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Why Didn't You Call? A Peace Corps Panama Exposé

Excerpt 1

I was on Isla de Cañas, usually called Isla Cañas, an island on the southern tip of the Azuero Penisula of Panama. It was one of the many underdeveloped areas where the Peace Corps had placed volunteers. To get to Isla Cañas, I took a bus to an unmarked spot on the highway out of the nearby city of Pedasi where a boatsman was waiting in the road to flag down the bus. From there I walked to his waiting boat through a swamp of mangroves not visible to a casual passerby. You needed to have a guide to know where to look. I rolled up my pants and carried my shoes to slog through dark black mud near the shore to get onto the boat.

The mangroves were an environmentally protected area. Like the turtles, they were in danger of disappearing, but they were essential in the eco-system. It was where crabs and other important animals on the food chain lived.

Crocodiles also lived in the mangroves. Hard to spot, but they were there for sure, peering out at the boat from behind heavy foliage that lined the water’s edge wondering, “Who are these infrequent visitors?”

The boat was no more than a dug-out tree trunk, more of a canoe than a boat. Laid widthwise across the narrow girth of the canoe were benches made of wood with wooden legs nailed to the bench. The seats were not attached to the boat; they wobbled. The boat only held six people, and only one person fit on each bench. It was powered by a small outboard motor and a local fisherman who knew these waters like the back of his hand.



Excerpt 2

As we did frequently, after a light lunch one day, Jackie and I headed to the Latina University to work with a handful of Ety's students who lived in and around Santiago and whose goal was to enter American universities. To do so they needed to pass the TOEFL exam. We planned to do a practice TOEFL exam (four hours). We chose to work at the Latina because we needed to do the test online to simulate the way it was administered, and the Normal had still not acquired online capability. We were scheduled to start the exam at 4 p.m. and told everyone to assemble at 3:30.


One student showed up at 3, so we started working with her. She had been given but did not remember the sign-on password for the exercise. We called Ety in Panama City. She blew her stack because it was apparently difficult to set up these practice exams, and she did not want to miss the opportunity.


Luckily some people from the Embassy were around and able to assist. Using one of their phones with access to call overseas, we made a call to the states and got help. The testing center's customer service representative emailed new passwords. We were finally able to get logged on. Had we not done so, the practice exams would not have been available.


It was remarkable how unfriendly the TOEFL process was, especially since it was geared to people that did not speak English as a native language. Even for me and the Embassy folks, it took a long time to figure out how to get the sample test going.


Another problem: The log on process required the students to give their postal address. Panama does not have postal service, so they have no street address. When registering they used Ety's mail drop address in Panama City—where people use private mailboxes to get mail—but the students did not know Ety's address by heart. This required us getting the customer service representative to help us again, as Ety was not answering her phone. But the representative was understandably suspicious because he thought if we did not know our own address, how could we possibly be who we said we were.


I imagine that there were many countries where the concept of an address was meaningless and where people still wanted to come to the US to study. In order to do this, the TOEFL exam was required to prove English proficiency. It makes no sense for the TOEFL exam to require having an address as a prerequisite for entry into the US. Sometimes I just cannot believe how culturally inept Americans can be! And because of learned helplessness, the TOEFL students had not acquired problem-solving skills that would have enabled them to troubleshoot the issues with the TOEFL test without my assistance or that of the Embassy folks. Good thing we happened to both be there! What the Embassy needed to figure out was how to teach English while at the same time teaching skills to overcome learned helplessness. That would be helpful!