Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Wormy Goodbye

This is the last week I will have in my community. Well, its actually the last 3 days I will have here. It's also been one of the roughest times I've had in my community yet. You see, I haven't had a lot of the problems that many of the volunteers have had here such as problems getting people motivated and organized. Oh wait, I have had those problems but they just have been overshadowed by the couple people here that are more or less rock stars and actually want to work. More about that later. The last week has been hard mostly because of health and a little bit because of the heat. There is also the fact that someone murdered a 9 year old girl and threw her into the river in a bag. That was also a bad day. 

My health has been bad to this degree: I got a bone breaking flu that most people compare to and often confuse for Dengue which gave me a temp of over 102 for 5 days in a place where it is already boiling hot. During that same time I couldn't eat anything so after the 6th day when I felt half way alive I drug myself to the lab to do a poop test and found out that I also had intestinal worms. I had surgery on my toenail again where they cut out half of it and pulled it off so I haven't been able to walk, and my prostate is now inflamed to the point where it hurts more than anything on my body. Did I mention that the bond breaking flu made your head feel like it was in a vice. I couldn't open my eyes for a whole day unless I wanted extreme pain behind my eyes. 

So I'm finally getting better. Well everything except my prostate, but I can deal with that for now. My farewell party is this friday and it seems that the artisan group has invited the world to it. People from the island are coming, other volunteers, and even some government agencies have been invited. I've been looking forward to it for some time now and have been literally hanging on to life here so I can see it through. Its funny, the day I came into site I was deathly ill with a flu and two ear infections. 

I haven't been able to go around and visit too many houses in the village due to my sicknesses, trying to get my things ready for a big raffle I'm going to have, and also taking my english student into town to show how to use a computer that I gave to time as a present today. tomorrow really is my last day to go around to peoples houses and visit them. On the top of the list is my first host mother and then Katia, the girl with baby Adam (refer to For the Love of her Child Post). Then I'll go visit some of the further houses that I've done things with such as those I've done water project for and so forth. That is, if I don't die of heat exhaustion by then. I also need to visit some of the people in Rio Oeste Abajo whom seem to love me for some reason. 

My last days in site should be fun and hopefully the activities can take my mind off my ailing body. It is such a downer to feel like this and a part of me is worried that I will never get better after this. Seeing some good doctors in the states, not getting worms and amoebas all the time, and eating good food might help. Also, not living in an oven will help too. Next post will be about some reflections. I just didn't think they belonged with this one about me almost dying in my last days here...

It All Comes Back Around

When I think back to why I joined the Peace Corps I can't really put my finger on what it really was I was applying for. I was working at Red Lobster in Chico, CA as a bartender and living with Ari and we were both basically in life idle, waiting for the next thing to happen. I met a girl and eventually moved around the state while my application got processed. For something as intense to get into as the Peace Corps I'm now surprised that I stuck in there and jumped through the intense amount of hoops they put me through. I had never in life stayed in one spot for 2 years and the Peace Corps was going to force me to do that. It was also going to force me to conform to a system of rules and not give me a choice as to where I went or what I would be doing. I guess that is what I liked about the whole thing. The fact that I would be forced to do something out of my comfort zone. My Peace Corps service has defined me now so I guess it worked. 

After getting rejected the first time because of a medical problem with my heart, I decided I'de try to get the problem fixed and apply again. That's what I did and as I was breaking up with the girl I was with I applied again and this time made it through. I can remember the day we were to swear into our service here in Panama after 2 1/2 months of training. I was home sick, health sick, and thought I had made a huge mistake. I remember sitting in the old US military base where the Peace Corps headquarters is in Panama and crying thinking I made a mistake. I stuck it out and told myself that I would never give up. I have never had so much drive to do something so uncomfortable and unpleasing to me in my life. I honestly compared it to a putting myself in a 2 year jail sentence. 

