Sunday, May 25, 2008


Hector Guevera is 19 years old. He dropped out of high school and could not find a well-paying job. So when Isthmian Explosive Disposal came to his town on a recruiting tour, he was intrigued.

As a child, he remembers hearing the sounds of the American army testing explosives in the area of the canal zone next to his town, Nuevo Emperador.

Then, in 1999, when the US left Panama once and for all, the explosions stopped. However, the legacy of their presence and their activities, particularly related to testing explosives, remains.

Isthmian Explosive Disposal came to Nuevo Emperador, a town of 5000 people, recruiting people to work for them detecting unexploded bombs and munitions leftover by the US. The US refuses to clean up the lands they left Panama contaminated, not only with explosives, but also chemicals, such as Agent Orange. Isthmian Explosive Disposal was subcontracted by the Panama Canal Authority to clean up lands around the canal that are going to be used for the Panama Canal expansion project.

The danger didn't bother him, says Hector. So, he went to a second seminar, in Panama City and after that, they gave him a four-month contact. Still technically a teenager, he was given three hours of training per week, six days a week, for a full month before starting to work in the field. He says that he and his colleagues were given a shirt, pants, boots, and a hat as their uniform. Once in the field, he worked eight hours a day, starting at 7 a.m. Every day would start with a one hour "briefing" and then Hector and his colleagues would go out and look for bombs. Hector says that on a good day, him and his teammates would find over 300 unexploded ordinances.

At the beginning, Hector says he didn't feel confident in his abilities and doubted his personal security. But after about a month, he says he gained confidence.

However, one incident did cause him to doubt his safety. One of his teammates was removing an unexploded bomb from the ground and as it was being lifted from ground, they realized it was covered in toxic phosphorous. But it was too late. The wind hit the bomb and spread the phosphorous everywhere. Hector says when it reached him, he felt a burning sensations all over his skin. He had to cover his mouth and nose with a cloth so that the cancer-causing chemical wouldn't enter his body. He says he doesn't know why Isthmian Explosive Disposal doesn't provide more comprehensive safety equipment.

Hector says that the pay for his gig with Isthmian Explosive Disposal was a little bit better than what he would get elsewhere, considering he didn't complete high school. 19-year old Hector was paid $2.90 per hour, $300 every 15 days, or $600 per month.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Coco Solo: John McCain's birthplace

This is Coco Solo. It is the US military base in the former Panama Canal Zone where Republican presidential candidate John McCain was born. Like the rest of the Canal Zone, it was the closest thing to utopia, and an almost socialist utopia at that. Any time you needed something fixed at your house, you would just call up the government and they would send someone over right away to fix it. Everything was perfectly kept -- "Pleasantville"-like.

After it was reverted, some of it was invaded by people looking for a place to live. But the majority of people were actually sent there by the Ministry of Housing when they had no where else to go (because of, for example, evictions [not always justified] or fires that forced them from their homes in Colon, the poor former colonial city that lies on the Atlantic side of the canal). The Ministry of Housing told them that they would only be there for three to six months. Many of them have been there for upwards of 16 years.

Here is some footage from our trip there last week. On my first visit there (without cameras), I met Gerogina, a 34-year old mother of five who has lived there for 16 years. She says she was forced to live there after her landlord tricked her and her fellow neighbours and had them evicted. She says that the Ministry of Housing, her last and only hope, sent her to Coco Solo as something temporary. She says that she and her five kids had to live in one apartment with three other families. It was only when she "invaded" an empty apartment that she was able to have more space (but she had to give half of her living room and a bedroom to a family of nine).

She took us on an up-close and personal tour of Coco Solo where I met people who say they are ignored and forgotten.

I hope that the video I have uploaded does not seem too voyeuristic. If it is, I apologize, however, I'm just trying to show a side of Panama that is not part of the "boom" and that is the reality of a significant portion of the population (at least the 40% that live in poverty).

Here is an article from Reuters from last month that talks about Coco Solo in the context of John McCain and his birthplace: Click here

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rubella hand

Last Friday, when Enrique and I went to Punta Galeta in Colon (on the Atlantic side of Panama), I got eaten alive by chitras or chigers -- insects that are much worse than mosquitoes. Not even repellent can stave them off.

We were there to interview Stanley Heckadon, AKA Mr. Panama -- a highly-respected Panamanian anthropologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) at the Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory.

At first, the bites disappeared. But then they re-appeared in full force on Saturday and were worse on Monday. Enrique said it looked like I had rubella. I agreed.

So I went to the hospital on Monday and they referred me to a dermatologist, who gave me an appointment THAT day. An aside: do I need to point out that in Canada it would have taken days or weeks to get an appointment with a dermatologist? I didn't think so.

