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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *