Living on approximately $10 a day

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Just made it back from having dinner with Tony Taylor and learned so much! I’m assuming he didn’t feel like cooking (or didn’t have time) so he picked me up from the house and took me to eat at a Chinese restaurant. I don’t really like Chinese food because it’s always so greasy and I know what I’m eating. I think Chinese and take-out comes to mind. Some people love it and that’s fine #nojudgement

This Chinese restaurant was different. I actually enjoyed dinner. I order sweet and sour chicken and patacones. Everything in Bocas is served with plantains. It perfect because I could never eat too many plantains. The chicken was party wings and the sweet and sour sauce had carrots and basil in it. Pretty delish!

Not that I had a choice but I rode around with Tony for a little while after dinner. He was officially on duty. We picked up this Indian guy who talked really fast Spanish and lost me at Buenas. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but I knew he was passionate about whatever it was. On the way home, Tony told me the guy was being dropped off at the hotel because he is the night guard responsible for watching over the facility at night. The guy was complaining about his boss (the owner) because after 12 years of working there she has never offered him anything to drink nor has she shown any kind gesture or sign of appreciation. In Bocas, people give you things to show they appreciate you. My contract with the school requires my house family to cook for me once a day. Tony knows this but still buys me breakfast food and makes sure I have something to eat for snacks and lunch. I think it’s just a part of the culture here. Additionally, the Indian guy feels like he is in some ways doing the owner a favor because she is a widow and doesn’t have anyone else to assist her. Being a widow in Bocas is apparently serious business. If you are old school, you don’t really do business with widows (or maybe this is generally rolled into not doing business with women?). Anyway, the man continued to talk about his boss but said he can’t quit because she pays him $20 per day. I thought that was ridiculously low but it’s actually about twice the salary of someone making minimum wage.

This prompted me to ask a few more questions about wages and cost of living here in Panama. So here is what I learned:

1. Minimum wage salary is based on the region (there are two in Panama) and the number of hours you work (avg is 45 per week). It works out to be between $350-$416 per month.
2. Average rent for a place in Bocas with everything (air, hot water) is $300. No air conditioning and/or hot water means cheaper rent.
3. People from Bocas cook staples such as rice and plantains because it is cheap but still tasty? (Plantain $.50, bag of rice $1.00). Unlike the USA, produce is also very affordable on the Island (sometimes free if you have fruit trees).
4. Panamanian restaurants with traditional meals are much cheaper than other restaurants. You can go to Chitre on main street and get an entire meal (meat, coconut rice and one side) for about $4. Other restaurants on main street will run you about double the price of the Panamanian restaurant.

Based on these numbers, it doesn’t look like the minimum wage is enough for a person to live comfortably. Here is the Panama Labor Rights Report from 2011 which breaks down the calculation of the minimum wage.

http://www.dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/usfta/panama_LRR.pdf (Page 54-55)
The Constitution calls for a national minimum wage to be established to provide a decent standard of living for workers in Panama. The Labor Code assigns responsibility for setting minimum wage rates to the executive branch, which must take into consideration the recommendations made by the tripartite National Commission on the Minimum Wage (Comisíon Nacional de Salario Mínimo). Minimum wage rates are established based on industrial, commercial or agricultural activity, and factors considered in determining such rates include regional cost differences, nature of the work and conditions of employment.

The most recent adjustment of minimum wage rates took place on December 21, 2009. The
hourly base rates range from 1.06 to 2.0 balboas, with the lowest rate applying to workers in small agricultural businesses (with ten or fewer employees) and the highest rate applying to workers in various other sectors, including construction, transportation, and
telecommunications. The previous hourly base range established in December 2007 was 1.01 to 1.87 balboas.435 For domestic service workers, the minimum salary is set between 145 and 160 balboas (previously 121 to 134 balboas) per month.

http://www.encuentra24.com/content/panama-en/general/view/minimum-wage-in-panama

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Adventures on Isla Bastimentos

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I was talking to my friend on Facebook (in Spanish) about volunteering at a school here in Bocas. He told me that Josefina (teacher in Bastimentos) is cool with me volunteering but I need to go see her after 5pm at a restaurant called Ultimo Refugio. That’s where she works in the evening. I was excited! The next Monday, I left class early (it was boring me to death) and headed to the boats. I asked people about old Bank Bastimentos and the restaurant called Ultimo Refugio. They knew about Old Bank Bastimentos but told me the restaurant was here on Isla Colon. After telling a few different people where i was going and having all of them tell me the restaurant is here, I figured I’d check out the Isla Colon location before heading to across the water. I went to the place where they told me and it was a few lots down from Casa Verde (the God awful hostel I stayed in when first arriving to Bocas). Anyway, I see Ultimo Refugio and it’s dead. Instead of me thinking it was closed for the day, I thought it was permanently shut down. Additionally, if my friend said Bastimentos it’s possible that they have moved from Isla Colon location to Isla Bastimentos. I return to the boat, ignore all of the locals and tell them to take me to Isla Bastimentos. I arrive in Old Bank and of course, I have no idea where I’m going. This is another side of the island. People speak Guari Guari and while I understand almost everything they are saying, they can’t make out a word of my “yankie” English. WOMP WOMP!

