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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Paso Ancho, in the Mountains, that much nearer Heaven

La Ciudad de Panamá, a tangled nest of superhighways and skyscrapers, was beautiful in its ultra-modern ugliness. I stayed at a very pleasant older hotel recommended to me, the Veracruz; it was quiet and the staff was friendly; everything was wonderful except for the oppressive heat that hardly lessened during the night, making it hard to sleep.

The next morning I took a small commuter plane to Davíd (dah-VEED). From the tiny porthole I looked down on wrinkled forested hills and sharp mountainsides, hardly able to focus on the newspaper I’d taken aboard to see what was happening in my new homeland. David, when I landed, was more like what previous experience had led me to expect in a Latin American city, the one we read about in Borges and Allende, with its shabby storefronts, doughty farmers’ markets, and old haciendas trying to shake off the sweat and dust.

My new landlord, a German named Wulf, plus his delightful Panamanian wife Olivia, picked me up at the airport. Wulf is a retired cop whose career was in the United States, so his English is superb if, like his wobbly Spanish, it has a German tang to it. Olivia, who comes from a very poor background, has excellent innate intelligence and judgement, plus a deliciously acerbic sense of humor.

Davíd and Panamá, being at sea level and only eight degrees north of the Equator, have the climate you would expect: one of considerable heat and humidity throughout the year, with thunderstorms thrown in during the Rainy Season. They also have a high population density with the inevitable crime, drugs, and traffic accidents. And they suffer from what I call the “Gringo Factor”: prices always seem to be higher where there are enough well-heeled gringos who still find those higher prices a bargain compared to back home.

But Paso Ancho (“Broad Pass” in Spanish) – in the western highlands near Costa Rica, under the watchful eye of Barú, the country’s tallest mountain – is in what is called a microclimate, an ecological niche. You might think you were in the Adirondack Mountains minus the winter – though once in a while it actually does snow a little bit on Barú’s upper slopes. In fact, the clean scent of pine and spruce in the air reminds me of “home”, of the northern New York community of Theresa where I spent much of my childhood. Here, as in that village not far from the Canadian border, evergreen trees easily outnumber deciduous; the difference is that here every now and then one is surprised to see a particularly hardy palm or banana tree managing to live at this altitude. The temperatures are uniformly springlike; it is rarely hot in the afternoon, and can get cool enough for a sweater or even a jacket in the evening. At night it can get into the low 40s Fahrenheit.

Travelling up to Paso Ancho is not merely a physical trip through space, up a highway into higher altitudes; it is also a voyage through time.

* * *

As they come to me to be written, new chapters will be added to this blog, so stay tuned! But the blogs up to a certain point are now chapters are now in a book.

So, to read more, you need the book A WRITER IN PANAMÁ.

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  1. Panama sounds amazing James. I think you have found paradise. The forest reminds me of my parents cottage on the eastern shore of Lake Superior. All coniferous, except we get about 4 feet of snow. According to Gaia theorist Lovelock, that forest will soon become like Panama.

  2. Ah, yes... it is so lovely up there. I know your people's stomping ground (after France, of course, hee hee) better, up in Thunder Bay... equally beautiful. Panama has something of that same unspoiled-nature feeling, minus the winter snows, of cours - though, as I shall detail later, even here there is snow up near the mountain peaks.

  3. James, you sound truly happy there. It makes me smile, and I love your photos and essays about life in Panama. Thanks for sharing your new home with those of us who can't make it there - yet.