Thursday, April 15, 2010

The list of 27.

Today is my last day of Peace Corps. I can't believe it! Tomorrow I will go back to my site (but as a RETURNED Peace Corps Volunteer, not a CURRENT PCV) to collect my cat, close up my house and give away/sell all my belongings, and to say goodbyes. I have a final breakfast planned with my host family. I will be eating patacones (double-fried green bananas) and boiled yucca...2 of my favorite unhealthy foods that I mostly don't eat any more. Then I head to Panama City, spend the night with relatives of my host family (so they are my relatives too, right?) near the airport, and arrive in Albany on Monday. I am pumped, though it is going to be hard to leave.

I thought breaking down the experience and my thoughts into 27 nuggets would be a fun experiment and an easy way for you readers to get an idea of my thoughts as a whole about my time. I have been working on this list for a while, it will never be complete. But you can thank me later for sparing you a loooong winding road through my brain. Why 27? That is the number of months in a standard Peace Corps service. AND I FINISHED IT! Sure I have some regrets, things I wish I’d known from the start, lots more stories, but let’s just leave it at this list, and you can ask me about the other stuff when I get home. And one more thing, if you are going to ask me about my service, the more specific your question, the better I will be able to answer. Could you really answer someone who asked you “so how were the last 27 months of your life”?

