Archives - ‘Panama’

The end of an internship

April 1, 2011 | Alexandra, EIL Program, Panama, Nutre Hogar Santiago, Social Worker Assistant

I think many of us held the belief that we would come to conclusions after we have gone through our internships. We would have experienced something new and the world would clarify. This hasn’t been true for me. A sort of clarification has happened; I see the intricacy and depth of complicated problems. I have more questions; I understand how difficult it is to come to any solution.  In our pre-departure training, Rex brought up the old truism “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, you feed him for life”.  At the training session, Rex opened the floor up to discuss all the angles and approaches that we could take looking at that truism. Not only how we, from a Western point of view, approach this truism, but also from a gendered and classed perspective.  At the time, it felt like an interesting exercise, but throughout my internship, I have felt the central importance of this discussion.

This morning, we were eating breakfast outside a modest hotel in a small central Panamanian town where the only industry seems to be a sort of ‘rustic’ tourism.  An old woman came up to us and asked for some money to pay her water bill, which she proceeded to show us. I don’t usually give money to people who ask, I follow the argument that it is better to give to aid organizations or soup kitchens. I also believe that a lot of us  go into this field because we want to re-structure the international system – to put it broadly – we want to make the world a more just place, we believe that we can create justice through systematic change, not through putting some money into the hands of a few people. I don’t just want to “give a man a fish for the day”, but then, something else became quite clear to me. Giving a dollar to a woman won’t change anything, she will need another dollar tomorrow, but right now, today, she has something concrete in her hands. She might live her whole life never seeing the justice of structural change happen. She might take that money and pay her water bill or take it and do something much worse.  We can’t change the world in three months; we will only affect the people we meet in the three months. We are here, today I met her. The dollar does not mean much to me, but what is one dollar to her? She has a concrete, immediate need.

I haven’t come to any conclusions now that my internship is over – I don’t know whether I think that it is right or wrong to give money to a beggar, but instead of simply thinking about the hypothetical situations presented to us at university, I have been placed squarely into many of the quandaries of living in a third world country and those experiences have been as educating as any time spent thinking, discussing, or sitting in the classroom.  

Reality Strikes Again

March 2, 2011 | Alexandra, EIL Program, Panama, Nutre Hogar Santiago, Social Worker Assistant

I work at Nutre Hogar, which is a home for malnourished children in Santiago, Veraguas, Panama. There are a lot of observations to be made from working at Nutre Hogar, the children who arrive there, the people who try their best to take care of them, the sparse little building that houses the whole project. I have had so many “ah hah” moments in my short time here, it is hard to just choose one to write about, but I have decided on this one. I could have written a description of what I do, or what it’s like to be here, but you can’t know until you are here, so I hope that this paints a picture.

I am not very good at assessing children’s ages. I mean, if you gave me a normal child, age 2 I could probably guess that, but I have never paid much attention to children, never cared much for children, and never had many little children in my life up until this point. I held babies very infrequently, on a four times in a lifetime basis, and so, my knowledge of children is quite limited.

When I arrived at Nutre Hogar, I knew that the kids were too small, that was evident. They don’t have that good ‘chub’ that kids are supposed to have on their bodies to help them grow, they were just stick arms and legs, and distended little stomachs, but seeing them was not overwhelming, they are still very much little, adorable children. Nutre Hogar; while a home for malnourished children is still a place full of warmth and love and children who want hugs and kisses. But I was caught off guard when I realized the extent to which malnutrition can affect a child, something I wasn’t prepared for. 

This morning I’m feeding this beautiful little girl, she’s precious, her name is Janet, and standing beside one of the social workers, Ruby. We were making small talk – the kind that still fascinates me [like that she’s only thirty-one and she has 4 kids, one of which is already 11]. So I just asked how old the kid I was feeding was. “1 and 1/2” –this answer seems wrong because the little girl in front of me is the size of an infant, she has the body of a six month old with no extra weight, glass wrists, petal feet, the child isn’t even feeding herself. One and a half? I look again, the kid has teeth, but she makes no sounds, she doesn’t speak, I’m not sure if she even walks. This is where reality and education come together, the real life example of what happens to the body when only fed a diet of rice and occasionally beans. What’s more, the kids aren’t just nutritionally deficient, they are also psychologically and socially deficient as well, because their parents don’t teach them how to speak or walk. But when do you teach a baby to really speak, or than by speaking to it? There’s never really a course.

It’s hard to get a hold of my emotions here, because I wonder a lot of things about the little people inside and the lives they must have led up until this point. But this is reality, this is another thing that I have to come to terms with here.

When Ruby leaves hauling 2 babies on her hips into the playroom, I couldn’t help myself, I looked into Janet’s eyes and said, “I will talk to you. You will be wonderful. You will grow up and change the world. You will be whatever you want”. I wished my words had power because then I wouldn’t have felt so silly and self conscious after saying them. But that was my prayer for her, and for all of them.

Panama - arrivals come with surprises

January 20, 2011 | Alexandra, EIL Program, Panama, Nutre Hogar Santiago, Social Worker Assistant

Panama – our bias is really showing

This is the story of my ill fated arrival in Panama City airport.

