Traditional Ngobe dance
About an hour and a half along the Costa Rican border, the Sixaola river ends and the Caribbean Sea begins. The beach isn’t much to look at. Strewn with driftwood and riddled with mosquitoes and chiggers, the sun warming dirt stirred water with waves crashing one over the other, inaccessible by nothing but boat. Why would anyone want to come to this beach? One simple thing. The sea turtles.
Every year, around March-August, leatherback sea turtles come to this beach to lay their eggs and return to the sea until the next year. Up until recently, the locals would steal the eggs, selling them for a dollar a piece and capturing the turtles which are worth upwards to $20 a pound.
In recent years, thanks to conservation groups, the few locals that live along the beach are able to supplement their income by being watchdogs over the turtles and nests. Because of its close proximity to Costa Rica, Ticos are able to hop across the border, poach the eggs and return to where they came from before anyone finds out. With the patrol, it’s less likely.
For a week, another Peace Corps volunteer and I lived in a small house that we shared with a conservationist named Huascar. Either from 9 pm-midnight or Midnight-3 am, we would walk 4 km down the beach and back on the lookout for leatherbacks. If we found one, we noted it’s location, size, and checked for tags on the fins, which actually came from UF in Gainesville, FL (where I once lived).
The one (poorly) pictured above measured 147 cm from the top to bottom of its shell.-(picture quality due to the inability to use a flash around them)- Even though most of our time through out the day was spent sitting around sweating, the smallest glimpse at these prehistoric beasts made it all worthwhile. it’s almost like looking back in time as the turtle beats sand aside, grunting as it awkwardly flops its massive fins and then, before you know it, she’s back in the water until the next year.
For a Teaching English volunteer, my service has been anything but normal. I’m one of two volunteers teaching in an indigenous community without electricity and about half way through the year, I stopped going to school altogether. This led to me branching out to other projects. Gardening, composting, and helping other volunteers outside the community became my project. However, school is back and this time it’s different.
The teacher from last year, you know, the one who didn’t want to work with me, is gone. In her place are three new teachers. They seem nice enough but today was literally the first day. I’ve already corrected my mistake of last year (sitting in the class with my mouth shut) by telling them exactly what I plan to do. Less sitting around, more advising outside the class. I’ve also made it clear that this isn’t going to interfere with other projects. I’ll be in school three days a week, at most.
I painted my table this way to remind myself that I’ve chosen a life different than the average so called “American Dream.” I have little to no desire in starting a family and buckling down with a career. It seems my Peace Corps experience is emulative of this outlook. Although my first project hasn’t been as great as planned, that doesn’t mean that my service has been for nothing. I can still make an impact.
I’ve also had the recent realization that I don’t have to do all my work in my community because I’m not just here for La Gloria (my community). I’m here for Panama. World map projects, youth camps, sea turtle projects. Some I’ve done, more to come.
I’ve never been to a funeral before. For one, I’ve never known anyone close to me who has died and the idea of going to an acquaintance’s funeral is not only morbid but also insensitive to the family whose loved one has died. However, in Panama it’s insensitive if the whole town doesn’t turn out.
After returning from the states, I was told that the 6th grade teacher Roberto died the day before my arrival. Roberto was one of two teachers who was indigenous and had lived in the community most of his life. He was sick most of the last few weeks before school let out but I hardly thought he would die. It was all anyone talked about the week leading up to the wake and funeral. Had I heard? When did I last talk to him? Was I going to the funeral?
Although most of Ngobe culture has blended into the traditional Panamanian, Latino ways, the wake sets them apart. I had heard about it and even seen it not a month earlier when my neighbor passed away. They stay up all night around a burning candle, playing music, preaching, and eating food. However, seeing it first hand was sadly disappointing.
