Saturday, December 5, 2009


Over Thanksgiving break I traveled to Panama for the very first time! Not much herping was had, largely because the purpose of the trip was for Chad to make arrangements for the class he is taking to Panama for 2 months next year. So it was a working trip! We still got a wee bit of herping in, as well as some RnR. I am facing final exam week, so I felt compelled to make my post before the grading monster got to me. So it will be lots of photos and little text! Too bad my camera is terrible (Santa has been asked for a new one).

We arrived in Panama City (huge, hectic, skyscrapery place) and got the heck outta dodge the next day. We headed to El Cope, the teeny town in the mountains where Chad did his postdoc years ago and where his class will be based.

There is electricity but no internet in El Cope, although that will change before the class arrives. In either of the two restaurants in town, lunch is $1.50 and dinner was somewhat steep at $1.75. We stayed with Chad's friend Julie Ray who lives in El Cope along with her dog Lucy, who enjoyed a downward dog session with me.

Julie is building La Mica Biological Station there. The station is currently under construction, and is situated in a beautiful spot along a small river in El Cope.

Chad pointed out that next to the river, four plants my mom has in her house were growing in one square meter:

Julie at the cabin at la Mica:

The dorm foundation:

Chad's class will stay in this dorm from Feb through April, doing research on anything from frogs to farms and taking classes along the way. They will also venture out into other areas of Panama for trips of varying lengths, including a five day stay in the town of Marta. This town is at the end of a long road only accessible by 4WD in dry conditions (or walking in wet conditions).

The students will be staying at the electricity-free homes of the town's residents, eating meals with them, interviewing them, working in the community, and improving their Spanish.

They will also make a long hike from Marta to a plane wreckage way up in the mountains. This is where Omar Torrijos, the leader of Panama in the 70's until his death in 1981, met his death when his plane crashed under sketchy assassinationy circumstances. Although a U.S. Special Forces team recovered his body, the local people believe that he actually survived the crash and lives in the jungle near the crash site.

Even the school is called Omar Lives.

The kids were excited to see their photos on my digital camera after I took them. Allegedly none of the families even own any print photos of their kids!

Like other nearby towns, the mandarin orange is an important crop so there are orange trees everywhere, a familiar sight to me in California. But here the trees are also covered in air plants.

Then it was back to El Cope to go for a night hike in Omar Torrijos National Park, where Chad did his postdoctoral work on the effect of the amphibian decline on snake populations. Up until a few years ago this place was CRAWLING with ectothermic creatures of all kinds. Then the montane frogs in Panama, like many other places in the world, were crushed by an epidemic of chytridiomycosis, a fatal syndrome caused by a fungus. With no frogs to eat, the starving snakes ate all the lizards, and then finally died out, so now there isn't much at all in the way of frogs, lizards, and snakes. It was a beautiful place, but eerily "dead" for such a lush forest. We did manage to see a few frogs:


Vine snake:

An awesome phasmid (so-called because we watched Master and Commander a few days later, and the name stuck):

This snail-eating snake was on the road next to Julie's house:

The next day we went to El Cano, an active archaeological dig site.

There are large burial mounds all over this site, full of bodies from before 1500.

One site is excavated and on display to the public:

A gringo archaeologist looted the site in the 1920's, tearing intricate stone carvings from pillars such that this is all that's left (the carvings are on display in a museum in New York):

There is a museum there that some of Chad's students will work at:

They will also help with the active dig (nothing going on this time of year because it's so rainy, but in spring it will be back on):

Next we went back up to the mountains to a town in a volcano called El Valle de Anton. I had a 24-hour bug that day and missed most of the fun including the beautiful scenery on the drive up there. I slept the day away and the next day we visited the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), a frog conservation center run by Edgardo and Heidi (who Chad knows from his postdoc days in Panama). The area is famous for its populations of the golden frog, which thanks to the chytrid fungus can now best be viewed in tanks inside EVACC. This center is doing some really important work and has some great stuff. You can read more about Panama's amphibian declines and conservation efforts here. Here's the public golden frog display:

And some others:

We also got a behind the scenes tour from Heidi:

Here are the golden frogs (gorgeous!):

After El Valle it was off to the beach for a very non-gringoy Thanksgiving at the fabulous Playa Blanca Beach Resort, complete with said white sand beaches:

And even some water aerobics in one of the two giant pools:

Then it was back to Panama City for a shoporama prior to departure back to the states. I found New Moon in Spanish on the eve of the movie's release.