Last night I was tested for the first time, and I’m not sure whether I passed or failed. Being the sweet and friendly person that I am, I met some people on the plane who were sitting beside me. They were two Americans, and so, I immediately found more in common with them then not. But it was an imagined alliance, for there was nothing similar between us except for our shared knowledge of the way the world works, a shared language, a shared culture, a shared understanding of norms and interactions with people, a shared fear of going into the unknown and an unprepared sense of what was to come. The two men chummed up to me on the flight, telling me about their lives, their wives, their children, and we had a nice time, though to be honest, by hour 4 I was seriously wondering how it was that these men talked so much. They were worried about me, a little girl, going off into the big scary Latin American world, and as patronizing as that sounds, it also felt a little nice that there was still someone willing to watch out for me 7 hrs after I had left the comfort of my parent’s house. They had more patronizing views, I was “cute”, I would be a “wonderful wife”, I didn’t mind the coddling at that very moment, I was too nervous. We arrived in Panama City Airport [Tocumen] late – at midnight to be precise instead of 10. I was supposed to arrive the day before, and somewhere along the line, my person had gotten the wrong information, and was now thinking that I was to be arriving the next day, and not now, at midnight, alone in a foreign airport, with 2 New Jersey firefighters ready to axe anyone who was going to hurt this poor defenseless girl – especially the foreigner – but in this case, the foreigner was the local –a Panamanian. The uneasiness began.

            And thus the tug of war began. After exiting customs and finding no one holding a sign with my name or anything like it, my new friends started enquiring around for a way to get me where I was going. They found nothing to their liking. What they found was a Panamanian youth holding a sign that held the name of my supposed hotel [seeing as I did not actually hold a reservation, I was just aware that I was supposed to be going to this hotel] and when I inquired about my NGO organization, he seemed to know who I was speaking about. But the Americans were not so keen. My Spanish was much better than their non-existent Spanish, and their “slowly getting louder, more insistant American” was also not winning them any points. Was it an assertion of power, an assertion of male authority, an assertion of American supremacy in all places, America or otherwise, or simply a human being who could relate and was worried about my well being? Or perhaps all of the above that made this tug of war last almost 3o minutes. They were not letting me go with him alone, he was not letting me go with them. They wondered aloud how this strange man just happened to be in contact with the person who had failed to pick me up. So he got on the phone with my contact person – a person, I might add who I had never met in my life – who begged me to go with him – both directions pulled so persuasively. I was so tired. I was standing outside of a strange airport, with people I had only met 5 hours before, with the only other people being soldiers. My head was spinning. I thought, now is not the time to have a meltdown. So I asked my contact person for some proof – who was I supposed to be staying with? Did she know my full name? She started answering the questions correctly, I felt the slightest bit of ease and the slightest weight lift off my shoulders. I thought, if tonight I get kidnapped in Panama, at least no one can say I did it stupidly, I tried my best, I did what I could, I tried some options. So I bid adieu to my NY firefighters and hopped in the cab.

The moral of the story is that I was all too quick to assume that the people who seemed the same as me had my best interests at heart, while those who were different needed extra caution. My Panamanian driver was quick to point that out to me, not quite on those terms, but after I got in the car, he told me that there was no way he would have let me leave the airport with 2 strange men twice my age. And that’s exactly it, because we don’t have to travel to a foreign country to be assaulted, or attacked, but the second we step off our home soil, our guard is up, sometimes for the better, but also sometimes for the worst. So far, I have found that Panamanians are helpful, generous, and kind. They see me as a foreigner, and they want to take care of me and help me, and for that I am so thankful. Not that I am not careful, but my mindset has shifted. My eyes have opened to something new about being outside of the West. I hope to continue for that to take form and shape in the future.

Hasta Luego,


Closing Time

July 15, 2010 | Natalie Fernandes, Intern

What a perfect opportunity to write my last blog. With a little more than 3 weeks left to my trip, and upon arriving back from an unforgettable voyage, I have so many interesting things to recount.

I just got back from a 3 day trip with all of the exchange students from AFS. It was called an “orientacion de salida” (goodbye trip), and had about 25 students on it from all walks of life. Most were intercambios (doing high school), but there were also a few people my age. Regardless of age, they were all, for lack of better phrasing, extremely cool human beings.

The trip started out early, at a most ungodly hour, around 6am. I took a taxi to the Santiago bus station to go to Panama, but, unbeknownst to me, it didn’t open until 9am! Since I had to be in Panama City by 10:30 am (it is a four hour trip) I quickly found some friendly locals, and they showed me an alternative route I could take. I arrived in Panama City, extremely nervous because I had never met any of the students (as this was the first orientation AFS had scheduled). A boy I had recognized from my town found me and brought me into the group, introducing me to everyone. Immediately, I remember being overwhelmed and taken aback by how nice and friendly everyone was. We were all in relatively the same boat: all in a foreign country, and could barely speak the language…yet we all bonded, and managed to talk about anything and everything. Most of the students were from Europe, where apparently AFS is extremely popular. There were also some from the U.S.A, and a large group from Thailand! Plus, of course, one Canadian.

