What a week, let me tell ya, but I’ll start from the beginning.
The thing about me and traveling is that I freak out until the last second until I leave, and then it’s smooth sailing the second I’m in the car on the way. The last couple days up until I left were nuts in my head; I had a lot of trouble making decisions and freaking out about having enough supplies. I honestly should have just got an Amazon credit card with all the random crap I was buying, and not finding out that I was literally in the jungle until September 1st didn’t exactly help. The second I stepped into the airport, though, the stress disappeared. There’s nothing you can really do at that point, and I constantly remind myself to just roll with it. I had plenty of time at the airports, so that was a nice time to relax and unwind, too. Also, surprisingly good airport coffee in the international terminal in Chicago. There were a couple people on my flight that were also interns, so that was a comfort, too.
When we got to Panama, there were some people from Kalu Yala waiting for us with a sign, plus some more people that had flown in before us. When there was a good group of us, we piled into a van and set out. We all looked ridiculous, running across the parking lot with all of our hiking packs… it was quite the spectacle. I knew immediately just from talking to everyone for the first five minutes that it was going to be an amazing three months. Everyone is wonderful. It was also interesting, driving along and looking at Panama, just because I had never been in the environment before. Major culture shock, honestly. The land was beautiful, but there was also a lot of debris around, and it kind of made me feel like it is good that we’re here. Building a sustainable town from nothing is something fantastic that places like Panama could really learn from.
We stayed the night in San Miguel, a little town about an hour outside of the city where the Education and Health programs are based at. It was fun getting to know a couple people and just hanging out. It was also nice to take advantage of the last bit of wifi we would have all week. I basically passed out as soon as I laid down to go to sleep because traveling all day is EXHAUSTING. Probably nothing compared to the hike, though.
In order to get to the valley, you need to hike three miles, up hill, stupidly steep. Honestly, it was brutal. I felt like I was going to be airlifted out of there. Perseverance always prevails, though, and I eventually didn’t die or had to be airlifted out before I made it to the valley. There was this one point where the uphill stops and the rest is downhill from there (dubbed “Suicide Hill” by previous hikers) and the view is beautiful. However, that’s not to say that we didn’t run into a couple obstacles on our death march, both involving angry cows. The first incident was some cows in the road and a cattle herder trying to get them down the hill. They just kind of stood there until one of them took off, and the other forty followed. So here we are, all walking on a road with six-foot high dirt walls on either side, and people are screaming to get off the road and we just barely are able to climb up and get out of the way before being trampled by a herd of cattle. So that was definitely a time. About twenty minutes later, when we were all about to get a drink at a Gatorade stop that Kalu Yala set up for us hikers, a straggler cow with a guy trying to guide it shows up. The cow sees us, gets pissed, grunts, and charges at us. We all grab our things and get out of the way as quick as possible. One girl had to back up into barbed wire so that she wasn’t run over. It was pretty frightening, to say the least, but the adrenaline rush definitely helped out in powering through for the rest of that hellish hike. When we finally got to the wondrous place that is Kalu Yala, everyone else that was already there was cheering and welcoming us, which made the moment that much more monumental.
The valley is beautiful. The ranchos that we live in have air mattresses up top and hammock space on the bottom. At night, we have bonfires and dance and people twirl fire and play didgeridoos and guitars until we all fall asleep (which is early, as we are all now on the time schedule of the sun, which sets at six). I wake up, and the mountains are right in front of me. The air I breathe is the freshest to ever enter my lungs. It’s truly magical. I roll out of my hammock each morning and can do yoga, listen to some music, meditate, or have compelling conversations with eighty other bright, intelligent minds. The food is unlike anything. I am eating foods that I hate and loving them more than foods that I love. Have you ever had curried fresh pineapple? It’s a party in your mouth. Everything about the valley is inspiring. Before this week, I have never seen a banana tree, and now I’m surrounded by them. The critters, like Wandering Spiders, are a little intimidating, but I’ve yet to fall victim to any of the inhabitants of the valley, so we will just wait and hope for the best on that one.
A very cool thing about Kalu Yala is that each semester, all of the interns get the opportunity to a personal project, aside from all of the other great things that are happening in our programs. It’s cool that we each get to contribute something to the valley that we firmly believe will enrich the institute and be useful and enjoyable to future residents. It was really bugging me, what to do for my own project, but I got to talking with someone in my program, and we’ve decided to collaborate on an art space within the valley. We want to put up some sort of venue for arts, may it be for a gallery or for a music concert. We would also like to put up local Panamanian art along the hiking trails for hikers to enjoy. Art is so important to a culture and a people, and we think that art is essential for the Kalu Yala culture that we are all cultivating together.
Oh my goodness, everyone is so talented. I sit there at breakfast and have wonderful conversations with people about literature and art and science, and the breadth of knowledge that everyone possesses is just breath-taking. Just last night, I was having a drink at a casual bar and someone was explaining hedge funds to me. At all times during the day, as I said, people are playing didgeridoos and guitars. I don’t even know where one would get a didgeridoo. People are creating beautiful art and playing with fire as if it’s cotton candy. There are probably infinite talents that people possess that I don’t even know about. It’s just amazing to me how so many incredible, individual people wound up in the same place.
Also, the hygiene situation is particularly creative. There are showers, and there are toilets, but we have honestly found that bathing in the rio is so much more enjoyable. I mean, if you could shave your legs while watching monkeys jump around in the trees above you, would you? Yes. Yes, you would, because that is awesome. We are also highly encouraged to pee by the plants in our food forest because apparently urine is excellent for foliage growth! So basically we use the toilets when we have a Number Two, but other than that, we mostly just feed our plant friends.
This weekend, after a grueling work week (HA, as if I’m adulting or something…), we took the trip into Panama City! It took that three mile hike, two buses, and an Uber ride, but we finally made it to Luna’s Castle hostel! Hands down, probably the best hostel in the city. Large rooms, amazing location right in the heart of Casco Viejo, one dollar drinks happy hour from nine at night to ten, and included pancakes for breakfast! There was also a guy who lives in Hungary that was in our hostel room, so you can probably gather that this was a happy coincidence for me. We went out to dinner and I got to do my eyebrows for the first time in a week. I finally felt like me again. Honestly, we cleaned up really well for a group of jungle dwellers. The rest of the night began with the dollar drinks at the hostel bar and continued on with lots of boozing and lots of dancing. It was a really eccentric night, and definitely a great bonding experience for everyone. I loved it. Panama City is such an exciting place. Today was mostly just hanging out and getting some work done, which is what I’m doing now, sitting in a beautiful cafe called Casa Sucre, drinking authentic Panamanian coffee and listening to gracefully slow latin music and the traffic outside. Probably less boozing tonight, but I’ll probably fit a few drinks in me to go dancing again; hopefully this coffee acts as an effective pick-me-up. The guy at the counter actually triple-checked to see if I wanted a shot of rum or cognac in it “to feel energize!” No, sir, not that kind of energized… yet.
Anywho, that’s about all for now, so you can let out a breath of relief that the Longest Post Ever is finished. I am alive, and I have never been better. This place is already doing wonders for me. I’ll definitely be making the most of the next eleven weeks here in this extravagant country.