This week has seen the celebration of dia/dias/semana etnika negrita — a celebration of Afro/indigenous culture that seems to be taking place in schools all across the country. I’m using all these slash-marks because there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of exactly who-or-what is being celebrated. And as far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of study that accompanies most of this. Some of what goes on certainly has aspects that we, back in the States, would find “politically incorrect.” (In one of the other Peace Corps volunteer’s schools, there was actually black face. Fortunately, not in mine!). Still, there seems to be a real celebration of the hugely diverse ethnicity and colors of the beautiful Panamanian people. Cross-cultural judgement-making is always fraught with peril. Not to mention that my tenure here is too short to be forming any such opinions. So, for now, let’s just say it’s been a very colorful week. As you shall soon see.
Wednesday, there was a lot of colorful ethnic costuming, but most noticeably a braids contest. Almost all the women and girls here have gorgeous long hair. And there is some astoundingly fancy braiding that goes on!! I was one of the judges; so, I didn’t get as many great photos as I might have liked. But here are a few.
But today, Friday, was the big day for dressing up ethnic. And, oh my . . . look at all this!
And this is but the barest sampling . . .
And, of course, all this ethnic finery had to parade through town. So, we did.
The parade was duly shepherded by the local police force.Yup, that’s them. Two young guys on bikes. No police station. Just these two. I did mention that this town is muy tranquilo, right?
Here is Flor, my school’s Directora or Principal. She is also the Mom of my host family.After the parade, we came back to the equivalent of a Panamá school bake sale — but here it’s Coca Cola and the omnipresent arroz con pollo — sponsored by the Padres de las Familias (think PTA…) to raise funds for ever-strapped school needs. Some things are the same everywhere!
And, finally, we ended the morning with folk music, drumming, dancing and your basic kids-running-around-having-fun. Needless to say, no classes today.
And, yes, all of this took place in the never-abaiting Panamá heat! And the sweat goes on . . . 😓
I haven’t posted for some time because, quite frankly, I’m struggling.
First, the heat. You may recall that my one and only site request was for someplace slightly cooler. There are a few such locations in Panama, but I wasn’t placed in any of them. In fact, I think my permanent site may be even hotter than where we lived during training. And it really is rendering me miserable. I somehow manage to make it through school — with occasional stops in the only air conditioned spot . . . the computer class room . . . which is lovely unless the electricity has gone out, which it more-often-than-not does. After school, I melt my way home; take a shower; and don’t move from my bed, in front of the fan, until it’s time to go to sleep. Not a recipe for a very interesting life or for getting to know my city and its folk.
And speaking of my city. You know when you get fixed up with someone and all the fixer-upper can do to praise him/her is to say “He’s (she’s) really nice!”? You know you’re in trouble, right? Well, when you ask the residents of my town what they like about living here, they all say “Es muy tranquilo.” The same kind of damning with faint praise. Yup, it’s a nice, quiet place. So much so that I am pretty much bored out of my mind. School is over by 1:30, and from then on — between the heat and the small townness — I’m largely without anything to do. I never thought I would tire of endless time to read. But after having pretty much worn out my Kindle, I have. I have good colleague-friends in a nearby slightly-larger town, about 20 minutes away. When I’m really about to go off the deep end, we get together. That helps, but . . .
So, how about school? Well, these first three months we are supposed to be observing and getting to know folks and the place and the culture. So, we’re not yet actually doing any projects, etc In a larger school that might make sense. But I only have 2 English teacher counterparts. So, it hasn’t taken long to have observed all their classes repeated times. I am doing a bit, here and there, to help them out. But it’s not much. And I’m antsy. And HOT! Did I mention hot?
And just to make matters worse, we newbie Peace Corps volunteers aren’t allowed to leave our sites, for more than just the day, until after that first three month period is over. So, I can’t go traveling to see more of the country, even during the upcoming school break during the first week in June. I’m planning some day trips, with one of those nearby buddies, for that week. Just so I won’t completely tear my hair out…
And last but not least, I am really tied in knots about eventually finding my own place to live. After the three months with our host family (mine is delightful, and its female head-of-household is the school Principal), we can finally move into our own apartment. At that point, I will have been living with one of two host families for 6 months. I am certainly more than ready to be on my own! But . . . there is virtually nothing available to rent here. I have found just one — yes, literally JUST ONE — possible place. But it is totally unfurnished. I would have to buy everything for it — from basic appliances to furniture. Potentially a very large expense, to say the least. The rent was reasonable until I told the landlady that I absolutely had to install air conditioning. (I really won’t survive otherwise!) That, it turns out, requires some upgrading. Which she is willing to do, but only after raising the rent 50%! But she’s pretty well got me in a position where I’m stuck with her terms. All sorts of community members continue to look for something else, but all leads seem to go nowhere.
