Month: September 2014

When you go to paradise, bring toilet paper

I could see naked, unencumbered, virgin beach in both directions for miles.  The sand under my feet was cool.  The sun set over the land behind me.  In the distance were some small hills covered in green.  I could see no ships or man made objects of any kind.  It’s hard to believe that there is still such untouched land, where few people ever go.  I shared the beach only with crabs who popped into their holes as I approached, the sound of my footsteps undoubtedly heralding my coming.


As the beach is a favorite nesting ground for large turtles, there were some protected turtle nests, a sign that someone is somewhere around.  But I could see no one.


I was to learn that the turtles come out to lay eggs late at night.  That’s when the local environmentalists track them with red flashlights.  Any other light would disturb their natural rhythms.  When the turtle is done, to protect the eggs of these endangered turtles, the locals build wire cages around their nests.  Otherwise the wild dogs who roam the beach would eat the eggs.


The local inhabitants of the island also include some people that eat eggs.  It’s not legal, but it’s condoned as long as they aren’t eating too many.  These people collect some of the eggs from each nest, leaving a sufficient number to protect the species, or so they say.  If they don’t eat the eggs, they sell them as a delicacy in the nearby city market, where an underground network of buyers willingly pay good money for the illegal trade.  Everyone is happy.  The islanders can earn a living.  The city dwellers can get a delicacy.  The police, who are supposed to enforce the law against selling this commodity, turn the other cheek or willingly accept a bribe.  They have other things to worry about, like drug smugglers who use these beaches in the dead of night to ply their trade.


I am on Isla Cañas, sometimes called Isla de Cañas, an island on the southern tip of the Azuero Penisula.  It’s one of the many underdeveloped places the Peace Corps has a volunteer serving.  To get here I took a bus to an unmarked spot on the highway out of a nearby “city.”  From there I walked to a waiting boat in a swamp of mangroves not visible by a casual passerby.  You need to have a guide to know where to look.  I had to roll up my pants and take off my shoes to slog through dark black mud near the shore to get on the boat.


The mangroves are a protected area.  Like the turtles, they are in danger of disappearing.  They are essential in the eco-system of the area, however.  It is where crabs and other important animals on the food chain live.


One of the creatures that lives in the mangroves is the crocodile.  On this day none are spotted.  But they are there for sure, peering out at the “boat” from behind heavy foliage that lines the water’s edge wondering, “Who are these infrequent visitors?”


The boat that meets us is no more than a dug out tree trunk, more of a canoe than a boat.  Laid widthwise across the narrow girth of the canoe are benches made of wood with wooden legs nailed on to the bench.  They wobble.  They are not nailed to the boat. They aren’t steady.  You can only fit one person on each bench.  So the boat can only hold about 6 people.  The boat is powered by a small outboard motor and a local fisherman who knows these waters like the back of his hand.


Once on the boat, it is a short ride to the island, across a narrow strip of water that separates the mangrove-lined shore from the island.  At the island end of the trip, at high tide, the boat can pull right up to the “beach,” which on the bay side of the island is just dirt.  We arrived at low tide.  So, as we did at the beginning of the ride, we slogged through black goop to get to shore.  A small thatched-roofed building with wooden benches around it near the landing gave us a place to dry off, and, once the hot sun baked the mud, to wipe it off and put our clothes back on.


We carried our gear on our backs.  In the boat, in addition to the gear on our backs, we wore life jackets on our chests, just in case.  Arriving at the island, other than the small thatched hut, and a larger one nearby, you can see nothing.  It’s a short walk down a dirt road until you reach the “center” of the town on the island.  There is a three-room primary school, a pay telephone, a small “store” run out of the side of someone’s house, and a large soccer field.


The larger thatched-roofed building, we will come to learn, is the local restaurant, where turtle eggs are among the dishes served, along with fried fish of the daily catch.


Once we reach the school which serves as the center of town, there are scattered houses off dirt roads emanating in all directions.  All roads converge here.


I have come to paradise.  It’s where everyone dreams of going.  Where few people go.  Where few people are.  In the middle of nowhere.   Tropical.  Silent.  Deserted.


Arrangements have been made for me and those accompanying me to stay at houses of people that live on the island.  The island has a permanent population of about 100 families.  Scientists and geographers are infrequent visitors.  Even less frequent are the environmentalists that work for the government and are supposed to ensure that the turtles are protected.  Anyone that visits needs to register with the government first and pay a license to enter.  It’s a requirement that appears to be commonly overlooked by visitors, and, more often, simply not enforced.  The entire island is designated a protected area.


I am assigned to live with Familia Vergara.  There is no electricity in their house.   Although some other houses have no electricity, the Vergaras had theirs turned off because they couldn’t afford it.  This is a poor community, but the people are very happy.  They live hand to mouth, off the land and sea.  Some are farmers.  There is a large watermelon crop, the earliest in the nation.  Most are fisherman.  Some trade in turtle eggs.  A very few take the boat I arrived in to work each day in the city.  The children run around naked kicking a soccer ball or eating mangoes from one of the many trees that cover the island.


Even though our quarters don’t have electricity, we do have a flush toilet, out in a closet behind the house.  It looks like it was once a latrine, but has been converted into a toilet now.  Most of the houses don’t have flush toilets.  We consider ourselves lucky.


In the closet with the toilet we also have a cold water “shower.”  Throughout the country, most people only do not have hot water.  They say they prefer it that way.  Really, given the tropical heat, the cold water shower feels good.  It takes a little getting used to at first, though.  And the water comes out of the tap on the warmish side anyway.  The trip in the pipe from the source to the shower allows for plenty of time for the hot tropical air to warm the water a bit.  This isn’t like any other shower.  It’s just a water pipe cut off a little above the height of my head.  There is no shower head.  That’s something you see in the developed world.  In the majority of the world which is to say the third world, you only get an open pipe under which you shower, if you have a shower at all.


I am here as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I am here with my wife.  We are two of a small group of “over 50er’s.” That is, we waited until later in life to become volunteers, when we had more to offer, we thought.  We are learning about the education system as applied to remote schools.  This is about as remote as they get.  Life’s so hard here that it’s difficult to get teachers to stay here.  Teachers who are assigned to teach here are frequently absent.  They regularly catch the last boat on Thursday and don’t return until Monday, leaving the students to their own devices all day Friday.  There is no substitute teacher system.  So when the teacher is away, the students are free.


I have always dreamed of going to paradise.  Paradise, by definition, is a place where there are few other people or maybe no other people.  In paradise, then, there is likely not to be too many of the services we all have come to take for granted.


Think of yourself stuck on a deserted island.  There won’t be a toilet.  There won’t be electricity.  There won’t be drinkable water out of a tap.  As part of our Peace Corps life we get to explore the unexplored.  We actually go where others dare not go.   We are the pioneers to the ends of the earth bringing the ideas of the 21st century to the backwoods of the world.


But if too many people take advantage of the raw beauty that the paradises of the world offer, the places no longer are paradise.  They get degraded to garbage dumps.  A common problem in the third world is what to do with waste.  You see it everywhere.  You see it in the city and in the countryside and on this island.  There is no garbage collection service.  There are no waste barrels.  People have to burn their garbage.  Burning garbage pollutes and eventually destroys the environment.  One of the dilemmas of our work is to attempt to come up with ways to preserve the environment while bringing sustainable development to remote areas.


But the problem is more extensive than preserving the environment.   People who come here do so precisely because it is raw.  But with increasing numbers of people, the islanders change.  They start doing things differently.  They stop working as subsistence farmers and start offering tours.  They change their way of life.  People come to see the undisturbed beaches of this remote location.  But their coming in itself changes the dynamic of what they have come to see.  They end up changing the peacefulness they come to experience.


Meanwhile, I am still in shell shock about being in paradise.  I hadn’t thought all this through quite as thoroughly as I should have.  Even if I had tried to do that, I may have missed a lot in my thinking.  I would have missed the fact that I would be lacking so many things I take for granted.


For me the lesson is learned.  As we go through our 27-month Peace Corps adventure, I have to remember over and over again the lesson of Isla Cañas: When Going to Paradise Bring Toilet Paper.






I arrived in Panama in 2008 as a member of the first Tourism and English Advising (TEA) group, an earlier version of the current English teaching group. Few of the initial 12 members of the TEA group actually ended up working in the tourism area, which is why the concept only had a short, two-group life. But I found it really didn’t matter what you called the work we did. It all boiled down to the same thing: teaching concepts of leadership and management.

My wife, Jackie, and I were assigned to the Escuela Normal in Santiago to fortify its English Department. At 1,200 students the Normal was the largest institution for training Panama’s future primary school teachers. The school had more than its share of problems.

Many of the students attending the Normal came from rural areas. The Normal had toilets and plumbing, but most of the students, accustomed to latrines in their rural settings, didn’t know how to use flush toilets. Rather than teaching these students the basics of flushing, toilets frequently went unflushed until they were clogged and overflowing. When I proposed to the director that the school participate in the United Nations’ World Clean Hands Day, my suggestion was ignominiously ignored.

