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Panama: Changemakers in Paradise 2016


Hello Panama “Changemakers in Paradise” students!
This is Ari and Mark, your Global Work trip leaders writing!  We are so excited about the three amazing weeks we will be spending together in one of our favorite places!  We just had a great staff training in beautiful Boulder, CO where we both were able to get psyched for the trip.  We are ready to show you the beautiful sites that Panama has to offer and introduce you all to some amazing people!  It is going to be a trip of a lifetime.  See you all in a few weeks!!

Hasta Pronto,
Ari & Mark

 June 22, 2016

 The group all arrived safe and sound to Panama after a long day of travel.  Everyone was exhausted stepping off the plane, but also excited at the same time to finally be arriving in Panama.  On the bus ride to our hotel, we saw the bright lights of the city, almost looking like Miami, and the infamous “diablo rojo” buses blinking with colorful lights.

We arrived to our cozy hotel and all got checked into our rooms.  We were starving and met back up in the courtyard for some late night pizza!  Yumm!  We went around and all shared our names, where we are from, and to start getting to know each other better – all shared an embarrassing moment we had recently had.  We were all quickly laughing at each other’s stories.

It was already late to we all headed to shower off from the hot air and catch some sleep before the full day ahead tomorrow!

June 23, 2016

After an early morning breakfast of cereal and toast, we took a short walk to the nearby Parque Urraca. Our group settled in on the basketball court and we went over a more detailed itinerary of our trip, and of course went over some rules. Next, we did some awkward, but effective “ice-breaker games.” In one of the games, called Sticky Nose, every person stuck a loop of tape to their nose. The goal was to press your nose against somebody else’s in order to steal their tape. Whoever had collected all of the tape on their nose wins.  Later, we discussed our hopes, dreams, and intentions for this trip in order to create a “group contract” that we all must follow. We wrote down these rules on our own Panamanian flag that we will carry with us thought the trip.

After a buffet lunch and scenic bus ride across La Puente de Las Americas (a bridge connecting Central America to South America), we arrived at Hogar Malambo, where we would complete our first service project of the trip. We took a tour of the orphanage/school and were amazed by how organized and expansive it was. The property has a school, casitas for the children to sleep in, a swimming pool, gym, and even its own farm. I’m not sure what was more shocking: how big the pigs were, or how badly they smelled.

We spent the rest of the afternoon playing with the kids and completing art projects with them. It was very cool to be able to communicate with all of children and getting to know them. Some kids drew pictures, other painted, and some just talked. In this short time, we expanded our Spanish vocabulary and made great friends. Saying goodbye to the kids was hard, but we knew we had spent a great day with them.

This very long but fantastic first day in Panama was finished with a nice meal with the group. Although it has only been one day, we are already becoming great friends and we cannot wait for what the next 20 days has in store for us.

-Ben I. and Jack W.

June 24, 2016

After a 7:30am breakfast of cereal and fruit, we prepared for our 9am salsa lessons with our instructor Alina.  The three main steps we learned were basic, lateral, and diagonal.  Although some steps were difficult to pick-up, we all got the hang of it in the end and rotated partners and danced along to the rhythms.  We had a great time at our dance lesson outside the hotel in Panama City.

After the dance lesson, we spent an hour in our rooms packing and preparing for our stay in the Kuna Yala islands.  We also met Gilberto, our guide for the next four days, at the hostel.  As a sudden thunderstorm occurred, dumping incredible amounts of water on us as we tried to load up to leave, the group split up into three cars for our drive north to the port of Kuna Yala on the Caribbean coast.  We made a quick stop at a supermarket to get some snacks for the islands.  During the 2 ½ hour car ride, we drove into Kuna Yala through extremely twisty and narrow roads.  From the car we could see mountains, forests, and even some indigenous Kuna people.  After we finally arrived at the coast, the group got into two boats to take us to our private island, Nubesidub, which is one of 365 islands in the independent territory of Kuna Yala.  The boat ride took approximately thirty minutes.

As we pulled into our island, we experienced our first taste of paradise with white sand beaches and picture perfect views.  The group met the family who owns the island, took our first swim in the beautiful Caribbean Sea, and played a game of volleyball before dinner.  Our first traditional Kuna dinner on the island consisted of delicious fried fish on the bone, lentils, rice, and vegetables.  After chatting and enjoying our dinner, we did another getting to know you activity.   A line that was drawn in the sand served as our spectrum for the activity.  Mark and Ari asked the group questions, and everyone moved to a place along the line to represent their answer/feelings.  It really helped the group to bond more and understand everyone’s positions.  After the activity, everyone went back to his or her cabanas to get ready for bed or relaxed on the beach.  It was a great start to our stay at Kuna Yala.

