Sunday, June 25, 2017

Relaxing in Panama.....

Now it is finally time to tell about the “fun, relaxing” portion of our trip!!

On Friday we celebrated my 60th birthday by trying to travel in every form of transportation available.   It started with a boat, then a car, taxi, bus, airplane and rental car.   Michael did his usual wonderful job of driving us around.....

  Our final destination was Boquete, a small town in the mountains of western Panama.   We flew into the city of David, rented our car and drove the hour to our new home at the Coffee Estate Inn. 

We were ushered into a lovely 1 bedroom apartment with amazing views across the mountain/volcano....

Dinner that evening was at a local restaurant where we enjoyed sitting on the deck and watching the rain fall on the beautiful flowers....

...and taking Birthday selfies.....

My meal for the evening was a magnificent salad that started with young, crisp lettuce on which I could add 5 different ingredients, two toppings, the salad dressing and a grilled chicken breast.   It was SO yummy!!....

I ordered a pot of tea with my dessert and was enamored with the tea bag.  it came in this container.....

.....and looked like this when opened......

On Saturday we decided to head to the town of Volcan, although we never actually made it there!!   We enjoyed our drive thru the country, passing thru Citrus groves that ran along each side of the road.  We passed little towns filled with brightly covered houses.  Many were tiny cinder block boxes but with gorgeous wooden doors.  It seemed quite incongruous.

It was fun watching as the townspeople went thru their daily routines…..hanging brightly colored washing on the clotheslines, standing in the concrete bus stops and looking out the window, and a boy running across the road with his soccer ball ready to join in a “pick-up” soccer game.

The only worrying thing of the trip was having to go thru numerous Police Check Points....with a foreign driver's license and a rented car, but the officers were kind and sent us on our way.

Things came to a stop when we found a small woodworking shop run by Mr. Jose De La Cruz Gonzalez, a self-proclaimed craftsman and poet!   We spent about 30 minutes in his shop, looking at some of his work and hearing about the awards that he has won all over the world.   Most of the “for sale” pieces in his shop were rather kitschy as I am sure he was going for things that were not very expensive however there was one gorgeous inlaid table that only cost $22,000!!   Of course this is the one that Michael wanted!!

We did purchase one very nice piece carved from the Macano tree that his daughter-in-law made….

…. and he carved her name on the back as we watched…..

It was raining quite heavily when we left his shop so we decided to travel no further into the mountains but instead to return to our Inn.   We did pass one dilapidated bridge and took turns taking photos of each other standing precariously at the end.....

The afternoon was spent relaxing, napping and trying to get decent photos of the hummingbirds flitting around the trees……

On Sunday morning we originally booked a tour of a local coffee plantation, but quickly changed our mind and decided to just hang out on our deck for most of the day.   It was a perfect decision!!

Dinner that evening was at an Italian restaurant called “Retrogusto”.  We met the owner, named David, who was from Naples and had moved to Boquete to live a quieter life.  I am not sure that opening a restaurant was the best way to do that!!   Our meal was delicious, starting with an excellent Mojito and finishing with “Passion Fruit” Cello…..a new version of Limoncello.....

On Monday morning we started the day with our usual breakfast……

…..and then made the return journey to the David airport.  A quick overnight in Panama City and then we caught our Delta flight back to Atlanta.

While we enjoyed our brief time in Panama, we came away feeling like we had not actually been in a foreign country.  The country was filled with Americans and other nationalities and it didn't seem as if there were any true Panamanians there!!   When we would ask for a restaurant that served "Panamanian" food, we were met with puzzled looks and lots of hemming and hawing.    I wonder if over the years Panama has somehow lost it's identity.  

All in all though, it was a fun trip and provided us with some much needed down time!!

We arrived back at our house to be joined about 30 minutes later by friends visiting from Australia.  We hadn’t seen this couple in 27 years and spent two lovely days catching up and enjoying one another's company……

Monday, June 19, 2017

The "Bert Walk"....

On Thursday morning we were invited to join the “Bert Walk”, a tour led by Professor Egbert Leigh, a scientist who has been associated with the island for 48 years.  It was a joy to join him on his morning walk thru the jungle and to hear him talk about what we were seeing and reminisce about things that he had seen thru the years.  We were joined by Mary Rose, an undergraduate student from Marquette University who is here doing research.

