Saturday 17th December 2011

Cerro Ancón

Today I am within sight of my previous accommodation in the built up central part of the city, and yet it feels as if I am in a different world. I moved yesterday afternoon to a much more comfortable bed and breakfast called La Estancia, at the foot of the prominent, forest-clad that dominates the skyline from the city centre (when you can see it behind the skyscrapers). This hill is also easily recognisable by the huge Panamanian flag that flies above the trees on its top.

As the weather was appalling, I called off my plan to walk up the hill – this turned out not to be a loss, at least wildlife-wise, as the hotel has feeders directly in front of its balconies, as well as bunches of ripe bananas. These attract large numbers of birds, including Orange-chinned Parakeets, Blue-grey, Palm and Crimson-backed Tanagers, Squirrel Cuckoo and Variable Seedeaters, as well as up to five Geoffrey’s Tamarins, an attractive but quarrelsome species of small monkey with a very limited distribution.

After watching this spectacle for some time, I decided to work a little on a translation I am doing, but it was not long before an event of the type that has come to characterize this journey of mine occurred: a Canadian lady asked me what I was doing, and then introduced herself as Donna. I explained briefly the purpose of my journey, locating the places my great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”) had visited in Panama between 1881 and 1883. Clearly interested by my tale, she invited me to join her husband Ron, her close friend Rosalie and her husband Harry, all from Alberta, upstairs when I got tired of my translating.

This I happily agreed to, and it soon turned out that Rosalie and Harry have a home in Chiriqui, in the far west of the country, adjacent to the Costa Rican border. I told them that I would also be going there soon as my great grandfather had a base there in a place that most people have never heard of, called Bugaba. Well, it turns out that not only had they heard of Bugaba, but that is where their home is! Needless to say, we spent a very enjoyable evening chatting, and they were able to give me lots of tips about the area as well.

I was also amazed to find that Rosalie was busy putting drops in her eyes, just as I have to. Her dry eye problems have been confirmed as Sjogren’s Syndrome, which it is believed I may have as well. This also gave us plenty to discuss….although frustratingly, Sjogren’s or not, there is no cure.

Modern Panama City from the Cerro Ancón

The Casco Antiguo from Cerro Ancón

This morning the rain was pouring down, so an early walk was out of the question (in fact I started out but gave up and returned), but finally it stopped, and all five of us set off up the hill, the ground steaming in the hot sunshine. The views from the top of the Cerro Ancón are spectacular, on one side over the Panama Canal and Albrook airport, and on the other of the city itself, as well as of the Calzada de Amador causeway, and even as far as the Pearl Islands, which GCC visited in 1883 shortly before he left on his voyage home to the UK, and where he got very sick with a fever – luckily not the yellow fever that struck down so many canal workers at that time.

Ron, Donna, Self, Rosalie and Harry at top of Cerro Ancon

My Canadian friends were in a hurry to get back for a tour they were planning to do this afternoon, so I wandered more slowly down by myself, I thought being fairly aware of the wildlife along the way. However, shortly a mother and son who were jogging down the hill at some speed stopped by me and asked if I had seen the sloth in the cecropia tree right above my head! I had to confess that I had not! We got talking, and it turned out that the son had recently completed a Master’s degree in Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where I teach! He has now moved on to do his PhD on viral parasites of honey bees at Cornell University, but we were able to exchange several mutual Dutch experiences!

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Thursday 15th December 2011

Panama City – back in business after laptop repair

I am now in Panama City, an amazing place of massive contrasts between towering skyscrapers and failing infrastructure – just up the street from my hotel there is an enormous hole in the pavement where a drain cover is missing, and this is not the only one I have come across, but luckily have not fallen into. Blind people would certainly not be able to walk about here, and as a Spanish barman who works in my hotel pointed out to me, there are no old people and no children to be seen anywhere on the streets – perhaps it is too hazardous for them to be allowed to wander the streets in case they fall into an uncovered open drain!

My first trip out from my hotel took me down to the seafront and along the Avenida Balboa, from where I was able to observe large numbers of wading birds, pelicans, gulls and terns feeding just offshore, plus the ubiquitous Black and Turkey Vultures, which have plenty to feed on in this city, with the incredible backdrop of huge skyscrapers behind.

