being a two-year old… but being conscious of the fact that you have no idea what’s going on. I have had to re-learn everything. Like cooking rice, for example, you’d think there’s not much to it – pour the rice from a box and boil it. No, no, first you have to grind rice from the finca by hand with a giant mortar and pestle, sift it, and then cook it.  Or washing clothes, here I wash my clothes in my chocolate river by hand (I’m still not sure if they actually get any cleaner, but you know, when in Rome…). Cut the grass? Yeah we do that with a machete. Shower? You mean, bathe, in the same chocolate river, fully clothed, with everyone else watching (and also using the river to wash dishes, gut and clean fish, do laundry and, in other communities upriver, poo… but that’s a whole other subject).  And because I’m clearly a noob at most of these ordinary tasks, they often ask me “You don’t do it like this in the US?” At which I point I feel like both an idiot and an asshole. But most of the time I think they usually just enjoy watching me struggle with tasks most 5 year olds can do better than me. 

In terms of my job here as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Environmental Health, my preliminary analysis of the community is that they need cloth diapers, compost latrines and a library.  Their analysis is that they need synthetic turf for the soccer field, a computer teacher and an English teacher. So we have some work to do in terms of clarifying what my job is.  I am going to start helping at the elementary school with English classes since that will be fun and at least make me feel like I’m contributing to the community.  

As expected, this has been challenging, and fun.  Everyone says the first few months are the hardest but I am already feeling like I’m starting to make friends here and finding places where I can help the community. Here’s to the next two years and a whole new type of growing up… 

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