Everyone was finally ready to leave the terminal by 12, which in Panamanian time, was considered relatively early. We started off our journey in tourist fashion, by going to see the Panama Canal at Miraflores, the first of three locks. Seeing how advanced and integral the Canal was to Panama’s economy presented an interesting dichotomy: even though Panama is still, in many aspects, a developing country, it has the largest economy in all of Latin America, and is, in many ways, a model for its neighbouring countries.

After we had our fill of the museum at Miraflores (CliffsNotes version-lots of different rocks and insects), we went to Causeway to have a quick lunch and of course, watch the World Cup, equally as popular to Panamanians as telenovelas. Causeway is part of Panama city that juts into the Bay of Panama, and has the most amazing views of both Casco Viejo (the old city) and the “third” Panama city (the financial district). Again, another stunning dichotomy, it was as if two cities (Barcelona and Miami) had met and were still trying to mesh together. It was like oil and water.

Afterwards, we all headed to Casco Viejo to get in some sights and do some shopping. Here, I became convinced that the next country I want to visit is Thailand—I had some very adamant salespeople. I had never had a big interest in Thailand before, but after hearing about the people, the culture, and the sights, I was ready to book my ticket. I also spoke with some of the Austrians, and we shared our love of schnitzel and spaetzle. I really hope some of these people come to Canada to visit and see our great country!

We then headed back to our hotel in El Cangrejo district, and we all went for a well-deserved swim, playing ice breakers and just reminiscing about our full day. It was the closest thing to a family I had felt in quite a while, and by the time we were told that we needed to get ready to go to dinner, I didn’t want to leave. However, I’m glad I did, because the food was amazing, as all Panamanian food is. While eating, we watched traditional Panamanian dances, and then danced among ourselves…I refrained, as I’m sure my dancing would have embarrassed Canada’s name.

The next day (again, super early) we headed to the Comunidad de Embera Drua, an indigenous community that had no electricity, running water, or basic perks (cell service). Yet, despite my love of all things modern, I loved it. I think I could have lived there for at least one month of my trip here, and I wish I had had the opportunity to do so earlier. Everything was so…natural and basic, but not in a bad way. Dirty? Bathe in the beautiful lakes/waterfalls. Hungry? Eat fresh fruit from the forest. Bored? Actually talk to people, without any distractions. I learned so much about all the students with me, not only about their countries, but about why they wanted to come to Panama, and how they feel they have changed. In just these three days with everyone, I felt that my Spanish had improved exponentially, because I wasn’t shy about practicing (since everyone was relatively at the same level). I even had the opportunity to talk to one of the older volunteers about the political life in Panama—in Spanish. It was unreal. The things he witnessed in his life are things that I cannot imagine of happening in Canada. He told me that he once saw a man shot in the forehead, right in front of his eyes, just because he had too much to drink (this was during the Noriega era). He said this was normal and almost accepted in those days.

The following day, our trip came to a quick close and the students all decided to go back to Casco Viejo one last time together and share a great Thai lunch. Afterwards, I sadly got on a bus back to Santiago with some of the Austrians who were going even further west than I. I returned to work today, after being away for three entire days! I was surprised at how comfortable I still felt, and realized how much I will miss these kids. It is sad to think that I have seen so many firsts: first words, first steps, first…fights! I really wish I could see all their firsts, but I realize that my time is coming to a close. At the beginning, I wasn’t really sure I could keep doing this job…being around 30 crying, hungry kids seemed like no easy feat. But I am proud that I stuck with it, and I realized I really wouldn’t be as happy here doing anything else.

So I guess that’s it from me! I can’t believe how fast three months can go. To honour the words of Semi Sonic, in their epic song Closing Time: “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

No me llamo Mary-Jane

July 15, 2010 | Natalie Fernandes, Intern

Today was a good day, most especially because it was one of the few days here that I spoke in my native tongue (English) au lieu de my regularly scheduled attempts at mastering/butchering the Spanish language. The reason why I spoke English was because I travelled with my host sister to the beautiful city of Bouquete; a town apparently full of “gringos,” (Americans) but breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless: high in the mountains with houses worthy of being featured on the O.C. We went with two of her friends from the city of David in the province of Chiriqui, both of whom had spent a year abroad in the United States to learn English. We began to speak, slowly but surely, about how different North America was from Panama—the climate, the people, the food. When they asked where in North America I was from, I responded with pride, “Canada.” In response, I saw them exchange glances, and watched curiously as huge grins suddenly appeared on their faces. I wondered why—was it because they loved our democratic system, our ties to the Monarch, or Quebec’s low drinking age? Or was it because they just really, really liked poutine? So I asked them to tell me the one thing that came to mind when they thought of Canada. The older one responded, without hesitation,

“Yo man, you Canadians are always so high!”