However, that didn't settle one little problem. That day, I was scheduled to have lunch with Canada's ambassador to Panama at the Four Points Sheraton. I was so worried that he would think I was going to pass on some horrible disease to him. But luckily we didn't have a lot of time for lunch, so we were focused on talking business, and he had no time to be distracted by my disgusting paw.

Later, I saw Dra. Coutté who said I had an allergic reaction to the Galeta chigers and promptly prescribed an oral allergy medication, a moisturizer, and a cream of some sort. My hand is getting a lot better, it's not itchy anymore, and I don't look like I am carrying around a communicable disease. Thanks Dra. Coutté.

PS: I promise my next post will be much deeper and more meaningful.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sunday, May 4, 2008


On Friday, Enrique and I had the craziest and most intense shooting day. I hope he doesn't think I'm a slave driver. Here's a recap of how the day went.

4:30 a.m.: Wake up and get ready to go. Waking up here early in the morning is so much easier than at home because it is so hot, so you're more than happy to get up and shower off the sweat that has accumulated over your entire body throughout the night.

5:15 a.m.: Enrique picks me up. We are going to Alex Reyes' house to film him and his family as they get ready for the day. Alex is half Panamanian, half American and was born and brought up in the Canal Zone. He is married to Vivian, a Panamanian, and they have two daughters.

5:35 a.m.: Arrival at the Reyes home. We filmed the family as they got ready for their day and then followed Alex to work at the ports where he is an engineer.

8:15 a.m.: Finished filming Alex and family. Went to Kokotoa Coffee across from the ports for a break and to figure out the rest of the day.

8:30 a.m.: Get in touch with Patrick Dillon, executive architect for Frank Gehry's Museum of Biodiversity currently under construction at the former US army base, Fort Amador. Dillon is an American, born and raised in the Canal Zone, who also considers himself very much Panamanian. We organize to meet him in Gamboa at 11:00 a.m. (it’s a 30 minute drive north of the ports/Albrook area). We make other phone calls and send e-mails.

9:45 a.m.: Leave for Gamboa. A beautiful drive with the canal on the left and the rainforest on the right.

10:20 a.m.: Arrive in Gamboa. Drive around looking for potential shots and locations for our interview with Patric

11:00 a.m. Meet Patrick at the house he is currently building. It’s a dream beach mansion with only slats for windows.

Essentially, it’s a house with no windows. The house belongs to the head of the Smithsonian here in Panama City and is behind schedule.

Patrick suggests we go to the new Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre to do our interview.

11:45 a.m.: Patrick is nice enough to
take us in his 4X4 to the Centre. He helped to design and build the centre, so we are welcomed with lots of smiles. Everyone seems to love this guy, which is understandable, because I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so patient, relaxed, and just plain nice, considering all the things he’s got on his plate.

12:15 p.m.: Patrick suggests we go up to the top of the look out tower, which places you ABOVE the canopy of the rainforest.

12:30 p.m.: It stops raining so we decide to do the interview on the top of the tower over looking the rainforest canopy! I couldn’t have dreamed of a better location for an interview.

1:25 p.m.: We lose track of time on top of the canopy tower and have to leave because Patrick needs to get back to the city for a meeting.

1:40 p.m.: Leave the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre for Panama City.

1:40 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.: Traffic is crazy. We are starving and running late for our 3 o’clock meeting with Carmen Miró, the first female director of the Contraloría (Panama’s National Statistical Agency) during the fifties and a demographer.

3:00 p.m.: Stop at Niko’s for a quick, very quick bite.

3:30 p.m.: Arrive at Sra. Miró’s house. Interview and film here in her triangular house.

5:25 p.m.: Leave to go back to interview Alex and Vivian from this morning.

5:50 p.m.: Stop at Kokotoa again for another coffee to recharge.

6:00 p.m: Arrive at Alex and Vivian’s house. Realize that the sun is down and that the lighting would be really bad. Decide to call off the interview. Instead, we stay and chat over drinks.

7:00 p.m.: We stop at Enrique’s house to pick up his partner, Milvia.

7:30 p.m.: Enrique drops me off at home. I think we both realized that even though it was definitely an intense day, it was worth it (and we had fun).

Fire update 3

Numerous people have told me that the fire was in fact started in Cerro Patacon, the huge landfill near Panama City. Each night, you can still smell the smoke coming from there. Not many media outlets have been reporting on this here. Hopefully no one was injured because there is a community of people that live in the landfill (and live off of it), including children.

We are going to go there next week to film for the documentary, so maybe I'll find out a bit more.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Fire update 2

The smoke an d smog are not as bad this morning, however definitely noticeable. Today is Labour Day and there is normally a huge parade/march from the university to Plaza Cinco de Mayo so it will be interesting to see how many people actually show up.