Friday, May 31, 2013

Close of Service

I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. It seems surreal that my two years in Panama have ended. I had an amazing service. It was not always easy and definitely not enjoyable all of the time, but the challenges that I faced and overcame only added to the experience. When I start to think back, all of the trouble and frustration has already begun to fade, and I am left with memories of the people I met and the work that I did. I want to reflect on my service and write about it, but I think I need to give myself time to process it all. Therefore, I am going to write about the last few weeks in my community instead.

In mid-April, I did an agribusiness seminar for farmers in the province of Bocas del Toro. I had been using grant funds to do all of the regional agribusiness seminars, and Bocas was to be my last one. However, counterparts decided not to come at the last minute so I had $324 left over at the end of the seminar. I did not want to have to turn the money back in because it was donated with the purpose of providing funds to do seminars and educate farmers in basic business skills. Instead of turning it back in, I decided to use the money to do a business seminar in my community. For a long time, I had been trying to work with different community groups including a store, a sewing group, and a women’s agricultural group. Coordinating with the groups had proved impossible. I had been very frustrated because we could never fix a date for the meetings or we had a date and then the group would cancel. However, I thought that since there still was grant money, my community would be the perfect place to do one last agribusiness seminars.  

I purchased all of the supplies in Santiago then made hand-written invitations for everyone in the community I was going to invite. I invited the women from the three main women's groups in the community and talked to the leaders of each to see if they would help motivate the other members to attend. I also invited other people in the community who belong to groups or just seemed like they would be interested. I also invited members of an association of women that manage a store in San Cristóbal. I also made sure to advertise that people would be receiving a snack, lunch, and a calculator during the seminar. The whole week before I did non-stop pasear-ing trying to get people motivated and excited about the seminar. I also had two PCVs come to help me execute the seminar.

On Saturday, people starting showing up just ten minutes late, which never happens. People usually show up an hour or so late. And the people kept showing up. On the first day, thirty-eight people attended. The topics presented included business planning, and the different community groups developed a mission statement, goals, and objectives. I also presented internal rules and regulations and group fund management. In the afternoon, we worked on money management. Each participant received a calculator and was taught how to use it. We spent about an hour practicing using the calculators because the majority of the attendees had never used one before. Once they were more comfortable with the calculators, we moved on to personal finances then basic accounting. On Sunday, forty-two people attended. A fellow PCV presented business administration topics and showed participants how to calculate unit cost. During the two-day seminar, forty-nine people from Barrigón and San Cristóbal were trained in business techniques. After the seminar, told me how much they enjoyed it, how important they found all of the topics, and how excited they were to have a calculator. One woman has even started to keep track of her personal finances and was reviewing it with me!

On May 11, my PCV friend Kendra came to my site to do a charla about gender and development. We covered topics including self-esteem, sexual orientation, discrimination, the difference between sex and gender, communication between spouses and families, violence, and women's rights. It went really well, and I believe that it met a community need. People were asking questions and seemed to be very interested in the themes, which are usually not openly (if ever) discussed. At the end of the seminar, we were even able to dispel some misunderstandings people in the community had about birth control. I hope that the women feel more empowered because machismo is pervasive throughout Panamanian society. After the seminar, one woman told me how she was talking to another woman in the community who had not attended the seminar about before she had not realized that women are able to do everything a man can do. I was happy to know that the ladies were discussing what they learned with other women as well. 

During my last two weeks in site, I hardly cooked any of my own food. People kept inviting me over for lunch, and my neighbors shared food with me almost every day. I decided to make dinner for the two families I am closest with. I decided to make black bean fajitas and brownies because I knew that they had never tried either. I made the food then set it out buffet style on my table so that everyone could make their own. When I told everyone they could start making their fajitas, they just stared at me. I forgot that they had no idea what a fajita even was. I made one in front of them so they would see how it works, but they still just stared at me. Then Nelva spoke up and asked me to make the fajitas for all of them. I made everyone their fajitas, and then they just stared down at their plates. They did not know how to eat them either so I demonstrated. They had brought spoons to eat with and were surprised to learn we would be eating with our hands. They really liked the fajitas! And told me what a good cook I am, which made me laugh because that is pretty far from the truth.

