Paradise in Panama

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Protected and isolated during thirty years of war, the still pristine eastern village of Panama is like a place left over from past centuries. Bordered by two national wildlife sanctuaries, it is as enchanting as it is quiet and beautiful. And what luck to be there together with three wildlife experts who could easily rhyme off the name of every bird, flower and animal seeking solace in this mystical place.

My bag seems to be permanently packed these days, as I like to be ready for whatever adventure next presents itself. Thus, there was no hesitation in my voice as I accepted an invitation to accompany Shireen on another UN proposal assessment expedition - this time to the east coast. Although the country is small, travel is often slow and arduous due to the mountainous terrain, so we spent an entire day en route to Panama. Of course there were plenty of stops along the way - first for a dubious coloured but tasty liquid breakfast at the roadside, and later a rice and curry lunch packed in banana leaves, that we ate during a visit to Budurugawala. Its rock-cut carvings apparently date back to the 10th century, and include the tallest standing Buddha on the island. We then counted twenty-three elephants as we drove along the Udawalawe National Park, but it was actually worrying to see them leaving their natural habitat in order to line the park’s boundary fence, waiting for the peanuts and bananas offered by the many uneducated tourists.

Our accommodation at the Wildlife Research and Conservation Trust Centre was just a stone’s throw from the sea, but was separated from the sea by seventy-five foot high sand dunes. In fact it was these very sand dunes that protected Panama from the 2004 tsunami, while neighbouring villages were washed away. We were up at daybreak (how agonizing for me) to set off on our daily walk with field glasses and cameras in hand. Male peacocks danced in circles, strutting their feathers while the females yawned in boredom and walked away. Moneys jumped playfully from branch to branch, while kingfishers and bee eaters swept past, creating iridescent flashes of blues and greens.

Driving north two hours, we arrived in Sammanthurai for a joint meeting with eight NGOs. Each in turn presented interesting proposals focusing on bio diversity, land degradation and climate change, all to eventually benefit the local farmers and fisher folk. Back in Colombo, some people are busy making decisions about which five star hotel they might eat at, or the glittery wardrobe they might select for a night out at the newly opened lotus-shaped concert hall. But here on the east coast where the effects of the tsunami were the most severe, many people are out collecting firewood for their evening meal, or carrying buckets of water for their daily bath, or transporting the rice harvest using ox carts. Another interesting study in contrasts.

While Shireen and several of the NGOs examined a potential area for mangrove replanting (the Indian Peace Keeping Force had bulldozed them all during the war, as they feared members of the LTTE might be hiding out in the dense growth), I was diverted by a group of Muslim children who thought my camera was more fun than playing in the sand. Beautiful kids!!

 The highlight of the trip for me however, was the Panama Lagoon where I could easily have sat for hours and still not identified all of the interesting and unique bird life. Any non bird lovers could observe the crocodiles bathing in the noonday sun with their jaws wide open, completely oblivious to what was happening around them. Alternately, they might photograph the varied flowers of the area, including Sri Lanka’s national flower - the pale blue lotus or Nymphaea nouchal. It was later that afternoon during our drive through Yala East National Park to Kumana, that we first noticed Sri Lanka’s national bird - the Jungle Fowl. Nothing much to write home about as far as I was concerned, but we were all exhilarated to catch a glimpse of the resplendent leopard - generally seen only in the more southern Yala National Park. Sitting in the open grass for only a moment before dashing into the dense jungle growth, he definitely made our day!

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