First, I missed my flight. Well, not actually. I made my connecting flight, I was there, the plane was there, but the doors were shut and they would not let me on board. I had sprinted across the Houston airport to no avail, only to be told my efforts were pointless simply because of a technicality of someone being too stubborn to re-open the door, a door that had shut merely four minutes prior. The reality of what I was doing, where I was going, and what I would be doing for the next three months was to be delayed for more six hours.
You see, in the months and weeks leading up to my adventures abroad, every time I discussed my upcoming semester, I was posed with the questions, “What will you be doing in Panama? Are you excited? What is the School of Fieldwork Studies?” My well rehearsed answers described a strange aloofness. I was immensely excited, yes, but oddly detached from any comprehension of what it would mean or look like for me to have this experience. The nerves had not set in. The mysterious nature of what Panama culture and life was like protected my brain from fear…until I was forced to sit there in the strange limbo of travel until my plane finally arrived at its destination eight hours later. Sitting and waiting, waiting and sitting, I began to realize that I was about to be set in the most out-of-place position of my life. I was about to be living in one house with twenty other college students on a small island for three months – I had seemingly signed up for the latest reality TV show.
Now it has been two weeks.
I can honestly say I feel a bit disoriented – but, I feel comfortable in it. Panamanian history, especially the history of the Provence of Bocas del Toro where I am living, is an accumulation of disorientation. Colonized by the Spanish, owned by Colombia, severed by the French construction of the canal, occupied by the United States for most of its nationhood, invaded by the banana industry since 1899, assailed by tourism, and set in one of the most bio-diverse sections of the tropics, Panama is an accumulation of many seemingly disconnected parts. Here in Bocas del Toro, the population is, to say the least, eclectic. Bocas del Toro is a region of islands, including the island of Solarte, where I am living, and five more. Our home is a former inn set amid muddy hills and a dense forest not a ten minute walk from the village of Solartedos, home to the Ngobe people. The Ngobe tribe settled on the islands of Bocas del Toro after being hired by the United Fruit Company in the mid-twetieth century. Before them, English and American banana scientists and business men followed by the cheap labor of the Afro-Antillean people occupied the land. And the Chinese and the former Panama Canal workers came. Previously undiscovered quiet towns were uncovered by ex-pats, retirees looking to live off their social security checks in paradise. And then tourism came and the environmental scientists came. And here I came.
The School of Fieldwork Studies runs a program in Bocas del Toro studying the underlying effects of tourism as seen through the lens of marine coastal ecology, resource management, and socio-political environmental struggles. The program itself is as eclectic as its home. My first fourteen days have involved playing soccer with the kids of Popados on an island twenty minutes from our own, snorkeling in mangroves for hours identifying seagrass, anemones, and any little creature that pops its head or tail through the branches, hiking down paths to peer into the lives of leaf cutter ants, golden weaver spiders, and any strange plant that crosses our attention, then going to Bocas Town on the Isle of Colon for a three and a half hour Spanish class, and walk the shops and grocery stores of the half-residential-half-tourist city. I feel like I have been here for forever.
I feel like there is no break to the learning and that in itself is disorienting. The twenty of us are still learning each other. We spend every waking moment together and we spend every waking moment in a world we do not know and that strangely does not really know itself. It’s a beautiful confusion though. It’s a constant community of learning and evolving: exhausting, but something I have never known before. Most people would say it will get better after more time has passed, but I do not think it will. At least in the sense that this is a place on the brink of constant change, at the tipping point of understanding, but accepting of the fact that maybe it is dangerous to be completely settled. I have never lived so entirely in this mode of thought and it’s an odd mental place to be…but it’s a gorgeous place to be, and though it is frightening to jump into the unknown and live here leaping for three months, I am smiling at the potential consequences.