Reflections on the Meaning of Cultural Immersion: El Carmen Panama Trip


Katherine Arnaud '16, Writer

This past summer, a group of Marin Catholic students and teachers crossed the continent to experience the language, customs, and natural beauty of the Central American country Panama. Not only did they experience these things, but they discovered something deeper: the true meaning of cultural immersion. The following accounts are anecdotes sweet and personal, stories seemingly ordinary yet incredibly extraordinary, and general descriptions of the experience of being in a new place with unlimited possibilities. 

Katherine Arnaud ’16:

What exactly is cultural immersion? This question seems easy to answer, and in a way it is. But in some ways, it is not. The trouble is explaining your own experience with service and immersion. Sure, you can describe what you saw and did; it takes some time, but it can be done. However, there are simply some things you cannot describe because it is nearly impossible for the mind to fathom that which it has not experienced.
Moments. Tiny fractions of existence. Each moment we have the opportunity to leave a unique imprint on the fabric of time … Like an existential fingerprint, if you will. And in turn, each moment has the potential to leave its own mark on us. Moments are the essence of existence – the remarkable clash of space and time mingled with individual perception.
I experienced countless moments during my trip in Panama. Many were spent waiting in airports … Waiting, waiting, waiting. Moments wasted? Perhaps not. One of the many battles of life is the battle against boredom. One should try to make the most of every moment, fulfill its potential… But that can be hard sitting on a grimy floor of the Mexico City airport while loud, frantic people shove their way past each other, and all you want to do is eat some real food but you’re scared of food poisoning. All you want to do is sleep, but you can’t get comfortable on the grimy floor and the air is so loud with Spanish words. All of this jumbles into a big ball of foreignness and discomfort.
This is what cultural immersion really is. No, not the crowded, smelly Mexico City airport with the floor littered with suspicious stains. No. The newness. The foreignness. The discomfort.
Not every discomfort is uncomfortable. What could I possibly mean by this? Well, let’s admit, any new thing usually invites some sort of apprehension. But there’s a difference between mild wariness and full-blown terror. In Panama, I experienced a whole lot of both.

Icky sticky Mexico City airport: “Eh, itchy sticky discomfort.”
Slightly suspicious chicken sandwich in Panama City: “I really don’t want to get food poisoning … Why can’t I just have some real food?”  
Sitting in the back of a pickup truck in a skirt (bad decision) on the way to find nesting sea turtles at night while it’s raining like mad and the lightning lights up the sky momentarily … but then everything returns to the eerie pitch black. Then all of a sudden you’re driving on the beach through the water at a slant and it feels like the truck is about to tip and the rain is in your eyes: “Yeah, I’m cold and wet but wow, I’m alive. How lucky I am to be alive…. (It’s a shame we never saw any sea turtles, but that truck ride was a collection of moments I never want to forget).
Bugs. Bugs EVERYWHERE. In your hair. In your eyelashes. In your food. In your water. In your shirt. In your bed. In your shoes. In the bathroom. In the toilet. Everywhere. Biting you. Flying around you. And the spiders… The size of your fist: “How is this even possible?? Bugs should not exist. I NEED TO BE AWAY FROM THEM NOW.”
A sweet little girl keeps asking you a question over and over in Spanish, and each time you ask “¿Que?” She gets more and more aggravated until she leaves to go play with someone else: “Well that was awkward… Why can’t I be fluent? I just want to feel immersed in this culture! How can I be immersed if I can’t even communicate with a little girl?”
Mud. Have to walk through mud to get everywhere. Parasitic mud: ” Just don’t think about it… Focus on not slipping and everything will be okay. Oh gosh is that an open cut on my foot. How is that woman walking so quickly WITH a basket on her head??”
Little market with unrefrigerated meat and rat-chewed cookie packages, rotten, rancid air: “AAAAAH not okay, I’m about to throw up. How can this be normal to people?”
Bat caves. Yes, BAT caves. Pitch black. Smelly bat poop slides over the rock you cling to for dear life. Bats. Real bats fly above your head and nearly hit you in the face. You can feel the air of their wings rush past your face. This giant spiders. On the walls. The size of your fist. THEY JUMP. You almost put your hand in one. Shudder. Time to scale a wall: “How on earth am I going to get up there? What if I touch a spider? What if a bat flies into my face? What the heck did I just step on? What if my headlamp goes out? Oh gosh, I think I just got pooped on by a bat. GET ME OUT NOW.”

I hope you enjoyed these little anecdotes.
However, I must say they do not encompass the entirety of what I experienced in the trip. I do hope they exemplify what I mean by levels of discomfort. Cultural immersion is all about extending yourself to new experiences … and that yields discomfort – sometimes in good ways, other times bad.
No matter how good my descriptions were, no one will ever be able understand what I experienced in that exact moment. Even I cannot be sure as I have only memory to rely on. Each moment is fleeting. It can be remember, but never relived. Not all moments are good ones. However, each offers something to learn.
The El Carmen Program, specifically our trip to Panama, has taught me many things. I have tried to highlight in this reflection the true meaning of cultural immersion. I’m afraid I have not done it justice. I think the real secret is that you have to go out and experience it yourself.

Peter Jankowski ’16:

The best part of any mission-immersion trip for me is the feeling when you know you’re part of something bigger.
During the Panama trip this summer, that ‘bigger something’ for me was the meaningful impact that Give and Surf has made on the island of Bastimentos, Panama. Although our group’s contribution with Give and Surf was small, and our time in Panama was short, knowing that we were part of something greater made all the difference to me.
But it wasn’t just seeing the obvious effects that this program has had on the community – such as building a new school or playground, or providing school teachers – that have stayed with me. It was also the small manifestations of Give and Surf’s impact that really stuck with me.
Among countless other examples of these small manifestations, I’d like to share the story of Gabriel. When I first met Gabriel, it is when we were walking through the jungle to go surfing. There is a path that linked one of our communities, Bahia Roja, to the local Red Frog beach, only about a 30 minute walk. This was the “surf” part to the name “Give and Surf”; the part of the program in which we would enjoy recreational surfing with the local teenagers. We all lugged the Give and Surf boards along the path, but Gabriel had his own board, with his name clearly spray-painted across the face. Obviously proud of his board, he led the pack through the jungle. Unlike us, Gabriel had no trouble conquering the slippery mud path, jumping eagerly from root to root like he had traveled this path many times before. When we got to the beach, Gabriel was the first one in the water, and by the time the rest of us followed, he was already hard to see on the horizon, patiently waiting for a big wave. That moment, when I watched him catch a big wave and surf past us with glee (while we could only stay on the boards for a few seconds), really encapsulates the extent of Give and Surf’s impact on Isla Bastimentos. Of course, the program has given much needed infrastructure and support to these communities, but they have also altered the lives of each and every person in these communities in such a unique and positive way. Gabriel is a shining example. By giving Gabriel a board and teaching him how to ride it, this program has brought immense joy into this kid’s life, and I’m so glad to have witnessed it.
That is what Christian service is about. Fundraising and financial support can only do so much. Sometimes all someone needs is to feel loved or appreciated. We serve the elderly, because sometimes retirement homes can be lonely. We spend time with them to let them know that people care about them. Whether it be bringing smiles to someone’s face or giving someone an item they’ll remember, this is what Christian service is about to me – the small things people do that make a big difference.

Mr. Navone:

Living with an indigenous tribe, I was shocked to see three puppies on the island one day. They were in a little cardboard box just sitting on the ground with no one attending to them.  Were they born here?  Did they come on a boat?  It was so strange. That evening I took some of the kids to see the puppies, but only found a destroyed, rain-soaked box on the ground.  I was somewhat relieved, thinking someone had taken them into their house for the night (a “house” is not what you think it is . . . but that’s another story). Shocked, I picked up the corner of the box and found all three puppies cuddled up in the squashed wet box. Of all the cultural differences that you are forced to accept while traveling, I always found the treatment of the animals as the hardest for me to accept.

The Roar thanks Katherine, Peter, and Mr. Navone for sharing their stories. We look forward to seeing what the El Carmen trip holds in store for a new group of students next summer.