I went by myself to the community house where the wake, or vela, was to be held. The youngsters of the community stood in groups along the road, smoking and joking amongst themselves. Women warmed coffee and the Johnny Cakes they sell for 25 cents a piece. At the actual wake, there was hardly a handful of people. I sat alone, trying to conjure up some thoughts of maestro Roberto that weren’t cliche or fake. He really was a good man. When I first arrived, he offered to put me up in his house in the place of the awful family I ended up living with. He never laughed at my Spanish. I only ever visited his home once, far removed from the others where he had luxuries others didn’t, a solar panel, an oven, and only three children as opposed to a litter of ten.
The next day, the funeral was held in the same place. This time, everyone turned out, including most of the teachers. Because he was a teacher, his family could afford to buy him a real casket and grave marker. The funeral carried on much as I imagine a funeral would although very few cried for him besides his direct family and some of the teachers. He lived far removed from the community, choosing not to participate in community events. In fact, I hardly saw him outside the school where he often was even after hours. Nonetheless, most of the community was there to watch him be buried. I switched from dress shoes to rubber boots, following the hundreds as we trekked through the muddy jungle to where the cemetery stood near the barrio known as Bambu. Several more shed tears as he was slid into the mausoleum that would hold his body. I stood alone for much of it, passing ‘hellos’ to teachers and community members, but little else.
Like Roberto, I too live removed. Only a year of my time remains here. I’m nearing completion on my solar panel grant and I’ve also started a composting project. In a month or two, I should have started on mud stoves. When I go, I hope it to be like the last volunteer, where they tell the next one how I helped to make their lives better. Not just a gringo living amongst them, counting down the days.
Even though my dog was stolen twice, I was forced to move, no one came to my meeting and school is over, I promise, I still live in Panama. However, I am back home in Florida.
Due to a broken laptop, I haven’t had a chance in some time to update. Let’s start from number one.
1.) The dog- So apparently, it’s imperative that you clarify when you’re joking here. For instance, say you’re walking out of your community and your dog is following. Say a community member passing mentions how cute he is and you jokingly ask her if she wants him. Make sure they know it’s a joke. Otherwise, your dog will be missing for a week only to show up and disappear for another two weeks and come back half the weight he left. So that happened.
2.) The move- Where i was living was literally in the school. The school consists of two rectangular buildings running parallel to each other with a large grass field separating them. In that grass field was where I once resided. When the government decided they wanted to build a gymnasium in La Gloria, guess where they planned it? My landlord had no choice. In this situation, it actually came out better. My rent is cheaper, the neighbors are my friends, the area is quieter and I don’t have to worry about children running around under my house all day. Win there.
3.) The meeting-I decided that instead of randomly telling community members about project ideas, I would sit them all down together before the new year and decide what they would like from me. I setup flyers, invited who I thought would be interested and even had a neighboring volunteer come. Who showed? Not a soul. Of course, there was a funeral happening that day, which is a whole other story altogether. Even still, how am I supposed to do anything when I don’t know what you want?
4.) Why I’m home-When I first left for Panama, I was adamant about staying through the whole time. But after three months in site, I booked a flight home for the holidays. So far, I’m happy I did. It’s nice to have the luxuries of home and recharge and I’m still excited about returning and digging in. So no, I’m not staying home. I did manage to contract giardia just before leaving so I even got to take a bit of Panama back with me.
All complaining aside, I’m looking forward to the next year in Panama. I already have a solar panel project underway for the school and plan to begin the molds for mud stoves by February at the latest. The last TE group is also leaving soon and so our group will be taking over responsibility for the seminars. These seem to be the main time when teachers pay attention and so the most effective manner of helping them improve. Although it’s a bummer that the community didn’t come to my meeting, I have had a few community members approach me about certain things. While being home, I may have the opportunity to help the artisans sell their goods to an American distributor. Let’s hope half of my plans work out.
New Years resolution? Leave my mark.
I introduced comic books into the English Club and while at first they wanted to go back to playing card games, they ended up “reading” for the whole class. Even though they didn’t understand anything they read, some of them got the gist from the pictures and were able to decipher what the words said.