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A journal of social practice & professional engagement for the Antioch community

Life and Lessons in Panamá: Zuniga ’22 at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest

Everyday I wake up ready to take on a new task here at Mount Totumas. I’m a volunteer here in the Panamanian Cloud Forest, always ready to help move the project here forward. They have a huge coffee project here, along with a couple others, and the coffee will keep growing in greater numbers as the years go by. This year it was projected that we will have harvested, dried, and roasted, a little over 2,000 pounds of coffee.

I work closely with the indigenous community here and everyday we teach our languages to each other. We talk to each other about our cultures and families, interests, food, anything to help the time go by. Some of us even play fútbol in our spare time. It seems we’re always trading words and phrases to help us communicate with each other better. Lots of laughs, and we’re all very grateful to be working in such a beautiful place. I couldn’t imagine a better place to practice my Spanish. This, so far, has been an incredible cultural and language immersion experience.

 One thing that I have been taught here is to not over examine my life. It’s easy to reminisce and poke holes in our stories, and possibly even regret or stress over past events. The people that surround me are always present and content, it’s amazingly inspiring. Busy, but not stressed. And if stress is there, it is handled maturely, to the best of everyone’s ability. We’re all in this together. The attitudes of the people here seem to have rubbed off on me. My perceived problems that I either have had, or that arise, have deflated tremendously. I can’t help but feel inspired to be and do more since I’ve been out here. Not to sound too mystical, but the energy here IS real, and it has been having a serious effect on my well-being and presence of mind. It’s been easier to choose the thoughts that I want since I’ve been here, but I still have plenty of room to grow. 

The culture here is vastly different from what you can find in the U.S., to say the least. Integrity is the name of the game here when it comes to community relations and even employer-employee relations. For example, say your neighbor’s barn breaks down and you supply wood, labor and other supplies to repair it. There is an equilibrium between the neighbor’s hearts that is felt, and it is desired to maintain balance as much as they are able to. So then the neighbor that received assistance will supply corn, or offer one of their livestock or anything to make the relationship between the two feel balanced once more. Many countries, especially in more rural and agricultural areas even beyond Latin America depend on this principal, it was translated to me as an internal debt. Since government aid can be sparse or non-existent community relations are huge. And I get to see just how important it is to practice that integrity for a good beyond individuals and individual communities. 

The rawness of nature here is profound. We are 8 degrees north of the equator, so the tropical ecology offers immense diversity in plants, animals, birds, and insects. From east and west we sit about thirty-five miles from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Carribean winds combined with the drier pacific winds demonstrate a variety of weather patterns that can be both exciting and overwhelming. The pressure differences between the two oceans, the pacific having much less, is what mainly draws the clouds over the continental divide, and over us. We are in a constant battle with the weather since the coffee drying process greatly depends on the beaming sun. Learning to work with, and adapt with, what has been given has also been an important lesson here. My spirit feels more adaptable, malleable even, to the inevitable change and progress of life. 

Along with growing coffee, there are also prolific green houses here that supply truly hard-earned, organic food to the people up here. I’ve subdivided plants, prepared and planted ornamental clippings, prepared seed beds, planted a variety of vegetables, transplanted germinated seeds to larger pots, and much more. (can’t list jobs forever) Working in the greenhouses has given me great appreciation for botany, horticulture, as well as the resilience and flexibility of life. 

To support the overall operation here. Mount Totumas also has tapped into the tourist’s dollar. Renting out cabins and lodging guests is a significant source of income. However, this is a means to support what they do here. Mount Totumas wants to be a small and simple natural haven for the few that are up here, and those that come to visit. The road to get up the mountain isn’t paved for a reason (it is EXTREMELY bumpy). Nearly every guest that does come, is impacted deeply and very grateful. The suspicion is that it would lose its simple family run charm if it was to be a larger tourist attraction. Nevertheless, it is still a highly sought after destination. Thankfully with limited space. 


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