Thursday, December 17, 2015

Changuinola – A New Home

It has been quite some time since I last blogged. I had planned on updating this blog weekly, but that has not happened. I do apologize for the late update. A lot has happened since I last blogged. In order to avoid one long drawn out blog post I plan on blogging bit by bit more regularly until I am caught up. So, to begin, this post will describe my new home, Changuinola.

Changuinola is located in the northern part of Panama, close to Costa Rica. It is in a province known as Bocas del Toro. People are more likely to recognize the name of the province because it is also home to a very popular tourist destination. However, when people visit this popular tourist destination they are not visiting Changuinola, rather they are visiting Bocas Town on Colón Island, or as the locals in Changuinola refer to it: Bocas Isla (or Bocas Island). It is around an hour and a half to two hours away by bus and then water taxi (or much more quickly by air if you prefer). I was fortunate enough to visit Bocas last month to celebrate Panamanian independence, but I will talk about that in a later post.

Changuinola is divided into Fincas. They are small neighborhoods that are based on the banana plantations that surround the center of town. These Fincas are connected to each other by one main road, called 17 de Abril Avenue (or Main Street), which runs north to south. The center of town is where all the main shopping is done. It is also where the majority of local businesses are. Since Changuinola is spread out, it is necessary to take taxis from one location to another. All travel within Changuinola costs 70 cents, it is more if you want to travel further out of town. There are many taxis as well as local busses, so finding transportation around town is easy. I live five minutes away from the center of town by taxi.

There is a mixture of ethnic groups in town. The majority of the people in Changuinola are those of Afro-Caribbean descent, and those descended from the indigenous population (from the Ngobe-Bugle tribe). There are also a large number of Latinos as well as some Chinsese immigrants. While the main language is Spanish you may also hear English, Chinese, Wari Wari (English/Spanish mix brought by the Jamaicans), and native dialects.

The main source of employment is the Bocas Fruit Company, or the “Company.” It was known as the Chiriqui Land Company and United Fruit Company, but last year the United Fruit Company sold the company to a Brazilian company and it became the Bocas Fruit Company. The Company took care of everything in Bocas. They controlled the water, the power, and even took care of the social and cultural aspects of the area for over one hundred years. The company was truly the caretaker of the people. Beyond just providing jobs the company also helped to take care of the community. For example the Transfiguration in Changuinola, the Episcopal Church, had a parishioner that was a manager with the Company. He would make sure that the company would mend the fence, keep the grass cut and ensure that the building was painted regularly. The Transfiguration was not the only church in the area to be supported.

Around thirty years ago the Company decided that it was much more cost efficient to slowly sell the company to the workers. It was more cost effective to work with new private entities and use contracts to grow and process bananas, rather than manage the process completely. The globalization of the banana market meant that the price of bananas had dropped significantly, forcing the Company to find new ways to save money in order to survive. The Company knew that many of the buildings and machinery were very old and the cost of updating and upgrading would be more than the Company could realistically spend. The solution was the privatization of the various aspects of banana growing, helping the Company to become more financially stable in the Bocas region. While this helped the Company, it also meant that many jobs were lost. More than that, with the slow draw down in the region the Company began to turn over control of things like water and electricity to the government. A community that had been taken care of by the Company for over one hundred years was then forced to depend on a government that would not be as efficient as the Company. Because the people were completely dependent on the Company, this new direction meant devastation for the economy and the people of Bocas del Toro. To this day the old men will still recall the good old days and fondly tell stories of when they worked for the Company.

This is only a brief introduction to my new home. I have based this post on my own observations and conversations that I have had with people around town, in church and at rugby practice. While this is far from a complete picture of Changuinola, my hope is that you will keep this post in your mind as you read about my work here. This post will help you understand the cultural and social experiences of my time in Panama. 

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