Welcome to b í k u’s first blog post and the beginning of our journey. We wanted to tell you a little bit more about us and why the project is so important. In this first post, you will hear from one half of b í k u, co-founder Ariel Stephenson.
How old are you in this photo and can you tell us a bit about what you are wearing?
I must be around 8 or 9 – I was trying to think how old I was when I danced “Tipico”; the national Panamanian dance. I’m wearing the Tipico attire! The shirt is called a “Guayavera”. The hat is an actual Panama hat, a “Tipico” Panama hat. The “Panama hat” that people from around the world know and love, actually originates from Ecuador; the hat got its name after its point of sale rather than its place of origin. Many of these hats were worn by the supervisors and foremen who worked on the construction of the Panama Canal.
You are from Panama, from Bocas del Toro. Which part of Bocas are you from?
I’m from Almirante. This the coastal, port town where people catch the water taxis to the islands. I also lived on the main island, Isla Colón, for some time, while my mother was studying to become a nurse.
What makes you proud of being from Bocas / Almirante?
What makes me proud is the people. It sounds like a cliché but the people are just different. They say good morning, they say good evening, they invite you into their homes for food. People will try to help you in any way that they can – it’s just an amazing community with a beautiful culture; one that I’m proud to be from.
What is your earliest memory of growing up in Bocas?
I think my earliest memory is of the Sunday excursions from Almirante to the beaches on the islands. This was before the age of the water taxis – so the journey was a lot longer than the 15-20 minute journey now. There used to be a big boat called Isla Colón and everyone – from Almirante to Changinola – used to take that boat from Almirante to the islands, every Sunday, to spend the day on the beach. The whole family would go, grandchildren, children, parents, grandparents – your next door neighbours and their family. And you can’t go anywhere in Bocas without some Bocas food! The evening before the outing, my mum would cook – rice and peas and all that good stuff; come Sunday morning, off we’d go!
How long have you been working in the hospitality industry and how did you get into it?
I’ve been working in the hospitality industry for over 20 years, now. Wow – time goes quickly! So…how did I get into it? Well, there was no work in Bocas at that time, when I was younger. I started university in the City but couldn’t keep up with it because of funds and working night shifts meant I was falling asleep in class. I made the decision to start working on cruise ships to raise money so I could come back to Panama and continue with university, and the rest, as they say, is history. I worked on the ships for about five years and then came to London, and have been working in the industry ever since.
Can you tell us a little bit more about b í k u?
You’ll have to stick with us over the next few months to find out more about the project and our journey. b í k u is something we’ve wanted to create for a while – it is a treehouse hideaway and chocolate farm, on a tropical island in the sun!
Bocas is the cacao growing region of Panama, so we want to make the most of that and produce chocolate for the guests.
b í k u will be a boutique retreat offering the highest level of customer service, a service that you’d expect in hotels in New York and London – but obviously with that tropical twist! We want to start with three treehouses and a few glamping “pods”, but would not want to grow to more than 10 treehouses maximum, that’s probably too many.
Our aim with b í k u is to create a unique travel experience for our guests to know the true character of Bocas. b í k u will bring something different to Bocas!
What inspired this project and what keeps you motivated?
My biggest inspiration is family. Two key family members who meant and still mean a lot to me are my grandmother and my uncle, both of whom, unfortunately, passed away a few years ago now. I think about them every day, and their spirit keeps me moving, keeps me motivated and guides me. I have a lot of family who still live in Bocas, our family is part of the fabric of the place. I have to do something that will make a change in Bocas – in the local community, something that will help others, even if it’s only one person. You’ve got to start somewhere.
Why not!? Everyone as a child is fascinated by treehouses – that sense of exploration and freedom, sleeping in the trees with nature, listening to the birds chattering away. We want to create something different – to allow people to switch off and become completely immersed in their surroundings. You can do some amazing designs with treehouses. And the design element is really important for b í k u. At the moment we’re working with our architects to finalise the designs. The concept designs we have so far are amazing … nothing like it in Bocas – or in Panama!
There are a few eco lodges in Bocas, so how will b í k u differentiate itself?
There’s definitely a gap in the market in Bocas for a place that offers a truly personal customer service that – in addition – focuses on design and reinvests in the local community. b í k u will provide a level of personalised service that you’d expect in a top hotel in New York or London.
The fact that I’m Panamanian, from Bocas del Toro, is a huge differentiator. This is a whole separate discussion, but, in Bocas there are very few – if any – local “Bocatoreños” (locals from Bocas) who own and run any of the hotels or eco lodges. The vast majority have been set up by foreigners. I’ll be happy if I can, in some way, inspire others from here, from Bocas, to have greater aspirations, to inspire people to be greater than their circumstances.
As we’ll be raising the capital for the treehouse build from crowdfunding – b í k u will be unique in being funded by the community for the community. We will reinvest in the community, including in the development and preservation of the environment, the economy, the local community and culture. We see business education as a top priority – to help people develop the tools to create a sustainable income for themselves and the ability to teach that to their children and future generations. I dream big – if I didn’t, then we wouldn’t be doing this. I dream of creating something akin to the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship – who knows, perhaps we could even tie up with them, as one of its two centres is based in the Caribbean.
Describe Bocas in three words
Three words … that’s not enough!!! That’s a difficult one. Three words … I’d say “home, relaxing and ‘nice’”! There’s a certain reply in Panama that people give to those of us from Bocas. When we’re asked where we’re from and we reply “Bocas”, the Panamanian response is just … “nice”. Perhaps that’s enough to sum it up!
Give us an unexpected fact about you
Perhaps something unexpected from a man who is dreaming of building treehouses is that I’m actually scared of heights! Some irony, I know. I also have a frog phobia, which again, is kind of ironic seeing as Bocas is famous for its poison dart frogs!
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