The day before I left my site the community threw me a despedida, a going-away party. I had to sit at a table by myself in front of everyone while a few people made speeches talking about the work I did in the community and wishing me luck with my future endeavors. I had to give a speech as well. I tried to think of what I wanted to say beforehand and wrote a few notes, but when they gave me the microphone I was overcome with emotion and started crying. It was sad knowing that I would be leaving and not knowing when I would see these people that had become my friends and some who had become family. I pulled it together and gave my speech, but I just ended up rambling a bit so I am not sure how good the speech actually was. I don’t even remember what I actually even said. I know that I thanked them for welcoming me into the community and being so caring. I also mentioned that I have learned so much from them especially about the meaning of the word community. After the speeches, we ate arroz con pollo, which was delicious, and drank some chicha fuerte de maíz (a fermented corn drink). Some people gave me little presents and recordatorios. After eating, they played music for a while, and I talked to all the people who came. I was so happy to see everybody one last time, and I felt special that people came. The next morning everyone who lives in the center of town came out to see me off as I left in the chiva. I hugged everyone for the last time, climbed into the chiva, and waved everyone good-bye. I will have the memory of everyone waving back stamped in my mind for a very long time. I was very sad to leave, but I am happy with the friendships I made and the work I completed in the community. 

I spent this last week in Panama City going to medical appointments, interviewing with my bosses, and turning in paperwork to the office so that I could COS. Yesterday I finally finished everything and got my last signature, which meant that I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am now a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. The other volunteers who COS-ed and I went to dinner at Market, one of the best restaurants in Panama City. Most of us ate burgers and drank a bottle of wine. It was a nice close to our week in Panama. I woke up super early this morning and made my way to the airport for my flight home. On the way to the airport, I had a I-can’t-believe-I’m-leaving-Panama-am-I-ready-to-leave? moment. It mirrored how I felt when I arrived in country and was wondering what I had gotten myself into. Readjustment will be interesting. Readjustment will be hard. I am looking forward to hot water and bathing with more than one gallon of water. I am also looking forward to having running water all of the time. However, I am not looking forward to all of the confusing new technology, living in a more urban setting, and the disconnectedness of people in the States. 

Now on to the next adventure.

Some pictures of my Peace Corps work:

Agribusiness seminar in Bocas del Toro

Agribusiness seminar in Puerto Indio

Farm map presentation

With the sewing group from my community at a fair

Youth art camp participants

Artisan presenting goals for her group during the next 3 months

Teaching unit cost to a baking group

Working with a group of artisans

Teaching business skills to artisan women

Yes we can! Gender and Development talk

Harvesting Rice

Teaching Junior Achievement to kindergarteners
Peace Corps Panama!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Description of Service

Before COS-ing, PCVs have to write a Description of Service, which is an official account of the main work done during service. It stays in Peace Corps records for maybe 60 years or so. So enjoy reading about what I have done during my time in Panama.

  Description of Peace Corps Service

Rachel Frattarola

Republic of PANAMA 2011 – 2013

After a competitive application process that emphasized technical skills, motivation, cross-cultural awareness, and adaptability, the United States Peace Corps invited Ms. Rachel Frattarola to serve as a Sustainable Agricultural Systems Extension Agent in the Central American country of Panama.


Ms. Frattarola entered into an intensive 10-week pre-service training on April 26, 2011. Throughout training, Ms. Frattarola lived with a host family in Ollas Abajo, a small community located an hour west of the capital, Panama City, in order to assist with language and cultural understanding. During pre-service training and throughout her service, she successfully completed the following training and development:

  • 10 weeks total = 70 days = 560 hours
  • 110 hours of formal instruction in Spanish
  • 135 hours of technical training in tropical agriculture
  • 30 hours of diversity training related to the history, economics and culture of Panama
  • 40 hours of medical, safety and administrative issue training
  • 190 hours of program events (such as interviews, community placement analysis, and field trips)

On June 30, 2011 Ms. Frattarola completed training and was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was assigned to Barrigón, a small latino community of approximately 200 inhabitants in the province of Veraguas. Community members practice subsistence farming to support themselves.

Ms. Frattarola’s primary assignment included working in conjunction with the First Lady Office (Despacho de la Primera Dama), a Panamanian government agency, to teach local families how to make home gardens in order to increase family nutrition and create organic fertilizers. Furthermore, she worked to improve the agribusiness skills of producers in the area and follow up on aquaculture projects that were initiated by the previous Peace Corps Volunteer.  In June 2012, Ms. Frattarola was chosen to be the coordinator of the Agribusiness Initiative. In addition to her work in site, her new responsibilities as coordinator included traveling throughout Panama training local farmers, small business owners, and artisans in basic business skills during her second year of service.

