Panama for Indoor Cats

BioMuseo Bridges the World

Faith Adiele

(USA/Nigeria)

Editing this issue of Panorama has been unexpected. One, I’m rather infamous among friends and the travel writing community for my dislike of nature. It’s not that I want to destroy the rainforest or clog the San Francisco Bay with microplastics (whatever those are). After all, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., camping, fishing and horseback riding with my Nordic American grandparents. But now, I prefer sipping cocktails on the shore to kayaking those same waters and relaxing with a book on the deck to hiking the inspiring landscape it overlooks. To quote myself (In Search of the Great Indoors in Alaska): “But at heart, I’m an indoor cat. Like the Laurie Anderson song goes, Hey! Look out! Bugs are crawling up my legs! / You know? I’d rather see this on TV. Tones it down.”

When I interviewed Amanda Machado for Panorama about becoming a late-blooming environmentalist, I saw myself in her story about losing her childhood connection to nature and not seeing herself as a person of colour reflected in Eurocentric outdoor literature. She was at a writers’ residency in my homeland of Washington State, while I was en route to Panama with my husband (who, finally ‘fessing up to a fear of open water, had vetoed any activity involving boats). I harboured the sinking feeling that once again, I’d chosen a destination best appreciated by outdoor cats and dogs. What could I take from her inspiring tale of reconnecting to nature through travelling?

One of Panama’s many surprises was the afternoon we spent at the stunning BioMuseo (opened in 2014, completed in 2019). Full disclosure, I chose it because it’s the only building in Latin America designed by Frank Gehry, a stunning landmark on the Amador Causeway that connects mainland Panama City with the archipelago. Only once we had arrived, a frantic 30 minutes before closing time, having been stuck in bottleneck traffic beneath the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, connecting North and South America, did we learn that BioMuseo is also the first museum in the world dedicated to biodiversity. 

Our pal Guillermo had slowed down at the curb to let us out before going to park. My husband and I sprinted through the surrounding Biodiversity Park with its Gardens of Interdependence, Evolution, Survival, Water, etc., and up the daunting staircase to what felt like the landing of a concrete treehouse. (I later learned that Gehry’s undulating series of roofs were designed to mimic forest tree canopies and efficiently minimise heat transmission, while the bright colours were chosen to represent Panama’s flora and fauna, as well as the cultural diversity of its indigenous and Black communities.) As we awaited Guillermo, panting in the 32-degree heat, the young staff welcomed us, reassuring us that once inside, we could stay a full hour after the museum’s official closing. This welcome extended throughout each of the eight permanent exhibition galleries: “Bienvenidos!” a bright-eyed youth would welcome us, before launching into an explanation of the gallery in Spanish and English. 

To quote the popular American kid’s show Sesame Street, the day’s learning was brought to us by the letters B-R-I-D-G-E. Though we knew that the Panama Canal (which we had visited that morning, serendipitously arriving just as an oil barge was entering the locks) bridges the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (the old slogan “The Land Divided, the World United” appears everywhere), we hadn’t realised that Panama itself is a bridge, an isthmus formed by underwater volcanoes linking North to South America millions of years ago. And the 4,000-square-metre museum itself bridges art and science, nature and technology.

Gallery #1 Biodiversity Showcase introduces visitors to the hundreds of plant and animal species only found in Panama, presenting them like a giant Periodic Table climbing the walls. Colour-coded panels indicate The State of Biodiversity, while a live digital counter tallies those that are endangered (red) or extinct (grey and black).

From there, we rounded the corner into Gallery #2 Panamarama, an immersive, 10-screen projection of close-up nature scenes that felt like flying around the country. 

The next two galleries put me in mind of Bryanna Plog’s lyrical essay about revisiting the Great Rift Valley and standing on the lip of a volcanic caldera, contemplating Kenya’s political and tectonic turmoil. Gallery #3 The Bridge Surge details the moment Panama was born through underwater volcanic activity, connecting the Americas and changing the world. As we descended a ramp, we found ourselves in Gallery #4 The Great Exchange, surrounded by 72 life-sized sculptures of the animals, ranging from giant ground sloths and giant pre-armadillos to tiny rodents, that started to cross Panama’s land bridge 3 million years ago. Standing amongst them was like reenacting the rest of the Laurie Anderson verse:

And Sharkey says: All of nature talks to me

If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me. Listen!

Trees are swinging in the breeze. They’re talking to me

Insects are rubbing their legs together

They’re all talking. They’re talking to me. And short animals–

They’re bucking up on their hind legs. Talking. Talking to me

From there, we exited the first building and found ourselves in an expansive outdoor atrium beneath the building, edged with Birds without Borders, panels and murals tracking migratory patterns. In the centre clustered the 16 colour-coded columns documenting human interaction with nature that comprise Gallery #5 The Human Footprint. The photographs, maps, and oral testimony recalled Leslie Roberts’ deep dive into the archive in her powerful homage to a sister scholar to shine light on the ordinary, non-heroes who travelled to and studied Antarctica. 

