How “Going With The Flow” Inspired This Volunteer In Bocas Del Toro

“I knew almost nothing about what I was getting into on Bocas Del Toro.”

Ryan Western Give & Surf 2
Photo: Ryan Western/Give & Surf

I woke up during my first morning and was directed to a water taxi that would take me to an island from which the school bus water taxi would pick me up. I did not know whom I was to meet, what they looked like, or where I was going immediately or afterwards. The bottom line? I knew almost nothing about what I was getting into on Bocas Del Toro. But it seemed that Bocas somehow knew me. The people, the culture, and this amazing program all combined to form an experience for me that was guided by the shared passions of all involved both for social impact and adventure.

“Ryan!” I’d heard a voice shout above the loud boat motors as I sat on a seemingly random dock after having been dropped there by the water taxi. I looked up to see a bright blue and yellow boat being driven by a man with an even brighter smile that was waving to me as he approached. As his was one of the warmest personalities I have ever encountered, I shall not easily forget that moment when he picked me up and asked me “Are you ready to go with the flow?” Of course I had nothing else to go with so I said yes.

From there, we went from island to island, and village to village, calling out the names of the children who were supposed to attend school and come aboard our wonderful floating school bus. When we were only able to coerce a few of the kids to come, learning along the way that school was to start a day later this term, we took the children we did have over to the school simply to play. Once again, we had to “go with the flow” and be patient, as we could not begin teaching that day. A shocking contrast I was able to very plainly observe is the presence of a yacht dock that exists but 500 meters from the school and one of the more rural villages. The juxtaposition of million dollar yachts floating next to the palm-roofed huts of the closest village was a bit hard to swallow at first, though I was told the yard served as great entertainment for curious kids that explored under and around these massive things.

Ryan Western Give & Surf Bocas del Toro
Photo: Ryan Western/Give & Surf

The next day we had a bit more luck! We collected literally a boatload of the most energetic, coordinated, yet apprehensive towards me, children I have ever encountered. At first, the kids avoided my gaze and clung to their regular teachers with obvious affection, though I did catch a curious gaze here and there. Little did I know all I had to do in order to gain their trust was to act as a human playground! As mentioned, these were some of the most coordinated and physically daring children I have ever seen. They would jump and climb on things that I never thought a human would consider traversing, including other humans! I quickly learned to constantly engage my core as I often found myself the final landing destination for several of their climbing endeavors, whether or not I was both willing or aware! Going with the flow of these kids was an utterly exhausting pleasure!

When it came to the academic side of their schooling, I once again found that going with the flow was the best and the most effective method. Although I had my own idea of how I thought the children would learn best, as well as appropriate levels of pushing them in terms of rigor, I soon realized I had to empty my mind of such notions. To my surprise, the physically resilient kids that grow up with so little are indeed extremely mentally and emotionally sensitive. The best way to push them to learn was not to demand their attention or their effort but to patiently coax it from them with repetition and perseverance. So much energy in one room is difficult to control and I was forced to reset myself several times and be reminded that if I pushed them too hard or in the wrong way, I risk scaring them from returning to school the next day. So going with their mental and emotional flow was imperative, and something that took me about a full day to truly appreciate in the classroom.

Ryan Western Give & Surf Bocas del Toro
Photo: Ryan Western/Give & Surf

Outside of the classroom during recess, the flow of Bocas Del Toro once again dictates how the day goes. Being subject to short but heavy monsoons throughout the day recess could be inside or outside, though we often hoped it was outside due to the balls of bursting energy surrounding us! After school was over, we would drop the kids off at their respective locations and depending on where the school boat was headed then, that was where we were headed too! Whether it was the mainland, or back to the volunteer house, or to go pick up certain people, that was where we went and would likely be eating our long awaited lunch!

After lunch we had the day to ourselves, time to reflect and explore, going where the Bocas winds would take us. For me, that meant taking surfing lessons, hiking to the cocoa factory and exploring the bat caves! The coordination of life and timing on Bocas is unlike anything I have ever experienced, in the sense that there is very little structure – something I am highly used to coming from Boston. But this lack of structure allowed me to live life in a different way. Even though everything was done extremely casually, it did get done, just in a different way than I have ever known. In fact, this way was wonderful and effective in the sense that I was able to have my eyes open through it all. I had the time and the mindset to truly notice my surroundings, and the colorful culture of Bocas del Toro is a beautiful thing to witness.

Going with the flow of such an amazing culture and such a dedicated program was ultimately more fulfilling than if I had attempted to go at my own or control any type of pacing. For the week I was down there, I learned how truly pleasurable and beneficent patience and flexibility can be simply in terms of taking in and navigating one’s surroundings. Had Bocas not thrust that mindset on me immediately, or if I had tried to fight it, I am not sure my experiences would have been nearly as enjoyable. Getting to live that lifestyle was a privilege and reminded me that sometimes it is not structure that allows us to thrive and succeed but rather it is each other and taking the times simply to get to know one another.

At Give and Surf, you get to know the other volunteers and the children in a way that goes beyond superficial connections because of how you are able to interact with them in that environment. And surprisingly, you also get to know yourself in a different light. I went outside of my comfort zone ultimately, not because I have never lived in more rural settings but because my life is engrained in structure and schedules. In Bocas, my life became engrained in people rather than these things. I cannot remember a time that was so fulfilling as my rich experiences at Give and Surf in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

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