Tomas Quinonez-Riegos '15 is a Starr Fellow living in Panama working for iTeachCommunity.
It is just past 9 in the morning and the sun is already near noon. It will stay up high nearly all day, beating life into the earth and calling forth the lush vegetation to explode in dense growth, almost as dense and lush as my hair. Almost, but not quite. The sun is different, here in Panamá. Everything is different here in Panamá. I have been here one month tomorrow and I am just now comfortable.
In retrospect, the summer schedule I had made previously seems so entirely naïve that it’s hilarious. How did I expect to plan out my summer when I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into? It was like planning a walk through a city I have never been to where I give myself directions to turn at streets I do not know exist. If I had followed my initial summer guide I would be terribly, terribly lost. The sun is different in Panamá.
I was recently told by a dear friend that in new situations, he noticed I have a tendency to hang by the fringes and observe before I act. As a Development Studies concentrator, this trait is crucial in not overstepping my role in a community. I need to be cognizant of social norms and expectations so that I respect the people I am working with. Yet the sun is different in Panamá. The trees are different, the air is different, the language is different, the daily schedules are different, the transportation is different, the education system is different, the men of this rural town who farm and ride horses are different, the children who are experts with machetes are different, even the other interns in my program (a group of 19 young women from mostly southern and Midwestern states) are different. As someone who waits to observe a community before deciding my place in it, I suddenly was an observer everywhere I went. Neither the local soccer court, nor the living room of my house where spaces of comfort for me. So I turned inwards to the one stable platform I still knew I belonged: books.
Although I certainly enjoy travel, I cannot deny the fact that community building is exhausting. It also requires a firm sense of self. My immersion back into books gave me just the slightest foothold of self to ground myself before moving outwards and constructing a more stable platform for myself in this place. The more I step outward, the more I am supported by helping hands as faces that were once different become familiar. An older woman I had approached once for a tentative local food project saw me yesterday and invited me to her house to discuss it further. A young man I play soccer with invited me over to watch the U.S. – Panamá World Cup qualifier in his living room. A teenager I had tutored at an after schools program helps me spread the word to his school about an online education program I wish to start. The schedules are now in place for two iTeach-related programs in two nearby communities to begin. Both programs are being advertised, attended, and organized with the help of individuals I whose faces have become familiar over this past month.
The sun is different here in Panamá. Yet it is now becoming familiar.