University of Texas student athletes felt the impact they have on one another in San Miguel Centro, Panama

August 2019

“ Our American culture is so focused on looks and appearance and clothes that I thought I was going to struggle with being self-conscious. However, I learned that I am able to go a week without a mirror, not worried about what my clothes look like, and remember that appearances aren’t the most important thing about someone. I learned that there is more to myself than my looks and that people accept me and like me for what is inside. I also learned that I want to travel more and make a difference in the world. This trip makes me want to either do more trips like this one or possibly join the Peace Corps or something like it. I would love to slowly be able to change some things about the way we (Americans/western society) live.” – Olivia

Day 1

On the first day, we met at UT Austin at 3am, but one member was missing. Despite our best efforts to reach him, we had to depart to Houston without him. From Houston, we left to Panama City with word that our missing member would join us later. After arriving in Panama, we boarded a tiny and rad van and headed towards San Miguel Centro. Our group was prepared for a three hour bus ride; however, that turned into a multi-stop, five hour adventure. After many hours of traveling, we were welcomed in San Miguel Centro with open arms at midnight. The community made us dinner, but since we were late, our dinner was cold, yet delicious. After eating, we were provided with 16 twin size mattresses. We had two places to sleep in; a sort of house with three rooms – two downstairs and one big one upstairs. The rooms were not big enough for all 16 of us, so 10 of us slept outside with a building that had a roof but no walls. We each got mosquito nets to cover our bed and once we settled in we went to sleep. Sleeping outside was actually wonderful. We had a slight breeze, got to hear the rain, crickets and when we woke up we got a beautiful view.

Day 2

We woke up at 6:45am to an AMAZING view. High mountains surrounded us while a misty fog filled the valleys. For breakfast we had sliced hot dogs with sweet fried plantains. We also received a challenge that needed to be completed by the end of the day. The challenges were random and we picked it out of a bag. These challenges forced us to interact with the locals and pushed us out of our comfort zone. Then we all got ready and walked to the work site, which consisted of a large soccer field encased by a tall forest. We took a lunch break and had beef, rice and variations of yuca. Then we got back to work and finished transferring all the gravel to the appropriate spot. Despite this seemingly simple task, it was extremely taxing mentally and physically (even though we are a group of Division I Athletes). Afterwards, a small group of us showered in the river which was fun and incredibly unique experience. For dinner, we had rice and beans a dish similar to mac and cheese. Instead of cheese the locals used mayonnaise. At the end of the day, our group got together to do reflections and share the challenges for the day.

“Benito took us into his home as if we were family and immediately offered us coffee, mamones chinos, and other treats. He guided us through his garden, letting us taste and observe all of his produce he is proud to grow. His generosity did not stop there. He was working hard on the court every day. Helped me carry all our bags, insisting giving us his ground coffee for free and much more.” -Jaylene

“This trip has definitely taught me to appreciate everything I get and how lucky I am to have a family, many opportunities every day and all the goods I am used to on a daily basis. Seeing the people in the community living with nothing but the essentials made me enjoy and truly live every moment. Every time I think I “need” something, I will now remember this experience, as I had a great time with none of the things that I am used to having.” Claudia

Day 3

The following morning we had hojaldres and spam for breakfast. Before everyone got ready to head to the worksite, a handful of us joined one of our team members, Elena Bruckner, for a morning yoga session. She guided us through a series of stretches which was much needed after all the heavy lifting the previous day. When we got to the work site, we made an assembly line to pass bags of sand from one side of the court to the side where the concrete mixer was located. After we finished moving all 30 bags of sand we took a break. After our break, we created three stations which consisted of shoveling sand, filling buckets with gravel and using wheelbarrows to pour cement into the multipurpose court. We took a lunch break where we had chicken soup with rice. It was quite good. We then continue working after lunch and called it a day around 4:00pm. After our work day, we visited a local’s farm, his name was Benito. He lived nearby our worksite, probably a 15-20 minute walk/hike. We hiked up hill, and reached his farm at the top. It was a beautiful view. When we arrived, he had fresh Mamon Chino waiting for us, with fresh coffee. Some of the group learned how to pick up chickens from his wife, it was funny to watch and exciting to do. Benito then gave us a tour of his farm, where we saw plantain trees, coffee beans, chili bushes, and a different seasoning, such as Culantro. His was a wonderful way to end our day.

