From Peace Corps Wiki
For the official Welcome Book for Panama see here
PEACE CORPS / PANAMA HISTORY AND PROGRAMS
History of the Peace Corps in Panama
The Peace Corps has a long history in Panama. The first Volunteers began work in 1963 and continued serving in Panama until May 1971. In February 1990, the Panamanian government asked the Peace Corps to return, and the program has continued without interruption ever since.
The central goal of Peace Corps/Panama is to promote sustainable community development, in partnership with Panamanian agencies and NGOs, in Panama’s poorest and most disenfranchised regions. Each project has sector-specific goals related to this commitment.
With the reversion of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999, the country is at a critical juncture in its history. For the first time in many decades, there is no American military presence. The economy, when not in recession, is generally weak with growing unemployment. The areas most affected by these economic woes are rural and indigenous communities, and this is where you will find Peace Corps Volunteers working. Volunteers work with communities and agency/NGO partners to meet the challenges of poverty. By helping communities gain access to resources and helping agencies locate communities in need, Volunteers facilitate a more efficient allocation of resources and help establish links between the communities and agencies that can last well after the Volunteers have left.
History and Future of Peace Corps Programming in Panama
Approximately 750 Peace Corps Volunteers served in Panama from 1963 to 1971. More than 500 Volunteers have served since 1990; 140 are currently in service. Volunteers are assigned to one of the four projects: community environmental conservation, sustainable agriculture, community economic development, and environmental health.
Peace Corps/Panama integrates projects so that Volunteers can best meet the needs of their communities. In many situations, it is both helpful and necessary for Volunteers to be versed in topics that lie outside their sector. The groundwork for such integration is accomplished during the training period and subsequent in-service training sessions.
Peace Corps/Panama continually works to meet the growing needs of rural Panamanians. Recent program additions support HIV/AIDS education, information technology development, youth development, and gender equity.
COUNTRY OVERVIEW: PANAMA AT A GLANCE
Panama’s early history was shaped by the ambitions of European powers. In 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas of Spain conducted the first European exploration of Panama. One year later, Christopher Columbus visited Panama and established a settlement in the Darien province. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered that the isthmus was indeed the path between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Panama quickly became the crossroads of Spain’s empire in the New World, serving as the transfer point for gold and silver being shipped from South America to Spain.
Modern Panamanian history has been shaped by the construction of a trans-isthmus canal, which had been envisioned since the beginning of Spanish colonization. From 1880 to 1900, a French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted, unsuccessfully, to construct a sea-level canal on the site of the present Panama Canal.
In November 1903, with U.S. encouragement and French financial support, Panama proclaimed its independence and signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States. The treaty granted rights to the United States in a zone roughly 10 miles wide and 50 miles long, wherein the United States would build a canal; then administer, fortify, and defend it “in perpetuity.” In 1914, the United States completed the existing 50-mile (83-kilometer) lock canal, one of the world’s greatest engineering triumphs. The early 1960s marked the beginning of sustained pressure in Panama for the renegotiation of this treaty. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed a new treaty with Panamanian President General Omar Torrijos in which control of the Canal would be returned to the Panamanian people by 2000.
Panama is a representative democracy with three branches of government. The 74 members of the unicameral Legislative Assembly are elected by direct, secret vote for five-year terms. The executive branch includes a president and two vice presidents, who also are elected for five-year terms. Panama’s current president, Martin Torrijos, is the son of the Panamanian general who signed the Panama Canal Treaty. The independent, appointed judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, tribunals, and municipal courts. An autonomous electoral tribunal supervises voter registration, the election process, and various political party activities. The dominant political parties have historically been the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the Arnulfista Party.
The indigenous reservations in Panama maintain a degree of political autonomy. Although their governmental structures vary somewhat, each maintains a tribal hierarchy.
Panama’s economy is heavily reliant on the service industries, such as the Panama Canal, banking, transportation, insurance, warehousing, and the Colón Free Zone (the world’s second-largest free-trade zone after Hong Kong). These services account for 75 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Manufacturing and construction industries contribute about 18 percent to GDP, while agriculture contributes only 7 percent. As these figures might suggest, most of Panama’s Peace Corps wealth is generated in urban regions, where more than half of its 3 million citizens live.
The Panama Canal, a major focus of business activity, contributes about 5 percent to the nation’s income. Owned and operated by the United States since its inauguration in 1914, the canal became the sole property of Panama in December 1999. With the transfer of the canal, U.S. military bases were closed. A public Panamanian corporation now operates the canal.
Mining, tourism, petroleum refining, brewing, sugar milling, and maritime services are projected sources of future growth.
People and Culture
Panama has long served as a crossroads between oceans and continents, and its indigenous populations have witnessed the arrival of immigrants from all over the world. The population consists of mestizo (mixed European and indigenous), Spanish, indigenous, Chinese, and West Indian groups. Although the culture, customs, and language of Panamanians are predominantly Caribbean and Spanish, cultural norms in Panama vary from region to region and among social classes. Spanish is the official and dominant language, but English is a common second language among those of West Indian ancestry. Additional languages, spoken by indigenous populations, include Emberá, Kuna, Wounaan, Ngäbe-Buglé, and Teribe or Nasos. Most of the country is Roman Catholic; however, Evangelicals, Jews, Buddhists, and other religious communities exist in and around Panama City.
As its diversity might suggest, Panama is rich in folklore and popular traditions. In areas where Spanish roots run deep, women wear the national dress, called a pollera, during local festivals and for traditional folk dances like the tamborito. Expressions of indigenous culture range from Kuna textiles called molas to the traditional Ngäbe dress, the nagua. The Emberá people are also well-known for their crafts, which include intricate tagua nut carvings, and for their traditional dance, called endi sacar. Along the Caribbean coast, where Afro-Antillean influences dominate, a mix of cultures is displayed in the Afro-colonial congo dances.
Panama is located on the narrowest and lowest part of Central America. At 29,300 square miles (77,082 square kilometers), the S-shaped isthmus is slightly smaller than South Carolina. Panama has two coastlines, along the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, and borders Colombia to the east and Costa Rica to the west. The country is divided into nine provinces, plus the indigenous reservations of Emberá-Wounaan, Kuna-Yala, Madugandi, Ngäbe-Buglé, and Wargandi.
