Me Ilamo Bill
I walked off the bus in a totally different, totally new culture. What am I getting myself into, I thought? This thought crossed my mind many times as I was standing in the baking heat outside in the town of Parita, in Panama, waiting for my host family to arrive. Not having ever seen them before I anxiously waited as our group leader called everyone’s name. Laurisa, Xavaier, etc it went on and on until my name was called. It was like something out of a movie. I looked in the crowd and a little old lady appeared. My new abuela (grandmother) was named Maria. Maria was barely 5 feet tall and had a big smile on her face. ?Como fue tu vuelo? (How was your flight?) Having no idea what she was saying and no clue how to respond, I replied “Si.” Frustration started to cloud my mind but I held it back. I knew this was going to be challenging. As the first night proceeded I started to recollect the little Spanish I knew. I managed to ask her where the bathroom was and she pointed to a door near a giant concrete slab in the middle of the house. There were many stray cats that she chased out of the house when they jumped in through open windows and tried to steal food. Regardless, her house was the only one on the block with indoor plumbing.
The next day I felt more comfortable with my Spanish and so when Maria asked me about my family I tried to respond. With many hand gestures and some broken Spanish I told the story of my grandfather immigrating to the US from Mexico as a child, moving with the rest of his family to Waukesha, Wisconsin. She was surprised that I was not fluent in Spanish. I told her that in my grandfather’s family his father did not allow anyone to speak Spanish in the house because “We are Americans now.” The underlying reason was a desire to “blend in” because of racism. Mexico and the past life were never mentioned. Thus my grandfather and his own children (including my mother) never learned to speak Spanish.
As weeks went by in Parita I felt more comfortable speaking to people. Our service group was made up of students from all over the US. We worked on a library building for the local school. We laid bricks for walls and poured concrete for a foundation. Working five hours a day in the heat was hard but the kids in the school were nice and we got to know them and played soccer with them after school.
One day I will always remember was the day Maria took me to the supermarket. I could hold basic conversations with people but I did not realize how eventful this day would become. It was quite an ordeal. The first part of the trip my grandma wanted to show me her church. She typically spent about 4 hours a day there. It was beautifully constructed and had been built in over 450 years ago. However when the pastor spoke to me he used many words I could not understand so I could not respond. I felt bad about it.
Then we took the bus down a few more streets and I felt something weird in my shoe. I felt something crawl on my toes and I swiftly kicked off my shoe. It was a giant cockroach the size of the palm of my hand. I screamed like a little girl and my grandma quickly smashed it into the ground with her cane and broke out laughing. We then got something to eat at a local cafe. We were in line at the cafe and I recognized some of the foods, however I did not read the signs. I ordered what I thought was spaghetti and meat balls and my grandma gave me a surprised look but did not say anything. As I started eating she asked me how it tasted. It was good. It was good until she told me what it was. I looked back at the sign and it said “tongue with red sauce.” She laughed again and smiled.
Next we went to the supermarket. I was introduced to many different kinds of Panamanian foods, such as plantains, whole chickens and whole fish from the ocean. I thought it was cool that all the food was whole and fresh. I did not think much of it at the time but my grandma asked me if I would like to try a traditional Panamanian dish. I said “yes.” She bought a whitish meat at the deli she called “mondongo.” That night after cooking for about 45 minutes she brought out a big bowl of rice, peas and meat – the “mondongo.” Excited and curious I ate the whole thing. The next day I asked my Spanish teacher what mondongo was. She laughed and said “Do you really want to know?” She then informed me it was the inside stomach lining of a cow.
Leaving Panama was a sad day, however, learning about a new culture, living it, not just reading about it in a book, really had me appreciate things that I took for granted in my real life. Now I live my life appreciating people from other cultures. I learned not only the language but a new way of life. I also created a new rule for travelling. When you don’t understand what someone is asking you, do not always reply with “yes!”