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What’s My Age Again?

In the "Cult of Escapism": What’s My Age Again?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What’s My Age Again?

Humberto is hammering the corner post of the latrine into the ground while the rest of us watch and shout encouragement. “More force! Use your arms!” yells Juan. “Harder!” yells Eusevio. I yell, “Yeah, Humberto, hard, like last night!” There is a pause of disbelief, then uncontrollable laughter from all sides. “Jack, I can’t believe you said that!” “Like last night…hahahahaha!” That’s right boys, I have a dirty mind too, you just haven’t experienced it yet. But it’s about time.

A lot of volunteers assume an identity in the community. Some want an inflated image; some want to appear more professional; some* just don’t want the community to realize how often they are thinking, “That’s what she said” during conversations. I used to restrain myself and assume a more “professional” persona and now I’m steering conversations towards bedroom humor. What happened?

Upon arrival, I was worried my potential work counterparts (whom, at that point, could have been anyone for all I knew) would doubt my abilities because of my age and lack of professional experience. In the immortal words of Blink-182, “Nobody likes you when you’re 23.” So I tried hard to appear professional by acting serious**, dressing well, and refraining from making fart noises with my armpit during meetings. This last part was particularly difficult, but after a few months, I had the role down and the people fooled.

But I realized a few things. First, having a college degree in rural Panamá, especially a college degree from America, is basically a lifetime accomplishment. College simply isn’t an option here for most and their education system is about as effective as a square bowling ball, so a foreign degree impresses people.

Additionally, my various jobs throughout high school and college don’t matter much, in terms of résumé in the States, but in a town with mostly subsistence farmers and thus over 90% unemployment, those jobs are relatively impressive.

Finally, being white commands an inherent authority out here – especially if you have a beard.

So revaluing my previously underestimated strengths, I gained confidence and stopped worrying about my “professional” image. The people I worked with knew I worked hard and my wardrobe of almost entirely polo style shirts was high fashion. But I still had a personal reputation to uphold and I worried constantly that people would think I was weird.

Which was pretty stupid of me.

How can I possibly not be considered weird out here? If I act exactly like the locals, that defines weird – i.e. out of the ordinary; i.e. a hairy white guy in an indigenous autonomous region in Panamá cutting the grass with a machete and commenting on the weather in Ngäberre. And if I act natural, that’s weird because I do strange things like eat non-root vegetables, floss my teeth, and listen to rock and/or roll music.

Then, one day I said “hard like last night” and everyone loved it. And I realized that I could act more naturally and not necessarily get judged. So now, if someone catches me after a midday hammock nap and asks if I was sleeping, I say “Absolutely!” instead of making excuses for my grogginess. And if I’m running slow on the soccer field and someone calls me out, I tell them their sister tired me out the night before.

Because I can be a 23 and a professional. That’s good with my machete.
At least, that’s what she said.

**And it was acting for sure – I may not be capable of being serious. 


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