A home away from home for Jesuit HS New Orleans students in Boca de las Minas, Panama.

Nervousness and uncertainty were the best ways to describe our group checking in at the airport. Everyone guessing what the beds would be like and whether we would get sick from the food. However, arriving in Panama City was a complete shock. I have been told of the simple housing, lack of electricity, and unclean water, but stepping into Panama City, I realized that I had underestimated this country. Panama City was a huge metropolis with skyscrapers and beautiful buildings. It was bigger than my home in New Orleans and in several ways had better infrastructure. But this was just the first step of this journey.

The next day we drove to Boca de las Minas for 4 hours. Upon arrival, I realized that this was much more similar to my original assumptions. Beautiful valleys and hills scattered with tin roof homes. As we climbed out of the hot bus, I looked around to see several locals staring curiously and filming us with their phones, it was extremely awkward, and not knowing any Spanish certainly didn’t help. After unpacking we met in front of their school with some of the locals to introduce ourselves. Much to my dismay, I was the first one to use my broken Spanish to introduce myself. I apologized for my poor Spanish and thanked them for their hospitality. Reynaldo, the school parents’ leader introduced himself and thanked us for coming.

On day 3 of the trip, we planned to begin work, we walked down to the site, slipping all the way, and began to learn the process and procedure of the mixer. As we were just beginning, the mixer broke. Disappointment sat amongst our group and we didn´t know what we were going to do next. A second mixer arrived and we fixed the first one. Work began immediately, my classmates and I worked extremely fast and finished in only 3 days of work. A unified sigh of relief was given from the group. But I began to wonder, “What on earth would we do for the rest of the trip?” That night we met a man named Don Marcos, who showed us multiple incredible crafts which were made from the trees in the area. His explanations were thorough and enthusiastic while he showed hats, plates, pilones, and baskets that he made with his own hands. His smile radiated throughout the entire valley while showing us the complex processes he had learned as a boy. Throughout the entire trip, Don Marcos was enthusiastic and a leader with the pride of his community.

On the sixth day of the trip after a rainy morning, we decided to go on a hike. I walked alongside close friends as we visited some homes of the locals. Each was unique and had new things to show us. We tried sugar cane water, the “cotton candy” seed, cacao seeds, and many others. The most memorable house was Don Marcos’ house, he wasn’t home but his wife offered coconuts for us. Eric, who opened all the fresh coconuts for us, answered every question with a giggle and a smile. He was the most influential local to me by seeing his leadership. The last thing we saw in our hike was a giant “Bongo” tree, we took pictures at the base and marveled at its size.it must have been 200 years old and was the size of a building.

On the 7th day, we visited a waterfall called “Tavidal”. Next to it, we walked down the hill to the waterfall from 100 yards away but nothing prepared me for the breathtaking view when seeing it for the first time. Wind and water splashed my face, and my friend and I began to yell at the sight of it. I jumped timidly into the brisk water which wasn’t clear enough to see the bottom, we swam for hours and adventured down the river which continued after the waterfall or “cascada” in Spanish. After snacks, we came back to our home away from home.

On our last day in Boca de las Minas there was a bitter-sweet feeling among the group. We both missed our homes, but also enjoyed the bonds we had made with our friends the locals. The last day made those feelings even more difficult. The entire school met on the court and we spent the entire morning to teach young children about absolutely foreign concepts. Though their learning was not perfectly efficient, the young children’s smiles and giggles during our demonstration and while attempting the basketball drills were adorable.

We had gone from foreigners to friends and the community began to gather around the court for a final ceremony. Both the school children and us had prepared things to show at the ceremony. The school children danced and wore beautiful and exotic clothing. While we showed off armpit farting, handstands, the national anthem and I said a speech in Spanish at the end with my buddy Hayden. After the presentation, we all began to dance together and the smiles were contagious. Children giggled, the cake was served, adults danced and we joined the festivities. I won’t remember that much about the days of hard work, but the smiles among the community will shine vividly in my mind.

The main lessons I learned from our incredible experience are 1. Smiling is an easy way to make the world a better place. 2. You can take a break from the phone. 3. Taking a view in while reading is the most relaxing thing one can do. 4. Attempt to get to know and speak the language of the locals. You might be embarrassed but I was told early in the trip, “they will appreciate your effort”, and I believe they truly do. Lastly, everyone needs to be told that life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look around once in a while you might miss it. ~Aidan, Jesuit HS student

Quotes from community members:

Well, for me it was an excellent experience. In addition, those who cooperated with the construction of the field shared in the hard work that was not so easy, it was somewhat heavy work, and we also met the boys who visited us, we shared anecdotes of our community and they taught us also his anecdotes, it was something totally wonderful. ~Maria Adelaida Ojo, community member

These projects are critical because they significantly impact the people participating in them. Creating awareness of the importance of teamwork gives us a perspective that we can get outstanding results when working together, and empowers us to continue improving the quality of life of the community. ~Deivin Castro, school principal

For me, it was an incredible experience, we felt very well with the boys and shared many memorable moments, I never thought I’d meet such a fun group. ~Eric Martinez, court mason

I think this project was a great experience, it showed us the potential that we have when working together. In my time in Boca de las Minas, because I am not from here, this is the only activity that has brought this many people together. Cooperating by either working on the court, working in the kitchen, or working on the logistics, every one helped to make this possible. I am very lucky to have witnessed this while being part of the school group. ~Reynaldo Chirú, School Parents Association

Quotes from Jesuit HS students:

I had to dance with the locals! It just showed how excited they were to share their culture with us, then while the others were working, Teófilo gave a tour to a group of us, we toured his land around his house and he showed us his crops. The best part was him letting us try each one, there were many different delicious new flavors. ~James, Jesuit HS student

The difficult part of going home will definitely be not being able to experience those mountain views each day. I could never have imagined the community in which we stayed to be so gorgeous, and it will be tough going back to my flat, viewless home. ~Heyden, Jesuit HS student

Bocas de las Minas showed me the side of life where simplicity gives people freedom of choice. I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of things I am expected to do at home, being here simplified my stress. ~JT, Jesuit HS student

My favorite memory was playing with the kids at the inauguration, it is when I felt the most connected to the people, and the kids reminded me a lot about of a younger me. ~Ethan, Jesuit HS student

What I learned about the community is the way that they treat each other. As soon as I walked in Boca de las Minas, I felt like one of them, and the challenges made it easier to feel that. Everybody welcomed us to their homes very humbly and joyfully. ~Killian, Jesuit HS student

From this community, I learned that the value of even the most basic things like food or a hard day´s work is subjective. To us, it is just a basketball court, to the community, it’s the culmination of 4 years into a beneficial community project. ~William, Jesuit HS student

One memory that stands out to me is the final day at Boca de las Minas. I truly felt like I belonged to the community while dancing and playing soccer. I was only there for a few days, however, they made me feel like I really belong there which felt really good.

Over this trip, I learned many things about myself. The main thing I learned was how I can go without my phone pretty easily for 10 days. This is something I do not experience often at all, it felt really good. ~Jacques, Jesuit HS student