Friday, January 10, 2014

One Year Later: Reflection and Inspiration

It is hard to imagine that this time last year I was just starting my preparations to spend a semester abroad in Panama. I will be graduating from Villanova University in May with degrees in Environmental Science and Spanish, and this deadline is helping me to reflect on my perspective of the world, how it has changed over the past four years, and what I hope to contribute to the future. My experience in Panama has been transformative in shaping my goals, interests, and outlook on life. I could never have imagined the profound role this experience has had on my life and I would like to highlight some of the most influential moments of my experience at the one-year anniversary of my travels.

I’d like to start with a memory of mine: It is pitch black and I’m walking down a dirt road that winds around hills in the small rural village of Loma Bonita (in the province of Cocle). My homestay family had decided to go for a nighttime walk to visit neighbors and we were headed home. Suddenly I steal a glance upward:  there is an infinity of stars above my head and I’m awestruck. I’ve never seen so many stars. I share my amazement with Maribel, my Panamanian homestay sister, and I am further amazed that she shares my amazement and we both stop to admire them. She must see that same starry sky every night, and yet she is still mesmerized by its beauty just as much as a visitor. 

I marvel at the millions of stars I have never seen before until I stumble upon a familiar constellation that I’ve seen countless times at home: Orion. Orion has always meant a lot to me: I can see it clearly from my driveway at home on Long Island; it is associated with a particularly beautiful memory of sledding with friends from high school, as well as countless attempts to star-gaze on the soccer fields with friends at Villanova. And here it is again in Panama. I am reminded that even though nothing of what I have experienced in this rural homestay has been familiar (chickens walking into my room, the hour long walk descending mountains to reach the center of town, the concrete vibrantly colored house constructed by the family’s grandfather, the loud hum of a generator that can provide just one more hour of light after darkness falls) we are still under the same sky. I point out the familiar constellation to Maribel, but she tells me they call it another name. Then she proceeds to sweep a finger across the night sky, naming constellations in Spanish for me. And I’m overwhelmed by the idea that everyone around the world is simultaneously seeking the meaning of the universe and an understanding of why we are here. Even countries away, people are drawn to seek answers from the same stars. Then Maribel suggests I take a picture of the beautiful sky with my camera. I have been taking photos all week, introducing my homestay family to the miracle of “flash.” I try to explain that it probably won’t work since it is so far away, but she insists. She wanted to ensure that I remembered that moment, and even though the picture did not come out, she succeeded. I’ll never forget the image of Maribel bending over backwards to aim my camera at the night sky, while her three-year old daughter (who had been hitching a ride on her back this whole time) squeals in protest as she draws nearer and nearer to being horizontal.  This moment was when I first realized the power of connection across cultures and backgrounds. I traveled to Panama in search of something different, in search of a new adventure, and I most certainly found it, but I was also reminded of our similarities, our universal desire to connect, share our histories, celebrate the present, and collaborate to improve the future.

To describe Panama, I would describe extreme opposites: the bustling metropolis of Panama City compared to the rural indigenous village of the Naso people accessible only by a 2 hour canoe ride, the ceaselessly rainy tropical rainforests of the Coclé province contrasting the barren Sarigua desert in the Azuero peninsula, and the murky, mangrove swamp-covered Pacific coast contradicted by the crystal clear blue reefs of the Caribbean coast. But despite these differing regions and environments, the people were unfailingly consistent: welcoming, friendly, inquisitive, and supportive every step of my journey. I find that the most important lessons I learned from Panama weren’t from my surroundings (hiking 6 hours up Volcán Barú must have taught me something I am still trying to piece that together), but rather from conversations and relationships with individuals. I would like to reflect on some of the incredible people I met in Panama and what they taught me.

