In a few weeks a group of teachers will arrive with Principal Investigator Dr. Bruce McFadden to gain hands-on research experience at the fossil localities in the Canal Zone of Panama. It’s strange to think that in some way over the time that they will be here, I will in some way be teaching some small bit about paleontology to someone who could easily have been my teacher sometime in the past 10 years.
Thinking about this reminded me of one final experience to share about our time in the Azuero Peninsula that I thought was relevant to our audience.
One day I was sitting on the beach in Palo Seco where I’d found, with Liliana of STRI, a chunk of fossilized wood a bit smaller than an American football about a week earlier. That day we were there to collect fossils so, I decided to sit down to try and retrieve it. Despite the fact that it was exposed and large enough that someone could trip over it, the limestone matrix it was deposited in was incredibly tough to chip away. I sat down next to the fossil with a chisel and mallet to hack away at the rock surrounding the fossil, the aim being to get underneath it and finally free it from its rocky grave. I hadn’t been there for more than 15 minutes when four small Panamanian boys wandered over and stared at me in silence for 2 or 3 minutes.
Finally, one of them asked “what are you doing?”, but in Spanish.
My Spanish skills are just strong enough that I decided to take a whack at explaining what I was doing to this cadre of young Panamanians. After some stumbling over pronunciation and struggling to find words or phrases to describe my activity accurately they seemed pleased with the explanation I had provided. After that, I went back to work. To my amazement, they were interested enough, or sufficiently bored, to sit and continue to watch even as chips of tough limestone pelted each of them as I continued to beat at the rock. However, I was then retrieved for a more pressing matter farther South along the beach, at which point the boys amused themselves by pulling limbs off an unlucky crab that had wandered too far from its rocky home.
It amazed me at first the patience and curiosity that these students had to watch me attempt to extract a fossil chunk of wood to little avail. Then I remembered the intensity of interest I had in dinosaurs at there age. It leads me to wonder, however far out it may be or not, whether they might remember that out of place ‘gringo’ sitting on the beach when they’re in school and decide to explore geology as they continue through school.