1. I will always respect the order and fairness of a well-formed queue leading up to a counter. Very few people leave happy when they are elbowing their way for a bus, food or other service. Waiting is annoying, but undeniably fair and I suggest that more businesses in Panama and Bolivia try this technique (so far only banks, electric companies and some supermarkets really have this established).
2. If I had one thing to impart that would have a great impact on “development” it would be to encourage the governments of every country to teach children that it is okay to dream, to give them tools to be creative and critical thinkers and to AVOID the traps of teaching and learning by rote which stifle growth in the child and thus in a country’s future.
3. You can´t talk sense into insects.
4. How to bathe without water pressure or a bath tub: Fill a bucket of water. Take it to wherever you would normally shower. Use a cup to mete out water over your body. Lather up. Grab the cup by the edge, dip into the bucket WITHOUT letting your soapy hands touch the water. Pour over yourself. If water is limited, use a squeegy motion with your hands to remove excess suds after each rinse with water. For a spa-like experience, boil a small amount of the water with herbs (rosemary, lemongrass, mint, what have you) and add this to your big bucket of cool water, then proceed.
5. If you believe what you are doing is right, then keep on doing it and ignore the critics. You may end up changing minds with your conviction.
6. Good friends and neighbors are essential. They are there to listen, to laugh with, to sit quietly with, to surprise with some goodie from the oven or a hunk of cold watermelon that won´t fit in the fridge, etc. They make hard times bearable and good times better. From now on making and strengthening these relationships will be a priority of mine. This isn´t to say I don´t still see myself as independent, but friends help a lot.
7. Sometimes behavior change is as simple as pushing someone to consider why and what they are doing. There is a polite way to do this, and I think it comes down to treating everyone like human beings by being honest and up front about things. Honesty is respect and creates a space for cross-cultural understanding. So tell people when they are mis-stepping!
8. A big lesson: Sometimes I need to ask for help. I would like to be super woman, but I am not and although it saddens me, I can´t do everything alone. For one, I´m terrible at building fences. Had I asked for help with that in Bolivia, a cow wouldn´t have eaten all my veggies growing in the garden. Clearly, I have a complex about dependency, but I have learned (or, am still learning) that asking for help doesn’t mean I am helpless or not independent.
9. Monitoring and Evaluation are crucial to development, to projects of any kind really. Instead of focusing on a final product, recognize small steps, the successes and failures along the way. It´s more rewarding and leads to a much better end product. In this organization, we like to say ¨process over product.¨
10. It´s easy to get trapped inside your head on a bad day; easier still when you are isolated by culture and geography. The key is to get out and do something, especially if it´s physical. My favorite remedy is digging up soil with a pickaxe.
11. Walk confidently, upright and imagine a forcefield around you. People will mostly leave you alone. In 2+ years in supposedly dangerous countries, I only had one robbery attempt on my person.
12. Cleaning a house in the tropics is not fun, but really important since dust and bugs (and animal hair) seem to accumulate much faster than in temperate zones. Plus, cleaning and organizing can be very therapeutic.
13. I am a terrible liar, so I found that the best way for me to live is to only do things I am proud of or that I can at least explain. I can only lie if my safety is involved.
14. There is always more to learn: It took me until March 2010 to realize that ctrl-S doesn´t mean save on a Spanish computer…
15. My culture generally values creativity and originality, we like to be different and unique in small and often big ways; many cultures are not this way…realizing this was a big ¨aha¨ moment for me, and went a long way explaining why so few people actively seek out the new and different solutions.
16. Some things I will probably have to un-learn: Yelling (common practice, instead of walking over to where someone is. I yell to say “bless you” to my neighbor when she sneezes); constantly talking about the weather; burning trash (fine with me, I hate it!); throwing toilet paper in a trash can next to the toilet; being really really frugal (ask anyone who visited me, I have a very interesting i.e. low price point); keeping a really dense wall up to men who talk to me (give an inch here…and you could be in trouble)
17. Things I can do now that I couldn’t before: sharpen and use a machete; speak Spanish; understand Spanish; handwash clothes; survive on less water than I thought possible; sleep in a hammock (but I have to be really tired); identify intestinal ailments; distinguish types of wind and sun (the quality of light, speed and direction of wind, it all means something); wait around without anything to do (ha! only when forced).
18. I have drunk too many tiny cups of bad coffee for one lifetime. A shame, since Panama is actually the place where some of the most prized coffee in the world is grown.
19. There is always more to do, the work is never done. I have tried to let go of the things that were beyond the realm of my time or control, but it hasn’t been easy to hear in my last few days about projects I could have done, had I the time still.
20. Carry the following: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, a washcloth (for wiping sweat), deodorant, a knife, a spoon and a change of underwear….you will be so happy when you suddenly need one of those things and you have it!
21. Take care of your digestive system and your skin by drinking LOTS of water. (This is also why you should carry TP).
22. Life love and death don’t discriminate between what you consider the real world and an alternative experience. It’s all your real life, so you have to just roll with it.
23. I do NOT like to be stared at or similarly sized up. The best way to combat it is to stare back. Freaks people OUT.
24. Going to miss: really good smelling air in the mornings (orchids and fruit blossoms in the misty air); people, feeling a part of a community; the intensity of my daily life here; feeling tough and strong every time I struggle and achieve something (like drawing water from a well when nothing comes from the tap just so I can have some tea and a rinse off in the evenings)…let´s call this undeniable self-reliance; hilarious English pronuncitions; the chance to see plants and children I know grow; 35 cent ice cream cones; free bananas.
25. Things I´m really excited for: trash disposal and recycling; libraries, used-books stores and netflix; good cheese; ice cream in my freezer; so-called ethnic foods; health food stores; feeling clean for longer than a few minutes after a shower; showers and baths that don´t involve either a bucket or a search for water; coffee in a large size, to-go, in a reusable travel mug; no more plastic bags!; being current with news, culture, my friends´ and family´s lives; a job; a job that I can leave at my doorstep if I want to; cool weather; choosing my clothes based on my mood, being able to wear more clothes or less clothes when I want, not having to choose between physical comfort and emotional comfort when dressing (like, if I wore a breezy sundress here, I would be compromising my emotional comfort because of the attention it draws; if I wear jeans and a button-down shirt, I overheat); drinking the water, no questions asked; a drop in my stress level; customer service; no more mid-afternoon heat stroke headaches; cooking for more people than myself (I love cooking what I want, when I want, but I love to share food and entertain guests); my cookbooks; my sharp chef’s knife; and about a billion other things.
26. Things I am happy to leave behind: biting ants, termites, tiny clustering ants that show up inside things you haven´t used in a while; ¨gringa¨; power outages and current spikes; cat calls in Spanish; cat calls in English; machismo y racismo; awful radio DJ´s and their sound effect buttons; the heat and a concrete house (we could say it´s an oven…I never tried but I suspect you could fry an egg on the walls at mid-day).
27. I used to say ¨give what you can.¨ Now I have realized that sharing is probably more appropriate to my message because it implies equality between ¨giver¨ and ¨receiver.¨ Instead of thinking of having given up 27 months of my life to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I find great comfort in thinking that I have shared 27 months of my life with so many types of people (some who enriched my time with positive experiences, others who did so less directly, though everyone played a part). So my parting lesson for you readers is: share. Share your time, share your food, share work, share your thoughts, your ears, your abilities, your able body, with anyone else who is willing to share. This will make us all better off.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pura Vida

Ok, I will admit to not understanding Costa Rica´s tourism (?) motto: pura vida. It means pure life, but that just seems nonsensical to me. Well, it didn´t make much sense until recently. I realized that without some major barriers to life experience (ok, so my computer won´t start up and I have virtually nothing left to read) there is an extreme point of experiencing your surroundings. Probably something similar to a trek through the Costa Rican rain forest...though I am in the hot dry flatlands of Panama. Truly, I feel that I am vibrating at a different frequency, that when the breeze blows and the leaves flutter, part of my spirit is similarly fluttering and enjoying the ride. So, I´m super duper bummed about having potentially lost ALL the photos on my computer (archives which went back to my NYC days), though I haven´t given up hope in the Mac Genii in the USA. However, I´m spending even more time hanging with my community, I´m reading books in Spanish (Gabriel Garcia is quite a challenge but the only novel I have left), I´m listening to the radio in Spanish (generally trying to find a decent station that plays non-80´s, non-DJ sound-effects heavy, non-romantic Spanish, non-religious music), I´m standing in my front door smelling the air (a mix of wonderful blossoms and smoke because we are in the burning-grass season). Obviously, if I had a lot more time left to go, I may not be feeling so free and easy. But I recognize a change in myself: less freaking out about immediate problems, more faith that issues will get resolved in time, a lot more ability to just be purely alive and within my surroundings. Completamente viva (completely alive) doesn´t quite have the ring that pura vida has, but I think that´s a good way to understand it.

