Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Panama
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Please see below for some correspondence options to share with relatives and friends.
(by regular mail)
“Your Name,” PCT
Cuerpo de Paz/Panama
Panamá, República de Panamá
(by FedEx, UPS, etc.)
Peace Corps/Panamá American Embassy
Edif. 95, Ave. Vicente Bonilla
Ciudad del Saber, Clayton
Corregimiento de Ancón
Ciudad de Panamá
República de Panamá
Tel: 507.317.0038 Fax: 507.317.0809
Atentamente: Your Name
Once you have been assigned to a site and sworn- in as a Volunteer, you will be responsible for sending your new address to friends and family. We recommend that you establish a regular pattern of communication with friends and relatives in the United States, since they may become concerned if they do not hear from you for an extended period of time. Mail service to or from Panama is fairly unpredictable—it can take 10 days to more than a month for a letter or package to arrive.
International phone service to and from Panama is good compared to many countries. Virtually all large cities have reliable phone service, and many small towns have public phones from which residents can make and receive calls for a fee. International calls are very expensive, so most Volunteers call home collect or use a calling card (such as those from Sprint, MCI, and AT&T), which can be used only in some locations. Some Volunteers will have a phone in their home during training or service; others will have to visit a nearby town to make a call. Cellular phones are widely available and reasonably priced, but many Volunteers live in places outside of their signal range. It may be more expensive to reprogram a cellular phone bought in the United States than to purchase one in Panama.
The phone number of the Peace Corps/Panama office in Panama City is 011.507.317.0038; the fax number is 011.507.317.0809.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Internet access in Panama is spreading. All provincial capitals and many other large towns have Internet cafés. Connection speeds tend to be slow, but the service is reasonably priced and otherwise reliable. Internet access for Volunteers is available free at the Peace Corps/Panama office. Some Volunteers can access the Internet in their homes, but this is the exception. A few Volunteers have computers of their own, but most do not. Computers are probably more useful for community economic development Volunteers than those in other projects. Laptops are preferable. If your site has no electricity, you will need batteries that are rechargeable using Peace Corps a solar panel. A voltage regulator is also a necessity. Generally, you will not know if your site will have electricity until later in pre-service training. Should you choose to bring a laptop, it is your responsibility to maintain and insure it; the Peace Corps is not liable if it gets damaged or stolen.
Housing and Site Location
The small and medium-sized communities (populations of 300 to 10,000) in which Volunteers live and work are located 1 to 16 hours from Panama City. Like most Panamanians, Volunteers live in simple concrete-block houses with cement floors and corrugated tin roofs or wooden huts with dirt floors and palm thatch roofs, depending on the location of their site. Since living with a family provides special insight into Panamanian culture, improves language skills, and facilitates integration into the community, you must live with a host family during training and your first three months at your site. After that, you may choose to live alone.
Indigenous communities generally have the most rustic living conditions, and they can be remote. Sometimes getting to a community may require at least a two-hour walk or a ride in a dugout canoe. Most houses in urban and highly populated areas have running water inside or outside the house. In some cases, it is necessary to boil water and add chlorine to make it safe to drink. In some rural sites, and in many indigenous communities, water must be obtained from springs or streams. Many homes have a simple pit latrine, but latrine construction is often one of a Volunteer’s first activities. Electricity also varies depending on the site. You must be flexible in your housing and site expectations and willing to adapt to the discomforts that come with rural living.
Living Allowance and Money Management
During your first three months in Panama, you will receive a weekly allowance to cover the limited costs you will incur in your training community. Once you finish training and are sworn-in as a Volunteer, Peace Corps/Panama will open a bank account for you and deposit your monthly living allowance in U.S. dollars (which are used as the local currency) into this account. This allowance is intended to cover all your living expenses, including food, rent, work-related travel, some clothing, and other essentials and incidentals. You will also receive a one-time settling-in allowance to help buy household necessities such as a bed and kitchen supplies. Some Volunteers maintain a bank account in the United States, but it is not necessary to do so, as Volunteers are expected to live at the same economic level as the people in their community. Peace Corps supports the idea of Volunteers not supplementing their incomes while in-country. Note that while Panama is inexpensive relative to the United States, it is expensive compared with many of its Central American neighbors. Prices in Panama City are comparable to those in the United States.