Ok, so what’s the “good” part? Well, the people here are truly lovely. Everybody knows me — I’m the only local gringa; so, I quite stick out! — and are as nice as can be. The kids are adorable. And they are all huggers and cuddlers . . . and who can resist that?!? My birthday yesterday was delightful. With an all school Birthday sing — in Spanish and English; all kinds of gifts and hugs; and a lunch (with cake!) thrown by the teachers.
My counterpart English teachers are terrific. But they can clearly use the help of a native English speaker. So I feel like I’ve already made some pretty good contributions to English learning in my small pueblo. That feels good.
Have I thought about “throwing in the towel” and heading home? You betcha! About every 5 minutes or so. But I’m not yet ready to give up on my commitment.
And with that, I shall leave you with some photos. Sorry for the bellyaching. But I thought it best to explain my recent blog silence, and to do so honestly.
These are my two English co-teachers. Edwin is the permanent teacher who is my counterpart. He teaches English to grades 4-6. He lives in Santiago, about an hour away. Yazmara teaches English to Pre-K through 3. She lives in Aguadulce, the nearer “bigger town,” about 20 minutes away.
These are my fellow Coclé Province Peace Corps volunteers. The smaller shot on the left is of us 4 newbies being welcomed with lunch and gifts of a small provincial flag. On the right is the entirety of the Education sector here in Cocle. Interesting thing is that there are currently 6 of us “old folk” volunteers in Panama. And three of us are in the Educational sector in Cocle, all very near one another. That’s quite nice!
Finally, I have a lovely community guide named Enillsa. She’s in red. She lives locally and has been the person to show me around. And she tries to take me places and make me feel part of things, etc. Her eldest daughter’s 21st Birthday was 2 days before mine. This is at the family party.
Ok, that’s it for now — the Good, Bad, and the It’s-Really-Difficult. Mostly the latter, alas. But stay tuned as the adventure continues to unfold. Who knows how…
And already overwhelmed…
My “new digs” are Panama nice. I am living in the house of the Principal, who is very lovely. Her husband is a construction guy; and from the looks of their house, he does very good work. Lovely tile floors and gate-work. But the interior is still quite Panama basic. My room is small and sparsely furnished. But it is clean and comfortable, and I actually have something approaching a closet. Greatest luxury is that the house has two bathrooms, one of which is largely mine. The washing machine is also a step up from what I previously had in Santa Clara. My host family also owns a small finca — cows and cashew groves — a little way out of town. We visited it yesterday. I am clearly living with a modestly better off family, as their neighborhood (not upscale by our standards, but clearly nicer houses than in other parts of town) seems to express.
Today was my first day of school. There was a lovely ceremony to welcome me, including a presentation of local dancing (Yes, I must learn!) from two 6th graders.
Next, we visited every classroom; and all the children presented themselves. “What is your name? My name is _____. Nice to meet you ______.” They were adorable, tho’ I must say that 150+ times of this, and I’m pretty sure I can do basic introductions in English . . . . !
I sure wish I could say the same for my Spanish. We spent a good amount of time with the Representante — kind of like the mayor, but of a tiny berg — and I barely understood a word. I think he was supportive, but I sure couldn’t know that with any certainty. If/when I have any projects to propose to him, I guess I’ll find out!
Tomorrow, May 1 – Laborer’s Day – is a day off of school. So, I won’t really be sitting in on classes until Wednesday. Then a meeting with the government Bureau of Education, Peace Corps’ official sponsor/partner, on Thursday. A crazy week, as I try to settle in
And the HEAT goes on . . . 🌞🔥
Wow! The swearing-in was so emotional. Our group has been through so much together. Parting for our individual sites was wrenching.
Anyway, here are some pics.
In the last group shot, I’m already changed into my travelin’ clothes (purple shirt). To my left is my teaching counterpart, Edwin, one of the 2 English teachers in my (primary) school. And here’s a silly shot of us on the bus after the ceremony.So, here’s what I just agreed to. First, the standard U.S. government pledge:
I, Myra Soifer, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
And then the Peace Corps pledge:
I, Myra Soifer, promise to serve alongside the people of Panama. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Panaa with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future- I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Oh, my. And the adventure continues. Or, more likely, it has only just begun.
We swear-in on Thursday, and you can watch! Go to either the Facebook page for Peace Corps Panama or to the same location on Instagram, at 11:00am Central time, and you should be able to watch. And I would be thrilled if you were there.
Well, it’s Monday morning and in just an hour, I will roll my suitcases away from Dania, Luis, Lidia, and Aron — my Santa Clara home for these last 10 weeks.
This is the photo from our community going-away party last Friday. Luis isn’t there because it took place in the afternoon, and he was his usual hard-at-work. The party was quite lovely and very bittersweet. The people here have been really welcoming. Lots of us were pretty teary.