The amazing city skyline, with Black Vulture in the foreground

I wandered along towards the Casco Antiguo, the old colonial part of Panama. This potential jewel was sadly neglected over many decades, but now it is experiencing a major renovation and rebuilding programme – not before time. The old city occupies a narrow peninsula, and at the very tip is a square named the Plaza de Francia, where a monument to De Lesseps, the architect of the French attempt to construct a canal….more than 22,000 workers perished in this effort, mainly from yellow fever. My great grandfather George Charles Champion mentions the appalling conditions in which they were living in one of his letters home, dated 18th April, 1883….it is lucky for me that he did not die with them, or I would not be writing this diary entry today!

I went over to Colon on the 27th returning the following day, I scarcely knew the place again it has altered so much in 4 years, the place is swarming with Frenchmen, organ grinders!, cheap Jacks, etc. At night it is a perfect Babel, where the people sleep goodness only knows, but oh! The heat and the smell of the place, it is built on a swamp, I don’t wonder at people getting sick, especially the newcomers, and water is so scarce that you can scarcely get enough to wash your hands in. All along the line of the Canal the Frenchmen are building houses, clearing the bush, levelling, etc, but they do not appear to have excavated a yard yet anywhere except to level the ground.

De Lesseps in all his glory

Panama cathedral

Renovated and not-so-renovated Casco Antiguo, Panama

The following day I took a taxi to the Parque Metropolitano, a remarkable patch of so-called “dry forest” within the city limits. I say so-called, as during my walk the Heavens opened and I was absolutely drenched from head to toe! It was actually quite frightening being on the top of the hill in the park, with thunder crashing literally just above me and blinding flashes of lightning illuminating the otherwise darkened forest. Nonetheless, I was impressed by this stretch of tranquil, wildlife-rich habitat within such close proximity of the teeming metropolis, and I shall certainly return.

The storm approaching, seen from the Parque Metropolitano

Yesterday I made my first visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where I was warmly received by Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, an expert on the historical aspects of biological investigation in Panama, and someone who has long been familiar with my great grandfather’s work. Indeed, amazingly enough, he works with a descendant of Enrique Arcé, a fellow collector of insects who also worked for Godman and Salvin, my great grandfather’s employers! It was a privilege to talk to someone who knows so much about George Charles Champion’s activities and journeys here in Panama.

Today I ventured out along the Calzada de Amador, the causeway that was built using material excavated during the construction of the canal, linking a string of islands to the mainland. Just off one of these islands, Isla Perico, was the old deep water anchorage for ships wishing to visit Panama, and it was here that my great grandfather’s brother-in-law James J Walker’s ship H M S Kingfisher anchored in 1881. James Walker was a fellow entomologist and great friend of GCC, and whose journals are of great biological and historical interest – providing me with much potential footstep retracing material for future investigatory journeys.

Isla Perico from the causeway

Cormorants with the city behind

I am now able to resume my online diary as my laptop has been repaired, although several documents and programmes were lost in the process – luckily I have backups at home of most of these. I am, however, writing this entry with some difficulty, as the cursor constantly jumps to another part of the document while I am in mid-word, making it a very time-consuming process. Neither George Charles Champion nor James Walker would have had to contend with such technical troubles, whatever other travails they had to endure!

I am not alone in scratching bites - a Two-toed Sloth

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Tuesday 13th December 2011

Greetings to all from Panama, where I arrived on Saturday evening. Unfortunately, my laptop, from which I have been updating my diary entries and uploading photographs, crashed unexpectedly a couple of days ago. This may have been because I connected my Sony Bloggie camera, which appeared to have died some weeks ago due to extreme humidity when I was travelling in Peten, Northern Guatemala, but which to my surprise I found had recovered when I returned last week to Guatemala City, to the laptop in order to upload some pictures I had taken of the amazing Mapa en Relieve, or Relief Map, a 1:10,000 horizontal scale and 1:2,000 vertical scale three-dimensional representation of the whole of Guatemala (and Belize), constructed in the early 1900s. When I completed this operation, the laptop went completely crazy and since then I have not been able to use it.

Consequently, there will be no further diary updates until this problem has been resolved. My apologies to all my loyal followers!

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