My Medical Discharge and My Last Blog

I got kicked out, y’all.

Kind of, but not really. I got home and within the first week I had appointments set up to see my usual doctors who know me and my body well. At my first appointment, I walked in, handed my papers over to the doctor, and he told me EXACTLY what was up within three minutes of him scanning my documents.

I had been fighting undiagnosed double pneumonia, had possibly fought my way through dengue without anyone knowing it, and also was suffering from THREE MONTHS OF HEAT STROKE.

*** THREE MONTHS OF HEAT STROKE ***

“I have seen people come back from doing your job for only a couple weeks and have to be on bedrest for a month to recover. I can only imagine what your recovery time will be like in order to fully get your energy and health back after 18 months. Go home, and go to bed. Now.” — my doctor.

I was deemed too weak, sick, and my body untrustworthy to head back to my community, and I was “med-sepped”, which mean I was formally medically discharged.

I knew all of this within a week of getting home, but I think it took me a really long time to fully accept it. Panama was such a wild ride that it felt like a crazy dream/ nightmare/ adventure, and it was difficult to talk about it with anyone. Especially those who don’t understand how intense the volunteer life can be. Even talking to my family and friends who know everything… I still feel like they can never really be in the mind set and completely get me and my emotions regarding the whole thing.

Reintegration was harder than expected, my mental stability wasn’t great, and I found myself getting really upset randomly. So I distracted myself for several weeks with video games, Netflix, my cats, etc.

I woke up at 3 a.m. each night panicking that I had missed my time slot to haul water. It’s still a habit to wear clothes repeatedly because I don’t want to have to wash them by hand. The air conditioning makes me so cold that I sleep with 5 quilts on my bed and have to wear heavy sweatpants and a sweatshirt around the house, but I still shiver. Getting back into the swing of things wasn’t as simple as I expected it to be. It kinda sucked.

Another way I distracted myself from feeling too lost and alone was by keeping up with my friends still serving in Panama, who kept me up to date on my host family, Pinky (who I had to leave behind but I’m told is happy and healthy), and how much they are jealous of me for getting to go home early. That made me feel better, but I was still uneasy about the whole thing.

Contact with my Panamanian friends and host families started dwindling, but that’s understandable. We all have to move on, and I’m not sure staying in touch with them would help me get to where I need to be honestly. I’ll never forget Panama and the incredible memories I made there, but I need to start moving forward. As incredibly grateful as I am for everything I’ve learned, I’m relieved to be out of there.

I like to be busy, but my health was my main priority. I started working out lightly to burn the fat that I had gained from forcing fried chicken and rice down my throat every day for every meal, and to start building my energy back up. Sometimes I would go running, other times did weight lifting classes, and even started hydro-cardio which allowed me to use water to get my muscles used to movement without straining myself to death. The endorphins from an hour workout every day made me feel better, lighter, and happier. Progress was fast, and I feel my energy is already 80% back.

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Here I am during a family visit to Chicago, 104 stories up on a glass walkout in Willis Tower. I refused to look down!

I also dove back into the job search. Although my parents were happy I was home again, I knew if I sat down on the coach for weeks on end, I would never get back up. I have to keep in motion. So I applied to bunches of jobs all over the world, and interviewed three to four times a week for 9ish weeks. A ranch manager position in Mongolia, teaching English in Shanghai, a naturalist position in Kentucky… It felt good to get back out there, but I wasn’t excited about any of them. So then I started to look into long term traveling, and started to plan a route through South America and Africa. That felt even better.

But then, I got a call saying I was offered a position as a STEM instructor in New Hampshire, on the lake, for a few months. And it paid decent. After careful consideration, I’ve decided to take this job and have a much-needed, dreamy, New England Autumn on the lake. I see myself hanging out under trees, watching the fall colors change in the reflection of the water. The cool breeze brushing my hair back with a hint of winter tickling my nose. I’m excited about something again. Finally.

And, I got my friends and family’s approval to then take a year to travel starting in January. So I can handle this short term job if it gives me a little more of a cash boost to make my travel dreams come true in the long run. I finally feel relaxed and content with my short term future, and know that I can start to check things off my bucket list again soon.

I’m happy.

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

Baby Fiona! She’s one of my cats in Illinois who we refer to as a “close sitter” because she prefers to sit on your chest with her cheek touching yours. It’s her happy place, and I’ve made it mine as well. I love my Baby Fi!

 

 

And last, but not least, “An Ode to Pinky”

