Performing Tourism Notes and Reflections

Note for new readers: This summer I’m collecting data for a research project I began last semester called Performing Tourism: Authenticity, identity, and mobility among youth travelers. To find out more about the project, scroll through earlier posts or check the Performing Tourism category. 
Wow, where to begin?

There is so many more dimensions to tourism than I thought there would be. Vaguely, I knew that the travel industry was big and influential. But now I’m beginning to see how the act of just one person moving from their home territory can have repercussions around the world. Tourism is more than just a business. It creates lifestyles that entire families will live for generations (think running a hotel or hostel in a small town). It puts value on skill sets that would otherwise be arbitrary (like the ability to create tens of mostly identical small wooden monkeys in a few days). It has the power to change the way famers do their business (we visited a coffee farm that went organic to set themselves apart and now make a large percent of their income from paying foreign volunteers). 


Agriculture Eco Tourism. I’ve seen this word in a few places, most recently as a sign on a fence of a local farm we passed. Since coming on this trip, I’ve realized that almost anything can be turned into a type of tourism and be given a name. There’s drug tourism, resort tourism, surfing tourism. (Remember, I define “tourism” as just the act of leaving your home environment for more than 24 hours voluntarily and for pleasure.)
My interviewees are here for a variety of reasons. Some are taking a gap year before university. Some are taking their kids traveling for the first time, and come to Costa Rica because it’s said to be an easier place to travel with children and will work their way up. (Security is a mass tourism trait, by the way.) Others just want to see a sloth once in their lifetime. They come on their own, they come with friends, they come with family. They come for the national parks, for the drug therapy camps, for the Segway tours.

(Really. In Quepos, the town we’re in right now, you can take a Segway tour of the beach.)

“I personally believe ecotourism is an incredibly powerful tool for conservation.”

Mark Wainwright

I’ve been curious about how tourism has affected conservation efforts. I think a good way to see the possible effect of tourism on environmental protection is to look at the difference between Costa Rica and Panama. They’re very similar geographically and I think similar politically, but the difference between the two countries when it comes to conservation is striking. 
In Costa Rica, there are signs all over the place asking people to watch and take care of the environment, not to throw trash, to respect the place. In Panama, I don’t remember any such efforts. On the contrary, trash litters the streets and it’s hard to find biodiversity because it’s been over hunted or otherwise destroyed. 
How much of the push to conserve Costa Rica has been due to 1. Locals recognizing the value of conservation, 2. Locals recognizing that the tourism-dependent economy relies on tourists who like to see signs of conservation, 3. Foreigners who who notice the same as locals in 2 and come to run hostels and research field stations, and 4. Foreigners who value conservation for conservation’s sake and come to one of the most biodiverse places in the world to protect it?
One thing I’ve realized since arriving here is that the push for ‘progress,’ development, and unsustainable production (mostly agriculturally) was due almost entirely to the actions and influences of “first world” nations like the US, Spain, and presumably England. The push for conservation is said to have started also with activists from these nations, in the 50s and 60s by foreign couples and groups who did things like buy huge tracts of land and keep it undeveloped. For example, the watershed of Monteverde was preserved by American Quakers fleeing the draft in the 50s, and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest was actually created with money raised by school children in Sweden and matched by the Swedish government and impressed adults around the world. 
Many questions to be answered!
On goes the research. 

#7, Observation: At the big parades in November on the Isla Colón, gringo-watching is almost as fun as watching the parade is.

#7, Observation: At the big parades in November on the Isla Colón, gringo-watching is almost as fun as watching the parade is.
Sunday, January 12th, 2013

It’s said that in the large cities like David and Panama City, the percentage of white people is higher. I’ve noticed myself when I traveled to David that there were less people with the dark skin I’ve grown accustom to here in Changuinola of Bocas del Toro. (Mainly, I noticed a lack of staring at my white skin-blue eyes-blonde hair wherever I went, although it certainly didn’t vanish completely.) Where I live in particular is filled with indigenous groups that have a very rich culture to go along with their skin tones. This means I get a lot of stares, and verbal attention from the men and boys, wherever I go.

