December 31st, 2013: The End of the Year, and 4 Months in Panama

December 31st, 2013

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The end of the year.

I’ve been in Panama for almost four months, now.
Looking at that statement, it seems like a lot. Has that much time passed already?
But then I remember how many new things I’ve tried, how much I’ve worked, how much I’ve learned; all those times when I just wanted to hop on the next plane to Tucson, all those times when I was so happy in my country I thought this was the best decision of my life. When you put all those things together, it does feel like four months, and more. When every day is a struggle—not something negative, but just difficult, you tend to remember more of it. For example, in a school year, you’ll probably remember the out of the ordinary days and field trips more than you will remember the every day going to classes. Looking back over the year, City High’s students will remember the first Mt. Lemmon trip, community days spent at Ben’s Bells or on the farm, singing performances in Whole School Meeting (I had forgotten about that…), the junior president elections, and the end of the year trip for their grade. There will be memorable classes, of course, but they will most likely be overshadowed by the “event” days. Follow me so far?
Now imagine that every other day was a community day, that every few weeks you went to Los Angeles, that shocking 31vocal performances were the norm between what few, extremely interesting and demanding classes there were.
That’s kind of how going on exchange is (especially if you go to Panama, where you’ve already got few classes every day). Almost every day is something new. Actually, every day is new, because there’s always more spanish to learn. I journaled every day for weeks, always finding something to write pages about, until finally I just ran out of time (with exams coming up) and creative juice.
How do I make you understand? I don’t think you really can, until you’re put in the same situation. Until then, just take my word for it.
For example… I went to visit my german gap year volunteer friend yesterday in her home, using either a taxi or a bus. It’s about 10 minutes away in a bus, past one of many plantain plantations in my area, and a bit less by taxi. Bus fare changes depending on where you get on and where you get off between the two end points in a bus’s route. I personally am amazed that the ‘porters’ are able to remember who got on where when they step off the bus. From Changuinola to the bridge (end of the line), fare is 80¢. From the midway town to the bridge or in the opposite direction, Changuinola, it’s only 60¢. From points in the middle, I think it’s also 60¢, but who knows. If you’re wearing a school uniform, fare is cut in half.
To get to my friends house, it costs 60¢ by bus. My host mom told me I could take a taxi, but not to pay more than 80¢. Since I didn’t want to try to battle the cab driver for the money while the other people in the taxi glared at me (taxis here pick up up as many people as they can hold, and if you want a private taxi you have to pay for the other empty seats), I decided to ask before getting in the taxi if they were going to rip me off what fare would be. I waited at the “bus stop” across from some construction workers who were only slightly bothersome (aka trying out their limited english vocabulary, which means the words “hey-lo” and “butiful” were mentioned in slightly raised voices. I had brought my sunglasses just in case of this though, so it was easy to pretend I was ignoring them. In truth, I was mostly wondering what my amazing friend Annamae would have to say about all the behavior from the men of Panama while trying not to laugh when the head construction worker ended up flagging the bus down for me, very courteously). In about 5 minutes, a taxi drive by and I flagged it down. I had to ask several times “cuantas?” because the driver kept trying to tell me to go around and get in the passenger side before he told me a dollar. Shaking my head, I said “no, gracias,” and straighten up. He might have shook his head before driving away.
How many other 16 year olds are figuring out taxi fare like that? Do you see what I mean? Every day is something new. Every single day is not as easy as it is in the U.S. You have to think about things you never imagined you’d think about. Parts of your life that you thought you really couldn’t live without will be taken away from you in the form of two plane rides and an overnight bus, or last week, newness was just a short taxi ride away when I switched host families.
Exchange is amazing, but it is also unbelievable, and unbelievable isn’t always easy.
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND, I JUST KNOW IT.
Ahhhhhsdflskfdjlkgjhhggg I can’t explain…
I am very curious now, though, about how life in the U.S. is for other people. I think of my friends at home who speak english only as a second language, and I’m awed and proud of them, because it’s hard to have two languages in your life at the same time. By the way, did you know that several of my classmates here speak spanish only as a second language like I do (well, they’re a tad more completely fluent, but what to the evs)? There’s a really high indigenous population here, each with their own language. These students speak this language at home, and then come to school and the rest of the country and speak and write spanish….