Panama has a tropical climate with temperatures ranging from 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. While there is little seasonal variation, there is a dry season from January through March and a rainy season from April through December. Thunderstorms are common during the rainy season, but the country is outside the hurricane track. Areas at higher altitudes are cooler and usually receive more precipitation than the lowlands.
Panama’s landscape varies from province to province, and each province has its own beauty. The tropical environment supports a large variety of flora and fauna, including orchids, bromeliads, fabulous quetzals, over 100 varieties of hummingbird, conejos pintados (large nocturnal rodents), Peace Corps and armadillos. Forests cover 40 percent of the land. The dominant topographical feature is the central spine of highlands, called the Cordillera Central, which forms the continental divide. The highest elevation is the Baru volcano, located near the border with Costa Rica, which rises to almost 11,550 feet (3,500 meters). The coastal areas are largely plains with gently sloping hills. Panama has nearly 500 rivers, most of them not navigable. The Chagres is one of the longest and most vital of the approximately 150 rivers that flow into the Caribbean. In the sparsely populated eastern half of Panama lies the Darien ecoregion, a dense tropical forest that is a cradle of biological diversity.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Following is a list of websites for additional information about the Peace Corps and Panama and to connect you to returned Volunteers. Please keep in mind that although we try to make sure all these links are active and current, we cannot guarantee it.
A note of caution: As you surf the Internet, be aware that you may find bulletin boards and chat rooms in which people are free to express opinions about the Peace Corps based on their own experiences, including comments by those who were unhappy with their choice to serve in the Peace Corps. These opinions are not those of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government, and we hope you will keep in mind that no two people experience their service in the same way.
General Information About Panama
On this site, you can learn anything from what time it is in Panama City to the populations of Panama’s largest cities. Just click on Panama and go from there.
Visit this site for general travel advice about almost any country in the world.
This is the U.S. State Department’s website, which issues background notes periodically about countries around the world. Find Panama and learn more about its social and political history.
This site includes links to all the official sites for governments worldwide.
This online world atlas includes maps and geographical information about countries around the world. Each country page contains links to other sites, such as the Library of Congress, that contain comprehensive historical, social, and political backgrounds.
This United Nations site allows you to search for statistical information for member states of the U.N.
This site provides an additional source of current and historical information about countries around the world.
Connect With Returned Volunteers and Other Invitees
This is the site of the National Peace Corps Association, composed of returned Volunteers. On this site you can find links to all the Web pages of the “friends of” groups for most countries of service, made up of former Volunteers who Peace Corps served in those countries. There are also regional groups who frequently get together for social events and local Volunteer activities. Or go straight to the Peace Corps Panama Friends site: http://www.panamapcv.net
A returned Peace Corps Panama volunteer alumni organization composed primarily of Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff who served in Panama. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, our purpose is to help our members continue their commitment to international service and understanding, support the Peace Corps mission in Panama, and share knowledge of Panama and the Peace Corps with others.
This site is known as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Web Ring. Browse the Web ring and see what former Volunteers are saying about their service.
This site is hosted by a group of returned Volunteer writers. It is a monthly online publication of essays and Volunteer accounts from countries around the world.
Online Articles/Current News Sites about Panama
The Panama News is an online newspaper (in English)
Website for Latin American Newsletters, which provides economic and political information on Latin America (in English)
Website providing details on Panama history.
A guide to tourism, business, and life in Panama
International Development Sites about Panama
U.S. Agency for International Development’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean
United Nations Development Programme (Spanish)
International Fund for Agricultural Development
International Monetary Fund
Recommended Books about Panama
- Labrut, Michele. Getting to Know Panama. El Dorado, Republic of Panama: Focus Publications, 1997.
- McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal: 1870-1914. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
- St. Regis, Louis. Lonely Planet Panama. Footscray, Victoria; London: Lonely Planet Publications, 2004.
- Woodward, Bob. The Commanders. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Books About the History of the Peace Corps
- Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobbs. All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960’s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
- Rice, Gerald T. The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985. Peace Corps
- Stossel, Scott. Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2004.
Books on the Volunteer Experience
- Dirlam, Sharon. Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McSeas Books, 2004.
- Casebolt, Marjorie DeMoss. Margarita: A Guatemalan Peace Corps Experience. Gig Harbor, Wash.: Red Apple Publishing, 2000.
- Erdman, Sarah. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. New York, N.Y.: Picador, 2003.
- Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York, N.Y.: Perennial, 2001.
- Kennedy, Geraldine (ed.). From the Center of the Earth: Stories out of the Peace Corps. Santa Monica, Calif.: Clover Park Press, 1991.
- Thompsen, Moritz. Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1997 (reprint).
LIVING CONDITIONS AND VOLUNTEER LIFESTYLE
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.
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.
PEACE CORPS TRAINING
Overview of Pre-Service Training
An experienced staff of language, technical, and cross-cultural trainers and administrative support personnel will do their best to help you obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to have an enjoyable and productive two years of service as a Volunteer working in sustainable community development. They will design and conduct your training based on the specific projects you will be working on.
The 10-week training program will take place in small communities within an hour of Panama City. The average week will be packed into 48 hours, divided among development of language and technical skills; work orientation; and a segment called “common areas training,” which incorporates Panamanian culture and history, Volunteer life, personal safety, strategic planning, diversity and gender issues, and other topics related to Volunteer service.
While Peace Corps staff will help prepare you for service, the primary responsibility for becoming prepared resides with you. What you get out of training will depend primarily on your level of interest, enthusiasm, and participation. Come prepared to work hard.
The training staff eagerly awaits your arrival. The training director will contact you a few weeks prior to your departure to welcome you.
Technical training will prepare you to work in Panama by building on the skills you already have and by helping you develop new skills in a manner appropriate to the needs of the country. Peace Corps staff, Panamanian experts, representatives of Panamanian government agencies, and current Volunteers will conduct the training program. Training places great emphasis on learning how to transfer the skills you have to the community in which you will serve as a Volunteer.
