Mid Stay at David & Emphasis on Travel Tip #1

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Here is my Monday post! I currently have a cold, so I spent the day in bed relaxing from a 5-day adventure I got back from at 9:30pm last night, doodling while listening to an audiobook called “Goodbye for Now” by Laurie Frankel. Half way through, it’s pretty good, bringing in some interesting thoughts about how we classify “dead” and “gone” in this new world of technology. It’s nice to just lay down in my own bed for a while, although a sore throat that morphed into a cough with a runny nose and head ache caused me to get up and go to the minisuper-chino for $1.35, 8 ounce bottle of  local “Bee Queen” honey (from David, which is considered far from Changuinola by Panamanian standards, but as it’s only 3 hours by car, that’s pretty local for the U.S.), promoting “Vigor y Salud con Miel de Abejas.” It tastes like clover honey, not just sugary, plastic sweetness you get with cheap honey in the U.S. As long as the ants don’t find it, I might just keep a bottle around because it tastes 10 times better than any candy you could buy.

February 12th was my third of the country’s Mid-stay Orientation. For us three lucky ducks in Changuinola, a town only about 20-30 km from both the North and West corners of Panama, this meant another long bus ride. Let me give you an example of our lucky-ness: last month when we met in Panama City to do visa paperwork, the travel difference between us in Changuinola and those living already in Panama City? We both got on the bus around 6, but us the night before, and them the morning of.

Luckily, this orientation’s meeting point was the David Terminal, only 4 hours away. Of course, when your meeting hour was 7am, you get to take the bus at 3am, which means getting to the local terminal at 2:30am, and trying to catch a taxi by 2am, which requires setting your alarm for 1:10am so you can get the twenty minutes of snoozing between alarm reminders you can’t train yourself out of, after going to bed late because you were packing the last things at 11:30pm.

(And we were expected to take good notes on how to survive the next several months in our countries? Now, of course, we’re a lot more proficient in survival: we’ve got our routines and cultural knowledge and language skills. The first post arrival orientation, however, I did not need that overnight 12 hour bus ride in a foreign country with the lights going on every few hours. Since then, my sleeping-on-bus-skills have improved; on our bus to David, I managed two thirty minute periods that probably permanent damaged my neck between 3 and 5am. My first day in community back in September I spent sleeping because I had spent the entire night awake on the bus that left at 8pm, only half falling asleep a little after dawn around 6am, right when the rising sun turned the world into emeralds.)

Travel tip: Travel at dawn or dusk for the most spectacular views created by the light. The bus from David to Changuinola around 5pm is especially wonderful, since you go through the Fortuna Forest Reserve in the mountains around the time the sun is setting. You also pass over the continental divide!

From David, all 25? 30? of us drove an hour in a private bus to this hotel/day spot for rich tourists overlooking a canyon that reminded me of a much, much smaller Grand Canyon with a lot more greenery. We were left to take in the view and talk amongst ourselves for an hour (my companions made fun of my half-dozen hardboiled eggs and tomato I brought for breakfast, even as they starved from lack of breakfast. I offered around eggs, but only two accepted, although another U.S.-an offered to peel two of my eggs for me). Then we all hiked down to the river, where only a few brave souls got into the frigid waters. By now, I’ve learned on many expeditions with Ironwood Tree Experience that one does not ignore the call of swift water and waterfalls, no matter how cold, so I quickly found a photographer (German) and jumped in to explore the waterfall, mini-cave with 6 inch stalactites, and bruising rapids. (I am now responsible for getting over 20 selfies to my Norwegian friend took with my camera borrowed from my American friend who took over on the photographer job.)

Hopefully I will be able to include a photo with this post one day soon. Remember Travel Tip #1? Always look behind you and don’t loose anything? Well, that was prompted when I left my camera charging on an island in San Blas on a trip last month. We couldn’t go back, but one of the AFS volunteers offered to get it from a lady who was going to the mainland the next day and send it down with the next AFS trip to Bocas. That didn’t happen, so I’d been without my camera for a month when I finally got it last Tuesday in David. Unfortunately, the USB cable and USB-outlet adaptor I use to charge the camera and download photos wasn’t with it. Somehow that got lost along the way, or maybe whoever came from the island just unplugged the camera without realizing that the USB cable was a very essential part of the camera. Now, I can’t charge the battery or look at the photos on the memory, and since the camera’s out of battery, it’s useless. I’m hoping against hope that I can buy another USB cable here, or even a battery charger and photo chip reader. I do know where I can get the exact same camera in the same color here in Changuinola, but that’s an expense I’d rather not pay. So really, LOOK BEHIND YOU!

