Thanks for all your love and support

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Peace Corps: How far will you go.....for a good meal?

Regional meetings happen every 4 months in Peace Corps Panama. This is when the Country Director and Peace Corps staff come out to every region in Panama and meet with all the volunteers from that area, mine being the Comarca Ngabe Bugle.  We go over office news, volunteer council, gender and development updates, upcoming events, and share and encourage each other on our work.  I generally look forward to these meetings. It’s nice to stay on the same page as the office and see all the volunteers from my region.  Plus after the meeting all the volunteers go to the beach for some good ol’ R&R.  Great thing about Peace Corps Panama, you are never too far away from a beach. 
A few weeks ago it was our regional leader, Erin Kelley’s, last meeting. Erin is a 3rd-year extension volunteer, and to call her a legend around these parts would be an understatement. We wanted to make her last regional meeting unforgettable.  And as my friend Jack said, “We decided to go big, and go pig.”

1.The Pig: A volunteer from the Comarca, Jason, was bringing one down from his site, which is a strenuous 2-hour hike through the mountains. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, this 70-pound “Babe” made multiple escape attempts, forcing Jason to slosh through the muddy jungle of the Comarca at 3am on a wild pig hunt.  Thaaaaanks Jason….

2. The Fire: After much research done by Erin, we discovered the best and most time efficient way to have this pig roast was the method which follows:  Dig a ditch about 3 feet down, build up a fire in the ditch to get at least a foot of hot embers, throw the butchered and wrapped up pig in, bury it and put a bonfire on top.  After about 10 hours we could dig it up and eat.  This sounded pretty sketchy to me.  Eating something that was buried under the ground for 10 hours? I thought I was only supposed to do that with vegetables and I’m pretty sure vegetables can’t give me salmonella or trichinosis.  But I was assured by Kevin and Josh, our pig killing and roasting specialists, that this was proper pig roast form in the states.
With about 20 of us helping, the hole was dug in no time.  That was the easy part. Next came the fire. We’re all resourceful, girl/boy scout peace corps volunteers. We figured it would be easy-peasy. But starting a fire in a ditch with water-logged firewood was harder than expected. And once more rain came we had to put up a tarp over the area to keep it going. It took us hours of taking turns crawling into the smoke filled ditch and ventilating it with a cutting board to finally get a continuous flame. As my friend gasped for breath and crawled out of the hole, he said, “well, now I know how awful it is to be inside a burning building.”
By this time it was about 3am, and we had a meeting the next morning. And we really only had a few inches of embers. So we took fire shifts switching out people to watch the fire and keep feeding it more wood.  By the next morning we all reeked of smoke and had red eyes with bags under them from little sleep and smoke damage. Needless to say, we made an excellent impression on the Peace Corps Staff.

3. The massacre: Once morning rolled around. It was time for the Pig to killed. Unfortunately I do not have as many details about that because I chose to stay far away from that. However, while looking for my ipod, I accidentally turned the corner and stumbled upon the scene of the crime as they were gutting it out and the pig was still spasming. Somehow or another, the pig was cut open, cleaned, stuffed with carrots, onions, and spices, wrapped up in banana leaves and foil, and started roasting in that pit. 

4. The Resurrection: After waiting 11 hours, going to and from our meeting and getting in some quality beach time, we dug up the pig, and with that unleashing the mouthwatering aroma of roasted pig. Sadly, the pig still ended up being 10 degrees under the temperature it should have been. So instead of being responsible for giving food poisoning to about 30-something peace corps volunteers, we pulled all the meat off that pig and fried it up with some oil in a big pot over a bonfire.
Finally, it was time to eat. Now, I know it was like 10pm and I hadn’t eaten much that day, waiting for the delicious roast, but that was absolutely the best roasted-pig meals I have ever had in my entire life. A big thank you to all the Peace Corps Volunteers who made this pig roast a success!  

"Sizzling like bacon" in the hole

The hole with a foot of embers and a rock covering

                 The Pooooooooor Pigggy                                                         Buena Gente

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It’s official. The latrine project is finally finished. After 3 separate Inauguration celebrations, complete with monstrous meals of rice and chicken, I can finally throw away my cement crusted, holey, work jeans. I should have no use for them now, besides my community was starting to call me “cochino” for wearing them (literally meaning swine, but mostly used for calling something dirty, filthy, gross). After we finished throwing the 56 cement platforms that were included in the project, it was each family’s responsibility to use the zinc, given to them from the project, for the roofs and whatever they wanted for the walls.  I was so proud to see people putting in such extraordinary effort while making the housing structures with unusual detail.  Since they have built all the latrines themselves, they have more respect for them and a desire to keep them nice and clean.

