Bienvenidos a Kalu Yala

last year

By Jessica Wiegandt

Welcome to Kalu Yala

My knee bounced up and down and up and down for eight hours as I sat in the car and then on the flight from the USA to my destination in Panama City. In the car, I caught my dad shooting glances in the rearview mirror at me, surely thinking, “Am I ready to send my kid off to live in the Panamanian jungle?”

I wasn’t quite so sure, either.

From Charlotte to Miami, my row companion spoke no English. She was a wrinkled old Hispanic grandma. Whatever stereotype you just pictured, yes, that was her.

She sat next to me, smiled, and I said hello. “No ingles, lo siento,” she shrugged her shoulders in apology. I perked up. This was my chance to practice Spanish, a language I hadn’t studied in four years.

“Esta bien, hablo Español un poquito. Como están?”

“No, no… No ingles, hija,” the skin around her eyes crinkled as the purest look of apology formed on her face.

I thought to myself, “Oh no, is my Spanish that bad?”

More knee bounce.

I jolted awake as my stomach rose to my throat. The plane hit hard turbulence and dropped altitude for a second. Stabilizing my heartbeat, I shoved the window shade open to be greeted with lights wavering over the water below.


I turned. My Miami to Panama companion was a Panamanian mother, returning from a business trip. She smiled as she looked out the window, “Bienvenidos.”

No turbulence, no knee bounce, no ingles. I turned my head back to the window, feeling the grin grow. It took over slowly at first, but soon I felt my whole body relax as I looked out over my home for the next two months.

“Gracias.” At least, I think I said it out loud. Either way, Miami to Panama gave me a smile that stayed with me as I met my pickup team in the airport, as we jumped the truck battery in the parking lot, and as we left behind the city skyline that greeted me and drove into the comforting darkness one only finds in places unmarred by the pings and dings of technological life.


The very first time I walked through the gates at Kalu Yala. | Photo by Jess Wiegandt

Bienvenidos a Kalu Yala.