On the first day in Panama, I had a field trip that took us to the SOS Childrens Village in a slum nearby. From the second we left port Colon 2000, or Colon dos mil, I noticed the extreme amounts of poverty prevalent in the area. No building is in tact and almost every home is barricaded or fenced (even their porches) for safety precautions. With 43 gangs in Panama, our tour guide told us it is normal to take such precautions but that its never really safe in areas. Colon, he said, is actually one of the richer neighborhoods of Panama, a fact that shocked me. But reaching the Childrens Village was a reality check of its own.
The small 10-house community has a total of 100 children, from ages one to 18, all whom are there because they were abandoned, abused or neglected. Many of them are autistic or suffer extreme emotional problems and some of them have been there since they were babies. According to Mama Eleda, the main woman who runs the village, there are four SOS villages in Panama but many all over the world. All the orphanages are primarily funded by an Austrian NGO, with some additional funding from the Panamanian government. In each house, there is one tia, who acts as a mother to the ten children. Each home has a kitchen and four rooms, so all children share. Because I speak some Spanish, I was able to talk to Mama Eleda, other tias and the children of the village fairly easily. To my surprise, many locals in Panama thought I was of Latina decent and told me I speak espanol muy bien.
Though there is a capacity of 100 kids at the orphanage, Mama Eleda said they never turn children away and try to care for as many as they can. Their goal, she said, is to make kids feel loved and like they have a home. There is a rotating paid staff of eight tias, many of whom have kids of their own and live nearby, and many volunteers. I met one volunteer named Rita, originally from China, who conversed with me in both Spanish and English. Rita tutors the orphans at all the Panamanian villages and teaches them English every week. We were placed within families to experience the village at its fullest. I played futbol (soccer) with the boys in my family and then helped my tia cook dinner. Though these children really have nothing, they are so full of life. They live in a poverty-ridden country with little luxuries but find happiness in the smallest of things, like a packet of stickers. The oldest person I encountered at the village was 18-year-old Antonio. His arms, legs and cheeks all have burn marks from when his father abused him before he came to the village. Hes been at the village for 10 years and acts as the older brother to the children. Though he is 18, he must still follow the rules of the village, which include abiding by homework hour, doing chores within the house and being back at the village by 6 p.m. These rules are implemented so the children do not become influenced by the gangs around them and also to keep them safe, a feat that I thought was impossible in Panama before I visited the village.
When we returned to port, me and a few others wandered the ports shops, including a grocery store and coffee shop, where we bargained with the store owners in Spanish for better deals. Then about 200 SAS people headed to Panama City. About 30 of us got a deal (via bargaining) for a BUS to take us there for fairly cheap so we piled on and began our fun in the city.
The next day back on the MV Explorer, our class heard from an NGO named Osvaldo, who was very candid about the state of Panama. The most interesting subject he touched upon, in my opinion, was colonialism within Panama between the indigenous people and the government. Though he said Panama signed the UN Declaration for Indigenous Peoples, the government feels that it is an unfair because special provisions within the treaty do not allow Panama to grow as an economy. Panama is one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, largely due to the Panama Canal, however its interesting to hear the priorities of the government are not always what the people, especially the indigenous ones, want. Osvaldo also said that he shares the sentiments of many people who do want the economy to grow but not in a way that will destroy the environment around them. Following the lecture, myself and about 10 other people, took cabs to Portobello, a nearby town that has remnants of the Spanish ruins and a church from the 17th century. The ruins were gorgeous and surrounded by ocean water. Our guide took us on a mini-hike to the top of a mountain where we saw the view of the entire town and made us feel like we were on top of the world or Panama, at least. We ate at a local restaurant that served mostly seafood (a Panamanian traditional meal) but I had the fried plantains, which were amazing.
I noticed that though the U.S. and Panama negotiated a deal that officially handed over the canal to Panama (in 1999), there are still a lot of anti-U.S. sentiments throughout the country. One of our cab drivers was telling me that though tourism is the third biggest source of revenue for the country (trailing behind Panama Canal imports/exports and drugs), most Panamanians remember a time when U.S. took over. Though he was nice to me, Im pretty sure its because I was speaking to him in SPANISH because in another cab, our driver didnt even speak. He was flipping through radio stations and when someone in the van asked to keep it on a station that happened to play an American song, he changed it and muttered under his breath. It doesnt help that most tourists give off the dirty American vibe. I will even admit that some of us SAS students can be pretty culturally insensitive, especially when it comes to going out at night. I also noticed that though Panama no longer has a military, there is a large police presence. According to Osvaldo, the NGO, there is a whole separate police that acts solely as a pseudo-military and is in charge of operations such as random car searches and breaking up protests. Even as we were leaving Panama, there was a protest in Colon because the community wasnt getting water from the government. A protest in Panama entails rushing to the streets in herds and stopping traffic.
Today, back on the boat, Tim Lattimer, a U.S. Diplomat to Latin America, spoke to my poli sci class about life as a diplomat. I ate lunch with him and a few people from my class and his life story is just incredibly fascinating. Once a theater major, Lattimer said he changed his mind once he realized he wanted to do something that would help change the world. His job sounds like kind of like PR for America within the Latin American world. He and his wife live in Costa Rica, with their two adopted kids from Bolivia and Peru. Hes worked with and for the UN, Central American diplomats and of course, the U.S. government. In three days, I got to hear an NGO speak, experience nightlife in Panama City, eat lunch with a U.S. diplomat, play with orphans, see Spanish ruins and converse in Spanish with locals. NEXT STOP: Costa Rica