Technical training will include sessions on the general economic and political environment in Panama and strategies for working within such a framework. You will review your technical sector’s goals and will meet with the Panamanian agencies and organizations that invited the Peace Corps to assist them. You will be supported and evaluated throughout the training to build the confidence and skills you need to undertake your project activities and be a productive member of your community.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will find that language skills are the key to personal and professional satisfaction during your service. These skills are critical to your job performance, they help you integrate into your host community, and they can ease your personal adaptation to the new surroundings. Therefore, language training is the heart of the training program, and you must successfully meet minimum language requirements to complete training and become a Volunteer.
Your language training will incorporate a community-based approach. In addition to classroom time, you will be given assignments to work on outside of the classroom and with your host family. The goal is to get you to a point of basic social communication skills so that you can practice and develop language skills further once you are at your site. Prior to being sworn-in as a Volunteer, you will work on strategies to continue language studies during your service.
As part of your pre-service training, you will live with a Panamanian host family. This experience will ease your transition to life at your site. Families go through an orientation conducted by Peace Corps staff to explain the purpose of pre-service training and to assist them in helping you adapt to living in Panama. Many Volunteers form strong and lasting friendships with their host families.
Cross-cultural and community development training will help you improve your communication skills and understand your role as a facilitator of development. You will be exposed to topics such as community mobilization, conflict resolution, gender and development, nonformal and adult education strategies, and political structures.
During pre-service training, you will be given basic medical training and information. You will be expected to practice preventive healthcare and to take responsibility for your own health by adhering to all medical policies. Trainees are required to attend all medical sessions. Topics include preventive health measures and minor and major medical issues that you might encounter while in Panama. Nutrition, mental health, safety and security, setting up a safe living compound, and how to avoid HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) are also covered.
During the safety training sessions, you will learn how to adopt a lifestyle that reduces your risks at home, at work, and during your travels. You will also learn appropriate, effective strategies for coping with unwanted attention and about your individual responsibility for promoting safety throughout your service.
Additional Trainings During Volunteer Service
In its commitment to institutionalize quality training, the Peace Corps has implemented a training system that provides Volunteers with continual opportunities to examine their commitment to Peace Corps service while increasing their technical and cross-cultural skills. During service, there are several training events.
- In-service training/project design and management: Provides an opportunity for Volunteers to upgrade their project development skills while sharing their experiences and reaffirming their commitment after having served for four to six months.
- Sector workshops: Provides an opportunity each year for Volunteers to upgrade their technical skills. The length of the workshops varies from three to five days.
- Regional training: Provides Volunteers with the opportunity to participate in training workshops with local agency counterparts at quarterly regional meetings.
- Close-of-service conference: Prepares Volunteers for the future after Peace Corps service and reviews their respective projects and personal experiences. The three-day conference occur three to four months before completion of service.
The number, length, and design of these trainings are adapted to country-specific needs and conditions. The key to the
training system is that training events are integrated and interrelated, from the pre-departure orientation through
the end of your service, and are planned, implemented, and evaluated cooperatively by the training staff, Peace Corps staff, and Volunteers Peace Corps
YOUR HEALTH CARE AND SAFETY IN PANAMA
The Peace Corps’ highest priority is maintaining the good health and safety of every Volunteer. Peace Corps medical programs emphasize the preventive, rather than the curative, approach to disease. Peace Corps/Panama maintains a health office with a full-time nurse, a part-time physician, and a medical assistant, who take care of Volunteers’ primary healthcare needs. Additional medical services, such as testing and basic treatment, are also available in Panama at local, American-standard hospitals. If you become seriously ill, you will be transported either to an appropriate medical facility in the region or to the United States.
Health Issues in Panama
Simple medical conditions such as a cut or a skin infection can be complicated by the humidity and heat in Panama. Gastrointestinal illnesses are common, and malaria exists in the country. Also present in Panama are tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dengue fever, intestinal parasites, hepatitis A and B, STIs, and HIV/AIDS. However frightening these diseases may sound, they can be avoided by using common sense and following basic preventive practices.
Helping You Stay Healthy
The Peace Corps will provide you with all the necessary inoculations, medications, and information to stay healthy.
Upon your arrival in Panama, you will receive a medical
handbook. At the end of training, you will receive a medical kit with supplies to take care of mild illnesses and first-aid needs. The contents of the kit are listed later in this chapter.
During training, you will have access to basic medical supplies through the medical officer. However, during this time, you will be responsible for your own supply of prescription drugs and any other specific medical supplies you require, as the Peace Corps will not order these items during training. Please bring a three-month supply of any prescription drugs you use, since they may not be available here and it may take several months for shipments to arrive.
You will have physicals at mid-service and at the end of your service. If you develop a serious medical problem during your service, the medical officer in Panama will consult with the Office of Medical Services in Washington, D.C. If it is determined that your condition cannot be treated in Panama, you may be sent out of the country for further evaluation and care.
Maintaining Your Health
As a Volunteer, you must accept considerable responsibility for your own health. Proper precautions will significantly reduce your risk of serious illness or injury. The old adage “An ounce of prevention …” becomes extremely important in areas where diagnostic and treatment facilities are not up to the standards of the United States. The most important of your responsibilities in Panama is to follow the Peace Corps’ instructions concerning preventive measures for malaria, bacterial and viral gastrointestinal illnesses, STIs, skin diseases, animal and insect bites, heatstroke, and hantavirus.
Many illnesses that afflict Volunteers worldwide are entirely preventable if proper food and water precautions are taken.
These illnesses include food poisoning, parasitic infections, hepatitis A, dysentery, tapeworms, and typhoid fever. Your medical officer will discuss specific standards for water and food preparation in Panama during pre-service training.
Abstinence is the only certain choice for preventing infection with HIV and other STIs. You are taking risks if you choose to be sexually active. To lessen risk, use a condom every time you have sex. Whether your partner is a host country citizen, a fellow Volunteer, or anyone else, do not assume this person is free of HIV/AIDS or other STIs. You will receive more information from the medical officer about this important issue.
Volunteers are expected to adhere to an effective means of birth control to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Your medical officer can help you decide on the most appropriate method to suit your individual needs. Contraceptive methods are available without charge from the medical officer.
It is critical to your health that you promptly report to the medical office for scheduled immunizations, and that you let the medical officer know immediately of significant illnesses and injuries.
