The New Normal

Simon Roca

Simon Roca

First-year Student and Founder of KogoFoods

It is just another typical day in Los Guarumos, Panama. I awake to the distant cacophony of roosters and sounds of my family members rising from their rooms. Looking up, I see my now familiar mosquito net hanging overhead and ponder what my next move should be. Reaching for my Kindle, I quickly immerse myself in the Shiva Trilogy. It’s a story about the rise of a community leader to god-like status, which I think ironic considering I am a simple Peace Corps volunteer reading in a remote Panamanian village. 

By 7:30 a.m., my bladder is crying for attention, so I put on my crocs, careful not to touch the dirt floor, and head outside to my usual pee spot by a palm tree and waist-high elephant grass. My comfort restored, I turn around and take in my surroundings. 

My living quarters are located on a parcel of land that has been cut into the clay hillside. The house is made of mud and dried grass with wooden supports and a corrugated tin roof. Gazing up the slope, I behold a tropical mountain range that surrounds the tiny village of Los Guarumos. I have only been here for a week, and the view is still breathtaking. The mountains roll into each other, different sizes and shapes, with a sea of varying greens spread on the surface.

After a few satisfying moments, I descend the clay slope to the eating area; it’s almost 8 a.m., which means a breakfast of spam and fried corn flour patties. I sit down on a seat fashioned from scraps of wood and greet my host family members. Domingo, my host dad, is lounging in a hammock reading the newspaper. His mud flecked pants and cutoff shirt are a stark contrast to his shiny amber-rimmed reading glasses. He is the head of a family of 10 that I am currently living with. We tend to share the same conversation each morning. A quick greeting that has little variance. 

“¿Cómo amaneció? How did you sleep?he asks. 

I reply, “Muy bien gracias, ¿y usted? Good, and you?”  

“Bien. Good,” he says. 

I sip my coffee out of a dried and hollowed out Calabasas fruit, as one of the three sons, Isaia, asks me if I want to check up on some land they’ve been farming. Isaia is the youngest son, although he is still a few years older than me. His eyes are set kindly into a young face with a square jaw, the spitting image of his father. He is broad-shouldered and well-muscled from long days hiking up the mountain and maintaining fields with his worn machete. I decide to join him today and quickly say yes, eager for any opportunity to spend time with the gente. He tells me it’s a three hour camino (walk). This should be good.

I go back up the slope to my room and trade my crocs for my hiking shoes. I pack up two bottles of water, my trusty machete, and my phone. Soon enough I am out and hiking with Isaia and Reye, my two host brothers. Reye is five years older than Isaia and has a wife and child. His face is beginning to crease from long days in the sun, and he has a slightly smaller build than his brother. Isaia takes a different route and suddenly it’s just Reye and I hiking up the slope behind the house. The ground is light brown, almost orange from the heavy presence of clay. I keep my mouth shut while walking with Reye, focusing instead on breathing and keeping a steady pace. I know that a three hour hike up a mountain will be unforgiving. I also make sure to stay at a respectful distance behind him. 

After about 20 minutes, we stop. Reye looks over his shoulder at me, surprised to see me composed and breathing evenly. Soon we see Isaia coming up a different trail. The three of us continue, with Reye and Isaia leading. We crest the top of the hill after another 30 minutes and see Archimedes waiting for us; he is the oldest of the brothers who is visiting from the city. Archimedes is always quick to smile, and his eyes are gentle. He’s sitting on a large boulder with his phone out, catching a few bars of signal thanks to our new elevation. We take a break as we greet each other and fish out water from our backpacks.

We continue on. Soon we have reached the dense rainforest that covers the steep ascent up the mountain. The trail is now only a foot wide, forcing us to tread carefully. All around us, the tropical environment cries for attention with its exotic interior. After a short while, we come upon a stream that is peeking through the jungle. My host brothers point to it and tell me it’s the same stream we use for our community’s water system. As we march along the trail, the diverse plethora of trees and foliage become increasingly entangled. Light from the sun fades, and the noises of the jungle seem to increase as our senses adjust.

After 2 hours, we summit to a little clearing. Immediately noticeable is an old shack made out of corrugated tin and rotting lumber that has been slowly devoured by termites. We go up to it and sit on a nearby log to rest. By now, we have risen high above my community. Looking up, we are welcomed by a spectacular view of clouds rolling over faraway mountains. We can see the topography change from fields to hills to mountains with a fantastic mixture of browns and greens. At this point, I am hot, thirsty, and sweating profusely. The humidity is unforgiving even at this height. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time to spare, and after a few minutes, we set off again.