-Nicole A.

June 25, 2016

Our first morning on the island was strange. The birds were up at 5:00 am and extremely noisy, causing my wake up time to be much earlier than usual. Despite that, the sounds of the ocean and the amazing breakfast of pancakes that we were served made the early start of the day worth it. After breakfast, we packed up for our first day on the largest inhabited island of Kuna Yala. We took the same boat that we had taken to arrive. The boat ride was just as simultaneously relaxing but riveting as the day before; the lolling motion put us to sleep even as the waves constantly sprayed into our faces.

The first time I saw the island, I felt pity. These people lived here with limited electricity and no visible running water. The streets weren’t paved, the bathrooms were a hole into the ocean, clothes dried on lines in the streets. Yet, as the day continued, the pity turned into awe, which turned into a sort of jealousy. Despite the lack of modern technology, the people of Kuna Yala shared a sense of community that I have never experienced before. The kids would say “hola” to you as you walked through the streets, and jump into a soccer game that people started. All of the kids roamed the streets without parents. In America, we are taught to fear people who are not immediate family. Here, family didn’t seem to have the same limits.

We did not do as much service today. We learned about the culture of the Kuna Yala people instead. We were told that we would not be doing the service as much when we first arrived, because there was a celebration going on today. When a Kuna girl starts her first period, the entire community finds out and the family of the girl invites everyone from the surrounding Kuna islands to come and celebrate. This was the opposite of what happens in America.

We were taken into a room with posters on the wall and clothing hanging from the ceiling. A Kuna man told us all about the culture of the Kuna Yala. Women wore beautiful clothing. Their religion was very similar to Christianity but also maintained their traditional beliefs. They told us about how they had fought off the Panamanian government, and won. After that, we saw their religious center. It was full of benches, with a few hammocks in the middle. Hammocks are a big symbol in Kuna. People get married and are buried in hammocks, so it was not surprising that the chiefs were relaxing in them.

After that, we walked around the island, and then had a good lunch of fish. We started a game of soccer with the local children. After about an hour of that, it was time to leave. We loaded up the boat and went back to our island. I played with the little girl who lived on the island, but we all did various relaxing things. We ended up playing a large group game of capture the flag, which my team won. I took my first salt water shower of my life. Dinner came once it was completely dark outside.  After dinner, we went out of the pavilion structure that we eat in and looked at the stars. It was breathtaking, like something out of a movie. We could see everything. The end of the day was the perfect representation of the day as a whole. The day had been beautiful and we could appreciate it, but we were excited for more.

– Jenna G.

June 26, 2016

Today we started community service in Kuna Yala.  We were working in the main island where a lot of the community members live.  We started by cutting shell off of sugar cane, which would then be cut and made into shutters, windows and walls for the schools comedor, or cafeteria.  We then cut wood and made shelves for the art room of the school.  At the moment, the art room had nothing except for one table for all the students to work on and it was covered in artwork.  After this we ate a delicious lunch of fresh fish or chicken and potatoes and finished cutting sugar cane.  After a long day of work we took the 30 min boat ride back to our island to swim and play volleyball until it was time for dinner.  We again ate a combo of fish and chicken (the main food on the islands) and went happily to sleep.

-Michael V.

June 27, 2016

After a long night, the group awoke to a breakfast filled with pancakes and eggs. Throughout all of breakfast, the group only spoke Spanish in order to immerse ourselves with the Panamanian culture. When breakfast was over we rode a boat to Carti to finish our final day of service there.

When we arrived on the island, we were split up into two groups: one to mix cement and builds sinks and one to help build windows and walls with the sugar cane we cut yesterday. After two hours of working we felt proud to see everything we had completed.  We had a bit of free time to explore the island. Finally, the group left the island feeling tired and very accomplished.

After working throughout the whole morning, we took a boat to another island to snorkel and spend the afternoon. When we arrived there the group swam and explored the island until 3:00 when a group of kids from Carti arrived to dance for us. The kids showed us the traditional Kuna dances that they were working on which included flutes and maracas. After their performance was over, everyone joined in for a game that bonded both of our cultures. When that was finished we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and snorkeling.

