Fasten Your Seatbelts!
Another week has passed and with the adventures continuing the emotions have run high, low, and everywhere in between…
I am shocked this week has already brought October and the beginning of my last 6 weeks here this fall. In my case, the saying “time flies when you are having fun” can definitely be modified to “island time flies when you are enjoying your projects.” Since last weekend my programs have only continued to blossom into concrete plans and I have had absolutely incredible personal experiences. To truly allow you all to vicariously live through my experience, this week’s post will not only give you a peek into the excitement of my past 2 weeks, but also give you a brief ride on the emotional rollercoaster associated with living in a new culture.
When exploring hits the jackpot
Before my vacation the other week, my typical mornings on the island had entailed a bit of yoga, a crazy cold handheld calabaza shell shower, and some oatmeal and coffee with Papa Augustine before I spent a few hours using the school WIFI. On Monday of last week, I started my morning out the same way, and as I walked to the school I noticed there were a lot of ninos (children) walking home. This didn’t surprise me too much since I have seen some classes cancelled after only an hour or two because teachers were on vacation in the city (frustrating fact). Turns out this Monday happened to be fumigation day of the entire village compliments of the Panama government, so class was cancelled and so was the internet. I took the opportunity to go exploring the beauty of the island. Truth be told I was really just trying to find my own private beach spurred by my experience near Carti the week before, but I think I found something much better. I passed the airport, crossed over some small bridges, and passed a power plant that actually contains WIFI, again compliments of the Panama government! I didn’t know this at first, but instead continued exploring the island and found some absolutely gorgeous and serene spots.
I try not to live with regrets, but man do I regret forgetting to buy snorkeling gear during my last trip to the city. I can be a wimp sometimes and was too afraid to swim completely by myself on a deserted part of the island without a mask to see what I was swimming with and more importantly to ensure I wasn’t stepping on a fragile coral reef of sorts. Surprisingly enough, the stores here don't sell them. So, I absorbed the beauty a bit more before deciding to venture back. Luckily, serendipity was in my favor and I crossed paths with the man who owns the island I was exploring. He asked if I was using the WIFI and I immediately inquired for more information on this mysterious magical island WIFI. He then proceeded to help me out for 10 or 15 minutes to ensure I was connected before he went off to gather some coconuts. He made several trips back my way, each time bringing me a delicious treat. First a huge agua de pipa (coconut with the top cut off to reach the cocowater inside), and next fruits that I still haven’t quite figured out the names of since he told me them in Dulegaya and I was silly to not write them down. This man is a perfect example of the immense generosity I have experienced while being here. No doubt there have been some people who have taken a monetary advantage of the fact that I am a white American, but for the most part this has been a rare occurrence for me and is common everywhere in the world.
My office commute with WIFI/powerplant in background.
Step into my office…
My stint as a teacher
Last week I also finally got a chance to help out at the school with Professor Smiths English classes on Wednesday. They ranged from 5th-8th grade and we were teaching future tense to most classes and simple past to another. I am thoroughly impressed with these kids. Not only do they speak Dulegaya but most also know Spanish, and on top of that they are learning English. Many Americans can barely speak English properly let alone care to know another language! I struggled a bit in the beginning, but once I channeled old Spanish professors I really started to get the hang of it. I’d like to think I did a pretty good job because even the professor was asking me for help with his English.
Each class started out with an introduction and time for questions. Without fail one of the first 4 questions was if I was single. This question comes up in nearly every conversation I have with men, women, children, and if plantains could talk I bet it’d be the same. Luckily I am pretty secure with my singledom so it doesn’t bother me much, but in my opinion it definitely shows some of the priorities associated with the culture. However, I do think it is a general thing in Latin American culture. Plus, what’s wrong with believing in the importance of finding someone you love and depend on? Overall teaching in the school was a really great time, and now I have kids all over the island calling my kuna name, Alisob, as I walk by. Some side facts about the school. It has heavy support from the Panama government, but it's structures were built by the village. The first school on the island was all boy, and today offers pre-k-12th for both. Most people like to send their kids to the city for high school thought because the resources are slim on the island. One mother who has 1child living with relatives in the city to attend school told me the most notable reason to send your child is the fact there are no science laboratories here.