Secondary projects in her community included teaching English as a second language, environmental awareness classes, Junior Achievement business classes in the local primary school, as well as adult education business classes in a neighboring indigenous community.  In addition, Ms. Frattarola coordinated an art camp for youth and developed a reading project.

Home Gardens

The First Lady Office, in conjunction with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, created a training and demonstration center in the primary school in Barrigón. Ms. Frattarola coordinated and co-facilitated with agency technicians to train 36 local farmers in home gardens to promote better nutrition through a varied diet. She facilitated five trainings about garden planning, organic fertilizers, inventories, and nutrition. Ms. Frattarola also gave three agribusiness trainings to 16 beneficiaries of the home garden project in Barrigón as well as Saumerio, a neighboring community. In addition to the work completed with the First Lady Office, Ms. Frattarola independently trained three local families in organic fertilizers, including compost and vermiculture.

Agribusiness Trainings

Ms. Frattarola worked with a women’s sewing group to work to improve business skills. Women were taught how to calculate the cost of production for the clothes they make as well as pricing strategies. Ms. Frattarola also worked one-on-one with the treasurer to implement an accounting system. In addition to this work, Ms. Frattarola helped a local baking group with strategic and operational planning and cost of production. Ms. Frattarola also consulted with a women’s group that manages a store in the neighboring community of San Cristóbal.

Secondary Activities/Projects

Teaching Business Classes: Ms. Frattarola taught business classes including Business Administration, Marketing and Advertising, and Ecotourism to 18 students at INEISA, an adult education high school in the indigenous community of Buenos Aires in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. In December 2012, these students graduated from INEISA with their high school diplomas.
Junior Achievement: Ms. Frattarola completed the Junior Achievement curriculum with kindergarteners, first, second, third, and six graders at the primary school in her community. Through the program, 63 children were introduced to the basics of business and economics.

Youth Art Camps: Ms. Frattarola organized and executed a two-day art camp for 21 youth in her site that involved trainings related to life skills coupled with art activities to allow children to express their creativity. She helped a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recreate the two-day art camp in the community of Cerro Pelado, Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.

Elige Tu Vida: Ms. Frattarola co-facilitated the youth seminar Elige Tu Vida in the community of Cerro Pelado, Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, which is aimed to help youth develop life skills and learn about sexual and reproductive health.

Reading Group: Ms. Frattarola founded a reading club in the community in which children could borrow books, giving children access to reading material.

Teaching in the primary school: Ms. Frattarola taught English as a second language classes to 36 students and environmental awareness classes to 32 students once a week in the primary school.

Agribusiness Coordinator

Agribusiness Seminars

Ms. Frattarola organized and co-facilitated four agribusiness seminars for 99 farmers in the provinces of Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, Darién, Bocas del Toro, and Veraguas using Peace Corps Partnership Program funds. She was responsible for coordinating with Volunteers who sent their counterparts to the seminar, budgeting, and obtaining seminar materials. The goal of these seminars was to provide farmers with a foundation of business knowledge that would allow them to successfully commercialize their products. 

Agribusiness Trainings

 Ms. Frattarola facilitated 8 agribusiness trainings with 102 local farmers in Volunteer communities across Panama. Topics covered included marketing, financial management, and planning. Ms. Frattarola also co-facilitated two agribusiness trainings solicited by MIDA, the Ministry of Agriculture in Panama, for beneficiaries of agricultural projects. These trainings focused on providing the farmers with knowledge in planning and financial management to ensure that the projects would remain profitable and sustainable. During these seminars, Panamanian government technicians were also trained in the Peace Corps’ agribusiness methodology. Ms. Frattarola also co-facilitated a training seminar for 24 MIDA technicians in the province of Colón who desired to utilize the Peace Corps’ agribusiness methodology.

Business Seminars

Ms. Frattarola co-facilitated 8 business seminars for 85 farmers, small business owners, and artisans in Volunteer communities. The seminars concentrated on teaching entrepreneurs the fundamentals of business. Topics included strategic and operational planning, marketing, pricing strategies, calculation of unit cost, and sales projection. The seminars doubled as a workshop so that at the end of the seminar, participants would have created a mission statement, goals, objectives, a marketing strategy, and would know their unit cost.

Short Term Activities

In April 2012, Ms Frattarola brought a community counterpart to a four-day Project Management and Leadership seminar.

In June 2012, Ms. Frattarola trained the new group of 20 Agricultural Peace Corps Trainees during their Pre-Service Training in agribusiness and traditional crops of Panama.

