At the Panamanian sustainable village of Kalu Yala, there's the good, the bad, and not too much in between. In this week's episode of VICELAND's Jungletown, which documents the goings on while trying to establish Kalu Yala as a community, doubts were brought to light after the interns staged a mini revolt, demanding answers to questions such as, "Are we pioneers or colonists?" and "Where the hell is our money going?" While a staff member attempted to soothe the interns' concerns, the underlying tension at Kalu Yala is undeniable, and many head back home as a result—but some end up staying, including Design Thinking intern Jake Fee.
"It's very exciting to be in the wrong place at the right time," he told VICE on the phone from his hometown of Mankato, Minnesota. He's finishing his degree in Applied Organizational Studies at Minnesota State, which he's more or less used as an opportunity to travel the world. "It's sort of like a yoga move that I've done a lot," he said. "But I'm enjoying being home with that secret of knowing all the crazy stuff I did in the jungle." We caught up with Fee about his time at Kalu Yala, and his thoughts on it all now that he's home.
VICE: What inspired you to go to Kalu Yala?
Jake Fee: I've done each semester [of college] in a different country—I'm chaining together different study abroad programs until I graduate [ Laughs]. While I was trying to figure out what to do one semester, I saw a Facebook ad for Kalu Yala and I was like, "Damn, that's cool, but super expensive." I told my parents, and they offered to help me out with tuition, which was amazing.
Kalu Yala appealed to me on a lot of levels—but obviously, the story of Kalu Yala is the story of over-marketing and a weird delivery of those promises, so they did a good job of hooking me in. I wouldn't have done anything else with that semester, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it exactly the same. But it's interesting to think about how it hooked me in, and what I actually found. The marketing was for a place that didn't exist yet, but one I was helping to create.
What do you think about the diversity at Kalu Yala?
It's funny for me to read YouTube comments, because I can imagine people saying, "This is white privilege at its finest"—but there's nobody more aware of that than the hippies that showed up there. It's disappointing, though, that we didn't work with the locals very much—at least, I didn't. Look at the students—it's a bunch of fucking white faces that have similar financial situations and education levels. Maybe that's the group that's best qualified to do this, but diversity of any kind adds to the effectivity of a situation.
Before I went, one of my parents asked me, "You gonna have to brush up on your Spanish?" I said, "Oh my gosh, yes—I'll probably be working with the locals. They'll be telling me all the stuff they know, and I'll be telling them all the stuff I know." I thought that this place in Panama needed a town as an example and we were there to make it something beautiful, but Kalu Yala is very much an injection of Western culture into the jungle. It's ultimately dangerous to just throw in this invasive species and hope that it works out.
At one point in this episode, you mention being ready to leave. What made you stay?
I'm still so unsure how I feel about so much that happened. It was beautiful, problematic, shady, glorious, arbitrary, specific, ambitious—it was everything. I had moments where I was ready to leave, but I realized I'd rather die than run away from a situation where I could learn so much about what not to do. Leaving was never really in the cards for me. I loved what I learned at Kalu Yala, and I wouldn't give that back for anything—how not to build a town, how not to run a farm, how to be diverse. I would've felt very silly to bail on an opportunity to see an example of this weird, rare pop-up community happening in the Panamanian jungle. I talked about leaving because I felt so cheated and let down, but that feeling in itself was so valuable to me that I don't think I would have ever gone through with it.
What are some of those main takeaways from your time at Kalu Yala?
I have all of these experiences in me now, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to pull them up independent of [Kalu Yala]. The fact that a bunch of random people with very little direction could create something so complex, cohesive, and beautiful was stunning. It was amazing to know that humans have that sort of power. Having that hands-on experience will never leave me, and all the practical knowledge was useful in all situations.
The things that were fucked up is probably a longer list. [Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice's] struggle as a leader is to actually be there and be inspiring. He's a cool manager, but I don't think he's a very effective leader. He's not inspiring to me. There were these moments where he'd be like, "Don't worry, I'll pay for this," or, "Here's a burger, don't worry about it," which is excellent, but it's also like, "Jimmy, I paid you five thousand dollars—that burger is on me."
It also would've been a full expectation of mine to understand the political history of what we were jumping into, as students. I don't want to walk in at the end of the French Revolution and be like, "Does anybody want cake?" You're going to have a bad time if you don't have the narrative of what you're coming into. Not having safety protocols was huge, too. If you have nothing else, you have to have safety protocols. The fact that there was none of that was irresponsible. Those kind of inconsistencies were so glaring to me and to other people, but I don't think I would be so passionate if I hadn't gone to Kalu Yala and realized how fucked up it is when you get those things wrong. Every day was ups and downs—"I love this place and I would die for these people," "Wow, this is fucked up but I wish this place would burn down." It was over in a blink of an eye, but I felt like I was there for a hundred years.
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