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Over the Hills and Far Away

In the "Cult of Escapism": Over the Hills and Far Away

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Over the Hills and Far Away

Welcome to Soloy - the natives are friendly
Soloy begins where the road ends.  And when I say the road ends, I mean that it runs directly into a river, which is impassable for most cars, for most of the year.  For about twenty minutes leading up to this point, there are dozens of small shops, restaurants, and street-side vendors - most of whom sell roughly the same products.

Temporary Residence (if you look close, there is a naked baby)
Located in a valley, Soloy serves as a commerce and education hub for the towns in the mountains surrounding it.  People walk down anywhere from two to nine hours to buy food, artisan goods, use the health center, or go to school.  Many people live in an area near the schools temporarily for most of the year so that their kids can attend the large local high school or primary school; they call it temporary housing, to me it looks more like a shanty town and I admire their commit to educating their children.

Coffee before liquid - just one group to work with
From my perspective, this is very exciting, as there are lots of potential small businesses to work with.  I spent the better part of my three day visit going to each business and introducing myself.  The town has had several Peace Corps volunteers in the past (there is actually another volunteer living in the town right now, teaching English), so they are used to us being around but I am the first volunteer sent to work primarily with the businesses. During my walkabout, most people seemed interested and a few owners literally wanted to get started right then, so I might have an opportunity to hit the ground running (which is rare in Peace Corps).

The first three months, I will be living with three different host families.  I stayed with the first during my visit, again sleeping on a table with some cardboard and a thin pad on it.  This doesn't bother me.  There are about 15 people living in the house, which is probably about as large as most American living rooms (I asked my host brother how many people live in the house and he said, "Many."  This doesn't bother me either. The latrine is under the same roof as the shower and only about six feet from the house, so cleaning does not feel very cleansing and when it rains (which it does most of the day, every day), it smells like latrine from my room.  While I have sworn to separate shit from shower in my own house in the future, this situation doesn't bother me that much either.  It's the mud that gets me.

House left, shit-shower right
The whole house is surrounded by mud, such that it is impossible not to submerge one's foot in it when entering or exiting.  This is largely true around most houses in the area, though somehow the locals manage to keep their feet clean.  It's amazing.  I will have to investigate this phenomenon further and possibly even write my graduate school thesis on it (I have not yet applied, or even thought about grad school, but I figure that would be a unique topic).

Most significantly I feel however, is during my visit, I felt the first pangs of fear and apprehension since I have arrived in Panama.  So far, I have eagerly adopted the culture, piled-driven my way through the training and generally just felt pretty comfortable.  However, this past weekend, I realized I was going to be living like this for TWO years - and it's probably not going to be as easy as I thought.  OK, I know this is probably something I should have already come to terms with but it hit me like a big, angry, drunk guy and I wasn't expecting it.  However, after a few hours of heavy thoughts and feeling sorry for myself, I traded my purse for a machete, stroked my gristly beard, and went out into the town in search of a business to talk to.

Hopefully these types of bell-jar* moments will be few but I think I got my first taste of why Peace Corps says this is "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love."  But without fear, one cannot be courageous and without a challenge there cannot be progress.  So I'll just have to do what over 200,000 other volunteers have done in the past and find my own way of getting through the rough days and weeks in the valley.  I'll probably listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin.

*This is kind of an obscure reference but it's a term I've decided I will use consistently.  The Bell Jar is a book by Sylvia Plath (fantastic book) about getting clinically depressed.  According to her, severe depression can descend on you like a bell jar, warping your view of the world and trapping you for an indeterminate amount of time. While I would not compare what I will go through to clinical depression, I do want to borrow the bell jar metaphor to describe sadness striking without warning and clouding one's view of the world.


At October 27, 2010 at 9:37 AM , Blogger Salvatore said...

Hi Jack - it all sounds amazing. The sleeping on the table thing not so great. The chicken chase - should have been filmed. How difficult is it to learn an indigenous language? How many fellow volunteers are with you at any time. It seems like you are alone with the locals most of the time.

At November 8, 2012 at 3:19 PM , Blogger bama said...

Wow! Panama Jack! Now I must say, my son's site seems luxurious compare to what you describe here. (refers to a previous comment I made to an earlier post) I am very interested to learn how you adapted! Billie


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