Friday, July 17, 2009

Reflections on a Year

During the first months of service I resigned myself to the notion that every day passed meant one day less than two years. The end of June marked a year of service; now my solace comes from the fact that less than a year remains. Here are a few changes in my life that have developed and truths that have become apparent over this past year:
1)The river is my new shower, as well as washing machine. My biceps are slightly more toned from all the effort.
2) Washing clothes is for the hell of it. Two seconds into wear some dog will jump on me or a kid will slap me with a dirty hand and run away delighted. Back to the river they go.
3)I will always look/feel disgusting. Where there is white skin and mud, there will be general filthiness. Panamanians are hard on me, but they fail to realize dark skin better camouflages dirt, leaving the illusion of cleanliness. I am not adapted for this area!
4)I paint my toenails, not because it is fashionable or appropriately feminine, but because it hides dirt (note this entry´s emphasis on cleanliness). I never painted nails before Panama, now my nude nails disgust me.
5)Food is only as fast as I can prepare it. In college I relied heavily on fast or pre-prepared foods. Here everything has to be done by scratch with a saucepan and limited ingredients. Sardines are about as exotic as it gets in the tienda.
6) Though I´m not impoverished, this is the first time in my life where a pound of seedless grapes will cost me a third of my daily salary (hence no grapes). My suppressed American materialist desires surfaced in a Panama City mall where I was overcome with a desire to buy something new, shiny, and pretty (and, of course, totally unnecessary). But when even Payless shoes are too luxurious, one has to settle for cheap costume jewelry they´ll never wear.
7) Time only exists in my mind. I check the clock to track my daily progress whereas neighbors operate by a morning-afternoon-night system of measurement dictated by the sun. Start times do not exist and punctuality is rumored to exist in ¨the city.¨ Because it doesn´t exist, one´s time is not valued by others.
8)I´m socially awkward. I´ve been rudely disconnected from my age here- my friends are either twice or half my own age. I´m not sure which is worse, acting prudish and disinterested in youthful exploits, or trying to be a ¨cool¨and apathetic youth (something I never cared to master).
9)The humidity claims all. I´m still unaccustomed to this permanent sauna called Central America and no one lets me forget. I arrive after walking briskly to someone´s house to have them announce that I am ¨sweating a lot.¨ Everything is claimed by mold; clothes, bedding, shoes, even books. My Webster´s dictionary now houses more mold spores than English words.
10)I´m here for no other reason than to amuse. When projects fall through because of communal apathy, the only interest people have in my presence derives from my antics. My malapropisms, misunderstandings, dog drama, etc, are mildly entertaining when nothing else is going on in the campo.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Classroom Chaos