Food and Diet
The Panamanian diet varies according to the region and the ethnic makeup of the population but most often consists of rice, beans, bananas or plantains, yuca (cassava), and corn. Rice and beans (kidney beans, lentils, black-eyed peas) is the staple dish. Corn is served in many guises, but is usually ground, boiled, or fried. Sancocho is a traditional dish (somewhere between a soup and a stew) prepared with a variety of vegetables and chicken. An array of fruits is available in season in most rural areas, including mangoes, Peace Corps papayas, pineapples, avocados, oranges, and guanavanas (soursops). The availability of garden vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet peppers, and cucumbers varies according to the region and the season. The most common meats are chicken and beef, which are often deep-fried or stewed. These meats, when served to Volunteers, are often intended to express appreciation for their friendship or work. The rural poor rarely eat chicken and beef, and indigenous communities in particular customarily have a more limited diet that may consist primarily of boiled green bananas and root vegetables like yuca. Fish is available sporadically in coastal regions and riverside communities.
Most larger towns and cities have at least one restaurant that will be familiar to you, such as McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, or Dairy Queen. Most also have supermarkets where you can buy a wide variety of foods and imported goods.
Some Volunteers are vegetarians, but few Panamanians follow these diets. Volunteers generally must make do with the food available at their sites, but they sometimes can buy food in Panama City or a provincial capital.
Most sites are served by regular public transportation, but Volunteers assigned to indigenous or very rural communities may also travel by boat, chiva (minibus or truck), horseback, or foot. Chiva transportation is generally reliable in the dry season, but may be more limited in the rainy season. When muddy road conditions limit access by chiva, some Volunteers have to walk for one or two hours to get to their sites.
For recreational travel, bus service is available from Panama City to almost all domestic destinations and places to the north through Costa Rica. Tourist destinations in Panama that are not reachable by bus are accessible by plane. International flights leave from Panama City and David.
Geography and Climate
Panama has a tropical climate, so you should prepare for rain, heat, and humidity. However, the severity of these conditions differs according to the region: The higher elevations are cooler, the Caribbean coast in the north receives more rain and humidity, and the southern peninsula is relatively hot and dry.
The most popular social activities in Latino areas usually are dances (bailes) with traditional típico music. Larger towns periodically invite bands to play and gather over two or three days to watch a bullfight (much less bloody than the Spanish version) or cantadera (a freestyle singing battle) and reconvene at night for a dance. Because of Panamanians’ willingness to share their culture, even Volunteers with no talent for dancing are likely to leave Panama knowing how to dance to típico. A common way to bring the community together in rural sites is a junta, in which people complete an activity such as build a bamboo or wooden house or harvest rice. Food and drinks (usually alcoholic) are provided to the participants, and festivities can last well into the night. In Afro-Antillean areas, dances also are popular, though the styles of music are much more diverse. Probably the most popular date on every Panamanian calendar is Carnaval, the equivalent of Mardi Gras. For the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday, Panamanians gather in certain cities to celebrate under the sun and watch elaborate floats parade through the streets at night.
Formal social activities are less frequent in indigenous communities than in Latino areas. Elaborate dances are rare, and dancing is usually reserved for important community functions. Spontaneous get-togethers at people’s homes are probably the most common activity. Often, community meetings are the only occasion for which an entire community convenes.
