So Saturday was the first day we didn’t spend over 7 hours on GB-related stuff, and instead we hopped on a ferry to Taboga Island. When you hear stories of the sorts of Central American paradises that North Americans love to retire at, this is what they’re talking about. We spent the day lounging on the beach and swimming in the almost-bathwater-warm temp ocean and got burnt to a crisp, but it was a great day. The ferry over was only $12 and they sold pre-mixed rum and cokes in a can for a buck fifty, can’t beat that for a relaxing day trip.
(the advising team and the land cruiser)
The classic image of third world development work often involves pale young enthusiasts bumping around rural communities in Land Cruisers and while I once judged this imagery, yesterday I came to embody it–a valuable lesson for any naïve idealist. Let me just say that no non-profit can operate without knowing their communities first hand, and for this a Land Cruiser is absolutely necessary when roads are no more than beaten down paths through a tropical rain forest. On the issue of who is inside those land cruisers and whether they are entitled to be so (given issues of global inequality/neo-imperial power imbalances/race and ethnicity/whathaveyou), I will refrain from comment at this point.
So we headed out from Panama City heading down the Corredor Sur of the Panamerican Highway. Leaving the city skyscrapers behind, the landscape was quickly replaced by dense vegetation with the inevitable swaths of deforestation for timber and large-scale farming.
We were driving through what is known as Comarca Embera, “Comarca” meaning indigenous land and Embera being the name of the dominant tribe, although the villages were interspersed with both Kuna (another tribe) and poor latino communities. We visited four communities, Quebrada Cali, Piriati Embera, Piriati Arriba, and Torti Abajo, with whom Global Brigades has established a relationship with and plans to work with in the future. The accessibility of potential communities is a major concern for GB which must take into considerations the logistics of transporting groups of 10 to 40 students, professionals, doctors, medicine, equipment, etc. to worksites, and the unfortunate reality is that many of the people in Panama who could most benefit from what GB has to offer are simply not able to realistically and consistently reach, even in a Land Cruiser.
The communities we did get to see were both what one might expect of rural poverty, and surprising in the discordance between modernity and tradition. The housing, for example, might reflect traditional indigenous construction, as in the case of the Embera who construct their straw roofed homes atop 4-5 foot tall stilts, a survival strategy of a culture generally located along rivers and subject to regular flooding. Or homes might reflect the square concrete/brick model introduced by modern Latinos which, incidentally, are poorly designed for the sweltering, humid weather of the tropics, pushing many Latino families to opt instead for the cool, open-air structures of the Kuna but with televisions and random electronics all the same. One community even had all three styles clustered alongside each other, with households exhibiting varying levels of poverty and well-being (at least from what we could see as foreign observers).
Another interesting glimpse into the complex world of a “developing” economy was our visit to the Bayano dam. Built by the company AES (a global power company) in 1976, the dam is currently Panama’s second largest power source, but of course little to none of this power stays in-country.
The specifics of to whom and at what cost this power is exported is unclear, but the important part of this is how the dam presents a textbook case of the many ways hydroelectric power development goes very wrong for the local people. In the case of the Bayano dam, its construction and accompanying creation of the artificial Lago Bayano (Lake Bayano) flooded huge areas of land in a largely poverty-stricken area, displacing hundreds of communities who will never receive the purported “trickle down” benefits of such a project. I’m sure the company’s side of the story is much different.
here’s the link to the full album:
Being in Latin America always feels so right and Panama has been no different. Zipping around the city at night with reggaeton blaring on the radio and the windows down, with high-rise buildings alongside decrepit alleyways and the unmistakable smell of trash whiffing by, I feel oddly at home. The city is remarkably developed, a lot like parts of Buenos Aires which explains my sense of familiarity. The tap water is drinkable, they use U.S. currency, and my Spanish has survived a year of neglect, so no major obstacles there.
I’m staying in the Global Brigades (GB) office/apartment with the rest of the new advising team, and it’s been a really fun and exciting atmosphere so far. Today we spent touring parts of the city and getting to know each other. We started the day at Parque Omar for a picnic and conversation about our goals and expectations for the year. As a group we have pretty diverse backgrounds in terms of interests and academic studies, but everyone seems to share a great passion for the work that GB is doing.
We then drove to Cerro Ancon, a hill in the middle of the city with a great view, took some pictures and watched the Panama Canal from a distance. This was followed by a quick stop at the Feria de Mariscos (fish market) for some fresh ceviche (a dish of raw fish, shrimp, and octopus marinated in lime juice and chili pepper).
We walked along the water over to Casco Antiguo (old town), the historic district of the city with buildings dating back to the 1600s. We stopped for a cerveza by the Casa Blanca (panama’s white house) and grabbed a dinner of arroz frito (fried rice) at the “Cafe Coca Cola,” which was far more panamanian than the name implies.
Real training begins tomorrow so tonight is a quiet night in but we’ve all been equipped with telephone operator style headsets to conduct our future phone calls, so the apartment resembles some kind of fundraising call center with everyone on their laptops and wearing the headsets just for kicks. We’re soon to drink some wine and watch the documentary “Human Planet” (from the makers of “planet earth”), so I’m definitely feeling in my element already 🙂
here’s the link to the full album: http://www.flickr.com/photos/64200315@N05/sets/72157627064882410/
So to begin, an explanation: The reason for this blog is to chronicle my travels and post some photos for the enjoyment of my friends and family while I spend a year working in Ghana with the non-profit organization Global Brigades. Long story short, they work on rural community development projects ranging from potable water systems to business ventures to sustainable farming and a key aspect of their projects is the participation of groups of university students for week-long “brigades.” And this is how I originally got involved with the organization myself. I traveled to Honduras twice in 2008 with Global Water Brigades and have remained involved ever since, so I’ll now be joining the newly founded Ghana team as a program advisor to the Water and Microfinance Brigades.
My history with blogging is limited to my sparsely updated study abroad blog from Argentina, but I hope to improve my consistency (as well as my amateur photography) to make this an enjoyable update on my experiences.
As of now, I’m sitting in a terminal in Miami waiting for my connecting flight to Panama…nowhere near Ghana obviously, but the reason for this detour is advisor training. Since there’s only two new advisors going to Ghana it was easier to have us train all together with the Panama group, thus I get a week in Panama City which suits me just fine as I’ve never been before. Then I’m back home for less than 24hours before heading back to LAX then to Heathrow in London and finally landing in Accra, Ghana on July 7th when my new life finally begins. Excitement is an understatement for how I feel right now, I’ve gotten an aggregate of about 6 hours of sleep over the past 3 days and have only had enough appetite for 1 full meal in the past 36 hours—anxiety is a demon I have yet to learn how to conquer. But at least it’s a mostly positive anxiety, aside from the dread that I will show up utterly unprepared or having forgotten something hugely important (anyone remember my little ‘passport left in the copy machine stunt’?). But the important thing to remember is that this is going to be an awesome adventure (and yes, dad, I did say awesome), and one that will surely provide me with some epic story telling material.
Side Note: Am I the only one who absolutely detests air travel? I honestly think LAX actively tries to make flying a most depressing experience.