To understand Newton's second law, one need only look to a primary school classroom, rather then a textbook. I've begun teaching in the local school two to three days a week, and those days are about all I can handle. From the moment students trickle in, disorder sets in and all attempts to restore order disintegrate before one's eyes.
There's the girl in kindergarten who prefers sharpening pencils over learning to write. No one lends her pencils for fear they are returned a third of the original length with both ends razor sharp. There's another boy who refuses to use any pencil that's not his, and, fortunately for him, his pencil is always "missing." Don't bother lending him one as it is just isn't the same. Then there's the boy who spends more time on top of his chair than properly seated on it. Or the child that roams the passage until dragged back into the classroom. Just yesterday he was seen clinging to the school fence screaming "buy me something!" to his mother at a nearby tienda. The constant barrage of "Ellie come here!" or unending demand for picture inspections leaves a ring in my ears. If of course, they even feel like drawing. "But I don't know how to draw a bean" they cry, and proceed to do something they do know how to do, like karate kicks or paper airplanes. One can't forget the discovery of lice and interruption of class for head inspections. Or learning in the middle of explaining possessives that a girl has had a baby songbird zipped up in her backpack since she arrived at school that morning. Any attempt to run an orderly class is punctuated every thirty seconds by four kids requesting bathroom or water breaks. At any given time nearly a quarter of the class is out of their seats, and those remaining seated have minds wandering outside the room anyways.
Chaos feeds chaos and it escalates into a self-feeding frenzy. They chat so I talk louder, as do they, and the orderly lesson spirals into a shouting match. While trying to perform a puppet act for first graders I grew angry and distraught at how many children snuck behind the curtain only to grin and shriek "Ahhh Elizabeth!" Already aware of how ridiculous the situation was, I popped my head over the curtain, and harshly scolded them for not respecting "Plantuna" the flower. As the shrieks and chatter ensued I was left contemplating the waste of a precious sock.
To be fair, the disorder has its entertainment value. When I don't want to wring their necks, I do love a lot of the children and their antics. The lack of socially-placed thought filters ensures anything can and will be said (such as the call of attention to my "hairy" arms). It's refreshing to see minds not yet molded or governed by the politics of social behavior or rules of etiquette. If nothing, the ridiculousness is immensely amusing. After reciting the "Little Plant" song numerous times as a group, one of my favorites confidently insisted he be the first to perform. His self-assurance morphed into confusion on the first and most obvious line "I'm a little...wait, what am I again?" His furrowed brow and terrified befuddlement only added to the humor.
In part, I blame the poor behavior of the students, especially the teenagers, on my being a young female. The fact that it is mainly teenage and younger boys who demonstrate a lack of respect implicates such. It doesn't help either, that I lack of the authoritative aura of the other teachers. I live among these kids, and many see me on a daily basis. I've found those most troublesome are ones that I was friends and acquaintances with before my teaching days. Unlike the other teachers that disappear after class, I remain and interact. That this familiarity would hinder my teaching became apparent during my first English class with the first graders. I grew confused after repeating salutations and hearing the kids join into a chorus of "sappo macho!" Later I was horrified to learn that "sappo macho" is the nickname of a drunk who had been molesting me at recent public events. This much I gleaned from the intelligible bits of a friend's explanation of the name, only discernible when she wasn't doubled over in laughter. Admittedly it makes an amusing story but it illustrated just how much I was in the public eye and continual presence of students.
As a whole however, however, the lack of respect and discipline is the fault of the parents who fail to teach their children better. A friend explained that people here don't discipline their children or reinforce notions of respect. The chaos of my classes is mirrored to a lesser degree with other teacher's classes. These children just don't know how to be self-disciplined and mentally focused. Most of them (boys especially) will live off of their brawn, not brains. To remain mentally focused is a difficult task for those accustomed to almost entirely physical, not mental labor. They haven't built up their mental endurance to match their level of physical endurance. Without example or training from parents, they never will.
The over stimulation of class time leaves me tense like an over wound spring and forces my retreat to my house where I cut off all human interaction to unwind and decompress. Yet, it would be more than worthwhile if I thought the children were benefitting from my frazzled state, particularly out of the environmental education (more so than English). While the first graders scrambled to collect trash in the plaza one boy sat indifferently on a rock. He just "wasn't interested" in participating. I repeated my message from class, that trash affects a plant's ability to grow and live happily. Why then "was all the grass over there still alive," he questioned. Although benign, the skepticism of his smile cut deeply. I've seen those disbelieving smiles many times in class- I know them well. They carry more weight than words, because they leave opinion unsaid, only implied. To verbalize such is a waste of his or her time because nothing can be changed. Those smiles feed my doubt: the disconcerting notion that nothing can be said or done on my part to change those minds.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Development of a People

