Wow, I can’t believe my co-op is already over. I can’t even begin to put into words how meaningful this experience was and how emotional I felt as I left (I didn’t think it was possible to experience that many emotions at once… the rest of my life better be pretty boring because I’m not sure if I have the capacity to feel more strongly than I do about my time in Panama, the people I’ve left behind, and the ones that I’m going home to?!).
Thanks to my loyal blog followers and anyone else who’s read a post or two, I appreciate that you took the time check it out! For the final post, here’s the finished version of the video I started earlier. Now I wish I had done a better job of recording moments with other people but I’m so glad I have the snippets of time that I did capture there. Enjoy!
I was really sad to be away for Thanksgiving this year because I love getting together and visiting with my family. But luckily my friends here were enthusiastic about doing our own celebration!
One of our family’s Thanksgiving traditions is an early morning turkey trot. For those of you who might not know, this is an event where you run a 5k in the morning to work up an appetite for the feasting later – unfortunately participants do not trot like a turkey for 5 kilometers like one of my friends here thought. My devoted Lizard Lab pals and running friend, Will, came out at 7am to kick off the Thanksgiving festivities!
The beautiful, sunny, 85º weather made it very difficult to convince myself that it was really Thanksgiving… but later the feast and evening festivities made it feel more real. I hosted the celebration at my apartment, here is everyone who came and part of the overwhelming array of food they brought!
I never would have guessed that a group of scientists could cook so well, especially since this was the first Thanksgiving celebration for a lot of people who aren’t from other countries! There were three different turkeys and some of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever had.
This was the first time that a lot of the other Americans were away from home for the holiday as well, so it was really nice that we were all able to bring our favorite food and spend time together. I’m so thankful for such a great group of people to celebrate with!
I can’t believe that I only have one week left here!? As I’m thinking about leaving and getting ready to go home, I’ve been reflecting on the things that I’ll miss about Panama and the things that I’m looking forward to…
1. The people
I’ve been so lucky to find such an interesting and lovable group of friends here. It’s been really neat to hang out with people who are at different stages of their life than me and who come from such different places – I’ve learned so much from being around this group, they’re a huge part of why I’ve loved this experience I miss them already! It’s so hard to make friends who are from all over the world because you might never see them again, but there are a few who I just have a feeling that I’ll cross paths with again in the future….
2. The jungle flora and fauna
3. Being on the Panama canal
4. The weather
5. Fresh fruit and patacones
6. Unexpected adventures
7. Latin music playing everywhere
8. Hand painted signs
They’re everywhere – painted directly onto buildings or on sheets on the side of the road – advertising everything from what a store sells to upcoming events to who is running for political offices.
I’m looking forward to…
Seeing friends and family and my dog – if it wasn’t for all the wonderful people I’ve missed so much and can’t wait to see, I would probably just miss my flight back home…
Bagels – I haven’t had a good bagel in 5 months. Or any bagel for that matter, they just don’t exist in Panama and that’s the first thing I’m getting when I’m back!
Wearing jeans and warm clothes and being cozy – especially falling asleep snuggled under the blankets…
My mom’s cooking – somehow everything she makes is absolutely delicious, mm!
Not always being covered in chigger bites – If you’re not familiar with chiggers, you are NOT missing out. I was so excited to come back from Panama all tan… In reality, I’m going to be basically as pale as when I left (thanks to months of field work hidden from the sun in long sleeves under the forest canopy) with the exciting addition of strange bumps everywhere from all the various bug bites?!?
Snow – It still feels like August to me, I’m having such a hard time convincing myself that Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is less than a month away. It definitely feels more like the holiday season when it’s winter weather!
Leaving is so bittersweet, this has been such an enriching and fulfilling experience and I’m not ready to leave. But I’m grateful for how much I’ve grown during this co-op, for all the connections I’ve made, and for the great memories I’ll always have. And luckily there are so many things to look forward to back at home!
This is a bit of a belated post, but the last week of October was science week in Panama. There is an alternative elementary school in Gamboa called the Gamboa Discovery School, and one of their teachers reached out to STRI to find scientists who would be willing to come give a lesson about their research. Zach, Xochitl, and I decided to volunteer on behalf of the lizard crew to teach the three classes about lizards.
I haven’t spent much time around kids, especially recently, so even though it sounds silly I was a little nervous. What is a 3 year old like? Can they talk? What can a 9 year old understand? Clearly I have no idea what kids under the age of 13 are like! But I was worrying needlessly, both because Xochitl and Zach are naturally excellent teachers and because the kids were all absolutely adorable – so bright eyed and full of questions and anecdotes about times they had seen a lizard. They loved trying to spot the lizards in the container of sticks and leaves, where their coloring is a natural camouflage, and they were eager to take a closer look when we held up two lizards for them to see.
It was refreshing to see that the kids were so innocently excited to learn about science – they’re not too cool for things like that yet. It seems like as we grow up and science classes get harder, people get turned off from the subject or they get too busy to with life to take time to appreciate things like lizards that they pass by. But it’s so important to care about science, and to get outside to appreciate how interesting and beautiful nature is.
