Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Panama Experience: Beyond the Classroom



Panama greeted us with cloudy skies and moisture in the air, the first impression certainly did not match the Panama that sixteen students came to know over the next 8 days. This country is full of individuals ready and willing to help one practice Spanish and get a real taste of Panamanian culture. Due to Panama’s location it offered us a rich and diverse environment with influences from all over the world. From the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean side many cultures were represented in the local markets and food stands. Everything in Panama seemed so colorful from the homes, to the hospitals, to the markets. One of our tour guides stated it the best “Land divided, world united”, symbolizing that the Panama Canal splits the land but the world is linked through the waterway allowing for influences and diverse culture.

Panama seems to have the effect of joining very different groups together and allowing to fit perfectly together like the pieces of a puzzle to create a cohesive picture. It had the same effect on the group of USF students, we all had unique experiences yet combined together those experiences created our Panama experience. Some of us climbed a mountain, swam in the mouth of a waterfall, and marveled over one of the world’s most successful engineering feats, beyond the aesthetic activities there was a more serious side to the trip. We saw the disparities between public and private hospitals and children bald from chemotherapy treatment, we saw parents crying over their sick children, and how indigenous tribes live in nature. There was a feeling on invasion yet we still felt welcomed with open arms. In life’s most private moments we were allowed to view, that was the first time I really felt far away from the United States. I had never been in a situation of seeing a mother’s eyes welling up with tears because her first baby was sick yet she allowed me to embrace her. I couldn’t help but break down with her, yet all my friends were right there with me helping to encourage this woman. Even across the language barrier we left her and there was a hint of a smile on her face. I’m not sure what ended up happening to her baby but I realized that I was with a group of phenomenal students who could show compassion in the most serious of situations and everyone truly added to my experience. My respect grew for everyone and I began to see this group as my family away from home.

Panama overall did not match my expectations, more likely because I didn’t have expectations going into the trip. Towards the end of the trip I did realize that the group I traveled with made my experience what is was. Everyone really looked out for one another and made the Panama Experience more than just a class. Since this is a reflection of the overall trip I wanted to do just that, not focus on each activity, but rather focus on how each individual added to my Panama experience. Some affected my outlook on life, others made activities more enjoyable, and many did both.

First I want to say thank you to all of our translators, I’m sure it was mentally grueling and I really appreciate it.

Alexandra: I must say she has a laugh like no other, she has an ability to make herself laugh and it’s contagious that you have to laugh along with her. We had a situation trying to translate English to Spanish, a mere request for extra milk. Alex had ordered a Café con Leche essentially it didn’t have as much like as she would have liked so we attempted to order more. “Mas leche, por favor”, they didn’t understand why she would want more milk for her drink. They thought she wanted another Café con Leche, attempt number two “Solo leche, no Café con Leche” they simply stared at us. After a couple more attempts a bilingual woman helped us. We waited for the milk that never came. Eventually a woman delivered my drink and we asked for milk again and she came back with two cups of milk, one hot and one cold.  For two competent people, ordering extra milk had certainly become a task and a comical moment to laugh over later.

Amaara: I didn’t have a chance to get to know Amaara on a very personal level however I can say that Her gorgeous accent captivated us all. Some attempted to mimic her accent because her words all came out with such grace and beauty. In addition to her eloquence she radiated a positive energy and always appeared to be happy. One person can affect the mood of the group and she certainly seemed to make everyone more positive.

Christie: She has a smile that can light up a room, when we first arrived in Panama she had the biggest smile going through customs as if to say “I can’t believe I’m in Panama right now”. Beyond her facial expression, she truly looks out for others. Even if she had already eaten dinner she would join another merely to provide company so the other didn’t have to be alone. She really the phrase embodies the phrase “Character is who you are when no one is watching”.

Chrissy: She is extremely sweet and passionate about making a change. She also is into collecting rocks and she had such excitement finding new ones wherever our journeys took us. This reminded to always keep my eyes open and look for the little things while in Panama in hopes that I would never miss an opportunity to make new memories.

Ilianette: By the end of the trip I was calling her Ili, she was very charismatic and extremely fun to live with. Every day at the different markets or wherever a vendor may be she would come back with new jewelry or hair accessories. I did my shopping vicariously so by the end of the trip I really didn’t end up with much. Regardless of her shopping habits, she was very considerate of others and if you weren’t feeing good she would sit with you and rub your back.

