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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From Panama’s mountains to the coast

I am bitten up. There are so many bites it looks like a skin disease – mosquitos, chiggers, I don’t know what else. The rainy season in Panama brings out the bugs. Nothing is ever dry. If you wash your clothes, they are still damp days later. Sometimes the best way to dry them is just to start wearing them. We have been on the road for two weeks to remote sites as part of Peace Corps training. The first was in the northern mountains, the second on the southern Pacific coast.

To Las Quebradas
To get to Las Quebradas, one has to leave the bus at the main road, hike up a steep and muddy hill, ford a couple of streams, and navigate a rickety footbridge with backpacks. It takes about an hour.

When we get to the small community of 35 houses, there are no amenities such as electricity or indoor plumbing. While in that site, we planted corn, harvested rice, hiked through steep hills, learned to do indigenous stitching patterns, and made bowls out of hollowed-out squashes. We built an outdoor stove called an estufa lorena, which is made of clay-like mud, sand, and animal feces. It takes about 45 days to dry, so we did not cook on it. But another family had one in operation, so we had a dinner prepared on theirs. It is wood burning, has a chimney, and lasts for 3 or 4 years. It’s an efficient use of local materials.

We taught lessons in the local school. It has three rooms, six grades. One teacher works with grades 1 and 5, 2 and 4, 3 and 6. That helps avoid the same teacher in successive years, plus the older kids help the younger ones. They loved our songs and word games in English. We also planted a school garden with them. The community could not have been more lovely and welcoming. But the utter darkness was frightening. No lights anywhere … some families have a car battery that gets charged on a solar panel periodically and emits a feeble light. but I could not live there. The outdoor bathrooms are OK, washing outside and bucket baths, still OK. But the blackness, to me, was incapacitating.

Island life
The other site was an island on the ocean. Also a hike from the main road. The community does not have a dock, so you remove shoes and hike through knee-deep mud to get to a few canoes that bring you to shore. This was a bigger town. There is electricity on the island, but our homestay family could not afford it so, yeah, flashlights and candles for another week. The school was divided into classes the same way as the other community, and we spent a few afternoons working with each level.

Teachers all write on the board because there are no copiers or money for paper. Even exams are on the blackboard. Students copy the questions into their notebooks and turn them in to the teacher. Learning is rote memorization. Instructors write, students copy. It’s almost as if they are encouraged not to think. If the teacher is absent, there is no class. No system for substitutes exists.

After grade 6, most students quit school. On the island, no further education exists. The kids would have to take the launches to another community for colegio, which encompasses grades 7-12. The transportation of $1.50 per day is prohibitive for most families who have so little. On our last day we arranged some olympic games with them, and I used a lot of Mustang Corral ideas. It was scorchingly hot, but everyone had a good time.

A night on the shore
On this island, we had two shorelines – the cove at the north and the mighty Pacific Ocean on the south. I have always lived far from the sea, so it was faschinating to see the kids gather crabs in their shirts to take home for their moms to cook. They jump the waves easily, they know where sweet little fruits grow on winding paths.

The really magnificent thing we did was go out with a guide at night, pitch blackness, along the shore and gingerly come upon nesting sea turtles. A red flashlight does not frighten them, so we could see the mama turtles come on shore, dig a deep hole, drop about 80-100 eggs, fill the hole in and tamp it down in an elaborate dance. She goes back out to sea and comes back to the same spot to nest again. Supposedly she was born on that same stretch of beach.

The downside is the poaching. Thousands of eggs are stolen from newly laid mounds each day. Turltle egg delicacies fetch a nice price. The government has designated some parts of that beach as protected, but poachers always find a way to steal eggs. When the turtles hatch after about 52 days, most don’t make it to the water. They are snatched up by birds, dogs or other prey. Is it any wonder they are in danger of extinction?

The island is beautiful, though. Fourteen kilometers of beach with no buildings in sight. Food is plentiful. There are mangoes, papayas, coconuts, bananas and a huge watermelon festival during December and January. Crabs, fish and other seafood are for the taking. Corn, beans and rice are harvested year round.

These communities have so little, but they are always eager to share. We have been well received and welcome into their homes. It’s another reminder that what you have, what you own, is not important. It is what kind of happiness you create in your life that matters.

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    One Response to From Panama’s mountains to the coast

    1. Libby says:

      I’m so happy Debbie forwarded us the address to your blog! It sounds like you’re having all kinds of wonderful adventures, and really getting to know the country. I can’t wait to read about your project, once it begins. Un abrazo fuerte!

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