"Mass and mucho heat part of visit to Panama"
The following is an excerpt of a journal kept by Ian Stepleton on his travels to
Wacuco, Panama, where Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski works. It aims to
offer a different perspective: what are the sights, sounds and smells of a world
thousands of miles from Ripon?
Day 6: March 11, 7:48 p.m., Father Wally’s compound:
Day begins with candlelight mass at Father Wally’s compound. When the sun
scorches you mid-day, as Father Wally directs his workers, it might be easy to
forget for a moment that he’s a priest, first and foremost. But, every morning
before donning work clothes, we join him for 5:30 mass. Nine of us typically
squeeze into the small chapel Wally’s carved out of his shop. Adorning one wall,
myriad images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary can be seen in the flickering
candlelight. A simple alter is nestled into one corner, with years of candle wax
hanging over its edge like stalactites. And, in another corner sits Father
Wally, draped in his vestments, his head bowed in prayerful reverence, maybe
meditating in the dim light.
When his voice finally breaks our silence, there’s a very different quality to
it. Through the day, as he directs his workers to and fro in various projects,
the sharp urgency of a foreman jumps out. But in his chapel, his smooth tones
ooze through the room. Being Lutheran, not Catholic, I have to admit I have
trouble following the service at times, but there is something spiritual and
solemn about his morning ritual that transcends either sect. Even the one-minute
walk from the dormitory to Father Wally’s home and shop is beautiful, as we walk
under a star-dappled sky.
Following mass is a hearty breakfast. Today we’re having eggs and turkey; other
days its been eggs and a Spam-knockoff from Sweden, or rice and beans (of
course, rice and beans are the default meal at any time of the day. So is
chicken ...). Great protein for a heavy day of labor. Then we load up into the
trucks and roll down the road in the cattle truck.
Heading east along the Pan-American Highway in the morning, we’re all quiet as
we take in the scene. The low sun highlights the sharp and undulating peaks of
the mountains. It’s amazing; driving by, they don’t seem so tall, but with the
way the clouds wrap around them, the mounts must tower.
Now that we’re a few days into the trip, we each jump into our roles when we
reach the Sisters’ house. I’m on the wiring crew with Bill Boesch, Robin
Wallenfang, Kim Holliday and Rollie Alger. Today I’m installing electrical
boxes, and to do so, I’m drilling into the masonry to set anchors.
First bit I try is worthless, so it’s time to walk down to the Avicar general
store in Torti. The new bit worked, making the work fly, but it was the time at
the store I remember. While I waited for my new bit to be “discovered” by the
employee, I wandered through the aisles. Everything is available here, from
clothes to cosmetics, toys to tools. Much of it, though, seems low-quality, and
mixed in are items clearly sent south from America’s shelves. Our leftovers
become Panama’s prizes. Need last-year’s exercise mat? Don’t look at Walmart;
it’s in Panama now.
I love the brand names here, too. You can’t buy evaporated milk — it’s “Klim”
(milk spelled backward). Or, how about a “Sip” of detergent? At the Sisters’
house, we worked through the day, and actually knocked off early. Getting back
to Father Wally’s compound by 4:30 p.m. I figured — why sit around inside when
Panama beckons? So I hit the trails again for another walk. Afterward, for
dinner it was — you guessed it — rice and beans!
Day 7: March 12, 4:34 p.m.:
There is no such thing as easy manual labor in Panama. In this heat and
humidity, even easy tasks become taxing!
Consider this: by 7 a.m. this morning, when I checked the thermometer, it was
already 78 degrees. And I’m certain by the time we were working an hour or so
later, it was much hotter.
Today, instead of going to the Sisters’ house again, most of us helped put in
the footings for the foundation of a new home. The house is being built for a
poor neighbor of Father Wally’s, whose current house is about to fall down due
Task No. 1 was to dig out trenches for the footings — no easy task in dense clay
that would rather bind up than be dug out. Then I spent a couple hours shoveling
aggregate into a cement mixer with several others, including Jack Powell of
Grays Lake, Ill., and several Ripon College students. It seemed we could barely
stand up after a time; during every break we’d stumble to the water jugs. You
sweat the water out as fast as you can drink it in — literally.
But, again it was worth it as Victorina later thanked us for our work on her new
home. Our reward was a home-cooked meal by Victorina of, yes, rice and chicken
Why are so many poor in rural Panama? It’s easy to understand when you consider
average pay here is $8 a day. By comparison, Father Wally pays his guys $18 to
$20 a day. That means opportunity for their families, in a country where even
education is expensive. School is required to sixth grade, but not even everyone
can do that.
It’s just another reminder to be thankful for what we have in America.
Journal entries will conclude in next week’s Commonwealth.