Oh Pinky, how I loved and adored you, you rambunctious pupperino! You dutifully cared for me in my low moments, celebrated with me in my high moments, and entertained me in the slow moments. Some of my best memories of us are walking the forest together, chasing chickens and lizards out of my house, and letting me groom you, although reluctantly. You are a patient, loving, handsome boy, who has won the “Goodest Boy in the Whole World” award. You deserve it! And I wish I could’ve brought you home, but I don’t think you would be as happy here. There in Panama, you have the house you’ve adopted to protect, doggy friends who visit you daily, and fun things to do- like run through the creek, climb into the countryside brush, and terrorize the iguanas. Here, you would be in a fenced yard or in a house filled with things you weren’t allowed to eat or break. I promise, it’s for your own good. Leaving you behind was the hardest thing, and now I feel like I know what it’s like to get attached to a child. You were my baby for nine glorious months, and I know you’d understand if you could speak to me. Take care of whoever moves in to that house next, and if I am ever in a good place to bring you to the states with me, you know I will be coming back for you in a heartbeat. You’re the best boy, Pinky! ❤

~~~

Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this crazy experience! Whether it was reading this blog, sending me packages, cards, texts, emails, etc. I truly appreciated every little thing you did to encourage me to keep on going. It meant the world to me!

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My Medical Evacuation

WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

So, if you are in-country and very sick, have exhausted all resources available, and can’t be trusted to continue on with your service, Washington grants you a “medical evacuation”. This is basically a hiatus, where you are sent home to see your usual physicians and hopefully have a higher quality medical care team that can actually tell you what’s going on. This can last anywhere from a week, up to 45 days. If after 45 days the volunteer is still hella sick and can’t return to their country of service… they get “medical separation”, which is just a nicer way of saying discharged. So, not ideal.

Two weeks ago, after getting out of the hospital, I had a meeting with my medical team who basically said “we’re sending you back to site to pack up your stuff for a couple days because you’re either going to get medical separation or evacuation. Get ready.” So I headed back to my community and hunkered down in my house for a couple days attempting to pack, frantically checking my phone, and having my surrounding volunteer friends come hang out at my house in my time of need. They were wonderful support. Even though they were busy and exhausted, both Danielle and Sarah came and spent several days helping me work through my house, my to-do list, and emotions. One night we even piled on to a mattress and watched several hours of Will Ferrell movies~ exactly what I needed to relax and feel a little better about my life!

Then, a week later ( or a week ago), I got a text from my medical team. “We have to do a pregnancy test… can you go to the clinic and get that done asap?” Goddammit. I attempted to pull myself together and prepare for another blood test. It didn’t work out that well because I passed out anyway. Again. Just like I thought I would. But my result came back negative (wow what a shocker who could’ve told you that) so Washington could rule out that my bloody cough, pain behind eyes, and upset stomach weren’t due to being pregnant (because yeah, that’s would’ve made sense. Sure.).

“You are being medically evacuated. Get to the city by tomorrow morning.”

This text popped up on my phone as I was crammed into a bus headed back to my community, so I had about an hour to sit still and process what was happening. I was being sent home, without a real plan in mind. I was relieved, stressed out, excited, and full of dread. As soon as I got back to my house, I calculated my time: 4 hours to pack up everything, have a plan in place in case I don’t return, say goodbye to everyone, grab the overnight bus to the big city. I can do this.

I threw my most important things in a backpack (laptop, favorite sweatshirt, retainer), then ran around the community to say goodbye to a few people. It was my host dad’s birthday, so conveniently most people were at their house celebrating when I showed up looking clearly disheveled. I explained that I am still very sick, slightly out of it because I recently had passed out, and have no idea what’s going on but I have to jump on a bus in 3 hours so I can’t stay to party with them. They understood, gave me hugs, wished me luck, and I headed to another household~ the Gilmore Girl household, as I like to call them. A “witch doctor” grandma, her daughter who was a teenage mother, and her (now) teenage daughter. I had gotten very close to them, so saying goodbye was hard. All three of them cried and I hugged all of them several times while trying not to cough all over them. We exchanged phone numbers, promised to stay in touch, and parted ways. My last stop was my women’s group meeting, where I also hugged everyone goodbye and explained once again that I have no idea what’s going but I’ve been sick for months and I can’t recover here. They nodded their heads understandingly, examined my skin and symptoms for themselves, then gifted me candy and wished me luck.

I went back to my house to shower. I was emotionally doing okay. Sure, I was saying (a possibly forever) goodbye to a lot of people, but I felt okay. They all took it well and I was ready to get back to the states to finally feel better. Then I locked up the house and walked to the bus stop with my backpack… and Pinky.

That’s when I lost it. He was right by my side and so excited that “we” were going on an adventure together. I stood on the side of the road hugging this dog with a lot of locals staring at the crying white girl with a huge bag sobbing over a street dog. A bus rolled up and I got on, watching Pinky’s tail drop as we drove away. My heart still hurts thinking about how much I miss him.


I arrived to Panama City at 3 a.m. and slept really hard the rest of the night. I woke up to see Julia again, who was sadly also getting sent home (but she knew for sure it was forever). We had breakfast and got ready to head to the office. Some things don’t change.

Our day at the office was having meeting after meeting, filling out a thousand forms, looking over legal and medical stuff, filing reimbursements, setting up insurance, and discussing my plan of action. I was handed my plane tickets and told to go back to the hostel to nap. I went happily.

