I laced up my running shoes to the sound of the ocean and to the light of the rising sun as it peaked over the horizon. The running route traced the coastline, so I had an 180-degree view of the ocean and some of the other islands in the archipelago… Good morning Bocas del Toro!!

The breakfast bell clanged as I returned to the SFS center, and all of us students felt a little bit more awake as we sat down to strong coffee, breakfast tacos, and fresh fruit. On class-heavy days, we typically have a little bit of time before the school day begins, but other times we show up to breakfast in our field clothes and ready to go. These are my favorite kinds of days.

After RAP (daily Reflection, Announcements, and Physicality), I grabbed my life jacket before heading to my boat assignment. On this particular day, we were headed to Bahia Roja, a Ngöbe indigenous community in the area, to hear how tourism has affected its members, both historically and in present day. While there, we also had the opportunity to learn how to make a Panamanian bread, known as Johnny Cakes! As the Ngöbe women shared their stories and recipes, my eyes were opened to the complexity of the socioeconomic and geopolitical issues in Bocas. Just by listening to and sharing a meal with these women, I was able to learn, first-hand, the implications of land rights issues and cultural appropriation that the indigenous communities in Bocas face.

Before we left, my classmates and I found ourselves in a game of soccer with a group of young boys from the community. Our laughter and banter replaced the language barrier as we ran around passing the ball and celebrating with high-fives when we scored a goal. Though entirely spontaneous, this game will forever be one of my fondest memories of Bocas del Toro.

Every field day looks a little bit different: some days, we leave in boats to conduct fish studies while snorkeling and, other days, we walk to forest sites to map ecological patches. We’ve taken tours through mangroves, hiked through sustainable farmland, and studied the effects of tourism at the “hot-spot” destinations throughout Bocas.

Field days are long, tiring, and full of sweat, but they go way beyond any normal classroom setting. At SFS Panama, we attend classes with the same professors that design our field days, so lectures supplement what we are fortunate enough to actually participate in, observe, or study in the community and environment of Bocas.

Before arriving in Panama, I had never conducted field work, but now it is one of my favorite ways to explore the environment and the ways in which people interact with it. Each day in the field brings new adventures, new challenges, new skills to learn, and new moments to turn into lifelong memories.

→ Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in Panama