Long Weekend!

Im so happy that it is a long weekend this week! I will not have work on Friday! I think this could be the only long weekend that I will encounter while I’m here. Although it will not really be a “long weekend” for me because there is an event that I will have to attend for the company… so technically speaking, it will be a regular weekend for me L I was looking so forward to this long weekend because then I will be able to explore GuangZhou more but now I guess I won’t be able to do that! 😦

On the brighter side, I recently found out that my childhood friend is ALSO in china for the summer and he will be visiting me this week over the long weekend! So I am excited to see him because I haven’t seen him for years! I am looking forward to this weekend! It will be an exciting one! We will be exploring some parts of GuangZhou! Once I have pictures, I will be sharing them with everyone! 😀

Watson’s Grand Opening

When I was coming home from work yesterday night, I noticed that the Watson’s store opened! I’ve been waiting for their opening for a while now since I saw the advertisement that they will be opening near my location. So it finally opened yesterday and I couldn’t help but go inside to take a look at what they have. For those of you who don’t know, Watson’s is like a Walgreens and Shoppers Drug Mart. So I went in and looked around and I bought a lot of little things for no reason just because they looked cute and also it was hello kitty! So I couldn’t resist, so I made the purchase! 😀

“So how are you doing in Panama so far?”

All of my friends and family have been asking me this question (see title) via text message, and I thought a blog post directly addressing this question, rather than trying to tackle it over and over on my mini touch screen phone, was both easier and would have less spelling mistakes. (My phone doesn’t have auto correct, for better or for worse…)

No longer feeling like a deer caught in the headlights when someone asks me something in Spanish, my understanding of the local language is coming along but slowly. I had an epiphany that aided my understanding of the spoken language when I realized that on top of most Latino cultures which drop all ‘s’ sounds from their words (in the middle and at the end), Panamanians actually drop the last syllable from most words! Some is guess work, some is asking for them to repeat more slowly, some is sign language, and some is Google translate, but my Spanish skills are slowly developing, and I don’t feel completely awkward. I do plan to head to some of the bigger Panamanian bookstores next weekend to explore some adolescent grammar books to help me along…you know…the really annoying ones we were forced to use in elementary school? Yeah…the Spanish equivalent of that…hopefully with some pictures 🙂

In terms of my living situation, after 18 years of sharing a room with my sister, 4 years of sharing my living space with fellow University students (in both residence and local apartment rentals), and finally cohabiting with my boyfriend for a year, living alone is definitely an adjustment. Exploring a strange city with a strange language, and being strongly advised not to go out after dark, puts me in a position of independence and state of personal awareness that I have to say, I have not before experienced. I realize that personal security is no laughing matter; especially after a coworker shares with me the fact that a friend of his was kidnapped by the security guards in her apartment and killed. Hyper-vigilance at all times; but enough sensibility to have the confidence to speak a strange language, interact with the locals, and explore new places around me. When in Rome, right?

One thing I’m definitely not missing from home however? The hair all over my clothes from my cat; I love her to death and I miss her, but I do not miss having to ‘dehair’ everything before I wear it. Which just goes to show you that most of all, it’s the little differences that you notice the most; that make the biggest difference. Oh ya, that, and the fact that I’m thousands of kilometers away from everything I know, I keep reminding myself. The world feels a lot smaller, but definitely more wonderful since I’ve been given a chance to explore a new part of it for a little while.

The source of all of the cat hair on my clothes: my baby, Killer. (Yes, Killer is her real name.)

Mara at the Market (…in Panama)

I had my first foray into the local Panamanian market life when I ventured to the fish market and the farmer’s market last Saturday. Needless to say, I took a taxi. The drivers, just like other Panamanians, are super friendly and will chat you up, but they never seem to have change for bigger bills when you ask. Carrying small bills will be beneficial to my budget in the future when I decide to take this form of transportation.

I couldn’t describe to you the smell that assaulted my senses when I walked into the warehouse-like structure that housed the fish market. Pungent would be one polite word that came to mind. I mean, I grew up in the country and I know my share of funny smells, but I could hardly handle it. The image of the vats of olives in Toronto’s old Greektown came to mind; the ones in highland farms. Just translate that to a humid and hot warehouse full of fish and various other forms of seafood. I ended up purchasing 2lbs of shrimp for $6 and a whole sea bass (which they gut and fillet for you upon request) for $7.50.

Seafood is a big thing in Panama. So is sea bass, which is not commonly found in North America. One of the most popular dishes in Panama is Ceviche. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Ceviche is chunks of raw fish (usually sea bass, but it can be made with really any raw seafood chunks) marinated in lime juice and onions. The acidity in the lime juice and onion actually ‘cooks’ the fish so it isn’t raw at the time of consumption, but it is served cold. Shopping alone, I chickened out on purchasing my first Ceviche dish, but in the Panama spirit, I poached my sea bass in lime juice and onion. Didn’t turn out too bad, actually; the lime gives it a good kick, but not too big.

Two halves of one fillet (the fist was huge!) of Sea Bass, cooked in lime juice with white and green onion.

Stop number two was the farmer’s market. It was right on the edge of Panama City, but it was worth the trip. A maze of dirt roads lined by stands and warehouses, every in-season fruit and veggie you could want was here. And at incredible prices too; it was here that I saw how inexpensive the local eats could be! Supermarkets around my apartment (and shopping centers in Punta Pacifica, the downtown core) are very American, and cost about the same overall. At the local market, I got everything in the picture below for just $12US! Crazy. I’ll be eating healthy and fresh while I’m here, for sure!

Blending into the Panamanian Landscape

After a week in Panama City, I can tell you a little more about the nature and culture of the people living here. They’re a superstitious bunch; I was told in no uncertain terms that putting my purse on the floor would cause me to be unable to “move up in the world”, but my red wallet (or any red wallet for that matter), is lucky! Thank goodness that balances itself out, because I haven’t been able to shake the habit of putting my purse on the floor.

In Panama, people honour the age-old perception that people in Latino countries are, in general, are less concerned with time. When a store’s hours are listed as opening at 9:00am, odds are that the store will not actually open at 9:00am, but rather 9:00am..ish. Similarly, one of my coworkers, who has been gracious enough to drive me back and forth from work this last week as I adjust to the city, has not once arrived to pick me up at the time he’s said he’d pick me up at. I’m getting used to it, however I’m always ready at the agreed upon time in order to keep anyone else waiting. I had it drilled into me as a kid to be early for everything, and I don’t know if three months of exposure to the “Panamanian” perception of time will be enough to change my ways.

The people are nice here; on the streets, people (strangers!) will in fact mind each other’s business, saying hello (“buenas”) to each other with a polite nod and smile. Even in elevators strangers say hello as they come in a good day as they exit! Very strange. the taxi driver taking me to the farmer’s market was so concerned with me finding my way around the market, that he parked his taxi in the market, let me leave my shopping from the fish market in the car, and walked around with me, showing me the best stands where I could get the stuff on my list! He even bartered for me and managed to get 24 bananas for a dollar rather than just 12. When I was having trouble with getting my prepaid cellphone to update the minutes I had just bought, a woman in the supermarket stopped and helped me understand (in Spanish, for the most part) how exactly the process worked for Panamanian cell phones! I could get used to this whole … be kind to strangers thing.

Chivalry goes hand in hand with courtesy here, too! I have yet to open a building or car door for myself, and if ever I need help carrying groceries, there’s always someone offering! My first day leaving the office I was going down to the main floor with about 5 men, and when the doors opened on the ground floor. I stood waiting my turn to get out of the elevator and no one moved. No one! When I looked around they were all looking at me; finally one of them motioned to me and said “ladies first”…I was dumbfounded. But excited! The Marilyn Monroe quote comes to mind: “I don’t mind living in a man’s world, so long as I can be a woman in it.” I’m all for feminism, but hey, it’s nice to see that Chivalry isn’t dead!

In terms of the city landscape, it’s built on rolling hills and has lots of different…layers…(for a lack of a better word) in lots of places. Imagine the Gardiner/DVP/Lakeshore combined with Hogg’s Hollow in Toronto. The main streets (there are four) have all been cut down to one way for the most part because of the huge underground public transit project going on…which makes traffic even crazier than it already was before. The best part is, is that you should expect a traffic jam and any hour of the day Monday through to Friday; sometimes even Saturday. Toronto rush hour traffic doesn’t have anything on Panama City traffic. Taxis won’t even come downtown to our office building during ‘normal rush hour’ hours…it’s that bad.

Just another normal day, driving in Panama City…

Taxis also don’t have seatbelts, which is concerning because at least half of them don’t have bumpers or are banged up and dented up enough to make you think that they learned to drive in Quebec…no one uses the indicated lanes provided, signaling is completely optional, and cutting people off in traffic is just a friendly way to say “hola”!

They’re all Yellow! ALL of them.

Adding to this chaos of traffic is Panama City’s older bussing public bussing system…they use old school buses! Super painted up and graffiti all over, locals call them “diablos rojos” (direct translation = “red devils”) because the drivers are crazy and commonly kill people with their bad driving. It’s insane. These buses are being slowly phased out by a newer (and more expensive) metro bus system however, where the drivers have to take driving tests and pass tests for safety purposes. This is a slow process however, and many people are unhappy with the changes coming so slowly and the system being much more expensive.

The crazier-looking the bus…the crazier the driver! This one is pretty normal looking…some are top to bottom, end to end painted. With leather tassels. Not kidding.

This has so far been my experience in Panama in terms of the lay of the land, the culture, and the people. The way of life is very Americanized, but Panama is DEFINITELY not Americanized to a point where the culture is remotely similar to what you would find or feel in the USA…and I have to say that I am enjoying the ‘newness’ of it all.

Presentation on Friday!

This Friday, I will be making a presentation on Canada. I am feeling quite nervous because I just found out that I will need to be making the presentation in Chinese. I know that I will be confident in making this presentation in English, however, doing it in Chinese makes it that much harder because I am afraid that others will laugh at me because my Chinese is not that well. I feel like people will not be able to understand my Chinese! I am practicing my presentation in Chinese, and thinking about what I will be talking about in Chinese. It is quite nerve-wracking! Even though I will only be doing this presentation to employees in the company, but it is still enough to make me nervous. We will see how the presentation goes on Friday! I hope I will be able to do an excellent presentation!

The Work I’m Doing in Panama

Although this is an amazing trip and a once in a lifetime cultural experience, it is an internship, and I’m here to work (among other things, of course)! My position is interesting as well, because I’m doing my internship with the Global Experience Office as a part of my last and final course in my Project Management Program at Centennial. So my entire professional performance here in Panama will be translated into a (hopefully very good) mark back in Canada.

I am working with Centennial College’s Panama Recruitment Office, and my job is to essentially help the office run better. It’s a new office with only two employees, but they’re recruiting dozens and dozens of students for English language training programs and degree programs at Centennial College all through the year. Both high school and post-secondary students come through the office here, looking for advice on programs, information about the college, and help with the difficult and complex process of completing all of the necessary paperwork required in order to go to Centennial without a hitch. It’s both a highly individualized process that is meant to reach as many prospective students as physically possible. And Panama is brimming with students of all ages wanting to further their education, learn English, and come to Canada! The office here also works with many Panamanian institutions in order to reach more prospective students and to facilitate their travel to Centennial College.

At the start of any employment-related class I’ve had, the professor has always said “don’t go in there and try to change things around”…but that’s exactly what I get to do! Well, I make suggestions at least; and I’ll be establishing more formalized processes in the office in order to standardize the work as much as possible, in order to make the lives of my coworkers here in Panama (and any new prospective hires as the office grows) easier.

I have learned that Spanish is definitely the dominant language here in Panama. Very few people speak any English at all. This has proved daunting for me, as I sit in the office trying to muddle through a conversation in Spanish! I took two years of Spanish in University and completed enough credits to Minor in the language, however after three years of no use, I’ve forgotten most of it. I’m spending much of my first week observing the work done here and interacting with some of the students who have questions about Canada ( The question I get most is “Is it really really cold there?”). Conversation is a muddled mixture of my bad Spanish and broken English, but I love it!

I’m taking a lot of time to learn and study the language. Television here has some great English channels, but I try my hardest to follow along on the Spanish channels instead. It’s coming back to me…but very very slowly. Subtitles and sign language are helping. So is the Google Translate App on my phone.

Second Week in Ghana

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No Sleep = One Tired Rita

Okay, so I officially started work this week after spending 4 days off to catch up on sleep and adjust to the time change (which is 4 hours ahead of Canada).  Apparently 4 hours of sleep per night does not cut it, it will cause random fits of dozing off while in an upright position and will be followed up with sleeping for 12 hours for the next few days.

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” – Irish Proverb

Transportation
I am somehow learning to use the tro-tro system here, which are basically over sized mini-vans that are stuffed like a sardine can with people. In order to catch one, you stand on the side of the street and you wave your hand (fancy stuff huh?).  The trick is to listen for the “mate” which is the person who directs (not drives) the tro-tro to call out the area you are going to. When you hear it you approach the vehicle and they pull over.  You jump on (literally) and off you go.  The price of tro-tro’s is extremely inexpensive.  I can get to work in one tro-tro and it costs about 40 paseways, which is about 22 cents CAD.  So far, I have bruised both of my knees on these contraptions called tro-tro’s.  It’s rainy season in Ghana, so when it rains I totally wimp out and take a taxi, after all it’s only 4 cedis, which is $2.22 cents CAD, that’s still less then the cost of the TTC (this is my justification that I tell myself to make it okay).

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Work Life
Ghanaians work very different then North Americas. They take their time. They enjoy talking to their co-workers and my favourite part is they love to joke around.  Work feels very relaxed and I have spent the majority of my time there reading up on the education system in Ghana, which I have to say makes me pretty angry that it is so poor.  I am pretty glad that there’s organizations like the one I work for, Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC) that hold the government accountable for the things they promise to do for education.  My work will mainly be research.  In order to bring the darkness in the education system here to light, a ton of research has to be done, in order to show those in power what is really going on, with cold hard facts.  I feel fortunate and blessed to be able to contribute to the betterment of education here.  After all, we know that the one and only way to eradicate poverty in developing countries is to properly education the people.

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My first few days in Panama City

Where do I even begin!

It hasn’t dropped below 27 degrees Celsius, and I have to say, I am loving it. No rain, too, even though this is considered the rainy season! If I ever do get too hot however, every single building (my work and apartment included), has  air conditioning. My apartment has two air conditioners, in fact; one in the bedroom and one in the living room. As someone who lives without air conditioning in Canada, I have to say that it’s pretty awesome.

Edeficio el Marquis, My Apartment Building
The rest of my building. I’m on the 19th floor!

The city is beyond beautiful. It’s an amazing mixture of  older (colonial?) architecture and brand new state of the art buildings and new construction randomly inserted into parts of the city. My apartment is located downtown very close (if not a part of) what would equivocate in Toronto to ‘the financial district’. Solid buildings.

The View from my Living Room Balcony. Stunning, and even BETTER at night!

Solid traffic, too. Panama City is undertaking a huge construction initiative to build a brand new underground transit system. Currently for public transit there are only buses. This construction has limited the traffic to an even narrower amount of usable roadway (think downtown Toronto, again), and that’s about what traffic is like in Panama Mon-Sat. Craziness! Drivers are not very polite, either. It’s almost like New York! Except in Spanish. (Picture coming soon.) People will signal only when convenient, and cutting people off in traffic is apparently a normal (though still unappreciated) thing to do. Jay walkers are also a big problem. People don’t use the walking bridges provided over busy roadways (nor do they obey the road signs), and as such there are a lot of accidents. I was witness to this first hand, when a girl was hit by a car right in front of where we were driving. Needless to say, I won’t be doing any jaywalking!

On a lighter note, for my first weekend here in Panama City, I went bike riding on the Amador Causeway, a man-made road in the middle of the Ocean that leads to a group of man-made islands, constructed from dirt dug up during the construction of the Panama Canal! It was beautiful (there are so many palm trees everywhere!), you could see the skyline of the entire city. I was eaten alive by mosquitoes though. I’m still on the hunt for some bite – relief cream.

Amador Causeway at dusk, and Panama City Skyline in the background.

The supermarket right by my apartment was an adventure (called ‘El Rey’). I live only a few blocks away and am able to walk to it, watching carefully for traffic. However I discovered very quickly that the mass population of Panama does not speak English. Between my broken Spanish and sign language, I was able to get some fruits (Bananas are 37cents/lb here! My new favourite food too!), and a prepaid cell phone card to load minutes onto my newly purchased cell phone.

Needless to say the next thing I did was go home, eat some bananas, and start reviewing and practicing my Spanish!

What they say about the insect life being bigger in the South is true. I woke up my second day to the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen! The size of my thumb, I swear. I had no idea where it had come from, and, as I am terrified of bugs, managed to throw from a distance, a Spanish-English Dictionary on top of it. The book was four inches thick, I thought it would do the job. Two moments later, the cockroach walked right out from underneath the book like nothing had happened. What could I kill it with?! I frantically looked around for some sort of weapon that I could use or makeshift, and discovered that the maid (yes, I have a maid) had left a broom in the corner of the kitchen. After a few attempts at squashing the creepy thing, it finally met its end.

I was told by my coworkers that cockroaches are a common sight in Panama, and they are normally about 1-3 inches long. They don’t bite, but they do fly, and they will be more afraid of you that you are of them. Nevertheless, I don’t relish my next cockroach encounter (though I expect them to be rare, since that’s the only one I’ve seen in 5 days)…but I will be ready, broom (or something of that nature) in hand.

After a weekend of exploring and getting settled in to a new country, I’m excited for what work will bring!

Y estoy practicando mi Espanol!

Landed in Panama, both feet on the Ground!

Okay, so no one likes 4:30am. No one. But in this case I didn’t mind all too much…I’m going to Panama!!! And even though I’d forgotten to set my alarm clock (I finished packing at 2am and was leaving for the airport at 4:45am), my mom and sister, who’d come down from Belleville to see me off, substituted for my alarm quite nicely, making sure I was up and semi-conscious at the inappropriate hour of 4:30am.

Unfortunately, I learned that those who are prone to car sickness are indeed prone to plane sickness. But several attempts at naps and some well-timed provisions of gingerale kept any…unfortunate incidents…from occurring.

We left Toronto in a chilly rainstorm, we landed in sunshine and 37 degree (Celsius) weather. Humidity was so thick when the airport doors opened to the car pickup area that I felt I had jumped into a swimming pool! Even though this is supposed to be Panama’s rainy season…no rain in sight! It’s pretty awesome.

I was picked up from the airport by my coworkers from Centennial College’s Recruitment office here in Panama City, and we went straight from the airport to the office! They were holding an information seminar for students who were going to be coming to Centennial to learn English. They had me stand in front of them all and introduce myself. I spoke English and my coworkers translated for me. I’m quickly realizing that I’ve REALLY got to brush up on my Spanish!

Me, beside a Mural of the office tower that Centennial’s Recruitment Office is located in, Las Torres de las Americas.