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Building lifelong memories in Panama
  • Group of students posed around colourful large letters spelling Panama

For 10 days, a group of intrepid Trinity College School students explored the rich history and culture of Panama, while also working with and learning from the incredible people of Guadalupe. Held in conjunction with Week Without Walls, the trip saw 18 students serve in the community and experience daily life in this country that rests on the isthmus linking Central America with South America.

After an early start the morning of Friday, December 1st, we met our Evolve Tours guide, Luis, at the airport in Panama City. He was fantastic and shared so much knowledge with us! After checking into our hotel, we took a walk on the boardwalk along the Pacific Ocean, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. Saturday was also spent in the city, where we started off by exploring a fresh fish and fruit market. We asked students to choose an item that they didn’t recognize and try to communicate with the vendors to find out what it was, a challenging task for many! We then visited Casco Viejo, a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site that dates back to 1673, which features vibrant plazas and picturesque brick-paved streets surrounded by colourful buildings. We learned about the process of making chocolate, and even sampled different varieties of locally-made Panamanian chocolate. After lunch, we had the chance to see the Panama Canal, including an IMAX video on the history of the canal, followed by a visit to the observation deck where we watched two large ships going through the locks.

Sunday was spent travelling to our service destination of Guadalupe, where the group would stay at an eco-lodge for the week. After lunch at the home of our hosts in the community, we toured a hydroponic strawberry farm and then went on a small hike to view the community from above. Some students indulged in chocolate-covered strawberries and ice cream sundaes.

Monday morning we headed across the street to the local elementary school, where our group would be serving. While the students undertook many tasks around the school campus – moving soil and rocks near the outdoor sports court, planting a garden and helping to fill bags with soil which will be used to grow flowers that can be sold to purchase school supplies – our big project during our stay was to create a large mural surrounding the outdoor court. At the same time, we spent a great deal of time with the students, reading books, playing soccer, socializing, and working in the classroom teaching English (and working on our Spanish in return!).

In anticipation of an upcoming celebration at the school, students learned how to make piñatas (with thanks to Yeilyn, the sister of our host) and how to dance salsa – there was lots of laughter as we tried to learn the basic steps! During the celebration, we played games with the kids, did some face painting, and placed handprints on a portion of the wall that we had prepared with drawings of the flags of Canada and Panama, representing the connections we have built.

Friday, we got up early and headed into the cloud forest! The students were excited to be working while being surrounded by such a beautiful environment. Our main tasks were planting flowers, weeding gardens and hauling three truckloads of rocks into a pond. The rocks were heavy-lifting and required a full team effort. The purpose was to fill up the pond to a point where wildlife could go in for a drink and safely climb back out. After a hike through the forest, we enjoyed lunch, during which we presented Karina (our host) and her sister Gisbel with cards and small gifts for Mother’s Day in Panama. After leaving the forest, we headed to a hummingbird garden to feed the birds. The hummingbirds were absolutely gorgeous and were eating while sitting on our fingers.

Saturday was our final day in the Guadalupe area. We visited a coffee plantation called Mount Totumas, where the owner took us on a tour of the facilities located on 170 hectares in the cloud forest. We learned about the various ways coffee can be grown and processed. We also got to use the tasting technique of coffee cupping to try some different batches of coffee. We had a delicious lunch and then went on a hike through the forest. We got to see a family of monkeys swinging through the trees and a stunning waterfall. Our hike took us to an area that had a natural hot spring next to a cold stream that the students enjoyed spending time in. We had one last chance to say farewell to our host and her family, who had been incredibly welcoming to us throughout our stay.

All too soon, we were packing up to head back to Panama City, where we had one last stop at the Biomuseo – a unique museum dedicated to the biodiversity and natural history of Panama – before it was time to board our flight back to Canada.

Over 10 days, we learned so much about Panama and its people, as well as one another. Our busy days were capped off with evenings spent playing games, singing karaoke and having meaningful discussions as a group, allowing the students to truly bond with each other. We will all take away lifelong memories from this experience.

- By Luke O’Connell and Tim Clutton, chaperones