June 29, 2007
I was talking to a friend from Honduras who is also working in the UNICEF office with me about buses in Panama and Mexico compared to those in the United States. Nobody who works in UNICEF takes the bus except my fellow intern who braves the heat and the crowds and the traffic every morning for an hour and a half even though it should only take about 15 minutes to get from the center of modern Panama City to the former canal zone suburb of Clayton. Buses here are American school buses painted all sorts of crazy colors with lights rigged up inside and with all sorts of signs and talismans hanging in the front. My friend was saying that it seemed crazy to her that the other intern rides the bus, because it is so dangerous. (They’re not actually so bad). I told her how last summer when I was interning in a tiny health clinic in a squatter neighborhood in Mexico, I took the bus to work every day, and it was fine, just hard to figure out, because there are no bus lines. There is a big name at the top of the bus, which is the final destination. Then lots of little places names are listed below it, to let you know what route it will take to get there. I figured it out after a few tries (and some helpful hints) but coming from New York it was a bit jarring that there were no numbers, that you couldn’t just wait at the stop for the M104 and know ahead of time where it would go. That instead you have to stand in the street straining to read the signs in time to hail the bus so it will stop for you.
And she said, “I can’t imagine, it must seem so ridiculous to you, coming from New York. I mean, I feel like I would come to one of these countries once and then say, okay, I’ve seen it, now I don’t need to come back ever again.”
I had never thought of it that way. I had told the story as a funny anecdote of my incompetence, not to insult the way things run in another country. Sure things are more efficient in New York, but that’s not really what gives a place its character. But developing countries certainly are different. I’ve been thinking in general about what it is that attracts us out of our air conditioned, relatively well-governed, technologically savvy “developed countries” equipped with museums, libraries, good concerts and modern plumbing, to places that lack some or all of the above. I say us, because I am certainly not alone in this. The fact that I can be concentrating in something called Development Studies, the abundance of friends and acquaintances currently spending their summers in Rwanda, China, or Mexico, and the sheer number of expats I meet here in Panama shows that there is some sort of draw.
Everyone has their own reasons, and I don’t even really think I can fully explain my own let alone everyone else’s, but I feel like there is an element of time travel involved. Though ‘developing country’ is short hand for a host of complex issues, histories, and explanations, in some was it does feel like it is a look into our own past. Watching a movie shot in 1970’s New York last week, I certainly noticed some things that you’d be more likely to see in Panama right now than in the United States. And some things are literally not developed yet.
Like the highway system, for example. We sort of take for granted the fact that roads are mainly smoothly paved with potholes being the exceptions that mar otherwise tranquil drives. Whereas here, sometimes it is more holes and less road. And this is a middle income country. For example, the TransAmerican Highway is in relatively good condition, built to handle American military traffic back during the Canal days. However it is full of potholes and traffic, and there isn’t any other decent road to get across other parts of the country. In driving from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast (quick Panamanian geography lesson: Panama City, which is on the south side of the isthmus, is on the Pacific Ocean, while the other end of the canal is on the Atlantic/Carribean side. This is a little confusing for those of us who expect our oceans to differ from East to West) we had to turn off the highway to head towards the beach, and there was basically just no more road. We drove the rest of the way at about 10 miles an hour, stopping to avoid each hueco (hole). The friend of a friend who was driving cringed in pain every time the bottom of his somewhat new VW Beetle scraped along a particularly unpleasant stretch of road. Of course, from the speakers of this relatively fancy car he was blasting a combination of reggaeton and the Backstreet Boys at full volume as we drove through tiny towns with dirt roads, cows and horses.
Maybe this desire to travel back in time is why seeing Blockbusters, Dominos, McDonald’s, and Office Depots everywhere you go is so frustrating for the tourist. And why a huge number of the UNICEF international staff live in Casco Viejo, where the cobblestone streets lend themselves nicely to nostalgia. It's also certainly not true that a developing country is simply further behind on the same trajectory that any other country followed to achieve development.
People from the countries themselves seem to have little time for this desire to return to some sort of good old days. My friend from Honduras said she would probably like to go back to live in the United States (she’s already lived there for a total of almost six years) even over Europe, where she has also lived, because the standard of living is just better.
But as someone who has grown up taking standards of living pretty much for granted there seems to be more of an adventure to be had over here. Which somewhat worries me, about myself. I was at a Cuban-ish bar in Casco Viejo last weekend listening to a salsa band, and I looked around at a lot of middle aged, wealthy Panamanian couples dancing and drinking and I found myself thinking, don’t you know that the people next door can’t afford this? Yet when I am at home, I don’t enter a bar or restaurant and expect to see a full spectrum of socioeconomic levels represented there. Obviously, as a student at a private university I mostly come in contact with only the very privileged. And I certainly don’t expect all of us to spend all our time thinking of the poverty that certainly exists in Providence, or in New York. You don’t need to go to another continent to find things that need fixing, or even another country. We still come looking.
But you certainly don’t have weekends like this trip to the beach when you stay in the U.S. You don’t start your trip with lunch in a casino—evidently casinos are a key hang out spot here, not for the gambling but for the food, and there certainly are a lot of them—drive across the whole country through thousands of potholes, arrive in the dark to the house of the mother of a friend of a friend of a friend where a bunch of barefoot kids tell you that you have to get the key from the woman who sometimes cuts people’s hair, discover that though there are seven beds in the house two are soggy and only three have sheets, that there is no running water in the bathroom, that the water in the kitchen sink is so dirty you wouldn’t even want to cook pasta with it, continue blasting music from your car until rain forces you inside, wake up to find a horse waiting out the front door in case you want to ride it, or ride down the dirt streets of a tiny town barefoot and run into an old American man wearing a leather cowboy hat and carrying a three toed sloth on his chest like a baby.
Which isn’t exactly a reason, per say. And doesn’t begin to delve beneath the surface of the question of what is a developing country. But I guess I’m not the only one who can’t answer that.
Posted by Leona Rosenblum at June 29, 2007 08:42 PM
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