*facepalm* Why do I seem so intent on leaving things behind? *hits head lightly with fist twice before pounding begins to cause aching*

After the hike to the waterfall, fancy but cheap hot dog and burger bar lunch, similarly cheap flan, then outside for a rare sun-bath while the students were safety with tales of crazy past participants from a volunteer not much older than we were. Back inside, a presentation that mentioned a bit about the importance of bonding with our host families and countries, but mainly focused on safety during Carnival, a time for crazy parting when it’s thought all sins are forgiven at the end of the week, and are therefore acceptable. A bit more talking, and then it was time to go. I ended up staying in Nueva Swiza near Volcan with another exchange student and her family for four more days, which was a spur of the moment decision that turned into quite the adventure.

Now I’m back, and looking forward to my last week of vacations from school, espcially since this is my last week of “summer” until the summer break in college. Next Monday, I start my 15 1/2 months of senior year.

Cheers!

Phoebe

#10, Fact: Looking back on old photographs can be a sensation stranger than living in another culture for months.

#10, Fact: Looking back on old photographs can be a sensation stranger than living in another culture for months.

January 27th, 2014

 

(At least, the sensation feels stranger right now after those months spent getting use to said culture. The first weeks especially felt a bit like my life had completely turned inside out, where as this was more awing/shocking/was-I-really-ever-like-that?/amusingly embarrassing.)

 

I was—oh yeah, I was in iPhoto for a reason. I’ll be right back.

*10 minutes pass as I search through all the events trying to remember why I got on my computer in the first place, with no luck*

Yeah, okay. Back to what I found hiding under a nonremarkable-looking photo of three kids at a table.

 

I was looking for something…specific…in iPhoto when I came across the photos from my 5th grade year at a local elementary. Thinking to take a quick turn down memory lane before returning to my quest for the information I knew a certain photo could bring me, I double clicked on the image of three girls—one of them a younger self—grouped around a white plastic table. It’s actually a video about our group presentation, but to be ignominiously honest, I can’t quite find the energy, motivation, or bravery it takes to watch what is the fifth video among the many photos our dedicated teachers took. I didn’t understand what I was getting into with the first video, but each video after only drove me furthered my reluctance to open up any more parts of my personal history past the part where I am an adorable, almost white-haired child with lips so red people asked my mother why she put lipstick on her year-old.

The girl who tried to convince viewers to buy a five inch thick dictionary (“one night a robber tried to get into my house and I used it to block the door!” *classmate whispers in her—my—ear* “Oh yeah, you can look up words or something in it too”), who wore her hair shoulder length and unruly (that is, unruly as painfully strait hair can get), the house key on the chain I finger-knitted the morning of the first day of school (probably making us late)… that is somebody else. Those thick t-shirts, cargo camo shorts, the bright blue crocks, ((woah, swear I’m not doing that on purpose, unless you think it’s cool)) the heavy, bright yellow wristwatch amid all sorts of bands and chains. The only thing that remains the same today is the ring I’ve worn for as long as I remember, excluding the few days it took to obtain it.

And yet… it is inherently, unequivocally, me. (The other word is impossibly.)

How else could opinions I haven’t thought about for years suddenly and without warning, without even making sense, pop into my head? While watching the opening credits making their way onto the screen with all sorts of flounces and flourishes (the product of a young mind in reverence of 24 different computerized styles), I watched as “World’s Worst Best! Commercial Products, by Phoebe, Emma,” hop on, quickly followed by “And Alex”. But since there was less writing on the second screen, Alex’s name was a lot bigger than Emma’s or mine. And of course, Alex gets the big title, I though without even realizing that I was thinking it. I kind of remember being annoyed about that when I was 11. 6 years ago. It wasn’t even that big a deal. Nevertheless, a little flare of, was that jealousy? Yes, it was! I haven’t spoken or seen Alex since the last day of 5th grade. She might been on the moon for all I know. (She’s probably somewhere in Tucson doing her boring American hot-showers-and-wifi junior year or whatever.)