When we returned to the island, we played volleyball until dinner. After dinner, we had a giant bonfire and reflected on our struggles and successes of the trip so far. We were all sad that a giant portion of our trip had gone by, but we also were excited to get closer and improve our Spanish even more. After the fire died, we all went to sleep, anxious to start the next chapter in our journey through Panama.

~Samara K.

June 28, 2016

It was our final day at the Kuna Islands. We awoke to a delightful light breakfast similar to an empanada (except stuffed with hotdog!). After a quick shower in the filtered salt water we all know and love we packed our bags and traveled back to the hostel in Panama City. Once there we could not wait to take a shower. Sand and salt was all behind us and now we were looking for new opportunities to experience. We got the chance to visit one of the local parks that just a walking distance away from the hostel. Once there group split into halves. Most of the boys went and played basketball with some local kids while the rest walked around the local park and had fun throwing rocks into mud. For those unlucky enough to not be able to enjoy the excitement of throwing rocks into mud we played basketball. This was a very different experience because the basketball rims and ball had a different feel than in the US. There is a noticeable bounce to every shot or dribble. It was a fun experience to be speaking Spanish while playing basketball. Fun but at the same time confusing for one time I stole the ball and was about to score on the other side but I thought I heard wait when in fact there were saying go. In all this was a very good time.

After this we returned and then went to a restaurant called Crepes and Waffles. This was the highlight of the day for the food was amazing – a good change for food on the islands. For being the first time I had ever tried crepes, this was a new experience for me. It was top-notch food and the conversations we had were unforgettable. Today was a wonderful day not just because of what we did but the memories we made together. I am happy and excited to spend the next two weeks with this group and it seems like everyone else is as well.

~Justin H.

June 29, 2016

Nothing is better than a goodnight’s sleep.  We are finally back in Panama City in comfortable beds, which was a relief.  The morning started out with a Spanish breakfast where we all spoke to each other in Spanish while enjoying some fresh pineapple and cereal.  After that, we walked through the hot Panamanian streets through a place called Casco Viejo.  We arrived at the bike place with a sigh of relief because this was one of the few places that had fans.  After waiting a little while for the locals to prepare our bikes, we were introduced to an extremely funny and interesting man who was born in Panama but lived in the U.S. for over 40 years.  The bike tour was amazing because we learned so much about the rich Panamanian history and culture while getting in a little exercise as well.  Then, we relaxed, chatted, and dined with the local bike company with some hamburguesas deliciosas y jugo de naranja.

The next stop: Panama Canal!  It was amazing to actually see the canal work in action.  We were really lucky to be here at the time we were because the grand opening of the expansion of the canal occurred just a few days ago, and we were able to see a massive ship be lowered from the Caribbean Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  It was mind-blowing to learn the history of this famous site.  After the long day, we were all very tired, but the bus ride seems to always wake us up again.  Cesar (our driver) was back with the good music blasting so loud that I’m sure everyone outside could hear us.  It reminded me of what my brother and I often do when we drive together.  We arrived back at the hostel and prepared for dinner, which was at a place called Market (local steak house and very nice).  My brother and I shared the ribs, and they were extremely good.  Others ate salads and hamburgers.  It almost seems like the meats here in Panama are fresher and more well seasoned then those in the U.S.  Dinner was very entertaining, and it was obvious that the group was getting along very well.  We walked home after a long night and ended with discussion about homestay and the upcoming days.  I’m definitely not looking forward to a 7-hour drive tomorrow, but they said the view was beautiful so I know I can’t resist.  After the meeting, we played a game in which we tangle all of our arms and try to make it back to a normal circle again without letting go of the other person’s hand.  Long story short, we gave up after multiple times and our program leaders were a little disappointed but proud of us for trying for so long.  But hey, at least we gave up together!  I am eager for the homestays tomorrow and to meet my new family.  With all that said, adios y hasta pronto.

– Brandon H.