The Peace Corps tries to place Volunteers near one another for support, so it is possible to socialize with fellow Volunteers. Beautiful beaches are plentiful, and outdoor activities are available almost everywhere. When visiting Panama City, Volunteers have numerous opportunities for diversion, such as movie theaters, coffee bars, restaurants, public basketball courts, and dance clubs.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Wearing proper attire in Panama helps establish your professional credibility and reflects your respect for the customs and lifestyles of the people with whom you live and work. Remember that you will be judged by your appearance. Neatness and cleanliness are very important in Panamanian culture, and Panamanians may be offended by an untidy appearance. Dress is less formal in rural areas than in the capital, but it is important to remember that you are a representative of the United States. It is especially important to dress appropriately on the job and when you meet with government or other officials. Leisure clothing can be worn in the privacy of your own home, but should not be worn for work or travel. When doing physical labor, you will need sturdy shoes and clothes that protect you from scratches and insect bites. For more specific clothing recommendations, refer to the packing list later in this book.
During all training activities and Volunteer service in Panama, you will be expected to observe Peace Corps/Panama’s guidelines for dress. Shirts and shoes must be worn at all times, and shorts may not be worn in professional settings, including the Peace Corps office. While dressy sandals for women are appropriate, men should not wear sandals during professional/ formal occasions, in accordance with local custom.
You will not need to change your entire wardrobe, but you should realize that U.S. citizens almost always stand out. Because of Panamanians’ views of tattoos and body piercing, you will need to keep any tattoos and piercings out of sight (earrings for women are okay). Men with long hair may be met with suspicion, so it is advisable for male Volunteers to keep their hair relatively short. As a result of the previous U.S. military presence in Panama, Army surplus pants, jackets, backpacks, and so forth should be left at home. All Volunteers will need work-specific clothing, which will vary by project sector, and casual clothing.
The following are some specific work clothing recommendations for people in each project:
- Those in community economic development should dress in business-casual clothing while working with businesses and government agencies. Men should wear pants with short-sleeved polo-style or button-down shirts. Women can wear pants, dresses, or skirts (slightly above the knee is fine) with nice shirts or blouses. Sneakers and flip flops are not appropriate for men or women during business meetings, but are appropriate for casual occasions.
- Those in community environmental conservation will sometimes work in the field, so a pair of good shoes, some work shirts, and long pants are necessary.
When working in schools, Volunteers should wear business-casual clothing. Flip flops are inappropriate and very short skirts and dresses should not be worn as they will attract unwanted attention.
- Those in sustainable agriculture and environmental health are likely to work in areas with a lot of mud and high humidity. These Volunteers will frequently work in the field, so work clothes are a necessity. Some Volunteers wear hiking shoes; others wear non-insulated, knee-high rubber boots. Although Volunteers should wear business-casual clothing when attending meetings with agency partners or conducting seminars, people in very rural or indigenous communities tend to dress less formally than elsewhere in the country.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Panama. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.njjjn
Rewards and Frustrations
You must be sure that you are willing to commit yourself to two years of service in a foreign country, living in harmony with the local culture. You must also learn to be patient, as change comes very slowly. Many Volunteers have difficulty adjusting to the slow pace of life and work in Panama. You may have to repeatedly explain your role as a development worker to many people. You may encounter a lack of understanding or technical support from your community or agency partners. You may also be annoyed by frequent delays in almost every aspect of your work, by the lack of privacy, and by being perceived as a rich foreigner. You will be thoroughly briefed on these matters during training.
The romance and excitement of working in a developing country can wear off quickly. The obstacles to accomplishing one’s goals can be formidable. The key to satisfying work as a Volunteer is the ability to establish successful interpersonal relations at all levels, which requires patience, sensitivity, and a positive, professional attitude. Remember that while you are full of energy and motivation, you will be here for only two years. Your Panamanian colleagues will continue to work at the same jobs, probably for low pay, long after you leave, so they may not have the same level of motivation as you do. Immediate results will be hard to quantify. Much of the impact of the work you do will not become evident until after you leave Panama. Nevertheless, you will surely be rewarded with a great sense of accomplishment when activities are successful, whether small or large. The successes are well worth the difficulties. Volunteers’ presence in Panama is making a difference and has certainly contributed to improving the conditions in rural areas.