This semester, I was one of ten PSU students chosen to represent the university at Harvard’s World Model United Nations conference in Panama City, Panama. Before the conference, our delegation was assigned a country—this year it was Ireland—and each of us was assigned a UN committee to participate in. I was assigned the Social Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (SOCHUM), and our topic was religious freedom. For anyone who isn’t a political science major or nerd like myself, this just means that I was pretending to be a UN delegate with thousands of students from all over the world debating how to come up with a universal standard for religious rights. While the conference itself was chock-full of political and religious ideologies that taught me a lot, the other experiences on my trip to Panama are what I’ve found to be the most educational and relatable to this course.
While I didn’t know the specific term for it at the time, I realized early in the trip that our visit—though intended to inspire young scholars to better the world—was still a form of secondary colonialism. When our plane that was staffed by bilingual Panamanians landed at the Tocumen International Airport, we were greeted by English-speaking MUN members from the Panamanian host team. The entire airport was set up to accommodate our arrival—including a private customs line where we got to cut everyone that wasn’t a part of the conference. My friend and I, who were the only ones who spoke Spanish enough to navigate on the trip, were the only ones who were handed customs forms in Spanish.
We were advised not to take the taxis, and that we would be safest if we rode in the shuttle buses provided by MUN or our hotel. The first night in Panama, we went out for dinner at a restaurant next door to our hotel where we realized that the beer was cheap and the service was much slower than it is in the US. A few of my groupmates were annoyed by how long it took for their quesadillas to be ready, and were shocked that the waitresses didn’t speak any English. It took too many days for them to realize that the service would always be slower than that in the US.
Throughout the week, there were several incidents that surpassed the initial culture shock of being in a Spanish-speaking country in Central America. When we traveled to the Panama Viejo, which was the original city that existed before colonizers arrived and burned it down, it was bordered by some of the most extreme poverty I’ve ever seen. When we visited Casco Viejo—which is the trendy, European-styled, up-and-coming restoration of the second city that was built after Panama Viejo was burned down—streets had classy bars and ice cream shops on one side and run-down apartments on the other.
The moment that solidified my understanding that my presence in Panama wasn’t what I expected it to be was when we visited the Panama Canal. On our way there we saw thousands of shacks that were built too close to the water and were falling apart, yet recently-washed linens were hanging on clothes lines. Giant apartment buildings with billboards on top of them were stacked one on top of another with cardboard over the windows and large cracks and gouges in their concrete walls. Our motorcade, which was ten busses long, paraded through these neighborhoods with a police escort. At the Canal, we learned that it can cost millions of dollars for a ship to pass through once. We didn’t question where that money went.
My trip to Panama was educational, fun, and privileged. I learned what it means to be one of the tourists that Jamaica Kinkaid deems an “ugly human being” (R/R 1228). We didn’t consider where our waste water went. We didn’t think twice about visiting the Panama Canal. We went there to come up with a solution to international problems. We went to committee and raised our placards to vote on made-up bills. We went to the markets and asked “quantos cuestos!?” We thanked our servers with an intentional “grassy ass”. We tipped “even though the service was slow”. And we came back home feeling cultured and more aware of life in Panama than we were before the trip. Panama was a host. And while it benefited the hotels and bars that aren’t struggling as it is, our conference did little to help the cab drivers we were warned against or kids walking barefooted through streets that had brown streams of water running down them that mucked up our shoes.