Panama’s Climate: “If you don’t like the weather now, just wait a few minutes!”

American humorist Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemons) said famously, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”  We think that sentiment may apply equally well in Panama’s delightfully confusing seasons and weather.

Two weeks into December, we have started the transition from “the Wet Season” (aka winter) to “the Dry Season” (aka summer) in Panama.  Yes, even though Panama is a tad more than 1000 kilometers (a bit over 620 miles) north of the Equator, here people insist that Panamanian summer comes during the northern hemisphere’s winter, and – after Panamanian summer expires in what otherwise would be spring north of the Equator – the rest of the year is Panamanian winter.  Spring and fall entirely drop out of people’s concepts of seasons here.

Even the times for sunrise and sunset do not change terribly much through the year (certainly nothing like the eight-hour swings of daylight Brian had between long summer days and short winter days growing up in Washington State), gifting our body clocks with a welcoming consistent routine.  As a consequence, Panama has no cause to spring forward or fall back to navigate Daylight Savings Time.  With Panama’s contra-Equatorial concepts of winter and summer, that would get too confusing anyway.  Moreover, with one daughter in the U.S. state of Arizona (where they call Daylight Savings Time “silly time” and do not change their clocks) and another daughter in Casablanca (where the Moroccan government declared a few years ago two days before Daylight Savings Time was supposed to end that they would remain on DST year-round instead of changing their clocks, causing havoc with digital global clocks and prompting us to abandon using conventional time designations in favor of MTS – “Moroccan Time Syndrome”), we appreciate counting on the consistency of one child always being two hours behind us and the other child always being six hours ahead of us.

So through the parade of months, we can expect in Panama to have only the change from wet to dry and a commensurate increase in temperatures of about 5ºC (fewer than 10ºF) as we move from the aptly-named Wet to Dry Seasons, or Panamanian winter to summer.  Based on what people have told us, the high daily humidity will remain just as high.  We simply will not have daily rain pouring down; and so, for a few months, we will not need to follow the otherwise prudent practice of keeping an umbrella on one’s person any time going out.

But as of today we have not yet reached that point of humid-but-rainless days stretching through weeks and months.  Instead, we have stepped back from wondering when our daily downpour will come (and, indeed, if it will repeat one or more times in a day) to enjoying a good rain shower only a few days each week.  Amid this, we still have not mastered the art of predicting whether and when such rain may come.  It seems that clouds can come from nowhere at any time, and suddenly the sky sobs.

That ever-present prospect can be problematic for Brian on his regular walks along the quiet roads lined with hints of wilderness around our house.  His regular route runs from our house, out the gate of La Montañesa, and along the solitude of his steps for 6.3 km (just shy of 4 miles).  In that solitude, many of his steps he takes while watching the magnificent movement of clouds that Panama’s changing weather rolls over the panorama’s green hills.

White fluffy clouds moving briskly cause him no concern.  Dark clouds, especially moving briskly, merit closer watching to make sure their trajectory leads them in a direction other than where Brian walks.  At the high rotonda (traffic roundabout) one kilometer into his route (a bit more than a half mile from our house) he can look southwest to the modern skyscraper condominiums of Costa del Este and Punta Pacifica on the eastern edge of Panama City, and even across the water fronting the coast of Panama City to the four Channel Islands that form a breakwater for the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal on the city’s west side.  At times Panama’s crazy weather lets him stand at the rotonda in strong sunlight under bright blue skies while the black shadow of a heavy storm covers Costa del Else 12 km away (7.5 miles) or Punta Pacifica 18 km away (11 miles) and completely obscures the Channel Islands.  Other times, the perfectly clear sky lets him see outlines of the distant Taboga Islands, 33 km (20.5 miles) from us in San Miguelito, where Francisco Pizarro made his island base in the Pacific while building a fleet to conquer the Incas in 1539.

Weather can change so quickly here that the dark clouds sneak up to threaten a drenching.  Still air suddenly yields to breezes that whip up seemingly out of nowhere to bend the three-meter high (ten-foot) tall grasses and make the trees lean, and Brian looks up to see a wall of black make the fluffy white clouds scamper away like a schoolyard bully has entered the sky.  Yet, even then things can change quickly.  While he has seen the black wall move rapidly toward him more than a few times, each time it has changed course to sprint off and wreak havoc in another direction before more than a couple drops of rain land on him.

We both know that his luck surely will run out at some point, for we have seen from home too many times when clear skies morph into torrents of rain in not too long a span of time.  From our sun room (or maybe we should call it our rain room) it looks like a giant water balloon moved in and burst above us to drop measurable rainfall within an hour before the clouds push away just as rapidly and the sun returns.  We doubt Brian will find it as enjoyable when a storm finally catches him on a walk still 20 minutes out from home to soak him instantly and completely.  But that will just give more existential context to life in the rainforest through history, from those who have lived here for millennia to Balboa and Pizarro traversing the isthmus 500 years ago to the railroad- and canal-building efforts of the French in the 1800s and the Americans a century ago.  If all goes well, he will be in the clear, literally, and will not have the dubious heuristic benefit of that context until Panama’s Wet Season returns in April.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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