My favorite latrine made was at the school in my community. The old one we had here was built 15 years ago, was full, and well…cochino. All the men from the school PTA (yes, we have a PTA) got together and built the latrine basically without any help from me. They even painted some old zinc to use for the walls to make it look brand new. 

The project really felt finished after the inauguration meetings took place. There were basically just big warm and fuzzy meetings where everyone thanked everyone else for all their hard work and successes. I can’t remember a moment where I felt more respected by some many people before. It was a nice way to end a long planned out project.

Now that I’ve been in Panama for 21 months, I find myself thinking about home more and more, despite the endless plans my community has been scheming to keep me here for another year.  What will I miss? What won’t I miss?  I might not miss going into the bushes to find a place to pee while walking through my community….and finding a giant Equis snake 3 feet away from me. Butttt…I may miss lying on my hammock, in front of my house, watching the sunset fall below the banana trees as my neighbor brings me over some freshly cooked squirrel she caught earlier that day. (Both of these experiences happened yesterday)

Either way, I have about 5 months left to enjoy the things I’ll miss, and bear the things that I won’t.  Even though my main projects are over I have a few smaller projects to work on to keep my busy until I leave. Very soon I will be helping at another youth camp, planning some HIV/AIDS awareness seminars for adults in my community, and continuing to work with the water groups. More posts to come about all those things.

Thanks again for reading!
Lots of love,
Kayla (Meliti)

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Latrine Dream

I’m sure by now you’ve thought I’ve either  fallen off a large cliff, been bitten by a snake, caught in some machete fight, or maybe just that I’ve given up on blogging.  Well good news! I am alive and well and back to blogging.  Since Christmas, I have been insanely busy with various projects and protest situations throughout Panama so I have had limited free computer time.  But I would love to share with you what has kept me from writing earlier on.
As much as I would like to go on in detail about the mining and hydroelectric situation that is currently taking over the Panamanian politics, Peace Corps Panama does not allow us to express our opinions on this subject for safety reasons.  We must stay neutral.  Because of this I will not explain the confrontations between the government of Panama and the indigenous, as it would be impossible for me to do so without conveying my opinion.  Google it if you are interested.
Besides the protests, my last few months can be summed up with latrine work. After months of organizing people, planning the project, looking for funding (thanks to you all), we have finally started.  First I visited all the houses in the project to check if they hauled all their 9, 5-gallon buckets of gravel from the river and to see if their holes were dug to the appropriate width and length, 1 meter wide and about 3 meters deep.  Some went above and beyond and dug 4 or 4 and a half meters, leaving me baffled at how a man in his 60s could do such a thing by himself.
After these checks, 56 families were left in the project, willing and able to work. The first day of hauling materials consisted of:  A 100 pound bag of cement, a few pounds of nails, 2 extremely long rebar sticks, some wire, and a ridiculously heavy latrine seat made out of cement for each family.  My hike is about an hour and a half without heavy cargo, so you can imagine how long this would take.  However, the strength of the Ngabes never ceases to amaze me.  Older woman were there to pick up these materials and were taking turns hauling it in on their backs.  Once all these materials were brought in, including some shovels, floats, hacksaws, etc. We were able to start making the cement platforms. I did 5 example latrine platforms in each of the 5 sectors, where every participant was required to come and learn the process.  After these 5 days were completed we formed work groups and were able to complete about 4 latrine platforms a day; on my best/most exhausting day, we made 7.  It has been amazing to see how fast some of the community members have learned how to make them and have taken ownership of the whole project.  At the beginning almost no one had seen cement be mixed before or knew how to assemble the latrine platform. But just after a few practices I no longer had to explain or ask people to do things. I am becoming more and more useless every day …which is exactly what I wanted.
Currently we have 46 cement platforms made with 10 more to go. Yesterday we hauled in our shipment of zinc for the roofs so we could start making the houses for the latrines.  Like I said, I have been extremely happy with how things are going.  Because the people are actually building the latrines themselves, instead of some outside construction company, they are invested in the project and proud of their work. This ensures that they will be more likely to take care of the latrine in the future so it will last for many years.
Once again, I would love to thank everyone for supporting me here and in this project. I couldn’t have done it without you all and your generosity.  Check out the pictures on Facebook.