Day 4

We had another early morning. The team was eager to get started. We got to the court ready to start, but found out that we did not have sand for the mixer. Together with the locals, we scoured the banks of a nearby river to hopefully find ample sand deposits. The area with the most promising sand ended up being across the river. In order to overcome this challenge, a few of the locals remained on the opposite side of the river to fill multiple large sacks with sand. Once the bags were filled, team members and the locals slung the sacks over their backs, immersed themselves knee-deep into the rushing water, and hauled them across the river. The sand bags were then passed to team members on land so that they could be carried up the hill to the mixer. This process persisted for about an hour. Despite encountering the obstacle of having no sand, the solution and process of transporting sand across the river was honestly quite fun and helped us stay cool in the heat. Once enough sand bags were obtained, the team returned to the court and started the mixer. One group was in charge of loading buckets with gravel, the second group helped fill the mixer with the essential concrete ingredients, and the last group transported and poured the concrete mixture onto the court. When we took our lunch break, we had chicken soup with rice along with varying types of yuca in it. After lunch, we continued working and finished 75% of the court. Regardless of the challenges encountered earlier, today was super fun, exciting, and overall a very productive day.

“My favorite memories were Peyton’s laugh, the last bit of concrete filling in the court, the pretty boy muchachos, playing soccer in the rain, dancing with my friends and the locals, Benito’s mamones chinos and watching everybody gradually get closer.” -Mariam

Day 5

When the team woke up, there was a buzz of excitement to finish the last 25% of the court. We eagerly got to the site and split up the team according to their strengths. Some shoveled gravel, scooped dirt, painted the soccer goals, or wheelbarrowed concrete mix to pour onto the court. Normally, we would stop at noon for lunch, but the team was so motivated that everyone refused to stop until the court was finally completed. At 1:00pm, the court was finished! We were all so thrilled and celebrated our efforts with hugs and words of kindness with one another. We rewarded ourselves with a well-deserved lunch break and a couple hours of rest. Afterwards, our team split up into two groups: a 40 minute hike to a waterfall or to stay and rest back at camp. A majority of the team decided to take on the 40 minute hiking endeavour and while the journey was extremely tiresome especially after a long day of working, the group was rewarded with a magnificent waterfall and swimming hole hidden within the thick forest. Individuals were able to go mini cliff-jumping, swim in the cool water, or take on the thrill-seeking adventure of going behind the waterfall. Meanwhile, the people that stayed back at camp got to go to the local convenience store to purchase snacks, eat, relax, and hang out. We had dinner at 6:00pm and then rested for the remainder of the night. 

“What I learned about the world is that it is much more beautiful than we think it is. The world has so many hidden wonders, especially away from the big cities.-Diana

Day 6

Following that morning, individuals who wanted to see the pig sacrifice woke up at 4:45am; there was only a small handful of us. We all walked a couple houses down to the local’s house where the event was to take place. Tied to a large post, there was a large female pig sleeping outside. She was 8 months old and was purchased from a nearby pig farm a few miles away. While the sacrifice was difficult for a majority of us to watch, the death was quick and was done as humanely as possible. In an attempt to comfort us, the locals described how death is a part of the circle of life and that it is an important event to witness in order to understand what it takes to get food to the table. Afterwards, the team met back at the base camp and ate breakfast. We went back to the court and got to see the final product. We spent the day playing soccer and volleyball with the locals on the new court. Thus, it was a fun and relaxing day where we got closer with the community. At noon, we had lunch which consisted of fried plantains (which tasted a lot like french fries) with pork from the pig that was sacrificed earlier that morning. While it was difficult for some of us to eat the pork, the locals were excited to see us enjoy and eat the ceremoniously prepared pig. We soon found out that the pig was only prepared and eaten on special occasions. After lunch, we continued to spend quality time with the community until about 3:00pm. At 3:00pm we headed back to the base camp to change into nice clothing for the inauguration of the court at 4:30pm. The political figure of the community, who also represented 26 other communities, was expected to come and officially “open” the court to the community. When we got to the court, a lot of the local community was there. The ceremony began and many highly respected community members were able to give personal speeches and words of thanks. When all speeches were given from our team members and the locals, a large red ribbon was cut to signal the opening of the sports court in San Miguel Centro. Now, the celebration began. There was caramel cake and fresh pineapple juice! Everyone was either dancing, playing volleyball on the court, or socializing with one another. It was such a joyful and invigorating atmosphere. At 6:30pm, everyone walked back to base camp, which was the community’s culture center, where we had chicken and rice for dinner. After eating, some kids from the community presented a traditional dance while the adult locals played music on various instruments. It was such a wonderful opportunity to see and learn about the local traditions from the community. Sadly, this was also our last night in the community. Therefore, everyone packed their bags, enjoyed their last moments in San Miguel Centro, and then slept under our mosquito nets one last time.

