The people of Panama have taught me numerous lessons in the past three weeks, the most important being to slow down and enjoy each others company. Whether spending time talking to the librarian Miriam and her grandson Neithan or just enjoying a meal with the whole house, by putting myself in a situation where I am learning from other people and having fun has been one of the best experiences in my life. Although I don’t know if I could manage another night of nine games of pool with Don, Tucker, and Evan, it is the simple pleasures of playing cards and listening to music or swimming and hiking that make our “off time” here more of a vacation than I’ve ever had. Even the work hours fly by when there are people to laugh and joke with, and a whole community to get to know.
My Spanish hasn’t greatly improved, but there are plenty of great tutors. Panamanian Spanish is something completely new to me, and I am still getting used to dropping the s at the end of words like “Buenas.” My favorite new word is hojaldres, which is a typical breakfast food at the fonda, a fluffy pastry similar to a funnel cake but not sweet. Since breakfast is not included in the meal plan, when I am especially hungry I can get two hojaldres, two eggs, and a coffee for less than $2 (the price changes every time). I made friends with all of the ladies that work there, but the youngest laughs at me every time, since I thought she said seven dollars instead of seventy five cents the last time I ordered breakfast.
I have yet to have a long conversation with someone in Spanish, but Miriam has been very helpful in correcting my mistakes, and has taught me about the different plants they use to cure illnesses. Our housekeeper Aura and our cook Noris are two of the nicest people I have ever met, and yesterday Noris dubbed us her children. My favorite meal so far has been fried plantains (patacones) with rice, beans, and fried chicken, but pollo guisado (stewed chicken with spicy red sauce) is a close second.
One of my favorite days was last week, when I had the opportunity to practice my Spanish and observe a truly sustainable way of life when Heather, Lillian, Karen and I visited Aminta’s house and helped her make cheese. She buys the milk from a neighbor’s cow, and lets it sit out for a couple of hours in the morning. Next she scoops and drains all of the excess liquid out of the curds, which goes to the pigs. She then grinds it together and shapes the cheese into square blocks, wraps them in banana leaves, bags it, and sells it at the San Miguel Chino (small grocery store) as well as in La Mesa, a neighboring town. Not only is she a respected woman entrepreneur in this town, but a model for independent, hard-working women everywhere (see Heather Momand’s upcoming video blog).
Coming into this internship with an open mind is the most important piece of advice I could give any future interns. There is so much opportunity here to create your own individual project and work on something you care about, and the directors are full of helpful ideas and direction. Since the internship program is still in the first stages, there are endless project ideas, and long-term projects to continue like the garden in San Miguel, the sustainable farm in the valley, or fundraising events like art shows and the pots-to-plate event in the city.
I have been doing a lot of traveling lately, and finally feel comfortable navigating the buses (if I know where I am going). I have always had a terrible sense of direction, but at least Lillian, Heather or Lea know where we are most of the time. Five of us a trip to Playa Pal Mar, a black sand beach on the Pacific Ocean a couple of weeks ago, which is my favorite vacation so far. The bus ride there took nine hours, but we brought enough to keep us entertained and the music, which may have been catered to the Americans, was very enjoyable. Two weekends ago Heather had her second birthday which we celebrated at a Mediterranean restaurant Beirut, and explored the shopping scene in Panama City, complete with many trips to New York Bagel. Last weekend was full of excitement, starting with a Jennifer Lopez concert (she killed it) and ending with a rainy day at the beach.
This weekend I’m finally taking it easy and limiting my traveling (and spending) to focus on upcoming projects. There are lessons to plan, soccer to coach, adults to teach and learn from, and blogs to write! And once again, Panama, you are beautiful.