Women’s Health Information
Pregnancy is treated in the same manner as other Volunteer health conditions that require medical attention but also have programmatic ramifications. The Peace Corps is responsible for determining the medical risk and the availability of appropriate medical care if the Volunteer remains in-country. Given the circumstances under which Volunteers live and work in Peace Corps countries, it is rare that the Peace Corps’ medical and programmatic standards for continued service during pregnancy can be met.
Not all feminine hygiene products are available in the regions where Volunteers live, so you may have to use an alternative product. If you require a specific feminine hygiene product, please bring a supply with you. Peace Corps/Panama does not provide feminine hygiene products.
Your Peace Corps Medical Kit
The Peace Corps Medical Officer will provide you with a kit that contains basic items necessary to prevent and treat illnesses that may occur during service. Kit items can be periodically restocked at the medical office.
Medical Kit Contents
American Red Cross First Aid & Safety Handbook
Antibiotic ointment (Bacitracin/Neomycin/Polymycin B)
Antiseptic antimicrobial skin cleaner
Diphenhydramine HCL 50 mg (Benadryl)
Insect repellent cream
Lip balm (Chapstick)
Oral rehydration salts
Pseudoephedrine HCL 30 mg (Sudafed)
Robitussin-DM lozenges (for cough)
Sterile gauze pads
Tetrahydrozaline eyedrops (Visine)
Tinactin (antifungal cream)
Before You Leave: A Medical Checklist
If there has been any change in your health—physical, mental, or dental—since you submitted your examination reports to the Peace Corps, you must immediately notify the Office of Medical Services. Failure to disclose new illnesses, injuries, allergies, or pregnancy can endanger your health and may jeopardize your eligibility to serve.
If your dental exam was done more than a year ago, or if your physical exam is more than two years old, contact the Office of Medical Services to find out whether you need to update your records. If your dentist or Peace Corps dental consultant has recommended that you undergo dental treatment or repair, you must complete that work and make sure your dentist sends requested confirmation reports or X-rays to the Office of Medical Services.
If you wish to avoid having duplicate vaccinations, contact your physician’s office, obtain a copy of your immunization record, and bring it to your pre-departure orientation. If you have any immunizations prior to Peace Corps service, the Peace Corps cannot reimburse you for the cost. Peace Corps/ Panama will provide all the immunizations necessary for your overseas assignment shortly after you arrive in Panama. You do not need to begin taking malaria medication prior to departure.
Bring a three-month supply of any prescription or over-thecounter medication you use on a regular basis, including birth control pills. Although the Peace Corps cannot reimburse you for this supply, it will order refills during your service.
While awaiting shipment—which can take several months— you will be dependent on your own medication supply. Peace Corps/Panama will not pay for herbal or nonprescribed medications, such as St. John’s wort, glucosamine, selenium, or antioxidant supplements.
You are encouraged to bring copies of medical prescriptions signed by your physician. This is not a requirement, but they might come in handy if you are questioned in transit about carrying a three-month supply of prescription drugs.
If you wear eyeglasses, bring two pairs with you—a pair and a spare. If a pair breaks, Peace Corps/Panama will replace it, using the information your doctor in the United States provided on the eyeglasses form during your examination. The Peace Corps discourages you from using contact lenses during your service to reduce your risk of developing a serious infection or other eye disease. Most Peace Corps countries do not have appropriate water and sanitation to support eye care with the use of contact lenses. Peace Corps/Panama will not supply or replace contact lenses or associated solutions unless an ophthalmologist has recommended their use for a specific medical condition and the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services has given approval.
If you are eligible for Medicare, are over 50 years of age, or have a health condition that may restrict your future participation in healthcare plans, you may wish to consult an insurance specialist about unique coverage needs before your departure. Peace Corps/Panama will provide all necessary healthcare from the time you leave for your pre-departure orientation until you complete your service. When you finish, you will be entitled to the post-service healthcare benefits described in the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook. You may wish to consider keeping an existing health plan in effect during your service if you think age or preexisting conditions might prevent you from reenrolling in your current plan when you return home.
Safety and Security—Our Partnership
Serving as a Volunteer overseas entails certain safety and security risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and the perception of being a wealthy American are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Property thefts and burglaries are not uncommon. Incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although almost all Volunteers complete their two years of service without serious personal safety problems. In addition, more than 84 percent of Volunteers surveyed in the 2004 Peace Corps Volunteer Survey say they would join the Peace Corps again.
The Peace Corps approaches safety and security as a partnership with you. This Welcome Book contains sections on: Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyle; Peace Corps Training; and Your Health Care and Safety. All of these sections include important safety and security information.
The Peace Corps makes every effort to give Volunteers the tools they need to function in the safest and most secure way possible, because working to maximize the safety and security of Volunteers is our highest priority. Not only do we provide you with training and tools to prepare for the unexpected, but we teach you to identify and manage the risks you may encounter.
Factors that Contribute to Volunteer Risk
There are several factors that can heighten a Volunteer’s risk, many of which are within the Volunteer’s control.
Based on information gathered from incident reports worldwide in 2004, the following factors stand out as risk characteristics for assaults. Assaults consist of personal crimes committed against Volunteers, and do not include property crimes (such as vandalism or theft).
- Location: Most crimes occurred when Volunteers were in public areas (e.g., street, park, beach, public buildings). Specifically, 43 percent of assaults took place when Volun-teers were away from their sites.
- Time of day: Assaults usually took place on the weekend during the evening between 5:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.— with most assaults occurring around 1:00 a.m.
- Absence of others: Assaults usually occurred when the Volunteer was unaccompanied. In 82 percent of the sex-ual assaults the Volunteer was unaccompanied and in 55 percent of physical assaults the Volunteer was unaccom-panied.
- Relationship to assailant: In most assaults, the Volunteer did not know the assailant.
- Consumption of alcohol: Forty percent of all assaults involved alcohol consumption by Volunteers and/or assailants.
Summary Strategies to Reduce Risk
Before and during service, your training will address these areas of concern so that you can reduce the risks you face.
For example, here are some strategies Volunteers employ:
Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of theft:
- Know the environment and choose safe routes/times for travel
- Avoid high-crime areas per Peace Corps guidance
- Know the vocabulary to get help in an emergency
- Carry valuables in different pockets/places
- Carry a “dummy” wallet as a decoy Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of burglary:
- Live with a local family or on a family compound
- Put strong locks on doors and keep valuables in a lock box or trunk
- Leave irreplaceable objects at home in the U.S.
