Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Garbage Basket, Finally!

For a few months now I've been asking around about getting a garbage basket, which is what everyone uses here in El Valle de Anton, Panama. We never know for sure when the garbage men will show up, neither the day nor the week. Recently there was a long period with no pickup, and I heard the truck was broken down.

Until now we've been setting the bagged trash out front in case the truck comes in the morning, and every night the cats and dogs tear into it and make a mess. Then either I or our gardener have to re-bag it and set it out for the beasts to rip open once again.

A few months ago I found a metal fabricator in Coronado who quoted me a price of $180 to fabricate a garbage basket. But Eric, the apprentice electrician, offered to do it for $50 plus materials cost (another $30 or so).

Eric and his brother borrowed my car to get their welding machine, or perhaps they rented the machine, I don't know, then they spent a day and a half in my driveway assembling and painting the basket. And there it is, shiny red and serving its intended purpose!


Eid Mubarak!

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Laa ilaha il-Allah
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Wa lil-laa hil-hamd.

I used this card from Muslim Hands because I usually donate my Zakah and charity through them. Their website is They have projects all over the world, not only to feed people, but also to provide education, community projects like safe housing and clean water, and emergency disaster relief.

Today is the most important day of the Muslim year, the tenth day of Dhul-Hijja, a day when we commemorate the life and sacrifices of our father Ibrahim (Abraham), peace be upon him; and the end of the Hajj.

But for me today is much like any other day, since the masjid is a bit far for me to drive to for Eid prayer, and there are no other Muslims here in El Valle. I will celebrate my Eid myself, in my own way. I would have liked to be at the masjid, and to be surrounded by smiling people, shaking my hand and wishing me Eid Mubarak. I do miss that. Maybe next year.

My wishes for the coming year are three:
  1. For all my family and friends to be healthy, happy and safe.
  2. Relief for the Muslim Ummah and the suffering in many lands.
  3. And end to the practice of torture in any nation, under any circumstance, of any person.
I realize that my last wish is not very realistic, but it's something I feel strongly about. I am concerned with all human rights issues, but out of all of them I feel that torture is the most pressing and the most obscene. The fact that in this supposedly modern age, this Information Age, there are still human beings inflicting deliberate and premeditated pain upon others, and that this is sanctioned by governments and is performed quite often by law officers and government agents, is outrageous and sickening.

No matter what else we human beings manage to accomplish as a species - even if we build a base on Mars, cure cancer and build computers that can think and learn - until and unless we end the pratice of torture finally and irrevocably, we will still be barbarians.

Unfortunately my two homelands - Egypt and the USA - are two of the worst offenders, though their approaches are different. In Egypt torture is epidemic and is generally carried out in local jails by police officers; in the USA it is committed quietly and off the books, and not on US soil itself but in CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe, and in military-run prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and of course Guantanamo.

All of this must end, the sooner the better, but who will lead the way? Who is there any longer who can champion these causes, when even the USA has thrown in the human rights towel and joined the ranks of the torturers?

I don't know, but these are my wishes for Eid, and may Allah grant the first one, and show us the way to the second two.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Laura Update

Laura underwent a procedure today to determine if there are any stones in the bile duct. A catheter with a balloon was used to widen the duct, and a camera to view the contents. No stones were found.

Laura is feeling better now and the doctors are assuming that she passed whatever stone or stones were there. Other possibilities exist but in the absence of further pain she will be released tomorrow without further treatment. She cannot eat solid foods or nurse Salma for another 24 hours or so.

Update on Laura

Laura is still in the hospital. Continuing abdominal pain last night was relieved only by morphine. She met with a gastroenterologist today. White blood cell count is still elevated. The problem could be a stone or stones blocking the common bile duct. This would not show up on ultrasound. The doctor is proposing to run a camera and microtools down into Laura's abdomen through her mouth and throat; he would then widen the opening of the bile duct with a small incision, pull the stones out, then cauterize the incision. Theoretically, the pain will then be relieved.

This operation is scheduled for today at 2:30pm Pacific time.