As we walked we were privy to Bert Epigrams and every so often he would break out into song.  He led the group with Michael and Mary Rose close behind talking science.  This left me free to walk along and take pretty pictures, and I certainly did that!!!

Bert started by telling us that a large portion of the island was originally a banana grove and the bananas were sold to pay for the research efforts.  My how things have changed!!

We saw the defenses that many plants use to protect themselves.  This tree definitely says “Do.Not.Climb.Me”!!.....

And this leaf even deters predators from approaching…..

Bert told us that the seeds have to land in just the right spot to get enough light to be able to grow and that is why there are not tons of the same species in one area.  They had to spread out to be able to survive.  This meant that tree fall gaps were very important as it opened up a place in the canopy for light to enter and allow other plants to grow.  Mary Rose asked a question about Tree Fall gaps and how the water that the fallen tree had used was partitioned between the other surviving plants.  I am definitely out of my league!!!

He told us that he hated exercise for exercise sake so each day he takes a walk in the forest.  When someone is walking with him he will go further afield but will keep it shorter when he is by himself.   He also said that he loves interactions with the students because it keeps him young.

Sometimes he would point to a single any on a leaf and not only identify the leaf but also the type of ant that was crawling on it.  That was no simple feat as there are 140 species of ants on the ground and 300 in the trees!!

I loved this fern with the spores on the reverse side of the leaf…..

We heard the call of a bird overhead and Mary Rose recognized it as a Toucan.  It was so exciting to see it sitting on a branch far up in one of the trees with the bright colors and large beak.  It was probably my favorite sighting of the day!!

There were an abundance of spiders and gorgeous webs as we walked along.  I particularly liked how this one was back lit by the tree trunk…..

…..and this one with a leaf hanging on the opposite side of his web…..

Mary Rose found this little fellow on a leaf as well……

This tree trunk was home to a nest of stingless bees…..

….and we called this the Caterpillar parking garage…..

We stopped for a rest after about an hour and Bert spent time talking more about the Rainforest area and drinking from his water bottle… old Maker’s Mark bottle.  None of those fancy lightweight polymer bottles for him!!!....

The trail that we walked on was made from cinder blocks and was well maintained and easy to walk on…..

Mary Rose commented that she often walks too fast in forest and misses observing things along the way.  I agreed with her and reveled in how nice it is to walk slowly and have time to observe the world around us.

At one point we entered the original Hubbell Plot.  These were designed by scientist Stephen Hubbell to study forest dynamics.  The plots are 50 hectares in size and every five years there is a census done that measures every plant that is at least 1 centimeter in width at breast height.  This is the second Hubbell plot that we have been in with the first being in India in 2008. 

One interesting fact is that the smallest diameter trees get to be the tallest in the forest.

It was astounding to look up and see nothing but canopy with small amounts of dappled sunlight filtering thru…...

It was also cool to see how the sunlight highlights the spider webs and small bugs flying around.

Some of the vines were huge and tangled into a beautiful mess……

Far into our walk, Bert told us that we were entering genuine old forest, meaning that there has been no culling of the trees and no secondary growth.  This was an imposing thought as we walked past trees that were 500 years old.

We looked down to see ants climbing on our boots and asked Bert what type they would be.  He slowly answered “I don’t know but they could be Army Ants so best to get out of the war zone”.   At this point we did the Army Ant Stomp where you work hard to get them off of your boots before they have time to reach bare skin.  It was amazing how fast they could climb onto your shoes as you were walking down the trail…you didn’t even have to stop.

This tree is related to the Baobab….

...evident by the bulbous shape of the trunk but what I really liked was the base of the trunk with appendages that look like elephant legs…..

Along the path we also saw Howler Monkeys sitting high up in the tree tops.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I was amazed to find that they are not very large at all even though their voice is HUGE!!

We also saw some very large black birds with a Red Dewlap (called Guan).   Apparently these birds are very rare on the mainland because they taste (and look) like turkey.

We laughed that Bert really showed no interest in the monkeys or birds even though we were all three stumbling over each other to get better views of them.   It was obvious that if it wasn't a plant, it wasn't important!!
This nut hull had landed on a horizontal tree trunk and had then been covered with a fine fungus that looked very cool when backlit…..

