Contact Info

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mail stuff!

Just got a few minutes and wanted to pass on my contact information, such as I have :) It may be possible to receive mail at my site in the Darien, but for now the Peace Corps office is the best bet.

Erik Heinonen
Cuerpo de Paz
Edificio 104, 1er piso
Avenida Vicente Bonilla
Ciudad del Saber, Clayton
Panama Rep. de Panama

Off to visit my permanent site on Tuesday!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Headed to...

Six weeks down, and three to go. To say that PST is flying by would be, well, wrong, but nonetheless we're X-ing the days off as we move towards the end of training. The last two weeks, however, have been the most interesting of our time in Panama so far.

We spent our fifth week in country at "tech week" in the town of Punta Pena, eight hours northwest of the capitol in province of Bocas de Torro, and just a few miles from the Carribean. After talking a lot about working in communities and teaching, we finally got the opportunity to get into classrooms and start feeling out teaching in Panama. Some days we observed classrooms in different schools—Punta Pena and the neighboring communities, with a total population of a few thousand, surprisingly have a half dozen schools, ranging from a private kindergarten, to a school for indigenous Ngobe students to a university night school—other days we taught. Being back in the classroom for the first time since last fall in Boston, was the highlight for me; to feel like I was working again. And for the first time, I felt like I was in Moldova again. Certainly there are a lot of differences between Moldovan and Panamanian schools, to which I will be able to speak better in a year, but being in front of a class and doing activities felt very much the same, and in that comforting. It was neat, too, to get the experience of teaching English both in an indigenous school and in a Latino school. And of course it was also a nice weekend to be outside of our training village to see another part of Panama and get to know the other members of our group better. After finishing up teaching, I headed to the mountains near Volcan Baru to spend two days with a group of friends, hiking, dancing, and enjoying the cooler temperatures. For the first time since I've been here I woke up in the middle of the night cold! Pictures to come!

While tech week was the most interesting week we've had, last week was the most momentous: site announcement. On Wednesday morning, we met in Chorrera, the third largest city in Panama, a few miles down the road from our training villages, for our weekly hub-site day, and as expected, everyone was wired. I had more or less been told where I was going to be going, but I still felt like I was heading to a race. Two cups of coffee didn't help!

So, I am in fact headed to the Darien, the eastern portion of Panama, which has only be significantly populated for the last 30-40 years since the Interamericana Highway, which stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego--with the exception of a chunk of eastern Panama and northern Columbia—was extended. Beyond the end of the road in Yarviza, the Darien Gap begins. It's one of the largest tracts of primary rainforest in the hemisphere, and it is essentially unpassable until it reaches the other side of the Columbian border.

My site is the second to last town on the Interamericana before the road ends. The town itself has a population of only a few hundred, but it is also home to a school co-run by the state ministry of education and a Panama-City based NGO. It draws students from all over the region, and trains them in agroforestry with the goal of getting them into university in Panama City or elsewhere in Latin America. Aside from studying agriculture and forestry, the students also have to pass English exams, which can be very challenging. That's where I come in. I will be working with the school's English teacher to help provide the kids, who are in grades 9 through 12, with extra English instruction. There will also be the chance, I'm told, to organize after-school activities for the students, most of whom board at the school during the week. There is also a primary school in the village where I will be living 20 minutes a way, where I may be able to help with English education as well. I felt pretty fortunate to get the placement I did. It's not the away-from-it-all I was hoping for, but the potential for a structured schedule more than makes up for that. The coolest thing aside from the work opportunities is that there are 700 hectares of primary forest right behind the school, which I will certainly make a point of exploring as thoroughly as possible!

The hard part now is waiting another week-and-a-half until we get to go visit our sites for a week to meet our work counterparts and check out possible living situations. Can't wait!

In the meantime, we'll just try to enjoy the final weeks of being around the other members of our group. This morning we organized a short environment day for kids in our village—games, a skit, singing, making musical instruments and seed planters from recycled bottles, and picking up trash around the village school—and tonight we're celebrating a birthday with guacamole and seven-layer bean dip. Hopefully cake, too :)

PSTing...One More Time

Howdy all. My apologies for the long break since the last entry. It hasn't been even a month yet since we left for Panama, but it seems like a year. As you would expect, pre-service training (PST) has been a busy ride —and slightly surreal in that PST is so unlike what life is like as a volunteer after arriving atsite and beginning to work—so far as we begin to get settled into life here in Panama. Even as I sit to write this I realize that I haven't really had time to fully process and reflect on everything that's happened over the last few weeks--and it may be a while before I really get the chance.

