As we pulled up on the gravel road, everyone turned and stared. You could see it in their eyes. The question, the mix of uncertainty, and maybe a touch of fear. To a person, they stared at us as we got out of the rental car and approached.
Two tall "gringos" dressed in jeans and button down shirts. One with a camera and eyes opened wide at the surroundings. The obvious inner dialogue going as he took in every detail. He thought about his warm comfortable home with carpeted floors, central heat and air, and modern electronics. He recalled how easy it was to be frustrated with small details of day-to-day life, never taking into account how lucky he was to live like a king in comparison.
I know what he was thinking because that "Gringo" with the camera was me. I was being shown some of the common living conditions that exist in some third world nations; more specifically on farms in Panama.
I had seen structures like the one in front of me before, but usually only in deserted towns or other places that had long ago forgotten what it was like to have inhabitants. This was different. This was lived in. By a lot of people. Perhaps, a lot of families at the same time.
As I approached the house, I smiled at the family and tried to reassure them that I posed no threat. I wanted to show that I meant no harm as I pointed my camera. How do you pass on that message with a look? I don't know, but I tried anyway. Then, I started taking pictures. I wanted to bring back with me what I saw in its rawest form. I glanced apologetically for intruding on their morning, and tried to be as small a part of it as I could while I quickly captured my images.
Just as fast as it started, it was over, and we were on the road again. I had garnered a few smiles back and even a wave of the hand, but I am guessing they were just fine seeing me go. I know I would have been. I would not have any understanding that this person behind the camera wanted to share the story and the sights of how he was impacted by what he saw. That he worked for a company which went to great lengths to better conditions such as these. That he wanted to share this experience with as many people as possible. How could anyone understand that from a smile, a wink and a wave of the hand?
We drove on to another living area. This time, a location where we had actually been able to help in the previous year. Instead of dirt floors and walls with holes, I saw concrete, painted walls, rooms, bathroom facilities and even a separate cooking area. The look we received as we approached was similar to before, uncertain and questioning, that is until they saw my companion, Pete Rogers.
I saw smiles and relaxed looks. They eyed my camera, and I gave them the same reassuring looks I did only an hour before, and then began to take a few pictures. "Show them the pictures", Pete recommended to me. I bent down and showed the kids the first pictures they had ever seen of their own faces.
One boy saw his brother on the screen and pointed as he beckoned him to come see. They were fascinated by the image of themselves from moments earlier, and couldn't wait to see more. As I walked around taking pictures, I found that these two brothers were available in every setting and conveniently posed to be included in every shot. Before long, I had a group of children following me. And even the older ones offered to pose so they could see themselves on a camera.
I said goodbye to my little friends, and we moved on to our next destination. This stop had only been a few minutes out of my life, but it would occupy far more of my time than that. It will accompany my thoughts for years to come. It made clear to me how important the work we do is, and what a difference one company, one person can make. It made me realize that I had to write this story and share these thoughts with you.
It made me realize how thankful I truly am.