When I first arrived at the Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama, I had my mind set that it was to stay just a center for me. I acknowledged that I would be living here for the next three months; however, I did not want to give myself the possibility to make this my home because it was all temporary. However, about a month and a half in I can recall when I sat in Toltito’s boat and turned to a friend saying, “I cannot wait to go home.” In this moment I did not mean my house in Severn, Maryland back in the United States or my home institution in Richmond, Virginia; I meant the TIBS Center.
In this moment I was completely thrown off. Why did I call the center my home? I immediately retracted my statement and asked my friend if calling this place home was acceptable. After getting a yes and not feeling satisfied with it, I further synthesized how I could have changed my perception so drastically and think of this place as my home. To answer this, I had to first answer, what makes a home? I define home as more than just a place that one lives. Home is where you really get to know the good and bad about the people around you, the geography of the place, and everything that can be found in the town. Home is not a place but the stories, memories, and feelings that are cultivated in an area. According to these definitions, the TIBS center has now become my home.
During the past two months at the center, I have gotten to know the people and place in ways I did not imagine before coming here. Now when I go into the water for fun or for a class snorkel, I can identify the organisms around me. It is the same when entering a rainforest, I am familiar with my surroundings and it feels like a walk or swim down a path I have taken many times. I no longer feel fear, but rather comfort when I’m in these areas. It is a similar feeling with the town and area surrounding the center. I have developed a Sunday pizza spot, at Ciao down the street to our right, with my fellow peers. Our cohort can now walk the streets of Bocas town and fully navigate where we are going, unlike the first week where we were timid and strangers to this place.
As the program also started with us feeling like strangers to the place, we were also strangers to each other. However, I have bonded with people here more in these two months than I have with some individuals that I have known for multiple years back home. Leaving here I will know what makes my peers happy, sad, how they cope with stress and how they celebrate. As I will know them, they will know me and no matter what path life takes us in the future, we all will have this shared, unique and transformative experience to look back on. The moments and memories that we all have experienced thus far and the ones to come will only be understood by us. When we complete the program in a month and we all look back on this place, we all will have an emotional connection to it. In some way or another, we will have been impacted by this program, place and the people who were a part of it.
This has made the TIBS Center our home, my home, because home is a place where your feet may leave but your heart will always be.