But the real treasures were at an artisan market that used to be the YMCA in the Canal Zone. Check out the baskets:

The molas made by the Kuna Yala:

And the tagua nut carvings!

Overall, I was struck by how different Panama was from the other central American countries I have visited. Different in small ways (lentils instead of black beans) and big ways (the riches in city compared to the poverty of the country). Very few people speak English there, so I was thinking in Spanish for a few days upon my return. I had a great time and can't wait to return for spring break in March.

Oh, one more thing. The cigarette warning labels in Panama are awesome!

Did you see the suffering smoker visage in the hourglass? But my favorite is still the dead rat and cucaracha.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mas boas por favor

I spent the past couple of weeks on Cayo Cochino Menor and Utila, Honduras, working on boas at the former and working on relaxation at the latter. Well, that was the plan at least...

A day and a half before leaving for the big trip, the Honduran army forcibly removed their President from his house and exiled him to Costa Rica. This "military coup," although authorized by the Honduran courts, made me (and especially my dad) a bit jumpy about my travel. I mean, traveling down there is already chaotic, what about during the first Central American coup in 16 years? I went for it anyway, hoping for a miraculous trouble-free journey. Trouble-free it wasn't, but perhaps not for the usual reasons...

We arrived in San Pedro Sula and found that our connection flights to La Ceiba were cancelled. Because of the coup? Um, no. Because TACA airlines didn't pay their taxes and the gobierno grounded their within-country flights. Huh. So they got us an alleged bus, that would allegedly take us to La Ceiba, through an allegedly road-block-free city in the middle of a coup. Not so. Citizen roadblocks there were, and the alleged bus was a no-go. Would a lack of flights and a blockade of the only road out of town deter us? Of course not. We just hooked up with a group of Baptist missionaries and chartered a plane to La Ceiba. No problem!

We spent the night in La Ceiba, went to dinner at Ponderosa. No guns allowed!

The next day it was off to Cayo Cochino Menor, a beautiful small island in the chain of islands known as the Bay Islands.

This trip was a bit different for me from my last two trips in winter 2008 and winter 2009, because for the first time there were more people on the island than just those of studying boas. In summer there is a research expedition on the island called Operation Wallacea (or Opwall for short), and professors and students mainly from the United Kingdom live there doing research and volunteering. Most of them are marine biologists, doing two dives a day and learning about things like reef ecology. And then partying.

Some of the Brits (or Limeys, or lads n lasses, as PJ called them) chilling at the pier party:

Aaron and Clare, the boa dissertation students:

Bailando con los Hondurenos!

The first day went as usual: hunt boas in the morning, lunch, hunt boas in the afternoon, process snakes and samples, dinner, listen to presentations, beber Flor de Cana...

PJ and Chad on the beach on the way to some choice boa spots:

A boa lounging in typical posture on a branch:

A boa sporting two ticks on its face (parasitism of Boa constrictor by the tick Amblyomma dissimile being the subject of our study), as well as a cataract:

I suppose it's just a matter of time on a Boa constrictor-infested island before you see one doing what they're named for. We watched this one constrict for about an hour (don't know how long it was doing it before we got there), then it took maybe 30-45 minutes to swallow. Adult female Boa constrictor constricting and eating a medium-sized spiny-tailed iguana Ctenosaura melanosterna. This is a major staple item in the diet of boas on this island.

Alas, the boa-hunt fun was short-lived for me. On the second day I threw out my back and was completely laid out for the rest of the week. The medic offered me a choice between codeine and an injection (of something) into my back... ummmmm... none of the above! Instead I lounged on the beach (luckily I had in tow Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food to kill the time) and hobbled around between bed and eating place. Disappointing, but still had a good time!

Here are a few more cool photos from the trails and beaches.

A hermit crab making good use of beach litter:

An orchid blooming on the mountain top:

Sea grapes next to the surf:

Next it was off to Utila, another of the Bay Islands, for some RnR. Utila is a major dive spot and attracts the international 20-something backpacking crowd, with whom we were unfortunately unable to mix due to the nationwide curfew imposed because of the coup... okay, so really I wanted to lay round and nurse my back. Here are a few photos from Utila:

Typical scene early morning on the street:

The Treetanic Bar, which is essentially a big ship built up in the mango trees and insanely decorated by a loony glass artist:

The trip home was perfect until I missed my train from LA to SLO, but hey, it was all good once I got home to my doggie, who seemed to have doubled in size once again while I was gone. Fun times in Centroamerica, see you in the winter!