Dirt and Sweat in Paradise: Feature writer Al Zagofsky traveled to Panama to visit his daughter and son in-law who are serving in the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Panama: Peace Corps Panama : The Peace Corps in Panama: Dirt and Sweat in Paradise: Feature writer Al Zagofsky traveled to Panama to visit his daughter and son in-law who are serving in the Peace Corps.

By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, July 05, 2001 - 9:36 am: Edit Post

Dirt and Sweat in Paradise: Feature writer Al Zagofsky traveled to Panama to visit his daughter and son in-law who are serving in the Peace Corps.

Dirt and Sweat in Paradise: Feature writer Al Zagofsky traveled to Panama to visit his daughter and son in-law who are serving in the Peace Corps.

Dirt and Sweat in Paradise: Feature writer Al Zagofsky traveled to Panama to visit his daughter and son in-law who are serving in the Peace Corps.

Feature writer Al Zagofsky traveled to Panama to visit his daughter and son in-law who are serving in the Peace Corps.

Arrival in Panama

The people of Panama are friendly, the water is drinkable, and the U.S. Dollar is the common currency. Panama has beaches, fishing and scuba diving in both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. It is a tropical paradise to explore.

Yet, as a developing country it has problems—problems related to education, economy and environment. That is why the Peace Corps has sent volunteers to Panama. This is a look into the work of two of these volunteers.

Dirt and sweat in paradise is an apt description of this tropical country’s rural areas where a tradition of slash and burn farming continues to destroy the rain forest. Once the forest is clear-cut, the protecting shade is removed and the roots, which have protected the soil from the eroding summer rains, are gone. Soon, only dirt and sweat remain in paradise.

A Thumbnail History of Panama

In 1903, with U.S. backing, Panama seceded from Colombia and promptly signed a treaty with the U.S. allowing for the construction of a canal with U.S. sovereignty over the Canal Zone. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Panama Canal in 1914.

In 1977, the U.S. signed an agreement for the transfer of the Canal Zone to Panama. With U.S. help, Dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed in 1989. The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999.

In The Peace Corp

My daughter Tara and her husband, Jamie, are Peace Corps volunteers in Pocri, Panama. Visiting Tara and Jamie provided an up-close and personal look at what two strangers in a strange land see and do among the rural poor.

Tara is 23 years old. She is the second of my three daughters. All her life, she has been a caring person who enjoyed being a world citizen. Last Memorial weekend, she and Jamie married at Bear Creek Lake in Jim Thorpe. Jamie made his entrance paddling a canoe from one side. Tara, in her wedding gown and holding a single flower, sat in a boat that I rowed from the opposite direction.

They were both born in Connecticut and both soon left. Tara grew up in Pennsylvania. Jamie was raised in California. They met in Israel while studying abroad.

After spending half of her college years studying in foreign countries, Tara completed her education at the University of Pittsburgh with an internship in the Human Rights Department at the U.S. State Department. During the Kosovo fighting, Tara was funding relief projects for the refugees. When the immediate refugee problem was resolved, her position became a desk job. She wanted to be where she could directly work with people in need and took a job running a Washington, D.C. soup kitchen.

Meanwhile, her fiancé, Jamie, had graduated from Berkeley and found a position with a social policy research organization. They wanted an opportunity to change the world, to enter a period of service and to receive on-the-job training in community development. Their choice—the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps assigned them to Pocri, a poor town near the Pacific coast of central Panama. Its larger and wealthier sister town, Aguadulce, is on the other side of the Pan-American Highway. Aguadulce is Spanish for sweet water. Tara is working on community and small business development. Jamie is responsible for environmental education.

My wife, Adele, and I traveled to Panama to visit with Tara and Jamie, to learn and write about the work that they are doing, and to discover the charms of this country.

To Panama with Love

Our flight landed at Tocumen International Airport, about 35 miles outside Panama City. After clearing immigration and customs, Tara and Jamie greeted us with hugs and introduced us to Alahandro, our taxi driver from the Tocumen Airport to the Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City.The distance is 35 miles and it took about an hour in moderate traffic.

The Albrook Bus Terminal is new. It is part of Panama's rebirth since the Canal was turned over to the Panamanians.

In the terminal are several women in their indigenous dress. A Kuna woman wore a mola, a thick sash across her waist. A mola is made from several layers of fabric hand sewn into natural figures and geometrical designs. The Kona also wear beaded anklets. They string the beads on a cord wrapped around their ankle to align the beads and form the pattern.

Some men wore Panama hats. They are braided from palm fronds. Each braid is 13 strands thick and it takesover a month to make a hat. The white with black designs are from Tara and Jamie’s home province of Cocle.

We sat in Nikko’s Cafe in the bus terminal and Jamie ordered a chicha de nanze. Chicha is a fruit juice drink with sugar and water added. Nanze is a round little yellow fruit. "It has a weird flavor," said Jamie. "But I’ve gotten to like it."

We walked to the second floor of the terminal to catch the shuttle to Aguadulce. Dozens of buses painted with graffiti style art pictures were parked in the lot. We boarded a 13-passenger mini bus to Aguadulce.

As soon as the bus began moving, the driver turned on the radio on loud. The station was playing Tympico, a Latin beat featuring an accordion music. By then end of the trip, I discovered that every bus featured loud music. In the entire country, it was impossible to find a quiet bus. After a while, we took cabs just to avoid the noise.

As we left the bus terminal, we saw rifle-toting soldiers and passed by barbed wire fencing. The bus terminal was built on land that formerly was a U.S. Army base. As we left the city, we passed remnants of the U.S. bases. We also noticed fires in the distance. We saw fields on fire during much of our stay in Panama.

Half of Panama has been deforested," explained Jamie. "The areas under U.S. control had less deforestation." The fires in the distance are from open burning. In Panama, they use the slash and burn method of farming. The trees or plants are cut, allowed to dry, and then are burned to clear the fields. This is what is destroying the rain forest. With no root structure, after several rainy seasons, the topsoil is washed away.

Our long day came to an end. We checked into the Carribe Hotel in Aguadulce. Tara and Jamie took a cab to their home in Pocri.

Saturday - Good Morning Aguadulce

We woke at 6 a.m. to the sound of unmuffled cars buzzing the streets of Aguadulce. At 7 a.m., a lone rooster began crowing.

A truck was delivering vegetable—cilantro, lettuces, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and green peppers. A horse wandered besides an abandoned industrial building. A sign read "Radio Ponderosa AM 1000 FM.” It was 8 a.m. and it was already 80°F.

There are perhaps half a dozen cars on the road. But what the cars lacked in number, they make up in aggressiveness. With traffic signs few and far between, drivers seized the right of way by blasting their horns warning those on foot to get out of their way.

Breakfast at Pocri

Tara set a lovely Panamanian breakfast on the porch. Fresh hibiscus flowers decorated the table. We had thick corn tortillas and Spanish cheese. Tara had invested in a blender and made fresh juices of papaya and pineapple banana. In this poor rural village, tropical fruits grow everywhere. In nearly everyone’s yard grow mangos, oranges, plantains, and passion fruit. Panama is a tropical fruit lover’s paradise.

We sit on the porch. Tara and Jamie rent a room in a local man’s home. The house, like many houses in Pocri, has concrete block walls and a galvanized steel roof. The walls have no windows, only decorative openings in the block. Windows are useless in Pocri. It is always hot and few homes have air conditioning. "Most of my neighbors have concrete block houses," said Tara. "But some have sheet metal walls while others have traditional mud houses."

The ventilation openings in the block walls are not screened. Malaria still exists in Panama. Tara and Jamie sleep under mosquito netting and take an anti-malaria pill each week.

The house has three apartments. The owner lives in one apartment. Tara and Jamie live in the middle apartment—a single room with no indoor plumbing.

The owner is constructing a new apartment with two rooms and indoor plumbing. It has been "almost" finished for several months. In Panama, they say "poco a poco"—things get done "little by little.”

For meal preparation, they have use of a stove in the owner’s apartment.

Water, for cooking, cleaning and dishwashing is available from a hose faucet outside the house. The porch is lovely in the morning. The bright sun shaded by the roof and the view of the tropical plants make it hard to believe that this is one of the poorest areas. The furniture is plastic and the floor of the porch is concrete.

The table was getting wet from moisture condensing on the cold juice glasses. No problem. Tara brushed it onto the floor. "We hose down the floor every once and a while to keep the house nice and tidy," explained Tara.

The owner had several dogs. Tara gave some left over tortillas to the owner’s dog and pups.

They weren’t interested in the tortillas. In the yard were pigeons, chickens and, what I thought were geckos. "Those are lizards,” corrected Tara, "The geckos are on the walls."

The latrine has a toilet and a shower. The floor is a concrete slab with an opening above which a concrete toilet is mounted. The plastic seat is not attached to the toilet. It has to be taken off the wall. When it is taken off the wall, the good news is that it is already warm, at least during the day.

Continued on Part 2

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Story Source: tronline

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Panama



By Nick Nell on Saturday, April 26, 2003 - 7:35 pm: Edit Post

To Mr. Al Zagosfy:

I am from Pocri de Aguadulce. I was born there and believe me my house was not like the one you described.
I am sure your daughter took you to see other houses (at least the front)..or perhaps they have friends in town.
Anyway, I would like to get in contact with you and exchange some ideas.

