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¡Bienvenidos! My name is Gianna, and my blog is here as a living journal of my experiences in Panamá. I hope it can also serve as a resource for anyone interested in Peace Corps life. ¡Gracias por leer!

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The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

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Saludos de septiembre

Month Five

My host family visited and brought me dinner last night to welcome me to my new home ❤️ my heart is overflowing!

After I returned from In-Service Training, a lot of things began to fall into place. My English teacher counterpart Elizabeth started requesting me for more help with her 5th grade classes; the gabinete (counseling department) met with me to collaborate on ideas for social work, summer school, and youth empowerment programs; my English teacher counterpart Zaida and I met to discuss how I can better support the teens in English and leadership projects; my first real project, a beginner’s English conversation course for the teachers and administration at my school, took off; and I moved into my own house, which is something I’ve been anxious to do for about three months.

Now it’s practically October 🎃🍂☕

But in Panamá, autumn doesn’t happen. Rain is picking up, but no distinct changes in climate or weather have established a new season as this time of year does at home.

However, September was still full of changes for me. It felt like a new beginning, the way it feels when the leaves start to change colors and the college students return to campus in Hanover. This blog is dedicated to these turning points and surprises.

Peace Corps Cribs

La casa anaranjada arriba la loma🧡
No closet? No curtains? Este es la solución

Moving out was honestly a kind of bittersweet experience. Even though I’ve been craving my own space, somewhere where I won’t have to worry about running into a host brother-in-law on my towel-clad trek to the latrine or stressing out my host mom with my inconsistent eating habits, I knew deep in my heart how much I would miss my host family and the warmth I received from them every day.

One Saturday earlier this month, I found the only muchacho in town who owns a truck, Javier (also a bus driver for Chiguirí Arriba), and paid him to take me to Penonomé and help me transport a sofa-bed, mini-fridge, and stove back to our home in the mountains. Once I had these things in place, I met my new next-door-neighbor Eliecer who helped me rig up some borrowed electricity from his home since my home itself has none installed. My campesino landlord Señor Gumercino (who is a farmer in a community lejito de aca called Palmilla) tells me that an electrician is coming soon. He also said we’d meet to discuss the rent weeks ago… Vamos a ver.

What also welcomed me to the house was a turantula on the wall and a bat in the latrine. After sharing this with my cohort peeps, they decided that it was time for me to move out. Luckily, Eliecer was there to save the day and banish the critters from my home. Eliecer has been helpful and supportive in many other ways so far, such as watching over some belongings I once left outside overnight to make sure no street hustlers climbed my fence to nab them. He’s just one example of how Chiguirí Arrib-ians, and Panamánians in general, are always looking out for their gente, even when it’s Gina la gringa.

Moving my small belongings, like my books and clothes, was also a group effort. A group of boys and from the high school, Ángel, Kevin, and Noel offered a hand after seeing me walk down the unpaved road towards the center of town carrying all my bags. Once we’d dropped everything off, Kevin said to me “welcome to the house!” in perfect English. Wao! It was another example of how caring and sincere the people of this community are, right down to the jóvenes.

Of course, I still had some small things left in the house on my last evening with my host family. I asked for my host sister Carmen and host sobrinos Yariela and Ariel Antonio for help. However, as we set off with arms full, we heard a shrill, shrieking cry coming from the house. Natalie, my three-year-old host niece, was upset that I was leaving and wanted to help carry things with the big kids. After much hassle, I handed Natalie one of my empty water jugs and we set off once again with one additional member of the moving team.

We walked down the hill towards town as Natalie’s little stubby legs kept enthusiastically with our pace. On the way, Carmen and I talked about how things were going in school, considering I’d recently started assisting Teacher Zaida with the 11th (Carmen’s grade) and 12th graders’ English classes. Carmen said that she would like to have more of a presence from me in her classes, mentioning that when other outside programs come to assist the high schoolers they’re more often shaming than supportive. I remembered back to my first day at the school when the principal told me not to work with the high school because the students were lazy and unmotivated.

This sentiment has been echoed time and time again by teachers and older members of the community and it’s become one of my biggest pet peeves. Because, truly, there are some amazingly talented, inspired students here in the high school. However, because the community itself is more conservative and tranquilo, the students show their intelligence in creative, introverted ways rather than raising their hands and speaking out their thoughts. I told Carmen that together we could work on ideas for projects, whether they be English-related or phys ed or arts or workshops or whatever, and do more to support and celebrate the jóvenes how they deserve.

After everything was set inside the house, I hugged Carmen and my host sobrinos goodbye, telling them to please join me for baking cookies and watching soccer games in Villa Tavidal Arriba whenever they’d like. The next day or so, I cleaned, organized, and decorated my little house on the hill. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m loving every minute of fixing up my home.

Cuando la hamaca está en lugar, la casa es un hogar
Looking forward to more soccer games in Villa Tavida Arriba ⚽

Profe English Class at Pablo Alzamora Vargas

In the midst of moving, the first solo project I’ve started in my community is an afternoon English class for the teachers and administration at my school. We meet once a week and cover basic conversation topics through dinámicas and group work. So far, we’ve covered greetings/farewells, numbers, the verb “to be,” professions, and emotions. From what I’ve observed, the teachers are enjoying the class which not only allows them to practice English but also take a break from teaching themselves. I equally have been enjoying my time with this group and getting to know the Pablo Alzamora Vargas faculty a little better.

Lesson 2: “to be” & emotions✨
Good job teachers! 👏

Readers Theater in Aguadulce

Over twenty primary schools around Coclé competed in the third annual Readers Theater competition taking place at PCV Bridget’s school in Aguadulce

The first Friday back after IST was the provincial Readers Theater competition in Aguadulce. My Bremen Town Musicians from Escuela Membrillo competed against nineteen other schools. It was fun to watch all these schools perform their scripts on stage and show off their English skills. It was equally entertaining to witness all of the TELLS PCVs silently recite their schools’ script along with the students during their moment on stage, seeming like proud teachers or parents. I hope to return to Escuela Membrillo and work with students and teachers there on other projects.

I was so proud of these kids and their excellent English skills! 🐎🐈🐕🐓

Tu Vida in Nata

PCV Zulema, a volunteer who’s been in Panamá for over a year now, asked for help with her youth empowerment workshop Tu Vida in her community Nata. Nata is a big town, similar to Chanel’s community of Anton, and Zulema works in the primary school there. She decided to offer Tu Vida, a workshop covering themes such as bullying, consent, and self-esteem, to her outgoing sixth grade students before they transitioned into the secondary school. Along with PCV Matt, I helped Zulema facilitate the workshop’s themes and objectives through different activities. I particularly liked guiding the “self-esteem tree” in which every student writes down things that like about themselves to create a representation of everyone’s skills, values, and interests.

Celebration of the foundation of Chiguirí Arriba

Last week marked the founding of my community Chiguirí Arriba. The school celebrated with the typical activities: a reinado (or coronation), traditional dance performances, and lots of food.

The day of the celebration I had a meeting with the junta comunal, the local government representatives for the corregimiento. So, I didn’t have much time to attend the festivities but managed to peep in on some of the dance performances of the folclore club.

And now…

La vida de chiva con Joanna 💁🏼‍♀️💁🏿‍♀️

I have a lot more to look forward to! Youth workshops, university programs, Ultimate Frisbee training, and more all are written down in my agenda. I’m busier than ever and happy to be so.

On the first night spent in my new home, I was brushing my teeth, looking around at my disorganized belongings and rigged up electric outlets when suddenly I started crying. The full weight of my Peace Corps experience hit me in that moment. I realized that never before in my life had I felt this independent. I’ve never held this much creative power over my personal and professional life. I’ve never been exposed to so many enchanting perspectives, both in my Peace Corps and Panamánian communities. And I’ve never felt love for an experience like I have for Peace Corps Panamá and the town of Chiguirí Arriba.

October’s motto: all smiles, no slumps 🤗💜
Nunca cansada de estas vistas 💚
Todos dicen “Chiguiríííí” 😁❤️

Keep it spooky in the states for me, yall! 🎃👻🦇🕸😱

Volcánda forever

In-Service Training

It’s been about a week since my cohort and I left Volcán, the town that hosted us for our second week of In-Service Training. Chilly and lively, Volcán is home to PCV Lesley who graciously welcomed us into her beautiful site in the province of Chiriquí. She arranged for us to stay with some of the teachers at her school, and we paired up into families with each other for the week. My friend Morgan was my roommate for the week, and we stayed with the sweet and accommodating Directora Ana and her nephew Jorge. Ana has no children of her own but raised Jorge for all his seventeen years. Jorge was also very sweet as well as excited to have some gringas staying in his home. Morgan and I especially appreciated Jorge’s determination to find English subtitles for his dubbed copy of Black Panther as well as his random desire to have a vaquero-themed photoshoot on our last night in Volcán.