I should just have a “random interesting facts” post.

Take a minute to look around you and try to find something really interesting to do today (or tomorrow if you’re reading this late at night). Make sure to document it with a short written entry or a photo. Share it, if you can.

Love from Panama.
Phoebe

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#7, Observation: At the big parades in November on the Isla Colón, gringo-watching is almost as fun as watching the parade is.

#7, Observation: At the big parades in November on the Isla Colón, gringo-watching is almost as fun as watching the parade is.
Sunday, January 12th, 2013

It’s said that in the large cities like David and Panama City, the percentage of white people is higher. I’ve noticed myself when I traveled to David that there were less people with the dark skin I’ve grown accustom to here in Changuinola of Bocas del Toro. (Mainly, I noticed a lack of staring at my white skin-blue eyes-blonde hair wherever I went, although it certainly didn’t vanish completely.) Where I live in particular is filled with indigenous groups that have a very rich culture to go along with their skin tones. This means I get a lot of stares, and verbal attention from the men and boys, wherever I go.

The Isla Colón on the Bocas del Toro coast is another place gringos are the very dominate group, and I’m talking extranjeros gringos. The foreigners. I was only there for the parade on the 16th of November, but my Peace Corps Volunteer J says that many gringos she knows—mainly other Peace Corps vols—will go there for a “day off,” because since there are so many visitors with white skin, few people stare anymore.

As to why there are so many gringos, my guess is that all the schools and travel agencies for foreigners make it the go-to for those traveling in Panama with only a backpack, and most of those foreigners turn out to be white. The Bocas del Toro coast has a strong reputation for being one of the most beautiful areas of Panama (have I been here long enough that you could accuse me of being bias?), and that makes it a tourist hotspot.

Changuinola is pretty much avoided, probably because the Lonely Planet travel guide says to “not spend any more time there than you have to.” (You can imagine my joy when I finally found out where I had been placed back in July and immediately looked it up in the guide book only to find that.)

In the Isla Colón, on the other hand, hostels and unusually formal restaurants line the streets. There are expensive bakeries and “exotic” food stores with items like Nutella. Fliers are plastered on every surface advertising two weeks of a spanish intensive crash course or surfing or rainforest zipline tours. The island seems to have been build to cater to tourists—well, a specific type of tourist. You might call them ‘those hippie tourists,’ or maybe just backpackers. They’re the kind of crowd that cause hostels to put up signs like Experience a Natural High in Panama! and Welcome to Bocas: Beach, Fun & Love! Among the gringos, I saw several men who were barefoot walking through the street, seemingly unaware that ‘litterbug’ means nothing at all to most Panameños. They mostly wore little clothes; shorts and sandals reigned despite the cold and rain. There were professional looking cameras, and smart phones. A few cheap ponchos, big backpacks, questionable cigarettes. Watching them (and snapping their photo for the blog post I knew I’d write sometime soon…it’s only been two months) quickly became as engrossing as the performers and countless muchachos and muchachas, the young men and women, the boys and girls, all marching in uniform. Every time I´d see something that I considered strange, I thought about how the Panamanians who saw these people were probably thinking this was normal, American behavior.

At the end of the day, a huge ferry volunteered to take people back to the mainland. It would take a heck of a long longer, but it was free. I looked around once on board, and felt a mix of both reassurance and alienation—few of the gringos from the island were going back to Almirante, and those that were either hadn’t gotten the memo about the free ferry or were too shy to get on amid all the locals, so I was once again a lone gringa. I quickly forgot about the differences in skin color, though. My school’s band and another had started two competing drum circles on either end of the ferry. There was a fruit vendor on board who quickly ended up with the last of my money. There were school mates to talk to, a ship to explore, friends to annoy by taking their photo until my camera ran out of battery, beautiful scenery like that in the Inner Passage in Alaska to admire, and after dusk at the end of our ride, we gazed up, open mouthed, at the towering cranes that moved shipping container after huge shipping container of Chiriquí bananas onto freighters headed all over the world, enormous structures highlighted by the spotlights on the dock. It was like we were space colonists docking at an colossal space station, coming in slowly under all the machinery that stood highlighted against the black of outer space, interrupted only by the stars.