The next day Julia and I were able to taxi to the airport together since our planes left at similar times (extremely early). Security took forever (I was yelled at for having $15 worth of coins???), then I had to do another security to get from the main terminal area just to hang out in the gate area. Julia made it through a little later, so we stood on opposite sides of a divider until I had to board the plane. We high-fived since we weren’t allowed to hug each other and promised to meet up in Bolivia one day.

The rest of my travel day after leaving Julia was pretty terrible. My first plane (Panama City to Miami) left early and got in an hour early, but then we were forced to sit on the plane for another 75 minutes waiting for an open gate and ended up being late. Then I was forced to go through customs, collect my bag, re-check my bag, and go through another security (which took 45 minutes and was so backed up that about 150 people missed their flights. Then the screens stopped working, and I was yelled at again for having a lot of coins, and the TSA agents were so frustrated they started taking things like unopened chip bags, chapsticks, and duty-free presents bought from the exact same airport from furious travelers. You suck, Miami security.)

***I got Wendy’s for lunch which was SO EXCITING AND IT CAME WITH DR. PEPPER!!***

My second flight (Miami to Chicago) once again left and arrived early, but we were forced to sit on the ramp for another hour. I asked to be let off the plane first since I only had 5 minutes to make my next flight, but that was ignored, so I had to quickly run through the airport to my next gate. I was wheezing for air, but I made it just in time.

I was the last person on the little flight Chicago to Bloomington, and we landed super early, this time with no waiting (Yay Bloomington!). My parents picked me up and I got home and basically collapsed. I was barely surviving in Panama, so a full day of stressful travel was pretty rough. But I made it! Now, on to readjusting and recuperating.

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

I’m sure you recognize the best big boy in the world- Pinky! Here, I woke up panicking someone was in bed with me, just to turn on the light and find Pinky had somehow made his way around my mosquito net to snuggle. What a smart baby! I hope he’s doing well in Panama still. If I do get discharged, maybe I’ll go back to get him one day.

Yes, I’m Still in the Hospital

I DON’T FEEL GOOD AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON ANYMORE

That’s basically what sums up the past couple weeks for me. Earlier last week, I was getting worse and had a feeling I’d eventually be sent to the hospital for closer examination. I warned my host parents, who quickly came over to check in on me. My host dad almost immediately fell asleep in my hammock, while my host mom walked around the house and judged me on my house keeping skills. We sat on the front porch where they asked miscellaneous questions and told me I need to sweep more. Then they both prayed for me for a few minutes, with their hands starting on my head, then holding my cheeks, my shoulders, etc, as they asked God to heal me. Finally, they picked a bunch of oranges off my trees and left. So I assumed I’d be healthy at any time then.

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Sleep tight, Marcelino!

After more time spent quite ill at my house in my village and some moments of waking up unable to breathe, my medical team decided that it was best to send me to the city. This was confirmed mid afternoon, so I asked, “So I should head out tomorrow?”.

“We need you in here as soon as possible. Can you leave your site in the next hour in order to take the overnight bus? We need to get your examination done soon.” Fantastic.

And that’s how I dragged myself out of bed, quickly threw some clothes in a bag, kissed the dog goodbye and lugged my tired body to the bus stop. As soon as I got on the bus to Panama City, I fell asleep hard and didn’t wake up until the guy next to me awkwardly shook me awake. At this point, it was 3 in the morning and I wasn’t mentally prepared to go to the hospital, so I instead headed to the Peace Corps hostel in a taxi who overcharged me.

First thing in the morning I had an appointment with my medical officer, who sat there and listened to me cough with great concern. She looked through all my records after I begged for her to spare me another blood test and decided that whatever I had, it doesn’t show up in regular tests. She gave me some antibiotics and sent me to the hospital for fluids, X-rays, a checkup, oxygen, and steroids.

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“Send help, I’m dying and my acne is out of control”

My X-rays showed up clean, my general examination looked good, and I was getting desperate. They sent me back to the hostel for a lot of rest and a lot of cough syrup, with a trip to the hospital twice a day for meds, oxygen, and steroids to be continued. I became chummy with the nurses in my unit, who taught me how to hook up my own oxygen mask and work the tank (pretty straight forward, but made my visits a lot faster). They showed me tricks on how to inhale the meds better and make sure I’m getting every drop of steroid into my system while struggling to breathe. I spent time Skyping friends while unable to talk, and held the hands of crying people around me while they had needles jabbed into them. After a couple days my medication finished and I went back to see my Peace Corps medical team, who was still baffled I hadn’t made any improvement, and handed over more medication.

At this point I can tell even the physicians are getting desperate to find the reasoning behind my sickness because they gave me allergy medicine. Has that helped? No. But it was worth a try. At this point I’d try anything. These symptoms are hella annoying.

Luckily, I’m not alone at the hostel. Also here in another volunteer, Julia, who has my exact same sense of humor and is also dying, so we’ve bonded quickly. We spend time lying in parallel bunks together talking about Bigfoot, encouraging each other to shower, and wondering how our lives came to be this pathetic in a matter of weeks. It helps the days go by faster. Being in bed for days at a time is so much more fun when you can watch youtube silently with a friend watching different youtube videos next to you, even if that friend is severely dehydrated and thinks you’re a hallucination.

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Look at how innovative we are! Out of extreme laziness comes inventions!

Today we realized we were running very low on food and had to walk the 5 minutes around the block to grocery shop. After breakfast we slowly pulled clothes on, packed our purses for an extreme excursion, and slowly lumbered our way out of the hostel and down the street to the very Americanized grocery store, where things got out of hand quickly.

We made a pact not to leave each other alone, as we were concerned neither of us would ever find our way back to the hostel again. Also, I kept forgetting what I needed to buy. I would space out and realize we were both standing listlessly in the chip aisle for far too long. I grabbed a couple bags, then kept picking up more and more random items as we went along our journey. By the time we got to the frozen food section, my arms were filled with odds and ends, but nothing substantial. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to buy originally. But I did pick up some ice cream. So that was nice. Julia also had full arms, but somehow we were unable to find a single goddamn basket. Finally, we spotted one, but some little girl was trying to take it. We kinda sorta stole it from her (but not really so it’s fine). We slowly unloaded our loot into the basket while the workers would come up to help us, take a look at our faces, and back away. What a sight we must’ve been. At the checkout line, I grabbed a bunch of sale m&ms and threw them on top my stuff, handed over an uncounted amount of cash, then grabbed my bag and we left.

By the time we got back to our hostel, both Julia and I were sweating profusely, disoriented, and I realized I hadn’t purchased anything I actually needed. So my random bag of beans and m&ms will have to do until tomorrow.

Then I immediately had to take a 3 hour nap in order to recover from the trip.

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

This baby girl is named “Compañita”, which translates to Little Companion. She is almost 10 years old, and lost her eye in a fight with a bigger dog who encroached on her territory. But she won! And the loss of her eye hasn’t slowed her down one bit- she is still aggressively protective of her family and house, and loves scratches behind the ears. As soon as she gets to know you, she’s such a lover! Tiny but full of personality. I love visiting this sweetie any chance I get! 10/10 would stuff her into my backpack to smuggle her back home if I knew her family wouldn’t miss her!

A Dark Hospitalization

My physical health has been declining for a few months. I’ve had a ton of weird symptoms that no one can seem to pinpoint. Things like headaches for days, pain behind eyes, stomach cramps, diarrhea after eating/drinking literally anything, random fevers, hot flashes, hours of intense nausea, feeling fine and then throwing up out of nowhere, and more. What’s weird is that generally, I feel fine, until one of these issues pops up to wreck my day for a couple hours. Then I get back to work again. Strange, right? It’s been over 2 months of this crap.

Luckily, volunteers have PCMOs, or Peace Corps Medical Officers, who are on call 24/7. The first time I went to them, they had me get blood, urine, and fecal testing done. All clear. So that means no dengue, parasites, worms, malaria, or internal infection. Though honestly, I was really hoping it was worms just so I could be given some pills and fixed quickly.

Next, I came down with a severe cold. Sore throat, cough, dry eyes, stuffy and runny nose, etc. Seemed pretty standard. What’s not normal is that this time, it took away my appetite. And I can ALWAYS eat. So I was just sheer exhausted. I called my PCMOs, they sent me to the hospital for the first time, I got more tests done, all came back clear. The hospital basically gave me energy boosters, vitamins, and cold medication.

I explained several times that it’s not just a cold, but something bigger. They told me to deal with the cold part first… Sure thing, doc.

I go home for a few days and take about a few pills every hour, right on schedule, hoping to get any relief whatsoever. But none came.

A few nights later I’m lying in bed when I have a coughing fit and struggle to breath for a minute~ which really scared me. It’s storming out, I’m home alone, and I’m gasping for breath. That’s not an ideal situation, right?

So I texted my PCMO and she told me to head to the hospital again ASAP. Because this is rural Panama, that meant waiting until the morning to drag myself to the bus stop, sit in a crowded van for over an hour, and make the 20 minute hike to the hospital in the extreme heat.

I arrived at the hospital for it to be… dark. I legitimately thought the hospital was closed, and I was ready to have a goddamn heart attack. But then someone exited the building, so I let myself in.

(((Of course, the power is out at the hospital. Why wouldn’t it be. )))

I sat in the waiting room until I was called, when another doctor took a look at me and immediately sent me to get oxygen. He said that since my lungs were coated in so much mucus, I was likely exhausted from low blood oxygen levels. An hour of oxygen later, I felt like I could think clearly again! But I was still feeling pretty terrible. Also, have you ever sat in a dark hospital that was basically empty? And had the lights flickering on and off randomly? Soooo creepy.

So a bunch more blood work was done, and I was eventually sent home with more cold medications and told not to do anything for another week or so. Lovely.

So that’s where I’m at now. Hanging out in bed for most of my time, coughing up a lung, and chugging tea like there’s no tomorrow. And still, no signs of getting better.

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

“But Amanda, you already had Pinky as the animal of the week-” I DON’T CARE BECAUSE THIS IS MY BLOG AND MY DOG AND HE’S ADORABLE. Just look at him eating papaya like the good boy he is! During my discouraging moments, I remember that Pinky exists and loves fruit just as much as me, and I feel comforted. He’s the best ❤

My Birthday Party… mess

It’s the rainy season here again, so any work I do has to be done in the morning. In the afternoon, it’s intense storms so no one leaves the house. During this time I sweep out the puddles of water that creep in under the doors, shake out the leaves from various corners of the house that fall in through the cracks in the roof, and refill water buckets. I thought that getting an inch of rain every day would mean my water wouldn’t be turned off to conserve it, but that was just a dream.

However, the rainy season means fresh fruit. The huge mango tree in my backyard drops down big mangos all day long, and I’m always searching under the extremely tall avocado tree to see if any ripened and fell down (still waiting). On my porch I have a stockpile of bananas, mangos, papaya, and a few types of oranges. So this means I can make smoothies! I throw all of these in with some milk, and it’s a tasty, cheap, healthy meal. (Not healthy enough to cure all my weird tropical diseases, but it’s something).

 

When I arrived to my community again after a week in the city with my cohort rushing around to doctors appointments, I received an invitation to my own birthday party! I walked to the “Gilmore Girls” house (as I call them because they are a young mother, Vanessa, with her teenage daughter, Alejandra, and super cool to chill with and easily my best friends in the community) for the festivities. Unfortunately, I was still crazy sick, but I knew that they were SO EXCITED to throw me a party, so I popped a bunch of pills beforehand and hoped a coughing fit wouldn’t ruin my thank you speech that was bound to happen.

I let myself in to their house and right away a small crowd of people screamed

 

“HAPPY BIRTHD- geez, are you sick? You look horrible. Sit down oh my goodness…”

 

So my attempts to look happy and healthy DID NOT work out as I originally thought! But everyone was very accommodating. They brought me plates of food, realized I wasn’t hungry, then took ¾ off my plate and let me nibble on that. They sat me in front of the tv and put a blanket on the ground so my bare feet wouldn’t touch the “cold” concrete and make me even sicker. (I can’t tell if this is folklore or not. The concrete is cooler, but it’s not necessarily cold. They believe that if your feet rest on concrete while you’re sick, it’ll send chills through your body and aggravate the illness, or sometimes even cause an illness. I’m still researching.) They took away my glass of strawberry soda and replaced it with a rice/banana smoothie for nutritional purposes. Instead of badgering me with questions about my life, they told me their funny birthday stories and their first impressions of me, the first white person they really got to know. Then they sang the Panamanian birthday song to me, took some photos, then gave me a HUGE bowl of cake and ice cream (“Because even though you’re sick, you still deserve all the sweets on your birthday!”). On top of the birthday cake was “Happy First Birthday!” because they say it’s my first birthday with them in the community, so I’m just now starting to live! How funny!

My presents were food- because they know I hate cooking. Tamales, bowls of rice and beans, corn tortillas, and more were placed in bags already overflowing with oranges, avocados, papaya, and banana. The best presents I could’ve asked for! They wrapped up some extra cake for me, gave me a hug, and sent me home because “We thought you would look less pale after eating, but it seems like you’re feeling even worse…”

Though I wish I wasn’t sick, it was still a great birthday. It was lowkey, with people who actually care for me, short, and sweet. Minimal attention and delicious food. That’s what I like! So they really spoiled me. As I waddled back to my house, arms heavy with my edible gifts, people yelled out to me “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAUGHTER!” from their houses and I was reminded how lucky I am to be in a place where I’m known, welcome, and considered part of every single family here. What a blessing.

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

Tiny frog is tiny! Hopping around the edge of my garden and chasing the flies, this little thing had personality and spirit for a full sized toad! I barely spotted this baby jumping around since it’s so small! But I’m so glad I did, because what a cutie!!! 10/10 hope to see it all grown up one day!

The GRE

Between hand washing laundry, machete-ing tarantulas, and collecting freshly fallen mangos, I’ve been intensely studying for the GRE! Because I’m a sucker who is ready to drop thousands of dollars into a system that profits from students, I want to return to grad school. Yes, I do. Or more, I have to. A bachelors degree in environmental studies doesn’t get me to where I want to go nowadays, so hopefully a higher degree will open up those opportunities. Thus, I studied like crazy for the GRE for a few months in between surviving my jungle surroundings.

I traveled 10 hours by public buses, took a metro to my hostel, made some friends, went to sleep, then got up early the next day to do some final prep.

I’ve got this, or so I thought. What I forgot was although it was a standard American company that runs all the GREs in the entire world, it was still given in Panama City, Panama. There, nothing is standard or can be considered reliable.

I showed up at 9:30 for my 10 a.m. exam, like the website stated. But I think I waited out in the hallway with a bunch of other hopeful test-takers for another hour as they pulled all of us into the room one by one for in-processing. It took FOREVER and I couldn’t figure out why.

Turns out, because it’s an ancient process. It’s all online, and this Panamanian computer lab hadn’t updated anything in a decade, at least. Once you’re pulled out of the hallway, you sit at a desk with a few moderators and they get you set up with your profile. This entails

  1. Spending 5 minutes of your time trying to get a decent photo, with one person holding cardboard above your head and another person holding an old webcam in front of your face at different angles, while a third person repeatedly says, “No, too dark. Try again”. It’s a process that takes forever, and you’re left with a photo on your profile that makes you look extremely pale, and deathly.
  2. Recording your honesty statement. Basically, it’s a long paragraph that states you promise you won’t cheat. They give you headphones and a microphone, and are asked to state your name and the date, then read a super long paragraph promising your integrity. However, this was a painful step because you had to yell. I’m afraid you’re imagining a person talking loudly. This isn’t accurate. I mean I WAS FREAKING YELLING MY NAME AND PROMISE TO BE A GOOD PERSON INTO THIS STUPID MICROPHONE. And, almost everyone had to do this multiple occasions, as the computer would say “sorry, too quiet!” and the administrators would tell you to do it again. It was exhausting, and not the stress you need right before taking a 4 hour long exam that determines a good chunk of your future.

Did I mention this was all done in the same room as the testing? Yes, so during my yelling, I was mere feet away from a bunch of people just trying to focus on their GREs. Not good. Once I finished and was set up at my own monster of a computer, all I could hear was the next student yelling just a row behind me, multiple times. The first few sections of my test probably didn’t turn out great.

Also, since everyone started at different times, people were constantly entering and exiting the room. Each time anyone returned, they had to go through a noisy metal detector to be sure they weren’t bringing in… phones? I guess? The noise was constant, and very distracting.

To top it all off, the girl’s computer next to me literally fell over in the middle of her exam.

