Day 5: Cloud forest

This morning we drove to Altos de Campana National Park (over 1.5 hours away), where we ascended the mountain to the cloud forest. Yves led us on a hike to summit the peak, as in he literally bolted up the mountain with one backpack strap over his shoulder (casual). The hike today was amazing… very misty and moist. At some points, you literally had to climb on your hands and knees. We even used a vine for support like Tarzan, and scaled bare rock to reach the peak. 

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Eating lunch at the peak

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A cross at the top of the peak 

Day 3: First day of class

Today is the first day of our first class in Panama on tropical ecology, which meant that I had to wake up at 7:30 am for a breakfast of delicious papaya, eggs, a strange corn pancake, and cereal. Our professor is Yves Basset, a Swiss mountaineer who has basically conquered the rain forests of the world.  Our TAs are Diana, who studies freshwater fish, and Ioana, who studies/loves birds. In this class, we’ll have a few morning lectures on tropical ecology and evening lectures on interesting research. The majority of the work will be concentrated on our independent projects, where we’ll be doing field work for 9 days at 3 sites: Pipeline Road (lowland wet evergreen forest), Ft. Sherman in San Lorenzo (lowland wet evergreen forest), and Parque Natural Metropolitano (lowland semi-deciduous forest). 

In the afternoon, we went for our first foray in the field with an orientation walk on Pipeline Road (camino del oleoducto) right here in Gamboa. It is a wet rain forest with a large, walkable trail. The rainforest is spectacular, so much green and tiny details that you would miss if you weren’t paying attention. In many ways, the orientation walk was like a scavenger hunt. There is even a spiny tree with neurotoxin sap. Can you believe that this counts as class?!

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Our guide, Hector, and the plant that is used to make the Panama hat

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Looking for ant lions 

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Friends and seeds

Day 2: Casco Viejo

This morning, we went on a run through the town of Gamboa: the neighborhood is nicely organized with wide streets and beach style houses. Since we didn’t have the wifi password, the group poached free wifi from the Gamboa Resort, which overlooks the Chagras River

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Group at the Gamboa Resort (photo by Chhaya) 

After lunch, Nino, our driver (yes, we have one…) drove us to the Albrook Mall where we did a little shopping and got our international phones. Now that was a mess, as in it took us 3 hours. Even with our native Spanish-speakers, the phone plans were very unclear. The mall itself is absolutely ridiculous: three floors, bright neon lights, and a small train going through the first floor. Hello, capitalism! 

Since today is the Superbowl, a couple people in the group were extremely keen on watching the game. The original plan was to go to Casco Viejo, a nice old part of Panama City where we could split up and eat, explore, watch the game, etc. When we got there at 7pm, it was clear that this was the bad part of town. The road was blocked off, so we had to get off the bus at night… in the slums. Why are we getting off the bus? What is happening? Going to wear my backpack in the front now… Something was definitely going on because the roads were blocked and we could only walk on narrow cobbled sidewalks. Eventually, we made it safely to a nice restaurant that had the Superbowl playing, where I ate a marisco stew with little octopi swimming in it. A sketchy situation was averted. 

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Superbowl in Casco Viejo (photo by Chhaya)

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Eerie church in Casco Viejo

Day 1: Touchdown in Panama!

Hello from Panama! After 5 hours of flying (and a 5 am wake up), I have finally arrived in Panama.

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View of Panama City (photo by Chhaya)

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Loading suitcases through the window (photo by Chhaya)

Panama City is surprisingly modern with nice paved roads, shiny new cars, and a beautiful skyline. On the 45 min drive to Gamboa, we passed at least 3 KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells, and McDonalandia.

We’re staying at the “schoolhouse” of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, a small Canal town built in the 1930s as a base for the dredging division of the Panama Canal Company.

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Welcome to Gamboa

The schoolhouse has 4 large bedrooms, each with 8 beds, a lecture room, dining room, and small common room. It’s a nice convenience to be able to roll out of bed and go to lecture next door.

