*This is a memoir I recently wrote for a nonfiction writing class. I don't have much spare time to post here, so I figured I might as well just post what I'm writing for school. It's a little bit of a different feel than what is normally here, but it gives you a taste for what I'm working on this semester. As always, your feedback is welcome. :)
Ever since returning from Panama in the summer of 2012, there was no question of whether or not I would go back someday. I have always taken every opportunity to travel, from the first time I flew by myself at seven years old to my grandparents’ house in California, to touring all things historical and patriotic on the East Coast as an eighth grader with a group of students from my school, and going on a two week long mission trip to Lima, Peru when I was in high school. Through these experiences I developed a sense of adventure, budding independence, and a growing aspiration to travel anywhere and everywhere.
As the now familiar boat ride came to an end and I stepped onto the beach of Rio Tigre, an island in the San Blas archipelago of Panama, the Kuna children immediately flocked to the group of wide-eyed teenagers from the United States and grabbed water jugs and duffel bags to help us unload our supplies and carry them to the hut that would be our home for the next eight days. The island was jam-packed with huts, enough for around one thousand people – six hundred children and four hundred adults. These huts were made with walls of thin sticks and a palm-thatched roof. Electricity was only accessible to some, and even then, only after six o’clock in the evening, when the solar panels had time to charge in the hot sun all day long. Running water was available, but not clean enough to drink and only in a centralized location. The most drastic change from familiar life back home was the bathroom, which required you to walk on a plank made of sticks about ten feet out into the ocean where you would sit in a room made of sticks, small enough to reach both sides with outstretched arms. The students on my team accurately described it as the “aquarium bathroom.” Multiple times throughout our week on Rio Tigre I stopped and [realized how similar my surroundings were to a photograph from a National Geographic magazine.]
My journey to Panama began with four plane rides: Boise, ID to Salt Lake City, UT to Dallas, TX to Miami, FL to Panama City, Panama. After experiencing international travel and airport customs with fifty frazzled teenagers, I will forever appreciate the calmness and freedom of flying by myself. After arriving in Panama City, we spent two days packing supplies and preparing for ministry on the island. On the third day, we started the travel day with a 4:00am wake up call, ate a quick breakfast, and hopped in a caravan of Jeeps for the three and a half hour drive over the San Blas mountain range into Kuna Yala. This drive was far more stressful than flying with the multitudes of teenagers; between the sharp curves, rollercoaster-type steep hills, and washed out patches of pavement from past rainstorms, my stomach was in knots. Nevermind the monsoon of a rainstorm that came through about twenty minutes into the mountain trek with a broken defroster, a manual transmission that kept stalling on hills, and a driver that could only pass on snippets of reassurance in extremely limited English. Mostly, he just gave a somewhat nervous chuckle and kept smiling at me. The language barrier here left much meaning in the subtle communication open for debate. Being the only team leader in the vehicle, I decided to plan ahead in case the car stalled and rolled backward (which did happen once or twice, to a lesser degree than what I was worried about); my hand stayed rather close to the emergency brake and told the kids in the back to not worry about a thing, this was normal! (probably)
We finally arrived at the dock, the boats were late – in typical Panamanian style, and we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the rain to tide the teams over until we got to the islands. Of course I did not have my raincoat with me, so I quickly turned into a sopping wet mess. Despite the wait, the extra time at the dock was a real treat considering the last thing I wanted to do at that point was put my nauseous, motion-sick self in another moving object, particularly one bouncing over waves in the ocean.
When the boats arrived, we boarded by team (with each one going to a different island) and the excitement built and lasted for about the first ten minutes of the ride, until the teens realized how tired they were and, probably for the first time in their lives, fell asleep packed together on a hard bench as we [flew] closer and closer to our destination. With the sleepily bobbing heads of my team sitting in front of me, and my stomach’s angry revolt finally subsiding, I was able to gaze in curiosity and anticipation out across the ocean, which was crowded with speckles of islands overflowing with palm trees and eagerly question: “Is that going to be the one we make our home for the next week?” After a little over an hour of gazing and questioning, plus the three different modes of transportation across 4,370 miles before that day, the boat finally slowed as we pulled onto the beach of our island: Rio Tigre. We were undeniably far from home.
Despite the mere five minutes it took to walk from one end of the island to the other, there was definitely a lot to see and experience. There was one school with classes for children in Kindergarten through twelfth grade. [There was] one church that my team was there to work with, and presumably two others, but we never actually saw them. (…which is interesting considering the small size of the island) Supplies and food are general brought in from other islands or boats that come to sell fish, lobster, etc. The stores that are available on the island are extremely bare and only provide the bare essentials (along with the nonessential random items, too), like deodorant (not the kind you’re used to), children’s socks, cold juice (quite the treat!), small candies, beans, and maybe a few other small things. [They would definitely not be well stocked to Winco’s] standards or have nearly the variety and options. We got our bread from a couple different families who had ovens in their huts – the most simple, delicious bread you’ve ever tasted. Of course, there’s a volleyball court and soccer field, too. The one community hut on the island (kind of like a town hall or community center) was where my team hung up our hammocks and unpacked our supplies; this was “home” for the next nine days.
The Kuna Indians quickly became some of my favorite people.
As we hung hammocks and got settled into our hut, Pastor sat down with my co-leader, Matthew, and I to go over some expectations and information we would need. He explained that the next day was a holiday: children’s day. It reminded me of “take your child to work day” here in the states, where the children switched roles for the day with an adult leader in the community - it seemed to be either a school administrator or the saila (village chief). They celebrated by canceling classes at school, marching the children across the island in a parade, and putting on a big festival that night all to honor children and support families. The teachers were in charge of the program and one stopped by that afternoon to ask if our group would like to perform a skit or sing a song. What a privilege to be invited into the Kuna culture and celebrate with them. Of course I replied with a smile and said, “We would love to do a skit and sing a song!”Then waved goodbye as I turned to my team and informed them that we needed to learn a skit and song, ASAP!
