So far, living in Panama has had some challenges. Surprisingly, not as many challenges as I had actually expected. Of course I’ve had a lot to adjust to, and believe me, adjusting hasn’t been the biggest challenge . I expected to need a bit of time to settle in to a much different way of living, which is exactly what we were looking for. We certainly didn’t make a move like this to have all the same things we had in California! Learning Spanish has indeed been a pretty big challenge and will continue to be a challenge for a long, long time to come, but its not the hardest thing I’ve faced. The challenge of learning how and where to find certain things I want or need was something that I was prepared to deal with and although, at times a little frustrating, certainly nothing that makes me bang my head against the wall. Don’t get me wrong, my ‘tranquilo’ has often times waned as I’ve muddled through adjusting to some of the insane inefficiencies I’ve been faced with. Before our move I wondered if I would make new friends in my new home and wow! That has not been a problem at all. The connections I’ve made here have been so rewarding on so many levels and I feel so blessed, no making friends has not been a big challenge .
Yes, there have been ,and I expect will continue to be, some things about living in Central America that I would often call, ‘challenging’. But lately I’ve faced a heart wrenching reality that makes all the other adjustments and minor frustrations seem trivial in comparison. I’ve written about my indigenous neighbors who live near the bottom of our driveway. I already told you about one very difficult transaction I had with them a week or so ago. Well, I’ve since had more eye opening and heart wrenching, interactions with the children that have left me feeling such a mix of emotions.
I’ve been struggling to process my feelings and to reconcile all my conflicting reactions to what I’m seeing. I’m having such a difficult time trying to process and understand this aspect of the culture here. On one hand when seeing children cold, hungry, seemingly neglected and sad my knee jerk reaction is to help them. My natural inclination is to protect and or help if I can. And on the other hand, I am also very aware of my role as a guest here in this country. I have a lot to learn about what’s ‘normal’ here and when, if ever, it’s right for me to interfere in something I really don’t understand. Just because its so very different from what I’m used to, does not necessarily make it so terribly ‘wrong’. My preconceived notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ may not be valid here. I think there is likely a very fine line between my inclination to ‘help’ these children because they ’need’ my help… and my own ‘personal need’ for their life to look like the picture of what ‘I’ think is ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’. And is it my responsibility to step in and interfere in the name of ‘help’? I struggle with this on so many levels and am trying to define what I believe is right for “me”. Some of you reading this may say, without a second thought,”Well, of course I would help them”. But, We people who only know one way of living, look at the poverty that these children live in and we instinctively assume they are suffering and that they are living bleak, sad, awful lives. That they want to be rescued from how they live and placed in a clean, pampered environment like our kids live in. But, I’m not so sure about that. Could it be that they are happy and that they don’t necessarily really want me to make their lives different? Maybe they just need a hug. Or an Apple or cookie once in awhile. Maybe the simple hugs and attention they get from me is all they really want. Maybe just knowing I’m here and that they can use my phone in an emergency is enough and is all I can do….
Sometimes I think us westerners can often have such big egos about how wonderful and perfect our culture is. Could it be that there are people around the world who find happiness in living in a completely different way then we live? Some may say,”Well, Holly, what do you expect? It’s a ’Third world country’!” And, although that may be true, I don’t know that that has anything to do with weather nor not these people are living happy , fulfilled lives. I say this and then again…. I’m struck with sadness to find three little girls standing on my front porch late at night, wet from the rain, no shoes on and asking to use my phone to call their dad, who is at a bar in town while they sit in their house with no food and no electricity and no other adult who is looking after them….Ugh! What am I to do, and what am I to think, and how am I to feel about such a seemingly ‘wrong’ and ‘bleak’ situation? This is how they live. It’s not so uncommon here. These children know nothing different. Yet, my heart aches to see it. It bewilders me to no end. I’m struggling to find my peace amongst this extreme difference between what my life looks like and what their life looks like. There is such an extreme contrast between how I’m living, in my fancy house with all the comforts I’m accustomed to while they live in a ‘lean-to’ with a dirt floor and no electricity right next door. Ugh! Yet, it is what it is….sigh…
These adorable kids always have big smiles on their faces when I drive by. They always have on clean clothes. They go school and wear clean school uniforms. They are healthy, not skinny, not hungry looking at all. They laugh and play all the time. They obviously love each other and look out for each other. Their Auntie is back from the comarca now and the girls came up to tell me that she is back and they told me they are , “Muy Feliz”. I’ll never know why she felt the need to come back. It could be that the other family members realize it is best for her to be with the girls here. I’ll never know. I’m glad she’s here to look after them. I don’t know or understand where the mother of the girls is, well, I know the mothers are at the comarca but why they aren’t here with the girls, I don’t know. Again I am totally unaware of how their culture works and I’m completely unable to do anything to change the way their life works. And it does work. It’s not up to me to decide if it’s right or wrong. The Ngobe-Bugle , indigenous people have a unique and ancient culture that is nothing like my western culture. The family dynamic is a mystery to me, I have much to learn. As a group, they don’t strive for the same things we strive for in our lives. They see life in a very different way than how we see it. They treat one another very differently, the roles of each person in the family unit is defined in a much different way than that of our families. The material needs are much different than that of us consumer driven people from the west. As I’ve said, I have much to learn.
I guess the purpose of this post is really me attempting to process this very new and very difficult situation. I don’t need a bunch of advice on how you would deal with this or how wrong I am about how I feel or how I am thinking about these new neighbors of mine. I am painfully aware of my ignorance in terms of how to deal with having neighbors with such a different definition of ‘normal’. I didn’t move to Panama with an agenda to ‘change’ anyone or to make things ‘better’ where I don’t even know if they ‘want’ anything to be ‘better’. But I sure as heck would love to be a productive, responsible, caring, loving, generous, and humble part of their neighborhood. I would like to continue getting to know Anna, Nicole and Annette…my three most favorite little neighborhood girls. I hope I’ll be able to develop a healthy, relationship with them and to somehow contribute something to their lives. I don’t really know what that, ‘something’ will be. For now all I know is they love apples! And they love to hug me and kiss me. When I drive by their home, they often run out to my car and signal to me to stop, then they climb up to the open window and hug me and kiss me! They always have something to say and they always have the biggest smiles on their faces.
Although I’ve said that this is so far the most challenging experience I’ve had while living in Panama I must also say that it’s been my experience that the hardest, often most painful experiences I’ve had have always been the best, most rewarding experiences in the end. I know , beyond a doubt that I can contribute something positive to these three little girls. It may just be the attention I can give them, the hugs & kisses, or possibly the apples I give them once in awhile. It’s going to take me a long time to thoroughly accept that they are living a life that looks so ‘wrong’ to my limited knowledge of different ways of living…but my judgment of ‘wrong’ may be what is so very wrong! And it’s quite possible that they could very well be just as happy as any family who lives in the states. Different is not always wrong or bad….sometimes it’s just ‘different’.