On Wednesday, August 12, 2009 we arrived in Panama after a few hours in Washington with the Peace Corp staff. There they oriented us to the roles we would be playing for the next 27 months, 10 weeks of which are for training. We left for the airport at 8 for a noon flight even though we were just going to National, about 20 minutes away. I wondered what such planning portended for our future with the organization.
The last leg of the flight started in Miami and after just a few hours we were over Panama. As we came in we got great views of the countryside then near the airport we had a beautiful view of two of the locks of the Panama Canal on one side of the plane, and the city on the others.
Peace Corp staff was there to greet us, help us through immigration and customs (by getting us in our own line). They were very well organized. Shortly we were at our first training location at the Ciudad del Saber, a complex of houses , meeting facilities, gym etc, within sight of a lock.
There are 5 of us over 50. Anita is tall black woman surnamed Perez, Louis who has curly brown hair, and Cindy, a mystical woman who has lived in Cozumel the last 18 years. Cindy owns an apartment complex with some overnight rooms. Her ex-husband owns part of it. He stays from time to time much to her chagrin.
We spent the night in small houses that once served as military housing for U.S. soldiers. They served dinner and the remainder of the meals in one of them. There was little seating, perhaps 10 or so for the 36 of us, so we often had to stand or take turns.
Judging from appearances, most of the trainees (‘aspirantes’) are in their early to mid-twenties. The youngest is 22 and just out of college with very little work experience. One woman, Karen, I later learned is 31. She is one of two of oriental descent; many of us confused their names though they are quite different in appearance and temperment.
On Thursday they interviewed us about our site placements. Obviously we want a more developed site,
He asked, “But what’s more important, the site or the work, what you want to do?”
I said it was impossible to answer that in the abstract for sure, but we could entertain ourselves quite well if we had to. He said he noticed I could answer many questions much faster than others, and figured I could order for everyone in restaurants but then they would not learn, so he asked me to not be too active, and let the others struggle. I took this to heart and tried to stay in the background much of the rest of the 10 weeks of training.
Then there were Spanish interviews. My Spanish interview was about what I would do if I were the head of the a UN development agency. Wouldn’t I want to make more jobs in Central America, and what would I do if the community was split over a new road and since I like to draw what artist influenced me most? I was waiting for the questions on Being and Nothingness. Never came. Too bad.
The training room was so cold I complained. They said they’d try but never could get it reasonable. One said to me but you wanted a.c., but, I replied the I wanted it within reason.
They talked to us about development. In the paternalist model the government or n.g.o. just provides money or goods. Once donor dumped a million birth control pills in Bangladesh. Sometimes men took them (not knowing they would not work), women took them irregularly not knowing they would not work properly . They were sold in street markets. This is an example of how not to do development work.
One exercise we did was about a country digging a well. The development agency worked with the men in the village and got them to help dig the well. The women had been hauling water 15 km every day, so having a well close by would be a real improvement. The agency returned a year later to find the well not in use. It turned out the women preferred to walk to get water since they met women from other village, gossiped, arranged marriages etc.
The point of these discussions was to give us a sense of the kind of development agency the Peace Corp is and is not. First, the PC does not provide funding to communities. It provides training. It does not do the work for the people, although volunteers can pitch in. “Sustainable development” is a PC password. So we don’t, say, teach English as much as we teach teachers to teach English.
On Friday we received the first of our injections, this one for yellow fever, delivered by a humorless nurse. The Peace Corps has their own doctor and nurse here, but this woman was not of them- ours are very friendly.
Later on there was a very good presentation on safety from the embassy guys who get called if a US citizen is arrested. There are a number of dangerous areas in Panama City, and in some of the other large cities. They told us where to stay our of in Panama City, where street crime is very common. During the day and in most areas, you can walk safely around town. Staying away from bars, where men go just to get drunk and get into fights, was a core piece of advice. We are prohibited from drinking any alcohol in our training community so some of the young guys might have been tempted to visit these zones, although it turned out there wasn’t very much free time.