Alum Taylor Gray Breaks Down the Good and the Bad at Kalu Yala
An Interview with Taylor Gray
Living off-the-grid in a Panamanian jungle among a group of diverse people while working to create an totally sustainable lifestyle and town, the mission of Kalu Yala, certainly has it’s ups and downs. While living directly in nature, pursuing your passion and meeting dozens of your new best buds is all awesome, there is also the challenge of adapting, sweating (A LOT) and spending literally 24/7 with those best buds. Regardless, the good times and the hard times all come to a close after what most alumni agree to call a rewarding and life-changing experience. We spoke with the super passionate Canadian native Taylor Gray and got a closer look at her experience as a Kalu Yalan.
Gray is twenty-two years old and from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She spent the spring of 2017 down in Panama interning. She typically spends her Summers working at a Camp in Ontario and in the Winter months she kills time playing volleyball or hanging in the city and occasionally travelling. She loves to spend time outdoors and of course her dog is alongside when she is able to get out there. Growing up camping and hiking she makes sure to stay true to her roots and connect with nature often. Her outdoorsy demeanor and creative passion initialized her attraction to Kalu Yala and Gray reflected on her time there with us.
How did you find out about Kalu Yala?
Gray: I had gone on a mission trip to Kenya my first year at University. I’m studying peace and conflict studies, so I really wanted to travel to one of the places I was learning so much about and get that hands-on experience. I really enjoyed seeing what I was learning through my eyes and through people and not just textbooks. Since then, I’ve just been wanting to do something like that again except maybe a little more focused on the environment, so I started looking up internships and I came across Kalu Yala and it was just like woah so immersive, the most hands-on experience you could probably get and that really drew me in.
How would you compare your experience in Kenya to Kalu Yala?
Gray: Well, Kalu Yala was a lot more independent and hands-on I’d say. The group I went to Kenya with was a little younger so it was more security and guide based but with Kalu Yala I just found that it was way more immersive and way more independent and I really loved that. It was really up to you how much you got out of it, so you kind of got out of it what you put in. So, speaking with the locals or going into Panama City or just making those efforts and getting locals to teach you stuff or take you on hikes and what not; I really loved that about Kalu Yala.
Did you feel as if it was diverse and you were immersed in the culture?
Gray: Oh yeah, definitely. I can see how a lot of people who haven’t been there would say ya’know it’s just like an American bubble in the middle of Panama but I didn’t find that, like at all. There were so many staff members from Panama and so much culture around us, so I guess the only way I can really see people saying those negative things is if they didn’t make that effort to talk to locals or learn Spanish or something along those lines. If you put in the effort it was super immersed.
So, what project did you work on in your time in the valley?
Gray: I was an outdoor recreation intern and my project was to design a system of maps with all the trails in the surrounding areas. So I put together a binder with maps, descriptions and the duration and names of trails and really just wanted to encourage people to go on these hikes and make the trails more accessible. When I got there, there were trails but it would be like ‘oh yeah it’s just on the other side of that hill ya’know look for the broken gate and third tree on the right’ so that’s not really helpful for someone who has never hiked before. So I put together pretty much a total guide on what to bring, and what to expect, how hot it can get, difficulty, what shoes to wear, water crossings pretty much everything to make it easier for people to challenge themselves and go be in nature.
Do you accredit your background in hiking and camping to your project development?
Gray: Before I got there my biggest fear was what project I was going to do, I had no idea! But within the first week there I was like okay that is definitely something I can take on and want to do. All the staff members were super helpful and supportive of my idea and just being there I saw that it was something that needed to be done.
How was your relationship with staff?
Gray: I got along so well with staff. They were so friendly, so helpful and I really just made friends with them. On the weekends if we ran into each other on breaks we would hangout and it was nice because although it was super professional there was never really an uncomfortable divide. I respect that because Kalu Yala is working towards being a strong institute so there are boundaries and those are taken into account but I never felt like I was any different or inferior to staff. As far as Jimmy goes he’s an awesome guy, we had some dinners with him and students and we talked about projects and worked together and it was all just super inspiring. I think he appreciates the work getting done in the valley and there was never any bad blood there, it was just some good feedback and relationships that I still keep.
