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   Date: 8/31/11 Bookmark and Share

The Adventures of Kat Maria, Perla Haiti, in Panama

By Kelsey “Kat” Black ’13

“Uh, funny story,” I said to my friend when she pointed in horror to the masses of welts and bruises that disfigured my leg from shin to kneecap.

“What happened to you?” she wanted to know. It was two days since I returned to the United States from a month-long study program in Panama. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting anything close to the story I told: about how I injured my leg after falling through a hole in a latrine over the ocean on an indigenous Panamanian island—thankfully, not into raw sewage.

Kelsey Black ’13 by the biggest tree on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.

It was during SIT (School for International Training) Panama: Biodiversity in the Tropics, with which I spent most my summer as a Praxis intern, participating in field excursions, interviewing locals, living with my home-stay families and even exploring Panamanian night-life—and receiving my real education about Panamanian culture, environmental policy and other lessons.

For example, I learned from talking to local Kuna lobster fishermen that the indigenous Kuna people, who live in the self-governed island province of Kuna Yala, do not in fact consume the lobster themselves. Their catch is usually transported to Panama City and/or served to tourists on the island. I learned how difficult the life of a laborer in the produce capital of Panama is by climbing to the top of one of the steepest hills in the region; by the time I had descended, I was exhausted, covered from head to toe in mud and painfully aware of the physically demanding nature of farm work in the highlands of Panama.

In addition to discussing the potential of GMOs for the future of Latin American agriculture and the pitfalls of organic farming in the tropics, I also learned, through a chance conversation with a local hotel manager, that the indigenous communities—which comprise most of the agricultural work force—have statistically suffered the worst health consequences of prevalent pesticide use. I learned about the decimation of marine ecosystems due to overfishing by snorkeling around coral reefs and sunken ships (often through swarms of poisonous jellyfish—think Finding Nemo).

By interviewing representatives from various NGOs and Panama’s National Authority for the Environment (ANAM) for an independent research project, I learned that the role of NGOs in the management of Panama’s national conservation parks is significant, but considerably limited due to government interference. And I was given the opportunity to observe the scope of “biodiversity in the tropics” by seeing it in full-color brilliance in the tropical rainforests of El Parque Internacional La Amistad and Barro Colorado Island.

My education took place on a cultural level as well. I learned about the state of public transportation in Panama by taking countless taxis, the drivers of which drove on the curb, shouted at pedestrians in crosswalks to move out of the way, fell asleep at the wheel and considered seat-belts an extraneous nuisance. I came to understand the extent to which Panamanian women treasure their public appearance when my home-stay mother refused to let me attend class in shorts or a mildly wrinkled skirt. “Ay, no puedes irte asi!” she exclaimed (“You’re not going out like that, are you?”)

I learned about the ubiquity of machismo in Panama when one of my little home-stay brothers naturally assumed that, because I was a woman, it was part of my job description to take care of babies, and, to my infinite surprise, dumped his infant brother on my bed. The assumption was confirmed when, not wanting to abandon a helpless baby, I brought him to his father. “Te ves bien,” he quipped, adding in English, “The baby looks good on you.”

I was rudely awakened to the standard treatment of animals in rural Panama when I lived with a family that kept a monkey in cramped quarters and saw a horse tied to the doorknob on the front steps of a house. I learned about the emphasis placed on family and community by attending an extravagant birthday party for the ex-mayor’s son, which seemed to have the entire city in attendance (a cow was slaughtered for the occasion).

Above all, I was introduced to the warmth of the Panamanian culture through the love and care lavished upon me by my home-stay families, including receiving a new nickname from my first home-stay sister: “Kat Maria Perla Haiti” (“Kat Maria, the Pearl of Haiti”), the meaning of which evades me. Still, the nickname made me genuinely feel like a part of the family.

In Panama, I also learned—after some seven years of theoretical study— that I could speak Spanish fluently, though I encountered many challenges along the way. It was one thing to discuss postmodern Cuban literature in Spanish in a Smith classroom, and quite another to buy produce at a supermarket, make small talk at the discoteca, talk to a hairdresser, or chismear (gossip) with my home-stay sister and her cousins.

By the time I touched ground back in the United States, I was sunburned, covered in stings from every marine organism in the Caribbean, and bespattered with bruises and cuts. But as a fellow gringa at my last home-stay put it, gesturing to my impressive collection of injuries: “Well, at least you can prove that you weren’t just doing ‘tourist’ things. It means you got to know the country.”

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