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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Paradise in Panama

Despite the beautiful surroundings, amazing people, and fun times we had in Bocas, we felt like there was something missing. Since we left Saramandaia, we had little purpose in our trip other than floating and having fun. And even though it sounds crazy to say so, that gets tiresome. We needed to do something, and settle in one place long enough to do it. We found a promising workaway opportunity on the Pacific side of Panama and agreed to five weeks of work-stay there at Punta Duarte Gardens Inn.

The jungle, the beach, the Pacific as seen from the house
The view from one of the balcony of one of the rooms in the B&B
Located near Torio, Panama - a place that even our Panamanian friends thought was made up because they had never heard of it - Punta Duarte is about as remote an area as you could find. Transportation there wasn’t easy. We took a bus from Panama City to Santiago with no information on how to get to our final destination, other than we had to catch an onward bus from there. After a brief call from a pay phone to our host, and some garbled conversation with the locals at the bus stop, we found the bus to Torio. It was more van than bus in reality, and wooden stools were pulled from under the seats for passengers who boarded after the seats were full. After two hours down roads that had 30 meter strips of missing pavement every kilometre or so, we arrived in Torio. Our host, Gaby, picked us up from the bakery there - the only establishment in the whole town - and immediately apologised, saying that her home was so remote. It was another 30 minutes drive from the middle-of-nowhere, Panama before we reached the inn. I can’t deny that more than a few flashes of dread went through my mind. If the accommodations and work were as unsuitable as at The Monkey Farm, we were in trouble. There would be no hotels in town to escape to, nor friends coming to visit.

But any worries we had were immediately squashed as the property came into site that first evening. Located at the point of a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific, the massive inn was a beautiful, modern mansion-turned-B&B. We were welcomed in the living room, whose floor was tiled in stone. The ceilings raised 30ft above us with an upper balcony hosting the library, and was decorated with South East Asian art. Next we were shown the kitchen, which would become my playground for the next 5 weeks. A six-burner, stainless-steel gas range was flanked by huge black granite countertops, and the whole kitchen was stocked with top-of-the-line equipment. We were immediately put to work making salads for the guests’ dinner, but somehow chopping vegetables and putting together gourmet salads in a class kitchen like this didn't seem like work.

Looking down into the living room
The library upstairs
The kitchen, my playground
An example of some of the art that decorated the living room, and the cats
The first night I decided to sleep in a hammock outside on the terrace. I woke to an alarm clock of tropical bird song. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes I found what the darkness from the night before had been hiding: a stone-tile terrace which swept the length of the house adorned with two heavy wooden tables long enough to seat ten people each, white hammocks the size of twin beds swung between the columns supporting the upper floor, and stairs from the terrace led down to a 25 meter lap pool. Beyond the pool the Pacific Ocean expanded forever into the horizon, the view unimpeded for 180 degrees.

As the sun began to poke above the palm fronds, it dawned on me that I was going to live in a mansion in a tropical beach paradise. For five weeks. For free. This notion was a recurring one throughout our stay at Punta Duarte, as I was constantly reminded that I had found a slice of paradise.

The stretch of terrace along the front of the house
My bed the first evening, and the view out the front door
Yeah, this just about sums it all up right here

Friday, October 17, 2014

Michael Annan Needs a Sponsor

Those who know me best will tell you that, despite being a loving and caring person, I’m not easily moved, emotionally. That’s why this post may come as a surprise to many, and hopefully it adds weight to what I’m saying.

When I told my friends and family last year that I’d be going to Ghana, most responded with, “Ghana!? You know that’s in Africa, right? You know - Malaria, Ebola, poverty, starvation, war, genocide - that Africa?” Most Americans will think you are crazy for traveling to Africa. And sometimes I think I’m crazy for coming here. Why did I go there, anyway? Well, initially I thought I went to volunteer with an organisation called Anansi Education, to meet a few students that Crystal and I have sponsored through Anansi, and to bring to life a part of the world that is so far removed from most of our minds that it’s easy to feel as if what’s happening there isn’t real, but fantasy.

