Two other volunteers and I took a quick trip to the Kuna Yala/San Blas islands, an amazing paradise on the Caribbean side of the country. I haven't actually explored much of Panama so I really enjoyed seeing a new place. It is a semi-autonomous region of the indigenous Kuna people who in the 1920s defeated the national Panamanian government in the defense of their land. It is a wonderful success story of a people who continue to fiercely protect their culture. In the postcard-perfect San Blas islands, they welcome tourists in very basic accommodation (traditional huts; my friends and I camped) and environmental and cultural integrity and salvation rather than the high-rise resorts, and all their consequences, that no doubt would be there if the Panamanian government got their way. Needless to say, it was awesome. The only problem was that we wanted to stay longer.
While I've always been athletic in terms of team sports, I never really understood those crazy people who run just to run and actually enjoy it. Well, now I'm one of them! A bunch of volunteers and I are even running a half-marathon in Panama City in December. I'm eight weeks in to a training program, so it doesn't seem like such a crazy idea anymore! Plus it has opened up the topics of fitness and nutrition in my conversations with people in my town.
In August my school celebrated English Week. This year I've been concentrating on the junior high (7th-9th grades) and for English Week we did a lot of fun contests and games in English. But my favorite thing we did were my presentations on the United States. In the spirit of promoting cultural exchange and understanding, I prepared powerpoint presentations on several English-speaking countries. I had planned on giving each class a presentation on a different country, but at the last minute, after seeing how excited the first class was to learn about the U.S., I decided to repeat that presentation for every class. It was amazing for a few reasons: first, they had never seen a powerpoint presentation before, and second, they had no idea how big and diverse the U.S. is. It was very cool to be the one to expose them to such brand new information and experiences. I ended with photos of me and my friends from college, who are Chinese, Korean, black, and white, for several reasons. One was just to show American racial diversity and change their image of what an American looks like. Also I wanted to show them that since I am friends with people of all races and backgrounds, they can be too. (There is a lot of racism and social segregation here, especially against indigenous, black, and Chinese Panamanians.)
I turned 25 in June. I didn't have the quarter-life crisis that I expected to have... Maybe next year?
One of my 8th grade students, Selmarys, participated in the annual regional spelling bee. She didn't win but she made it to the third round. Just to go and compete with kids from bigger cities and better English programs (one kid had a gringo father and was clearly fluent) was an impressive feat and I was insanely proud of her. Plus I was pleasantly surprised to see not only her mom but also the principal and teacher from our school there to support her.
I caught more of the Olympics than I expected to (as opposed to last time, when I was in Uganda and didn't even know the Winter Olympics were happening). I took every opportunity to talk to teachers, students, and other community members about the different countries that they were seeing on their fuzzy TV screens. It was really frustrating to come up against their ignorance and prejudice, but I had to just keep taking a breath and realizing that these were great opportunities for me to promote cultural education. In particular, watching the Japanese gymnasts with my colleagues and hearing the most educated people in town repeatedly refer to them as "chinos," Chinese, was extremely frustrating. I try to explain that there is more to Asia than just China, but that is one lesson that is not getting through.
The Archbishop of Panama came to my town recently to give a mass First Communion. I always say yes to invitations to religious events in other countries, partly because it's a great way to experience another culture and partly because they usually result in humorously uncomfortable and embarrassing situations. Alas, the service was uneventful, perhaps because it was so crowded my whiteness was hidden in the crowd and I wasn't singled out for any embarrassing torture. I enjoyed the archbishop's message that he addressed to the teenagers receiving their first communion. He emphasized peace and understanding among all Christians regardless of what sect they belonged to. I would have like to hear that kind of message about all religions, not just all sects of Christianity, but hey, it's a start.