Stay tuned for my list of lessons learned...which I have to re-write from memory since it was saved only to my computer.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Helados de Panama

Double posting today! Check below for a more serious article...

As long-ago promised, here is my opinion on and a guide to the frozen treats of Panama. If you are ever in Panama, you could use this as a well-researched list. If not, maybe you’ll just enjoy reading my thoughts on this issue.

Duros: Found anywhere with a freezer, often in a small-town kiosk or just out of someone’s house. These are the plastic-bag popsicles. Fruits, drink mix, coconut and milk, or rice-and-milk or rice-and-pineapple are blended up and poured into tiny plastic bags, which go in the freezer. Often you get a choice of “aguada” (half-frozen with some ice in the center) or bien congelado (well frozen). To eat, one bites off a corner of plastic, tries to find a place to properly dispose of the little piece (good luck), and sucks out the melting deliciousness. At ten cents, a serious bargain. Fifteen cents is reasonable especially for something a bit more involved (like if there’s milk, coconut or rice). If someone wants to charge you more, there better be strawberries or something else really special. As I mentioned, there is a major range in flavors. My favorites are coconut and pineapple, and obviously guanábana but it’s pretty rare. I avoid the rojo or koolaid (pronounced coo-lay-ee), the nance (a fruit I just don’t like). The arroz con piña and arroz con leche are made from rice cooked with a lot of water and whatever flavoring, and then blended up and frozen. Excellent choices but hard to come by.

Cones and cups: Can be purchased in bus terminals, supermarkets, mini-marts. 30-40 cents, always hit the spot. I have only seen the cheaper national brand, Estrella Azul, sold in this form, but it’s really not bad if you avoid a few deadly flavors. Safest flavors: chocolate, chocalmendra (chocolate nut), galleta (cookie), vainilla (vanilla), dulce de leche (rare, excellent), guanábana. The grape nut (pronounced gray-noo) is a favorite for some, but to me it’s just like a vanilla with flavorless cereal in it. Casablanca (white house) is a mysterious name for a pinkish ice cream (it has mildly fruity bits in a vanilla base) but I continue to order it since it’s not too bad and I want to figure it out. The ones I avoid are: naranja-piña (orange-pineapple), cereza (cherry), fresa (strawberry), all too artificial in color and flavor. I don’t like the nance fruit, I can’t imagine the ice cream tastes too good, so I’ve never tried it. Neopolitano is a conundrum, mixing two acceptable flavors with a third bad one, and generally it’s the strawberry that overtakes the flavor of the other two. If you have communication troubles, your best bet is pointing to a brown or white in the freezer case and avoiding crazy colors. Cups (tazas) are generally 5 cents more than a cone (cono), but you don’t risk toppling the scoop (most scoopers have not learned proper technique, sadly). My top three: galleta, dulce de leche, Casablanca.
Carts: Carts are ubiquitous at parades, but not hard to find on normal days. Di’Bari and La Italianita sell wonderful popsicles, both fruit and ice cream. With these I tend to choose as I would choose a duro, coconut or fruit. I find the La Italianita ice cream to be a little artificial but not bad. My go-to for these is always the guineo (banana). It tastes fresh, sweet, banana-y and not at all fake. It’s like a smashed banana (apparently I was a fan at a very early age, and remain one to this day), frozen on a stick. Fresa and coco are also winners, but I must admit I have less experience with the flavor range on these carts. As I mentioned, during parades there are more carts, and sometimes you’ll see homegrown operations selling something surely delicious. Make your own judgement about hygiene, but a strong stomach can probably handle this stuff okay. I once had a real winner, something called Helado Tableño which hailed, as the name suggests, from the town of Las Tablas, which is in the heart of one of the dairy-producing areas (the Azuero; Chiriqui also has a lot of good dairy). I’m not sure what made it specifically tableño, but it tasted sweet and creamy, almost like coconut.

