It is hard to imagine that this time last year I was just starting my preparations to spend a semester abroad in Panama. I will be graduating from Villanova University in May with degrees in Environmental Science and Spanish, and this deadline is helping me to reflect on my perspective of the world, how it has changed over the past four years, and what I hope to contribute to the future. My experience in Panama has been transformative in shaping my goals, interests, and outlook on life. I could never have imagined the profound role this experience has had on my life and I would like to highlight some of the most influential moments of my experience at the one-year anniversary of my travels.
I’d like to start with a memory of mine: It is pitch black and I’m walking down a dirt road that winds around hills in the small rural village of Loma Bonita (in the province of Cocle). My homestay family had decided to go for a nighttime walk to visit neighbors and we were headed home. Suddenly I steal a glance upward: there is an infinity of stars above my head and I’m awestruck. I’ve never seen so many stars. I share my amazement with Maribel, my Panamanian homestay sister, and I am further amazed that she shares my amazement and we both stop to admire them. She must see that same starry sky every night, and yet she is still mesmerized by its beauty just as much as a visitor.
I marvel at the millions of stars I have never seen before until I stumble upon a familiar constellation that I’ve seen countless times at home: Orion. Orion has always meant a lot to me: I can see it clearly from my driveway at home on Long Island; it is associated with a particularly beautiful memory of sledding with friends from high school, as well as countless attempts to star-gaze on the soccer fields with friends at Villanova. And here it is again in Panama. I am reminded that even though nothing of what I have experienced in this rural homestay has been familiar (chickens walking into my room, the hour long walk descending mountains to reach the center of town, the concrete vibrantly colored house constructed by the family’s grandfather, the loud hum of a generator that can provide just one more hour of light after darkness falls) we are still under the same sky. I point out the familiar constellation to Maribel, but she tells me they call it another name. Then she proceeds to sweep a finger across the night sky, naming constellations in Spanish for me. And I’m overwhelmed by the idea that everyone around the world is simultaneously seeking the meaning of the universe and an understanding of why we are here. Even countries away, people are drawn to seek answers from the same stars. Then Maribel suggests I take a picture of the beautiful sky with my camera. I have been taking photos all week, introducing my homestay family to the miracle of “flash.” I try to explain that it probably won’t work since it is so far away, but she insists. She wanted to ensure that I remembered that moment, and even though the picture did not come out, she succeeded. I’ll never forget the image of Maribel bending over backwards to aim my camera at the night sky, while her three-year old daughter (who had been hitching a ride on her back this whole time) squeals in protest as she draws nearer and nearer to being horizontal. This moment was when I first realized the power of connection across cultures and backgrounds. I traveled to Panama in search of something different, in search of a new adventure, and I most certainly found it, but I was also reminded of our similarities, our universal desire to connect, share our histories, celebrate the present, and collaborate to improve the future.
To describe Panama, I would describe extreme opposites: the bustling metropolis of Panama City compared to the rural indigenous village of the Naso people accessible only by a 2 hour canoe ride, the ceaselessly rainy tropical rainforests of the Coclé province contrasting the barren Sarigua desert in the Azuero peninsula, and the murky, mangrove swamp-covered Pacific coast contradicted by the crystal clear blue reefs of the Caribbean coast. But despite these differing regions and environments, the people were unfailingly consistent: welcoming, friendly, inquisitive, and supportive every step of my journey. I find that the most important lessons I learned from Panama weren’t from my surroundings (hiking 6 hours up Volcán Barú must have taught me something I am still trying to piece that together), but rather from conversations and relationships with individuals. I would like to reflect on some of the incredible people I met in Panama and what they taught me.
In Loma Bonita, the same village where I shared that moment with Maribel under the stars, I had the privilege to have a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old as my teachers. Angi and Ilda were the two sweetest, patient, and curious teachers/homestay sisters I could have asked for. While my Spanish certainly improved by talking with adults, I found that when a conversation started to go over my head, most adults would let it happened unless I spoke up asking for clarification. These girls however, would notice that glazed look on my face, stop, take me by the hand, and show me what it was I needed to learn. They would repeat words that I didn’t recognize and explain customs that were new to me. They were always excited to play with me and when the daylight didn’t provide enough time, they snuck into my room at night to continue our games and talk. At some point they started asking me questions and I took the opportunity to ask them things as well. What games do you like to play? What’s your favorite food? It was at this point when I started to realize I was learning a lot just by talking with them. When we got to the favorite food question the younger girl started telling me about how she loves “emme-emmes.” I didn’t recognize the word so I asked her what they were and she started describing colorful candy-coated chocolates with soft chocolate inside. As a chocolate lover, my month so far in Panama had been rough since there was not much chocolate in the traditional Panamanian diet. I was thrilled to try this new Panamanian chocolate candy and I told her so, asking how to spell it. She just looked at me blankly before repeating, “emme-emmes.” And then it hit me. She was describing M&Ms. I still had a lot to learn, but I could learn a lot as long as I remained curious and willing to make mistakes. When traveling in a foreign culture, especially while learning a foreign language, one can easily feel like a child. At times it can be frustrating, but most of the time it is thrilling to discover the world anew from a different perspective.