My team of students, eager to explore the island, set off on our first full day of ministry on the island. They spent the morning in three small groups visiting people in what we called “hut-to-hut,” where they literally went to each hut and asked if there was anything they could do to help. (i.e. wash dishes, chop coconut, clean fish, sweep the dirt floors, etc) This was a very practical way to meet people and be a positive presence in the community. One group of my students – Cassidy, Caleb, Annemarie, and Natalie – set out to do just that. Matthew and I stayed behind to get some cleaning and paper work done in the quiet time that the students were away. Not too much time had passed before Annemarie and Natalie came running back into the hut and grabbed a handful of powdered Gatorade single packets. I was confused and asked what was going on. They informed me that this small, old Kuna woman named Amelia kept asking them for juice, so they were going to make her some Gatorade instead. Cassidy said that the woman’s face lit up when she tried it, she drank three entire cups full of their concoction, and then let out a refreshing ‘ahh’ at the end. The students realized that this was a simple way to bless her and decided to offer a gift of at least twelve Gatorade packets, which was the initiation of their friendship.
Another woman that group met disclosed that her husband had just recently left her and she naturally felt lonely and abandoned. Natalie had the idea to give her new friend somewhat of a Panamanian spa day and paint her nails. While they painted her nails they talked to her and got to hear more of her story. The woman’s expression changed from one of deep pain to pure joy as these teenagers took time to invest in her and start to build a relationship. The rest of the week when I walked by the woman’s hut, she would call out, “Donde esta mi amiga, Natalia?” Her beaming smile and constantly asking where her friend Natalie was reminded me how easy it is to make friends. They were simply willing to meet a basic need and listen. It changed the woman’s entire demeanor.
Almost exactly a month after returning from Panama I found myself packing my belongings into several bags and loading my car again. This time, though, was not in preparation for a short term international trip, but an indefinitely long term move across town into a house with a few friends to live closer to school. This move came three years too late, in my opinion, which is how long I have been waiting to experience that sweet taste of independence. Or at least, move in the direction of independence. I graduated from high school six years ago, but the journey since then has been a slow process of moving out on my own; first in the dorms, then campus housing, then residing in the spare rooms in two different families’ homes for cheap rent. While I knew that they were technically my home, because I lived there, on a deeper level I felt more like a guest in someone else’s home. The arrangements were all short term and I could never fully settle due to the inevitability of change coming along soon. Even though that was the reality of my living situation, everywhere I lived I meshed in with the family and knew without a doubt that I was welcomed, supported, and cared for. The houses quickly became homes when I realized that I could easily connect with the people.
I still sometimes still refer to Oregon as “home” simply because that’s where I grew up. My family lived in the same house from when I was three years old until I graduated and moved to Texas. That old gray house on Pinebrook street was all I never knew in reference to “home.” It meant safety, security, and family. It was familiar.
This current season of life reveals “home” as an ever-changing entity, not so much based on the actual house or location, but on the people I am surrounded by. “Home” is the opportunity to make a connection with a person, not a wood structure – whether its walls are made of sticks and palm leaves or wood beams and dry wall. My mother might not be too far off course in her favorite expression: “Home is where your mom is.” While this sense or feeling of “home” may not be limited solely to the relationship of mother-daughter, the principle is the same. I feel at home with my Mom as a result of my relationship with her, no matter how far apart she and I live.
“Home” is quite an arbitrary term. We often hear common clichés in tying the concept of home with the person or people you are with. Even after the hundreds of times of hearing these phrases, I still equate “home” with my furnished, air conditioned/heated house, cozy bed, full refrigerator, and closet overflowing with too many clothes. I typically think more of the comfort, familiarity, and safety, rather than the people. That trip to Panama initiated a paradigm shift regarding the meaning of home.
Something so foreign felt completely natural, despite all of the lifestyle adjustments. Living on an island, in a hut with dirt floors, using the restroom over the ocean, taking bucket showers, extremely limited electricity, no sanitary drinking water, no stores for easy access to goods and supplies, etc, and yet, we seemed to immediately fit right in. The culture and lifestyle varied greatly from our own – no iphones or internet – but the needs of the people were the same. This cultural gap diminished as we lived closely among the Kuna people and experienced everyday life with them. It was when the teachers invited us to be a part of the Children’s day festivals and when the old woman got overly excited over a few cups of Gatorade; these moments of connecting with the people resulted in creating our deep sense of home on the island. Rio Tigre became as comfortable as home because our new friends were open to sharing it. Besides, it wasn’t about living in the lap of luxury; it was about living amongst the people.
Now I see home as a fluid concept that changes constantly. This lack of stability in an actual structure of “home” may even force me to rely more heavily on the consistency of the people over the place. I have to choose to live in every moment, rather than fear of the future and the unknown. Each place that I live – and there have been many – is really an opportunity to know people and live life together. My life, then, is forever influenced because of that specific time under the same roof. “Home” is no longer steady or stagnant, like it was when I grew up in my childhood home in Oregon. But the element of constant change and influences of a variety of new people has only purposed to grow and challenge me as a person. It seems to be a reality that our sense of home is relevant to the personal and emotional connection to that place as a result of deep relationships with other people, regardless of whether or not they share in the same language or culture.