In August 2012, Ms. Frattarola participated in the Sustainable Agriculture Systems project plan evaluation with office staff, other Volunteers, and Panamanian agency counterparts.

In November 2012, Ms Frattarola participated in In-Service Training for the new group of Sustainable Agricultural Systems Volunteers to train them in agribusiness and talk about her experiences working with youth.

In February 2013, Ms. Frattarola sent two youth from her community to a four-day youth leadership seminar in San Felix, Chiriquí.


Based on Peace Corps’ Spanish Language Exam (ACTFL/ETS), Ms. Frattarola’s current level of Spanish proficiency is: Advanced.

Monday, April 29, 2013

COS Conference

Last month, my group had its COS (close of service) conference. I cannot believe that my two years of Peace Corps are already coming to an end. It seems not so long ago that I left my family to go Miami for Staging. Two years ago, everyone in my group was unknown to me. Now, I have what I hope will be lifelong friendships. My service would have been so much more difficult without friends to listen and relate since we are all facing similar problems. During COS conference, we discussed life after Peace Corps. Some people from my group are starting graduate school this fall. Others are looking for jobs, and about one-fourth have decided to extend their Peace Corps service for a third year. I, myself, will be heading to graduate school this fall to pursue a PhD in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concentrating on economic development. I am super excited!

During COS conference, one volunteer told us a story that I will try to retell accurately here that offered a great view on things. He was out with people in his community who were either branding or stunting the horn growth of cattle. The volunteer was helping wrestle the cattle to the ground so this could be done. He said he went to wrestle this one to the ground, but he did not get a good hold, and it knocked him to the ground instead. Hard. While he was lying there in pain on the ground in the mud and manure, he thought that he could either get up or stay there wallowing in self-pity. He decided to get up, and the people in his community, out of concern for his well-being, told him to step out of the paddock and rest. The volunteer told us that he was faced with the decision to call it a day or to try again and show that cow what’s what. He decided to do the latter and succeeded in wrestling the cow to the ground that time. Then, he told us that his story is applicable to our Peace Corps service. It is difficult. Projects fail; people don’t show up for our meetings or events. However, we have a choice. We can feel sorry for ourselves and wallow in self-pity or we can pick ourselves back up. Then, we have another choice. We can give up or we can try again. Sometimes it is hard to want to try again after being knocked down so many times, but it may just be that the next time is the time we succeed. 

Before leaving the country, there is a lot of administrative paperwork and whatnot to do. I will be leave my community on May 26, spend a week in Panama City, and fly home on May 31. Thinking that my leaving is only a month away is scary. I will be happy to be home but sad to leave Panama, which has been my home for two years. I will miss my mud house, the view from my porch, and the sound of rain on my metal roof. I will miss seeing so many stars in the sky, how bright it is when the moon is full, and the tranquility of campo life. I will even miss the chiva packed with 20+ people as much as I have hated it. However, most of all, I will miss the people. I will no longer be teaching classes of adorable children who are so excited to see me. I will no longer sit in silence for minutes at a time at someone’s house and have it be completely normal. I will no longer live next to Eufemia, Nino, and Andres, my very best friends in my community. Before coming to Panama, I wondered about friendships in my community since people only know part of you. Peace Corps wants us to integrate so much that at times it seems more like hiding part of who we are. I have found, though, that real friendships like those I have at home are indeed possible, and I have found people that I do not need to pretend around. Some people in my community have even made me feel like part of their families.

I have kept my computer hidden from everyone this whole time, but two weeks ago, I got Planet Earth in Spanish and invited the two families I am closest with to watch it with me. They secretly have been coming over every night to watch new episode as long as the computer battery lasts. It has been a really special experience to watch the show with them because they are being exposed to things they never knew existed--- different places, climates, and animals. It is also really fun for me because watching with them allows me to see everything through a different perspective. Andres told me that now when it gets dark he is really happy because it means he gets to watch another episode. 

