Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Panamaniacs Part 2

Let's pick up where we left off, shall we?

As I said, the camp was ah-mazing. Our first half-day at camp was pretty chill. Of course everything in Panama is pretty chill. We basically spent the day hanging out with the campers, settling into our cabins, and getting to know camp. That first day was only seven hours long, but to me, it seemed like the longest day of camp. I think what made that day so long is that it was a little overwhelming to be thrown into camp and surrounded by my six Spanish speaking campers and my (mostly) Spanish speaking counselor. I remember sitting there at dinner the first night, positively dumfounded and clueless. I would consider myself to have a above average Spanish speaking skills, but certainly not fluent. All the same, as I sat there trying to listen to their conversation, all I could pick up were bits and pieces that when I put them together made no sense at all. "Yes, I like milk." "Haha, she said that?" "I" "time" "you" "fun" "music". That's certainly not a full conversation....

All the same, it didn't take too terribly long for me to get a rhythm with the girls. My co-counselor's name was Ilian and she was a God-send, in the truest sense of the phrase. Together, we had six 13 year old girls in our cabin: Angela, Samira, Alaneth, Dana, Madi, and Natalia. They were all such sweet girls, each uniquely crafted with the most incredible personalities. Ilian spoke a fair amount of English, so she could translate when it was necessary, which wasn't often. The truth is, I didn't really need to know what we were doing. I would just follow the girls along whenever they got up to go somewhere. The primary purpose of my being there was to train and encourage Ilian herself, not to counsel the girls. Of course, that was just kind of second nature, but there's only so much counseling you can do when there's a language barrier. Honestly, I'm glad Ilian didn't translate every conversation she and the girls had. I really was content to watch them and their natural dynamic and just pick up on whatever I could.

Samira, Madi, Angela, Ilian, Dana, Natalia, Alaneth, and me

Something you should know about Panamanian camp is that their mode of operation is "let's pack the day jam full of activities, but not keep to the schedule." Crazy. And they really did. Our days started as early as 5 am and went until about 10 or 11. These guys liked to go full on blitz, and yet they were so casual about time. I still don't understand how it happened, but we would start every morning behind schedule and we would end the day on time, having accomplished everything on the schedule, without sacrificing any activities. I literally don't understand how they did it. It was such a strange mix between ambitious over-planning and a relaxed laid back pace. To give you a snapshot of our days, here is what a typical schedule looked like

5-7am: Wake up, and morning activity (depending on the day. One day we had aerobics at 6 am. Another day we went and had worship/breakfast on the beach as the sun was rising at 5:30)
7-8 am : Breakfast
8 am -12 pm : some combination of Bible Study, group activity/game, snack, and cabin time
12 pm: lunch
1-2 pm: cabin time (essentially hang out with your cabin anywhere around camp. For us, this usually meant playing soccer or watching soccer.)
2-3 pm: activity classes (coreography, martial arts, kitchen, art, stage makeup, or archery.)
3-3:30pm: snack
3:30-6 pm: pool/beach time
6 pm: dinner
7-10/11 pm: club (worship), a talk (on certain nights), evening activity, snack, and cabin time

So, needless to say, our days were full. We were at camp for a total of five days and four nights. As I mentioned before, that first day was a little rough, what with being immersed in Spanish speakers with no English outlet. The second day was definitely more comfortable, but it wasn't until the third and fourth days that I felt I was really meshing with my girls. Those last two days were a blast.

our little slice of tropical paradise aka camp

a bunch of the campers hanging out before a game

yes, ninja crosses language barriers

all the staff and volunteers

all of the campers with their counselors

my crew. don't I just fit right in?

Now, because I can't think of another way to present this, I'm going to give you some of the big highlights from camp:

As you can imagine, one of the highlights of my time at camp was the sunrise on the beach. That was the morning of our third day at camp when we popped out of bed at 5am so we could get to the beach by 5:30. When we got there, it was still pitch dark, dark enough that you could see the velvet black sky and all of the stars. We sat in a big circle and sang worship songs, or for us English speakers we hummed worship songs. We listened to a talk from Fey, the incredible program director, and then broke to eat our breakfast and watch the day break over the ocean. Talk about a once in a lifetime experience. Truly breathtaking.

all my girls and Ilian on the beach

the team

the sunrise

our team had a little fun - this was the girls run and jump picture

... and this was the guys'

and we went a little crazy with the jumping pictures

behind the scenes

Our other early morning was when we got up for 6 am aerobics, led by the ever energetic Rossana. It started out as your typical lunges and jumping type of aerobics, and then every so slowly morphed into combat and self defense. Y'all. I didn't know what to do with myself! I was laughing so hard I could barely keep up with the moves Rossana was showing us! It was awesome.

