The story of this court you are about to hear is entirely true. I promise. The start to our trip was great, we spent many hours bonding with our new teammates in the Newark airport. I started recording everyone’s moods throughout the travel day and the excitement grew as the day went on. It is fun to watch the videos now, seeing how that person changed. We were all a little nervous thinking about what we were about to experience. Not many of us have traveled without our parents, much less traveled to a new country. Many of my teammates commented about how the Courts for Kids shirt was a conversation starter on the plane and others we saw in the airport. I found myself explaining why I wanted to go and how excited I was. I spoke about how this was a different type of service project, one that was a partnership and something they had to apply for. I talked about how this court might be used for other recreational activities and for gatherings of the community. They all wished us luck on our journey and safety as we traveled and worked.
Once we got to Panama, we went through customs and we met Juan Carlos, who couldn’t have been a better guide to lead us through some tough challenges. We arrived at the beautiful Hostel Amador Familiar where we stayed for the night. This place might be the most colorful place I’ve ever seen. The girls stayed in a room that contained bright yellow bunk beds and even brighter color bedding. That was the best night of sleep I’ve had.
In the morning, we took a tour of Panama City and learned some facts about the country, such as the country having 2,000 islands. (Someone guessed 1,000 and we laughed at him…. until he was the closest)
We had a group that connected so well, making jokes, playing games and getting to know each other during the drive to San Francisco de Piriatí. We had a diverse group with all types of people and backgrounds, it was good to get to know everyone. My first “culture shock” was when we were told it was a two hour bus ride and ended up being a lot longer, then I knew Panama time was a lot different. I had no idea what time it was the whole trip but frankly I was so lost in the excitement of the trip that I didn’t care. As we drove in, we were delayed by a series of protests regarding the recent inflation in the country. This would play a part in the challenges we would face in Panama.
The bus stopped in front of a farm gate and a hill with a path. This path would take us to our home for the week. The air was muggy and the heat was not similar to Wisconsin. The locals opened up one of their most prized possessions for us to stay in, their church. We were settling in and the locals came flooding in. Most of the children were in their traditional dance clothing. I am active in school with my Spanish so I was excited to use it. We started to introduce ourselves to the locals. I met so many smiley children who I firmly believe can change the world. I haven’t smiled that big in so long.
The town had made a sign welcoming us. They also prepared two dances for us to watch. A group member, Luke, was chosen to dance in the “Basket Dance” with the locals. Next, they chose a girl to dance with them. A little girl walked up to me, grabbed my hand and pulled me up to dance with the group. Her name was Jorgelis. I couldn’t stop smiling or giggling as I danced with them. We finished the ceremony with everyone introducing themselves. We played some games with the locals. One was called “Pan y Queso” which is similar to the game, “Red Light, Green Light”. Jorgelis was next to me the whole night, holding my hand. After we played, we ate dinner. We were reminded that the locals use every part of the animal, a group member, Grace, was eating the snout of a pig. We all got used to brushing our teeth with a water bottle, showering with a bucket and the two in one shampoo/conditioner, and figuring out the bug net. We saw every size of bug including a spider the size of a male hand. Thankfully, we had Juan Carlos to get rid of giant bugs and snakes when needed. The sun goes down quickly in Panama so we were off to bed shortly.
Work day 1: In the morning, we walked to the restaurant we ate at for the rest of the trip. It was a diner operated by local women. During breakfast, it started to pour and we were delayed. We found out a few things during this time. We learned about the daily challenge, this consisted of dares and questions to do with the locals. For example, having locals do the Wave on site, or asking about local politics and other problems. At night, we would share our challenge, how it went and we would reflect on the reality of this town. Next, we learned that the concrete mixer was not working properly and we couldn’t use it. It took until the next day but a group member, Luke, helped to find the problem. They called for another mixer to come, but it arrived six hours later because of the protest blockades. Lastly, we found out that none of the foundation was finished. This is usually done the week before, but a horrible cyclone had occurred. Usually, the ground is leveled and cinder blocks are laid for the perimeter of the court.
