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Katie Barthelow

MIIS Program: Public Administration & International Education Management, 2016
Traveling: Rwanda for the Design, Partnering, Management & Innovation Program, January 2015

A look at an experiential learning experience…

What woke you up in the morning? There was what I called a symphony of nature. It sounds lovely, but many mornings it really was not. Even so, it became home. It went like this: The rooster would wake up first (this could be as early as 3am). He would start doing his thing, and wake up the many street dogs that slept up against my house. They apparently were not morning dogs, because they would start angrily barking at the rooster who was still making tons of noise. Once I was awake enough to register all of this, it dawned on me that there was a steady background noise as well, and that’s when I would tune into the bullfrogs. I have no idea when they would start, but once I was awoken, I couldn’t un-hear them. It began as a really frustrating way to wake up, but after a few months I secretly loved it. I took a recording of it on my phone last time I was in Panama, just to remember.

A daily task that you had to do differently? I could talk about the year of cold showers, or of washing laundry by hand, but I think those things are to be expected. What I loved most about my shifted daily routine was breakfast. I got to the school I taught at around 6:30am. I would go to the cafeteria for breakfast and what happened then was amazing. My typical breakfast was a cup of black coffee, four chicken nuggets, two empanadas, and a bag of fried plantains. Fried food for breakfast was one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me.

A surprising sight? My core group of friends in Panama lived in the “campo” or the countryside. It was about an hour bus ride out of the town where I lived. On the bus, you’d ride past fields and fields and fields, and all of the fences delineating one field from the next were so intriguing. They were branches of big trees that had been cut, planted in a fence shape, and then they had started to regrow like that. So what it looked like was rows of short, live trees, connected by wire or wood to make a natural fence. It was a very cool sight.

Most memorable experience? That same group of friends all played on a soccer team representing their campo town town in their district. The year I was there I went to all of their games, sitting under unbearable sun, watching them play on a big, dirt field. That same year, they made it to the finals, and ended up winning the championship. We all rushed the field; there was a three-foot tall trophy. We then caravanned the 45 minutes back to the tiny town, limbs and trophies flailing out of the cars, honking the whole way, and receiving cheers from anyone we passed on the road. I had many memorable experiences in Panama, but that afternoon was one that really made me feel like I belonged, like I was just another person from San Jose, rather than the foreign teacher. My face hurt from smiling by the time the day was over.

Challenges? I found in Panama there seemed to be a network of communication I never quite figured out how to break into. Everyone seemed to know what was happening at school, what events were planned, when the town was going to lose water, and other logistical information but I never heard it talked about. There were never memos sent out. There’s no internet presence so that wasn’t a source of information. It was like Panamanians communicated telepathically, and I wasn’t on the same wavelength. It was very frustrating at first, but it also made me much more inclined to just go with the flow and cultivate infinite patience, two skills which have served me well since.

Funny Moment? My senior girls were always appalled at the lack of makeup I wore to work. Every year in Panama there is a teacher-student swap day. The teacher picks a student to teach the class for the day, and the teacher becomes just another student. The student gets to break uniform and dress up like their teacher. The coolest teachers come to school in a student uniform. My Panamanian co-teacher and I both dressed up as students (I have hilarious pictures to prove it). My students took this as a day to make me over. There’s a picture of two students working on my hair, while one is a applying my make up and a fourth is painting my nails. All while I am wearing a schoolgirl uniform. Everyone who saw me got a good laugh that day.

Epiphany/Insight? It can be exhausting living in a foreign country. For me, that exhaustion often left me thinking that any task or adventure was too big and would be awkward or uncomfortable. After a few months I took on an outlook that I recommend to everyone living abroad: I decided to say yes to everything. If someone invited me to dinner and I was exhausted, I said yes. If there was a party and I wasn’t really sure about the details, but someone invited me, I said yes. If someone wanted to take me to their family’s farm, I said yes. I always let myself leave if I got there and decided I didn’t want to be there, but I tried it all. Once I assumed this outlook, I felt so much more connected to where I was living because I experienced so much!

Tweet of advice? Listen to the music. Eat the food. Talk to the people. Try to spend more time with people from the country you’re in than with other expats. Connect.