Panama - arrivals come with surprises

January 20, 2011 | Alexandra, EIL Program, Panama, Nutre Hogar Santiago, Social Worker Assistant

Panama – our bias is really showing

This is the story of my ill fated arrival in Panama City airport.

Last night I was tested for the first time, and I’m not sure whether I passed or failed. Being the sweet and friendly person that I am, I met some people on the plane who were sitting beside me. They were two Americans, and so, I immediately found more in common with them then not. But it was an imagined alliance, for there was nothing similar between us except for our shared knowledge of the way the world works, a shared language, a shared culture, a shared understanding of norms and interactions with people, a shared fear of going into the unknown and an unprepared sense of what was to come. The two men chummed up to me on the flight, telling me about their lives, their wives, their children, and we had a nice time, though to be honest, by hour 4 I was seriously wondering how it was that these men talked so much. They were worried about me, a little girl, going off into the big scary Latin American world, and as patronizing as that sounds, it also felt a little nice that there was still someone willing to watch out for me 7 hrs after I had left the comfort of my parent’s house. They had more patronizing views, I was “cute”, I would be a “wonderful wife”, I didn’t mind the coddling at that very moment, I was too nervous. We arrived in Panama City Airport [Tocumen] late – at midnight to be precise instead of 10. I was supposed to arrive the day before, and somewhere along the line, my person had gotten the wrong information, and was now thinking that I was to be arriving the next day, and not now, at midnight, alone in a foreign airport, with 2 New Jersey firefighters ready to axe anyone who was going to hurt this poor defenseless girl – especially the foreigner – but in this case, the foreigner was the local –a Panamanian. The uneasiness began.

            And thus the tug of war began. After exiting customs and finding no one holding a sign with my name or anything like it, my new friends started enquiring around for a way to get me where I was going. They found nothing to their liking. What they found was a Panamanian youth holding a sign that held the name of my supposed hotel [seeing as I did not actually hold a reservation, I was just aware that I was supposed to be going to this hotel] and when I inquired about my NGO organization, he seemed to know who I was speaking about. But the Americans were not so keen. My Spanish was much better than their non-existent Spanish, and their “slowly getting louder, more insistant American” was also not winning them any points. Was it an assertion of power, an assertion of male authority, an assertion of American supremacy in all places, America or otherwise, or simply a human being who could relate and was worried about my well being? Or perhaps all of the above that made this tug of war last almost 3o minutes. They were not letting me go with him alone, he was not letting me go with them. They wondered aloud how this strange man just happened to be in contact with the person who had failed to pick me up. So he got on the phone with my contact person – a person, I might add who I had never met in my life – who begged me to go with him – both directions pulled so persuasively. I was so tired. I was standing outside of a strange airport, with people I had only met 5 hours before, with the only other people being soldiers. My head was spinning. I thought, now is not the time to have a meltdown. So I asked my contact person for some proof – who was I supposed to be staying with? Did she know my full name? She started answering the questions correctly, I felt the slightest bit of ease and the slightest weight lift off my shoulders. I thought, if tonight I get kidnapped in Panama, at least no one can say I did it stupidly, I tried my best, I did what I could, I tried some options. So I bid adieu to my NY firefighters and hopped in the cab.

The moral of the story is that I was all too quick to assume that the people who seemed the same as me had my best interests at heart, while those who were different needed extra caution. My Panamanian driver was quick to point that out to me, not quite on those terms, but after I got in the car, he told me that there was no way he would have let me leave the airport with 2 strange men twice my age. And that’s exactly it, because we don’t have to travel to a foreign country to be assaulted, or attacked, but the second we step off our home soil, our guard is up, sometimes for the better, but also sometimes for the worst. So far, I have found that Panamanians are helpful, generous, and kind. They see me as a foreigner, and they want to take care of me and help me, and for that I am so thankful. Not that I am not careful, but my mindset has shifted. My eyes have opened to something new about being outside of the West. I hope to continue for that to take form and shape in the future.

Hasta Luego,


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