A Day In The Life Of…Me

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Here’s a snapshot of my day..which is not to be misunderstood as what everyday looks like because, seriously, I never really know what any day will bring…
I wake up everyday at 6:15, often I snooze for a few more minutes before getting up. I go to the bathroom, do my thing…no need for details here..ahem…brush my teeth, blah, blah, blah…then make my way into the kitchen where I always first and foremost, begin the water boiling for the coffee. After the water is on the gas I grind the coffee. Then given the fact that the cat has been meowing and meowing since about 3ish!!! Ugh! I give the damn cat his food! THERE!! As I look out the window I marvel at the beauty of the view of Volcan Baru. that view never gets old. Often its surrounded by clouds but mostly it stands so proud in the soft morning sunlight. Its seriously , a magnificent sight to wake up to.
So, this day began much differently than any other day. I started making pancakes for Scott, got all the ingredients together and began measuring the dry ingredients when I noticed two of the young indigenous girls from down at the bottom of my driveway slowly walking towards my house. I must admit, my first thought was,”uh oh”, I wondered what was up. I have never had them visit me early in the morning. When they got to the house I opened the front door and stepped onto the front stoop and said,”hola, como esta” The oldest girl answered,”Mal” (bad). Gulp…Oh no, “cual es la problema?”….then begins the very difficult task of trying to figure out why their sweet faces have obvious signs of tears running down their cheeks. After much back and forth I came to understand that they had had a nightmare night. Sometime in the night, their father had come home drunk and beaten the only other female adult in their home…their Tia (aunt). Ugh!

Okay, so, after struggling to figure out what they wanted from me, I got the story…the Auntie wanted to leave Boquete and go back to the comarca (this is similar to an indian reservation in the states, but very remote and very primitive about 6 hour bus ride from here). So what they needed was simply bags for the Auntie to pack her meager belongings to take with her to the comarca. Bags? Well, I didn’t know what kind of bags she wanted, I showed her the only bags I could think of that I had, big garbage bags? No….it turned out the type of bags they needed were these sturdy canvas like bags that many of the farmers use to carry the coffee and often fertilizers in. They are large and very strong. But I didn’t have those here. I figured out how to ask the girls if they knew where to buy them, which they did know. So I told them that after I made Scott breakfast I would drive them to town to buy some bags.

I drove with the two oldest girls 10 and 12 years old to town, bought the bags and drove back to their house. The Auntie was waiting, she had prepared her three young children for the journey, they were dressed in their best clothes, hair combed, shoes on and ready to go. There was an old man there, a neighbor who luckily spoke English. Feliciano, who is a farmer that has a finca across the street and was able to give me more information about what was going on. He was so sweet, he told me that he has known this family for a very long time and that it is not uncommon for the father to get drunk and beat up whatever women happens to be in his house. Ugh! This might explain why the mother of the other girls is no longer living there. Feliciano told me the father had beaten the Auntie with his belt and had kicked her too…deep sigh..oh my gosh! This explains why the Auntie was the only adult women who was living there with her three small children and the three girls who I am friendly with. So in my mind I was thinking,”oh my goodness this will mean that now the three girls will be all alone with no adult female to care for them”. !@$% Well, I must remain calm and try not to get too involved with this.

Feliciano was very concerned with the Aunties desire to return to the comarca. He told me there was a place in town where she could go for assistance and that that would be the best thing for her to do. He was strongly against her leaving and going to the comarca. I wanted only to give them the bags and stay as uninvolved as possible….at the same time my heart was breaking thinking about the violence all these six young children must have witnessed last night. Surely this was not the first time nor would it be the last. I got out of my car and walked up to talk to the Auntie…I just asked her what she preferred to do and she was determined to go to the comarca so I told her I would drive her to the bus in town. That was that. She took her three small children, I’m guessing 1 year old, 2 year old and maybe 5 year old, and her two very heavy bags of belongings and quietly got into my car. I gave her some aspirin and a bottle of water along with a bag of all the fruit I had in my house. She hugged me and thanked me. After I left her at the bus, I cried….

