I glanced at the map during the flight to Panamá and realized I had flown through this stretch of Caribbean nearly five years ago to the day. The sunset I saw out the window was sinking over Honduras where the airbase was. I knew the reefs below and the way back to Tegucigalpa in the dark.
Our hotel was near the Pentagon. As I got coffee in the morning, I saw dozens of people in uniform. I got a vague notion that in the afternoon I would change into mine and go back to that life.
But that afternoon I realized I was starting a different one. The introduction to Peace Corps called “staging” was useful and well-organized, but I felt like I had stepped into a different universe: light-hearted ice-breakers, learning core expectations through skits, drawing our “anxieties” with markers. Not the kind of methodology I was used to or comfortable with.
I began to have reservations. Could I make this shift?
But through the lighthearted approach, there was a serious message. This is going to be hard. Don’t kid yourselves. If you’re going to jerk around an entire Paraguayan community and a respected US program with an abrupt termination of service, it’s better if you don’t get on the airplane tomorrow.
At one point in staging, the Peace Corps Paraguay country director addressed us. She sketched outlines of an amazing program through a witty no-nonsense delivery. It felt familiar. By the time the she was halfway through her talk, my uneasy feeling had lifted.
This was just culture shock. I was lucky to get over my organizational dissonance before getting to Paraguay and experiencing the real cultural shock simultaneously.
I wrote these words flying over the star-lit Golfo de Panamá, once so familiar. The chop chop chop of turbulence should have triggered more memories, but I was only thinking of landing in landlocked Paraguay and starting work.