My token funny story that I took away from camp happened on our fourth  day at camp. With a chunk of time in the morning, we got to play a station game with our cabin. We had been told to wear tennis shoes for running and clothes we could get a little bit messy (just flour and water). Most of the stations were pretty typical: crawling through a spider web, walking across a log, reflecting of what we learned that week, playing charades, etc. As it turns out, the reason we were supposed to wear "messy" clothes wasn't for the little bit of flour and water we had sprinkled on us at the beginning of the game. Oh no. It was for the army mud crawl we did at our second to last station. I mean guys. A straight up army crawl through the mud, for like 30 feet. As we ran up to the station, I asked the counselor running it "You're kidding, right?" He smiled and showed me his bucket of water and just laughed. He wasn't kidding. I mean in the end it was a lot of fun, I was just in such disbelief. Those Panamanians, they really liked to go all out!

One evening, we had a bonfire night. All of the American's first thoughts were "A bonfire? In the 90 degree weather? They're kidding, right?" ...They weren't... But it actually turned out to be a really precious time with our campers. We gathered around the bonfire, the smoke trailing up to the sky, escaping through a gap in the palm trees. Despite the generally warm weather, I found  the fire to be cozy, maybe because it was just so familiar. And you can't really help but be cozy when you're at a camp in front of a fire, no matter what the temperature is. Our leaders, Barrett and Jesse were in charge of presenting the talk for that night. They did some really cool introductory activities and told a couple of great anecdotes, but what I really loved was the story they read. Jesse read the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, and he read it from the Jesus Storybook Bible. I don't know if I have mentioned that book before, but at camp, every night we would read a story from it to our campers. It puts Bible stories into a uniquely simple yet impactful composition. It is innocently poetic. No matter if your 6, 26, or 86, listening to a story from that book makes you feel like you're back in Sunday School or in your parent's lap hearing about it for the first time; learning about God's great love and power for the first time; realizing for the first time just how big he is. It's a really cool feeling. It was beautiful to watch as Jesse read the story in English and one of our team members, Carlos, translated it to Spanish.

What was also really significant about that night was the attention that the campers gave to Jesse and Carlos as they told the story. It was typical for the campers to talk loudly and not pay attention when someone was trying to address the group, or for them to wander off and do their own thing. There isn't really an obligation to listen or show "common courtesy" to a speaker, as us Americans would call it. Which isn't bad, it's just because it's a different culture. But that night, once Jesse and Carlos started reading, the kids didn't make a sound. They didn't talk, they didn't shout, they didn't whisper, they didn't even mime at each other. I had never seen them so attentive and I wouldn't see them that attentive again during my time at camp. I like to think that it was because they all had the same feeling that I did, of sitting at someone's feet, hearing this story for the first time, through the ears of a child. I came to find out later that the eight or so members of our team who were on p-staff were sitting just over the hedge beyond the bonfire, praying during the entirety of the talk: praying for effectiveness, for understanding, for focus, for impact. What a cool and impactful picture of the power of prayer.

On our last night at camp, Pedro (the head pastor of the church) took us all down to the beach for the Gospel talk and for  reflection about our time at camp. It was a neat time to hear Pedro present the Gospel, and he did it in a unique way that I don't think I had heard before. (Of course, I didn't understand the entirety of what he was saying, just bits and pieces.) Throughout our time on the beach that night, we sent off three lanterns (like the kind they have in the movie Tangled) to float away over the ocean. It was really cool to see that in person and watch it blend in with the stars and finally disappear into the blackness. After the talk and the lanterns, we were given a time with our cabins to just pray: to pray thanks over the week we had had at camp together and to pray blessings over the time ahead of us as we returned to Panama City. I loved this time, absolutely loved it.

