Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Quirky Panamanians

Quirky Panamanians – I wrote the following post with the goal of giving you all back home a little insight into the daily life of the average Panamanian. We all know that Americans have their quirks too and I’m certainly always making a fool of myself here. (Just give me a piece of tough beef and a spoon, the Panamanian utensil of choice no matter what is served, and you’ll be laughing in no time). But here are the quirks I’ve discovered so far, with hopefully more to come.  

Stating the Obvious
Panamanians love to state the obvious when greeting each other. Often, instead of saying, “How are you?” when they see you, they simple state the obvious in the form of a question. For example: Let’s say you’re walking along a street and you meet a Panamanian. He will mostly like greet you with, “Walking?” If you happen to be sweating due to the intense heat while walking, he will greet you with, “Sweating?” If you happen to be walking up a hill, he will great you with, “Subiendo (going up)?” Or if down a hill, “Bajando (going down)?” If you are just arriving somewhere, he will great you with, “Arriving?” You get the picture. The best part of adapting to this cultural norm is I no longer have to think of what to say to someone on the street when I see them. No more remembering what kind of job they have or what their daughter’s name is, all I have to do is state the obvious and we both continue on our way.  

First comes the electricity poles then comes the flat screen TV and sound system?
Panama is an odd country when it comes to its level of development. A friend and I were chatting the other day about how this country missed a few key steps in the development process. There are American style suburbs being built near Chorrera yet the water is always going out because they never built the proper infrastructure to support it. You drive by a house with three televisions and a latrine outside because there is no sewage system. The postal system is an overwhelmed disaster because roads don’t have names thus nobody actually has an address. If someone does have an “address,” it is often, “across from the cantina.” The kids here don’t even know how to write a letter, how could they when they never receive any. I was writing a letter to my mother the other day, and my host sister sat there and asked question after question about what I was writing on the envelope, how it would get to her etc. Yet she knows how to use Microsoft Office. The main public transportation system throughout the country is composed of old American school buses painted tacky colors and neon lights that race along the main roads which are barely big enough for more than car. Or they are pick up trucks with the bed converted into seating for passengers. In parts of my community, there is still no electricity. Yet, families have already bought their televisions in anticipation (albeit they are from the 1980s). Panama remained rather undeveloped for so long that now it is racing to catch up by expanding and bringing modern technology to all parts of the country even when those areas aren’t quite ready for it. It’s an odd sight to see a man dressed in typical clothing, riding his horse, which is also loaded with the rice he just harvested, sharing a road with a Toyota SUV. Or to see a wood house with a palm tree roof next to a house with a satellite dish and a massive metal fence surrounding it. Some serious work is needed to fill the gap.

Panamanian Names
I’m having the hardest time remembering all the names of the people I meet in my community. I thought it was just me or the fact that I’ve met so many new people in the last few weeks but then I came to a realization. Remember back to Spanish class when we had worksheets with names like Maria, Jose and Juan? Well those are nothing close to Panamanian names. Here are a few examples for your enjoyment: Gumercindo, Euribiades, Yarineth, Gricel, Vianka, Dianey, Benson, Deyka, Amadiz, Naidelyn, Mayuri, Yoideth, Yuliser, Geidy, Rubiela, Zulymary, Diodimir, Daneris, Mileyka, Melexis and Zehidi. No, I did not just hit keys at random. Those are the style of names here. Along with a few kids named Elvis or Carlos. Every time I take attendance, the kids spend the whole time laughing at me as I struggle to get something out that even remotely sounds like it’s supposed to. But then I get to laugh when I tell them my last name and they just give me blank stares.  If I ever end up having a kid, I’m naming it Panamanian style.

Many Panamanian men remind me of college frat boys despite the fact they are grown and have families. Wait, I take that back. They are so much worse than college frat boys. Sundays here in this country are a free day to get completely obliterated. The men drink till they can no longer stand on two feet or remember where they are or what their name is. (Granted, I couldn’t find my way home through the jungle or remember my Panamanian name even if I was completely sober.)  There is such a bad stigma towards drinking here, particularly towards women who drink, because Panamanians do not know how to control their alcoholic intake. It’s embarrassing to watch the men make fools of themselves in front of their families. And it’s a bit awkward to wake up to the sounds of the dad next door puking all over the front yard.  I’ve been lucky in that none of the men in my host families have acted in this way but I feel so bad for the women and children who deal with husbands and fathers like that because it is such a prevalent problem here. It’s an unhealthy part of life in the country that continues the cycle of poverty I see my students having to live with every day. Some days I wish I could start an AA group here as a secondary project and teach the Panamanians that you can have a drink or two and not turn yourself into a useless and potentially dangerous idiot roaming the streets and wasting your family’s money. It’s time to get your act together men; I’m tired of your drunken debauchery!

