Unique way to go to school

Unique way to go to school

Traveling through Central and South America, it’s hard to miss kids walking to school. Some walk for miles even before the sun rises to make sure they arrive on time. In most of these countries, schools have separate morning and afternoon sessions in order to accommodate all the grade levels on limited resources that include small buildings, no budget to provide lunch and the lack of teachers. In the afternoon, the younger kids are going back home while the older students come to session.  In remote areas the daily migration is even more common. School buses are limited or non-existent, so it’s not unusual to see seven year-old kids walking long ways along the roads or picking up a ride on public transportation.

But nothing more challenging than going to school by water. Yes, in many remote areas of Panama, I have encountered kids traveling by water in dugout canoes. This time I was in the southern range of the Bocas del Toro archipelago. For a moment you feel in another world as you are surrounded by emerald waters hugged by mangroves tall enough to touch the sky. As idyllic as it sounds it is a dangerous risk that many kids take on a daily basis.  I can only assume that classes are dismissed if bad weather approaches, but then…how would they know when far from the reach of technology? For days I lived without the cellphone lifeline I’m so used to. I was so far away from civilization that any accident could have been devastating and venomous snakes are commonly seen along the forest floor here. The waters are also patrolled by sharks. In fact, I glanced at a hammerhead just a few minutes before snapping some pictures of three kids paddling their ancient dugout canoe to school. But despite all the dangers, students and teachers make the treacherous trip from and back to school.

But the students are not the only ones on a challenging trek. One day, while driving on the main land, I came across a teacher that was in need of a ride home. She teaches at a remote school that requires a one hour hike each way through a dirt road crossing three bridgeless rivers and up to two hours by bus to the city where she lives. Every day she makes this journey for the kids in this rural community of Panama composed mainly of indigenous people of the Ngöbe-Buglé tribe.

While the purpose of my trip was to document frogs, watching the kids paddling to school was an eye -opening experience that will last a lifetime. The pictures are just there to remind me of the things I take for granted and how easy life is on my corner of the world.

Project Pumilio

I have a true passion for amphibians, those creatures with moist skin and sticky toes that many people fear or dislike. They are jumpy and at times hard to find, yet that’s nothing more than a challenging proposition to a frog fan like me. This time the trip took me for the second time in less than 6 months to the Bocas del Toro district in Panama. There’s something magical happening in this area composed of the mainland and few surrounding islands to the point that scientist called them the Galapagos of the Caribbean. By now you should know the importance of the Galapagos Islands and if you don’t here’s a tip. The Galapagos are a living evolution laboratory, where we can observe the effects of adaptive radiation, a process in which organisms diversify rapidly from an ancestral species into a multitude of new forms. In the case of Bocas del Toro, a tiny frog has evolved many different phenotypes – a description of observable physical, physiological or behavioral characteristics that separate a group of individuals from the rest of the species. Different from genotypes which are the actual genetic identity,phenotypes are affected by both the genotype and the unique environmental conditions surrounding the individual. My subject is a tiny frog — Oophaga Pumulio — aka the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. In it’s most common form it looks like the one below.

The challenging part was finding these tiny frogs no more than one inch in length while dodging the weather. For starters, these guys don’t like bad weather. In order to find them I needed to hear them first. Too much rain and they go mute, making them nearly impossible to find on the leaf litter of the forest floor. Even when the conditions were optimal, they will choose impossible places from where to call, making them inaccessible or difficult to photograph. Walking through muddied trails, slipping down the hill sides or landing on large puddles of water made the adventure more exciting at times. Once found then I had to battle the elements and the gear. Constant drizzle and high humidity sabotaged the gear more than once. The copious sweat getting in the eyes and all over the cameras added to the miserable ground conditions. To visit some of the sites where these frogs can be found we had to take boats. One of the interesting things about these frogs is the fact that several phenotypes can be found in one same island. In the case of Isla Bastimentos there are at least three different forms of the frog. Isla Colon also have their share. Every island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago offers at least two phenotypes. But the mainland offer a unique set of conditions that produced even more phenotypes. Geographical isolation by either rivers or mountains provided enough separation for the establishment of various morphs, ocasionally only separated by a river and in places where two distinct population exist, you can even find some individuals sharing characteristics of both populations. Insane to think that such a small area produced so much color evolution, but considering these frogs have a tiny range and small number of offspring.