I was only just getting settled onto the plane when I began to have a sinking feeling that I was in over my head. The voice over the intercom told me in fluent Spanish just how unprepared I was for the journey I was about to embark on, convincing me of what I already felt I knew. My three years of college Spanish were not going to prepare me for a semester in the Republic of Panama.
My training in Spanish had earned me a minor, any my LonelyPlanet guide book assured me that English was spoken nearly as widely as Spanish, though I was fairly sure it was overstating just a tad. My school would be in English, but I hadn't yet been assigned a dorm, nor did I know anyone who would be attending. I was leaving everything and everyone I knew behind for four months.
Getting off the plane was worse. Passing through customs was something I'd never done in my own language, let alone one I didn't know. Still, I was excited. Here was my chance to truly learn this new language. Signs were like those I was used to from home, only the Spanish was listed first instead of in the fine print. This I could get used to! As long as I could make it through Customs.
To my very flustered relief, I found that the customs officials didn't need to speak to me at all, so long as I had filled out all the paperwork, so I went to grab my suitcase and pass on through. A metal detector later, and I was free to go out into the terminal and was hit by a wall of balmy air that quickly turned quite simply hot as I searched for the face of a program director I'd never seen before.
She was there, with a glittery sign stating that she was there to pick us up. Apparently there were four of us coming in on the flight from Miami, and one who had arrived on a flight from Costa Rica earlier in the day. "You know, you're the first person I've ever seen to come with only one suitcase!" she exclaimed. I tried to bite back panic, "Well, I packed another one inside." She agreed that it was, in fact, a good idea, and suggested I go wait with my Costa Rican compatriot, and I did. "He's got a surf board," she said, "You'll see him."
It wasn't much of a stretch to believe he'd be easy to find. This was by far the smallest airport I'd seen, except for the small municipal airport near my home. And find him I did, without much of a stretch. We chatted while the other girls met up with our leader, then we loaded into an old white van, which we would quickly learn to love as a main mode of transit for any kind of group trip, and the same style vans were used as buses for cross-country travel, though this van's life had certainly seen a lot less action than those.
This was the beginning of an experience like no other, where I learned a bit more Spanish than I ever thought I'd know. I made friends I never thought I'd have. And I created a history I can never forget. The hardest part was stepping off of that plane. The rest? The rest is history.
Of course, that's what everyone says. And when I was getting onto that plane, all I wanted was to hear more than those trite words of encouragement. If I heard one more person tell me it was the "time of their life" or an "unforgettable experience" I thought I might scream.
I wanted someone to tell me how things went, how they met new people, and the things they saw. It's just that those other parts are so hard to detail out. You meet new people in much the same way you meet all new people, but the only bond you may find you have with the people on the program is that you're all in it together. Often, that can prove to be enough.
Things work out, and you all work together. One of my most memorable experiences was trying with the help of 3 girls and a Spanish-English electronic translator to explain where we were going. We must have found the only cabbie in the whole city that didn't know where we were trying to go, but we got there eventually.
I can't say that there was any one thing that made this such a unique experience, but the top thing I remember is that we all had to work together to get where we were going. That's the kind of thing that can help to create bonds and friendships and truly bring people together.
So, if you want to know what all the buzz is about, you'll have to jump in and give it a try for yourself. Any experiences you have will be uniquely yours, and you'll never lose them. Why not give it a go?
Jennifer Smith writes for several travel websites, and spent a semester studying in the Republic of Panama and finishing a degree in writing at Florida State University.