Learning Lessons from the Jungle

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on February 12, 2018, No Comments

Waking up to find a venomous snake in your sleeping quarters might be enough to make most people rethink their internship in a remote village in the Panama jungle.

But for East Stroudsburg University senior Olivia Hollister it was all part of what made her adventure abroad last fall “life-changing.”

Hollister, who is majoring in communication with concentrations in broadcasting and media studies, spent 10 weeks interning at an experimental community called Kalu Yala that is trying to become self-sustaining.

“Basically, it’s a startup company,” said Hollister, who comes from Richboro, Pa. “They’re trying to build this self-sustainable town out in the middle of the jungle.”

Her job was working in media, which included creating podcasts and writing stories for Kalu Yala’s startup magazine.

Hollister and other interns slept in hammocks in open-air quarters, which is where she encountered the snake.

“The first or second day that I was there, I got up in the middle of the night to fill up my water bottle,” Hollister said. “It’s pitch black so I had this little head lamp on. I turn around and maybe five feet away from where everyone was sleeping in our hammocks, there’s this coiled up snake. I don’t know why I don’t really get scared of these things, but I probably should.”

She woke up someone sleeping nearby who had some expertise with such species.

“He said, ‘Oh my goodness Olivia, that’s a fer-de-lance, which could kill a small child. You need to go alert the staff,’” she recalls.

She did just that and a biology professor came and caught the snake and later drew venom from its fangs to make an anti-venom, Hollister said.

But living among exotic wildlife had its benefits too. Early on Hollister came to love the numerous monkeys that were her neighbors.

“I would wake up at 6 a.m. and there would be little howler monkeys crawling through the trees,” she said. “That was my favorite start of the day.”

The interns and staff ate mostly vegetarian meals prepared by local chefs using produce from the within the community and eggs from a flock of chickens. During time off Hollister loved taking hikes and swimming in the local swimming holes on the property which bordered the 319,000-acre Chagres National Park.

“I had never been in that part of the world before,” she said. “It was a lot of culture shock immediately. Even on the drive from the airport to the [Kalu Yala] base house at the little town of San Miguel, it’s just like something out of a book. The scenery there is so beautiful, it’s so green.”

Working with interns and staff from around the world, Hollister learned to trust them and herself when challenges arose. She was there during the jungle’s rainy season and at times the community’s solar panels would lose power. That’s when the interns would have to load up their equipment and hike to the Kalu Yala base house two miles away just to do their work. It was a lesson in resourcefulness.

In one essay for a Kalu Yala blog, she wrote: “I’m not relying on a phone or laptop to do my problem solving for me, I’m out here in the jungle working it out myself. Rather than turning to a screen for answers, I turn towards my peers and program directors for knowledge acquired through their own personal experiences and in turn people also come to me.”

Directors at the community would give talks about issues such as global warming and sustainable agriculture, which made Hollister more conscious of her own consumption and assumptions.

“The jungle knocked me down off the privileged platform I was viewing the world from my whole life,” Hollister wrote. “It broke me down and humbled me… I have learned to question my every action, as I ask, ‘Is this bettering the world?’ or ‘Why am I consuming this?’”

“It’s just really made me conscious of the impact we have on the environment,” she said. “Now I try to buy only fruits that are in season. I try to buy from local farmers because it helps the immediate community and it’s much better for the world.”

Before Hollister arrived at Kalu Yala, Viceland TV filmed some episodes of a show called “Jungletown” about Kalu Yala, and some interns were disgruntled about the way the community was run. Hollister acknowledges the controversy but says that wasn’t her experience at all.

“It was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” she said.