Her return to Panama will have to be delayed.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Laura's Condition

Laura had a severe attack of abdominal pain last night and is back in the hospital again. Her white blood cell count is elevated. We don't know yet what the problem is.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Dilemma

I want a peaceful, tranquil life. Not a luxurious or wealthy life, just tranquil. The sound of the wind rustling through the banana leaves at night, a cat purring on my bed, scrambled eggs and cheese in the morning, warm people who smile and greet me by name, a place to pray, a place to practice Hapkido... never having to look over my shoulder, never fearing a knock on the door or a light flashing in the rain through the rear view mirror.

I also want to change the world, if even in a small way.

The two generally do not go together.

It's a dilemma.

To understand what I mean when I say they do not go together, it's easiest to look at extreme examples.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Burma in 1942, the daughter of the senior nurse of Rangoon General Hospital (her mother), and the commander of the Burma Independence Army (her father, a national hero). Her father was assassinated when she was two years old.

Suu Kyi studed in India, Oxford, and New York. She got married and had two sons. She began writing and publishing books about Burmese history, society and politics. Burma was firmly under the control of a non-democratic military government at this point.

Suu Kyi took her first political action in 1988, when she sent an open letter to the military government, asking for multi-party elections. She later addressed several hundred thousand people outside Shwedagon Pagoda, calling for a democratic government.

By 1989 she was under house arrest, without charge or trial. Still under arrest in 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1989 she has spent 10 of the last 17 years under detention, sometimes house arrest and sometimes prison, and is still under house arrest today. Much of this has been in solitary confinement, where she was not allowed to see even her husband and two sons. Her husband died of cancer in 1999, still separated from her.

Through it all, she has continued to write, to send out statements on cassettes, and to work for the cause of freedom in Burma. She remains Burma's best hope for freedom and democracy.

Consider also Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), all refomers, all men who changed the world, and all persecuted.

On a less dramatic scale (only because they are not so well known) are the thousands of human rights workers in the world today. Many are imprisoned, some are tortured. Many are harrassed by their governments, exiled, or charged with false crimes. This happens all over the world, including in the USA. This sort of persecution goes hand and hand with human rights work.

So... back to the dilemma. Live a tranquil life, or change the world?

I suspect the answer is, try to live a tranquil life and try to change the world, and accept the possibility that your tranquil life may be disrupted, shattered or taken away at any time.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Beautiful Photo of El Valle de Anton, Panama

I came across this beautiful photo of El Valle on Martin's Panama Weblog. Most photos of the valley are taken from the mirador, the viewing point at the entrance to the town, but I suspect that this is from the other side of town, maybe from La India Dormida, The Sleeping Indian. You can almost see the entire crater in this photo.

Workers' Rights in Panama

Listo, our gardener, works Mondays to Wednesdays and I pay him cash every Wednesday. He did not work Monday this week because it was Christmas, but when I paid him today I gave him the normal amount, on the theory that it's a national and religious holiday and I should pay him even if he did not work that day.

He seemed surprised, confused and even slightly alarmed. He said, "But I did not work on Monday. Should I come tomorrow?"

I said, "No, that's ok. It was a holiday."

Listo still seemed puzzled.

I said in bad Spanish, "They do not pay in holidays here?"

I don't know if Listo understood exactly what I was saying, but he nodded his head, smiled wide, and said, "Thank you, sir."

For some reason I felt depressed afterwards. Listo's excessive gratitude at this very small act of kindness (and I did not even think of it as kindness, but simply fairness) says a lot about the desperate conditions of the poor in Panama.

Bill Brunner informed me just last week that I am required to sign up both Rosa and Listo for social security, and to make monthly payments on their behalf. 12% comes out of my pocket, and 7% out of their salaries, or something like that. Neither Rosa or Listo has ever mentioned this, most likely because A, they don't want seven percent taken out of their salaries, and B, they don't want to take any chance of losing their jobs for being pushy.

Furthermore, all employees are entitled to 30 paid holidays every year, and to an end-of-year bonus equal to one months pay. This is called "the thirteenth month."

