A Man Sees Green


Translation of an article that appeared in
Sueddeutsche Zeitung by Veit Elser
21 December 1999

Ornithologist and model hotel keeper Raul Arias de Para runs a hotel at the Panama canal in the rain forest: the Canopy Tower.

Nothing stirs, everything is green. But Segundo Jimenez says he’s seen an Iguana. With his finger he points into the ocean of treetops, and, because for the others on the observation platform of the Canopy Tower everything is still just green, he aims the telescope at a very particular square meter of rain forest. He focuses the alleged Iguana. In the viewfinder: boundless green, magnified, in many forms and shades, and in between a small brown point.

Finally the Iguana moves the tip of his nose and in the viewfinder begins the expedition into the animal kingdom. The lizard turns its head left, toward the Panama canal, as a tanker from Taiwan cruises by, then right, toward the high rise panorama of Panama City. “In the old days I would have shot and eaten him,” says Segundo, “or at least sold him.” Until two years ago he roamed and poached in the forests of the Canal Zone, today he works as a guide in the Canopy Tower, a hotel that first and foremost realizes the ornithologist’s dream-hotel, while satisfying the needs of any nature lover.

King of Vultures

(Although this quite clearly is a reference to Arias de Para, the article is generally very flattering; Germans just have this obsession with using literary elements, such as tying in the vulture observation.)

The light blue tower with its large yellow sphere on top was built in 1965 by the US Air Force as a radar station to secure the canal; then, after 1988, it was used to identify suspicious airplanes carrying drugs from bordering countries into the north. The Americans abandoned the then dirty-white tower in the mid-nineties, and several raccoon families moved into the lower story while the upper stories became home to African bees. “We had to engage experts wearing astronaut uniforms to rid us of the bees,” says Raul Arias de Para, the owner of the Canopy Tower. He speaks quietly and slowly, hardly looking at his conversation partner, there being at 300 meters elevation more interesting sights: birds.

While scanning the horizon with his binoculars, he recalls the beginnings of the hotel. Everything was to be left in its natural state. Already in the renovation he took pains to reuse items that were already there. “As an example, the old fire-escape was used as a crane for the construction workers.” Suddenly Arias de Para interrupts his recollections, goes to the telescope, and withdraws from the conversation for several minutes. A gallinazo rey, a King Vulture, an exceptionally rare vulture, circles at a distance of a few hundred meters. After he has captured the bird in the telescope and confirms that it is indeed this rare species of vulture, he returns to the conversation. “Gallinazo rey is the king of the vultures. According to studies, this bird can smell carrion many thousands of meters away, even if it is buried under a pile of vegetation.” The vulture with the white back soars leisurely over the gentle undulations in the canopy of tree tops. All other vultures have vanished.

Only after the vulture has headed toward the Atlantic does the hotel keeper return to the subject of his dream, of building an eco-hotel in the Canal Zone. Long negotiations and a positive recommendation from the environmental agency were required before he obtained ownership of the American piece of real estate that lies in the middle of Soberania National Park, 30 minutes by car from the capital, and offering the best view of the Culebra Cut, the narrowest section of the Panama canal.

Arias de Para installed large windows, and in the upper story, a well organized library offering naturalists all the standard reference texts and journals they might need. These resources are also used by Segundo, to show the tourists yet another thing that their own eyes failed to witness.

Already six rooms, each with bath and desk, are available to ornithologists and nature lovers, and in a seventh the teak doors are just in the process of being installed. “The wood, of course, comes from a plantation, not from the rain forest,” says Arias de Para and sets down the binoculars. He would much prefer to spend every day up in his tower, alone with his binoculars, alone with his birds. However, business in Panama City limit the time he can devote to his passion. He has become a model hotel keeper with his Canopy Tower by already practicing the TCI (tourism, conservation, research) principles. Arias de Para brings in tourists which in turn bring the revenues that finance people like Segundo, who on his forest tours can keep an eye out for poachers. The hotel for its part has promised to finance a long term study of migratory birds.

Every October a group of scientists arrives to count three species of birds on their way from North to South America. “Studies that may prove valuable only after some twenty years, and yet are especially important today,” says Arias de Para. In addition, for Segundo and another ex-poacher Julian, he has found an alternative to their former illegal activities. The guests profit from the latter’s knowledge of the local geography and their ability to see animals where others only see green.

After nightfall Segundo will descend the Tower with an American guest and enter the rain forest. “He is crazy about frogs.” He has spent already three nights with him in the wet vegetation, looking for the croaking animals. The frog freak takes the nice specimens he finds back to the tower where he photographs them on a rock in the morning light, before he lets them hop away and returns to bed.

The wind picks up and terrific howling emanates from the green ocean of leaves. “Howler monkeys,” says Segundo and: “they say it will soon rain.


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