Sigh…Its an extremely difficult reality to adjust to witnessing up close and personal and certainly near impossible to really understand. I’ve learned that the different indigenous in Panama have very different cultures there are several different tribes and each has a set of beliefs and a way of living that differs greatly from one another and is altogether different from the Panamanians. Not all, but the vast majority of indigenous live in severe poverty. Many don’t have opportunity to pursue much in the way of education. Mind you, I know there are some who manage to break out of the cycle and to pursue a different life than that of those who I am speaking of. But today I’ve been exposed for the first time, in real life, to the hard reality of a very large group of people. Please understand, the words I’m writing right now portray the newness of my very raw, painful exposure today of a reality that I knew was here but had just not experienced it as I did today. When I lived in the States , of course I knew that there was poverty in the world and that there were children with really hard lives. Who doesn’t know that? But I had never in my life been so personally touched by this painful reality. I changed the channel on the TV when those things got too ‘graphic’ for me. I just didn’t want to see it. But today I didn’t have the luxury of closing my eyes to the six children with red, puffy eyes and tracks down their cheeks from the tears they had shed in the night. The girls hugged me. They thanked me. They were trying to be brave. I doubt they realized how they looked because they have no mirror in their house. But the Auntie could not hold back the big tears that escaped her sad eyes when I approached her and embraced her. Gulp!

This family drama was not an easy thing to see. And, there is so little I can do to make any kind of lasting improvement in their lives. Nothing really. I can be kind. I can be generous. I can be caring. I can care so deeply but the reality is that I can not take them out of their life. I can not intrude in their culture. I can only very carefully do what I am personally comfortable with doing for them, being mindful that I can never fix it. And unfortunately I understand I must be careful of the fact that they see us Gringos as people who they can try to take for whatever they can get. This sounds so cold. So uncaring. I have heard it so often and I don’t disbelieve it. I’ve seen first hand how these girls often attempt to get as much as they can from me. But, I think about how they live and how little they have. And people like us move into the neighborhood, people who, to them are rich beyond anything they will ever know. They spend much of their lives just trying to survive. To have enough food to get through the day, to keep their ‘lean-to’ that they call a house, (which I may add has no electricity or running water and a dirt floor ) from leaking during the torrential rains and the children try to attain some level of education. We live practically right next door, in our big, fancy, clean houses…. right next door to them. Sheesh! What must we look like to them? I have a refrigerator full of food, and I continue to buy more before I even run out! They have no refrigerator, washing machine, toilets, indoor shower, tile floor….Oh my gosh…the list of what they don’t have is endless. Its no wonder they try to get what they can from us. I try to think what it must be like to be them. I will never be able to imagine such a thing. But, I can imagine If I were trying like hell to survive as they do, I too would probably see if the people who have more than they need would give me anything.

I talk about how Scott and I have moved to Panama and how we have minimized our material possessions. Then I talk about the 40 foot container of belongings that we shipped out here. Jeeesh! We still have so much. I may spend the rest of my life trying to process this reality. It saddens me and yet, I ponder… can I somehow make a difference to just these three young girls? Its quite possible that I can’t. I don’t really know. Can you tell that this is a struggle for me? Some say I must toughen up. That we need to be careful. That they think of us only as people they can take advantage of. I can see that, for those who have never had any “ADVANTAGE”, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to grasp what little they might get their hands on. Who of us would not do the same in their shoes? I don’t know where I’m going with this post. I’m just attempting to process this day. It made me deeply sad. I shed tears that made no difference. My little neighbor girls are now all alone with a man who will likely begin to beat them (and worse) now that there is no adult to protect them. I can’t protect them, I can’t really do much. Its a culture that is not mine. I can’t change an entire culture. And I certainly can not be under the naive impression that I am responsible for or even capable of, ‘fixing’ a way of life that I do not understand or approve of. Just because I abhor what I have just witnessed today, does not give me the right to think I should intrude and try to make it all look the way I want it to look. But, I can be kind, caring , cautiously generous and loving, however I may personally define “loving”.