June 30, 2016

We all woke up with a sense of urgency and eagerness because this was the day that we would meet our homestay families.  As we boarded the bus, the rain hit the streets lightly; it seems as if every time we leave a place, it rains.  A seven hour bus ride was something that none of us were looking forward to, but we passed the time by talking, playing cards, and dancing in our seats to hip hop and Spanish music.  A few hours in, some of us became hungry so we stopped at a local Argentinian restaurant where we ate empanadas and pizza for a cheap price.  The final hours of the bus ride were pretty quiet because everyone was tired, and most were sleeping.  However, we stopped in a province called Santiago (close to Sante Fe) where we had a scavenger hunt in a grocery store.  Talking to random people was a challenge in itself, but in Spanish, ay dios mio!  I remember one lady in particular who helped me answer most of the questions.  She was very nice, and to my surprise, she was from Sante Fe as well.  After that activity, we boarded the bus with our many bags of snacks and supplies for our time in Santa Fe.

All I remember hearing was Mark and Ari (our trip leaders) screaming “We’re here!” and I quickly jumped out of my seat to see the beautiful view of the mountains and colorful casitas.  We made it!  The anticipation of seeing the people we would be spending the next seven days with freaked us out, but it was also a feeling of deep excitement.  We were all asking our trip leaders how our families would be, if they were nice, and could they cook well.  To all our surprise, we were given letters on the bus written by our families so that we felt a special welcome.  Walking off the bus felt like stepping into the unknown because we had no idea what we got ourselves into.  There was this one room where we waited until all of the families arrive; some of them were already there.  You can only imagine the suspense we felt that the people in this very room could be our Panamanian parents.  Once everyone arrived, the trip leaders announced the names of everybody’s parents, and everyone introduced themselves and exchanged hugs and kisses.  My first impression of my “mom” was that she was very friendly and talkative.  A few times I had to tell her to “habla mas despacio porfavor” (“please speak more slowly”) because she spoke so fast.  The husband was a very excited, funny guy who loved working in his farm.  My brother and I felt so lucky to be sharing this homestay together because the food was MUY DELICIOSO.  Even when I told my family my throat was bothering me a little because I was recovering from a cold, they gave me tea and this coconut oil to help remove some of the phlegm.  I couldn’t ask for a better family!  Even though the place was a little rustic because of the outside shower, it was all part of the experience.  I think everybody laid their heads down to sleep with a great feeling of joy and appreciation.

-Brandon H.

July 1, 2016

Mi casa es su casa: Today, most people’s only knowledge of the Spanish language became our reality, as we integrated ourselves into our Panamanian host families. If we hadn’t realized that we were in another country yet, it dawned on us before today’s dawn, as the roosters of Santa Fe apparently don’t even need to see the sun to begin waking the good folk of the town. After each homestay pairing ate their own, delicious, customary Panamanian breakfast, (often consisting of eggs, some type of meat and fried bread), we reunited at the town’s football pitch (campo) to organize ourselves for the day’s work. A short bus ride brought us to the neighboring elementary school of El Carmen. At El Carmen, we learned of the three projects we aimed to complete: painting the front fence of the school for beautification and to prevent rust, various gardening projects to assist with the vast plots of crops that encircle the school, and the creation of a cement walkway through the center of the school. As we divided ourselves into three groups to work on our respective projects, a light rain began to fall, providing a nice counterbalance to the typical Central American heat. After four hours of hard work and conversation to pass the time, we were excited to realize that we were ahead of schedule on all of our projects: The front of the fence was almost complete, the path was almost finished, and we had not only helped with already in-progress rice and corn plots, but also began to clear a new plot for the children to use. At noon, we bused back to our home of Santa Fe for lunch with our host families and an opportunity to rinse ourselves of dirt and cement. We then met once more at the campo for a quick reflection and then to plan our English lessons for the local students. While most of the groups had no issues with planning lessons for their classes, one group had a feisty bingo-inspired debate. Upon hearing that his group planned to play BINGO with a 3×3 board instead of the traditional 5×5 BINGO board, Jack felt the need to protest.  This, of course, was more in jest than anything else, a dose of humor that broke up the monotony of the lesson planning and showed Jack’s true desire to help the children of the town to learn English. After a compromise was reached on a 4×4 board, we played soccer with some local kids and then headed home for dinner. At 7, we got a chance to socialize with our tripmates’ families, as we held a night of art and cards for the host families. Following a single game of Uno that would not end, we headed home tired and ready to sleep, beginning to feel a part of the community that was so kind to take us in.

-Cormac M.