I hope I never forget that moment, and the feeling I had as I lay in bed that night. It was having left the house before dawn that morning, and looking back in time with a small journal filled with adventures from my past while waiting for my companions in a cafe, and adding a new entry as well. It was having lived independently, traveled alone from my host house to a far away town after only two months, navigating in a spanish speaking world without a translator or dictionary. It was getting my photo taken with a strong presidential candidate. It was buying myself breakfast and lunch and souvenirs for my family with money I’d earned myself. It was watching my school, my classmates I knew by name, parading down the street in a festival that drew locals and foreigners from all over the world, having them smile or wave at me, or in case, wink. It was finding my friends in the crowd as we disembarked to tell them “dulce sueños!” It was jumping up and sprinting for the bus along with 50 other strangers as soon as it pulled into the station, all of us scrambling to get a seat home. It was asking to borrow a quarter from a friend so I wouldn’t have to pay the bus hand with the only bill I had left, a $20, since I was culturally adept by now to know that was a big no-no. It was taking the bus home and arriving triumphant at my house, having left before light that morning.

I was in Panamá. I am in Panamá. How fricken cool is that, huh? I forget that sometimes, but recently it’s all just been getting better. I’m traveling again later this week, might be responsible for finding lodging for the night, absolutely alone. There are just these times when it really hits me, when I’m a little overwhelmed by how far my life has changed, by the fact that I am currently living in another, very culturally different country, with different laws, a different history, a whole different language! It’s truly amazing. Exchange will likely be the hardest thing you ever do, but if you can arrange it, do it.

With love from Panama,
Phoebe

p.s. Happy birthday to my wonderful, creative sister! I love you so much and wish you were here with me so I could show you my world. xoxo your older sister who misses you terribly however happy she might be at the moment.

 

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#6, Fact: “Chao” actually is the typical farewell here in Panama that everybody uses, not just those rich, elderly blonde ladies you see on television

Chao
Chao es mucho mas usual…

#6, Fact: “Chao” actually is the typical farewell here in Panama that everybody uses, not just those rich, elderly blonde ladies you see on television.
Sunday, January 12th, 2014

I’ll admit, when I first arrived and heard “chao” being used, I though that it was for my benefit, as something they had seen in American movies and figured that all U.S.-iens must use (or at least the rich blonde ones, and since I was estadoundiense (“from the U.S.”; look at it closely), I was incontrovertibly rich in addition to being unmistakably blonde). Then I wondered if it was just my host sister and her friends, both in their early twenties, trying to be chic. Finally, I was forced to acknowledge that this really was the true equivalent of “bye” in Panama, even if it sent me into quickly stifled fits of giggles every time I heard or used it the first few weeks.

Now it’s much more natural to use when saying goodbye. I hardly use “adios,” the standard farewell taught in spanish classes across the U.S., except when jokingly saying, “adios, amigos!” to friends, over-pronouncing each syllable.

I should also point out that it’s spelled “chao,” not “chow” as I thought it was for about the first 3 months. Remember this lesson, mi hijos, and you won’t ever look like a gringo in that respect at least.

P

#5, Observation: Verano, the “dry” season, is early December to mid April, invierno, the rainy season, is from mid April to early December, but the weather doesn’t always seem to know this

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#5, Observation: Vierno, the “dry” season, is early December to mid April, invierno, the rainy season, is from mid April to early December, but the weather doesn’t always seem to know this.
January 12th, 2013

I’ve heard it said that different areas of the country of Panama have their “rainy season” at different times, but the season time periods in the title is what’s officially stated in the AFS “Panama… ¡It’s a big country!” welcome booklet for us exchange students.