Gourmet and Supermarket choices: I must admit, I’m a sucker for the gourmet ice creams. Luckily for my waistline, I can’t keep ice cream in my “freezer” (that’s what it is called, not what it does) and the gourmet shops are only in Panama City. However, I definitely have an opinion. The supermarkets and some better mini-marts stock pints through huge buckets of Estrella Azul and a slightly higher-caliber brand called Borden. There are also individual cups and popsicles to be found. I recommend Skimo Pie (that’s right, because of the way things are prounounced, it’s Eskimo pie) in a bind, though it´s nothing close to as good as a Klondike bar. However, if you’re at the supermarket, you have lots of choice. The pint is easy to polish off alone, but I have a fond memory of sharing a chocolate pint of Estrella Azul in Santa Fe with my dear dad when the family was visiting, and being satisfied with half. Supermarkets are your best bet for the better flavors, even for light and frozen yogurt options, which I haven’t tried. Moving up the scale, Bonlac brand is more gourmet, selling very delicious sundae cups (pricey! 85 cents to a dollar), as well as larger versions of the sundae flavors. Dos Pinos is a Costa Rican brand which seems to be on the game with good flavors and light options (however I find their cheeses to be kind of gross), but only sells in larger sizes so I’ve never tried it. And yeah, you can often find Breyers and some other imports, but that’s not why you’re in Panama now is it?
As for gourmet shops…La Italianita has some outlets in the malls, but if you’re at a mall you MUST go to Gelarti or Crepes and Waffles. Gelarti is something I’d eat back home, no question. They even have a mint chip! That’s generally my first choice, but those extreme chocolates and even the vanilla varieties are all very satisfying. There are sherberts and sorbets, which I’ve never tried since the creamy ones just call to me so much; I’m sure they’re good. I didn’t so much like the mixed berry compared side-by-side with a chocolate. Priced at 1.75 for a single, large scoop in a quality cone, 2.25 for the second dip, which is overkill generally. Biggest challenge: trying to pronounce the English names of some of the flavors in the way that a native Spanish speaker would understand. Why the names are in English is beyond me…which is why I have never ordered Cookies n Cream. If your Spanish is good enough, just say what it would be in Spanish. Crepes and Waffles is a restaurant with several outlets, in malls and one in the Bella Vista area of Panama City. I have only had it once, when I had a sorbet craving. I forget whether it was mora or frambuesa (blackberry or raspberry), but it was excellent. You can find almost fat-free softserve at Casa de Helados, if that´s your game. Or track down my RPCV friends Lebo and Michelle in South America for a softserve cone and entertainment. In the rapidly-gentrifying Casco Viejo part of Panama City, there are also a few gourmet shops. I unfortunately don’t recall the name of the one where I stopped, but they patiently let me try their en vogue flavors like albahaca (basil), naranja chocolate (orange chocolate) et al. If you’re in Casco Viejo, you’d find this place as it’s not a large area. However, if you hail from a foodie city, this probably is less special than it is to a deprived PCV. I think my bill was around 2 dollars and THAT you won´t get in San Francisco.

So never fear, in Panama, where it is summer all year, you can always get some ice cream!

fait accompli?

Well, I’ve been meaning to update my blog for a while, but I’m being pulled in many directions lately. I’m learning a lot, as always, and trying to give constructive criticism so that future people in my position will not have to be so stressed out! Enough said.

Happily, my community is still (or, at long last?) inviting me to work. This past month, my host mom has been harvesting a lot of cucumbers, which we had planted together. She doesn’t need my help with that, but this is part of our ongoing conversation/effort about how she ought to consider her vegetable garden and poultry-raising as her “job.” That is, she has shifted (mentally) from these being on-the-side activities to what she does daily with as much commitment as people who leave their houses for a job. A lot of the seeds I’ve given her haven’t panned out, but we were very pleased to be able to grow enough greenbeans (the short, sweet variety that are considered “quality” here) to collect the seeds. I actually imparted some seed-saving knowledge, that she should let the beans dry on the plant instead of harvesting them green, in order to save the seed. I can’t control what happens after I leave, but maybe the shift is more permanent this time than in previous years. I have to remember that she hasn’t lived in this town as long as the others, so she is, comparatively speaking, only starting out, and so the stopping and starting that has characterized my work with her is probably symptomatic of her being new at this more than anything else. She also seems to be getting more saavy about grocery shopping to include healthier choices than when I first arrived. Hard to say whether this is a direct effect from my nutrition talks with her, but I like to say I have something to do with it.

My friend and neighbor, Mari, with whom I’ve worked a lot (who also tends to frustrate me with her desultory garden-tending habits) invited me to work to chop down the grass in what should be her garden beds. I was not too animated about going, since it seems all we have done in the past half a year is chop down the grass but never work the soil or plant anything. However, of course I went! I have been saying “yes” to everything lately so I won’t have regrets about what I might have missed. I asked Mari, as a way of pushing her to plan and to have a goal, what she wanted to plant. I told her I wanted to know so that when I’m in the USA I would be able to have a picture of her garden in my head. At first she answered, “no se Raquel,” which is standard. Rather than give an opinion, usually the first thing I hear is that someone doesn’t know. I gave a few ideas, and quickly it became clear that she was concerned about how to get seeds. Now, in the past I’ve given her seeds for free and not much has come of it. A combination of her character and her mother’s recent illness got in the way. But I think she’s turning a corner now. Her daughter is starting school this week (tomorrow, as I’m writing this), and maybe this landmark in her life is causing her to reflect on her goals and vision. Mari now has a paying job, and can definitely afford the basic seeds that are easy to find in Santiago, where she goes fairly often. Besides that, a lot of the vegetables that she has started to buy also have seeds one can cull from the actual fruit (tomato, pumpkin, beans). I told her this, and she agreed. So we’ll see what she ends up doing. Anyways, after we chopped (with machetes!) for a while, we sat to talk. Since I’ve been busy and she is often at work when I stop by her mother’s house, it’s been a while. I consider her one of my best friends, and we speak very openly to each other. I’ll never forget or discredit her easy friendship, which has made my service so much better.