All that being said, as surprising as it was to see myself, it was more of a surprise to see our class photo.

Going by the large witch hanging from the ceiling, I’m suppose this photo was taken at Halloween. There aren’t any obvious costumes, but several people are peculiarly dressed. (All though of course, I went to a peculiar, rather “alternative” school. It was probably just a class photo they told us about beforehand, which would explain why many people were just dressed nicely, not in halloween dress. That does not, however, explain the clown outfit, mix-matched stockings and makeup, or extremely disheveled look complete with one knee protector usually used for workers who kneel a lot.)

This is the first time I’ve seen most of these classmates for years. It’s particularly odd to look back on the ones who I know now, see how they’ve changed, and recall stories they’ve recently told me about their time there.

What must the teachers have thought? Did they see something similar to what I’m seeing now, or do I only see what I do because I know how these kids turned out, what they were thinking or trying to accomplish that year? I look at one of my best friends who lived with me in my community until she went to Germany and I to Panama. Ruby red skirt with a material I’ve seen a thousand times and don’t know the name, nice striped shirt, forrest green vest with cream silk lining she’s proudly displaying by turning sideways and holding it open in a fashionable way, soft, deep blue knit hat. She’s the “Artist Friend” who is by far the most dedicated person I know to anything artistic. The brunette girl standing with her blonde, then best friend, a poster child for whatever springtime clothing catalogue choose to go with the as-many-different-brightly-colored-layers-and-patterns-as-possible look. The brunette has a dark skirt over her dark tights and a t-shirt; just a few months ago (aka a few months before I left, so sometime more than half a year ago) I learned that she feels like she spent most of the year trying to imitate her blonde friend, without success. Despite that (or because of it) she now has one of the most individual styles I’ve seen, both in dress and mannerism, and I fear that one day soon, I’m going to look back on these years as trying desperately to copy her.

Is this what the teachers, all adults, saw? We children were oblivious to it all, but they, they would have already gone through all the grades that we still couldn’t imagine, like the ones in high school, and a lot of college too. Some had kids of their own. What did they think about the girl who’s father’s cigarette-y pervasiveness announced his presence whenever he entered the classroom? We students discussed it of course, but what conclusions were we suppose to draw? What conclusions could we draw?

 

Did the teachers see us, their charges, as rational members of society or lunatics? Did they see all this childness as just that, acts that children perform in their childhoods? Or did it honestly bother them that we wouldn’t sit still or stop asking the questions that people aren’t really suppose to ask? That time a few soldiers from the U.S. Army came to visit our school to give a presentation and one of my best friends asked the main presenter how many people he had killed… a chill just ran up my body remembering that. My friend, my crazy, socially and politically incorrect, 11 year old best friend, had done what few others can do, and with such aplomb that he rendered the room absolutely silent for a second: with complete innocence and no secret agenda whatsoever, had openly acknowledged the fact that soldiers are sent to kill people, and then return home to their “normal lives” with us “normal people.” This was a powerful moment in my life. Are those moments the ones that teachers live for, the entire reason they teach kids who are still developing “social grace,” or a reluctance to ask taboo questions, or are these the days that make them think about quitting?

 

Lastly, because egotism is such a part of our lives as human beings, I wonder what they thought about me. What they would think if they could see me today. Did they anticipate me ending up (like I’ve come to a stop and won’t grow anymore or something) where I am right now? Homework was, ahem, not my priority back then, so I wonder if they’d be suprised that I left sophomore year at the top of my class. Did they see that girl going from fully comfortable with her body to being so self conscious she didn’t wear anything that revealed skin above the ankle in public or to school from 7th until the end of 10th grade?

