Ian Stepleton's Journal Entries
To truly understand a place, a time, one can’t simply read an
article distanced from its subject by writing in the third-person. Such stories
can be exactly that — good stories. But it won’t transport you to another place
You might still wonder, “what does it smell like there? What do you see if you
turn your head 90 degrees away from the action? What are the people like?”
These kinds of questions can be answered only engaging in conversation someone
who has been there.
For that reason, instead of just writing a few stories about my travel to
Panama, I’ve chosen also to let readers peer into my journal and find the true
“flavor” of this isthmus country.
As we run stories through the next several weeks, I’ll include a few days of
journal entries, enabling you to step beyond the paper and into a world with
which I’ve become fascinated. Hopefully, by the end, you won’t have to ask, “How
hot was it there?” Instead, you might wonder such questions as, “Can a person
really eat that much chicken, rice and beans in one week?”
Day 1: March 6, 7:18 p.m. Over the Carribean
Never having travelled abroad before, sitting in the international terminal of
the Atlanta airport seemed like an amazing place to me. Maybe I could go to
Paris. Or maybe, Amsterdam. And, all around me, all I hear is a cornucopia of
language. Is that Chinese I hear? A dialect from Africa? Who knows. But as I
write, I’m on a flight to Panama, which I’m thankful to be on. We weren’t sure
if our flight would be cancelled into Atlanta, after a bird hit it before
arriving in Milwaukee. Then our flight out of Atlanta was late, too.
What could be next?
Day 2: March 7, 7:14 p.m. Wacuco:
We arrived in Panama City late in the evening last night, and it didn’t take
long to have my first moment of culture shock. We quickly were filed into
immigration, where I’m confronted with a tangled mass of lines, booths and
whatnot else. As my turn arrived to get my papers checked, I tried to smile at
the immigration worker. She didn’t care. She pointed me on to the next step: bag
inspection. No line here, but no English either. I approach two Panamanian men
who start talking to me in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, and I try to let them
They’re clearly trying to tell me something important, but who knows what it is.
Finally, the woman behind me says, “They want you to move that cart over.” Oh.
After that, no problem. I moved on through, and stepped out into the damp,
smog-thickened air of Panama City.
The 22 of us then loaded onto a small bus, and rode the 2 1/2 hours to Wacuco.
When we arrived at about 1:30 a.m., the first thing that hit me was the smell.
It’s a musty scent, one of rotting and mildewing vegetation. It’s dark and
earthy, and clearly my first breath of the jungle. It was hard to know what to
expect at the Wacuco compound run by Father Wally. Frankly, I came trying to
have few expectations.
What I found certainly could be called rustic, but not primitive. Running water
is plentiful and safe. The kitchen? Capable. And the dormitories are more than
adequate for after an exhausting day of work. But it’s all quite basic. Rooms
are screened, and walls are nothing more than painted cinder block. Anything
else would rot or be eaten by termites.
That doesn’t matter, though; the overwhelming emotion here seems to be that of
In the community, visitors are accepted by the community. Father Wally’s amiable
dogs quickly greet you (too quickly, considering they sometimes choose to swim
in the cesspool), and his workers are quick with a smile. Less inviting, though,
are the critters, as the women from Ripon College found out. In their first 24
hours here, they were greeted by bats, scorpions, rats, spiders and snakes.
“No problema!” though, as the locals often say. And I suppose we shouldn’t care
either, considering we’ll be fortunate enough to head back to comfortable homes
after this. For the locals, this is life 24-7. For Panama, a fancy home might be
a two-room, block house. Many, though, live in shacks built with hand-planed
boards. Grass huts, too, are widely used.
Today was our first day of work. The community members began by setting roof
trusses on top of a new home for local nuns, while the students worked on a
river culvert system.
Heat and humidity built quickly — certainly over 90 degrees — especially at the
future convent. But the hard labor was worth it, since the locals were so
appreciative. As one commented, “What they did today would have taken us a
Day 3: March 8, 6 a.m.:
Mornings mean waking up to rooster calls in Wacuco. The question is, when will
the roosters think morning starts? Today it was a blessed 5 a.m., much better
than yesterday’s 3:30 or 4 a.m. Between that and the monkey I swear was running
across Father Wally’s dorm’s metal roof, I hardly have slept.
Sun isn’t quite up yet; days are consistent: sun up at 6:30, down at 6:30. In
between? Live by candlelight or pay dearly for diesel for the generator.
Needless to say, we usually break out the candles.
Later on Day 3: 6:45 p.m.:
This has to be my favorite sight so far: In Wacuco, if you hit a home run at the
local baseball diamond, you could knock out one of the horses in the outfield.
This sure isn’t Ripon anymore. I’ve had to stop periodically and look around.
Otherwise, you’ll miss the beauty of the land: the jagged peaks of the tectonic
mountains lining the Pan-American Highway, the primitive cattle ranches along
It’s sad, too; everywhere you look, you see land ravaged by clear-cutting.
Thirty years ago this all was jungle; today, everywhere you look is just another
open field. Of course, no trees now means no water, too. The vegetation that’s
supposed to be here cools the harsh Panamanian sun. Without, the land dries up.
It’s been interesting meeting the people here. Jack, another man in the group,
and I sat outside the general store in Torti for a time today. It’s Saturday,
and everyone seems on semi-permanent Siesta. No one’s in a hurry, except to
At the church today, where the celebration for Torti’s patron saint was held,
everyone in the group was welcomed. The locals were so worried someone might go
hungry, that I felt almost obligated to take a second bowl.
When Ripon College professor and one of the chaperones for the students Brian
Smith said a few words of thanks in Spanish, everyone laughed and smiled. But
maybe that’s because he said we “ate like fat pigs.”
All the same, it’s amazing. We feel like we’re gaining so much from this
experience, but ... they are thanking us.
Journal entries will continue in next week’s Commonwealth.