As I reflect on the past summer ’08 that I spent in Buena Vista, Panama, I can truly say that it was the best two months of my life. I was a volunteer with a youth service organization called Amigos de las Americas, a non-profit that works on sustainable development in Central and South America, while promoting multi-cultural exchange. Despite the mental and emotional preparation I completed before my trip, including a 3-day domestic training in Miami, followed by 3 additional days of in-country briefing, there was nothing that could truly prepare me for the challenges, successes, and relationships that I would build in the two months to come.
I remember vividly the overwhelming anxiety that I felt as my two project-partners, Julia and Caitlin, and I made our way to our small community in a taxi. Pulling into a new community, living with strangers that spoke zero English, how could one not be overwhelmed? As our taxi pulled closer and closer to our local youth-counterpart, Adela, I began to question why exactly I had partaken in this project.
Soon enough, we settled in, met our host families, and adjusted to the routine. Luckily, my family was wonderful and in no time I was cracking jokes with my 18 year old host sister, Yaicza, who was constantly pulling awful pranks on me. Although harmless in English, they all were much more distressing in Spanish, my second (and obviously more challenging) language. Many instances occurred when I wasn’t sure whether she was actually upset, or just pulling my leg!
After all of the reading I had done in the states on developing countries, and living conditions in Central America, I had prepared myself for the worst. Surprisingly, I encountered tile bathrooms (albeit with no hot water), kitchen appliances, and community members with personal cars. Because I had originally expected (and almost hoped for) a more rural and exotic community, one of the first challenges that I was forced to overcome was adapting to the given situation, deciding not to linger on original expectations and initial desires.
First impressions are frequently invalid, therefore the ability to give any environment, individual, or challenge the appropriate amount time and commitment, before making a rash judgment, proved to be a critical skill that I was forced to develop while in Panama. During our in-country briefing we were encouraged to socialize extensively and get to know our fellow volunteers. This process was aimed at figuring out which volunteers you would work well with, and with whom you might encounter problems. We were able to submit requests for or against individuals that we felt strongly about. Very ironically, I submitted requests against the two volunteers that I was ultimately assigned to. In the end, the three of us forged an amazing relationship, and I will always be thankful my initial wishes to not be paired with them were not granted.
The memories that I cherish every day, and attempt to relive in my head so as not to forget, are the most valuable possessions I take home with me from the beautiful Panama. I have made deep connections with the people that I encountered for only two months, but many of those connections are more profound than relationships I have built over many years in my home town. To any teenager that is bitten by the “travel bug”, I implore you to take each and every opportunity that comes your way to see parts of the world you might otherwise never be exposed to. Furthermore, I encourage you to put the unparalleled and indescribably magnificent Panama at the top of your list.