Saturday was my last Shabbat — at least for a very long time — at Kol Shearith Israel in Panama City. Just, of course, as I was finally getting the hang of their Conservative, Spanish minhag!
Sunday I joined in the family-and-others worship on the porch. It too was very sweet, with lots of good wishes and prayers (in the name of You-Know-Who) for the next stage of my journey. Dania gave me several presents, one of which were some butterfly wall stickers to decorate my eventual “new digs.” This was incredibly thoughtful of her as I had told her that my Mom had once lived on Mariposa Way, in California, and so we were always buying her presents of anything butterfly. I was gobsmacked, when I first got here, and learned that – in one of the indigenous languages – Panama means “abundance of butterflies”! It was Mom’s death that, in a very practical way, freed me up to undertake this adventure. I think of her and feel her presence, often. I’m pretty sure she would think me a bit nuts to have done this. But she’d be proud too; in fact, I feel fairly certain that this is something she might have done earlier in her life. Anyway, Dania knew a lot of this; so, her butterfly decals were a particularly sweet gift, as were the accompanying words.
And now . . .I arrived in Panama with two way-overstuffed suitcases and an equally bulging backpack. I’m leaving here with those even fuller (praying the zippers will hold) and another big old shopping bag kind of thing too. I surely look like I “just got off the boat” . . . except it’s a bus. Somehow I have to get all of this up the steps to the street, then down the street to our bus, then on the bus, off the bus, and finally to the Peace Corps dorms. We’ll be in those dorms until Friday when we head out to our sites. It’ll be a few days of luxury, as the dorm has air conditioning and hot water!
Stay tuned, then, for Leave Taking #2. And wish me luck — actually pray for my back! — as I undertake this first part of the schlepp!
So, yesterday was the announcement of our site placements.
But . . . before I tell you my expected whereabouts for the next two years . . . careful readers of this blog may already have noticed that I never give exact city names of my location. I usually write “in the area of” or something like that. It’s Peace Corps policy not to pinpoint our locations on public sites. Safety and security concerns, as I understand it.
Which is to say that I can’t put the exact name of my site on this blog post. But if I could, you’d be doubled over laughing. Your wandering Rabbi will be settling in to a pueblo named after that famous Jew upon whom a whole new religion was built. (Hint. Hint. If you need me to be more explicit, email me individually. I can spell it out then…). I’ll be in the province of Cocle, not far from the city of Aguadulce. My site is small. About 4000 people. It has one primary school with just two English teachers who will be my counterparts. (All of this sounds very similar to the town I’ve been living in during Pre Service Training.). I will be the first Peace Corps volunteer there. And I’m told that the people there are super excited and warm and welcoming as can be. I also hear that it’s quite a beautiful area. It is not, however, much cooler than where I am . . . maybe a few degrees difference . . . all my pleading for a cooler location notwithstanding. Ah well . . .
Four from our group will be going to Cocle, and we will be relatively close to one another. The other three are great friends and colleagues! The one nearest me is an especially treasured amiga.
The other really neat thing is that my host family — we have another 3 months of living with a family when we first get to site — will be the family of the School Principal/Directora. Nothing like having an automatic “in” with your boss!
The ceremony, to announce our sites, was quite some production. We arrived to a big tape map of Panama, with all the provinces outlined, on the carpet. All the sites were also marked, but with no indication of who would be going to which.Then our names were drawn out of a hat, and our site and province location were announced to a lot of fanfare. Since both our Teacher’s group and the environmental group were together (48 of us), this took some while. Then we went off into our provincial groups. Here’s our group. The guy is our regional leader. The second photo is right after my name was drawn and my site announced.
So for now, I guess that’s it. We move out from our host families here, to Peace Corps dorms, on Monday the 23rd. Our swearing-in ceremony — also supposed to be a VERY BIG deal — takes place on Thursday, the 26th. Then we head on out. Our official “first day of service” is on Friday, April 27th. Good Lord (not the one of my city’s name, just for the record 🤣), where has the time gone??!?
Stay tuned, as the adventure really begins!
Seems like it’s been a while since I posted. Quick catch up . . . After our Spanish language interview, I actually advanced a level. Nice to hear, tho’ practically it made no difference as I’m still in the same class with the same teacher. And I’m still feeling like my language skills are pretty inadequate.
Tomorrow we begin a three day sort of “test run” of co-teaching, which will be our primary work when we get placed in site. I’m at a primary school, for the first time. Working with an English teacher who teaches 3rd and 4th graders. Her lesson plans were done long ago; so, she really doesn’t have much for me to do. Mostly, I think I’ll be observing, helping kids individually, and jumping in if she needs me otherwise.