Look at all these adorable, excited little faces:
Lizard catching lesson
“Tiny little lizards…”
Making clay lizards
The lizard container
They had so many questions!
Happy belated science week – science is cool, amigos!
I’ve been less exposed to Panamanian culture in the small, rural, international community in Gamboa than I would have hoped. But we’ve been able to bring some of our own traditions here, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to venture out and learn about Panamanian culture in other places! Without further ado, here are some highlights from those experiences…
There was a costume party in Gamboa for Halloween, and my lab mates and I dressed up as the teenage mutant ninja turtles. My supervisor, Mike, is in the middle dressed as an 80’s rocker. There were some really great costumes – one guy traveled here with an entire tweed suit for the occasion and two stuffed animal birds that he put on either shoulder, and he shaved off his beard to be Darwin. Several girls decorated cardboard boxes like the crazy diablo rojo buses in the city, and someone came as a “nudist” in a suit with a happy birthday party hat and birthday party supplies – get it?! It was his birthday suit, haha. It was neat to be with people from all over the world celebrating an American holiday together.
My friend Gabe and I went into the city to check out the Biomuseo a few weeks ago. The museum sits right along the water and is an iconic, brightly colored building designed by the architect Frank Gehry, who is known for his unique and organic looking designs.
In my humble opinion, the museum is a really well done celebration of the biodiversity of the tropics. It has the perfect amount of exhibits to leave you well informed but not overwhelmed. Each exhibit uses a different art form, including photographs, videos, and sculptures, to teach visitors about the plethora of tropical flora and fauna, the geological and cultural history of Panama, and the importance of preserving the incredible ecosystems found here.
I left feeling so inspired seeing how many people were there expressing an interest in nature.
It was such a funny experience to wake up early to head to the beach… in November?!? Despite the dreary weather during the bus ride there, it miraculously cleared up when we arrived and ended up being a perfect, sunny afternoon! The trip was my Panamanian friend Ernesto’s idea, and it was neat to have a tour guide for the day. He pointed out his favorite places along the drive (including a mountain range that’s great for camping and a roadside fonda selling the best empanadas with freshly made cheese), showed us all the different fruit trees near the beach (tamarind, star fruit, limes and more) and told us about the strong sense of community in Latin America – front sidewalks are like an extension of people’s homes where they bring out speakers and gather together to socialize.
Look who was sitting next to me on the bus ride back from the beach…
There was a chicken sitting next to me on the bus ride back!
This adventure happened to be on Panama’s Independence Day from Colombia, and when we got back to the city we spontaneously bumped into a parade! The route passed by the Presidential Palace in a section of the city that’s usually inaccessible to tourists, so we followed the parade past security and got to see some of the really beautiful buildings. The parade itself was also neat – there were dancers wearing polleras, the very ornate traditional Panamanian dresses, and bands wearing traditional men’s attire and Panama hats. Ernesto pointed out which style polleras came from which region of Panama, and explained that flipping up different parts of the rim of a Panama hat signals different things – for example “I’m single and looking for a girl.” Afterwards there were fireworks, which looked so picturesque above all the old buildings. Sorry for all the low quality photos this week, but I’m including them anyways because I think it’s still nice to have some visuals.
Anyways, bringing some American culture to Gamboa and learning a little bit more about this country has been fun… I can’t believe I only have a few weeks left here, I’m going to try to squeeze in as many other little adventures as possible before it’s over!
I always like to learn about (and sample!) the local comida, or food, when I go somewhere new. Since I haven’t mentioned that so far, I figured it was about time that some food photos made it onto the blog!
Panamanian cooking is a blend of many other cultures, and is especially influenced by African, Spanish, and Native American cuisine. A typical breakfast consists of hojaldres – similar to fried dough but less sweet and sometimes topped with melted cheese; salchicas guisadas – “sausages” that are more like hot dogs in a tomato and onion sauce; fried or boiled yucca, eggs, and a cup of coffee. Lunch and dinner typically consist of fish or meat, rice, beans or lentils, and often patacones – twice fried green plantains, and juice or cerveza – beer.
Along the coasts there is a lot of seafood available, and a whole fried fish with patacones is very common (and delicious!).
Ceviche, or raw fish in citrus juice, is also very popular. There’s a huge fish market in Panama city where you can stock up on fresh fish or just get a little cone of ceviche for the road.
I’ve found that it is much more common to drink juice here than in the U.S. because there are so many different kinds of fruit in Panama. You can buy juice made from passionfruit, oranges, limes, tamarind, pineapple, or any combination thereof in stores or from almost any restaurant. Other common Panamanian foods are bollos, which are a variation of a tamale typically made with corn, butter, and sugar; and empanadas. There are little street carts all over the city and dotted along almost every street in the country (that might be a little bit of an exaggeration but these street carts really are everywhere!) selling these snacks and juice very cheaply.
The only place to buy food in Gamboa (besides a resort) is the fonda, or food truck, which is open during the weekdays for breakfast and lunch to serve the canal workers and STRI scientists.