After my 4 hours of desperately trying to fill out the math and verbal parts, I ran out of time (and patience) and went home. What a ridiculous waste of my time. So I’m still studying, and hopefully taking it back home in the states next time I go visit! Maybe July?

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

This pupperino is a lover, all licks and affection, not a mean bone in her body! She spends most of her time in the street asking strangers for pats, so although she probably should have more stranger danger awareness, we were still very appreciative that we got to meet her. Such a lover!

Ooohhhhhh Halfway There

May 15thwas the official day we finished training and headed out to our communities to work, so I’m a year done with my actual service! Woo!

So every cohort has to go back to the big city for a few days full of medical appointments, dentist, check ups, and a few hours in the office as a time of reflection when the staff has you evaluate how things are going. We all made goals for the next year of our service, thought back on how things went, and shared successes and failures together. We also celebrated my birthday together! It would’ve been way better had I not been hella sick, but I’ll take any time with my amazing group of volunteers I can get.

This week in the city helped me see how far I’ve come. I have officially reached Spanish fluency, accepted that many of my projects will fall through, and become truly okay with the majority of my job being an exchange of culture and showing the village that I’m trustworthy. I know how to get tough dirt stains out of my clothes when doing laundry by hand every Sunday, which dogs will chase me in the streets, and who currently has a fruit tree with ripe fruits to give away. Also, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts and read a ton of books, so I feel a bit smarter in that aspect as well.

My time here has given me so much time to think about my past and future. At times, it was painful to analyze every moment of my cringy high school career. But other times I liked having so much time to think about what makes me happy and how I can pursue that as prospective career opportunities.

It has also given me a lot of time to decide that I absolutely HATE cooking and would much rather go to someone else’s house every day to avoid having to feed myself. Also, I’m terrified of caterpillars just from the sheer amount of times they’ve hurt me. And the rainy season is WAYYYYY better than the dry season. Just saying, I’ve learned a lot in the past year and 3 months. Halfway done, 11.5 months to go!

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

This is Galileo! A baby sea turtle who was being taken care of by a local in the San Blas islands. Originally, I was upset that a person had taken him and put him in a small bucket, but after talking to the man about it he said that Galileo was ill, so he is caring for him for another month until this baby is strong enough to fend for himself. Such a sweet little babe! Just mere inches long, but with such a strong personality already. I wish him all the best in his future ocean adventures!

Vacation!

Finally, a friend from home visited me! I was so pumped to see her that I jogged through the long bus terminal as soon as I saw her. It was such a relief to finally be with someone who reminded me of home, spoke English, and knew my sense of humor really well.

So my friend flew in, we met up at the bus terminal, and immediately bought the tickets for the first leg of our trip. We took a long (AND FREEZING COLD) overnight bus from Panama City to David, and switched buses at 3:30 a.m. to a significantly smaller bus to start winding through the mountains on our way north toward Bocas del Toro. We had heard horror stories that it’s a super windy drive, and that even people with the strongest stomachs had problems, so the driver passes out bags. So although Rachel and I had never been motion sick in our lives, we both popped a few Dramamine, some ibuprofen, and each took a swig of Pepto-Bismol as our little bus left the dark terminal.

“Are you even traveling if you aren’t adequately drugging yourself?” ~Rachel

Truth be told, it was a crazy windy ride but we both would’ve probably been fine without all the pills. But, better safe than sorry. We arrived to the Bocas del Toro bus stop, took a quick taxi to the port, and hopped into a water taxi for a half hour ride that was actually very beautiful, as the route curved around glorious mangroves and the most picturesque islands I’ve ever seen.

The boat pulled up to the main island where all the tourists stay, so we grabbed our bags and walked to our hotel. We shoved some breakfast into our bellies and promptly fell asleep after our overnight, 13 hour-long trip. It started raining, so we slept like queens until noon, when Rachel rolled over and asked “Wanna go find smoothies?” Our afternoon was spent wandering an old cemetery, browsing street markets, and ordering smoothies from a van on the beach… and then trading smoothies because we liked each other’s smoothie better. A dinner of Indian food, time spent in hammocks hung over the ocean, then an early night. We were both exhausted!

Day 2 consisted of sleeping in, then throwing on our bikinis and taking a short ride to Starfish Beach. And it was so worth it! The water was crystal clear, the sand so white and smooth, and covered in starfish! It was so much fun wandering up and down the shore exploring the water for wildlife. We headed back to the main island for dinner of sushi, hung out at a bar with live music and then went to bed.

The next day we took another boat taxi to a neighboring island to visit a natural park called Red Frog, and we hung out on Red Frog Beach for most the morning and early afternoon. The nature there was so beautiful, and it wasn’t filled with people as we were worried about. We swam around quite a bit, took some gorgeous photos of the scenery, then hopped back on a boat to our hostel to pack up. We rinsed off, grabbed some food on the go, took another water taxi back to the main bus terminal of Bocas, and headed in a bus to David, once again popping pills on the way there to ward off the motion sickness. Just in case! We reached David at 10 p.m. and snacked, then loaded up on a big double decker bus to Panama City. We were so tired that we didn’t wake up once on our way there!

