Life on BCI

Many of you have asked about where we live and what we wear when we go into the forest. Let's talk about our living quarters first. Have you had a chance to look at a world map yet? Have you located Panama? It's important that you do that so that you get a sense of where in the world we are and how far we are from where you are. And where we are in relation to the Equator.

You already know that we're in a region known as the tropics, and that we're on an island in Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal zone. The island is named Barro Colorado Island and has a land mass of about 15 square kilometers or 1500 hectares.

We are staying at the field station of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on the island. This facility was established to provide living and working quarters for scientists to study tropical plant and animal life. It is strictly a study and research area, located within a large wildlife preserve; this is not a resort area.

There are six buildings which were built to house visiting scientists, researhers, assistants, and some staff. Although we refer to these buildings as houses, they are different from typical houses in that they have only bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, desks and chairs, and lamps, and ceiling fans. So, we don't need tents because we come back to our rooms after we do our field work. It is very important that we change clothes and shower soon after returning from the forest in case ticks and chiggers are clinging to our clothes.

Most of the houses have beds for eight people, Usually two to a room. Sometimes if students are visiting, cots are moved in to accomodate extra people. We share bathrooms with showers. Warm running water is a luxury we are fortunate to have for cleaning up after a day's work is done.

There are no glass windows in the houses, just lots of screening to let whatever breeze there might be blow through. There are large roof overhangs to keep rain from blowing into the rooms. The ceiling fan helps circulate the air; even hot, humid air is more bearable if it's moving. These houses have no kitchens. If we leave food in our rooms, animals such as coatimundis will smell it and tear through the screens to get at it. They can climb the trees close to the houses and jump onto the balconies. Then, you might find one curled up in your bed! They look something like racoons. We'll tell you more about animals another day.

Food is served cafeteria style in a large screened-in dining hall where we sit at long tables. This gives scientists a chance to talk with each other about their projects. The cook is Panamanian and lots of our meals include delicious Panamanian dishes that I'm (Jane) enjoying for the first time, such as fried yuca, sancocho, and baked plantains.

While we don't have to cook our own meals, we do have to do lots of laundry and keep our rooms clean. It's not like a hotel. A laboratory building is air conditioned to protect the scientific equipment, computers, books, and other supplies. Every bedroom has a "dry closet" where a small heater in the closet stays on all the time to keep our clothes, shoes, and books dry and free from mold and mildew which can be a real problem in humid areas.

The buildings are fairly close to the lakeshore. Many have balconies where we can sit and watch the birds and monkeys in the trees. There is no sand beach area. Some people take a canoe out to a raft anchored in the cove and swim out there. There are nesting crocodiles along some parts of the shore and it's best to leave them alone!

Gatun Lake is part of the Panama Canal, is a fresh water lake, and provides water for the canal locks. Our water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and so forth is punped out of the lake and up to a small treatment tank where it is treated with Chlorine to make it potable.

Other than the living and working area described earlier, there is no town or community and no store on the island. In fact, the one "road" on the island is only about six feet wide and several hundred feet long and is used to transport supplies and equipment from the boat dock to the kitchen loading dock or to the houses. The only vehicle on the whole island is a small old jeep that the workers use for hauling stuff. Otherwise, we get around the island on foot, walking the many kilometers of trails and there are 40 km of trails) through the forest.

The nearest place, Gamboa, where some of the Panamanian workers and their families live and where there is a very small sparsely stocked store, is a 30 minute boat ride away across the lake and canal. To buy regular and household items, people have to drive or take the bus from Gamboa to Panama City, which might take 45 to 60 minutes more. You can see that it's necessary to plan your shopping trips carefully because there's no such thing as running to the corner store for something you forgot to buy.