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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Horrors of consumerism in the jungles of Panama

With the thought of being fiscally prudent while gaining a life experience, I booked a stay for me and my son with a family in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National
With the thought of being fiscally prudent while gaining a life experience, I booked a stay for me and my son with a family in Bocas del Toro, Panama. We are coupling a learning experience - studying Spanish - with adventure: ziplining and hiking through the jungle, visiting eco-friendly, sustainable cocoa plantations, and generally doing whatever takes our fancy, weather permitting. I also wanted us both to experience how people live who do not have the trappings of modernity and the city life. At least, that was the idea.

But I was being naive - equating the desire to immerse myself in the "local way" with eating healthy local food and generally getting back to life's basics in a good, wholesome way.

But that is the stuff of fantasy. Excess prevails. It turns out that local families are just as hooked on processed food as city folk, and that they prioritise material things over what I consider to be necessities - in the case of where we were staying this would be netting over window openings to keep mosquitos and insects at bay, a functioning fridge that stayed closed without the use of a bungee hooked around the back of the fridge and onto the door, and a tap that doesn't swivel, base and all, in the broken sink, which made turning it to access water a challenge, especially for my 7 year old.

I decided that this was not so much immersing myself in a real Panamanian native experience as me and my son personally bearing the brunt of consumerism gone wrong. So we moved out after a couple of nights, and I am very glad we did.

This is not about our host family not being able to afford things. Oh, they can afford things all right. Like the enormous TV in the living area - the other was in their bedroom so I can only assume it is equally gigantic - or the various chunky gold medallions hanging off the host's many necklaces. There was also the huge walk-in wardrobe that they had fashioned out of the bedroom of one of their grown-up children that was stacked full of more clothes than you could guess at a glance.

This experience really brought home people's priorities and where money is spent.

It's the kind of thing we all do. It might not be mosquito netting that we fail to spend on, but there are equivalents, such as life insurance, or simply saving money for the long run.

You might think, so what? If they want to live without netting or an easy-to-use fridge, then surely that's their prerogative. Of course it is. But these people want, or perhaps need, to make money from hosting students. And people like us will not hang around if we suffer the consequence of how they behave with money. I say it again: it's not that they could not afford the things that would make our stay so much better, they can. They just use their money in a way that is in fact killing the goose ... Perhaps if enough people move out, as we did, they'll realise the consequence of their spending priorities, and sort themselves out.

So, now that I have jabbed my finger at this family and been at the, uncomfortable, receiving end of their spending behaviour, I need to make doubly sure that I am not doing anything similar. When I am back from this trip, a major priority will be checking that my financial-house is still in order. I say this not because I am reckless or do not practise what I preach, but because nothing is constant but change, and just as we must periodically take stock of our life we need to do the same with our finances.

Plus I'm going one step further - I'm going to be discussing both my life and finances with a very good friend, and she will be doing the same regarding her situation with me. Why? Because there is the danger of developing blind spots and needing help to see the obvious - plus it's always been a great thing to bounce thoughts, desires and plans off of a trusted other. It helps focus the mind and get you to realise things that you perhaps miss in the hubbub of daily life.

Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website www.cashy.me. You can contact her at nima@cashy.me

Follow us on Twitter @TheNationalPF

Updated: August 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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