For the better part of a week, we lived and worked in the community of La Soledad, Panamá. Soledad means “solitude” in English, which is both a very fitting and completely inaccurate description of our experience. Solitude can mean “remote, rural, and secluded,” which matches a community with no electricity, no running water in their homes, only pit latrines, and a road so narrow that we had to carry all of our bags in because the bus could not drive down it. However, solitude can also mean “isolation, loneliness, withdrawal, or privacy,” none of which match this vibrant community or the fact that our students spent nearly every waking and sleeping moment in the presence of others. Much of the joy and hardship we experienced this week originated from this tension between solitude meaning “peaceful remoteness” and an experience that afforded no privacy or modern luxury.
At the end of each day, after writing in their journals about their observations, encounters, and epiphanies, the students and chaperones would conclude with the “squeeze prayer of gratitude.” For this prayer, we would all stand in a circle and voice one thing – a person, an idea, an experience – for which we were grateful. As we voiced our gratitude, all the people near and far who made our experience what it was seemed to be among us.
“I am grateful for the women who cook for us.” Early every morning, long before our 6:30 a.m. wake-up call, women from the community gathered to prepare our breakfast. They left their children, household chores, and farm duties to make sure we were well fed. While different women had signed up to prepare different meals, one woman, Jenny, came every day to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for us. Even though some students may have eaten rice, eggs, chicken, or sardines a few more times than they ever hope to again, they all appreciated healthy, hearty meals prepared with love.
“I am grateful for Whitney and Aníbal.” Whitney, known to the community by her Ngobe name “Echi,” is the Peace Corps volunteer who has lived for the better part of the past year in La Soledad. Echi not only helped with all the logistical planning for us to be there – from helping the community prepare the court space to organizing the cooks for each meal – she also prepared community events for us. We learned how to make chakaras (woven bags used to carry everything big and small) from women in the community, we went on a challenging hike up to a “finca” or farm to see how people make their living, and we experienced a cultural night in which children sang the national anthem and adults from the community shared their traditional dances (for their part, our kids did the Chicken Dance, sang Lead Me Lord, and overall set a decidedly positive tone for the event). None of these cultural experiences would have been possible without the organization and the community relationships of Echi.
Aníbal is the Courts for Kids representative in Panamá and he provided all of the court-related logistics, as well as cultural insights and a healthy dose of silliness. His obsession with sloths soon spread to our whole group and it wasn’t long before students and adults alike were making a three-toed sloth gesture with our hands. Aníbal was always looking ahead to what needed to be done next for the court and he made our long work days run pleasantly, smoothly, and efficiently.
“I am grateful for the community members who worked with us on the court today.” Each day that we worked, a host of men from the community came to help with the construction of the court. Some of our favorites included Johannes, our maestro de obra, who made sure everything ran according to plan and that our concrete, which we mixed by hand, had the right proportions of sand, cement, and fiber mesh (dubbed “fiesta” by the students because of the way they scattered it like confetti). We also loved Leo, who went out of his way to learn as many of our names as he could the first day and could often be heard calling out “dale Gennie” or “¡Eso Niko!” as we worked. We are grateful for Abel, who worked long after everyone else had stopped for the day and who taught our students how to “flotear” or smooth out the concrete as it hardens. Thank you to Semáforo (a nickname that means stoplight), Luis, Roy and the countless other community members who worked so hard alongside us, taught us how to construct a court, and demonstrated incredible patience as we learned.
“I am grateful to all the people back home who made it possible for me to be here.” Ever present in the hearts and minds of our students were all the people who sacrificed so they could be in Panamá. They talked about their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as friends and siblings who supported them financially and emotionally. They missed all these people back home, but also felt driven to immerse themselves in the community by the fact that they knew the people back home would wish that for them.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to experience simple living.” While sometimes it was hard to deal with the mud, bugs, and close living quarters, the students also discovered the joy and peace of living simply in the moment. To bring us back to the paradox of “solitude,” Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, his treatise on simple living, wrote, “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” It was through simple living that our students came to understand the joy of a tight-knit, secluded community, that poverty of the body does not mean poverty of the spirit, and how to embrace and support one another through the challenges they encountered.
Daniel and I would like to add one more statement of gratitude: “We are grateful to Jesuit High School, Courts for Kids, and Peace Corps for providing this opportunity of intercultural exchange and solidarity among people. We feel profoundly privileged and blessed to bear witness to these amazing young people learning what it means to be men and women for and with others.”
I learned that the people with the least can give the most. Each person in the community had to make sacrifices for us to be happy. The children missed school so we could sleep in. The men missed work and church to build the court with us. The women put aside house work to make meals for us. They had so little but gave what they could. I learned that even giving a little can mean the world to another.
– Rachel Carter
I have learned from the community that family is very important. In La Soledad a lot of what they have is family. They may not make much money, or just barely have enough just to get by, but they are still happy because they have their family to care for them. I can remember, coming back, how important family is and spend more time with them.
– Patrick Beckett
Stereotypes that I held prior to this trip was that people with less are less happy. I realized that usually I find myself constantly wanting more things in order to find happiness. Though not everyone in the community of La Soledad had their needs and wants meant, they were far off happier because they were surrounded by the people who love them, which is what really matters.
– Bella Marconi
I have learned that this world given to us is shared by so many different, amazing people. I have realized that everyone is given the ability to love. It is not about owning things but about being a good, kind person.
– Natalie Landgraf
I feel like this experience has changed me by changing my mindset on how to live a simple life. Living simpler is the best without having the distractions around us and taking us away from forming relationships.
– Tayz Hernandez
My favorite memory from this trip is playing on the court inauguration day. Our friend Roy from La Soledad grabbed us to make a volleyball team. It felt like the project finally came together and the court was not just for sports but for the community to come together.
– Chris Burpee
On this trip I realized how important family is/should be. The community showed me how even if you have very little, you always have your family. Community and family are a lot more important than material items.
– Molly Porter