A picture is worth a thousand words, but a moment is worth a lifetime. There have been so many moments since arriving in Panama during which I must pause and fully absorb my surroundings, snapshotting my experiences like photos in my head.
Watching “tortugitas,” or small turtles struggling toward the vast Pacific Ocean at sunset, sitting quietly at a waterfall deep in the cloud forests of Parque International de Amistad, floating in the dark waters of Bocas del Toro, a province of Panama surrounded by millions of bioluminescent plankton and so many more.
While my friends back home sit in lecture halls, I’m setting up camera traps in the rainforest, listening to community conservation organizations and snacking on carrots straight from the ground at a sustainable farm.
I arrived in Panama City not knowing what to expect. I came here to study tropical ecology, marine ecosystems and biodiversity conservation with the School for International Travel (SIT) along with the 18 other students in my cohort who also study in the U.S.
After arriving, we spent two weeks in Panama City taking Spanish classes. I studied at the Technology University of Panama (UTP) and I often ate lunch with students where we bonded over music, Twister and Just Dance YouTube videos.
I lived with my host “abuelita” whom I call Señora Lucía and her two Chihuahuas. Most of the other students were in pairs of two with their host families, but I was alone, which made me apprehensive at first. But once I met Señora Lucía, I knew everything would be okay.
I am far from fluent in Spanish, and I hadn’t taken any academic language classes since high school. Señora Lucía knows very little English, so we had to figure it out together.
For the first two weeks, the most difficult things were figuring out the logistics. Finding places to study, commuting to school on buses that were packed to the brim and navigating the city.
The city is huge and diverse. One minute you are in a mall where you can find anything you’ve ever wanted and five minutes later, you’re in the Metropolitan Natural Park watching monkeys climbing up trees.
It’s also hot and very humid. Every day when I got home from school, I would rinse off in the shower and change into fresh clothes. You never know when it’s going to rain, and at any moment you could be caught in a torrential downpour. By now, I’m always prepared for anything and will never be without my sunscreen, rain jacket or bug spray.
Just as I was adjusting to Panama City, we set off on a three-week excursion traveling across Panama and Costa Rica.
My life these past few weeks has been one of a nomad, never in the same place for more than a few days, traveling with my cohort and our professors. I’ve enjoyed being able to see so much and every day is an amazing discovery of the nature, people and systems surrounding me.
In this program, I have had very little free time and my life is very scheduled, but I prefer it this way. Before the exhaustion sets in, we are off to the next thing, storing our backpacks on top of buses, in wooden canoes and on our backs as we cross international borders on foot with all our stuff.
So much has happened it makes my head spin. We spent two days with the Playa Malena turtle conservation group accompanying them on night patrol. We watched for turtles laying their eggs so we could move them to safety in developed protected areas.
Then we went to the province of Chiriquí in Cerro Punta, where I stayed with a family and visited local farms and conservation groups. After that, we moved to Costa Rica, where I stayed on a farm with pigs, chickens and butterflies and spent the day playing soccer with neighborhood kids. I also passed the time by learning “bachata” and “merengue” dance moves and eating homemade “helado,” or ice cream.
This week started off with a visit to an organic cacao farm, followed by a homestay in the indigenous Naso community of Sieykin. Now, I find myself on a stunning beach in Bocas del Drago where a beautiful coral reef is only a three-minute swim from the shore.
In the span of a week, I swam in the pools of three different waterfalls, met 10 new family members and ate too many cacao beans to count. In 48 hours, I’ve gone snorkeling four times, seen eight sloths and countless mangrove trees. My eyes are simply bulging out of my head, and this is “school” here.
We do our homework on the road and have lectures when we can. Sometimes it’s on the bus, or on the farm overlooking a beautiful pasture. Other times, class is in a random hotel lobby, late on a Saturday night.
The students in my cohort are my classmates during the day, roommates at night, “hermanos,” or brothers and friends all the time. It’s interesting traveling with such a close group. Together we’ve faced 10-hour bus days, rapid waterfalls and the inevitable virus that made its way through the group.
I’ve made so many important connections, especially with my host families. Late nights talking to Señora Lucía on her porch, feeding the pigs with my host dad in Costa Rica and playing guitar with my Abuelo in Naso Tjër Di.
I’ve fallen in love with Panama almost as much as I’ve fallen in love with sweet plantains. I’ve collected so many memories over the past five weeks and I can’t wait to collect many more over the next few months.
This post was contributed by Fiona Wyrtzen, a Global Ambassador for Fall 2023. Fiona is a junior environmental science studies major studying abroad in Panama City, Panama.