Friday, September 27, 2013

A visitor, some work, and a regional meeting.

So, I’m past my deadline of one update per month… but here’s what happened in the month of September (besides half of my friends having birthdays…. Jen, Veronica, Elizabeth, Henry, Paz, Chelsea, Rosie, Nick, Graycie, Andrea…. Phew!):

On the 1st my boyfriend, Peter, came to visit and we had a great time touring around Panama. We did my favorite things in the city: Casco Viejo, Cerro Ancon, Amador Causeway, and, of course the canal. We also hopped up to Bocas for a few days and spent time on a gorgeous, remote island splashing around in the crystal clear water surrounded by starfish. It was really beautiful. Finally, we made our way down to Pesé so that he could see where I live and what I do on a day-to-day basis. He got to meet my host family, some neighbors, and a couple of teachers. And when we went out dancing (bachata, merengue, and tipico, which he picked up quickly – I was impressed!) he got to see two men salomar, which was a hilarious cultural experience for him. He compared it to two roosters crowing back and forth at each other. Who knows, maybe that’s where it originally came from. Sadly, I saw him off at the airport on the 10th, then headed home the following day.

Here are some of the best photos from the trip:

View headed into the mangrove canal on the way to the island

My view from our cabin, watching the sun come up and illuminate the mainland.

Beautiful clear water!

Picturesque beaches.

Picnic on the beach before snorkeling.

Lunch with the host family - Susi, Bruni and Roderik.

View of Pesé.

Canal - of course.
I’ve gotten into the rhythm of school for the third trimester, and I’ve finally gotten to know the teacher who was new in the 2nd trimester. He also has finally discovered the reason I’m here and how I can help him, so that was satisfying. I’ve been helping with his 11th grade classes the last few days, helping them work on pronunciation for a presentation on Panama’s cultural groups.

Over the course of the next trimester, I also am hoping to introduce Ultimate to my community! I think the PE teachers are going to teach it in a few weeks, and I hope to start gaining interest for a club as well both through the PE classes as well as just having some days when I’m tossing a disc around. If it goes well, hopefully I’ll have a team by the mid-November!

 Lastly, this past Friday we had our trimestral regional meetings in which all of the Azuero (Herrera and Los Santos) volunteers get together to hear announcements from office staff, share project updates, ask for or offer support on projects, and announce any opportunities that others may be interested in. This time around we also got to meet our new Country Director, Pete Larousse, which was good. We were sad to see Brian Riley go at the end of June – his shoes are definitely big to fill.

After Regional Meetings, we usually stick around for a night and hang out (partly due to the fact that many PCVs can’t get back to site after the meeting, partly just because we want to hang out with each other). This time we went out to Isla Iguana, an island off the coast of Pedasí down in Los Santos. It is GORGEOUS. The water was so clear and blue, there was some cool coral and fish, and the weather was perfect. We arrived around 4 – just in time to set up our tents and enjoy the last bit of sunshine while relaxing in the water. Around 10, I looked up and realized that the moon was rising, and it was full! It was so incredible – I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place with no lights before during a full moon. We had shadows that were clear as day – you could see each other perfectly, even without the light from the campfire. It was amazing. The next day, we swam some in the morning, and relaxed on the beach when the tide got too low to swim due to the coral.

Somewhat grainy view of the beach at night - the line is the shadow of the trees on the sand from the moonlight.

Beautiful reflections during low tide.

We got picked up around 11 and on the way back to the mainland, we went around the island looking for whales! It’s mating and birthing season for humpback whales and they always come to the warm waters near Panama around this time every year. After searching around for a few minutes, the boat driver finally said “Allí!” and cut the motor. We all looked to where he was pointing and, sure enough, a whale surfaced! He said it was a mother and her calf. They surfaced a couple of times, and we kept searching for them to come up again. Then, all of a sudden, they came up 15 feet from the boat!! It was amazing! They aren’t dangerous, so it was so neat seeing them up close. We couldn’t see that far into the water, but we could see the backs of both the mother and baby! So cool. Checked off the bucket list.

Perfectly calm, blue water surrounding the island.

WHALES - Humpback whales, to be specific. It was a mother and her calf! They come to Panama between August and October (I think) to mate and give birth in the warm waters here. After a few months, they'll return south towards the waters near Chile and Antartica.

View of the beach where we camped.
Back on the beach, we ate fried fish and patacones for lunch before finally heading out. I spent Saturday night with my friend, Rosie (who came to visit me when she was a trainee back in March) since her birthday was on Sunday.

