Editor’s Note: Deanna Sweeney ’17 MBA is no stranger to international travel. As a graduate student in Johnson & Wales University’s College of Online Education, Sweeney jumped at the opportunity to explore Nepal. She enjoyed her experience so much that upon her return from her first trip, she decided to apply for a research and development internship in Panama. This fall, Sweeney will be documenting her adventure as a guest blogger for Career Catalyst. Here’s her first post:
How does one start an international internship in the middle of the Panamanian jungle?
Step one: Fly to Panama City.
Step two: Take two buses to San Miguel.
Step three: Ready yourself for a two-hour hike, uphill, into the Tres Brazos Valley.
Step four: Take in the scenes of the jungle (banana plants, palm trees, and toucans!) until you happen upon a bustling river.
Step five: Wade through said river, and open your mind (and expectations) to what’s about to come.
On the other side of the river sits a simple sign. Welcome to Kalu Yala.
Beyond that sign is the magic: a town square filled with ten simple structures. These raised platforms, or ranchos, have tin or palm roofs and no walls or railings. These ranchos are filled with tables for collaborating, boards for drawing, or bookcases for reading. One rancho houses a design studio and in another, there is a coffee shop with locally-sourced beans. In another, there is a kitchen and in yet another, a bar. In the center of town square, there are beautiful leafy plants and flowers. Mountainous valley walls surround the town, hugging it tightly in its dense, jungle foliage. On occasion, gentle music drifts through the air, flowing through the beams of the ranchos and dancing around the ears of the people who dwell here.
Speaking of the people, it is not an unusual site to see some parading around in bathing suits and others traipsing around in muddy clothes with machetes in hand. Kalu Yala is a modern-day frontier town— as if the old west was reincarnated into the 21st-century Panamanian jungle.
Kalu Yala itself is a massive entrepreneurial venture and research and development project. The goal? To design and build a self-sufficient, yet modern town. This means creating the comforts of modern life without the harmful environmental and ecological impact. The notion of building a sustainable town is nothing new. In fact, all around the world, you can find intentional communities working towards a common, sustainable goal.
Kalu Yala is trying to achieve a sense of sustainability while making a business out of it. By enacting a triple bottom line policy, Kalu Yala is working towards social and environmental sustainability in a way that can make a profit.
In its current state, Kalu Yala lacks the comforts that so many of us in the United States take for granted. Here, none of the structures have walls and there is no hot water. Water is piped in from a tributary and filtered through a hand-built sand filter. In these parts, dishes are washed by hand and food is harvested from the land. Electricity is solar-powered, which means it is sometimes unreliable and blackouts aren’t far-fetched. Because the nearest town is so far, the people living in Kalu Yala must learn a sense of self-reliance. This means rationing or bartering for belongings, or simply learning to do without. However, despite the poisonous snakes and hammocks instead of beds, no one really seems to mind.
Running Kalu Yala isn't easy work. Day to day operations are testing—mentally, socially, and physically. Things go wrong, people break down, and the hardships of communal living are revealed. Rainy season means torrential downpours, wet shoes, and eternally-damp clothes. Here, poisonous creatures lurk in the shadows of hammocks and shower curtains. The jungle is trying to eat everyone and everything here, and the only way to beat it is to eat it back. However, the purpose of this place is bigger than the purpose of walls or mattresses. The purpose this town is to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Here, people are finding ways to live sustainably. The efforts here go towards helping future generations—and that’s really a beautiful thing.
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