| One of the most active organizations, the
National Association for the Conservation of Nature, got involved in the environmental
impact statement for the toll road and was burned by bad publicity, but it remains a
player in the development-versus-preservation debate. The organization's 28-year-old
director of environmental policy, Angel Urena, took me on a tour of the reverted areas in
his dusty Isuzu to show me the potential for orderly, ecofriendly building in his country.
The so-called Rainforest Road leads north from Panama City toward the old "silver" town of Paraiso, where black laborers from the Caribbean and other non-Caucasians once lived in the strict segregation imposed by the old Panama Canal Co. (Whites were paid in gold-backed currency and everyone else in silver-backed, terms used to describe the different communities; thus "gold" and "silver" became official euphemisms for race.) Off the highway stood clapboard houses with wooden shutters and corrugated iron roofs, raised aboveground to avoid the moisture and the insects, unpainted and sear against blooming hibiscus and other tropical profusion.
Domestic architecture in the zone, a pleasing amalgam of styles uniquely suited to tropical conditions, employs the conventions of the Caribbean, south Louisiana, and south Texas, but requires constant upkeep and fumigation. It was difficult to imagine the Panamanians in their current state of developmental enthusiasm undertaking the unglamorous aspects of stewardship, as the U.S. military had done as a matter of course.
The side road to Gamboa crossed the Chagres River on a wooden, one-way trestle. A camp complete with a chef was established on the river by the French as early as 1880. The French set up a "fluviograph" at Gamboa to measure the daunting flow of water from the interior of Panama, upon which the operation of the entire canal would depend.
Gamboa was a kind of blue-collar community for heavy-equipment operators and other "gold" employees living away from Panama City, in houses much like those in Balboa. Today the occupants are mostly Panamanian. Urena and I saw children playing on bicycles in winding streets not much changed in half a century, under mango and bougainvillea. The kids are bused about 25 miles to school in Panama City now; the swimming pool, movie theater, and commissary that once made life easier and more enjoyable have all been closed, and the only commercial enterprise is a gas pump and a little mercado.
The Smithsonian Institution maintains quarters in Gamboa for members of its Tropical Research Institute, which dates almost to the opening of the canal. The institute operates on Barro Colorado Island in nearby Gatun Lake, where scientists have pondered a rich variety of tropical science subjects, from primate migration to epiphytes. Independent of the U.S. embassy and military the Smithsonian has retained its holdings and its reputation as a friend of the Panamanian government.
The Interoceanic Regional Authority has given a few concessions in the east side of the old zone to builders who will supposedly cater to the ecologically responsible; one of the concessions is in Gamboa. The old North American golf course on the banks of the Chagres is moribund and the clubhouse falling down, but a Panamanian developer plans to build a small hotel here, on the edge of the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, one of four created out of land on the east side of the canal that reverted to Panama after the '77 treaty was signed.