August 18, 2009

August 18, 2009

So —–

we’ve been officially in the Peace Corps a little over a week now, and I am very impressed. Our three-day orientation was held in El Ciudad del Saber, a “retreat” facility about 15 minutes from downtown Panama City, adjacent to the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal. It is part of the old Canal Zone, and includes about 75 three-bedroom homes that used to be the property of the US. Also included are administration centers, conference buildings, a gym, pool, etc. The main Peace Corps office is here, as well as various other administrative offices. It is very pretty and quite comfortable. We were esconsed in several of the three-bedroom homes. Nice landscaping, catered meals of pretty good local foods, not fancy but more than acceptable.

On Sunday we moved to a small town of about 1000 people, 1½ hours from Panama City. We are living with various families. Some volunteers are in pretty difficult conditions – one girl shares a room with two daughters of the family. She is sleeping in the bed of one of the girls, who now shares a twin bed with her sister. There is no room to put her suitcase, let alone room to unpack it. All three have to walk around it, as it is in the middle of the room. Many of the homes do not have indoor plumbing, so the volunteers use outhouses. Some have showers indoors, some outdoors. Some are eating rice, yucca, beans and hotdogs every day, which are the staples of the poor. Some eat better.

Gary and I are in one of the nicest houses in town. We have a nice bedroom, indoor plumbing with a completely tiled bathroom and a huge walk-in shower. Our host mama is a good cook who gives us a nice variety of foods, including salads and vegetables, apparently rare on some of the tables here. We do not talk about our situation to the other volunteers, as some would probably slit our throats–as soon as they complete machete training, which will be held this Saturday! The only modcon we lack is hot water, but the weather is so sticky, hot and humid that cold showers are ok. The water is not icy – not tepid, but not icy. It feels good after a few minutes. Also, the only internet access is 1½ hours away in La Chorrera, which we have very litle time to visit, so you won’t be hearing from us very often!

The volunteers in this group will work in two sectors: Environmental Health and Community Economic Development. You can think of the EH group as the Marines, who go into the really primitive villages, bring in potable water by building aqueduct systems, build latrines (sanitary outhouses), etc. They are tough (or will be soon) and the girls are buffed. Most of them will learn an indigenous language–Wounan, Embara or Ngobere. They accuse us of being yay-yay – wussy, soft and in need of costly creature comforts. We say that they do the easy stuff and that our sector is a much greater challenge. Most of us will go into slightly more advanced communities, where we will try to teach much more difficult concepts, like accounting, business management, teamwork, planning, etc. In the Panama Peace Corps, there are three other groups: Sustainable Agriculture, Community Environmental Conservation, and English Teaching and Tourism.

There are 36 of us – Gary and I, a married couple in their early thirties, two other women between 50 and 60, and the rest between 22 and 35. All are well-educated, well-spoken, enthusiastic, extremely supportive of the group, and ready to work. Gary and I spend 4 hours a day with the 16 members of the CED group – four hours a day of “technical training”, where we are in one large class learning facilitation skills, group dynamics, etc. We have the large class in a “rancho” – a large thatched-roof hut . We spend 4 more hours each day in Spanish class. We were evaluated for the appropriate level. I was put into an Intermediate Low class, and Gary into Advanced Low. There are only three of us in my class. Gary is also in a three-member class. One of the other two guys in Gary’s class is from the Dominican Republic and actually has a Spanish accent. The other guy is black and was born in Dutch Curacao. Really interesting guy – grew up in Netherlands, Curacao and New Jersey! He spoke Spanglish growing up and also took university courses in Spanish. They only have one week of actual class and next week begin making presentations in the elementary schools.

My class is composed of a gringo and two gringas. The other gringa has had 7 years of Spanish, the gringo only had high-school Spanish but spent several weeks in Nicaragua. There are about 12 Spanish teachers for 35 people, as language is a necessity and major investment of PC resources. Language classes are held on the porches of various homes. It is a privilege to have this opportunity to learn a language with so much individual attention and assistance.

The life we will lead for the next ten weeks is unusual for most adults – we have absolutely nothing to do but learn stuff. Our meals are prepared by our host families, our laundry is done for us, we are given a little spending money and one afternoon a week to spend it. Our days are unbelievably tightly scheduled. We have an immense amount of material to learn. In addition to the four hours a day of Spanish class, we try to utilize our host families to practice Spanish, as well as anyone else we come in contact with, thereby not only learning conversational Spanish, but also info. about the life style, value systems, habits, etc. of Panama. Much of the technical training is presented in facilitated group sessions, rather than in lecture form. We have homework with other class members to create these presentation materials ourselves. Of course, we have Spanish homework too. Everyone is so tired at the end of the day that most of us are asleep by 9 pm. Part of that is heat exhaustion, part of it is brain fatigue.

I am having a great time. Gary is having a slightly less great time. We both feel the training is excellent, well-organized, etc. Gary says the hours are too long. He wants some downtime. We have been told there will be none of that for the next nine weeks!!! However, I believe the only planned activity for this Saturday is machete class, which is optional for the CED group. Gary has decided not to go, but I will go, if only to support our group, which will be outshone by the EH group, who have been talking about these machetes since we got off the plane in Panama City. Sunday we get the grand tour of Panama City by bus. Should be fun!

As expected, the weather here sucks!!!!! It rains every day and the humidity is unbelievable. Most of the time it is JUST manageable, but just before it rains, it is pretty much unbearable. We may or may not get used to it. The training director has obliquely spoken to Gary and I about some of the choices we may have to make with regard to our eventual site: do we want to go somewhere more primitive but more interesting, or less primitive but less interesting. For example, there are some indigenous communities with great potential, but they are in the real “campo”, with no electricity, possibly no running water, etc. Don’t even think about paved roads. Not to mention we would have to learn one of the indigenous languages as well as be conversant in Spanish! In addition to the weather!!!

I think we will opt for the more comfortable living conditions if given the choice. Fortunately, I think many of the younger people are chomping at the bit to get the difficult locations, in search of the “Peace Corps Experience”. Gary and I are very willing to give ours to them! We will not be given our options until after week 7. The people going to indigenous communities will need to know earlier so they can start learning an indian language in time to become somewhat conversant. Stay tuned!

That’s all I have time for this time. Hasta luego!


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