One of the chief frustrations of working with campesinos (country folk) is their overall lack of critical thinking skills that I regarded as common sense, basic for survival. In January I took a woman from my community to a Peace Corps seminar on project management and leadership. Among the topics addressed were identifying personal values, using schedules, prioritizing, organizing, and identifying and achieving of goals. As basic and necessary as these topics are, they were foreign and challenging for almost all the Panamanians present. As one frustrated volunteer said, ¨It feels like we are teaching them how to be adults.¨
I myself was disillusioned as my community member failed to grasp simple concepts in spite of my lengthy attempts to help. She tended to wander into vague generalities and couldn´t form concrete and specific ideas. While identifying goals for our conservation group, she always jumped to the big picture– the vague and idealistic dream. Till the end she couldn´t understand the component parts, or the concrete and specific goals, that must be identified and achieved one–by–one to make dream a reality.
Another volunteer and I were left exasperated after we spent over an hour with Panamanians preparing a speech, and its final delivery was at best impromptu, if not totally chaotic. They couldn´t organize their thoughts, failed to follow an assigned outline, and wandered off topic frequently. Although I am sure the seminar helped in little ways, I was left wondering whether these skills would be put into practice or remain in print, on papers destined for kindling. Although she eagerly filled out her provided yearly planner with such tasks as ¨prepare lunch¨and ¨wash clothes,¨ it seemed those would be the first and last items 2009 would ever see.
This is not, of course, the first time I had noticed such deficiencies in these basic life skills. The vast majority of problems within our conservation group are due to failures in organization, planning, and a lack of critically thinking things through. Often forgetting to address present problems, the members jump to future vague pursuits without the necessary forethought, and consequently add to the mountain of issues they already face. Begun without the security of a written contract, our viveros now house over 3,000 trees that were not sold to hydroelectric companies as promised, and can now only grow roots into the ground, becoming more unfit for even reforestation. Problems accumulated so quietly and stealthily that the livelyhood of the vivero is under question.
At the heart of this deficiency of skills is both the lack of education and the overwhelming failure of the Panamanian educational system. Most campesinos do not continue schooling past primary (elementary) school, as I learned was true of my community member. High school, or colegio, is for those lucky enough to have families that value education and can bear the additional financial burden. Even then, colegio is largely vocational and focused on single–subject areas, and students do not develop much for critical thinking. University is for the ambitious who leave only to return to their hometowns when necessity dictates.
But a high school or university degree does not guarantee the development of active thinking abilities, as I am slowly learning. Rather, education here is based on passive thinking–memorization and regurgitation. What is written on the board is to be copied on paper and in memory, and certainly not questioned. Things are as they are because it is so, and rarely is the crucial ¨why¨addressed. As I clumsily attempted in broken Spanish to explain simple addition to one girl, I quickly discovered she had merely copied the problems from the board and the teacher never explained the process or reason behind it. Her uninterest was evident in her vacantly wandering eyes, for she didn´t care to focus, and was only waiting for me to arrive at the easily memorizable answer. If the why and how components of concepts and ideas were actually valued in school, these children might grow up understanding the processes and reason behind what is otherwise dismissed ¨because it is so.¨ Even then, such improvements risk falling into the same vicious cycle of passive memorization and recitation: the change must be more radical.
The failures of the Panamanian educational system are evident even in its supposed success stories. There were two university–educated Panamanian women at our seminar who were quite knowledgable of the subjects at hand. Yet, at times, they were stumped by simple concepts and acted on whims and inclinations without addressing the ramifications of their decisions.
Blame for the vivero´s undesirable sitation lies more heavily on the government agencies than group members themselves. Panamanians, like most Latin Americans, are very title–conscious, and brandish their university–obtained titles whenever opportunity affords. Government agencies staff a fair share of university graduates, but even these elite seem just as prone to make the same mistakes as their less–educated counterparts. Personal observation has lead me to conclude that most government–initiated projects are quick–fixes that produce short–term benefits, but lack long–term forethought and planning.
ANAM, the Panamanian version of our EPA, initiated the vivero project in my community and in numerous others in the area. They overextended, failed to obtain contracts amd follow–through, failed to train participants, and have consequently left most promises unfulfilled. All of this appears to be due to an egregious lack of forethought. All volunteers were told during training that government agencies most desired volunteers to train Panamanians in leadership and resource utilization (especially how to work with agencies). Why this is not approached in school, and why I should encourage Panamanians to rely on agency workers who themselves lack these basic skills, is beyond me.
It is commonly noted that the American educational system is heavily entrenched in the notion of independent and critical thought. While only its flaws and shortcomings were ever evident to me as a student, as an adult I respect its strengths and those flaws that seem so monumental at one time now pale in comparison to the weaknesses of third–world education. Once a student´s burden but now an adult´s blessing, the development of active thinking serves one in more ways than can be illustrated or demonstrated by an exam in class. I am thankful for having been asked ¨why do you think this is so¨and ¨what would you do,¨ instead of being thrown an answer and directed to commit it to memory. Being only a year out of college, the details and facts I memorized are already fading out of memory, but the concepts and method of thought remains strong. Who would have thought (for I certainly hadn´t), that by explaining why two plus two equals four, and then asking me how I would approach a two–digit summation, my elementary school teacher was preparing me for more than just the next grade but for the next stage of life– adulthood.
While waiting for lunch at the seminar, I was struck by the comment of a weary volunteer. A transfer from Bolivia, she was amazed at how so small a nation (three million people) with relative wealth (from the canal) just ¨couldn´t get it together.¨ After witnessing the failure of agencies and community members, I had to agree. It appears to me that the only sustainable means of doing so would require a complete overhaul of the current educational system and gradual introduction of active and critical thinking skills. The roots of the problem lie deep, for how you are taught molds how you think, and how you think shapes how you live. If Panama is to develop as a nation, it must first develop as a people – for a nation is only as developed as its people.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Slow Progress

