Coco Solo, Colon, Panama

Hello all!  So sorry for the lack of posts in the last couple of weeks- I’ve been traveling (big surprise) and haven’t had internet :/ Back in the real world…well kind of… so here we go! Much love ~B

In 1918 the submarine base known as Coco Solo was established on the Northwest entrance to the Panama Canal. It was a thriving base where US Senator John McCain was born in 1936 and housed the Coco Solo Hospital (although McCain was born at a smaller hospital),  a naval aviation facility and two high schools.

Coco Solo circa 1930's via Panamaliving.com

Coco Solo circa 1930’s via Panamaliving.com

However, in 1999 the Panama Canal was returned to the Panamanians and US military activity vacated the area. Over the next few years, most of the old barracks were torn down and in their place two successful container terminals were build- namely the Manzanillo International Terminal (the busiest container port in Latin America) and the Colon Container Company. Although, between the two terminals are the remains of a few old barracks, which houses the small Coco Solo community.

The building where I stayed

The building where I stayed

Up until recently the  Coco Solo community consisted of about 400 families trying to live their lives in the old barracks that no longer had running water and little electricity. The families were initially housed in the barracks when they were displaced by the Ministry of Housing during the expansion of the canal. Every year, they were promised relocation to no avail. For years the residents of Coco Solo have been promised a new life and it hasn’t been until this year, 2013, that some of the families have begun to get relocated to government-built buildings. Yet others remain in the decrepit barracks without aid.

While many of the students do attempt to attend school, life is anything but easy. Colon is known as one of the most dangerous places in Panama due to a lack of education, lack of enforcement and the accessibility of guns and knives. It is not uncommon for children to have one or more family members in jail or whom have been killed. In order to support the needs of the community, Michael Brown and Rose Marie Cromwell decided to create the Cambio Creativo. It is an after-school program that “promotes critical thinking skills, determination and self-expression through the process of exchanging ideas and skills” (from CambioCreativo.org).

I had found out about Cambio Creativo from an NGO festival that I had attended a few weeks back and I was interested in volunteering. Rose informed me that they often had people come in and do workshops for the kids, so i decided why not?! I had been working at an after-school program the fall before and I was interested in how something like this might work in such a different community and country.

So off I went on a bus to Colon, Panama. I had no idea what to expect as Rose lead me through the tall marshy grasses to the remains of the old barracks. Cinder blocks were crumbling, there were no doors, and graffiti covered the walls, yet in between all of the craziness were clothes hung to dry and kids running around playing. She lead me to one of the barracks and introduced me to a man named Mikey. Mikey is a Jamaican preacher who houses about 5 teenage boys who had no where else to go. He feeds them, makes sure they go to school and teaches them what is right and wrong.

I shook his hand and walked inside…although the exterior resembled a slum, the interior of the barrack was filled with hope and warmth. The walls were painted aqua blue and adorned with collages and various drawings and paintings made by the children that attend the after-school program. It was honestly an inspiring place. And although my living situation was basic (I showered using a bucket and did #2s in a bag), I felt comfortable and safe.

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The next day was the first day of my workshop. My plan was to teach about local Panamanian animals, since I had been living in the jungle for the last couple of months and I’ve constantly heard local children confuse different species of animals. No tigers do not live in Panama. We started out by going on a little nature walk- we found this amazing little pool filled with tadpoles and examined each one until we could outline the different stages of development. For example, at first one of the kids didn’t believe me that a tadpole becomes a frog, so I showed him a tadpole that had already developed legs. His face lit up as he put it all together; he was absolutely adorable.

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After our walk we headed back to the classroom and colored in various sketches of animals that I had printed  before arriving. We then cut the animals out and placed them in the location where they would naturally live on a poster we drew to represent the various levels of the ecosystem. I certainly agreed with the kids that it was super cool that iguanas can live in the jungle and can swim- that is incredible! After the school kids went home, one of the other volunteers, Jesus and I sat out the balcony of the old barracks and watched the ships pass by. He spoke only Spanish (mine isn’t great), yet we discussed travel, food and what we wanted to be. It was a pretty enjoyable close to a first day at Coco Solo.

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On Day 2 of the workshop we decided it would be fun to make water filters with the kids. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be drinkable water, but it would be water they could use to wash clothes. They were also a ton of fun and only required two coffee filters, some cotton balls and an old water bottle (which are plentiful with all of the trash on the streets outside). And they really did work! We could put in dark brown water and it would come out almost completely clear!

My time volunteering for the Cambio Creativo was very insightful and enjoyable. Although I had worked at an after-school program before there were a lot of similarities and differences that I did not foresee. For example, kids will be kids, it doesn’t matter where they are in the world. They want to explore and have fun- the key is to squeeze a little learning in there too 😉 Also, in the Bay Area in California we are privileged with having endless amounts of school supplies where as everything really had to be well planned in Colon. A trip to the grocery store to pick up supplies was not an easy feat. It was also a really fun experience to plan and execute a little science workshop- I hope it is something I can continue to do in the future. Thank you so much for all of the warmth and excitement Cambio Creativo ~B

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