In Loma Bonita, the same village where I shared that moment with Maribel under the stars, I had the privilege to have a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old as my teachers. Angi and Ilda were the two sweetest, patient, and curious teachers/homestay sisters I could have asked for. While my Spanish certainly improved by talking with adults, I found that when a conversation started to go over my head, most adults would let it happened unless I spoke up asking for clarification. These girls however, would notice that glazed look on my face, stop, take me by the hand, and show me what it was I needed to learn. They would repeat words that I didn’t recognize and explain customs that were new to me. They were always excited to play with me and when the daylight didn’t provide enough time, they snuck into my room at night to continue our games and talk. At some point they started asking me questions and I took the opportunity to ask them things as well. What games do you like to play? What’s your favorite food? It was at this point when I started to realize I was learning a lot just by talking with them. When we got to the favorite food question the younger girl started telling me about how she loves “emme-emmes.” I didn’t recognize the word so I asked her what they were and she started describing colorful candy-coated chocolates with soft chocolate inside. As a chocolate lover, my month so far in Panama had been rough since there was not much chocolate in the traditional Panamanian diet. I was thrilled to try this new Panamanian chocolate candy and I told her so, asking how to spell it. She just looked at me blankly before repeating, “emme-emmes.” And then it hit me. She was describing M&Ms. I still had a lot to learn, but I could learn a lot as long as I remained curious and willing to make mistakes. When traveling in a foreign culture, especially while learning a foreign language, one can easily feel like a child. At times it can be frustrating, but most of the time it is thrilling to discover the world anew from a different perspective.

The perspective of the indigenous groups we visited was the most eye opening of my travels. There are many groups of indigenous people in Panama and we visited the Naso, a people who live in communities along the Teribe River in the Changinola province. To reach the community we stayed in, we had to pile into canoes with makeshift motors and fight our way upstream against the current for 2 hours. Upon our arrival, the first person to meet us on the shore was a young girl in pigtails who introduced herself as Maijori to everyone. She was full of energy and curiosity and excitement. I knew immediately this was someone I was eager to get to know, and that didn’t turn out to be hard because she was my homestay sister. So we had a nice 45 minute trek from the center of the community to her house in which we could get to know each other. She practically skipped through the forest, despite being barefoot and was so full of energy and unconcerned by the long, muddy hike we had in front of us. At some point we came to a wide stream and suddenly she took off her pleated blue school skirt, held it over her head, and waded through the stream in her underwear. I realized that if Maijori could maintain such a high level of energy and enthusiasm despite her arduous path to school every day, I could manage to stay positive throughout the difficulties in my university studies as well.

The first person I met in the Naso territory was inspirational, as was the last. To leave the community, we were placed on traditional rafts of bamboo and balsa wood with a guide carrying only a stick (to prod us in the right direction along the way) so that we could float downstream for two hours back to the nearest village. When the three of us first sat down on our raft we were visibly uneasy. Our guide tried to reassure us, but that is difficult when you are sitting in two inches of water on a wet, splintery raft with nowhere to hold on and a two hour voyage ahead of you. Seeing our nervousness, at every turn our guide decided we needed to learn something, so he told us to stand up. We were incredulous yet reluctantly obedient. Now all four of us were standing on the raft as it floated downstream, approaching another curve and another wavy patch of water. The guide assured us that we should relax, trust the river, and we’ll be fine. When we approached the turn, we were easily able to balance ourselves and it was actually a lot of fun! I was freed in that moment by placing my trust in a river and a man with a stick.

We stood and sat as we continued down the river, asking our guide about the Naso’s relationship with the river and learning about true resourcefulness and connection with the natural world. The river banks were lush and green and wild as the river wandered aimlessly through the forest, until we came across overturned boulders, fallen trees, and very choppy water. The river took a sudden turn and our once carefree guide told us to hold on. We hit a fallen tree and I managed to be the only member of our group to fall overboard. Once I was back on the raft, we realized that the river had changed because of the new scenery that lined the banks: backhoes, trucks, excavating machines, all removing sand from the river and carting it off to be used in other construction projects around the country. We had heard from talking with the community elders that recent developments along the river were threatening their way of life (hydroelectric dams, mining operations, and sand excavation), but only after experiencing the damage firsthand did I really understand. The Naso people faced devastating consequences of the exploitation of their land and the land rights of indigenous groups are rarely enforced. Their way of life is disappearing; they know they are fighting a losing battle and yet they still do it. This determination of the human spirit was powerful to witness. For someone like myself, who is constantly hoping for a better world (environmentally, socially) and is sometimes disillusioned by the great challenges these improvements face, the Naso’s perseverance was an inspiration.