- Follow Peace Corps guidelines on maintaining home security Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of assault:
- Make local friends
- Make sure your appearance is respectful of local customs; don’t draw negative attention to yourself by wearing inappropriate clothing
- Get to know local officials, police, and neighbors
- Travel with someone whenever possible
- Avoid known high crime areas
- Limit alcohol consumption
Support from Staff
In March 2003, the Peace Corps created the Office of
Safety and Security with its mission to “foster improved communication, coordination, oversight, and accountability of
all Peace Corps’ safety and security efforts.” The new office is led by an Associate Director for Safety and Security who reports to the Peace Corps Director and includes the following divisions: Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security; Information and Personnel Security; Emergency Preparedness, Plans, Training and Exercise; and Crime Statistics and Analysis.
The major responsibilities of the Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security Division are to coordinate the office’s overseas operations and direct the Peace Corps’ safety and security officers who are located in various regions around the world that have Peace Corps programs. The safety and security officers conduct security assessments; review safety trainings; train trainers and managers; train Volunteer safety wardens, local guards, and staff; develop security incident response procedures; and provide crisis management support.
If a trainee or Volunteer is the victim of a safety incident, Peace Corps staff is prepared to provide support. All Peace Corps posts have procedures in place to respond to incidents of crime committed against Volunteers. The first priority for all posts in the aftermath of an incident is to ensure that the Volunteer is safe and receiving medical treatment as needed. After assuring the safety of the Volunteer, Peace Corps staff provide support by reassessing the Volunteer’s work site and housing arrangements and making any adjustments, as needed. In some cases, the nature of the incident may necessitate a site or housing transfer. Peace Corps staff will also assist Volunteers with preserving their rights to pursue legal sanctions against the perpetrators of the crime. It is very important that Volunteers report incidents as they occur, not only to protect their peer Volunteers, but also to preserve the future right to prosecute. Should Volunteers decide later in the process that they want to proceed with the prosecution of their assailant, this option may no longer exist if the evidence of the event has not been preserved at the time of the incident.
The country-specific data chart below shows the incidence rates and the average number of incidents of the major types of safety incidents reported by Peace Corps Volunteers/ trainees in Panama as compared to all other Inter-America and Pacific (IAP) region programs as a whole, from 2001– 2005. It is presented to you in a somewhat technical manner for statistical accuracy.
To fully appreciate the collected data below, an explanation of the graph is provided as follows:
The incidence rate for each type of crime is the number of crime events relative to the Volunteer/trainee population.
It is expressed on the chart as a ratio of crime to Volunteer and trainee years (or V/T years, which is a measure of 12 full months of V/T service) to allow for a statistically valid way to compare crime data across countries. An “incident” is a specific offense, per Peace Corps’ classification of offenses, and may involve one or more Volunteer/trainee victims. For example, if two Volunteers are robbed at the same time and place, this is classified as one robbery incident.
The chart is separated into eight crime categories. These include vandalism (malicious defacement or damage of property); theft (taking without force or illegal entry); burglary (forcible entry of a residence); robbery (taking something by force); minor physical assault (attacking without a weapon with minor injuries); minor sexual assault (fondling, groping, etc.); aggravated assault (attacking with a weapon, and/or without a weapon when serious injury results); and rape (sexual intercourse without consent).
When anticipating Peace Corps Volunteer service, you should review all of the safety and security information provided to you, including the strategies to reduce risk. Throughout your training and Volunteer service, you will be expected to successfully complete all training competencies in a variety of areas including safety and security. Once in-country, use the tools and information shared with you to remain as safe and secure as possible.
What if you become a victim of a violent crime?
Few Peace Corps Volunteers are victims of violent crimes. The Peace Corps will give you information and training in how to be safe. But, just as in the U.S., crime happens, and Volunteers can become victims. When this happens, the investigative team of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is charged with helping pursue prosecution of those who perpetrate a violent crime against a Volunteer. If you become a victim of a violent crime, the decision to prosecute or not to prosecute is entirely yours, and one of the tasks of the OIG is to make sure that you are fully informed of your options and help you through the process and procedures involved in going forward with prosecution should you wish to do so. If you decide to prosecute, we are here to assist you in every way we can.
Crimes that occur overseas, of course, are investigated and prosecuted by local authorities in local courts. Our role is to coordinate the investigation and evidence collection with the regional security officers (RSOs) at the U.S. embassy, local police, and local prosecutors and others to ensure that your rights are protected to the fullest extent possible under the laws of the country. OIG investigative staff has extensive experience in criminal investigation, in working sensitively with victims, and as advocates for victims. We also, may, in certain limited circumstances, arrange for the retention of a local lawyer to assist the local public prosecutor in making the case against the individual who perpetrated the violent crime.
If you do become a victim of a violent crime, first, make sure you are in a safe place and with people you trust and second, contact the country director or the Peace Corps medical officer. Immediate reporting is important to the preservation of evidence and the chances of apprehending the suspect. Country directors and medical officers are required to report all violent crimes to the Inspector General and the RSO. This information is protected from unauthorized further disclosure by the Privacy Act. Reporting the crime also helps prevent your further victimization and protects your fellow Volunteers.
In conjunction with the RSO, the OIG does a preliminary investigation of all violent crimes against Volunteers regardless of whether the crime has been reported to local authorities or of the decision you may ultimately make to prosecute. If you are a victim of a crime, our staff will work with you through final disposition of the case. OIG staff is available 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week. We may be contacted through our 24-hour violent crime hotline via telephone at 202.692.2911, or by e-mail at violentcrimehotline@peacecorps. gov.
Security Issues in Panama
When it comes to your safety and security in the Peace Corps, you have to be willing to adapt your behavior and lifestyle to minimize the potential for being a target of crime. As with anywhere in the world, crime does exist in Panama. You can reduce your risk by avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable and by taking precautions. Crime at the village or town level is less frequent than in the large cities; people know each other and generally will not steal from their neighbors. Tourist attractions in large towns, for instance, are favorite work sites for pickpockets.
The most commonly reported security incidents involving Panama Volunteers in recent years have been burglary and theft. There have been no reported rapes of Peace Corps Volunteers in Panama since 1996.
