Friday, March 29, 2013

Hello again, Panama

 I'm beginning to feel settled down enough to start writing in my spare time.  The first week and a half was a whirlwind of passing through all of Dr. Ogden's research sites in the Pacora and Agua Salud projects.  Labmate Juan Carlos was a great guide during our UW spring break.  Prior to starting up grad school at the same time as me, he had spent a few years working as a field tech on the hydrology team in our research sites. Unlike me, he's taking classes this semester and had to return to Laramie at the week's end.  JC drove me around in a diesel Toyota Hilux rented from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

 Much of our travel was on unpaved backroads passing through cattle pastures, tropical forests, and rivers.  The Hilux, particularly the smaller old models with no plastic in the body are built like a tank and can scramble through narrow bumpy roads a mules.  I really enjoyed being able to ride around in a private vehicle that always shared my same destination.  The last two years that I was in Panama, I relied upon the unpredictable public transport, my bicycle, many hikes, and the occasional horse or bed of a rancher's pickup.  That was fine when my value of time was less than it is now.  Unfortunately, since returning back to the US in the summer of 2011, I've lost the ability to soak in life at a slower pace.  Perhaps that's why some folks retire.

Rio Pacora
Ultimately, we had a successful campaign downloading sensor data in the Pacora catchment, though not without hitches.  Our first day we downloaded some rain gage data and stream pressure gage data at the sites near the Panamerican Highway with the intent to drive to the top of Cerro Azul (~1200-1300 m elevation) and stay in a remote mountain cottage overnight.  Finding a water pressure gage buried down to the streamwater level in a sand bank along Rio Indio took longer than expected, and we couldn't begin our long drive up the mountain until after dark.  I was glad that we were making the drive in the dry season before the roads get torn up and slick.

As JC and I made our way up, near the mountain top the clouds became very thick at ground level and it was extremely difficult to distinguish landmarks that are needed for direction.  The steep dirt roads have no signs, and our only guidance was the occasional drunk that we'd happen across on the lonely road.  After many wrong turns, we made it to our destination five hours late sometime past 10 pm. An hour well past bedtime for places without electricity.  The caretaker Augustin awoke to the sound of his dogs barking as we tried to figure out where to stay.   Augustin showed us to a two story cottage lit by oil lamps situated around walls and tables.  At dawn I was able to soak in our surroundings.  Three quaint mixed stone and concrete buildings sat among decorative tropical plants and fruit trees in the yard.   Surrounding the area is a cool tropical forest with multiple footpaths heading in various directions.  Before breakfast I ran a hill workout, then feasted on patacones (a form of fried green plantain), eggs, and  coffee.

Augustin assists in the dig for a buried pressure transducer
JC and I proceeded to download data from a met station around the hill by an old helicopter landing pad.  Augustin then accompanied us to a small headwater stream where we spent four hours digging in a sand bank searching for a buried pressure transducer under the water level.  It had the feel of pirates searching for buried gold – our treasure being a year's worth of streamflow data.  At mid day we decided to leave the site and move on to other sensors where we knew the precise location.  We returned to Cerro Azul later in the week after corresponding with others and were able to locate the sensor relatively quickly.

The following days JC showed me around the Agua Salud research sites where I'll be conducting most of my research this go-around.  These sites are in the canal watershed and relatively close to Panama City, therefore we spent most evenings at his parent's house in a nice neighborhood within the city.  I enjoyed eating good food and getting know to his parents, siblings, and friends that would show up.  This was a side of Panama that I never experienced when I was living out in the country.  It was a very comfortable stay after having come from the US, but it would have been a shock for me coming from the campo when I lived in a marginalized rural area.  At that time I had a different taste for comfort, such as lounging on a wooden bench after dinner and talking under moonlight about hunting and eating various rodents.  Life was simpler then.  Pursuit for wealth seemed so silly.  It's funny how much I've changed.  Living in the US I've become another consumer flexing his purchasing power.  I'm happy to be back in Panama, again living in a fairly rural region where money is harder to come by and I'm more reluctant to use it.  Though I'm now living with amenities of running water and electricity I do feel that my life has simplified in this semi-rural town.  Perhaps that's because today I discovered water and electricity can't be depended upon for full time access. As I get settled in at a house in El Giral, I feel like I'm reverting to the same lifestyle that I once considered comfortable.