Environmental Brigade to Panama: Katie Speicher, Environmental Resource Management

Posted: November 16, 2014

This trip has once again uncovered my love for travel and has inspired a passion for a new kind of learning. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity, and I can’t wait to see where I go next.
Katie working in the greenhouse

Katie working in the greenhouse

After a final pre-departure meeting, I must admit that my expectations for my spring break trip to Panama with Penn State Global Environmental Brigades were pretty low. Prior to that point I had already received talks from my doctor and Penn State study abroad employees about everything that could go wrong. My mom wasn’t too keen of my decision to travel initially, and this information certainly did not sway her to my side. On top of all this, with our final meeting I learned I would be staying in the most dangerous part of Panama and likely wouldn’t have running water. Naturally I was a little wary and part of me just hoped the week would go by quickly.

As the departure day approached I had finally accepted that this trip probably wouldn’t be glamorous by any standards. But then I reminded myself, “Hey, that’s what you signed up for. What did you think you were getting into when you volunteered for an environmental brigade in a developing country?” I remembered how much I loved serving others and roughing it on occasion, so I decided to view the trip as an adventure, and trusted that I would come out on the other side with a better perspective. I could not have been more correct. 

After a long car ride followed by a long plane ride, resulting in 14 hours of travel, myself and 13 other Penn Staters finally set foot in Panama. Though we were all tired, the excitement of a new place certainly woke us all up. We were greeted at the airport by our trip coordinator Noa, and then proceeded to board a van and ride into Panama City for lunch and a little sightseeing. The day came to a close with a beautiful pink sunset over the city, and it was time for the final 3 hour leg of the trip to our compound in Darien, the place we would call home for the next week. Once there we were given rooms that included two bunk beds, a sink, a shower, and a toilet. The bed was a welcome site, and we all went to sleep in preparation for an early rise and a busy week. 

The next day we were introduced to Piriati Embera, the community we would be working in. We split into three groups to accommodate the three families that we were building greenhouses for. Each group went to its respective family’s house to meet the family and have an informal conversation to learn more about them. Thankfully we had translators with us since I had never learned Spanish. 

Over the course of the next three days we constructed a greenhouse. The purpose for this project was to provide a suitable space to grow nutritious foods and also to provide a model for a more sustainable way of practicing agriculture by using compost as fertilizer and not burning plants after harvest. Though this was a new concept to me, it was certainly rewarding to see the fruit of our work at the end of the week. The work was hard: digging holes, sawing wood, nailing the structure together, and collecting soil to go inside the greenhouse. We left each day with a coating of sweat and dirt on our skin, but we enjoyed every minute of it. Prior to this trip most of us didn’t know each other, yet we came together and united for a common cause to work as a team and create something together. 

Our final day in the community was a cultural day. It was one last get together for our group with the community. We sang Don’t Stop Believing for them and they presented traditional dances and sold crafts for us. Getting into the van one final time and saying goodbye was sad. Despite the cultural differences and language barrier, these community members had accepted us into their families and worked alongside us to better their lives. 

And there it was, the final day of the trip, the day I would say goodbye to Panama, uncertain if I would ever return again. I couldn’t believe an entire week had passed already. We had a late flight so we went into the city for another touristy day to visit the canal. We were dropped off at the airport and said goodbye to Noa and our translators, who we now called friends even though we had just met a week ago. As I boarded the plane back to the States I reflected on the past week. I learned so much about a country and culture I had known nothing about. I learned more about sustainability and environmental problem solving. And best of all, I made 20 new friends that I am so blessed to have shared such an incredible experience with. I could not have asked for a better first experience with Global Environmental Brigades. This trip has once again uncovered my love for travel and has inspired a passion for a new kind of learning. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity, and I can’t wait to see where I go next.