After a nice weekend, I got back to Pesé, ready to hit the ground running for the week. I’ve been in the high school this week, helping to plan some activities with a few different teachers. I told them that this trimester, I want them to come to me if they need help. So far it’s been a little slow, so I may need to up my pressure a little bit. We’ll see how this coming week goes.

This weekend is the first birthday of my host sister's daughter. How it has been a year since she has been born, I don't know. But we're going to have a big blow-out party tomorrow afternoon. I'm sure I'll have enough material to write an entire post after that!

Happy Friday everyone!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Enough play... back to work!

So, the last two posts were about what first comes to mind about the highlights of my time here, many of which are travels and fun cultural experiences. However, I have been busy! From December through the end of May I was super busy with several projects in which I was working closely with the office. The first was Group 72’s training, and the second was a conference for my group (Group 70). In addition to this, I helped other volunteers with the workshop Elige tu Vida (Choose your Life) for 9th graders, organizing my own in March. I am also one of three volunteers working on a leadership seminar for English teachers and university students called Leadership Development for Global Education. Lastly, I’ve also gotten more involved with Ultimate Frisbee here in Panama, helping conduct some workshops with groups around the country, as well as hoping to start some projects in Pesé with it. I’ll go through them one by one and give a few more details.

G72 Training - Planning: December - February, Implementation: February-April

I was lucky to be asked by the office staff to help give some feedback on our training and help improve it for the incoming group along with 3 or 4 other PCVs. This turned out to be a much bigger task than most of us anticipated. We completely revamped the technical training (regarding teaching), reorganized the order of the sessions, created some new tools and guides to help them integrate into their communities and schools, and figured out who was going to present which parts of the training. Starting in early December, we held countless meetings, I made multiple trips into the city, and finally the new group arrived in mid-February! It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed it. It also made me miss working in an office; the few days we had meetings at the PC Office or I stayed an extra day in the city just to be able to work in the office, I realized that I do enjoy that kind of environment where I can walk down the hall and talk with the person that I need to see, as opposed to being 5 hours away with a spotty internet connection. Overall it was a wonderful experience - I was happy that the office asked me to contribute, I felt like I was doing professional work again, I was enjoying the work that we were doing, and I enjoyed working with other PCVs in this manner.

The hardest thing about this entire process for me was when I went to actually present. Since I've been here, I have done many presentations and have gained a lot of confidence in my presentation abilities. However, through a few unforseeable events, I ended up having to present some material that I wasn't prepared for, as well as co-present some that I did contribute to, but did not really make the presentation. With these contributing factors, I felt very inadequate and like it did not go very well. That was a frustrating way to end the whole process that I, overall, thoroughly enjoyed. However, I think that at the end of training, the PCTs thought that it was a fairly good program (though certainly not perfect) and we felt that we had definitely improved upon my group's training experience, which was the main goal.

ELC (Educational Leadership Conference) - Planning: January-May, Conference: May 24-26

Soon after we started planning for G72 Training, I was asked to help plan and present the new TE PML (Teaching English Project Management and Leadership). PML is a sector-wide conference that usually occurs about a year into service when PCVs have identified a community leader and bring them to this conference to learn about how to manage groups, funds, and projects. While this is a great program, it is not pertinent to the teachers with which us TE work. So a group of about 6 PCVs in groups 67 and 70 met in January to review the feedback from G67 and to create a vision and goals. Through many more meetings, both in-person and online, we adapted the information from the traditional PML that would apply to our teachers (mainly the leadership portions) and decided on topics to help our teachers improve their teaching methedologies. We created the material to be presented and created the workbook/information packet that would be handed out to all of the participants. The first day ended up being leadership-oriented, and presented in Spanish, and the second day was teaching-oriented, and presented in English by PCVs (including myself).

The conference took place at a college in Santiago, Veraguas (The Normal School) the last weekend of May. I was permitted to bring two teachers, since I have so many, so I chose to bring César (my PC appointed counterpart) who teaches 12th grade, and Eliseo who is one of my best teachers at the primary school and teaches 3rd and 4th grade this year, in addition to being a very close friend of mine.

The conference went well, though not without a few hiccups. The housing was not ideal (dirty dorm-style rooms with bathrooms built for teenagers sharing those rooms), and the first few presentations (the material taken from PML) took longer to get through than expected, leading us to cut an entire presentation for the sake of time. But at the end of the conference, everyone felt highly satisfied, and that the attendees had gotten something valuable out of the presentations.

