The learning's lush in Panama

JOANNA FROSST | Panama. Graham Greene and John le Carré have spun tales of intrigue and double-dealing set in this sun-drenched country, stories that might pale next to the real-life shenanigans of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the convicted drug dealer whose rule was ended by a U.S. military invasion.

As one of the 25 students currently involved in McGill's brand new Panama Field Course, my own preconceived notions about the Central American country so often associated with Noriega were almost immediately altered upon my arrival in January.

My first morning in Panama, I was greeted by streams of sunlight, singing tropical birds and huge palm trees outside my window. The absence of frost alone was enough to make me smile.

The field course, a joint venture between the University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), is a multidisciplinary program combining the biological, sociological and conservation aspects of Panama into a full semester of classes from January 6 to April 9.

Each section of the course, taught this year by biology professor Catherine Potvin and adjunct geography professor Gilles Seutin ("Neotropical Environments"), sociology professor Uli Locher ("Humans in Tropical Environments") and agricultural and biosystems engineering professor Bob Bonnell ("Conserving the Neotropics"), is taught both in the classroom at the old Albrook military base and through various field trips.

Panama is a beautiful country extremely rich in biodiversity and with a vibrant culture. It provides a perfect setting for this unique and varied course.

With 30 per cent of its land set aside for conservation and 940 bird species (more than in all of North America), Panama possesses 12 national parks and 1,518 islands, is bordered by both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, and has some of the finest birding, snorkelling, surfing and deep-sea fishing in the Americas.

Given all that, it is surprisingly rare to encounter tourists. Panama remains a rather untapped source for tourism -- maybe those tales of intrigue frighten people away. Their loss.

The focus of the country is clearly the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel completed in 1914 by 75,000 workers over 10 years, that was, and remains, a stunning testament of human accomplishment.

Our learning has gone beyond the confines of the classroom walls. Only two days after arriving, we made our first tropical forest excursion to Parque Nacional Soberania. I couldn't believe the dense green ecological complexity I was seeing, nor could I have dreamed of the massive trees that towered above me. The day came to a close as, upon our departure, we saw howler monkeys and Geoffrey's tamarins. I could not have imagined a better birthday present.

In January, we also experienced a bird's-eye view of the forest canopy when the STRI generously allowed us the use of their huge canopy crane in the wet Caribbean forest of Fort Sherman. The crane shoots past the tree line (about 50m high and 60m out) and offers researchers a unique method for studying both the organisms and the distinct environment that exist atop the trees.

The canopy crane is not intended for tourist use. As students, we have been granted admittance to many parts of Panama that are inaccessible to regular travellers.

Altos de Campana, a 4,800-hectare national park situated less than one hour from the city, offered one of the most beautifully striking mountain vistas I had ever seen. The cloud forest we encountered was ecologically stunning, as you could easily observe the changes in lianas, mosses and lichens as we ascended to 900m. You haven't lived until you have breathed in the clouds of a montane forest and eaten fresh mandarins right off the tree.

One of Panama's most striking features is its seven indigenous populations. In late January, the Kuna ("coo-na"), a tribe living mainly on the Caribbean islands of San Blas, held for us a four-day conference on Panama's indigenous peoples. We learned a great deal about the challenges of indigenous people, and particularly about the Kuna themselves, from our gracious host families.

Our incredible experience was complemented by a white-sand paradise beach where we spent the morning snorkelling on the coral reefs amongst myriad tropical fish, starfish, sea urchins and giant brain coral. San Blas was a glimpse into another world rarely seen or shared with outside people.

Our "Humans in Tropical Environments" portion of the field course allowed us the opportunity to visit the archaeological digs of Dr. Richard Cooke, one of STRI's archaeologists working in Sarigua National Park, to examine pre-Columbian artifacts and civilizations.

Other trips have included a visit to the United Nations head office, a presentation at the National Bank to learn about Panama's unique economy, a trip to the Free Trade Zone of Colon (with a guided tour and a meeting with the mayor) and closer investigations of Panama's secondary cities.

