Living in NYC, my weekend trips usually end up in Vegas, LA or Miami. I pack a small carry-on filled with essentials for a weekend I know will probably leave me feeling more exhausted by the end of it than relaxed. Being a semi workaholic, I am on my BlackBerry 99 percent of the time, and the other 1 percent is spent on my iPhone, which doesn't leave much time to wind down, but this weekend I decided to step out of my day to day life into the world of Kalu Yala. Getting off the plane in Panama and knowing one word of Spanish, I felt absolutely lost and a little bit vulnerable. This is what I love about traveling to foreign countries. By forcing yourself to be vulnerable and stepping outside of your comfort zone, you are also forced to learn a little bit more about yourself. I wandered around aimlessly until I made a friend who let me use his cell phone, (amazing how convenient it is that everyone understands English); I called my friend Jimmy Stice, (real estate developer, urban romantic, and founder of Kalu Yala) who let me know he was right outside and we were off to Panama City.
I had never been to Central America and as we drove I took in the beautiful modern buildings such as the trump hotel juxtaposed to the beat-up truck with an open pickup bed trunk and a family sitting in it staring back at us. I asked Jimmy if this was normal and he let me know I probably would be experiencing a bit of culture shock while being here. After a great night of Lebanese food and hookah in the city followed by another great night exploring the old quarter where I got to be with my dear friends Kassidy and her brother Ryan Brown (the team behind Journey of Action -- documentary filmmakers who travel and film Generation Y change-makers all around the world), I was ready for our adventure into indigenous territory.
I woke up the next morning for a three-hour journey down an under-developed -- at times pure -- dirt road to the San Blas islands. I passed through beautiful scenery of jungles, filled with toucans and jaguars and gorgeous green oceans, and arrived at a big dirt parking lot where our group then docked onto a boat that looked about as safe as a log canoe. We got on and spunky Sarah, Kalu Yala's creative director filmed us while I clutched my hat for dear life and was sprayed in the face with warm tropical ocean water.
We landed at an indigenous island where a tribe of 600 members of the Kuna Indian tribe, Kunas, inhabited the land. There was a full city of little huts, (some with satellite dishes!), happy smiling children running around and beautiful old women covered in beads and colored garbs asking us if we wanted to buy their jewelry. Everyone takes American dollars (Panama uses American dollars as their currency) so I gladly gave them my $5 for a bracelet and realized how easy these people let me into their lives, showing me around the museum, (another $5), letting us into their hut homes when it started to pour, and talking to us about their beautiful hand crafted creations -- (in their version of Spanish which I somewhat understood).
It was amazing to see how happy these Kunas were living simplistically with hammocks as beds and tree leaves as roofs and it made me realize how excessive we live as Americans. I was amazed to also see however how similar humans are in their behaviors: Satellite TV gave these children and tribe the opportunity to learn English, understand trends, (one little girl had sparkly flip flops and manicured toes), even though the way the Kunas lived their lives was dramatically different than from what I was used to. The Kunas caught everything from around the island (they use communal agricultural practices to manage their fisheries and coconut plantations), used all of their resources to create and build for themselves and were happy knowing the same 600 people their whole lives. I was blown away by how sometimes I am so absorbed in getting frustrated at my outlook being too slow, or my BlackBerry freezing, and how there is a total opposite way to live full of appreciating the little things in life and being happier than ever doing so.
We said our adieus to the Kunas tribe and headed to Hook Island (one of the Kuna's coconut plantation islands where postcards come from) where seven of us all slept in a little hut, and met strangers who sold us a snapper, ate fresh coconut for snacks and bought some conch after watching our new friends machete the shells and show us how fresh it was. We slept on hammocks, drank amazing Mexican Panamanian rum, ate huge lobsters for dinner and I woke up to the beautiful ocean and the serene feeling that nothing else but this moment mattered.
We were then off to Kalu Yala, (a new community driven by our generation to create the Town 2.0 and re-imagine what is possible from life -- Jimmy's 500 acres of land) down a very bumpy rocky road and a few rivers 45 minutes from the airport. Jimmy, coming from a real estate background and dreaming of helping rebuild cities to be involved in urban redevelopment since he was 12, (you learn a lot about a person in a three-hour car ride), wanted to create something that was more than just some land filled with modern buildings. He wanted to create a community, a hub of positivity and social entrepreneurship that used greening and eco-friendly, sustainable methods of building to attract the type of investors and in turn tourists who believed in creating a new type of world. Jimmy (and his 20 interns from colleges all around the country who pay to live in the Valley and literally create this community of Kalu Yala with their bare hands) are in the beginning of molding this beautiful land into something tangible that will attract social entrepreneurs who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. I now understood the past few days and why it was important to see the new city and all of the development there, the old quarters filled with history, the islands of happy Kunas, and the beautiful serenity of San Blas. It was to understand all that Kalu Yala will be supported by and will support. In the heart of a city as diverse and unique as Panama, Kalu Yala will be a hub of culture that will build off of what's already so richly rooted in Panama as well as building something new that will fit naturally in all that Panama already is.
I asked Jimmy what makes Panama so special and he explained to me that there are very few if any boundaries in Panama. People come to Panama from the U.S. and some of them party like rock-stars leaving with that very same feeling that one may feel when visiting Vegas or Miami. He turned to me and said, "What do you do when no one is looking? That's what it feels like to be in a world of no boundaries, and the only boundaries I feel down is the feeling that I have to live up to the brand of Kalu Yala, up to the ideals of Kalu Yala for my investors, my team and my interns." I thought to myself of how this weekend I placed no boundaries on myself. I experienced, I discovered, I explored, I tried everything and how many boundaries I place on myself in my day to day life. I realized that Kalu Yala is something much bigger than an amazing community in Panama; it is also the concept and mentality of living a life where you can be the best version of yourself, a more open minded and simplistic person who can take everything in around them, does not hold back from creating big things, and lives like no one is watching them.