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She sailed into a new career in Panama

TAMI KELLOGG ’91 tugs laundry from the clothesline, and a troop of howler monkeys bellows in the nearby trees. The sound, a mix of barking dog and bothered cow, is as natural as a songbird here.

“Life in the tropics, right?” she says.

A retired ER doctor, Kellogg moved to Panama to work with the Emberá and Wounaan, ethnic groups in the remote Darién rainforest.

Her route here was circuitous, including tall ships and a disaster relief effort. But a passion for languages has—so far—kept her wanderlust at bay. Invited for a monthlong visit in 2011 because of her medical expertise, Kellogg was so beguiled by the people and their intimate connection to their environment that she asked to stay.

Today, she’s helping them protect many vanishing traditions.

“Despite a lack of highway, the roads are encroaching, and they are losing forest and culture,” says Kellogg, founder and president of the nonprofit Soambá, or “One Common Heart” in English. “It’s the story we know well: commercialization, industrialization, assimilation to the colonial culture. We’re working to restore indigenous language where it’s been lost.”

Before medical school, Kellogg studied linguistics at Swarthmore.

“Now I think about that all the time, translating between English and Spanish, and thinking about indigenous languages,” she says. “Language loss is a loss for humanity.”

In addition to cultural survival workshops for all ages, Soambá teaches sustainability.

“You can have good infrastructure without spending tons of money and using nonrenewable resources,” says Kellogg. “It’s about expanding choices. We want to empower communities to grow and develop as they see fit, within their own worldviews, so future generations inherit a livable world.”

Some of the preparation for rainforest life was strengthened by her medical career. The relentless pace included treating accident victims, heart attack patients, stab wound survivors, and the common sprained ankle. Her comfort with taking charge as well as a newly learned patience are skills she uses daily.

“Working in medicine was a privilege,” she says.

Even so, the sea called.

“I had a few experiences sailing on the Chesapeake Bay as a child,” says Kellogg. She continued sailing during medical school at Harvard University.

When she moved to New York City for her residency, she volunteered at the South Street Seaport Museum, working on the historic Pioneer.

“There’s nothing cooler than sailing past the Statue of Liberty in a hundred-year-old schooner,” she says.

Experiences like that eventually inspired her to take stock of her role as a doctor ... and sail away from it for good, accepting a job on a ship for $1,000 a month. She eventually sailed two 7,000-mile ocean voyages, changing latitude and longitude at a human pace.

“It made me so happy,” she says. “When you sail, you really get in your bones what it is to live on this planet. You understand the shape of it, the distances, and the fragility. Sailing is the perfect speed.”

Her voyage finally led her to Panama, where she found her current calling. Sometimes she misses the high seas, but Kellogg knows she’s in the right place.

“Life gives us what we need to grow,” she says. “I feel so incredibly lucky to know the Emberá and Wounaan people. They’ve taught me what it is to be human, without sentimentality, but with a deep connectedness: to people, to animals, to the Earth.”