In October of 2017, I got the chance to go on a school field trip to Panama to complete my global business minor. It was my first time traveling south of Tucson and my first time in a Spanish-speaking country. Although it never got below 80% humidity, I fell in love with the Latin culture and want to continue to explore Central America. Here are some of the highlights from Panama, based on a paper I submitted to get credit for the trip.
Universidad Latina de Panamá
As business students, our professors naturally wanted us to talk to business students in another country. Surprisingly, (can you pick up the sarcasm?), the business students were the least proficient in English, so we hung out with medical students for four hours instead. As you can imagine, the business case tasker at hand was not the focus of our conversations. Mostly we were asking about the best bars to go to while they were inquiring if fraternity culture was the same as the movies. I was supposed to learn about business, but I instead learned alcohol is a great equalizer across the world for everyone in their early 20’s.
We also got to meet a fantastic character, Mr. Arce. His language about business was aggressive (using terms usually used in battle, such as “flank defense” and “attacking first”), and he told us some parts of his career were “legal, but questionable.” I didn’t get enough time in Panama to see if the culture liked to use aggressive language or if it was just this character—but judging from the Panamanian student’s reactions, it seemed unique to Mr. Arce.
The Canal is the part of the trip I was most looking forward to. In fact, when it was announced we were going to Panama, I immediately burst out “Oh man, I’m stoked about the Canal!” Unfortunately, we first had to sit through a 55-minute monotone lecture about something Canal related. I was able to stay engaged for the first 20-minutes, but similar to every accounting class I took, I was asleep the last half of the lecture.
There is one token fun fact to take home—did you know that canals across the world compete with each other? They charge boats to come through the Canal! It competes with other canals, such as the Suez and Kiel Canals. I thought you could sail through the Canal as you please, but it’s the same as paying a toll rather than taking the backroad trip around the entire South American peninsula.
The physical Canal is as amazing as I hoped it would be. All of the ships that sail through proudly display their country’s flags, and the smaller boats hoot and holler at bystanders singing their country’s national anthems. There is a 200 foot drop off between the top and bottom of the Canal, so it looks like part of a Disney water ride. Sadly, we did not get to see a ship fully lower into the Canal, so I have no idea how the physics of the Canal works. It’s a mystery that will always remain, and I would rather think for the rest of my life that going through the Panama Canal is analogous to riding the Pirates of the Caribbean.
When you bring 50 college students from one of the top party schools in America to a foreign country, it’s inevitable that they are going to drink together. We bonded with each other (shout out to my “Panamamis”) and got to meet up with some of the Universidad students we met previously. Unfortunately, this also amounted in a massive hangover, which my professor thought only an early-morning meatpacking plant tour could cure.
When I tell people about Grupo Rey, I call it the Kroger’s of Panama/Costa Rica. We sat in on a lecture about how Grupo Rey operates in Panama and surrounding countries. Between the produce, bakery, and meat factory, the manager Eunice was convinced we would like to see the meat. The smell was putrid, students were faking veganism and Hinduism to get out of the tour, and those who soldiered through struggled to keep their eyes open. I would have much rather toured the bakery, but it was interesting to see how a cow becomes a hamburger, and how the hamburger is priced.
Business is booming in Panama! There is a huge potential to build infrastructure in the rest of the country, create businesses for locals and tourists, and provide value to the logistics market. Some of us were talking about how we would like to invest in real estate because Panama City is going to become a major city within the next decade.
Culturally, Panama was a laid-back place to be. We were there during a Jewish holiday (and there is a surprisingly large Jewish population there), so it was a quiet week to go. It was cool to see all of the diversity in the city, thanks to the Canal. Panama has begun to embrace air conditioning, important as they become a world power. All in all, I recommend taking an unconventional spring break to the Panama Canal.