At the beginning of the fall semester, we asked student Rachel Gates about her first impressions of Panama. Now, as the semester comes to a close, she shared her thoughts with us again.
What did you like most about the SFS experience?
I have always been a big fan of getting my hands dirty—and I had plenty of opportunities to do just that this semester. I’ve taken soil samples to look at under the microscope, caught poison dart frogs, kneaded dough for coconut bread, thrown sandy tennis balls for our resident dogs, and hiked in the pouring rain on muddy trails for directed research. There’s always something to immerse myself in here and the opportunities for experiential learning never get old.
You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
Panamá, like any country, is multifaceted. My directed research project focused on indigenous tourism in Bocas del Toro and through this study I was able to interact with many Bocatereños. These people were open, honest, and happy to share their perspectives without a second thought. I am incredibly grateful for the kindness and hospitality I was shown by every person I interacted with. From what I’ve heard these past few months from locals, this part of the Panamá is a gem with its own culture and quirks. I will sincerely miss the hot aji chombo salsa endearingly called “Bocas Sauce” by my peers, the fresh smoothies, and the reggaetón blaring in the clubs that have all become so familiar to me.
What is life at the Center really like? What are the best and the most challenging parts?
Living and working alongside the same people day in and day out has its benefits and drawbacks. Our group of students and staff has grown very tight over the fast few months and I have cultivated relationships with my peers and professors unlike any others I’ve had before. Unfortunately, constantly being together means there’s little space to escape when you want some peace and quiet. Even when you’re sitting alone, a dog might walk up with a tennis ball and expect you to throw it. They’re not as perceptive as humans. But at the end of the day, having people around to hang out with at all times isn’t so bad.
What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
I was most challenged by the group work in my classes this semester. Working with others is a skill, I believe, that one can always improve on. Increased exposure to working in teams is beneficial and makes for a better experience. I’ve had the opportunity to work with others plenty of times in the past, but it’s a constant learning process. Luckily, for the most part, everyone chipped in. The last month of the semester during directed research, I was collaborating with two other students and our professor the whole time. We got along seamlessly! I think knowing others well and knowing how they works makes the whole process much smoother.
Photo courtesy of Anna Chahuneau
Culturally, I don’t feel like I’ve had many huge challenges. Bocas has tourists visiting from around the world so the local people are used to having outsiders around. I have felt that, as nice as Bocatereños are, it was hard to form strong friendships with them. We’re very busy working most of the time, but beyond that I felt that they’re accustomed to people coming and going and I just wasn’t here long enough to make strong connection with many outside the SFS community.
What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
My favorite memory was the night we built a campfire. We sang songs, roasted marshmallows, and stared up at the stars. My Girl Scout troop used to go camping several times a year and I look back fondly on the fires we built then, so when we had one at TIBS I felt like my past was connecting with my present.
Of course, there are many other good moments—going on a clean up dive, roasting cacao beans, seeing bioluminescence, waking up to the sound of howler monkeys, crossing bridges through the cloud forest canopy…the list is endless.
Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Proud, optimistic, grateful
Photo courtesy of Anna Chahuneau