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Simple Holiday Trip to Panama Unexpectedly Turns into Much More for Catawba Professor

March 08, 2017

Category: Academics, Communication Arts, Events, Faculty


road_to_village.jpg"I love to become enmeshed in a culture and embrace the experience," said Catawba Communication Arts Professor Cyndi Allison Wittum. "I've lived in Greece and Japan and have visited a number of other countries, and I've always tried to stay away from the tourist meccas. If I can see it or buy it in the United States, then I'm not really interested."

With a diverse background and exposure to multiple cultures, Wittum felt that an Intercultural Communication class would provide students with opportunities to examine different cultures around the world and also to consider differences within the United States.

Wittum thought she had shifted from world traveler mode to sharing stories of different and exotic places. "I wanted Catawba College students to think about our new global environment and how we are all interconnected on various levels," said Wittum. "I knew I had a good base of experiences, and I wanted to see my students recognize different world views." She also knew that some students had never looked at other cultures or even their own which is why students are required to take a non-Western course for graduation at Catawba College.

Then, Wittum's son, Eli (2015,) relocated to Panama. Since Wittum had never visited any of the Central American countries and since she wanted to celebrate Christmas with her younger son, she, her older son Caleb, and brother Matthew Allison, got together and worked out the details. "That was a little complicated, since we all live in different states," said Wittum.

Many are surprised that Panama is on the same time schedule as the eastern coast of North Carolina. That was good news, but the flights out were all scheduled early over the holidays. "We got up around 3 a.m.," said Wittum. "I was so excited that I didn't even try to sleep."

view_from_hospital.jpgAfter an eight-hour delay in Miami, the Allison/Wittum group arrived in Panama. "I was expecting a rather small city, but Panama has a beautiful skyline of tall buildings and bumper to bumper traffic after dark on weekends. It was a night of bright lights and loud noises. It's a big city."

Once at the Magnolia Inn in downtown Panama City, Eli pulled out some fresh fruit he'd bought at the market down the street. Wittum noted that the bananas looked like the ones in the United States but were only around four inches long.  "It was interesting to see the tiny bananas," said Wittum. "They were delicious, and I ate bananas for breakfast the first two mornings."

After a few days in the city, the group went to stay at a rainforest community. Indigenous villagers live there with no electricity and with no flush toilets or refrigeration. "It was a little like camping," said Wittum. "But, it is every day for the people of the remote village."

15726560_1258236130902044_3135394025466602540_n.jpgThe last stop was Bocas del Toro (mouth of the bull) which is an island across from the mainland. Bocas is quite popular with the younger crowd. Visitors can scuba dive, snorkel, surf, visit the starfish beach, and get massages. There are lots of neat, handmade items for sale in little shops and huts along the ocean. Visitors can find various cuisines at the restaurants or served from small trailers.

"I asked a surfer if he could teach me to surf," said Wittum. "He was game, but I decided that might be a bit risky. My intuition was good, because I actually did get hurt the next day."

Wittum says that her trip provides lots of extra information she can share with students in Intercultural Communication. "We build on our differences in Intercultural. Everyone shares interesting examples and stories of faraway places."

Due to some interesting adventures on the Panama trip, Wittum was unable to join her family on the flight home. She spent Christmas in Hospital Punta Pacifica. Read more about Wittum's travels in her blog about her Panama trip.