It is January 6, 2011. I am currently sitting in an old American military base villa. It is what I am calling home, or “homebase” for now. It’s quaint, I guess. Our particular villa smells a little funky, almost musty. It is sooooooo different from what I expected. Although I was more skepticle at first of the area, I’m beginning to warm up to it.
Yesterday, after we landed and proceeded into this strange, eclectic, mass populated area of Panama City, all I seemed to focus on were the slums intermingled within the massive skyscrapers positioned to each side. I tried to see the beauty of the city, but I was so surprised to see such class differences juxtaposed against each other. I was shocked by these little fishing shacks positioned on the edge of a polluted river that intertwined throughout the busy streets. It was as if I was viewing two different worlds at once. It was unbelievable.
When we finally got to the villas, we were able to go out and grab dinner. As I sat down, drinking my Corona and eating my fajitas, I tried to recollect my thoughts on the city. I tried to absorb the culture, instead of judging the culture.
Today, I was able to do that. I actually woke up and immersed myself fully in what I would like to call the most intense, clustered traffic jam I have ever experienced. I wasn’t even driving and I felt stressed. Our exceptionally helpful translator, Victoria, (thank god for her) tried her best to challenge the traffic and boy, did it get crazy. She was rattling off in Spanish like a mad woman and I loved it! This was what I had been waiting for. The immersion, the rawness of the experience. Not the tampered with, tourist-like experience that gets draped over your face when you exit a cruise ship. NO. I wanted this reality. The TRUE reality.
As exciting as it was, we still had to keep our guard up. There were some locals who did not appreciate their picture being taken, but others begged us out on the streets as we drove by to take their picture. Some loved us, some were annoyed by us. Apparently that is the overall feeling about Americans. There are some with grievances against us, while some welcome the attention. It’s interesting considering that most of their economy depends upon tourism and our money. I guess some realize this more than others. It’s also interesting because most of the buildings in downtown Panama City are either being restored or are in progress to be built. And when I say most, I mean most. Everywhere you turn there is construction. I asked our translator if most of this was normal and she said described to us how there has been an increase in their economy in the past few years and that all of these buildings were, in fact, works in progress rather than buildings that began and then stalled due to lack of funds (which I had originally thought).
During our driving trip, we stopped at old town for a brief bit, after getting lost and winding up in the area, and were able to take a bunch of pictures of the Panama City skyline. Along these pictures, however, resides a dark, muddy, polluted bay where we were standing above, overlooking the ocean. Nearby stood a marine, and boy was it fishy. As I stood there, absorbing it all in, *BOOM* it hit me. People are used to this, and not only are they used to this, this is their home and they are doing all they can now to clean it up. Victoria explained to me that they’re currently doing all they can to clean up the bays, and they even had to move the marina to a different locale in order to clean everywhere.
So in essence, Panama is not the tropical paradise I expected, but it is beautiful. It’s exciting, exotic, driven, fun, and even a little dangerous (mostly the driving). I am so proud and happy to be here.
We meet with our representatives for the foundation that my particular group is working with, Foundacion Bendaked, later on today. I’m so excited to work with them and immerse myself deeper inside Panama culture. I want to see the indigenous traditions and ways of life, as well as help the disabled of the tribes.
Fun Moments of the Day:
1. Bought my sun hat *finally*
2. Took a picture of willing, army men in the back of a military vehicle
3. Shook the hand of a local selling merchandise on the street amidst heavy traffic
4. Drove down a one way street and almost got hit by two large trucks
5. Got lost in Panama City……twice
6. Haggled with a Panamaian merchant
7. Blown kisses at from the streets
8. Offered fresca from the driver who almost hit us (as compensation?)
9. Asked to pay two dollars to an indigenous woman in order to take her picture
10. Got honked at in traffic, over and over and over again