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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Bugs, trash and water

The opinions, if any, expressed in this e-mail are the sender’s only and do not necessarily represent those of the Peace Corps.

On JEOPARDY! there is a category called Hodgepodge. I love that. It’s a great word. That describes my mind when it’s full of Panamanian cultural oddities that I struggle to process. I will try to limit this discussion to a mere few of these phenomena that constantly daunt me: bugs, trash and water.

Ants!

Ants, as we all are aware, are amazing creatures. The most fascinating are the leaf cutters, capable of defoliating an entire tree in half a day. They follow a pheromone trail from their underground abode to a particular tree. They carry away huge sections of leaf on their backs, down into the hole where other members of the mound process it into food for all. I initially thought that was terrible for the tree. It can’t contribute oxygen if all its foliage is stripped away. But, as a guide in one of the jungle areas told me, the leaf cutter ants gravitate toward trees that are not deciduous, that is, they do not drop their leaves seasonally and produce new buds. So, Nature, in all her wisdom, has the leaf cutter ants periodically strip the old foliage so that the tree can generate new leaves. Ingenious, no?

Other types of ants are less admirable. We know about fire ants in Texas (ouch!) They are here, too, in varying sizes, ready to sting if we cross their path. Some are as big as beetles. In Panamanian kitchens, we find little, itty bitty teeny almost imperceptible ants. They are everywhere, crawling on countertops, on tables, food cannisters, on dishes with any residue at all. A brand-new package of raisins with cellophane over the sealed box was teeming with ants inside when we opened it. If we put leftovers in the refrigerator, we may find little ants happily criss-crossing the plate hours later. Oh, don’t worry about those little things, says my host mom. They won’t hurt you. (So, what, am I supposed to eat them?)

Doris had a clever plan to deal with these ants when she prepares catered meals for her clients. If she bakes one of her famous beautifully decorated cakes, she elevates it on a tray. At the base of the tray, she puts a used margarine container or yogurt cup filled with water at each leg. The tiny ants can’t swim so they don’t crawl up the leg of the tray to contaminate the pretty cake. It’s a neat trick that I will use in the US, maybe for a picnic or outdoor meal.

If I lean into the countertop while I’m working, I start to feel a tickle on my legs and arms because they have decided to crawl all over me. They are not easy to swat because they are so small and fast. I step away from the countertop and slap my arms and legs. I think I’ve gotten them all when, ten minutes later, there’s that tickle again. They’re still running around my skin. I was going to say more about mosquitos, roaches and scorpions, but the ants have dominated the bug discussion.

Trash

It’s everywhere. In the streets, on sidewalks, in the yards of households, on the side of the highways, at the beaches. We were in a bus one day, behind a very nice BMW. Suddenly, paper bags, styrofoam cups and remnants of a meal flew out its windows onto the road. I guess they wanted to keep the inside of the car clean. Before stepping onto a city bus, a mother hissed at her young son, “Don’t bring that empty drink carton and paper bag onto the bus!” So, he threw it down right there in the street before getting on.

My husband and I are the crazy Americans who have walked for blocks, clutching our candy bar wrapper or drink container, futilely searching for a trash can (there are none), steadfastly refusing to contribute to the ever-growing mountain of garbage. Usually we have to wait until we get to school or home to properly dispose of litter. We have discussed the lack of receptacles with municipal representatives and Rotary International, trying to find a solution. No result yet. And, once accumulated, most people burn trash in their yards – paper, plastics, rubbish … can you imagine the smell of that fire?

Water

One would think that water is not a problem here in the tropics. There is abundant rainfall, flowing rivers, and a water passage that connects two great oceans. But nationwide, indoor plumbing is fraught with difficulty. Water service does not reach outlying communities. People have to bathe and do laundry in rivers. They have latrines that don’t require water to meet their needs. They may have up to an hour walk to procure water from a well or spigot nearby.

Here in Santiago, a city of 80,000, we live next to a huge water tank. Problem is, it was constructed about 30 years ago and has never ever worked. It’s useless. Doris jokes that it is helpful as a landmark to direct people or taxi drivers to our house. (Oh, yeah, next to the big tank that doesn’t work.) Santiagans are quick to excuse their civic leadership saying, oh, but the pipes were constucted for a population of 40,000 at most and we are twice that size now. It puts a stress on the water system.

OK … I’m no engineer but it seems to me that since the increased population is not going away, the city needs to commit to expansion of its underground water delivery system. Isn’t that basic civil engineering? I realize that construction would be invasive, inconvienient and disruptive for a time. But the long-term benefit would outweigh the discomfort.

As it is, no one throughout Panama has a constant supply of water flowing through sinks, showers and toilets, even if they have a private tank. If the tank is mounted on top of the house, city water, when it does flow, has insufficient pressure to run upward into the tank. A pump or well might guarantee constant water, but these are costly and off-limits to most of the population, including Doris’s house. That is why, whenever we hear gurgling through the pipes, even if it’s 4 am, we may drop whatever we are doing and jump in the shower, or flush toilets that have an accumulation, or fill buckets and pitchers or do some laundry.

During the rainy season I was gratified to think that there would be a greater supply of available water. But no, that presents other difficulties. Large pieces of debris (see previous discussion of garbage above) can clog the pipes and impede the flow of water to the system. It may take technicians a couple of days to clear away these obstructions. Then we gratefully get our trickle back.

I will never again, even when I get back to the USA, ever take water for granted. I will bless all the gods and godesses of heaven when I can turn on the tap and feel the magical flow of life-giving water coursing through the pipes. Think about that – and count your blessings.

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