There are a lot of children running around with no shoes, no shirt and some – no pants. They are not worried about a thing. Just running around, kicking their ball & racing one another – living the good life! I asked quite a few people where Ultimo Refugio is located and nobody knows. ::Slightly annoyed:: I figured I should do something while on the island particularly since I paid $6 to get there (normally cost $3 each way but boat driver ripped me off). I decided to follow the sign advertising the Up in the Hill store I’ve been wanting visit since researching Bocas. Once I arrived in Bocas, I forgot to go because a lot of their products are sold in various stores throughout Isla Colon. Anyway, I saw the sign and figured it would be great to grab a few things while on the island.

The journey to this place is a story within itself. I walk up the hill and see a pinkish building to my right. I figure it must be the building because it’s the only one I see up this hill. I look at the writing on the building and it say “Iglesia” … a church? Maybe I passed it? I walk back down and see a woman walking up. I decide to ask her. She tells me it’s up and around the church, hang a right and head up the road (sidewalk). I go back to the church and begin to walk around it. She stops me and say no, that way. Which way? The way with the once dirt hill that is now looks like clay dirt? I have on some cheap flip flops designed for regular concrete sidewalks, not some slippery uphill dirt pathway. It’s not that steep, but it is slippery. She is apparently going the same way and signals for me to follow her. I attempt at the hill and get to the middle – two steps away and I’m thinking please don’t slip and fall. Please, Please Please! And what happens next? Yup, I fall but it’s a forward fall and I somehow maintained my place on the hill. Second time is a charm – uh, no! Nothing ever happens on the second time. It’s always the third time (insert testimony here!). I give it another go and fall (again) to my knees. This time I decide to crawl up the rest of the hill. Success is sweet!

At this point the woman is giving me tips – you may want to take your shoes off coming back down, wear better shoes next time, do you have any water? Thanks lady. We continue walking and I decide to give it one more go. I asked if she knew anything Ultimo Refugio? “Roots” – she responds. “YES – ROOTS!” ….BINGO! I remembered reading the online trip advisor and it listed both names for the restaurant…! I ask where and she tells me to go back down the way I came from and head down the main street. Cool. I will check it out when I finish up at this Up in the Hill spot. Shortly thereafter, the woman goes into her house yard and sits outside. I reach the top of the hill about 5 minutes later and again, I see NO STORE. Is this a joke? I do however see a sign that says “Up in the Hill – 15 minute trek through the jungle”

What the what!!?!

They are actually playing games with my life. Nightfall won’t catch me in the jungle trying to find my way back to civilization. I decided to turn around. Of course I ran into the woman on the way down. I told her I’d have to go another time … need to get to the Root before it is dark. I went back down the hills realizing this place really is UP in the HillS! It would be more appropriate to name it Up in the HILLS! I took my shoes off on the way down and it made it much easier. I definitely would have fallen if I hadn’t. Finally arrived at the Root which was not far from where I’d been dropped off. Went in and asked for Josefina and guess where she works…. at a restaurant called Ultimo Refugio ON Isla Colon. I can’t get anything right today!I ended up catching up with Josefina the next day at Ultimo Refugio. Will start volunteering at the school next week. Guess it wasn’t all for not.

Power Outages Become the Norm

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April 25, 2013

Just so happened to have an interview with one of the most reputable international human rights organizations earlier today. I was pretty stoked about learning more about the opportunity! I’m in the middle of speaking when the electricity goes out! What is going on with the frequent outages on the island? I couldn’t believe it. Actually I could. I emailed the person I interviewed with immediately after electricity was restored (hours later). Is this a sign that Bocas is trying to keep me here? I welcome the signs but they don’t have to keep a sistah from taking an interview :::womp womp::: #thirdworldproblems

Be in the experience of your life

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This is a great video of Tracee Ellis Ross! Once you get past the fluff at the beginning of this video, it is a pretty insightful. I especially like number 2. Highlights below are in Tracee’s words and include a few of my experiences.

1. “The things that I thought I wanted to change about myself/hated about myself are actually my gifts. They are actually the things that have been the window or bridge to the magic in my life.”

/// So often people my age are concerned about how to become more competitive in a stagnant job market, how to make a name for yourself, etc. We sometimes try to change our gifts in order to meet standards set by others. The better question is how will you contribute to society? The “how” is unique to you and your gifts. No matter what skill set you pick up along the way, your gift will make your contribution different from the next person! Successful people get to where they are going by embracing the how, not the what. How did she move the audience to action? How did he empower his junior colleagues? How did she manage to raise $1million? I had to learn these things the hard way but FINALLY I get it. Hope you all get it as well #embraceyourgifts #lovetheskinyourein

2. More important to be in the experience of your life than in the accomplishment of your life. Lists are great but not everything on the list is supposed to be checked off. It’s more important to be in the experience of your life. The satisfaction you think you’ll get from crossing everything off the list doesn’t have the same depth of actually letting yourself sit down and take a deep breath or in general, enjoy the moment!

