The past few months of my life have been busy, stressful, and fast. The days ticked by quickly and without warning of how abruptly my first year of teaching would end and my life in San Miguel would begin. Knowing that my time in sweet Georgia was limited, I packed my days with student celebrations, kickball games, weekends in the city, and time with my friends and family. Although I was preparing to leave, I don’t know if I was actually preparing to arrive in Panama. But there I was- waiting in the longest customs line I had ever seen, dreaming about the air conditioning that I reluctantly left a few hours before, and sizing up the guy in line a few feet in front of me- who by the looks of it probably worked for Kalu Yala (profiling by his chaco/ backpack/ idealistic smile combo). A quick introduction (and confirmation of my suspicions) took me and my new friend through the airport doors and into the arms of our eternally smiling program director, who greeted us with neon signs and a mud encrusted land cruiser to take us the final hour of our journey into San Miguel.
Our cozy house, aptly named “Casa Llena” is a bright yellow building about 50 yards from the center of town. We drove into the gates to find a rowdy group of interns all around the table on the patio, getting to know each other before our programs- business, valley, community outreach, and anthropology split for the semester. Exhausted from the trip, I was ready to fall into bed- but the realization that 12:00 midnight also meant my birthday was rolling around- demanded at least one toast before I gave in to sleep. Welcome to Panama.
Waking up in panama is nothing like waking up in Atlanta. There is no alarm clock. There is no rush to jump in traffic and push my way to work. We wake up to a bright Central American sun and our rooster, Alejandro, announcing to the world that the day is beginning. Thankfully there are quite a few coffee drinkers in our house, so I never have to worry about a lack of caffeine. I usually take my café con leche and a book for walk down to El Rio Pacora to take in the quiet of the morning. Finding time to reflect and making an effort to truly be present in my situation was easy to forget during the “final countdown” of the last few months, so the sudden change was a shock to my system.
Trying to settle in has been a greater challenge than I anticipated; as the rainy season is just starting, lying in a hammock and waiting for the afternoon rain to pass offers another speedbump to my day, reminding me to slow down and that life has a natural rhythm that is often drowned out by obligations and self-induced stress. That is the flow of life here: slow, relaxed, tranquilo. People take sufficient time to prepare before they begin a project. The ground work is equally as important as getting started. I am learning that in San Miguel people focus on relationships and put more energy into the style of conversation and less into proving a direct point. The contrast in lifestyle is a point that could create tension solely due to differences in work style, but I am instead hoping to take it in as a new style of working and living as I understand a new culture and a new people. In the states I would rush through the week just to get a Saturday to “slow down.” Now I finally have the time, and our weekly schedule feels infinitely more balanced than my schedule 1 month ago. I am taking time to prepare for English classes, to network with likeminded people in the community and the city, and to find a healthy balance in living to work rather than working to live.
The pace in San Miguel is slower than I am used to, but the lack of speed is only due to the depth of relationships and care given to preparation and detail. Back at home, my kindergarten class just finished a unit on safety in the community. We played endless games of Red Light- Green Light, where the kids run around and respond to my stoplight commands by adjusting the speed of their imaginary cars. One of my favorite, and worst behaved students, would always complain that yellow lights were “a waste of time.” He would honk his self-installed, imaginary horn, and yell at the other drivers to “move it, or lose it!” I always thought to myself that his aggressive style would serve him well on my high traffic commute, but kindergarten rules aside, maybe the yellow lights serve under-celebrated purpose. Slowing down to a stop is something we all hate to do. Our culture says “Go! Move! Get ahead!” but for the other streets to flow and an infrastructure to function, sometimes we have to slow it down. So I am. Slowing. Preparing. Taking it all in and adjusting my pace to my new surroundings. Our community outreach team is filling notebooks with ideas for educational programming, women’s empowerment, community gardening, beautification projects, sustainability initiatives, environmental awareness; the list literally goes on and on. Budgets, team responsibilities, and project foundations are prepared. The kids are on vacation from school this week (updates to come on our own vacation to Playa Palmar), so when they get back we will be in the schools in full force. Even in our planning stages, people from one town over have heard of the “gringo teachers” putting a new spin on English classes. We are growing relationships and community programs that promote health. Not just individual health, but relational and environmental as well. Our roots are taking hold, and our network is growing in a way that will support our work for the rest of the summer and ojalá, beyond.
So, cheers y salud. Here’s to being 24, celebrating good health, and slowing it down to live in a community of people striving to grow organic relationships that will change not only how we see business develop during our summer at Kalu Yala, but how we build relationships in the years to come.