WHATTTT? Was he really linking Canada, land of the true north strong and free, to the sticky icky? He went on to say that he absolutely loves Canada, because, of course everyone just gets high all of the time, as marijuana is, of course legal. At this point, I regrettably burst his hemp-fashioned bubble and told him the truth; that marijuana, as in most other nations, is illegal (and if he came to Canada to not try any “funny business”– a comment that aged me in ways that I can’t begin to explain). I started wondering, is this really what people, or at least people my age think of my country? I mean, it’s a tad more savvy than our usual synonymity with igloos for houses and polar bears for cars, but not by much. With that, I proceeded to launch into a 30 minute discussion on the merits of our political system, our rich history of cultural diversity, and of course, the advent of the beavertail. Pretty sure he lost interest at the stage where a bill becomes a law. Can’t win ‘em all.

Now onto more important matters, the reason why we all decided to travel abroad: not play, but work. As stated in my previous entry, I work for an NGO called Nutre Hogar, which helps feed and administer medicines to children (many indigenous) that are malnourished. Although all the children at Nutre Hogar still have families, they remain at Nutre Hogar 24/7, until they have fully regained their health Some children leave after 6 months, whereas others have remained for over 6 years. Coming into this, I could say that I liked children as much as the next female 20-something, hopeless romantic. I knew that having a child was hard work—but I didn’t realize how much work.. Multiply that by 30, and you have Nutre Hogar. Up to 50 children have stayed at this particular Nutre Hogar in Santiago, with a daily staff (including administration) of less than ten. Add to that the occasional volunteer, and you have a most difficult endeavour.

So far, well within my first month here, work has been really interesting. Trying and tiring, yes, but interesting. My day begins at 7 am and involves much feeding, coddling, teaching, and playing with kids that range from 3 months to 6 years. I also have began to dabble a bit more on the medicinal side—thankfully for my sake and the health of the kids, nothing too Grey’s Anatomy– mostly just administering pills and liquids, coupled with the occasional visit to the Doctor. At first, I found it weird to not be involved at all with the administrative side of an organization, but (as we have already covered my unintended slaughter of Spanish), it is probably for the best.

Working for an NGO is nothing like I had imagined. Although at this level in our studies, we are all well aware of the consequences that come with international internships, no amount of education or training can accurately or fully prepare someone to embark in an experience like this. This is not to say that I was under or ill-prepared…just that reality is so much different from what we imagine our internships to be. I saw many of the things we are taught about in University at Nutre Hogar: fundraising attempts, connections to other NGOs, a system of administrative bureaucracy . But I also saw things you can’t read about in polisci textbooks; things that you need to experience to believe: the dedication it takes to work with deprived youth day after day, the amount of time and effort that some of the staff put in (for relatively little pay), and especially, the feeling of utter elation when a child leaves Nutre Hogar– for although it means having to say goodbye, it also means that s/he has gotten better.

Academics will also not be able to prepare you for the relationships you are certain to form after working abroad for three months. In some cases, as in mine, relationships form not just with the staff of Nutre Hogar, but with the children, and the families of the children. At first, (as ashamed I am to admit it), I couldn’t help but feeling a sense of resentment towards the families of the kids—after all, it was their fault that their children were in this precarious position. But as I began to observe and learn more, I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong and narrow-minded. I just didn’t understand the history and social customs well enough to make a well-informed opinion. Generally, the children and their families are indigenous to Panama, and have a completely distinct culture and lifestyle than the rest of Panamanians. Their way of life isn’t wrong—it’s different. That being said, because they choose to lead different lifestyles (eating off the land, not participating in the local economy), they are sometimes unable to provide everything their children need and deserve. This is not for lack of love—they clearly love their children and families enough to admit that they need a little help, not only to nourish their child, but to learn alternative feeding/medicinal practices. These families can then become their own nutre hogar to their communities, and to future generations.

Ah, just the first of many revelations to come, I’m sure…

Three Hour Tour

July 15, 2010 | Natalie Fernandes, Intern

With the convenience of airports, foreign lands can be reached within 24 hours. You can travel to India, China, Thailand, Australia, all within one day. Travelling to Central America, specifically Panama, is a fraction of this time; a mere 7 hour trip, including layovers—yet this particular trip has turned into a whopping 36 hour fiasco! All that could go wrong, went wrong. I arrived at the Ottawa airport, pristinely ahead of time, but with a bittersweet demeanour (I am not the greatest at goodbyes). I arrived four hours ahead of time, confident that I had done everything in my ability I could do to make this transition as smooth as possible (I had even pre-separated out my liquids)! Knowing I would surely go over the 50 lb limit, I brought an additional carry on with me, and forced my friend to bring his backpack so I could return any dead weight to his apartment (namely, my entire wardrobe—don’t judge, it’s three months). Successfully, I was allowed to check my luggage at 51.8 lbs (I think there was a certain amount of pity involved…)

All of a sudden, and rather ominously, things started to go wrong. In a Jekyll-Hyde fashion, the same heroine who let me keep my luggage as is, suddenly transformed into the bearer of bad news, “you’re flight to Newark is delayed by 45 minutes due to bad weather.” Any passive, sane Canadian would think, “hmm…45 minutes, not bad.” But I had only an hour and a half layover in Newark to board my flight to Panama….and my connecting flight was at Newark Liberty Airport, the viceroy of airports, with maximum security, three terminals, and over 100 gates per terminal (this in comparison to Ottawa’s one terminal, and oh, say 15 gates). Add to this my tendency for hyperventilating, and garnish with my total lack of spatial bearings, and you have a recipe for disaster! With fervent optimism, I decided to hope for the best.

