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Panama's Trial By Fire

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 11 January 2010 06:55
It was my original belief that nothing developed fluency like total immersion. I adopted this mantra after reading once that my all-time favorite Olympic swimmer was accidentally dropped into a pool as a baby. In that particular moment it was sink or swim and by golly he swam. And swam. And swam. And swam. Look where he is today!  As an added incentive, one of the things they promise when you are thrusted into life in a foreign country, is that situations will present themselves, so embarrassing that they'll never escape your mind. In the moment, these are not supposed to be pleasurable things but in the long run, they're the kind of fanciful humiliations that act as mnemonic memories in adapting to a new culture. "Say you're at the supermarket," my French friend Jean-Francois once said, "and you're trying to order a steak but by accident you order...a vagina. I guarantee, from that moment on, you'll never forget the proper word for steak."

"Or vagina," I added.

If the process of immersion is such a surefire bet, it's the decision of subjecting oneself to these embarrassing situations that is the real variable and choosing to do so is not unlike a debating a colon cleanse in that it can be painful, albeit beneficial in the end.

As much as my Spanish has progressed, there are still certain industries - or perhaps more accurately certain circumstances of day-to-day living in Panama - that still throw me for loops. Three days after New Years a rash developed on my inner thigh as a result of too much biking and running. I had been wearing a specialized aquatic leotard and the friction had led to chafing which led to a slightly hobbled walk. I demonstrated this hobbled walk into the local Arrocha pharmacy where several physicians stood judge-like behind a pedestal counter.

I walked up to the white-coats and said "buenas." I then supersized it with a "muy buenas," and said I had a question that needed consulting. I took a deep breath then realized that I hadn't planned for anything beyond this moment. The hobble was the extent of my explanation plan, but still, I stared off at the shelves of medicine as if the cure for my bike rash was written in tiny lettering on one of the boxes. I guess I'd been thinking that I could walk into the pharmacy, like I could at home, and without provocation, the white-coats would diagnose me, prescribe me, and send me on my way.

"I am athlete," was the first thing I said. "I ride bike and I run. Fast."  While searching for my next line of explaining, one of the white-coats commented, "oh, how nice."

I continued. "When I run very much, my skin...my skin touches each other and then turns to the color red." As stupid as this sounds, this description is actually about the best I am capable of. I like to think I get this skill from some experience with the board game Taboo. The premise of the game sounds so simple: get your team to name common words without voicing a few choice descriptors. But could you describe a pumpkin without mentioning the words Halloween, orange, squash, and carve? Taboo rewards those who think and speak fast, which is to say, Taboo rewards people like me. The doctors behind the counter at Arrocha clearly had never played Taboo as they wore the confused faces generally common with special ed teachers.

The older woman next to me in line decided to jump in and contribute her two cents asking if it was my penis that had gotten involved. "Well, sure, he got involved a little bit," I said. "More my leg where there is a lot of movement." I made the motion of bicycle pedals with my hands and complimented that with the word for humidity, humedad. One of the nurses had a light bulb moment and put up her finger as if to say Eureka. She walked back and brought out a generic version of AstroGlide personal lubricant. "No sex," I corrected. "Exercise. Irritation."

"Soap?" the older women asked. "Bar of soap for your penis?"
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It's funny the things that run through your mind when you're discussing your penis with a bunch of strangers. The white-coats were scrambling in their medical dictionaries and as they deliberated, I recalled a period my cousin Leslie taught troubled teens at a middle school in downtown Baton Rouge. This was fifteen years ago, a necessary step on her path to educational success, and she explained to me what it was like trying to control these kids using the analogy of feral pigs. I didn't even really know the word feral back then but understood it meant something other than well-mannered.

"I can't even get them to understand the five times tables," Leslie said. "They'll repeat it but they don't understand it." Here was a very important distinction. Nodding ones head and repeating a phrase is one thing, but comprehension is entirely another.

Back at the Arrocha, I ultimately called a good friend who was familiar with jock itch and asked him to explain the situation a little better seeing as though, up until this point, I had been prescribed astroglide and a bar of soap. I listened as the doctor spoke with Tommy who, from where I was standing, sounded like he had a mouth full of rocks. The man gave me a tube called something with a lot of consonants in it and told me, in broken English (not Spanish) to "apply it two times per day." But because it was such a fucked up interchange from the beginning, I didn't realize he was speaking English and looked at him mind-boggled.  "OK," I said as I walked away. I'll remember that.

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written by Allison , January 13, 2010
Okay, I don't usually comment on these but it has to be said: comparing certain speaking situations to Taboo is completely and totally apt. It also made me laugh out loud! Good luck with the chafing!
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ejercicio en futilidad
written by Juan Valdez , February 01, 2010
I learned long ago the futility of extracting anything that resembles intelligence from the typical "joven" or employee in this country. Wouldn't it be a lot easier to just research your condition on the Internet, find the appropriate medication, and then request it at the pharmacy? Although I realize this might eliminate some anecdotes from your repertoire.
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I am looking for culture
written by Gerrit Ryit Upye , February 22, 2010
I thought this section might help me find some culture in Panama but I have looked and looked and cannot find any culture. Looked under the chair, under the carpet, even outside but still cannot find a damn bit of culture in this place. HELP!!!!
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