As I sat in the air conditioned oasis of my dorm room, going through the footage I’ve compiled over the last four weeks here in Bocas, I came across a video of our first tour of the Center. The sun is shining through palm trees, the swimming pool shimmering in the afternoon light, waves crashing at the dock that leads to our outdoor classroom. A few other students and I are being led on a tour by our professor, Blake Scott. Mouths gape in wonder at the beauty that is our home and school for the next month; then, from Blake, I hear, “Remember: this is not a vacation.”

This sentiment has been ingrained in us throughout the duration of our stay in Bocas. This is not a vacation, and we are not tourists. Rather, we are students learning about tourism by playing the role of a tourist: visiting beautiful resorts, staying overnight at Palmar Tent Lodge just steps from the shores of Red Frog Beach, eating delicious meals at rooftop restaurants, taking daily boat rides to beautiful islands, snorkeling through coral reefs, catching poison dart frogs in the rainforest, living in an old surf hostel complete with a pool, paddle boards, kayaks, and delicious home-cooked meals. As I look back through the pictures and videos I’ve taken over the past month, I can’t help but think that I have been a tourist. The World Travel Organization defines a tourist as “any foreigner or local traveling within a country during his leisure time, for periods of more than 24 hours with at least one overnight.“ We seem to fit the definition to a tee, and I have grown to be okay with that.

The lessons and experiences I’ve gained from this trip have emerged from the contradictions that are innate to this program. We’ve learned to question “paradise,” to question the habits and behaviors of tourists we see on our daily field trips, to consider Bocas as a “graveyard of tropical fantasies.” Yet, I leave on Tuesday seeing Bocas as a place of beauty, of diversity, of possibilities, and of fun. With every beautiful destination comes a dark underbelly of the corruption or injustice that had to form in order to create the place it is. I’m from Chicago, one of the most beautiful and complex cities in the US. I know of its political corruption, its questionable police activity, its gentrification, its racism, its gang violence, and its innumerable other problems. Yet I still regard the city in awe, amazed at its beauty, uniqueness, diversity, and opportunities. Here, too, I experience a similar sentiment: even knowing about the many problems hidden behind the tropical image of Bocas and Panama, my lasting impression will still be of the incredible beauty that is innate to the culture, wildlife, and people, that makes the country what it is.

We’ve come to refer to ourselves as “students” during our stay here, when everybody else around us most definitely refers to us as tourists. And that’s what we are. I bring my camera almost every time I go out, constantly surprised by the beauty of the town’s palm trees, ocean views, and brightly colored architecture, constantly stopping to take a picture or film something worth remembering.

Filming people, places, and experiences is always a conflicting hobby for me. Though always having my camera ready and waiting is the only way to capture split-second moments or images, it also quite obviously labels me as the “observer” in any situation. In a new country, walking around with a camera hanging around your neck is a surefire way to pin yourself as a tourist. Yet, without doing so, I miss out on a personally rewarding experience for me; re-watching all of my footage at the end of any trip I take or experience I have, sorting through the film to keep and the film to delete, and eventually compiling it into a documentary anywhere from five minutes to an hour long.

Reflecting on this experience has been similar to going through old footage. There have been good times, bad times, challenging times, and exciting times; I’ve learned the good things about Bocas, the bad things, the complicated things, and the beautiful things. What matters moving forward is what footage I choose to keep; what memories I want to keep with me forever, which ones I want to leave behind, and how I want my snapshot of my time in Bocas to appear. This time, I choose to keep the good, bad, challenging, complicated, exciting, and beautiful; all of these complex experiences, emotions, and adventures are what has defined my time in Panama, and all are worth remembering.

→ Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in Panama