Driving along the Pan-American highway, we catch glimpses of what are often characteristics of the developing world such as cattle ranching, clear-cutting, burning, unfinished construction sites and squatter settlements.

Our homey "vivienda" provides us with Internet access, Mac and IBM computers (generously donated by McGill and the STRI), a kitchen equipped with such conveniences as a blender (for fresh pineapple and banana juice!), a microwave oven, a compost garbage (those biology granolas never quit) and a steadily perking coffee maker.

Our swingin' third-floor dorm includes a dining room, a TV room, 12 bedrooms and big windows perfect for viewing parakeets and tanagers.

There is never a lack of music in the air (Marvin Gaye to Bob Dylan to Shakira -- a Colombian Alanis, she's quite the thing here), futbol games (soccer to us) or afternoon swims (we have access to the base's pool).

The base is guarded 24 hours a day which makes for safe walks or jogs, even at night after our home-cooked vegan/vegetarian/carnivorous-option dinners.

The "luxuries" of home, however, have not kept us from experiencing some of the culinary delights of daily Panama life, like indulging in 25-cent empanadas or freshly squeezed cane juice . Tasty pastries can be bought from the back of a local vendor's van.

Luckily, my initial neuroses over the local wildlife (cockroaches, ant swarms, chiggers and ticks) have become less of a threat to my overall state of mind. The numerous quantities of insects and their overall larger size and speed fuelled the initial shocks to my citified system.

We haven't encountered any enormous spiders or aggressive army ants, but the juicy credit card-sized cockroaches we sometimes spy add enough excitement to our daily lives. The bigger bugs might look scary, but it's the little insects that do the most damage. Bites from ticks, mosquitoes and chiggers are a major irritant, as the itching can last a whole week.

There is an exciting multicultural vibe that runs through the country and is unmistakably evident in the mix of Caribbean and Latin American music ringing out from clubs and radios. Of course nothing quite compares to the infamous Carnaval, a four-day, 24-hour dance party where the blaring streets are lined with parades, Carnaval Queens, water guns, fire hoses and a blizzard of confetti! I have never seen such a high-energy, country-wide party in my life -- I think I'm still picking confetti out of my hair.

Panamanian markets are extremely tight, bustling places (a claustrophobic nightmare, in fact) where you can buy shoes, earphones, dubbed Spanish cassettes of Barney, a dozen plantains and still not even have scratched the surface of what's available.

One of our field trips required us to buy a hammock and, if you ask about the purchase, you will be sure to encounter 25 different tales about everyone's personal market experience. It's a far cry from shopping at Eaton's!

Stepping off the curb in Panama is a risky proposition. The heavy leaded gas fumes, constant cavalcade of horns and non-stop cars make every corner an urban adventure.

Public transportation in Panama has also been quite an experience. Unlike the bus system familiar to us, you must yell "parada" (stop) when wanting to get off (as there is no bell to ring) and pay your 15 cents only when stepping off at the front of the wildly painted, renovated school buses.

Taxi fares are usually arranged before getting in, as they are not equipped with meters. Some brave (and fortunate) McGillers have actually tried the Panama-style taxi ride, by simply getting in and handing over a certain undiscussed sum at the end of the ride. Others have not been as successful, leaving angry cabbies in their wake.

Unfortunately, once they see your skin colour and hear you speak, you can be almost certain that the price will be double the regular fare. Some taxi drivers, however, have been incredibly pleasant and helpful in indicating the best dance spots or helping us bargain through the fruit and vegetable market.

The Panama Field Course has allowed us to live in this amazing country while constantly learning and experiencing new things. We have been able to appreciate the biological, sociological and conservation aspects encompassing Panama and Central America by applying what we learn in the classroom to actual experiences in the field.

Panama is truly an undiscovered adventure. Its riches include coral reefs, beautiful beaches, immense forests, and a mix of cultures, markets and foods that will capture the heart of any visitor.