Returned Peace Corps Volunteer:

Robinne Weiss

Image of Panamanian flag


Image of Map of Panama

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

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