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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Santiago, Panama: Life in the big city

I splurged today. I spent $5 on a haircut in a real salon. The last time I had my hair cut was in our little rural town where I was charged $1.50. The neighbors in the campo told me that was highway robbery. It should have been $1, but she upped the price because I was a gringa, a rich American.

That was in Guayaquil, a small town of about 70 houses. For five weeks we lived in a little shack 12×15 feet. A senora next door cooked for us. We had no running water in the house, and we used a latrine in the back. I say all this in past tense because we have moved to the big city, Santiago. (Panama, not Chile.)

We had liked the little campo community a lot. The people are friendly, generous and caring. But our Peace Corps assignment is teaching English at the Escuela Normal in Santiago. This necessitated a bus trip in and out of the city. Bus service is extremely irregular and has a reduced schedule on weekends. Bottom line – we were isolated and limited in our activities. A request to move was granted by the Peace Corps office, and now, we live in the city.

It is another home-stay situation. We occupy a bedroom in Doris’ house (not her real name). She is a retired schoolteacher from the Escuela Normal, widowed, a mother of three, grandmother to many, and a well-known, well-loved figure about town. She runs an orphanage, she runs her catering business out of her well-stocked kitchen, she attends Mass faithfully each day. People come in and out of the house constantly – clients picking up food orders, nieces and nephews, friends, nuns who drop off orphans … Doris feeds everyone and cares for them.

One 50-year-old woman has a room here in the house. She was referred to Doris 22 years ago when she was alone, starving, carrying a 7-month-old son. Doris and her husband took her in, cared for the little boy and told her that she could stay provided that she went to school, got an education and eventually, a job. Today, this woman is a professor at the University of Panama. Her now 22-year-old son is an engineer. Doris says that there is no distinction between this woman and her own children.

I have never met a more unselfish person than Doris. She always has food prepared and feeds anyone who comes by. When we were trying to relocate to Santiago, her former colleagues at the Escuela Normal suggested Doris’ house. When we met her, she hugged us and said God must have brought us to her doorstep to be yet another blessing in her life. I think we are the ones who are blessed.

So, living in Santiago definitely is an advantage. We can walk to school without depending on irregular bus service. Stores, restaurants, post office, bank, the barber and hair salon are all nearby. I don’t feel that this is a typical Peace Corps experience. Some of our fellow volunteers live in remote areas with no electricity or water service. They bathe in a river. They build their own latrines. But, we still work hard in school, trying to make a difference in the acquisition of English in this country. I will write more about our work next time.

Meanwhile, I think I will check out what Doris is cooking in the kitchen.

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