Thursday, March 21, 2013

Panama - A Look Back

Thirty years ago, on December 29, 1982, I flew south to Miami, then on to Panama City, Panama. In Miami, I met for the first time Dr. Jim Karr, my boss for the next five months, and my co-workers Hanni and Steven. We landed in the evening, it was dark, and as we approached the landing we saw ships floating off-shore, waiting their turn through the 51-mile Panama Canal.

The size of South Carolina, Panama is the southern most country in Central America. It forms an s-shaped land connection between Columbia (South America) to the east and Costa Rica to the west. Most of us know Panama for the canal -- where merchant vessels and cruise ships pass through daily to avoid the 8,000-mile trip around the southern tip of South America -- and for Manuel Noriega, the deposed military leader. From the early 1900s, when the canal was first built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, until 1999, the 60,000 acre Panama Canal Zone was under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Defense. Military folks would know Panama if they spent time at one of the 18 bases in the canal zone prior to 1999, the year it was turned over to the Republic of Panama.

Jim, Steven, Hanni, and I arrived at the start of the dry season, which would last well into May. We were there to study birds living in mature, lowland tropical forest. At that time, in early 1983, we were oblivious to any political upheavals in the country. Few outside Panama (except perhaps the CIA) knew the name Noriega, but by the end of 1983 (just three months after I left the country) he had become leader of the Panamanian Defense Forces and was flexing his muscles as Panama's strongman. Eventually, as we know, he got too strong for his allies, wherein the U.S. invaded the country and arrested Noriega for drug smuggling and other nefarious activities. But I digress into the future. Let's go back to 1983, before Noriega, to a time when the canal zone was still in U.S. hands, and I was young and carefree and totally into birds for work and for fun.

Our first night was spent at Hotel Caribe in Panama City. From the 10th floor open air bar we had a view of the city. It was hot, humid, and lively. Billboards crowded the view. McDonald's and Burger King were evident. People drove small cars and fast. Spanish was the native language. The next day we bought fresh fruits and vegetables and a new Mitsubishi jeep for the project, which we loaded up and drove north 20 miles to the small town of Gamboa, situated on the east side of the canal. This was our home for the next five months.
A map of central Panama - Gamboa is about in the center
 A vendor in Panama City selling our favorite food - lots of fresh fruit
Our apartment in Gamboa - we were on the top floor, jeep in the carport
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Since winter is lingering on too long here in southern New Hampshire in 2013, it seemed like a great time to reflect back on my five months in Panama, to conjure up some of that heat and humidity that would feel so good right now. For the next seven days here at the Spicebush Log, I will write about my time in Panama. I'll share stories of seeing and handling an incredible diversity of birds and watching monkeys, anteaters, sloths, armadillos, huge insects, and other fantastic creatures (and a diversity of humans too) of these forests. While there, I ventured to places outside the canal zone -- to the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean, to the highlands of the Chiriqui near Costa Rica, and other places close in. It was a great adventure and I look forward to re-living a bit of it with you. The pictures that accompany this story are scanned by me, from slides taken 30 years ago -- so they will be a little grainy.

A younger me with a rufous motmot - a phenomenally beautiful bird
(photo by Larry Kolczak)

More tomorrow!

p.s. the new header photo is of a marsh along the Chagres River, walking distance from our apartment in Gamboa. These were some of the first birds that I saw upon arrival. There are two species of birds in the photo -- see if you can identify them. 

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