Closing Time

July 15, 2010 | Natalie Fernandes, Intern

What a perfect opportunity to write my last blog. With a little more than 3 weeks left to my trip, and upon arriving back from an unforgettable voyage, I have so many interesting things to recount.

I just got back from a 3 day trip with all of the exchange students from AFS. It was called an “orientacion de salida” (goodbye trip), and had about 25 students on it from all walks of life. Most were intercambios (doing high school), but there were also a few people my age. Regardless of age, they were all, for lack of better phrasing, extremely cool human beings.

The trip started out early, at a most ungodly hour, around 6am. I took a taxi to the Santiago bus station to go to Panama, but, unbeknownst to me, it didn’t open until 9am! Since I had to be in Panama City by 10:30 am (it is a four hour trip) I quickly found some friendly locals, and they showed me an alternative route I could take. I arrived in Panama City, extremely nervous because I had never met any of the students (as this was the first orientation AFS had scheduled). A boy I had recognized from my town found me and brought me into the group, introducing me to everyone. Immediately, I remember being overwhelmed and taken aback by how nice and friendly everyone was. We were all in relatively the same boat: all in a foreign country, and could barely speak the language…yet we all bonded, and managed to talk about anything and everything. Most of the students were from Europe, where apparently AFS is extremely popular. There were also some from the U.S.A, and a large group from Thailand! Plus, of course, one Canadian.

Everyone was finally ready to leave the terminal by 12, which in Panamanian time, was considered relatively early. We started off our journey in tourist fashion, by going to see the Panama Canal at Miraflores, the first of three locks. Seeing how advanced and integral the Canal was to Panama’s economy presented an interesting dichotomy: even though Panama is still, in many aspects, a developing country, it has the largest economy in all of Latin America, and is, in many ways, a model for its neighbouring countries.

After we had our fill of the museum at Miraflores (CliffsNotes version-lots of different rocks and insects), we went to Causeway to have a quick lunch and of course, watch the World Cup, equally as popular to Panamanians as telenovelas. Causeway is part of Panama city that juts into the Bay of Panama, and has the most amazing views of both Casco Viejo (the old city) and the “third” Panama city (the financial district). Again, another stunning dichotomy, it was as if two cities (Barcelona and Miami) had met and were still trying to mesh together. It was like oil and water.

Afterwards, we all headed to Casco Viejo to get in some sights and do some shopping. Here, I became convinced that the next country I want to visit is Thailand—I had some very adamant salespeople. I had never had a big interest in Thailand before, but after hearing about the people, the culture, and the sights, I was ready to book my ticket. I also spoke with some of the Austrians, and we shared our love of schnitzel and spaetzle. I really hope some of these people come to Canada to visit and see our great country!

We then headed back to our hotel in El Cangrejo district, and we all went for a well-deserved swim, playing ice breakers and just reminiscing about our full day. It was the closest thing to a family I had felt in quite a while, and by the time we were told that we needed to get ready to go to dinner, I didn’t want to leave. However, I’m glad I did, because the food was amazing, as all Panamanian food is. While eating, we watched traditional Panamanian dances, and then danced among ourselves…I refrained, as I’m sure my dancing would have embarrassed Canada’s name.

The next day (again, super early) we headed to the Comunidad de Embera Drua, an indigenous community that had no electricity, running water, or basic perks (cell service). Yet, despite my love of all things modern, I loved it. I think I could have lived there for at least one month of my trip here, and I wish I had had the opportunity to do so earlier. Everything was so…natural and basic, but not in a bad way. Dirty? Bathe in the beautiful lakes/waterfalls. Hungry? Eat fresh fruit from the forest. Bored? Actually talk to people, without any distractions. I learned so much about all the students with me, not only about their countries, but about why they wanted to come to Panama, and how they feel they have changed. In just these three days with everyone, I felt that my Spanish had improved exponentially, because I wasn’t shy about practicing (since everyone was relatively at the same level). I even had the opportunity to talk to one of the older volunteers about the political life in Panama—in Spanish. It was unreal. The things he witnessed in his life are things that I cannot imagine of happening in Canada. He told me that he once saw a man shot in the forehead, right in front of his eyes, just because he had too much to drink (this was during the Noriega era). He said this was normal and almost accepted in those days.

The following day, our trip came to a quick close and the students all decided to go back to Casco Viejo one last time together and share a great Thai lunch. Afterwards, I sadly got on a bus back to Santiago with some of the Austrians who were going even further west than I. I returned to work today, after being away for three entire days! I was surprised at how comfortable I still felt, and realized how much I will miss these kids. It is sad to think that I have seen so many firsts: first words, first steps, first…fights! I really wish I could see all their firsts, but I realize that my time is coming to a close. At the beginning, I wasn’t really sure I could keep doing this job…being around 30 crying, hungry kids seemed like no easy feat. But I am proud that I stuck with it, and I realized I really wouldn’t be as happy here doing anything else.

So I guess that’s it from me! I can’t believe how fast three months can go. To honour the words of Semi Sonic, in their epic song Closing Time: “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

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