Fasten your seat belts, the emotional rollercoaster will now begin
I spend many mornings at my beachside office getting internet research done for different project ideas and connecting with the Teysha team or family back home. Since the school offered quite the distractions with a steady flow of curious kiddos and more importantly an intense firewall blocking tons of different websites (even islanders block facebook..and even this blog!), I am very excited about this new gorgeous spot. Having facebook has been a bit bitter sweet though. While it is great to connect with people and see what is going on with my friends around the world, it definitely helps contribute to the newfound homesickness and reinstated culture shock I have been suffering from since my mini-vacation.
As you may know from last week’s post, I went on a trip that provided me with modern bathrooms, deliverable Indian food, and many Americans leaving me feeling a little upside down in culture shock. I have since had a realization that all of life is basically a perpetual state of culture shock, since in reality we are constantly changing and growing and needing to readjust to our surroundings no matter what situation we are in. This could help explain why each day since has had insane ups and downs. I will be ecstatic with a new growth in programs or have a conversation with someone that makes me never want to leave this beautiful place, and then a few hours later succomb to a cultural barrier sucking me into a state of wanting nothing more than a glass of wine surrounded by English speaking friends and hummus or gouda cheese.…cue Julia Andrews, ‘these are a few of my favorite things’…
After talking with a friend that has been doing community development in the Congo for the past year and a half, I have learned that these feelings of homesickness don’t really go away. In reality, life already is a perpetual state of missing people and old experiences. It all reminds me of a quote I read once saying, “Nostalgia is the art of forgetting details.” If I was anywhere but here, I would likely be wishing I was while completely neglecting the parts of this experience I don’t like. The most appropriate sentiment may be #paradiseproblems.
The universe seems to give just what you need when you need it most!
Per the rollercoaster theme, Thursday night was a steady climb uphill while enjoying several hours being a human jungle gym for the kiddos next door with Friday being a huge drop of loneliness and despair. I was in quite the self-pity rut that nothing could really pull me out of. Luckily, the universe knew I needed the experience that ensued that night, or my Spanish just hasn’t improved as much as I thought. I thought I had plans with Teysha’s resident Kuna mountain man, Cooper, to go night fishing for langostinos (crawfish) on Saturday night, but instead he came by Friday afternoon to tell me it was time to head to the mountain. So, we bought some bread for a snack and spare batteries for our head lamps and quickly set out by ulu (traditional Kuna dug out canoe) for an adventure in the mountain that I truly didn’t know what I was getting into.
Traditional ulu! With a handheld saw, these take about 5 months to make. With a chainsaw, 20 days. This is a major inhibitor to why many men have stopped fishing on the island, and is a motivator for me to look into micro-loan type of program to help our partner foundation and the community.
As soon as we set out the serenity of it all gave me a feeling that all the anxiety I had would wash away. I was definitely right. We put our boat in a few miles into the river and started another mile long hike. As we walked we passed tons of cemetarios (Kuna gravesites with small roofs over them and a plate + cup for offerings) and I had the thought of how peaceful it would be to be laid to rest in these mountains. I plan on exploring the significance of these cemetarios more to share with yall in another post. We also passed a steady stream of worker ants carrying pieces of leaves away from a pile they had made. Cooper scooped a bunch into a bag to use as ina (dulegaya for medicine). They are burned in the fire, and women put their hands in the smoke to help make molas faster. Clever, clever! The serenity continued as we walked through a cacao field as the sun began to set. He grabbed a cacao fruit for us to eat as we continued to walk. Raw cacao is so delicious and it was perfect timing, as I had been thinking how much I needed some extra nutrition beyond my usual diet of plantains, rice, lentils, and fish.
I didn’t bring any electronics on my excursion, so here is a picture of the mountain from Ustupu at sunset instead. Picture yourself a little to the left somewhere in the middle of the back mountain.
