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……

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!!

Finishing up in Panama City…..

When last I left you, Michael had just finished his first talk at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center.  After a quick meet and greet accompanied by wonderful fried “taquito-esque” appetizers and cold, cold beer, Allen suggested that we walk the 15 minutes (more like 30) to a Peruvian restaurant that he loved.
The walk thru Panama City was enjoyable as we watched the hustle and bustle of a typical big city just after working time is over.  We walked thru a pedestrian mall with all of the stores playing loud Latin music trying to entice shoppers into their store.
The architecture was typical for a Latin American country, complete with bright colors and intricate wrought iron…..
As we passed this church I had to snap a few photos…..
I wish that we had been able to stop for a few minutes to have a look inside!!
The first question as we sat at our table was what we wanted to drink.  Michael and Allen chose a Sangria but I had to have the classic Panamanian drink….the Pisco Sour…..
It is made from Peruvian Pisco (a type of brandy), lime or lemon juice, simple syrup, an egg white and a few drops of bitters.  It is whipped until frothy and served over ice.  It was so refreshing.
Now it was time to order dinner.   One of the other things that Panama is famous for is their Ceviche….fish that has been marinated in lime juice and served raw.  I was skeptical but found it to be really good.   We also ordered grilled Octopus for one of the appetizers…..
….and it ended up being my favorite of the evening. 
For the main course, I had a Sea Bass with a tomato sauce and Michael had Garlic Prawns…..
My meal was nice but his was delicious!!!
Of course we had to order dessert and we both chose the sweet, cold Flan…..
As you can see, all of the plates had gorgeous presentation!!!
I fell in love with the tiled floor and especially like the tile just above the blank one…..
It has so much depth to it!!!
We walked back out of the city, with Allen taking us thru some of the un-gentrified areas.  The best scene of the evening was a house with it’s doors wide open and lots of people sitting outside.  They had all gathered to watch the Panama vs Honduras Soccer match.  It was quite a spectacle.
Allen took a side trip into a bar just so we could see the city from the balcony……
It was worth the diversion!!
But the best/worst spectacle of the evening was this Mola Swimsuit……
You may disagree, but I thought that it was hideous!!!
We were passed by one taxi that had his windows down and rap music blaring….we did NOT ride with him!!
On Wednesday morning we headed to another of the STRI institutes located on Naos Island.   To get there, you drive out on a Causeway that was built to help protect the Canal from silt buildup.  It was interesting to be on this narrow piece of land with Panama Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
As Michael started his talk, I went for a walk along the Causeway, stopping at a small “Super Mercado” (grocery store) to buy a bottle of water and a snack.   There were tables set up just outside of the store and I joined two other people watching a Spanish dubbed version of Little House on the Prairie!!
As I walked back to the Institute, I enjoyed seeing the Panama City Skyline in the daylight……
…..and watching a group of Pelicans enjoying the sun.  There was one who was either a bad fisherman or he REALLY loved to dive into the water, and I watched as he dove over and over again.  

The drive to Allen’s home follows along the canal and I was once again amazed by the sheer size of the container ships, especially compared to the size of the tug boats that guide them!!!
We arrived back at the house and packed up for the next leg of our adventure….more to come!!