Every volunteer’s service is unique. And by this I mean very very unique. I live in a spread out community, with almost no phone signal, running water in the house for most people, and a lucky few houses with a solar panel or generator that is run for a few hours each day. I walk twenty minutes and then take public transportation another twenty minutes to get internet, do food shopping, and maybe one day, laundry when the laundry mat opens back up. This is also a volunteer’s site.
At this point I’ve visited a bunch of volunteers and want to try and paint a more complete picture of Peace Corps using various unique experiences. However, even if I manage to successfully lay out all the characteristics that form the atmosphere of a volunteers’ experiences here in Panama, I’ve only scratched the surface of the 77 other countries with volunteers and the 220 or so countries throughout the world. To keep this post from running on for pages and pages, I’m just going to talk about the living conditions of each volunteer.
For the first two months in country we lived with a host family that wasn’t much of a shock besides learning how to use a latrine. My shock came when it was time to for each trainee to visit a volunteer in their site. I went to visit AJ who lived in the Darien which is the wild west of Panama. His site, which no longer meets security requirements of Peace Corps, is 1.5 to 2 hours walk from the nearest paved road, store, and phone signal. In the rainy season the path turns into mud and at times can be more than 2 feet deep. However, a volunteer had worked there before and did a hydro electric project so the community had enough electricity for charging computers, small TVs, and lights.
After visiting his community, I just about freaked out. Hiking in all your food every week, being unreachable almost all the time, and trekking through mud was just too much. I ended up in a community that fell on the other end of the spectrum for environmental health volunteers. My community is a bit better off. We’ve got water systems that work pretty well, houses of block and metal roofing (which is on the higher end of housing), the road is well maintained and public transportation has recently started on it. My neighbor has a gas generator and for $20 a month I get electricity from sun down to about 9 or 10pm.
A few months after moving into my community I went to visit SG. While she had an hour long hike, it was generally pretty pleasant. There were many houses of block, a nice school, and the store sold cold soda and beer.
For carnival I went to one of the larger celebrations in the country in my friend TM’s community. I can’t say it was a community, more like a small city. He has all the basic amenities in his house as well as a washing machine.
Recently, I went to help do a water seminar presentation in my friend HM’s community. Her community is the worst off community I’ve visited so far. It had the typical situation of most communities I’ve visited being about an hour walk, most housing was rancho style with giant leaves layered on top of each other, but the water was terrible. Some times people wait almost two hours in a line to get water from the one area in the community. There are two lines, one goes to the larger somewhat dirtier source where people bathe and do laundry. The source right next to it is used to fill water buckets for drinking and cooking. If you didn’t know, people use a lot of water, in the US it’s roughly 50 gallons per person per day, in Panama it’s 30 gallons. Most of that goes to the bathing and laundry but still that leaves several gallons a day for cooking and drinking which have to be carried up the hill back to the house.
I’ve seen houses from leaves to block and metal, roads from mud to paved, water from barely anything to fancy private systems, signal from nothing to being able to browse the Internet, electricity from nothing to fully wired communities, and everything in between. Factor in the people, committees, government interaction, climate, religion, communal structures, ethnic groups, etc. and it begins to become visible what very very unique means.
On a random afternoon in February or March, I found myself sitting in the waiting room in Albrook Bus Terminal in the city, heading home after being out of site for some time. My friend had gone to the bathroom and so I was sitting
For the several-hour bus ride, I sat and thought solely about this man and the strong emotions he’d been able to pull out of me. Frustration among other feelings continued to follow me very closely for the coming days.
Peace Corps has its ups and downs. I expected this, we were warned of it. My lows were mostly attributed to lack of integration, comprehension of Spanish, and slowly moving projects. However, I never expected an American scam artist in Panama to be the cause of one of my lowest of lows.
Note: All Spanish words are italicized.
It all started back on a random September morning in 2012. The teacher wrote estar and ser on the board, two verbs that both mean “to be”. She then conjugated them for us starting with estar in the present tense. Estoy estás está estamos están. She then repeated for ser. That was a bit difficult but a little bit of memorization and then I’d be good. Little did I know, you don’t just conjugate to be and call it a language. Verbs get conjugated, and not just that, they get conjugated into different tenses! Ahh, my brain just about exploded and I found myself at afterschool tutoring many times.
I proceeded to spend the next four years repeating the process of “oh I got this, haha just kidding I’m screwed”, dragging myself until the first opportunity allowed me to call it quits with Spanish. And that was that with second languages, until I moved to China.
Preparing for China sparked an interest in learning another language again, except for whatever messed up reason, I wanted to go back to studying Spanish, not Mandarin. Why start a new language when I’ve still got work to put into my first second language, I reasoned. I could study all the Spanish I wanted in China and it’d never teach me an ounce of Mandarin, so reluctantly I put my Spanish aside and spent six months at about 20 hours a week on top of my internship learning, studying, and practicing Mandarin.
When I returned to the States I needed to finish my last year of college. My dean offered the choice of two Spanish or Mandarin classes to complete my humanities requirement. Deciding after a year of Mandarin and China, I wasn’t quite interested in going back and even after letting Spanish sit for almost six years, I was still far better off with it than Mandarin. And so I resumed my Spanish classes.
The first semester of Spanish went by uneventfully.
Second semester was a different story. First day the professor announces that the class will be taught about 95% in Spanish. Ooh boy here we go. Surprisingly, I’d already absorbed enough that this wasn’t the horrifying transition it originally appeared to be. That wasn’t the end of it though; classes were challenging and required a larger commitment than the previous semester’s class. I pushed through though until one fateful day when my acceptance letter to Panama collided with something my professor said. “Frankly, at this point your Spanish is going to plateau until you get yourself abroad.” And so I coasted myself to the end of the semester, sorry mom!
I arrived in Panama, ready to put the plateau behind me, and continue hiking up the mountain. Continuing on with the mountain metaphor, I felt as if Panama was a constant set of sprints, after which I’d fall over gasping for air and not move an inch for far too long. We were going hard with 4 hours a day 4 days a week of language training, only interrupted by scavenger hunts into the city, homework with the host family, volunteer visits, and other activities to continue improving our Spanish.
Finally, the giant mezcla, mix, in my brain was beginning to organize itself into useful bits and pieces I could use to converse. I was having hour or two hour long conversations with my host brother about various interesting topics, of course I was horribly burnt out after each conversation, but I was doing it!
Then I arrived to site where I hit a brick wall. I couldn’t understand campo, countryside, Spanish at all. My host dad would later tell my sister when she arrived (Dam her, I told her campo Spanish was horribly difficult to understand and she was chatting with my host dad in the first five minutes of arriving to my house!) that for the first two weeks, I just sat there and didn’t really say anything. True, I understood maybe 20% of what he was throwing at me.
But I used the great work ethic I developed while teaching myself Chinese, and applied it to Spanish with great success. After a few months, I was conversing rather well.
The last big hurrah, at least that I’ve experienced so far, came just last month, when we got the chance to return to our training community to get some extra language classes. It was my chance to finally organize everything that I’d crammed into my head in the last few months. I realized I’d gotten down most all of the tenses needed to converse and various difficult grammar structures including present, future, preterit, imperfect, conditional, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect, conditional perfect, indirect object pronouns, and direct object pronouns. I even had the beginnings of subjunctive which is usually a pretty abstract tense for English speakers to wrap their heads around.
The climb was long but amazingly worth it. I remember traveling through South East Asia, relying on my ability to play Pictionary and charades, and the basic English of the people I met along the way. But now, I can stop to ask for directions, find a good restaurant, and delve much deeper into the rich lives that people live around the world.