Another essential problem was the high regard in which the school held itself. The Normal’s best graduates often left with a feeling of superiority that undermined their effectiveness as educators. A particular irony of the Normal’s graduates was that many were reluctant to work in the very rural locations from which they hailed and in which they were now trained to teach. The curriculum was clearly geared toward teaching in rural primary schools and included learning how to swim. These young teachers might have to cross a river or two to get to rural schools, without water or electricity, to which many would be assigned after graduation. But many new teachers left the Normal with an inflated sense of themselves and their abilities and thought teaching in a rural school was now somehow beneath them.

It may have been intentional that the Normal did not have any textbooks. In math, volunteers from Japan’s equivalent of the Peace Corps, JICA, made small wooden dice-like cubes to teach arithmetic. In English, students drew pictures to be used in teaching English because they lacked the normal aides that we take for granted in the U.S. It made some sense to learn this way because the student/future teachers at the Normal would not have aides in the underfunded rural community schools where they would eventually teach. But I don’t think the lack of materials was the result of thoughtful policy or insufficient funding. The Ministry of Education had plenty of money to refurbish the Normal’s rarely used auditorium with reclining movie-theater style chairs and to buy new student desks for every classroom in the school—the type of large contracts from which it is easy to skim. But the school never had money to purchase textbooks, computers in the “computer lab,” sheet music for music class, or soap, toilet paper, or towels in the bathrooms.

The Panamanian government had a goal of making the country bi-lingual within 10 years. We didn’t know it when we were sent to the Normal, but having a Peace Corps worker at the Normal was Step One in this plan. The government figured that if it could teach the primary school teachers to begin teaching English early, within 10 years most of the students graduating high school would be fluent in English. Surprisingly good thinking. Unfortunately, the teachers at the Normal were ill equipped to do the job.

I finally decided to skirt the school altogether and to teach English in an after school “club” I started, called simply the English Club. We found alternative places to meet, as the Normal wouldn’t let us use an empty classroom. The Club grew very popular and attracted those students that truly wanted to learn English, as opposed to those that studied just enough to get their diploma. Soon students in nearby communities got wind of our club and wanted one of their own, and I ventured out of Santiago to help set them up. Several of our club members went on to win prestigious scholarships to study in the U.S.

At first I ran the English Club, collected money, had an agenda for the meetings, thought up activities, and, basically, did it all. An early lesson dealt with time. We discussed when we began (10:00 a.m.) and that the meetings would start on time. It took several months for members to learn about hora Americana and how straggling in at 11:30 just didn’t cut it.

My mantra during my service was that my work must be sustainable, or it wouldn’t be worth my having taken time off from my career to volunteer. So four months into the formation of the English Club I suggested to the members that they ought to have officers—a president, a secretary, a treasurer, and a vice president—a directiva. They demurred, not knowing what these things were. I explained each role and promised to work side by side with them in performing the duties of their assigned roles. They then agreed, “Yes, yes, let’s have a directiva!”

“But how do we decide who will be the president, secretary, treasurer, and vice president?” they asked shortly after acceding to the suggestion.

“We’ll have an election,” I suggested.

“Hmm. How do you have an election?” they queried. I explained to these students— who hadn’t yet had the experience of participating in one— about elections. Now I was teaching democracy under cover of teaching English. One of the students got so interested in elections he volunteered to be an election judge in the Panamanian presidential election.

After the newly elected president had served nearly a year, I suggested the need for another election. This time there was more than one candidate who wanted the job. Fortunately, the best one won.

After we worked together about a month I mentioned that I would be leaving in about five months. It was time for the new president to start running the meetings on his own. There was resistance at first. But the absolute highlight of my Peace Corps experience was when he came to the next meeting with a written agenda all his own. It was the first time I saw a Panamanian come to any meeting with an agenda. That’s when I realized, I wasn’t really teaching English. I was teaching leadership! Since I was focusing my work on the future teachers of Panama, I could see how this really might have an impact.

It is arguably more important for the future teachers of Panamanian grade schools to model good leadership than for them to speak English. We did in fact teach English language skills and teaching methods. But though the Peace Corps called us English teachers, we were really teaching something more important.


Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices

Copyright Michael Wald 2013

Available on Amazon



Politics and Santa

Peace Corps Volunteers are told to stay out of host country politics for good reason. For instance, an apolitical stance helps ward off unfounded accusations of being CIA agents. Although my wife, Jackie, and I didn’t seek to be involved in Panamanian politics, we got to observe it up close.

