"Jungle, canal on tap before leaving"
The following is the final excerpt of a journal kept by Ian Stepleton on his
travels to Wacuco, Panama, where Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski works.
Day 8: March 13, 9:25 p.m., Father Wally’s compound:Today, we travelled to a
place that, in Father Wally’s words, “no more than 50 people from other
countries have seen.” It is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever
When we came to Panama, we thought we would be building a dam, but circumstances
changed. Today, though, we travelled deep into the jungle to see where it will
be completed. And it was amazing.
The jungle canopy seems miles above. And, despite clear skies, not a hint of
blue could be seen past the trees, and I’m sure I felt occasional “rain” drops
cooling my shoulders. The closest comparison I can find to what I saw would be
some of the huge waterfalls I’ve hiked in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But the
scale of everything here dwarfs anything from around the Midwest.
The spot we visited is the headwaters of the freshwater supply for the region:
the Rio Sabana Arriba. The water here is probably the among the freshest in the
world. I’ll admit, I didn’t drink right out of the stream for fear of needing my
Cipro, but many did and none got sick.
The stream — eventually it’s a river — flows gently until it hits a rocky
outcropping, where it begins a quick descent through a series of these amazing
crevices, boulders and cliffs. Walking through, you feel like you’ve found the
Garden of Eden. Father Wally calls it “a gift from God.”
I keep replaying in my mind the hike: going down the hillside, walking this
narrow strip of rock bordered on one side by a pool of water and the other a
drop into the abyss, then walking over the stream across two fallen logs, and
finally finding my way into this chamber. Inside, it’s like a cylindrical room,
with a set of waterfalls on the far side. Absolutely beautiful.
We took the trip in the morning, and headed back to Torti for lunch. On the way,
I finally had the last step in a true Panamanian adventure: having the truck
break down along the dirt road! Did we panic? Why panic in Panama — it’s all
part of the adventure. Apparently, after the severe four-wheeling it took to get
to the jungle, the drive shaft broke, forcing us to lurch back to Torti with
only the front wheels engaged.
Afternoon was back at the Sisters’ house, where we nearly finished the project.
Just a bit more to do tomorrow, before we leave. Tonight, though, we had the
perfect cap to the trip and the day: the Sisters came in after dinner, sang to
us and gave us “uno pequito” gift. Afterward, everyone said a few words about
their trip, with several on the trip in tears by the end.
Day 9: March 14, 8:57 p.m., Rianda Aeropuerto in Panama City: Tonight’s been one
of those, “Welcome to a third-world country” moments. Nothing has gone well
since getting to Panama City!
Tried calling home for the first time in a week ... and the phones don’t work.
Tried getting on the internet to e-mail ... and the computer is broken. Finally
find a working PC ... and the Spanish-language keyboard keeps foiling me. For
the record, there are a few key keys not available on the Panamanian keyboard.
It gets really interesting typing an e-mail address when the keyboard doesn’t
include the @ symbol!
Dinner wasn’t any better; apparently a hotel restaurant with little traffic, tip
included in the bill and a captive audience has no incentive for good service.
Food took an hour and a half to arrive, and when it did it was usually wrong.
Welcome to Panama!
At least this morning, we got a lot done before heading out. Electrical’s done,
plumbing’s almost done , etc., etc. I hope Father Wally doesn’t have much more
to do. It was strange, driving away from his compound this afternoon, though.
After a week, I felt both sad to leave — and ready to go.
Day 10: March 15, 9:25 p.m., Panama City: Today is our last day in Panama, and
we spent it touring Panama City. I’ve thought day after day about how poor rural
Panama is. Well, now I’ve found out that for as poor as the rest of the country
is, the capital city is just as rich.
On our (dirt cheap!) tour of the city today, we travelled through the newest
development. In this one corner of Panama city alone, more than two dozen
skyscrapers were going up at once. Even Trump has one set to go up. Then, at one
point, we drove past a fishing town of shanties along the shore, just like the
homes I’d seen throughout the country. The contrast was shocking, but as the
tour guide said, they’ll probably be selling their land for millions soon to yet
Then we headed to the Panama Canal. You have no idea just how big it is until
you see it. From the museum at the Miraflores Locks, the canal can be seen
stretching as far as the eye can see. And, on the far hillside, we could see
where they’re starting to build the new set of locks to expand the canal. After
toiling here a week, I now comprehend just how building the canal was a feat of
willpower. I hated shoveling the clay for a morning; I can’t imagine how they
moved enough to build the entire canal. The heat ... the humidity ... The
difficult working conditions. And I had it easy!
Day 11: March 16, 9:24 a.m., Somewhere over the Caribbean: I’m headed home!
Yes, part of me misses Panama already, but it was time. We got to the airport
around 5:30 a.m. My heart was beating ... all I could think about was, “Will I
somehow do something to get stuck in Immigration ... and be trapped in
Panama???” But, Immigration went smoothly. The dour-faced workers hardly looked
at me, let alone my bags, and quickly I was on to the gate. Again, though, the
plane was delayed. Did you know the plane doesn’t go anywhere when it doesn’t
have a crew? Yep, we waited an hour for the crew to lollygag its way into the
terminal. Finally, then, we were on our way.
So, what will I remember from the trip? It’s a question I’ve asked everyone I’ve
interviewed on this trip ... and one I’ve thought about a lot, too. Various
images come to mind when I think of Panama:
— Climbing the rocks in the jungle, and discovering the most beautiful waterfall
nestled among the boulders
— The mountains that lined the highway, and how the morning sun hit them
— Wind blasting me in my face as we rode the cattle truck to Torti
— The friendly and gracious people of Panama, always so excited to smile, wave
or try to interpret my Spanglish
— Waking up as one rooster would call, starting a cascade of
— Candlelight mass in the morning among the small group of us that went
— A daily sense of accomplishment that more than offset any aches that came
— The camaraderie of our group of 20 or so, whose diverse backgrounds never
clashed but melded to finish so much work.
— But also the poverty I saw daily, and the lack of a future for so many ...
Offset only by the work Father Wally does to bring opportunity to their lives.