Panama City is very humid. We arrived to find that we, and everyone else, would develop a thin layer of perspiration to wear everyday as an extra article of clothing. One of the immediate things one notices upon leaving the airport in Panama is that traffic here operates more quickly and fluidly that in the well structured and regulated setting we’re used to in the United States. Cars whiz past when able to find a foot of space and lanes are often intangible, if existent. Also, people use their horns more as a common means of communication to other drivers than in the States. It can be wild, chaotic even, but somehow everyone gets around without much evidence of frequent accidents occurring. The streets are dominated by cars, the sidewalks by people, except in a small shopping district (Cinco de Mayo) near where we live. There the street is dominated by people wandering between open store fronts with only a few small crossings for vehicle traffic. It’s a great place to observe a cross section of the working class in Panamanian culture through the multiplicity of shops, food markets (including a nearby fish market), and sidewalk stands that sell goods. Despite having a large shopping mall nearby, we find this district more interesting to traverse than the convenience of a mall is worth. Although we haven’t had as much time to explore Panama City as we will in the coming month, we have been able to go out a few times in Casco Viejo (the old district), which has developed into a tourist hotspot. We’ve mostly ventured there to enjoy a Panamanian dance hall that opens for parties every Thursday through Saturday. The dominant musical styles are Bachata, Merengue, Reggaeton, and, of course, Salsa. I’ve been taught a bit of each by our Colombian friends and coworkers, but hope to learn more, of Salsa especially, in the coming weeks. I’ve heard talk of a dance studio that offers cheap public lessons nearby and I’d love to take a few evenings to learn the dance better.
I am in a small room, in the Southwestern corner of the CTPA (Center for Tropical Paleontology and Archeology) of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. It is about 9:30 in the morning, fairly early by all accounts, although it is fairly late compared to the 6 am morning necessitated for entering the field.
I woke at 7 today, as I fell out of unremembered dreams. I sleep on the bottom of a twin sized bunk bed, which my room mate and I pushed against the corner of the room, so that it lies between the windows. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that they let in a breeze, but when a storm begins one gravitates towards the screens to feel the touch of cooler air that reigns without.
The apartment is all windows, more or less. Wooden shutters fall in line after a series of screen, both of which one can open and close at leisure. We have the windows open always. Two rooms, connected by a communal bathroom, occupy the farthest edge of the apartment. The living and dining room blend into one another, as per open space design. Our furniture consists of two brown couches, a long mat of woven straw, and a wrought iron table with a matching set of chairs. The kitchen is snuggled in beside the dining area, separated by an island and overhead bookshelves. Having pulled our resources, and that of what has been left behind by past interns, our shelves are happily stocked with: novels and non-fiction readings; bananagrams and various card games; an assortment of snorkel gear; speakers and unclaimed cables; and four different bottles of drinks.
We have spent the better part of the past few days scrubbing down the inside of the refrigerator, our odd paring of dishes, the floors, and the unmentionable findings of the bathroom. It is summer in the tropics, and thus mold and mildew grow on everything if not cleaned and cared for right away.
Be that as it may, I am enchanted with my new home – both in regards to the apartment and the city itself. I have only been in Panama for a few days – less than three, actually – but I will provide my impressions thus far.
The world is humid and hot, as is to be expected of the tropics, but the words mean nothing against the feel of the air, thick as sweat, flowing over ones body and the sun, caught by the air, wrapped around ones arms and legs. The landscape, though urban, is marked with the attenuated touch of the tropics. In the eyes of another, the buildings may look old and run down, but such is the mark of the tropics – the climate eats away at the buildings, covers them in moss and greens, crumbles. The flora and fauna are the textbook ideals of a rainforest. Broad leafy trees overhead, birds of every color and size, animal calls from every direction – the land is never silent. I quickly learned that the squirrel of South America is an agouti – a rabbit sized rodent that looks like a miniature caybara. Sloths are indeed abundant, and yesterday on my hike to the top of Cerro Ancon, a walk up a hill to the natural preserve, I finally saw my first sloth and had an appropriate first sloth freakout yelpy dance.
Still to come is a visit to a few islands, field stations in the Caribbean, three weeks of camping on the peninsula, and a canopy crane among other things. Until then..