I loved the color and shape of these mushrooms…..

As usual, I am enamored with the shapes found in this wonderful creation.  Here are a few of my favorites…….

As we exited the Rainforest area, this little guy seemed to be wishing us a fond farewell…

Having never been in a Tropical Rainforest before, this was my  all-time favorite part of this trip. It is an experience that I will never forget!!!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Discovering the Joys of Barro Colorado Island....

Now comes my favorite part of the trip so far but before we start, we need to have a history/geography lesson….not my best subjects so bear with me!!!

In the 1800’s, people had looked for a fast way to get between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans without having to travel around the point of South America.   The French first proposed a canal thru Panama but the attempt went bankrupt with the onset of Malaria, Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases. 

The US took over the effort, ensuring Panamanian support by helping Panama (then a Colombian Provence) to become independent from Colombia.  In 1904, the US started the project, building a 48 mile waterway to connect the two oceans.

An artificial lake (Lake Gatun) was built to provide water for the canal operations of raising and lowering the water levels.   The Chagres River was dammed and as its waters rose to form Gatun Lake , a small mountain of 476 ft. was isolated from the mainland and formed Barro Colorado Island.

Scientists recognized the importance of this island not only as a biological reserve but also as a scientific research station.  In 1946, the responsibility of maintaining the facility was given to the Smithsonian Institution as a part of their mission, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

This exciting Island was our next destination!!!

We reached the 1500 hectare (3700 acre) island by taking a 35 minute boat ride from Gamboa.  It was fun to think that we were actually traveling in the Panama Canal, although not the way that most people travel thru it…..

We had no idea what to expect in the way of accommodation and were pleasantly surprised when we were given keys to a small suite with magnificent views into the forest….

The meals are all served in a common dining room which was filled with Professors, Post-doctoral fellows, PhD candidates, Undergrads, Groundskeepers and Guards!!  It was exciting to listen to each of the researchers talk about the projects that they are working on.  One young woman from Germany was studying Bat behaviors and had set up cameras to record them as they flew in and out of their dens so she could record the types of food that they were carrying with them.

Another researcher was looking at tree vs. fern data, seeking to determine which types of trees were able to resist the advance of ferns and vines that would potentially kill the trees.

And yet another group was looking at the effect of lightning strikes on trees and how long it took them to die after the strike.

After dinner we were invited to join some of the students on the balcony for a beer chat.  We laughed that the beer was dispensed from a remodeled Pepsi machine…..

....and we have NO explanation for why they have Old Milwaukee!!
We were told the best place to see the sunrise and they were right.....

The island has many species of animals, including Monkeys, Sloths and Ocelots but the most prevalent are the Agouti's  who have full run of the island.....

I would describe them as a mixture of rabbit, squirrel and rat!!

On Thursday morning we were taken on the “Bert Hike” which I will describe in the next post.  In the afternoon, we spent time relaxing in our room and catching up on things since we had decent internet.  However, as I sat staring at my computer I managed to look up once and saw two Capuchin (White Face) monkeys playing in the trees outside of our window.  We raced for cameras and enjoyed watching them for about 15 minutes…..

We also loved hearing the Howler monkeys outside our door and I made this video when one monkey continued to howl……

The interesting thing about these monkeys is that they are quite small.  I always assumed that such a big sound came from a big animal!!

When the 5:30 boat arrived from the mainland we were pleased to see an old friend aboard.  Wes Brown, who was one of Michael’s colleagues many years ago, had come with his wife to hear Michael’s talk.  We shared a bottle of wine with them before dinner and had a few minutes together after the talk.   It was great to catch up with Wes again…..

I had commented that I seldom attended Michael’s talks and on the few occasions I did, I had been known to read newspapers or books instead of taking notes.  So, one of the young women with a “Arnold-esque” sense of humor presented me with this paper to keep me busy during the talk…..

After the talk we were invited to have drinks with Egbert Leigh, an eccentric 76 year old gentleman who calls himself the “Shepherd of Barro Colorado Island”.  His office was stacked high with books and scientific papers and we had a wonderful time talking with him about science and life in general.  More about him in the next post.

On Friday morning we left the island just after breakfast, with Michael still answering student’s questions up until the very last moment.  They were very hungry for scientific interactions and Michael was happy to oblige!!
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