Panama? Como no?

Now you may be asking yourself, “What gives?! I clicked on this to read about Heart-of-Darkness-like exploits in the steamy jungles of Central Africa…what’s this wise guy talking about Panama for??”

If that is the case for you, dear reader, I would like you to first ask yourself “Why am I using expressions from the 1920’s to express my outrage in the year 2014?”  Then as your indignation subsides, I’d kindly ask you to trust the process and hear me out as  I tell you about where my summer adventures began — a rather far place from my project in Gabon for which I am about to leave.

The main excuses to visit Panama beyond clearing the head, and freeing the soul, after my first busy year at the Nicholas School, were to refresh my Spanish (which was being rapidly buried under the French I need for Gabon), and to visit a friend of mine midway through her Peace Corps service there. However, as in most of my travels, I tried to keep my head on a swivel and ears pricked for opportunities to better understand the pressing environmental issues facing tropical nations in particular .  As it turns out Panama has plenty to talk about on this front so indulge me in relating my experiences there.

Arriving via Panama’s enviably complete bus network to my friend Kelsie’s village of Santa Rita, I was immediately taken aback by the tranquility of my pastoral surroundings.  In the foreground, cheerful pastel-colored houses peeked out from bright tropical streets. In the background, towered the mighty Volcán Barru, wreathed in forest, its top shrouded in mist. Linking the two, thin ribbons of forest wind through the pastures and cane fields that dominate the landscape.  Travelling around the region I quickly saw that scenes like this typify the province of Chiriqui, Panama’s “land of milk and honey” in the far West bordering Costa Rica.

Volcán Barru towers above sleepy Santa Rita covered in cloud forest.
Volcán Barru towers above sleepy Santa Rita covered in cloud forest.

Seeing those ribbons of green and coveting a look at the streams obscured below, I became fixated on exploring them. The trees huddled around them as if to hide those veins of crystalline water as if to hide them from the surrounding human inhabitants.  But why, one might ask, should those waters need shielding? During my time in the villages and creeks of Santa Rita and elsewhere in Chiriqui, I began to see why they might.

The activity that occupied the majority of our days in Santa Rita would be referred to by locals as “pasear.” Now, at face value the word ‘pasear’ means ‘to walk’, but I soon came to realize in reality it had remarkably little to do with walking. We would set out to ‘pasear’ and no sooner had we walked 50 steps or so, when a cheerful voice would harken us from a nearby house and beckon us to come chat. Almost inevitably ‘hello’s’ would turn to ‘welcome in’s’, and before you knew it you were seated with a cup of sweet black coffee in hand and a plate of rice and beans on your knee and often a fascinated baby or toddler on the other. These wonderfully hospitable people would all but force upon you the contents of their pantries, with the end result that going out “walking” was about 95% sitting, eating, and drinking.  At a clipping pace of about 100 m/hr tops, if one’s objective were actually ‘to walk’ one might get a bit frustrated. But that wasn’t my goal.  In the spirit of Peace Corps, my aim was to get to know these lovely people and, if possible around the French words trying to escape my mouth, share something of my own background. To that end, ‘paseando’ allowed better insights into their lives and habits than I would have guessed possible for such a short visit.

"Pasear" may literally mean 'to walk' but as depicted here involves very little walking
“Pasear” may literally mean ‘to walk’ but as depicted here involves very little walking

Having styrofoam cup after styrofoam cup, paper plate after paper plate, and plastic fork after plastic fork handed to me full and passing them back freed of their warm contents, I began to wonder what became of those items.  Likewise, it seemed in each house I sat there would pass through a coy or confident child or teen with a coke can or a bag of crisps in hand, and I scratched my head in wonder at where those snack packages ended up given the conspicuous lack of any litter bins.

It wasn’t from sitting on porches but strolling through gardens that began answering my questions. Tucked in little corners of most every garden one could find a few ashen piles, adorned with the charred remnants of trash. Twisted fragments of cutlery, still bright corners of blackened chip bags, and bits of styrofoam like dirty snow lay in small heaps. I asked Kelsie, and she explained to me that there was no centralized waste management system for the villages in the campo.  Most families ended up burning what they could and burying the rest.


I’m not sure if you’ve tried it but its not a particularly fun, easy, or salubrious task burning the packaging of our industrially produced foodstuffs. So many Panamanians will just drop their cans or bags where they finish them. Others, she explained, presumably with a stronger aesthetic, would take the trouble to collect their litter and find a suitable slope or precipice from which to launch them.

I wondered at first, why there wasn’t more litter around, given this ‘disposal system.’ But after three days in which buckets of rain dropped like clockwork at 3pm entirely expected by all but myself it dawned on me that this might be the case.  It was an exploration of one of those forest swaddled rivers that revealed the full extent of the problem. We had explored the upper reaches of the quebrada before it wound its way to town the day before, spending an afternoon splashing between crystal-clear pools shaded by epiphyte-laden trees. Small fish and prawns darted between the rocks, while birds foraged in the canopy overhead. Stricken with a bout of amnesia, one would readily assume the creek snaked through vast tracks of montane forest.


In fact later in the trip we explored such creeks in the forests of  la Parque Nacional de la Amistad  shared between Costa Rica and Panama. They indeed had a remarkably similar effect, though notably with more bromeliads and orchids dripping from the trees and the odd pair of nesting quetzals.

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The same illusion could never take hold in the stretch of creek we explored where it crossed the road below the school two days later. Small rock intended to form wading pools became strainers  for the towns trash. Plastic bags sealed some of them making them nearly watertight. Plastic bottles soon followed suit. Soda cans and bean tins respectively filled with water and sunk to the creek amongst the rocks. The water was still clear and beautiful, and the prawns didn’t seem to mind making their homes under a rock or a can, but there could be no mistaking the scene for pristine mountain forest. At first I stuffed a few pieces of trash in my pocket and backpack as I could but fairly quickly gave up the effort as I reached my storage capacity.


A thud startled me from my thoughts and drew my eyes up. A sizable white stallion stood at the creekside. I was struck by the beauty of the scene. He seemed equally surprised and for a moment we just looked at each other in stillness. Then taking a step back to clear what I could now see was a thoroughfare he must use fairly often, he trotted across the creek and to the pasture on the other side.


That line of trees felt very thin indeed at that moment. I began to think beyond the scene before me. Santa Rita was the first of many towns that this cool current from the volcano would encounter on its journey down to the sea. Try as they might those small ribbons of forest offer scant protection in a sea of pasture, sugar cane, dotted with towns. Even the forested tops of the watershed under strict protection on paper continue to shrink as parks are encroached upon by agriculture. The same rain that would nourish and grow the waterway from a tiny trick to a rolling river would bring with it the manure from horses and cattle, the Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles, the chip bags and soda cans. It was no wonder the warm, milky, trash-filled rivers of the lowlands shared little in character with their childhood selves after passing through such a gauntlet.

But where shall we go from there? I can see I have already, in my first blog fallen prey to the classic trope of environmental writing. Beautiful scenes paired with that nagging sense of loss, and sneakily my narrative crept along till it’s all doom and gloom and leaves everyone wishing they’d read the first bit and skipped the rest! Neigh! let’s look for the bright side here. In the next post I will endeavor to tell you the cheery tails of how I got to glimpse some of the solutions to these problems.

In the meantime enjoy some pictures of some of the other lovely creatures encountered in my time there:

“El Gato Solo” also known as the Coati
A collection of distasteful grasshopper nymphs cluster together to send a stronger signal to taste-testing predators
The White Necked Jacobin midflight
Cuter cousin of the racoon, Cacomistles can be found throughout central America

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For more shots check out