Blog : Team

The boy is back in town

The boy is back in town

Contemplating my journey back to London tomorrow – I have been in Panama now for just over two months – I am not looking forward to the change in temperature! I do love the fact that I can live here (Panama) and just wear shorts and flip flops all year long come rain or shine (except on a bus journey from the City to Bocas (del Toro)).

A tourist in my home

I must say, even though I was born here and lived here until I was 18 years old, I do feel like a tourist at times. If I really think about it I have pretty much lived most of my adult life out of Panama, which to me sounds (and feels) a bit weird. A lot has changed since I last spent a significant amount of time in my home country.

The heat. The heat is something you have to adapt to. It can get crazy hot in the City. Once you get to Bocas you can feel the cool breeze coming from the sea. I love Panama but I love being in Bocas. I guess it’s where I find my peace and also being there with the people, the local community and family, reminds me of why we are doing this.

Cherish moments

It’s true what they say and it might sound cliché but you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. And it has taken me over 20 years to realize this, but it also made realize that you must cherish moments, life, family, friends, and make the most of any situation. Life is too damn short – you’re here today, gone tomorrow.

Being in Panama these past months, I’ve also seen how politics is involved in most things here, well, I guess that’s the same everywhere, but it feels very heavy here. It’s truly ‘who you know’ and not ‘what you know’. You have to combine the ‘know-who’ with the ‘know-how’. And because of this, a lot that should get done doesn’t get done – a tale that’s true in a number of places around the world. Sometimes it frustrates me as you can see what needs to be done, but that doesn’t always take priority on the political agenda. This makes me feel even more strongly that if we want change, a lot of that has to come from us, and the business community can play a big part in this – especially a social business.

But for all these things, there is no other place like Panama on the planet. The place, the people, the culture is unique. You have to truly immerse yourself in it and you will then fall in love with what I believe to be a little piece of paradise on Earth.

Until the next time, #liveslow! And I guess we all will, with Christmas and the holiday season coming up!

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From Bucks to Bocas

From Bucks to Bocas

Meet the other half of b í k u – Zabrina. She tells you why a girl from Buckinghamshire – England – wants to move to Bocas and why you’ll want to join her.

Why do you want to build treehouses in Panama, why are you doing this project?

It’s difficult to give one reason – there are multiple reasons really. It might sound like a cliché, but I don’t want to look back over my life in 20 years and wish that I had done more, wish that I’d been brave enough to take risks. As they say, you only live once. For me, two of the most satisfying things that you can do in life are be creative and help others. With b í k u, we get to do both. I’m excited about doing something where we’re creating things – rather than consuming. Consuming isn’t good for the soul.

What were your early influences?

That’s an interesting question – but an easy one to answer! I went home to my parents’ over the Easter weekend and spent some time looking through the photo albums my dad had put together for my 21st (some years ago now!) – it was fun. Looking through the photos it’s clear to see what – or who – my early influences were … my parents.

My childhood, the way that my parents have raised me has made me into the person I am today – with all my ‘wacky’ ideas – as my mum would say. They have instilled in me a love of people, a love of different cultures, a love of nature, of freedom and of being true to myself. Both my parents are medics – my mum a nurse and my dad a doctor – so I guess wanting to do something to help others comes from them and from what they pursued in their careers.

I could go on and on … I have so many memories from my childhood of being outdoors, being with nature, and I think that’s when I have been at my happiest.

Hard work is also something my parents instilled in me from a young age. This is demonstrated by the picture below! That was the way it usually went – me putting in the hard graft and my brother supervising. I’m lucky he’s not here to disagree!!

What we want to achieve with b í k u will be hard work. I’m under no impression to the contrary. But I think I’ve been conditioned quite well on that front!

Why Panama?

Apart from the obvious – in that my partner, Ariel, is Panamanian? Well, I have – ever since learning Spanish at school – developed a love for Spanish and Latin America. I had never been to Panama until my first trip with Ariel in 2014 – and I completely fell in love with the country. Where Ariel is from – Bocas del Toro – is in the North West of the country, on the Caribbean coast, and very close to the Costa Rican border. Strangely – or perhaps it’s fate – I spent a month in Costa Rica when I was about 19. I was just over that border, living in an indigenous community in Yorkín, helping to develop their eco tourism. This was part of a three month ‘expedition’ to Costa Rica I did with Raleigh International – a non profit, sustainable development organisation.

The wildlife and surroundings are very similar to what I had experienced in Costa Rica, so I actually felt very comfortable, almost at home! From an eco tourism point of view Panama makes complete sense; it’s overflowing with nature!

What is the single most important thing you want to achieve with your Panama treehouse project, b í k u?

From what I’ve seen, I think there are a number of businesses in Bocas that have played the short-term game. You know, they’ve wanted to get in their quick, maximise their profits, maybe get out again and then move on to the next project. With b í k u, we want to have a longer term investment. There’s definitely a gap in the market for a unique customer experience to be given not only through the nature of Bocas but also through design and highly personalised customer service.

We want to reinvest in the community, for the longer term – and be a spring board for other social businesses led by the community. We hope to inspire and to create a lasting change.

Can you do this by yourself?

No! We need your support, the support of people reading this – to make b í k u a reality. We have the passion, the drive, the vision – but need the support of a ‘crowd’ to raise the funds for the treehouse build. For those of you who have already been following our story, you’ll know that we’re going live with our crowdfund in September. For those of you who are less familiar with crowdfunding, there will be future blogs dedicated to this topic. But, in short – our crowdfund will be pre-sales. You will be able to book your b í k u treehouse holiday at a discounted price.

Tell us an unexpected fact about you.

I was held hostage in Tikal, Guatemala!

 

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A few more piccies from the photo albums Dad put together!

Bird watcher in training. Pssst, the other way round!
Me winning a race with my brother! Or, is he letting me win …
Rocking the matching macks
Boy from Bocas

Boy from Bocas

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 treehouses?

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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