Let’s just say the best didn’t happen. We boarded the plane at 3:10 (only 50 minutes behind schedule), and then proceeded to taxi…I really thought at this point that I could make it. Then we came to an abrupt halt. I looked around—why were we stopping? I was convinced that we were waiting for Stephen Harper himself to make the flight…him, or maybe Lindsay Lohan. What else could explain this delay?

Weather. Apparently, Newark was experiencing heavy winds and intense rainfall. Translation into airport terms: monsoon. I was sure that the Professor and Gilligan would come aboard anytime now, and start constructing coconut radios out of black boxes. In airport terms, it was like the apocalypse had happened. We waited, quite literally, an additional hour and a half, of taxi-ing, eating pretzels, and drinking V8. The kind stewardess convinced me that I would not miss my connecting flight—after all, if nothing was going into Newark, nothing could come out…right? After all, the entire Newark airport was closed….right?

Wrong. We landed to “sunny weather with local temperatures in the high eighties.” Not a cloud in sight. After searching Newark’s vast array of shops, seats, and security stations, I finally found the shuttle to take me from terminal A to C. Upon arrival, I was “kindly” informed that I had missed my flight. By over forty minutes. In fact, my flight from Newark to Panama left basically on time, somehow in the midst of the apparent tsunami that was waging over the Big Apple.

After this I was met with more lines, and more waiting. I had to first redirect my luggage, then exchange my ticket for a later flight. I was also told, in not so many words, that I looked like an idiot for not just changing my ticket in Ottawa…but c’mon, how was I supposed to know that Continental would have such performance anxiety in the face of a little rain? When I attempted to re-book my ticket, I was met with my worst enemy in stressful situations: ticket machines that looked suspiciously like computers. Waiting for another ten minutes for an actual human being to assist me, I finally rebooked my flight, which, in Groundhog Day fashion, ironically ended up being the exact same flight, just a day later. The rest of my night is best not remembered—it was a mixture of misplaced money, broken toilets, and a lot, I repeat a lot of Ina Garten and HGTV.

The next day, I decided to look for good signs and bad signs, as an indication of how the rest of my voyage would be. Good sign: the elevator down to the lobby came immediately. Bad sign: it stopped on every floor. Good sign: Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton was playing in my hotel lobby. Bad sign: a U2 song shortly followed. Good sign: the airport security guard and I shared a soft chuckle about my (overly?) full disclosure of my hand cream. Bad sign: I now can’t find that hand cream. Damnit…

A Few Hours Later…

Success! I made it to Panama, and met a charming German couple on the plane ride, who convinced me that I would love Panama and the Panamanian people the second I stepped off the plane. And they were right. Now, less than a week into my experience (and far over my intended word count in my blog entry), I must admit that I truly enjoy Panama (from what I have seen). I stayed in Panama City the first night, and I felt I was living in my own chapter of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, for Panama City is a dichotomy of old, colonially architectural buildings, composed against new skyscrapers to represent the huge banking industry and booming economy. Looking across the bay, it is truly amazing to see such a sharp contrast in lifestyle.

Upon arrival in Santiago, Veraguas (four hours outside Panama), I am proud to say that I have already been immersed into Panamanian cuisine, with my first ever (and definitely not last) empanada! I have met briefly with my host organization, Nutre Hogar (in english this roughly translates into “feeding house” or “nutrition house”), but have yet to start work until Monday. I am eager, but extremely apprehensive—although the work done at Nutre Hogar is necessary, it is also extremely taxing emotionally. I cried during and after My Best Friend’s Wedding, so we shall see how things go. More to come…

Hasta pronto Panama

April 15, 2010 | Yvonne, intern, Panama, Radio y Television Educativa Panama

Panama is an unknown paradise that has yet to be discovered by the world. Many people only know the name because of the famous Panama Canal; however they fail to realize that this country is truly a diamond in the rough.

Panama’s capital is Panama City and is known as the Miami of Central America. The dichotomy of new and old within the city’s walls was one of the many reasons I feel in love with this breathing-taking city. During the weekends there was always something to do. When I was feeling lazy, I loved taking a stroll down the long Amador Causeway. This walkway connects the city to three different islands that lie only 2 kilometers away from the coast. When I was feeling adventurous, I would take a cab to Casco Viejo (the old Panama City) and marvel at the French, Spanish, American colonial, neoclassical and art nouveau architecture styles. I would also enjoy lingering around the tables of the street vendors who were Kuna Yala women and always dressed in their traditional clothing

But after I was tired of sightseeing, the city also offered everything that I might find in Canada, including shopping! My favorite store is SAKS, which receives “imperfect” clothes from large US department stores and usually sells them for incredibly low prices. It was in that store that I found a perfect Micheal Kor’s shirt for only 9 dollars. Furthermore, as a shoe aficionado I was pleasantly surprised that all my favorite brands were at least 50 percent cheaper than the shoes I would buy in Canada. Panama City is also known at the city that never sleeps. No matter what day it is, there is always a party somewhere in the city. Zona Viva is a narrow strip near the Amador Causeway that has at least 10 bars and nightclubs. On the week-ends the place is almost packed with people walking up and down the strip looking for the best dance party. But for those days when I felt like sitting back and sipping a glass of wine, the city offers the best restaurants and lounges for an older crowd.

