There is something humbly iconic about Panama's stretch of the Pan-American Highway. It is the only roadway that runs through the entire thin, S-shaped contour of Panama (only stopping at the Darien Gap, where no roads exist). It is the artery that circulates Panama's flow of humanity. Because of its singular importance, the highway often serves as a theater for one of Panama's cherished pastimes, the ceremonial blockading of the highway for the protest du jour, drawing attention to causes ranging from vocational school students complaining about the lack of tools for their shop classes to indigenous peoples fighting for control of their natural resources. Barring a protest, the highway will take you across Panama, and now it can take you to the stars.
Rodney already views the observatory in the larger context of its Panamanian surroundings. For years, Panama has been showing its visitors unspoiled nature—postcard-perfect islands, rainforests knotted with vegetation, skittish armadillos. Yet no realm can be more unspoiled than that of the heavens, give or take a handful of probes and a few tons of space junk. Rodney envisions a series of all-day or multi-day tours that will reveal the science of our natural world—birding in the nearby jagged mountains of the central province of Cocle, watching sea turtles nest a few hours south—and will conclude with a peek at some of the worlds of our celestial neighborhood and beyond. Of course, Rodney will reserve some time for a little debunking of Mayan prophecy hysteria.
"Here is…okay, instead, let me ask, what do you see?" asked Rodney, gesturing toward the eyepiece after the telescope had settled on a new target. A tangled congregation of stars, glowing in a peaceful softness, exuded a radiance I had never seen reproduced in photographs. It was my first time looking directly at a nebula. Not an artist's rendering, not a touched-up NASA image. It seemed to form gauzy lines and shapes, offering a bonanza for Rorschach testers. In the spirit of the test, I shouted out the first image that floated across my mind. "It's a turtle head."
Referring to this celestial object, Rodney quipped, "You are looking at the Turtle Head Nebula." He then said, soberly, that the object is 11 million years old. Rodney put it in perspective in a way that only an astrophysicist could: "11 million years is nothing," he added. "It's the present."
I wondered how Rodney, with such a humbling view of space and time, handles moments of discovery. I asked him what went through his mind the first time he saw Jupiter through a telescope. "I remember the feeling," he answered, his words drawn out as if to enjoy the many facets of the surfacing memory. "There was only a telescope between him and me, it was really nice. There is a feeling you cannot explain. Jupiter is there. I mean, it is not somebody kidding you. It's not somebody that just told me that Jupiter is there. It's yours. It's nobody else's."
He is confident that other astrophysicists in the past had similar reactions. "That's how astrophysics was born." Perhaps it was also how astrotourism was born. Similar experiences of illumination could have sired tourism itself.
All the while, the glow of the pedestrian overpass remained hunkered down like a voyeur, too dim to interfere with the telescope's targets, too bright to allow me to forget where I was.
The Roadside Performance
A week later, on a Panama City-bound bus, I watched my driver's assistant push a disk into the player above the seats. It would be yet another showing of Resident Evil: Afterlife dubbed in Spanish, a favorite flick (along with the whole movie franchise) on Panamanian long distance buses.
Having had my fill of zombies on Panamanian public transportation (the apocalypse is coming, I get it), I pulled away the curtain covering the window and tuned into the scenes along the Pan-American Highway, with their zinc-roofed churches, billboards for beachfront condos, and cantinas with hand-painted signage featuring bikini girls or anthropomorphic cashew apples. Cows lying down under trees. Concrete walls, painted with happy colors, surrounding the grounds of 24-hour love hotels. The blackness of slash-and-burn haze. Rest stops selling Panamanian-style fried rice with carrots and green olives (their pits waiting to crack the teeth of the unvigilant). More cows. A sign, along a dangerous straightaway notorious for speeding, reading AREA OF ACCIDENTS, under which was written DEATHS followed by the latest tally tacked over the previous one; crosses to indicate horrific highway deaths where there is no sign to conveniently count them.
And now: the distinctive domed head, with retractable mohawk slit, of an observatory. Just another sight, as Panamanian as the rest, along the highway.
The observatory at Penonome begins hosting scheduled observation activities for the public in January 2013. For more information, please visit http://www.oap.utp.ac.pa/ .
Earthly copyright Darrin DuFord, space photos copyright OAP-UTP.
Darrin DuFord's debut book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. A past contributor to Perceptive Travel, he has also written articles for The San Francisco Chronicle, Transitions Abroad, World Hum, and Gastronomica, among others. Read his latest ruminations on travel and food on his blog, OmnivorousTraveler.wordpress.com.
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