Sunday, October 28, 2012


I'm sorry I've been so bad at keeping up with this blog! I'll try to hit some highlights of the past few months:

Kuna Yala
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.

English Week
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?

Spelling Bee
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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


One of my favorite things about Panama is how every conversation needs to start with the weather. Specifically, complaining about the weather. There are only two types of weather here: hot or rainy. Literally every conversation starts with gripes about either the heat or the rain. An exclamation such as “This heat!” or “This rain!” accompanied by a dramatic frowning face is the norm, followed by how either the heat or rain is making them lazy. (Literally, “me da pereza,” it gives me laziness.) It doesn't matter if it's a complete stranger (in that case, it's a great way to start a conversation), a coworker and you have to discuss work, or your best friend and you have way better things to talk about. You have to start with a weather complaint.

Another one of my favorite things about Panama is the belief system that Panamanians have about their health. The biggest belief is that you cannot under any circumstance mix hot and cold. For instance, if you are hot, you should not bathe or swim. Living with my host family last year, I liked to go for runs in the late afternoon. Naturally, after a run, I wanted to shower. My host mother thought I was crazy and would insist that I cool down first. So I got into the routine of running, sitting and eating dinner, and then showering. I don't remember if I ever got a cold during that period. But I did get a fungus on my chest, neck, and back from sitting around in wet clothes. Another example of a fatal error would be ironing and then opening the freezer. Your body can't handle the shock of going from one extreme temperature to another! Cooking soup? God forbid, don't open the fridge! Engaging in any of these risky activities would result in dire circumstances – at best, a cold; at worst, death. Maybe this explains why the most popular lunch food is soup. (Specifically, a traditional soup called sancocho.) Why, at the hottest point of the day, would you want steaming hot soup? It makes sense, if you are trying to maintain your body temperature. Maybe this also explains why people drink more hot coffee and tea than water. (And then complain of headaches and dizziness when they barely drink any water.) I've also been told that if I get caught in the rain, I need to go home and bathe right away. I'm not sure how getting wet would solve the problem of being wet, except that it would ensure that I change into dry clothes. The one medical advice that I agree with? Cinnamon tea cures upset stomachs. Try it. Any time I have a sniffle or a cough, everyone asks me what I did wrong. Did I bathe right after working out? Did I go swimming on a hot day? Did I drink a hot beverage right after consuming a cold one? Silly me.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Gnabe-Bugle

The most important (and perhaps only) rule that Peace Corps Volunteers must follow is Do Not Get Involved In Politics. This rule makes sense, since we are invited here by the Panamanian government. The irony is that most of us have very clear opinions on political matters (usually very liberal) and we are used to being loud and outspoken with these opinions at home. I certainly struggle with this rule here, as I often have to keep my mouth shut when people are discussing the current president, Ricardo Martinelli, or the minister of education, Lucy Molinar. The biggest issue in Panama right now pits the federal government in Panama City against the indigenous Gnabe-Bugle people, who live on land rich in minerals, especially copper, and stand in the way of mining and hydroelectricity projects. I encourage you to visit another volunteer's blog post from February, when major protests were going on. He explains the situation much better than I ever could:
And here for a more opinionated article:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The One-Year Mark

So I've officially been in site for one year. It's kind of crazy. Leading up to the one year mark, my attitude was pretty optimistic, with most of my thoughts being, “Wow, I can't believe it's been a year already! Time goes by so fast!” Now that I've passed the one-year mark, though, my thoughts have turned a little darker. It's only been a year? It's only been half of my time? I still have another whole year left?! Time is a really weird concept here. Sometimes it feels like it flies by and other times it crawls. With no change of seasons or daylight savings time, every day kind of seems like the last.

I guess I've been in a bit of a slump the last week or so, in case you couldn't tell. My dad, stepmom, and sister came to visit for a week in March. It was such an amazing week that it was hard to come back to site afterwards. The day they came to my site was actually the best day I've had this whole year. It was the first time I ever had to translate and that made me feel really good about my Spanish. (Even after a year, I still have good days and bad days with the language. And really bad days.) My community members were so awesome. The school put on a presentation for them and Eira's family cooked lunch for us. Just walking down the street and everyone shouting “Hola Abigail!” and wanting to meet my family made me feel so integrated. We also spent time at the beach and in Panama City and they got to meet Jen and Leah.

Which brings me to some sad news. Leah ET'd. ET means Early Termination, one of those Peace Corps acronyms that we turn into a verb. She ET'd means she quit and went home. While it was the right decision for her and she's very happy about it, it was hard to see her go. She, Jen, and I were a pretty tight trio. Plus, she was the first one in our group to ET (a record, I think – most groups have people leave during the first few months), so to see someone actually do it was hard. I think ETing is always in the back of volunteers' minds, especially in the beginning and on bad days, but to see someone actually do it made it real. A real option. It makes you stop and think, “What am I really doing here?”

The new school year is off and running. This week is making me feel pretty optimistic about it. At first I felt discouraged because all of my teachers from last year left and I have three new teachers this year. (Because of the way the Ministry of Education works, teachers move around a lot.) In certain ways I'm starting all over again from zero. I have to build relationships all over again before really getting down to trying to improve their teaching methods. But on the other hand, I'm in such a different place than I was last year. I'm so much more confident with my Spanish, my teaching knowledge, and my role here. They're the new ones coming on to my turf. So I think this year will go well. Especially since two of them actually speak English! And one of them thinks using activities in the classroom is a good idea! Woo hoo!

So I'm coming out of my slump. I've gotten back into my workout routine – endorfins help. My school got internet, so I can communicate with people more. (Though I'm not sure how internet is going to help the room full of typewriters.) I'm beginning some secondary projects so my whole life doesn't revolve around the school. An entire year ahead of me looks daunting, but I'll make it through.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Last week was Carnaval, the four/five days before Ash Wednesday. I knew Carnaval was huge in Brazil, but I think Panama is trying to give Brazil a little competition. Many volunteers flocked to the Azuero Peninsula where the biggest celebrations are. I spent two days in Las Tablas, the biggest celebration in the country, and then three days in Ocu, a friend's site, where Carnaval was smaller but still awesome. Carnaval consists of queens dancing and waving on floats, murga bands following in their wake, and water trucks spraying water on the crowds. (Which is a good thing, because it's really freakin hot.) I mostly concerned myself with nonstop dancing in the streets, trying to get hit by the water, and catching the free tshirts they were throwing (I got 8). In Las Tablas Jen and I even managed to get invited up on to the top of a water truck where we spent the afternoon wielding the hose. (It was quite a power trip and I'm still bragging about it.) I don't think saying it was the most fun five days of my life would be an exaggeration. I'm having trouble trying to describe Carnaval in words, so here are some pictures.

Friday, February 3, 2012

New Year

I guess I dropped the ball on this blog, didn't I? Well, things are going well. I went home to the US for the holidays and had a great time. I thought it would be hard to come back to Panama, but I couldn't stop smiling after my plane landed. That was a pleasant surprise, to realize how much I like Panama!

It's summer here now, so we don't have school. Most of us were working on region-wide summer seminars for Panamanian English teachers. Jen, Leah, and I held a week-long seminar last week for the English teachers in our region, Panama Oeste. It was a lot of work, and certainly interesting trying to work under the organization of MEDUCA (the Ministry of Education), but it ended up being a great experience. 43 teachers showed up and seemed really invested in learning and improving as teachers. I don't usually like public speaking but after the first day I loosened up. I especially enjoyed one presentation I gave on assessments and rubrics. (I love rubrics.) It was a good experience for me to put under the "personal growth" column.

This past weekend I had a trainee from the new group come visit me for four days. She was really great and it was fun to have a visitor. It was so weird to think about my visit as a trainee to Sarah and Sean a year ago and how much I've changed since then. I can't believe I've been here for a year already. Before I came here, 2 years sounded like such a long time, but it's really not. It's going by so fast.