My job allowed me to explore the city a little bit more throughly. My last post was a little grim on my situation, but since then I have tried to make the best out of my work placement. After my boss heard that I was unhappy, he sat down with me to discuss some of my options. He allowed me to pitch my own idea for a show that I would be able to film and then edit. I pitched my tourism in Panama idea and he gave me the green light to do it. My television show pushed me to research and learn a lot about the culture and history of Panama. While writing about Casco Viejo, for example, I learned that the original city (Panama Viejo) was completely destroyed by the famous pirate Henry Morgan and was then relocated to the rocky peninsula of Casco Viejo because it was easier to defend. As I researched and filmed in each location I started to peel away the layers of the Panama “onion”.

For example: did you know that Kuna Yala are one of the world’s most autonomous indigenous people? The Kuna revolution began on February 25, 1925 when an armed group attacked the Panamanian police stationed on the islands of Tupile and Ukupseni. The police had been involved in the violent suppression of Kuna cultural practices and had been abusing the populations various communities. As a result of the revolution these indigenous people have gained full political and economic control over the northern province of Kuna Yala (formerly known as San Blas).

Panama has 6 major indigenous populations that are still practicing and involved in their traditions. When stepping into their villages, it seems like you are stepping into another world. However this is the sad truth; if you drive just an hour out of the city you realize that Panama is still a third world country. The city is rich, however the rest of the country is still suffering from hunger and poverty. When I traveled outside of the city I was flabbergasted on how poor the rest of the country was compared to Panama City.

However my job placement allowed me to see both sides of the spectrum. In the end, I loved my placement. My television show went amazingly well. I ended up shooting three episodes that I will hopefully put up on Youtube in the near future. The experience also taught me a lot about myself. I learned that it’s not easy to be in front of the camera, I always forgot my lines or messed something up. Thankfully my camera man was very kind and patient. From filming I learned how to use the editing program AVID. I had a lot of fun taking what was in my head and transforming it into something real. Editing took hours upon hours and sometimes I was ready to quit. But I persevered and learned how to be patient. At the end of it all I have some cool footage to show for it.

I was also blessed with the opportunity to travel a little bit on the weekends and during Easter. It is so easy to travel in Panama because everything is so close to the city. I was astonished how such a small country holds so many things.

Five hours away from the city is Boquete, a beautiful mountain town that grows the best coffee in the country. The town is also home to a number of companies that takes visitors on numerous adventures including horse back riding through the cloud forest, hiking, white water rafting or zip lining.

Four hours away from the city is Santa Catalina, a famous beach town where surfers go to catch a big wave. This town is also known for it’s amazing scuba diving.

Three hours from the city is San Blas, where the Kuna Yala live. This paradise offers people inner peace and tranquility while walking across white sand beaches or swimming in turquoise colored water.

For a paradise that has some remarkable night life, head over to Bocas del Toro which is a little over 11 hours from Panama City but only 30 kilometers from Costa Rica. Bocas is famous for it’s beautiful beaches, it’s dolphin reserve, it’s scuba diving and of course the partying. This is the perfect place for anyone who wants to relax during the day and party away the night

These are just a couple of places to visit within the country. Each place is unique in it’s own right and is never more than 12 hours away. Buses are cheap and plentiful. However if you hate buses or are stressed for time, plane rides are relatively cheap (100 dollars one way to Bocas). Even if I was working full-time it was easy to plan short trips to different areas within the country. I ended up visiting Bocas del Toro, Santa Catalina, Santiago, David and Boquete. Not too bad for only 3 months! And although I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to, I am already planning on coming back to visit the paradise that is known as San Blas.

Granted that there is much to see and do in Panama, I was alway weary that it is still a very poor country. I was heartbroken to see people without limbs on the side of the road begging for money. But as Panama grows as a country, I believe that it will slowly start working towards trying to end poverty.

As I said before, this country is a paradise waiting to be discovered. Panamanians realize the potential of their country and are waiting for the huge tourist boom that will change their lives forever. They are eagerly anticipating that boom by building more real estate, changing their transportation (which are painted school buses called Red Devils - Diablo Rojos) and even planning the construction of a subway system.

I am glad that Panama has shared its heart with me, and I cannot wait to see how it will grow and expand in the future.

Hasta Pronto PANAMA!

Hardships in Panama City

March 9, 2010 | Yvonne, intern, Panama, Radio y Television Educativa Panama

Much has changed since I posted by first blog back in January.