Panamanians love everything sweet, everything salty, and everything fried. (For a combination of all three at the same time, try alholdras, yuuum).  Unfortunately, their waist lines and teeth are suffering from their less than healthy habits. At school, the kids are always full of smiles. They lean their heads all the way back, grinning as wide as they can, so that the super tall teacher (aka me) can get the best view possible of their smiling faces.  Yet, every time they open up those mouths, all I see are black, cavity filled teeth. Well, that is if they still have teeth left to show off. No wonder considering every moment they aren’t in class, those mouths are filled with candy of some kind. The kids aren’t the only ones suffering from the recent inundation of sweets. About every other adult in the community seems to be missing their front two teeth. It’s so common that I often find myself shocked to see someone with a full set. Panamanians are so addicted to candy that they eat anything that even slightly resembles it. Take, for example, Halls cough drops. In the stores in town, kids and adults buy individual wrapped Halls and pop them like they are just a regular piece of hard candy. The Halls come in every flavor and the ground is littered with their wrappers. I’ll admit the sweet and minty combination is delicious but that can’t be good right? Who knows, the Panamanians seem to possess an array of random tips on life. Including the fact that on Good Friday, if you climb a tree, you will turn into a monkey, or if you take a dip in the river, you will turn into a fish.  I’ll take their word for it. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First three weeks in site!

You might be thinking that I’ve gotten lazy again. Unfortunately, you are right when it comes to this blog. I wish someone would invent telepathic posts. As soon as I arrived in my community, I began working. I spend Monday through Friday from 7:30am till 1:10pm at the school. In the afternoon, I trek back to my host family’s house on the other side of the valley. The school luckily has internet but as of right now, the house I’m living in doesn’t have any electricity. Hopefully, as I settle in a bit more, I’ll post a bit more as well. For now, enjoy my first blog from my site, Las Minas, a wonderful hidden gem up in the mountains of Panama Oeste.

First Host Family
Okay, so technically my first host family lives is in a town called Nazarena. It’s about a thirty minute walk from the school, up and down a few major hills slash mountains. The students who live here attend my school and the parents work in the fields on the mountain or in the next town over, El Cacao. I’m not sure if you can find Nazarena on a map. Everyone in the town is related…somehow. (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to figure out all the relations for sure). My host mother is an amazing woman, who, in reality should be more of a host sister considering she is only three years older than me. Yet, she is a mother of three including a thirteen year old, a nine year old and a two year old. I’ll let you do the math. She has her own tienda at the house that she spends all day, every day, attending to  and the customers. She’s so proud of her store and despite only having a sixth grade education (I’ll let you figure out why she dropped out so early), she values the education of her children and is always pushing them to study harder. I can tell when she is working with them how much she would have liked to stay in school. We often have conversations relating to problems in Panama, such as the lack of a trash collection system and the problems with the technical schools (many students cheat to pass and subsequently never gain the skills to actually perform the job they’ve just earned a degree for). I spend most of my afternoons chatting with her about life. She also works hard as my translator. When visitors come to the house and she can tell I’m having a hard time understanding them, she always translates it into something I can reply to. I don’t think I would’ve survived the first week without her.

Her husband is an equally genuine character. He wakes up every day at 4:30am to start working on the finca. Some days that means harvesting the organic limes, other days it means improving the finca by building roads, tending the animals or making sure the other workers are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  He’s so proud of the organic limes he grows here. His house is one of the larger and better built houses on this side of town and he has dreams to expand it even more. When we were chatting this morning, he mentioned how hard it was to find good employees who didn’t drink too much. Apparently, the boss doesn’t like it and it does tend to be a big problem here. My host Dad hasn’t had a drink since he started the job twelve years ago. He decided he wanted to be the best role model possible for his children and he certainly is. Every morning he either has a tractor idling or a horse saddled to take me to school. We’ve spent many afternoons visiting the families who live nearby on this side of town. He has even showed an interest in learning English since the Finca is often visited by foreigners and will eventually become a tourist destination. (If you’re interested in visiting, which I highly recommend since it’s absolutely gorgeous, I’ll let you know when the clay houses for guests are finished! Look at my picture on facebook.)

