We all remember the question; what did you do on your spring break? Whether it was the title of a paper you needed to write for 11th grade English class or the topic of discussion at the pub in late April of your senior year of college, it’s a great question whose answer can be as boring as it is exciting. So what did I do on my spring break this year? I’ll tell you…
In the summer of 2019, my son, entering his sophomore year of high school, asked if I would be interested in chaperoning a service trip to Panama for Courts for Kids. With the mission of “transforming lives through building courts and cultural exchange”, Courts for Kids is a not-for-profit that pairs service-oriented high school students, families, and adults with needy communities all over the world. These communities need to go through a rigorous application process to secure a court. Like Los Pilares, these rural villages commit their entire population to the process and construction from housing visitors, securing materials and equipment, and helping with the construction. Most of the costs are covered by fees charged to the volunteers that they can raise through donations and fundraisers. The total cost (including flights and all other expenses) per participant for my trip was $2,375 for each of us, half of which we raised through donations from family and friends, and a 50’s themed dinner and silent auction that 6 students organized at our favorite diner in downtown Camas, WA. By January of 2020, we were ready to go. I worked with a local business to get t-shirts made for the trip that the students could mark up and sell for another fundraiser. Fortunately, we didn’t put the date of the trip on the t-shirt. With a departure date in late March, we found ourselves gripped by the news about some pesky virus raging across the globe. Once the WHO labeled it a pandemic, we were on hold. Maybe we could go? Maybe it would be delayed a week or so? We all know how wrong that optimistic approach was.
After a lockdown, a few open windows to travel (that shut as quickly as they opened), and subsequent COVID variants that eliminated any opportunity to make the trip in the spring of 2020 or 2021, plans were cemented (pun intended) and we boarded a plane in Portland, OR on our way to Panama City through Houston on April 1st. For those of you who got my out-of-office response, I was off the grid for 10 days. The opportunity to travel with your child for 10 days without electronics was a gift in itself. Paper made a reappearance in his life; playing cards at the airport, reading books on the plane, and writing in his journal. As a chaperone, I was able to have my phone but as the map shows you, we were about 4 hours west of Panama City and out of range of most cell coverage. After a full day of travel, a night in a youth hostel, and a long bus ride sitting next to chatty teenage girls the next day, we were greeted with the warmest welcome from the Los Pilares community (see the picture above and the t-shirts we made for the trip).
My son, now a junior in high school, was now at an age where kids shy away from parental participation in anything. And as a connoisseur of dad jokes, I got more than a few eye rolls from the group of 20 high school students. Still, as you can tell from the photos, we had a great and meaningful trip.
The pictures below tell the story. We bunked in a classroom at the schoolhouse in the town center. The nets were definitely required. The food was rich in starches (rice, yuca, plantains, corn) and paired with locally grown coffee and bottled water. Meat and fish are luxuries for the community but they were generously included in our menu. The community bought a pig and used every bit of it to feed our group of volunteers and members of the construction and planning team. We ate local fruit (papaya, banana, and nance fruit) and feasted on classic Panamanian dishes such as Arroz Con Pollo (or rice with chicken being made in one of the pictures below). We learned how to make tamales and Bollo De Maiz (a boiled cornmeal dumpling) after learning how to grind corn into masa. On our first night there, we were graced with a traditional dance performed by two local children in native dress.
Oh, and we built a sports court with the help of incredible individual effort matched with superior teamwork.
So What Did I Learn?
I like to consider myself a “student of business” and look to learn about economic situations and business models wherever I go. I’m that guy in the Progressive Commercial (the one in the visor at 0.12 of the video). So here are my takeaways from an incredible trip.
- It rains in Panama in April. A lot.
- “Farm to table” isn’t a tagline on a restaurant menu but the default way of life here.
- Most families in Los Pilares live on about $10 a week.
- Panama uses the US Dollar as currencies but prices are so reasonable that you use coins much more than you do in the US.
- A rural community has its own self-contained ecosystem where everyone knows and embraces their role.
- That ecosystem is built on generations of families that seek a simple life and are reluctant to travel or live in the bustle of a big city
- Life’s riches lie in the love of family, community, tradition, and faith, not money.
- I will remember the people I met in Panama as some of the richest, nicest, and most authentic people I’ve ever met.
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