Panama: The Bridge Between Two Continents (mostly) and the Connector of Oceans

By: Brittany Lane | February 20, 2019
Topics: Location Spotlight, Wanderlust, Student Voices, Uncategorized
"We want adventure. Actually, let’s rephrase that... we crave adventure. We need something in our lives that could completely change the direction of the paths we will take in our futures."

It’s an extremely humbling thing to take control of your life by completely letting go of the details. We didn’t know each other three months ago. We didn’t have any idea how we would get from place to place. We didn’t know the foods we would put in our bodies or the people we would meet, but everyone in the Winterline program had at least one thing in common.

We want adventure. Actually, let’s rephrase that… we crave adventure. We need something in our lives that can completely change the direction of the paths we will take in our futures. Whether it was climbing a mountain in the tiniest community with no air conditioning, partying in Panama City for days on end, or just relaxing at the beach with a couple (but just a couple) margaritas on a rest day, we kept chasing after each day for new experiences. We valued our nights just as much as the days, either too excited for the next day to fall asleep or passing out, exhausted, in one of our many different beds. Sometimes it felt like we haven’t slept in years because of how hard we tried to learn about the new communities and cultures. After living in Panama for about a month with my best friends, I can confidently say that we found a consuming adventure, which marks the beginning of our expedition traveling the world with one another, through Winterline.  

winterline, gap year

First, we traveled to the Panama Canal to learn the history of the beautiful country we were living in. We went through a museum of the canal’s building process and watched a documentary on its purpose.. After exploring the area for a bit, we were informed there was a ship passing through and had the opportunity to watch the locks in action as we enjoyed the wonderful weather and sipped on iced coffee. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, watching how the water levels rose and fell while delivering the cargo ship on its way into the Pacific.

winterline, gap year

El Cocal marks our first home. We were briefed shortly on the special drinking water and lack of service and air conditioning. After embarking on what felt like a lifetime of driving, we found our homes in this tiny, relatively unknown community. In pairs, we were welcomed into homes of community members for our home-stays and given a quick tour of the area. I walked 15 minutes every day to get to the meeting area for work and food. We interviewed locals, played futbol with the teenagers, and we even climbed a mountain. We spent nine days here and it was the best way to commence our travels of Panama. Pictured above are the children of El Cocal, who welcomed us into their homes with a traditional dance ceremony.

winterline, gap year

At the end of our stay in El Cocal, we were reunited with Squad 2 for an educational experience at the farms outside the town. Here, we took a tour around the sugar cane farms, learned to squeeze juices with old fashioned machinery, and learned about natural building. The picture above shows us preparing the mud to build up the walls. To do so, we jumped around in the mud and slowly added straw to help strengthen the house. Everyone working with us was extremely excited to teach us very knowledgeable about their town’s history.

winterline, gap year

Taking to the water, we jumped in some kayaks to paddle our way out to the Caribbean Sea. After a brief instruction, we made our way to the historic area of Portablo, Colon and learned about how pirates attacked the port during the Spanish Empire. When we were still, we could hear howling monkeys throughout the jungle and feel the sun shining down on us on from the clearest blue sky. We finished our journey on foot through the trees to the battle ground,where we could see the ocean go on forever into the horizon. Pictured above are Josie and Becky taking a little break on our very physically demanding, but rewarding, trip.

winterline, gap year

Next, we headed inside to learn about creation with our hands and were introduced to the educational work of the FABLABS. They showed us how 3D printers worked, how to use heavy machinery, and told us to use our imaginations to build anything we could think of. Pictured above is our friend, Katie, learning how difficult it is to cut a straight line with a hand tool. This was a great way of being introduced to wood work and getting a taste of how hands-on we can be, whether we want to make a simple keychain or build furniture for our home.

winterline, gap year

After our day in the FABLAB, we put our skills to the test as we built house 2.0 which is the idea of building houses with reused materials for a very low price. This project started in efforts to end homelessness around the world. We bolted together large pieces of wood that we had cut out in the labs and spend hours in the heat working on. Becky and Josie were nothing but smiles as they held up the large beams while others inserted g the foundation pieces to keep our house up! We learned so much about teamwork and communication as we put up this house.