Although I was quite hopeful that my job would be an eye opening experience that would be filled with new and exciting adventures, it has sadly become increasingly more frustrating. Before I left, I was told that when I was contemplating writing on this message board, I should try to see the positive aspects within every bad situation. But as I look back at the two months I have spent here at my job placement, I realize that searching for the diamond in the rough has become difficult.

Overall, I have fallen in love with the people that I work with. My boss is an amazingly nice guy and everyone at the office has gone out of their way to try and make me feel comfortable at my placement. However, I have slowly realized that my placement here in Panama City was never ready to receive a student. From the moment I arrived here my boss had no real idea of what to do with me. There was never a discussion about learning objectives, goals or future projects and when I did ask for work my boss informed me that I should read a newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, the first couple of weeks I was fascinated with going out with producers and cameramen. I got to see how hard hitting news was filmed and felt very blessed to be part of the process. But as time went on, the excursions out of the office became minimal and I was left staring at a computer for the whole day. It got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore and confronted my boss. He was supportive and said that as a side project I could write, film and edit my own project. Although it has nothing to do with my studies, I chose to do a project on Tourism in Panama City.

Last week I was accompanied by a camera man to film the old part of Panama City (Casco Viejo) for my segment. It was truly invigorating to be in front of a camera. On Thursday I had arranged to come back to Casco Viejo to interview 4 different Americans who had opened up a hostel in Casco Viejo. That morning I woke up with a sharp pain in my stomach and a yearning to stay in bed and sleep. I knew I had an interview, so I dragged myself out of bed and called a cab to drive me to work. At work, I sat around for two hours until my boss finally told me that all the cameramen were busy and I would have to postpone the interview. At that point I grew more frustrated with the lack of structure within my placement. Today I am scheduled to go back to Casco Viejo and interview the Americans. I was told that a cameraman is available to take me, however nothing is set in stone until you are in the car driving to your destination.  

I do not want to fill my whole blog up with negativity. Through out my internship I have fallen in love with Panama. On weekends and days off I have enjoyed exploring and discovering the different parts and neighborhoods within Panama City. I had even looked up the history of the city when I had nothing to do at work. I have learned about the tumultuous history of Panama and have become fascinated with the numerous hardships that this small little country has faced.  I have also focused some of my energy to develop a firmer grasp on the Spanish language. Nowadays I can sit down with a Panamanian and have a decent conversation without any “umms” or short pauses. But above all else, I have fallen in love with my host family. I could not have been put in a better house and have come to consider them as my second family. Their openness, kindness and support have been a shining beacon through the storm and I do not know what I would have done without them.

My placement has taught me that hardships are something that you will have to endure through out your life. My time in Panama has been littered with misfortune but I have always tried to keep my head up high and consider the positive within the negative. I have also realized that if you want something done, the only person that you can rely on is yourself. Out of all the people that I spoke to, I know that the only person that can inflict real change is myself.  Hopefully I will somehow be able to move past this and try to make the best out of the rest of my time here in Panama City.

Hasta Luego



Welcome to Panama City

January 25, 2010 | Yvonne, intern, Panama, Radio y Television Educativa Panama

It has been about a week since I have arrived in Panama City and I am beyond ecstatic about my work placement and my new family.  Although Panama City is pretty close to Canada, my trip over to the country took a long 12 hours (I had a 4 hour stop over in Newark.)

At 12 pm, after an hour in customs, I finally arrived in Panama and met the AFS representatives that were waiting for me. As I tried to ask a couple of questions in English, I was quickly told that I was now in Panama and I had to speak Spanish. Although I have studied Spanish for 3 years, I was a little flustered and overwelmed when I tried to speak broken Spanish to people who spoke the language fluently. Over the last week this language barrier has proven to be the toughest hurdle I have faced while living here in Panama City.  

The night of my arrival was spent in a temporary house and the next day at 2 p.m I met my real family. My family lives in a beautiful house in a gated community within El Dorado. Their two children, aged 15 and 17, both speak English. My family has been very patient with me and they have had to put up with constant questions starting with the words, “in Spanish, how do you say …” I have also mastered the single word answer, “¿Perdon?” I have uttered this word so many times, that it has prompted many people to speak very slowly to me, often using hand gestures to explain their point.

The first weekend in Panama my family took me to Boquete. Boquete is a beautiful mountain area around 4 hours away from Panama City. A small tidbit: Boquete is so picturesque, that Mel Gibson has a house near the small mountain town. It was the perfect beginning to my adventures and I took in as much of the landscape so I possibly could.

But at the back of my mind I was nervous about my work placement. I was told by AFS Panama that it seemed as if SerTV (an educational radio and television station) expected big things from me and wanted me to start right away as a Periodista (Journalist). But just like my family, everyone at work has been so patient with me as I struggle to learn and understand not only the Spanish language but the daily activites of the station. During my first day of work, I was always being approached by new people who wished to speak to me. Most of the time they would speak Spanish so quickly that I could hardly understand them. In cases where I do not understand, I simply smile and nod my head. Overall, as woman with light skin and blond hair, I am somewhat an interesting attraction and I am constantly stared at. At times I get whistled at or someone beeps their car horn, but I am mostly left alone and admired from afar.

