Panama by Abbey Frank
 Eight of us sat in the back of a 4x4 sticking together in the sweltering heat. We were thrown around as the truck wove through the rough terrain of Panama’s rainforest. The engine revved, gaining speed in an attempt to make it up a steep hill that lay ahead. The wheels turned with immense torque through untraveled roads of uneven ground and rolling hills. It was like being on a rollercoaster as our stomachs dropped while the truck descended the hill and back up another. The laughs and screams eroded after the first twenty minutes as the motion sickness began to set in. It was a six-hour drive from Panama City to the edge of the Atlantic shore, followed by an hour boat ride to Kuna Island. I had nothing but a ukulele, a few changes of clothes, a soccer ball, and a water bottle all packed together in a flour sack. This was all I had to last me four weeks in Panama. I was on a community service trip with a group of kids I had just met, unprepared for what lay ahead. The sun began to set as we settled in to our new abode. We were tired from a long day of travel and maybe it was the fatigue or the darkness that caressed the island that night, but it somehow masked the reality of our new accommodations for the next few weeks. My cramping neck dragged me out of my slumber. My eyes widened as my friend’s foot rested too close to the bridge of my nose. Groggy and confused, I tried to find my balance. I was hanging three feet above the ground in an itchy hammock, held up by a creaking piece of wood and a bowline knot. We were lined up in rows, hammock after hammock, all of us on top of one another, a bit too close for our recent acquaintance. My eyes glistened as the sun shone through the straw and bamboo hut. I rolled out of my hammock, and the dirt encompassed my feet as I began to prepare myself for the day of work that lay ahead. Emerging from the hut, I thought that I was in a slum. The stench of dead something filled my lungs as I looked around to see my new home for the next month. The island is the size of two football fields and is home to 400 people. Lined up in rows, their huts are small and space is limited. We were here to build a restaurant for the island community, so that the profits could fund the school. The restaurant was to be built from bamboo, concrete, and whatever other resources were available to us. The heat was drowning. The humidity clung to my skin. My clothes were inseparable from my body. I could see my sweat evaporate, praying the tiny particles would accumulate and rise into the clouds, carrying along a well deserved rainfall. We were running low on fresh water. I could taste the salt and brine accumulating in my mouth, creating an arid desert. My hands grasped tightly around the machete, fearing that the sweat from my hands might break the bond of my grasp. I tried not to breathe. For if I did, at least through my nose, I knew the stench would consume my lungs and land me in the cockroach infested clinic. I knew about the cockroach infestation because I’d had the pleasure of attempting to clean out the clinic two days earlier. It had been eight days, and I still couldn’t grow accustomed to the horrid smell. My nostrils would shrivel up and refuse to cope with the effluvium. But I was just an outsider; maybe the stench didn’t affect them. The stacks of bamboo were piled high above the straw huts. The process of shucking bamboo is like spraying super glue. The shavings find a way to cling to anything and everything, holding on for dear life. It was nearly impossible to get the little shavings off. I remember that the shower I took was the most cleansing and purifying bucket of water that I have ever received. It wasn’t much, but it did the trick. While I shucked, the air remained compressed and heavy; the sound of the hammers echoed through my mind. They banged to the rhythm of the boy on his recorder as he played the Celine Dion song from The Titanic over and over, until it engraved itself into my brain. It played through my sleep; it seemed to haunt me wherever I went. It was nothing like how I expected it to be. When I pictured my time in Panama, I expected beautiful Caribbean beaches, lush palm trees, and a chance to experience a new culture. Instead, I got an island being expanded by trash, a new outlook on the definition of a “toilet” (a shack with a square hole that opened up a portal to the ocean, and the cockroaches that surrounded it), and a new family. I expected paradise, but instead I gained a new perspective and a new appreciation. For the first time in my life, I didn’t yearn to be anywhere else.
 The island is a mix between the old traditions and modern westernization. The elder women dress in traditional clothing, bursting with vibrant colors. They wear beaded strings, which they delicately wrap up and down their arms and legs. The children and teenagers have their own sense of style. The boys wear worn out t-shirts or FC Barcelona jerseys and soccer shorts. The girls wear sundresses or t-shirts with Bermuda shorts. The clothing everyone wears is run-down and faded, but the outfits are still so beautiful because they match their wide smiles and intense laughter. The children only have about three outfits (excluding their school uniforms). Everyone walks around barefoot or wears crocs. My crocs back at home haven’t been touched since 2004. When walking through the narrow dirt aisles of the island, sometimes if you look closely enough, you can see two eyes peep out behind the bamboo. Those eyes never seem to leave the hut. Later, I was told that because the population is so small, there is a problem with inter-breeding. The chromosomes must get mixed up or something, but the result is sacred. There are albinos. You don’t really see them, but their presence is still there. The ways in which the island works is so intricately confusing. It’s like trying to sew a quilt together, using leather, beads, and unpicked cotton. There is nothing like that island anywhere in the world. The Elders would glare at me, their faces painted with disgust or confusion. The culture, the way of life is split between the old and the new. The culture is dying, but it is still here. In retrospect, I can’t help but feel guilt churn in my stomach. The westernization that has been consuming the island left the culture hanging tenuously with the elder generation. I feel as though in some way, I contributed to the destruction of their aboriginal culture. In a way we invaded their home. Before I arrived with my group and the brand new soccer ball I brought along, the kids would play using an old ball that no longer had its stitching. It was all torn and ragged, but they loved it with all their hearts. And I gave them a new ball, and we gave them books and pens and little toys, and they were so appreciative. But the toys were all new and factory made in China or some far off country, which they didn’t even know existed. I came up with a new phrase at the time: “Que Gucci? As in “What’s up?” “What’s Gucci?” Part of me wonders whether they remember me or even that phrase. But the other half contemplates whether I altered their culture in a negative way. I guess I’ll never know. Or maybe I will, if I ever have the urge to return.