I remember counting down the days to the months. I made small calendars in my journals and told myself that I just needed to make it to 3 moths and then I would figure out what to do with my life. I told myself that I would never learn spanish and that I would just get by using hand gestures. I was convinced that I had done the wrong thing and that I was going to hate my time here. That I would never get anything done because the last volunteer couldn't get anything done and just knowing that he did not have a good time here made me think that I would have the same. I remember trying to convince myself that there was no shame in quitting because of the massive amount of health problems I was having. I remember locking myself in that hot and dirty room in my first host family's house curled up under the mosquito net trying to find things to do so I didn't have to talk to anyone. It could not have been a worse start and I thought my time was doomed. 

I don't remember the exact day or situation that set it off but I do know that it was with Salomon and that it had to do with his enthusiasm and patience that got me a little excited to be here. I can honestly say that if it hadn't been for him that things here would have been much much different. In terms of my work here and how I felt about the community. It wasn't just the prospect of building a tour from the ground up or creating a chocolate making business with no resources or know-how that got me excited to be here and to really give it a try, it was the fact that people here (mostly Salomon) were genuinely excited about doing it. I remember spending days and days going over plans and numbers with Salomon. Writing presentations for the artisan group to explain what we wanted to do and having meeting after meeting about planning the future businesses. I remember launching the tour and the feeling of the first tourists that paid. I remember seeing the people's faces here after that first money came in. I remember the look on the people's faces that said it would never work and that gringos would never wan't to see just cacao trees. We are now rated the #2 tour in all of Panama on TripAdvisor, have been featured in 4 national magazines, featured in international magazines, and the tour brings in more than $3,000 a month to a group of artisans that were making at most $50 a month collectively before. The Chocolate is a whole different thing and sells itself everywhere it is put.  

Those projects combined with projects like putting up water catchment tanks for houses without clean water and teaching english and technology have really helped me through it all. There is also the people here and the friendships I have made. Without those I would have perished for sure, but the single biggest thing that helped me through it all was understanding the culture and language here. I guess that is why they put so much focus on it during training. Once I learned the language, I started wanting to be here. 

And then there is the fact that for 8 months I got to date another volunteer that meant a lot to me and helped me get through the hard times and gave me something to look forward to every day. 

This place is rough for a gringo. No doubt. The climate, bugs, parasites, and living conditions have pushed my body and mind to its limit. I'm a different person because of it and I see the world in a different light. As much great work I have been credited for doing here I have learned so much more from them than I could ever teach them. I will be coming back in a different state of mind with 3 more years tacked on to my age. I will be coming back to a world with electricity, and cars, and smog, and running water. It will be another adjustment and it will be hard again. This time I can't go back to what I'm used to though. Well I guess I could but I would like to get healthy one day and not have parasites. I'm excited again, and I'm sad again. I know that this time I will be crying as I leave this place and its people that have been so good to me and have worked so hard to build something different and new for their futures. It's going to be hard to leave...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ambassador Farrar is a Pretty Cool Guy

Confused and tired I stepped onto the boat taxi as me and two other locals left from Bocas island going back to the main land. It only struck me what kind of day it would be as we pulled into dock in Almirante to see the crowds trying to get onto boats to the island. Thousands of eager beer thirsty Panamanians and Costa Ricans bulging at the seems to party for the weekend spilled into every crevasse of every boat dock. I was on a different mission. Having been on the island for a couple days with our Oreba Chocolate stand I was now needed back in my community for a much anticipated visit from the US Ambassador to Panama. 

Halfway back to my community I realized that I forgot the key to my house. The thought of only having 5 minutes to break my door with a borrowed hammer and then walking 45 min to the street wasn’t my idea of a good start to the day but that’s what I did. Waiting by the road for 20 minutes I could not help but think how full circle everything has come. I’ve gone from locking myself in a room in my host family’s house thinking that two years of this could be equivalent to doing 5 years of hard in prison to being proud of the work I’ve done, proud of the people I’ve gotten the chance to work with and got close to, and proud to receive someone so notable as the Ambassador. They soon picked me up in on of their armored suburbans and off we went. Ambassador Farrar and his wife was inexplicably nice and open for being so important and for amount of time they have spent working as representatives for the US. Their last post was in Cuba and you can imagine the level of importance that post was. Although with the importance of the Panama canal this post might be even more important. 

