To be honest, saying I volunteered here is a bit of a stretch. I was supposed to be here for a week, but in the end I was only here for 24 hours. Since I moved my trip from Panama to Colombia up a week, I lost the week I would have liked to spend here.
After spending a night in the city of David courtesy of the Panamanian Immigration System, I took the two hour bus ride to Tole where I then caught a pickup truck that took me 35 minutes up into the mountains to Chichica.
The pickup truck ended up being full of boxes belonging to one of the passengers. Many were put on the roof, but when it started to rain they were all thrown inside the bed of the truck with us. Below is a short video of the journey before it started raining.
I arrived to the house where Jessica lives, the Peace Corps Volunteer who is diligently working to make her community a better place. I found her via her blog. Panama was the hardest place to find volunteering experiences so far. I’m not sure why, but after visiting my awesome friend with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, I reached out to some Peace Corps volunteers in Panama.
Jessica didn’t disappoint. I had a wonderful time there, though it was too short.
Her community belongs to the Ngäbe tribe. I don’t know what it was, but they had the best teeth I’ve ever seen. Seriously, everyone had bright white, straight teeth.
The community reminded me of my time in rural El Salvador, but these people have no connection to the electricity grid. Interestingly, after my volunteering experience in Honduras, many families had solar panel systems similar to the one I set up up.
After dropping off my stuff with the family I’d be staying with I went out with Jessica. She had to deliver notes to some people in the community. It gave me an opportunity to see how stunningly beautiful this place is. I mean, for real. It’s stunningly beautiful and I must have told her several times that where we were standing was a million-dollar view.
Below is a video with a small panorama of the landscape one of the houses we visited calls its backyard. Pictures of mountains never come out well, but you’ll have to trust me that it was stunning!
I couldn’t resist taking this picture of contrasts – old vs. new.
When we’d arrive at someone’s house, the custom was often quite similar. If they invited you to come in and sit down, you had to talk and accept any offerings like coffee, snacks, etc. Jessica could, on days like this, have no problem surviving on the offerings she is given.
Seeing your coffee cooked by burning a piece of wood adds a whole new element of guilt for indulging in the pleasure of coffee. And refusing their offering is considered rude. Unfortunately, I had to at one house because, without realizing it, they put milk in it (I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t have my pills on me). It was the day I was leaving and couldn’t take any chances of having a problem while traveling since the buses don’t have bathrooms. But Jessica explained I am allergic the way many people there have an allergy to pork, which I didn’t know existed.
On the way home, we stopped at a small store. These small stores sell the basic necessities and refrigerated pleasures like ice cream since the homes don’t have refrigerators.
We stopped and talked with the guy running the store and two husband-wife pairs that were already there. One of the ladies was quite a character and we had a great time! She simultaneously adopted me as her godson and gave me a Ngäbe name: Icho. You can see that happen below (in Spanish).
That night I spoke with the president of the association they are building. He is quite young at 24, but full of energy and ideas. I offered some of my ideas, like partnering with hostels in David and making connections with other indigenous groups in other parts of the country doing the same thing to help each other out, etc. So let’s see how it goes.
I also helped them create a one-page advertisement that can be posted in hostels, handed out to tourists, etc. It showcases their wonderful nature, culture, and hospitality offerings. I hope it’ll draw in tourists, because they are the real deal in a game plagued by fake experiences passed off as authentic.
The next day I woke up early as is customary in the countryside everywhere. I don’t know how to explain it, but the sun felt absolutely wonderful. It wasn’t too hot yet, but the sun’s intensity just felt spectacular on my skin. Quite a contrast from freezing in Cartago, Costa Rica! I took a shower and, thanks to the warm sun, decided to wash my clothes even though I’d be leaving in seven hours. I trusted the sun would do its job! And I wasn’t the only one who took in the warm, morning sun!
Village House Visit
We went around visiting more houses, passing out notes and talking to them. We visited this house, for example. They harvest coffee and for the first time I was able to see dry coffee beans. I saw raw ones at Macaw Mountain Bird Park, but these ones were edible.
They explained the process to me a bit. I guess you dry out the beans, which you can see here. Then they remove the shell, roast them, and then grind them up into a powder. The roasting is what really gives the coffee its flavor. I ate some of these beans and they didn’t taste good.
Unfortunately, I saw some of the similar problems that plague other parts of Central America here. For example, here is a pit for burning garbage. There is no garbage collection and it’s pretty much their only option. I’ve already written about the pitfalls of this, but it’s still sad every time I see it.
I had some amazing food here and got to try some new things. First, there was “nancy” or the mirabelle plum. It’s really small, the size of a berry, and they make a juice out of it. Below you can see a collection of them in the bottle, plus my hard-boiled eggs and yuca.
Despite being from Ohio, where deer are abundant and eaten during hunting season, I had deer for the first time here. Yes, there is a tropical species of deer! It was a simple dish of deer and bananas, but it was really good.
These didn’t really fit anywhere else, but I wanted to share them.
I forgot what they are called, but there is some bug here, smaller than a mosquito, that does a number on your skin. I got a few bites on my arms, but everyone is pretty bitten up. It was one of the first things I noticed when I got here.
December 8th was Mothers Day in Panama. It’s a pretty big deal and it’s a national holiday. Here is a little girl, and then her siblings, holding the mother’s day card they made for their mom!
In the end, it was a wonderful experience. I hope the brochure I made for them will help attract others up the mountain to experience what I experienced and more.
The house I stayed in was owned by two grandparents. Their kids are all married and off living on their own (but close by). Just before I caught the truck to go back to Tole and then on to Santiago, the grandma thanked me for coming. She said it had been a long time since she had a son in the house and she was sad to see me go. What more needs to be said?