Life on the Isla - First days in Panama
Hola ya’ll and mucho gusto (nice to meet you)! My name is Jackie Anderson and I am Teysha’s new community catalyst in Panama. I met Teysha co-founders Sophie and Travis several years ago through an internship, and was absolutely ecstatic to receive the offer to join the team the day before I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in International Nutrition this past May. I love everything about Teysha’s main principles because they encompass all of the best practice concepts I learned about in the past 5 years of school. What truly grabbed hold of me is our guiding vision of full circle empowerment in which young people like me are empowered to have a career doing social good, artisans like the Kuna Indians I work with are empowered to celebrate their art while making an income that supports their families, and consumers like you purchase products you can be proud of while consciously empowering others with your dollars. Like the connections we make through our ever-evolving partnerships, I hope my blog writing can help connect you to this place, these cultures, and my experience in a way that empowers you to live your life to the fullest and happiest! I arrived in Panama City earlier this week and would love to share some of the observations and experiences I have had so far before beginning a whole other adventure on Ustupu, the main island I will be working on these next 3 months.
Diablo Rojos, Red Devils, are awesome buses that are known for their crazy drivers. They are unregulated and considered unsafe, so the Panamanian government is cracking down to get rid of them. There are quite the designs on some of these bad boys.
I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to not only visit this incredible place, but more importantly to experience working in a foreign country. While I have travelled abroad to various spots for pleasure, on organized programs, and to study abroad, this trip already feels tremendously different. First, I definitely prepared far less for this trip than any other trip I have ever taken. Preparing for trips definitely adds excitement and builds anticipation, but not doing the prep work that Sophie and Travis have done for me has helped get rid of any expectations I may have accumulated and allowed me to dive head first into the sea of learning I have already been swimming in after only a day. This is especially important once I venture to Kuna Yala and seems to be essential since I’ll only be here for 3 months. While that may seem like a long time to live in a foreign place to some (especially my mother), it is not nearly enough time to learn all there is to know about the strong and beautiful culture associated with the Kuna Indians and collaborate on how to keep improving our Kuna Kicks, create more exciting products, and expand our community development projects. Panamanians are vastly different from their many indigenous groups, and it has been a pleasure getting to experience their young and transforming culture before submerging into the world of the Kunas. I don’t know what the next 3 months will feel like, but I am excited to share the journey with you all.
Once settling into my incredible hostel, Panamericana, after a brief scare at the front desk due to my first language barrier miscommunication, I was woken up early on Tuesday morning by the construction outside our hostel. Construction is EVERYWHERE in Casco Viejo, or old town, where I have spent most of my time so far. While it may give some traffic headaches and provide a natural alarm clock, the beautification and safety it has happened to result in seems to be a pleasant worthwhile trade off. Not only are roads being improved from bumpy broken cobble stone, but new buildings and businesses are also spreading throughout the entire area. Casco Viejo was once the actual downtown, but not quite downtown ‘Panama City’. To my surprise, the actual country of Panama is quite young, and prior to a little over a century ago was actually Colombia; however, there are buildings all throughout Casco Viejo dating back as early as the 1600s. This beautiful and culturally rich landscape is chalked full of history. For instance, across the plaza from Panamericana is a new fancy hotel being transformed from a building that once housed the original central bank holding all the funds for the Panama Canal, and was the first iron framed building south of the Rio Grande. Considering the location of this fancy hotel is in an area once known as the ‘red zone’, or dangerous gang filled area, it is obvious to see how quickly the city is transforming. In my opinion, it is in large part to these restoration projects that also fill the streets with dozens of jobs in the form of construction workers. Today the red zone is only a few blocks away from the hostel, but has policemen and friendly folks warning gringas like me not to enter and I have not once felt unsafe. As I write this blog in the hostel’s lounge, I am actually surrounded by 3 of these lovely police officers watching a futbol game while they charge cell phones and have enjoyed chatting with them. Everyone here is up for a friendly chat helping me practice my abysmal espanol.
After grabbing some of the free breakfast (pb&j’s plus an all day flow of free coffee) offered by the hostel, I ventured into the street to explore the city to find beautiful plazas filled with exquisite trees and statues dedicated to people from the various countries that have played a role in this area’s history surrounded by gorgeous (and slightly dilapidated) buildings home to squatters, fully restored buildings turned to hotels, condos, delectable cafes and restaurants, stores, and an abundance of entrepreneurs setting up shop in the form of delicious rapasados (a version of a sno-cone), shoe shiners, pedicure and manicure street stands, and many other various vendors. After only a few minutes of walking outside my hostel, a man approached me and asked where I was from. From that point on I didn’t get many words in as he swept me into a fantastic 2.5 hour walking tour through the city that helped me feel more comfortable than I could have ever imagined in the first 12 hours of being in a foreign place. I am so ashamed to not have gotten his name, but for blog purposes we will call him Mick. Mick’s ancestors worked on the canal and since he was born on a portion of this I guess he has dual citizenship and thus attended American schools. Due to this he is bilingual, and while his English was fantastic I obviously still didn’t follow everything he said. He showed me the red zone, places that will be important for my work here, and other stores like the Panama versions of ‘Kmart’ and ‘McDonalds’. Moreover, he showed me the stretch of indigenous craft booths close by allowing me to get acquainted with their work, like the beautiful baskets and dried tagua nuts intricately carved into incredible shapes by the Emberas Indians who live near the Darien jungle as well as giving me my first peek at various molas by Kuna artisans. Mick was a splendid man and a perfect example of the generosity, gentleness, and friendliness I have experienced so far by Panamanians. He never prompted me for money, but I of course gave him a tip for his time. After he and I parted ways, I went on a walk towards what Mick called Miami, or downtown PTY. I passed a smelly but supposedly delicious fish market and this unbelievable park. The park is brand new and has an aromatic flower garden, interactive educational exhibits, tennis courts, outdoor exercise equipment, a ping pong table, and even more beautiful open green space. Everything is free, and it was completely packed with groups of kids hanging out and playing. Another perfect example of the fast paced development going on in the city, as according to Sophie this wasn’t here the last time she was! Later that evening Sophie arrived and everything started to feel even more like it was falling into place. We bought a 6pack of Balboa, a delightful Panamanian cerveza, for only $3.75 (!!) and met with some old friends of Teysha in their beautiful home that was built in the early 1900s.
Raspado, Panamanian sno-cone
‘Miami’ and aromatic garden with tennis court in background
Vendor making my incredible pineapple batido, which is a fruit smoothie. She took great pride and love in her streetside shop.
Me thoroughly enjoying said batido
The following morning we hit the ground running with errands throughout the city leaving me even more excited for my work in the coming months. We met with a group closely involved with the Foundation Teysha partners with on Ustupu, Fundacion Luz y Fortaleza Indigena. The foundation’s origins begin with the family of famed Nule Kantule, a legendary revolutionary who has been recognized for his origins in the revolt that gained Kuna’s their autonomy.We discussed our plans for going to the island for a huge festival on September 3rd celebrating Nule Kantule and I am bursting with excitement. It is astounding that while there is such a large population of Kuna’s in the city, there are so many travelers I have spoken with who don’t have any clue that the San Blas adventures they hear about are actually on the homes of these incredible people. Fortunately, those I have met that do only increase my anticipation with the stories and respect they have for the Kunas, and happen to be people who came to Panama months or years ago and just never left. The love I developed for this spectacular place within my first few hours here explains why there are so many people living from all over the world in Panama.
Street art near Panamericana
Welp, I think that has sufficiently covered the major points of my first few days, and hope it has allowed you to vicariously travel to PTY with me…and of course didn’t leave you too bored with my history lessons ;) Stay tuned for next week’s blog post from Ustupu!!