Alum Shane Peterson Breaks Down the Good and the Bad at Kalu Yala

Alumni Breaks Down the Good, Bad and Everything in Between on Kalu Yala

An Interview with Shane Peterson


          It’s the Summer of 2016 and sun is flooding into a secluded valley in Panama on what will be another hot, jungle day in Kalu Yala. Pots and pans are clanging against one another in the kitchen and people gather for some conversation over morning coffees. Shane Peterson greets the morning with a groovy dance along the boardwalk from his rancho to the breakfast tables. His unique taste in music pours through his headphones so loudly they might as well be speakers. He’s a contagiously happy individual with an education aimed towards sustainability and a passion for the outdoors. He currently resides in northern Michigan where he works to solve environmental problems as a conservation engineer.

          We recently caught up with Shane two years after his semester at Kalu Yala to reflect on and review his experience there and its impact on him since. Shane worked hard to create a greywater system in the valley that could recycle waste water for the community members. Shane had some good times, some hard times, and everything in between during his time there. Here is Shane Peterson’s Kalu Yala story.


            What do you think people should absolutely know about Kalu Yala that you got out of it?

Peterson: That’s a tough one, I guess it would be more of how to bring the Kalu Yala life home. In my Ag program we talked a lot about what we learned about and how Kalu Yala isn’t a lifestyle most people are ever going to go back to. So, it’s just kind of jumping from one extreme to another when you head home so knowing how to take it home is crucial.

What was your one big take away or change?

Peterson: A big takeaway was simply how to live more consciously. To think about each decision you make and the choices that you used to make. Whether it’s recycling or composting or just being kind to one another because you know it’s kind of like karma for lack of a better term. I mean in a small community like Kalu Yala if you were nice to everyone, nobody had a reason to be unkind to you. It’s just kind of like ‘what goes around comes around’ I guess, so just living more consciously and thinking more about all your decisions-what you eat, what you waste, and how you interact with your community.

Did you have a hard time integrating the experiences and beliefs you developed at Kalu Yala back home?

Peterson: Yeah, I did. I don’t think I approached it the right way because obviously I came back all excited. I changed. I was a new person and I don’t know about you but I grew up in suburban Detroit where we lived in a subdivision and everyone had green lawns and two trees and everything was the same and everybody lived by these certain rules. I was just trying to preach to like my parents and sister especially “You’re doing this wrong! And you are doing this wrong,” and I didn’t really know how to integrate the message into people who didn’t have any sense off knowing anything I had just gone through. I was just trying so so hard to get my message across for people back home, but those days were short lived because five days after being home I moved to an organic farm for work. It was a little more conscious and similar to Kalu Yala and I just learned to kind of lead by example.

Your thoughts on the docuseries featuring Kalu Yala?

Peterson: “This is going to be sweet, you’ll get to see where I lived and what I did and the atmosphere at Kalu Yala,” but about two or three episodes in it started getting a reality TV feel to me. They just made it super drama filled, and that made me feel shame in a way. It was unfortunately tainting my memories because it brought out most of the negative aspects but didn’t highlight all the great, bright stuff about Kalu Yala. Most of those great moments being those awesome conversations you were having sort of behind the scenes with people-ya know, by the Rio or while working or late at night-and maybe that was hard to cover but I would’ve liked to see that. It just wasn’t how I remember it, it was just a TV show, not an accurate documentary in my opinion.

How did you eventually learn to explain your experience to family and friends?

Peterson: It was hard because I tried to put it in lamest terms for a lot of people and not just use those buzzwords like I don’t know sustainable for example. Basically, I just put it as a bunch of like-minded individuals who were trying to find their path and who all happened to be environmentally conscious. And that there was a very strong sense of community, too, where we all bonded very strongly through struggle and adaptation. Then I would also explain that it wasn’t exactly an internship, it was more of an overall learning experience. It was like one giant life lesson. (I’m sorry I’m talking so much I just have a lot to say). I know that I personally got more than a classroom and work alone could offer, I just got so much out of talking to the people-oh, and from their book recommendations-and Farmer John [my Agriculture Program Director]. He’s a smart dude.

There’s a lot of confusion whether it is an internship, a study abroad program or an overall educational experience, what would you describe it most as?

Peterson: Pretty much the latter there. Hands on educational with discussion-based topics. I mean it varies program to program. In the agricultural program we would have discussions, lessons, and then put it all into action and collaboratively design projects as well as solo projects, so I mean it’s hard to give it a specific name. I think it almost needs its own category. It’s not a conventional internship.

Is that a good or bad thing that It varied so far from a traditional internship?

Peterson: I think it’s a good thing. My very first [job] interview, I would say about 90% of my time was spent talking about Kalu Yala and my experience. Everybody and anybody finds it interesting. You just have to explain your experience in the right way and how it affected your professional and life experience.

So would you mind getting a little bit in depth about your project?

