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The Not So Glamourous Side of Bocas del Toro

by Helen
(Bocas del Toro, Panama)

Joel at Chitre Restaurant (on a sunny day!)

Joel at Chitre Restaurant (on a sunny day!)

This is a blog unlike all others I have written to date. The honeymoon period is over it seems!

It is the 6th day of almost continuous rain in Bocas. The swamp next door is looking more like a lake everyday. There is a puppy locked in a small cage on the veranda of one of these homes and it cries all day and makes me sad. We can no longer go out without being knee deep in muddy water.

Since we came here we have been talking to everyone we meet, in order not to make the same mistakes that foreigners inevitably make when they start to live in a new country. The stories we hear and the weather have taken their toll on our moral somewhat.

To give you a couple of examples: there is a wonderful man here called Don whose life’s purpose is to make things better for others. He started and ran a school in Bastimentos using his own money. After a couple of years he had to close it due to total lack of support from the local government.

He then organised a huge project whereby Intel and Motorola would install a tower, provide hundreds of computers, train teachers and provide remote learning for hundreds of children on the islands all for free. All the government had to do was say yes. They never did because there was no money in it for the individuals involved. One person he spoke to about it at the time said “what makes you think the government wants these people educated and using the internet? They would all get together and start demanding all sorts of things!”

Then, in an attempt to save the local knowledge of medicinal plants Don offered an Indian who knew all about it the chance to give lessons in Bocas – for which people would pay him. He said he would do it as long a Don bought him a chicken farm… make of that what you will.

On another occasion he built a raised walkway across his property so the local people could get to the sea from their village and stay dry. He continued to build it all the way to the village with their help. One day they did not turn up and when asked they said they would only do it if he paid them. Needless to say they now walk in the mud. Don never gives up though, bless him, and is now working on a project to provide natural water filters in an attempt to prevent the 40 or so deaths every year from infected water.

Other people say they gave their time and money in big dolups to try and make life better for people here when they arrived but in the end had to stop because the demands were then never ending. John, the wheel-chaired owner of Banana Inn, took on the plight of a woman who was covered in some awful rash and took her to the hospital (which is great here for such a small place and free) and paid for her medication. Within hours the whole family descended on him demanding money for themselves.

The old people’s home here would not survive here by the way without massive help from the foreigners living here and it is a great work of love that goes on without much recognition. Even that has its stories however – Claudio from Hotel Angela got some visiting doctors to send all sorts of supplies and equipment from Canada. He then passed them to the local doctor (who is supposed to look after the old people) and asked that they be used at the home. They remain to this day in the doctor’s private surgery and he has not been seen at the home since the visit organised for the Canadians.

We went to a meeting in town about 10 days ago to hear what Reuben Blades (the Minister of Tourism) had to say about the future of Bocas. He gave quite a good speech about wanting eco-tourism here with no big resorts. Then 3 or 4 other people spoke for hours about a plan for the planned implementation of the master plan – which as far as I could tell was to put in some more tourist offices and some signage (like ‘this way to Starfish beach’ or whatever) as well as fix the 4m gravel path outside the airport . Even this was unsure as in 7 months this government is out and a whole bunch of new people will get the job of fleecing the country.

The meeting ended with a free-for-all about the lack of water (people have forgotten how to collect rainwater and expect it to come from somewhere else, even though it rains all the time here) and moaning about the rubbish dump (which is now overflowing into Bluff beach and finds its way on the shore at Saigon further round the bay (no one thinks of recycling or banning plastic bags in shops). Apparently the dump is currently on some private land and the municipality has no where to move it to, as mysteriously, all the government land got sold privately a while back. By the way, the previous mayor is in jail and the most recent one just fled into Columbia with his wad of dough! Bravo.

We talk about starting a business here. The trouble is you have to employ at least 3 Panamanians but in Bocas, “work” does not compute with most people it seems. They turn up for a few days and then arrive late or not at all, or walk out because you tried to teach them something which is somehow offensive it seems. Most people rely on one or two good workers and the rest come and go. You do not get a work permit to work in your own company but, as of course you have to, if you want to earn any money, you have to budget in some cash to pay the bribes demanded of the immigration people who turn up in town once in a while (with a list provided by a local informer who shares the profits).

Despite having some brilliant people here (who would gladly give their time and money) to improving Bocas for everyone, there is very little chance for this recourse to get utilised. The people in charge are only in it for personal gain and there is a sort of arrogance that they know best anyway.

Maybe they are right. Maybe everyone has their own path to lead and you can’t speed people from A to C without first passing B ocas.

Anyway in summary, it seems there will be little change in Bocas in the immediate future. It will remain a great place for surfers and backpackers or people who like solitude and boats but is unlikely to explode into the Key West of Panama as we thought it might on first inspection. Most properties are for sale and there are very few buyers. There are some good projects, like a marina in Saigon, on the cards but they are not sure to happen. There is not much money in the town and a good portion of what there is seems to get stolen one way or the other before it can be ploughed back in the community.

If it does pull through, it will be thanks to the few dedicated and infinitely patient people who live here just plugging away and showing by example what works.

Right now we don’t have the time or the money (or the patience probably) to participate in this particular worthy cause. We find all this rain depressing too. We are seriously thinking about going back to the ‘original’ Key West and see if the vibration suits us better there. Stay tuned!

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