Sadly, this week I have felt a little slow and out of place. My Spanish has greatly improved but I still have to repeat the same word over and over again “¿Perdon?” Some people get frustrated and walk away, but most people stick around and try to explain their sentences with other words or hand gestures. I have learned that it is a process that I need to stick with, and slowly but surely I will start to enlarge my Spanish vocabulary. I have given myself a time line, by the end of the month, I wish to be able to speak fluidly with no “ummms” in my sentences.

My boss and my co-wokers have been so accomodating. I work in “Noticias” which is the News section of the TV station. SerTV is all about culture and education, so indirectly I get the amazing chance to catch a glimpse of the real cultural side of Panama. For example, this week I got to accompany a crew to a pinapple plantation where I saw how a company prepares pinapples to be exported around the world. I also go the rare chance of meeting the first lady of panama in a small event which served the best food I’ve ever tasted! Furthermore, although I wish to observe the journalist side of the station, I will also have the chance to be able work in production. I will learn how to edit videos and eventually put it all together so that it can air on TV.

Overall, I am very excited for next couple of months. Certain restrictions in the U.S forbade me to bring a carry-on and I was a little upset that I couldn’t bring everything I wanted to.  However, I quickly learned that Panama boasts an array of shopping malls that sell anything that I might have forgotten back in Canada. As a shoe aficionado, I have been told that tourists can find relatively cheap clothes, accessories and shoes here. To sightsee and shop, Panama offers two different transit systems. The city’s buses are actually painted school buses, boasting pictures and different colors plastered all over the exterior body of the bus. However, I was told that the bus system is a little dangerous and a taxi is a much safer option. For around 2 dollars, taxis will take you anywhere around the city. And although there are no beaches in Panama City, I’ve learned beaches are close and very easy to get to. Getting around Panama is very easy, and there is so much to see. I might even be able to go to Coiba Island, a restricted national park where vistors must first ask the permission of the government before travelling there.

There is so much to do and see in Panama (including the famous Panama Canal), I am very anxious to go and explore the city and all it has to offer.

Hasta luego!

Indigenous Congress…what an experience!

April 1, 2009 | Eleni, Intern, Emberá Drúa Community

These last 2 weeks have been full of interesting events and learning. Last week I attended my first indegenous congress here in Panama, and it was definitely very interesting and also one of the most boring experiences I have ever had. The congress consisted of 6 Embera and or Wounaan indigenous communities that live outside of thier reservation in the Darien province. This congress was to work out the issue of thier land rights in the Chagres National Park, as they occupied the land before the park had a governmental status, and many many many other issues mostly relating to improving thier respective businesses which relate to tourism, how to demand better working relationships with tour operators who often take advantage of thier sites in promotion of their own agenda, and also aid agencies attended to work with communities in advising and training to move businesses forward. And as the Panamanian national elections are underway, you can be sure that candidates and their parties showed up to earn votes.

The congress lasted 4 days…and the language spoken was spanish and embera. The meetings would start at 7:30am and go until minimum 6pm. Male leaders dominated the floor, and I swear some of them just enjoyed having an audience…so they would carry on and on. Perhaps its my westernized conditionning, but there was absolutley no sense of agenda and i feel like the topics covered in 4 days, could have been completed in a day and a half. The seats we sat on were big logs and your behind would be completely numb by 10am….and then the afternoon heat strikes and its game over. Perhaps the communities are used to this and know what to expect so they seemed okay with it, but nonetheless some people get out of line and fall asleep, or talk to their neighbor, or show up late or not at all….and there is most certainley a price to be paid. There are a minimum of 10 males that stand guard around the meeting with long wooden sticks….some even have thorns, allowing you to use the bathroom only by permission and to castigize anyone who misbehaves. For example, if you fall asleep, you get whipped, if you talk-you get whipped, if you really get out of line, then you are put into a Seppo, a wooden lock for your legs, then your feet are elevated and you are stuck on your behind and left out in the sun for 2 hours, no mercy, as the evil ants here chew away at your behind. I had to ask myself where i was!! and i really really did my best to not drowse off…what a challenge!! and this is how indigenous congresses go here! then we were hosted in a community members home, which was built from concrete, totally different than my tree’house 11 feet off the ground!! It was certainly an experience to be had, but also one that I wish not to repeat…it was some of the hardest work i have done to be seated in such a way, for so long, for 4 days-words cannot describe!!

In the meantime i am preparing my report as best i can with little power ressources i have…the solar panel is just not reliable and i get at most a good 2 hours a day depending on how well i can charge the computers aalong with the priority of teaching computers…my needs have come last! but, such is the way of things here and i will prevail! At the moment I am wondering how i will get back to the port in time as we have to convince a taxi to take a really long, horrible, alternate route to get back to the port because the main road has been closed for a protest demanding water. I wish them luck!! and i also wish to get home tonight!!!

good luck everyone on your reports!!!!