 

I’ve changed, a lot. Definitely for the better. To tell you the truth, the type of girl I use to be is one of my least favorite now. Or maybe everybody hates their past selfs; maybe that’s how we “learn from our mistakes”. Whatever the academic debate implications, there’s no denying that the girl who sits here now would have a lot to say to the girl who once—well, there’s too many examples to name. Did everybody else see this major shift in character down the line? I certainly didn’t. Did my mom? My dad? I don’t know why they let me continue living in the house if they didn’t anticipate some kind of change.

 

I’m probably being overly harsh on myself. There were some seeds of coolness and creativity planted way back in 5th grade that I saw tonight in some spectacular little plant pots I remodeled for a craft fair and in the heavy purple cloak I wore to school sometimes. Incidentally, I got about a 40% that year in homework, which is what you get if you indulge in activities such as just giving your homework to friends that lost it while refusing a photocopy, causing their dad to become very concerned on your behalf for the next year or so, or simply letting it sit in your homework folder, quite peaceful, not bothering anybody. Luckily for me, this lack of enthusiasm on my part for homework and tests didn’t affect me in any transcript-related way. While I’m sure it drove everybody who knew about it crazy—my next door neighbor who insisted I did, in fact, need my geography homework back; my lovely teacher who sat down with me after school one day to retake a spelling test because I, feeling hopeless, had written all sorts of things down, but they had to do with outer space or carrots or anything else that was as far from whichever word the teacher had read out (her patience was much more than I deserved and very fondly remembered, but I fear that as I had no desire to pass if it meant studying Central America to know where countries like Panama were or memorizing how to spell “ocean”, her energy would have been better spend on herself). My parents, on the other hand, are probably just finding out about it now, since as soon as I got wind about the Report Card I found myself suddenly and unexplainably galvanized to action, and, snatching it from my mother’s hand as she prepared to open it, locked myself in my room, closed my ears against her calls through the thin wood, and proceeded to subject it to any and all methods I could think of to destroy it, until I realized that (1) it might be in my better interests to keep it alive in case I found it would benefit me more to give it back to my parents, or (2) if I could keep it hidden from them forever, it might be nice to look back on.

I’m not sure where the remains are now. Probably in a box, along with everything else I’m missing, a product of frequent moves when I was young(er). I feel like the ti-folded pamphlet is in okay shape excusing some water damage, but that might just be an errant memory from the minute before I ripped it into shreds and flushed it down the toilet. Both of those possibilities seem real in my mind.

#9, Tips for Traveling #1: Always look behind you

#9, Tips for Traveling #1: Always look behind you.
Jan 24, 2014

((Am I the only one who still writes “2013” even as they think, “okay, now this time I’ve got to remember to write 2014…”?))

Always look behind you for items left behind. Make a list of the important things you should always know the exact location of before leaving an area. For example, your backpack, suitcase, small “carry on” bag* and purse or wallet*; anything freestanding that you physically have to pick up and move, so this list can include things like coats you’re planning on tying around your waist or a hat and sunglasses, or a separate bag of snacks for the bus. Suggestion: memorize the number of the bigger items you have with you so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting something if it’s not physically there to remind you of it’s existence (like forgetting your sunglasses and then not remembering until you need them because it looks like everything is there).
Then you should make sure you have your purse with you, and it’s a good idea to double check you still have the super importants like your passport and cards (credit/debit, identification, for the bus, etc.), as well as a list of contacts in case you loose your phone or it runs out of battery, your phone, cash, and, if you’re traveling in Panama, and other countries with similar protocols, small change should always be on hand to pay for the bathroom without delay.

Another piece of advice: make friends with the people around you. I, personally, am very very good at leaving things behind, and more than once has the person behind me stopped me with something I had just left lying there. Another friend means a second pair of eyes, and most importantly, it means that those eyes know who you are and what you look like in case they find something after you’ve moved on.

Finally, it may make you feel like you’re in elementary again, or maybe even kindergarden, but it will be (forever and always) a smart move to put your name and contact info on your worldly belongings. You don’t have to write it on the inside of your shirt collar, but on the tongues of your shoes isn’t such a bad idea. To make it look more professional (aka less dorky), try printing out your name and email on nice paper, cutting it out, and putting tape over it to seal out water. Just think about how idiotic you’d feel if you lost your camera with all the photos of your trip and the only reason you didn’t get it back was because you were afraid somebody would laugh at you for taking an extra safety measure.

