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Panama trip gives students lasting memories

The Wider Horizons students cruised the Panama Canal and spent a day with a tribe of Embara Indians.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000

Beautiful rain forests, flowing rivers and friendly natives: These are the things one may encounter on a trip to the Panamanian wilderness. Ten students from Wider Horizons School certainly did, and they contend those experiences and many more in the Central American country made the trip worth their while.

The students, who spent eight days in an adventurous exploration of the tropical country that connects the two Americas, returned with memories that they say will last a lifetime.

"It was pretty fantastic," 13-year old Shemir Wiles said. "No two parts of the country are really alike. Everywhere you go, it's very different."

For the past several years, school founders Domenick and Julie Maglio have organized an annual spring trip as a getaway for their students. Journeys have taken them to several European countries as well as South America. This year, the Maglios decided on Panama, partly because of its natural beauty but also for its historical significance.

"We were curious to see what the country was like now that Americans no longer have control of the canal," Maglio said. "It turned out that Americans are very much missed down there now."

Indeed, the students claimed that they were welcomed everywhere.

"You never saw anyone not smile when you told them you were an American," senior Evelyn Luna said. Luna, who traveled with the school group to Venezuela last year, said the two cultures are vastly different.

"You got the feeling that people in Panama have it a little better than the people in Venezuela," she said. "The houses are nicer in the cities; people drive newer cars. And they really enjoy talking to people from other countries."

The Maglios decided not to hire a tour guide for the trip. Instead, they relied on their experience as world travelers as well as on curiosity. The unbeaten path often took them to places they might never have seen on a guided tour.

The group spent a day in the company of a tribe of Embara Indians, who dwell in the jungle terrain about 50 miles from Panama City. The natives welcomed the students and were eager to show them how they lived.

"It was neat because they lived very simply but were very happy," seventh-grader Ryan Browning said. The Embara proved to be quite hospitable. They beckoned their visitors to stay for a dinner of chicken and rice and later entertained them with an evening of native dancing. They even showed them varieties of poisonous tropical frogs that some native tribes use for hunting.

Side trips took the students to small villages along the southern coast of the country. A highlight of the weeklong journey came with a visit to the Panama Canal zone. Built early in the 20th century,the canal links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and as a major shipping lane, has helped to shape the country into an important international spoke of commerce.

The student group visited the main museum that houses the many artifacts that were once part of the canal project. They even cruised through the huge locks (which took 12 hours to navigate) on their way to the eastern end of the country.

"You couldn't help but be impressed," Maglio said. "I think (the students) came away with a sense of awe and wonder they hopefully won't ever forget."

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