We arrived at the court and it was just a giant, wet, and muddy pit, however, we truly had the prettiest landscape with bright green mountains. Two of the group members had been on a CFK trip before; I was talking to them and they told me that it would take a lot of work to get close to finishing the court. At that moment, I decided to stay in the moment but I felt disappointed at the thought of not finishing. We had a team who started hauling dirt via the assembly line to the areas that needed to be leveled and another team mixing concrete with a shovel.
We made pretty good progress until it started to pour again. We went back to the restaurant where we met the parrot (I can’t remember his name) who was owned by one of the cooks, Marta. The parrot was very talkative and it was satisfying watching Marta feed him.
The boys of our group started their intense week-long tournament of the game UNO. They played every meal and when we were in a rain delay. Some girls taught some locals how to play Spot-It and played with them. Some girls and I spoke with a local named Nicole who we became close friends with. We learned about her family life, daily routine, her past time activities, and many more. After a while, the boys went out with the locals and played soccer- Panama vs USA. The boys taught the locals how to play American football and baseball.
We tried some amazing fruit that lifted our spirits to continue the court. We had lunch and it finally stopped raining. We got back to work passing buckets. One of the locals brought his speaker and we listened to good Spanish music while we worked. We finished the day with good food, good challenges, and shoutouts to those who stood out to us. We took a trip to the local store and bought some treats and scoped out what we might want to get the next day. We braved the latrine and the showers.
Work day 2: I’ve never seen so much rain in my entire life. It POURED in the morning. It delayed our day by about an hour. It slowed down enough for us to walk and get breakfast. We were able to start work later on, but neither of the concrete mixers were working until they got a part from the store and were able to get the mixer working.
We passed so many buckets of dirt and concrete. We would be in line with locals and we would start by asking their name, then we would talk to them about various subjects and sometimes teach them English.
Some of us threw empty buckets back to the piles of dirt and concrete, that was my least favorite job. Your feet are stuck in the mud, boots full of water/mud while trying to catch and throw a five gallon bucket. My legs were severely bruised from my horrible technique of catching the buckets with my leg. My teammates were helpful by giving me tips, causing me to be more successful. For a while, we would stay in these spots and then we would switch. This continued until we went in for lunch. We saw the local children who were done with school. The local cooks had music playing when we walked in and some of us started to dance. We asked for the locals to teach us and they did. We were laughing and having a great time. Lunch was great and we finished the day with passing endless buckets and talking with the locals. We ate dinner, discussed how much construction workers make in a day ($10-$30). We visited the local store where the guys all chipped in to buy two fans for the church. We have 1/9 of the court done- can we finish it?
Work day 3- Today, we were starting to feel the challenge of this court. We are exhausted, sore, and full of mud, however Juan Carlos woke us up by blasting the song ‘Pepas’. We have many locals helping us including a local Indiginous tribe, and university students. We got to meet new people and make lots of progress on the court. We met a man named John Carlos, who was truly amazing. He came with his siblings and took many pictures of us working. It was great getting to know them and they were so hardworking (all the locals were hard working).
I remember at lunch time, John Carlos brought out a bag of Cheeto Puffs and they hit the spot. I only brought beef jerky and that was a big regret because I just wanted American snacks. A local, Miguel, had cut down some coconuts with a machete and Josiph, another local, cut them open for us. We enjoyed this sweet treat and for most of us, this was the first time trying coconut water. We ate lunch and enjoyed some starfruit with salt on it. We got back to work and some local (pretty young) children worked with us. We are about ⅓ done with the court.
Work day 4- We were told that we needed to make some good progress on the court if we wanted to finish it and that we would be working another day. Today, we had a group member’s birthday. Her name is Veronica. I haven’t talked much about the food, but today’s food was off the charts amazing. Breakfast consisted of fried dough (Hojaldres), fried egg, and pineapple. Veronica, Grace (another group member) and I asked the cooks how to make the fried dough and they allowed us to cook it with them. It was a simple recipe that we can make in the USA. It was fun to eat something that we helped prepare.
