BootsnAll Travel Network

Change of Direction..Back to the Ngobe of Panama!

What I’ve been doing alot of the last few days is thinking.

I’ve been thinking  about the original intention of this journey, and how much my perspective has changed-not only from day to day, but on a fundamental level. I’m looking at everything differently.

The original plan of this journey was to visit lots and lots of countries, experience lots and lots of different ways of doing things, and do a variety of volunteer work.

I’ve discovered quite a few things in the process.

One thing I’ve discovered is that it’s much better to stay in one place for a long time than to go from place to place. Frankly, the few times I’ve volunteered for a few days or even weeks in one place, I don’t think I’ve contributed much of long term value to the people or organizations I’ve been trying to help.

Countless volunteer organizations advertise volunteer vacations, at great cost, lasting only one week..and claim you can make a difference! I have decided this is simply impossible. One may be able to help with some manual labor and take some of the heavy work load off of the core volunteers of an organization..but truly making  a difference means getting to know the culture, the people, the landscape. It means getting attached, not just to the people you are trying to help, but to their customs, their children, their food, their way of being in the world.

Attached? You ask.

Yes, attached. Attachment is a very foreign concept to people in the first world, I’ve noticed (myself included). Oh, we’re very comfortable with the concept of being attached to our cars, our houses, our stuff..even our education, our degrees, our professional experiences. We recognize and believe that being attached to these things is a good thing-and our culture strongly encourages us in this direction.

But we are usually very uncomfortable attached to things, people, and situations that won’t generate more stuff or prestige. Oh, we’ll sponsor a child in Peru so they can eat, or we’ll donate money to the Red Cross. But we do it in an unattached way, in a distant way. We believe we have to hold such suffering at an arms length to maintain our own happiness, our own stability, our own comfort. I still find myself getting attached to things that absolutely hold no long term interest or benefit to myself or others. I still find myself idealizing my own material comfort above all else.

I was especially like this at the start of this trip. I was holding everything I saw at an arms length-literally compartmentalizing the suffering I saw into categories, so that when I went home I could put it aside and go back to my job, my friends, my house, my life.

But, something strange began to happen when I went and lived with the Ngobe. I found I was so moved by their suffering that I couldn’t compartmentalize it, I couldn’t separate it from my life. I still can’t.

There’s something about being in one place for months on end and living with people that don’t have enough to eat, don’t have any changes of clothes, whose stomachs are bloated from parasites, whose women are dying from minor complications from childbirth, who can’t get to school because they can’t cross the river, whose animals are emaciated skin and bones, and whose lives are affected daily by a  distinct lack of human rights and a lack of voice in their own destiny….

…that does something to your heart.

It changes the entire direction of your life-it takes your heart and without any explanation takes all the love you’ve got to give and expands it a hundred times and more.

I’m become attached to the Ngobe. I can’t help it, and I wouldn’t give up caring about them and what happens to them for all of the world.

The Ngobe taught me more about myself than I have ever learnt reading books, studying in schools, or  working 9 to 5 jobs.

They taught me about family, reciprocal relationships, survival. They taught me about poverty, pain, and desperation.

But they also live in an area of Panama that is very tropical, full of plants and trees and rivers. The night sky is spectacular, the sunrises pristine, the views from the mountains astounding-no photograph can do them justice. There’s nothing quite like hanging out with a group of Ngobe late at night, telling stories and gazing at the stars. It’s beautiful.

I’m not being overly idealistic here-let’s face it, when I was actually living with the Ngobe, I was often just surviving. I was just trying to maintain my own state of mind, and not get overwhelmed by the state of things there-the squalor, the difficult conditions, the muddy roads, the grating poverty. I was out of my mind trying to figure out how to get rid of lice, cockroaches,and scorpions. I tired of eating yucca and bananas. I got frustrated swimming fully clothed with a groups of Ngobe watching my every move.

But I also got a glimpse of something rare-a few idealistic Ngobe who are trying to bring change into their communities and who were an inspiration to me, even long after I left.

The Ngobe are trying to change things for themselves, for their future. They want to figure out ways to have their basic needs met, to provide some schooling for their children, to find ways to market their crafts, to take their place in the world.

And I’ve decided to commit to helping them do that. Not because I have to, but because I want to.

Right now, I’m sitting in a living room of a friend , writing on a laptop and looking out at what has to be one of the most beautiful views in all of France. My friend’s hospitality is astonishing and seemingly without bounds-she has been kind enough to provide me with a restful place to lay my weary head in the middle of this long journey I am on.

Being here has been lovely. I’ve taken perhaps to much of a liking to fattening French cheese and crusty loaves of bread. I’ve read loads of books from her big library. I’ve enjoyed doing little but petting cats and looking out at the view.