The passing of time has aided my recovery from the unfortunate events described in my last entry. Although I will remain acutely aware of what has passed, it has converted from an intense and overwhelming obstacle to a severe blemish that will mark, but not degrade, my Peace Corps experience. To speed my recovery I began to socialize and pasear more proactively, and was pleased to see people´s attitudes towards me were in no way changed. At the time of those incidents I had become more reclusive and aloof- I rarely paseared as I was weary of the mental and physical energy it required. Being among people again has certainly helped a great deal and shaken many of my fears. Although I avoid them somewhat, I am pleased to say I no longer feel hatred and fear towards those women who took me too lightly. I feel a bit more liberated as their control over me diminishes;I view them with indifference, and at times, pity.
My resentment towards those who failed to help me is also receding into more distant memory. After seven months and seven different houses, I finally moved into my own- not to say that it wasn´t a struggle getting to that point. The privacy and independence of living on my own have eliminated the fear of being a burden to others. Though they do not necessarily deserve a volunteer, there are people in the community I can help. For the sake of work, I will try to dismiss the indignation and resentment I occasionally experience. I resign myself to the notion that many volunteers before me have faced worse obstacles, and a few meddlesome and ill-educated women are not among them. An apathetic community, on the other hand, is certainly a huge impediment. Even if my projects fail, I will have at least completed two of the three chief Peace Corps goals: facilitating cultural exchange and improving cultural understanding. As some of us PCVs like to say, ¨when I think I have it bad, I think of that PCV in Africa that has it ten times worse!¨

Feliz Navidad to all-may your Christmas be colder and whiter than mine (which is certain)!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


When I accepted my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, I did so with caution. I never was bubbling with energy or optimism like so many others. I never harbored visions of grandeur or inflated expectations. In fact, I tricked myself into believing I had no expectations at all. But what I never expected was an experience that is falling far below the minimal expectations I thought were once nonexistent.

The harsh reality of a PCV´s (Peace Corps Volunteer) service is that only a tiny fraction of the volunteer´s community will have been responsible for his or her presence. Usually only a select few with a common interest will ask for a volunteer, and the majority of the community will be ignorant of the PCV´s purpose and react with indifference. While I never expected a welcome comittee, I was quite surprised by my first reception to my community- no one did anything. Without the promised community guide, I was forced to pasear (visit people´s houses) on my own. It was difficult enough introducing myself and small-taking with strangers as if I belonged in the community, even moreso in a foreign tongue. These residents had no idea why I was in the community, let alone on their porch. I never knew if I was wandering to the house of a drunk or creepy old man, and many people viewed my arrival with nearly equal apprehension.

