Sunday, January 29, 2017

reflections on life away from home

Last week we passed the halfway point of our time in Panama. We also recently made the decision not to renew my contract and extend our time another year. The decision came after a lot of indecision, mixed feelings, and uncertainty about the future.

There are so many aspects of this situation that I love. I've never had such autonomy in a job. I decide what projects to take on and how and when to complete them. I don't have a set schedule, especially during the summer vacation, so I come in early some days, later other days, and also work from home. As a family, we have this same freedom from a schedule and obligations, so we can travel and explore on days off. Our days are full of new experiences, which feeds my soul.

We're all coming along on our Spanish. While I know another year here would solidify what we're learning, I think we're all making great progress. E is more motivated than I've ever seen him to learn and practice a new language, even if he's still reluctant to speak it. The girls also don't speak much, but they constantly surprise me with what they know and understand. Although I do most of the interacting in Spanish on behalf of the family, I really don't speak much Spanish at school because everyone wants to practice English with me. And that's OK. I just need to make an additional effort to interact with Spanish. We're all going to give it our best effort for the next few months.

While we love the new experiences, the country, and the culture, parts of living in the interior of Panama are hard. Our city has all the basics, but it feels run down. We've found it difficult to find great support for the girls like we're used to. Education, activities, and facilities just don't compare what we have at home, and while we're making the most of what we can find here, we miss the ease and abundance of resources for kids. We also miss seeing our family and friends!

All of our needs (and more) are met at the accommodations provided for us. We have a huge house with room for visitors, a beautiful garden with fruit, amazing outdoor spaces, a washer AND a dryer, and lots of A/C units. But it's an old house and needs a lot of maintenance. Because the windows don't really shut, it's hard to keep clean, and there are bugs everywhere. When you have a house that's the opposite--every detail put in place by you and the ability to take care of problems on your own--it's hard not to miss it.

There are so many rewarding experiences in my job. When I work with an enthusiastic group of teachers, I'm on cloud nine. I'm involved with an English initiative at the national level, which has a huge impact. Students are excited about the language, and institutions show so much appreciation when I work with them. But there are hard days. I'm still learning the system, so logistics of organizing workshops and meetings can be frustrating. Most things are done on paper, so sometimes it feels like communication isn't efficient. Teachers have multiple commitments and varying priorities. Sometimes the organizing feels like an uphill battle. But then I walk outside my office and remember how amazing this place is that I come to everyday. The school building is grand, with a grand mission: to educate future teachers to work all over Panama, and I get to be a part of that.

As much as I love the work here, I feel pulled more and more towards home and what I can do professionally there. I love Jacksonville, and I believe in its diversity and potential. I hope that after our adventure, I'll find the place where I can contribute to Jacksonville's progress. With that goal in mind and professional changes for Earl on the horizon, I still have so much more adventuring I want to squeeze in before we settle down in Jax again. After Panama, we're planning to travel a bit more, and I know when we do get home, I'll already be planning our next trip!

For now, Santiago is home, and I love documenting the details of life here, including:

  • seeing (and photographing) everything through a very tinted windshield
  • the girls' propensity for writing on everything since we've been here and our ornate furniture!
  • the turquoise house I admire every time we eat at our favorite restaurant
  • the drawing we found on the wall of that restaurant, by 9-year-old Victoria, its namesake. Look closely!
  • the ubiquitousness of trucks of animals and fruit, even in downtown.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Christmas Parade

Santiago's Christmas parade was complete sensory overload. Lights, exhaust fumes, loud bass, hoards of people, flying candy. We stayed for a bit, E caught a prized ball off the ball truck (while I held the girls back from the flowing crowd that surrounded it), they popped cebollitas (little onions/pop-its) on the ground, and we headed home waaay before it was over.

Apparently the ball truck is a popular element every year. My co-worker warned me of how people go crazy for the balls. A guy standing near us explained that it's a local politician's truck. He said, "I don't need a ball. I need answers." The girls were excited to go home with one.

Santa Catalina

Oh, Santa Catalina. We had high hopes for our trip to Santa Catalina because everyone in Santiago talks about going there during vacations to enjoy the beach. As usual, Earl was hoping for a more familiar feel than we encounter in most of our off the beaten path adventures. And also as usual, nothing really went as expected. First, the trip to Santa Catalina is a long two hours. Parts of it are beautiful rural areas, where you see a distinctly poorer side of Panama. It ends with a bunch of small, rollercoaster-like hills and then lots of potholes. Naomi was car sick, and the rest of us were doing our best not to be. I can't even imagine the trip on a bus!

We found our hotel/eco-lodge, and it was a little too rustic for Earl's taste and stunk of mothballs. It was down a dirt road that required 4WD. On one drive, I was videoing it until we bottomed out! You can hear the noise under the car and our surprise as the camera drops. We had a couple of strange meals: one eerie place with a brand new staff and a way too friendly cat and dog and no lights outside the restaurant, and then a mystery veggie burger. Still don't know what it was made of. Sleeping arrangements were tricky, because C suddenly sat up during her sleep inside her mosquito net on the top bunk, and we realized it wasn't a great place for our sleepwalker. And it was hot! We attempted a hike, and the views were beautiful until the height scared C and we turned back. On the way down, we were all bitten by ants, and the bites were insanely painful.

With all of our struggles, we were pleasantly surprised by the beach. After all, that's the point of visiting Santa Catalina. At low tide, the black sand goes on forever. E and C enjoyed a swim while N and I covered ourselves in mud. We saw people riding horses there, too. The interesting thing about Santa Catalina is that a river empties onto the beach, dividing it in half. To get to the main part of the beach, where there are also cabins and a restaurant, you have to cross the river. At low tide (day one), it's ankle deep, but at high tide it was up to E's waist, so on day two, only E and C were able to make it across. N and I hung out on the near side, where I took some photos. Before we headed out of Santa Catalina, we scoped out a hotel for next time where I think we'd be happier.

We got about 1/2 way home and got a call from the eco-lodge saying we'd left a bunch of stuff. The two hour trip turned into a four hour ride, and that night was the first time I felt relieved to be 'home' in Santiago!


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Mother's Day

I got to celebrate Mother's Day twice in 2016, but it looks like I'll miss it completely this year! In Panama, December 8 is a national holiday to celebrate mothers, and everyone has the day off! We (well I, because Spanish) made reservations for brunch at a nice hotel in town. It was special, but the meal was quite meat-heavy, as breakfast is in Panama, so I decided I'd make up for it with something chocolate later in the day.

After brunch, we headed to La Yeguada, a lake a little over an hour from Santiago. Our navigation kept telling us to take dirt roads. We eventually made our way there, but when we arrived, the park was closed for Mother's Day. I got out of the car and talked to a guy who I thought worked there. Turns out, he had been waiting for the bus for hours, but because it was Mother's Day, only one bus ran to Santiago that morning. He walked down to the lake with us and gave us some tips for more to see in the area. We drove up to another pretty stop in pouring rain, and when we came back by the lake, our friend was still there, so we asked if wanted a ride back to Santiago. It was helpful to have him with us for navigation on the way back. He also taught us the word "crateres" in Spanish when we were talking about the potholes on the route. Some had really become craters during the rainy season!

Edited to add: I totally forgot about the mariachi performances in the neighborhood! We heard music coming from the house next door in the morning, and went out to see a mariachi band in the doorway serenading the mother. We heard another a further away a little later.