2013 GCP Trip to Panama
Global Citizenship Project (GCP) at Shenandoah University aims to advocate preparing students to be global citizens who are committed to making responsible contributions within a community, a nation and a world. At the beginning of this mysterious journey, we didn’t know who was going to be on our team or where we were going…Sounds interesting? The journey had already started before spring break. All the GCP travelers had meetings every other Sunday to get to know each other and prepare for the trip.
Journey to Panama
We gathered at 11:30PM on March 7th at the parking garage near the student center. It was about 34 degree outside; we were feeling cold but had passion for the adventure. We said Goodbye to family and friends, and then took a van to Dulles airport in Washington, DC. We boarded on the plane at 3am and our seats were separated by others but we enjoyed looking outside the window and watching the geography of the lands the flight flew over and wondering how Panama would look. We connected in El Salvador international airport and arrived in Panama at noon time on Friday. Fortunately, Panama and the United States are in the same time zone that we didn’t suffer the jet lag. Blanca’s mother Doris welcomed us with plantain chips and sandwiches. Nothing was better than snacks and food after eight hours on the airplane! We took the bus back to our hotel. Along the way Doris pointed out and explained the famous architecture we passed by.
First Impression about Panama
My first impression about Panama: it’s a beautiful country. The houses with different colorful walls built on the mountainside look harmonious with nature. You can tell the beauty from the city’s architecture and flowers in residents’ backyard garden. Pretty flowers along each side of the road make Panama City a garden city. The traffic is busy, cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians, I felt like I came back to China, and the only thing missing is bicycles! We listened to Doris’ introduction and at the same time took pictures of the scenery along the way. It’s interesting to see school students in uniforms waiting for their buses. When our bus drove to downtown, it presented us with a different view: skyscrapers, shopping malls, well-built infrastructures, hotels and all these made Panama City a modern city.
People in My Team
One of my favorite parts of the trip is getting to know each person as an individual and d learn from her/him. Our group leader is Gina, professor of mass communication; two trustees: Mary-Bruce and Andy; Mitch, Public Relations office, Bogdan, professor of Economics; Amanda, Spiritual life coordinator; Blanca, student from Panama, majoring in communication; Jordan, studying physical therapy; Brittany, studying pharmacy; Emily, junior student studying music therapy; Jake, junior studying biology; Brittani, sophomore in nursing; Emma, sophomore majoring in biology; Markus, freshman majoring in nursing. We are a combination of people from different backgrounds and fields. Each one has her/his shining personality. Students concentrated on listening to the introductions of Panamanian history and culture, and they were curious to learn about new things, creative, thoughtful, and ambitious. When we visited Medcom TV Channel, Purta Pacifica hospital, and La Prensa Newspaper, students majoring in mass communication and Physical Therapy communicated with directors from these institutions, asked questions in their studying fields and explored internship opportunities. Professors and trustees also took advantage of this opportunity to advertise and promote Shenandoah University, to recruit new students and explore internship opportunities for students. Our school officers also had a caring heart to hear about students’ campus life and try to improve it. I learned leadership from them by watching and observing they communicate with students and local institution directors.
We Travel as a Team
Our trip was well planned by team leader Prof. Gina and our tour guide Doris Navarro. Doris loves her job and has a strong desire and enthusiasm to share her knowledge about Panamanian culture and history with us. Everyone in this team got along well with each other. We traveled, experienced and learned as a team. When it took forever for the flight company to correct Bogdan’s name on the tickets, when my passport was taken away by the security officer to verify, when we came across the Single-plank bridge over the river, when we wanted to challenge ourselves, trembling to jump off the rock into the river, when the tickets were overbooked that Jake and Brittany could not get on the airplane with us at the same time, our team showed great support and comfort to the ones who met with difficulties during the trip. We were a team bonded together and no one would be given up. We also played games on our way to the destinations and some funny parts really made people laugh harder.
Places We Visited
Panama has rich historical sites. We visited “three” Panama cities: the ruins of the 16th-century original city, Casco Viejo (the colonial city), and the modern skyscraper city. We also took a train to Colon city. Along the one-hour way, we had the best coffee from Panama and enjoyed views of the Panama Canal and its lush rainforest surroundings. When we arrived in Colon City we saw our bus driver Carlo had already arrived ahead of us. Andy kept telling us that he read in the tour guide book it was not safe to walk in this city. All of us stayed in the bus and had a bus tour around the main streets. The buildings are old and crowded. A lot of graffiti is on the wall. At one point the bus stopped because Doris said the store by the street had the best empanadas, a pastry filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables. We tried to stop Doris going but she insisted. We were waiting in the bus and watching people going inside and out of that store hoping nothing would happen to her. When Doris came back with two full bags of empanadas, we cheered for her and she became our hero. The Metropolitan Natural Park is a 655-acre tropical forest a short bus ride away from our city hotel. A native tour guide explained the flora and fauna. During our hiking, we saw sloth, turtles, lizard and several different species of birds. It is amazing to learn how trees defend themselves during the dry season. After a six-mile hike, we arrived at the top of the mountain and had a panoramic Panama City view there. We saw the skyline filled with modern skyscrapers.