Directora Ana on the other hand was a little anxious to have gringas in her house only for fear that we would be uncomfortable or not like her food. I did my best to dismiss these fears for her by letting her know how luxurious her home was and how well she cooked. Throughout the week, Ana made sure Morgan and I were prepared for all of our activities and travels. On the morning we left to return back to our sites, I casually mentioned that my eye had been bothering me due to an allergic reaction. Alarmed, Ana told me that I must use some natural medicine. She ran outside and returned with two sage leaves. “Put them inside your bra,” she directed me, both through vocal directions and gestures, “You will inhale the sage and it will help heal your eye.” Not seeing any reason to dismiss this suggestion, I did as she told. I couldn’t help but laugh once I was changing back at home and saw two shriveled leaves fall from my shirt. My eye did feel better though! Who knows…

Though the two of us worked hard every day and returned home exhausted every night of training, Morgan and I came to appreciate the warmth and entertainment our host family extended to us during our stay.

La familia Murgas
Chomba, one of the family’s three horses greeting us and looking for breakfast 🐴

During training, I had the opportunity to reunite and work with some of my favorite people: the volunteers of my cohort, G84 TELLS. I was surprised at how happy I felt to be back in training-mode, surrounded and inspired by my friends. We shared stories, both positive and negative, from our past four months in-site, as well as enjoyed the break away from our community responsibilities. 

I also was refreshed and reenergized by the support from our sector team, Krystie, Hu, and Johanna. It was great to finally meet Johanna, our sector manager, in person. She, along with Krystie and Hu, had been helping me navigate conversations and steps forward with my landlord’s family for the previous month. Thanks to her help, I should be moving into my own place by the end of September!

Under the sector team’s guidance as well as help from some well-seasoned TELLS volunteers from older cohorts, my fellow G84ers (also referred to as the Honey Monsters…listen, it’s a convoluted, cornflake thing) and I received and facilitated a variety of Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills workshops including the following:

Mentoring sessions

Johanna invited a group of university students from David to participate in a mentoring session facilitated by us PCVs. However, very few students actually showed up, so we ended up mostly just pairing off into PCV partners for the activity. Despite the low attendance, I found this session very useful in establishing relationships, sharing interests, and sharing professional goals and dreams in a formal mentoring setting. With the support of the secondary English teachers and school counseling department, I plan to adapt this session into a workshop for the senior high school students at Pablo Alzamora Vargas.

Tu Vida day camp

Tu Vida is a Peace Corps-designed day camp for 4th-6th graders. The two-day camp offers sessions on healthy decisions, bullying, breaking stereotypes, and values. I’m excited to have the opportunity to assist PCV Zulema with her own Tu Vida in a couple of weeks.

Over the two Tu Vida mornings, I facilitated these themes alongside Kaylee and Hanna. Again, for this activity, we had very low attendance. We expected 10-15 participants per group but ended up with around 5 kids each. This was understandable considering all public schools in Panama were on vacation between trimesters and most students spent this time with their families. However, Hanna, Kaylee, and I cherished our participants who we came to realize were creative, thoughtful, and brave individuals. We were proud of ourselves for teaching such complex themes, especially racial/gender stereotypes, to these young participants. And we loved watching them get crafty for the last activity: designing a group flag for the Tu Vida closing ceremony.

Elige Tu Vida introduction

Under the guidance of PCV David, PCRV (Peace Corps Response Volunteer) Eliana, and Eliana’s counterpart Particia, our cohort split off into small groups to practice sessions from the Peace Corps workshop Elige Tu Vida. Like Tu Vida, ETV focuses on goals, decisions, and values. However, it is designed for teenagers and also includes a 2-hour session covering sexual and reproductive health. I partnered with Patricia to reenact a short skit about two teens asking their older siblings questions about sex. I played the part of the hermanita while Patrica played my hermana mayor. Other volunteers filled in the roles and facilitated a condom demonstration during the skit. As a result, the skit demonstrates the kinds of questions, preoccupations, and misconceptions young teens have about sex and what they need to know to be safe and comfortable in making decisions regarding sex. In addition to the skit, other groups facilitated sessions on STDs and sex myths as these topics have been covered in ETV. This activity helped me feel more prepared to assist with ETVs and sexual health charlas.

Thanks Hermana Patricia for helping me feel prepared to make (or not make) healthy sexual choices!

LDGE/Teacher training at UNACHI

One of my favorite parts of training was the time we spent at the UNACHI university in David, the provincial capital of Chiriquí. Before training, we all had a choice to facilitate a teaching methodology workshop or a leadership workshop during our time at UNACHI. Along with five of my compañeros, I participated in the leadership workshop LDGE (Leadership Development for Global Education). Over the course of two days, our LDGE facilitators and participants covered topics such as leadership styles, values, goals, what challenges us to do the right thing, and societal expectations for the next educated generation. I felt totally in my element while sharing stories about my own challenges and successes and encouraging the participants to do the same. The UNACHI students that participated in the teaching methodologies and LDGE workshops thanked us PCVs during a closing ceremony, involving song and dance performances. It was a great way to close off training and re-energize our minds for projects back at site.

Towards the end of training, we also had the opportunity to present a little bit about our communities to our fellow volunteers and bosses. These presentations reflected the diversity of Panamá; Danielle talked about her experiences working in a small indigenous reservation community without cell signal or electricity. Kasey shared some stories about working in a university setting in Santiago, one of the most up-and-coming cities in Panama with a population of over 40,000. And I spoke about Chiguirí Arriba, explaining that while it appears to be a quiet mountain community it is also building an industry in eco and agro-tourism.

I realized while listening to these stories and reflecting on my own that Panamá is really our home now. Before this week, I felt unsure about whether not I really belonged in Panama. Now I am confident that, while it’s still under construction, I have a place here. I have a home. I have projects and people who want to see me succeed. I never felt that I would see anywhere else but Hanover, Indiana as my home. But after leaving Volcán and returning to Chiguirí Arriba, my heart rested knowing I was back in my own mountains.

And, while it’s great to be back home, training made me realize how much more of Panamá, as well as the Peace Corps experience, I have yet to explore. I thank Peace Corps for giving me this journey, pushing me to carve my own path and build a life of my own in my community. And I thank IST in Volcán for providing the fresh air and company I needed to realize these things.

Host family despedida
Volcánda forever 👐

Hasta agosto

Month Four

Peace Corps life brings pain, but it teaches joy 💕

This time around, I’m writing to celebrate some pretty big milestones while also acknowledging the many miles I must go. This month, I celebrated not only my 24th birthday but also my sixth month in Panamá. It’s crazy to think that half a year ago, I got on a plane to embrace a new, unknown journey and leave my old, comfortable life behind.

During this time, I’ve learned a ton of Spanish (I am certainly not fluent, but I can confidently call myself “bilingual” now), navigated cultural and geographical challenges, and refined my Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills training on several different platforms. I understand that there is plenty more to learn, prepare, and accomplish, but at least I’ve built up the endurance to keep going.

Without a cleverer segue, here are…

Five experiences from this month:

Acquiring a taste for Panamanian dishes

While I’m still living with my host family, I’ve taken an interest in how they prepare traditional Panamanian food. My host mom is the head chef of the fam, but on special occasions, everyone (including my host dad, four of my six host sisters, and three of my host brothers-in-law) chips in with the preparation of tamales, arroz con pollo (think chicken-fried rice), ensalada ferria (think potato salad with beets), nance (I cannot even explain this one right now, it needs its own little summary, but my PCV friends know what’s up), sancocho (think chicken soup, but with boiled plantano and yuca) and bollo (think tamales without anything in them – or, like, raw cornbread?).

Over time, I’ve grown appreciative not only for the process of making such dishes (usually they involve cooking with big ceramic pots over the fire or grinding corn with a mechanical, hand-held appliance) but also the taste. I never thought I’d get used to the corn-and-rice heavy Panamanian diet, but what can I say, it’s grown on me. I especially enjoy bollo, which my host mom flavors with salt, cinnamon, and coconut. It’s actually pretty yummy as a breakfast! And I prefer it to hot dogs and fried corn patties, which are very common eats in my household.

I am eager to return to a plant-based diet. Not being able to sustain a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle for six months has also been…grueling. Yeah folks, just because I am in a tropical area with bananas, avocados, coconuts, mangos, and oranges as far as the eye can see, it does NOT mean I’m living in some yeye Whole Foods! Oftentimes, it feels more like living in the processed meat section of Dollar General, as my PCV friend artfully put it. But, I’m trying to enjoy the homecooked food while I can, even when it’s chicken feet or Spam. My host mom Denia does her best with what foods she can obtain in the community tiendita and often ends up transforming the most unappealing dish a surprising culinary delight. It’s one of her many domestic talents that does not go unappreciated or overlooked by me!