I am realizing and have been for some time that while our work is important, our friendships and experiences with the people in our communities and other people we have here will be what matters most and what we take home with us.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Agribusiness Seminar in Puerto Indio, Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, Darién

I have finally visited Darién, the province notorious for its impenetrable jungles and drug runners. I was in the community of Puerto Indio to do an agribusiness seminar for producers in communities along the Sambú River. The community is very remote and is a little under 12 hours away from Panama City. You cannot get there in one day because the boats leave between 8am and 9:30am so I had to stay in a hotel in Metetí. The hotel my friend and I stayed in was said to be the nicest in the city, and if so, I do not want to know what the other ones are like. When we got into our room, the bathroom door was broken and would not open so we were forced to go down the hall and use the communal bathroom. Metetí also has water problems so we had to ask the front desk to turn on the water when we wanted to shower. On the bright side, though, there was a microwave so we ate popcorn and watched a movie!
A is Panama City and B is Puerto Indio

The next day, we woke up at 5am so we could catch the bus to Puerto Quimba, which is where the boats leave from. When the boat pulled up, the people who got off told us that el mar estaba bravo (the sea was rough), which did not make me super excited about the trip. Our boat left at 9am and was full of people. We were traveling down a river going pretty fast when all of the sudden the boat hit a log. We all were jerked forward, and this poor little girl who had been sitting on the floor bumped her head really hard and started crying. Luckily, there was no damage to the boat or motor so we were on our way once again. We made a stop in La Palma to refuel that took almost an hour. It was terrible. Then, we were on our way once more crossing the bay. The morning passengers had not lied; the water was super rough. I was constantly getting salt spray in my face, and my clothes were wet. I closed my eyes, hoping the driver knew how to get us through the big waves. I opened them just as we were passing Punta Alegre, which was a mistake. The waves were huge, and as we hit one very hard, salt water sprayed over the whole boat. Luckily, once we passed that area the worst was over. The rest of the trip was still fairy rough, but nothing compared to that one area. 
La Palma

Near Puerto Quimba

We followed the Pacific coast until we reached the mouth of the Sambú River and turned in there to follow the river up to the community. The banks of the river were lined with mangroves, and there were so many birds. I was later told that the area is very popular with birders, which really came as no surprise. I saw an osprey-like bird carry away a fish in his talons and frigatebirds circling around. After about an hour traveling up river and about 3.5 hours in the boat, we reached Sambú. Sambú is the sister city of Puerto Indio, and the two are almost undifferentiable from one another. You can hardly tell where Sambú ends and Puerto Indio begins. The difference, though, is that Puerto Indio is in the Comarca Emberá-Wounaan and only Emberá can live there while any one can live in Sambú. The community was very surprising because it was extremely developed (sidewalks, electricity, wifi) but also extremely remote. 

After arriving, we headed over to the volunteer’s house to put down our things. He lives in a raised house made of caña blanca with a thatched roof. To get up to his house, you have to climb a tree trunk that had been cut into a ladder. We went to one of the stores nearby to buy a paruma, skirts worn by Emberá women. 

On Tuesday, we started the agribusiness seminar. We had 18 people come the first day from at least four different communities. We taught them about group planning and farm planning. We did a lot of group work, and most groups concentrated on coffee. As I was reaching up to write something on the board, my paruma started to fall off. Luckily, I was wearing shorts underneath so it wasn’t as humiliating as it could have been. In the afternoon, we wandered around the area and found some guanabana popsicles made from fresh fruit. They were AMAZING!

On Wednesday, we completed the second day of the seminar, which focused on marketing. The other volunteers who came for the seminar helped co-facilitate a lot of the topics. It seemed like everyone’s favorite topic was cost of production. We finished a bit early and ate more guanabana duros! I also went to the house of Esmeralda, a woman in the community, to buy some artisan work. She makes beautiful plates woven from the fibers of a palm called chunga then colored with natural dyes. I also bought an owl mask.  In the afternoon, I got painted with jagua, which is made from a fruit by a woman named Idalidis. For dinner, we ate a plate of onion rings and a plate of fried yucca…very healthy.

Getting painted with jagua

On Thursday, we finished the seminar by presenting money management and legal. Twelve people completed the three days and received certificates at the end of the seminar. I tried to go to bed early, but for some reason I could not fall asleep. I had to wake up at 3:15am because the boat was supposed to leave at 4am. It ended up leaving at 4:30am, which I expected because nothing ever leaves on time here in Panama. Since it was still pitch black out, there was someone sitting on the bow of the boat using a flashlight to search out any logs that may have been in the river. After 4 hours in the boat, we arrived in Puerto Quimba and after another 7 hours on a bus, we arrived in Panama City. After getting to Panama City, I went to the grocery store to buy some food, and everyone was kind of staring at my jaguar. A few people asked me if it was permanent and others made other comments. It was really interesting about people’s reactions.
Teaching about balance sheets

Seminar participants with their certificates