We talked about her sadness at not losing weight or being in shape (which is harder for her now that she works in an office and isn’t on her feet all day: a major trade-off between country and city life, as we all know). I encouraged her, as I always do, to try some new things, to ask my host mom to be her exercise partner (seriously, both women are trying to get in shape and are a bit embarrassed to exercise alone in public, and I’ve been trying to get them to partner up FOREVER), etc. Though this conversation is one we often have, I’m including it because in the context of what happened next, I’m hopeful that what I am saying is getting through and sticking.

Somehow the conversation shifted, and she gave me the ultimate gift: confirmation that I have had an effect on someone in my community (her). When I was interviewing for Peace Corps, I said that I’d be satisfied if I changed only one person’s life for the better. Maybe I was exaggerating or just naïve at the time, since lately I’ve felt like I haven’t done anything or enough with my time in Peace Corps, etc. Yet what I realized I’d been missing was the simple confirmation that I’d reached this goal. Mari was talking about how someone else in town (whom I’ve never worked with though I’ve invited her to some things) had been bad-mouthing me to Mari and another woman, saying she had no idea what “that gringa” was here for and everything else bad that still really hurts to hear said. But Mari had defended me, told the third woman (an outsider in the community) that it’s not Raquel’s fault that she’d never worked with woman 1, because Raquel doesn’t force anyone to do anything but is a really good worker, a professional, who knows many things, who will always help IF YOU ASK. Mari had me tearing up at this point. She used all the descriptors I would want used about me, and believe me, I was not prompting her to say any of this. I couldn’t open my mouth because I would have started crying for real. Furthermore, Mari said that she didn’t understand why she and the rest of the community hadn’t supported my efforts more. She saw how hard I tried with the women’s health class (she made it clear that SHE understood it wasn’t a weight-loss class but a health and nutrition class), with the tree planting, with everything. She said the community should have been more involved, because I was trying to make things better for them and without me, things would just always be the same (for example the area where we planted trees would remain treeless forever). Finally, she told me that she really has learned a lot from me (she named everything we’d done together), and plans to make use of the techniques we’ve practiced together. She asked that I send her seeds from home (obviously I will, since what they get here are awful hybrids that they can’t save the seeds from). She told me that her older brother (who I always thought considered me as sort of nuts) and mother (who is indeed a major supporter) were always telling Mari to use what she’d learned with Raquel, because “Raquel, sí sabe” (Raquel, yes knows). I feel I can end my service with that one nagging question finally answered. Yes, I changed something for the better. I’m excited to check in, to visit in coming years, and to see how this change may have had domino effects. But that’s getting ahead of myself. For now, I’m simply and completely elated!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Do you see what I see? The identity crisis edition…


January is FLYING by. Has flown by by the time I post, I presume. This month I have been visiting many communities as part of the “site identification and preparation” process. Add to that a very quick trip to Panama City, and the normal visits to my provincial capital to see agency representatives and do my personal errands, and you get one tired Raquel. I’m less in love with bus travel this month, seeing as the trips I’m taking are generally much longer and hotter than my normal bus to Santiago…and waiting around for the buses is not that fun all the time. My normally very-healthy body and mind seemed to suffer from less sleep, a lot of time seated on a bumpy road, having to choose between packaged cookies, crackers, or nothing to tide my appetite over, and being anxious about getting things done. I even had an episode where I forgot my ATM PIN in Panama City, resulting in my card being blocked and my having to fix that whole mess. I don’t forget many things, I’m convinced that happened because of my brain being so exhausted.

However, the difficult part of that job is behind me. I’ll still be traveling, but with Peace Corps staff in Land Rovers with AC (you also get there a lot faster in a small vehicle that doesn’t stop every few minutes). I’m going to make a real effort to take some days to see the parts of Panama that I haven’t been to (namely one of the indigenous areas that isn’t far from where I live). It was rough having to visit communities on the beach but not having the time to stay and play.

