Marquette University High School Students in Los Lajones, Panama

The second the wheels of flight 959 touched down in Panama City, all of our semi-anxious, semi-nervous energy had gone. We were finally here we picked up our luggage and met up with our contact, Courts for Kids Panama Country Director, Juan Carlos (JC). the hot sticky Panamanian air greeted us as we walked to our bus. The bus ride was long because we were  all tired, but the Panamanian music helped us to be awake. We spent the first night at a nice Jesuit Retreat House. It was our first real test on the journey because it was our first night that we would be spending together in a foreign country, over 2,400 miles away from home. That being said, the day had been very long and we fell asleep very quickly.

In the morning we had our first day of Panamanian food, which was delicious and after a few cold showers, we were on our way. The drive was long and bumpy but we had each other to talk to. When we got closer to the town of Cañazas more of the group started to  wake up and notice the scenery. All around us we were surrounded by beautiful huge mountains, covered in greenery. the trip through the mountains kept everyone on edge because of times it felt like the bus we were in wouldn’t quite make it all the way up.

We made it to Los Lajones and we were greeted by a small crowd of locals.  They were all very welcoming and as soon as we put our things down in the school rooms where we would sleep, we went out to the soccer field and started a game with them. After, we set up two rooms and inflated our beds.  Mosquito nets were a very welcomed tool as well, we went to bed fairly early because we knew we had to get up early the next day.

On Friday we started our work on the court which would be just on the other side of the school. Some of the group split up to go to a river a little ways away to collect materials, others including myself started to tear the dirt to level where the court would be and tried to move it. We made steaks out of tree branches and I used a machete for the first time. From the river, we began building the foundation for the court. What really helped us to do the work was the fresh pineapple given to us. The highs of the day involved being able to talk to the kids more and completing our challenges. After a fantastic dinner, we headed to bed.

On Saturday we started to use the concrete mixer and actually pour the concrete for the court. We started very slowly because we weren’t quite sure what we were doing even though the locals did. Eventually we started assembly line and work became much faster. At night, we all decided to stay up and wait for the locals to go to the river to officially start the religious Festival of San Juan at midnight. We stayed up by playing card games like spoon and rat slap. When we heard the yells of the locals, we ran out to the river with them. We initially had no intention of jumping in the water but all the locals wanted us to join them and in less than 5 minutes almost our entire group were splashing and talking in the water to the locals. It was really amazing to be in a different country and being celebrating a festival with them in a river at midnight. It really made me grateful that I had the opportunity to go.

On Sunday, the festivities of San Juan took place at the school, but we still had a lot of work to do, only ⅓ of the court was complete. We started in the morning with the concrete and continued using the assembly line. At the end of the day we were done half way with the court. It also felt great to be able to talk with the locals during the festival. It really made me appreciate the whole idea of an immersion experience.

On Monday we started putting up the basketball hoops. As we waited for more materials we were able to play with the kids and talk with them. I specifically remember playing a game with one of the other members of the group when I would pitch him a non-ripe mango and he would hit them with the shovel. After the materials arrived we were able to continue working and finished a good portion of the court. At the end of the day were ⅔ done with it. I was also able to learn a common Panamanian song with another member of the group for a challenge.

On Tuesday we started very early because we knew the concrete mixer was going away that day, our assembly line was faster than ever and we worked extremely hard and were finally able to finish the court. The feeling of being able to finish it was amazing! The cherry on top was the integration we had in the community at the end of the day. There was an event to inaugurate the court and community members gave their thanks, they gave us presents, someone sang a song composed for us regarding our stay in Los Lajones, it is called ‘A Decima.’  After that we had an amazing dinner, arroz con pollo was so delicious, then we danced and stayed up late dancing but no one cared, it was so much fun everyone was celebrating the court being done.

On Wednesday morning the hardest part was leaving the kids and the community, they are what really made this trip so fun. They are who we really built it for. We were all saying that the trip was too short but it was amazing. – Andres Garcia-Velez, Marquette University High School student

“[I learned] we can not judge the whole country from a couple of minutes on the news from the media. I feel that we as human beings can not judge until we experience one another first hand.” -Fabian

“I learned that building relationships with people brings Unity, which creates hope all around the world.’ – Onel

“While I learn a lot about the world on this trip, I also learned a ton about myself.  I found out how to adopt to new situations in order to make the best of them. When I got tired while working, a positive attitude made my day much better than a pessimistic one. I think this lesson will make my life much better in the future.” – Ethan

“I learned that the world is much bigger that I could have ever imagined. I have never been out of the country so taking this trip was a huge step out of my comfort zone. It opened my eyes to the fact that there are people who have so much less than me but are so much happier than me. I learned that I want to see much more of the world because everyone has a different story to tell.” – Andy

“I considered myself pretty shy, but this trip helped me realize that… I can be a leader. In more difficult times of the construction of the court I noticed I was able to push and motivate others.” – Brian

“I learned from the community to appreciate human interaction. Despite a language barrier, I could communicate with the people of Los Lajones through simple expressions that were much deeper than the surface level interactions I have with people back home. Seeing how strong bonds are in the community between family and friends, encourages me to build stronger relationships and rely less on my cell phone.” – Gabe

“My favorite memory from this trip was joining the locals in the river at 12am for part of their ceremony. At this point I truly felt like I was part of the community. When we first heard the calls of the locals we dropped everything and ran down to the river. They called us to jump in, and at first we were reluctant to join them but then one by one we jumped in.” – Josh