A Panamanian Vacation
The beach faces due south, so the sun sets over the shoreline to the west, not directly over the ocean as I’m accustomed to in most parts of California. But nothing in Panama is quite what I’m accustomed to anyway, so the orientation of the sun is par for this tropical vacation. I angle my recliner that direction and line my table up so that the crisp local beer remains close at hand. I gaze into the sky’s changing colors, marvel at the clouds as their forms evolve and shift into new shapes, and loiter on the cooling sand just a bit longer than most other vacationers.
A few sandpipers chase the waves, hunting for their evening meal; pelicans fly over head, doing the same; and several couples and groups of people walk along the path between the beach and the resort, also in search of their evening meal from one of the ten restaurants, buffets, or grilles available to them . . . a bit easier hunting than the pelicans’ nose dives. I take a sip of my lager, and feel the earliest twinge of hunger. Where will we dine tonight?
But what the heck am I doing here? The question interrupts my rather meditative sunset state. Even on a resort vacation, I can’t help but to contemplate the ethics of my travel. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this relaxed. It’s been even longer since I’ve read this many books (eight over the course of the week). But at what costs?
As a growing economy, Panama still struggles with poverty, a tired school system, and vast social inequities. And while providing critical connection points between the east and the west (the Canal), and the north and the south (the Bridge of the Americas), such modern borders come with even more modern problems. There’s a clashing of cultures here that has yet to make sense of itself. Even at our resort, where Argentinians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Panamanians, and Canadians vacation, there are different approaches to what relaxation means. And it seems that there’s even some management-driven segregation taking place right here on the resort grounds.
Resorts are also extractive, often taking precious resources from local communities, or even going so far as to forcefully move entire populations of people in the name of tourism and progress. During a run down the beach a few miles past our resort earlier that day, I jogged upon the only public beach access area: quite a different sight from the structured, manicured sands in front of our hotel. And I could only imagine what these permanent, rightful residents must think of the all-inclusive resort just a few steps from their home. Wearing my running shoes and Coolmax shirt, I’m clearly out of place.
I take another sip from my sunset lager and think about this encounter. I watch another cloud change forms. I hear the laughter of a large Latino family wandering to dinner. The waves pound onto the shore, recede, and crash again. The sunset turns into a deeper red, reflects onto shifting clouds even higher in the atmosphere. Another wave lands on shore. Yes, what am I doing here?
What are we doing anywhere?