Ivy: She has no problem speaking her mind and I really like the quality about her. She also was extremely confident and completely rocked her hair. One time in our villa I came out of the bathroom and I saw a shoe fly over my head. I had no idea what was going on; I soon realized that Ivy was trying to kill a giant mosquito. It was literally bigger than the size of a quarter so I decided to try and help. We spent the next several minutes throwing shoes trying to kill but without much luck. Christie came in and then finally killed it, so it took 3 honors student to knock out a bug.

Jenny: She is very fun to be around and has a great sense of fashion. No matter where we travel she was always put together even in a USF t-shirt. She was very considerate of others and would offer a head massage if you weren’t feeling good. During one of our class reflections she made the comment that she couldn’t help but give money because Panamanians have so little and we have so much. She was very sincere and offered others something that she had in hopes of making their future brighter. This was very admirable and taught me that no matter what we have there is always something that we can share.

Jennifer: Jennifer and I sat together a couple times on the bus. One such time she was so sweet and ask if she cold lay on my shoulder. It was so adorable; unfortunately sleep was not possible with the serenading that was occurring in the background. So we ditched our effort and laughed at the guys singing until we made it back to the City of Knowledge.

Jerry: I think it can easily be said that Jerry is one of the funniest individuals that I have come to know in my life. He is beyond witty and appears to be very confident busting out in song with his partner in crime, Julio. I feel like our group must have heard “ROOOOOOYCE” at least twenty times on the trip and it never got old. Many noted that he gave great hugs, so even if you weren’t feeling great he could always cheer you up. It was nice having humor after a more serious day because some of what we had experienced left lasting impacts. Jerry, I hope you don’t mind e sharing this, but I still laugh about this: he said “I can brush my stomach hair a certain way so it looks like I have a six pack”. He was so completely serious that it makes the comment even more hilarious.  

Julio: I think everyone can attest that Julio has unprecedented sarcasm, so much so that most of the time you didn’t know if he was being serious or joking. It led to an interesting class relationship and much room for humor. He and Jerry were comrades and together would sing songs, like after El Valle singing for three hours on the way home; they have quite a unique version of Silent Night (I hope someone got that on film).

Kyle: Kyle was a very real individual; he didn’t put up a front, essentially what you see is what you get. He demonstrated that there is not need to complicate things in life and to take things as they are, a lesson I am still learning. The only time I saw Kyle interact differently was at Nutre Hogar. There was a precious little baby girl who was completely attached to him and he reciprocated that same emotion. Anytime he would leave she would cry they had an adorable camaraderie. We all finally saw a soft side of Kyle and one we won’t forget. Another thing I have to commend Kyle one for those who did not go hiking in El Valle, Kyle hiked all the way up the mountain and across the mountain range in Sperry’s. Boat shoes are definitely not ideal to hike and he neither fell nor complained once the entire three hours. That takes mad skill and I wish I could have said the same for myself.

LaDonna: LaDonna was constantly looking out for others during the trip and was overwhelmingly patient. You could tell that she is great mom because she would look for different souvenirs at the different markets, but she also looked out for all of us on the trip. She was the foundation to our great big family on her trip, (thank you LaDonna’s family for sharing her for eight days, I’m sure you missed her like crazy, but we loved having her with us on the trip). On a more serious side we had a visit to the public hospital I think LaDonna could empathize most because she is a mother; I truly valued her perspective on the situation. During reflection later that day she would make the best connections, ones that I wouldn’t have even thought of.

Mitzy: Mitzy is probably one of the only people who doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. She is very genuine and I want to become more like her. She demonstrated time and time again that it is best to build some one up and not tear them down, focus on the good and not the bad. She seems very intent on making a difference in the world and I feel like she could make a large impact with girls and how they view themselves.

Theresa: She is a ball full of energy and excitement. I remember times on the trip where she would dance around with excitement for our next activity. She has such a sense of adventure and wouldn’t say no to any challenge put in front of her. Towards the end of the trip she and Christies would speak with a New York accent that was absolutely hilarious. Whenever someone added some comedy to the trip it made it that much more enjoyable. I had some one on one conversations with Theresa during our volunteering and it made the work pass by quickly.

Vita: During the trip I had some girl talk with Vita and she is a very real and honest person. I think most would agree that she is easygoing and extremely chill. At one point on the trip, on the way to EL Valle, she and I were comparing family injuries. It was such a random conversation but entirely interesting. She is probably most noted on her “That’s so V_ _” you guys can fill in the rest. I think her chill personality added to the pictures she took, she would find the coolest pictures in the tangled mess of her surroundings.

I’m so glad that everyone was part of my Panamanian Experience, it was an unforgettable one. I would certainly do a trip like this again with all of you!!! J

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