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“All journeys have secret destinations, of which the traveler is unaware.”

Martin Buber

Carsten just returned from a 3-week stay in El Valle – a small town located in the flat, wide caldera of an inactive volcano in Panama.

In the weeks leading up to his trip, we all had certain visions of how it would go, and what Carsten would get out of it. They mostly went something like this:

panama beach image

and this:

learning spanish image

You can probably guess which vision belonged to whom.

The thing – both good and bad – about travel, is that you just never really know what might happen. Even with the most carefully laid plans, things don’t always go as you might expect (as we have learned!), and you can never fully anticipate some of the things that might surprise you.

Here are a few of the surprises that Carsten shared with us:

Observation #1:

“There sure is a lot of Spanish down here.” There’s a lot of Spanish-speaking folk in Panama? Really? You don’t say!

Observation #2:

“I can’t understand what they’re saying!”

Two years of junior high Spanish is definitely not enough to get you to “fluent.” Eating dinner with folks who only speak Spanish will definitely help you, though.

Observation #3:

“You really have to pay attention when you’re shopping here!” Carsten bought some milk, which he used to make oatmeal. The oatmeal had an odd taste, and upon further inspection, he discovered that the milk was past its expiration date. He started paying closer attention to the expiry dates on food at the grocery, and he noticed that there were often several items that were past their sell-by date.  Yes, the world at large does not necessarily adhere to the same standards you find at home, and it is good for you to learn that.

Observation #4:

If you go to McDonald’s and want a McChicken sandwich, you have to order a McPollo, or a McPollo Crispy. (See “Observation #1)

Observation #5:

You can’t really blend in with the Panamanians when you are tall, blonde and fair-skinned. Of course, when 6-foot+ Dutch teenagers on holiday from Amsterdam show up in town, you become much less of a novelty, and you stand out just a little bit less.

We also had our own surprises:

#1: Homesickness

For the first time ever, Carsten was actually homesick. He’s been away from home, without us, several times before, but something about being 2300+ miles away without your parents was different. Learning how to manage that, and to work through it, is a good experience to have. It may have been the first time he experienced homesickness, but it most likely won’t be the last.

#2: Carsten’s host remarked to us in an email that, “it is funny how trouble seems to find him.” As his mother for 14.5 years, this is not news to me.

In three weeks, he experienced:

1 – bout of a 24-hour stomach bug

1 – very itchy, spreading rash of unknown origin

2 – jellyfish stings

2 – visits to a doctor

2 – anti-itch creams

1 – shot

1 – near-brush with a highly poisonous caterpillar that could have landed him in the hospital

I’m pretty sure much of these points contributed to the homesickness. However, all is well now, and he is fully recovered.

#3: Travel can change you in the most unexpected of ways.

We had hoped that this experience would teach him a little bit of personal responsibility, but we did not expect him to say:

“I washed all my own dishes every day by hand.” (Wait. What?? Who are you?)

Nor could I ever have anticipated the following exchange:

While out shopping the day after Carsten’s return, I got a text from Noel asking me to bring home some broccoli and green beans because Carsten requested them. My response: LOL…..stop messing with me.

Then, to prove that he really truly did request the vegetables, Carsten texted me a voice memo, asking me to pick up some vegetables for dinner that night. (What??? OK, I don’t even know you any more.)

And that evening, as I’m steaming some green beans and am just about to ask who are you and what have you done with my kid, Carsten says this: “You guys, you have no idea how terrible the WIFI is in Panama. It is SO much better here…I mean, it would take, like, 30 seconds just to send a text message! I missed good WIFI SOOOOO much.”

Ah. Yes. There he is. Changed a bit, but not completely.

I did not mention that one of our other “visions” for what this experience would bring would be for Carsten to develop more of a sense of appreciation for what he has. Looks like Mission Accomplished.