Additionally, it’s become a pastime for me to visit abuelas around the community and enjoy some homemade treats while listening to stories about their kids and grandkids who live far away. Check out this yummy mamallena (think bread pudding) prepared by Tía Paula! I had to walk 30 minutes to a whole ‘nother community to visit her, but the conversation and brindis were worth the hike.

Tía Paula is as sweet as her homemade mamallena

Using games to teach vocabulary

Something I doubt about myself often is my ability to teach. I do not have a teaching degree, and I respect educators so much and do not ever see myself matching their level of expertise without one. So, rather than leading lessons, I have been testing out educational games and dinámicas (icebreakers) during classes. Between college peer advising and PST, I am confident in my ability to get any audience to dejar la pena.

I use silly songs, competitive games, and group work to compliment my counterparts’ lesson plans and vocab themes (ex: parts of the body, healthy habits, colors, parts of the house). Sometimes, I practice these activities at home with my host sobrinos before trying them out in classes. It’s been a lot of fun, and I love seeing mis amigitos queridos smile and laugh while learning. At times I think teaching the colors and parts of the body through games isn’t a big deal, and that I’m not really helping much. But it’s a start!

A visit to Anton

Most of my cohort friends have had the ability to move into their own homes. This is awesome for many reasons – more space, independence, and chances to cook whatever food their American stomachs desire. A week or so after she moved in, Chanel invited Madee and me to stay the night with her in her community of Anton. Anton is an “urban” site and has lots going on – parks, clothing stores, bakeries, markets, cafes, churches, bars, and even a pizza place operated by an Italian immigrant chef!

It was refreshing to visit another town and also to hang out with my friends at one of their homes. We baked cookies, watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, and stayed up past 10 pm. It was one of the first weekends that felt “normal” to me; back in the states, this is how I would spend a free weekend. Now that I’ve had a couple fun visits with friends in their permanent communities, I’m looking forward to the day when I can host them in mine and we can enjoy Chiguirí Arriba together.

ASP: Day of Dreams & Final Class

As mentioned in my June post, I’ve been spending Friday afternoons working with an afterschool English program for high schoolers in Penonomé, the provincial city capital of Coclé. Usually Myra runs class as she is the leader of the program this year. However, I helped take over the last couple of classes as Myra was unable to attend. For the second to last Friday, Chanel and I developed a lesson plan taking elements from the Peace Corps life-skill program Elige Tu Vida and the widely used SMART Goal business strategy model.

During the class, we split the teens into smaller groups to talk about their goals and dreams. One student named Aiden mentioned that he wanted to become a cardiovascular surgeon in the future. I called him “Dr. Aiden” and compared him to Dr. Yang from Grey’s Anatomy. He recognized the reference and we bonded over being Grey’s fans. This was just one example of how I’ve connected with the ASP kids over pop culture, planning for the future, and learning a different language. Chanel and I closed the class with some board games designed to promote conversation skills. These got the students joking and sharing interests – all in English!

Once the day was done, Chanel and I felt proud of ourselves and how we successfully facilitated a session that was relevant to both TE (Teaching English) and LLS (Leadership & Life Skills).

The following Friday, Chanel, Adam, and I returned to ASP for the final day of class. It was more of a fiesta than a normal class – we had snacks, played games, and shared stories with the students. The supervisor Profe Nelson also encouraged the students to extend words of appreciation to us Peace Corps peeps. Several students stood up to formally thank us, in English. A lot of them mentioned that they looked forward to these Fridays, knowing the PCVs would bring positive energy and fun to an otherwise challenging afterschool class. One girl mentioned that she had dreams to become a teacher and was inspired by our efforts. She praised us for leaving our homes and families to take on our challenging roles. It was humbling to be recognized.

We received mugs and chocolates as a thank you from ASP ¡Que chevere!

Another boy asked what did we really think of them (the students)? Of course, I had to tell them that I loved them all. I truly appreciate these students, not only for the energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence but also for their willingness to work towards their futures at such young ages. I told them that being around them reminded me of my own high school days. I said that I loved seeing them all have fun together like I used to with my friends when we were their ages (around 7 or 8 years ago…oof). The day ended with group photos and selfies for social media. After taking a picture with him, Aiden told me he wishes that I will think of him whenever I watch our favorite doctor show. “I will see you on Grey’s Season 17, Dr. Aiden,” I said.

Peace Corps ❤️s ASP!

Panic! At the parade & a dark (literally) dance competition

All throughout the country, schools and communities celebrated the 500th anniversary of Old Panamá. Panamá Vieja, the colonial part of Panamá City, is considered the birthplace of the country which would eventually branch into ten provinces and five comarcas (indigenous reservations). As typical of cultural celebrations, my school celebrated the anniversary by hosting a parade one day and a dance competition between provincial schools on the following day. Think Panama has had enough fiestas yet? Apparently, November and December are so full of holidays that kids just stop showing up at school! Vamos a ver…

On the day of the parade, I was asked by my host sister Itza to ride in the “float” (decorated truck) with my youngest host sister Carmen. Because Carmen brought in the most smashed cans during a fundraiser (long story), she won the title of queen of the 11th grade for the day. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of riding in the parade float with Carmen and the 11th-grade king, I graciously accepted Itza’s (who was riding in the passenger seat of the truck) offer. As the parade started up, I knew I should have declined the ride; everyone in the streets was staring up at me and wondering out loud what the heck a gringa was doing up there. The teachers and administrative staff walked alongside the floats, giving me the side-eye. It was nerve-wracking to be on display, especially when Carmen should have been spotlighted, not me. As the parade continued, Carmen’s friends walked closely behind, cheering for their class representantes. During a brief stop as the parade halted for traffic, I reached my hand out and offered all of Carmen’s friends my place on the truck. I was anxious to relieve myself of the unwanted and undeserved attention. I continued the rest of the parade on foot, walking with my host mom, dad, older sister Melitza, and sobrinos. It was chill for a moment, and I started to ease up and enjoy the parade. However, when the trucks began to turn around and head back to the school, all hell broke loose.

A kindergartener fell off one of the floats, significantly hurting her head and mouth. Some of the moms in the crowd, including my sister Melitza, ran through the streets in hysterics, trying to find an empty car to bring the hurt little girl to the hospital in Penonome. All while this was going down, the drivers honked their horns, children popped balloons, and teenagers whooped and hollered, unbeknown to the accident that had occurred. By this point, we were all still about a 40-minute walk from the school and taking up the entire road so that there was no way for a car to efficiently rescue the hurt little girl and get her to the nearest hospital (at least an hour’s drive away). During the chaos, it began pouring rain, so much that you could barely see ten feet ahead of you. The rain raged on through the rest of the day, putting a damper on the remainder of the parade (as if the hurt child already had not)

For those of you worried, I asked some teachers about the girl; she is healing and being monitored during PE class, but overall safe and well!

The parade begins 🎉
A “float” that I thought was muy chevere
Walking with the crowd of spectators

The next morning, the electricity had gone out in the entire community. This isn’t a particularly unusual occurrence, but it happened to be the day of the big folk-dance competition that the school had been preparing to host for weeks. Although there was no light, the custodians at the school hooked up an electric generator so that the school’s dance club and competing teams could perform to the musica tipicia. I spent the day watching the teams perform in the dim rancho (outdoor auditorium) and chatting up a few teachers and administrators whom I hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know much. Naturalmente, the rain returned and raged on throughout the afternoon. But the party lasted well into the day. When it comes to cultural celebrations, Panamanians are resilient to every force of nature and will keep dancing through it all.

Students dressed in ropa típica
Second from the left: my host nephew Ariel Antonio
Third from the left: my youngest host sister Carmen
My counterpart Elizabeth, coordinator of the folk club at school, posed with the school’s reina del dia and other performers

Five things coming up:

In-service training

This week begins IST: a two-week training session for my Peace Corps cohort. I’m excited to see all my cohort friends, especially the ones who live in faraway provinces. I’m not looking forward to returning to a rigorous schedule of training and traveling, but it will be a nice chance to catch up with old friends and reset my mind for the remainder of this year of service.

I’m stoked to be reunited with these guys for another round of Peace Corps training

Professor English class

When I return to my community, I’m hitting the ground running with my first “real” project: a beginner’s English conversation course for the teachers and administrators at my school. I’m nervous about leading this ten-week program but also excited for the chance to get my feet wet in facilitating personal projects. And it’s going to be a good opportunity to get to know my counterparts at the school and build those relationships further.