Summer's almost over - the teachers come back the 13th, the students two weeks later, so I'll be busy again soon. I've heard rumors of some changes that will be happening at school this year, so I'm excited to see if they're true. I think it will be a very different year. I'm much more comfortable with both my Spanish and my teaching skills, as well as the community as a whole.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

October Wrap-Up

I'm sorry, I'm behind, but I want to write about October before I write about November. October was a great month. It started with el Dia del Campesino, which doesn't translate well but is basically Panama Cultural Pride Day (one of many). A campesino is someone who lives in the campo, the countryside. Panamanians have a lot of patriotism and pride in their culture. Combine that with a strong party ethic and you get some great holidays! El Dia del Campesino was all about traditional clothing, food, music, and dancing. Different grades put on different tipico dance performances. I used to hate tipico music, probably because my host family used to blast it 24/7 (not an exaggeration), but lately I've started really liking it. On el Dia del Campesino the school also set up a little stand for each of the 9 provinces of Panama and students dressed up to represent each one. I was glad to see the indigenous and minority groups represented, even if it was in a slightly stereotypical way. Of course, as I'm learning, there's a reina (queen) for everything. Queenship involves dancing/swaying to a constant tipico beat, parading around town on a float or the back of a pickup truck, waving, and throwing candy to onlookers.

I went to two really fun birthday parties in October. The first was Yisleidys' 5th birthday. The second was her grandfather Enrique's a few days later. Enrique is Eira's husband; they are the family I am closest to. I'm not sure but I think he turned 51. Birthdays here always include the same elements: arroz con pollo (a delicious chicken and rice dish that I can't get enough of), ensalada (which means salad but the only salad here is the potato and mayo kind), cake, ice cream, and a piñata. This is a birthday in a wealthier family; I've visited other kids on their birthdays and they didn't have anything different from any other day. It's really funny to see how excited Panamanians get about piñatas, no matter how old they are. Kids' piñatas have candy inside, but adults' piñatas have candy, coins, and pads inside. Yes, pads. As in female sanitary products. And grown men think it's hilarious to unwrap them, stick them on each other's backs, and see how long it takes them to notice. Maybe I'm losing my sanity a little bit, but I thought it was hilarious too. Adult birthdays also involve games with balloons. Like, how fast you can pop one with your butt. I went up against Isabela and totally won. My prize was a bar of soap.

I've discovered that I'm not as far as I thought from a popular strip of beaches on the Pacific. My favorite is called El Palmar and it's only an hour and a half away, so I can go for the day and still get home at the end of the day. It's beautiful with palm trees and black sand and it's popular with surfers. I've only gone twice but it's good to know it's there.

I had a bit of a crazy experience one night a few weeks ago. One of my 9th graders, Gabriela (is it wrong to have favorites??) invited me to a service with her church. Churches are really good ways to get to know people in the community, so I immediately said yes. What I didn't know until I got there was that they were Seventh-Day Adventist (I think that's what they're called in English). I don't know much about the different sects of Christianity, but this one was the kind in which the pastor (again, I don't know the right word, but it's "pastor" in Spanish) speaks passionately and the members of the congregation burst out with "Amen!" at random points in the middle of his sermon. I was just happy that my Spanish was having a good day and I understood everything. Especially when the pastor started asking people questions individually. He asked me, "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?" I mean, yikes. Talk about awkward. I just threw out an "Amen!" and he moved on. I felt bad about lying, but really, it was not the time to get into a theological debate or an explanation of Judaism. After the service we all huffed it to the river (a 30 minute walk) so the pastor could baptize a new convert. It was pitch black and I'm sure the water was freezing, but it was an awesome thing to witness. At least, it was until the pastor asked me, "Would you like to be baptized too? What's impeding you from being baptized tonight?" Yikes. Awkward again. I just kind of hid behind the women and said, "Um, not right now, but thank you," and thankfully he let it go. Despite the awkward moments, it was a great experience that made me glad that I say yes to every invitation that comes my way.