We started our usual day of work by passing buckets and talking to locals. A local had music blaring out of their house so that we could all listen to music as we worked. While we were working, the locals took Veronica (birthday group member) to get her ready for a traditional birthday. They dressed her in a traditional dress and traditional hair pieces. She looked absolutely beautiful. While we waited for Veronica to get ready, we had a house tour of a local house. I was talking to a local about my challenge so I wasn’t there. Those who were there said it was eye opening and surreal to them.
We finished up work and came in for the celebration. The locals stayed out for another hour and half to finish the foundation of the court. We have ⅔ of the court done. Tonight’s dinner I would do anything to have again. We had fish, yucca, rice mix, and this sauce that tastes like potato salad. I paired the sauce with the fish and I wanted to eat the whole pan that they had. We sang to Veronica in Spanish and English, and they made a pineapple cake. (Just thinking of that made me salivate) Veronica is a vegan, so they gave her an entire pineapple to eat for her birthday treat. (She gave me a piece and I can confirm that it was 11/10) The locals got her a piñata to hit with a bat, and we were able to try some local candy. Today was the only day it didn’t pour. 🙂 I smile at the memory of this day.
Work day 5- Today we feel the jitters of wanting to finish the court. Today we had cinnamon almond milk oatmeal and lemongrass tea. (there were more options but I don’t remember what they were) This was a good meal.
We got started on the court of the usual passing, throwing, and filling buckets. We needed more gravel since we were running low, however, the Panama blockades were starting. This made us have to halt production. We made conversations with the locals and did all we could so that we could start pouring concrete right away. We clapped as the truck pulled up with the cement.
We got to work right away. As we were filling the last few buckets, it started to pour harder than it had the whole trip. We grabbed the tarp to put over the wet concrete and continued to work. Music was blaring, the rain felt so great, and everyone had a smile on their face. It started to lightning so the locals finished on their own. We had just finished the 200th court.
The gutter above the restaurant was gushing out water. Many of us washed the dirt off of ourselves under the water. We danced in the rain and it was so refreshing. Now, the locals prepared the opening ceremony for after dinner, but all of us were soaking wet. I can’t decide if I regret it or not.
During the ceremony, we watched the locals dance and we joined in as well. We danced for a long time, then we showed the locals how we dance. We had a ribbon cutting ceremony, said our goodbyes, and ended the night. We came back to the church and organized all of the things we were going to donate, from clothes to boots to toiletries. We were off to bed quickly since we were leaving early in case the blockades opened up.
We woke up, cleaned the church, and loaded the bus. We made our own breakfast sandwich and said our last goodbyes. A local gifted me with a traditional hair piece. We had to get through blockades and had no idea when the gates would open. The unions would decide when they would open. The night before the gates opened at 2am. If the gates opened up earlier, we would tour the old part of Panama City.
We got on the bus and it felt so good to be in the air conditioning. We drove a while and were stopped at the protest blockades. There is only one major road in Panama, the Pan-American highway. There really is no other way to get to Panama City without going through it. We stayed on the bus for about an hour and then we drove to use the bathroom and buy food at a gas station. We did our best to keep ourselves occupied by reading, coloring, sleeping, and random games. We were unaware of when we would get through the protest. It could be a few minutes, hours or even day(s). We discussed a plan b in case we wouldn’t make our morning flight. We were truly unsure of anything.
We were parked outside this restaurant near the police and stayed in the bus for what felt like forever. Juan Carlos explained our situation to the owner and she allowed us to stay in her restaurant until the protests stopped. Juan Carlos did a good job of making sure we knew what we needed to know and keeping us calm, but we were still freaked out.
There were hundreds of people walking around going to and away from protests (all ages). We saw taxis and cars driving to and away from the blockade and trucks/buses waiting to pass though. We saw people with signs, music was playing, and there wasn’t much shouting coming from the protests that we could hear. It seemed pretty peaceful from the outside, however, it seemed like it could’ve gone badly. Thankfully, we were safe.