Like in Moldova, the order of the first month has been learning about local culture, getting up to speed on PC policy, and attending language and technical training sessions.

For the time being I'm living with a host family in a village of 1500 people about an hour east of Panama City near the city of Chorrera along with the 19 other members of the Tourism and English Advising program (TEA). I was initially surprised to be doing PST with such a large group of volunteers after having been with just seven others in Cismea during my Moldovan PST, but I honestly couldn't have asked to be part of a better group: excited to be in Panama, excited to be Peace Corps volunteers, and excited to get to work. We have the occasional too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen moments, but even then our group has is fun variety of personalities and life experiences. Really, the same could be said for the entire Panama 65 group: a lot of energy and interesting work and academic backgrounds. And for me too a lot of points of intersection with my life up to know. Amongst the TEA, Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation volunteers are people who have worked in journalism, former anthropology majors, several; people who lived in Oregon, Colorado, and Massachusetts, a couple former college athletes--including a pole vaulter and 400-800 runner), lots of joggers/runners, a friend of one of my Peace Corps Moldova friends and another trainee with previous Peace Corps experience.

As for the work itself, my TEA group will be split more or less between volunteers who will work primarily as English teachers and trainers of English teachers in a more formal school setting, and those who will be focusing more on working with ecotourism groups, artisans and women's groups.

Our official site announcements won't take place for another two-and-a-half weeks, but it looks like I will most likely be working primarily on the English side of things, which I was excited to find out. Whether or not it's in a more structured environment in a small town, or in a village school in el campo or the forest, I'm anxious to get going on work. Some of the best moments of PST so far have been when we got to sit in on lessons at a Panamanian school or an adult evening English class. We're pretty fortunate to be afforded a three-month transition period—hard to imagine a lot of development type jobs that would give you that kind of build-in—nonetheless it's hard to keep myself from getting ahead of myself and wanting to dive into work right away. In a way it sort of reminds me of running and coming back from an injury, in the way that you get so eager—and impatient—to get back out on the track, perhaps earlier than you ought to, in order to prove to yourself that you've still got it.

More concrete information on work assignment and location to come!

In the meantime, I'm trying to take advantage of the time I have with the other TEA group volunteers and also get to know other people in the community. While there are certainly some major differences between Moldova and Panama—weather, geography and pace of life being the most obvious so far—there have been some comforting similarities, namely that kids in a small community are excited to get to know volunteers and to simply go out and play. That was the key to so much of what we did in Moldova, and I'm looking forward to getting going in my future site.

That said being here does make me miss Moldova and the people I worked with. Going back to the beginning, to not knowing anyone and relatively little about life in a new place, has really driven home how incredibly fortunate I was in Bravicea, to have amazing relationships with my partners Elena, Ala, Alexei and Angela, and all the amazing kids at Stefan Cel Mare Liceu. It makes me wonder at times to what degree I simply got lucky, and whether I will be able to develop anything like what I had in Moldova here.

In any case, I will get the chance to start working on that all in a few weeks—and I can hardly wait.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

At least as far as blogging goes, things kind of tapered off during my second year in Moldova, so I figured an update on what's happened since might be in order.

Things in Moldova finished beautifully. The second year of teaching, with a chance to improve on the curricula we designed during the first y
ear, develop new lesson plans and continue building relationships with the students we'd taught during my first year (while also having lessons for the first time with three new classes!), was amazing. We laughed a lot, we learned a lot, and I think we all grew from the time spent together thinking about health and the way we live our lives.

Our after-school club, which went from initially lacking direction to being a pleasant surprise during my first year in the village, picked up where it left off once classes resumed in the fall of '09, and did some terrific things. It organized a used-toys drive at school for the local pre-school, organized a school-wide soap-for-handwashing campaign, conducted a fundraiser for our sports complex project, organized a day of activities for children at an orphanage in the neighboring district, helped promote school Health Week, helped organize the My Village photography competition and painted a 9-foot by 18-foot map of the world in one of the school classrooms.

We also spent a lot of after-school time in the winter and early spring preparing for Odyssey of the Mind, an international English-language creativity contest in which teams present their solution to long-term problems and also complete a spontaneous challenge. Two teams from Bravicea, one of 10th graders and one of 7th and 8th graders, competed at the national championship, and the younger team finished second in its division to qualify for the European Festival in Slovakia.

After a frustrating two months of trying to obtain the proper documents (passports, declarations, procurements, etc.) for the team members to travel abroad, we headed off by bus to Patinta, Slovakia in late April. It was an amazing nine-day journey, which for most of our seven participants, was their first trip outside of Moldova.

