After having jumped from one hotel to another during the past five months, a break of one-and-a-half months on my way to Panama seems like a great idea. Destiny offers me a lovely present: a little bit of paradise on a Pacific beach, and a quaint little hotel getting ready to re-open (meaning it needs lots of help in marketing and on-line distribution); but mainly, a wonderful team with whom I can share unique moments. I must leave tomorrow … and I am seriously thinking about maybe coming back here at the end of this Hospitality Tour : perhaps to launch my own travel/eco-excursion agency ? Well, we will see what the future has in store … anyway, part my heart will forever remain in Pedasi, at Playa Venao, at Villa Marina Lodge … I could not have imagined closing this first chapter of the Central American HopTour with a more perfect interlude, so strong in emotions and delightful encounters. I love you very much, Panama!
Playa Venao: for better… and for worse?
Panama is a country in full economic and touristic development. In fact, for the past year there has been a direct Air France flight Paris-Panama. Panama is now so much more than a canal! It would seem that it is also the country with the largest expanse of land covered by national natural parks. Just like its prosperous next-door neighbour Costa Rica, Panama offers a great diversity of tropical fauna and flora. It has all the necessary potential to become a beautiful eco-tourism destination. Will Panama follow Costa Rica’s example?
Panama’s key areas are Boquete, Boca del Toro, Santa Catalina, San Blas, and the old capital city. Lately its ‘interior’ (the Azurero Peninsula) was added to the list, with its Venao beach as window-dressing (a surfer’s paradise) and the Island of Iguana (for its coral reefs and marine life). For a long time those areas were difficult to get to because of very bad roads. The small villages along the coast survived mainly on agriculture and fishing. But all of this is being fully transformed.
Many investors (foreigners, for the larger part) have spotted that hidden opportunity for some years already. Luxurious private villas, hotels or even homes for North-American retirees are popping up everywhere. Most of the land along the Pacific no longer belongs to locals who have since accepted what at first seemed to be very attractive offers from investors.
Certain investors (the smaller ones, usually) understood very well that that the wealth of the area mostly resides in its natural beauty. They took care to preserve the environment and employ the local population. However, there are also unfortunately many projects that are being built with the sole objective of turning a profit in the medium term. For example, on Venao Beach, most of the mangroves have already been razed, a crocodile was killed a few weeks ago on a local hotel’s orders, and used waters are released into the surrounding rivers without any sewage treatment process. In actual fact, the Pedasi Health Centre reports a worrying increase in serious ear infections in tourists surfing Venao’s waves.
Supposedly, certain rich investors and certain local authorities have come to some sort of agreement that the latter choose to close their eyes a bit … (really?) Will they wake up before the harm becomes irreversible and the area loses what makes it incredibly wealthy? How can anyone be so short-sighted today when we already know the consequences? This makes me want to come back even more so that I may develop an excursion and travel agency that puts forward all the best possible beautiful ideas for ethical tourism … and create some sort of competition for the only foreign travel agency that exists there at this moment, and which is really not a good example of ethical tourism … A growing market, a mission that has the potential for helping to promote the region in a good way and support local development, that is a project right up my alley. To be followed … We will see in 6 months.
A Lesson in Management
Life at Villa Marina Lodge is not all smooth sailing. My arrival coincides with that of its new management. After over 6 years of loyal service, the four hotel employees resign all together, and a new team is recruited all at once a few days before the end-of-year high season. Below I itemise a few management lessons gained through experience :
- Do not always be looking for the tiniest saving, especially on things that could affect a team’s motivation (here I am thinking particularly about food preparation). Why not concentrate instead on additional revenue generation?
- Offer an attractive financial incentive tied to generated revenue and positive comments made by customers: at least in the case of the local hotel manager, and even more so the employees. Otherwise, why should they make an effort to increase sales if that only means more work for the same salary at the end of the month?
