My original dream for this blog was to create a strong internet presence under the domain PhDavis.com. Grace and I were going to coauthor. That was quickly crushed when I found out that a certain weirdo named Paul (probably as in Paul H. Davis) owns all forms of that. He even has a tumblr, but hasn’t used it since February 2004. Then I started to wonder if this would be how I met my soulmate online. You know, Hi Paul, I see you’ve monopolized my dream website, care to share? And then I’d woo him with my PhDavis witty jokes. That was until I started reading some of his posts. Stopped at the one that was labeled “A LOT OF STUFF GOING ON” where he laments his mother’s recent move from his house in a very whiny way. I think he’s still crushed over having to move out his finches too. Yes, Paul H. Davis has a zoo. No, I will not be contacting him further. Needless to say that meant I had to come up with another name, so this blog is no longer co-authored by the PhDavises, but only this one PhDavis.
My imprisonment, I mean adventure, in Panama began with less than two hours of sleep from the most glorious of Fourth of July celebrations in Montana and a whole day of flying without any food. I think over half of my bag was packed full of bug spray or otherwise bug-repelling clothing. The employee at REI questioned my sanity and real need for ten containers of 100% Deet and a myriad of lesser poisons. Little does she know.
I landed in Panama City and took an easy 30 minute cab ride to meet my parents and sister at a hotel in the rainforest just outside the city. I arrived only to learn that same ride took my parents over five hours to navigate and ended in a police escort. Apparently they got so lost that even barging into McDonald’s at 1 am to beg for English speakers wasn’t enough, and only a police escort complete with flashing lights for them to follow allowed them to make it safely to the hotel.
Our first day was spent marching through the jungle on a few “leisurely” hikes. I spent most of the time trying to figure out if it was sweat or poisonous bugs crawling down my face, only to hear Grace say “oh this is such a nice and cool day.” I think it was at least 93 degrees with over 100 percent humidity. In the afternoon, we visited two sets of locks for the Panama Canal.
Apparently my civil engineering background did basically nothing to inform my prior knowledge of the canal. Who else had no idea a giant lake exists in the middle of the Canal and is kind of the whole point? The Canal runs north-south, which is confusing because I always assumed it was east-west because that’s how ships are trying to move, but apparently Panama is on that curvy part of Central America that confuses everything. Panama City is on the East side, so the locks here raise boats from the Pacific Ocean sea level up to the level of Lake Gatun (26 ish meters total). We first went to the Pedro Miguel locks, which we were told were the free ones and are the middle set of locks. You stand at this fence and basically can see nothing except the occasional stray tug boat. So we decided to enter the parking lot with all the official looking vehicles and stride right on up to the gate. There was a little box for fingerprint access, so I just assumed that since they’d fingerprinted me entering the country, they’d naturally given me fingerprint access to the Canal. As soon as I put my finger on the box I panicked, thinking it might have a shock defense mechanism. Instead, an official man approached to ask what I was doing, and laughed hysterically when I asked if I could go inside. Those locks are not open to the public. So we moved on to the Miraflores locks, which are the ones that let boats out to the Pacific. They have a visitor’s center that towers five stories above the Canal and gives the most glorious view of the locks and boats going through. I could have stayed and watched this happen all day, and have plans to return every Tuesday when Grace goes to the City for science seminars. I also learned that most ships today are built based on the dimensions of the Panama Canal, and the largest ship allowed through is called “panamax.” Creative.
The U.S. headed up a large portion of the Panama Canal construction and masterminding, assisted by the French and Chinese and tons of workers from Panama and the Caribbean. Apparently they drilled enough to drill through the Earth plus 900 additional kilometers. That seems excessive to me. Anyways, we only relinquished our control of the Canal ten or eleven years ago, so there still is a pretty heavy American influence and obvious ramifications in Panama. The most obvious of these is the wild influx of money the government retains now from the Canal clearly goes to building giant new skyscrapers and not a single dollar goes to improving or expanding their highway system. Ten years ago none of those existed. Still, only two bridges cross the Canal, on the two sides of the City, so if you live on the west side, you’re screwed? That also applies if you ever want to cross one of the bridges. Or go anywhere in the City. Or go anywhere outside the City. Basically everything takes a minimum of three hours due to massive congestion and rampant inefficiency. We left the locks and got caught in a traffic jam that took us 3 hours to go 5 kilometers. Apparently this is normal. The upside was, Grace and I had enough time to run (don’t know why we thought we had to rush) to a restaurant and order meals to go), and our car had only advanced a car’s length.