Staying Safe: Don’t Be a Target for Crime =
You must be prepared to take on a large degree of responsibility for your own safety. Only you can make yourself less of a target, ensure that your house is secure, and develop relations in your community that will make you an unlikely victim of crime. In Panama, do what you would do if you moved to a new city in the United States: Be cautious, check things out, ask questions, learn about your neighborhood, know where the more risky locations are, use common sense, and be aware. You can reduce your vulnerability to crime by integrating into your community, learning the local language, acting responsibly, and abiding by Peace Corps policies and procedures. Serving safely and effectively in Panama may require that you accept some restrictions on your current lifestyle.
Volunteers attract a lot of attention both in large cities and at their sites, but they are likely to receive more negative attention in highly populated centers than at their sites, where “family,” friends, and colleagues look out for them. While whistles and exclamations are fairly common on the street, this behavior can be reduced if you dress conservatively, avoid eye contact, and do not respond to unwanted attention. In addition, keep your money out of sight by using an undergarment money pouch. Do not keep your money in outside pockets of backpacks, in coat pockets, or in fanny packs. And always walk with a companion at night.
Preparing for the Unexpected: Safety Training and Volunteer Support in Panama
The Peace Corps’ approach to safety is a five-pronged plan to help you stay safe during your two-year service and includes the following: information sharing, Volunteer training, site selection criteria, a detailed emergency action plan, and protocols for addressing safety and security incidents. Panama’s in-country safety program is outlined below.
The Peace Corps/Panama office will keep Volunteers informed of any issues that may impact Volunteer safety through information sharing. Regular updates will be provided in Volunteer newsletters and in memorandums from the country director via e-mail. In the event of a critical situation or emergency, Volunteers will be contacted through the emergency communication network.
Volunteer training includes sessions to prepare you for specific safety and security issues in Panama. This training prepares you to adopt a culturally appropriate lifestyle and exercise judgment that promotes safety and reduces risk in your home, at work, and while traveling. Safety training is offered throughout service and is integrated into the language, cross-cultural, health, and other components of training.
Certain site selection criteria are used to determine safe housing for Volunteers before their arrival. The Peace Corps staff works closely with host communities and partner agencies to help prepare them for a Volunteer’s arrival and to establish expectations of their respective roles in supporting the Volunteer. Each site is inspected before the Volunteer’s arrival to ensure placement in appropriate, safe, and secure housing and work sites. Site selection is based in part on any relevant site history; access to medical, banking, transportation, postal, and other essential services; availability of communications and markets; housing options and living arrangements; and other Volunteer support needs.
You will also learn about Peace Corps/Panama’s detailed emergency action plan, which is implemented in the event of civil or political unrest or a natural disaster. When you arrive at your site, you will complete and submit a site locator form with your address, contact information, and a map to your house. If there is a security threat, you will gather with other Volunteers at predetermined locations until the situation is resolved or the Peace Corps decides to evacuate. When away from their sites, Volunteers are required to let community partners know and to e-mail or call Peace Corps/Panama’s out-of-site box, providing dates, places, and telephone numbers where they can be reached during the absence. This procedure ensures that Volunteers can be contacted in the case of an emergency. Failure to comply with this procedure can result in administrative separation from the Peace Corps.
Finally, for the Peace Corps to be fully responsive to the needs of Volunteers, it is imperative that Volunteers immediately report any security incident to the Peace Corps/Panama medical officer. The Peace Corps has established protocols for addressing safety and security incidents in a timely and appropriate manner, and it collects and evaluates safety and security data to track trends and develop strategies to minimize risks to future Volunteers.
DIVERSITY AND CROSS-CULTURAL ISSUES
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Panama, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Panama.
Outside of Panama City, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Panama are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Panama, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Overview of Diversity in Panama
The Peace Corps/Panama staff recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Female Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to Panama’s male-dominated society. They may be verbally harassed or even experience physical harassment. They may not be taken seriously intellectually or in their work. They may not be able to socialize with males without giving the impression that they are flirting and may be judged differently than men for behaviors such as smoking, drinking, walking alone, or going out at night. In addition, because they are from the United States, they may be assumed to be sexually promiscuous. Panamanians may consider it strange that female Volunteers do not spend their days cooking, cleaning, and washing.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
African-American Volunteers may be judged as less professionally competent than Caucasian Volunteers. Despite their complexion, they may not be considered black because they come from what is considered a primarily white culture. They may be called negro or chombo, not necessarily as derogatory terms but as the local words used to describe black people. They must be prepared to work and live with individuals who have no experience of African-American culture. And they may not receive, or be able to receive, necessary personal support from other Volunteers.
Hispanic American Volunteers may not be perceived as being North American and may be expected to speak Spanish fluently. They may be labeled el cubano, el mexicano, etc. because of stereotyped perceptions of other Latino cultures. They may be expected to interact in Panamanian society with more ease than other Volunteers. They may not find other Volunteers in Panama with the same ethnic background.
Asian-American Volunteers may be expected to exhibit behavior Panamanians have observed in martial-arts films. Like Hispanic Americans, they may not be considered North Americans. In addition, Panama’s historical involvement with certain Asian countries or the presence of Asian merchants in the community may have an impact on how Asian-American Volunteers are perceived.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
While in Panama, senior Volunteers may not receive necessary personal support from younger Volunteers. They may find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support; some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, while others choose not to fill this role. They may not find suitable role models among the Peace Corps/Panama staff.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers who have been “out” in the United States may feel pressure to be less open in Panama because some people view their sexual orientation as deviant or taboo. They may be hassled in the streets or in bars, and their civil liberties may be ignored. They may serve in Panama for two years without ever meeting another gay or lesbian Volunteer. Lesbians have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Gay men have to deal with machismo: talk of conquest(s), heavy drinking, girl watching, and dirty jokes.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Volunteers of religions other than Christianity may be challenged or face generalizations about people of their religion. They may not be thought of as real Americans. Jews may occasionally be considered anti-Christian. Thus, some Volunteers may not feel comfortable disclosing their religion to the people in their community. Volunteers may not be able to find a suitable place of worship near their site or may find it difficult to fulfill their religion’s dietary requirements.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
Volunteers with disabilities may encounter people in their community who think that they always require special help and cannot function on their own. They may find that some Panamanians consider them incapable of work that requires physical exertion or less competent in professional situations. They may be faced with frank or inconsiderate remarks concerning their disability.
