Everything is just a BIT more difficult here in Bocas del Toro, a blisteringly colorful archipelago of islands, cays and islets set in the northern edge of Panama’s Caribbean coast.
The town’s only ATM is out of cash. The stores are out of eggs. Even Bananas, ironically the staple crop that first put Bocas del Toro on the map (as Chiquita Banana’s regional headquarters), are in dangerously low supply. It isn’t simply the unfortunate symptom of a tourism-focused economy struck with an acute case of the ‘high seasons’.
As Neil Christiansen, founder of Give & Surf and our gracious host for Sustain the Stoke Session #2 relates, this is just how things are, on island time. All supplies must be shipped in and transported by boat. It rains all the time. And the central government has been less than capable in reaching out to an indigenous community in the province of Bocas del Toro who are all too often forgotten and neglected by the ever-booming tourism industry.
The first Give & Surf-built school on the island of Bastimentos was meant to be a two week project. Neil had the funding, the team, and the community’s support. The only thing missing was good will from the powerful sisters, Nature and Fate. Rain and winds, along with delays of the shipment of supplies and the sheer fact that in the jungle everything is hand-made, led to the project extending out to two months. Yet, two months later, the community had the school it not only deserved, but played a key role in building and making it their own.
THERE BE WAVES
Sustain the Stoke Session #2 is nearly over, supplies on the island are running low but there are waves. Many of them. In all shapes and sizes. But mostly in the form of stunning, fierce walls of water churning out as the exciting byproduct of the area’s strongest swell in four years. “Kelly is on the island, brah”. “Yea, so is Sunny, and Greg Long.” “12 foot swells, 20 foot faces at Silverbacks, weee!” Conversations at the hotels and bars in Bocas town had become quite monothematic. The mood in town was electrifying. Everyone goes to Bocas for surf, but those who actually surf walked with glazed-over veneer, their minds clearly somewhere away from terra firma.
Weeks prior to reports of this incredible swell emerging, we reached out to Neil and the Give & Surf team about a possible Sustain the Stoke session in Bocas del Toro. We had been invited to participate in the incredible Kalu Yala Jungle Adventure, a four day event hosting 150 members of an ever-growing globally-nomadic tribe of doers. As part of our contribution to this magical event and group, we asked the team at Give & Surf if they’d be open to hosting a small group of us jungle survivors, still hungry for new experiences and connections. It was high season in Bocas town, we were with no final headcount of travelers, nor any real lead-time for arranging what is a complex multi-day. We felt smiles across the telephone line as they accepted the challenge.
IMPACT IN PARADISE
Bocas del Toro is the ideal location for a project such as Give & Surf. Facing increasingly strong seasonal surges of tourism, it struggles to develop the basic infrastructure needed to motivate more spend per traveler, let alone the ballooning population of locals, main-landers and recent expats moving in to service the visitors. The influx of Western tourists, along with their seemingly endless funds and shiny gadgets (selife stick anyone?) has engendered an increasingly apparent gap of inequality, a natural precursor to increasing dissatisfaction and antagonism.
And as you head away from Bocas Town, any semblance of benefit from the incoming tourism dollars disappears alongside the wake of your water-taxi. The Ngobe of Bahia Honda, the indigenous group who served as Neil’s first hosts and beneficiaries, live a mere thirty minutes from the Bocas del Toro Airport, yet they may as well be worlds away. As our group docked, we were told to leave our sandals behind to avoid losing them to mud-pits, the tropical equivalent to quicksand. We walked off the jetty and were greeted by Carmen, the caretaker of the school, incoming volunteers, and Neil since he first showed up four years ago. Her tour was fairly quick: The classroom, the library, the kitchen and the cafeteria, the playground and congregation hall, all brightly painted in turquoise and decorated by the kids and volunteers over the past few years. All funded and paid for by Give & Surf, with no assistance from any government, apart from an existing single-room structure left to dire straights until salvaged by Neil and the community.
The school-kids, about sixteen of them in this facility, were busy with their physical education class, led by the male half of the educating dynamic duo who serve as teachers for this school for eight months now. They were in the midst of a serious relay race, and we broke up the fun with a challenge.
Two columns six markers long were placed across the concrete floor. Crawl to the marker, pick it up, run back, slap hands, and go. Best two out of three. They smoked us.
Impact and social good is a perennially sensitive subject, and it should be. Our Sustain the Stoke session was not a ‘voluntourism’ trip. In fact, we vehemently stand against any short-term volunteering, unless the host has a true need for it and volunteer work will not take away employment opportunity from the local workforce. Our impact is measured in funds spent optimally, and the advocacy points generated by our community. Through this morning’s visit to the Bahia Honda community fourteen socially active westerners have seen impact generated with their own eyes. The visit will generate two videos, several article and blog pieces, dozens of photos. You’ve read this far because Maria presented her life’s work for these past few years (she makes an incredible pollo rostro, by the way).
As of January 2015, Give & Surf has helped fund and build over 20 infrastructure projects with the Ngobe community of Bocas del Toro. But those numbers tell only a portion of the story. The focus is on education, not bricks and mortar. Thousands of classrooms scattered across the world without the crucial, if less sexy, follow-up of lesson plans and educators, leaves us at a sad status quo. Neil chose to go ‘small’ and ‘deep’, focusing on a single community in hungry for economic self-empowerment. With their own commitment and leadership manning the rudder, the Ngobe and Give & Surf aim to steer the ship towards sustainable development that will provide their children with the opportunities they deserve, while allowing for cultural self-preservation and honor.
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Story originally published on Maptia.com.
Article written by GILAD GOREN.