Oh, the host kids. The two older ones were a bit shy at first but the toddler attacked me from the get go. They all awkwardly watched me unpack everything I brought with me, including the mom. Sometimes they make me feel a bit like a freak show but I love them all. They are so excited to have their very own English teacher living in the house and they take full advantage of it. We have English class together almost every night. If not a full class or homework help, we at least read the bilingual book my mother gave me as a Christmas gift before I left called; I Know the River Loves Me. I’m absolutely sick of the book by now but they can’t seem to get enough of it. (Please send more bilingual children’s books if you have a few lying around, there seems to be a major lack of books in this country and I can’t seem to find many here). The kids feel a need to protect me. They always escort me no matter where I go which was a little annoying at first but now I am used to it. They make the most of what they have here. Even though they don’t have a television, or many toys, they are never lacking something to do. They are always off playing with the animals, swimming in the river, helping their dad with his work or taking me on little adventures. It can be a bit difficult to live with a toddler at times. It seems he always wakes up crying no matter what time of the day or night or early in the freaking morning. His favorite words are “Look at me” and “Food.” I swear he eats more than I do and he’s only two.

One last note on Nazarena: There are two mountain peaks in the community called Cerro Viejo and Cerro Trinidad (and I fully plan on climbing them both, hopefully the first this Sunday). As I was pasearing yesterday to the houses furthest out in the community, I found the exact spot where I will build my home if I happen to marry a local and live here forever. We arrived at the house as the sun was beginning to set and I stood there in awe of the view. I had a perfect view of both of the peaks and the amazing valleys between them. I fell even more in love with my community at that moment. Now I just need to make friends with the owner of the land and see if he will sell me a small piece.   

I arrived to the second day of school on a horse. I have since experienced several forms of transportation in order to get to school including a tractor and the back of a pick-up truck. The school is a ways from my house, up and down several large hills and across two rivers. Last week, rainy season decided to come a bit early and had swept away the stone/tree bridge across one of the rivers thus leaving me the only option of forging the river. Which I have had to continue doing since even though the rain has stopped.   

Life and work with the school has been going slowly but surely. The first two weeks I spent mostly observing the English teacher, taking extensive notes in my little Save the Planet notebook (I’m trying to start a trend since I’m so sick of seeing Hannah Montana and Barney notebooks). My teacher is very open to feedback and input. She has only put me on the spot a few times, several of which I tossed right back to her. This week I finally started to teach a bit instead of just pronouncing vocabulary or correcting grammar. I taught numbers one through ten to first graders, physical appearance adjectives to third graders, and pronouns to fourth graders. Next week I have a TPRS inspired lesson on family planned for the second graders. (Fingers crossed I can actually pull it off!)

Speaking of which, the second graders at my school leave me feeling depressed every day. Apparently, they had a bad teacher for first grade and half of them can barely read or write. There are a few very smart girls in the class who pick up English so quickly and finish the assignments before some of the other students have finished writing their names. All of the kids are constantly running around and screaming out. To make matters worse, their current teacher doubles as the director of the school. Unfortunately, this means he has two jobs to complete at the same time. He works hard with the kids but they need a teacher who doesn’t have so many other responsibilities. I hate to think that they will continue to get further and further behind. It also makes teaching English a bit more difficult when I have such huge differences between the students. If anyone has any suggestions on how to balance the different competences or how to help the students pick up reading and writing faster, please let me know.

But overall, I absolutely love my school. I’m finally starting to feel like I am accepted and respected by everyone and it’s only been three weeks. There’s such a laid back atmosphere that drives me crazy some days and other days is exactly the kind of work environment I need. Of course there have been moments when it’s been challenging here. Being so far away from family and friends is hard no matter how much you love your new home. There are some days when I really just want to have a heart to heart in English but since my site doesn’t have cell phone coverage and I have limited time on the internet, it’s been a bit tough to accomplish that. Last weekend, my parents finally figured out Skype and we were able to have a long chat. If anyone else has Skype, send me a note and we can set up a Skype date to chat the next time I can steal the computer room to myself for a few hours.

I miss you all back home a lot and I can’t wait till you all start to visit! My community is always asking about my family and friends back home and I know they will be as welcoming to you as they are to me. (Prepare to gain at least 10 pounds)

Till the next post, take care!