The title of this entry points to an interesting inner turmoil of which I’ve recently become aware. I feel quite adjusted to the culture and language. When I’m in my town, I don’t see myself as an outsider, everyone knows me, and I feel comfortable in their houses talking about whatever, interacting with the children, etc. I feel at this point I’ve earned the right to let the Panamanian side of me show. So I bought myself the typical “sombrero criollo” which is not the Panama Hat you’re probably picturing. It has black fibers woven into the braid. Hard to describe. Anyways, I felt happy and like I earned my hat, like I was really integrated into the culture to know that THIS is the real Panama hat (they say “sombrero de nosotros”-our hat). But as soon as I put it on in my regional capital, I got all these stares and comments that were particularly blatant. I’ve gotten used to a base level of unwanted attention, but this was awful! People were making me feel like an imposter! So in this case, I was being seen as one thing (an outsider) just at the moment where I was feeling proud of myself for being so integrated into the culture. Wearing the hat around my community has led to positive comments, people really like the hat and say it looks good on me. I actually don’t like the way I look in the hat, but I need the sun protection and it’s a great souvenir.

Interestingly, sort of the opposite situation has also happened to me in my travels this month. I will never claim I speak perfect or even excellent Spanish. I converse well, I have an accent, certain affects (e.g. adding “-ito” to lots of words even when it doesn’t make sense, like asking for a “librita”-little pound-of tomatoes) and a rhythm in my speech that is similar to that in the town where I live. However, I never think I’m fooling anyone into thinking I’m not from the United States or otherwise abroad. So there’s my imperfect Spanish and then there are my looks. I may be tanner than my German and French-Canadian heritage normally permits, but I am still particularly pink-toned. This is why people reacted so strongly to my wearing the Panama hat: it clashed with my appearance. This is why I often get approached by (in my opinion: rude and annoying) strangers saying “u-ni-ted stayte?” Etc. So imagine my surprise when the question was more neutral, “where are you from?” “so are you from the US as well as the volunteers you coordinate?” Like people were trying to figure out if I was from a different part of Panama. It’s true that certain areas in Panama have a higher concentration of more European looking people…but they speak perfect Spanish and it’s immediately clear that they are Panamanian (or Colombian or Costa Rican…people have also asked me that too). I have been asked if my eyes are contact lenses (I’m afraid to touch my eyes, trust me, no contact lenses). I’m flattered and surprised that people would think I am a compatriot. I have to laugh a little bit that sometimes I’m treated as an imposter or foreigner, and other times I have to correct people to assure them that I am also a Peace Corps volunteer from the United States. Obviously, I’m proud of myself for the latter situation. I have nothing more profound to say about the subject of identity and appearance. I’m just happy I can navigate through this country with ease, especially if given the chance to directly interact with someone to show them that I’m not a clueless (but loveable) tourist.

In February I start the arduous (but fun since it includes a few Panama City trips which means quality gelato, normal-size to-go coffee and my favorite 50-cents-an-item Chinese vegetarian restaurant) process of “closing service.” Yes, we are that close. I say “we” because even though I’m physically the one here, my family and friends’ support has been integral to my experience. I have no shame in having a countdown at this point…I am proud of myself that I will actually make it through all 27 months of the commitment! And I am not already mentally checked out. I still have work to do and will be doing it until I go (just the other day I started a compost pile with a new work partner in town).

Posting this today, February 5th, in the midst of this process. I'm processing all the accomplishments and "learning experiences" that have made up my experience...intense!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Burning Men Festival

I suppose burning effigies as a celebration or ritual is a common thing the world over. I have no idea how I missed this last New Year’s, but Panama has quite a tradition. A few days before New Years, one starts noticing scarecrow-like stuffed clothes propped up against fences and electricity poles. They are made of a man’s clothes stuffed with raked up leaves (not maple or oak, but cashew fruit tree leaves). They look a lot like men just standing around from far off…I’ve been psyched out a few times. This is the theory: the muñeco (literally, doll) represents the past year. So burning it is a way of putting the past to rest, to start over. The men are lit on fire right at midnight (or ok, 11pm, kids get impatient). Poetic and especially dramatic when there are firecrackers (can be purchased for $1/long strand at, you guessed it, the bus terminal) mixed in with the leaves.

Other New Year’s traditions here are: decorating the table with big ring-shaped breads, grapes, apples and pears. I think you are supposed to stay up around the table playing dominoes and bingo until midnight, then eat these things. I read in the newspaper that some people eat 12 grapes right at midnight. They sometimes count the seeds and then those are their lottery or lucky numbers for the coming year. There are special stands outside of the supermarkets and, yup, in the bus terminal, that exclusively sell the New Years (also bought for Christmas) foods. The grocery stores are full of people who rarely leave their homes. Many are men buying very large quantities of alcohol…from beer to the traditional sugarcane liquor called Seco Herrerano, to rum (no national brand), to these extremely horrible liquors that are fruity and/or fizzy but just look so awful and artificial I can’t understand how anybody drinks them (they seem unnecessary given the other available options). Not to say that the USA tradition of getting super drunk for no reason other than a number on the calendar is all that classy. But seriously, “Riunite” brand of sparkling flavored wines (looks like Gatorade)? Nighttrain? Yuck. In any case, despite the alcohol, people definitely see New Years as a time to hang out with family. And I have not once heard comments of someone dreading this part of the holidays. There is NOTHING better to Panamanians than time spent with the family. So there’s a lesson for us jaded USA-ers. The children get into it because there are more cousins and playmates around, more sweets and special foods, lots of music, and the chance to stay up all night and set off firecrackers and fireworks for a few days. For my part, I fell asleep early and woke up to the noisemakers at about 11pm, but it wasn't too bad.

