All Work, All Play — Panama Style

Planning a trip to Panama, my first inclination aside from setting my agenda for schoolwork, was researching all the local clubs to experience in Panama. Panama night-life was something I had read extensively about and had heard from previous Panama Scholars. Seemingly, night life is more acclimated into everyday life than it is in the United States. In the United States, recreational activities and “play” are rewards for hard work and long hours during the week. However, in Panama, I have come to notice that “play” is normal part of a person’s week and lifestyle. Panamanians are able to integrate recreation into their daily routine, to provide themselves with some sort of stress relief and relaxation.

In the book Panama, hardly did I ever read or learn of the main character Hank’s recreational activities. Similar to all Americans, he was used to his arduous work cycle that left him without any sort of socializing and recreational time. In my opinion, the United States is a workaholic’s paradise, and even though many clubs and recreational areas are available, they are usually reserved for rewarding hard work, or for younger children to play. From a young age, American kids are familiar with the term “recess” or “play” but that word quickly becomes foreign when students enter secondary school and their six-hours school days are completely consumed by schoolwork. That same indoctrinated lifestyle exists in most Americans into their career years and until they die. In Panama, recess and play are consistent aspects of living and enjoying life. As in America, if someone enjoys going out, they are shamed for not taking their work serious enough and partying too much. This idea is different in Panama; to work hard and enjoy life are both essential parts of a fulfilling life.

In Communications 440, students from Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, and several other Central and South American countries express their love for adventure, experiencing new things, and enjoying “play.” In our class discussions, I have found that the American students are more reserved in expressing their interest and enjoyment of play and going out. I hope that eventually in the United States, parents and teachers alike will understand the importance of leisure and relaxation in one’s life, to enjoy, to live, to relax, and to explore. For that reason, I find myself wanting to explore the world, to learn more about people and what makes our brains tick, our hearts beat, and our lives truly worth living.

Play in Panama

“When Life Gives You Bananas, You Make Plaintains… and Everything Else.”

Before entering Panama, I was firm in my affinities and aversions in terms of food preferences and choices. Like many Americans, I would consider myself a picky eater — someone who has limited choices in what they consume based on their small range of preferences. At times, I was unwilling to concede to accommodate to dining situations in the United States, and I often went hungry. In Panama, that option isn’t as available, and often what you see in terms of resources, is what you get. Within the United States, a wide range of options allows for Americans to be picky in their options. When you get bananas in Panama, expect to find them cooked, sautéed, grilled, and fried in almost every way. Considering Panama’s tropicalesque climate, Bananas (as well as other types of fruit) are consumed every day in many forms. With the resources they have, Panama exploits their resources well — that is, they are able to use the materials they have in many ways to get the most out of their product.

Exploitation of resources in the United States usually refers to labor industries, such as coal mining and farming, and though it takes on a similar meaning in Panama, it also refers to Panama’s ability to make the most of what they have. I never thought I would enjoy consuming bananas, especially in the many ways that I have. It seems that with bananas, patacones, platanos, or whatever form of banana you are eating in Panama, you will find them in almost every dish, in every cafeteria, and in every restaurant. Similar to Hank’s experience in the book Panama, when trapped in a situation limited by his materials, he had to make the most of what he did have – a snake pit – to escape captors. Even thought this analogy is a bit of stretch, it explains well how even in a situation with limited resources, you can make the most of what resources you do have.

Never did I think I would be returning to the United States with a new palette for bananas and fruits of all kinds. It is the frequency with which I found these foods in my diet that I have not only acquired a new taste for these foods, but a new sense of understanding how cultures utilize and exploit their resources to feed and maintain the raw materials their climate and country gives them. It is through intercultural communication that I was able to understand through my experiences at restaurants, asking my Panamanian classmates about this phenomenon and grow as learner comprehending how resources are used throughout the world. It is through understanding a larger aspect of consumption and exploitation of resources that I am able to return to the States with a more open mind and larger palette.

 

IN-YOUR-Personal Space – Panama

In a world filled with almost 8 billion people, a major concern for many scientists and academics is how humanity and the environment will accommodate for the lack of resources as well as space. Space itself is a distinct aspect of each international culture. Whether high-context or low-context, the way we separate ourselves and interact in close proximity is relevant to our intercultural exchanges and communication. Throughout Panama, Boquete, and Bocas del Toro, a common theme remains presently intertwined within Panamanian interactions:  very close, proximate relationships. On trains, buses, even on the sidewalks, Panamanians are not afraid disrupt personal space boundaries or even act personally towards strangers. Some interactions common in Panama are a taboo with the United States and it is evident that American travelers to Panama are very uncomfortable without their “personal bubble.”

