Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Goodbye Panama

Twenty-six months ago I stepped off an airplane anxious and pensive. I knew I was in for an adventure but knew no details. I was up for it, but quietly asking myself if I made the right choice. A feeling most volunteers share. A feeling most humans share when we make a major change in our lives, and Peace Corps is certainly that.

A Panamanian noise maker.

Now, just days from stepping back onto a plane and closing this chapter of my life, I find myself, ironically, anxious and pensive. Anxious for what awaits me Stateside. Pensive of my service, what it meant to me, and what it meant to my community. A conversation I will likely be having with myself for the rest of my life.

Just hanging out.

To Laguna: thank you. You graciously opened your homes and your hearts to me. Over the last two years we have sweat together, laughed together, and even shed a tear or two together (at the innocent loss of life). We have taught each other much about a world we were previously unfamiliar with. However, I think it goes without saying that I will walk away from this having learned the most.

Trying to figure out what the gringo's doing with that thing in his hands.

You taught me patience. Time, in your culture, is little more than a suggestion. It infuriated me at first, but I've come to understand what it means to you. Never do I expect a finger to be lifted until we've all shared proper greetings, updates on each others families, and a weak cup of coffee.

Mixing concrete for a latrine base.

Once it was time to work, however, you taught me what it meant to sweat. To really, really sweat. Your body-weight to cargo-load ratio is amazing. And the speed at which you get it to it's destination, incredible. One volunteer has termed it "gross domestic toughness." Whatever you call it, you have forever humbled me.


You showed me what it's like to grow up without an education and to have little exposure to the outside world. Milisciado, you often showed up at my house to discuss your view on life, on local events, or whatever happened to fill your mind for the day. I will never forget our conversations. One particular day you told me how you think the frogs fall from the sky, like rain. How else would so many of them end up at the same time and place, year after year? My efforts to explain things were fruitless. I was far more sane in your eyes to simply agree and progress the discussion. Yes, it is incredible! Especially how they only fall at night so we can't see them.
Children in my village.

The strongest lesson I will walk away with is not doubt the simplest (and somehow a reoccurring one in my life): work hard. Always. No matter what the conditions are. I found that the people I was most eager to help were those who are motivated to improve their lives, who don't just hold out a hand and say, "what are you going to do for me." Those who make the most of what they have inspire those around them. In the case of my community they inspired me to go far out of my way to help them when they likely needed it less than others in the community. If only I knew how to teach motivation. Possibly that's the real key to success.

My community.

Growing up, when I would complain about something not being fair, my father would tell me, "If life were fair you would be living in a hut in India." Well, I haven't been to India, but I know some people who live in huts. The fact that many of them are motivated to make the most of what they are given, many of them happier than people I know in the States, inspires me. Winston Churchill is commonly quoted as saying "Never, never, never give up." In fact, what he said was "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense." We may not be able to choose our destinies, but I do think we can shape them with hard work.

Who knew a bottle could be so much fun.

These two years have left me surprised at how slowly things are accomplished through development work. Culture is so heavily ingrained in our lives. Combine it with a lack of education and it can take generations to implement change. Not that I don't think it's worth it. I do. Patience and dedication is what it takes.

My village.

Looking back on the last two years, I believe I will walk away having learned more than I was able to contribute. I'm not sure I would have expected that when I started. I'm not sure I thought about it. I am starting to think that this is the most valuable aspect of Peace Corps. Not what we leave behind, but how our service will shape our lives and decisions when we return home. I wonder if more is done for the impoverished through our choices (financial support, economic values, policy decisions, etc.) and those with whom we share our experiences (family, friends, coworkers, etc.) than from the buildings, or the crops, or the education we are able to leave behind.
A girl in my village.

Another outcome of my Peace Corps service that I hadn't anticipated is my community's perspective of America. When I showed up and said I was from Los Estados Unidos most people mentioned a war they had heard of on the radio, or "the country where our money comes from." One man used the verb "harvest" with respect to printing money. (Note: The U.S. had a presence in Panama at the time of independence from Columbia in the early 1900s. Consequently, Panama immediately started using the U.S. dollar and has never had their own currency.) Now, if you were to ask them what Los Estados Unidos means to them I think you would hear stories of the "tall man" that lived with them. In fact, I bet they would ask you if you know him. It pleases me to see opinions of America based on relationships and not news.

My village.

Still, I'm sure many of you (and even I, myself) wonder if it's really worth the time and money. It is no doubt an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. But, I am not the only one who made a sacrifice over the last two years. If you pay taxes you contributed to my experience. Just how much? This year's Peace Corps budget is $331 million, funding the structure that supports approximately 9080 volunteers in 74 countries. That means each volunteer costs roughly $73,000 over the two-year period. I will let you, the reader, decide if you think it's worth it. I know that I wrote much more about my life on this blog than about the work I did. However, I think there is enough here for you all to decide.

The view from my village.

