On Finding Home Everywhere, From Panama to Claremont

10:00 p.m. Saturday, May 17, 2015, Claremont, Calif., United States

I have finally begun the tireless job of moving out of my dorm room and saying goodbye to my Claremont fam. After having put it off for as long as I possibly could, I'm wishing I could somehow stop this moment from materializing. Can I just stay here in Claremont forever? Sophomore year went by so quickly and it went so well. I climbed the roof of Collins, taught myself how to skate and made an unforgettable group of friends. I keep telling myself that I’m ready for this next step, but it seems impossible that whatever comes next could be any better than the here and now.

11:00 p.m. Friday, July 24, 2015, Piedras Gordas, Panamá

I have finally begun the tireless job of packing up and saying goodbye to my Panamanian fam. I just got back from Señor Onecimo's house where Jorge, Nesim, Señor and I played dominos. Despite the fact that I was playing against the best of the best, I won three out of four rounds. On the walk home, Jorge told me they all let me win because I leave tomorrow and they didn’t want to make me feel bad on my last night. I laughed and told Jorge not to be a sore loser.

That was over an hour ago and now I’ve been lying here in bed, utterly exhausted, surrounded by my best friend—a.k.a. my mosquito net—and my friendly foes—a.k.a. the bugs—who have vowed since my arrival to never let me sleep soundly through the night without attempting an invasion.

I am trying to fall asleep, but my mind won’t stop racing. These past few months have been incredible and I’m just not ready to leave. I have been trying to put the moment off as long as possible, in hopes that I could stop it from materializing altogether so that I could just stay here, in Piedras Gordas, forever.

I keep telling myself that I’m ready for this next step, but it's hard to believe that whatever comes next could be any better than here and now.

Are you starting to see the pattern? Two months ago, I never believed that I would feel as closely connected to a people and a place as I did then. Yet again, here I am, again some 2,000-odd miles away from home, struggling to leave a place I didn’t even know existed before getting here—a place I now call home. I entered this community a complete foreigner in a new world. It’s a world where you can feel the beauty, the simplicity, the absolute peace and happiness reverberating through the hillsides and the hearts of every member of this community.

Six weeks later, just as I am about to say goodbye, I realize that I feel that same energy reverberating from my heart too. Though I am preparing, yet again, to exchange one world for another, I feel that a part of me will always remain here, in Piedras Gordas. It is a part of me that I cannot live without—a part of me that I will have to come back one day to reclaim.

What makes this community so special that people with careers, futures and families find it so hard to leave? What makes this community so special that, after 3,000 years, people are still planting roots? All I can say is, Piedras Gordas is like nowhere I have been before and exactly what I have been searching for my entire life. It is simultaneously an escape from reality and the realest place I have ever been. There's literally nowhere to hide here: most houses don’t have doors. There’s no Wi-Fi or cell service, so playing on your iPhone or 'Netflix and chilling' to hide from the world are things that don’t exist. Often, the details of your private life are just as public as Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Finally—and what I find most unsettling—is that there are no deadlines, meaning there are no excuses to miss family dinner or forget your friend's birthday because you were busy cramming for midterms. It’s not that Piedras Gordas doesn’t have drama—far from it. But rather than running away from problems, here you are forced to confront them. When everyone is constantly in everyone else’s business, avoiding things is just not an option. In this intensely intimate social environment, people act more humbly, are more forgiving, and don’t take themselves so darn seriously. At the end of the day, you will learn to love your neighbor no matter what, because at the end of the day, like 'em or not, they’re all you’ve got.

Sometimes it seems that everyday is a fight for survival. Some of the biggest struggles I remember were not having enough clean water for showering or cooking dinner at night. You learn to use less and ration what you do have so it lasts longer. Despite the struggles, everyday is an adventure in paradise. You don’t have to worry about attending 10 club meetings, returning 50 emails, or telling your professor you didn’t have time to write your essay because #Coachella. You just have to get by. And whatever “getting by” means, you get to decide.

This community probably sounds like a conundrum. That's because it is. Everything our Western socialization has taught us says that there is no way anyone could thrive here, in extreme poverty. So disconnected from the outside world, there is no way anyone could be happy. Well, I can confidently say that the moments I have spent getting to know this community have been the happiest moments of my life. Though I leave with a heavy heart, I leave with the pride of knowing that here I am considered family and will always be welcomed back with open arms.

Two months ago I would have never imagined that I would have found myself en un pueblecito en el campo de Panamá. Two months ago, I thought I would never be as content as I was then, at Camp Claremont, with all my best friends at the happiest campus in America. Looking back, I was half-right. Not only did I find myself in Panamá, I found a new family, new friends and an incredible new place to call home. But am I—a somewhat-high-strung prima donna—as happy here in the rural backwoods of Panamá as I was in my perfect Claremont bubble? No, actually, I’m happier.

In two weeks, I'll jet off again for my next international adventure, a semester in Ireland to follow my passion of studying literature. It hurts to know that soon I will be getting on a plane that will take me so far away from a place I hold so dear. I've never been to Ireland, I don't know anyone there, and cold weather is a foreign phenomenon that I do not understand. It's hard to believe that whatever comes next could be any better than this. Ah well, here we go again…

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