July 2, 2016

We awoke to, of course, the sound of roosters at about 5 o’clock in the morning. The remaining hours before breakfast were spent with us falling in and out of sleep, before we were woken by either our host family or our blaring alarm clocks, struggling to be heard over the volume of noise that was already coming from the wildlife outside. Our breakfasts, that we had come to expect, consisted of meat and a lot of fried dough. It did its job of preparing us for the difficult day of work ahead.

It was exciting to begin working today, because it was our first encounter with the school in our current hometown of Santa Fe. At least 15 men were already there, working on mixing and shoveling the concrete. This involvement of the community startled me. So many men, who most likely had other jobs, were sacrificing their time to help make the town school a better learning environment. I felt like they recognized the importance of schooling more than most Americans do. Despite the fact that there were so many men working already, jobs for us were easy to find. We mixed concrete, filled in the structure of the outdoor classroom being built, found stones to put into the concrete mix, and moved big concrete blocks that would be the structure of the walls. It was extremely exhausting, but satisfying. The people that we were working with were extremely happy to have us there, providing us with a snack of a corn cream drink and crackers and always willing to help. It was a fulfilling experience.

After that, we went back to our homestay families for some quality food, consisting of, of course, of rice and beans and some form of meat. Our afternoon plan was to go explore a waterfall, but when rain started pouring down in astounding quantities, we knew that change was going to be part of the plan today. We were told that instead of going to the waterfall, we would all be taking the afternoon to spend time with our families. Maria, Audrey, and I are all in the same home, so we collectively decided that we should take the opportunity to go to our friends houses, despite the rain. We tried to go to Samara and Nichole’s home, but their family told us that they were asleep. We resorted to going home and taking long showers, and decided to spend the time after the showers playing cards with our sister. But those plans changed when Brandon and Justin walked by. We decided to go see their more rustic home, resulting in their host parents giving us an entire bowl of mango to eat. Then, our host sister made plans with the brother’s parents, and the next thing that we knew, we were on our way to a waterfall.  We viewed a waterfall off the side of a bridge and went to the top of a mountain and saw spectacular views. We got over a hundred pictures taken of us, but it was a beautiful view with good friends and family. The trip was a pleasant surprise.

Other homestay groups went to the local soccer court to play some games with with some local kids.  Others caught up on sleep and played games with their host families. We all went back to our homes and had amazing late dinners. We fell asleep exhausted, but happy with how the day had turned out. Despite the change, we were all satisfied and excited for the rest of the homestay experience.

-Jenna G.

July 3, 2016

Around 8:40 in the morning the oldest sister in the family woke Daniela and I (Robin) up for a good breakfast consisting of: patacones (fried plantains) and scrambled eggs with green bell peppers mixed in. After breakfast it was time to get ready to head out for a long eventful day of going to the river with all our families, have a cook out lunch together and then go to a beautiful waterfall. While at the river, all of the Global Works students got in the cold water and swam across spending some good quality time together.  We then went up to the tables where all our moms were fixing us up a delicious lunch of chicken, potato salad, and rice. While we were waiting for lunch we played a lot of card games with the group. We all ate together and played a few group games with our Panamanian families.

After lunch we packed up and headed to a beautiful waterfall that reminded me so much of my home back in Oregon. We had to climb some slippery rocks to get to the top where we all swam and got to go under the crashing waterfall. It was so worth it!!  Most of the students got into the water and had some quality bonding time in the freezing cold waterfall water. Afterwards, it was time to go down those slippery rocks, laughing the whole time. Mark kept making me think about where I was and how special hiking down these rocks was because I was in PANAMA!  I was in PANAMA swimming under a waterfall! And now all is well and the day was very good.  Everyone went their separate ways to a big dinner and deep sleep.

– Robin C.H.

July 4, 2016

Today we woke up at 7 and ate some delicious plantains with fried pork. Our plan today was to work at El Carmen and teach English in the afternoon at the school in Santa Fe.  The group started the day early and we all worked in the garden, mixed cement, and painted a fence at El Carmen. After being at the first school we got on a bus and went back home. For lunch we had rice and beans with fried pork once again. After eating lunch I played cards with Robin and laid on the floor. The whole group met at the cancha (basketball court) at 1:30 so we could go teach English classes at the school in Santa Fe. Teaching was a fun experience for us because it brought back memories of us being in school. We broke up into two groups and each group gave two lessons of an hour each.  Some of our students were extremely shy, others were eager to learn and some liked to play around a lot.  It was a very fun experience and everyone had a lot of fun.  Late afternoon we all walked back home in the rain. Today was USA’s independence day so we obviously had to celebrate!  We all went to Sobeida’s (one of the host mom) house to learn how to do the tipical ojaldre (fried dough) and corn tortillas over an outside fire. We all had a great time together ad ate a lot of good food. After being there for a couple hours we all went home to prepare for a full day tomorrow.