At the end of October we had el Dia del Estudiante, or Student's Day, at school. I wasn't really sure what it would entail until the day actually arrived. (It seems like most of my life here consists of not knowing much, showing up, and going with the flow.) Student's Day turned out to be really fun. One student was chosen to dress up as each teacher and taught their classes for the day. Two of my favorite colleagues, Fimia and Cristina, who are fun and crazy, dressed up as students and sat in classes, too. It was hilarious because they acted out and started fights and did all the annoying things that the students usually do. The students who taught got a reality check and a new appreciation for their teachers, that's for sure. After classes there were games which I think were solely designed to embarrass the teachers in front of the students. I missed out on the first one -- a cake-eating contest with no hands! I totally would have rocked that one! -- but I got into a vicious game of musical chairs (same as our version except you have to dance around the chairs, not just walk) and another butt-balloon popping game. I had to pop a balloon with my butt and then do whatever the little piece of paper inside said. I had to tell a joke. I was just glad I didn't get the one that said sing a song! It was one of the first times that I truly felt like part of the faculty and part of the school community. It was a great feeling. Now that I know what Student's Day is, I'll definitely dress up like a student next year and wreak some havoc!

I had been looking forward to Halloween for a really long time. It's one of my favorite holidays and also Emma's birthday so a couple of us volunteers went to Panama City to celebrate. The cities are the only places in the country where people actually celebrate Halloween. In the campo (countryside), people have really strong beliefs about brujas (witches) and duendes (goblins). People think I'm insane for living alone. They are constantly asking me, "You live alone?! Aren't you afraid of the witches?" There is also a belief in a blond-haired, blue-eyed duende that kidnaps children. Parents like to use the duende to get their kids to do something. ("If you don't behave, the duende is going to come and get you...") People are extremely serious about these beliefs, though. And they view Halloween with apprehension and fear. There is actually a proposal in the government right now to ban the celebration of Halloween due to its supposed detrimental influence on Panamanian youth.

Anyway, we heathen Americans were excited to celebrate it. We all, without even planning it together, dressed as Panamanian things. Emma made an awesome costume, a can of Balboa (one of the beers here). Jen was a Panamanian woman, which meant she wore an inappropriately tight, brightly colored shirt with rhinestones and a random English word on it. She also had cheap plastic accessories, all in the same bright orange color to match her shirt. It was dead-on Panamanian fashion. Alysa was a "Valla Ilegal" sign, which is the sign that the government posts over billboards on the highway that haven't paid (which is practically all of them). I was a diablo rojo. Diablo rojos, literally "red devils," are the public buses. I'm not quite sure how to describe them. Imagine 1950s-era American school buses after a makeover on "Pimp My Ride." Panama must have some kind of deal with inspection centers in the States; once they fail in inspection, they're shipped down here and pimped out. They are all painted differently, but there are common trends among them all. They say their destination on the windshield, though usually so illegibly that it's useless. Random American pop icons and cartoon figures are often featured, such as Bart Simpson and Sponge Bob. They always display the bus driver's preference in soccer teams, either Barcelona or Real Madrid. There is always a religious phrase or Bible quote scrawled along the bottom of the windshield, reducing the already poor visibility of the driver. There are always geometric patterns and flames. There is often an elaborate scene of something random and inexplicable, like a wizard in robes, a log cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle. The emergency door in the back always features either a religious scene, like Jesus on the cross or the Virgin Mary, or an icon from popular culture, like Shakira, Clint Eastwood, or Harry Potter. The inside of the bus always has a feather boa framing the windshield, fuzzy dice and air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror, pom-poms decorating the gear shift, and a Panamanian flag somewhere. Another popular decoration is the driver's children's names spelled out down the two poles in the front. Since words don't really do these things justice, here are some pictures from a Google Image search:

And how I translated that into a Halloween costume: