The Panamanian Pollera Experience

This past weekend, I was invited by my coworker to get away from the city and get a taste of real Panamanian traditions and culture at the Festival Nacional de la Pollera (translate: The National Pollera Festival).

Now, my first question was “what’s a Pollera?” .. the Pollera is the national dress of Panama. Dating back hundreds of years and influenced by their Spanish roots, Panamanians have identified this dress to be one of their national symbols and a representation of their history and culture. I was excited to experience it all for myself!

A five hour drive into Panama’s interior found us in Las Tablas; a small town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the heart of Panama and the home of many of Panama’s annual festivals! (It’s also the supposed ‘birthplace’ of the Pollera, I’ve been informed.)

Las Tablas! We finally arrived 🙂
More of Las Tablas
A Little More of Las Tablas

We stayed in a cute hotel (by hotel, I mean two stories, which is usual in small towns that I’ve seen… most of everything is one story in small towns in Panama), and upon our arrival I had my first experience with the local wildlife when we found a tail-less gecko in our room!

Saturday evening we attended the Camisilla and Sombrero Pintao contest (translation: Traditional Men’s shirt and Peasant’s Hat Contest) Note: what Panamanians know as the peasant’s hat, the rest of the world knows as the famous “Panama hat”.

The building where ALL of the competitions took place.

The shirts were all handmade and white with gold buttons and white detailed embroidery. The hats were also handmade and straw, with black line detailing. I was informed that the judges were looking for several things, including cultural accuracy, quality, and elegance and grace of the wearer (the men (and some women!) danced up to the judges table to have their shirts and hats inspected).

The Hat Competition in progress. So many people!
The Queen of the Festival, showing off her dance steps and her Pollera!

The shirts, if bought, average anywhere from 600-1000 dollars, and the hats can range from 200-600 dollars. They don’t joke around with these things!

The big event was on Sunday: the Pollera competition. Dozens of women dressed in their finest Pollera and danced across a runway to be judged on quality, cultural accuracy, grace and demeanor, as well as on their jewelry and headpieces.

The Judges Table (one of two) getting set up for the Pollera Competition

These women don’t mess around… the dresses themselves have different categories, each representing a different region or cultural aspect. Mountain Polleras, for example, had colourful skirts with floral prints and are less formal and meant for more daily wear.

All girls under 15 years old didn’t compete, but they did dance!
Polleras!

The dresses themselves are all handmade and start at 5000 dollars. The jewelry worn to complete the outfit totals a minimum of 50000 dollars, and the head pieces are a combination of glass beads and gold combs. I was blown away by the intricacy and elegance of it all!

One of my favourite Polleras from the competition!

We didn’t stay for the whole competition due to a five hour drive that had us home only after midnight, but the culture that I experienced and witnessed was refreshing, educational, and lots of fun. I felt like such a tourist 🙂 In the building that all of the competitions were held there was no air circulation and I swear, with over a thousand people packing in to see the competitions, we were actually melting. They gave out free paper fans (which I thought was the coolest and smartest thing ever), but I’m pretty sure I sprained my wrist from all of the hours of nonstop fanning.

P.s. in the center of the front and back of the Pollera tops are what I can confirm look like pom-poms… your eyes are not deceiving you! What the significance of them is, I’m not sure… but I am looking into it! Will be keeping you posted 🙂

The cutest little girl who sat infront of me at the competition. Pink and Purple Pollera! One of the best 🙂
Me and the Pollera Poster at the Gym Entrance
Two women who were staying in the same hotel as us, just getting ready to leave for the competition. One of my favourite photos of my whole Panama experience so far! (Note: I’m wearing the Panama Hat!)

Purchasing online? Forget about it!

All I wanted to do was to purchase some little items on “TaoBao” which is the Chinese version of eBay. I never knew buying online can be so frustrating and complicated! I understand that it is the way it is because of security issues since there are many hackers trying to steal identity and personal information online… but I didn’t know it could be so complicated! The reason why I wanted to create the account was so I can buy things online without having to trouble others to buy for me! Most stores on TaoBao only accept PayPal as a method of payment so I also had to create a Chinese PayPal account. It was an incredibly complicated process!!! They asked for my ID number either from passport, or your citizen ID number. Once I created the account, I thought it could be like PayPal where we could add in our credit card number and everything will be great. BUT, I can’t add my credit card because the credit card MUST be issued by a China bank! They don’t accept other cards! So I thought I will input my china bank card instead, but I still can’t do that because I need to input my ID number! But this time, it HAD to be a Chinese citizen ID number! It was such a long complicated process and since I cannot read Chinese, it made everything longer because I need to copy and paste everything into Google translate in order to understand what information is required.

Pros:

–          Unlike eBay, we are able to “chat” with the merchants to answer any questions we may have if they appear online. We do not need to wait a day or two to receive a respond from the seller. I love this idea of how we can just talk to them instantly! eBay should really introduce this feature! I think it will be great and beneficial for everyone!

–          Everything online is so cheap! Literally. The neck pillow I bought in Canada cost me about $20, however, I found the SAME pillow for only  $5 CAD.

–          Shipping is extremely fast! I order something online, and it arrives the NEXT day! And that’s not even express mail!!!

–          Able to pay cash once the product arrives! All you need to do is to submit your order, and once the item arrive then you pay for it! That’s awesome! I would love it if we have that in Canada!

Cons:

–          Very user Unfriendly

–          Require too much personal information such as ID numbers and passport numbers etc.

–          ONLY accept credit cards issued by China banks!

In the end, I still had no other choice but to ask my co-worker to pay for me online and then I pay her back in cash. So if you are ever coming to china and wanting to purchase online, you must find someone to purchase for you otherwise, you will have a HARD time trying to purchase anything online! Possibly not even be able to purchase actually!

Buen Viaje! (Translate: ‘Bon Voyage’ in Spanish)

When I arrived in Panama on June first, I stepped off of the plane and into a presentation being given by my new Panamanian coworkers to 42 students on Canadian culture and living in Canada. Working their way towards the end of this project, the Centennial College office here in Panama has been working with the Panamanian government in a special program to send 42 students to Centennial College for a 6 month English Training Program.

Yashira, Speaking to the Students about preparing to leave for Canada
Lisandro, Speaking to the Students about preparing to leave for Canada
Videos on Canada, Toronto, and Centennial College. Excited to get the students pumped for their trip!

I dived right in. Assisting with the finalization of the paperwork for all 42 visas, homestay accommodations, flight arrangements, and students frantically calling in with questions about Canada, the school, and the trip. Late nights, collaboration with the International Office in Progress Campus, and assistance from the Canadian Embassy here in Panama made sure that everything was finished in time.

We told the students to all wear red to the airport, where we would all be meeting. Some did, some didn’t; and true to Panamanian form, almost everyone was late (telling them to arrive three and a half hours before flight time gave us a little wiggle room). Rounding everyone up, arranging bag checks, and finally getting everyone through security left us only 15 minutes to get the students onto the plane! They managed, though! Somehow, lol.

Pulling up to Tocumen International Airport!

Now with the students off and starting classes at Centennial, the office here is focusing on completing the paperwork for the students who will be attending Centennial in the fall. There are less than 42 students for that deadline, so I’m thinking the days might be a little shorter than they have been lately… but only time will tell. In addition to preparing the students, the office is busy with promoting Centennial around Panama City, making presentations at High Schools, and meeting with students and families at the office to advise, inform, and discuss what Centennial College has to offer them and how we can help them get there. I’m improving my Spanish as well, so I’m involving myself more and more with answering the students’ questions about Centennial and Canada, being a Centennial student myself!

Imparting my experience and advice to Panamanian students and their families brings a sense of gratification that I live for! Hard to believe that in just over a month, it will be all over and I’ll be getting on a plane back to Canada. For now though, I continue to spur the office here on. Next up: students enrolled for September!

After Security, Just before Boarding Time! I wish them success in their travels, and their studies!

Finding Inner Peace at Bongeunsa Temple

I’ve always been fascinated with Buddhism and meditation so I’m delighted that Seoul is full of temples! So today I decided to visit Bongeunsa temple which is located right beside COEX mall. The temple is considered small but I found it to be pretty large.

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Most of the buildings within the area look the same but are nonetheless breathtaking. The paintings are detailed and many ornaments decorate the temples. Statues of Buddha can be seen throughout all the buildings.

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The temple is very quiet since people are praying or meditating. The atmosphere is peaceful and I felt at ease. Monks are seen walking around maintaining the temple’s cleanliness and sanctity. I didn’t get the opportunity to talk with them but they were nice enough to nod as they walked by. The one thing that struck me was how different the temple was compared to the hustle and bustle of Seoul city life. Seoul also lacks parks so I was glad to find greenery! Otherwise I really enjoyed my experience at Bongeunsa Temple. Next time I might try to do a templestay. A templestay is when you live in the shoes of a monk for one day. It is a big tourist attraction. I will be visiting other temples in the future. Thanks for reading.

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Oh Canada… how I miss thee so!

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Things I miss in Canada:

  1. My boyfriend, dog, family and friends
  2. The comforts of my apartment
  3. Customer service
  4. Side walks
  5. Sewage system
  6. Toilets WITH toilet paper and soap available everywhere
  7. Minimal crazy drivers on the road
  8. Power, internet and water rarely ever turning off
  9. Fast food (tim’s, mcdonalds, starbucks, subway, A&W, etc.)
  10. Delivery pizza
  11. Canadian laws and enforcement (against pologomy, child abuse, domestic abuse, etc.)
  12. Healthy, fed and well looked after house dogs
  13. Safe tap water
  14. 24/7 buses and the subway
  15. Reasonably priced grocery stores, or grocery stores period
  16. 3G internet
  17. Being able to roam freely without having men constantly hit on me and begging my friendship

Things I will miss in Ghana – Rita

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  1. My coworker who I have adopted as my auntie
  2. Not ever having to wear a sweater or jacket
  3. Children being fascinated with me, wanting to hug me and have their picture taken
  4. Work starting at 8am, but nobody arrives until 9am. I call this ‘Ghana time’
  5.  Being surrounded by serious Christians all the time
  6.  Being able to buy cheap and tasty food on the street ‪
  7. Walking down my dirt road
  8. Playing with children on the tro tro
  9. Having someone clean my room and bathroom
  10. Tro tro’s – they are cheap, they can get you anywhere and they come often
  11. Being referred to as “the white one”
  12. Having children chant “Obruni obruni obruni” in a sing-song manner
  13. People greeting each other just because
  14. Buying water and just about anything you can think through the window of a tro tro
  15. Listening to roosters crowing daily

 

An African Proverb that I found in the newpaper recently:

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster then than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”

Rita at Accra Market

First Visit to the Market
Last week I took a day off work to do some much needed shopping that I never get the chance to do.  I headed ‘to town’ as locals call it (aka Accra market) with a local friend that I met at church.  Thank God, she came with me!  I did not realize that there were such HUGE outdoor markets… and we only went to 3 sections of it!  We went to the fabric, electrical and food sections.  I have not shopped like that since I have been in Ghana.  It was actually a blast!  I picked up a whole bag of beautiful fabric for around $17.  I filled my backpack with vegetables that were also very inexpensive.  I also took some of my fabric to a tailor and am having a dress made out of it, costing me around $6.

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Fabric History

While I was doing some research at work this week, I read an interesting article about African prints in Ghana. I learned that the original fabric was brought over from the Dutch and that Africans have now made it there own, with all of the elaborate and beautiful prints. At the time in Africa, people wore animal skins instead of cottons.  The article also stated that a man’s wealth can be measured by the type and quality of fabrics/prints his wife wears. I thought that was very interesting!

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Second Visit to the Market

I headed to the market in town again on Saturday to pick up my dress and buy some African prints.  Unfortunately, the tailor did a terrible job on my dress and she glued random hearts on it.  Apparently, what people consider fashion here is very different from what we do.  Therefore, I am having her fix it, let us cross our fingers that she does a good job, otherwise I was advised by my coworker to make her pay for the material.  On a happy note, I am trying out another tailor by my house, hoping she does a good job!

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A skirt that I hand made

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Learning to eat like a Panamanian

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a lover of all foods. By no means a picky eater, I will try anything once, and there are no foods that I can say that I refuse to eat. So, true to form, I’m exploring and embracing the Panamanian cuisine and ‘food culture’.

For the most part, I’m making most of my own food at home. Panama has a wealth of restaurants that could serve you anything you want, but I’m finding that it’s more fun to explore and create yummy treats for myself; it brings a sense of accomplishment. And it’s good for the budget.

As an alternative to restaurants and eating out, you can frequent the supermarkets as well as the public farmers’ markets. The fish market in Panama in Panama City is considered a landmark in itself, and I did make sure to visit it in my first few days here; though I’m not particularly a ‘fishy’ person, it was still an experience in itself.

Fish Market!

The official farmers’ market is located on the edge of the city, and a bit of a drive. There are alleyways upon alleyways that form a maze of dirt roads lined with men and women selling the fruits and vegetables (and some beans as well) that are in season. Less of a drive, you’ll also see individuals selling fruits and vegetables along the side of the road all over the city; obviously there’s less variety, but the food is fresh and cheap.

It’s like art. (At the Farmer’s Market)

I’m going to the supermarket once a week. There’s a great selection of foods, but the first thing I noticed was the price difference between local foods and imported foods. Right beside one another, a bag of carrots from California and locally grown carrots; California carrots cost $4 a pound, while the local carrots are $0.39 a pound. What’s the difference!? Who knows; I’m not paying $4 for 6 carrots.. and my Spanish isn’t good enough yet to ask. But getting the young man who bags my groceries to walk three block with the cart full of my groceries for only a few dollars is pretty awesome…and even more awesome when he’s willing to tie the bags and walk with me, umbrella-less, in the rain. A couple bucks for that kind of delivery service is more than worth it, and makes me feel pretty special too 🙂

Half Spanish, half English. At my local supermarket.

When it comes to prepared food, typically, Panamanians eat simply; not a whole lot of spices, but everything is fried. Empanadas, fried chicken, and yuca (aka cassava) chips are common and plentiful. Every meal has fried plantains, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Seafood is also very common, since Panama is bordered by two oceans. Even so, “ropa vieja” is a beef stew that’s a common lunchtime food, eaten with rice and beans, which are also typical lunch side dishes.

Ropa Vieja

Traditional Panamanian food could include ceviche, chunks of raw seafood (typically corvina, a white fish), that is ‘cooked’ in lime juice and onion chunks, and served cold. A more traditional drink, had by Panamanians living in the countryside, is chicheme (pronounced “chee-CHEM-eh”). Chicheme is made with milk and corn, and either some fruit or vanilla; the best way I can describe the drink is liquefied rice pudding. It was tasty and filling, but the mashed corn added a texture to it that I know would make the drink an acquired taste to many individuals.

If the fried plantain, raw fish, and liquefied rice pudding, and rice and beans don’t do it for you, I’ve yet to go a few kilometers without seeing those glorified globalized golden arches that mean you can get a big mac meal. There are also KFC’s and Domino’s Pizzas in abundance; and they deliver in Panama too! No Tim Horton’s or Starbuck’s however. Starbucks is rumoured to be coming to Panama in a few months’ time…a good excuse to visit again after my internship is finished.

My favourite place for food (if you can call ice cream food)  is a small ice cream parlor around the corner to my apartment, called Antica. Homemade ice cream… best tasting stuff ever. At a dollar per scoop it’s a steal, and for this stuff I’d definitely be willing to pay more. In a steamy tropical climate, Antica ice cream makes it a real paradise. I’m sampling a different flavour each week.

So many to choose from!
Strawberry 🙂

Canton Tower!

I never expected myself to say that I want to go up the Canton Tower! Having worked 4 years at the CN Tower, to me going up these towers were not a big deal. However, something about the Canton Tower fascinated me making me actually wanting and looking forward to go up! I have finally decided to go up last week on a random day last Wednesday. To my surprise, I spent quite a few hours up at the tower enjoying the beautiful view. However, I subconsciously started to compare the both towers: CN Tower & Canton Tower.

  1. The moment I stepped into the elevator, I noticed that there were operators! Everyone got in the elevator and the employee stood outside and told someone to press a button to go up to the 83rd floor
  2. There was hardly any staff around the observation levels to guide you or to even answer any of our questions, so if you have a question… you better hope that its nothing related to the tower! Otherwise, it will be pretty hard to find someone to answer that question!
  3. The tower lacks customer service! It surprises me because I know a lot of places in China have very poor customer service, but to see that even Canton Tower lack customer service was a little bit of a disappointment for me. I entered the tower expecting the service to be like CN Tower, but I was shocked that it was nothing compare to it.

Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the tower very much. They have many different options for tickets and of course, I choose to buy the best ticket that includes all the observation decks as well as 2 attractions: Bubble Train and a mini drop zone! When I arrived to go on the bubble train, the manager pulled me out of the line since he saw my wristband that includes the mini drop zone, he told me to do that first. So I took his advice and went on the drop zone. I was speechless. We went up high (not as high as drop zone) but as we were going up, I can see the whole city right beneath my eyes and it was just an incredible sight! Just when you are too focused on the beauty of the city, the drop you back down in a heartbeat!

