Final Impressions of SFS Panama

Posted: December 13, 2012

What did you like most about the SFS experience?
Time spent out in the field was definitely my favorite. My Directed Research group did our data collection over on Isla Bastimentos, and spending every day in that town for two weeks was absolutely amazing. The opportunity to connect with that community and talk face to face with locals was one of a kind. The residents there are some of the most open, friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever met and I’ll never forget some of the interactions I had with them during that time. Little kids climbing all over me during interviews, helping a respondent paint his house, being serenaded by Calypso Joe, being invited over for lasagna with an 85 year old Colombian man… It was always unpredictable and never boring.

You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
Panama is such a colorful place. Even from island to island within the Bocas del Toro archipelago there are distinctive cultures, each one unique. It has been wonderful getting to know Isla Colón on a deeper level. Despite how much of a tourist destination it is, and despite all the Western influence, there is still so much Panamanian personality wherever you go. I have learned that Panamanians can always find a reason to celebrate. I think during the time that we were here there were at least 5 different holidays and festivals. On weekends when there were no festivals, marching bands from all different schools would practice in the streets. There is always music. The taxi drivers love to sing their hearts out, and the firefighters have an orchestra that practices nightly in the upstairs of the fire station.

Now, with the holiday season upon us, the town square has been completely decked out in Christmas decorations including an enormous faux-evergreen tree, a life-sized Nativity scene, and hundreds of multicolored lights. I can feel more joyous festivities just around the corner for Isla Colón, and I know I’ll be sad to miss them.

What is life at the field station really like? What are the best and the most challenging parts of living at a remote field station?
Life at the field station is a bit overwhelming! When your classmates are also your roommates and your friends, dynamics can get really intense. There have been countless amazing, hilarious, and beautiful moments. You would never expect some of the dinner table conversations your professors will participate in.

The lack of personal space was, I think, outweighed by the bonding experiences I got to have with my lovely roommates, classmates, and teachers.

There are definitely benefits to eating, sleeping, working and relaxing all in the same place and with the same group of people, but after awhile it can become mind-numbing. Our field station was not exactly remote, though; the Smithsonian is only a 60-cent taxi ride down the road from Bocas town. It was very helpful to be able to escape and get a change of scenery. Even so, it was challenging to find space for quiet time and to separate academic time from social time.

What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
Academics were really difficult and it was often a challenge to stay motivated to do schoolwork when the sun was out! The solidarity with my peers and the supportive and understanding staff were necessary for survival.

Also because of the fact that town was so accessible, I ended up making some very dear friends with other travelers staying in Bocas. This made it difficult to stay focused on school when so many other experiences and adventures were calling me.

I’m not sure if there were any particularly challenging cultural situations I got myself into unless “chitras”, or sand fleas, are considered part of the local culture… Let me tell you, a mosquito net means nothing to a sand flea. But, as with the academic struggles, solidarity in “scratch attacks” made them somehow slightly more bearable.

What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
This is an impossible question! There are so many memories from the last three months that I cherish. Even among all the simple daily things like sitting in the kitchen watching iguanas fall out of trees, the boat ride to and from Bastimentos, studying out on the dock, rainstorms so loud that lecture had to end early, singing songs with my roommates, playing music on the street with other travelers, bird watching on my back porch, and hanging around with other Smithsonian researchers, the list is endless…

Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Overwhelmed, satisfied, exhausted.