by Maggie Pieper
They thought I was incredibly odd at first. My mother thought I had a disease, the schoolteacher thought I was a different species, and my sister just thought I was funny.
I had been preparing all year for my six-week trip to Panama. I would be assigned two American partners to work with and be delivered to a rural community to teach, play, and live. I was ready to enter the community with a smile and make friends with people by being friendly and confident.
I imagined my entrance into my community many times, but it did not go the way I planned.
After the bumpy car ride and a thirty-minute walk with my fifty-pound backpack, I was proud of myself; I felt strong. My two partners, my supervisor, and I arrived in Tebujo y Los Reyes—and then my physical health won the battle over my mental stamina.
We reached the school, shook hands with the head teacher, and my nose seemed unable to stand the climate without causing a scene. My nose bled down my face with a constant velocity that could not be stopped. I tried to cover my nose, but the blood just dripped down my arms like water melting off an icicle.
My partners scrambled to find tissues, but our bags had been stuffed so messily that by the time we found baby wipes a pool of blood had started to form around my feet.
The head teacher at the school looked utterly concerned, so I smiled and tried to tell him that I wasn’t hurt. My partners quickly told me to stop smiling because my teeth were covered in blood.
I looked like a monster to a community of people who rarely got sick.
The head teacher took my backpack for me, and with a look of disgust and panic, he introduced me to a woman who would be my host mom, Mari.
Mari did not look disturbed; she did not even look disappointed to be welcoming a person like me as her daughter.
She slung my backpack over her shoulder and led us up the path to our house. She brought me inside her house, washed off my arms and face and had me lay down on a bed while she laid a hot rag over my forehead.
She did not care how unnatural I looked; all she cared about was the health of her new daughter.
I realized that she really was my mother. She did not even know my name yet, but she brought me into her house and tried to heal me.
Her most interesting method was having me sniff a clay wall for ten minutes.
She tried so hard to improve my health, but it didn’t work; I got two more bloody noses that day.
I found myself laughing through my bloody noses because of how absurd I looked. To see a white girl was rare in my community, but to see a white girl like me was unthinkable.
One would assume that I had an incredibly awkward summer, but after the third day, I never felt uncomfortable. The warmth that I felt in Panama from the community’s welcoming attitude and joyous mindset cannot be compared to how I feel in America.
The community forgot about my first day, and on the third day we went to school and realized that every single child in that community wanted to be our friend; every single mother wanted to offer us a meal in order to get to know us.
Although I showed up in Tebujo y Los Reyes looking like a burden, my mother took no shame in me and cared for me as a stranger and a gringa.
In Panama they did not care about what had happened; all they knew was that I was there to live and work with them: they accepted my partners and me wholeheartedly.
If I were to find myself in that predicament in America, I find it hard to believe that strangers would come to my rescue.
In America when something goes wrong, or a person has a problem, people avoid contact with the issue instead of stepping in and supporting them.
My community in Panama was different.