Elige tu Vida - Choose your Life

Elige tu Vida is a workshop geared towards 9th grade students created by a Panama PCV around 2010 to address the frequent lack of life goals, the high drop out rate, and the high rate of teen pregnancies. It has become very popular among volunteers, and I have now coordinated or assisted with 4 different sessions throughout the country. I, like many other PCVs, have come to see how valuable this workshop is since these are very real issues that we deal with in our communities on a daily basis. If this messaging can get through to at least one of those students, we can feel as if we have done our job. Though we will probably never know if it has made an impact or not.

Anyway, I decided last year that I wanted to conduct the workshop at my school. With 144 9th grade students, it's a little bit harder than having the office print a few booklets, so I applied for a grant, received it, coordinated with the principal, the social workers, and the psychologist in my school, printed the booklets, requested condoms for the demonstration and support from the social worker at the Health Center in Pesé, and requested the help of my fellow volunteers as facilitators. At the beginning of March it all played out. I had the books ready to go, volunteers showing up at my house, and the 2 social workers and the psychologist on-hand ready to help.

It went really well overall. There was a speedbump here or there - one girl got a little bit upset at some of the information regarding the risks of teen pregnancies (I'm sure it just hit a little too close to home), so the social worker took her outside and talked to her about it, and the first group that received a couple of extra condoms misused them and the principal asked me not to do that anymore. But other than that, it went smoothly. We conducted one workshop the first day, then two simultaneous ones the following three days in order to cover all 7 groups over the course of 4 days. We ended up receiving a second kit of materials for the 3rd and 4th days, so we didn't have to do the workshop out of order for one of the groups.

Coordinating this, hosting volunteers at my house every night, and presenting for 4-5 hours every day was absolutely exhausting. But there is no way that I could have done it without the help and support of my PCV friends! I was so grateful that they spent their own money to come and help me with this. At the end of the week, I got home and went straight to bed! Napped for a solid few hours before coming-to and being able to be satisfied at the success of the week.

LDGE: Leadership Development for Global Education

LDGE is a seminar created by a PCV who COS-ed in March of this year. Before leaving, she passed on the main work of her service - creating a leadership seminar, in English, for advanced university students and professors - to Chelsea, Miranda, and me. We have taken up her mantle and started implementing these seminars at the University of Panama in Panama City. The core of the program is centered around personal development, knowing your strengths, and putting them into practice in order to reach your potential and create progress in your workplace.

The first session was a 5-week long seminar, with classes twice a week for 2 hours in April and May. The three of us facilitators took turns being there for the two sessions each week. We had a few significant challenges with this first round. Since the course was during normal class hours, many of the students did not see the course through, or missed a significant number of sessions even though they had special permission from the dean. This led to us only having 3 students on a regular basis, when we had originally expected 15-18. On top of this, we also had a few scheduling difficulties towards the end, which threw both the students as well as us facilitators for a loop. Additionally, the students level of English, while good, made it a little bit difficult to delve deep into the complex ideas from the articles. With the combination of these challenges, and the fact that it was our first time going through the entire program, it wasn't quite ideal.

But what's the Peace Corps mantra? Adjust your expectations.

So we did.

And we were blown away.

In July we conducted a one-week long intensive course for professors from the University. They attended from 8am - 1pm for 5 days, with additional homework each night. We had 22 signed up originally, and when the course finally started that Monday, we had 11 show up. But those 11 were there, committed, and engaged every single day of the course. These professors truly are the cream-of-the-crop at the university because they had already given up one week of their vacation to attend an English seminar (coordinated by one of our participants) and were then giving up a second week of their vacation to attend our workshop. Professors who are that dedicated to improving their language and teaching skills in addition to their personal growth are truly the audience that we want to reach.

Throughout the week, we worked through the articles, watched several Ted Talks, and had extensive conversations about the personal growth each could achieve, how this could affect their work and their colleagues, and how they could use this new growth and motivation to inspire change in their workplace. They had some amazing ideas, and I truly saw them grow a lot, even though they are already very experienced professionals. That being said, of course there were a few bumps in the road here and there, but we got them smoothed out as well as we could that week, and are learning from them so we can improve future sessions.