-Daniela H.M.

July 5, 2016

After waking up at 7:10, Samara and I ate a delicious breakfast prepared by our host mom that consisted of pancakes, ham, mango, and orange juice.  The group met at 8am at the cancha (basketball court) and prepared for a full day of service work.  In the morning, we took a bus to El Carmen to finish the projects that we began a few days ago.  The group split up into three groups:  cement, gardening, and painting.  The cement group mixed cement and broke up tiles to finish a path that we were working on.  The gardening group finished preparing the dirt for planting and planted some cucumber and bean seeds for the school.  The painting group worked to complete the fence around the school that was being painted silver in order to prevent rusting.  After working hard to finish the three projects, we took a short break before the school director came in to thank us for our contributions to the school.  He presented each student with a certificate acknowledging his or her accomplishments.  The group then took the bus back to Santa Fe, and everyone went to their homes for lunch.  I had chicken, rice, lentils, and sweet plantains.

In the afternoon, we continued our service work at the school in Santa Fe.  We were working to prepare the fogon (outdoor kitchen) to be completed soon.  Some people brought blocks, sand, and rocks up to the area to be mixed into cement.  Other students leveled out the dirt that was already in the fogon area.

Once we finished our last full work day of the trip, we randomly split up into four groups to plan our Día de Actividades  (Day of Activities) that we were organizing for the younger students in the school tomorrow.  Each group came up with games that they wanted to play with the kids.  Some groups planned out relay races, soccer games, and other fun games to get the kids involved and having fun.  Then, everyone returned to their homes to have dinner and spend time with their families.  My dinner included spaghetti, rice, and potatoes.  After relaxing a little and talking with my family, Samara and I went over to Maria, Audrey, and Jenna’s house and played a game of Twister with them and their host sister.  After an exhausting day of work, we all went to sleep to get some rest for tomorrow.

-Nicole A.

July 6, 2016

5 o’clock in the morning brought the familiar crow of roosters that my roommates Maria, Jenna, and I had become accustomed to. After unsuccessfully trying to fall back asleep we climbed out of bed and began to get ready for the day. My body ached from the cement mixing done the previous day, yet I also felt a strong sense of anticipation at what the days events would bring; it was our last day with our homestay families and ‘ La Dia de Actividades’ at the local school. Today we got a welcome change for our breakfast meal, pancakes and scrambled eggs versus the typical Panamanian fare we had been fed for the past week.

Before the intimidatingly large group of elementary school students was brought down to ‘La Cancha’ or the school’s stadium by Ari and Mark, we eagerly began to prepare our activities. I was working with Nicole and Justin, and we were given the pre-k students first, and than sixth grade students. At first it was very nerve-wracking to be completely in charge of a group of more than 30 students who were looking to us for a source of entertainment, made even more difficult by the fact that we didn’t speak the same language, but once we began to see bright smiles on the students faces it slowly became much more comfortable. We started off by introducing a game called Indian Chief that is sort of like follow the leader; it had become a frequently used game to fill awkward spaces in any prior situation on the trip where we were asked to entertain students and worked very well as an icebreaker. Under the hot Panamanian sun that provided a brief relief from the constant rain we had become accustomed to on previous days, we played first Indian Chief, then drip, drip, drop, a game similar to duck, duck, goose except played with water, and finally a short game of soccer or ‘futbol’ as the students chanted when we presented the idea to them. Following a short break, we attempted to start off our session with the older students again with Indian Chief but unlike the younger kids who were entertained by the simplest of things, the 6th graders required something a bit rowdier, so we played a game of futbol with Cormac, Michael, and Daniela’s students, the fourth graders. Upon discussing our feelings about how the morning went, the groups consensus seemed to provide some basic conclusions, the games we had spent time the previous day preparing had been swapped for simpler to explain, longer-lasting ones. Some said this was more tiring than the manual labor, and I would have to agree.