Riding the bus with our counterparts on our first trip to Santiago, we first heard of Ricardo Martinelli, who ultimately would come to succeed President Manuel Torrijos in the 2009 presidential election. Martinelli, owner of Super 99, a major grocery store in Panama, lives in Sona, 45 minutes outside Santiago. Thanks to Martinelli money, rural Sona boasted one of Panama’s most modern maternity hospitals, a mecca for pregnant women from around Panama. Martinelli’s sister married into the Virzi family, owners of the other main grocery store in Panama, Super Carnes, headquartered in Santiago, where most of the Virzis lived. Together they formed a conglomerate controlling Panamanian sugar production at a factory outside Santiago. The Virzis and the Martinellis were among two of the 85 families that reportedly controlled power in the Panamanian oligarchic political system.

On that early bus ride, we also learned that the Martinelli and Virzi families collectively controlled much of the ranch and farmland around Santiago, the main ranching area of Panama. On the bus we heard a noise, rare in the Panamanian interior, the sound of a plane above. Our counterparts told us, “That’s Martinelli’s plane.”  We wondered at the time how they could tell. We came to learn that Martinelli is the only one in the area with enough money to have a plane and reason to be flying around Santiago. Although Santiago once had a public airport, it had long been closed. It was used while we lived in Santiago only as a private airfield, but Martinelli’s plane seemed to be its sole customer.

Martinelli was in Santiago often to visit at his sister’s home. The area around her home would be cordoned off, but not so obviously that you would notice if you didn’t know where she lived. Many of the locals didn’t even know. We became privy to that knowledge because our accommodations were in an adjacent neighborhood through which we often walked.

But we never met Martinelli in Santiago. Instead, we encountered him in Bocas del Toro. We were participating in a Peace Corps-sponsored seminar on basic business practices during that province’s annual fair. After teaching one evening, we walked over to the fair grounds. The fair was similar to a street festival in the United States. Various vendors of street food set up booths alongside vendors of crafts and jewelry. As Jackie shopped for jewelry made of local seeds, I spotted Martinelli at the adjacent booth.

“That’s Martinelli,” I whispered. By then he was a candidate for President of Panama and recognizable from his frequent pictures in the news. He was all alone, probably in town to earn votes by shaking fair-goers’ hands. We approached to introduce ourselves in Spanish. Martinelli greeted us in perfect English. He wore a blue Martinelli polo shirt soaked in sweat and shook our hands as if we were voters.

“I studied in Arkansas!” he excitedly exclaimed.

Martinelli told us about his sons, who had attended college at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, where we are from. “I’m on the Board of SMU. Say ‘Hi’ to President Turner there,” Martinelli told us. I have heard that there was a time when the president of the U.S. could walk the streets totally unguarded. In Panama, with a nascent political democracy decades behind ours, it still happened.

Before joining the Peace Corps Jackie taught at SMU. So the next day she popped into an internet café to e-mail President Turner and send Martinelli’s regards. She learned Martinelli had indeed served on a parents’ advisory board while his sons attended SMU, but was not currently on the university’s Board of Directors. Politicians, I guess, tend to stretch the truth everywhere in the world.

Bocas del Toro was crawling with politicians coming for the fair. That same day, while sitting in a local Bocas del Toro dive, I met Martinelli’s main opponent in the presidential race She was seated at a nearby table. When greeted she didn’t speak any English. A former associate of Noriega, rumor had it that she held a grudge against the United States. But her family was another of the 85 holding power.

That evening, I also met the sitting Chief of the Panamanian Supreme Court. After the election, President Martinelli forced the Chief and other justices to resign, stuffed the Supreme Court with his appointees, and even increased the number of justices on the bench so he could ensure the court’s support of his administration.

Because Santiago is the center of commerce for a vast region of the country, and because the gym at the Escuela Normal is the largest assembly location in Santiago, political rallies were common there. And because we worked at the Normal, when political rallies came, we were there, too.

Several times during the 2009 election season, sitting President Manuel Torrijos, son of former Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, came to the Normal to campaign for his political party, an effort which ultimately did not succeed. President Torrijos wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a guayabera, but he was laden with checks to hand out to local farm groups, ostensibly to support them. The locals said it was to buy their votes. Professors at the Normal likened him to Santa at Christmas, saying it rains money whenever there is an election in Panama. Is that any different from the United States, I wondered?

