Finding a nation off the beaten path

Beyond its namesake canal, Panama isn’t a country that typically generates much interest among the American public. It doesn’t have the glamor tourist destinations and cultural touchstones of western Europe, nor the branded image of adventure associated with Africa and parts of Asia.

But those who overlook this gem of a country are missing out. Among the many great lessons I’ve learned on this service/education trip is that you don’t have to follow the tourist template to of name-brand destinations to have a truly memorable international experience.

The nature of the project raising awareness and support for treating OI has allowed for an immersive tour of the country without sacrificing any work time. At this point we’ve interviewed more than a dozen OI patients, doctors and volunteers on location where they live and work. Those interview sites have stretched from the pacific beaches and resort-like settings of Panama’s western half to the highly modern metropolis of Panama City to the jungles of eastern Panama to the colorful Caribbean coast.

Along the way we’ve passed through historical districts, sandy beaches, impoverished slums, thick forests, majestic mountains and sweeping farmland. We’ve sampled several types of authentic cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’ve learned of Panama’s history as a nation and its altogether unique mix of American, French and Spanish cultural influences. We’ve seen rainbows over the jungle, sunrises over the Pacific (yes, it’s geographically possible, check out a map if you don’t believe me) and skyscrapers over the harbor.

It all adds up to a country that can’t be defined by just a few of its parts. Outside of the canal, there are no internationally recognized landmarks, yet drive 30 minutes in any direction and a new discovery invokes surprise. Even the canal never fails to impress despite its well-known status. The engineering marvel changes elevation multiple times, requiring a complex system of locks that make navigation a tight squeeze — so tight, in fact, that ships going through must surrender the wheel to a Panamanian captain for the duration of the trip. That doesn’t stop the ships from coming and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass through the channel. Drive through the city on any given moment and there’s a parade of giant tankers and cargo ships lined up along the ocean awaiting passage.

This trip is by no means a vacation, with 12-hour work days the norm. But I can think of few better ways to authentically experience a country than by interacting with its natives in an open-ended format. The foundation we’re working with has been our guide through areas often too remote or unfamiliar for the average tourist to enjoy. It’s unnerving at times, a bit awkward at others. But after the initial culture shocks comes a deep appreciation for a country I hope to return to again some day, and one that deserves a greater profile

among the international community.

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