The Isla Colón on the Bocas del Toro coast is another place gringos are the very dominate group, and I’m talking extranjeros gringos. The foreigners. I was only there for the parade on the 16th of November, but my Peace Corps Volunteer J says that many gringos she knows—mainly other Peace Corps vols—will go there for a “day off,” because since there are so many visitors with white skin, few people stare anymore.

As to why there are so many gringos, my guess is that all the schools and travel agencies for foreigners make it the go-to for those traveling in Panama with only a backpack, and most of those foreigners turn out to be white. The Bocas del Toro coast has a strong reputation for being one of the most beautiful areas of Panama (have I been here long enough that you could accuse me of being bias?), and that makes it a tourist hotspot.

Changuinola is pretty much avoided, probably because the Lonely Planet travel guide says to “not spend any more time there than you have to.” (You can imagine my joy when I finally found out where I had been placed back in July and immediately looked it up in the guide book only to find that.)

In the Isla Colón, on the other hand, hostels and unusually formal restaurants line the streets. There are expensive bakeries and “exotic” food stores with items like Nutella. Fliers are plastered on every surface advertising two weeks of a spanish intensive crash course or surfing or rainforest zipline tours. The island seems to have been build to cater to tourists—well, a specific type of tourist. You might call them ‘those hippie tourists,’ or maybe just backpackers. They’re the kind of crowd that cause hostels to put up signs like Experience a Natural High in Panama! and Welcome to Bocas: Beach, Fun & Love! Among the gringos, I saw several men who were barefoot walking through the street, seemingly unaware that ‘litterbug’ means nothing at all to most Panameños. They mostly wore little clothes; shorts and sandals reigned despite the cold and rain. There were professional looking cameras, and smart phones. A few cheap ponchos, big backpacks, questionable cigarettes. Watching them (and snapping their photo for the blog post I knew I’d write sometime soon…it’s only been two months) quickly became as engrossing as the performers and countless muchachos and muchachas, the young men and women, the boys and girls, all marching in uniform. Every time I´d see something that I considered strange, I thought about how the Panamanians who saw these people were probably thinking this was normal, American behavior.

At the end of the day, a huge ferry volunteered to take people back to the mainland. It would take a heck of a long longer, but it was free. I looked around once on board, and felt a mix of both reassurance and alienation—few of the gringos from the island were going back to Almirante, and those that were either hadn’t gotten the memo about the free ferry or were too shy to get on amid all the locals, so I was once again a lone gringa. I quickly forgot about the differences in skin color, though. My school’s band and another had started two competing drum circles on either end of the ferry. There was a fruit vendor on board who quickly ended up with the last of my money. There were school mates to talk to, a ship to explore, friends to annoy by taking their photo until my camera ran out of battery, beautiful scenery like that in the Inner Passage in Alaska to admire, and after dusk at the end of our ride, we gazed up, open mouthed, at the towering cranes that moved shipping container after huge shipping container of Chiriquí bananas onto freighters headed all over the world, enormous structures highlighted by the spotlights on the dock. It was like we were space colonists docking at an colossal space station, coming in slowly under all the machinery that stood highlighted against the black of outer space, interrupted only by the stars.

I hope I never forget that moment, and the feeling I had as I lay in bed that night. It was having left the house before dawn that morning, and looking back in time with a small journal filled with adventures from my past while waiting for my companions in a cafe, and adding a new entry as well. It was having lived independently, traveled alone from my host house to a far away town after only two months, navigating in a spanish speaking world without a translator or dictionary. It was getting my photo taken with a strong presidential candidate. It was buying myself breakfast and lunch and souvenirs for my family with money I’d earned myself. It was watching my school, my classmates I knew by name, parading down the street in a festival that drew locals and foreigners from all over the world, having them smile or wave at me, or in case, wink. It was finding my friends in the crowd as we disembarked to tell them “dulce sueños!” It was jumping up and sprinting for the bus along with 50 other strangers as soon as it pulled into the station, all of us scrambling to get a seat home. It was asking to borrow a quarter from a friend so I wouldn’t have to pay the bus hand with the only bill I had left, a $20, since I was culturally adept by now to know that was a big no-no. It was taking the bus home and arriving triumphant at my house, having left before light that morning.

