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Piddling in Panama

Costa Rica has long held the reputation as the Switzerland of Central America. Having disbanded its army in 1948 and stubbornly refused to opinionate during worldwide controversies, this is a reputation well-deserved. Costa Ricans are very aware and proud of their fame. They tend to talk about their Nicaraguan and Panamanian neighbors with condescension regarding poverty, government, quality of life, etc. (I have found the majority of ticos extraordinarily racist towards their neighbors too, but that is another story)

I had always treated this tico pride as nothing more than a type of ill-mannered patriotism. Sometimes it is easier to ignore problems with your own turf when you point out the problems of others. As a result, I undervalued the claims I frequently heard that Panama is a poverty-stricken country with huge class discrepancies. I undervalued too much.

We (Aaron, Kaitlyn, and I) decided to spend Holy Week in Isla Bastimentos, an island off the East coast of Panamá. (Holy Week is a national holiday. All schools are closed, as well as the majority of businesses. Thank you Catholicism!) Happily and naively we booked a hostel, planned our bus routes, and paid our leaving taxes. We were ready for vacation!
Our bus/water taxi route from Heredia to Isla Bastimentos
The first leg of our journey was traversing half of Costa Rica to get to the Panamanian border. Piece of cake. With 7 hours, two busses and $13 we found ourselves at the migration office waiting to have our passports stamped. After stamping, all we had to do was cross a bridge and we would be in Panama. Here we found the first indication that Panama wasn´t what we thought it would be. The bridge was ancient, dilapidated, and frankly quite scary. The original platform was make of old milled wood, but was so rotten the government had to build a second floor directly on top of it. This second layer was hardly in better shape than the first. Actually, if you weren´t careful, it was possible to fall through the base completely with one misstep where the base was missing altogether.
Bridge connecting Panama and Costa Rica
Rickety Bridge
Our impression did not improve after that. Once carefully scaling our way across, we were met with the Panama migration office… or offices. There were three different offices with a layman at each directing migrants to the next. Interestingly, there didn´t seem to be any sort of armed official on duty supervising the incoming migrants, so if we had wanted we could have completely skipped all of immigration unimpeded. Theoretically. We didn´t want to take that chance.
Migration Office


After jumping through all of the hoops, we began planning our trek from the border to Isla Bastimentos. This leg required two buses and two water taxis and this was it, or so we thought. Our second bus was impeded by a strike and we had to get off and walk. A friendly Panamanian border patrol officer helped us figure out a plan to continue our journey, in exchange for a  well-earned tip. Apparently, the main road had been closed all week due to three or four different strikes. The demonstrators were chopping down trees and putting them in the road to stop traffic. Our savior led us through a mess of taxis, walking, and negotiating to the coast.

On our second water taxi ride we were quite sure we were going to sink. Through the entire ride our boatman was bailing water. We were so glad to hit land that we didn´t even complain when he charged us four times the amount it was supposed to cost. Finally on Isla Bastimento, we began our search for our hostel. Finding it didn´t take long, as the entire population lives on one main road. There aren´t any cars on the island. Neither are there roads, signs, water treatment, a sewer facility, nor a convenience store that has more than a dirt floor.  Our hostel room consisted of two beds, one lightbulb, a toilet and sink, and a shower without hot water.  The establishment was run by a slightly crazy Spaniard who had recently moved to the island.
Hotel Valparaiso
Hotel Valparaiso- not quite as nice as the website lead us to believe…

It soon became apparent that there was absolutely nothing to do on the island. This didn´t bother us, as that was the entire goal of our vacation. Unfortunately, at first we couldn´t find the beach. After trying and failing to find a non-sketchy path, we returned to our hostel and asked our crazy Spaniard. To our bemusement, the only path to the beach, he told us, was a 20 minute walk through the heart of the island. We set off once again, armed with low expectations and shoes for hiking.
A Red-Lored Amazon parrot- He was quite unafraid of us and lived right next to the hostel.
The first sight of the beach was what made all of our suffering, disappointment, and confusion worth it. I´ll let the pictures do the talking-
k y e
three of us
The harshest reality of the island was the living situation of the inhabitants. The homes were hardly more than shanties. Not once did we see a school. The only businesses were ones directed at tourists: two restaurants and convenience stores, a smattering of hostels, and the ferry service. Young adult men loitered around all day smoking marijuana, drinking, and cat-calling at women. The inhabited side of the island reeked from untreated human waste. It was poverty worse than I had ever seen.
view from taxi
stilted house
Further alienating us from the culture was the language. Although the three of us speak Spanish more or less fluently, and English fluently, obviously, we could hardly understand the natives. It was a type of Spanglish heavily accentuated with slang and a Jamaican twang. It seemed almost to be its own dialect; the Panamanians with whom we had conversed on the mainland definitely spoke a Spanish we understood, albeit with a distinct accent.

Our return to Costa Rica was similar to our exit. The strikes were still going strong, so we managed to find a taxi driver to navigate us. He was insightful on the current Panamanian politics and social situation, and talked to us for the entire drive. Thankfully, he spoke Spanamanian (Panamanian Spanish), which we almost completely understood. The border was equally disorganized, the bridge equally frightening, and Costa Rica all the more welcoming.

I don´t regret going. Culture isn´t always happy host families and trying new food; it is seeing the ugly realities too. What I saw in Panama wasn´t pretty, but it was real.

I´m happy to be back in Costa Rica. I´m happy to be back home.
The family
This picture is an excellent description of my host family. (left to right) Tita-being preoccupied with the rest of the family, Me-grinning over-enthusiastically, Hazel- chill as always, Andrés- adorably naive and innocent




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