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Tout Panama attends opening of high-end bird watching facility on Gamboa's pipeline roadBirds of a feather
by Okke Ornstein
Looking out of my bedroom window, I see the first SUVs racing towards the pipeline road. Always traveling in pairs, dark-tinted windows closed, airco full blast. Government types. The first ones are arriving. Time to go. This is one of the advantages of my recent move to Gamboa: You're in the middle of things here. Gamboa is where it happens. If they aren't conferencing in the Gamboa Resort they're inaugurating new structures, as is the case today. I fire up the old Jeep, waking up the whole neighborhood in the process. Howler monkeys in the forest across the community lawn roar back at me --- an eerie sound, something between howling wolves and screeching car tires that projects doom and apocalypse --- just as they always do when a train passes that blows its steam whistle. Yeah, I know, I should get that muffler fixed, but at least it's a four-wheel drive so I'll fit in with the rest of the crowd.
Anyway, the car is the least of my worries. In my mind, I go over the list of dignitaries that will be present. Martín Torrijos, Alberto Alemán Zubieta, Samuel Lewis Navarro, Ligia Castro de Doens, William Eaton, Rubén Blades, and so on. Most of them I've probably insulted one way or the other over the past years on my late Noriegaville News website, or at least they'll feel that way, and now I'm driving this wobbly road to meet them all together in the middle of the jungle? I must be crazy. I don't even carry a stun gun.
Besides, in the interest of objective journalism and transparency, I should probably disclose right here and now that there is very little, if anything, that this journalist knows about birds other than that all of them are edible and that most of them can fly and produce eggs. No guarantees can be given as to the accuracy of the avifaunal information presented in this story. Until this very morning, for example, I was totally unaware of the existence of the Rufous-vented Ground Cuco and the Red-capped Manaki on our isthmus, and I didn't really miss them either. They had their lives and I had mine; they didn't watch me and I didn't watch them.
It's not that I've never tried. In my early teenage years in the Netherlands, I became a member of the Dutch Youth Union for Nature Study (NJN), best described as a sort of Gideon's Gang of young alternativos who liked nature but not the militarism of the Boy Scouts. Every weekend we set out on our bicycles, invariably at six degrees below zero and facing a force 7 Northern headwind, to ride at least 40 kilometers to some lake or lowland where there were birds or other species to observe. To study nature, was the unspoken idea, you had to be one with it, suffer from it, breathe it (but not eat it, as I found out when I suggested to give the Blue-bilged Coolie Diver a try, the famous ostrich-like seagull of which only a small colony remains on the North Sea shores). That we'd travel by car, moped or even public transport was something completely out of the question. The club's bulletin, irregularly published, was of course printed on gray recycled paper that constantly clogged the hand-operated stencil machine.
On the other end of the scale you had something called the Dutch Birding Association. Whenever for example the Orang Brem-brem was spotted (a rare migratory pepper-bird that flies backwards to keep its ass cooled), a caravan of Mercedes Benz, Range Rovers, Jaguars and other well-heated luxury vehicles would show up at the location, and expensive binoculars and telephoto lenses would appear from the zoomed down windows. Having photographed and filmed the strange bird, the whole crowd would then leave in search for new adventures on the local golf course. We, frozen, watching the spectacle from a distance standing next to our bicycles, looked at these people with great disdain.
And now here I am, 25 years later and halfway across the world, driving my gas-guzzling tank towards the gate of the pipeline road in Gamboa; a distance I could have easily walked from my house. A party tent has been put up, and a servant in a safari shirt stops me and takes over the car. Valet parking in the jungle! The journalle and other invitees wait in the shade of the tent for further transportation. Heavily armed soldiers are everywhere. Dignitaries continue to arrive; they drive past us, right up to the location itself. "The Dutch birding people could learn from this," I think. An open excursion truck and some minivans take us two kilometers up the pipeline road, where we turn left towards the "Rainforest Discovery Center" of which today's inauguration is the purpose of the whole exercise.
This Discovery Center consists of two main structures. The first is basically an open building with a grand terrace, a sort of a visitors' center. Then there is an observation tower, which rises above the jungle canopy and where wildlife can be observed from different levels. A network of paths and bridges has been laid out throughout the surrounding forest connecting the two buildings, the jungle and the waterfront. The project has been realized by the Fundación Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann, of which Raúl Arias de Para is the president. Arias also owns the Canopy Tower, a well-known and very successful bird watching resort in the jungle on the other side of Gamboa. He's here, doing the rounds and pumping the flesh, dressed in another hallmark of high-end bird watchers: The safari outfit. It doesn't matter if you really don't walk but rather drive an air-conditioned Porsche Cayenne into the wilderness: To be taken seriously in the world of tropical bird watching, one needs to be wearing a jacket with at least twenty pockets, pants with even more pockets in unreachable places and shirts that have ventilation openings everywhere. This should be topped off with a jungle-style hat and binoculars --- never leave home without them --- worn around the neck.
People are chatting, photographers take pictures, Juan Carlos Navarro walks around as if the place is his and I browse through the press folder (printed on new paper). Then we're ordered to sit down. "Oink oink," I hear from down below, and I wonder if they've brought some special bird in for the occasion. In a way, well, yes, because it's President Martín Torrijos's motorcade that produces the strange noise while making its way through the jungle. Moments later we all rise as he enters, and then listen to the various speeches. All speakers talk about conservation, sustainable use of natural resources, eco-tourism and similar subjects. That was of course to be expected from a party of such well-known environmentalists like Torrijos, canal administrator Alemán Zubieta, US ambassador William Eaton and ANAM director Ligia Castro de Doens. I wonder why I have been so critical of them in the past. After all, these are the same people who have made such great nature projects like the Petaquilla mine, Prime Forestry, Red Frog Beach Club, mustard gas on San José Island, the hydroelectric dam in the Amistad National Park, the lucrative dolphin trade by Ocean Embassy and a long list of other environmental success stories possible in our country. The only person absent, to my great relief, is Rubén Blades. Eco-tourism isn't really tourism, I suppose.
When the speeches are over, the president, his entourage and the other Important People are given a tour of the facilities. They've been handed binoculars and climb the observation tower. However, there are no birds to be seen. The US embassy has prompted the media to cover this important event (USAID has sponsored the project) and the local press has duly obeyed and shown up in full force. The only flying thing of any interest that visitors get to see is a bumblebee --- a noisy turbine-engined Bell helicopter with a cameraman in it that hovers around the tower where Torrijos and party are now making futile attempts at bird watching. I want to smoke and light a cigarette. Eyebrows are raised. A chopper has just burnt a hundred gallons of jet fuel over our heads but I am polluting the air. Torrijos returns from the tower and gives me a long look before he enters his car. Does he know who I am? I hop on the first minivan that brings me back to the valet parking. They can't start my car, so I end up getting it myself, get a thumbs-up from a soldier who likes that muffler sound and get the hell out of there. From my house, I see the convoys of the Important People head south to the city again.
I wait a couple of hours and go back. All the craziness has gone and the place is quiet, serene. The pipeline road and this new center are, under normal circumstances, really worth a visit, I realize. I even see a bird. I think it is the Yellow-chopped Keel Parakeet, but I can't be sure.
For more information about the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, see the website of the Avifauna Foundation, at http://www.avifauna.org.pa
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