Saturday, September 28, 2013

Starting from Scratch

I think one of the mean reasons people are drawn to babies is because they’re practically helpless.  They can’t talk, eat, dress themselves, or attend to the majority of their basic needs.  Yet, somehow it’s still cute and their clumsiness just makes you want to smile and help them a long.

However, when you’re 22, not knowing how to talk, cook for yourself, or attend to the majority of your basic needs just isn’t so cute anymore.  Unfortunately, that’s where I come in. 

Though I had lived abroad before, I had never been far from other Americans and 1st world comforts.  But now, as the only English speaker, much less the only American, in the area, I have to start over and learn everything from scratch. 

Though I like to think that I had a pretty advanced level of Spanish before arriving in Panama, the local Spanish accent and indigenous language have still thrown me a few curve balls.  The other day I was in tears because I thought I was being sent to live with another family.  In reality, they were just telling me that the other family had invited me to work with them that afternoon…

I also apparently don’t know how to cook… or eat.  Most families here cook over an open fire, and as I had started a decent amount of fires in my life, I mistakenly assumed I knew what I was doing.  A full hour into my attempt to boil a pot of water, my host family finally came to my rescue, laughing, and a huge, gorgeous fire was blazing in under 2 minutes. 

Also, did you know that Panamanian oranges are both green and too juicy to eat?  Instead you must peel the skin off and then suck the juice out of the top.  I did not know this, and it took me not one, but two tries before I was able to get more juice in my mouth than on my clothes.  In classic American form, I attempted to skip a step and just suck the juice out without peeling the orange.  You cannot do this, however, because the skin will burn your mouth and make you think you’re having the first allergic reaction of your life. 

I won’t even go into what it’s like not having an actual bathroom (on the hill where I live, we don’t even have latrines!) but instead will mention bathing and washing clothes.  There is one spring on my hill, and this is the one place that four large families use for bathing, doing laundry and dishes, and collecting water for drinking and cooking.  As such, bathing is no longer a private or relaxing activity for me.  Instead, before nightfall each day, 2-6 kids and I stomp through the mud to bathe together- with all clothes on.  Never in my life have I bathed with my clothes on, and unfortunately for those around me, it took a few tries to figure out how to really get clean. 

And when I do laundry in the creek, people still laugh at me.  Apparently I haven’t quite gotten the hang of the Scrub, Smack, Smack, Wring Out routine of the locals.  One day though, one day…

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A New Name

As gringo names are generally harder for the locals pronounce, almost all of the volunteers in my region use ngabere names during their service.  Sometimes the village elders simply give you a name, but other times it can be a process.

During my initial visit to my community, it was decided that I would receive my new name during the meeting that would introduce me to my new neighbors and coworkers.  However, it was soon apparent that while they all knew I would get a new name, they didn’t know HOW I would get the name.  Some said that the man who had been my community guide should get to choose the name, while others argued that since it was my name, I should pick.  Still others felt like it should be a community effort and put up to a vote.  Like any good compromise, they finally decided that I should just draw the name out of a hat. 

So, for the next two years I’ll be answering to the name Geli Quigavo.  My first name is pronounced more like Ellie, and doesn’t have any particular significance.  My last name, though, symbolizes the town that I’m now a part of.  Interestingly, the previous volunteer also received a similar last name, so even though we’ve never actually met, some people jokingly refer to us as being brother and sister. 

I’ve answered to either Abby or Abigail my entire life, so having a new name has taken some getting used to.   The first few days of introductions were a little rough:

Village Member: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Abby!  Uh.. I mean Gelly… er.. Ellie?”

Regardless of the initial confusion (and the fact that almost nobody actually remembers my real name), I’m happy to have my new name.  Seeing the community so excited (and opinionated!) about my local name was really awesome, and using something that’s both indigenous and community-chosen has made me feel a little bit more a part of my town. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Look Geli, your people

It seems like the smallest things are what instantly bring me to tears, yet what can also completely change my outlook and make me see the bright side of life in Panama. 

Thankfully, it’s like God knows exactly when I need one of the bright little moments. 

After a particularly trying first week in the village, I was exhausted, depressed, and having a hard time envisioning myself as being truly happy during the next two years.  Just as I was getting ready to leave the village to walk back to the secluded area in which I currently live, I noticed a large gathering of people.  My first reaction was instantly sadness.  There was a party/meeting, and none of the people I had spent all day visiting had bothered to tell me?  Then I smelled food, and decided to make the best of it and invite myself.  After all, that seems to be at least somewhat culturally appropriate here.

A few minutes later, the people I had been visiting, and who had not invited me to their house for this party, saw me and with huge smiles on their faces, waved me to the front of the food line.  Then, as my neighbor gestured to small crowd he said,  “Look, Geli, it’s your people.”  Side note, my local name is Geli.  I have a post about that coming soon.  

It was such a small gesture, and something he probably has no idea would have had such a big impact on me, but that little sentence paraphrases all of the many reasons I’m here.  Now, they’re my people.  There’s the kids who can be both incredibly sweet and pull-your-hair-out annoying, the fathers who eagerly show me their farms and homegrown businesses, the mothers who cook for me even though I’ve already eaten multiple times, and the grandparents who treat me like one of their own. 

As hard as it may be sometimes, they’re the reason I’m here.  My people.