Tuesday, November 9, 2010

IS IT JUST ME? – My Boquete Epiphany

I'm in the sweet little mountain town of Boquete, Panama for two weeks, part of my quest to experience more of life and chase my elusive dream of Spanish fluency, whatever that is. Trips like this are always eye-openers for me. I get to see how the vast majority of earthlings live, and, recently, how the roiling confluence of that lifestyle with the relentless current of the new "world culture," so long on aspiration but so short on patience, is affecting their simpler, purer—some would say more sustainable—traditions.

But this trip is already proving to be more than merely instructional. Just this morning I had an epiphany.

Habla Ya, the fine Spanish school I'm attending, arranged for me to stay with a local family. Señor Guillermo Bell Miranda is a coffee farmer, working the land atop the steep cerro just behind his home. He and his extended family couldn't be nicer or more generous with their home, their time and their help with my Spanish. Nonetheless, I had just two requirements for my lodging: a bed at least six feet long, and WiFi (so I can keep up with my commitment to regular posting here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento. (http://elviajerocontento.blogspot.com) With classes taking up most of the day, and the prospect of a few excursions into the gorgeous area surrounding Boquete in the mornings, I was counting on being able to connect with the Internet every evening, in the privacy of my room.

I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable. 

The bed is long enough. But the Internet connection, a sluggish, intermittent, dial-up service, requires  17-year-old Antonio's shoving a well-used CD onto my laptop and installing a huge program.

My reaction to all of this—well within reason, I thought—was to let Lorena, la directora of the school, know that we'd have to find some other arrangement that would accommodate my needs. After all, who's the customer here? Wouldn't anyone in his right mind hold a supplier more or less to the terms of a contract? I assured Lorena that the last thing in the world I want to do is to offend the Bell Miranda family, but work is work.

Just then, another staff member in the office, overhearing our conversation, came over to explain, in what I took as a paternalistic tone, that I couldn't blame the Bell Mirandas nor any average Panamanian family for not knowing all the ins and outs of Internet connections.

My Spanish always collapses to the level of rank beginner when shaken by any degree of emotion. Explaining that to the young man, I let him know, in English and in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't blaming the family at all. And I didn't need to be told that the school's inability to meet my very few requirements was my fault. At this, Lorena jumped in to suggest that they might, indeed, be able to locate another family with WiFi. I reiterated my concern with hurting the feelings of Guillermo and his family with my decision, but she assured me they could explain the situation to the family with minimal offense. So I agreed to that solution and thanked her.

I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

I retired to the student lounge (where WiFi is available), and started writing about my first couple of days here. I couldn't think straight. Too many feelings plucking at the edges of my concentration. I tried to imagine two weeks at my adoptive family's home with nothing "productive" to do in the evening, especially considering that they all retire by 9:00 or 9:30.

I recalled, from all my experiences in Mexico, how enigmatic Latin American values can seem to a Norteamericano, but how, at some level I've only occasionally been able to embrace, they made sense. Then I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo's and his family's faces when they learned that I'd found their home unacceptable.

That's what did it. In that split second of clarity, everything resorted itself in my mind. I released my hold on my frustration, disappointment and self-righteousness, and let acceptance and flexibility gently nudge them aside. And, after all that consternation, the answer seemed so beautifully simple. I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.

So now I'll spend my evenings patiently and happily with this kind, generous family. I'll write what I can without access to information and photos. I'll read my book—very slowly, so it'll last the two weeks. Then I'll use my free mornings to get online at school. Self: see how easy that is?

The cosmos wasted no time in rewarding me for my little awakening. For the rest of the morning, as it turns out, in the busy student lounge, I had the chance to meet many of the staff and my fellow students I'd never have met otherwise. And tonight, arriving home after classes, everything seemed different with Guillermo and the family. Was it just me, or can they see the change in my attitude?

Funny, you can read about how to behave gracefully in other cultures. You can learn some of the language and customs. You can try doing in Rome as the Romans do. I know these things, and have wrestled with culture shock before. But, at least for me, it's taken that little extra jolt, that little injection of emotion followed by reflection, for me to actually get it. Now if I can only remember it.


Everett said...

And I thought you understood Latina culture so well. In Costa Rica we dealt with these little things daily like electricity going out and no back up lighting or rain washing the road out and we had to walk the last couple of kilos.
This is a hard lesson for us all to realize when we travel that we are guests in their environment and we need to adapt our life needs to their ways. Your Spanish takes you a long ways ,as I must do as well, because most Americans get upset when other peoples won't even speak English.
Have a great time learning. I hope the hurricane rains have not effected Panama as it has in Costa Rica. Mudslides have closed many roads and put many people and property in dangers way.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hola Everett -- Yeah, I feel like I understand Latino culture better than most, yet I have to relearn some of the lessons each time I'm confronted with the unbending reality. Do you think we impose equally unbending realities/lessons on Latino visitors to our country?

Hubbs Center said...

Wow, Jeff. Thanks for this post. I think every day in a new place involved decisions about which expectations and values to adjust, and what to keep. Not easy. I do think our ESL students are grappling with those issues, too. How do they juggle work, family, friends, prayer, worry for their home countries, and much more. I hope that, at least in ESL class, we are sensitive to this process. It's a challenge when our class includes many cultures, all of which must be respected.
See you back home soon,

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised your generous spirit overtook your "agenda," You represent the best in all of us.
Miss you, your wife

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Cris -- Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, you're exposed every day to the grace with which our students are coping with such culture shock. Please give them all my best.
By the way, I just got visitors from Peru and Norway, making OMW's country count 18. Wow! Take care...

Chas said...

.....and you always said that I was the judgmental one.


Jeffrey Willius said...

I never said that, you idiot! ;-)
Thanks for checking out my progress, Chas. Hope all's well at your end.

Janeth Martinez said...

I thank God for knowing people like you who leave their needs aside to try to understand others. This means that there is still hope for everyone. No doubt learning to appreciate the wonders of everything around us, helps us grow spiritually and to see obstacles as opportunities. Opportunity to become better people. Greetings from Panama.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey jth241 -- Is this my wonderful Boquete maestra and "guia?" Thanks for your very kind comments. Life continues to be a learning process, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff for sharing your Panama adveture, I checked out the lessons, the possibilities of a host family, exploration etc after reading some of your stuff. Thinking this might be a good way to spend a week or 2...so glad to have read your blog.

Jeffrey Willius said...

So glad you liked my Panama stuff. I gather you're interested in the Spanish learning part too? If so, Habla Ya Spanish School's a good place to start. Thanks for the comment -- hope you'll be a follower!

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