My community members and I gave them the quick tour of what we do and seeing them dressed up for the visit was great. We took pictures, we laughed, the Ambassadors wife took home some orchids and chocolate and made me an origami elephant out of a dollar bill, and we went into Almirante to visit the cacao co-op. I had warned the co-op that we would be coming this day and I didn’t really think much of it. I was under the impression that I would just be showing the Ambassador around a little and then we would leave. When the president of the co-op mentioned that he was going to propose funding for a project they had I told him that he might want to keep that to himself as the Ambassador wouldn’t have time for it. I was real wrong. When we showed up we were whisked into a large room with a huge circular table. As we sat down people served us hot chocolate I realized that this was pretty important to them. I guess I just didn't think about it before. Introductions were made, the co-op people stood up and talked about themselves for an uncomfortably long amount of time and the request for funds documents were handed over. My favorite part of the meeting had to be when one of the Afro-Antillian members started reciting the Gettysburg Address to the Ambassador. When that started I looked over at his assistant and we both started laughing. 

After going to cocaba (the co-op) we went to the only reasonably acceptable place to eat in Almirante which is a chinese restaurant. We met up with a couple other volunteers and the food was good. I then waited on the road for the president of Engineers Without Borders to come pick me up and take me back to my site so I could show them around and show them the projects I had been working on. It was a long day and after I barely was able find space on a boat going back to the island I almost immediate fell asleep. MIssion accomplished. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

F My Health

My health is so fucked its unbelievable. That’s the first time I’ve used the F-bomb on my blog so I hope you’ll understand that I really mean it when I say it. I could chalk up my health problems to the poor diet of TV dinners and soda when I was a child or the endless nights of Top Ramen and pizza when in college, but its not that. It dates back to the day I was born when I was forced to stay in a plastic bubble for a week because of a major heart issue. Until this day that heart issue has plagued me along with everything else. I’m guessing the tropics aren’t helping any of the crazy ailments I currently have and I can almost tell you for certain that the crazy amounts of worms, parasites, amoebas, and giardia haven’t helped my case. And now this. Stuck in a hospital for 5 days while doctors probe and prod me in every hole available just to tell me I now have a chronic prostate problem that might go away in a couple months. In the meantime I have about the energy of a dying rat and my entire pelvic region is on fire. Health rant done.
The Grinder we need

I’ve got less than a month left in my site now if I ever make it back from the hospital and its starting to get surreal. I can’t believe that its almost over. The thought of breathing cool california air and eating meals that don’t involve rice and MSG sounds amazing. The thought of seeing my family and loved ones keeps me going and keeps me pushing to do the best I can here before my time is up. I know that I can leave my community with my head high and just that facts that my community is throwing me a huge going away party and the Ambassador to Panama from the US is coming to visit me next week show me that I’ve done well. In fact, I can honestly say that I’m more proud of what I’ve done here than in anything else I’ve done in the past. Graduating college was a biggie for me considering it took 8 years but nothing compared to this. I know that I’ve changed a lot of lives, saved lives, and given people hope for a better future in my community and being able to see the change while I’ve been there has been one of the most rewarding things ever. 

The grinder that we were supposed to get for the artisan group from mexico didn’t make it and now we are scrambling to find a replacement. I’ve contracted a manufacturer in David to do it and plan on visiting him tomorrow. That is if I can get enough coffee in my system to get enough energy to do it.  