The next morning, we braved the traffic and my parents’ questionably reliable directional skills and headed back to the airport to pick our friend Kendall up and embark on the rest of our adventure. We made our way through a crowded market street that alternated between fascinating and slummy, culminating in a pedestrian bridge that was literally lined with condoms. Grace led us to a hill with an overlook of the city, but in typical Panama fashion, the guard closed the gate two hours early and couldn’t be bothered to turn around and let us in. So instead we wandered through Casco Viejo, which basically felt like we were transported to the French Quarter in New Orleans in both visual and sketchy feels. We ended at the Fish Market where I discovered they sell cups of ceviche for $1.50. My heaven. We spent the night in Panama City and headed out the next morning to Coronado beach.
Coronado is described as “massively built up and overdeveloped.” So we were expecting like resorts, crowds, the usual. Instead, we get there and our hotel was the only building that was clearly a hotel and we never saw more than three other people on the beach. I won’t bore you with the details of our sleep, eat, beach, repeat routine. On the one day, we were able to drag ourselves from the sand, we visited El Valle de Ancon and played in waterfalls.
At the end of this adventure, our parents and Kendall dropped us at the dock in Gamboa, a thriving town with one questionably open store and similarly dilapidated police station. We parted ways and my fate for the next month was sealed, to Grace’s. We took a little water taxi up the canal to Isla Barro Colorado (BCI). BCI is home to the most species in Panama and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). This means that it’s closed to the general wanderer and full of qualified researchers, such as myself, who march into the jungle daily to collect data on everything from the smallest bug to the tallest tree. “We,” the monkey researchers, are in the minority, as very few people research mammals. Tons of the researchers are international, so English is the commonly spoken language (unfortunately in my opinion). As I climbed out of the boat with all my items strapped to some body part, I heard the sweet French researcher encouraging me with “You look like a snail.” First impressions are my strong suit.
The island is massively larger than I expected. You get off the boat and immediately march up a vertical hill. Our office is off to one side, and the cafeteria and our dorm is on the other. The buildings kind of look like army barracks and some of them barely peek through the jungle foliage. Grace and I get to share a room. It’s one of the farther buildings, but thankfully one of the few that has AC. I don’t know how you would function without it. I already have at least one pet cockroach underneath my beg and am learning to not step on poison dart frogs on the walk to breakfast. I don’t know if the people who said the best way to get over your fears is to face them would tell you to go a step further and move in with them, but that’s apparently what I’ve done.
For those of you who don’t know, I somehow was convinced to spend the precious little free time I have between graduating college (still panicking about that one) and starting grad school (master’s/PhD at CU Boulder in civil engineering and international development studies) on an island in the middle of the Panama Canal. At least I’ll be able to say on my resume that I have a summer of direct civil engineering experience since I lived inide the industry’s greatest marvel. I’ll be working under an up-and-coming primatologist named Grace Davis (who has already denied all blood relation when she chose not to mention our sistership and instead told the secretary on the island, “ya Davis is one of the most common last names.” Love you too) on white-faced Capuchin monkeys. I’m going to have to do some serious studying to come up with a more intelligent way to answer the question “what are you doing here?” with something other than “who even knows” because I think no one else here really has quite my sense of humor. But in case anyone is wondering, it’s easier than it should be for a total idiot like myself to gain access to a protected island for a summer. We’ll see how this goes.
I’ve only been here 24 hours and I’ve already heard the word “foraging” more than I ever thought possible. I also think I’m the only one here who swats bugs off me without identifying the exact species for all to hear. I also learned that saying “people actually study ants?” is not a polite thought to voice.
The details of our first jungle trek following the demography and interpersonal relationships of cebus capucinus will come in the next post. I promise I’m fully qualified for this.