The Peace Corps Office of Medical Services, as part of the medical clearance process, determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Panama without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Panama staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
Possible issues for Married Volunteers
Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and its challenges. It helps to have someone by your side to share your experience with, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. It is important to remember that you are in a foreign country with new rules and you need to be open-minded about cultural differences. For example, a married man may be encouraged by Panamanians to be the more dominant member in the relationship, be encouraged to make decisions independently of his spouse, or be ridiculed when he performs domestic tasks. A married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to or may be expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. She may also experience a more limited social life in the community than single Volunteers (since it may be assumed that she will be busy taking care of her husband). Competition between a couple may become a difficulty, especially if one spouse learns faster than the other (e.g., language skills, job skills). There also may be differences in job satisfaction and/or different needs between spouses. Younger Volunteers may look to couples for advice and support. Married couples also are likely to be treated with more respect because the community sees marriage as a responsibility. They may be asked when they will have children.
Please note that during training, couples may or may not live apart if they are assigned to different projects. Please consult with your placement officer if you have any questions.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How much luggage will I be allowed to bring to Panama?
Most airlines have baggage size and weight limits and assess charges for transport of baggage that exceeds those limits. Airlines allow two checked pieces of luggage with combined dimensions of both pieces not to exceed 107 inches (length width + height) and a carry-on bag with dimensions of no more than 45 inches. Checked baggage should not exceed 80 pounds total with a maximum weight of 50 pounds for any one bag. Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed to take pets, weapons, explosives, radio transmitters (shortwave radios are permitted), automobiles, or motorcycles to their overseas assignments. Do not pack flammable materials or liquids such as lighter fluid, cleaning solvents, hair spray, or aerosol containers. This is an important safety precaution.
What is the electric current in Panama?
It is 110 volts, 60 cycles AC (the standard in the United States). Many Volunteers do not have electricity in their homes or have it for only a few hours a day.
How much money should I bring?
Volunteers are expected to live at the same level as the people in their community. They are given a settling-in allowance and a monthly living allowance, which should cover their expenses. Often Volunteers wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. Credit cards, ATM cards, and traveler’s checks are preferable to cash. If you choose to bring extra money, bring the amount that will suit your own travel plans and needs.
When can I take vacation and have people visit me?
Each Volunteer accrues two vacation days per month of service (excluding training). Leave may not be taken during training, the first three months of service, or the last three months of service, except in conjunction with an authorized emergency leave. Family and friends are welcome to visit you after pre-service training and the first three months of service as long as their stay does not interfere with your work. Extended stays at your site are not encouraged and may require permission from your country director. The Peace Corps is not able to provide your visitors with visa, medical, or travel assistance.
Will my belongings be covered by insurance?
The Peace Corps does not provide insurance coverage for personal effects; Volunteers are ultimately responsible for the safekeeping of their personal belongings. However, you can purchase such insurance before you leave. If you wish, you may contact your own insurance company; additionally, insurance application forms will be provided, and we encourage you to consider them carefully. Volunteers should not ship or take valuable items overseas. Jewelry, watches, radios, cameras, and expensive appliances such as laptops, are subject to loss, theft, and breakage, and in many places, satisfactory maintenance and repair services are not available.
Do I need an international driver’s license?
Volunteers in Panama do not need to get an international driver’s license because they are prohibited from operating privately owned vehicles. Most urban travel is by bus or taxi.
Rural travel ranges from buses and minibuses to trucks and lots of walking. On very rare occasions, a Volunteer may be asked to drive a Peace Corps vehicle, but this can occur only with prior written permission of the country director. Should this occur, the Volunteer may obtain a local driver’s license. A U.S. driver’s license will facilitate the process, so bring it with you just in case. What should I bring as gifts for Panamanian friends and my host family?
This is not a requirement. A token of friendship is sufficient. Some gift suggestions include knickknacks for the house; pictures, books, or calendars of American scenes; souvenirs from your area; hard candies that will not melt or spoil; or photos to give away.
Where will my site assignment be when I finish training and how isolated will I be?
Peace Corps trainees are not assigned to individual sites until during pre-service training. This gives the Peace Corps staff the opportunity to assess each trainee’s technical and language skills prior to assigning sites, in addition to finalizing site selections with their government ministry partners. If feasible, you may be able to provide input on your site preferences, including geographical location, distance from other Volunteers, and living conditions. However, many factors influence the site selection process and the Peace Corps cannot guarantee placement where you would ideally like to be. Most Volunteers live in small towns or in rural villages and are usually within one or two hours from another Volunteer. Some sites require as much as a 16-hour drive from the capital.
How can my family contact me in an emergency?
The Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services provides assistance in handling emergencies affecting trainees and Volunteers or their families. Before leaving the United States, instruct your family to notify the Office of Special Services immediately if an emergency arises, such as a serious illness or death of a family member. During normal business hours, the number for the Office of Special Services is 800.424.8580, extension 1470. After normal business hours and on weekends and holidays, the Special Services duty officer can be reached at 202.638.2574. For non-emergency questions, your family can get information from your country desk staff at the Peace Corps by calling 800.424.8580.
Can I call home from Panama?
International phone service to and from Panama is good. You can call collect from any public phone or use a major calling card such as those offered by AT&T, MCI, and Sprint. Most Volunteers have a phone in their house, their town, or a nearby town.
Should I bring a cellular phone with me?
It is often more expensive to reprogram a cellular phone from the United States than to purchase one in Panama. Cellular phones are widely available and reasonably priced in Panama, but many Volunteers live at sites outside of their signal range.
Will there be e-mail and Internet access? Should I bring my computer?
Internet access in Panama is spreading. All provincial capitals and many other large towns have Internet cafes. 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, it will be hard to charge the battery unless you bring a solar battery and charger. A voltage regulator is also a necessity.
This list has been compiled by Volunteers serving in Panama and is based on their experience. Use it as an informal guide in making your own list, bearing in mind that experience is individual. We recommend that you pack light. You can get virtually anything you might need in Panama. You obviously cannot bring everything we mention, so consider those items that make the most sense to you personally and professionally. You can always have things sent to you later. Also, as you decide what to bring, keep in mind that you have an 80-pound weight limit on baggage. And, a final suggestion: If in doubt, leave it out.