Dimas adding his drawing and strengths to "The Island".
Group/pair work. Notice the tanques de amor/warm fuzzy envelopes on the wall!
Chelsea and Miranda facilitating awesomely, as they did all week!
The whole group - 3 PCV facilitators and 11 amazing participants.
At the end of the week, Chelsea, Miranda and I all agreed that it was one of the best experiences we have had in Peace Corps. Connecting with those motivated, experienced, thoughtful teachers and seeing them grow personally throughout the week was satisfying (that the work we put in paid off), inspiring (in my own personal growth, my work as a PCV, and my plans for the future), and motivating (to continue the program with other participants around Panama).

We're planning for other sessions and to adapt it in different ways to reach different audiences, so I will keep you updated on what becomes of LDGE in the future.

A couple of the best videos and conversation starters we had throughout the week were Brene Brown's The Power of Vulnerability, Margaret Heffernan's Dare to Disagree, and Simon Sinek's How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Watch them! They are very powerful and I think everyone can relate and/or apply it to their lives.

Ultimate! UWB, Teaching Ultimate, Playing Ultimate.

Recently I have also been getting more involved with Ultimate Frisbee down here in Panama. Two volunteers started their service with the knowledge that they wanted to use Ultimate as a youth development tool, and have since gotten plugged in with an RPCV who founded Ultimate Without Borders (website and Facebook page) a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that promotes youth development through Ultimate Frisbee. The pilot program is here in Panama, and they are doing some work in South Africa as well (where the co-founder is currently working). Their goal is to work through Peace Corps Volunteers and host country nationals to create Ultimate clubs and encourage the values and behaviors that are reinforced by the Spirit of the Game in Ultimate.

In February, I attended the first Training of Coaches for PCVs to start teams in their sites. In the next month or two, I am hoping to finally get a team going (other commitments prevented me from doing so before now). But I have also helped teach a youth group at a near-by town as well as assist with a Spirit of the Game Workshop in the Darien. I've seen, first-hand, how Ultimate can promote personal as well as team growth.

Teaching the rules of Ultimate to Emily's youth group in Menchaca (about an hour from Pesé).
Trying to get a game going - they did decently for being young and many of them never having touched a disc before!

Ultimate Frisbee team in Lajas Blancas, Darien. They've been at it a little while and are really improving!
Spirit circle at the end of the game. Telling your teammates and opposing teammates something that they did well that day. Such a huge part of Ultimate, and such a foreign concept to these kids.
The UWB Panama team is planning a 4 day Ultimate Frisbee and Leadership camp in February of 2014. I have been closely involved in planning for this camp, and I am excited to see how the participants improve their Ultimate skills as well as grow in their personal development and leadership skills. Here is an article written by the UWB Panama Co-director that explains it further.

We are funding the camp through the community's support in conjunction with personal donors. If you are able, please consider donating to this project! Even $5 would help - that would feed one of the youth participants breakfast and lunch! 100% of the funds will go directly to the camp. I am super excited about this camp, and think it is going to be wonderfully impactful for the participants. Please consider helping us make this a reality.

Here is the link for the Peace Corps donation page.

See? I do work some too.... It's not all just travel and pretty sites ;) though that is a pretty good perk...

More to come soon...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wrapping up 2012 and Starting 2013 off with a.... swim!

On September 23rd, my host sister had a baby girl!! Andrea Paola Ramos is a beautiful new addition to my host family. Now she’s almost a year old, but here are some of the pictures from when she was born.

Youngest baby I've ever held!

The proud older brother with a sign saying "I <3 Andrea Paola. From: All of your family." Of course, there are a few mistakes, but I love that he's trying!

Then, in July, she was baptised!
Baby's not sure about this...

The family! Rodrigo (dad), Susi (mom & my host sister), Roderik (proud brother), baby Andrea.

Me with extended host family and the godparents (on the right).

Also, at the beginning of December, I was invited to go to a neighbor’s wedding! It was a wonderful cultural experience. Many of the traditions are the same, but there are also marked differences. Instead of having bridesmaids, the bride and groom have a godmother and godfather for the wedding stand at the front with them. There are still a flower girl and ring bearer though! At the reception, there was no first dance and while they did cut the cake, it wasn’t distributed to guests! It was just for the family to save and eat later haha. A new tradition for me that I really enjoyed was “Crazy Hour”. At midnight they passed out beads, hats, masks, and noisemakers and we all danced crazily for a little while – it was a ton of fun. Also, the bride and groom went around to each table and took a photo with all of the guests – I really liked this, though it took a while, because it ensures that they get a photo with everyone. It was a beautiful wedding and I feel very lucky that I got to experience a Panamanian wedding!

My host nephew, Roderik, and I during "crazy hour"!