But real life for you and me is the true fantasy. Things that you and me take for granted - owning a car, going to school, getting take out, seeing a concert, having television or a computer or xbox, food in the refrigerator - these are things that most children here can only dream about. Real life here is a single mother raising four kids in a house with no electricity and no bathroom, with everyone sharing a single room no bigger than some of our closets, the only income coming from a small plot of land that she farms herself. Real life is a young girl who just finished junior high whose only caretaker is her demented father who tried to drown her sister. Real life is not knowing where the next meal is coming from or having your life threatened by an illness that, although terrible, would have a fairly routine prognosis back home. It’s easy to forget that there are people living in these conditions, and that children grow up with this as the norm. Children who are just like children back home - who play games, have wild imaginations, laugh and cry, love their moms and dads, have dreams for their future - are sentenced to a life of poverty and need and will never have a chance to fulfil their dreams simply because of where they were born.

Volunteering for Anansi, I’ve been blessed to see the difference it can make for a child, family, and community to just send one kid to high school. High school graduates in these communities are like celebrities: they are role models for children and the adults beam with pride at their accomplishments. The give strength and belief to people who have so many reasons to have none.

High school is expensive. Tuition and room and board costs more than the average family makes in a year. It immediately rules out more than 90% of students. Students who dream of being doctors, nurses, teachers, or engineers just never have a chance because it’s impossible for them to get anything beyond a junior high education.

Anansi is one of many organisations that is helping though. Every year Anansi processes dozens of applications for students applying for high school scholarships. This year, they’ve received over 100 applications. But with only 18 new scholarships available, the selection process has been gruelling and heart-breaking.

I had the pleasure of meeting several of these applicants, one of whom is an especially bright and exceptional student. His name is Michael and he dreams of becoming a doctor. He studied for his exams by candle light because his home doesn’t have electricity, yet he still managed top scores. I was so impressed by Michael and his family. At 14 years old, Michael is the man of the house, having lost his father years ago. His quiet confidence immediately assured me he will take advantage of any opportunity he’s given. Unlike many of the families we visited, whose demeanour - understandably - seemed desperate and defeated, Michael and his mother were nothing but grateful and excited that we came to visit. Despite not having their own bathroom - the area they use to bathe is shared amongst the neighbours - they were as gracious and dignified in welcoming us to their home as any host we’ve ever had. Michael’s mother provides for him and his four siblings by farming a small plot of land near the village, and sometimes they receive modest donations from their church. Without a scholarship from Anansi, there is no chance of paying for high school. Unfortunately, as deserving as Michael and his family are of receiving this scholarship, and as gifted and promising as he is, he was not deemed to be in great enough need and will not receive one of the coveted 18 sponsors available this year.

Michael (in the solid yellow shirt) and his family

Me with Michael and his mom
There is only one solution for this: Michael needs a sponsor. It’s not like me to use this blog to promote things like this. It’s also not like me to be impressed and moved so immediately. But there is no question for me that, despite my initial reasons for coming here, finding a sponsor for Michael has always been my purpose. I just didn’t realize it until I met him.

Becoming a sponsor through Anansi is a financial commitment. It costs $800 per year, and you must commit for all three years of the student’s high school education. But it’s guaranteed that every penny goes directly to funding the student. You won’t be paying for a massive organization’s overhead costs, or putting money in the pockets of the people running them. Your money goes straight to the school to pay for your student’s tuition, room and board, and books.

Please contact Anansi Education if you wish to help. If you’d like, you can email me or Crystal, or leave a message here, and we can help get you all the information you need and get you in touch with the people at Anansi. The difference for you could be bringing coffee and lunch from home for a few months. But the difference will be life-changing for Michael and his family, as well as for future generations of his family and his community.