Once strangers, now friends after Southwest Washington students experience life in Los Bajos, Panama.

April 2019

3 am, the morning of March 30th. A group of sleepy students from seven different Clark County high schools dragged themselves out of bed, grabbed their bags and met at Portland International Airport to begin their trip to Panama. We would begin our trip in silence, complete strangers, but return to the same airport nine days later as family. I was honestly too tired to feel excited, and I had no idea what to expect from my trip with Courts For Kids. My mental image of Panama consisted of vague ideas of jungle foliage, warm sun, and lots of mosquitoes. I did not expect the rich culture, kind people (and surprising lack of mosquitoes) I would find when I arrived.

After a long day of traveling, full of many small packets of airplane pretzels, we finally arrived in the Panama airport. After navigating customs, and a large group of very excited basketball fans waiting to greet a returning team, we met our site lead: Juan Carlos. We were bundled into the bus, navigated by our capable driver Juan, that would be our transportation for the next week. After a short drive through the stunning, brightly-lit streets of Panama City, we arrived, tired and hot, at our hostel. The whole team got to know each other better that night over pizza and ice-breaker games that involved illuminating questions such as, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

The atmosphere the next morning was full of trepidation and excitement. We were off to the small community of Los Bajos, and had no idea what to expect. Los Bajos is located in Herrera, part of Menchaca County. After a long bus ride through small towns and idyllic landscapes, we pulled up in front of the local school where we were greeted enthusiastically by the community, accompanied by a small band. We had an impromptu dance party, and then set about settling ourselves in. We instantly felt welcomed and accepted thanks to the enthusiasm and kindness of Ashley, a Peace Corps volunteer who was staying in Los Bajos to ensure that our project began smoothly.

The next day marked day one of construction on the court. We were assigned to the work teams that we would stay with for the remainder of the project. Thanks to the diligence and dedication of Los Bajo’s Peace Corps volunteer, Blanca, the site was already leveled and we were able to start pouring concrete on day one.

Each day began in much the same way, with a delicious breakfast cooked by our wonderful team of volunteer cooks. We enjoyed lots (and lots) of yucca, crema (a warm, hearty oatmeal drink), and some of the most welcome coffee I’ve ever had. We would make our way to the construction site where we were invariably told we would start work “soon.” Every night was full of pickup games of soccer with the local kids, card games with the Courts For Kids team, and many, many attempts on the part of the locals, with moderate success, to teach us how to dance.

It was fascinating to learn about local culture and tradition. Every night when the locals arrived, loudspeaker in hand, to dance with us, there was another opportunity to learn more. We were able to learn traditional dance moves, wear traditional, handmade clothing, and watch locals compete in salomear contests, a traditional Panamanian mix between singing and shouting. We also had an opportunity to interact with the community through our daily challenges, the highlights of which included a chugging contest ending in humiliation for one of our volunteers, milking a cow, and learning about what the community believed were the biggest problems facing the world. It was incredible to be able to bridge the gap of cultural differences and language barriers and interact with people who care about the same issues I do.

We also had to overcome many personal challenges throughout the course of our trip. By day three of construction, we were two-thirds of the way through the court. However, as any performer or athlete will tell you, day three is the hardest day of anything. Day three felt like the longest, hottest day yet, and tensions were high. However, with lots of determination, trail mix, electrolyte powder, and teamwork we made it through with only a small section of the court left to finish. With several other students, I went down to the river to clean out the wheelbarrows. When we drew close on the path, we could hear screams. Concerned, my group and I hurried to see what was the matter. Thankfully, no one was really hurt, just very wet from a water fight that had broken out. I was picked up and dunked in the water as well. Overcoming my surprise, I was able to enjoy myself in getting revenge on everyone who had pulled me in. The water fight was a lesson in letting go. I learned that if you spend too much time worrying about what needs to get done instead of allowing yourself to have fun you will miss out on opportunities to bond with those around you, and miss a chance to get an impromptu shower. After drying ourselves off and squelching our way back to the school, we were able to enjoy one of the most spectacular nights yet. Despite a power outage that left us in the dark, we were treated to a magical view of the stars (and several scorpions). That day we all truly learned the value of embracing the unexpected.

We woke up the next day full of energy and ready to finish the court. Throughout the entire construction process I was blown away by the level of involvement of the community in constructing the court. Every day, we had the help and support of an astounding number of community members, including a few of the most strong, inspiring women I have ever met. We also were given help by two politicians, Maritza Flores and Juan Torres, who brought us volunteers and gravel. The final day was no exception. The whole community came together for a final push and the court was finished by lunch. We celebrated that night with a delicious dinner of tamales prepared by a local couple topped off with fresh coconuts. One of my favorite moments of the trip took place that night as several other Courts For Kids volunteers and I gathered in the kitchen to share our family photos with several of the local women. I speak about ten words of Spanish, and most of those are numbers, but I was able to bond with these women over the basic facts of our shared humanity. We all have something in common, whether it be our love of family or food, or our worries about the future. Letting go of our differences and learning to value our similarities is one of the most important skills you can learn, and I truly experienced the value of that skill during our time in Panama.