Whatever you decide, I want to thank you for giving Peace Corps and me a chance to help the world. Thank you all for reading and sharing your thoughts with me. Dozens of you - some I've known for years, some I've never met - have emailed me to tell me you're inspired, intrigued, or just fascinated by the stories. I have to say that your support has been priceless. This is an experience I will never forget. Thank you for sharing it with me.



The sunset from Laguna.

Panama rain.

A three day walk to the Atlantic.

Still walking.

Still walking.

Made it.

An Embera tribe near Panama City.

Playing the flute.

All together now. (One guy is playing a turtle shell.)

Traditional dress.

Ink tattoos.

We found a snake!

Male traditional dress.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Top Ten Things I've Learned in Panama

There have been several occasions during the past two years when I have been struck by the drastic difference between life here and what we are accustomed to in the States. The following is my attempt at capturing some of those differences with photos. In no particular order:

The Top 10 Things I've Learned in Panama

1. Coffee, for a baby, is an appropriate substitute for milk.

My host dad and his daughter. Yes, that is coffee in her bottle.

2. Power lines, for ease of maintenance, should be strung at waist height. It is not important if pedestrians can walk into them.

Panama City. This power line has been strung at that height for the last six months.

3. Kool-Aid doubles as lipstick.

These two girls in my community rub the inside of the Kool-Aid packages on their lips to change the color of their lips.

4. Just because you don't have electricity doesn't mean you can't iron.

Just use a fire with a peice of metal between the flame and iron to heat it up.

5. Filing your teeth makes it easier to remove corn from the cob.

They use the same metal files for sharpening their machetes to file their teeth to points.

6. Out of sugar for your coffee? No sweat, just use the juice from sugar cane, instead of water, to make your coffee.

A boy in my community sucking on a freshly peeled stock of sugar cane.

The tool, carved from wood, that they use to squeeze the juice from the sugar cane.

7. Once you're old enough to walk, you're old enough to use a machete.

That machete is longer than he is tall.

Machetes in action.

8. If you don't have a crib, just tie your child to the bed.

9. Cows, the crazy animals they are, need to be muzzled at times and what better to do it with than a hand-knit bag.

10. Stuff a dead animal and wear it on your back for good luck.

A few times over my service I was with an indigenous family in the fields when we came upon a praying mantis. The natives put the insect in their hair and let it roam around on their head. They say that the praying mantis will clean the insects and lice out of your hair. Unfortunately, I never had my camera with me when I witnessed this, or else it would be on this list as well.

Just six weeks left in my service. I will post one more entry in October, as I am on my way out of the country.



Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The End is Near

It’s been almost two years. Two years since I've set foot on American soil. Two years since I said goodbye to friends and loved ones. Two years since I’ve indulged in a plate of sushi or savored the taste of a microbrew. As I begin to prepare for life after Peace Corps I spend a lot of time reflecting on the last two years and trying to anticipate what it will be like to be dropped back into American culture.
San Juan del Sur, a surf beach in Nicaragua.
The thought of leaving is bittersweet. Everyday now someone mentions that I don’t have much time left. They ask when I’ll be back. I don’t know. Maybe in a year, maybe in twenty. “But Choi, if you wait twenty years to come back, we may not recognize you.” All I can do is chuckle. “Something tells me you’ll be able to pick me out from all the other 6’5” white guys that roll in here speaking Ngäbere. We all laugh. (Note: The name of the tribe, Ngäbe, is pronounced know-bay. The name of their language, Ngäbere is pronounced know-bear-ay.)
It's worth two pics in my opinion.
They ask why I don’t stay. I instantly feel guilty for having the opportunity to move on to something else. Realistically, it’s an opportunity these people don’t have and probably never will. I talk about seeing family and friends again, something I feel as though they can relate to. I would like to be able to talk to them about career aspirations and hopes for more education, but it would just confuse them. I feel as though no amount of explanation can help them understand a culture and lifestyle so removed from their own. It just makes me crazy, in their eyes, when I try. They would have to experience it to believe it.
Concepcion, a volcano on Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.
“Will you work?” They ask. “How much will you make?” I cringe at questions that make me hesitant to reveal the truth about where I come from. I try to get away with a simple “I don’t know,” but they won’t have that. I think about how to respond. From experience I know that the quantity of 1000 or more doesn’t make sense to them. (Large numbers, like the number of trees in the valley, are expressed simply as “a lot”.) “Maybe two to three hundred dollars a day.” There is lots of swearing. Confusion. One man says to another, “He must mean per month.” “Choi, you mean per month, right?” I debate about having the discussion with them about how people in the states make more money, but things there cost more. I’ve done that enough to know that it doesn’t work. “No, per day.” There is more swearing. Several men ask me to take one of their children with me. I tell them to come visit.
The volcano, up close and personal.
As hard as it will be to say goodbye to my family and friends here, to put on my backpack and walk out of the valley not knowing if or when I will return, I am anxious for what lays ahead. I constantly hear about volunteers I entered Panama with who are applying to stay a third year. Honestly, I wonder how many of them are staying for the work and how many just aren’t ready to give up the relaxed, slow pace of life. Either way, I commend them for their service. I will miss it. I know I will. But I’m ready for a change. I’m ready to work with others who I can relate to culturally. I’m ready to be mentally challenged. I’m ready for a high-paced, active life in a big city.
Not sure if we want to eat him or if he wants to eat us.
In an email a few months ago from the states, someone wrote that I must feel like I’ve changed a lot. I can’t say that I do, or at least that I would word it that way. I feel as though I have grown up a bit. My views of the world and how people think and live are different from two years ago. I feel like I have tasted poverty and hunger, and have been enlightened by the importance of relationships and how simple life can be, if you let it. However, I think I am the same goofy, fun-loving, motivated kid I was when I left. I hope that part of me never changes.
In his book Adrift, Steven Callahan writes,