There are many more things I’de like to write here and so much stuff has happened since last time I wrote but the words escape me now. Maybe its tiredness kicking in or maybe its just because I don’t feel like I need to explain everything anymore. Its been a bumpy ride and I know it will take me being in the states for awhile for me to recover but I think it will happen and when that time comes I will be able to fully look back on my service and what I’ve done in it and explain it to others. Can’t wait to see all my friends, family, and loved ones. Its so close.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Water is Life

As many know, I've been involved in a lot of water projects in my community and others. I've seen groups come in and do a not so great job of helping the locals get clean water and I've seen other groups come in with open minds and work with the locals and doing a good job. Unfortunately most of the groups that come in and try to help actually do either nothing or make the problem worse. The main problem is that many of these groups come in and set up a water catchment system for a house to get clean rain water and don't take into account how they are doing it. Some come with power tools and never even really talk to the home owner. It's like if you were living at home and a plumber came to fix your plumbing and never talked to you, never told you what the problem was, used tools you've never seen before, and left without telling you how to fix anything if something went wrong. This is the reality of most water projects here in the third world.

There is an organization that does it right and I happen to be part of that organization:) Thats right, the good ol Peace Corps knows what the hell they are doing. Because we live in these communities and work side by side with these people we are able to make sure everything goes right and that they know how to build the systems and fix them when needed. We also know how to save money when purchasing the materials as many of these systems can be supported by local free materials that the owner has. Saving money means more water for more people. And that means less child death.

You wouldn't believe how many child deaths there are here just because of water. I have people in my community that have lost half their children. It's sad to say the least. Even the ones that live have a constant worm and or amoeba problem which slows down everything from being able to learn to being able to work. Some figures say that a person can increase their income by 30% a year by just being free of parasites. That's a lot of money to these people. After seeing so many sick and literally dying babies at the last doctor clinics I translated for I decided to make a video. Please take the time to check it out. Most of the video is shot in my community and I know most of these kids. Peace...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Translating For Jebus

Ok, sorry for not writing for so long. I've been a little busy. I've been doing everything from translating for various different doctor groups that have come through the area, to help start a new tour in my site, to being part of a worm composting seminar. It's been a crazy and the fact that we have only had 4 days of sunshine in the past 30 days hasn't even fazed me. I actually like it now. Anyways, here is what has been going on:

The pastor of our community church came up to me a couple months ago asking if I and some of other Peace Corps Volunteers could come for a 4 day medical clinic to help translate. Of course my first response was that I would not even consider it if we had to translate anything jesusy. He assured me that we would not and so I sent out the word. The day came and I hosted 4 volunteers in my very small hut and things went pretty well. The group was organized and had done this many times before. The clinic actually took place in a place called Valle de Risco which is up the hill from me but we were able to get a ride with the church van all 4 days. The people were really nice and if it wasn't for them saying god bless after some things and doing group prayers before meals I wouldn't have even known they were a church group. We all actually made some good friends and were able to swap stories about our social work in various places. I was definitely relieved that we weren't forced to do any prayer stuff with them and apart from them having a bible reading next to the line to get in they didn't make anyone do anything special to be seen. They had glasses for those who needed it and all the equipment to check vision and they came with a boat load medication. The line stretched the school we were housed in and it seemed that it was never ending. Each day more and more people came from further and further away. Each one of the Peace Corps Volunteers were with a doctor or nurse and after translating all day we were all pretty tired. I had translated for other groups and could definitely see the difference in the organization level. They seemed to have it down to a science. 

Me holding another happy patient 

Even though everything went pretty well of course, like always, I had my complaints and reservations. As most people know I'm critical and always like to look at the hidden side of things. In other words I'm convinced that many of these groups that come down here (especially church groups) have a over-riding agenda. For the most part, this groups agenda was out in the open. They were a church group and they were putting on a free clinic. There were just a couple things that bothered me. One, again, there were no real doctors! I don't know how many times I have translated for these types of groups where there are nurses or someone who just started school to be a doctor handing out meds like they are candy. There was a Physicians Assistant there whom was very nice and knowledgeable but I hate the fact that people are allowed to come down here and further reinforce the fact that they are second class citizens. It might not be that big of deal as something is better than nothing but I just feel better knowing a real doctor is around. The second thing was that with this clinic brought a lot of bad habits we have formed in the states. Almost every person got Antibiotics, worm meds, and pain relievers. 