Trip to Embera Indian Village
We took a motorized canoe, the only means of transportation in Embera area, up a scenic rainforest river, to an authentic Embera Indian village. The chief executive of the village gave us a thirty-minute presentation about their way of life, traditions and beliefs (Doris helped with translation) while we enjoyed native foods offered by them. After lunch, they performed a tribal dance and invited us to join them. On our way back to the city, the canoe went to a shallow water and stuck there. Jake gestured to the navigator boy, he pointed to himself and then to the water, meaning “Do you need I to get into the water to help push the canoe?” It is impressive that the boy understood him and nodded to him. So all the gentlemen got out of the canoe, stepped into the water and helped push the boat back to a correct direction.
Get Involved in the Navarros Family
It’s a great honor to be invited to Blanca’s brother Hernan’s 26th birthday party. The party was held in the back yard decorated by happy-birthday flags. Doris’ friend prepared traditional Panamanian food and drink for the party. Hernan’s friends and relatives were invited to his birthday party and they brought him birthday gifts. A Mariachi band was also invited to the party to play music. During the party, Hernan invited his grandmother to dance together which touched all the people in the party. How sweet it is! We had the opportunity to meet new friends from Panama, try traditional food and learn traditional dance there. There was also a birthday cake and all his friends at the party sang a birthday song in Spanish at the end of the party. I had the chance to talk to a girl whose name is Monica, senior at college studying engineering. It is interesting to hear about a student’s college life in Panama and exchange our college experience.
We also spent one day at the Navarros’ beach house. Walking around the neighborhood, trying local delicious cuisine, helping cook Panamanian breakfast, and learning traditional dance around a bonfire on the beach is unforgettable.
Highlight of the Journey
My highlight of the trip was to visit the Panama Canal. Panama Canal is known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and plays a significant role in world economics. I studied International Economics and Trade for my bachelor’s degree. I learned that two-thirds of products are shipped by sea each year. I am curious about how tons of goods are delivered to different countries after being manufactured in China. Our visit to the Miraflores Visitors Center provided us with breathtaking views of ships transiting the locks, seeing 5,000,000 ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet in the locks as they make their way over the locks from one ocean to another. We also visited the museum learning the history and workings of the Canal.
Blanca’s father has worked as a pilot at the Panama Canal for more than twenty years. I’m lucky to interview him to learn more details about how the Panama Canal works. Before our interview, Captain Navarro said to me: “English is not my first language and I know it’s not yours either, I will talk slowly to make sure I give the right answers to your questions.” I appreciate Captain Navarro’s understanding and respect. He is very patient to draw different maps on my journal to explain the process. He worked in a rotation system of five weeks on job and three weeks off. His main responsibility is to navigate the ship going through the Panama Canal locks. After learning about how Panama Canal functions, I asked this question “What makes you feel proud of the Panama Canal?” “Because of the Panama Canal’s unique location, the Panama Canal is the only place where the master of the ship has to give 100% right to the pilot to navigate it through the locks.
One Thing Frustrated Me
Though we had a wonderful trip, there’s still one thing that frustrated me—that is the REAL Chinese food. The day we came back from the Navarro’s beach house, my group decided to go to a Chinese Restaurant for dinner. We went to a fancy restaurant called Sunly. My job is to order REAL Chinese food for my group. It was hard for me because I am not familiar with this restaurant and it seems that the owner is from Guangdong, which has a different style of food from my hometown. I wish I can just go to the kitchen and cook the dinner for us, and tell my group proudly “here is the REAL Chinese food.” I am not sure if the dishes come out the same way as I expected. While waiting for the dishes, I explained some traditions. One interesting thing is that the main guest sits just at the inner side towards the door, and the host sits just near the door, one reason is it’s easier to serve the guests when the dishes come, and the other reason is to pay the bill ☺ some of the dishes really disappointed me but the roasted duck was really good. I considered this experience as a risk of trying a new dish, but teaching and learning the traditional custom is interesting, which is more important.
Overall Impression about Panama
Panama has a great variety of attractions and a rich melting pot of races and cultures. People are nice and friendly. Panama is growing fast becoming the business hub with the advantages of being the second largest Free Trade Zone in the world, container port, and logistics center, having the major infrastructure projects underway including subway and the three billion dollar Panama Canal expansion, a lot of skyscrapers being built, great convenience of having US Dollar as currency.
We met new people and made new friends; we traveled together to explore a new world; we got involved in the local community and experienced their life style. All these experience helped me to rethink about my thoughts and attitudes to life. I learned to be brave to challenge myself; to be eager to try new things; to work with others as a team effectively and pleasantly; to respect and appreciate different cultures; and to help others in any possible way you can to show your care and concerns. We brought back what we learned from the trip then would share it with the Shenandoah community. This is our amazing GCP Panama trip.