We stumbled upon the incredible story of two American retirees who traded a life of golf and sparkling water for manual labor and basic living conditions so that indigenous children in Panama could have one simple thing most of us take for granted – potable water. Travelers know the refrain: “Don’t drink the water!” Brushing your teeth, cooling down after a jungle hike, putting some crushed ice in your Pina Colada, you consume plastic bottle after plastic bottle. Every dollar of your travel funds was intended to give you more rewarding experiences than an upset stomach and a hospital visit, so you gladly shell out for the Aquafina. Luckily, you don’t have to do this everywhere in Panama. Thanks to frequent fresh rainwater and a strong infrastructure, you can safely grab a glass of water straight from the tap. Well, wherever there are taps.
In most developing countries, once you leave behind the tourist towns and beach resorts you find yourself in areas where the locals are consigned to drink water you’d avoid stepping in if you saw it puddled in the road. The tap water you’re afraid to sip in Mexico would be a downright luxury to members of the indigenous communities tucked deep in the Panamanian jungles. Here, tiny children poke their hands into streams polluted with human and animal waste, and they suffer from chronic stomach and skin diseases because of it.
71-year-old Joe Bass and his wife Maribel, two individuals among thousands of tourists to visit Panama’s Bocas del Toro region each year, couldn’t just snap a photograph of the little wide-eyed, black-haired children to melt a few hearts back home. They couldn’t just leave it at that once they learned how those children were suffering.
While hiking the jungle to visit the local tribes, the couple noticed a volunteer medical worker treating a young boy with a painful skin disease. They asked what they could do to help. The worker replied, “If you want to do something, help them get safe water. They need that more than anything else.”
That’s how Joe and his wife Maribel rearranged their retirement plans. They moved to the stunning islands of Bocas del Toro, but not to lapse into the complacency of a typical retirement. Instead of whiling away days at golf and gardening, they formed Operation Safe Drinking Water in 2008 and haven’t looked back. Joe and Maribel orchestrated the installation of more than sixty rain-catchment tanks in remote villages throughout Panama. The OSDW website features incredible testimonials, stories, and photographs of the myriad ways this simple effort transforms the lives of hundreds of Panamanian families. Especially moving: the story of a mother’s best day.
One sunny vacation showed Joe and Maribel Bass a darker side of Panama that they couldn’t turn away from. Now, these happy retirees make their life in Panama while making life better for Panama’s people. Believe it or not, this is not such an uncommon Panama travel story. Read about our friends at the Gone Fishing Resort in Boca Chica who helped bring awareness and education to the small community there. Stories like these demonstrate true cultural immersion, the kind that changes you for the better. When you allow yourself to connect with people, you open a door to empowerment, inspiration, and positive action. It’s counter-intuitive, but you often can’t find true escape in a plastic beach chair, or on a generic guidebook sightseeing agenda. You only depart from the everyday when you ditch the safe path, take a risk, and begin to deeply explore the places you travel to.
Joe and Maribel continue their work installing rain-catchment tanks throughout Panama. They are very grateful for the volunteers and donors who help them bring clean water to Panamanian families. If you’re interested in supporting their mission, get in touch with Joe and Maribel.
The article that introduced us to Joe and Maribel Bass can be found on 50Plus.com – a site that provides information about children worldwide who suffer from a lack of safe drinking water.