Cultivating a cultural divide, one hike at a time

Clay Springer, the director of the outdoor recreation program, teaches his interns about allergic reactions during their Wilderness First Aid class. (Lila Reynolds/Medill)

By Lila Reynolds
Audio by Abhishek Shah

Before the sun begins the morning stretch over the mountain ridge that sprawls across central Panama, a group of 20-somethings departs into the jungle. In search of a new place to swim, the young hikers cross a burbling stream that threatens to fill their boots with water. Beyond the river and a steep incline, they skirt a pack of cattle struggling to keep their footing on the narrow trail. They nod to the farmer who looks bemused at their continual walks and they proceed. After an hour, the voyagers reach a swimming hole, just as someone back at their camp promised. They leap into the water and rinse the 80-degree heat from their skin as the sun begins to crest over the hills.

When the eco-town of Kalu Yala entered the Panamanian landscape about 10 years ago, it brought an abundance of new life and innovation to the relatively undeveloped land surrounding the Chagres National Park. The small campus housed internship programs, new start-up businesses and open, roofed, rancho-style platforms for camping. Innovative technology attracted lots of young Americans and interns from other parts of the world hoping to make advances in the worldwide push for sustainability. But it also brought a phenomena that many Panamanian locals had never seen before: hiking.

While residents of San Miguel, the closest town to Kalu Yala, may not understand the hype of carrying heavy-duty hiking packs up a hill for seemingly no reason, interns and staff at Kalu Yala have adopted the Western tradition as a part of their culture.

Clay Springer, the current director of the Outdoor Recreation department, first arrived in Panama a few months ago and Panamanians would watch him hiking up the steep Kalu Yala access road, and the final steep hill, fondly deemed “suicide hill.”

“Oftentimes they'll look at us and wonder what we’re doing out there,” Springer said. “And I’ve been offered a ride by people, by Panamanian farmers when I’m walking out in the countryside. I say, ‘No, I’m doing this intentionally, I want to walk…’ and they’re like, ‘Gringo loco, no entiendo!’”

This example highlights what many Kalu Yalans consider a cultural divide between themselves and their neighbors. While many programs are working to engage more with the community so near their village, this often comes with challenges.

Aside from language barriers, which make it tough for interns to interact with young neighbors, many of the Canadians and Americans find it difficult to relate to the many challenges Panamanian students from San Miguel face. Angela Jones, the director of education, said she sees a level of apathy toward education in the town but it’s often due to limited means that constrains access to schools.

“There’s no high school here,” Jones said. “So the kids, once they graduate from primary school, then they have to go to La Mesa, which is about 20, 30 minutes away to go to middle school or high school.”

Many students decide against this daily commute and the costs of school. They stay at home or hope to find work elsewhere.

“I talked to a kid just the other day who was 13, I think,” Jones said. “And he was just hanging out on the patio. I asked him ‘what do you do?’ and (he said) ‘I don’t go to school.’”  

Jones said parents are generally in support of this because it means their children can seek employment at factories in nearby towns, and parents won’t have to pay for bus fares or notebooks. It saves them money, and many students have a desire to leave the valley.

Hiking is another apparent divide and, of course, there’s a considerable gap even among Americans who are interested in hiking. In 2013, the Outdoor Participation Report found that 70 percent of Americans participating in outdoor recreation were white. Racial minorities represented only one in five visitors to the National Parks, according to a 2011 poll. As in Panama, these disparities can be linked to the wealth gap between white Americans and minorities.

Springer attributes the relative lack of interest in hiking among Panamanians living in rural areas to a desire to escape from their current lifestyle, which requires a lot of walking and outdoor labor for everyday chores and errands.

“There is a cultural disconnect there,” Springer said. “I think a lot of Panamanians living in the interiors have worked really really hard to get to a point where they can leave the interior and go to the cities. So looking at hiking as a recreational activity is confusing to them.”

Taylor Gray, an outdoor recreation intern from Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada, has spent her semester developing maps of surrounding hiking trails with other interns. She feels that most of the work they’ve done in the past has served residents of Kalu Yala but hopes to encourage more participation for neighbors in San Miguel and beyond.

Chloe Chow, an intern from Montreal, said even Kalu Yalans see hiking as a “luxury,” and thinks that many locals “don’t know about the trails we have here.”