Wikipedia has this to say about Panama’s climate:

“Panama has a tropical climate. Temperatures are uniformly high—as is the relative humidity—and there is little seasonal variation. Diurnal ranges are low; on a typical dry-season day in the capital city, the early morning minimum may be 24 °C (75.2 °F) and the afternoon maximum 30 °C (86.0 °F). The temperature seldom exceeds 32 °C (89.6 °F) for more than a short time. Temperatures on the Pacific side of the isthmus are somewhat lower than on the Caribbean, and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country. Temperatures are markedly cooler in the higher parts of the mountain ranges, and frosts occur in the Cordillera de Talamanca in western Panama.
Climatic regions are determined less on the basis of temperature than on rainfall, which varies regionally from less than 1,300 millimeters (51.2 in) to more than 3,000 millimeters (118.1 in) per year. Almost all of the rain falls during the rainy season, which is usually from April to December, but varies in length from seven to nine months. In general, rainfall is much heavier on the Caribbean than on the Pacific side of the continental divide. The annual average in Panama City is little more than half of that in Colón. Although rainy-season thunderstorms are common, the country is outside of the hurricane belt.”

(What struck me most about reading this was the last sentence about Panama being outside of the hurricane belt. I never thought to look for a country where I’d be safer from hurricanes. When I looked into each country I’d thought about spending a year of my life in, I’d looked for red flags like political unrest and current wars, or official religions and religious tolerance, and delved into the social habits of the country’s teens. I had a large list of questions I thought covered everything important, and yet looking at the possibility of being threatened or even killed by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other natural disasters didn’t cross my mind. Just goes to show that while you can never be prepared, knowing a lot about your country can really help you, and make you feel a lot safer. Unless, of course, you find out about the hurricane belt by discovering that your country has the highest number of deaths and dislocations from the awesome thunderstorms.)
As for the climate, we’ve just entered the “dry” season. That being said, I’ve noticed that we seem to be having a lot more rain that we did before in the “wet” season. It’s raining right now, for example, and this is the third+ time today it’s rained. I think that it’s rained almost day this week, too. Luckily it doesn’t bother me too much, since we’re on school vacations and I can either just stay in the house all day if it’s raining or flex my schedule until a time when it’s not raining. I’m not, however, looking forward to tomorrow, when I have the third of five days of campo (agricultural work at my school previously mentioned in #1). I’m guessing that if (when) it rains, my Panamanian compañeros, and I along with them, will either hide out until the rain stops as my classmates take work less seriously in general, or will continue to work as they are very accustom to rain and it bothers them less. I’ll let you know.

Chao para ahora, bye for now!
Phoebe

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#4, Experience: Most Panamanians think that Americans are Very Very Rich.

#4, Experience: Most Panamanians think that Americans are Very Very Rich.
January 10th, 2014

Note: This seems like less of a solid fact and more of an experience, so I’m putting it as such.

Today my classmates asked me if I was coming back to Panama for their graduation in December. I told them probably not since airfare is expensive. “But you have the money, right?” They asked. “Um… no,” I had to tell them. No, my family isn’t poor, but we can’t just zip down to Central America whenever we feel like it. However, that’s not…’common knowledge.’ It’s a possibility.

In a conversation today I was listening to between two classmates, one of them asked the other something about how much money he had or if she could borrow some, and the second replied, “no soy gringo, no tengo dinero!” This translates to, “I’m not white, I don’t have any money!” It’s possible that this might have been said since I, as the school’s only gringa, was affecting the thought in the group and making them prone to talk about english and gringo-ness. It felt like they had forgotten about me though, and like that was something that would have been said regardless of my being there. The mindset is that if you’re white, you have money automatically.