I never felt more proud than watching my team as it prepared for festival-ending mixed challenge presentation, when three teams from differen
t countries come together to solve a "long-term problem." Our team was paired with a younger team from Russia and a team from Berlin composed of the elementary school-aged children of embassy workers and other U.S. expats in Germany. It was amazing to watch our team leaders Elena and Hristina organizing a presentation in which some 20 kids participated, working simultaneously in Romanian, Russian and English. The only moment that might have been better? Watching the teams climb up on stage after their combined team presented almost perfectly to win first place in its division!

Despite moving up from the middle school to the high school division this year, the younger team qualified again, and is headed to this year's European Festival in Misnk as one of two (!) teams from my village that qualified, as the team of now 11th graders, building off last years experience, placed well enough to advance at the Moldova national championships in February.

Bafta multa tuturor in Belarusia!

The Haiducii Teambuilding and Leadership program also had a busy spring and summer. After working with some 800 children and young adults during my first year, in '08-'09 we ran more than a dozen teambuildings, ranging from university groups, to summer camps to the Peace Corps staff, and reached more than 1000 individuals.

While there were a lot of wonderful moments to celebrate last year, the big one came on Aug. 2 when we officially opened the Liceul Teoretic Stefan Cel Mare Sports Complex, the culmination of an 11-month project that solved a long standing need in our village. Here is a link to some more about the project, but in the interest of brevity I will say only that it was a long haul, from developing a budget and work plan, raising the money, and buying supplies, to the daily grind of moving earth, digging post holes and installing equipment over the last four months of my service.

As beautiful as the opening day was, when more than 300 children and parents from the village turned out for day of games and eating watermelon, even more heartening was seeing the village children pitching in to help make the complex a reality in the weeks leading up to it, as the far most dependable of the volunteer workers without whom the project would not have been possible. Along the way, I also developed a wonderful relationship with Mr. Zatic, the village mayor, and his family, whose total commitment to the project still blows me away.

And of course a tremend
ous thank you to all those in the States whose contributions allowed us to buy the sand, gravel, paint, fencing, cement and all the other materials that became the first significant new piece of infrastructure in the village since the Soviet Union collapsed—and in fact since well before then. Watching little kids shooting hoops, playing on swings or going down a slide for the first in their lives at a park they helped build: I still get choked up thinking about it. The timing was pretty good, too. We finished about two weeks before I finished my two years of service on Aug. 17.

The final days were busy with nearly a half-dozen teambuilding sessions to do, but fortunately time too for relaxing evenings of playing bump on the new basketball court and watching kids swinging, spinning and sprinting their hearts out in the fading sun of summer. In the end, though, it all felt too short, that the finish came too soon. In that, perhaps it makes sense that when I think back now about it all, I often feel like I may have left Moldova, but I never really came back.

One of the sad bits of Peace Corps is that while two years can seem like a long time in many respects it is still short enough that decisions about the future, about what comes next, are difficult to lay aside entirely. So it was that I found myself contemplating next steps after less than a year in Moldova. I already could feel the beginnings of a pull to stay that grew stronger and stronger over the course of my second year, but going back to school and to my old life, as a journalist, seemed like the responsible step. And largely on that basis—that it was logical, prudent, safe—I ultimately made the decision to return to the States for graduate school, even though my heart was telling me otherwise. I did my best to be open-minded about being back in the U.S. and in school, and while I met some wonderful people along the way and had the chance to reconnect with some parts of my life prior to Moldova, ultimately I never slid back into my old shoes. Peace Corps, teaching, working with people and simply waking up each day in a place so different than the one in which I grew up was never far from my mind, and what once made so much sense no longer did.

It was a difficult decision to make, very much like the one I made to turn down the chance to pursue a professional running career in favor of going to Moldova, but in late fall I decided I would withdraw from my journalism master's program at Boston University, and I reapplied to Peace Corps. After another round of filling out forms and clearances, I was nominated for an English Teaching and Ecotourism Advising program in Central America leaving in the Spring. Two weeks ago, I got the official invitation to serve in Panama as part of the nation's 65th group of volunteers. That simple fact (in Moldova I was part of group 20) hints at the differences that await in a new country in a different part of the world, but I think I'm ready for it.

The excitement I felt when I finally found out that I had been accepted to serve again tells me I probably made the right decision. Now it remains for me to do my best to prove it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Erik Goes to Panama

Welcome y bienvenidos a todos!

Thanks for visiting my new blog and following me as I embark on a new adventure in Panama. Like last time, I will do my best to keep you up-to-date on my Peace Corps experience—although it will largely depend on how often I have Internet access!

Looking forward to your emails and letters.



* As always: "The contents presented on this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps."