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.

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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We’re officially in the Peace Corps now

Jackie2.jpgIt’s official! Training is over and, for the next two years, we are bona fide Peace Corps volunteers. That means we are finally on our own. We can move to our assigned communities and start our designated jobs.

Jackie3.jpgFirst we needed to say goodbye to our host families where we had been living for the ten-week trianing period. In my case, that was sad. I loved Senora Maria and her daughter, plus the dogs, and the parrot. Roosters are still not my favorite animals even though I got used to them crowing through the night. I tearfully told her that I had not had a mother for the last ten years but for the last ten weeks, I felt as though I did. She teared up, too, and we hugged and promised to stay in touch.

Jackie5.jpgThe transition from trainees to volunteers occurred at our swearing-in ceremony in the ambassador’s residence. It was a lovely affair attended by dignitaries of the Panamanian government, the head of Peace Corps in Washington, Ron Tschetter, the country director Peter Redmond, and was presided over by Ambassador William Eaton of the US. It was Ambassador Eaton’s last official duty in Panama before heading to the University of Texas at Austin where he will teach in the LBJ Institute for the next two years. Between us, it’s a Texas\Panama “trading places.”

So, what is our job in Peace Corps and where will we serve? The Escuela Normal in Santiago is a unique institution in that all future elementary public school teachers in the nation pass through its doors. A good command of English is mandated by the Department of Education. An excellent ability in English is necessary for those who will teach it as a second language. My husband and I will be working to improve the English program, redefine the curriculum and design new methodology to raise the level of English among the future teachers in Panama. It is no small task. My head is reeling with ideas. I don’t know where to start or how I will sort it all out. Michael has to remind me to take it easy and be realistic. We cannot single-handedly revamp the entire English program in Panamanian public schools. If we can contribute a couple of good ideas that come to fruition and are implemented here, that will be measure of success.
Jackie4.jpg
Jackie1_001.jpgI feel as though we are standing on the threshold of a great adventure. The school is beautiful and ornate. The faculty seems welcoming and eager to have us on board. The students are respectful and attentive. I can only pray that our being here will have a positive impact on all our lives.

In photos: Jackie with kindergartners in the community; a little girl enjoying sugar cane; an old fisherman on the coast; a neighbor cooking a tuna in his kitchen; some children in front of our neighbor’s shack;

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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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A Peace Corps goal: sustainability

I am glad I sleep with a mosquito net. In the morning there are various flying creatures that have lodged in the netting. That means they have not found their way inside to bite me. That is not the only threat to attack from critters. My husband reached for his towel one day and startled a scorpion, which had nestled inside the folds. Yes, he got stung. Not fatal but really painful. I am scared of those things.

I referred to sustainable development in my last blog. That is definitely the big buzz word in Peace Corps. The purpose is to engage in projects that outlive our presence in a site. If we are able to build an aqueduct so that a community has fresh water rather than relying on a river for cleaning, bathing and drinking. If we can research, fund-raise and build a secador, or dryer, for coffee beans, that means that the harvest won’t have to be shipped to another location for processing and more local jobs will be available. Peace Corps encourages indigenous tribes to promote their culture as sustainable tourism. If they perform traditional dances, prepare native dishes and sell their beautiful woven baskets, jewelry and crafts, they will branch out from fishing and raising crops and increase their income. This can lift them out of poverty.

So, what is MY sustainable development. I don’t know how to build water systems or dryers. I can’t advise in small business startups. What I do know is teaching language. At the end of my training period I will work in a teachers college to develop strategies and curricula that will increase effectiveness in the classroom. From my observation so far, there is no methodology. Teachers write vocabulary words on the board. Students pronounce them and write them in their notebooks. They could use some interactive techniques. It will take every effort of my experience over the last 30 plus years to organize a training program for English teaching. A daunting task, but I can’t wait to get started.

A huge advantage to completing training and starting our jobs is being able to live on our own again. My husband and I are cramped into one little room in the host family’s house. The chicks, ducks, geese, turkeys, dogs, parrots and scorpions keep us company. We don’t know if we’ll have a house or apartment yet, but stay tuned.

Another quote that aptly sums up the Peace Corps experience…

Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.
But with the best of leaders, when the work is done, the task completed, the people will say, “We have done it ourselves.”

- Lao Tsu, 700 BC

I wish you all a rewarding summer! Next time I will try to include some pictures and elaborate on more sights of Panama. Chao!

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Journey to Panama

One duffel, one backpack, two and a half years of service. That’s how we started out our Peace Corps journey to Panama.

Our temporary home
During the training period, my husband and I are assigned a homestay (as are all the 46 volunteers in training from our group).

Our senora who hosts us is a 63-year-old widow who lives with her 28-year-old daughter, two dogs, 50 chickens, several turkeys, geese, a parrot. The rooster crows ALL night, every hour, joining a cacophony of neighborhood roosters who sing to each other.

Indoor plumbing is only a memory. We have to shoo the little chickies out of the latrine when we want to use it. Shower is a tin stall outdoors with a feeble dribble on the spigot or else we bucket wash. All laundry is done in a bucket and hung out to dry. The heat and humidity in Panama caused me to nearly buzz my haircut!

Teaching and travel
Training is rigorous. We must learn how to create sustainable development in this culture, how to assess community resources and speculate the needs of the area to which we will eventually be assigned. Language acquisition is a big part of Peace Corps training, but since that is not necessary in my case, I have been assigned to work in the school as a classroom assistant or tutor, whatever they need. I have met the director and she will place me this coming week in the primary grades. I’m psyched to do this!

Part of our aculturation is to visit established Peace Corps volunteers in other areas to see how they live and work. This weekend we are on our way to visit another married couple serving near the Costa Rican border. We are excited because it will be fun plus the altitude makes it a cooler climate, which will be a relief from the heat of the central part of the country.

The canal
Of course when we say Panama, we think of the canal. It is fascinating to see ships from all over the world pass through the isthmus. I think that David McCollough said it well in his book The Path Between the Seas:

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.”

I hope to write more later. Have a great summer, SMU!!!

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