By Dr. Nida Fernandez on Sunday, April 27, 2003 - 4:57 am: Edit Post

Mr. AlZagosfy:

My ancestors are from the Aguadulce/Pocri area.

I wonder if you would be interested in a followup story to revise some of your reports as follows:

l. Albrook was not an Army base,it was a U.S. Air Force Base.

2. The loud music you described is called: musica tipica and it means: the folklore music, similar to what blues and jazz would be for the southern U.S. regions, blue grass for the Kentucky area, etc etc. The music is now fashionable in Panama and it has become more national as compared to years before. Perhaps if people know the history behind your reports, people would get to understand the country and it's customs.

3. The "mud" houses, are remmants of the old Spanish Colonial houses, in fact,some still with tile roof which were one time prominent dwellings. As years go by, they are becoming extinguished by the growing concrete house communities, and recently, now more modernized track homes that you see both in Aguadulce and Pocri. Every new construction is now being equipped by its proper aqueduct system.

4. I imagine that your daugther has a choice in where she lives and her condition and choice may serve a purpose.

5. Alehandro is spelled: Alejandro.

6. As for the buses to Aguadulce/Pocri, the new Bus Station is also the place for new Greyhound buses, a/c, with T.V. and comfortable seating and noise controlled that you have as a choice. Your selection of the small buses may have served a purpose.

7. I'm glad to see that you described the wealth of natural foods/fruits that the citizens grow in their gardens, somewhat denoting a much improved condition from deprived populations. There may be a need for them to figure out how best to use these natural and rich resources. For example, recently I noticed that there were so many cashew seeds wasted on the ground that could be developed into a small business venture, in fact i suggested this and gave some tips.

8. The campesino straw hat is like a national symbol and each region has a style that is unique, but, for the most part, they are similar. The Panama Hat is still unique and is somewhat different from the campesino straw hat that you appear to have described. The Panama Hat as used throughout the latin countries, especially during the colonial times, was seen as a symbol of respect and much a stylish and environmentally adequate for the tropics. They are mostly made in Ecuador.

9. While the knowledge and expertise that your daughter and her husband can bring to these communities continues to be needed for the continual growth of these communities, it would help for your readers to be aware of the culture, customs, community development history, the nature of the people, the towns' missions, their values and other important factors that contribute to making these communities as developing communities. It would also help to provide the readers with accurate descriptions as I pointed out at the beginning. You may need to have your articles either read by a knowledgeable Panamanian or someone in the Peace Corps that knows the actual spelling and report of a place before the article is published; eg as describing what Albrook was.

Thank you for your interest in Panama.


Dr. Nida Fernandez

By Roberto Ocaña on Sunday, April 27, 2003 - 8:35 am: Edit Post

I lived in the US for over 25 years; I traveled almost the whole country in motorhomes. I tell you I can find, in the great USA, places worse than your -inacurate - description of Pocri. Please go back and try again; what a waste, what a shame.

The only factual description is how the land is cleared by burning. To this, the government just passed a law making it ilegal to burn the land, but it will be a very hard law to enforce.

By Clementina Rovin on Sunday, April 27, 2003 - 1:25 pm: Edit Post

Mr. Al Zagosfy:

I totally agree with Dr. Fernandez's opinion regarding your article. I currently work with a man who served in The Peace Corp in Russia and I know that they very limited financially and very dependable on their host family.

It must be very difficult for anybody to go to a foreing country to serve the people and it's very easy to seat in front of a computer a state our opinion of what we see and hear from others.

I would like you to forward my appreciation to Tara and Jamie for their wordelful service to the province where my grandmother was born and my mother was raised.

I'm personally interested in finding more about Tara and Jamies' work in Pocri and see if I can be of any help in any project that would help this community.

Clementina Rovin
Laguna Beach, CA

e-mail: cjrovin@yahoo.com

By Kristie Whitehorse on Monday, April 28, 2003 - 9:22 pm: Edit Post

Dear Mr. Zagofsky,
My desire to write you stems from two different details of my life. The first is that my mother is Panamanian born. The second is that I am the best friend of a brave young woman currently stationed in Nepal through the Peace Corps.
While I have never had the good fortune of visiting Panama myself, it is a country in which I have deep pride and love. My mother was born in Panama, and my grandfather grew up in the town of which you write, Pocri de Aguadulce. Although my grandparents came to the United States in pursuit of a better life, they have always spoken of Panama with tenderness and profound appreciation. Your account of visiting your daughter and son-in-law does great injustice to the reality of the situation. As a American in a foreign country, one needs to respect and appreciate the fact that they are not home, and as such, their evaluation of the people and places of that country should not be devalued for diverging from the creature comforts and luxuries of home. In fact, this has been one of my dear friend’s most substantial critiques of her fellow volunteers. She consistently notes that Peace Corps volunteers need to remove themselves from their skewed standards of living so as to recognize not only the profound exploitation of resources on behalf of countries like the United States, but the extraordinary talents and skills of the people and the splendor and uniqueness of the land.

