Tales from Panama – a Life Enriched
May 28, 2009
-Ellen Fritz, TEA Volunteer
At the ripe old age of 45, I became a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I left behind my job in criminal defense, my partner, and my gay life in San Francisco. I came to Panama last year as a Tourism and English Advising (TEA) Volunteer. The TEA group was the first of its kind in Panama, and was formed to help Panama’s poorest populations capture some of the opportunities afforded by the burgeoning tourist industry.
Panama, while beautiful and incredibly diverse, is a country of stark contrasts. A significant part of the country’s wealth lies in the hands of a few, while a large percentage of the population lives in poverty. Panama City is a world-class city with luxury condominiums, skyscrapers, one of the world’s largest banking industries, nice shopping and expensive hotels. However, once you leave Panama City for the interior of the country (the “campo”), the disparity between city life and campo life can really shock the system.
In the campo, the average Panamanian lives on less than $300 a month. Many live without adequate clothing, housing, and clean water. A typical house is constructed of cinder blocks with a zinc roof, or a thatched-roof hut with no walls. The normal campo diet consists of rice, beans and local vegetables, and there is rarely a change in that diet. The indigenous groups have fared the worst under the current system. They remain extremely poor, isolated and largely neglected. Many of them toil in the fields under the hot sun, or torrential rains, for less than $10 a day.
After finishing my 10-week training outside Panama City last June, I set off for my site in the province of Veraguas. Panama has nine provinces, with Veraguas being the third largest. Veraguas is interesting in that it is the only province that touches both coasts. It is also very diverse. We have beaches, mountains, rivers, jungles, rain forests, a large urban center, and two indigenous population groups, the Ngöbe and the Buglé. These people, as mentioned, are the poorest people in Panama. I regularly see them walking down from the mountains to the health center in my town, oftentimes a 14-hour trek (many of them shoeless and dirty, but never complaining).
I live in a tropical rain forest in the northern part of Veraguas, about 30 miles from the Caribbean Sea. There are many rivers and waterfalls in and around my community, hundreds of species of orchids and birds, and boundless organic agriculture (e.g., coffee, yucca, plantains, bananas, citrus, papaya, mango, beans, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and cucumber). Most of the farmers grow crops for their own consumption and then sell the remainder to local markets. The town has a local coffee plant run by the farmer’s cooperative. The actual population of my site is about 2,800, while the entire district has about 14,000 people. It extends north to the Caribbean. That being said, I am in a rather large, developed community by Peace Corps’ standards.
Because of its natural beauty, climate, and still relatively undiscovered nature, my site has become a serious tourist attraction (and many foreigners are buying property here). In 2006, the community formed a tourism cooperative, whose goal is to operate local tourist businesses for the benefit of its members and the community in general. The cooperative currently has 34 members, all local Panamanians.
My primary assignment is with the tourism cooperative, assisting them with improving tourist services in the area and promoting it as a tourist destination. When I arrived, the cooperative was fairly unorganized and dysfunctional. Because most of its members had never traveled outside of Panama, or Veraguas, for that matter, they were unable to see things from an outsider’s point of view. For example, the importance of maps for trail hikes, the importance of a sign telling tourists where the restaurants were located, the necessity of menus – things that are so simple to us, but yet are things that would never even cross their minds. It is not for lack of brainpower, but, rather, for lack of never knowing anything differently, for never having the opportunity to experience something outside their world.
Since I began working with the tourism cooperative, we have finished our eco-friendly event center (“Rancho), where we hold meetings, workshops and cultural events. The rancho has been the pride of the cooperative and has already housed a mountain of events. In September, I invited three other volunteers to my community to build an earthen stove (“Estufa Lorena”) for the tourism co-op’s restaurant. These stoves are made of clay, sand, water, and straw and use half the amount of wood as other stoves. Hence, they produce much less smoke. Probably the best part is that they really cost nothing to make. The stove is alive and cooking!
Over the last several months, I have been working with the co-op to begin tours of the area. Our most popular tour is our coffee tour. This tour includes a visit to a local farm up in the mountains, where all the crops are organically grown. While the farm has a fair amount of coffee, it is not the primary crop. So, in addition to coffee, tourists can see how other local vegetables and fruits are planted, grown, and harvested. In addition, there is a wide variety of orchids growing on the farm, some native to our area. At the end of the tour, visitors are taken to our local coffee plant to see how the coffee is finally processed and packaged. To date, the tours have been a huge success.
In addition to my duties with the co-op, I teach English, computer, and cooking classes. The English classes have been somewhat challenging in that participation is not always consistent. While I have a handful of students who regularly attend, many of the students give up after figuring out they cannot learn English in a week. I particularly like the cooking class because it provides the opportunity to bond with the local women in the community and show them that there is food other than beans, rice, and chicken!
The computer classes began about three months ago after the government of Panama donated seven new computers and satellite internet to my community. My classes are pretty basic and I have a regular number of students who come every week. The biggest challenge for them so far has been getting used to the keyboard and mouse – something I really did not anticipate since we take so much for granted. My classes are always full, and we always manage to laugh.
Other random projects I work on are: writing tourism articles, updating travel guides, developing tourist brochures, trail signage, and reforestation. And I am always acting as a resource to the community one way or another, whether it is helping kids with their English homework, translating, or just giving some advice from an American’s point of view. I truly enjoy what I am doing. The only disadvantage of being here is that life in the interior of Panama as a gay person can be very lonely and isolating. I have chosen not to reveal my sexual orientation as I do not want that, in any way, to interfere with my experience here. Panama is a very conservative, Catholic country where being openly gay is not particularly accepted. The idea of gay marriage is truly frowned upon.
My lessons learned are many. My main take-away, however, is that the Western way of doing things is not necessarily the better way of doing things. This is cause for great reflection as it has, at times, made me question why I am here. The Panamanians live a very peaceful, solitary existence, where getting ahead and making money are not a primary focus. While we define “rich” in terms of money and status, their richness comes from within. For them, things that matter most are family, community, and the overall appreciation of all that surrounds them. So my challenge is to keep that richness intact while helping them seize the opportunities that tourism has to offer. It is not always easy. But in the end, if I have enriched them culturally by exposing them to something different, I will have succeeded.
Although I miss my openly gay life in San Francisco every day, I have no regrets about leaving that existence to undertake this incredible journey. So far, it has promised to be so much more than I expected. It has not only given me a greater appreciation for my roots and my country, but innately, I feel so much richer, so much stronger, and so much happier for having taken this risk and undergone this hardship. Unlike something tangible, material, it is something that can never, ever be taken away from me. And, for that, I am forever grateful and lucky. And for that, I gain my energy to continue along this amazing life path.
You can contact Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org.