There was no equipment to check blood, urine, or saliva and no ultrasound. With other mobil clinics that I've worked with these things are very valuable and save the person from taking drugs they don't need to and from you having to pay for them. I've really never seen anything like it. Almost every damn person got those things. Of course I gave my own speech while they were handing the meds out talking about how they need to drink boiled water and more of it. The last thing that really started to bug me, but didn't start bugging me until the last day was the fact that these people brought their own translators but were using them for walking door to door to talk about the bible. I realized that in a way I was helping them evangelize the town by freeing up their translators. I realized later that they would have gotten other translators from Almirante but it still bothered me. As most know, I think that the bible and its story are just that. Stories. I even think that some are good stories. I just don't believe that one should live their lives based on a story. Especially one made up almost 2k years ago. The bible or Jesus or anything else that is religious doesn't really bother me and I think that there are beautiful cultures built around some of these stories and beliefs. What does bother me are church groups knowingly going to places that have low to no education and that live in poverty and promising a better life if they live it by worshiping a particular god. I just don't think its fair to these people. Why do they need this? I really think that the church people think they are doing something good and they seemed really happy doing it. The locals are pretty used to church and evangelists so they were happy too. I guess I'm the one that just doesn't get it. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Less Than Four Months Left

Life is back to normal. Well back to normal for here at least. The heat is unbearably unbearable, time has seemed to stop in place, and I spend long swaths of the day with my eyes glued to a book that I would have never picked up in the states. The novelty of my return has been short and most people just simply ask where I've been. My water tank is nearly dry, the energy in my car battery used to charge things almost empty, and cell service gone for the last 5 days. But, and this is a big but, I have my health. It has been months since I have been sick with any worms or parasites. That is, to my knowledge at least. There is the off chance that I do have something and my body has finally built up some type of normal immunity or at least learned that these things aren't going away anytime soon so they might as well get snug. In fact its been since we were locked in site for that greater part of the month when I had 3 days shitting my pants and clutching my stomach in pain due to something that no will ever be able to tell since I've been sick. 

On return from the states I bought soccer cleats. There were two reasons for this. One being that I need something to do for an hour a day, and two being that as soon as I got back from the states everyone I ran into commented that I had gained a bunch of weight. That probably isn't a bad thing and ever since I've gone totally vegetarian I've noticed my stomach get a little out there, but it is all a reminder that I haven't been getting much exercise. Lets just say that my first practice almost sent me to the hospital. I limped off the field with my muscles barely hanging on to my flesh from fatigue. Its taken me 4 days to recoup and today is more practice. 

I'm stuck in a weird zone now where I don't have much time left here but I do. Peace Corps tells us to start winding everything down and still have more than 3 months left. At the same time everyone is talking about my going away party and how they want to claim certain things in my house when I leave. I'm having a raffle for everything which seems to be the fairest thing to do. All this talk though gets me excited for a second until I realize that I have more than 100 days left here and that most of that will be spent waiting. I do have a great deal of work planned such as my 8 day workshop that I hope to start next week which will coincide with us getting some new computers. And there is a whole new tourism project with another group that I'm trying to help out with now which involves a lot of logistics and making promotional materials. There is also my student which I help every day and whom is doing an outstanding job. 

If I have started to reflect upon my time here I have only been thinking of one thing really and that is the fact that helping others (including other living things including animals such as baby hummingbirds) really does make one feel better. It could be argued that it is an selfish thing itself. Seeing how I've helped these people even in the smallest amount has really kept me going this whole time and without I'de have been a wreck. I do realize that most volunteers spin their wheels for a long in service and I have had my fair share of that too, but with the great successes I've had I feel good. Even the small things like being able to have a full conversation with my English student puts a smile on my heart. You can't see it. But its there.