// This was right on. I went to Isla Bastimentos last weekend and for the first time since being in Bocas, I didn’t just sit on the beach and enjoy the view. I became a part of the view! I played in the ocean, let the sun kiss my skin, waves slap me around, etc. etc. I experienced the fun instead of being a bystander.

I checked Red Frog Beach off of my to-do list but more importantly, I added it to the existing list of my experiences. Be a part of your own experiences.

3. The womb is the seed of our connection to the earth, world and each other. Stop being so regimented in your movement. Allow your body to move freely.

I wasn’t expecting this one but I like it. I’d take this a step further as I encourage my body AND mind to stop being so regimented. I took an African dance class before leaving DC and realized I can move my body in ways I never thought I could. I came to this realization after allowing it to move freely. #releaseyourinhibitions and give yourself permission to move!

Not Everyday You Find a Griot!

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April 24, 2013

Today was absolutely fantastic. I went to the school in Bastimentos to speak with the Director/Principle about volunteering. She was very receptive and said I can start on Monday. I’ll be helping them paint one of their rooms and spending a few hours helping Josefina with her class. After other volunteer opportunities fell through, this is great news! (Note: the next blog entry will go into great detail about the series of events leading up to my meeting with the Director)…

After leaving Isla Bastimentos I decided to allocate some time for a pedicure. Passing through town, I stopped by a store I’d seen a few times. I wanted to stop there because their merchandise wasn’t quite like the other vendors located on the main street. It had caught my eye a few days ago but for whatever reason I wasn’t able to stop. I was browsing the display items and had no idea the owner was sitting there. That’s when I learned that all of the merchandise in the store is made by the owner (Mr. Justin) and his Indians. We started to talk and I learned that he is like the griot on the island. A walking history book with so many memories and information about Bocas del Toro.

First, I’m super excited I found a local business to support. Second, I don’t know what to do with all of the information he gave me today. I wouldn’t be able to capture it if I tried. I’m going to go back tomorrow and spend some more time with him. Just happy to finally meet someone who’s called Bocas home for 3/4+ generations. He has seen the transformation in Bocas and is willing to sit down and talk to me about it. I’m all ears!

Things to know about Bocas

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Here are a few things I have learned about Bocas….

1. Never EXPECT businesses to be open. Businesses open when they feel like it and you shouldn’t be mad if you arrive and they’re closed. If they have a schedule posted, they generally adhere to it but only a few businesses run a tight ship.

2. Don’t panic if you can not get your point across in English. It is very likely that you are within 200 feet of someone who can speak English.

3. Don’t be alarmed by random drunk people jumping in the ocean at discotecas. Barco Hundido and Aqua lounge are designed to allow people (even the drunk folks) to dive in for a quick swim. Don’t worry, seems like the water helps them on their journey to sobriety.

4. Everything is on island time. I’ll be there at noon means around noon but no later than 1pm (maybe 2pm). Don’t be the only person in your group who is a stickler for time. Enjoy Bocas and learn to appreciate the laid back culture.

5. Like other islands, you are at war with bugs. Even if you haven’t been attacked, it’s best to get some off or bug repellant (I’ve been using citronella oil). I was okay for the first few days but not much longer. I now have more bug bites than I can count.

6. It’s very likely the business you are patronizing (with the exception of boats and street vendors) is owned by an expat or Chinese person. I’m still looking for ways to support local businesses.

7. Tourists are welcomed here. The word Gringo is thrown around but isn’t a derogatory term here. Gringo just means you are not from Bocas.

8. You always need to be cautious especially when traveling to a foreign country. That being said, Bocas is pretty safe. You can walk the streets at 2am and nobody will bother you. Just don’t get so drunk that you don’t remember where you are living. Note: Bocas plays by a different set of rules than Panama City and other places in Panama.

9. Travel to the other islands. Isla Colon is the main island and most people will stay there. However, it cost about $3 each way to get to Bastimentos, $1 for Isla Carenero, $15 for Zapittilas (a little further). If you are in Bocas for more than a few days, you’ll end up going to another beach. Just make sure to go always negotiate price. A man charged me a ridiculous amount ($6 one way) to go to Isla Bastimentos. #wonthappenagain #liveandlearn

10. Eating here is pretty standard with a little variety. There are places on the main road that are overpriced but you’ll also find a few jewels there as well. Want to get a bang for you buck? Go to Toms. It’s a Caribbean spot conspicuously hid in what I think is a shopping mall. You can get a chicken breast, coconut rice, beans, macaroni salad, avocado slice, plantanos maduro and a drink all for $5 (including tax). Want good seafood? Try BiBi’s on Isla Carenero. I went with a group from Habla Ya and tried the lobster, fish and breaded shrimp all of which were delicious! You pay a little more but no one will leave hungry (may even be able to share some of the dishes).