A summer off the grid

Third-year student spends summer internship in Panama living off land


While numerous University students accepted internships in a wide range of fields this past summer, most did not learn how to sharpen machetes on their first day. For third-year Architecture student Madeleine Partridge, however, it was a must.

Partridge spent her summer working off the grid in Panama with an internship through Kalu Yala Independent Study Abroad and Entrepreneurial Internships, living entirely off the land she helped develop. Kalu Yala is a sustainable community built in a valley 45 minutes outside of Panama City.

“With architecture, I [knew I] wouldn’t have a lot of time to study abroad,” Partridge said. “An internship abroad was perfect.”

Throughout the year, the company hosts more than 60 interns in either Panama City, San Miguel or Kalu Yala. Interns hail from a variety of academic disciplines, including business development, health and wellness, agriculture, forestry and culinary arts.

Initially, Partridge notes, living without Internet, refrigeration, electricity and even solid walls was a definite culture shock.

“Your headlight was your best asset,” she said. “You wouldn’t let anyone borrow your headlight, because that was the only way you could get around for half of the day.”

Partridge’s typical day involved waking up at 9 a.m. and farming until the afternoon. Then, the interns were free to develop entrepreneurial ideas and assist others, once even using a sledgehammer to build a fish pond.

“[The project] was in the beginning stages of development, so basically anything we imagined, we created,” Partridge said.

Other than the dramatic climate and wildlife, Partridge had to grow accustomed to a lack of communication with the outside world. To access internet, she had to hike five kilometers over a mountain and board a bus.

“During the [first] two weeks, I’d write people letters by hand,” Partridge said. “Once I got into the city, I’d take pictures of them on my phone and email them out because I was craving interaction [with familiar people].”

Partridge thoroughly enjoyed living on the land after her period of adjustment, however.

“It was so peaceful that thinking of the outside world was actually more overwhelming than our own little world,” she said.

The interns quickly formed a tight community. On July 4, because most of the interns were American, they all celebrated together by recreating parts of their home traditions.

“We had fireworks on the roof and then walked along the boardwalk,” Partridge said. “There was some real community.”

For Partridge, returning to the United States created more anxiety than entering Panama. On a recent drive, she realized “there were so many cars, there were sirens, there was traffic,” she said. “We lived so simply [in Panama]. Our lives were so full and we were so content where we were.”

Back at the University, Partridge has continued to design elements for sustainable communities, while also recycling more frequently, composting and spending more time outside. Partridge said her time spent in Panama remolded her life outlook.

“All my possessions were in two backpacks and I had two little hooks to hang them on,” she said. “We were so happy living off the land and being together.”

Partridge is currently in contact with a hospital in Ethiopia and hopes to obtain a research grant to assist in developing its sustainability initiatives next summer.

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