I can now say fervently that those who asked for a volunteer have failed to take responsibility for me. By my third month I had to search for another host family because I was not given an appropriate option by those who promised to be responsible for my housing. I accepted an invitation from a woman who had no responsibilty for my being in the community- a Catholic woman I hoped to befriend to avoid reinforcing the communal divisions the prior volunteer followed during her service.

Meanwhile, I was trying to bridge the communal divisions of religion by befriending the Catholic women. It was the Evangelicals that had asked for a PCV; the Catholics never worked with the past volunteer. Maybe it was a naive move, but in order to be fair and just, I tried to befriend them. And so I thought I had.

I was aware of gossip about me in the community but it never affected me until it meddled with my permanent living arrangements. A man who promised me to rent me a house backed out at the last minute due to a rumor circulating that he was only doing so to involve himself, lets say, impurely, with me. Less than a month later a friend told me that the Catholic woman I thought was a friend had very publicly said some awful things about me in the bus. She and several of the Catholic women I had considered friends had been saying cruel things behind my back for quite a while. This, unfortunately, included the woman I was living with.

Initially I became sick at the sight of those women in the street (which is daily) and avoided public exposure. Now I still have stirrings of anger, but they are tempered with pity. I have since been told those women are horrible gossips and should never have been meddled with in the first place. In my attempt to be fair and give these undeserving women the chance to work with me, I have done more damage than if I had left them alone.

For the majority of this past month I endured a lead stomach and woke up with dread and apprehension. In the most recent days I have resigned myself to my situation and try to approach each day with more indifference. These women continue to talk behind my back, disguising their dislike with polite formalities in the street. Therefore, I am not going to try so hard to appease everyone, and will see how things pan out.
As hard as it is to deal with this situation, it is more difficult to accept the overwhelming failure of my community in providing for me in the first months of service. I usually feel like a burden as I am always having to ask favors and impose on people; no one has stepped up to help as promised in the begining. I don´t always feel wanted here- and I didn´t give up my life in the States for that. I refuse to feel like an abandoned dog that was adopted out of pity when I was specifically requested. I see the potential of the projects here, but am unsure if those who requested me actually deserve my help. The only thing that keeps me in my community is the feeling that my work will be worth the pain, humiliation, and distrust I have experienced this past month. I knew Peace Corps would be trying, but not to the degree that I would feel so unwanted and sorely out-of-place. I realize now that I did have at least one expectation coming into service- that my presence would not be resented. I expected caution and indifference, but not rejection.

I will pardon those women who have hurt me as I know they have not been taught better and never receieved the opportunities I´ve enjoyed. Their behavior is a way of life and it is all they know. I will also try to pardon those who failed to take responsibility for me, and consequently are responsible for my current situation. I was offered the chance to change sites, but I figure the least I can do is stick this out a bit longer. There certainly are PCVs in much more challenging situations, and I will have to try and grow from this, instead of running from it. I´m hoping that my not-so-great-expectations will be fufilled by the end of service, and that I can look back on this as an unfortunate but enlightening experience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Half a Year

Although it doesn´t feel like it, I have been in Panama for half a year now. I have been in site for over three months- only 21 more to go....About now I am organizing tasks and determining what exactly my work will be. At this point it appears I will continue working with the conservationists´ group to keep the vivero afloat and hopefully improve its business prospects (a vivero, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a nursery for trees). There is also the possibility, if the money ever arrives from Biological Corrider, to inititiate a small-scale community-led ecotourism project along the Chiriqui River. My other focus will be environmental education in the local primary school (with students up to fifteen years old). Additionally, I am supposed to start and maintain a environmental youth group called Panama Verde. As the community expects English instruction, I will eventually teach a few night courses. When the rainy season finally ends, I will work with community members to construct Lorena Stoves. These stoves supposedly require less firewood, and at the very least, reduce excessive smoke inhalation.

A lot to do in only two years, and ideally (although I have reservations about the feasability of this) they will be sustainable. These plans are all tentative, and as I´ve already learned from the meager time accrued in site, flexibilty is a requirement, not an option.

