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So, after being in Panama for about a year and a half, you get kind of used to certain things. I didn’t even realize how much I had adjusted until my quick trip back to America in October. The following is a list of all the ridiculous things in Panama that I had completely forgotten were not normal.

 

  1. Running. You know what people say to you when you go running in America? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s normal. You know what people say when you go running in Panama? “Can I run behind you so I can just watch your butt for the next half hour?” True story.
  2. Customer service. I had completely forgotten that that existed. 
  3. Music on buses. There is only one volume of music on buses and it is called Deafeningly Loud. Also, it’s called Tipico. Would you like to listen to some Panamanian Tipico? Trust me, you probably do not, but in case you’re a masochist – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY1z5_83fuI 
  4. Music (cont’d). On top of the screaming and accordion playing by the bus driver, anyone that has an urge to listen to a difference screaming accordion song will play it, aloud, for all to hear, from their phone or portable stereo.
  5. Appropriately sized seating. For some reason, all buses in Panama are made about half the width of a normal human butt. On top of that Panamanian women have some of the largest butts on the face of the planet. This means that every bus ride I literally have a fully grown adult sitting either on top of me or on half of my seat. I took a train in Philly and was pleasantly surprised to have zero adults sitting on me.

My trip home was a wonderful reminder of all the great luxuries that America has to offer! Maybe one day soon I will live there… 

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GOOD NEWS! The nearby post office (an hour away) has learned how to send mail! It only took over a year! This has been confirmed by the arrival of a letter I sent to a one, Miss Holly Hodges, all the way in the US of A! 

One of the lessons I wrote about a few weeks ago was about appreciating the slow way to do things. I have been really blessed to receive some wonderful notes, cards and care packages from family and friends and I have been very, very bad about returning the favor. To that end, I’d really like to focus on writing letters in the coming months. If you send me your address (email: danielle.renzi at gmail.com) I will write you. I plan to write at least one letter a week, until I run out of addresses… or things to say. Whichever comes second. :)

A somewhat surprising benefit of living in a new country has allowed me to identify some aspects are unique to my own culture. One tenet of the American spirit that we take for granted is that Americans, generally speaking, are very hospitable, empathetic and friendly (New Yorkers and Eagles fans excluded).

In Panama, especially rural, indigenous Panama, people don’t ever say kind things to one another. Ever. I want to clarify that they are very kind TO ME and to outsiders in general, but to their own families or friends… forget it.

While education and infrastructure related to water, sanitation and hygiene are important, one of the most influential aspects of my job, I’ve found, has been working on developing character. I’ve been doing this through my Ultimate Frisbee club that I started at my school (Las Aguilas Fuertes de Lajas Blancas). I cannot believe the improvements I’ve seen in these kids in just a few months working with them.

When we started, practices were chaotic, the kids didn’t listen or respect me or each other. It was pure anarchy. I’d turn around for seemingly 2 seconds and they’d be dangling from trees, throwing my Frisbees into the jungle, and sending their naked 3 year-old cousins in to find them. I needed help. With the assistance of a few other volunteers and some tools provided by Ultimate Without Borders, I’ve been able to see a HUGE turn around in their behavior.  Kids actually listened when I asked them to stand in a line, they told me when they couldn’t attend a practice, they even… wait for it… used words like “please” and “thank you.”

It’s interesting to note that the many benefits of sport is recently beginning to be recognized. In fact, yesterday the United Nations declared April 6 to be the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.

http://www.olympic.org/news/un-creates-international-day-of-sport-for-development-and-peace/207997

“We have seen the true worth of sport and physical activity many times. It helps young people learn the value of self-discipline and goal-setting. It builds self-confidence. It defies gender stereotypes. It provides an alternative to conflict and delinquency. It can bring hope and a sense of purpose to refugees, impoverished communities and other people in need. It helps keep young people in school, it brings health.”

I could not agree more with this and I’ve experienced, first-hand how much of a difference sport can make in the lives of children in the Third World. It is for these reasons I’m hosting a camp for 40 kids all over Panama in February. The camp is not just to help them learn about Ultimate and Spirit of the Game but also about setting goals, resolving conflicts and thinking through decisions.

I hope you might help Ultimate Without Borders and me with this first camp in Panama.  You can donate to this project on the Peace Corps website by searching my last name or following this link:

https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-525-033

All of the money for this project goes towards transportation, food and materials for the Panamanians attending the camp. Lodging is being donated and Peace Corps Volunteers are generously paying out of pocket. Feel free to ask me about any other questions/comments/concerns about the project.

Thanks in advance for all your support! I know this camp will change the lives for the Panamanian children that can attend.

Well, I’ve officially been in site for over one year now. I only have 11 months left, and the time has flown by.   I felt like this was a good time to reflect on some things I’ve learned out in the jungle.

