Returned Peace Corps Volunteer:
My husband, Ian, and I entered Peace Corps in 1993 as virtual newlyweds.
We had our first three anniversaries in service--trial by fire for our
marriage! We both worked in agroforestry extension, but each found our own
niche within our community. In addition to overseeing a couple of
community nurseries and teaching a number of young farmers about soil
conservation and improvement techniques, I worked extensively with a
women's group in the community. We developed a medicinal plant nursery
with a dual mission--to provide medicinal plants to group members and to
sell in local markets. I also worked with the elementary school in the
community--we did the World Map project and a Panama Map Project that I
developed (same idea as World map). I also spent some time teaching the ag
ed classes at school.
But that was the dull stuff! Here's the really neat stuff about my service.
We lived in Membrillo de Penonomé, a village of about 1,000 people in the
foothills of an extinct volcano. The word "village" gives the impression
of a defined town center, but Membrillo is very spread out. It takes
nearly an hour to walk from one side to the other. Folks in Membrillo are
artisans and subsistence farmers. In the morning, they work in the fields,
and during the afternoon they produce a number of crafts for sale
throughout the country. Most people weave hats, baskets, party favors, and
other items out of the fibers of a plant called bellota, Panama hat palm.
Others carve soapstone figurines. Membrillo is the only place in the
country with a soapstone mine. The men chop blocks of the soft stone out
of the mine with coas (essentially spud bars), then use saws, machetes, and
knives to carve the chunks into figures. The most popular figures are
owls, parrots, replicas of Panama Vieja (ruins of the ancient Panama City),
armadillos, and other animals. But the artisans' creative imaginations
come up with all kinds of things--mermaids, beer bottles, suckling pigs,
pipe-smoking monkeys, feet, nativity scenes, chess games, fish, elephants,
and even the Peace Corps logo!
Much of the artistry that comes out of Membrillo is sold in the market in
El Valle (a resort town in the crater of the extinct volcano) or at the
artisans' cooperative in Penonomé. The cooperative includes the whole
province of Coclé, but the majority of the artisans in it are from
Membrillo. The cooperative receives orders from all over the country (even
from Panama's First Lady) and from importers in the U.S.
Because Membrillo sits up in the mountains, and because Panama is such a
narrow country, we had the best of both worlds--we could see the Pacific
Ocean from our town, but it was pleasantly cool, not sweltering like the
lowlands. The topography of Membrillo and the surrounding area is rather
severe. There is no flat land, period. Hillsides are very steep and
become impossibly muddy in the rainy season. The topography makes for some
fantastic scenery, though, and terrific waterfalls! It's hard to imagine a
more beautiful place to spend a few years!
e-mail Robinne Weiss
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Last modified: Thu Feb 19 20:19:16 1998
What it looks like to Andy