The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a state of distress brought about by a sudden immersion in or subjection to an unfamiliar culture. The first days of each trip it hits me. It starts slowly with a small knot of uneasiness that builds in the stomach. Gradually, it culminates in a whirlwind sensation that feels as if you are sitting in the middle of a merry-go-round; the world spinning around you at such a speed that your mind cannot keep pace. This culture shock hit me hard as soon as I stepped onto the colectivo that shuttles travelers from Paso Canoas to David, Panama. I’ve been here so many times before, but the 8 hour trip from San Jose to the border had been long and hot. In Paso Canoas the heat and humidity are intensified by the vast amount of concrete and vehicle exhaust. The border always makes you feel a little high. Like you’ve combined the effects of sitting in a sauna with those of huffing gas. It was 4:30 pm and the day had been grueling for me. My mind was exhausted. Staring out of the window of the white colectivo, the conversations around me started to sound like nonsense-- the once decipherable Spanish being interpreted as straight gibberish. Even when I tried to converse in Spanish, my brain produced nothing but a haze; prohibiting me from communicating with those around me. I felt completely isolated.
Day 4 (March 7):
The bus pushed along the Pan-American Highway and the rows of small, concrete block houses zipped by the windows. Our colectivo followed its typical routine; making continuous stops to allow passengers to enter and exit the bus. I found myself watching people run out of their homes to catch the colectivo. Even though I often perform the same sprint to the bus stop in Gainesville, their actions seemed so foreign to me. People commuting to the border to buy their groceries or to purchase discounted clothing and then returning home. At that moment their social world seemed so small to me; this was an utterly closed-minded perspective of these lives. As an anthropologist this is not the way that I interpret different cultures, but the shock that I was feeling forced my mind to follow odd thought processes.
The combination of the exhausting language transition and the basic change of pace of everyday life causes your mind to turn in circles; doubting itself. What the hell am I doing? I’m not good enough to succeed here! The constant doubt snowballs into a slight panic. I want off this bus! How many days are left? Every time the culture shock hits me I tell myself “Quit being weak” and “Quit doubting yourself”. And then at some point I think back to this concept of “culture shock”. It’s real and the emotional deluge that crashes over me is common during periods of adjustment. You must remember this when you feel yourself drifting in this direction. At some point the shock will break—like a fever—and your mind will sync with its surroundings.
I write this passage at a moment when the culture shock has broken. It’s early evening in David and I find myself sitting on a bench in Parque Ceravantes. Luz Graciela—a great friend who has gone out of her way to help me with my work—has invited me to join her for a free jazz performance in the park. The performers are a large group of local musicians that call themselves “The Big Band”. We’ve had a productive day today; Luz Graciela and I. It started with a much needed visit to the library at Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí (Autonomous University of ChiriquÍ). From there Luz Graciela carted me along in her SUV to other universities in David; we were in search of previous research on the border community of Paso Canoas. After three stops and a quick lunch we parted ways with the agreement to meet back at this park bench at 7:30 pm.
There is a strong sense of community here in David. Their pride is made visible in the appreciation that they show for their band…their town. When meeting Chiricanos they are quick to remind you that Chiriquí is the only province in Panamá with its own bandera (flag) and its own himno (provincial anthem). People slowly fill the plastic lawn chairs that surround the constructed stage in the center of the park. They share pleasant greetings and smiles as they choose the best seat available. Many even tote their own chairs from home because they know that the show will draw a great audience. Vendors that sell shaved ice park their carts with their multi-colored umbrellas along the entryways to the main plaza. Each one glides their metal tools along the large block of ice that rests in the center of their workspace; their movements as smooth as the ice that they shave away. With 10-15 rapid strokes, the ice men prepare snow cones with a variety of fruit juices for the children that wait anxiously around their carts (myself being one of those anxious kids). The emotions that buzz around the park tonight are explained perfectly during a conversation with one of the directors of Culturama (a cultural preservation organization in David). With great gesture, she expresses to me that “you can feel the happiness. It’s not a sound, but a sense. It’s a great feeling that makes me proud to be a Chiricana.”
It is at this moment that I realize that the culture shock—which nearly crippled me earlier—has subsided. My mind has synced with its surroundings. The movements of the community, the sounds of the town…they are all clear once again. It’s the sense of community that destroyed the shock. In that colectivo I felt completely isolated…far from home and so alone. But here in David everyone I meet makes sure that I am welcomed into their community. “Oh, you have to meet Milagros!” “We are having a small party after the show. You should come!” With every small conversation the once unfamiliar comes into focus and the scene in front of me suddenly feels familiar. Sitting on this bench waiting for Luz Graciela, my earlier struggles give me a newfound appreciation for community…for family. It’s not a sound, but a sense. It’s a great feeling that make me want to be a Chiricano.