Lunch was rice with beans, sweet plantains, steak, and broccoli with carrots. Our host mom always gave us juice with our meals, and today’s was piña, or pineapple, our favorite. Until 4 o’clock when we would all gather again at the school for a cultural presentation done by the students, our afternoon was free. All seven of the girls came over to our house in order to get ready for the despedida, or goodbye party that was happening later in the evening. Swapping our sweaty and dirty work clothing for crisp, clean real clothing provided, as we all decided, our first real glance into what we all looked like in our ‘real lives’.

After being presented with certificates acknowledging the completion of our work at the Santa Fe school, a group of four performed a dance for us. Their upbeat soundtrack was following by a rendition of Frozen’s “Let it Go”, in Spanish of course, by Maura, our host sister, and one of her friends. Contrary to the show consisting of performances unique to Panama that we all expected, after these two performances we were invited onto the “stage” which was really just a floor surrounded by the chairs we had been sitting in, and were asked to dance. When finally being persuaded out to the dance floor, some of us immediately began to dance, but for others, myself included, the ice was a little tougher to break.  Soon though we were all dancing with a group of the local Panamanian students.

The town pavilion for the despedida was right behind our house and although the party was supposed to begin at 5:30, in typical Panamanian fashion, we didn’t arrive until 6, and most others not until 6:30. Each family brought at least one dish, and the table filled up fast with an array of aromatic Panamanian plates that everybody was happy to dig into. Dinner lingered, everyone hanging around and talking before the dancing began. Similar to earlier in the day at the school, some were very open to heading out to the dance floors, with others needing a bit more coaxing. With Spanish music blaring through the speakers, the night quickly flew by, and soon enough it was time to head back to our individual houses. A unanimous vibe was apparent in everyone; it was finally sinking in that this was our last night in the homestay portion of the trip. The comforting words that we had all been told at the beginning by our families, “mi casa es su casa” had encouraged us all to put ourselves out there with our families, making the goodbyes hard for everyone.


July 7, 2016

The last morning in Santa Fe was a difficult one. We awoke to the gigantic, but lovingly prepared, homemade Panamanian breakfast made by our homestay family for the last time. We packed up our bags, and traveled with our family to the bus. There, we said an incredibly painful goodbye. These were the people that we were closest with for hundreds of miles around us, besides our group, and we had lived in their homes and eaten food that they had prepared. When we had a problem, it had been them that we had gone to. It had been them that we had fully trusted and relied on for everything for a week. And now, we were talking to them face to face for the last time. Tears were shed, but we had the final leg of our trip to move on to.

The preceding bus ride reminded us of how fun the group as a whole could be together. We listened to loud Spanish music, and stopped at an Asian food place that had amazing smoothies.

Arriving at Santa Catalina was exciting; we had all become incredibly ocean deprived over the past week. The first thing that everyone did was put on swim suits and get into the ocean. The water was warm and the waves were gigantic. Santa Catalina is a town based around surfing, and it is one of the top places to surf in Panama. The giant waves made this apparent, but we had a lot of fun jumping over them and body surfing.

After that, it was time for dinner. We went to the restaurant that was with the same company as the place that we were staying at. We all had pizza or pasta, and then met on the beach afterward for some reflection. There was a lighting storm around us, and it would light up the waves on the ocean, making it astoundingly beautiful. We talked about our time on the homestay, as a way to set a permanent end to the heart of our experience in Panama. Then, bed. We all had our own bed, which was simply amazing. We also had warm showers and air conditioning. It was basically heaven. We went to bed feeling very comfortable and apprehensive for our time at Santa Catalina.

— Jenna G.

July 8, 2016

We all woke up early for our first full day on Santa Catalina. Waking up to the sunrise over the ocean was a site that reminded me of being back at Kuna Yala just two short weeks ago. We enjoyed a small but filling breakfast at the hotel restaurant of pancakes, eggs or fruit.  After breakfast, we gathered our water bottles, cameras and swim gear to prepare for a day of snorkeling.

We took two vans to the port in the city of Santa Catalina, about a five-minute drive. Mark and Ari introduced us to Javier, who would be our guide for the day and would later lead our community service project. We hopped on the boats for an hour-long ride to the first of three islands that we would visit for the day. When we arrived, we took a short hike to examine the wildlife, that sometimes host monkeys. Although we did not spot any monkeys, the site of untamed nature was something that you simply do not see at home.