The next time I opened my eyes, Rachel and I were herded off our giant bus at 5 a.m. at the Panama City terminal, where we waited for a half hour for a random man in a jeep to come pick us up. Well, he wasn’t completelyrandom. He was a driver to take us into the Guna Yala territory, which is technically its own state and isn’t actually Panama. The road was rough, arguably with more turns than our previous trip, and had very steep hills. It was obvious why buses couldn’t make this haul, and why jeeps were needed. Our driver picked up a few more travelers on the way and let us all off at a very sketchy dock, where we were handed life jackets held together with duct tape and shuffled on to lanchas, which is their term for boat, but a little less trustworthy. Packed in there between Germans, Australians, and other foreigners, I couldn’t have felt less sure about our decision to visit Guna Yala. But within a half hour, all of my uncertainty melted away as we flew by the most incredible islands and waters. We were let off at “our” island, which had cabanas with sand floors surrounded by coconut trees, and told to get ready for our tour! Still groggy from lack of sleep, Rachel and I soldiered on by settling in to our bunks, changing into suits, and making our way back to the lanchawith the rest of the tourists. By 8:30 a.m. we were basking in the sun on pristine beaches, snorkeling in clear water, and eating chips and salsa with the other people on our tour. I think the day had redeemed itself! For lunch we were taken to a new island and served our choice of chicken or fish with plantains or rice. A very Panamanian meal! Then taken to another island for an afternoon of relaxing. We ended our first day by jumping out of the boat on to a sand bar in the middle of the ocean and seeing so many more starfish! I have never had my breath taken away so many times by the ocean before.

Our next day started with pancakes and hopping back on the lancha, well rested after drifting off to the sound of the waves crashing just outside our sugarcane hut all night. Another incredible island after another all day and we snorkeled again, but this time through shipwrecks-turned-reefs! We saw hundreds of types of fish and plants living their lives on the beached ships. There were tons of shipwrecks, actually. The locals said that people never realized how shallow the waters were until they ran their ships ashore with no luck of getting them back out to sea. From any island, you could probably see some HUGE ships getting reclaimed by the sea just off the coasts. It was fascinating! On our way back to our island, we had dolphins jump next to our lanchaand went through tons of schools of flying fish~ intense! Ended the night with another dinner of chicken and rice, sitting in hammocks by the ocean, swinging from coconut trees, then lulled into sweet dreams by the sea once again.

One more day in Guna Yala- so sad. We were allowed to visit the main island where the natives live and learned so much about their culture. Why they wear such bright colors, how their families live, what jobs they have, etc. We learned that their worlds revolve around hammocks. In church, there is one singer who lays in a hammock and sings prayers all day every Sunday. When there is a wedding, the bride and groom lay in a hammock together as a part of the ceremonial rituals. Women even give birth in hammocks. I could really see myself joining this culture and instantly loving it! After our visit, we were shuttled around to another round of gorgeous islands, watched men fish from their hand carved canoes, napped in more hammocks, then sadly packed up our beloved cabanas and allowed the lanchato take us back to the mainland, and another jeep to drop us off at a hostel in Panama City. I can’t wait to go back!

Our last two days of vacation were spent in the city, and significantly less exciting. Trying the local coffee, crashing a hotel pool, screaming at people on cruise ships as they went through the canal, and seeing a movie. We ate some delicious food, met some great people, and ultimately said goodbye to each other as Rachel had to go back to the states and I had to go back to my village to work.

But it was so worth it! Each place we went had such amazing natural beauty and rich history and culture. I’m glad I took a vacation and had an excuse to see more of Panama. I was a little worried it wouldn’t feel like an actual “vacation”, but this country is so diverse I often forgot we were still in Panama.

But now, back to work!

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ANIMALS OF THE WEEK

Look at these glorious babes! They are about 8 inches across and, obviously, are a beautiful couple. Seen at Starfish Beach in Bocas del Toro chilling in the water. I wanted to touch them so  bad, but there were signs everywhere that clearly stated “DO NOT TOUCH THE STARFISH” so I was a good citizen, and just looked intently instead. It was difficult, though!

 

Addiction is NOT the same as Addition

I’m struggling with tick-covered walls. There are hundreds of them, and freaking me out. My walls are old cement, so what I thought were just little dark imperfections turned into nests of baby ticks, with their blueberry-sized parents still close. Originally, when I thought it was just 2 or 3, I took my extra pair of tweezers and picked them off the walls and popped them, so satisfyingly. But as I continued to inch around the perimeter of my bedroom, I came to the horrifying realization that they outnumber me by at least 300. In my bedroom, crawling in my clothes, covering my shower curtain and bathroom walls and kitchen countertops… I’m not sure what to do. My neighbors tell me I need to fumigate the house, but no one has any way to do that. Looks like I’m out of luck, and stuck pulling ticks off my towel before every shower.

Anyway.

I like to take the weekends to focus on things OTHER than my environmentalist duties, so I have started doing secondary projects, such as English. There’s a group of educated women who are eager to speak with me in my native language, so we started having lessons on Sunday evenings for a couple hours. Some weeks they just want to listen to me pronounce words and fix their grammar, but other weeks they ask that I prepare a little something to expand their vocabulary. This has been transitioning words, nature, classroom, home, etc. The latest topic they asked me to talk about was addiction. Strange, but I went home and got started. The following class I introduced drug and alcohol problem vocabulary, relapse, therapy, and AA meetings. I could tell they were lost, looking at me extremely confused so I shortened my little speech and took to writing down the words for them. Their faces flickered through perplexing thoughts, so I asked what else they needed clarified.

“I thought addiction meant adding things together…”

ADDITION. THEY WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT ADDITION AND MATH TERMS.

I laughed so hard I cried, they started laughing so hard they couldn’t breathe. They wanted to know how to teach math classes and there I was discussing rehab! My life is one big joke, but I’m glad I could bring joy to them through the confusion. After that we focused on different sounds that come from the words “addiction” and “addition”, and how the meaning of the word can change drastically.