We had another birthday today, Addison. We tried to make it a great birthday for her. She said it would be a birthday to remember. I mentioned a local named John Carlos. He lives near the protest and helped us out. He bought two cakes and apples for us. One cake for the celebration of the 200th court and one for Addison’s birthday. We sang to her.
We gave each person a compliment and something that made them stand out during the week. It brought lots of smiles and good memories during a tough time. Some group members slept on the bus since it was getting late, while others stared out the window hoping the protests would open up. Every time a car or bus would move, we would think the protest opened up.
The protest blockade opened up around midnight. (Spent 14.5 hours in the protest and 16.5 hours in a bus) We all jumped in the bus, hoping all of our things were there. We did our count off and got out of there. This didn’t feel real. It felt like a weird dream. I was interested in seeing what this protest looked like. The blockade consisted of a row of trees, people, and then a row of burning tires. I’d seen smoke coming from the protests but I was unsure of what it was until we went through.
When we left, we kept the drapes on the bus down, so we wouldn’t draw too much attention to ourselves. I could see out the window, the burned tires, trees, so many locals, and many Panama flags. I admire them for standing out there all hours, they were so passionate about the cause, even though I was frustrated that we couldn’t have gotten to Panama City sooner. We played a victory round of the song ‘Pepas’ as we went through the protests. We drove towards the airport and were stopped by security. They made us turn around. This is when I lost all hope and broke down. I started to cry. I had so many mixed emotions, I wanted to go home, but I also wanted to help these people and give them support. My buddy on the bus supported me and gave me hope. We learned that there was a fire on the road and no access to the road to the airport. We turned around and pulled behind this taxi. I was so confused. Later, I learned that our bus driver, Juan, hired a taxi driver to take us the back route to the airport just in case we couldn’t get through. We turned off the road going past houses barely standing up. I thought to myself not knowing he hired a taxi, ‘where is this guy taking us? Does he know where he’s going?’ Trust is quite the thing to give someone when you are in another country. We trusted both Juans (bus driver Juan and Juan Carlos) to get us home safely, but had no idea what would happen. They both deserve sainthood and I’m forever grateful for them. We took many turns and went up hills and down and suddenly, we were taking the exit to the airport. I couldn’t believe what we had just been through. It was 1AM when we arrived at the airport.
We thanked Juan for driving us out of the protests and dealing with 18 teenagers for hours. We thanked Juan Carlos for guiding us during the week and for being a great leader. We took one last picture with him and said goodbye. We all tried to sleep in the freezing cold Panama airport until security opened up. Pro tip- bring long pants on your carry-on no matter where you’re going.
In the end, this trip is one to remember. I love telling others about my trip and I’ve been looking into other opportunities to do something similar to this trip. I love the lessons I learned, the people I met, and the legacy of the 200th court. That court will be there forever and I had part of it. What a wonderful thing to carry with you. Families for generations will enjoy this court and a part of me is with it. We had so many challenges that we had to overcome and we succeeded in each of them. ( a great lesson in life that you can achieve anything you put your mind to) Almost every odd was against us but we proved all the odds wrong 🙂 I would encourage every person to do something similar to this in their life. You never know what could come about a trip like this. I will remember this forever. I’m proud to say that I’ve been on a Courts for Kids trip. ~Olivia Wagner, Xavier HS student
QUOTES FROM COMMUNITY MEMBERS
For me, it was of great happiness that a Courts for Kids project was going to happen in our community. I couldn’t wait for the project to actually start. Once it started, I feel there was a challenge with the amount of rain, I doubted the project was going to be completed, but on the other hand, I was very happy to see the community working together towards a common goal, which made more excited to the point I wiped my tears and said we’ll make it happen!
Sharing with the group was wonderful, and the best is that we were able to finish the court in the community of San Francisco de Piriatí, we are very happy and grateful.
San Francisco de Piriati project, I describe it as the climate project.
It was the most difficult project to complete due to the inclement weather with a lot of rain during the construction process.
I have a great lesson; teamwork will always be the main basis for achieving goals no matter how difficult it may be and it may seem at the time.
There is always something to learn in life.