His smile runs the width of his face as he speaks, but his brown eyes are deep and serious as they make direct contact with mine.
“I’m an American too,” Carlos says, of growing up as a member of Panama’s indigenous Ngobe-Bugle tribe, one of Central America’s last independent native cultures, and a people recently involved in the hydroelectric dam controversy that premiered the Ngobe in the international news circuit.
I sit here on a rough-hewn log bench with 6 strangers — another American (USA), a German couple, and three French Canadians. Carlos ensures that we’re all well-acquainted before introducing himself and then the coffee plantation we’ve gathered to explore. I’m notorious for being anywhere from a complete zombie to downright mean before my first cup of coffee, but we’re only 15 minutes in and several miles from the cupping room, and Carlos already has my heart melting and my eyes bright as his story unravels.
The verdant green valley of Boquete surrounds us, blowing scents of citrus and sugarcane our way — it’s quite simply a paradise akin to the description in Genesis. But to an 8-year-old Carlos, it looked quite different; it looked like school books unwillingly abandoned and never-ending hills up which he carried buckets of produce as big as he was. It looked like a place he’d rather yell and play in like little boys should instead of picking coffee cherries from dawn until dusk to help support his family.
There are few rural child laborers who grew up speaking a nearly unheard-of tribal language who could stand in front of you 30 years later and in perfect English provide some of the most astute commentary on the future of his country that I’ve heard in my two-year study of Panama. Carlos came into adulthood just before a very peculiar thing started happening in his hometown — international developers arrived in droves, waving sums of money his friends and neighbors (including his boss on the coffee farm) had never dreamed of amassing for the farmland they’d spent centuries breaking their backs on. Some proud (and forward-thinking) coffee farmers, like Carlos’ boss Mr. Ruiz, stood their ground (and later went on to produce coffee ranked #1 for its taste, among the most highly-valued in the world), but many others sold, allowing Boquete to become the bustling retirement and eco-adventure haven it is today.
As Carlos began to raise his family, still employed at the coffee farm, a strange breed of citizen began to call the valley home.
“From our new neighbors, I learned two very interesting terms,” says Carlos with a mischievous smile and raised eyebrows. “Gated community,” he pauses, scarcely managing not to roll his eyes, “and snowbird.”
What follows is a brief criticism of suburbanization that urbanites, city planners, economists, environmentalists and the like have lamented for decades — although it sounds a little different from Carlos’ point of view…
“So in these gated communities,” he continues, “they cut down all the trees so you have no shade, and then they plant new tiny ones while your home bakes in the sun. You can’t paint your house the color you want, in fact every house has to be the exact same color… have you seen Panama? We paint our houses every color that we know. You are not allowed to hang your clothes outside to dry. AND, you can only have one pet… ONE! And no chickens!”
That’s the kicker, I can tell. Chickens are livestock gold to Panamanians — they fertilize their farms for free and are the juicy leading star in many of Panama’s traditional dishes. Expats worldwide are seeking out Panama for the affordable lifestyle in paradise that they couldn’t dream of living back home, building sparkly new homes in the temperate Chiriqui countryside and scarcely ever paying more than a dollar for an ice-cold beer. Yet down the street, their new barefoot neighbors look at the poor, beige, chicken-less souls inhabiting cookie-cutter homes scorching in the sun, and shake their heads in sadness. Why come to a place of such unique beauty only to live so disconnected from it?
Carlos has thought a lot about this. He’s lived his whole life working his way up on this very coffee farm — from 8-year-old coffee cherry picker to 34-year-old guide, fulfilling numerous ladder-rung roles along the way. While everything around him changed, Carlos didn’t tumble into this strange modernity creeping into Boquete, but instead studied it carefully, learning Spanish, learning English, learning coffee. Carlos is ceaselessly passionate about coffee. This year is finally the year that he has saved up enough money to buy a few coffee plants from the farm to take home to his own backyard. All he wants to do is grow and roast his own coffee because he can’t afford the good stuff he proudly educates people about every day.
He holds up a pure, limited-run Arabica roast later in the tour. “This is my favorite coffee. To me, it finishes like chocolate.” He closes his eyes as if savoring an invisible sip, but opens them to reality. “But I only have one bag of this at home,” he says, placing the shiny purple bag back on the shelf, “for when special friends come over; the special coffee for special guests.”
There’s no self-pity in his voice, only pride in his one shiny bag of Arabica sitting on a high shelf at home. Like many other guides I’ll encounter in my few days in Boquete, Carlos loves this land fiercely – his home, his heritage – and he’s more than happy to share.
On every tour, I take notice of that moment when the guide pauses to point into the distance at a few rooftops poking through the glowing green – “See, there is my neighborhood, that’s where I’ve lived my whole life. And there – there is the school I went to, and that road, that is the road you take into the main town, and there, see all the orange roofs, that’s [name withheld], one of the nicest gated communities in Boquete!” Always with gusto, with fierce pride, that just next door “we” have settled next to “them.”
The people here in rural Panama are not angry that they cannot afford the new homes or new restaurants or even the coffee they produce because development has skyrocketed value – from their proud and welcoming perspective, there are simply more citizens now to delight in the future of this place. “We” can afford to pour money into improvements that “they” – the local people – don’t get to experience, and although we shut our gates, they still see neighbors. Which is why Carlos entreats us to see it the same way, to accept that he too is an American, a Central American — and why he’ll gladly offer you a cup of his coveted special-occasion coffee if you’ll only walk beyond the gates and visit him at his cement-block home.
To sit down with a cup of Panama’s finest with Carlos is quite an honor – and one I’m lucky enough to get at the end of the tour.