Jesuit Portland students experience life off the grid in Bajo Grande, Panama

We arrived in Panama City late at night after spending 12 hours in the Atlanta airport. We met Juan Carlos after we got through customs and all of us piled on to the big bus. A half hour later we arrived at the Jesuit retreat center and went to sleep, even though most of us were too excited to sleep.

Today we woke up early and hopped back on the bus. We also met up with four Panamanian Jesuit students Carlos, Daniel, Fernando, Adriana and their chaperon Henry. Five or six hours later, after talking, singing, friendship bracelet making and sleeping we arrive to the check point where we have to switch out of our bus into the two trucks. Once we were driving in the trucks we eventually ended up on rocky red dirt roads. After climbing up and down steep rocky hills we thought that we only had to cross one river, little did we know that we had to go through three of them! Once we arrived into the community we passed the soccer field full of kids. We were also shocked to see chickens roaming around everywhere. We unloaded our stuff, and while we were figuring out who was staying in which house, we met Meliness who was super shy but by that night she was the most outgoing little girl I have ever met. Someone brought a ton of card games and one of them was memory. We taught her how to play blackjack, but that turned into tres rojos. Tres rojos is when you slap three red cards but slapping cuatro rojos is addios. We all laughed so hard that we could barely breathe. After playing that game the girls at the lower house pumped up our air mattresses, and were surprised to eat some delicious spaghetti for dinner.

We were woken up by the roosters at 6:30, we got ready, ate breakfast and headed for the work site and Bryan the dog was always walking with us. When we got there we had no shovels or tools so we started carrying chunks of mud with our hands to level out one of the corners. When we went back for lunch a thunder storm started and it was raining so hard that London washed her hair in the rain.

Today we stared pouring concrete and the little boys would push the wheelbarrows all by themselves without spilling, while we would have two people on one wheelbarrow. We quickly ran out of sand for the mixer, so we had to walk down the hill to the river and shovel it into bags and carry them back up the hill on our shoulders. Marco, Kelvin, Haciento, Estevan, Joel and Joel could carry them on their shoulders with no hands. When we went in for lunch it started raining so we couldn’t pour concrete. While we were hanging out making friendship bracelets Juan Carlos and Estevan asked some of us if we wanted to go a hike to one of the bridges that the community and the peace corp built. A group of us ended up going in the pouring rain. Once we got there Estevan told us about how he helped built the bridge and he wants to become a pastor.

This morning for breakfast we had really good fried dough with our eggs. Some of us also got to ride in the back of the truck to the court sight. Once we got there we started mixing concrete and some of us went to the river to shovel sand into the truck. While some of us were waiting to switch out shoveling, Yoselene, Haciento and Julenise were all swimming. We were not allowed to swim, so we played uno, dos, tres correr. In this game we would all count down and the kids would run into the water. The little kids loved the game and it was so fun to play with
them even though we could not swim. Once we got back up to the court everyone who did not have jobs started playing soccer for a little bit using Marco’s horse and the PVC pipe as an outline. When we went in for lunch it started raining again, but it was lots of fun hanging out with some of the kids as they came back from school. After dinner and journaling, Estevan brought out his guitar and we all stared singing despacito and other songs together.

Today everyone in the community was helping us with the court so we could finish the first half. We were all working hard to level out the other half of the court and keep the mixer running. To keep the mixers running we needed to always have four buckets of rocks and sand filled and a bag of concrete ready to be poured. While we were taking breaks we would play a game of ninja and one day me Joel and Haciento played monkey in the middle with a lime. It started raining again while we were eating some amazing pasta for lunch. However, instead of not working anymore we needed to fill the truck with more sand before it left. Some of us volunteered to go down to the river and right when we got to the court the truck was leaving and we could not stop it. Juan Carlos had all of us go down to the river to see if it was heading there, but once we realized it was not coming back Juan Carlos let us go play soccer. It was pouring down rain at this point and we were all soaking wet. We took off our shoes and Joel and little Estevan started sliding through the inches of water in the grass. Me and Alexa started sliding on our stomachs and soon enough everyone was sliding, having races, and splashing in the water. Once the sliding was done we started actually playing soccer it was so slippery when Hayden went to shoot that he slipped and half of his body was covered in mud.

