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Scorpions and Kissing Penguins in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Saturday, 29 March 2008 17:49
Parrot in Panama I've never really considered myself an animal lover as much as an animal eater. Before I got to Panama, cure I had safely restricted wild animals to a faraway land: the pages of magazines, clinic the plots of TV shows, and the false fronts of toy stores where stuffed elephants and toucans ran my dad around twenty bucks.
It was sitting in my apartment one Sunday afternoon in El Cangrejo that I spotted what looked to be an elaborate cluster of hairpins making its way up the wall. As I neared, the fact that it was a scorpion became clear and I rushed for my field guide before the little pincher could get away.

The Centruroides gracilis (aka scorpion) I read aloud to myself, is often found under barks and stones in tropical forests, also in piles of wood, debris, and sacs. Commonly distributed in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras and Panama (introduced).

I liked how the book added the word sacs in there, but found it strange to use the word distributed as, to me, that suggests that at some point in time, a purveyor and his crew arrived in Panama with a colony of scorpions and proceeded to dole out one or two to each block of the Republic. It was less that the scorpion incident was especially memorable, and more so that it cemented my fascination with the bizarre living things one can find in Panama, outside of the expats who now call this place home.

Born and raised in the academic town of Princeton, New Jersey, I was pressured from a number of angles to be smart. To an outsider, the obvious assumption was that my entire playschool group was destined to grow up, attend Princeton University, and become famous scientists; a notion that was disproved seeing as though we mostly enjoyed pooping in our diapers and laughing about it.

Throughout my childhood though, there was significant stress put on the concept of education and learning. School field trips were organized to the local library where kind, old librarians would explain how to use something they called the Dewey Decimal System: a row of wooden drawers which, to spice things up, they'd reveal hid the secret clues as to a book's location in the wings.

I would like to think I showed technological foresight in my faith in computers, but I rarely listened to these lectures, instead marveling at the amount of techno colored chewing gum that had affixed itself to the bottom of, what seemed like, every table in the building.

I imagined the offenders sitting there in their chairs, unwrapping, chewing, and fastening packs, if not cases of bubblegum at a time. It was strange, but they must have considered it a job, to be so dedicated in plastering mass pieces of furniture. At the time, the bubble gum crime seemed much more of an unsolved mystery to me than, say, the whereabouts of Moby Dick. Had I known I would some day come face to face with a Centruroides gracilis, my outlook here might have changed.

Other trips brought us to museums, many of which were specifically dedicated to children. Small interactive displays were always fan favorites as were good food courts and large gift shops where most of the stuff, while overpriced, we desperately needed to have

Surefire bets were always the aquariums and zoos as they were anchored at least in the prospect that maybe one animal might eat another before our very eyes. Depending on our age, these trips required us to be monitored by a chaperone who was almost always the same annoying mother who liked to think she was getting younger hanging around a bunch of pre-teens.

"Hey dudes!" she would say. "Hey dudes, look! That penguin is trying to kiss the other penguin! Isn't that cool? They're in love." No one listened. "Yep, they love each other. Just like Mr. Bayless and me used to be before we got divorced. We used to go to aquariums all the time and he'd always pick me up in..."

At this point, all the kids would have moved on to try to steal from the vending machines, but I took pleasure in being her audience as, in the spirit of the zoo, she was clearly an creature worth observing.

Various cages and displays at these types of places were hyper-entertaining for a period of about fifteen seconds, after which they became incredibly boring and dull. There was sometimes excitement in trying to find the poison dart frog amidst a small jungle of leaves or the sleeping tarantula back in the corner of the terrarium. But with such short attention spans there appeared a clear breaking point and as children, we were all too keen to carve it out.

"This place sucks monkey balls!" announced one of my colleagues after a less-than-impressive guppy feeding at the national aquarium in Washington DC. And while I hadn't really been paying any attention during the entire visit, focused instead on how to raid the aquarium's Lost and Found, I remember thinking subconsciously to myself that yes, this place really does suck monkey balls.

I had grown up, like many of my mini-colleagues, with little appreciation for animals and the environment, contrary to what teachers and elders wanted me to believe. Deer, an ultra-common sighting in Princeton, were most recognizable to me as carcasses dead on the side of the road. Tigers, to me, were the things on the front of Frosted Flakes, dinosaurs were purple and could talk, and an iguana was a racist term against a Hispanic. It was only upon arriving in Panama, that a new and wild door opened up.

I came to acquire a number of field guides over my first few years visiting Panama, many of which became tattered and soiled: a trait which I liked to think added to their character. Trips to the jungle and time on the beach would reveal amazing wildlife like titi monkeys and sharks and bees and parrots and alligators and jaguars and dogs; all slowly becoming more accessible, more familiar living things.

I have consulted my wildlife guides numerous nights since the scorpion incident, and every time I come across something new. I might go as far as to say that whatever brings these wild animals out and into my sight is something close to paranormal, and I suppose the appreciation of this phenomenon is what my childhood educators had been getting at all along. I suppose the wonderful country of Panama was meant to underscore the charming difference between natural and imitated beauty: a discrepancy it took me, the youthful and boorish offspring, elephant years to understand.

Comments (3)Add Comment
great writing
written by KimB , March 30, 2008
Wow Matt! Your writing is engaging. Have you ever thought about putting together a book? I was interested in Panama a while back (not really any more) for real estate but still come to your site to read stories like this. You have a way of capturing the reader that should not be wasted. Keep up the great work. -Kim
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written by BenniJ , March 30, 2008
shes right matt. your words are really neat. put together as if crafted over years. ok well, maybe not that well-crafted ( i found a spelling error above smilies/smiley.gif but they are seriously entertaining to read. id definitely buy your book (as long as its not $99 smilies/smiley.gif
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written by I said , April 01, 2008
Smart, irreverent, ironic.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 22:00