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!
I've started to grow things!
2 years ago