I was older then, I’m much younger than that now #ThisIs30
At 21 years old, I had pictured 30 much differently. In my twenties, 30 years old meant a major milestone in which to anchor superficial accomplishments. When I was younger, I also thought of thirty as the culmination of the end of my youth. Yet, as I arose to watch the sunrise on my 30th birthday on the San Blas Islands, I realized that I was so much older then; I’m much younger than that now.
The week of my birthday began with a visitor. Elisabeth and I have been friends since the summer before high school when our teenage resolve to despise each other transformed into one of the closest bonds and longest friendships I’ve had. From the time we were kids, we had planned out what our lives would be like by 30 (the degrees, marriage at 25, 2.5 kids, and the house). Naturally, she was the one I wanted to celebrate the realization that our lives had gone in the complete other direction with. She swooped into Panama City and we immediately hit the town like our parachutes had failed.
Despite the random thunderstorm of Panama City’s rainy season, we started off her first full day at the housing projects in Curundu. Here, another expat had introduced me to Danny, a Panamanian who’d returned to the city after spending years in Brooklyn. Danny made the best fish in Panama, marinated overnight and seasoned just right. There really is no competition. One had to call him the day before to reserve your plate due to high demand, as if his small kitchen right across the streets from the public housing units was the most exclusive restaurant in Panama City. Thus, the unspoken tradition was to bring a friend with you and enjoy listening to Danny’s tales from small tables set outside of his kitchen as your meal was being prepared. Spread love, it's the Brooklyn way.
As we ate, Danny told us about the transformation of the neighborhood from squalid shacks that flooded when it rained to the housing complexes built by the government. It’s hard to shake off a past life working in social development and, thus, I rattled off questions to Danny about the terms under which people had been moved and their current living conditions. All the while, Elisabeth was observing the children playing in the street. In the same way I had when I first arrived in Panama from the U.S., she marveled at the fact that children were actually playing instead of glued to a T.V. screen, that they walked around unaccompanied, and that any adult could scold them for bad behavior without fear of being sued by their parents.
Next, we went to Casco Viejo for the gang tour led by the reformed gang members of the Esperanza Social Venture Club. Our energetic and amusing guide, led us through neighborhoods once referred to as la Ciudad de Dios (City of God). These neighborhoods were now on the cusp of the gentrification shaping Casco Viejo. What was fascinating about the tour was how the former gang members themselves had also turned into vehicles of social progress and economic change for their neighborhoods with the help of local business owners.
Our guide led us through the narrow streets of la Ciudad describing how squatters had moved into buildings abandoned by their owners decades ago when Casco Viejo was crime-ridden and filled with debilitated colonial structures neglected by both the government and owners alike, only to have the owners or their children return now that Casco Viejo was becoming the (insert the poor neighborhood in your community that is now lined with cafes, yoga studios, and million dollar condos here) of Panama City. He told us that the government was now resettling people (resettle is a fancy development word for forced removal and displacement) out of Casco Viejo and into public housing outside of the city. These tight knit communities of color were being moved to make room for the wave of foreigners wanting million-dollar condos and cafes in a newly chic neighborhood.
Again, I found myself thinking of the unintended social consequences of splitting up communities and resettling them far from their schools, businesses, jobs, and the other social services that they depended on. On one hand, you split up the gang members and reduced crime. Revitalizing the neighborhood also brings in much-needed economic activity and investments. On the other hand, working parents would have to spend hours commuting into the city, leaving children either unattended or having to devote a portion of their salaries to childcare. The changes in Casco Viejo were a sign of progress, but for whom? What did it say when the chief architect of one of the colonial building being turned into condos waved at us from the condemned building in which he lived across the street? He’d likely never be able to afford to live in the place he was helping restore despite the millions being poured in to restore Casco Viejo.
In my previous life, displacing people in the name of development had been my job. I knew that it wasn’t as easy as at seemed on paper. The people often fought back to keep their homes and communities intact, but they rarely won. They never had the resources or the knowledge to fight in the courts, even if they won in the court of public opinion. The law was always on the side of “progress and growth”, even if morality was not.
