After a debacle at the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador, where no one seemed to know where my connection flight was, I finally arrived in Panama City about 6 hours after my original arrival time. Not too bad, all things considered. After breezing through customs and immigration, I was picked up by a couple of Kalu Yala Directors and taken to the apartment where I will be living for the next 3 months.
Built in Spanish Colonial style, it’s a beautiful, historic building full of windows, arches, wrought iron and indoor/outdoor porches, situated amid numerous sky-rise apartment buildings. I share a room with a few other guys, but a couple of them also work in San Miguel and the Valley, so they aren’t always there. There are plenty of couches and hammocks looking out over the city to lounge around in, and a rooftop porch that feels great at night, thanks to the constant wind. Since it is dry season, the weather is extraordinarily consistent, staying around 93 during the day and 73 during the night. It hasn’t varied from that for the two weeks that I have been here, and isn’t supposed to for the next couple of months.
During orientation week, we visited each of Kalu Yala’s three sites: Panama City, San Miguel, and the Valley. The business interns (including me) stay and work in Panama City, along with the owners and a few directors.
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San Miguel is a small town about an hour-and-a-half bus ride outside the city, where our community outreach and education program is based. The Valley, a few kilometers from San Miguel, is comprised of about 7000 acres of tropical rainforest, of which Kalu Yala currently owns 550 acres. This is where the city will be built.
After a few days of orientation in the city, we made our way out to San Miguel for two days, which was the beginning of the end of internet, phone, and showers (though I did soap down in the river one day). Not surprisingly, such lack of amenities leads to odd behavior, such as making up nicknames for all our fellow interns and directors, and creating a group called the Empanada Boys, who then proceeded to create a rap about the origins of each nickname. I have no problem admitting that this was way out of my comfort zone, but the two guys I room with were pretty intent on it, so I went along, hoping it would be fun. And it was fun…though it reinforced the fact that I am a 100% white boy—not that I ever had any doubt. It was during the grueling hour-and-a-half hike through the mountains from San Miguel to the Valley that the Empanada Boys busted out their rhymes to the unsuspecting girls. It ended up being great fun, and certainly got some laughs. To my shame, though, there is a video online. There goes my shot at running for President.
The hike up the ridge and through the rain forest into the Valley was beautiful. We arrived early in the morning and were greeted by 15 of the Valley interns and other directors. For the remainder of the day we hiked about, picked fruit from the orchard, hung around the river and went rock jumping.
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When evening came about everyone gathered to eat and drink. One of my roommates, who is literally a stand-up comedian, and a good one at that, quickly became the center of attention as he reenacted one of his shows. He then moved on to playing guitar and singing. There were about 30 people gathered around, watching him intently. At one point in the middle of the show I went off to the woods to pee. Suddenly, out of the darkness and rumbling noises of the crowd, I heard the last words I ever wanted to hear: The Empanada Boys. I stopped mid-stream; my eyes went wide. How the heck did they find out about us? I stopped and listened, praying not to hear those words again. But sure enough, I heard the name repeated again, and then again, and then, invariably, “Hey, where is Austin? Austin? Austin! Austin, where are you?!” Son of a B$#?@! My mind raced, trying to find a way out, but I knew it was inevitable; it was going to happen eventually, whether now or later. So I decided to get it over with. I trudged back, a little pale-faced, to the chanting crowd, wishing I had drank about, oh, 81 more beers. I arrived to cheers for the Empanada boys. And then we rapped.
It was pretty great being out in the Valley for a few days. No running water, electricity, phone or internet was rather refreshing. The idea of time became a lot more abstract—my hunger and the sun seemed to be the only real indicators. And though the sleeping arrangement was a shared air mattress on an open second story floor amongst a group of other people, it was pretty nice to wake up to a sunrise and wind sweeping down the Valley.
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Orientation ended last weekend and we have actually just wrapped up our first week of work back in Panama City. It has been a good. I’ll post about it next, so that you can get a little better idea about what Kalu Yala is and what I am doing. Until next time!