During my independent study project I was also inspired by individuals who challenged norms despite seemingly impossible odds. My project analyzed the process of organic certification among farmers in Cerro Punta, an area in the highlands of Chiriquí province (where 80% of all of Panama’s vegetables are grown). I had the pleasure of staying with Don Roger and his wife Nella. My introduction to Don Roger was when he met me at the bus stop and led me up the steep slope to his house at the top of a hill. About halfway up the slope he tells me he wants to introduce me to someone. Perplexed, I look around for another person but it is just the two of us on the trail. Then Don Roger calls up the hill, “Ruperto!” A bleated reply carries down the slope, “Maaaa!” and the head of a black goat peeks over the top of the hill. Don Roger continues the conversation (as he would do every single day we walked up that hill) while we walk the rest of the way:

Don Roger: “¿Cómo estás?”

Ruperto: “¡Maaaa!”

Don Roger: “¡Me voy!”

Ruperto: “¡Maaaa!”

Don Roger: “¡Tranquilo, me voy!”

Don Roger was a good-humored old man, but he also was humble about how much wisdom he carried with him. He was one of the founding members of GORACE (Grupo Orgánico de Agricultores Cerropunteños) in 1997. This organization is the only group of small growers with organic certification in the whole country. He had led workshops, attended conferences (across Central America and the US), and knows all the right herbs in his garden to make herbal tea remedies. Now in his eighties, he is often short of breath on long hikes, but still treks way up in the mountains (an hour bumpy car ride and a hike after that) to maintain Finca La Victoria, GORACE’s organic farm. While GORACE’s relative impact was small, considering the majority of farmers in the area still practice conventional farming methods, they have changed the hearts and minds of 20 farmers in the region to use organic, sustainable practices. I had the opportunity to interview 22 individuals (organic farmers, conventional farmers, certifying company representatives, government representatives) to learn about how to facilitate organic certification among small farmers, who often fall through the cracks. In an interview with one of GORACE’s members, I asked what inspired her to switch to organic farming and join this movement and she replied, “Cada persona falta un tornillo.”  Their success and their hard work to accomplish it gave me the inspiration to persevere in my efforts to promote a more sustainable future.

I am eager to continue traveling and forming relationships with new people to have more moments like when I stood with Maribel under that infinity of stars, or when I was the student of children, or when a man convinced me to trust a river, or those many conversations over tea with a good-humored farmer. These moments broadened my perspective, reminding me that while we all come from different experiences and backgrounds, we are all hoping to be understood and share what is important to us through these moments with others. The people I met in Panama and these lessons they taught me have inspired me to seek a career working with people from the Latin American region to continue making connections with people. Eventually, I hope to channel the inspiration these people have given me to facilitate beneficial environmental change and development, promoting the health of both the environment and the people of this region I have come to admire.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Goodbye and Transitioning

I am back home on Long Island after living in Panama for 3 1/2 months. Everything feels strange and familiar at the same time. I have to restrain myself from saying “Gracias” to people and still can’t quite get the hang of throwing toilet paper in the toilet instead of the garbage can. But I am enjoying the cool weather and amazing food. I ate raw cucumber today and I’ve never been so happy!
As for the end of my adventure in Panama, the last week felt like finals for sure. I somehow wrote a 40 page paper in Spanish for my Independent Study Project, gave a successful 20 minute presentation on it in Spanish, and then gave another 20 minute presentation about Spanish literature to get upper level Spanish class credit. But after all of our presentations and papers were done, we had our “dis-orientation” as we liked to call it in Las San Blas archipelago in the Kuna Yala comarca along the Caribbean coast. It was absolutely gorgeous and every tiny tropical island we visited felt like we were inside a post card. It was also incredible to see how the Kuna people lived, learn more about their culture, and try to decide which beautiful molas to buy (squares of intricately sewn cloth into beautiful designs made by hand by the Kuna and used in their traditional clothing). It was exciting to finally see an indigenous culture benefitting from the tourism in their communities, and running their own tourism independently: the Kuna controlled the boats, hotels, and everything.