Guillermo came rushing to borrow my camera phone, having found a timeline that lined up history from 1501 BC to the present in Panama, the Americas and the World. I moved slowly, reading about the links between ancient and modern indigenous groups, immigration, current environmental challenges, and brilliant armed resistance by enslaved Africans. My husband never met a plaque he didn’t like, and we would have spent the rest of our vacation here if not for the young docent who tracked us down and ushered us into the other building, warning us that it would close, whereas the atrium was always open.

We entered darkened, restful Gallery #6 Oceans Divided, which was flanked by two, floor-to-ceiling aquariums–one housing Caribbean Sea life, the other Pacific Ocean life. From there, we climbed the stairs to what appeared to be merely a foyer offering views of Biodiversity Park, the Panama City skyline, and the water. Upon closer inspection, however, we found Gallery #7 The Living Network to be one of the most thoughtfully-curated exhibits. Colourful, 15-metre sculptures of plants, frogs, snakes, insects, and microorganisms–all larger than humans–underscored the importance of non-human life in ecosystems, while technology like telephones and a touchscreen Living Web afforded fascinating connections among the species, showing how each is symbiotically connected. 

The top floor, Gallery #8 Panama is the Museum, was the most tech-heavy. Against the otherworldly glow of the aquariums extending up from two floors below, floor signage directed us to Pisa los íconos y descubre Panamá / Step on the icons and discover Panama. Happily, we hopped up and down atop magenta, neon green, and orange motion sensors, which activated video projection onto a 3D sculpture of the country. 

Each video was a Choose Your Own (Travel) Adventure about cultural practices or environmental features. Montar un diablo rojo a Colón / Ride a diablo rojo to Colón, one invited us, referencing the famous retired U.S. school buses that were painted and repurposed as public transportation for decades. The options were either I do! or Keep Looking, which I did, in hopes of filling the entire surface. When Camina hasta la Iglesia de Cristo Negro / Walk to Church of the Black Christ, a pilgrimage site on the Caribbean coast for Afro-Panamanians, who comprise one-quarter to one-third of the population, appeared, Guillermo shouted with excitement. 

And truly, the quest fueling our trip was to learn about Afro-Panamanian culture (and in Cartagena, our next stop, Afro-Colombian culture). It resonated with my discussions with Emily Raboteau about her new book, Lessons for Survival, in which she uses her identity as travel-writer-turned-mother-to-Black-sons to connect with the environment and global liberation, and with my student Thomas Dunn’s lyric essay meditating on images of Black American cowfolk and back to the land-ers, while riding the public bus in a Black male body. 

We left, Guillermo marvelling at never having visited the museum before, despite being Panama born and bed, He declared his intention to return often and tell everyone he knew about it. High on history and plaques, my husband declared happily, “Now we don’t have to travel around Panama or ride in any boats. We saw the Whole Outdoors, indoors!” Hilariously wrong as that is, I gotta hand it to him. We travelled; we learned to appreciate biodiversity; and we got to see it on TV.  

Sidebar:

BioMuseo (Calzada de Amador, 136, Panama City) is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10:00-3:00, no reservations required, tickets $5.00-10.00 (residents), $12.00-20.00 (non-residents). The museum includes a public atrium, gift shop, café, and free botanical park.

Anderson, Laurie. “Sharkey’s Day.” Mister Heartbreak. Warner Bros. Records, 1984.

Ecology BioMuseo 001 Setting by Fernando Alda

© Fernando Alda / Courtesy of BioMuseo

Ecology BioMuseo 007 Guillermo Living Web

© Faith Adiele / Courtesy of the author

Faith Adiele

is a

Senior Editor for Panorama.

Faith Adiele founded the USA’s first writing workshop for travelers of color through VONA and is the first columnist for DETOUR: Best Stories in Black Travel and a senior editor at PANORAMA: THE JOURNAL OF TRAVEL, PLACE, AND NATURE. Her award-winning memoir MEETING FAITH routinely makes travel listicles, and her travel media credits include A WORLD OF CALM (HBO-Max), Sleep Stories (CALM app), and MY JOURNEY HOME (PBS). A member of the Black Travel Alliance and Airheart Explorer Series, she teaches travel writing around the world, including TRAVELCON. A media expert in mindful, decolonial and BIPOC travel, she publishes in UNDOMESTICATED, HERE MAGAZINE, OFF ASSIGNMENT, BEST WOMEN’S TRAVEL WRITING, MIAMI HERALD, OPRAH MAGAZINE, ESSENCE, and others.

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