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|
|Teaching Junior Achievement to kindergarteners|
|Peace Corps Panama!|