Pronunciation is key!

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

This isn’t your point of view, this grasshopper is huge! He always tries to come into my house early in the morning. RIP to him, though. I startled him and he flew away just for a bird to come out of nowhere and catch him mid-flight. Sorry, buddy! The circle of life has a dark sense of humor at times. I’m sure there’s tons more of him in the jungle!

 

Schedules

I found out today that my neighbor has been feeding me smoothies, with a special fruit in it. There’s this type of tall tree that produces a giant green ball looking fruit, which has been in Panamanian folklore for hundreds and hundreds of years. This plant is known to have so many special powers- relieves headaches, sanitizes intestines, and performs other miracles like that. One story is that if the inside spongy fruit is blended up, it cleans a woman’s reproductive organs and increases fertility. My lovely neighbor had been feeding me these, which is fine because it’s delicious fruit, but I had no idea the smoothie contained this particular fruit. This morning I went to visit her just to see her finish scooping out the innards into a bowl to begin mashing it up, when she explained this to me. “So you don’t die old and alone! This will help God send you a baby.” …thanks, I think. I reiterated that I don’t have the patience for kids. She laughed and poured me another glass. It was an odd exchange.

But it’s all good. I just take it as a compliment that she thinks I would be a good mother and wants my personality and genes to continue on. Luckily, my older siblings back in the states have that covered.

Can you believe March is already pretty much over with? My time is FRIGGIN FLYING. I have a timeline on my kitchen wall that visually shows my progress through my service, and I’m 13 months in. That means I only have about a year left, more or less, depending on when the office chooses the end dates for each volunteer in my cohort. Originally, I thought the Peace Corps would never end, but now I’m so busy that every day flies by.

I’m now giving little presentations in each classroom in the primary school with environmental themes, and I’m surprisingly enjoying it! Here’s what my schedule was for a couple days this past week~

5:30 a.m. Wake up, work out right away (run)

6:30 a.m. Shower and breakfast (oatmeal or pancakes)

7:00 a.m. At school, hangout with students (they play with my “chocolate” hair)

7:30 a.m. Third grade A

8:00 a.m. Preschool A

8:30 a.m. Fourth Grade

9:00 a.m. RECESS (play tag, share snacks, etc)

9:30 a.m. Second grade A

10:00 a.m. Kindergarten A

10:30 a.m. First grade

11:00 a.m. Kindergarten B

11:30 a.m. Third grade B

12:00 p.m. Lunch, hammock time (pbj sandwich, listen to podcasts)

1:00 p.m. Second grade B

1:30 p.m. Preschool B

2:00 p.m. Fourth grade B

2:30 p.m. Fourth grade C

3:00 p.m. Lead presentation for community on project, motivate workers

5:00 p.m. Clean house, eat dinner (beans, bread, bananas)

6:00 p.m. Study for GRE

6:30 p.m. Call family, friends, etc.

8:00 p.m. Lights out

 

I like these days. They go fast, keep me busy, and I feel productive when I climb into bed.

But other days, sometimes for 4 or 5 days at a time, I have NOTHING on my schedule. The teachers don’t need me in their classes, there’s a lull in my community projects, and the houses I usually visit are empty, the people at work. The slow days make me go crazy. Too much alone time puts me in a negative headspace. But I fill those days with lots of reading, working out, putting effort into my compost pile and garden, and writing.

Like today, after drinking smoothies with my neighbor, I walked back to my house and sat on concrete floor of my porch with the dogs and watched the giant iguanas jump from one tree to another. Then I walked to my backyard and talked to my friends who I share a fence with about their upcoming plans, they hand me some fresh bananas, and I walk back and sit down in my kitchen. I used to rejoice in my free time, but now I get antsy. So I take time to study math and vocab, I pull the ticks off the dogs, I sweep and mop the house, and then sit in my hammock and finish a few Sudoku while dreaming of Netflix. I miss TV.

One of these days I was dying for something to do, and looking at my watch I realized it had just turned 10 a.m. so I had a long way to go in terms of passing time. I changed and started walking around the community to see who was home, when I heard some commotion down one of the dirt roads. Following the noise, I came to the house where some of my good friends live, in a corner of the village, for them to yell “Amandita! Venga para comer y provechar con nosotros!” Which translates to “Little Amanda, come here so you can eat and take advantage of this time with us!”. Grateful for something to do, I climbed the fence and walked in on a bloody mess.

They were slaughtering their pig, and I arrived just as the blood letting process was ending. Tons of people were there, like there usually are, and all were excited to cook and eat the fresh meat. Talking myself out of feeling light headed, I joined in on the festivities- removing the head, skinning and frying the fat, boiling the feet, and cleaning the intestines. Yes, I did it all, and was able to work up an appetite (which is surprising). My stomach is getting stronger (I used to pass out while talking about getting a shot or seeing blood), maybe due to sheer exposure. I’m not sure. But these types of activities don’t freak me out quite as much anymore. I helped slice off the meat and smoke different parts of the pig, then was handed a large plate of lunch and cold glass of strawberry juice as a thank you. Everyone cleared out and I was left hanging out with one of my good friends, Vanessa, and her dad. She was finishing up smoking the meat while her dad calculated how much they would be making from selling different parts of the pig. By the time I finished the second plate of food I was given, helped clean up, and chilled in the shade with the dogs, the afternoon had already passed! I thanked them and excused myself to head home. A day spent with my people is always a day well spent.

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ANIMAL OF THE WEEK

“Killer” is a one year old mutt who loves papaya and pig intestines! He is faithful to his love of barking at everyone and chasing chickens around the yard. 10/10 will go back to share a meal with him again!

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My view after eating lunch. This is Vanessa, finishing up the smoking process, and her dad figuring out how much they will make when they sell each part of the pig. They don’t mind me just hanging out!