Welcome aboard our final leg on The Slow Steamer! I’m writing this final blog on a front porch in Fayetteville. I’m now stateside and I’m here to tow you through the last locks of the canal and to finally show you the other side of the isthmus. The past three weeks have been some of the most memorable times of my life, and I’ll tell you why!
To tow you up to speed, the first day after our visit to CEVA and DHL was a free day! Prior to our free day, I noticed that everytime we drove into Panama City in earnest, we passed a steep hill with a huge Panamanian flag on top of it. I figured if we could get up there, it would provide an amazing view of the Panama City skyline. So on our free day, a group of us decided to make the trek up the hill that overlooked the city. The hill is called Cerro Ancon, or Ancon Hill. When we reached the top of the hill, we were amazed at how much of Panama City we could see. It was definitely worth the time and effort to get to the top. While we were up there, I noticed a man that looked like he was from the United States speaking fluent Spanish to what looked like his personal tour guide. After talking with him, I found out he was French by birth, he grew up in the Northeast of the US, and he studied abroad in Seville Spain, which is where I happen to be born. He gave me his business card; he runs a Yacht company out of San Francisco. I also noticed a man siting down in full cycling gear resting on a bench. Next to him was a VERY expensive bike. I struck up a conversation with him about my admiration of his exotic taste in bikes only to find out that he was the brother of the current president of Panama and the owner of the Abuelo Rum Company! I also got his contact information. I’m telling you this because not only is it awesome, but it shows how small Panama is and how important “people skills” can be in the business world. Just being kind and cordial with people can go a long way in getting connected and building an international network. I feel like that is a major lesson that is relatively impossible to teach in the classroom, and is an irreplaceable benefit of studying abroad.
~The next day we finally got to visit the main attraction, the Panama Canal~
First, we visited the Panamanian Railway which provides another option for shipping freight from one ocean to the other instead of by water. I was amazed at their efficiency and accuracy in regards to keeping track of the containers coming off the ships and going onto the rail cars as well as getting trains back and forth on basically the only railway of its kind. A 40 mile stretch of rail connects one ocean to the other and the Panamanian Railway trains only service the ports on either side. Instead of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles, the trains travel 40 miles multiple times a day. The specialized business and logistical processes that world trade breeds never cease to amaze me. After visiting the railway, we visited the Miraflores lock, the first lock that ships encounter when making Pacific to Atlantic transits. It lifts or lowers the vessels 54 feet, the most drastic distance of all three locks in the canal. I was so excited to actually see this century old process executed with modern day mega vessels. When the first containership entered the lock, I was not disappointed. The juxtaposition of the century-old lock with the modernly massive containership really cemented for me the sentiment that the engineering of the Panama Canal was decades before its time. It was a site that cannot be fully appreciated without the perspective of scale and enormity that actually being present at the canal brings.
MIT is essentially a mega port that has multiple cranes, all of which have the capacity to unload Post Panamax vessels, or vessels that are too big for the current locks, but will fit through the Canal’s expansion. It was here that I really started to wrap my head around the fact that a lot of the products I consume or purchase from large companies actually transit this exact port and the canal system in general. Anything from the shoes on my feet to the rice I ate for lunch may have transited the canal through the exact system right before my eyes. That epiphany really put the canal’s impact and importance into a personal perspective that I will be able to carry with me for the rest of my life.
The Canal Expansion Site was awe inspiring to say the least. The sheer enormity of the new locks that will bear even bigger mega vessels was really hard to grasp. If anything, seeing the construction of the new locks in person was more of a motivator for me to return sometime in the future to see the expansion in its functional phase.
~The next morning, we gave our 20-minute presentation on our business proposition for our case study, bringing Panamanian Coffee to the US! Our audience was the rest of our classmates, our teacher, and two Panamanian business executives~
Our group stayed up all night preparing SWOT, CAGE, and financial analysis regarding the Panamanian coffee industry. I was very proud of how well we all came together to produce a presentable finished product that was seamless and actually plausible. We followed the original idea of exporting high-quality Panamanian coffee to the US, specifically Miami, while reinvesting a percentage of the income back into the Panamanian economy. After our presentation, I talked with one of the Panamanian executives about how realistic the business idea was. He really thought the idea had potential, but he told me something very interesting. We ended the presentation with the company mission statement, which was “Giving Americans a better tasting coffee, while giving Panamanians a taste of a better life.” He told me that I should find a different word besides Americans because all of the Central American countries, including Panama, consider themselves “Americans” as well. This fact hadn’t even occurred to me and it really highlighted how egocentric people from the United States can be. I’m glad he pointed out that nuance to me; it will help me to be more internationally aware when doing business in the future.
~The next day we traveled back to Panama City for our final two days in country. On Thursday we had another free day and on Friday we had our final exam and a nice final dinner in Cosco Viejo~
Our second free day was my favorite day of the whole trip. One other classmate and I took a flight from Panama City to David, and then took a bus into Boquete, which is the coffee capital of Panama. The entire day went perfectly! We arrived in Boquete around 10 am and waited for our tour guide, who was arriving to pick us up at 11am.The first thing I noticed when we stepped off the bus was how temperate Boquete was. It felt like a completely different country, far away from the hot and humid climate of Panama City. While we were waiting for our tour guide, we happened upon a man from the U.S working in a corner coffee shop. It was surreal to meet a man from Virginia in such an exotic town like Boquete. He told us that Boquete was one of the top retirement locations in all of Central America and that the Real Estate market was booming around the town. I kept that fact in mind when the tour guide arrived and showed us the coffee farm. The tour guide told me that the land taken up by the 100 acre farm was worth 10 million dollars, and that the coffee company owned 10 more farms just like this one. In other words, the coffee company owned around a billion dollars worth of real estate. Amazing! We also learned about the different types of coffee seeds, the harvesting processes, and the shipping processes of the farm. I’ll save the details, but just the fact that we were able to go all the way to Boquete and have such a unique experience in one free day highlights the flexibility and freedom that studying abroad brings. I can honestly say I learned just as much, if not more, on our free days in country, than I did from the scheduled lectures and meetings. The “seize the day” mindset guided me throughout the trip and because of that, I have the contact information of the President’s brother and a possible internship lined up with a coffee company in Boquete. These are just a few examples of how I was able to sharpen my networking and communication skills… more than I ever could have in a classroom. I often thought of the saying, “It’s not only about the grades you make, but the hands you shake.” This idea was personified on a daily basis in Panama and I think it’s a valuable lesson that I will be able to capitalize on in the future.
Like I mentioned earlier, the last day in country hosted our final exam and a dinner in Casco. It felt great to portray all of the lessons we learned and consolidate them into a final test. I think it was the first final ex that I actually enjoyed taking! Finishing the exam definitely made our dinner in Casco all the more sweet.
So there ya have it! You’ve crossed the entire canal with me. You’ve read about all of my lessons, experiences, and reflections. I’ll be able to use all of the lessons I’ve learned going forward in the business world, and I have dozens of friends and contacts all over the country. Like I alluded to earlier, I have every intention of returning to Panama, whether its for an internship, a job opportunity, or simply to view the completed Panama Canal expansion! I fell in love with a place that I hardly even knew about four weeks ago, and I think that is part of the magic of studying abroad. That’s it from me, I hope you enjoyed the voyage across the isthmus as well as the view from the other side of the canal. And as always…