Compared to Panamanian affability, American social norms on interactions and proximity are strict depending on how well you are familiar with a particular individual. If you are unfamiliar with someone, are meeting in a professional setting, or are strangers, Americans take a very reserved approach to interacting with others. They will keep their distance; always ensuring proper distance between two people and maintain very formal mannerisms. Even amongst people with whom you are familiar, never do you see a friend kissing another on the cheek as a greeting, or holding hands (this is a major taboo among males in the United States). When visiting the Embera Village, space was almost obsolete between families and living quarters. Houses were open space residences without many doors and drapes to allow for privacy. Even in my experience as an American of Indian heritage, I was shocked by the tribe’s acquaintance and familiarity of one another and sense of connectedness that united the tribe as one.

It is my humbled opinion that the United States has a lot to learn in terms of space and relationships. In many foreign countries, we are known for our individuality, in our addition to the coldness that plagues our demeanor. Interacting with Panamanian students has taught me the great pleasures of close relationships and friendliness, and just how important they can be to cultivate a meaningful and comfortable environment. Though I may not be able to take this aspect of Panamanian culture back home with me, it is one of my most favorite and comforting experiences during this trip.

Space in Panama

“Don’t forget — you’re on Panamanian Time.”

Day 8 of our trip was supposed to be filled with relaxation and a casual trip to the mall on our day off. The sun was beating down over us and endless walking made our stomachs rumble with cries of hunger. When we arrived to the mall – Albrook’s – we were shocked to find a plethora of fast food joints and quick eateries that would promptly satisfy our nagging appetites. Unfortunately, what seemed to be a quick fast food experience was one of the longest endeavors we managed on our own in Panama. Little did we know that while we were expecting progress in a timely manner, everyone else was running on “Panamanian time” — a phrase that signifies an expectation of tardiness or a relaxed pace. As students and tourists from the United States, we were unaware of this norm in Panama and quickly frustrated by it. After all, coming from the US where everything is “fast and easy,” what else would we expect?

When considering the terms used to describe the United States and its status in the globalizing world, words that often come to mind include “advanced” and “first-world,” but also “fast” and “endurant.” Growing up in America, we are always on the move, on our mobile devices and often never sit down and take a minute to breath. In Panama, the scene of time and movement is very different; people seem to be taking time in their activities and moving with more detail. In the book Panama, the main character’s grandfather Edgardo was notorious for being late and taking time in his activities. Similar to Edgardo, the majority of Panamanians are laid back and disregard time sensitive affairs. Even in the carry-out line at the fast food joint in the mall, I was appalled at the waiting for 30 minutes to stand in line and pay for food; but eventually came to realize that it is the nature of Panamanian culture.

Similarly, my interactions with Panamanian students demonstrates their approach is far more laissez-faire than the average American. My intercultural interactions with Panamanian natives has shown me that taking time in the simple pleasures in life make growing up and studying a lot more significant. As ‘estadounidenses’ we are consistently taxed with the idea that we always need to be on the go, consistent, and timely, but forget the simplicities in taking time to enjoy life in general. When I return to the states, I will consider living on Panamanian time once in a while!

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Gender Divided // Community United

Growing up in the United States, I am blessed to know that I am more or less endowed with almost the same opportunity to live and learn to same degree as a male. Still, this inherent privilege I possess wasn’t truly realized until I stepped foot onto Panamanian soil, seeing natives interact, and interacting with locals myself. I was honestly culture shocked at the abundance of machismo culture that exists in Panama, but not only in the city prospects. The differences in culture highlight distinct gender roles present in the country’s limits. Even though these distinctions may not be absolutely evident in Panama City, our experience with the Embera tribe clearly shows the clear divisions made between genders within the village in order to allow the community to work harmoniously.

Our travels began driving through the thick rainforest, and then into a canoe maneuvering the strong current on the Chagres River. At times, the tribesmen had to vacate the boat to pull the canoe through shallow waters. Within the context of our entire experience with the tribe, I was most hesitant during our canoe ride because I was unaware of the inherent gender roles that restricted me from helping the tribesmen move the boat along the shallow river. For many males, this is a thought that never crosses their minds or burdens their life experiences. But as a female in unchartered territory, I remained where I was, watching the strongmen take charge of pushing the boat. In the United States, no single norm would have prevented me from jumping out of the boat and doing my share of the work to move the canoe along the current, but out of respect and assumption of traditional gender roles in this community, I refrained from intervening. Similar to my experience in the canoe, I observed traditional roles within the village that gave responsibilities to different groups of people in order divide labor and tasks. The women were responsible for cooking; the men hunted and caught the fish in order to be prepared and cooked by the women. The men were responsible for the carving arts; the women weaved baskets and designed the cloths skirts. Even though these roles were inevitably present in any native community, I was surprised how open-minded the tribe was to women running for chief, and welcoming foreigners into their home.

Our intercultural interaction with the Embera tribe gave me a new sense of the word “community” and “family” and how that functions within the context of roles established within those communities. These roles do not necessarily inhibit a gender, but cultivate a sense of duty and purpose within the village. It is my hope one day that I can find my niche as did the men and women of the Embera tribe. They are a true inspiration of how a little work by each person can go a long way to benefit everyone. It is that sense of welcome that I was able to experience life in a way I have only seen in movies and have read in story books, but can take back home with me and make my world seem a little more whole.

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Unconventional Learning in a Conventional World

As students at a traditional public university, we are often convinced by the notion that everything in this world can only be learned through a textbook, a computer screen, or by a professor. It is our weakness in getting caught up in the details of our traditional education that make us believe our learning is limited to a conventional classroom. Traveling the world including Panama, as I grow and advance in my education, show me the importance of learning and experiencing culture in a hands-on fashion. As Hank in Panama learned the culture differences and abuses from the Panama he once knew, I am learning about a culture I have never experienced through an unconventional education.

Education in Panama is structure in a fashion similar, but different to the United States. Similar to a system proposed by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, public education is free of tuition. Students are able to attain an education in Panama without falling thousands of dollars in debt. However, there is much debate to how qualified professors and teachers are at these public universities. Furthermore, classes are taught solely in Spanish and students looking for a “higher” education tend to enroll in private institutions such as Quality Leadership University. Schools like QLU are unique in their diversity of staff and classes in English. In addition to their formalized education, it is my opinion that many students in college have a better sense of street knowledge and common sense than college students in the United States. They more readily exposed to real-world experiences and situations that many young people don’t experience until they are completely independent. From the students in our intercultural communication class, I have quickly learned that Panamanians learn independence from a very young age.

From our discussion in class with local students and our limited experiences with the city, Panama has reinforced the idea that unconventional education through experiences outside of classroom are just as imperative to one’s education. Learning is all around us at all times of the day. Panama, through its rich history and beautiful cultural heritage has so much to offer a young traveler outside of a textbook and a classroom. Even so, I am always carrying a handy pen and notebook to take quick notes, denote outstanding cultural icons, and describe the beautiful culture that is Panama.

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Stay Calm & Don’t Panic : Policing in Panama

The Panamanian Public Forces was a facet of Panamanian culture that I was quickly acquainted with on my 5th day in Panama City. We were stopped not once, not twice, but three times after a night out on town in Casco Viejo. Since I was a child I have never been so afraid of authority and never felt such a need to use the bathroom after seeing the faces of officers asking for my papers and passport. I quickly learned that the Panamanian Public Forces were the country’s source of defense and protection. Unlike within the United States, the PPF is responsible for protection domestically, as well as maintaining protecting externally.

Experiencing night life in Panama, I initially held a very naive American attitude to our cultural experiences and adventures without fead of being stopped and questioned. Similar to the United States, the PPF employs protective measures in order to maintain peace and expunge any illicit activities.Curiously, PPF is the only source of defense for Panama, as a result of Panama abolishing its standing army. With the PPF acting as a para-military force, this structure resulted from the “American Just Cause” in invasion that overthrew the military dictatorship in Panama. However, the difference lies in their priorities and maintaining safety and protection from the US. Within the context of the United States, police stops are based on the suspicion of illicit activities. Additionally, there is an expectation of punishment when being stopped by police. As I learned, being stopped by police in Panama is no surprise and is as common as filling gasoline at a gas station. As a visitor in Panama, I was frightened by the invasive nature of defense forces that protected and monitored the city at all hours. However, I  began to learn that in a foreign place, I needed to take the time to learn what is normal.

Though I was frightened my experience interacting interculturally with the PPF, I was lucky to have first hand experience of understanding defense culture in Panama. My understanding of the various differences politically, economically, and socially between Panama and the United States show me that I need to maintain an open mind in all of my experiences abroad. Even though defense plays a different role in Panama and the US, its important to note that one must let go of of his or her expectations in order to adjust to a new way of life. Even the most uncomfortable experiences are experiences nonetheless.Panama Police

Who We Are, Where We Are – Indian Microculture in Panama

Growing up as an Indian in America, I experienced a early-life crisis similar to Hank in the book Panama, conflicted by the two cultures that were part of his life. I was born in America but possessed the skin color and complexion of a person considered foreign. Like Hank, I had an incessant conflict with trying to fit into a culture that didn’t accept me and a culture I represented and carried with me everywhere I went. As an Indian American, I was part of what is considered a microculture: a “subgroup” of individuals marked by their own distinct language, practices, and expectations. Microcultures also often possess a distinct image from the majority represented in their respective country. As an Indian in the United States, I often felt like a fly in milk carton, distinct in a crowd, and uncomfortable in my identity. Interestingly, traveling throughout Panama has showed me how sharing cultures and mixed heritage can be common and comfortable. I find myself smiling in the crowd, channeling my individualism, and feeling comfortable with who I am and who I represent.