I feel like, I need to try to focus on small moments of kindness that I can possibly gift my sweet little neighbor girls. Without creating a sense of expectation from them. I don’t want them to expect me to be the one gringo who will give them money or food or whatever they come to me for. Because giving them money will not change their way of life. I prefer to find some sort of balance with them that lets them know that I care about them without my feeling obligated to fix what I find wrong . I don’t know what the future may bring. I have so much to learn about this new life here.

This post is , as always my way of sorting though my feelings. And a way of expressing yet another adjustment of living in another country. I have a long ways to go in terms of really understanding the best way to live amongst some of the cultural differences that today have really been up close and personal. I can no longer change the channel and close my eyes to extreme poverty because they are my neighbors. I just remembered a very touching moment I had with the two girls in my car this morning…on our way back up the hill from buying the bags for their Auntie, they asked me to stop at one of the tiny little tiendas on the side of the road. The 12 year old had a five dollar bill, she said she needed to buy some things. I turned on my hazard lights and waited in the car as she went in to the store. When she came back she had bought food for she and her sisters for breakfast…I couldn’t see all that she bought but they had a bag of potato chips and some juice boxes that they began to eat , it was obvious to me that they had not eaten breakfast, and (as I tell you this tears begin to form in my eyes remembering how sweet it was) they offered me one of the juice boxes and a bag of chips….sigh. I graciously declined the offer but could not help but feel so thankful for the incredibly generous way they tried to share with me what little they had.

Most of the time, as I look around at the incredible beauty all around me I feel exuberant. My heart soars with joy that I get to live in this truly spectacular place. The trees, the flowers , the animals, the birds, the mountains and endless rainbows that make me smile…today was different for me. Not so incredibly beautiful. My heart didn’t soar with joy but felt as though it were breaking. We all know there is good and bad in this life and today my eyes saw the bad in those sad, swollen, red eyes of my sweet little neighbors. Sorry to be so gloomy in this post. I know I’m normally a much more optimistic, positive gal, but I gotta tell ya’ this was a reality that I felt I had to share. Adventures are often a mixture of good days and bad, this was a hard one for me.

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16 responses »

  1. WOW, Holly! What a day of lessons for everyone involved, including all of us who read your posts! You know I consider you the Expat Angel of Boquete — and now I know that the aunt and all six of these little kids think of you the same way. As you said, you can only do so much — and you do need to manage boundaries — but what you did changed their lives for today at the very least and perhaps forever — and I know it changed your life as well. Yet again, I am honored and blessed to have met you and to call you my friend. -T-

  2. Oh my… {{hugs}} Who is left in the house now? Two girls? How old? Daughters of the drinking guy? Of course in the US you could call social services but here, I don’t know if there are any resources like that. It would be all I could do to resist taking them in. I hope the others are better in the comarca where hopefully they have family. There though, if the statistics I read are correct, half the babies don’t make it to their second birthday and the main cause is malnutrition. Life is very tough there. The problems are difficult and complex, and I know the Panamanians are also frustrated. Like you said though, what right do we have to change someone’s culture even though in our eyes, we see such a need for change.

  3. Reblogged this on FindingMySelfinPanama and commented:
    My dear friend Holly is changing, evolving-I have seen it and I admire her honesty and ability to write with such truth and transparancy. She is, as many of us in Panama are, coming to grips with the realities of the “divide” between the “haves” and “have nots”.

    I share her post. I hope you read it.

    Well done, Holly.

