Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Life In a Day

During The Good Year sometimes it feels as if lifetimes are lived inside weeks, days, and even moments. From the steep streets of San Francisco to the cobbled paths of INCAE to the traffic-jams of Panama City, it's not so difficult to slip out of my own life for a moment and suddenly find myself in someone else's.

This week was no exception. Our consulting project is now in full swing here in Panama City and  every day brings with it a new challenge to apply what I've learned in b-school or come up with something completely new. We shook off the Halloween hangover (For the first time in my life I walked into a bar after dark and walked out with the sun already up in the sky), rolled up our sleeves and headed back to work. The fun part of business is what they don't teach you in the MBA classrooms. It starts with theory and frameworks but quickly goes out beyond the familiar where you have to wing it a little bit, go with your gut and pull something new out of your.... out of your combined wealth of experience. Yes.

Lucky for us this week marked Panamanian independence day and by Wednesday much of the city was empty as residents fled for the country's beaches or the less-developed interior. By Thursday the traffic-snarled streets of the city had transformed into a ghost town of potholes and lonely stoplights. After a day of working in an empty city we decided to join the exodus crowd and hit the road for San Blas.

The Archipeligo at San Blas is a collection of isles that look something like a fake postcard, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Sunday comics and any dream where you imagine being stranded on a small deserted island all blended into one. Our group of five drove a few hours over to the Atlantic side of the country, hitched a boat ride from the mainland with the native Kuna Indians  andset up camp on an island of sand and palm trees no bigger than a football field. The crystal clear water proved epic for snorkeling and the palm trees were the perfect distance apart for our hammocks.What else can a man ask for?

I spent the day on the island enjoying the sand and the water, meeting travelers from all over the globe and speaking with the Kuna about their land, their customs and their future. The most sobering moment for this little adventure was listening to a Kuna guide explain how their community was using much of the money they collected from tourism to plan and build houses up on the hills of the mainland. The tribe has watched as the ocean level creeps ever higher as the recent decades pass. They are under no illusion of what global warming means for their land in the next 50 years. Rather than fight with scientists and words the Kuna can connect the dots well enough to know that soon their islands will no longer be above water.

On a lighter note, we spent our first evening dining on local seafood at the invite of an older Russian businessman also vacationing on the island with his wife and friends. Thanks to a good friend of my own  steeped in Russian culture I know it's an insult to refuse a Russian's offer of Vodka so, after much food and drink, I ended up full and asleep on my makeshift bed in the tent under the star-filled Caribbean sky.

The next day, upon discovering that myself and another in my group were Jewish, the Russian  invited us to visit a synagoge in Panama City the Friday evening for Shabbat services and dinner. I'm not a heavily practicing Jew but I figured, Why not? And that's how I found myself in a conservative synagogue on a Friday night, eating dinner at a table of local black hatters and Israeli backpackers just out of the army where more Hebrew was spoken than English and more English spoken than Spanish. A world away from a consulting project or a deserted island or a business school.

Just your average everyday week, living a few lifetimes all at once.

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