- Anticipate future needs: allocate a cash flow that can be adapted to cover surprise expenses. Isn’t it a shame to have to face a last-minute trip to and from the nearest town in order to buy diesel for the generator when there is a sudden blackout?
- Take the time to share convivial moments with the team, to get to know its members’ motivations and how each person functions. This is even more important if the team is small and multicultural. Show humility; each one’s job is important. The manager is there with a mission akin to that of an orchestra leader, so that he can coordinate everyone’s efforts. Clients have priority, but without a solid team of workers who are able to communicate among each other, is it really possible to have a truly efficient eye on the client?
- Recognise cultural differences in the way of doing things (e.g. food preparation). Be open minded; your way of doing things it not always the only way, nor is it necessarily the best. Do not be defensive when people explain their way of thinking or doing: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ (Robin Jones Gunn) Isn’t that right?
- The hotel industry demands great flexibility in terms of schedules and working days. Ensure that this flexibility does not only go one way. Be easy-going when possible. Acknowledge those extra hours that have been worked as well as the additional work accomplished by your employees. Isn’t it more pleasant for everyone to work in a win-win situation?
- Lance the boil before it festers. When you feel there is unease, that there might have been a lack of communication somewhere, talk about it; ask questions. Do not be on the defensive but instead be a listener so that the issue does not become a more difficult problem in time. No one is perfect; what is important is to know how to recognize this, to apologize, and to forgive; don’t you agree?
My Panamanian Adoptive Family
Learning to crack open coconuts and pipas by myself; to know exactly when corn is ready for the picking; to cook incredibly succulent local recipes (cocadas, chengas, pastelitos/venuelos, hojaldres, sereng dulce, pesada de nance, patacones…); to dance like a native; to recognise constellations; to speak the local Spanish (pué compa!); to better understand the local religious fervour; to show more humility … the month and a half that I spent living with those hotel employees—Yahaira, Raul, Victor, Alexis, Leo, Jeim, Bill—made it possible for me to learn so many new things, to experience the real Panama, and to warm my heart (sometimes a little forlorn because of travelling all alone, especially during the Holiday Season).
Even though I am but “one more tourist,” a French girl just passing through, they opened up their hearts and welcomed me within their team with a huge amount of generosity and goodwill, invited me into their homes, introduced me as their friend—if not their sister—to people around them. I experienced some very special moments, very emotional, very intense. It is with heavy hearts and weepy eyes that we say our goodbyes … and perhaps “see you soon”? Saying we’ll meet again soon is so much easier than saying goodbye … and I want to believe it.
In three days’ time, I will join my fabulous friend Isabelle in Cartagena and we will travel together for a few weeks. Being with her again is such a wonderful Christmas present … She will have to face “Florie after Panama,” sort of sad but also quite excited at the prospect of this new second part of the adventure «The Hospitality Tour» from Colombia to Argentina. Latin America, here I come! Moreover, feeling sad, feeling happy, that is what makes you feel alive (see my favourite song of the moment: Vivir mi Vida of Marc Anthony). Sometimes you need to know how to say goodbye … in order to say hello once again, right?! (A wink to my most faithful reader, my dear Papa!)
Translated by my friend Hélène Masson
A few photos:
- Villa Marina Lodge and Playa Venao
- Excursion with Yahaira and her family
- Excursions with Raul and his family
A few videos:
- Happy New Year from the Destiladeros beaches(fr)
- Making friends with a Guacamaya Verde (macaw)(fr/sp)
- Living treasures of Playa Venao(sp)
- A Morning dip in the river at Canas(fr/sp)
- Christmas Carols (Posada) at Yahaira’s(sp)
- Visiting Villa Marina Lodge(fr)
- On Venao Beach with Yahaira and her family(fr/sp)
- Horseback riding on Venao Beach with Raul #2(fr)
- “All corn” lunch at the hotel with Raul(sp)
- Horseback riding on Venao Beach with Raul #1(fr)
- Learning how to crack open coconuts with Raul(sp)
- Mensabe fishing port(sp)