“I do not like the fact that the majority of individuals from countries we are going back to do not understand nor desire to understand the people who do not have in society experience. Systematic inequalities exist in every country in various capacities. Unfortunately, none of us have to travel to Panama to see inequality, most of us can travel a few minutes to areas where poverty, racism, classism, sexism, and educational inequality manifest. Let this experience, spark something within you to care about things that may directly affect you and things morally wrong. Do not leave this experience saying how nice Benito was, how much you miss taking hot showers, or how “authentic” this experience was. If you come back the same and avert back to your old days, then you didn’t truly get the most out of this experience.” -Chase

Day 7

We woke very early – around 6:45am. We had our last breakfast with the community and talked with them for a while before heading out around 8:30am. It was difficult to say good-bye. The community had been so incredibly kind to us. Additionally, their generosity was constant and overwhelming; they were so willing to give us anything even though they didn’t have much. With many tears, we said our final goodbyes and started our journey back to Pananome. After about 2-3 hours, we stopped in Pananome; we viewed some souvenir shops and got some snacks before continuing on the rest of our journey. Our goal was to go to a beautiful beach near Panama City. When we arrived, we were met with an endless stretch of clear blue water. It was so beautiful and relaxing. A majority of the team played in the water while some individuals rode on an inflatable tube attached to a speed boat. After the beach, we headed to Panama City. As we approached the city, we stopped to walk around along a trail that was parallel to the ocean which was surrounded by multiple restaurants. We all got some ice-cream while enjoying the lively atmosphere of the park area. Afterwards, we headed to our hostel for the night. After living in San Miguel Centro for a week, spending the night in the hostel made us appreciate all the little things; for example, pizza for dinner, a real bed, shower, and toilet. It was great! To end the night, we did our last reflection for the trip which was insightful but bittersweet. Our last activity was the “hot seat.” Each person had to sit in a seat in the middle of the circle for three minutes while the team would shower them with compliments. It was a lovely bonding moment that opened our eyes to the impact that we have on one another. While we did not want to leave each other, we were also excited to finally come back to the United States to go home and see our families again. We soon went to bed to get some rest to come back home. 

Day 8

We woke up around 7:30am to eat breakfast which was provided by the hostel. We had the classics: scrambled eggs, toast, and cereal. We packed our bags and left the hostel around 8:30am. Since our flight was not until 3:30pm, we headed to Casco Viejo – one of the first towns established in Panama. We got to see breath-taking views of the city and the ocean, purchase well-crafted souvenirs from various stands, and taste the famous Geisha coffee from a cute coffee shop. After taking a quick coffee break, continued our sightseeing adventure. We were so absorbed in the beauty of the city that we were actually late for our flight and had to rush to the airport. Once we safely got there, we had to say good-bye to our amazing coordinator, Juan Carlos. He was a wonderful teacher and leader on this trip so it was difficult to finally say goodbye and part ways. We all did a big group hug before bidding him farewell. Although we were all only together for 8 days, this trip has made an everlasting impact on not only our relationships with one another, but also on our lives and perception of the world. While we made it back home safely to the United States, it won’t be long until at least one or all of us are returning to the lovely town of San Miguel Centro.

-Diana and Jaylen, student athletes