I say I didn’t know what I getting myself into because I assumed we would be catching the crawfish in one spot. Silly gringa (white girl in Spanish)! We ended up walking through the river for the next 3 hours spearfishing by head lamp. I’d like to sound hardcore and say I caught something, but I simply held the bag and offered moral support. Still, obviously very important! I had the mild annoyance of bugs continuously in my face…which tends to happen when their favorite attraction is attached to your head, but the light is what provides the opportunity to catch things. If you have ever been camping, you likely know light catches on the eyes of insects and animals. Langostinos have pink eyes, and while I was watching for our dinner, I was also using my light to watch for spiders. With spiders, the larger the light = the larger the spider. At one point we noticed a light a bit upriver. I initially thought it was another fisherman, but the light was only bright when our headlamps were pointed at it. Once we got closer the light mysteriously dropped into the river. Turns out it was a teenager crocodile! ….a few feet away from us in a river that we in no way could have got out of… While I wasn’t too worried with Teysha’s mountain man expert with me, I definitely did not want to stick around to see how close we could get before he would move.
Some of our catch! I wish I could’ve gotten better pictures of it all, but see below…
When we finally got back to the village around 10:30pm, I had to cook up my share of the catch. For $33 a month, we get 5 or 6 hours of electricity a night, and when we got back ours had already been shut off. Meaning I was gutting, washing, and cooking these bad boys by headlamp, which actually wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. Similar to how much more delicious vegetables are when you grow them yourselves, the fish and crawfish were so incredibly delicious. This could also be attributed to the hunger I had after our 6 hour adventure--either way it was absolutely delectable! We are going again this weekend, but to another part of the mountains in the Sugandi river.
The night gave me a whole new wave of inspiration for this experience, and for showing adventurers around the world with Cooper enthusiastically interested in taking others on this same excursion on top of having ideas for camping and multiple day expeditions in the mountains. The weekend only continued in awesomeness with the discovery of a store owned by 2 sisters that collectively have hundreds of molas and other finished products like bags, wallets, and oven mitts. I spent 6 hours taking photos and documenting the meaning of nearly a hundred molas, and that night created a database so we can offer them to people around the world through Teysha’s website. This should be up in the next week or two for all of you to explore, and I can’t wait!
Afterthoughts, more awesomeness, and a run-in with the French.
This week has brought some frustrations, doubts, and of course typical to the roller coaster I am constantly on a complete reversal of all these with a simple meeting. I had been feeling like some of the ideas I had been thinking of cresting into programs were really for the people and not with them. On top of this, I was feeling the most homesick I have been so far and simultaneously overcome with terrible concern if I’d be able to pay my student loans back come December leaving me wondering if my passion was strong enough to find the light. Then the owner of Hotel Kosnega, Senor Euladio Correa, stopped by to set up a meeting with Augustine and me. The meeting follows the theme of the universe dropping off everything I need when I need it most. As community catalyst, I am not here to create projects, but instead help catalyze their ideas with my different set of knowledge and resources, while also exploring new awesome product ideas for you folks! Euladio has a beautiful hotel with 8 spaciois cabanas complete with full service private bathrooms, a beautiful view of the mountains from hammocks on his deck, and daily tours to private islands, waterfalls, surf and snorkle spots, and more important a real peek into kuna culture. He has become a great friend, and I'm really excited to have him as a Teysha ally. More on him and his hotel in another post though!
Shortly after our meeting, we saw some gringos in the town center and decided to speak with them. They are from France and travelling by Colombian cargo boat through the comarca eventually ending in Colombia. They had the typical concerns most tourists have with trash, missionaries, and the importance of money here. It was refreshing to be exposed to the western way of thinking, but also showed me how different Teysha’s thinking is and why I love what we do. While they didn’t understand the importance of tourism as an economic sector here (ironic since they are tourists here..), I have come to truly see that similar to every experience, every culture can teach someone something new. The kunas love meeting people from other countries and surprisingly have traveled extensively themselves. There is a saying from the great Kuna chief about learning from outsiders, "take the good, leave the bad," and I think it is spot on for most situations in life as well. I have come to truly appreciate the importance of intercultural exchange is through this experience. We are all rich in resources that can be interchanged, and it just so happens that money is one the Kunas are not rich in, but typical to most of the world have come to depend on. That is where our work with bringing opportunities that are so ample in the US comes in. We bring the culture and beautiful art form of Mola's (and other latin american artisan) to consumers around the world, and in the process provide an opportunity for these people to live a more stable life supporting their families. I am excited for the ability to explore expansion into different sectors such as ecotourism, dreammaking, and agricultural products as we continue spreading this interchange to more people around the world. More on these project ideas as they unfold!