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Chloe Chow, one of six outdoor rec interns, gets an early start on maintenance of one of Kalu Yala’s trails to beat the heat. (Lila Reynolds/Medill) 

Springer thinks that hiking hasn’t been something that Panamanians have thought about as an asset in the past. However, with the building of a new canal through Nicaragua, which could take business away from the country’s main source of income at the Panama Canal, hiking might be an important place to turn. Because the new canal would not be owned by Panama, trade may migrate out of their country. People previously employed at the Panama Canal will need to look elsewhere to work, and Springer said outdoor rec is a good next step.

“(There) is an initiative going on with a company called ‘Caminando de Panama,’ which means ‘Walking Panama,’” Springer said. “(The) objective is to train locals to have a durable vested interest in conserving their land by turning them into wilderness guides so when they do that, it gives them a new source of income, it gives them a reason to protect their wilderness and instills a new passion for the outdoors in their local communities, which I think is incredible.”

Kalu Yala and groups such as the Kuna Yala tribe on the San Blas islands have tapped into the growing demand of tourists to travel to Panama, but Panamanians haven’t taken this opportunity yet. Gray said that by training locals to be guides, they will become more invested in the conservation of their land while benefiting from a steady income.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for them to make money, to turn that lifestyle toward hiking,” Gray said. “I agree with the statement the more people love something, the more they want to protect it.”

Of course, looking at missions like these aren’t always practical in the 10-week semesters that the Kalu Yala Institute provides for its interns. For now, interns in the outdoor recreation program focus their efforts on members of their community and projects they feel they can accomplish. Gray’s project comes from a desire to have her peers experience nature more deeply.

“We live here, we should experience the wilderness,” Gray said. “So many people come here and are like, ‘Yeah, I live in the jungle.’ But then never leave this little community and I think it’s super important to experience 100 percent of the area you’re in, so doing cultural activities, going hiking, doing overnight trips in the woods, cause then you can actually say you experienced the jungle and you lived in the jungle.”

The outdoor recreation program does a good job promoting trail maintenance and hiking within their community, but sometimes it feels a bit isolated even within itself. The interns plan activities with hopes of involving interns from other programs, but without interest it’s hard to hope for longevity.

Right now, Gray feels that Kalu Yala is at something of a standstill in terms of growing as a community and increasing its local involvement. While each program and the institute as a whole has goals of expanding into the local community, a lot of these aren’t entirely practical due to time, cultural and budgetary restraints.

“(Kalu Yala tells interns to) ‘get creative, do your own thing, if you’re passionate about it, do it,’ instead of saying ‘take something from Kalu Yala, make it better,’” Gray said. “I think they should definitely emphasize that more. Because I mean, it sounds bad, but there’s so many good ideas, but implemented in shitty ways in Kalu Yala that could just be implemented so much better.”

For instance, Gray hopes her maps will serve as a guide for future hikers. But, to some extent, interns have to hope someone else will pick up on their project. One past intern once created a skee ball court, which has since fallen into disrepair.

For many, there’s a layer of tension between what Kalu Yala is today, and what it can or even should become in the future with growth. On a more macro level, Gray worries about Kalu Yala growing at all.

“Right now it’s just a little plot of land that 150 people can enjoy and can one day be (totally) sustainable at this size,” Gray said. “The bigger it gets, the harder it is to stay sustainable. That does worry me a little bit, I think it worries a lot of people.”

People have big dreams for the outdoor recreation department and Kalu Yala as a whole. As the town gets older, residents are growing more and more aware that many of these changes will be much harder to implement than they envisioned.

“We think very startup-y in the way that we say ‘can this scale? Can we have more people living like this?’” said Esteban Gast, the former president of the Kalu Yala Institute. “And we know that not everyone’s going to live like this.” Gast left his position recently to take a job in media in Los Angeles.

Springer, Gray and Chow think a lot about how to bring San Miguel residents into the conversation of outdoor recreation and other opportunities at Kalu Yala. Tuition, paid by the international interns, is waived for any resident of San Miguel.

“Right now my audience just includes my interns which is a group of six students,” Springer said. “But the projects we’re working on is for the benefit of the whole Kalu Yala community and then eventually hopefully the Panamanian community.”

In the end, it’s a matter of time before anyone – within or without Kalu Yala – will be able to predict the future of what many hope will become a model for sustainable towns around the globe. 

“Right now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what Kalu Yala is doing,” Gray said. “Everyone here has the right mindset, they have the right goals. The bigger it gets, the more it just turns into another town so that is definitely worrisome.”

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