Another thing is "matanza." Yea...that means butchering. I guess it's customary as well to go all out on New Year's Day and slaughter an animal, if you have the means. Many people have chickens and prepare big pots of "arroz con pollo" which is a treat. But some of the more well-to-do families might invest in a pig or a cow slaughter. I'm not sure what the symbolism is, probably has to do with having plentiful food for the new year. But I guess it's just really practical to slaughter the animals you've been keeping all year when there's a lot of extra people visiting.

Also, I believe this marks the last holiday of my Peace Corps service I will have to endure far away from the familiar, pining for traditions of holidays at home (ok, maybe I’ll be sad to miss Valentine’s Day chocolates). I’m gettin’ there…

Friday, December 25, 2009

Riding Buses in Panama (21-12-09)

Here’s another “what it’s like here” blog postings…trying to do more of these as I soak up my experiences and store them as proteins in my brain.

Short-distance regional buses are extremely convenient most of the year. I can’t believe there aren’t any of these in more rural areas in the States. I have no idea what I will do when I don’t have a car in Vermont and there aren’t any buses to take me to town. Anyways, this is not most of the year, and bus travel is extremely frustrating. But the reasons it is frustrating will give a nice window into how it’s so great most of the year…as my AP Bio teacher explained, “we will learn about the normal by studying the abnormal.” A few primers: the buses are owned by the drivers, I think, but they are regulated and belong to a company (maybe it’s a cooperative thing). There is a team of “ayudantes” (meaning helpers). Each ayudante works a specific bus or two, in a team with the driver. The ayudante loads and unloads your packages, looks and listens for cues that someone wants to get off and takes your money so the driver doesn’t need to be distracted. The prices are standard and printed, and the ayudante is generally good at knowing what a specific mid-route to mid-route fare is. Children and seniors get discounts, and if you carry a child or two or three on your lap or within your seat’s legroom, they go free. I’ve seen grown children (I’d say at least up to age 10) transported this way. You can bring livestock. I’ve seen chickens in sacks, puppies and kittens with their heads sticking out of sacks, and my own kitten was once allowed on in a cardboard box that she kept popping out of.

So today I walked up to the bus stop, planning to catch the 8am. It actually leaves from the main town in my district at a few minutes before the hour, depending on how many people are on it. Fuller means leaving earlier. The few minutes I spend brushing seeds and dirt off myself, finishing dressing and primping (one must look presentable getting on a bus; it’s a respect for the other passengers thing to not be sweaty and smelly when you are in their proximity) are always a bit of a suspenseful game. If there are others waiting, we inevitably begin the discussion. Which buses are running today? The little ones=groan and complaint about how they fill them up so much, the big ones=general happiness because they are almost never too full and they circulate air much better. The little ones are Toyota coasters, the big ones are repurposed school buses. Will it be really full today? If it’s on or around the 15th or the end of the month, when people get paid, it will be fuller. If the seniors are getting their bonus checks, it’s going to be REALLY full. Why is it still not coming? This is the most suspenseful question. A little later than 8am could be good, because it means it was waiting a little longer to grab more passengers and so there aren’t too many people riding today. Too early and it’s going to be really full and possibly standing-room only. Today was the third option: much after 8am, because the bus had already stopped many times to pick up passengers and it was consequently too stuffed to pick me up. Generally speaking, there is a seat or standing room for me, but since it’s Christmas season, everybody is going to Santiago to receive and send packages, buy presents and food, etc. Other full times of the year: Easter and Mother’s Day. My next option is to stay at the top of the road for an hour, wait for the next bus. I never do that. I’ve learned some patience, but not much. I could wait half an hour for the bus passing in the opposite direction, and arrive in the starting town in time to secure myself a seat. I have never done that, but today I considered it. What I do do is walk 20 minutes to the Pan-American highway (yup, I’m that close. I’ve sometimes fantasized about packing a bag, grabbing the cat, and flagging down a ride and heading north through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico into the States…). I could wait for a cab or a ride (known as “bote,” like a boat), but the cab drivers drive a steep bargain for what is only a 20-minute walk. From there it’s generally easy to catch a bus serving a longer route heading to Santiago. Today I think I was out there in the hot sun for 40 minutes trying to get one to stop, but 4 passed by too full for passengers (we were quickly amassing by the side of the road…bad news because a bus driver can’t just let some on and there’s no queue of who was there first). Finally one stopped and I stood for the whole 30 minute trip. I arrived just as the 9am bus from my route was arriving.