The perspective of the indigenous groups we visited was the most eye opening of my travels. There are many groups of indigenous people in Panama and we visited the Naso, a people who live in communities along the Teribe River in the Changinola province. To reach the community we stayed in, we had to pile into canoes with makeshift motors and fight our way upstream against the current for 2 hours. Upon our arrival, the first person to meet us on the shore was a young girl in pigtails who introduced herself as Maijori to everyone. She was full of energy and curiosity and excitement. I knew immediately this was someone I was eager to get to know, and that didn’t turn out to be hard because she was my homestay sister. So we had a nice 45 minute trek from the center of the community to her house in which we could get to know each other. She practically skipped through the forest, despite being barefoot and was so full of energy and unconcerned by the long, muddy hike we had in front of us. At some point we came to a wide stream and suddenly she took off her pleated blue school skirt, held it over her head, and waded through the stream in her underwear. I realized that if Maijori could maintain such a high level of energy and enthusiasm despite her arduous path to school every day, I could manage to stay positive throughout the difficulties in my university studies as well.
The first person I met in the Naso territory was inspirational, as was the last. To leave the community, we were placed on traditional rafts of bamboo and balsa wood with a guide carrying only a stick (to prod us in the right direction along the way) so that we could float downstream for two hours back to the nearest village. When the three of us first sat down on our raft we were visibly uneasy. Our guide tried to reassure us, but that is difficult when you are sitting in two inches of water on a wet, splintery raft with nowhere to hold on and a two hour voyage ahead of you. Seeing our nervousness, at every turn our guide decided we needed to learn something, so he told us to stand up. We were incredulous yet reluctantly obedient. Now all four of us were standing on the raft as it floated downstream, approaching another curve and another wavy patch of water. The guide assured us that we should relax, trust the river, and we’ll be fine. When we approached the turn, we were easily able to balance ourselves and it was actually a lot of fun! I was freed in that moment by placing my trust in a river and a man with a stick.
We stood and sat as we continued down the river, asking our guide about the Naso’s relationship with the river and learning about true resourcefulness and connection with the natural world. The river banks were lush and green and wild as the river wandered aimlessly through the forest, until we came across overturned boulders, fallen trees, and very choppy water. The river took a sudden turn and our once carefree guide told us to hold on. We hit a fallen tree and I managed to be the only member of our group to fall overboard. Once I was back on the raft, we realized that the river had changed because of the new scenery that lined the banks: backhoes, trucks, excavating machines, all removing sand from the river and carting it off to be used in other construction projects around the country. We had heard from talking with the community elders that recent developments along the river were threatening their way of life (hydroelectric dams, mining operations, and sand excavation), but only after experiencing the damage firsthand did I really understand. The Naso people faced devastating consequences of the exploitation of their land and the land rights of indigenous groups are rarely enforced. Their way of life is disappearing; they know they are fighting a losing battle and yet they still do it. This determination of the human spirit was powerful to witness. For someone like myself, who is constantly hoping for a better world (environmentally, socially) and is sometimes disillusioned by the great challenges these improvements face, the Naso’s perseverance was an inspiration.
During my independent study project I was also inspired by individuals who challenged norms despite seemingly impossible odds. My project analyzed the process of organic certification among farmers in Cerro Punta, an area in the highlands of Chiriquí province (where 80% of all of Panama’s vegetables are grown). I had the pleasure of staying with Don Roger and his wife Nella. My introduction to Don Roger was when he met me at the bus stop and led me up the steep slope to his house at the top of a hill. About halfway up the slope he tells me he wants to introduce me to someone. Perplexed, I look around for another person but it is just the two of us on the trail. Then Don Roger calls up the hill, “Ruperto!” A bleated reply carries down the slope, “Maaaa!” and the head of a black goat peeks over the top of the hill. Don Roger continues the conversation (as he would do every single day we walked up that hill) while we walk the rest of the way:
Don Roger: “¿Cómo estás?”
Don Roger: “¡Me voy!”
Don Roger: “¡Tranquilo, me voy!”
Don Roger was a good-humored old man, but he also was humble about how much wisdom he carried with him. He was one of the founding members of GORACE (Grupo Orgánico de Agricultores Cerropunteños) in 1997. This organization is the only group of small growers with organic certification in the whole country. He had led workshops, attended conferences (across Central America and the US), and knows all the right herbs in his garden to make herbal tea remedies. Now in his eighties, he is often short of breath on long hikes, but still treks way up in the mountains (an hour bumpy car ride and a hike after that) to maintain Finca La Victoria, GORACE’s organic farm. While GORACE’s relative impact was small, considering the majority of farmers in the area still practice conventional farming methods, they have changed the hearts and minds of 20 farmers in the region to use organic, sustainable practices. I had the opportunity to interview 22 individuals (organic farmers, conventional farmers, certifying company representatives, government representatives) to learn about how to facilitate organic certification among small farmers, who often fall through the cracks. In an interview with one of GORACE’s members, I asked what inspired her to switch to organic farming and join this movement and she replied, “Cada persona falta un tornillo.” Their success and their hard work to accomplish it gave me the inspiration to persevere in my efforts to promote a more sustainable future.
I am eager to continue traveling and forming relationships with new people to have more moments like when I stood with Maribel under that infinity of stars, or when I was the student of children, or when a man convinced me to trust a river, or those many conversations over tea with a good-humored farmer. These moments broadened my perspective, reminding me that while we all come from different experiences and backgrounds, we are all hoping to be understood and share what is important to us through these moments with others. The people I met in Panama and these lessons they taught me have inspired me to seek a career working with people from the Latin American region to continue making connections with people. Eventually, I hope to channel the inspiration these people have given me to facilitate beneficial environmental change and development, promoting the health of both the environment and the people of this region I have come to admire.