I was in Panamá. I am in Panamá. How fricken cool is that, huh? I forget that sometimes, but recently it’s all just been getting better. I’m traveling again later this week, might be responsible for finding lodging for the night, absolutely alone. There are just these times when it really hits me, when I’m a little overwhelmed by how far my life has changed, by the fact that I am currently living in another, very culturally different country, with different laws, a different history, a whole different language! It’s truly amazing. Exchange will likely be the hardest thing you ever do, but if you can arrange it, do it.

With love from Panama,

p.s. Happy birthday to my wonderful, creative sister! I love you so much and wish you were here with me so I could show you my world. xoxo your older sister who misses you terribly however happy she might be at the moment.



#5, Observation: Verano, the “dry” season, is early December to mid April, invierno, the rainy season, is from mid April to early December, but the weather doesn’t always seem to know this


#5, Observation: Vierno, the “dry” season, is early December to mid April, invierno, the rainy season, is from mid April to early December, but the weather doesn’t always seem to know this.
January 12th, 2013

I’ve heard it said that different areas of the country of Panama have their “rainy season” at different times, but the season time periods in the title is what’s officially stated in the AFS “Panama… ¡It’s a big country!” welcome booklet for us exchange students.

Wikipedia has this to say about Panama’s climate:

“Panama has a tropical climate. Temperatures are uniformly high—as is the relative humidity—and there is little seasonal variation. Diurnal ranges are low; on a typical dry-season day in the capital city, the early morning minimum may be 24 °C (75.2 °F) and the afternoon maximum 30 °C (86.0 °F). The temperature seldom exceeds 32 °C (89.6 °F) for more than a short time. Temperatures on the Pacific side of the isthmus are somewhat lower than on the Caribbean, and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country. Temperatures are markedly cooler in the higher parts of the mountain ranges, and frosts occur in the Cordillera de Talamanca in western Panama.
Climatic regions are determined less on the basis of temperature than on rainfall, which varies regionally from less than 1,300 millimeters (51.2 in) to more than 3,000 millimeters (118.1 in) per year. Almost all of the rain falls during the rainy season, which is usually from April to December, but varies in length from seven to nine months. In general, rainfall is much heavier on the Caribbean than on the Pacific side of the continental divide. The annual average in Panama City is little more than half of that in Colón. Although rainy-season thunderstorms are common, the country is outside of the hurricane belt.”

(What struck me most about reading this was the last sentence about Panama being outside of the hurricane belt. I never thought to look for a country where I’d be safer from hurricanes. When I looked into each country I’d thought about spending a year of my life in, I’d looked for red flags like political unrest and current wars, or official religions and religious tolerance, and delved into the social habits of the country’s teens. I had a large list of questions I thought covered everything important, and yet looking at the possibility of being threatened or even killed by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other natural disasters didn’t cross my mind. Just goes to show that while you can never be prepared, knowing a lot about your country can really help you, and make you feel a lot safer. Unless, of course, you find out about the hurricane belt by discovering that your country has the highest number of deaths and dislocations from the awesome thunderstorms.)
As for the climate, we’ve just entered the “dry” season. That being said, I’ve noticed that we seem to be having a lot more rain that we did before in the “wet” season. It’s raining right now, for example, and this is the third+ time today it’s rained. I think that it’s rained almost day this week, too. Luckily it doesn’t bother me too much, since we’re on school vacations and I can either just stay in the house all day if it’s raining or flex my schedule until a time when it’s not raining. I’m not, however, looking forward to tomorrow, when I have the third of five days of campo (agricultural work at my school previously mentioned in #1). I’m guessing that if (when) it rains, my Panamanian compañeros, and I along with them, will either hide out until the rain stops as my classmates take work less seriously in general, or will continue to work as they are very accustom to rain and it bothers them less. I’ll let you know.

Chao para ahora, bye for now!