Now, the last highlight I'm going to give you happened on the morning of our last day of camp. Through our five days there, we had been given a "secret friend" who was another staffer or volunteer at the camp. This secret friend could be Panamanian or American. Our job was to send them notes and little gifts once a day, to uplift and encourage them. It was wonderful throughout the week to both receive those encouragements and to send encouragement to another staffer. So on the last day of camp, we had to reveal who our secret friend was. Now, us Americans, being conscious of time, probably would have just gone around the circle and said "My secret friend is..." but the Panamanians saw it as an opportunity to build up their brothers and sisters in Christ. So instead of just listing off names, we spent time telling the group about what we saw in our secret friend. We got to talk about how the person was glorifying the Lord, what stood out about them during the week, and the great work they were doing in the camp. Now that was cool. It was precious to listen to each person encourage their secret friend and build them up amongst our community of staffers. I just love how the Panamanians were able to take this time to turn something potentially simple into such a joy-giving time of community and friendship.

That's basicially a good picture of our time at camp. After we left camp on Friday, we did a homestay on Friday night, which was really fun. I stayed at a girl named Charlene's house with two other girls, and then two more of our team members came and spent the night with their hostess, as well as a few other volunteers from the camp. So it was basically like one big Panamanian/American slumber party. SO much fun. Saturday was spent relaxing, hanging out, and de-briefing with our team. And Saturday night, the Panamanians threw a huge party at the church. All of the counselors/volunteers were there and even some of the campers. It was a really tender night, hearing stories from Panamanian staffers who had worked with the program for all three years that our camp had been partnering with them. We also had dinner, some good worship time, sweet reflection time, and even got to watch some traditional Panamanian dance, which was quickly followed with some of our own traditional dances: Scatman, Wobble, Chainsaw, and more.

I definitely shed some tears that night, saying goodbye to our friends. It had all gone so quickly, in such a whirlwind and it was just so suddenly over. It was Saturday night, the party had ended, and we were leaving as early as the sun the next morning. And before I knew it, I was back on American soil, spending one night with my family, flying back to school, and sitting in a class a short 48 hours later. It was crazy how quickly it ended and out rapidly my surroundings changed. I sat and talked with Beth for a while when I got back to my apartment, really weighed down by how quickly my environment had changed and trying to process it all.

two of my girls who came to the goodbye party

crossing the bridge of the Americas on the morning we left Panama

But the sweetest thing about the end was that my first night back at school, only a day after saying goodbye to my Panamanian friends, Beth gave me this precious watercolor of the beloved country I had just left. I cried when she gave it to me, and I'm tearing up as I write this now. It was such perfect timing, such a simple gift, and an insurpassable token of remembrance of all that God did and is still doing in that wonderful country. It's been sitting on my bedside table ever since, so every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to sleep, I'm reminded of my brothers and sisters in Christ in Panama, the work they are doing, and all they taught me. What a blessing.

my daily reminder of God's great work


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Panamaniacs Part 1

Believe it or not, my time in Panama has come and gone. It was a challenging, joyful, and blessed 10 days spent serving the kingdom and building relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Trying to sum up all the things that happened on the trip is an insurmountable thought, but I really hope I can at least give you a snapshot of all that I got to experience.

First let me tell you about our team. There were 16 of us in total, two leaders, and 14 summer staffers. Before the trip started, for the most part most of us knew each other, some better than others. There were maybe one or two people who I didn't know very well going into the trip. Either way, it was cool that we got to cultivate deeper relationships than we would have if we were at camp, because our team was so small and we spent so much time together.  Throughout the 10 days of our excursion, you could really see how the team was growing closer and closer as group. Some of my favorite moments from the trip were when we got to worship together, just us, during our nightly team meetings. Singing praises to our Father all together in such a small group is really a tender experience. It does so much more for the heart than a 200 person session of corporate worship could ever accomplish.  It was also great to meet back up every night and hear about where everyone's hearts were, how they were feeling, and where they were seeing God moving.

This is the picture montage that Barrett put together last October and sent out to the group so we could be praying for each member of our team. It was such a cool visual reminder about what was on the horizon.

Our team the night before we left.

As I said the trip lasted 10 days, and was broken up into a couple different segments. When we first arrived in Panama on the evening of the 3rd, we moved into some rooms at a local seminary. The church we were partnering with was based in a school just outside of Panama City, called Arrijan. The seminary was just down the street from the church, and this is where we spent our first few nights. We stayed in Arrijan from Friday until the following Monday. Most of that time was just spent building community with the leaders  and members of the church and cultivating relationships so we could be better prepared for camp.