Helping with Chanel’s Elige Tu Vida project

As much fun as I’ve had working with TE (Teaching English) related programs, I’m eager to engage in more LLS (Leadership & Life Skills) activities. An upcoming opportunity to do so is Chanel’s ETV (Elige Tu Vida) project. Together along with a host of other PCVs from various sectors and provinces, we will facilitate a 4-hour future-planning program for high schoolers. The first two-hour half will be dedicated to making positive decisions towards career planning and higher education while the remaining half will be dedicated to sexual health. This project will be an excellent opportunity to refine my LLS skills as well as my Spanish alongside other PCVs.

Readers Theater Competition

Over the past month, I’ve traveled to another school outside my community to assist with a province-wide competition called “Reader’s Theater.” Judged on pronunciation, tone of voice, and vocal theatrics, a selected team of students will perform an English recitation of “The Bremen Town Musicians,” a three-minute tale following the adventures of aging farm animals who are leaving their owners to make it big on the music scene. It’s a fun time, and the teachers have been very receptive to my help. I think these kids have a chance at winning or at least placing high amongst teams from other schools, all performing their own stories. !Vamos Escuela Membrillo!

My Bremen town musicians 🤗😍

Summer programs with the psychology department

Some of my absolute favorite people I’ve met in Panamá are the school counselor Roslyn and social worker Ana. Not only are they passionate about helping the students advance academically and socially, they are also overwhelming encouraging of my participation in their department. This school vacation (beginning in December), these two women, collectively referred to as the gabinete, will host two summer programs, one to refresh primary students of their studies and another to guide 7th graders into secundaria and the social changes that come with the transition. They’ve asked me for my help and support in developing and executing these programs, both from a TE and LLS perspective, with the possibility of incorporating some fitness or arts activities. I’m excited to see how these programs can positively impact the community’s children as well as to work with my counterparts in the gabinete!

Before signing off…

I would like to decompress a little about a very consuming situation that’s been happening on and off this month. I was supposed to be able to move out into my own home right after my SECNA presentation. However, the house I plan to live in was not ready at that time (by Peace Corps safety standards) and the landlord’s family had just suffered a family emergency a few days earlier. So, my move-out date has been delayed with no solid date established. During the time that I’ve remained in my host family’s house, I’ve battled feelings of guilt, impatience, and helplessness over my living situation. I’m eager to move out and begin a life of my own – one in which I can cook, host friends, organize projects, and live independently. However, my biggest desire to move out is to allow my host family to return to their normal lives. For four months, they’ve given me my own room, while they crowd multiple family members into a small space and put fold up beds outside for visitors. They’ve given me meals, water, and electricity – all of which are not free. I continue to pay them the standard living stipend, clean, and buy small items for everyone to use. But I’m more concerned with the space I’m taking up than the costs or labor. I want to give back to my family, but I am not in a place to do anything other than take.

Despite this desperation to begin living on my own, I’m trying to remain patient with my landlord’s family – they are helping me, however long it takes them to prepare and heal from their recent loss. Also, I’m continuing to support and connect with my host family in any way that I can in the meantime.

After many heart-to-heart talks with my host family, community members, and Peace Corps staff, the more I’ve come to realize that I am not a burden on anyone, as much as it may feel that way sometimes. For example, yes, my host siblings share one room with their parents, but that is a cultural norm for this particular community and their trend of large, closely-knit families. I am not barging in with my American standards of personal space; rather, my host family recognizes and respects why I need my own room and have given it to me with patience, understanding, and kindness. In so many ways, I am happy to be with my host family and feel like a part of their home. And I know I will miss living with them after I move, so I’m trying to stay present.

Wasn’t there something else?

Oh, yeah! My birthday…

The day before my birthday, I spent a fun Saturday afternoon with Chanel and Madee in Aguadulce, a city near Madee’s site. It was another fun and “normal” weekend full of little treats: trying a new coffee shop, thrift shopping at ropa americana stores, and lunch at a fancy restaurant. Madee and Chanel surprised me with a special brownie sundae, which I devoured along with four homemade cinnamon rolls (thanks Chanel!) and a big slice of chocolate cake (thanks Madee!) before the day was out.

I spent the night with Madee at her new house, leaving for home the following afternoon on the day of my actual birthday. Madee and I spent the morning having tea, listening to music, and talking through all the most challenging and rewarding experiences we’ve had so far – in Peace Corps and life overall. After a few weeks without seeing Madee, it was simeltanously soothing and inspiring to divulge stories, confessions, and realizations about pain and growth. I left later than planned, and though the travel back to Chiguirí Arriba took almost four hours and required some patience in waiting on busses, I was delighted by an interaction I shared on the first bus from Capellnia to Aguadulce.

Stepping onto the bus and waving goodbye to Madee, I immediately became nervous about the long, unaccompanied trip back to my site. The bus was empty other than the driver and one other passenger, a middle-aged woman who was also on her way home. The two struck up a conversation with me, asking if I was helping at the school and where I was from in the states. I found it surprisingly comfortable to talk to the two of them and began sharing stories about college, Peace Corps, and Chiguirí Arriba. As she departed the bus, the other passenger complimented my Spanish, gratuitously calling me “fluent,” and said it was nice to talk to me. As I neared my stop, I began pulling out change for the ride. But the driver stopped me – “you’re doing a great job for our country,” he said, “this ride is free.” I tried to pay, but he insisted. I thanked him for his support, emphasizing how welcoming and friendly Panamanians had been to me so far and how fortunate I felt to work in this country. He gave me a firm handshake and sent me off to find a bus to Penonomé. On the second bus, I realized that the bus driver from Capenilla had given me a birthday gift – and he had no idea.

When I finally arrived to my host family’s house around 7 pm, I was greeted with by my host sobrinos yelling “Gianna!” as soon as I emerged from the pathway. My host sisters Meliza, Itza, and Carmen, as well as my host mom Denia were also sitting outside when I got back, and the group of them sang “Feliz Cumpleaños” to me. They gave me hugs and kisses on the cheek, warming my heart and soul even more after a day full of touching surprises. I thanked them for their love and told them that even though it was hard to be away from my home today, I was so lucky and grateful to be with their family. Later, I got to call my family and recieved another “Happy Birthday” serenade. Despite the typical weak cell connection that cut in and out thoroughout the call, it was so special to hear my family’s voices and catch up with each other. I went to bed feeling truly blessed, happy to be where I am in life despite the pain and challenges.

And this is where I am…

After six months in Panamá and twenty-four years on earth.

Thank you all for the birthday wishes! And thanks for the continued support. Amongst political corruption and global warming, you’ve kept up with my little piece of Panamá for sixth months. I couldn’t be more grateful and humbled ❤️🌺

24 is off to a sweet start 😋🍨

Just a SECNA

Month Three

With my host niece Yariela who preformed during Escuela Pablo Alzamora Vargas’ 95th school anniversary

As a TELLS (Teaching English, Leadership, & Life Skills) PCV, my first and biggest assignment so far has been SECNA: Site Entry & Community Needs Assessment. This site entry assignment has two parts: a written report (in English, for the Peace Corps office) and presentation (in Spanish, for any interested community members as well as a Peace Corps representative). Together, the report and presentation are intended to share information about the community’s history, important places, social groups, activities, and overall culture. They also serve as a platform to showcase ideas for Peace Corps projects based on perceived strengths, areas for growth, and opportunities for collaboration in the community. I spent the first three months of my Peace Corps service researching the multiple facets of Chiguirí Arriba for this assignment.

During my research, I got to meet new people and visit cool places like this waterfall, Villa Tavida

All TELLS volunteers recieve the site entry assignment as an opportunity to share their unique volunteer experience. Some TELLS volunteers live in comarcas, indigenous reservations with no running water or electricity, teaching children whose parents may never have even achieved fluency in Spanish. Other TELLS volunteers work six days a week at universities in busy cities with bastante amenities but very little leisure time. I’m somewhat in the middle, working in a well-resourced, rural community in the mountains. My community entry assignment reflected the collaborative, neighborly aspects of Chiguirí Arriba as well as it’s many cultural activities.

A site map I drew, featuring other communities and nearby places to Chiguirí Arriba

The day of my community entry presentation, I was nervous but excited to share my ideas with a mixed audience: my Peace Corps supervisor, parents of students, friends, my host mom, primary school teachers, and administration. My goal was to create a fun and interactive meeting, not just stand and lecture for 30 minutes.

During my presentation, I used ice breakers and interactive media to keep a pulse on my audience’s interest

I also wanted to make it personal; I added in some slides with pictures and stories from my home in Hanover, too.

Oh, and I baked about 50 banana muffins at the regional leader’s house the day before the presentation to make sure there were enough brindis to go around.