This morning we woke up to Juan Carlos playing the video of everyone singing despacito. After breakfast Mrs. Milton fired me and Piper from working so we could watch the boys house. While we were playing cards a lot of the kids came to our house from school. They all sat down and I taught everyone how to play slapjack. Meliness helped me explain how to play to everyone, but once everyone understood we lost track of time and played until lunch. When everyone from the court came back from lunch me and Alexa made bracelets for every person that was in our house. We ran out of materials in the morning so we could not work anymore so instead we went on a hike up a stream to a waterfall. All of the guys went in right away, but with a little convincing the girls followed. After we ate lunch we went back to the river to shift out and carry rocks up the hill. When we all went back to the house to shower, the guys shower had broke and instead of having everyone wait and use ours we asked to go down to the river. We wanted to go in the river all trip and when we finally could we ran down the path and jumped in. Ladiqusha and Meliness also came with us and they were super excited that we could finally swim with them as well.

Today was our last full day in the community, and with a whole half of the court not finished we did not think we were gonna get to done in time. While I was shoveling rocks, the truck was coming back up the river with more rocks. Richard jumped off the truck and was carrying a little baby chick. I ran over to him and he handed it to me, so me and Thomas asked around to see if anyone knew who’s it was. Eventually we ended up giving it to Meliness to give to her Mom. After lots of shoveling and pouring concrete we finally finished the court and put up the basketball hoops. Juan Carlos gave an amazing speech thanking everyone for helping and passed the balls out to everyone who helped. I am sad we did not get to play everyone in basketball, but the soccer games throughout the week allowed us to meet a lot of the community members and get to know them better.

The roosters woke us up for the last time today, and we had the really good fried dough and eggs for breakfast, everyone definitely went back for thirds. We brought our bags out and loaded them into the pickup trucks. We were saying our goodbyes I kept telling myself I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry, but when I looked over and Helen was sobbing, the tears started pouring out of my eyes. Then once Abby and Thomas saw me cry they cried and it was a chain reaction. I hugged all of the amazing people that I had met over the past week, like Estevan, Yoselene, Meliness, Adriel, Irving, both Joels and so many more. When the trucks finally arrived we all piled in and as we were driving away the kids started chasing the trucks all the way to their school. Byran did not stop there, he chased us for 40 minutes and through all three rivers. We got to the point where we had to get back on the big bus and we were all freezing when we felt the air conditioning. We drove back to Panama City, toured Old town, and spent the night in the hostile that had a house goat. Overall this was definitely one of the most amazing and eye opening experiences of my life and I am so grateful that I was able to be apart of this trip.

Kayli McDonald, Student at Jesuit

“You can live simply and be as happy as you will ever be. They showed me that true happiness is intertwined in community.” -Joe

 “I will always remember what it was like to play soccer against the Panamanians. In a different culture, it’s still the same game who we all know and love.”- Hannah

“This community has opened my heart up.”- Grace

“I have become more outgoing and close to my classmates and learned to appreciate more of what I have and the resources I have been given.”- Alexis

“When the court was nearly complete everyone came by to witness the miracle. The sun was shining (a rare sight) and you could visibly see the love. Holding the hands every kid I had grown to see as family was as great of an experience as one could imagine.”- Abby

“I owe so much personal growth to the amazing people of Bajo Grande who have shown me hospitality and given me a family away from home.” -Alexa

 Seeing a different environment have so much joy and happiness while not having much was incredible to see, it opened my eyes to the fact that happiness can exist anywhere and the connections we build with people are more valuable than any amount of money.” -Helen

“My highest point of the trip was finishing the court. All the joy we all had and unity was an amazing feeling.” “I always knew about poverty but living through it put it into a reality.” “I will also miss the “Panama time”, not being rushed and never a specific set time. This allowed me to embrace the moment and build community.”- Taja

“It makes me so happy knowing we finished the court, and that the court will be a permanent reminder of our time in the community.” -Thomas

“One thing I have learned is that people will always be able to break through barriers. My realization of this occurred mostly from noticing how little the difference in language slowed our progress on the court. Even though verbal communication was limited we were still able to talk through non verbal communication. This is just one example of how people can connect and how many barriers they can get over when they come together with a common goal.” -Hayden

“I can’t even imagine what I would do without this trip. I have become a much more joyous and adventurous person.”- Sam

“I feel so full of love and happiness, and feel that we truly built a bridge between two communities. The deep connections I felt with my classmates and those I met is impossible to describe.”- Nathan

“I learned to be grateful for everything. I learned to love family more than everything and to treat your neighbors like your family and love them too. And I learned to not take anything for granted.”- Piper

“They broke the language barrier and that proves that you don’t need spoken word for a relationship, actions can speak more than words.” Elise