First World Problems

  1. Place the toilet paper in the waste basket and a woman with a bucket of water will come by to “flush” for you…
  2. To check your email go to the hotel lobby and buy a one hour wifi card…enter the 16 digit username and 16 digit password…cross your fingers that there aren’t too many others doing the same thing at the same time….and perhaps you will have a few uninterrupted minutes to send a message, or post on social media…but be warned that you will undoubtedly be kicked off the unsecured network more than once and then have to repeat this process…
  3. If you want air conditioning in your hotel room, then you need to put your room card in the slot, but don’t leave it in there while you are gone because the maintenance staff will remove it to save energy…remember that the power will be cut off inadvertently every day for four hours, but you won’t know which four hours…

In June of 2018 I started packing for my next international trips.  I was in this beautiful 1st world, well developed country we call America, where I can freely flush the toilet, use my cell phone for a multitude of purposes, and enjoy central air conditioning in my home.  These are things I take for granted on a daily basis.

My itinerary included a trip to the developing second world country of Panama and then extended stays in two underdeveloped 3rd world countries: Costa Rica and Cuba.  I experienced culture shock in all three countries, but I learned valuable lessons and became more appreciative of all the luxuries I enjoy in America.

Panama is a small country in regards to geographic square mileage AND population.  Many of its four million citizens reside in lower socioeconomic areas that are very impoverished and lacking resources.  But, nearly one million of those people live in the country’s capital of Panama City, which has been prospering over the past two decades.  The first thing we noticed as we left the airport and drove into the city was that there are multi level buildings, albeit not sky-skrapers as we see in many large American cities, but a growing infrastructure nonetheless.  There is ongoing construction to build new (and fix) old roads, bridges, hotels, etc.


While tourism is a great contributor to the city’s economy, it is The Panama Canal that brings in the most revenue, as it makes this city a hub for international trade and shipping.  My students and I had the opportunity to watch a cargo ship enter and exit the locks.  These 12 locks are large concrete structures that hold the ship while the water drains (gravity takes over).  Each lock lifts the ship up about 85 feet while the 26 million gallons of water are drained and then replenished.  The entire process takes about 10-15 minutes.  This engineering marvel was free for us spectators, but the ships are subjected to fees that range from several thousand American dollars to several HUNDRED thousand dollars.



From Panama my students and I traveled to Costa Rica, which is not nearly as developed.  The plentiful, lush, green rain forests make the soil fertile for agricultural growth.  Manufacturing and industry have just recently begun to overtake agriculture, but it is tourism that helps the economy thrive. The country is bordered by two bodies of water that provide beautiful beaches, making it a popular tourist destination.


While there we zip lined, hiked, went white water rafting, participated in sustainability tours on local farms, and took bus tours through the country side.  All of these activities were led by local guides, who make their living off tourists like us (tips).  Along the way we met other Costa Ricans who were teachers, waitresses, and nurses. They enlightened us about their salaries and standard of living.  For example, the average annual teacher salary is equivalent to $4,000 American dollars.  Speaking for most of my fellow educators here,…  I don’t think any of us could survive off of that.

The third country I visited this summer was Cuba.  I was fortunate enough to have been invited by the Bucks County Choral Society to participate in an educational-cultural exchange.  There are strict regulations about Americans traveling to this government controlled country.  We toured the rural areas of Matanzas & Veradero and the urban areas of Havana.  It was during this trip that I truly realized how lucky I am to live in a country where I can vote for public officials, speak freely about my political views, and work harder to earn more money.

This is something that most Cubans cannot do because they have government jobs with fixed incomes.  The few people we encountered who are self employed (private restaurant owners, taxi drivers, and local tour guides) earn most of their money from tips.  Although capitalism is frowned upon by many in this country, for others it is a means of survival.  The driver of the 1953 Chevy Bel Air taxi my mom and I took from Old Havana to the hotel told us that he quit his job as a teacher (making $40.00 per MONTH) because he could double that income by driving people around.

In addition to being flabbergasted by the average incomes, I found myself getting frustrated over the lack of cellular service (Verizon does not have towers in Cuba).  I had to find other ways to communicate with friends and family back home.  So, I paid for one hour WiFi cards to be able to use social media sites.  But each time I would log in it was a time consuming process and shoddy connection.  #firstworldproblems

In the month I spent traversing these three countries I learned a lot about the history of each.  I learned a lot about the way people live and interact.  I learned that I don’t like beans for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner.  Actually, I learned that I don’t like beans at all.  I learned some Latin American dances.   I added a few more words to my Spanish lexicon.  And…most importantly, I learned how much I truly love my country!