  4. Oh Holly, that was heart-breaking and beautifully expressed. How to show compassion and yet keep the “proper distance”? I do believe you’re on the right track: knowing you can’t “fix” lives, but offering small moments of kindness. (Which may end up not being so small after all — don’t underestimate the impact of your generous heart.)
    Much love,
    Janet

  5. What a powerful post. I just found your blog yesterday and confess that I am struggling with the same realizations as we reduce the size of our possessions. We leave for our new rental in Boquete November 11. We are also putting many things in a container for shipment and still storing some in the U.S. What to pack? What matters most? What doesn’t matter at all? The management of all this STUFF is overwhelming. And it’s making me think about how much we have that we don’t need. Then for you to have this powerful juxtaposition with your neighbor family… Wow. Take it easy on your self and remember that you came to Panama to live a more authentic life. This is part of your journey.

  6. So Sad but so many suffer from similar, even here in the States. YOU were there when Needed, that was Important and You gave much needed Assistance. Sadly, We cannot Make Life Choices for Others. God Bless the Children but aren’t We ALL Children?

  7. My eyes are now thoroughly washed after reading your post. What you witnessed is a world wide problem but when it is literally next door to you it is even more heartbreaking.

  8. Holly, this is a powerful post. Living in a developing country opens our eyes to the poverty and desperation among the local people. The best that we can do, like you say, is to show compassion and act in some small way that will help provide immediate relief for those who are suffering. Buying the bags for Auntie brought tears to my eyes. Maintaining our balance in a world of poverty is a difficult thing to do. I love you for your compassion, your generosity and your caring.

  9. The 12 year old girl will now be the oldest women in the home. She will be next in line for the beatings. So sad children are treated in this manner .!

  10. Dear Holly,

    Heart wrenching story. I don’t have any answers other then they need an education to lift them out of poverty. Can they get some schooling.? For all its beauty, Panama is still a 3rd world country.

    Give Hugs Holly–they need your support.

    Love,

    Marky

  11. Holly I am so proud of your caring, giving and loving hart 🙂 You made a difference in all of their lives today just hold on to that. I know it really doesn’t seem like much however to them believe me it mattered. I know you feel like your hands are tied however again you will never know how much what you did today meant to them. You are their special angle just keep being your loving self with caution. I know that is a difficult thing to do however you can do it. Holly I Love you so much your hart is so giving and full of so much LOVE. I know it’s difficult however I am praying for you and the girls. Sending angles to protect them and give you the strength to know what you can and cannot do for them 🙂 Sending you lots of hugs today 🙂 Love You Sunshine Mom xxxxoooo

  12. Human kindness is a good thing, and you were definitely compassionate and kind. You are right to respect their choices, her choice to go back where she felt she wanted to go, somewhere where other family lived and she would feel safe. Buying her bags to pack her things in was very kind as well as giving some fruit. You did the right thing, and in this case I don’t think they were trying to take advantage, just hoping that friendly Gringo lady would help out in their hour of need

  13. Holly, I agree that it is difficult to know what to do in these cases. I’ve heard the Social Worker in our district say a couple of times that many women in similar situations call the police but when the time comes to actually press charges they decline. In North America they wouldn’t have an option, the perpetrator would be charged with a crime automatically. Unfortunately in Panama’s machismo society change in the laws and protection of women and girls is slow in coming and many women are dependent on men to support them. Until there are supports and shelters in place as safe havens not much is going to change.

    It’s true education is the key to freeing women to make their own choices. I look around at the girls in my English class and wonder what will come of them? In the next breath I ponder what kind of scholarships for further education could be issued with all the money that is spent on fireworks and fiestas? It’s true, it’s not our place to change the culture, the change must come from within.

    Those of us who become involved with the people in our adopted community walk a fine line of knowing what is “help” and what is a “handout”. You can be kind, caring, cautiously generous and loving, none of this involves “handing out” anything. It involves sharing yourself, and it’s a big commitment. Something that many people are afraid of. You did good girl. 🙂

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