With these thoughts heavy on my mind, Elisabeth and I were picked up the next morning at 6am (Panamanian for 5am) by the Go2SanBlas Tour company for our 2 day trip to San Blas. I wanted to turn thirty in a place where I could reflect on the previous few decades of my life, my time in Panama, and what I wanted the next decade to look like. Two hours and a boat ride later, we were seemingly transported to the pre-Columbus era as we stepped foot on the small island named CoCo Blanco, one of the approximately autonomous 400 islands that made up San Blas.
The first thing one notices about San Blas is that the water is so translucent that, if it were not for the clouds and mountain peaks in the horizon, one could scarcely tell where the sky begins and the sea ends. Within 5 minutes, I could walk past the bamboo thatched huts on one side of the island to the other side and see its entirety. The Guna Yala people who lived there had fled to San Blas to escape the Spaniard's reign of terror. They were now celebrated as one of the few indigenous peoples still able to maintain their traditional way of living with very little interferences from the modern world. The family on the island was preoccupied with the day to day repairs, sewing, and fishing that needed to be done. The laughter of their children playing in the ocean and parrots chirping were the only sounds to be heard this far from modernity.
"Is there wifi here," Elisabeth asked when we were escorted into our hut that consisted of 2 simple beds and a separate bathroom. I laughed aloud. No, there was no wifi, no AC, no hot water, and no television here. Back to basics.
Yup, this was the perfect place to turn 30.
Our 2 days on San Blas were spent frolicking in the ocean, eating the fresh seafood prepared for us by our hosts, exploring a small shipwreck near the shore of a neighboring island, and sleeping in hammocks to escape the afternoon heat.
As usual, my camera was like another limb as I tried to capture the ethereal beauty of the place in photos in the moments when words failed me. As I was walking the short distance to the other side of the island to take the photo of a sandbank before it was overtaken by the sea, one of the young women nudged her children in my direction.
The children waved to me emphatically and the youngest boy approached me curiously to show me the poor starfish he had been playing with. A lover of children, I was getting ready to put my camera aside and lean down to chat with him when he suddenly remembered something and blurted out, “Foto: un dolar.” He then grinned up at me again, clearly not fully understanding the words he’d been taught to say to strangers.
I was momentarily stunned, especially given the fact that I make a point not to take photos of people without permission, and not to exploit children. Even here in what was supposed to be an example of the resourcefulness and resilience of an indigenous group living in its traditional ways, the impacts of progress at a cost were felt. The Guna had learned to commodify and sell what was most unique about their culture rather than allow others to claim what was traditionally theirs as their own. You want a photo of a cute indigenous kid for your Instagram? It’s going to cost you. You want to wear their brightly colored, hand sewn attire? Pay top dollar for it.
Unlike the black and brown residents of Casco Viejo, the Kuna people had figured out how to capitalize on the richness of their culture and beauty of their islands before the world could take it away and displaced them. However, could even the Kuna stop the unintended loss of cultural values and the traditional ways of life that could come as a consequence of tourism?
The morning of my 30th birthday, as the sun rose in the horizon, I contemplated the cost of progress, development, and tourism to the people on the margins. I had no discomfort or anxieties about turning 30. Melanin guarantees me a few more decades of a youthful glow and I had accomplished more by the time I was 29 than many would in their lifetime. However, what I was struggling with that morning was what the next decade would look like. What was the legacy I wanted to leave behind, and why couldn’t I shake my concern for the people of Casco and the Kuna children?
It hit me then that I should use the special set of skills I’d developed working for the proverbial “Man” and the knowledge I was continuing to acquire on my travels to work for the little guys- for those who didn’t speak the jargon of international development , never saw "progress" in their communities that was sustainable or included them, and never had a seat at the table when the policies that would impact their lives were being discussed. Now that I’m 30, let’s shake the world up little.