Jackie in Panama

Jackie Wald has served as a lecturer in Spanish in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in SMU’s Dedman College. She and her husband, Michael, have volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps in Panama for 27 months. Their assignment is to update the English Program at the Escuela Normal, which is Panama’s premier teacher training school.

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Counting blessings

If Halloween is here, can Thanksgiving be far behind? Have you taken time to count your blessings? All of us have much to be thankful for, even little things we’re rarely aware of.

Recently in Peace Corps Panama, I attended a workshop with many members of my old training group. All of us have been in site working on our assignments for a few months. It was fun to see one another again and compare notes on our experiences.

Some volunteers live in extremely poor communities where they have no electricity (think: no refrigeration), no indoor plumbing, they bathe and do laundry in a river, they use 10 gallon drums as makeshift latrines, they boil, filter, and treat river water with chlorine pills before drinking, they sleep on a floor, they eat mainly rice and plantains every day, occasionally they get chicken (if neighboring families decide to kill one that’s running around squawking).

Usually the volunteer is the only English speaker in the area. Cell phone service is rare. If he or she wants to visit a fellow Peace Corps site, that involves a long hike, maybe 2-3 hours, or catching a boat off an island or a canoe up the river. If he or she wants to go to a larger town to buy supplies, it often involves an overnight stay, depending on boat or bus schedules.

After dark there is little to do in pitch blackness. Volunteers go through many batteries in efforts to read. Candles attract too many bugs. Sometimes a solar-powered car battery emits a feeble light. Therefore, bedtime is 8:30 for many of them.

That’s not such a bad idea if they’ve worked all day wielding machetes to clear land, planted crops, harvested rice, helped construct an aqueduct, planted organic cacao, set up a business to promote sales of local artesania and crafts, led a meeting about environmental health, AIDS awareness, recycling projects, organized a local Olympics for the kids … these volunteers get tired! Some of them can sleep for 10-12 hours.

They may have to build their own houses. They get help from community members to cut trees, gather wood and collect penca, dried leaves lashed together to form a roof. They fashion a floor out of bamboo-like sticks, about four feet off the ground to keep out bugs, snakes, rodents and moisture. There are no walls. They store their gear in coolers.

They charge their ipods whenever they get to a city or town. They buy an hour of time in an Internet cafe. They make their phone calls. They may stay in a cheap hotel or hostel and enjoy a real shower and sit on an actual toilet. If they’re feeling protein deprivation they’ll scarf down big meals in local dining spots. Then they head back to their sites.

They do this for two years, the usual Peace Corps service.

You may wonder why I keep saying “they.” Aren’t I in the Peace Corps? Didn’t we all receive the same training? Ah, here’s where I start counting my blessings.

If you have read previous blogs, you know that my husband and I teach English in a large high school (1200 students) in a city of about 80,000 people. We rent a room in Doris’ house, where we have a private tiled bathroom, a ceiling fan, a closet and drawers to store our stuff. Her kitchen has a large refrigerator, a microwave and a washing machine. She has two tv’s that get cable channels. We are a 15-minute walk from supermarkets, drug stores, department stores, restaurants, Internet cafes where we can download podcasts, cafes, barber shops and salons. If it rains, we can hail a taxi. I know … Is it the Peace Corps or the Posh Corps?

Sure, I’m glad we don’t have to live quite so primitively. We had our weeks in training where this was the case so I know what it’s like. If you look at prior blogs I have written on the SMU page, you know that our work is not without frustration. The education system in Panama is backward, with a third-world feel. We beat our heads against the wall trying to implement more effective classroom techniques, but we meet with resistance from those in charge who prefer to do things the old way. We work hard as professional developers. That is what Peace Corps is all about.

Still, these remote sites where my fellow trainees work have many blessings, too. They are not slums or war zones. There are no armed terrorists. Families are together, children can play and go to school. Everyone can pursue a dream. They just need extra guidance and encouragement. It’s not easy but I guess that’s why they say Peace Corps is “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”

Happy holiday season, SMU. Don’t forget to be thankful for your blessings in life.

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    One Response to Counting blessings

    1. Sara says:

      Jackie – great reading about your experiences….it sounds like you are doing good work. The difficulties of living in a different country and a different culture are many…and they are all hard, no matter what kind of bathroom you are using or what kind of bed you sleep on. It sounds like you are grateful for what you have in Santiago, and that is important part. Continue the journey, and continue to share.

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