The bus terminals in Latin America bring me great joy, normally. In our terminal, which is quite small, there are vendors of seasonal produce (right now: tangerines and pidgeonpeas), pirated music and DVDs (generally young guys with fashion tshirts, distressed jeans and gelled hair who mumble: “musicapeliculacomica”), shaved-ice-and-sugar-syrup treats from a cart (called raspado but pronounced ras-pow), newspaper vendors, an agricultural supply store, shoeshines, a butcher, 2 across-Panama courier services, a farmacy, 2 restaurants, several sundry/basic foodstuffs stores, a guy who walks around selling peppermint sticks and Panamanian candies (older guy who yells “pe-per-meeen-eh, man-hares, dulce de laaayche”), a bakery where things actually taste as good as they look because there is a constant demand and thus renewal of the supply, ATMs, lottery ticket sellers, clean bathrooms, and a random touchscreen thing that is supposed to help tourists. My favorite discovery back in my early days was that one can obtain ice cream in at least 5 of these establishments. A cone runs about 35 cents, a cup 40. The ice cream is nothing gourmet, and you have to know which flavors to say no to. The stores only keep one or two at scooping temperature, so you sometimes have to shop around so as not to get the rum raisin (heavy on the imitation rum) or orange-pineapple (it’s neon and gross). I have plenty more to opine on the ice cream, but that’s for another posting. The terminal around major holidays is mayhem. People who generally don’t leave their homes are suddenly all there, crowded and messing up the pedestrian flow. Little kids are running into me and my laptop bag, old people just suddenly stop mid-stride because they. (Syntax joke there…get it?) There are purchases and parcels creating a smaller lane to walk through. More people than usual are crowded to check out the lottery tickets on sale. It’s not joyful this time of year…it’s hot and stressful and makes me grumpy.

Now, after a day of errands in Santiago (though one clearly does not have to leave the terminal area to do most normal Panamanian errands…I have a different set of needs like wireless internet, the post office and a real supermarket), I have to plan when I arrive back at the terminal. On big bus days, I worry less, and can arrive fairly close to the hour and still have a seat. Today was a little bus day, so I knew I should get there at about 20 past the hour to make sure I could get a seat. Some days I’ve actually gotten there as the previous bus was leaving, on purpose, and staked out a claim on the next bus with a few others. It’s cutthroat. There are certain accepted practices, so getting there an hour early does not mean you have to sit on the bus for an hour until it leaves. Once your packages are stowed (just recently the ayudantes have taken to writing the package destination and number of packages directly on the bags, so now all my eco-friendly bags have marker stains…thanks guys), you can put something on a seat to save it and go get snacks. Sometimes people will sit, get up for one snack, return and eat snack, then get up for another snack for the road, etc. I’m sure I’ve done that, what with all the cold drinks and ice cream and fried green bananas and coffee. I never leave valuables, and today all I had were my water bottle and my eggs (never stow eggs, tomatoes or bananas…or anything else smashable). That would be enough to save a seat though. So I left those on an empty seat (for the first half of an hour the buses are just seats with stuff on them, very few human beings sit in the bus because it’s so hot and because there is so much to do in the terminal). Nowhere had ice cream. It was 2:30pm and probably the heavy flow of hot and crabby people had used up today’s supply by mid-morning. I went to the supermarket across the street, and luckily there were some single-serve sundae cups (much more expensive at 85 cents, but much higher quality ice cream with caramel…mmm). When I returned with my treat, all the seats were full! Including mine! The guy in my place totally had a guilty look in his eye, so I said, what happened, I had my water bottle and eggs right there. He hemmed and hawed about not knowing who they belonged to and how he thought they were for the next seat over (which only made sense because he moved them to the next seat over). But the ayudante, who knows me (they all do, I should really get a frequent rider card with 10th ride free or something) came and used his power on the guy. I think the nosy señora across the aisle thought I was a rude “gringa” who should wait my turn, the way she kept staring at me. She tried to boss a lot of riders around, but I still felt her glare fixed on me especially. I was there first and had saved my spot in the accepted way, so I didn’t feel that bad. It was nice to have the ayudante step in to help me. I’m glad I always take the extra second to greet him and say some generic thing like, “oh there’s a lot of people today, huh?” Without fail, people who don’t live that far away from Santiago but who don’t have their own bus route will wait until a driver starts his engine, and then sardine-pack themselves into the bus, only to stop it 2 minutes outside of town, 3 minutes outside of town, 4 minutes outside of town, etc. So there are people leaning all over the seated passengers, the seated passengers get cramped, and the driver will continue to let people on despite our protests because each passenger means more money for him. That happens often with the little buses which have the obvious disadvantage of being little (fewer passengers fit in the seats). But generally my bus travel is much easier than today. I walk the ten minutes to the road, get on, sit for half an hour (music is generally too loud but I’ve gotten used to it and know most of the songs by heart), get off, do my stuff, return to the terminal, save my place, get ice cream, go back. Today made me appreciate how well this system normally works. And I did get where I needed to go and back home again, so how much can I complain, especially since there was time for ice cream.