 The church on one of the island communities in Kuna Yala.

It was hard to say goodbye to that crystal clear blue water.

 (photo courtesy of Marybeth)

Once back in the city we went out to dinner at a cheesy Mexican restaurant that gave everyone crazy hats. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone after being constantly together for so long, but by the time Sunday morning came around I was ready to go home.

 Everyone together at the beach in Kuna Yala

The two Mexicans representin'

Before our flight, a few friends and I made one last trip to Plaza Cinco de Mayo to do last minute shopping among the artesanias there and we were lucky to stumble upon a local tipica dance troup practicing in the courtyard. They were honestly the best tipica dancers I’d seen in the whole country and it felt like a fitting goodbye to the country to watch them practice for a while. Then we survived the most terrifying taxi ride ever back to our community before we made our way to the airport.
And about 7 hours later I was in JFK airport, exhausted and not thrilled about having to explain that my bag was missing in Spanish to one of the attendants at the baggage claim. Leaving that airport was one of the worst feelings because I honestly thought I had lost that bag forever, and it had every single souvenir I had bought inside it. (Future note to other study abroad students: spread out your souvenirs when you pack to go home). Then, miraculously, the bag appeared unharmed the next morning at our doorstep and I could have hugged the delivery guy.

Almost losing my luggage made me think about what I was really bringing back from this experience. While it will be nice to have things to share with other people to reflect my travels, I know that what I really brought back wasn’t in that bag. I definitely see life in a new light after my stay in Panama. I know more clearly that I want to remain engaged in community work and that I love speaking and learning Spanish. I know now that people get by with very little and yet still have their hearts full. And I have come to understand better the vastness and wonder that is this world we live in.  I don’t know if I’ll ever again have the chance to snorkel in the Caribbean, or hike a volcano, or talk with indigenous people in their community, but I do know that I would like to continue traveling. I have never studied so little and learned so much. I have never felt more satisfied in my own abilities, but simultaneously so uncertain of my own culture. Coming home I hope to integrate all that I’ve learned and seen into my daily life. I hope to live with a more global perspective and to actively give back to this world which has blessed me with incredible opportunities.

Thanks to all of the wonderful people who have supported and encouraged me (both in Panama and in the US) during this semester. Thanks to everyone who has read my scattered thoughts as I have traveled, and I hope that I have been able to share a little bit of Panama with each one of you.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Organic Farming Travels

I can’t believe I only have two days left here in Cerro Punta! My time here has been incredible – everyone has opened their homes, farms, and hearts to welcome me and I will miss it dearly. I have learned so much from the determined pioneers of organic farming here. I am inspired to project the same level of dedication to organic gardening in my own life. Since I have a 25 + page final paper and presentation to work on, this blog will be short. Sadly, good-old Cerro Punta internet won't let me load any photos so just try to picture gorgeous organic farm scenery while you read this and I'll try to add photos later.

Los Quetzales Hotel, Guadalupe
In short, I’d love to vacation at this nearly self-sustainable hotel and spa with its own organic gardens. The owner kept handing me different fruits, edible flowers, and veggies to taste throughout the tour – even diving over bushes to reach them

Santa Clara
I interviewed three different farmers here and stayed with an adorable couple. They helped me practice pronouncing my “erre” in Spanish with tongue-twisters, and I also got to eat organic “budines de guineo” (banana muffins).

Finca La Victoria
This is the farm that Don Roger, my host dad, works on and is owned by GORACE as a group. Its way way up at the top of the mountains and thankfully we got a ride from his neighbor. The ride was much appreciated as the roads were “muy muy feo.”  I was challenged to a discussion about gay rights in Spanish by the neighbor, which made me practice my Spanish. In the end we came to a respectful truce and I earned the complement, “El mundo entero es una belleza, especialmente con mujeres lindas como Ud.”