After the hike, we hopped on the boats once again and took a five-minute ride to our next island oasis. Here, we would do the majority of our surreal snorkeling experience. In the short hour we were in the water, I spotted hundreds of colorful fish, countless sea urchins, two sea turtles and even a reef shark. After drying off in the hot Panamanian sun, our guide began to serve us lunch. It took some time to find a place to eat that wasn’t crawling with hundreds of hermit crabs, but we eventually all settled in and enjoyed our sandwiches prepared by a local restaurant. We hopped on the boat once more and made a quick stop on another island to do some more snorkeling and relax on the beach.

Our final stop before returning to Santa Catalina was the visitor center for the Island of Coiba. We took a quick walk through the museum and then boarded the boats one last time and set off for the port. The hour-long boat ride was made more interesting by slowing down at scenic viewpoints and a small rainstorm that rocked the boat.

Upon arriving in Santa Catalina, we immediately headed back to the hotel and had the afternoon to ourselves. Some chose to relax while others swam and enjoyed the waves. We convened once again in the evening for a group dinner at the hotel restaurant. Following dinner, we played a very fun group game called Family, which was my favorite one yet. It was a fantastic ending to an eventful day, and everyone was very eager to jump into bed.

– Jack W.

July 9, 2016

With three days left of the trip, we woke up to a scorching day in Santa Catalina, ready for our last day of service. We ate at the hotel restaurant once again and after a short but sweet meal, took off with our water bottles, sunscreen, and work gloves. When we arrived at our destination, the skate park, our guide Javier walked us through the goal of our project and explained its importance. We learned that the creation of the skate park was to help the kids in the community stay out of trouble and have fun. Also, we learned that we needed to make posters to make people more aware that littering is a problem in the town.  We would do this alongside local kids.  We started our work by brainstorming ideas for signs that we’d hang up around town to advertise the skate park. After that, the group began to mix cement and paint the signs. After an hour of hard work, a few kids from Santa Catalina joined us and helped us paint trashcans and signs. When we finished our hard work, we walked around town and hung up our signs in various places and for businesses that supported the message.  The signs were very popular!

Feeling very satisfied with out hard days work so far, the group ate a filling lunch comprised of rice, chicken, beans, and salad. The group was sweaty and tired, but nothing could stop our happiness, for we had just completed our service and helped the kids in Santa Catalina. After lunch, the group was given free time to swim, read, and relax in the hot sun. From about 2:00 to 6:00 the group laughed together and prepared for our surprise dinner.

At about 7:00, Mark and Ari walked the group over to a Mexican restaurant across the river. Although the wait for our food was rather time-consuming, we spent that time talking and reflecting about what we had learned from all of our service. We continued these reflections after dinner and hurried back to our rooms after because it was getting late. My room with Maria, Audrey, and Nicole had been calm the previous night, but on this night we had a war with an animal that had snuck into our room. While we were sitting in our beds talking, we saw something large fly across the room. At first, we believed it to be a very large moth, but we soon realized that it was a bat. As soon as we realized what it was, we laughed at how strange our situation was and all gathered on my bed to protect ourselves. After we finished laughed, we went and got Ari and after a few stressful minutes, we were finally able to make the bat leave our room. When we got back into our beds, we dozed off with smiles on our faces, ready to start our last full day of activities when we woke up.

– Samara K.

July 11, 2016

Today we woke to high tide and low wind – lovely surf conditions. After breakfast we met our surf coach for the day, along with five local surfers, and practiced popping from our stomachs to our feet on dry land for a while before getting on our boards and into the water. This stuff is hard! Some people got it right away while others took a bit longer. By the end of the morning everyone had stood up on their board and experienced the incredible sensation of flying on water. There’s really nothing quite like it. One of the surfboards had a sticker on it that said “Life is better when you surf.” There’s no doubt about it. After lunch we had the chance to keep surfing, but some of our group opted to lounge in the shade while others played on the beach and bobbed in the waves. Before dinner we went all grouped up and went over our favorite memories from the trip, how we had grown through the challenges presented to us over the last three weeks, and had the chance to say some nice words to the people in our group. We got the warm fuzzies. Big time. But by the time dinner came everyone was plenty tired and ready for food. We went in a downpour across the beach, ate a good dinner with big desserts, then called it a night – all looking to our final day in Panama together as we trek across the country tomorrow.