“House construction is a collective enterprise, one in which some men have special knowledge but all play their roles, just as the house itself is a collection of named and symbolically significant pieces that when lashed together create an aesthetically pleasing whole standing for the solidarity of kin and community.”
-Mari Lyn Salvador writes about the Kuna community in her book The Art of Being Kuna, p. 42
I am grateful for so much of my experience here- in the jungle, in San Miguel, in Panama City, and during my travels around Panama—because I have had ample of opportunities to reflect on what type of community member I am striving to be while stepping into many different types of communities.
Most intensely, in the jungle, I’ve chewed on this idea. For three months, 20 of us gringos learned how to survive in the jungle. As we are aiming to build the foundation for a sustainable community, the Kalu Yala community circle is growing—diminishing the “them” in favor of celebrating the many voices of the “us.” We as interns and directors come with specific knowledge and skills, which are enhanced and complemented by the neighbors of Kalu Yala; there are many more than us 20 who are in the “us”—it’s the friends in San Miguel, the acquaintances in Panama City, the investors in Kalu Yala, and the neighboring campesinos.
Take Ramon de la Hoya, for example. As a 63-year-old farmer, he has wisdom and skill that, as a newbie to the jungle, seem to magically spin burden into possibility. We joke about him being a jungle wizard as we’ve seen him slide down eroding hillsides filled with rocks and tree roots, hike for hours without a sip of water, and build one mean weather-proof palm-roof. He taught a handful of how to weave baskets simply because we asked; most impressively, he answered inquiries from this non-Spanish speaking girl. He, along with others, have received us with patience and care.
From learning how to weave baskets from a neighboring farmer in the valley, to making queso fresco with a woman in San Miguel, to having my Spanish corrected by a mini market cashier, I am thankful for the people who have taken the time to explain something, whether it’s a concrete skill or a cultural explanation. It’s the people who make the experience and the place. There’s a fixed list of us Valley-ers—but that’s just the beginning.
All of this has made me take one of my favorite quotations more to heart than I previously have. Extracted from Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be?, this continues to remind me how to appreciate others and how to give as a community member.
“A blue glass appears to be blue when light shines through it because it absorbs all other colors and thus does not let them pass. That is to say, we call a glass ‘blue’ precisely because it does not retain the blue waves. It is named not for what it possesses but for what it gives out.” (p. 72)