In the end, travel is not just about ticking off the boxes and seeing as many places as possible ... much as I've treasured my new experiences and locations this year ... it is more about the wonderful people you meet along the way.
For the past two weeks, I have been a student at the Habla Ya school in Boquete, Panama, improving my Spanish in a place which is just as wet as Ireland at this time of year. They have an excellent website, www.hablayapanama.com
It's fair to say that a few years ago I would not have been too keen on the place. There is virtually no night life, apart from a gem of a pub called Zanzibar and a couple of local rough spots, and the heavens open almost every day from May to December.
Yet I had an incredible experience, living in the home of Pucho and Rita, who welcomed me like a brother and made me feel right at home from day one when I knocked back beers with Pucho and Rita's two brothers into the early hours.
I got to see how hard these people work, getting up at 5 a.m. seven days a week, in order to provide a better future for their sons.
And, despite my limited grasp of Spanish, I got to treasure the Saturday night sessions on the terrace in which we would swap stories about our lives and families, and enjoy traditional Panamanian dishes such as 'sao', an extremely fattening dish which goes very well with cerveza.
One of the brothers, Rafa, lost his 37-year old wife, suddenly, in March of this year and is bringing up his seven year old daughter, Genesis, on his own. Well, not quite, because he has the support of a wonderful extended family and has lived with his mum and sister since March, because he cannot face the pain of going back to his home.
Saturday was my birthday, and I was due to move out of their home. But they insisted that I stay on so that I could celebrate with them. They didn't want me heading off to a hostal on my own.
What can I say about such incredibly warm people, except that all of us experience pain at some stage in our lives? And that I was taken aback by how keen they were to make me feel at home? Sharing my life with them for two and a half weeks was an incredible experience, and I will always treasure the three Saturday night sessions I enjoyed right outside my room.
In Boquete, I was lucky enough to have a private class with the lovely Leydis for two weeks. She gets up at 4.30 every day in the city of David in order to be at school on time. They fight so hard to earn a standard of living we take for granted in Ireland, and yet they don't complain.
All of the staff at Habla Ya were lovely and I was so glad I stayed for two weeks rather than the one I had originally planned. The place was very quiet, but I befriended a half-dozen wonderful students, mainly from the USA, and we planned outings together such as a morning at the Caldera hot springs.
In Boquete, which is over 1,000 metres above sea level, it tends to pour rain every afternoon. Which is why the classes take place at Habla Ya from 1 to 5.30 p.m. during 'invierno' (their winter).
The place has been colonised to some extent by American retirees, some of whom make no effort to integrate, and yet the locals were incredibly friendly during my stay of almost three weeks in their town.
Sunny mornings were spent on lovely three or four hour walks, there is a huge circuit of lovely roads and pathways all around the mountains and hills of Boquete, even though I never made it to the summit of Volcan Baru, Panama's highest peak.
I might have felt a little lonely, but for the friendship of Danish couple Marie and Jakob, who like me are on a journey of discovery, but with two and five year old daughters on tow.
Real estate agent Tamara, child psychologist Kristyn, and Boston sisters Jodie and Kolie reminded me of how friendly North Americans can be, as I have met very few people from their part of the world during my travels through Thailand, Malaysia, and Spain this year.
So the morning walks were spectacular, and my Spanish came on no end, but ultimately I will remember Boquete for the warmth of a family who treated me as one of their own.
One of them, Ronald, wondered whether I was lonely spending my birthday with Panamanians so far from home. Well, to be honest, I've felt lonelier during heavy drinking sessions at home in Galway pubs.
The rain was a pain, but the magic of the people I met ensured that I left Boquete today (the day after my birthday) with wonderful memories of the place . . . Oh, and a new family of Panamanians who have introduced me to the delights of barbecued chorizo in the early hours!
Ayudante Profile #5: Concepcion
2 months ago