With the flower girl, Ana Sofia, another young friend.

Bride and groom! Nyleen and Miguel.
After a good trip home, 2013 started off with a bang with two of my best friends coming to visit Panama! We spent some time in the city and in my site, but my favorite time with them was in San Blas – the islands to the northeast of Panama. It was stunningly gorgeous and I’m so glad I got to share it with them!

Island where we stayed!
Love these girls! And so appreciated them coming down to visit me.

Kuna women wearing their traditional clothing.
View of Panama City from Casco Viejo.

Here are a few other pics from the past few months:

Something else I love about Panama: all of this cost $4.

Azuero PCVs at our Regional Meeting in February. With our former Country Director, Brian, and Regional Leader, Annie. They are both sorely missed!

Beautiful sunset at Playa Venao after the Regional Meeting.

Another gorgeous panamanian sunset from a hill in Pesé.

Trip to a river near Pesé. The cows decided to take over at one point. They got thirsty.

Beautiful river.

Juicing sugar cane! Pushing the trapiche/grinder.

Me with Roderik in his NC t-shirt at a school event.

Lastly, when my group hit our one-year point in site, we decided to celebrate together by going to Santa Catalina. A few of us also took a day trip to Isla Coiba. It was soooo stunning. There were gorgeous beaches and wonderful snorkeling! We saw some (small and harmless) sharks, awesome colorful fish, and even a couple of turtles!

On Isla Grano de Oro (Island Grain of Gold).

My happy place during our lunch stop in-between snorkeling stops.

Contrary to what it seems like, I do actually do some work down here! That's what the next post will be dedicated to... But I hope you enjoyed some of my photos of the gorgeous places around Panama!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I'm back! And resolved to actually update...

Hello friends & family –

I know it has been waaaaayyy too long since I have updated by blog. I got super busy, then it just fell off of my to-do list because it seemed too hard to catch up. BUT as I have just over 6 months left in Panama, I am making a resolution to update my blog at least twice a month. We’ll see how this goes ;)

So, to take you back a little bit, the last time I updated was November, which is the Mes de Patria here in Panama. That means that there are national celebrations just about every weekend (see list of dates in previous post) is a holiday with (a) day(s) off of school and/or work and just general revelry all the time. Awesome, but it makes school pretty pointless.

But I got to experience some awesome Panamanian traditions such as wearing a pollera (typical dress), marching in the parades, and seeing all of the different traditions associated with these holidays.

Here are a few pictures:
Me & my host mom, Bruni

Me & my counterpart, César.

Panamanian embroidered shirt, decked out with traditional jewelry, lots of make-up, and tembleques in my hair!

Then men tried to climb a greased-down pole to get the cash prize at the top.

In a pollera! This is actually a vasquiña (a solid-colored skirt), but it is still considered part of the typical dress of Panama.

Then with a hat towards the end of the parade.

Girls marching.

My tembleques!
Then, of course, after we finished celebrating all of the Panamanian holidays, then came Thanksgiving! Almost all PCVs in Panama head up to the mountains of Chiriqui, close to Costa Rica, for two days to celebrate together, have some cool(er) weather, and enjoy a Thanksgiving meal reminiscent of home, if not exactly the same.

Gorgeous hike in the misty, lush rainforest.
Prepping the salad!

Mashed potatoes and mac & cheese :)
After Thanksgiving, since I was on that side of the country, I decided to hop up to Bocas del Toro! It was a fun trip, though it wasn’t the best time of year to go –it was pouring rain almost the whole time…

Adorable Ngobe girl near the cacao farm

Drying cacao beans.

Fresh cacao.

Our guide's daughter-in-law cooking the cacao beans.

Grinding them to make chocolate!

Jackie & me on Wizard Beach.

The beach was cool - and this is what we looked like after the hike back.

Banana-land. Chiquita boat.
Bridge from Panamá to Costa Rica.

December brought the end of school and then a two-week trip home! It was wonderful to be home for the holidays and seen as many friends and family as I could.

First thing I ate when I got home. Caprese salad. SO delicious.
Delicious home-cooked meal... Things I missed: good steak, asparagus, good mashed potatoes, fresh salad, and good rolls!

Panthers game with family and almost-family.
Happy New Years! Celebrating with life-long friends :)

Somewhere in there, I did work a little bit. I have continued working with my teachers at school – for the end of this past year, in the high school – and Miranda and I gave 4 different workshops for our teachers on different teaching methodologies, techniques, and activities.

Next post will start the new year!