This week, a journalist from New York came to write an article about Jimmy for a CEOs under 30 website. She ventured out to both San Miguel and the valley to learn more about what we’re doing (wait, what exactly are we doing?), and she interviewed a few of us Anthropology interns in particular about the cultural aspects of Kalu Yala. I spent most of high school wanting to be a writer, and while that dream has mostly faded by now (along with much of my writing skill), I still find solace in words on paper. For my blog this week, I’m separating myself from the reality of being an intern and stepping into the shoes of an outsider: a journalist, who lives for the story.
Littering the common room of Kalu Yala’s San Miguel home, casa llena, on a table made of four cinder blocks and one 3-by-3 marble slab lies the following: one half-empty water bottle (or half-full, depending on the owner); a deck of cards; a pack of cheap markers, with the contents strewn about the surface; nail polish remover; several fiction books, ranging from a children’s chapter book to engaging medieval fantasy to 1970s classic; scraps of paper scribbled with Spanglish, schedules and saucy talking parrots; Gossip Girl, season one; one purse; miscellaneous arts and crafts supplies; and one practically manufactured-looking tree branch, on which perches a circular glass orb, looking like a home for bubbles blown by a six-year-old, not quite ready to pop.
Within hours (perhaps even minutes) of arriving to this big yellow house in the mountainous cluster of villages called San Martin, in the Panama province of Panama, I could imagine how monumental this table would become. Casa llena, ‘full house’ in Spanish, shelters about fourteen Kalu Yala interns, distinguished by project – Community Outreach or Anthropology – but united by curiosity, spunk, ambition, youth. The physical manifestations of their similarities, alive in books, drawings, empty bottles of Coke or Balboa, inkless pens, lost coins, stray hairs, headphones and laptop chargers, characterize this house nearly as much as their endless conversation does.
The table is the centerpiece of the common room, regardless of how trivial its possessions may be. One may easily overlook the importance of such furniture when he tosses his journal on its surface or when she lays her empty peanut butter jar on the smallest area she can manage. The table houses empty cracker packaging and forgotten jars of nail polish, but much more than that, it’s the ultimate melting pot of thoughts and ideas, a collection of gossip, rumors and shared jokes.
Tables never get the credit they deserve. We consistently surround them, teasing them with the placing of items to be trashed, items to be picked up later, items to be forgotten, when all they want is the love of a seat. The love of a meal. The love of a conversation, a familial bond. The love of laughter. And when we do choose to bestow our plates upon them, our bodies around them, they won’t be satisfied, because they know we’ll only leave when we’re done, wiping crumbs into our napkins.
Not at Kalu Yala. The table remains in our thoughts wherever we go. For lunch, we’ll grace the porch table with our presence, pushing the candles and ashtrays and notebooks to the middle to make way for our plates. For evening board games, we’ll smother the kitchen table with Scrabble letters, Monopoly money or time-weathered playing cards. And for anything else, we’ll go to the table. It all ends up on the table.
Panama’s culture is written in our table. In the eccentric and efficient lifestyle of the States, such a table could not survive. Its contents would be swept away with the constant motion that is our lives. The markers would find themselves in the supply closet; the coins would be lost in couch cushions. Water bottles would be finished. Books would be read and put away. Here, we move slowly, not so calculated. Thought is reserved for more special occasions; style is revered always.
It’s true, we can’t take the table with us. It will stay, to serve for scores of new interns, to support however many more physical, malleable embodiments of thought we supply it with. But the ideas will leave with us. The table has taught us how to slow down, and that it’s okay to forget things for a little while. Just as long as you come back to claim them later.