What was your first thoughts at seeing Kalu Yala?
Gray: This is so cool! I get to live here? This is amazing! There was a grin on my face all day, it was like being a kid at camp for the first time.
How were your feelings leaving compared to arriving?
Gray: I wasn’t ready to leave at all. I am applying to work there and it hasn’t worked out yet but I want to go back so badly. The day I left was the saddest day of my whole time there. I just sat at the campfire all morning and was just trying to take it all in and look around and appreciate my last moments there. I was never excited to leave, it was just a sad sort of countdown to leaving.
How is the transition from living in the jungle to being home?
Gray: It was hard dude, everyday I was home for awhile I would get my dog in the car and take a drive outside of the city. I just couldn’t handle the noise and the cars, it was just, um, too much. It was hard leaving my window open because all I could hear was city traffic. When I moved back to camp in the Summer after my time there I was so excited and I still slept in my hammock there. They were like we can give you a cabin, but I was all good! I was not ready to adjust back.
Was it hard to explain your experience to friends and family?
Gray: Yes and no. A lot of my family hikes and is outdoorsy so that they understood, but it was really hard to explain how I changed while I was there. I became so much more accepting of people. It’s not that I wasn’t accepting before, I just learned that you can seriously learn so much from anyone you talk to and at Kalu Yala everyone is just so different and so cool and people have these amazing hidden talents so I started having more conversations with strangers and asking questions and actually listening when they answered and I feel like that is due to Kalu Yala.
What was your greatest challenge?
Gray: When I was there I was going through a lot of personal stuff back home and sometimes I just wanted to complain to my Mom or have someone fix everything for me or curl up with best friends but I couldn’t do that in the middle of the jungle so it taught me how to get through things on my own and not depend on others to make me happy. It was an adjustment from not having your support system but I got stronger as a person. So my challenge sort of led to the lesson to make yourself happy an don’t rely on other people for support and happiness but rather learn how to develop the skill set to really take care of yourself and learning how to do that, for me a long walk in the forest or jungle is super healing.
What were some flaws with how things were ran?
Gray: Kalu Yala is a new thing still, there’s some things that need to change I had such a good time there though so there is nothing I can pick on. If I had to I guess there are going to be people who maybe need more food than others, no people were not starving but there is definitely people who needed more than what they were getting but the kitchen did their best with what they had. So, if there was one thing to be improved that would be it: rations; but I personally was taken care of. I got so much stronger eating clean and healthy food so I felt good. It’s not that it needs to be changed but maybe needs to be said more in the application process, this is hard on your body and you do have to be strong or ready to get stronger.
Would you say Kalu Yala is sustainable?
Gray: Yes I’d say so. The way we were living you just have to compare it to the way you live back home. So much of the food we were growing ourselves, we hiked in and out and used public transit, composting our waste, all of it. Back home I drive, I eat packaged food. If you compare it to how most people live at home yes we were totally being sustainable and it taught people how to be sustainable. There are things to improve on for sure but they were living the most sustainable the way possible in my time there.
Would you say it’s a lot of trial an error in regards to being sustainable?
Gray: A lot of trial and error. You’re living in such a remote place you are going to try something and then try something else and then try something else. How many times does the water break and they have to fix it? It’s all trial and error.
Did you get a chance to watch Jungle Town?
Gray: Jungle town wasn’t exactly a fair judgement of what it was. You would have to do a five year or more segment just in my opinion. There’s no way to get a snapshot of it in one semester they’re always changing and always getting better.
Advice for future interns?
Gray: Something I would tell the interns is don’t take it too seriously like yes you are coming for an environmentally sustainble driven internship but you are here to grow and work hard and the harder you work the more you get out of it. Kalu Yala does prepare you very well for life you have to work hard but that’s what Kalu Yala is all about we all just have to do our best and it will all come back around,
Kalu yala in one word?
Gray: Freeing. Free to be who you are, free to do what you want. Free to work as hard as you can without fear of failure. Be free and get as much out of it as you want.
Interested in learning more? Visit our homepage! https://kaluyala.com