In the last month, I have had the pleasure of acquainting myself with a student at the University of Louisville who shared both Panamanian and Indian culture and was a native to Panama City. Moving to the United States, he faced many of the same struggles I had growing up in Kentucky, trying to fit in, but standing out because of what he looked like. We bonded over our culture but I came to realize I was hardly aware of the other aspect of his culture that made his biracial. He was partially Panamanian, and I was completely ignorant of the fact that there could be an Indian community in Panama. As I did more research into the topic, I was surprised to find that there are around 15,000 Indians in Panama comprising their community. Interestingly, the Colon Free Zone region of the Panama Canal was mostly founded by Indian immigrants in Panama. Their independent communities exist in Panama City and Colon and even though their culture is small, it is continuously distinct and imperative to the diversity of Panama.

As I continue to travel in Panama City and its neighboring cities, my intercultural experiences and conversations continually play a role in my knowledge of the culture and the diverse people that make up its own heritage. If Panama has taught me one thing about culture, it’s that no matter where microcultures are working within the larger macroculture. They are fighting to preserve their individuality and heritage as I have done in my own life. My friend from Panama ad myself not only share a part of our own Indian culture, but we also share an obligation to preserve who we are and express our identities.

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PANA-miss-you-MA.

3,808.4

The numbers of miles that separate us

But your love knows no distance

I live and breath by your existence

It is your womb that carried me for so long

Im just a kid, living and learning right from wrong

by You.

Ma, I miss you so much

If only you were here and I could bear your touch

To feel the soft hands that carried my tears

Slayed my fears

And made it clear

That I was loved.

Am loved.

by You.

One day doesn’t suffice

To show the world your sacrifice

And the hefty price

Of Motherhood.

Ma, I am unworthy of you

Of all that you do

And all you have done

To give me life and love

Unbounded by 3808.4 miles

from You.


I love you Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Love Always,

Natasha

Subsistence – Costco? Not so.

The fourth day of your trip, it hits you: an abdominal pain that rivals eating pop rocks and drinking soda. You were hoping your tender American stomach could manage the climate of a foreign country, but your desire to find the nearest drug store for painkillers overwhelms you. The pharmacist sees your unfamiliar face and proceeds to ask, “How many do you need?” The scowl on your face and lack of words shows the true colors of the American spirit of bulk-quantity purchasing in full view. As a custom of Panamanian culture a “buy what you need” attitude is normative within grocery stores, pharmacies, and retail. In terms of subsistence, Panamanians sustain their livelihood in a way Americans would label minimalist and simplistic. Food is bought and consumed by what is necessary, and only as such. Used to bulk quantity purchases, overconsumption and produce stores like Costco, Americans are acclimated with buying (as well as wasting) large quantities of food.

Unlike in America, local grocery stores are found on every street corner in Panama, locals popping in and out with the supplies that they need for the day. Shopping in general seems to be part of the day for many locals practicing their daily habitual patterns. Comparatively, shopping in the states requires a half-day process of driving, parking, cart-picking, list-writing, line-groaning, and car-loading. In many instances, our need to buy large quantities of food drive some consumers to resort to fast-food purchasing and quick meals. Through our perpetual need to be the ‘bigger is better’ United States, we often lose quality and health in the process. Even in their literal consumption, Panamanians ingest and squander consumable foods more consciously, cooking every part of the fish, eating more fruits and vegetables, and in general, eating less. Even in the book Panama, Hank indulges in his simple breakfast: Papaya, scramble eggs, and micha bread. And in America, what do we have for breakfast? Is it a Denny’s, IHOP, Waffle House, Wild Eggs, Cracker Barrel? The choices are endless, and the calories are infinite!

In my opinion, even though Americans compliment themselves in their ability to be globalized and technologically advanced. However, as a whole, we have a lot to learn from the rest of the world in regards to consumption and a simplified lifestyle. We live in a world that never slows down and constantly demands our attention. But it was the moment I stepped foot onto Panamanian soil I found myself breathing a lot deeper and enjoying the simple moments of peace and consciousness. Interculturally, I have already learned the benefits of simple living and smart consumption. If we are to live in a world sustainable for future generations, we must be thinking in the moment, aware of our actions and the repercussions they entail.

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