For luggage in general, duffel bags and backpacks are much more practical than suitcases. Rolling suitcases especially are not practical for Panama. Be sure to put the following items in a carry-on bag for quick and easy access once you arrive in Panama: passport, baggage-claim tickets, customs forms, World Health Organization card, and immunization records.
Because of the heat and humidity, cotton fabric is always a good idea, especially for underwear. Outdoor clothing with fabric that “wicks away” moisture can be useful, but cotton-synthetic blends also hold their shape and are cooler to wear. Clothing will probably be subject to harsh washing (many Volunteers wash their clothes on rocks) and rugged work and climatic conditions, so be sure to select durable items. Do not bring clothes made of delicate materials.
Panama has clothing stores located throughout all areas of the country. Attractive, practical clothing will be readily available for purchase at very affordable prices. Outdoor gear such as sleeping mats, headlamps, etc., however, will be more difficult (but not impossible) to locate in Panama, as well as high-quality footwear, so when deciding what to bring it is recommended that you prioritize those items over clothing. Finally, bring what you know you will need to be happy, but base your decisions primarily on the type of work you will be doing and your probable living conditions. Do not bring anything that you would be heartbroken to lose.
- 3 or 4 pairs of casual pants (quick-dry pants, cargo pants, jeans, etc.)
- 1 or 2 pairs of nicer pants or skirts for swearing-in ceremony, meetings, office visits, etc.
- 1 to 3 pairs of shorts
- 2 outdoor work shirts
- 4 shirts or tank tops for everyday, comfortable wear
- 3 nicer shirts/polo-shirts for swearing-in ceremony, meetings, office visits, etc.
- 1 sweater or thermal shirt
- At least 1 bathing suit
- 4 or 5 pairs of socks (dark colors preferable)
- Two-week supply of underwear (boxer shorts and nice bras are harder to find in Panama)
- Hat and bandanna
- Hiking shoes (note that many Volunteers find they primarily use rubber boots, which can be found in Panama)
- Running shoes or sneakers
- Casual shoes (e.g., Chacos, Tevas, or Keens) Comfortable dress shoes Peace Corps 4
Note: Shoes larger than 10 are hard to find in Panama, as are wider sizes. Hiking shoes are available in Panama, but the selection is not as good as in the United States. Rubber boots are widely available.
- This Welcome Book CD-ROM
- Your Volunteer Assignment Description (part of your invitation packet)
- Extra pair of glasses (if you wear them)
- Three-month supply of any prescription drugs you take, along with copies of the prescriptions The following items are strongly recommended to bring or purchase once you arrive in Panama:
- Umbrella or rain jacket
- Small, sturdy backpack for short trips
- Small flashlight (head lamps and LED lamps are hard to find in Panama, although standard hand-held flashlights are easy to find)
- Sleeping pad (note that Therm-a-rest may be difficult to find in Panama)
- Sheets or lightweight sleeping bag
- Start-up supply of toiletries
- 1 bath towel (quick-dry towel recommended), 1 beach towel
- Travel alarm clock
- Water-resistant and shockproof watch
- Digital camera
The following items are less necessary, but you may want to consider bringing or to purchase once you arrive in Panama:
- Jump drive/ memory stick
- Pocketknife/ Multi-tool
- Inexpensive jewelry
- Tampons (available in Panama, but in larger cities only)
- CD player/iPod
- Hand-sanitizer gel
- Small padlocks (for your luggage)
- Photos of family, friends, and your home in the States (for you, but also to show community members where you are from)
- World map (also to show community members where you are from)
- Any items for your personal interests or hobbies (e.g., guitar, snorkel gear, bird-watching guide, knitting needles, etc.)
Batteries, razors, kerosene burners, and kitchen supplies are all readily available in Panama. It is strongly recommended that you not bring them. International calling cards are also inexpensive and easy to purchase in Panama.
You do not need to bring basic healthcare products (such as sun block, bug repellant, vitamins, band-aids, etc.) or a mosquito net as these are all provided by Peace Corps/ Panama. Peace Corps will also provide you with a Spanish-English dictionary, grammar book, and vocabulary book, as well as the book 501 Spanish Verbs when you arrive for training.
The following list consists of suggestions for you to consider as you prepare to live outside the United States for two years. Not all items will be relevant to everyone, and the list does not include everything you should make arrangements for.
- Notify family that they can call the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services at any time if there is a critical illness or death of a family member (telephone number: 800.424.8580, extension 1470; after-hours duty officer: 202.638.2574).
- Give the Peace Corps’ On the Home Front handbook to family and friends.
- Forward to the Peace Corps travel office all paperwork for the Peace Corps passport and visas.
- Verify that luggage meets the size and weight limits for international travel.
- Obtain a personal passport if you plan to travel after your service ends. (Your Peace Corps passport will expire three months after you finish your service, so if you plan to travel longer, you will need a regular passport.)
- Complete any needed dental and medical work.
- If you wear glasses, bring two pairs.
- Arrange to bring a three-to six-month supply of all medications (including birth control pills) you are currently taking.
- Make arrangements to maintain life insurance coverage. . Arrange to maintain supplemental health coverage while you are away. (Even though the Peace Corps is responsible for your health care during Peace Corps service overseas, it is advisable for people who have preexisting conditions to arrange for the continuation of their supplemental health coverage. If there is a lapse in supplemental health coverage, it is often difficult and expensive to be reinstated.)
- Arrange to continue Medicare coverage if applicable.
- Bring a copy of your certificate of marriage or divorce.
- Register to vote in the state of your home of record. (Many state universities consider voting and payment of state taxes as evidence of residence in that state.) . Obtain a voter registration card and take it with you overseas.
- Arrange to have an absentee ballot forwarded to you overseas.
Personal Effects =
- Purchase personal property insurance to extend from the time you leave your home for service overseas until the time you complete your service and return to the United States.
- Obtain student loan deferment forms from the lender or loan service.
- Execute a power of attorney for the management of your property and business.
- Arrange for deductions from your readjustment allowance to pay alimony, child support, and other debts through the Office of Volunteer Financial Operations at 800.424.8580, extension 1770.
- Place all important papers—mortgages, deeds, stocks, and bonds—in a safe deposit box or with an attorney or other caretaker.