Our first full day in Panama (Saturday) we got to tour the city. I don't really know what I was expecting Panama City to be like but I was definitely very impressed with it. The city is so expansive and so beautiful. Their downtown is gorgeous. There are dozens on dozens of sky scrapers and they have such rich and interesting architecture. But of course there is much more to Panama than just downtown skyscrapers. The first stop we made was the Panama Canal. To be honest, it is exactly the same as it looks in all of the textbooks. There are something like three different sets of locks along the Panama Canal and we went to see the Miraflores Locks. There was basically just a building right next to the locks where the boats went through. It was four stories tall and it had an observation deck on each of the levels so you could essentially just chill and watch the boats go through. Essentially. It was a tad crowded so we just got some peeks here and there, but it still really was incredible! Some of the other major stops of the day included a park with an incredible view of the skyline, the old streets of Panama City with their historic, European-looking buildings, and we ended the day with riding four person tandem bikes on the causeway, watching the sunset.

a ship going through the Panama Canal

seeing the water level differences in the locks, so stinking cool

the team at the Panama Canal

the skyline of Panama City

the team 

sweet Mateo. he was the pastor's 6 year old son, he was adorable and he knew it.

selfies were a big thing on our trip...

... and so were jumping pictures...

... and hipster photos


biking on the causeway

our view while biking - literally

On Sunday, we got to experience Sunday church with our partner church. It was so cool to see how they worship and what their Sunday routine is like. After church, we relaxed, hung out, and played a little soccer with whoever was still around. It was supposed to be a chill, no fuss day. Around 3pm, we found out it was going to be so much more. We all piled into a few cars and started driving to an undisclosed location. Half an hour later, we were piling out of the car onto the side of a mountain. Our car got there a bit ahead of the rest of the pack, so we spent some time overlooking the peaks and the valleys and singing bilingual worship songs. What a sweet sweet moment with those friends.

Once the rest of the crew got up on the mountain, we snagged some delectable cheese empanadas and headed to the lookout point. It was breathtaking. From the viewing platform, you could hike down a ways and see the bottom of the valley, and then you could hike up to a peak and get a full 360 view. We were standing on a mountain, the wind whipping around our faces, looking out over the majestic green valleys and peaks which eventually gave way to the coast and the ocean as far as you could see. I mean come on. You can't make this stuff up.

we were LOVING it on the mountain

looking down from the peak, you can see the viewing platform and where we hiked down below that

a panoramic view form the peak

After our glorious afternoon on the mountain, come Monday we were headed to camp. It was about 2 hours outside of Arrijan. I was paired up with a wonderful Panamanian co-counselor, Ilian and we had six 13 year old girls in our cabin. The camp was positively beautiful. It was a paradise. There were palms everywhere and the scent of honeysuckle would catch you whenever the breeze blew by. And the beach was right at our doorstep.

For the sake of time management, and to spare you from a five page blog post, I'm going to save all of my stories about camp for the next post. Sometimes it's best to take great things a little bit at a time. Unless it's chocolate.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Kicking off 2014

In my last post, I mentioned that I had two very exciting things coming up on my horizon. And as of now, one has passed and the other is just about to begin.

The first was that I got to spend a couple of days with Lindsey and Abbie, my roommates/friends from my time in Italy about a year ago. Over the past year we have constantly been monitoring groupons and getaway flights to see if we could pull of a random weekend reunion, but sadly nothing pulled through. Two weeks ago though, Abbie (who lives in Indiana) told us that she would be coming down to San Antonio (where Lindsey lives) just after the New Year for a Christian youth convention. We scrambled a bit, talked logistics, booked a couple flights and managed to land ourselves in the same cities for just a couple of precious days. So on Monday, I flew down and met up with the two of them for a 3 day getaway in San Antonio and Austin. Finally seeing those girls at the airport - I don't think I've screamed that much in a long time. I was giddy. Positively giddy. 

We spent the 30th in San Antonio, doing all of your typical San Antonio things - Alamo, River Walk, Tex-Mex happy hour, etc. A lot of our conversation was spent catching up on the year and reminiscing about our time in Rome. We found that we were starting to forget a lot of the small details, like the names of streets and restaurants, or funny little mishaps from our trips. Being able to talk and talk and talk about that semester was extremely therapeutic.  And I really haven't laughed that hard or that much in a very very long time. The friendship we were able to cultivate through our experiences in Italy went so deep so quickly. It was a wonderful gift to be able to pick up with them again so quickly after being apart for so long. 