  1. If you want to, you can get accustomed to almost anything.
  2. 95% of the time, the hardest parts of living in the campo have nothing to do with lack of running water, thatched roofs, or the bugs.
  3. Eggs do not need to be refrigerated. Ever. I seriously don’t remember the last time I saw eggs inside a fridge.
  4. Machetes are more than just big knives. They are also lawnmowers, saws, paint can openers, toys for toddlers and orange peelers, among other things.
  5. Some people suck and some people are awesome, doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, middle class or famous.
  6. Most (but certainly not all) people that are awesome are either under the age of 5 or over the age of 65.
  7. It is possible that a person that does not have a lot of money may still have an unhealthy obsession with obtaining it.
  8. Being poor does not mean you are lazy. It also doesn’t mean that you’re not lazy.
  9. The only things my people will probably remember about me are probably related to tickling, high-fiving and poop. I’m ok with that.
  10. The fastest way to do something is often the worst. It’s important to appreciate doing things the slow way.
  11. Emberá babies are better looking than white babies. Don’t know why. Just is.
  12. Never underestimate how quickly Emberá people will start talking to you about sex.
  13. In case you weren’t sure, it’s DEFINITELY NOT about what you know. It’s DEFINITELY about who you know.
  14.  There is no “correct” way to organize people. No one has it figured out. And all governments are corrupt in one way or another.
  15. No one is going to do something they don’t want to do. Unless you pay them.
  16. Cockroaches will never go extinct. Ever.

So. The Jungle is surprisingly busy. And, as it turns out, a great place to host gringos!

First and foremost, in May some lovely friends were out here (yes, here: Lajas Blancas, The Jungle, Forgotten Province of Panama). That’s right folks, Javier Chan Ruiz, Megan Lyons, Nicholas Catania and (drum roll, please) Holly Hodges came to visit! We had a great road trip traipsing from Panama City to my village and then to the beach.

Luckily while they were here, I was able to show them how wonderful and secure the law enforcement system of Panama is. The police pulled our vehicle over twice during the visit. The first one for not stopping at a stop sign. Mind you, the stop sign was in the middle of the road, facing oncoming traffic. When, we pointed this out, the response was, and I quote “then you obviously should have remembered from when you came in to the Darien that you had to stop here.” I couldn’t make this up if I tried…

The second one for speeding 5 km/hr over the speed limit (approx. 3mi/hr). Luckily we got out of the second one because it started to rain. The police officer didn’t want to get wet writing the ticket.  Like I said, Panama’s law enforcement system is on it.

Aside from personally funding Panamanian law enforcement, we did enjoy a few days in my site, got a few tats, and, most importantly, played A LOT of Settlers of Catan, the world’s best board game. I’ve been playing since high school.   Though I had a string of bad luck while the crew was here, I did start dominating other PCVs. I was undefeated until very recently. What I’m saying is: bring it on Hodges.

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Speaking of taking over the world, that brings me to my next point. In June, my neighbor had a visit from 300 high school kids from all over the world, visiting historical places in Panama.  It was called something like Ruta Quetzal and they were doing a tour of Panama and also a few countries in Europe. So, I mean, you’ve got 300 white kids show up in the middle of a village in the jungle that has 200 people – obviously I had to see this. So a few PCVs went to watch (and mostly watch how people dealt with bathing in the river). It was quite entertaining. The most entertaining part, however, was during a cultural exchange. The Emberá did their little Emberá dances, as usual. When the Europeans got up to present their culture they felt it appropriate to present jousting. JOUSTING? Really?  A bunch of Europeans show the native Indians FIGHTING? The irony was too much…

Finally, this past week, I hosted about 30 PC Trainees in my site for a week of Technical Learning. Though it was a logistical nightmare and a lot of planning, it was a really great week (also full of Settlers of Catan). We built 4 small water tanks for the community, 4 drains for the non-functioning water tap stands (that’s a whole separate issue), started a compost latrine, and made a few walkways. Each of the trainees also stayed with a host family in my community, which was definitely a highlight for my community. They enjoyed having their own personal “son” or “daughter” and feeding said gringo/a weird Emberá food and sharing with me whether or not they ate it. This may have only been entertaining for me…

A few pics from Tech Week:

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Building some cement sidewalks

 

 

everyone

 

Group shot by the super-clear Rio Chucunaque

 

DSC01903

 

Heading up to the water tank to do some surveying with a water level.

drains

 

Building a drain for one of the tapstands for the aqueduct.

 

ferrocement tank

Celebrating a well-made ferrocement rainwater catchment tank.

painting

 

Can’t leave my site without getting a least a few tats. :)

First off – I apologize. This blog will cover only Jan – March. My b. Ok, back to scheduled programming…

 

As in all tropical areas, there are two seasons in Panama: rainy and dry. The rainy season means that it rains. Hard. For at least for an hour a day. So hard that my entire community is basically a mud pit and I can only walk around in rubber boots. The dry season literally has no rain. The whole community looks like a desert.  Yeah, Panama doesn’t do moderation. This year, the dry season was surprisingly short and productive. I say “was” because it seems to have ended in April. Normally, the dry season should be from December through April or May.  Thank you, global warming, now Panama rains about ¾ of the year. Fabulous.