winterline, gap year

In the streets of Panama City (literally), we teamed up with an urban innovation team to try out an idea we had. After noticing how busy the streets were around a preschool, we realized there were no crosswalks, no signs, and no speed bumps. We wanted to improve the safety for children seeking an education, so we grabbed some paint brushes and tape to create a combination of the three missing features.. We themed four streets of the sea to remind drivers of the school across the street and to keep kids from wandering too far from the sidewalks. Above are the whales we designed being painted by our friends of Squad 2, while others worked on bubbles, starfish, and sharks. We wanted to bring attention and awareness to the fact that this was an area where young kids were learning and we did just that with the bright colored paints and designs of the cities newest crosswalks!

winterline, gap year

Across the street from our crosswalks, we found ourselves in a small bakery known for their Venezuelan empanadas. We were taught how they were originally made, how they are made now, and how they are different from traditional Panamanian empanadas. We took turns making our own personal empanadas filled with our choice of beef, chicken, fish, and, in my case, cheese and beans (plenty of great vegetarian options in Central America). Pictured above is Jason demonstrating his new skill of shaping dough before it’s filled and fried to perfection. After trying all of their specialty condiments and eating way too many empanadas, we left the bakery feeling even more connected to the community of Panama City through food.

winterline, gap year

After a long days work, we did one of our favorite things: pile into one of our tiny rooms and listen to the stories we all had to share. Coming from all different places, New York City to Colombia, California to Kansas, we loved hearing about where each other came from. After spending every day and night together for weeks, it truly felt like I had known my squad for years, yet I still am learning new things about everyone every day. Fitting so many people into our small but comfortable living spaces sometimes lead to us being way too loud for the hostel and having to hang out outside, but we all loved staying up all night just talking to each other. Hostel Amador was the perfect place for getting to know each other while watching movies, playing ping pong and playing with our pet goat, Luna. (Our friend, Brogan, really loved that goat).

winterline, gap year

Another interesting workshop we did was stopping by a famous Panamanian rum distillery. Here, we sampled the beer and rum they made and walked through the ways different drinks were created. We toured the machinery, which had many different processes of creating various alcohol flavors. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, explaining to Tyler how the rum is transported through pipes from machine to machine.

winterline, gap year

Sneaking away to Casco Viejo, Lydia and I enjoyed one of the most amazing helpings of Carbonara we had ever had. The food culture of Panama was something we all enjoyed and deepened our appreciation for the new and inviting places we traveled to. Some of our favorites (besides the endless supply of carbonara) were rice and beans (of course), empanadas, the pizzas and (veggie) burgers delivered by Uber drivers at all hours of the night, the Colombian crepes, delicious coffee, gyros, and anything from Cafe Niko’s.

winterline, gap year

We stayed in many places in our travels around Panama, from hotels and hostels, to home-stays, and even our transport bus with Eduardo, driving from city to city on the scariest roads with the most intense drivers I have ever experienced. We never stayed in the same place for more than two weeks but somehow we were accepted in every community with open arms. Everyone showed patience with our horrible (but improving) Spanish and our loud nights that kept everyone awake. We enjoyed time with the locals who made us way more food than we could eat and taught us about the most important values of their culture – family. That’s how Panama impacted me in ways I will never forget. My family. I started this 9-month long adventure as an individual with thirty-one other young travelers and five loving field advisors and somewhere along the way we went from strangers to family. We take care of each other, we have fun together, we sometimes cry and get upset but I know they always have my back. The fifteen amazing people in my squad showed me the importance of living fully and completely but will never let me forget where we all began.


Somewhere in Panama, we found a home. This home wasn’t just in the city or in El Cocal or any one specific place. It was carrying all of our stuff on our backs, in the rain and scorching heat, together, as a group. My family is my home and that is how Panama is still with us, forever.

0 Comments +

Leave a Comment


Most Popular

How to Plan A Gap Year Like Malia

By: Olga Khaminwa-Joseph | March 15, 2017
Topic: Education, Gap Year Planning

The internet exploded when America’s favorite daughter, Malia Obama, announced she'd defer (...)

My Gap Year Hasn’t Opened My Eyes to the World

By: Prathana Shrestha | January 23, 2017
Topic: Student Voices

My gap year has felt more like a holiday, getting to travel for a short vacation away from my (...)

20 Colleges That Encourage A Gap Year

By: Julian Goetz | April 1, 2017
Topic: Education, Gap Year Planning

Taking a gap year to pursue new experiences, goals, and worlds before or during college is more (...)