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The schoolhouse

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The bedroom

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My bed

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Lecture room

Class officially begins on Monday. Until then, we’re left on our own to explore Gamboa and Panama. We met our cook, Sra. Francis, and abuelo Ernesto who is also here to take care of us. For dinner, we ate salad, rice, corn, and beef. 

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Our first meal in Panama

With 19 of us here, this is about to become a reality TV show (Real World: Panama edition). I still can’t believe that the semester is about to begin… Panama!!! What am I doing here?! 

Before

Before: minimally tan, no bug bites or blisters

Before I (literally) dive into Panama, here is where I am now: 

  • This semester abroad will be my 2nd time in Central America and my 4th time overseas (previous travels: Costa Rica, China, Sierra Leone). 
  • Aside from my freshman seminar trip to the Everglades, I have never conducted this kind of ecological field research before. 
  • Since taking Spanish 207 sophomore fall, this will be my first chance to practice Spanish.
My study abroad goals: 
  • Immerse myself in both life as a researcher in the field and as a Panamanian. 
  • Talk to and befriend my fellow EEB mates, STRI researchers and staff, locals, and creatures
  • Appreciate and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of nature. 
  • Have fun, be bold, and learn to salsa. 
  • Challenge by choice (oh hi OA!) 
  • Stay safe and healthy

Like any novel experience, studying abroad is both exciting and nervewracking. Unlike many other study abroad students, I will be traveling with a cohort of Princeton friends, and my experience will be more akin to Princeton being transported 2000+ miles away minus the amenities and add the rain forest. As of now, I feel a mix of “YAYPANAMA!!” and “uhhhwhatishappening?!”. I don’t know what to expect, and the reality of my departure hasn’t hit me yet. In the meantime, here’s to the semester of a new experiences, friends, and where the magic happens

 

Goodbyes

Bon voyage, I’m going to a Spanish-speaking country! In the blur of January, I finished Dean’s Date and finals, packed my third of the room, and said my goodbyes to Princeton. Friends and family, I’ll miss you guys!! The final days:
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imageBon voyage party: Thank you, friends!! The infamous Chez Alice black and white cake makes another appearance, and this time belly trumps cake.
 
 
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Dod101S portrait: Our final hoorah as R heads to Turkey, I go to Panama, and S is left to do as she pleases with an empty room (aka push all the extra furniture into one corner of the room in an effort for total conquest). 

Packing

                                          Field work
So what exactly do you need for a semester in the field? Recently, I’ve been scouting for these crucial items for my stay in Panama. Only one month to go! 
  
zip-off field pants: versatile and durable; avoid blue (apparently a favorite color of mosquitoes)
high wool socks: keep the critters out and your feet safe while hiking
headlamp: essential for nighttime field work
snorkel and mask: for breathing and seeing while underwater
wetsuit (shorty): you’re bound to get cold when you’re in the water for 6-7 hours a day 

Basics

During the spring 2013 semester, I will be studying abroad in Panama for 12 weeks (Feb-May) as part of Princeton’s Semester in the Field program with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). With 18 other juniors, I will live, breathe, and sweat tropical biology and field work at its finest through a series of 4 courses taught by Princeton professors and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Courses:

  • EEB328: Ecology and Epidemiology of Parasites and Infectious Diseases
  • EEB338: Tropical Biology 
  • EEB346: Biology of Coral Reefs 
  • EEB332: Pre-Columbian Peoples of Tropical America and Their Environments
Panama: 

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As the crow flies, Panama is 2182.24 miles from the Orange Bubble of Princeton, NJ. The country is under Eastern Standard Time, uses the U.S. dollar, and allows American tourists to remain for 180 days without a visa (so come visit me!). For the most part, we will be staying in Gamboa, a small town on the eastern bank of the Panama Canal, but traveling in and out of the field is also part of the program. Also, I will have internet access, no fear! 

Gamboa and the Panama Canal

Take-off for Panama is in a little over one month! For all my Princeton friends, I’ll be back on campus for the month of May (so if Housing has placed you in my room, don’t get too comfortable). 

I am so thankful and blessed for this opportunity. Thank you all for living vicariously through my study abroad experience! I promise to share many stories in exchange for your love and care. ¡Viva Panamá!