September 04, 2006

Panama: context

I know, I know, I’m not usually in the habit of explaining why I went somewhere, I just launch into pictures and text. But the Panama trip was different. It started with this blog. (And it provides a welcome opportunity to add some content that isn’t “and then I went kayaking” for the summer of 2006, but that’s not why I went. Well, maybe not entirely…)

See, I blogstalk Rick. He started it, by putting stuff on-line in the first place. And that part came well after we’d established a pretty interesting e-friendship after I responded to an email about my webpage. Rick talked about places I’d never been and stuff like that. Thus it came as a welcome event when he put pictures of those places on-line. And I looked at them, and I had questions – but I didn’t really *get* it, how it all fitted together. I got the point of being a nomadic software developer (after all, he briefly nomad-ed himself to Ontario a year ago, and transitioned from “interesting person on-line” to “friend”), but the biggest part of the site, the Bocas adventure, it was elusive. And then, he got busy and stopped uploading new content, so my confusion certainly didn’t get cleared up any further.

I’m pro-active. I went to Panama to a) get my questions answered and b) get some more web content, even if I have to upload it to my own damn page ‘cause the nomadic software developer is too busy traveling and developing software.

I spent two weeks in Panama. I didn’t have too much control over the dates, since I went with a ridiculously cheap YYZ-PTY flying charter that only flies on Sundays. Consequently, my time there only coincided with Rick’s because he booked his flight to Panama to get there the same day as I did, but we couldn’t spend all the time in Bocas because the last four days of my trip required attention to his geeky day job on a high speed connection. We were in Bocas del Toro for a week and a half, from first thing in the morning Monday the 14th to an afternoon flight on Wednesday the 23rd. From Wednesday to the following Sunday, we were in Panama City – except Panama City is not that interesting, so we buggered off for two days, driving the Interamericana toward the Darien as far as Lago Bayano.

Rick describes the farm on his webpage. Here’s how I understand it: he owns three properties, on the same island. Two of them are adjacent to one another, but a short paddle away from the third. The third is actually the first he bought, and the one where his house is. This always confused me, so I got into the habit of referring to the parcels by the occupant of the house on them that was closest to the water. Consequently, the farm where the house is is the Man Hing place, after the caretaker. Man Hing lives in a small house built on stilts right over the water, with his wife and children. Besides the Man Hing house, there is the cabana on the water, which is where Rick has been living when he’s in Bocas and where we stayed. On the hill at the Man Hing place, there is the new house, which is primarily for guests (but I got to stay in the cabana. It is much cooler there, you are right on the ocean).
At the other two properties, there is the Emiliano place. Emiliano – who is Man Hing’s brother – is the caretaker, and he lives in a house built near the dock with his and Man Hing’s mother, Maria, and one of the other workers, Claudio. Up the hill from Emiliano’s house is another house which contains Claudio’s brother Choni, Choni’s girlfriend Mary, and their two babies (during my time there, Choni’s mother Silvia and some of her younger children were also there). On the property next door, the house by the water is occupied by Ricardito, and the house on the hill by Abelardo. In addition to all of these people, there’s Izmael, who works for Rick but does not live on the property. So, if you’ve been keeping count, there are seven full-time workers: Man Hing, Emiliano, Ricardito, Abelardo, Choni, Claudio and Izmael. In addition, there are two girlfriends/wives, two mothers, and at least six children housed on the properties, and all of these people are supported in one way or another by employment and housing provided by Rick and his geeky software development job… (Also supported by Rick are his two dogs, Tita and Tasso, who stay at the cabana even when he doesn’t, and there are other dogs, chickens and even a pig on the properties.)

The work that the workers do is varied. There is the “caretaking” part of their presence – Rick is not always there, but the caretakers are, for many reasons including that the jungle is persistent and will re-claim any bit of cleared land if it isn’t kept “clean”. Beyond this, the caretakers and workers primarily work on the reforestation project: Rick is replanting these properties, which were miserable-looking cattle farms when he bought them, with native species (and I know very little about these, but he says dozens of species of native hardwoods and fruit trees). This requires seed gathering and purchasing trips, starting trees in various nurseries, planting them, and – most importantly – chopping down the rapidly growing vines (and other unwanted stuff that takes over abandoned cow pastures) around the little trees to give them a chance (this is referred to as “cleaning”). Furthermore, they process fallen logs into lumber for Rick’s various building projects, they cart dirt and sand and coconut fronds to infill the low-lying areas near the water (coconut roots do a good job of creating solid ground, but they are being helped along), they make sure the infrastructure is operating properly (water pipes and tanks, generators, solar panels… but this part sometimes requires the Rick’s engineering expertise). While I was there they also harvested coconuts and bananas for us, made coconut milk, coconut cream and coconut oil, picked up garbage that had been washed in by the ocean and burned it, and made trips to town for supplies (and medical care).

Like any operation of this size, Rick’s project in Bocas is full of challenges which are exacerbated by his inability to be there all the time (remember: the software developing job cannot always be done from a cabana on the water, and, as the ultimate source of support for all of this, takes priority even when Rick would like to nap in a hammock with coconut cocktails be covered in deet and sweating through his shirt cleaning his properties). It’s an ambitious, interesting and difficult project and vision he’s got there, but that part is not *my* blogstory to tell. I’m just going to tell you what we did and where we went, and you should keep in mind: this was holidays, not just for me but for Rick. While I was there, he took a lot of time off to show me stuff, and thus my entries will probably make it look like he lounges around in a tropical paradise drinking fruity blender drinks, but the story is so much more interesting than that. I hope he tells it himself one of these days…

Posted by Johanna at September 4, 2006 08:23 PM

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