Curt's Global Business Brigades Panama Blog


Sunday – March 22nd, 2009
IMG_0239_thumb Outside of our hostel was a laundry mat apparently run by Martians.
Construction is everywhere in Panama City. In the last 5 years, rent on a nice three bedroom apartment has risen from $325 / month to $1500 / month, according to Moises. IMG_0241_thumb
Costa del Este (East Coast), is a very upscale, but new district that is rapidly growing now. However, five years ago it was literally a dump. A well-off family saw an opportunity and bought the land. They dumped a bunch of soil over the garbage, renovated the land, and then marketed it as an upscale neighborhood.

Large companies, like P&G, have built offices there, and high rise American-style
condos are on the verge of completion. There’s a lot of call centers here. A phone
network can be built inexpensively, and labor is cheap. It’s far cheaper to call America from Panama, than vice-versa.

IMG_0242_thumb Moises (on the left, showing us a cashew plant) worked at an AT&T call center once. He is Panamanian, with a mix of ethnicities.
In Panama City, the public transportation consists of buses called diablos rojos, or “red devils”. IMG_0240_thumb
The red devils are painted partly red, and are schools buses from the 60s and 70s, when America owned the Canal Zone. It costs 25 cents to ride. The buses’ tailpipes billow black smoke as the drivers accelerate. But what makes these buses unique is how each driver paints his bus. Some will paint flames, different fonts, even famous people on the back window of the bus (like Looney Tunes, Madonna, etc). Some buses have huge sound systems. Moises told us how he and his friends would wait hours when they were younger to catch certain buses that had the best sound systems.

On our road trip to the Darien Province, we were stopped by police near the Darien border, and were required to turn over copies of our passport numbers. The reason is Darien shares a border with Columbia, and so there’s a lot of illegal immigration into Panama. The police are concerned that with our larger van, we were going to pick up illegals.

Panama doesn’t have an army: they only have police. However, the border police wore military fatigues.

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The Pan-American Highway, the principal road that goes outside of Panama City, is paved, but there are many potholes. At times, the road briefly turned to gravel. In one area, the road was completely dirt, and we maneuvered around and between construction vehicles that were working to pave the road.
Off the side of the road, we saw a tree called quipo (Cavanillesia platanifolia). The quipos grow very tall, in part because the wood cannot be used for anything. It makes poor furniture, and doesn’t burn well. IMG_0265_thumb
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On the road, we made a pit stop at a gas stop. The attendants filled our gas, as full-service is pretty standard in Panama. There were dogs, chickens, horses, and even a pig around the station.
We pulled off the Pan-American Highway, just past Sante Fe, onto a side road at a sign that pointed to Puerto Lara. IMG_0277_thumb
IMG_0280_thumb Here the road turned to dirt, and got more mountainous. We would frequently ease our way down hills, and power up the hills. While going up some hills, I thought we would have to get out and push to get it going.
A short while later, we rolled into the village, and were greeted by 30-40 villagers. The men wore Western-style shorts, where the women wore colorful skirts. Everyone was topless with body paint. IMG_0283_thumb
IMG_0284_thumb They had arrived to greet us, and every single person in the crowd shook hands with each one of us. There wasn’t a villager taller than 5’5”.
All the buildings were on stilts, because during rainy season the area floods. There were white seashells all over the ground throughout the village. The huts had electric lights, and running water. The water is limited however, because the village’s reservoir takes time to refill, especially during the dry season. The bathroom is tiled, but the toilet does not always flush, and there were cockroaches at night: in the sink, the floor, the walls, the shower stall, everywhere. The walls of our hut are made of thin tree trunks nailed together, and don’t extend to the ceiling. This evening we had a bat in our hut. He circled round and round for almost a full five minutes before leaving, and was about the size of a softball. IMG_0285_thumb
IMG_0286_thumbIMG_0290_thumb Overall, the situation is much better than I expected. The surrounding mountains/forest was beautiful, especially at sunset. The villagers provided us with foam mattresses or a blanket to sleep on, and a few extremely comfortable hammocks.

We had an hour to chill. So, we played some of the village boys in soccer (under 10 years old), and we got our butts kicked, 7 to 3.

Even though the villagers can’t speak English, the children still liked to try to bond. I took a picture of a couple of children, and then showed them the picture, yielding a smile – no Spanish required to understand that. One GBB member was sitting on the edge of one of the huts, and started throwing up the soccer ball we brought, and the ball landed below. Children started throwing the ball back, and within ten minutes he had a group of eight children trying to catch the ball. IMG_0295_thumb
Dinner was fried chicken and baked yucca (a root plant which tasted like salty baked potatoes). After dinner, we discussed how we wanted to conduct interviews of villagers tomorrow. We decided to talk with the tourism executive committee, fishers, dancers, chefs, tour guides, and art demonstrators to gain an understanding of the current tourist experience.

We also learned when tourists come, some of the 55 members of the tourism committee get assigned a role by the exec. The assigned members are paid a fee by the exec, based on the role. For instance, dancers average $6 for 20 minutes of work, whereas chefs make $10 for cooking three meals a day for the duration of the tourism group’s stay. It’s a very democratic process; roles rotate equally so the cushy dancing job is evenly distributed among the eligible villagers.


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