My Unforgettable Experience Volunteering In Bocas del Toro

It’s hard to express in words what I consider the best experience of my life, but I’ll give it a try!

Carolina Gonçalves Give and Surf volunteers

Last summer I decided to jump out of my comfort zone and do something completely different. So, after a few days of research I found the perfect adventure for me: Give & Surf – a cool mix between surfing and volunteering with kids in Panama, a place that I had never been. Little did I know I was about to embark on the most amazing adventure ever!

By the time I landed at Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas del Toro, I had no idea of what to expect or what I was going to find. Drew, the volunteer coordinator, picked me up at the airport and escorted me by boat to the volunteers’ house. It is hard to describe the way from Bocas to Bastimentos, but try to imagine a boat made of wood gliding along warm, clear blue waters surrounded by wild islands—pretty much like paradise. After a 15-minute ride we arrived at the house located in the middle of the jungle, sort of like a big wooden tree house with a sloth living in front.

Carolina Gonçalves Give and Surf volunteer playground

Nature can be sublime!

My routine began the next day. Waking up at 7AM to the most peaceful setting, I had breakfast right by the sea and jumped in the boat to pick up the kids at their homes and take them to school. This was one of my favorite moments of the day. I felt lucky to feel the warm wind on my face early in the morning and watch dolphins swim in the river, which we saw all the time, and witness the untouched nature of Bocas. At each stop, we greet the happy faces of all the kids waiting for us at the pier, their faces overflowing with excitement as we take them to school.

Carolina Gonçalves Give and Surf volunteer kids

The most heart touching episode of my experience was when we dropped the kids back home after school and one of the kids, Mayrisbeth, had forgotten her ice cream on the boat (the so-called “duros”, which is frozen water sweetened with fruit flavoring). Mayrisbeth was standing on the wooden pier waiting for Eddie, the boat driver, to come back, while I was standing in front of the boat holding her ice cream. Somehow the boat made a sudden movement, I dropped the ice cream and it sank to the bottom of the sea. I felt like I had dropped a precious treasure, lost forever in the deep ocean because I knew how much she loved that coconut sorbet and it was probably her favorite meal of the day. I stared at Mayrisbeth’s face, as she stood alone on that pier with her hand extended towards me, and I could see how sad she was for not having the duro anymore. But then she looked at me, smiled and said, “It’s okay! Don’t worry!”. The expression on her face will be stuck in my mind forever; the genuine happiness and simplicity of those kids is unbelievable (of course, the day after I bought duros for everyone!).

At school we had lots of fun with those overactive kids, reading them stories, playing soccer, teaching them songs and playing games. They only get to see each other at school, so sometimes it’s hard to handle all of them together! But it was amazing to see how excited they were when they saw each other and it was great to see just how well behaved they were saying ‘buenos días!’ every time they entered the boat (thanks to Melissa’s effort!).

Carolina Gonçalves Give and Surf volunteer class


Carolina Gonçalves Give and Surf volunteer brushing teeth

We usually had lunch near the school, a meal prepared by local people, which always included ‘patacones’ (a kind of fried banana) that I had never tried before and is now one of my favorite side dishes! In the afternoon, Drew took us to surf all the time. The waves were well suited for my intermediate level but also great for beginners, especially since the water was really warm, so we could surf for like 3 hours or more! We snorkeled in some beautiful reefs, went spear fishing, hiked, visited bat caves and did an amazing zip-line in the middle of the jungle! And beside all of this, I’ve made life-long friends and had a blast exploring Bocas on our free time and during our weekends. It is for sure the most beautiful and magical place I’ve been to so far.

Thank you Give & Surf!

Give & Surf volunteer Carolina

Article written by CAROLINA GONCALVES, Volunteer at Give & Surf.

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