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El Cocal: My home in Panama

El Cocal has become my home in Panama.

Before arriving, I had several questions about how we, considered outsiders, with a minimal grasp of the community’s language, would be able to build trust and understanding to collaborate and together build up a social enterprise venture. Oh, how grateful I am to have been proven otherwise.

According to the ThinkImpact agenda, we were to immerse ourselves in the new culture and connect with the people who made up the community. This was made infinitely easier as families invited us into their homes with open arms and chichas (Panamanian juices) just as if we were members of the community. Soon, we were no longer strangers, but close neighbors.

On my daily walks, there was an orange tree that I passed by every day, with a long, wooden stick resting on the trunk. One of the highlights of my day was swinging the stick and knocking down an orange ten feet high up in the tree and then enjoying the fruits of my labor as I savored the sweet and tangy burst of flavor. Mangoes are another fruit that I loved to indulge in, and given that it was mango season during our time in El Cocal, my mango cravings were satisfied by taking just a couple of steps outside the door. And it was here where we experienced a light bulb moment: why not preserve these mangoes by making jam?

When I first arrived in Panama, my task was mapped out: collaborate with the community to initiate a sustainable business; practice Spanish; experience Panamanian culture; and form relationships with the community (in spite of language barriers). But after seven weeks of working in Panama, I had connected with the community far beyond what I had thought possible, and the imminent reality of our departure was heartfelt.

I cannot recount the number of times my stomach hurt from laughing too hard. Once during a meeting, my team members were discussing abono, which means compost, but I heard it as jabón, or soap. For the next 5 minutes, I was imagining making soap out mango skins, and it wasn’t until I fooled around by smelling my arm and saying “Mmm, me huelo a mango” (Mmm, I smell like mango) that I realized what they were actually talking about!

So many memories remain with me now months later – picking fruits off of trees, our late night “jam” sessions, birthdays, piñatas, bingo, getting my butt kicked in fútbol, my ‘sister’ Crystal’s incessant “vamos a jugar” and infinite amount of energy, and constant needling to try and get me to kill a chicken!

Goodbyes are never easy, especially ones that acknowledge the possibility that our paths may never cross again. Some things must come to an end, but there are also things that stay with you. In El Cocal, everybody is family, through blood or through bond, and as they say, home is where family is.

Post written by 2014 GU Impacts student Do Kyung Yun.

To apply to GU Impacts, click here. The deadline is Thursday, Feb 19 at 6:00PM.

The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.

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