I flew into Panama on a Tuesday night.  After waiting in the slowly crawling customs line for an hour and a half, I smiled, expecting this country to be like other developing nations I have visited in the past.  But the moment I left the airport, my assumption was turned on its head.

As we drove across the country, I was shocked to see how many fast-food chains and American businesses there were.  I mean, I’ve seen familiar restaurant chains in other countries before.  That’s nothing new.  But here they have just about everything!  KFC, McDonald’s, Blockbuster… even TGI Friday’s!

Hmm... This logo looks familiar.

Hmm... This logo looks familiar.

And Panama City?  Unbelievable.  Huge skyscrapers, luxury apartments, beautiful landscaping… Definitely not what I was expecting to see.

Apparently, because of the Panama Canal, this country makes a fortune in tolls.  To pass through the canal, a large cargo ship could easily pay upwards of $180,000.  And from what I could see from the plane flying in, there were twenty or thirty massive ships just waiting in line.

One of Panama's many breathtaking rivers.

One of Panama's many breathtaking rivers.

On top of that, because of the vast amount of cargo that crosses through the canal, almost every single international bank has a branch in Panama City.  Business people from all over the world converge here to make a living.  There is a lot of wealth in this country.

So, as we drove down the perfectly paved highway, I had a hard time imagining just what the rest of my experience would be like.

From what I understood, I would be living among subsistence farmers hovering just on the edge of starvation.  People so poor that their children hike two hours through the mountains just to get to school…

But how, in a country so obviously wealthy, could such poverty exist?  Was it all just an exaggeration?  Could such massive disparity actually be in one place?

The following day, as I took public transportation out to the village of Llano Ñopo, I finally understood the truth.  There are two different Panamas, and I was just about to enter one I hadn’t yet seen.

The truck (called a “taxi” here) that we used to get out to Llano Ñopo.

The truck (called a “taxi” here) that we used to get out to Llano Ñopo.

Traveling with me was Andrea Martinson, a “community ambassador” for the Dead Wheat International Foundation.  She lives in the village of Llano Ñopo to give Dead Wheat a better idea of the true needs of the community (more on Dead Wheat’s work in future articles).

To get to the village, we rode in the back of a pickup truck with 12 other people.  Our luggage was crammed into any available space, and we held on to support bars over our heads as the truck began to roll.

Initially, we drove down a nicely paved road, winding around the lush, scenic hills of the Panamanian countryside.  I have to admit, I was enjoying the experience, soaking up the views as we drove higher into the mountains.

But then, two things happened around the same time that gave me a much more realistic picture of just where I was.

Andrea, who has been living among the Ngobe people for four years.

Andrea, who has been living among the Ngobe people for four years.

First of all, the nicely paved road came to an end.  The rest of the road was made of gravel. We didn’t glide gently along anymore.  Now, our truck was scrambling up rocky hillsides and dodging huge potholes in the ground as the passengers held on for dear life.

The second thing that happened was that it started to rain.  And I don’t just mean drizzle.  It poured!

All of a sudden, the roads had turned to mud, our truck had a much harder time scaling steep hillsides and the passengers at the rear of the truck had to hold down a tarp to keep the other passengers dry.  Every time we hit a bump, water from the top of the tarp would come gushing in, soaking the poor guys in the back.

At one point, the truck came to a stop while driving up a hill.  Without being able to see what was ahead of us, we thought that the driver must have encountered a slope just a bit too steep.  After a few minutes of being stopped, however, we heard the squeal of tires and realized that a different vehicle was stuck just in front of ours, blocking the road.

Well, with virtually no infrastructure in place this far out (and no cell phone service even if there was!), there was no hope of a tow truck ever showing up to help.

So, in a scene that is becoming rather routine for me in the developing world, I got out to help.  Together with a bunch of other soaking wet guys, we piled rocks under the wheels, tried to push the truck forward and choked on burning rubber from the squealing tires.

Eventually, the vehicle was free of the mud and we were on our way, but not before adding a good 45 minutes to our travel time.

Exhausted and drenched, we arrived in Llano Ñopo.  Andrea gave me a quick tour of the village, and I finally saw what I had been expecting to see since arriving in Panama.  Stick huts with thatched roofs.  Farmers pulling skinny horses through the mud. Children playing without shoes.

In a word, poverty.

My new host home in the village.

My new host home in the village.

As dusk was settling over the village, we arrived at the home where I would be staying for a week.  My host, Bernardo, showed me where I’d be sleeping.  It was a hut made out of sticks.  A rusty metal roof kept the rain off of the dirt floor.  The bed was a rough wooden table.

As I got ready to sleep that night, I thought about the fact that just a few hours before, we had driven past a Pizza Hut.  Even after seeing it with my own eyes, it was hard to believe.

Although I had only traveled a few hundred miles that day, it felt like I was a world away…

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Dave Rod said... 


    November 29th, 2009 at 5:12 pm  

    Maybe Panama is just a microcosm of the rest of the world. Has there ever been a time in history with such world-wide economic extremes? And it feels like the gap is widening. God can’t be pleased.

  2. Jim M said... 


    November 29th, 2009 at 6:14 pm  

    Very nice depiction of your surroundings. I think Dave is correct, we need not travel far from home to see the wide gap in prosperity no matter where we find ourselves. The metric with which we measure wealth needs to be kept in in focus. There are so many dimensions to poverty beyond ones own financial wealth. Those who are rich with the fruit of the Spirit are among the most content individuals I have met, no matter what their “net worth” may be. Those poor in Spirit are among the most destitute. I suspect you are going to meet a few wealthy folks in these next days. Take care. Blessings friend.

  3. Zeta said... 


    December 1st, 2009 at 4:22 pm  

    The extremes are glaring, but you don’t have to leave to country to see them. Have you ever visited Appilachia, a reservation, or even some of the southern states. There are plenty of places in Mississippi that aren’t much different from what you are describing.

  4. Nick said... 


    December 2nd, 2009 at 1:43 am  

    I believe the issue of extremity is manifested in each country, I believe its even worse in Africa. Many people live for less than a dollar a day while the big fish swim in luxury and lavity using ill gotten wealth. Its crazy, barikiwe sana.

  5. Stuart Warner said... 


    December 3rd, 2009 at 7:45 pm  

    Panama is a land of contrasts, but there are many places like this around the world and I have seen the same level of disparity in the United States. The reason why the vast differences between the multiple populations in Panama is the varied levels of education. As a Panamanian, I see the same disparity of wealth all over the U.S., where and you can go from Camelback mansions to the impoverished Navaho huts; the Bel Air manses to the Watts slums; the Westchester estates to the Bronx hovels. As an outsider, what jumps out at you in Panama, is just like what I see when I travel around the U.S., and the root causes are the same.

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