The following day was a rollercoaster of emotions. We opened the day with a surprise trip to the Feria Internacional de Azuero in La Villa de Los Santos. Along the way, we had the opportunity to stop at the Central Cemetery in the city of Chitre. It was haunting and beautiful. At the fair itself, we enjoyed lots of shopping, food, and looking at animals. Almost everyone slept the whole ride back to the community. Once we returned, it was time for the opening ceremony of the court. After much frantic changing of clothes, we arrived at the court and were told the celebration would start “soon.” We filled the time with a few rousing rounds of the hokey pokey. The whole community soon turned out to celebrate and there were many tears. A local woman, Maritza, made all the girls handmade bags and hairpins to wear. Predictably, there was lots of food and lots of dancing.

The next day was goodbye for good. There was more crying, and lots of hugging, as we thanked the community for their generosity and friendship. Despite the language barrier, I felt as if I were leaving people I’d known my whole life. We enjoyed a final breakfast, killed one last scorpion, and then loaded our bags back on the bus for the trip back to Panama City. However, we had one last surprise in store: a day at the beach. We spent the afternoon getting pounded by waves and enjoying the sun. We all took a considerable amount of sand along with us as a final souvenir of our time in Panama. We returned to the same hostel we spent our first night in and were treated to a large dose of deja vu as we reflected for the final time over pizza, but this time as friends rather than strangers. Our final reflection left not a single dry eye in the room and revealed the truly life-changing nature of our trip, as well as how much love and support we all have for each other.

Still recovering from the emotional intensity of the night before, we dragged ourselves out of bed early the next morning for a final breakfast together before heading to the airport. Once at the airport, we had to say another round of hard goodbyes, both to our wonderful bus driver, and incredible site lead. Juan Carlos made our entire trip run smoothly thanks to his hard work and level head. He never missed an opportunity to teach us something new about Panama, and we miss him already.

Once we waved goodbye to Panama, we still had two flights, an eight hour delay, several coffees, and some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced separating us from home. Finally, at 1 am Monday morning, we stepped back into the Portland rain and headed our separate ways after one final (and very sleepy) goodbye.

Life moves at a different pace in Panama, full of the sleepiness of warm sun, and the power of strong coffee. Transitioning back into the busy efficiency of American life has been difficult for all of us, but we have all grown so much as a result of our trip. I walked back into the Pacific Northwest rain with a greater appreciation of the undeniable power of human connection and the incredible way something as simple as a basketball court can have the power to alter so many lives for the better. -Zoe,Camas high school student

“I love how one can communicate with one another without verbally communicate. When people are brought together with a purpose change can happen. Good change!”-Annette

“Although a language barrier divided us at the start, I learned that any intangible wall can be shattered by simply using your emotions to express the way you feel towards someone. When I return home I will try to spend less time worrying about the future, and more on making the most of my current situation.”-Colleen

“Everyone has the desire to find love. Love is what encourages people to do more and gives individuals confirmation that what they are doing is right.”-Aiden

“I learned that no matter where you live, rich or poor, whichever language you speak, everyone is the same in the end. Miles away on a different continent there are people who love basketball just like me, people who like pineapple just like me. Despite all the differences, we are all human.”-Ben

“The community members positivity about everything made all the hard parts of the work and the heat much easier and made me a lot more motivated to keep going.”-Mary

“Walking into the school with music, smiling faces and flowers being thrown at us really eased my fears and nervousness right off the bat.They were clearly happy to see us, and their welcoming atmosphere eased my nerves so that my excitement could come through.”-Grace

“The thing that I will miss the most is the simplicity of things. In Panama, we would eat, work, play and sleep almost every day. We didn’t have to worry about our phones or family, maybe a little and connect with the community.”-Christy

“What I learned from the community is the value of intangible things like kindness and generosity. Obviously, these are things my parents and teachers preach to me every day, but until I saw people who didn’t have that much to give giving everything they could I didn’t truly understand what that meant.”-Erin

“I have gained a new self-awareness that I am not enjoying every moment of my life to the fullest, and much of that is self-imposed”.-Zoe

“Like many others on this trip, I felt so at home in Los Bajos, I wanted to stay forever. I have never in my life felt so safe, content, and a part of a larger community. Back at home, I have a tendency to isolate myself and call it “internal processing”. The way that not only the community but the team, looked out and cared for me reminded me how the support of others is the best way to overcome personal traumas. I loved how I already felt unconditional love by the people of Los Bajos.”-Claire

“My highest point of the trip was a really exciting moment for me. I tried to lift a wheelbarrow full of concrete and I failed. I tried again. I failed. I cry a lot so, of course, I started crying. My mom helped me with the third one, she helped me again with the fourth. On the fifth wheelbarrow, I finally did it by myself! I was so proud.”-Nylah