Last night I woke up panicked and jittery, tangled in my sheets and covered in sweat.
I was nervous not because of Valentine’s Day, but because today marks the halfway point of my fellowship in Panama. I tossed and turned till morning, worrying about whether I’d done enough with the time/money I have and whether I would know what to do when the time/money finally ran out.
The first four months in Panama slowly trudged by, but it seems like nothing now at the end. I’m using this post to give myself a bit of perspective, to remind myself of what I’ve done so far and refresh my goals for the final stretch.
I’m also hoping that by offering the gritty details of my process/journey, I can help future off-the-beaten-path freelancers feel a little less alone. I cannot say this enough times: I have no idea what I am doing.
1. I’ve written two articles I’m very proud of in publications I really respect. I’ve definitely done a lot (like a lot!) more research that has been published, which is a bit frustrating, but has also helped me navigate the subtleties within past articles/future pitches. Journalists should always err on the side of more information.
2. I’m working on two more articles, which tentatively have homes in magazines. These will be shorter and less personal than the earlier two, though still colorful.
I’m still not used to the fact that everything moves really slowly in Panama, especially in local politics. I have to readjust my temporal expectations for reporting. BUT I have gotten better at being stood up. I always plan multiple meetings for the same time period. This has never backfired on me, and sometimes everyone cancels!
3. I’m slowly building a network, through the groups I’ve joined and people I’ve befriended. Especially since my last article was published, my contacts trust me more as a journalist and pass along useful information more willingly. Also, I feel like I’m getting a better handle of all the politics within certain activist communities, or at least at separating it from the main stories.
1. I’ve been focusing on Panama City and Colon, and I would like to branch out to two other (less urban) regions: Bocas del Toro and Darien.
In the 20th century, Bocas del Toro’s Caribbean archipelago was home to the United Fruit Company, which mainly employed Caribbean blacks. Now, it’s the newest party destination for American and European tourists, and developers have essentially taken land from resident Bocatorenos.
Darien is the tropical forest that spills over the border with Colombia. Resident black communities have tense relationships with indigenous groups in the region, over — what else? — land and territory claims.
2. Travel more, in Panama City, in Panama, in Central/Latin America! The first two should be easy enough. The third depends on how much money and time I have by the time June rolls around.
3. I know some Yale fellowship recipients who decided to stay abroad after their project was over. They found jobs with relevant nonprofits or jobs to fund more reporting. The more I live here, the more I want to keep living here.
But I’m realizing that some of the difficulties I have are just structural difficulties of reporting in Panama, both internal and external. Mainstream media exclusively reports on Panama’s economic successes and woes: the expansion of the canal, the unsustainability of the country’s 10 percent growth rate, new free trade deals with the U.S. I get frustrated sometimes, because I don’t have the background/knowledge to be able to integrate economics into my reporting on social movements.
I would love to stay in Panama, but I think I need a next step with a bit more structure, in order to be able to do this job properly.