The idealistic YouTuber talks about why he left Kalu Yala, and what he hopes to do with his future.
In this week's episode of the VICELAND show JUNGLETOWN—which looks at the attempt to build a sustainable community in the Panamanian jungle—Kalu Yala loses a leader. A biology intern turned activist, Cahill Shpall went to the jungle thinking he'd stay forever. But as many interns are figuring out, Kalu Yala's idealistic promises didn't line up with its reality.
But Shpall's decision to leave wasn't easy to make. "It was the most beautiful place," Shpall told VICE on the phone from Oregon, where he attends school. "It was perfect, I lived in a hammock, I was surrounded by amazing people, but that was the hardest part about the decision. It wasn't just, 'Should I leave? Who am I as a human being and can I stay at this place [even though it felt] like it had nefarious ends to it?"
Shpall even sat down with founder Jimmy Stice, which only solidified his decision to leave. The meeting forced him to ask questions about Kalu Yala, as well as humanity as a whole. It also inspired him to record a series of YouTube videos about his experience. We caught up with Shpall about his intense experience at Kalu Yala and his newfound determination to spread his message.
VICE: What brought you to Kalu Yala in the first place?
Cahill Shpall: It sounds crazy. I don't know what most people my age stress about, but I stress about why I deserve to be alive and what I'm doing to actually help the world. That's why I went to Kalu Yala. It seemed to appear out of a dream. I told all my friends, this is perfect. I tried not to make any assumptions about it—but I thought that, when you got there, you'd live in a tent until you built your own house and then you stayed there. I thought that if the people living down there full time liked your vibe and saw that you were passionate and real, they'd ask you to stay in this village and live with them forever. I told all my friends that I wasn't planning on coming back to society. I thought that it was the place for me.
What did you find when you got there?
The most beautiful and passionate people I'd run into in a long time. But I also found a system that had grown lackadaisical and complacent—not an environment for success or change. I saw people interested in maintaining the status quo, and sometimes it felt a lot like summer camp.
Talk about your decision to leave.
That was honestly one of the hardest decisions of my life. I came down there to help the world, but I also came down there to learn, and there weren't the tools there to help me do that. I came down there and showed Jimmy my commitment—I dropped my entire life—and I saw him three times over the course of seven weeks. Each time I saw him, he was either running away from the rain, refusing to do dishes, or giving me shit for asking to have a meeting with him. I came down there expecting it to be a community, and I found a company.
In a conversation I had with Connor and Mary right before they left, we were talking about voicing all of our concerns, and we realized that the one thing that took us there was the beauty of the valley and how beautiful everything was. I realized then that I had no idea what [Stice] was going to do to this place. He says that he's planning a town, but there's not one thing that's going to hold him accountable to what he tells us. Connor was told that he couldn't plant his bamboo grove because they didn't know whether they were going to put a parking lot in. That broke my heart. I don't know what [Stice] expected from me, but I couldn't be a part of that.
In your recent YouTube video, you mention being in a dark place and having an existential crisis. Was this fueled by your experience at Kalu Yala?
One hundred percent. After a while, you just got so lackadaisical. I love everyone there, but I'm realizing now how people lost themselves there, too. Every time we'd go into Panama City, we'd have these conversations about everyone's frustrations with the place—but back in the valley, you're just in this beautiful place that takes away all of your worries and makes you feel amazing. Every time I was by myself, I'd decide to leave and feel really good about it. Then I'd come back into the group, and I'd forget and get stressed because of all these other people telling me to stay. It was very intense. I'm sure you saw the passion that I had for that place, and I didn't want to give up on it. I didn't do research on the Stice family, and I didn't look into Panamanian law about the possible nefarious loopholes he's getting himself into. I'm big on vibes. I looked him in the eye, and I learned everything I needed to know about him in that one conversation. It broke my heart.
With this experience behind you, what do you hope for ?
I feel way more solidified in my beliefs. I'm thinking about devoting my life to education, but I've never felt more trapped in education than I do right now, so I'm trying to figure out how I can be a voice for people who feel distant from the world. Everybody wants to care and love, but they're caught up in the fabricated means of our world—whether that's higher education or pursuing your dreams. We've become so individualistic that we've forgotten about everyone else, but with just love and good vibes, you can break that.
This year's been crazy, but I need to remember that it's all part of one journey. It's amazing how much I've changed. Right now, I'm bugging about how I can get everybody to save the world. What Jimmy Stice stumbled upon is beautiful, and maybe one day that'll be how I try and give back to the world—to create a community like that.
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