 

IN ANY CASE, this particular dry season was crazy productive. It is the only time where Panamanians like to work. They’re surprisingly scared of getting rained on. It started with the compost latrine in my neighbor, Amber’s, site on New Year’s. After that I held a seminar in my site about the new water system. There’s still some problems with the system but the seminar went pretty well. More on the water system next blog post.

 

Then I went straight to the absolute best experience I’ve had in Peace Corps so far: GAD Camp!! 

GAD stands for Gender and Development and it is an organization within Peace Corps that focuses explicitly on sexual health, gender roles and empowering women, so obviously right up my ally. Every year in Panama we put on a week-long camp for two youth between the ages of 12 and 17 from every Peace Corps community. This year there were so many applicants they actually had to turn a significant number of people down, as well as facilitators. I was lucky enough to be chosen to attend.

This is my team at GAD camp:

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So in just 5 days, 7 other facilitators and I spent all week with 40 youth from all over Panama. There were indigenous kids as well as latinos, kids that traveled an hour and kids that traveled days to get to the camp. Some of the kids had never left their small villages before. It was great to see the camp relationships form over the course of the week. Throughout the week we worked with the kids on life skills: organization, goal –setting, resume- building as well as extensively covering sexual education.

 

It was by far the most exhausting and productive week of my service so far. We literally were with the kids starting at 6am until 10pm every day – always trying to teach them, keep their interest, and (of course) keep them out of trouble. We even had one little camp romance by the end of the 5 days (how is that even possible?!). One highlight for me was to see the indigenous girls get really involved. There is a lot of racism between the latinos and the indigenous. By the end of the week, the latino kids were asking about Embera traditions and basic phrases in the language.

This is the boy that I brought with me to camp:Image

AND you can check out the GAD Camp video – https://vimeo.com/57813660 

 

Anyway, following the Best Week Ever was my Best Idea Ever: I built my very own compost latrine at my house. With the help of my neighbors (that will be sharing the latrine with me), PCVs from Panama and a very special guest appearance from an RPCV from Zambia, we completed the project in about a month. It was the Best Idea Ever because:

  1. People actually believe me when I tell them I’m an engineer.
  2. My people think I’m strong (it was a nice self-esteem boost)
  3. I don’t have a poop in a hole any more – I have a nice fancy concrete box!
  4. People actually believe me when I tell them I’m an engineer (did I mention that one?)

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My neighbor/adopted child helped too :) 

 

But really, it was the best idea because since then, two other families have started construction of their own latrines – with their own funds! I’ve only been helping them with the design and education and they’re doing everything else on their own. This is really the most important part of my job –  that what I do is sustainable, such that my community no longer will need me. I literally am trying to work myself out of a job.  The more my community can do for themselves, and the less I bring in outside resources, the better. 

 

Until next time! We get to start talking about Lajas Blancas’s very first Ultimate Frisbee Club! Get excited!

I’m not sure how well you know but I kind of enjoy playing this sport called Ultimate Frisbee. You know, a little bit. Occasionally. And obviously, like all casual ultimate players, I brought 50 discs with me to Panama.  I’m definitely not obsessed.

Anyway, now that I’m here, I am happy to say that I am part of a really incredible ultimate community in Panama.  A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Panama (RPCV) and another from Azerbaijan, Ben Searle and Dai Lin respectively, started a non-profit organization called Ultimate Without Borders.

Basically the mission is to work with PCVs to start ultimate youth teams and use ultimate as a tool to develop skills such as communication, goal-setting, teamwork and emotional intelligence. 

Another PCV, Ken Hartman, did some great work in his school on the other side of the country with regards to Ultimate Frisbee. Him and I are teaming up to be the Program Directors for Panama.  So this past weekend the two of us and Ben led a seminar for 11 other PCVs on how to play ultimate and use it as a tool for their own youth groups! We’re planning on doing at least two more of these, hopefully more, and training about 35 volunteers by 2014.

It was SO much fun and more importantly, I can already tell that this will be one of the most productive and sustainable contributions from my service.  I really believe that working with youth to develop these important life skills will be infinitely more helpful to my community than any latrine project, or water system, or grant I could find.

So everyone should go on facebook and support Ultimate Without Borders because it is a truly great organization! (Yeah, I’m shamelessly self-promoting here).

 

Here are some pics from the training this weekend: 

 

ImageKen and I at the Training of Trainer’s

 

ImageLot’s of PCVs are about to start ultimate clubs!

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Teaching the game :)