Best wishes for travelers across the globe,
Phoebe

*see Tips for Traveling #2 for details

#8, Experience: Making friends in the Gran Terminal Nacional de Transporte in Panama City, Panama

#8, Experience: Making friends in the Gran Terminal Nacional de Transporte in Panama City, Panama.

January 24, 2014

 

((note: I’ve got several conflicting interests summarized as followed: to be immersed completely in my environment, and to blog about everything that happens to me. To compromise, I’m going to leave off posting every day to some other age, and change my goal to Mondays, so check in then for now.))

 

The bus system of Panama, I feel it is fair to say, is by far the most used system of transportation in the country, since only a few houses even have spaces for cars. The Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City is the control hub of not only most of the national buses, but also for the city buses as well. Add in the traffic from having the biggest shopping center in Panama that stands right across the street, the Albrook Mall, and you have one of the hottest cosmopolitan venues in the nation. Almost every type of person can be found in this area. Small groups of women in indigenous dress clutch a multitude of young children to their side as a young man carries bag after bag behind them. Business men in suits. Foreign women with their own small business. A farmer who exchanged his boots for worn work shoes while traveling to visit family in the City. Teens with Monster hats worn backwards over their long hair, drinking Red Bull, hanging out in front of the mall, who are about as close to “goth” as you get here.

Then there are droves of tourists with backpacks normally just seen in the overpriced, outdoor extreme-adventure stores or in the deep wild on long backpacking trips. I always just have to wonder what they’re doing that they need such high tech gear. Walking through the food court past Dunkin Donuts and Kentucky Fried Chicken (since few people read english, the stores don’t have to worry about scaring off customers afraid of high cholesterol; in fact, a high percentage of food is deep fried here anyways. We had fried chicken just yesterday.), or through the mall with the Aero dummies overloaded with $40 scarfs and belts, sitting on the big “greyhound” buses… these tourists always look a bit out of place. Their $110 all-terrain sneakers squeak too loudly on the recently waxed floor.

Not to say that the people aren’t interesting or that I avoid or even laugh at them. I’m even describing myself in some ways. No, the gringos are really something special. On my final day of traveling home last week after visiting San Blas with AFS, I talked to a lot of kids who were traveling to Almirante to get to the Isla, and had a blast making new friends.

I say kids because, compared to my image I have of myself, they were completely new to this world.

I live in Changuinola, which is about 50 minutes on from Almirante. To get to the Bocas islands from Panama City, you take the bus to Changuinola but get off at Almirante. Because of the lack of information tourists usually have, they just are looking for the “Bocas del Toro” sign

I happened to take a two day break from this, and during period that I received my map of Panama and saw that the big ‘capital’ of the Isla Colon of the Bocas del Toro islands is named, you guessed it, Bocas del Toro. So, maybe I was a bit quick in my judgmental views of tourists, bla bla bla, maybe they deserve an apology. That being said, they were kind of clueless about the whole get-off-at-Almirante-to-take-a-moterboat, which I suppose doesn’t matter since the system is designed to support them and they all got off at the right stop; we’ve already mentioned the wardrobe issues. In spite of that, I’ll try to be tolerant. Who’s to say that I won’t be as clueless in the future?

“Everybody’s home is important to them.”

I think I read that in a cultural-exchange booklet. It was tell us we shouldn’t get offended if locals weren’t sure of the exact location of our countries, even if they were one of the larger ones, because your home isn’t going to be as important as my home. I suppose that it’s a good sign that I’m getting offended because the non-natives don’t know where my little corner of Panama is.

Phoebe

 

p.s. Changuinola is actually very large. It’s like if somebody traveled to Arizona and went just to the capital, Phoenix, and had no idea what Tucson was, which is the second biggest city and also the People’s Capital (Phoenix is for business, Tucson is for living awesome lives) and about a 100x better than over-paved, 15 degree hotter Phoenix…at least according to the people who call Tucson home.

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Buying tickets at the terminal. (Taken with my cheap phone’s camera.)

 

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The bus, when we stopped for snacks at Santiago. At 1:45. In the morning.