After that, since the bubble train line did not subside, I decided to go up to the highest observation deck, which is at the 488m mark. It was an outdoor observation area. When I went up, there was no one else up there except for me. I felt like VIP being up there by myself. I found the peace and joy being up at that point by myself. The view was spectacular and the wind was blowing into my face and I really have no words to describe that feeling. It was actually quite windy up there but it was a nice breeze. It was such a peaceful moment. Not much later, other became came up and it was about time for me to head back down to the bubble train.

Wind blowing at my hair at the highest observation deck!

I couldn’t wait to get on the bubble train since it was solely the reason that has drawn my attention to go up the tower. It took us around the tower, 360 degrees giving us a panoramic view of the city. I must say, the thing that I was looking forward to do the most, was a little bit disappointing for me. The view was beautiful; don’t get me wrong, just the fact that there was no air condition inside the bubble was very unappealing to me. There was a fan however; it was still hot and humid inside.

Mailing at the TOP OF THE WORLD! =D

Overall, it was a great experience and I did not feel that my money was wasted! I bought lots of souvenirs and gifts from the tower because I felt that it is something unique to give as a gift. I mean… there’s nothing in china that we cannot get in Canada. So I decided to buy all the gifts for my friends and family from the tower. It represents china, and most of all, it represented the city that I was working in! So it will be a great piece of memory! Also, what I really liked is the fact that the ticket itself is a post card! If you live in china, you are able to mail the postcard anywhere in china for free. But in order to send the postcard overseas, you will need to pay about $6 RMB which is $1 CAD to send the postcards overseas.

P.S.

If you’re interested in viewing more pictures from the tower, you can visit the link below!

www.photobucket.com/mchen27-cantontower

Free picture that was included in my ticket package 🙂

Road Trip!…Strictly for work purposes, of course

On June 27th, 2012, I had an extra-early wake up time of 5 am in order to meet my colleagues and car pool to Aguadulce, where we would be giving presentations to high school students about Centennial College.

It was a three hour drive, one-way, to get to Aguadulce (which translated literally, means “Sweet Water”). The trip took us through a mountain range and right by the ocean. I would have enjoyed much more of the trip there had I not gotten car sick about an hour in, taken a Gravol, and fallen fast asleep. Lisandro (my coworker who was driving) did get a picture of me sleeping however, so I guess I offered amusement and entertainment for my coworkers, just as Panama has provided me.

Upon arrival to this quaint little town, we promptly got lost. However we met with two local high school students, one who’d already gone to Centennial for English Language Training, and one who will be flying in two weeks to attend Centennial’s English Language Training Program, and they directed us through the maze of small streets to find the high school. Beautiful scenery the whole way!

The Streets of Aguadulce

We gave two presentations to two separate senior-year classes. Each presentation was about 45minutes to an hour, and included our formal introduction, some general information about Centennial, a promotional video, and answering a million questions that it felt like the students had. They were very interested in coming to Canada to study, after our presentation. It’s the norm in Panama for international schools to promote in Panama, but most of the schools are from the United States, and this is where most students automatically think of studying; we try to change that perspective, and show them what Canada has to offer.

Attentive Students 🙂

This group of students spoke a fairly good level of English, also (which is unusual!), and upon the prompting of my coworkers, which, up until this point I have ignored or avoided out of fear to present in Spanish, I took charge of the presentation and spoke about student life on and off campus, and about being a Canadian student.

Talking about Student Life outside the Classroom

After the presentation, I was delighted to hear feedback that my clear and slow speech was understood by the students, and they were excited that they could understand a Canadian speaking English. I share similar feelings; I’m excited that I can understand the majority of what they say in Spanish! It’s a mutual learning experience, one might say. 🙂

Group Shot!

After the presentations, knowing that we’d be hitting rush hour on our way back, we stopped for lunch. I had a traditional Panamanian meal called “Ropa Vieja”, literally translated, “Old Clothes”. It was much more appetizing than its namesake; a shredded beef stew with rice and some coleslaw on the side, it was yummy and very satisfying.

Yumminess

On the way back, true to Panama’s form it got dark at around 6:30pm, but I got to watch the sunset as we drove through the mountain range; even better, I didn’t get car sick.

Layers and layers of mountains and clouds