Final Impressions of SFS Panama

Posted: May 12, 2014

What did you like most about the SFS experience?
I realized just yesterday that nothing will ever compare to the feeling of riding on a boat between islands, staring at the rainforests and beaches in the distance, gazing into the crystal clear water below you, and feeling the wind breeze across your face. Every single time that I get on a boat I have to pinch myself to be reminded it is real. I know this sounds cliché, but it is the truth. Being able to learn while looking at the ocean, having birds and butterflies fly through your classroom, being on a hike when your professor says, “pay attention- this will be on your exam,” and living in a world so full of color, is not something I will forget easily. What I truly loved most about my SFS experience was being able to live and learn in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Bocas Del Toro is breathtaking, and everyday brought new sights, adventure, and challenges for me to take back to the U.S. with me.

You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
If I had to describe Panama in one word, it would be colorful. The diversity, the food, the street vendors, the animals, the flowers, the sunshine and water, the laughter, the music, and the array of emotions that make-up this country are unlike anything I have ever experienced. Though there have been challenges and times where I have been put out of my comfort zone, Panama has been warm and welcoming in every sense of the word. The Panamanians are some of the most lively, passionate, hilarious people I have ever come across, and it has been a joy living beside them for three months. Living abroad has opened my eyes to a new world, with new values and new lessons, and I wouldn’t trade this semester for anything.

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?
The field station, an adventure in and of itself. There were smiles, there were tears, there were random dance parties, limbo competitions, and endless baked goods. However, I’d say that the most prominent thing present at the station was a family–18 complete strangers who became best friends in matter of three months. I can honestly say that I could not have made it through this semester without these incredible people by my side. Leaving home for three months can never be an easy task, and saying goodbye to the people you love most in the world can be heartbreaking, but we have formed bonds on this program that I never would have if I were at home.

We have every type of person here, which I would say was the best and most challenging part of living at the Solarte Inn. We have our bookworms, our fashionistas, our “quiet-yet-witty”s, our energizer bunnies, our early birds and our night owls; we have people from all different backgrounds, and all parts of the country, and each one of us brought our own quirks to the program. Though we would have our differences, our small quarrels, and our annoyances, we were also able to learn so much about each other and ourselves in ways we never would have had the opportunity to at home. Solarte will always be considered home, and these people, my family.

What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
As with any study abroad program, there is always the challenge of balancing school work and adventure. There were days when all I wanted to do was go paddle boarding in the perfect sunshine, but I was working on a final paper. There were days that all I wanted was to go into town for pizza, but I was finishing a group project. Despite these difficulties, we made the most of our time here in Panama. Not sleeping became the new norm, and we were able to work efficiently, and spend every free moment taking in the adventures that Bocas had to offer. Yes, we completed four classes and a Directed Research project, but we also went on a catamaran tour, visited countless beaches, had picnics on the beach, ate dinner on a dock overlooking the ocean, went bike-riding, went dancing, went surfing and explored each of the islands as much as we could. It was definitely a challenge, but in the end, we really made every second count in our three months in Panama.

Culturally, I would still say that the language barrier has been a bit rough. Though my Spanish has improved significantly–to the point where I can understand most of what I am hearing–I am still nowhere near fluent. I know that some of the students here have become practically fluent this semester, but coming from a place of NO Spanish background, I still wish it were a little easier to communicate.

What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
My best memory? That is absolutely impossible. I’ll tell you about ONE of my best memories, but really to write about all of my favorite days/lessons/adventures would take days.

It was Easter Sunday, and we had just finished a week filled with final exams and the first few days of Directed Research (DR). (Side note–for my DR I was studying butterflies and habitat quality). Usually Sundays were our free day, so needless to say, my DR group was less than pleased that we had to do a day of data collection when we could be swimming or helping to cook our Easter dinner. This day, our site was a plot of agriculture land by Playa Bluff on the main island, Isla Colon, it was raining and it was early…  altogether, not a good set up for a day, and we really just wanted to get it over with. However, within the next hour all of our mindsets completely changed. Somewhere in between laughing out of pity for ourselves, laughing because we got a water bottle stuck in a tree, laughing when Clara found a giant stick to get said water bottle out of the tree, laughing because we were all soaking wet, and laughing because one of the cows started eating our butterfly trap, the laughs became real. Suddenly we were making the best of the situation, and making it a ridiculously fun day. The day continued with Laura’s boots getting stuck in the mud, and pretending to be on Mars or in Jurassic Park when doing our transects to asses the habitat. To an outsider, this may still sound like a weird or miserable day, but we loved it. Even though we were bummed about missing a free day in Bocas, we loved DR, and it just took a few laughs and unfortunate circumstances to make us realize how lucky we were to be where we were.

I think that is why I love this memory so much, because it really sums up the kind of people that we had on our program. We all make the best of every situation. No matter how unfortunate or confused something was, no matter how long we spent studying for finals, no matter how hot it was outside, no matter how many bird names we had to memorize, we were always laughing. The people on this program made everything fun, from the things that would be fun on their own (i.e. snorkeling, surfing, and dancing), to the things we might rather not be doing. Altogether, this day bonded us as a DR group and set the stage for the way the rest of the week was about to go. For the next 10 days we were laughing, joking, identifying butterflies and trees, writing papers, and traveling all around Bocas, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my last days abroad.

Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Lucky (to have had this experience), disbelieving (that the semester is actually over, and at the fact that I am staring at the ocean, the rainforest, mountains, two parrots, three boats and four hummingbirds right now), and nervous (to go home and face real life again and to leave this place behind… also for the plane ride, because I really hate planes).