Peterson: Sure, definitely-so I worked on a constructive wetland for greywater treatment, specifically for bathroom purposes. Greywater is basically waste water that doesn’t have solids in it. Whereas blackwater is more like sewage and septic, greywater is more of that soapy water from showers and sinks. So, with two other interns, we designed aesthetically pleasing ponds, and it was a series of three ponds that had aquatic plants in them that effectively filtered out the high nutrient loading that was in that waste water and it would also stored that water. It was meant to save water for the dry season as well and be used as irrigation water. That project was pretty cool because I got some firsthand survey experience which I use at my job all the time now. I got to survey the land, draw up a topographic map, then design the size of the pond needed to treat the water for the amount of residents at Kalu Yala. We used an excavator from a neighboring farmer and had the whole community fill it with sub-grade rocks and materials. It was actually one of the biggest engineering projects to date according to Jimmy Stice [Kalu Yala’s founder]. That was before they had an engineering program so I got to work closely with Chris Kinney [the town engineer]. I think the only frustrating part was getting that follow-up after you leave Kalu Yala on how well the project has been functioning. [To answer that, yes-it is still up and running beautifully]. 

Is this something that frustrates you about the system of Kalu Yala?

Peterson: Yeah, because I get to still chat with people and talk with Jimmy here and there but I don’t really know the status of my project. Maybe they could put together some type of Facebook page or something where past interns could get updated on all of that. I mean, even if the project wasn’t sustained or used in the development of the town at least you know what’s up. I can see how it would be hard to delegate staff to maintain each and every project from each and every semester.

What was your relationship like with the staff?

Peterson: Pretty friendly, I thought. I didn’t really feel a complete division, maybe a sense of ego among a small percentage of staff members. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect them, I had the utmost respect for them but I didn’t see it as a traditional boss/employee, or higher up situation. It was more of a friendship that I had with most staff members. I wasn’t intimidated or even reporting to them, better yet I was helping them achieve a common goal so I would say it was more a comrade experience than a hierarchy.

You and Farmer John really hit it off, was that through shared passions?

Peterson: Yeah, we both had a strong passion for agriculture and sustainability and getting work done. We were both antsy people who wanted to get stuff done. So, he and I bonded a lot through that and we were similar in age and we just became buddies in addition to that.

And how about your relationship with peers? (Cough, cough)

Peterson: Ha-ha Great! I kind of went the route of trying not to engage in a romantic relationship with anyone. You could maybe sense a vibe of you know going away to camp and there’s these cute girls and not as many guys so there’s those odds. But yeah, I had a thing going with a girl back home so I developed a lot of great, strong friendships instead and I felt closer to some of those people more than friends I had had my whole life because we were going through something together that most people don’t go through together. I can’t believe I’m going to make this comparison, but I imagine it like people going to war. I mean, it’s not anything like war but it’s kind of a similar companionship. Your bonding through a whole new experience; it’s like a brotherhood. You don’t get a lot of privacy-you’re just surrounded by these people all the time and in it together.

What was your biggest personal challenge?

Peterson: I’d say, hm. This is going to sound so petty, but I was stressing about food. I didn’t think I was going to get enough food for the amount of work we were doing, which was a lot of labor. Looking back and seeing how I could survive and get in shape just fine I was probably being a little dramatic. Another serious struggle? There was a time I was worried where my tuition was going. I only looked at it from a bias perspective though, but I realized how out of line and misinformed I was.

What would your advice be to people who are interested in Kalu Yala or are committed to going?

Peterson: Be prepared for all elements. A lot of people that leave had a hard time handling the humidity or not having a proper shower or you know laundry. I would just warn future Kalu Yalans to be prepared to be wet and dirty. Get down, wet, and nasty people.

Is Kalu Yala sustainable?

Peterson: Do I think Kalu Yala is sustainable? Comparatively to modern society, yes, I think they are far more sustainable. But I think sustainability comes on a spectrum, it’s not black or white. So, there is things they need to work on. Environmentally I would say yes, they definitely are for the most part. 

Best memory?

Peterson: I don’t know if they do this anymore, but the first ten days you’re not allowed to have alcohol on the property, which was good because it set that professional tone and people had to kind of just come out of their shell without that safety net or numbness of having a few beers. So, one of the first bonfires we had, everyone from town was there and some people were dancing around the fire, some were just hanging out and talking, some people were looking up at the sky. I just remember looking up and you could see the milky way so clearly because you’re just so far from any light pollution like more than you could ever see anywhere in the US and you could hear all the sounds of the jungle and it was just so peaceful because you had finally reached that place that you had been building up the last couple months leading up to it. So that very first bonfire was definitely my favorite memory.

Any plans to go back to visit or work?

Peterson: Yes, and yes. Sometimes I just consider going back down to be more adventurous and carefree and live in the jungle. I haven’t followed through on any of that because of bills and loans and the situation I’ve got myself into. I fantasize about it for sure and I do plan on going back to visit eventually. A couple of my friends and I are planning an out of the country trip and as much as we all want to see a new place, I can’t help but want to go back to Panama and show my friends all of it.

Kalu Yala in one word?

Peterson: Let me think. Hm. Okay. Well. Adventurous. It’s an adventure in more ways than one. It’s a journey for people to find themselves and it’s intense and you’re in the jungle.

Last thoughts?

Peterson: Overall, it was a beneficial experience for me. It was super random actually, one of my Mom’s co-worker’s nephews called me and asked me about Kalu Yala a couple weeks ago. He just finished engineering school, so I gave him the low down and he asked me would I do it again? And I said oh yeah. It’s expensive but you cannot put a price tag on that kind of experience. I mean I don’t know how other people feel but I still think back on those days and it was some of the most fun months of my life so far. I learned so much about myself and the environment and it helped me find what I wanted to do for a living. When I finished school I had no idea, but Kalu Yala did that for me.

Shane’s Semester Group Shot Summer 2016

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