The three of us during our first trip together, to Milan in the fall of 2012.

Reunited over year later in San Antonio. And so. stinking. happy. 

After our first day in San Antonio, our plan was to get out of town early the next morning and head to Austin. We didn't get out quite as early as we planned, but it made for a really enjoyable day. We walked around a cute little shopping area for an hour or so before finding a place to grab some coffee and breakfast. Abbie found a coffee shop a couple of blocks away with decently good reviews so we decided to check it out. It was called Brown Coffee Company, and it had a very unique vibe. It had a minimalist style, no menu to look over, and no cash register. Very counter-mainstream. All three of us decided to stick with our basic cappuccino that we had come to love so well in Italy. And it was perfect. I have not had what I would consider to be a decent, or even passable cappuccino since returning to the states, but this, this, was authentic. This was legit. This was the real deal. I think we all understand that taste and scent memories can often be much stronger than simple visual memories, and this was a great testament to that. Aside from the wonderful pizza and cappuccinos, we've found that we dearly miss the pace of life in Italy. So since we were flashing back with the cappuccinos, we settled back into the Italian pace as well and sat for a solid hour talking over those tiny and long-gone cappuccinos.

the cappuccinos in all of their authentic glory

(Side note, speaking of authentic Italian food, I recently encountered a small pizzeria near the DFW airport called Cavalli's. if you are ever in the area and have an appreciation for Good Italian pizza - you should go. The Marghertia pizza was true Italian Margherita, not Americanized Margherita. The crust was bubbled and burned, as it should be. The tomato sauce was fresh - which is practically non existent in the states. The mozarella was scattered well and the basil was abundant. So again, if you're around, you should go. Here's the link to their website - Cavalli's, These guys are legit)

But back to my time down south, after the cappuccinos, we trecked back over to Austin to spend the rest of our New Years Eve and New Years Day. We puttered around a little bit in Austin then got ready for our night. For our NYE dinner we went to Red's Porch, which is now my Austin favorite. It can only be summed up as a mexican/burger bar/comfort food/creole type of restaurant. The atmosphere was cozy and local. They have their restaurant on the base floor and then a full coverage porch upstairs that was (graciously) enclosed and heated with a great view of the sun setting and then the city lighting up in the dark. Aside from the atmosphere, the food was wonderful too. It was creative and unique, and I ended up getting some sort of chiken chile enchiladas with rice and collard greens. All in all, great local place that is on my shortlist of favorite Austin places. If you're near there, try and stop by - it'll be worth your time. 

I said goodbye to them earlier today before hopping onto a plane back home before heading off to my next adventure which starts tomorrow. 

saying farewell at the airport. I am so immensely blessed by these two ladies.

Now as I said, adventure #2 is just around the corner. Some of you already know that I will be heading off to Panama very very soon! Tomorrow I will head out to meet up with my Panama team. This year I have the opportunity to travel to Panama for 10 days and help run a summer camp for high schoolers. This trip is through a program put on by the camp that I work at in the summer. I've been wanting to go for several years but it has never really panned out for me. However this year, it worked. God finally opened the door. So tomorrow afternoon I will meet up with the rest of the team and we will spend our day going through some basic tips and training. We'll grab a quick 3 hour nap before heading out at 3 am to catch our 6 am flight to Panama on Friday morning. I am most certainly excited but also partially anxious, simply because I am headed off into the unknown. But heavens knows, I've found that heading off into the unknown can often bring the most glorious of blessings. (i.e. going to Rome and meeting those two amazing girls pictured above.) 

If you would like to follow the progress and happenings of our trip, you can follow the team blog which will be periodically updated by our team leaders. To all of you who helped support me in my pursuits to raise funds for this trip, I cannot thank you enough for everything you've done for me. If you would like to continue to support me while I am on the trip you can be in prayer for
     - safety for our team as we travel
     - energy and joy amidst the anticipated fatigue
     - boldness in our relationships with the Panamanians
     - presence of mind - "wherever you are, be all there"
     - openness of heart to receive God's teaching, Americans and Panamanians alike

So with that, I'm off to Panama!

Ciao and adios!