Our first days in the Peace Corps, Panama: August 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Wednesday, August 12, 2009 we arrived in Panama after a few hours in Washington with the Peace Corp staff the day before. 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 other.

Peace Corps staff was there to greet us and help us through immigration and customs by getting us in our own line.  The PC staff was extremely well organized, allaying my fears from earlier in the day. Shortly we were at our first training location at the Ciudad del Saber, a complex of houses , meeting facilities, a gym, restaurants and shops within sight of a lock.

Peace Corps is organized into several different programs: Community Economic Development, Environmental Health, Sustainable Agricultural Systems, Tourism and English, and Community Economic Conservation.  There are two programs represented in our group, EH and CED, with a total of 36 people.  Peg and I are in CED.

There are 5 of us over 50 in our group. Anita is tall, friendly and attractive black woman surnamed, Louis who has curly brown hair, and Cindy, a mystical woman who has lived in Mexico.  As I later learned, the next in age is 31, while the the rest range from 22-around 28.

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, 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.

Peg and I had specifically asked to be sent somewhere where it was not hot and humid.  It is hot and humid in most of Panama.  When we were notified that Panama was the offer, we were very concerned.  We even called our group director in Panama about it.  We learned that there are a few cool spots in the country, but he could not guarantee placement.  We took a chance in coming here.

We spent the night in small houses that once served as military housing for U.S. soldiers. Fortunately there is a.c. but there is only an on/off switch, no thermostat so we were very cold at night unless we turned off the unit.  We shared the house with 4 others, all women.

They served dinner and the remainder of the meals in one of the houses. There was little seating, perhaps 10 or so for the 36 of us, so we often had to stand or take turns.

On Thursday they interviewed us about our site placements. Obviously we want a more developed site, Zach said, then 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 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 I wanted it but within reason!

They talked to us about development. In the paternalist model the government or n.g.o. just provides money or goods. Once a 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 by contrast.

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 out of in Panama City, areas 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.  But enough if you really tried.

Sat August 15

We visited a small community of 300 residents north of Panama city. A volunteer name Kat works in this hot and humid village (as if almost all villages in Panama were any different.)

The locals shortly served up some mighty good breakfast. Breakfast in Panama is not entirely distinct as a meal, and when it is you can get eggs and pancakes, the latter at least a result of American presence here for so many decades. But this was more typical and also good- beef guisado (guisado means it is cooked with vegetables) with garlic, onions, and chipotle, which gives the sauce a red color. The veggies looked canned or frozen (frozen?  Not here, Bubba), cut into those perfect, tiny cubes, but they had some flavor. There was a tamal, with very finely ground, very good though mushy corn. There was also chicken ground in.

Kat organized meetings for us with local leader who talked about the coop they are starting, a general one, while hoping that others will start something for agro-tourism. Kit’s counterpart, who went to university in the US and speaks fair English also spoke, although her presentation was in Spanish, which Kate translated since many of the volunteers speak little Spanish and in some cases none at all.

Some time during the visit we got to talking about the school system. The students are taught by mostly by rote and therefore they have trouble answering questions they have not been told the answer to. We noticed with the kids here how hard it was to get the kids we met to answer questions even when they knew the answer. Perhaps it was shyness, too.

We visited one of the churches and on the way learned that the community divided when the “Evangelicals” (the word they mostly use for “Protestants”) came in. The community now has a Catholic section and a Catholic school, and likewise a Protestant section and school.

Some other observations:

  • They have 3-4 iguanas in a cage- maybe that would be part of a project.

  • They use machetes in everywhere in the countryside in Panama.

  • Two kids brought us a piece of sugar cane. We tried some, less sweet than sugar for sure.

  • Houses are all concrete made of concrete block. They started to install electricity in Kit’s house, ran wires but there is no meter. Did not finish interior either. One room is just concrete bits strewn all over. Running water, clean outhouse.

  • Kit was in tears at end ceremony saying how proud she was of her community. For prepping the meal, being welcoming, being organized, what else?

  • Laura, a volunteer from another community, a Pennsylvania farm girl and very practical.  She told her hostess (called host moms, dads, etc, but I never could call people younger than me mom) she was an atheist and it set her back 3 weeks, but they accepted her anyway.

At 3.00 the locals served us chicken guisado, with sauteed veggies and, beans. And coconut roles made from yeast. It was another good meal.


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