Much love

Oh, and if you missed out on donating to my project and would like the opportunity to make a tax deductible donation to another worthy peace corps project in Panama, check out this link below.  By donating to this project you will be helping provide running water to 26 families in a rural campesino village in Panama. Thanks

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I saw my neighbor naked…

I saw my neighbor naked…
It was only a matter of time.  There is literally no privacy in the Comarca.  Giant families live all together in one tiny little room, which is generally see-through due to the bamboo walls.  I still don’t know how they changed their clothes when I lived in host families, as well as where and when they went the bathroom.   It’s all a mystery to me.  Anyway, I currently live in Markela’s backyard.  Other volunteers consider me to still be living with a host family, seeing as I live so close to them and how much food they give me.  Markela is a wonderful woman.  Although she is extremely shy and did not talk to me during my first month in site, this middle aged, illiterate woman (who, I might add, wears a floral fedora hat on occasion) has become my closest friend.  I still can’t believe how much I can talk with a woman who has barely stepped foot outside the Comarca.  I am extremely grateful for her.
Since I live right behind Markela and her family, we share the same latrine and bathing area.  I bathe in this spring right behind my house.  They jammed a cut open stick of bamboo in the spring and water runs down in and then falls off the edge…creating a somewhat natural shower.  Some days I love this.  Bathing openly in the great outdoors with birds singing while watching the sun go down, I feel like I’m in an herbal essences shampoo commercial.  Other days, it’s a cold mosquito infested creek.  It depends on my mood.  However, the bathing area is not so private.  There is a trail right above it, which looks directly down onto the spring.  So I generally bathe in my designated bathing clothes, other women tend to bathe right in their Naguas.  The other day I was on my way back home from a long day of meetings in the upper part of my community.  I decided to take the back trail, which looks right down onto the bathing area.  While passing by it, I saw Markela.  Just as I was about to wave, I saw that she was not wearing her Nagua…but instead her birthday suit.  I immediately turned away, pretending I hadn’t seen anything, hoping she did not notice either.  I got to my house, plopped into my hammock and started to read.  Minutes later, Markela passed by my house in her wet Nagua.  If she did see me pass by, I of course just expected us to not talk about it and simply pretend like it never happened, especially in this shy community where they never talk about inappropriate things and are extremely passive.  Instead of going straight to her house, she paused, looked at me, and said, “Like what you saw?” Then burst out into laughter and walked back to her house.  It was hilarious. I’m pretty sure I laughed the rest of the day.  I’m so glad I’ve finally gotten on a comfortable level here…..maybe too comfortable.
I’m also writing about Markela because this last week was Mother’s Day in Panama.  Although in absolutely no way can she compare to my real mother, she has become some sort of a temporary mother to me.  Mother’s Day is a pretty big deal in Panama.  Unfortunately, in these areas, Mother’s Day is just an excuse for men to get really drunk and at the end of the day need their wives and moms to take care of them.  It’s pretty sad, actually.  So, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
 A while back at a Cooperative store meeting the board mentioned they wanted to do something for this event.  I thought it was a great idea and said I would participate, although I didn’t expect much of it. 
But they went allllll out.  There were poems and songs, gifts, prizes, and raffles, candy and tons of food.  They elected a queen of the mothers, and at one point, they lined all moms up to receive kisses on the cheek from everyone else.  I, per usual, was persuaded into getting up in front of everyone and making a speech…..they like it when the white girl talks. I even got roped into singing a few songs.  My gift to all the mothers was making popcorn for them and handing them out in little bags with notes attached to it. It was great. They never saw popcorn before and it is a crazy concept to them that corn, which they know so well from growing, can do such a thing.  All in all, the day was a success.  I left with an uncomfortably full stomach and a smile on my face while watching Markela laugh the hardest I’ve seen her since I’ve been here. 

Much Love,
Kayla (meliti)

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Dear friends and family,

First, I want to thank you all for following and supporting me during my Peace Corps service.  The past year has been a crazy, wonderful, and at times, a difficult adventure.  I am so happy to be here and serving my country in a way I see important. So thanks again for thinking of me while I am abroad. 
After many months of evaluating the sanitation of my community, encouraging the use of latrines, organizing into groups and latrine leaders, teaching about the construction and health benefits of latrines, and creating a calendar of work, it is finally time to start building. It's go time!     