But in the middle of all of this tranquility, I have found myself thinking of the Ngobe. It is since I’ve been here, resting, that I’ve had the time to slow down and realize where I’m really headed-to go back to where I feel I am called to be. I think I am in need of this respite to get some clarity on who I am becoming and where I am going. The whole purpose of the trip-to be of service in the world-has already come into fruition full force. But going back to live with the Ngobe, and committing to working with them long term-that’s a commitment to service for life.

That’s a real change in direction for me.

If you’ve been reading the blog the past few months, you know that I have been thinking about starting a charity fro the Ngobe, to primarily benefit women and children in the mountains. There are numerous projects I have been working on for them, from bridge building to women’s cooperatives. This charity would be US based, but would also have non profit staus in Panama.

What I’ve decided is to cut the round the world trip short, and return there.

Once there, I’ll be working on getting the women’s health cooperative building built.The women’s heathcare cooperative will be deep in the mountains where there are no healthcare options, and will primarily serve as a birthing center and prenatal care center. It will be run by a group of midwives from four different communities, who will be taking turns being on hand to help in deliveries. I also will be helping the midwives organize effectively as well as setting up some educational resources for women who are expecting babies. This is a very exciting thing to be doing, as it has widespread support among the Ngobe and is actually their own idea! (there will be a link on this blog on the right hand side to donate to this project on the University of California Berkley Good Ideas site. Just scroll down to “Help the Ngobe of Panama” and it will take you right to the site that explains the project in depth and tells you some ways you can help. And it’s tax deductible, too!)

I will also be setting up the infrastructure by Panama and Ngobe law to achieve non profit status in Panama for the organization, building a small house/office/meeting room for the volunteers of the organization, and meeting with community leaders/groups of the mountainous areas of the Ngobe Bugle Comarca to determine what needs to address and how. I’ll be working on getting engineers and staff support together to built a large suspension bridge in the coming year, too!

I’ll also be helping out the organization , Medo, that I was volunteering with previously.

Oh, yes..and learn the language of the Ngobe!

The goals of the charity I am working on now, since I have plenty of free time at the moment. Other than the obvious benefit to the Ngobe, I would also like to provide a real, viable, and inexpensive volunteer abroad solution for people that want to volunteer off the beaten path but haven’t found an organization that can help them do it on a budget and effectively use their skills. So many places I have volunteered have been poorly managed, overpriced, and not effective.

I will still be heading on to India, to work with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa’s organization, in Calcutta, in October. The chance to do the type of work they are doing there was the original seed for this entire trip, and I plan on remaining faithful to that original vision. I hope to be in Calcutta for 5 months, although I may take some side trips to other nearby cities, states, or even other countries.

But in my current state of mind, it would not surprise me if I simply stayed in Calcutta for 5 months straight and absorbed its strange mix of poverty and culture. I’d also like to take a course in Bengali and possibly learn some Indian cooking while there. (That could come in handy, knowing how to cook Indian food while living with the Ngobe later on! Might break up the yucca diet!)

I am flying out of Calcutta to Thailand in mid February, and from Thailand I have no idea where I will go. The current plan is to try for Burma, but if not there, then Laos or Cambodia. At this point, I want to spend whatever few months I have left in one country, to get  a feel for the place. I’ve had very nice volunteering offers from all three of those countries, so that’s why I’m hoping to choose one of those three.

In May I will head home to California for a month. There, I’ll try to relax and get enough supplies and so on ready for the following 7 or 8 months, which I will be spending with the Ngobe . Hopefully, I will be able to set things up enough that on returning home later on, I can have the infrastructure in place to really make this a full time job for myself.

My goal at the moment is to spend about 1/4 of the year with the Ngobe, and the rest in the States, working from home on projects, awareness, fundraising, and so on. The book project I have been working on about this trip has now been set aside, and I have decided to instead write a book about the Ngobe in the hopes of telling the world about them they will gain a voice in their own country and in the world at large. The proceeds of the book will all go to the Ngobe, of course.

I’ll manage to make it home by December 2009, set up housekeeping of sorts, stop living out of a backpack…and try to keep in mind the lessons I’ve been learning on what has been, and what will no doubt continue to be, the most simultaneously wonderful and difficult period of my life. It’s a journey that has been  both exhausting and exhilirating, but I have the sense that the best is yet to come.



10 responses to “Change of Direction..Back to the Ngobe of Panama!”

  1. Not really a change of direction – more like closing the circle. In Ngobe Bugle, you’ll really make a difference, not just to a few people but to an entire community. It’s a challenge, a responsibility, and a gift.

  2. […] Change of Direction..Back to the Ngobe of Panama! […]

  3. […] Change of Direction..Back to the Ngobe of Panama!But they also live in an area of Panama that is very tropical, full of plants and trees and rivers. The night sky is spectacular, the sunrises pristine, the views from the mountains astounding-no photograph can do them justice. … […]

  4. […] Change of Direction..Back to the Ngobe of Panama!One may be able to help with some manual labor and take some of the heavy work load off of the core volunteers of an organization..but truly making a difference means getting to know the culture, the people, the landscape. … […]

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