Reye, the oldest of the brothers, is in the lead followed by Archimedes, myself, and Isaia. Quickly, the trail begins to degrade into more of a four-inch-wide line with grasses and bushes that threaten to consume it entirely. The farther we venture, the worse it becomes. The brothers begin using their machetes to cut down the invasive brush. Being taller than the others, the path still does not quite fit me, and I also join the fray with my freshly-sharpened machete. The difficulty of the nearly 75- degree assent cannot be understated. Our boots are digging into the wet soil trying to find purchase, pushing around loose leaves and twigs. We are climbing over and under fallen logs that have become wedged into the forks of trees across the path, all the while with our machetes in our hands, sweat dripping down our backs, and bushes tugging at our clothes. The brothers are mute, relentlessly pushing on and no doubt accustomed to these conditions.

Suddenly, I feel a sharp pain on my neck. I whip my hand back and smack whatever it is, the pain still pulsing as if there is a sharp needle in my skin. I turn around and look at Isaia. He’s staring at me, eyes wide, and says, “Corre! Run!

Que?! What?!” I say, as I am still registering what is going on when I feel a second sting on my left arm. I swipe my right hand across and brush off what seems to be an abnormally furry yellow bee.

 I can hear Isaia still shouting “Corre!”, and that second sting is enough for me to take the hint. 

We start running back the way we came. As we take off, I hear a loud buzzing coming from above, no doubt more bees honing in on our position. 

We didn’t take off fast enough. 

Another bee lands on the underside of my hat brim, and I quickly brush it off, barely keeping my footing as I half slide, half run down the mountain. I can still hear the bees behind us, and I focus on increasing my speed as we vault over fallen logs, our machetes swinging wildly in our hands.

Finally, after what felt like ten minutes of running but was in reality more like three, Isaia comes to a stop in front of me. He turns around and faces me, checking to see that I am okay. He opens his mouth to say something, but I miss his words, as I’m focusing on a sound coming from behind me. 

My jaw drops as I realize it’s the sound of a cloud of buzzing bees slowly growing louder as they come closer to our position. I can feel the aggression coming from their vibrating bodies. I don’t risk a glance back and practically knock over Isaia as I push him to run. 

Again we set off, and I think to myself how mad this is, although this time the going is made easier by a lower plateau of the mountain. Another few minutes pass, and we stop. We immediately check to see if these assassin bees are still on our tail. Thankfully, they seem to have lost track of us or realized we were far enough from their killer palace.

Isaia looks at me, both of us breathing heavy.

 “¿Estás bien? Are you okay? he asks. 

Sí, estoy bien. Yes, I’m okay,” I say, giving him a quick smile, although inside I’m thinking “What the f*** was that?”

He quickly motions to my left leg with his machete. I look down and gasp. 

I have blood running down my leg into my boot. I trace the blood up and find the source of the wound–a three-inch gash on my knee. I realize it must have come from my machete that I was still holding in my left hand as we ran. With the adrenaline rush, I didn’t even feel it. Thankfully, it’s not too deep. Isaia quickly grabs a nearby spider web and puts it into my wound. Quickly, the blood begins to clot around it.

Now being out of the war zone, we can calmly walk. We return to the shack nestled between banana trees and a full view of the beautiful mountainous terrain and sit down. I’m sweating profusely and am concerned about my leg, still feeling the adrenaline course through my system.

I think to myself how surreal this all is. Here I am in the jungle, with a cut leg, just having been chased by African killer bees. I have almost two years left of this as a Peace Corps Volunteer? At this rate, I’ll be lucky to make it out in one piece. I’m excited, albeit a little nervous, to think of what’s to come. Considering I could’ve stepped on a deadly snake or fallen onto my machete in the chaos, I actually made it out pretty good. 

I look around and take in my surroundings. Nearby the shack is an old water spigot. From the outset, it would seem that the last thing this moss-covered, rusty spout would spew is clean water. But our close location to the water source changes things. I go over and begin to wash the cut. In the jungle, the chance of infection increases drastically because of the humidity. I take my time, trying to get a few bits of dirt out of the wound, and then drink the last of my water. I look up at Isaia calmly twisting the tip of his machete in the ground. He sees that I’m finished, motions me with his hand, and we begin our descent.

Fast forward 7 months, and I receive the notice that I, along with hundreds of other volunteers, need to evacuate the country due to the expanding coronavirus pandemic. I came to the states on March 19th with no plan. After observing how COVID-19 was unfolding in the U.S., I opted out of trying to get a job and decided it would be in my best interest to apply to graduate school. By June, I had filled out my application to Thunderbird, and I moved to Phoenix in mid-July. My time in Panama has helped enrich my experience at Thunderbird. My memories have allowed me to contribute a unique perspective in classroom discussions, clubs, and leadership positions. As I continue my time at Thunderbird, I look forward to using the knowledge I learn to further develop my business Kogo, a business that ultimately connects my time at Thunderbird with memories of my unforgettable experience in the Peace Corps.

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