All that’s lacking now is funding. I am striving to help these 90 families in my community to build 70 latrines in the next year. In order to do so, I need to raise over $ 4,300 for this project. If I succeed in raising over half of that, an organization called Synergy will donate the rest. So, I am asking for your help in raising over $2,000 to complete this project.                                                                                                                                                                                     
The health benefits of latrines are exponential. With a proper place to use the bathroom, the water my community drinks will be uncontaminated, and the high percentage of diseases in my community will decrease. 
This will raise the standard of living for everyone in Cerro Banco and decrease the child mortality rate. My hope is to see my adorable host sister, Heligi, age 4, healthy for once in her life and her distended stomach, full of worms, healed. 

 If you are interested in donating, please check out this website.

Thank you so much for your help and kindness.

Much love to all,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Project, Management, Leadership Conference (PML)

Each volunteer in my group was allowed to bring one or two people from their community to participate in this conference, located in the CoclĂ© province of Panama. I chose two community counterparts to attend the conference with me; one of them had never travelled farther than the closest town outside Cerro Banco.  They were both really excited for the seminar, and naturally, the free food, lodging, and transportation. 
Our trip started off a little shaky. Once we finally reached the main highway, we were surprised to see crowds of Ngabes.  Apparently, there was a protest scheduled for this day, and we had unfortunately fallen right into it.  Usually San Felix is a very quiet, low-key town, located right off the InterAmericana.  But today we were pushing through people and smoke only to find the highway jammed with cars, buses, and trucks trying to pass through the rock barricade and protestors.  All of a sudden, there was a stampede of people running up the street.  Not moving and still confused, I was grabbed by my friend Laura who pulled me up the street.  Then my eyes and throat began to burn. The police, who were trying to control the situation and open the highway, had thrown tear gas bombs and the poison rapidly spread throughout the whole area.  Thankfully, I was not very close to the police, but my poor counterparts were right next to the tear gas bombs.  The effect for me wore off in just a few hours, but Faustino’s eyes were blood red all day.  A bit later, the highway opened up and we were able to catch a bus going east. 
Once we arrived at the conference, the excitement of the morning had died down.  It was so nice to see all the other volunteers from my group again and meet counterparts from their community.  It was kind of a bizarre feeling to be there with all my friends, wanting to speak English and be normal Kayla.  However to my community, I am Meliti, speak Spanish and Ngabere, and wear Naguas.  But it was a cool way to combine both parts of me in Panama and after a while it felt completely normal.  The volunteers and I did our best to include our counterparts with small talk and mostly speak Spanish. 
The conference started the next morning. We worked in small mixed groups with volunteers and counterparts from all over the country.  This alone was great.  People from different cultures, which they’ve never seen, were able to interact with each other all week.  This opened our counterparts’ eyes to different customs and friendships.  We even got to share special arts and talents from our area of the country during our “culture night.”  My counterparts and I performed the Heggi, the traditional Ngabe dance, with a few other volunteers from the Comarca Ngabe Bugle.  It was a hit.
Each day of PML consisted of sessions with topics including: how to realize and prioritize your goals and values; how to manage your resources, including time, money, and information; and how to plan a successful meeting.  Although these sessions were common sense to the volunteers, being college graduates and such, these concepts were a completely new idea to our counterparts.  And since my two adult counterparts only have 6th grade educations, just sitting in a classroom for a full day is exhausting.  However, it was beautiful to see their eyes open wider when they fully grasped a concept and saw how it could help in their own life. The idea is for counterparts to bring everything they learned back to their own community and share these ideas with everyone else.  I was happy to see each of my counterparts enjoy the conference. Since then, they have asked me if we can hold a seminar like this on a smaller scale in Cerro Banco for more people in the community.  I am of course very excited to work on this in the future.
In my opinion, the PML conference is one of the best things Peace Corps Panama offers.  The lessons taught at this conference are extremely important life skills and it really offers a sustainable way to improve the lives of many around the country.  Additionally it gives people an opportunity to branch out of their small community, which gives them a vision of other lives around the country…and including the volunteers, around the world.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Check it out!

Here is a sweet video my good friend Will made after visiting me in my Peace Corps site.  The beginning shots are his travels from Colombia to Panama through the San Blas....then on to my community!

Thanks again Will, Karl, and Daniella!