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To America and Back

July 12, 2012

If they’ve made it this long, most people my age in the Peace Corps (23 months and counting) typically just hold their horses and wait until the end of service (creeping up on me in October) to go home for the first time. I, however, decided that it was important to go home in late June for the following reasons: 1. it is summer in America. 2. Rodeo days in Prescott. 3. I probably will not got home after service and head to South America instead. With this in mind, I knew that I couldn’t go another year without seeing my friends and family and so went about finding a way to visit, if only for five days in Seattle and another five in Prescott, Arizona, and even a night in Houston because of a layover.

And I loved every minute of it. The food (pho, cheese and salmon), the micro-brews, the couches, moving sidewalks in the airport, public transport, and bookstores. I can go on, cute shoes, the enormous dogs, the veggie section at the grocery store, the cold, then the hot, riding my bike (urban and mountain!) and just about every moment in between spent with the people I care about.

Photos: Right: Classic America. Left: Food.

While there, many of my friends and family asked if it felt different to be back in the states. Often, besides being surrounded by white people and noticing that everything was comfortable to the touch, it actually felt soooo normal. It was so easy to slip back into America that I didn’t really feel different at all. However, now that I’ve returned it is as if all the comforts of the states are directly and abruptly juxtaposed next to my experience roughing it in rural Panama. While there, I did not permit myself to think too much about the differences, but now I’m back, I feel the twinge of culture shock that I put off in order to maximize fun. I can’t lie, when I woke up the first morning back in site on my wood-planked bed and I wished that I could have a shower with a faucet, that I could use a washing machine, and that my daily routine did not include sloshing around a couple inches of red mud.

But then I went walking around a bit. It is soooo beautiful here. There really is something special about the way these mountains are steep everywhere and shift between full jungle in the valleys and simpler savannah at the peaks. If the beauty of the surroundings didn’t help me re-integrate, visiting some of my favorite families and re-experiencing those classic Peace Corps moments as if I had just arrived certainly did. I was even served something I’d never eaten before – bocho of the cow – which, after I inquired about where that is located, I was informed is the pouch surrounding the heart. GROSS!! But, of course, I housed it without blinking an eye. I’m back, baby!

Photos: Right: Dicey and I in her neighborhood. Left: Mexican food and Lyssa ‘checking us in,’ whatever that means. 

And at the end of my first day, one of the small-business owners that I work with came to visit my house. After I mentioned that I had just returned from the states, he launched into the litany of questions that Ngäbes (pronounced No-Bay … remember?) typically ask (how long does it take to get there? How much does it cost? Is it scary to ride on a plane? Do your parents miss you?) he then asked some questions that perfectly demonstrate the distance between America and where we live in Panama.

He asked, “Some people are saying that the internet says that by February or maybe March of 2013 that all Americans are going to have a computer chip implanted inside their hand so that they can be tracked by the government, is that true?” I explained that, no, we are not going to be implanted with a computer chip, which he pronounced ‘cheet’ because letters ‘p’ and ‘t’ are often confused in campo Spanish.

Then he offered up this piece of visionary thinking: “I’ve conceived that pretty soon they will have to build houses in the air. I think that beams are going to get really strong and small to support huge houses.” I can almost promise that he has never seen or heard of the Jetsons. He continued, “There will be so many people that all the land will have to be used to cultivate food and houses will have to be in the air. Does this exist yet?” I responded, “No, not that I know of.” At which, he concluded, “Well, I give it 20-30 years.”

Taking advantage of the moment, I tried to turn his attention inward, asking, “So what do you think the Comarca will be like in 20-30 years?” After a few moments of thinking, he said, “A little more advanced, I think. Hopefully we will have roads.”

While he conceives that houses in America will be built in the air within 20-30 years, he can only imagine or hope that his own region in Panama will have sufficient roads so that people won’t have to hike to get goods in and products and people out. That is the distance between the states and fill-in-the-blank-rural-backwater anywhere in the world. We are not in want of roads.

Photos: Right: Back on the bike in AZ after two years off! Left: Back in the mountains of the Comarca. Still struck by the beauty.

My intention is never to bum you out with stories like this. In fact, I’m more likely to be accused of assigning too much happiness and contentment to a place like the Comarca. After all, people have land, are free to do as they please, and are slowly improving their living standard. But, it is still plagued by untreated illness, insufficient nutrition, and a blight of discrimination against the indigenous by other Panamanians. I just feel fortunate to have found something that I feel passionate about and get excited about conveying it to your willing ears in the form of sometimes humorous, sometimes serious blogposts.

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