Para ver, here are the project proposals from my community entry assignment:

LLS (Leadership & Life Skills) projects

  • ¡Tu vida! – a workshop for students grades 4-6 focused on positive decision making and healthy choices
  • Elige tu vida – a workshop for students grades 8-12 focused on future goals and sexual health
  • Construye tu futuro – a workshop for students 11-12 focused on navigating future work and/or study options

TE (Teaching English) projects

  • English teacher training retreat – a fun, laid-back workshop for English teachers of all grades and TELLS volunteers to share co-teaching strategies and different methodologies
  • English course for teachers – a 10-week conversation course for Pablo Alzamora teachers held after classes
  • English course for parents – a summer program for parents of the community who want to learn English to help their children with homework
  • English & arts camp – a 5-day summer program for grades 4-6 focused on facilitating descriptive English skills and promoting creativity through various art activities
I was so happy for the good turnout, positive feedback, and compliments on the brindis I made!

Overall, I feel confident about how the presentation went. I was especially grateful for the good attendance considering it was the day before the school’s 95th-anniversary celebration and all the teachers were running around trying to prepare for the festivities. Here are a few pictures from the anniversary which I had the pleasure of attending the next afternoon:

While I’m happy to have completed my community entry report and presentation, I still have a lot to learn from mi gente and about my potential as a volunteer. Will my perspective of Chiguirí Arriba change over time? Absolutely. Will 100% of my projects work out successfully? Probably not. However, after working for about three months on this assignment, I feel proud of my community and ready to learn more.

I’m honored to be a guest in the community and for the opportunity to get to know these students personally

Up next, check back with me in August as I move into my first house (!), turn twenty-four years old (!!) and pasear my sixth month in Panamá (!!!). Good, busy, transformative times are ahead.

Hasta agosto 🌺

Diario de junio

Month Two

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson ⛅🌴

In the blink of an eye, June passed by. All month I’ve been busy working on my Site Entry and Needs Assessment (SECNA) project. This assignment has allowed me to get to know my community through different methods and perspectives. Next post, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about Chiguirí Arriba. But this entry is about general life: how I get around, what I get to do, and who I spend time with in Panamá.

How I get around

Some chivas parked in Penonomé

In Panamá, I take public transportation everywhere. My community is about an hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Coclé called Penonomé. When I have to run errands, need to use the internet, or have free time to meet up with my friends for some cafésitos, I take a chiva from Chiguirí Arriba to Penonomé. Regardless of make or size, the chiva driver always packs passengers to the brim during his route. Couples sit on each other’s laps, babies get stacked on top of kids, and other passengers stand in the aisle when all seats are filled. Here are a couple captivating chiva tales from June:

The non-seat

In most cases, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a nearly empty chiva and been able to pick my own seat. However, one evening when returning from Penonomé, I flagged down an entirely congested chiva. As I climbed in and looked around desperately for a place to sit, the fee collector gestured to the raised divide between the driver and passenger seat and asked me to sit there. Realizing this was the last trip of the day, I prepared myself to for a ride home on the non-seat. The raised divide was awkwardly high to climb over and I did not make it over on my first try. From behind me, I heard other passengers cheering and jeering me on as I finally launched into a semi-seated, semi-smushed position on top of the space. During the hour-long drive back to Chiguirí Arriba, I had an up-close and personal view of tranque, pot holes, and animals running across the road. I witnessed the driver take sharp turns at 100 KM an hour and rapidly shift between lanes as the incoming traffic piled ahead. Twenty minutes before my usual stop, I shouted “¡parada!”, paid the fee collector, and scrambled out of the chiva. I stumbled the rest of the way home like someone who was just getting familiar with solid land again.

Students who live in distant communities take chivas to and from their homes

A quick bite

One morning, I missed my 7 o’clock chiva and waited around until I saw another one. I hopped on the first chiva I saw and began on my way. Besides the driver and fee collector, I was alone on the chiva and relished the solitude. However, after a while, I noticed that the driver was heading in a different direction away from Penonomé. The driver pulled off the road into a different neighborhood, further deviating from the route. He and the fair collector exited the chiva after pulling into a driveway. They left the engine running and me inside alone. Confused and anxious, I waited in the chiva for around a half an hour before getting off to try to find the driver. I searched along the road and into the driveways of unknown homes. I finally found the driver, fair collector, and a few other men sitting on a porch and enjoying eggs, coffee, and holadres. We all blinked around for a minute before I asked when we were leaving, to which the driver replied “ya.” I returned to wait in the chiva. The driver and fair collector returned shortly after and the ride continued on as normal. At this point, I myself was too hungry to think about anything else but breakfast.

Things I get to do

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have freedom over my own schedule. I decide which activities and projects I want to pursue. I try to participate in as many events in Chiguirí Arriba as possible as well as in other PCV programs. Here are two opportunities I enjoyed this month:

El Día de San Juan

Mis vacaballitos favoritos Ariel and Yariela

Catholicism is prevelant throughout Panamá and all public schools recognize religious holidays. June 23rd marked El Día de San Juan in Panamá, and everyone in my community was buzzing about the festivities that would take place at the school that day. I was familiar with St. John the Baptist but surprised to see all the primary school students of Pablo Alzamora marching through the street in cowboy gear and hobby horses to honor his day. At school, the kids giddyapped through el rancho, danced to hokey western tunes, and shouted “¡San Juan!” back and forth to each other. I later asked my host father Concepcion about the connection between cowboys and Saint John. Being the stoic el campo man that he is, Concepcion recited the legend of los vacaballos de San Juan. Though my Spanish-comprehension skills aren’t the best, here is what I made from his story:

One night, on the eve of Saint John the Baptist day, a group of weary vacaballos set out from their mountainous path to find shelter and food. They came upon a neighborhood and galloped on their horses through the streets shouting “¡San Juan! ¡San Juan! ¡San Juan!” They were greeted by la gente with all kinds of brindis: chicken, rice, plantains, cakes, yucas, and even chicha fuerte. The cowboys in turn shared their fruits, vegetables, and other goods with la gente, and everyone celebrated into the dawn of San Juan. Today, children all over Panamá honor Saint John’s Day with special tribute to the cowboys of the past.

English After School Program

Adam and I assisting/entertaining los jóvenes

While I’m still in the observational phase of my Peace Corps service, I stay active in projects. TELLS PCVs from around the province have offered opportunities to co-facilitate programs in teaching English, leadership, and life skills. Last week, I participated in one of my fellow volunteer Myra’s After School English program for high school students. Consisting of students from different schools in Penonomé, the class engaged in scavenger hunts, role-playing activities, and guessing games during the program. Myra ended the day with each student preparing a coat of arms demonstrating their hero, one thing they couldn’t live without, their highest value, and where they see themselves in 2 years. Myra explained how this assignment will tie in with her Soy Joven, Soy Lider youth development program that she plans on offering to the same group of students. While it was a lot of fun working with the students, Myra, and my cohort compañeros Adam and Chanel, the English After School program also provided me time to practice and refine my TELLS training.

Myra’s blog: https://whereintheworldismyra.wordpress.com/

Read more about Soy Joven, Soy Lider in my previous post Yes We Cañazas

People I spend time with – la gente de Chiguirí Arriba

My host nephew Ariel drawing at the table

Home is the place where you can exist freely without pressure and feel loved unconditionally. While there still are awkward moments and divisive situations, I’m slowly feeling more and more at home with my host family. The more I pasear, the more I feel welcome in other homes in Chiguirí Arriba, too. It’s not always comfortable or easy, but I cherish time spent with families and making friends in the community.

Family

If I have any Peace Corps wisdom to pass along this early in my service it’s that kids are the gateway to integration. While my host parents and sisters remain polite and cautious around me, their hijos and nietos don’t hold back. We play and joke together without considering cultural differences. Being around the kids also helps me break down barriers between me and the adults of my host family. Some of my best conversations with my host parents about the history and geography of the community were shared while I sat coloring on the porch with their grandkids. To Concepcion and Denia, I must seem like a child myself; I need to be fed three meals a day, take bastante naps after school, and speak with a limited vocabulary. However, they’re dedicated to helping me learn more about the culture of Chiguirí Arriba while I adjust. I am determined to repay them with projects that reflect the community’s strengths and empower their children.

Friends

Being in the Peace Corps redefines the meaning of friendship. I’ve always prided myself in having a widespread, eclectic friend group. But nothing has tested my ability to establish ties more than being the obvious outsider. It’s difficult sometimes to feel confident that I am actually making friends. However, I try to let go of expectations and just enjoy myself with whomever devotes their time to me. I love visiting homes like that of my friend Kelly’s just to sit and talk. Just by welcoming me into her home and allowing me to spend time with her family, Kelly gives me the confidence and happiness I need to continue on with my volunteer work. I also love the fact that just by walking around the community, I can be pulled aside for a conversation. This happens often with my friend Johana who always has a snack to share as well as the daily bochinche. While sometimes I’m skeptical of our interactions, (like when she refers to me as her amiga Gina la gringa and interrupts my stories to ask if I can teach her English), I look forward to meeting Johana every day after school near the entrance of Pablo Alzamora. Here, she always asks me to stay and chat as she sells her homemade empanadas and mamallena to the secondary students and teachers. Some days, I just want to stay in and WhatsApp my PCV friends who I know I don’t have to filter myself in front of or won’t struggle to understand me. However, it’s been crucial to pasear through my community and befriend la gente, poco a poco.

