Contrasts & Cultures

Inequality? Or just cultural contrast?

Here in the mountains of Western Panama it’s easy to see the cultural differences between people. While Panama does have an emerging & dynamic middle class, and its economy surges every year, there are still pockets of deep, abiding poverty and squalor.

Okay, let me back up with a bit of personal history and illuminate the previous statement. Once upon a time I’d aspired to be a missionary priest. Immersed in Catholic orthodoxy growing up, (Remember the milk cartons for collecting coins for foreign missions?), I saw my future as the intercessor arriving to eliminate just such ‘poverty & squalor.’ Doing altruistic, benevolent work in a far-flung field defined my future. I’d been convinced by the nuns & priests that ‘those poor people’ were ignorant, dirty, illiterate etc. And they yearned for the precious light and religious conversion I could bring to them. The condescension & judgment wrapped up in that belief never occurred to me. Like Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible, I was determined to save as many of those poor wretches as I possibly could. And as Elwood Blues said, I was “on a mission from god!”

This is something many gringos, my wife and I included, have had to address after moving to Panama. The ‘poverty’ she and I see around us is likely not what Panamanians see or interpret as such. The top pictures are an obvious exaggeration of the differences in habitation. The structure on the left is home to a local family not far from Boquete. I’m not sure how many people live there, but people live there! The home is alongside a river, far off the main highway and has zero amenities–no electric, inside water supply, no sanitary or laundry facilities and little protection from the elements.

The structure on the right is where we live. Our place has all the modern conveniences, plus a few totally unnecessary items such as garbage disposal, cable TV, an elevator, covered parking, etc. etc. There are (count them) three balconies and a large patio that enable us to partake of the natural setting–if we choose to. Or we can slide the glass doors shut and watch the HD TV, weather, insects, predatory critters outside be damned.

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Radio antenna
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Home Sweet Home

When I think of what my life as a missionary might have been, I cringe at my once simplistic & condescending attitude. Did the people I wanted to help really want my help? Do the people living here? Does anyone appreciate the voluntary helping hand that may or may not contain items they truly need? There are too many existential questions involved there, and it’s too easy to get, no pun intended, off in the weeds on a travel-based blog post. So here are more pictures.

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Hiking is energizing & educational.
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Poverty? Or reality?

The minor amount of research I’ve done about social services in Panama reveals a system that is, in many ways, similar to that in the U.S., for example. A governmental entity called MIDES, Ministerio de Desarollo Social, or ministry of social development tends to Panama’s Seguridad Social, among other things. The short version is that Panamanian workers both private and public pay into the system, and can expect benefits from it at 62 for men and 57 for women. Employees pay in according to the number of Balboas earned per month. Also like the U.S., though perhaps not as extreme in Panama, the wealthiest 20 percent of Panamanians control more than 50 percent of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 40 percent control 12 percent.

The upshot of all this, for purposes of this blog, is that folks living off the grid in Panama contribute nothing to this system, and receive nothing in return. The only exception to that is the government’s distribution of monetary compensation for those people for the childrens’ education. It isn’t much; “about $20 per month,” according to Eduardo, my Spanish teacher & an amigo. Others tell me the same, the dilemma being this: Children must work alongside the family, so the education funds often go to other necessities. Education is compulsory in Panama, for kids between 6 and 15. That doesn’t mean the mandate is enforced.

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Indigenous people often suffer malnutrition

Among the poorest in Panama are the indigenous native peoples, who make up about 8 percent of the population (194,000).

Home for our groundskeepers

The groundskeepers here at our complex live rather more humbly than we do. Are they happy with the arrangement, and the contrast? Define happy, I guess. It’s the age old problem of wealth alongside poverty and want: Do we gringos stream revenue into the local economy? Yes, we do, not a sizable amount but not negligible, either. The unemployment rate in Panama is about 3%, and in a service economy that has to reflect more people spending dollars.

Home…For us.

Is ‘poverty’ a relative term? Is ‘wealth’? Certainly. The challenge we have as expats here in Panama is to recognize the disparity. Since moving here we’ve become more conscious of how much we truly have. We’re careful to avoid overt displays of our wealth and affluence. We don’t show wads of cash, not because we’re concerned about theft, but because local folks don’t have much of it, and there’s no reason to flaunt what we do have. We avoid overtipping, and over paying, not out of selfishness, but because doing so can be its own signal of social superiority & facility, its own brand of insult. We’re not poor, and there’s no sense attempting to appear so. But we try to keep the riches we have from becoming a wedge. It demands a bit of finesse, and a constant awareness that cultures and social expectations differ, and must be observed.

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6 thoughts on “Contrasts & Cultures

  1. Excellent post as usual, By. You really hit on one of the big dilemmas we all face as expat guests in another country. The side-by-side poverty and wealth seem particularly stark here but it does seem that almost everyone is very content. I only wish all expats would adopt the advice in your last paragraph.

    And you should never apologize for the compassion that once drove you to become a missionary. It might have been a bit misguided in a Catholic kind of way, but it was still compassion. Now that it’s tempered by a bit of life experience, I think it will take you a long way as a world traveler.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve mentioned one of my all-time favorite books, “The Poisonwood Bible” and I remember cringing inside at the smugness and irony of those well-meaning folks who went to “save”the heathen. I grew up in a zealous protestant household but we had those cardboard missionary boxes too. As an aside, I remember how mad my mom was when she found out my siblings and I were raiding the contents to buy candy! I also remember thinking I wanted to be a missionary although I think what appealed to me most was the adventure rather than the “saving.” 🙂 Fast forwarding now to a rather agnostic adult, I have to agree with you that our perceptions of poverty have changed after living in Latin America and volunteering for several months in both Guatemala and Nicaragua. I think we gained so much more than we gave and we still have an enormous gratitude for what “wealth” truly means! Anita

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ME BE in Panama

      You stole money for candy? Wow, are you in trouble! I’d be confessing that if I were you. Hey, thanks for reading the blog, and for the response. Yes, we’ve gained a lot more than we gave here, if nothing else in personal knowledge. ‘Wealth’ has many meanings, and few of them involve money.

      Best: ME/BE

      Liked by 1 person

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