Best regards,
Kristie Whitehorse

By isis a riverapena on Tuesday, April 29, 2003 - 11:12 am: Edit Post

i can not believe my eyes when i read your article. my advise to you is: if and when you have to travel again try to learn, investigate, about the subject before you show your ignorance to the world.

By Dr. Dave Barrington (232-ipa.152.115.200.in-addr.arpa - on Saturday, February 04, 2006 - 7:58 pm: Edit Post

Ladies and gentlemen from the republic of Panama, a writer informs of his/her encounters(reactions) with the places he/she visits-at least that is what the gentleman did. Now, when it comes to writing about underdeveloped or developing countries like Panama, its nationals become aggravated by the truth(what the man saw he didn't invent, and I bet you that it still is there!-no offense pursued with the remark.)
When he began his writng he never mentioned that he was Alexis De Tocqueville nor Arnold Toynbee. He was a passerby in Panama reaccting to his milieu for goodness sake! Are you walking with a ship on your shoulder, that no one can react about this underdeveloped country(which indeed is!) Panama and its people called themselves friendly but call every white person or caucasian who visits their country a Gringo. Hmmm what should we call that,love at first sight? They are not rude when they drive,but simpletons. Why? Because either they know that traffic laws do exist, so they ignore them or just they do not know that there must be laws that regulate traffic in every country for the safety of the drivers and passebys as well. Furthermore, LOUD music,no matter if it is tipico,cumbia,merenge,salsa etc, it is deafening and abusive. But again there is a rationale or a justification for all this which I will be eagerly waiting to read.
In addition, yes there are many tropical fruits, but Panama is no Paradise people-why do you insist in calling it a paradise? Have you read the definiton of it? Have you been to great places which can boast of being so and do not do it? Is this just a brainwasher that the locals use to steer clear from misery? Do you know that 54%+of the panamanians live in poverty(including those from the interior of the country)? What would you do about it? Is this an individual safe-yourself-for-I-careless situation or do we need the most inteligent thinkers to guide the country's prominent future and to stop avoiding DEVELOPMENT and say "basta ya de esta miseria!"
Thank you...

By Anonymous (adsl-218-130-246.jax.bellsouth.net - on Sunday, June 03, 2007 - 1:21 pm: Edit Post


Your all right. Depending on how you look at it.
I re-read the article and didn't find anything derogatory. Pocri was described accurately.

There are other housing. I just returned from Pocri. Personally, I hope it never changes. It is Paradise, as it the rest of the country...just like it is. All we need is a bunch of Americans going down spoiling all the simplicity that (some of us) appreciate.

Panamaians life span is much longer than that of Americans. Possibly because they don't have to work to pay the government for all the conveniences that Americans insist on having.

Please...don't start mowing the grass on the sides of the roads and putting in masses infrastructure. There goes taxes up the ying yang.

Let it be and enjoy it. If you want more...stay in the the USA and pay for it. I'll take the peace, quite and tranquility.

By Nick Nell Jr. (76-255-136-6.lightspeed.irvnca.sbcglobal.net - on Friday, November 23, 2007 - 1:54 am: Edit Post

To Dr. Dave Barrigton- your comments of Feb 4th, 2006-
What a shame- "Basta ya de esta miseria"- Why then are "gringos" as you call them retiring in Boquete and other areas in Panama??- Also Europeans and many other nationalities...
Underdeveloped country...Look at the new Canal, the growth of the Capital city, the Investments (
Why Donald Trump is building the complex marina and condominuims in Panama? The John Hopkings Hospital, Dell Computer, and many more- Why do they go there? Obviously you are not impartial at all-,
The noise on the buses bother you, dont take them...Poverty, do you know the % of poverty in the US- Paradise for some yes, for others no-
Same as everyplace in the world.
Friendly people it depends..Right?,
As far as development....just see what is happening there, better yet, Ask the americans that are moving there.
Yes you will find "miseria" in this great country also.
What a shame! What a Shame! and "punto final".

By Anonymous ( on Monday, December 10, 2007 - 3:04 pm: Edit Post

Dr. Dave Barrington is not a doctor with that white elitist attitude... you are a doctor of hate...hush...The peace corps wants poor? go to West Virginia and Appalachia! send a mission there...at least the Panamanians in Pocri have their teeth...and they're pretty smart enough not to intermarry...Panama is not third world...it is a very lower-end developed country...where people know what's going on...

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