Since Jackie, and I were heavily involved in reforming education in Panama, we met the Panamanian Minister of Education several times during our first year of Peace Corps service. He was a frequent visitor to the Normal during Manuel Torrijos’ Presidency. He came to the Normal to deliver proposals for reform and to hear comments from professors in Santiago, an education center in Panama. He had also addressed our group of Peace Corps Panama volunteers when we were sworn in at the United States Ambassador’s residence.

Once elected, President Martinelli appointed a new Minister of Education. Soon afterward, Torrijos’ old Minister of Education was indicted and jailed, accused of skimming money off education projects.

The jury is still out as to whether Martinelli will be able to rout corruption from Panama’s political system. Or will his chief interest lie in further cementing the oligarchy’s control on power?  Only time will tell.


Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices

Copyright Michael Wald 2013

Available on Amazon


What Time?

You’ve got to understand, first, that before signing on with the Peace Corps, I practiced law for 30 years. In other words, I was used to selling my time by the tenth of an hour. I grew to the point where I could tell when an hour was up without even looking.

So it is surprising even to me that now I don’t even wear a watch.

My wife, Jackie, and I were assigned to work at the Escuela Normal in Santiago, a school of about 1,200 high school students. During Peace Corps training, on our very first site visit to Santiago, we were told of the school’s high standards and reputation. The teachers and administration refer to the institution as “The Esteemed Escuela Normal,” and considered themselves to be among the elite of high school teachers. If the stars aligned through Panama’s unique lottery/seniority system, landing a job at the Normal, as it was colloquially called, was a real feather in a teacher’s cap. One didn’t leave the Normal without thinking twice, or thrice.

During our two years at the Normal, Panama was undergoing dramatic changes to its education system. Every step of the way the teachers of the Normal led their students in marches to protest these changes. The students learned very well how to be civilly disobedient, if nothing else.

We were excited to be there. On our very first day as Peace Corps Volunteers in Santiago, we were invited to attend the school’s annual teachers’ ball, which, coincidentally fell on the same day.

We were told during the day that the fiesta would begin at seven. It was to be held in the impressive Convention Center building, one of the few Western style buildings in Santiago, with a fountain and glass façade and a portico that would rival any Ritz Carlton Hotel.

The only problem was we were placed by the Peace Corps in Guayaquil, a town about 30 minutes away by bus from Santiago, and the buses there stopped running at 6:00 p.m. Luckily, several teachers at the Normal who were able to afford cars also lived in Guayaquil. One of them offered to drive us to the Convention Center.

We did our Peace Corps best to dress up for the event, as we were told it was “formal.”  Our ride dropped us off at 7:00 p.m., and promptly left. We walked into the Convention Center and found no one. There weren’t even tables set up for a fiesta. We thought, “We have the wrong day,” when a janitor came out and said, no, we were just early. Come back in an hour.

We didn’t know at the time, but the City of Santiago shuts down around 6:00 p.m. The night clubs start opening around 9:00 p.m. We were in a strange part of town – every part of town was strange to us at that point–  and didn’t know where to alight. We ended up finding an internet café down the block where some young Panamanians were busily playing video games. We went in and had our first chance since training began to send emails back home. The internet café closed at 8:00 p.m., and we headed back to the Convention Center. Back at the Center, we found the staff was just beginning to roll out the tables for the event. We still were very early.

People started to arrive in earnest around 9:00. It was a dinner party, so we hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. We were hungry and glad that we’d soon be fed. The typical bowls of Cheetos found at every Panamanian party were on every table. Little did we know that dinner would not be served, however, until around 11:30 p.m.!

Before dinner there was dancing interrupted by a performance of the school band, an awards ceremony where one of the professors was crowned the King of the Normal for the year, and performances by talented professors of the school playing guitar or singing songs. We had a lot of fun, except that our stomachs were growling, and we couldn’t understand anything because the volume was about twice what we were used to. We tried to make new friends with those at our table, but we couldn’t hear what they were saying over the din.

I didn’t know it then but over the course of the next few months I learned that planning an event to occur at a particular time was meaningless in Panama. People would arrive when they were good and ready, after they finished whatever they were doing. A meeting set at noon would likely not start until 2:00. A watch really wasn’t going to be necessary in this culture.

And that’s something I took with me from Panama. I now live more in the moment, as a Panamanian would. A watch?  No need. I just use my innate sense of time developed over 30 years of practicing law to know when a meeting should end. Oh, yes, I glance at the clock or my cell phone to tell me when to leave for a meeting. But I am no longer controlled by time the way I was before.

For this, Panama, I can thank you… I guess.


Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices

Copyright Michael Wald 2013

Available on Amazon