Not only is it great to try some authentic Panamanian cuisine, it’s also super cheap. I’m a vegetarian (although I’ve been eating fish recently, Panama is not the most vegetarian friendly place and often there isn’t a veggie option) so I usually just order the sides – rice, beans or lentils, a salad, and sometimes a fried sweet plantain – all for $2.50!
Hojaldres from the fonda
Fried chicken, beans, rice and sweet plantain
Bleak grocery situation in Gamboa
Since Gamboa is very isolated, we have to drive into the city to go to a grocery store. Typically, we’ve been going every two weeks. As someone who loves fresh produce and cooking, this has been especially painful for me and I’m definitely looking forward to having a grocery store right up the street when I’m back in Boston! I was initially really surprised to find a lot of brands that I recognized in the store – a lot of food is imported from the US. However, these are usually more expensive than other options, so I’ve been testing out some of the local brands instead. I’ve also been trying to use what’s available, so I’ve been making a lot of plantains (they’re everywhere!), rice, and beans (I’ve never made dried beans before, but that’s very common here so I’ve been experimenting with that) with avocado – the kind that’s available here is much larger, sweeter, and juicier than the hass avocados that I’m used to.
I’ve also been making arepas, which are like a thick fried tortilla made from corn flour that can be topped or stuffed with any variety of meat or veggies that you desire. They’re traditionally from Colombia and Venezuela but are also common in Panama, like this delicious arepa topped with veggies that I tried!
Another surprise was the disappointing selection of produce in the grocery store. I was envisioning a huge variety of new kinds of local fruits and veggies, but almost everything in large grocery stores is imported. Luckily, there’s a large produce street market in the city that’s great if you don’t mind venturing into a decidedly less posh area of the city and overlooking the questionable cleanliness of the street and the stalls – the produce is all from Panama and perfectly delicious after a good wash! Also, there is a woman in Gamboa who visits a farm nearby every week or two and brings back deliveries that Gambodians can purchase from her house.
When I go home, I’m definitely going to miss the plethora of delicious fresh fruit available here – passionfruit, papaya, mangos, bananas, and pineapple, oh my! But it’s neat learning about new dishes and picking up cooking pointers from people I’ve met here who are from all over the world… I definitely have expanded my cooking repertoire and I’m looking forward to making some new things for friends when I get back!
Mixing things up this week and instead of reading about what I’ve been up to… you can see for yourself! Sorry for the terrible video quality (workin’ with the high tech recording equipment I’ve got here) but here’s a little sneak peek at some of the highlights from the past few months. Enjoy!
…is obviously 5am, am I right?! Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch BUT it’s definitely worth waking up that early occasionally for a sunrise hike. I set out in the dark with two friends who are also STRI interns, Zach and Zoe, up the trail to a lookout tower that’s perched up in the jungle on top of a hill. Here’s a picture of the first segment of the hike… it’s definitely a good work out to get up to the tower.
But it’s worth the effort – the tower just peeks above the top of the canopy so it’s a prime sunrise viewing spot!
There is an indigenous village on the side of the Chagres River at the left of this photo, and as the sun was coming up we could see several canoes setting out from the village and rowing up the river into the fog.
Even if 5am actually didn’t feel like the best time of day when I was dragging myself out of bed, I’m glad I decided to rise to the occasion because watching the sun come up really brightened my day (hahaha).
When I’m super busy during the semester and feeling stressed out about all the things I have to do, I always desperately wish I had a moment to just sit and relax. Now that I actually have that time (I definitely have more free time here than I have in years) I find myself feeling guilty about it! I feel like I should be using every minute to do productive things or that something is wrong because I’m not racing from one thing to the next. It’s crazy that in our culture being busier than everyone else is almost the goal and people compare how many things they’re trying to do at once. Being here, I’m realizing that not everyone lives like that. In Panama, time is much more flexible – if you agree to meet at 8pm, that really means 9pm or even whenever you’re ready; if something doesn’t get done today, no worries, it can always happen tomorrow; “now” often actually means something much closer to “later” or “when I get to it”.
So this past Saturday when I had nothing pressing to do in the afternoon, I embraced this attitude, hung up my hammock outside, plunked myself down in the sunshine, and did absolutely nothing except look around and think. It was such a pleasant experience and a great chance to do some reflecting on some questions that have been swirling around in the back of my mind. For instance…
Why don’t I usually have free time to just relax like this?
Should I start structuring more time like this into my life?
What would I need to cut out in order to do that?
What am I actually looking forward to next semester?
Does feeling proud of the things that I accomplish outweigh the stress and overwhelmingness of being committed to what can sometimes seem like too many things?
Does it really matter in the end how involved in extracurricular activities I am?
Does it matter to me?
Which one of my commitments are most important to me? Which ones would I be willing to let go?
Why is it so hard to make decisions?
In answering those questions and reflecting on my experience here so far, I’m realizing more and more that time that I invest in other people is always well spent. It’s from all these interactions that I learn the most, and seeing friends and the people I care about is what I’m looking forward to when I get back to campus… I still have more decisions to make about what to do, but luckily I’ll have more opportunities to hang up my hammock for some more reflective moments. On that note, I hope you’re able to find the time today to hang up a hammock if you have one, or at least stop to do nothing except relax for a moment.