“I know that to be well fed, painless, and in the company of friends and loved ones are privileges too few enjoy in this often brutal world.”

With that I could not agree more.
Howler monkeys.
If I may, I would like to segue for a minute to tell a story. In my travels safety is something I take seriously, but have had few problems with. There have been a few stolen items, but the responsibility was always mine. I forgot about things, only to return to find them missing. There was a night in Bogotá, Columbia, which made me uneasy. A large group of us (travelers) were walking back to the hostel from a bar early in the morning. The streets were empty. A motorcycle with two cops flashing machine guns stopped us. “What are you doing? You guys are going to get robbed.” We all looked around at the size of our group, at least 12 people. One girl chimed in, “You can see our hostel right down the street.” The cops didn’t seem to think it mattered so they escorted us back, appearing more concerned than we were. We thanked them for their help, but all talked about how unnecessary it seemed. A more recent close call on a trip with two buddies left me a bit more shook up.

Boys play in a park in Granada, Nicaragua.

My journal reads…

It’s our last night in Nicaragua. We’re in a surf town, at a popular local bar with dozens of backpackers. It’s getting late and the bar is closing. A group of 8 to 10 of us walk out the door and start back to the hostel five blocks away.

A man from my community with a tiger skin.

I’ve met a girl, a fellow traveler, and about halfway to the hostel we peel off the back of the group to be alone. We’re standing on the boardwalk, leaning over the railing, listening to the Pacific waves crash into the sand. A street runs parallel to the walk, with another street running off perpendicularly behind us. A streetlight floods the intersection with bright yellow light, which fades away at our heels. There are a few people farther up the beach but for the most part we’re alone.

This one is a jaguar, he says.

A few minutes pass. We’ve lost track of our surroundings. Then it happens: there is a knife in my ribs.

I turn quickly to face a Nicaraguan man who waves a knife easily seven inches long.

“Monis!” He yells, letting us know in English that he wants our cash.

The top of Panama.

My heart skips a beat. The girl, I think, I’m responsible for the girl. My right hand goes up, palm out, as if he were pointing a gun at me. My left hand grabs the girl, guiding her behind me and hopefully out of danger of the knife.

“Monis!” He yells, this time more forcefully as he waves the knife in the air.

Move slowly. Move into the light. People might be able to see. We step slowly in an arc around knife-guy off the curb, into the light of the street.

It comes again, “Monis!”

The pond, in my community, dried up for the summer.

I think about what I’ve got on me. A digital camera in my front left pocket. About $40 in mixed Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, and American currencies in my front right pocket. About $200 U.S. and credit cards in my back right pocket. My passport, worth about $3K on the black market, in my back left pocket. I can feel the girl’s body pressed against my back, her purse wedged between us.

“MONIS!” He yells, getting frustrated. Another Nicaraguan man comes walking down the street. Knife-guy calls to him to help, but he walks by as if the three of us weren’t even there.

A grass hut under construction.

I debate about giving him the money in my front pocket to see if he’ll go away. But something strikes me as odd about his behavior. His eyes dart back and forth. He keeps a foot or two between me and the knife. I think he’s nervous. I think he’s scared.

“MONIS!” He keeps waving the knife.

The finished product, with a few years of wear.

He’s scared. Don't make eye contact. Don’t push your luck but don’t give in easily. Move back. I take a few slow steps back, pushing the girl with me. Knife-guy gives up, turns and runs. We breathe a sigh of relief and book it back to the hostel, checking over our shoulders every few steps.

Back at the hostel we sit on a bench. Everyone wants to know what happened. She fills them in. I sit and steam. My heart pounds. The adrenalin races. I’m angry. I’m scared. I shake. I want to fight.

I get up to go to bed. She gives me a kiss. She says thanks. I lay on my bunk and stare into darkness. I can’t sleep. All I can do is play out 1000 what-ifs in my head. I blame the rum. I blame Scandinavia for producing beautiful women. I blame the difference in economies. I blame the difference in education. I blame the difference in upbringing. I blame myself. It’s my fault. I stopped thinking about my surroundings, late at night, after drinking, in a poor, unstable country. I blame no one but myself.

Pretty pic.

We were lucky. We walked away without a scratch and with all of our stuff. I can only hope that the experience helps me avoid future run-ins with trouble. Either way, my travel lust is undamaged, at least for now.

Thanks for reading.