Seeing Finca La Victoria I was endlessly amazed and impressed by the legacy left by Don Roger and all of his wisdom about organic farming. Even though the farm was in “una descansa” I could feel the tranquility and wholesomeness of the place and all the delicious produce that it had grown. I also got some amazing photos of Don Roger, which I am excited to send to him. This man is the gentlest, wisest, and most dedicated person I’ve met in Panama, and his sense of humor always keeps me smiling.

Ganados y Vistas
I traveled to a farm seeking certification and saw a newborn calf (truly a miracle because when we arrived it was merely a hoof sticking out if it’s mother and the farmer had to help it turn around so that she could give birth), and an incredible view of Cerro Punta, as well as a pretty gnarly hollow tree!

Refugio del Sol
Emelia is the woman I aspire to be at 70. She speaks fluent English and Spanish, has her own organic garden with a small business selling to locals, adopted an adorable abandoned puppy, and has a fire-y yet nurturing personality. Some of my favorite quotes from her include: “That was 50 years ago, girl!” and “Cada persona falta un tornillo.”

This weekend I finally got the opportunity to play "dominos decimales" with Don Roger and it is really tricky. He says I’m learning, and that’s a kind exaggeration, but it’s very fun and I can’t wait to teach everyone at home.  I am also learning a bunch of “recetas en estilo cerropunteño y panameño” (recipies) to attempt to replicate at home.

Las Nubes
In this tiny community every knew each other and I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome I receieved as a complete stranger. I finally got to see Parque Internacional La Amistad and some gorgeous organic farmland. Lunch included a head of lettuce just minutes after being plucked out of the ground.

Arco Iris
In the middle of last week, after a stressful meeting in which I learned I had a lot more work to do, suddenly a perfect rainbow appeared in the sky. I took a million pictures, but none of them captured the magic of that moment. A full arc of neatly arranged colors was hovering gently over Cerro Punta. I felt like a giddy child, unable to contain my smile as I walked back home with Don Roger, who was thoroughly amused by my amazement.

It has been a blessing to have the chance to live here for a few weeks. I will miss the gorgeous views and everyone here. A piece of my heart will always remain in the misty mountains of Cerro Punta.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Solamente en Cerro Punta

So I had my first interview no-show this morning. I guess that was bound to happen. But at least I used my time "productively" to write down some Cerro Punta anecdotes to share with you all. 

First of all, every food here is "en estilo cerropunteño” which basically means add carrots, onions, celery, red peppers, and cheese. So far I've had cerropunteño pizza, eggs, and tacos and I'm loving it! Here are some more cerropunteño-isms that I hope you'll enjoy.

Conversations with a goat:
Don Roger: ¡Ruperto!
Ruperto: ¡Maaa!
Don Roger: ¿Qué pasó?
Ruperto: ¡Maaa!
Don Roger: ¿Cómo estas?
Ruperto: ¡Maaa!
Don Roger: ¡Vengo!
Ruperto: ¡Maaa!
Don Roger: ¡Tranquilo, me voy!
Ruperto: ¡Maaa!

Don Roger’s vendetta against moscas:
Whether it’s in the middle of dinner, a meeting with GORACE, or a TV show, Don Roger is always on the lookout for flies. He’ll be sitting peacefully, then suddenly he’ll notice a fly out of the corner of his eye. His face falls serious and concentrated. He cocks his head to one side while his hand hovers until, SMACK! Then his beaming face will look at me, and he smiles as he confirms, “Lo maté.”

It is acceptable to drink coffee at any time. Coffee in Cerro Punta is like Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding – it solves everything. Breakfast of course needs coffee. Then that part of the mid-morning where you start to fee restless: coffee. If it rains: coffee. If it doesn’t  rain: coffee. If lunch is just not ready yet: coffee. If lunch is over: coffee. If you arrived early to a meeting: coffee. If you are in the middle of a meeting: coffee. If you are going to take a nap: coffee. If you just woke up from a nap: coffee. The pervasiveness of that little bean is incredible.