Last summer I was fortunate to have the opportunity to immerse myself in the Panamanian culture for a month. I stayed with a host family in Cocle, Panama through Amigos de Las Americas, and the experience was unforgettable. My time in Panama revealed to me how different life and culture can be around the world, and by immersing myself in their lifestyle for a month, I was able to learn a lot about the differences in Panamanian culture compared to American culture. Being exposed to the culture of Panama was eye-opening, and I was able to have greater appreciate for aspects of both American and Panamanian culture.
The community I lived in was very rural and high up in the forested mountains. The poverty in the area was very apparent, and most houses had dirt floors, no running water, no electricity, or technology. Since the community was so isolated from the city, there were very few job opportunities for locals, and most worked for themselves. I learned a lot about their lifestyle that I admired. The people in my community had a very strong work ethic, but at the same time led a much simpler, relaxed way of life. Without the consumerism and materialism of other cities and countries, the people in my community were able to focus more on relationships and inner happiness, which I greatly respected. While in Panama, I led camps for young children that were based on themes of leadership, conservation, and hygiene, and I was so impressed by the children’s attitude and enthusiasm to learn and participate. The friendliness and family-oriented values of the Panamanian culture, in general, inspired me and showed me the importance of authentic relationships and kindness.
I also experienced many other interesting aspects of their culture, such as food, religion, and music. Their food was unlike anything I had tasted in America and was very delicious. Some of my favorite dishes included sancocho (soup traditionally made from meat, corn, potatoes, and yucca), chicha de avena (an oat drink typically eaten for breakfast), hojaldras (fried bread) and tajadas (fried sweet plantain). I loved tasting and learning how to cook traditional Panamanian meals on their outdoor stoves. Religion was another very important aspect of their culture, with most people being Catholic. In my community, most people had altars and icons symbolizing their faith in their houses and regularly attended mass. I enjoyed experiencing the religious services in Panama and seeing how the same Catholic religion can be experienced differently in different countries. Aside from food and religion, music played a large role in the Panamanian life and was used in religious events, fiestas, and daily life. Their music and dancing were largely influenced by indigenous traditions and reflected the vibrant history of the area. During the final few days of my experience in Panama, I was able to visit historic sites in Panama and see local vendors in the city. I visited the Panama Canal and historic Panamanian churches that pointed towards to the historical roots of the country. I also loved seeing the vendors selling traditional art of painted pots, wood carvings, masks, earrings, and bracelets.
One of the biggest the challenges of my immersion experience was the language barrier. While I am very proficient in Spanish, the dialect was unfamiliar, and I was not always able to communicate my thoughts as clearly as I wished. However, being able to speak Spanish did allow me to more fully connect with the Panamanian culture and experience life as a local. Speaking daily in Spanish made the experience more authentic and valuable, and highlighted the importance of communication when learning about other cultures.
Through my experience, I became a stronger person, and I felt like I was so much more capable. I learned to adapt fast and learned to lead and instigate change in the community. After the program I was able to use my skills in leadership in the classroom and in extracurriculars. I also focused on sharing my experiences with others to bring awareness to the beauty of Panamanian culture and the importance of cultural awareness and inclusivity.
Overall, I became a lot more culturally aware of the differences in lifestyles of people across the globe and how other people’s lives look so different. I experienced the beauty of the Panamanian culture by being fully immersed in the community. Especially being in a rural community, a lot of the traditions have been kept and are shown through the food, music, religion, dance, and lifestyle. My experiences changed my outlook on life, and I use what I have learned through my travels in decisions I make and how I act towards others.