Ian Stepleton's Journal Entries
The following is an excerpt of a journal kept by Ian Stepleton
on his travels to Wacuco, Panama, where Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski
works. It aims to offer a different perspective: what are the sights, sounds and
smells of a world thousands of miles from Ripon?
Day 4: March 9, 10 a.m., Father Wally’s compound:
Today I truly feel like I am in Panama. This morning, I went to church in Wacuco.
Then, I “chased” cattle down the road for photographs.
And I’m writing this from a grass hut. What could be more “Panama?” As I sit
here, I listen to a cornucopia of wildlife. Brush rattles somewhere behind me,
while roosters call and birds sing. This morning was mass. To get there, we
strolled down the highway in the early-morning light, with stars still shining
above. Wacuco-ans, too, seemed to appear on the road from nowhere, strolling in
from the ranches.
Ninety-percent of the service was in Spanish. And, not being a Spanish speaker (Spanglish,
maybe), I frankly didn’t understand much of what was said, although I would
catch bits and pieces. Father Wally, though, was gracious enough to translate
portions of the service.
For a few moments this morning, Wacuco and Ripon finally became sister cities.
Last fall, Ripon’s Common Council had declared Wacuco a sister city, but it
wasn’t until this morning that we delivered a framed copy of the resolution.
But as Ald. Bill Boesch handed over the proclamation to Father Wally (who, by
the way, is as close to an “official” as Wacuco has), I turned around to look at
the couple-dozen locals sitting in the tiny church. I think what I saw was a
mixture of pride and appreciation playing on their faces. They seemed to be
thinking, here were these strange-looking people coming to town, and they’re
looking to align with us?
Afterward, I had a chance to speak with a few of the people, with Ripon College
professor Brian Smith translating for me.
“He hasn’t abandoned us,” they said of Father Wally. From what I’ve seen, I
don’t think he ever will.
Later on Day 4: 11:45 a.m.:
Now I can say I’ve been in the jungle. We just returned from a walk, on which we
hiked to the foothills. The flatland is logged, but the hills still have some
native vegetation. Its amazing how the air changes once you get to the
old-growth jungle. One moment, the harsh Panamanian sun bakes your skin. The
next moment, you’re into this dense, green wilderness, and the air temperature
Everything here is extreme. We saw the most vibrant-blue butterfly, huge lines
of leaf-cutter ants, and leaves the size of people. The jungle trees, too, are
massive. They must stand hundreds of feet tall. It’s the dry season, “winter,”
this time of year, so the trees are dormant. This makes them look even bigger —
no leaves — but also eerie in their skeletal look.
I continue to be amazed at the relative lack of insects! You hear stories of the
building of the Panama Canal, and the horrid mosquitoes. Yet I’ve seen literally
one mosquito so far this trip, almost no flies, and little else.
But, I bet its worse during the rainy season. One thing I still hope to find,
though: A monkey. We’ll see ...
Later on Day 4: 9:04 p.m.:
Monkey-watch continues ...
This afternoon, we met the Embera Indians (as well as the Kuna, for that
matter). Very interesting ...We got to see native dance (one called “The
Flower,” another called “The Snake” ... I joked later with Rollie Alger that we
should have requested one for rain, given this heat!). We also watched as they
demonstrated traditional basket weaving, body art and more.
That was at the Embera village; across the street (oddly enough) were the Kunas,
who — unlike the Embera who arrived in the 1970s — have been here for
generations. They’re very protective of their culture, so we had to watch from
afar. Standing on a bridge, we saw far down all the Kunas working off long
canoes in the river. It was like a page from National Geographic. Amazing.
By the way, have I mentioned the heat? You can sweat sitting, even at night. No
Day 5: March 10, 5:45 p.m.:
Not too much to report today; spent most of the day working at the Sisters’
home. Made lots of progress: roof is done, and electrical is nearly complete.
Working here makes you appreciate things we take for granted in America, such as
safety. You won’t find it on the roads.
Everyone drives on their side of the road. As Peter Kasuboski has been joking,
the question is, which half of the road will they take: the left, right or
This is partly due to the awful shape of the Pan-American Highway, where
potholes are everywhere. Everyone swerves to miss them, and every vehicle goes a
different speed depending on how reliable the ride is. So, you have cars reeling
from side to side, with near-misses common. Yet, I’ve yet to see a collision! As
Peter also has been joking all week, “They must have ESPN.”
As I write this, I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking a bit of jungle, a pond
with a small (and lazy!) alligator, and some of Father Wally’s land and
compound. It’s hard to imagine saying goodbye to this beauty, but soon I must.
One thing I won’t miss, though: cold showers.
Journal entries will continue in next week’s Commonwealth.