It has been extremeley trying living in seven different households over the past six months. The prospect of being estranged from California for two years doesn´t help either. At times, it is overwhelming. At least when studying abroad I had numerous distractions and could converse with English-speaking friends. Here distractions are far less frequent, and even moreso, English friends (or friends at all for that matter). A radio ad for Kenny G in concert in Panama (oh the things that cross US borders....) has been running endlessly. And Lord help me,I was honestly tempted to buy a ticket. The soft jazz conjures up images and sensations of the Bay Area and all its goodness- cheesy and stereotypical as they may be: open-air cafes, the Golden Gate, crisp breezes, damp fog rolling in, sourdough bread, mellow sunsets, golden beaches, and even car drives with my dad and KOIT playing on the radio. Sometimes at night I lie in bed with my tiny radio pressed to my ears (so as to not disturb others) and fiddle with the tuning to locate familiar songs. Whether it´s Journey, Sinead O Connor, or even a little Tim McGraw (if I´m lucky enough to encounter it much), I feel slightly less displaced. In the darkness I decompress, but when light returns my efforts appear in vain.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Out of The Blue

I had been at my third host family´s house for over a week when I finally realized that they had two, not one, dogs. I saw something staring at me from afar, a black and white head peeking over the trash heap, as I was washing my clothing in the sink. The frozen form was so immobile that closer inspection was required to confirm it was indeed alive. Among the garbage and pools of stagnant water sat an emaciated but very much alive adult dog. And so, in the midst of my washing routine, Blue entered my life.

The owner said she was a ¨bad dog¨ because she bites (there isn´t a dog here that doesn´t supposedly bite), and because she steals eggs from neighboring chickens. Based on her amiable temperament and emaciated state I deduced that she bit because they hit her (others confirmed this abuse), and stole eggs because she was starving. When I came to Panama I NEVER thought I would adopt a dog because it would be too difficult to leave behind. The last thing I wanted was the responsibility for another life- be it dog, cat, or even chicken. Nearly every woman here has inquired as to why I don´t already have or desire children. I would tell them I couldn´t commit to caring for a dog, let alone a child. I´ve seen many a mangy, abused, and severely underfed dog here, and have often told myself that there is no point in helping them as there are far too many. But I suppose this apathy can become dangerous if the whole world was viewed in this manner- nothing would ever change for the better. This is particularly important for me, as I am supposed to have a tiny impact here that although seemingly insignificant, will serve a greater good in the the distant future.

At the very least I can give this mutt a decent two years and try my best to find a home for her. Our doxie, Sophie, died unexpectedly and at a rather young age. I like to think that I´m giving this dog two years that Sophie should have had.

On a lighter note, my new friend is happier and slowly gaining weight. I don´t have to do much to please her at all because she is used to so little in the first place. When I told my dad that she looked like a Dalmation, he dismissed the idea with a laugh and a ¨I highly doubt that, Lizzie¨ (you don´t exactly find purebreds in rural, slightly impoverished towns like this). Now I can laugh at him, because she is indeed a dalmatian, an unwanted gift from a relative in Boquete. Her best feature is her eyes- one is chocolate brown and the other is ice blue. Hence the name, Blue. I, however, want to change her name to something a little more creative, considering I am a native English speaker. People find her eyes quite comical and joke that she has one eye like me. For lack of better choice in the pet store she is sporting a hot pink collar (which I justify as a forthright celebration of her femininity....). She is one of the three female dogs I have seen out of perhaps hundreds of males in this community. Females here are considered a burden as they will always produce puppies, and the female puppies are usually abandoned and left to die (my friend just rescued two that were left to die). But, to be fair, these practices are quite common in rural areas of the US too. Within the span of one week, three of us volunteers in the province of Chiriqui rescued dogs- and all of us were against having dogs in the first place. Even if we leave our communities in the same state as when we arrived (heaven forbid!), at the very least there will be three happier mutts in Panama.