In general, there are many stereotypes about Americans. I’ve been spoken English to more times than I can count, but only twice has somebody asked if I’m German. Everybody just assumes I’m from the U.S. They’re right, of course, but one day I’m just going to tell whoever it is that’s bothering me with their limited english and calling me baby or telling me they loved me that I’m sorry but I only speak German and have no idea what they’re saying and that maybe they should find out more about somebody before trying to hit on them, since now they look like an utter fool. (I must remember to ask the other exchange students if they’re often mistaken for United State-n since they’re white. Of course, most of them speak pretty good english.)

In conversations, too, it comes up when I tell people I’m from the U.S. We’ll talk about California and New York, or they’ll want to double check that Miami is a state, right? Then the gesture that knows no boundaries, the classic rubbing your fingers together that signifies cold, green pieces of paper. “Mucho, si?” they’ll say like they already know the answer.
“Hay gente quien tienen mucho dinero, si,” I’ll reply. “Pero hay mucho gente con solo un poquito plata tambien.” There are rich people, but many poor people too. When I get the chance, I downplay the wealth of the U.S. as I’ve been instructed by numerous travel guides.

However, it could be said that most Americans are very rich compared. The vast majority, I’d wager, don’t shower out of buckets, have hot water, a car, a washer with a rinse cycle, a drier, a house with solid windows, finished floors, internal plumbing and electrical wiring… the list goes on and on. They don’t eat mostly rice, which is a cheap filler food here. They have savings in a bank. These people, although they might say they’re poor, have a lot compared to the people who are considered to be well off in Panama.

I do think about the people who don’t have any of these things, too, every time somebody says that every person in the U.S. is rich. I think about how many homeless people we have. In a way, it feels like there are very few homeless here, probably because the poorest can construct small shacks without being bothered by the police. I’m still working on finding out the answer, though. Is there just more work to go around? More ways to make money? Maybe with just less people, there’s going to be less homeless, even if by ratio the numbers are the same.

I just remembered I’m trying to limit how much I write. 677 words…
Buenas noches!
Phoebe

#3, Fact Movies are shown on TV on the weekends, and they’re usually from the U.S. dubbed in Spanish

#3, Fact: Movies are shown on TV on the weekends, and they’re usually from the U.S. dubbed in Spanish.January 10th, 2014 Weeknights are usually reserved for Panamanian soaps and the news shows, or a national wrestling compition, but on the weekends, movies play all day and all night long. They’ll show a kid friendly, low-budget […]

#2, Fact: Cold Water is the Norm

#2, Fact: Cold Water is the Norm
Friday, January 10th, 2014

Note: This is my experience so far. When I say fact, I usually mean, something that I have observed to be true. Since we do live in the age of disclaimers, I’ll add one now: “Fact” does not necessarily mean that I verified beyond all doubt that it is indeed a fact without expectations. I might say, “fact, it is difficult to find organic zucchini here,” and maybe I’ve just been missing the organic section at the local chinos in the vegetable section that’s made up of boxes on a shelf. However, I will try not to put opinions under the title of fact, like “fact, all Panamanian teenage boys are crazy,” (however much I may want to). Like I said, these are “facts” that I’ve observed to be a truth.

So far, everyone I remember talking to in Panama (including the other exchange students) has cold water. Hot water is found at resorts and hotels. This means cold showers, and washing your clothes in the environment friendly option of cold water. I don’t think there are many dishwashers, but they would be on the cold water cycle too, no sterilization by heat available.

It’s said that if you want to live longer, you should take cold showers.

I also remember my aunt sticking me in a steaming tub after being out in the mildly chilly rain as the only cure to the cold she was sure I was about to catch.

In general, it’s not a problem, since it’s so hot here, you’d probably just want cold water anyways. (At an AFS orientation at a resort, I actually did take another shower, a cold shower, after my hot one so I wouldn’t die of heat stroke.) However, durning the winter it’s a bit colder, especially in the mornings before the sun comes up when I’m getting ready for school. I took up yoga for a bit to try and warm up so I don’t die of the cold, but now that it’s summer I just wait until midday when it’s hottest.

I’ve done two now! Feeling good…
Phoebe