I’ve talked about my host family; here’s their picture.Luis, the male head of household, is to my left. Madre Dania is on my right. They have three children and their youngest, Lydia, is to your far left. She lives next door with her husband David (your far right) and 5-year-old son, Aron (in front of me). Luis and Dania also have two older sons, Daniel and Isaias, who live at a bit of a distance but not too impossibly far as they tend to visit pretty much once a week. Both sons are married with one child each.
Forgive the way I look. It is soooooo incredibly hot here I’m about to die. I have begged the powers-that-be to place me in a site that is cooler. There is one such place in the country (Chiriqui), and we have sites there. So, all my digits are crossed. We learn our site placements this Friday, and everyone is beside themselves with anticipatory anxiety.
It has also occurred to me that none of you have any realistic idea of how I live. We have electricity, but often it’s an open switch box.Kind of like this, but minus the switch plate. I.e., this is an upgraded version. Luis got busy this weekend with a bunch of electrical upgrades. At last, we have a light in the bathroom…We’d been operating pretty much “by feel” before yesterday.
These photos above are of said (and only) bathroom. Note the clever latch arrangement at the top of its door. But. . . it’s not a latrine; so, I’m not complaining.Here’s the adjacent shower. No light yet.And this is my room. Complete with mosquito bed net. And very much in need of straightening. And, yes, I have a fan. A TREMENDOUS blessing. Finally, the light fixture in my room. The hysterical part of this is that the light switch is in the guest room next door. I have to slip my hand between the door and the wall, of this next room over, to turn my light off and on. That is only a problem when son Daniel stays over. (Usually once or so a week. He lives too far away to head home for the night. So he simply stays over and goes to work, the next morning, from here.). But he’s generally not yet up when I get up; so, I can’t turn my light on and have to operate by flashlight.
Oh, one more shot. You can probably see that the house is pretty much made of concrete. The windows are something called ornamental block. No glass. There are some houses with windows like we know — they call those “French windows” here — but those are the upscale residences.And last photo (Yes, this really is the last!) is a limited view of our porch. This is my favorite part of the house. The zinc roof offers a bit of shade; and if there’s any breeze, you can catch it there. All the church activities take place on this porch. In fact, in this shot, Luis is working on some music with one of the really great, devoted, musicians.So, that’a tour of my digs and the “setting” of my life right now. At least for the next couple weeks. Once we get placed in our site, we live with a different host family for three months and, after that, go out and find our own place. Clearly, I’m not living luxuriously here. My site home may or may not be comparable. Impossible to know beforehand. I’m betting, however, that Rwanda would have been far more primitive. Tho’ less dang HOT!
Ok, that’s it for now. Stay tuned for the scoop on my site placement. And pray for cooler. PuhLEASE!!
Yay! I made it to Seder and Shabbat!! Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik and his wife, Ruth, very graciously welcomed me to their home for a Seder of 13 family and friends. Before the Seder there was a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat service at Kol Shearith Israel, the liberal (Rabbi Gustavo is a Conservative rabbi) synagogue in Panama City.
As you can see, the synagogue is really lovely. Much bigger than I had anticipated and bigger, I think, than its 250 family membership might have implied. Most of the members, the rabbi told me, are in business. And other high profile positions. In fact, the smart and lovely woman to my right, at the Seder, was Panama’s former UN ambassador! Among the younger synagogue members, there are some teachers and so forth. The congregation was very alive with lots of younger members and children. There were also a goodly number of retired North Americans and Panamanians who had lived in the States. Which is to say, English speakers with whom I could easily chat . . .
Seder was great as ever! All in Spanish and Hebrew. Easy for me to follow, seeing as I pretty well know the script!😏 Side chit chat was, of course a different matter.
The Kraselniks housed me in their guest room overnight. I sure got to see a different side of Panama life from my usual pueblo existence. My guest room was air conditioned with its own bathroom, complete with hot(!) water and even a bidet! The rabbi’s home is in a beautiful high rise in an area that is mixed residential and business. Here’s the view out my guest room window.About that Viernes Santo thing . . . Good Friday here is the occasion of big street parades, usually staged by the Catholic Church. Lots of floats of saints and likewise lots of music. Right out the Rabbi’s window, just as we were opening the door for Elijah, one such went by. It lasted for a full two hours; so, we weren’t quite sure just how Elijah might make an entrance. It was an interesting interfaith moment.
This morning, I went to Shabbat worship, happily wrapped in that particularly gorgeous and colorful chiffon talit that many of you may recall, and was honored with the first aliyah to the Torah. All in all, a great evening and morning of Jewish. I was way past due.
Once again, I am happily reminded that there are Jews pretty much everywhere. And to those who are “on this blog,” I wish you a sweet Pesach! Enjoy your matzah!!