Spending a cozy day with Kelly, her youngest daughter Alessa, and her first grandchild Naomi

People I spend time with – mis compañeros del cuerpo de paz

Mis amigos Coclésanos de G84

One of my biggest fears about joining the Peace Corps was fitting in with other volunteers. Yep – not the poisonous animals, geographic isolation, or navigating in a foreign country and language. I was worried about finding a seat a the lunch table! Despite my doubts, other Peace Corps Volunteers, especially those in my cohort, have quickly become trusted and supportive confidants. Through our shared challenges and successes, I have gained insight and wisdom to carry me through my service. Together my friends Madee, Chanel, and I have determined two definite truths about Peace Corps service (and life): we have no control and also all the control.

No control

Standing with me on the edge of the highway in Penonomé, my friend Madee came to the realization that we have no control. We wait on taxis and chivas instead of driving ourselves places. We eat meals our host moms cook, rather than making our own. We have few conversations in English, fleeting contact with family, and many uninvited confrontations with insects. Considering all these factors, Madee was right: the control over our own decisions and comforts amounts to little in this moment of our Peace Corps time-line. However, if there is anyone who motivates me to push through these anxieties, it’s Madee – my fellow Hoosier and former sorority girl. I know I can always count on Madee to empathize with and validate how I feel, whether it’s grief over isolation or happiness over a tiny triumph against the odds. And while the challenges of Peace Corps are grueling, Madee welcomes them all with grace and integrity. Together, Madee and I are facing fears, apologizing less, and chasing happiness.

Madee’s blog: http://www.peacecorpsmuhdee.home.blog

Madee encourages me to validate my feelings and seize opportunity

All the control

I’d argue that the person I spent the most time with so far in the Peace Corps is myself. I’ve faced my best and worst qualities, peaks and dips of motivation, and questions about my future. As much soul searching as I still have left to do, I’ve learned a lot about setting boundaries and building confidence. I give credit for this growth to my strong Peace Corps support system, including my friend Chanel. An anthropology major like me, Chanel shares my beliefs that (a) everything in the universe is connected and (b) life is what you manifest it to be. While we have no control over our external circumstances, Chanel emphasizes the importance of creating our own reality and narrative. In Panamá, we’re refining our patience and power to make our Peace Corps (and life) dreams come true.

Chanel’s blog and podcast: https://chaneljimenez.wordpress.com https://m.soundcloud.com/chanclatravels/

Chanel inspires me to protect my joy and prioritize creativity

With all that’s been said, my second month as a Peace Corps Volunteer has been at times both busy and boring, both social and solitary, and altogether mesmerising. I’m still figuring out how I fit and what I can accomplish during my service. Thank you for figuring it out with me. ¡Nos vemos!

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir 🏞️✨

May se fue

Month One

From cowboys crossing creeks to kids dancing el baile de Congo, there was a lot to see during my first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chiguirí Arriba.

The Real Cowboys of Coclé
A pair of secondary school students dancing en el stilo del Congo

Arrival

I arrived in Chiguirí Arriba on Thursday, April 25th. I commuted from Panamá City with my counterpart Elizabeth, an English teacher at the local primary school. Though the views and conversation during the three-hour trip were light and peaceful, I was hardly at ease. Hours ago, I’d left the comfort of Pre-Service Training, my Santa Clara host family, and my cohort friends behind to officially begin my Peace Corps service. I was nervous to greet this new piece of Panamá, far from the city and beyond the mountains, knowing this would be the place where I’d call home for the next two years. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what la gente would expect of me; I was invited to be the first Peace Corps Volunteer ever hosted in the community.

Goodbye Panamá City, hello el campo

Host family

After pointing out the school, health center, and other significant landmarks, Elizabeth pulled in to the road near my new host parents’ home. Their house is slightly nestled in the forest beyond the gravel road, and it is marked by a sign reading “vende helados con gelatina” (I later learned that my host mom sells ice cream, lotto tickets, and Avon from the home). About a 15-minute walk from the school, my host family has relatively convenient access to the most developed part of town, including a small tienda from which to buy basic cooking and construction staples. As Elizabeth helped me unpack, she introduced me to my host father Concepcion, my host mother Denia, and their youngest daughter, 16-year-old Carmen. Denia and Concepcion have five other daughters, including young mother Itza who I met this same evening. Itza explained to me that she lives in the house right across from her parents with her husband Ariel and two children; fourth-grader Yariela and second-grader Ariel Antonio. Together, the adults of my host family greeted me with kindness, apprehension, and a blend of other qualities that characterize the el campo welcome. I could tell they were anxious to make me feel happy and healthy in their home. They maintained this approach into my first month living with them, always acting with politeness and sensitivity around me. I sometimes feel that they worry too much about me, but I remind myself that their concern comes from a place of love. Their formality also conveys a sense of rural hospitality that I myself am no stranger to, coming from a small town. Reflecting on a month with the Gil-Rodríguez clan, I am grateful to stay in their home while I come to understand my grander role in Chiguirí Arriba.

The entry and main living area of my host family’s house
Walking with my host parents and two of their grandkids

Ups and downs

After waking up in Chiguirí Arriba for the first time, I realized that “settling into the community” would not be as peaceful or easy as it sounded on paper. My first few weeks I felt like I was stranded at sea. My emotions reached heights of joy and depression, over-stimulation and boredom, curiosity and fear, sometimes within a single day. The physical, mental, and social challenges I experienced were like none I’d ever faced in my past. At times, I felt isolated, consumed by homesickness, and unsure of my capacity to continue this role. However, I was able to manage these hard times through making meaningful introductions with la gente: students, teachers, homemakers, cowboys, bus drivers, engineers, church officials, firefighters, farmers, fry-cooks, tour guides, and families of all kinds. I’m continuing to build these connections, along with my self-worth, especially within the school: Pablo Alzamora.

Me on my first day of school, feeling as awkward and anxious as I look in this pic

Escuela Pablo Alzamora – Mis Contrapartes

Through the ups and downs of my first month, I’ve settled into a comfortable routine of classroom observation at Pablo Alzamora. As of now, I shadow two English teachers at the primary school: Elizabeth, my main counterpart, and Ana, a seasoned teacher with three grown children. Between classes and over cups of coffee, I’ve learned more about Elizabeth and Ana’s lives outside of the school. Elizabeth lives in Chitré, in the province of Herrera, with her husband and two daughters. Elizabeth commutes to Chiguirí Arriba, in the province of Coclé, every Monday to teach during the week. In Chiguirí Arriba, she spends her weekdays in a small house across the street from Pablo Alzamora. On Fridays at noon after the primary school lets out, Elizabeth can drive back home to her family in Chitré. While she dreads leaving the house at 3 AM every Monday morning to beat traffic and make it to school on time, Elizabeth is content living alone during the week. This time allows her to sleep and cook on her own schedule. She also uses her free time for hobbies, such as hiking and embroidery. Overall, Elizabeth enjoys Chiguirí Arriba and Pablo Alzamora. She praises the friendliness of her fellow teachers, enthusiasm of her students, and beauty of el campo. When primary school classes end for the day, Elizabeth continues to stay involved, co-leading the extracurricular folclore club that offers traditional dance classes and other activities to students.

Elizabeth working on an embroidery project during a recess between classes

While Elizabeth is responsible for Pre-K, first, third, and fifth grades, Ana teaches English to kindergarten, second, fourth, and sixth grades. After a week of observing Elizabeth’s classes, I spent a week in Ana’s classroom. During this time, I learned that Ana has been working for Pablo Alzamora for the past seven years. Previously, Ana taught in her home city of Santiago, in the province of Veraguas, for three years. Like Elizabeth, Ana commutes to the school every Monday to teach through the week. However, rather than in a house of her own, Ana resides in the teacher dormitories. These are set up on the property of the school to house the teachers during the week, as most teachers are commuters like my two counterparts. Ana tells me that, despite the commute, she much prefers teaching in a campo school than an urban school. She says schools in the city have major behavioral problems and that the students are difficult to manage. Elizabeth has complained of a similar problem during her time teaching in the city, leading me to believe that it is issue faced by teachers of urban schools everywhere. However, both Elizabeth and Ana have also told me that campo schools typically have a greater population of special needs students and fewer resources to support them. Regardless of the challenges, both Ana and Elizabeth are dedicated to supporting their students through personal and academic challenges.

Ana and I at Pablo Alzamora. Curious about the cheetah print? Keep reading!

Escuela Pablo Alzamora – values and strengths

Through the teachers, students, staff, and community supporters of Pablo Alzamora, I’ve learned about the school’s strengths and values. For example, the school prioritizes, in addition to academics, the upkeep and beautification of the environment. On school property, there are gardens, a nursery, and grounds-keeping equipment. Different groups in the school and community utilize these for environmental projects.

The school nursery
One of the school gardens, used to teach students about planting and grounds-keeping

In addition to the environment, the school also emphasizes creativity. Every classroom door is decorated, and the walls are lined with creative posters, informing onlookers about everything from the periodic table of elements to history of the Panama canal. Combining environmentalism with the arts, there have been several recycling projects in the school encouraging students to transform trash into crafts.

A welcome sign made from cardboard and bottle caps in front of the school
Above: a planter made from an old tire
Below: more examples of student recycling crafts on display in the school

Escuela Pablo Alzamora – the students

Although the school is centered in Chiguirí Arriba, many students commute from different areas outside of the community. For the case of many of these surrounding communities, Pablo Alzamora the closest school that their children can attend. While the school itself is relatively well-resourced and structured, the social status of each student varies from family to family. In general, an economic disparity exists between the teachers and the students. Commuting from more urban areas, all teachers own personal vehicles, use smart phones, and have access to grocery stores, running water, and health care. In comparison, many of the families of their students in el campo live without these luxuries. Families who live far from the school, high in the mountains, and in houses deep in the forests operate under significant geographic and economic challenges hidden to the Pablo Alzamora faculty. Hoping to better understand the circumstances of their students outside of school, a group of teachers set aside a day each trimester to visit the families whose children travel great distances to attend school. During my first month in site, I was invited by Elizabeth to attend such a visit along with a few other teachers in the primary school and the Phys Ed coach. Together, we hiked across rivers, climbed steep hills, and marched through tangled trees to glimpse these students’ home lives.

Hiking with teachers (and two guias jovenes) to visit students who live far from the school

One family we visited was of fifth-grader Naika. I immediately recognized Naika as the polite girl who brought me fruit every day for a week as a way to welcome me to the school. Elizabeth praised Naika for her excellent homework and attendance. However, neither of us were aware that it took her over an hour each day to hike to school. Her house, set steep in the mountains, is constructed of sticks and corn husks. There is no electricity, and her family needs to ration water from the river to bathe and drink. Naika lives with mother and siblings whom we had the opportunity to meet during this visit. Naika’s mother gave me a coconut to drink when I explained I could not take the water she’d originally offered. In this moment, I saw where Naika learned her patience, intelligence, and kindness. As the day went on, a rising sense of gratitude for la gente and all they had provided grew within me. I vowed to recognize and honor the challenges my students endured to attend school each day.

Visiting students outside of school has allowed me to better support them in the classroom

La casa anfitriona – host family time

Outside the school, I spent most of my first month at home with my host family. As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re encouraged to pasear through our communities and introduce ourselves to everyone we meet. However, for many reasons, whether it be exhaustion, homesickness, or good ol’ fashioned regular sickness, I spent a lot of days at home with la familia. While I’ve pledged to pasear more in June, I do not regret los tardes tranquilos I sat talking with my host family. These “lazy” days held some of the most interesting and endearing moments of my first month: reading Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal out loud to Yariela and Ariel Antonio, talking with Denia about the time she hosted a group of Guatemalan youths during the Pope’s visit to Panamá, observing Concepcion work on the house and explain his various renovation passion projects, hiking with Itza, and helping Carmen work through an English assignment. Though we still have a lot to learn from and about each other, I’m slowly becoming closer to each member of my host family.

Yariela and Ariel Antonio playing with Eskit, the Gil-Rodriguez family pup
Eskit, looking cute and particularly like Woody, my special friend who I was told passed away my first weekend in Chiguri Arriba (Rest Easy Woody ❤️)

La casa anfitriona – power, cell signal, and drinking water

In addition to getting to know my host family and their habits, I also became accustomed to the home itself and its amenities. While the family lives with electricity and cell signal, heavy rainstorms can cause both of them to go out. Sometimes, we go 20+ hours at a time without power. Other times, the power goes out for short intervals every day of the week. During these outages, I’ve learned to keep a flashlight by my side and where to walk to for better signal when I need to check my phone for messages.

I can always look forward to some beautiful views while searching for signal

The house also has running water. However, I learned the less-than-comfortable way that drinking the water without purifying it first will make my unaccustomed stomach very sick. Though I wish the Peace Corps office had given me a heads up about this, through the help of a few trusty volunteer friends across the country, I’ve learned how to set up a water filter and can now drink con calma.

Fun fact: a cleaned-out ice cream gallon makes a perfect water bucket (good thing my host mom vende helado as she does!)
Yariela and Ariel Antonio, fascinated with the filter, love to help me with the refilling process
Side note: a little Nicholas Sparks goes a long way in el campo

La casa anfitriona – latrine adventures

On the topic of water, I would be omitting a big part of my adaption story if I didn’t talk about bathing. There is faucet encased in tarp on the front porch/living space area for the family’s showering needs. However, I am too tall for it – I joked with my host mom that I’d be able to have a conversation with her while washing my hair if I chose to bathe there. Instead, I shower using the faucet in the latrine, which is also the family’s shared bathroom.

The family latrine lays about fifty feet from the house yet still visible from the road (and to pedestrians who catch me emerging in my towel at least twice a day)

Although my host mom convinced me that it was absolutely normal and other members of the family shower there too, I was hesitant at the idea of bathing within what is essentially an outhouse. My hesitation only grew when I entered the latrine on my first night to discover the “toilet” overflowing with cockroaches. While I’m still not entirely comfortable with the insects and odor that confront me when I need to use it, I’ve developed a latrine routine. The faucet is, like the one on the porch, too low for me to stick my head under and has very slow water pressure. To counteract this, I’ve cut the top off a water jug and use it to bucket bathe using the water from the faucet rather than showering directly beneath it. I always try to bathe before the sun sets. But if I need to relieve myself at night, I have the option of (a) flashlight scavenger hunt to the latrine or (b) pee in a bucket (to clarify, not the same as the one I use to bathe) and tirarlo afuera. Before leaving the US, it didn’t feel right to shower without scrubs, shaving cream, and shampoos from my favorite brands. Now, I’m satisfied with my bucket, a bar of soap, and shower shoes. Let me repeat that last part for anyone wondering what item(s) I value the most in the Peace Corps: Shower. Shoes.

The scene of the cockroach crime and many repeat offenses

Community events – San Isidro and El Día de Folclore

When I wasn’t a la casa during my first month, I attended as many community events as I could. At the beginning of May, I went to a week’s worth of evening Catholic services and processions to recognize San Isidro, the patron saint and church namesake of Chiguirí Arriba. Although these services were lengthy, monotonous, and difficult for me to follow, I saw attending them as an opportunity to show my face in the community and let people know I’m here to participate. More recently, I attended El Día de Folclore (Folk Day) at Pablo Alzamora. This annual event is hosted by the club de folclore (which, if you remember, is co-lead by my counterpart Elizabeth), MEDUCA (The Ministry of Education), and other provincial organizations to celebrate música típica and its cultural impacts. This year, the theme of El Día de Folclore centered around protecting the environment. There were group dances and a singing contest between competitors from schools around Coclé. All performances utilized the traditional music style of típica as well as promoted modern ideas about recycling and saving the planet from pollution.

Above: El club de folclore performing a dance set to música típica (mi sobrina anfitriona Yariela is among them)
Below: students from different schools around Coclé compete in a singing competition set to an environmental theme

Community events – El Día de Etnia Negra

Directly following El Día de Folclore, my community prepared for El Día de Etnia Negra (Black Ethnicity Day). Etnia Negra is recognized May 30th every year in Panamá. This day marks the end of the slave trade and celebrates Afro-Panamanian culture. The day’s events are performed with respect to the historical impact and influence of black Panamanians. Across the country, people pay tribute to Afro-Panamanian culture by reciting poetry and stories written by black Panamanians, performing Congo dances, and dressing in ethnic clothing. Each year, Panamanian schools celebrate by electing a rey and reina negra in an activity similar to a homecoming-court, nominating a boy and girl from each grade. These pairs dance down the hall before their classmates, teachers, and families in a procesion set to Congo music.

El Día de Etnia Negra brings young and old Panameños together in celebration and education of black heritage
Remember these two from the beginning of this entry? Here they are, moving along during the rey and reina procession

I arrived at Pablo Alzamora, excited to mingle with my fellow teachers and cheer on our students during the events of El Día de Etnia Negra. Before the nominees for el rey and la reina began to parade through el rancho, my friend from the community named Johana spotted me in the crowd. She then called out “Gina la Gringa!” and took me by the hand. Johana, whom I befriended over homemade empanadas one fateful day, is one of the few Afro-Panamanian women in the community. For this reason, she takes special interest in El Dia de Etnia Negra. On this day, she had dressed herself and her teenage daughter in fabulous animal print to celebrate their heritage. When I complimented her vestido, she asked me “do you want one?” Before I had a chance to consider an answer, she lead me to her home near the school to search for an outfit fitting the occasion. After I had changed, Johana and I returned to the school, and the activities of the day started to pick up. In the crowd of Latino spectators, I was the sole white person donning Afro-style clothes, putting me in a position I can only and lamely describe as “interesting.” In this moment, I questioned whether or not I was appropriating Afro-Panamanian culture and, with that, shaming the Peace Corps image as neo-colonialist. However, I kept in mind that Johana was more than happy to share this piece of her culture with me. She enjoyed showing me off to her friends and fellow attendees, and everyone complimented and congratulated me on dressing the part for El Día de Etnia Negra. This experience demonstrated to me that to integrate, I need to let go of what I’ve learned and allow myself to absorb the moment for what it is. Plus, as anyone who attended Junior Prom with me knows, I never turn down the chance to wear cheetah print.

Johana and Gina la Gringa; cheetah girls for the day

All in all, May se fue-d and June está aquí. I’ve set new intentions for my second month as a Peace Corps Volunteer: pasear more, scroll through Facebook less, and always remember to breathe.

Peace Corps Panamá: 1 month down, 26 to pasear

Chau chau for now, mis amores. Hasta pronto y, cómo siempre, gracias por leer ❤️.

That’s a wrap

As I sit here writing this post, I am trying to make sense of the idea that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. Pre-Service Training has officially ended, and now my friends and I are spread throughout this culturally and geographically diverse isthmus. We are beginning our service with fear, excitement, sadness, joy, and, at times, numbness. I feel that because training has been so intense, I have not yet processed what this new role means to me.

Swear in day; feeling exhausted, but proud

The last week of training was a series goodbyes and hellos. On Monday, April 22nd, I left the training family and community I’ve lived in for ten weeks to officially swear in as a volunteer and then move to my home for the next two years. But first, to rewind a little bit, my last blog post centered around Tech Week in Cañazas. During the following three weeks, I had the opportunity to visit the Panama Canal, practice co-teaching in the high school setting, and visit a Panamanian university.

The Canal is both a major player in international business transactions and Panamanian employment
Me with some of the eleventh-graders I observed during Teaching Week in Chorrea

Though I will work in a primary school during my next two years in Panama, my experience practicing co-teaching in the high school setting allowed me to work with an English teacher at a technical high school. I was surprised at how well I was able to communicate and hold the interest of the teenagers, despite being more comfortable in classes with younger students. At the same time, I observed my counterpart for the week, Teacher Amada, manage classes of varying English levels. Amada told me that her teaching methodologies revolved around creating positive relationships with her students and discovering their individual motivations.

Teacher Amada and I on the last day of Teaching Week

After Teaching Week, we prepared and executed a despedida, or going-away party, for our community that Friday. Two aspirantes MC’d the event, re-telling funny stories that each of us shared with our host families. A few other aspirantes performed songs in Spanish and English, and we all ended the party with a group performance of the Cha Cha Slide. Some gave personal thanks to their host families during the celebration, while others of us helped serve food and keep our host hermanos and sobrinos entertained throughout the lively event. Overall, it was a fun way to thank the community of Santa Clara as a whole and demonstrate how much we enjoyed our time there.

Following the despedida, our TELLS group split up into two overnight trips: six joined the CEC (Community Environmental Conservation) group in an excursion into the mountains, while the remaining thirteen of us obtained another beachside Air BNB. The mini-vacation was much needed and much enjoyed. There was even a private pool within the complex that we made the most of during our short stay.

I returned from the beach/pool trip refreshed and eager to continue with the last couple weeks of training. During this time, my TELLS friends and I were able to visit a Panamanian University. After being introduced to a PCRV (Peace Corps Response Volunteer) named Andrea there, we got to know some of the university students and learn about the differences between the Panamanian and US college systems. Here are a few of the major differences I learned from these students:

  1. Panamanian college students live at home and travel to school each day, rather than live in dorms away from their families
  2. High school students must decide on a path of career/study prior to graduation and applying to university
  3. Most colleges require students to wear uniforms that correlate with their areas of study. These uniforms represent the different “schools” that exist within the university.
A mural demonstrating the areas of study valued by and taught at the University

While the university visit was fascinating and enjoyable, in the back of all our minds was the Big Question: where will we live for the next two years? None too soon following the university visit was Site Placement Day that Thursday. We all waited anxiously while staff members individually called out the communities and the names of the corresponding trainees who would spend their service there. My destiny was exposed early during the reveal. As I heard the staff call my name for the community of Chiguirí Arriba, Coclé, a sense of relief and curiosity filled me. I was happy to finally know which province I’d spend my service, but also still didn’t know anything about my community in the moment. Watching as each one of my friends received their sites, I absorbed their varying emotions of excitement and fear. Some of us received sites that accurately aligned with the resources and opportunities we wished for. However, other trainees were paired with sites that did not match their desires, which, obviously, caused some confusion and anxiety. In general, the room was filled with energy and anticipation following each announcement. I was content knowing that some of my closest friends ended up in my same province. However, my heart fell when I realized how far away some of my other good friends would be. With so many emotions flying around the room, I wish I could have just picked one and held onto it. However, what perminated the rest of my days in the office was a shallow sense of numbness. I felt that I could not fully emote the happiness I felt for myself and my friends, nor could I properly express the gratitude I had for getting to know them so well over ten short weeks. Despite all this, I rushed into the arms of my fellow Coclésanos with enthusiasm and hope for our futures in the province.

The newest crew of Coclésanos!

After the Big Day, we returned to Santa Clara ready to spend a relaxing last weekend with our host families. My host family was excited to hear that I was placed in a province so close to theirs, which opens up more possibilities for visiting in the future. I spent as much time as possible with my favorite Santa Clara-ians that Sunday, first by baking them an adapted version of my specialty, banana bread, and then accompanying them to the volleyball game across the street.

The result of my pan de banana 🍌
Cheering on Team Gringo during the volleyball game
La familia Navarro – the best and most genuine folks who could have welcomed me into this country and experience

Leaving the community for the Peace Corps office on Monday, the TELLS and CEC trainees moved into nearby dorms/hotel rooms to finish the last week of training. Monday night was more or less free, allowing us to explore the nearby area of Casco Viejo, a touristy, colonial part of Panama City. Wednesday night, we had another opportunity to get together there.

Feelin’ myself on the streets of Casco Viejo

The two nights we spent roaming the streets of Casco Viejo allowed us to relieve the stress of training together one last time. We danced on rooftops, drank $1 Panamanian beers, ate yeye Euro-style pizza, and watched a baile tipico performance. I will always remember and appreciate those nights I spent with the friends I never imagined I’d grow to love and admire in such a short amount of time.

Our time together in the dorms and Panama City was fun, but fleeting. It was back-to-work mode for the remaining days before swear-in, in which we got to know our community counterparts. My counterpart, Teacher Elizabeth, has been teaching for nine years. After talking with her during this time, we discovered that we both have a lot to learn from each other. Though she commutes from the Herrera province and doesn’t actually live in Coclé, she’s been an excellent example of the motivation and friendliness that you find in Chiguirí Arriba.

Elizabeth and I on Swear-in day

While last week we learned where we’d be serving, this week was when all the pieces finally came together. On Wednesday, April 24th, we officially swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers. We were met with congratulations from PC staff, current volunteers, and friends and family back home. Though the recognition and confidence in us was encouraging, I could not help but feel somewhat empty inside during the days following the ceremony. Even now that I’ve settled into Chiguirí Arriba, I know this journey hasn’t even yet begun. I don’t truly feel as though I’ve earned the title of Peace Corps Volunteer yet, and I’m not even sure what I must do to feel deserving of it. There is much ambiguity ahead. However, my heart is full of love for my new community – I know this is where I belong. And when I need strength and guidance, I need only reach out to my TELLS family. Each friend is a piece of me, now and forever.

Have I left anything out? Probably. But now it’s time to pasear in my new community for a while. Soon, maybe, I can write about my beginning experiences in Chiguirí Arriba.

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Because this is a momentual post, I wanted to extend my thanks to you all who read this blog. And a special muchisimas gracias to my family. Mom, Dad, and Liv – you three have given me all the unconditional love and support that I needed to begin and maintain this journey. Thank you for always encouraging me to be me and live my dreams. Until next time! ¡Hasta luego!