I am back home on Long Island after living in Panama for 3 1/2 months. Everything feels strange and familiar at the same time. I have to restrain myself from saying “Gracias” to people and still can’t quite get the hang of throwing toilet paper in the toilet instead of the garbage can. But I am enjoying the cool weather and amazing food. I ate raw cucumber today and I’ve never been so happy!
As for the end of my adventure in Panama, the last week felt like finals for sure. I somehow wrote a 40 page paper in Spanish for my Independent Study Project, gave a successful 20 minute presentation on it in Spanish, and then gave another 20 minute presentation about Spanish literature to get upper level Spanish class credit. But after all of our presentations and papers were done, we had our “dis-orientation” as we liked to call it in Las San Blas archipelago in the Kuna Yala comarca along the Caribbean coast. It was absolutely gorgeous and every tiny tropical island we visited felt like we were inside a post card. It was also incredible to see how the Kuna people lived, learn more about their culture, and try to decide which beautiful molas to buy (squares of intricately sewn cloth into beautiful designs made by hand by the Kuna and used in their traditional clothing). It was exciting to finally see an indigenous culture benefitting from the tourism in their communities, and running their own tourism independently: the Kuna controlled the boats, hotels, and everything.
The church on one of the island communities in Kuna Yala.
It was hard to say goodbye to that crystal clear blue water.
(photo courtesy of Marybeth)
Once back in the city we went out to dinner at a cheesy Mexican restaurant that gave everyone crazy hats. It was hard to say goodbye to everyone after being constantly together for so long, but by the time Sunday morning came around I was ready to go home.
Everyone together at the beach in Kuna Yala
The two Mexicans representin'
Before our flight, a few friends and I made one last trip to Plaza Cinco de Mayo to do last minute shopping among the artesanias there and we were lucky to stumble upon a local tipica dance troup practicing in the courtyard. They were honestly the best tipica dancers I’d seen in the whole country and it felt like a fitting goodbye to the country to watch them practice for a while. Then we survived the most terrifying taxi ride ever back to our community before we made our way to the airport.
And about 7 hours later I was in JFK airport, exhausted and not thrilled about having to explain that my bag was missing in Spanish to one of the attendants at the baggage claim. Leaving that airport was one of the worst feelings because I honestly thought I had lost that bag forever, and it had every single souvenir I had bought inside it. (Future note to other study abroad students: spread out your souvenirs when you pack to go home). Then, miraculously, the bag appeared unharmed the next morning at our doorstep and I could have hugged the delivery guy.
Almost losing my luggage made me think about what I was really bringing back from this experience. While it will be nice to have things to share with other people to reflect my travels, I know that what I really brought back wasn’t in that bag. I definitely see life in a new light after my stay in Panama. I know more clearly that I want to remain engaged in community work and that I love speaking and learning Spanish. I know now that people get by with very little and yet still have their hearts full. And I have come to understand better the vastness and wonder that is this world we live in. I don’t know if I’ll ever again have the chance to snorkel in the Caribbean, or hike a volcano, or talk with indigenous people in their community, but I do know that I would like to continue traveling. I have never studied so little and learned so much. I have never felt more satisfied in my own abilities, but simultaneously so uncertain of my own culture. Coming home I hope to integrate all that I’ve learned and seen into my daily life. I hope to live with a more global perspective and to actively give back to this world which has blessed me with incredible opportunities.
Thanks to all of the wonderful people who have supported and encouraged me (both in Panama and in the US) during this semester. Thanks to everyone who has read my scattered thoughts as I have traveled, and I hope that I have been able to share a little bit of Panama with each one of you.