It so happens that I gave both Rosa and Listo bonuses equal to slightly more than one month's pay, and Rosa's husband went out of his way to thank me. I get the impression no one has ever actually done this for them before. I suspect that for the most part, the Indians and mestizos who live in these mountains have never expected or received their rights.

Some will read this post and think that I am generous, or bragging, or that I am a stupid gringo who is being taken advantage of, or that I am a stupid gringo who is throwing his money away.

No doubt Panama is full of hucksters and con artists. In fact conning is a lifestyle here, and they have a phrase for it: "Juega Vivo" (the game of life?).

But that has never been the biggest problem here. The biggest problem in this entire "New World," from the northern reaches of Canada to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, has been five hundred years of slaughter, slavery and oppression of the native populations (and the Africans) by the Europeans. That's beyond my scope to address, obviously, but don't try to tell me that paying my gardener - who works with his hands in the hot tropical sun - a few dollars to enjoy himself on Christmas day, is naive or wasteful.

I want to be fair, nothing more or less. And that's what is sad and depressing, that I don't think anyone has ever been fair with these Indians who live here in the mountains.

Smiley Salma Sells Seashells by the Seashore

Ok, she doesn't sell seashells, but she is very smiley!

Is this some kind of mutant with a head growing out of her chest?
No, it's Mommy with Salma in a sling.

Here's Smiley Salma with her Grandpa Hale.

The Compact: An Anti-Consumerism Movement

I just read an article on the about an organization called "The Compact," founded only one year ago in San Francisco (naturally) and now having chapters all over the world. Members take a pledge not to buy anything new for one year, excepting only food, medicine, underwear and cleaning products.

Here's a good article about it.

The Compact's aims are, according to their website:
  1. to go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc. -- a step, we hope, inherits the revolutionary impulse of the Mayflower Compact
  2. to reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er)
  3. to simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact)
I like this idea very much. I'm not saying that I'm ready to make this pledge just yet. I think it might be more difficult in Panama, where non-packaged bulk goods are not available as far as I know, thrift stores are rare, recycling centers are absent, and there's no or anything like it.

But from now on, before I buy something new I'll ask myself, "Do I really need this? Can I repair the one I have? Can I get another one used?"

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tiny Map of El Valle de Anton, Panama

Click the map to see a larger version. Obviously this is a rather simplistic map that shows only the main roads in town, or perhaps it shows only the paved roads. But I have marked our house's approximate location with a dark blue dot. To give you an idea of the size of the town, here is the walking time from my house to various locations on the map. I have walked to all these places, just for exercise and pleasure:

Thermal waters (termales pozos): 20 minutes
Golden frogs: 40 minutes
El Nispero: 30 minutes
Church: 10 minutes
Las Mozas waterfall: 50 minutes
The painted rock (petroglyphs, petroglifos): 1 hour
El Macho waterfall: 1 hour

Rosa Makes the Rules

The rotund plumber and the apprentice electrician (Lazaro and Eric) were here today, replacing some rusted screens on the living room windows. At one point I went out front to see how things were going and Lazaro asked me for some cold water.

I went to the kitchen to get it and Rosa said, in an annoyed tone, "When the other Señora was here (Kukie, the previous owner's wife), the service people would come to the side door if they needed anything and I would help them."

Meaning the service people should not be so presumptuous as to ask me, the
Señor, for water. They should come to the kitchen door at the side and ask Rosa.

I said, "Ok,
sí." I certainly don't want to interfere with the established order of things.

Bill Brunner, All in Fun

Sunday afternoon I went to Bill Brunner's place for another Christmas dinner. Bill and his son Adam own a bed & breakfast called Los Nances, perched on a hill above El Valle. It has a hunting lodge feel to it, lots of timber and glass, and a well-stocked bar where, naturally, I get myself a Diet Coke on the rocks.

The lodge was populated with an odd assortment of characters. Joe and Lori from Oklahoma, now living here in El Valle. Susan, a writer who moved to Panama in order to live cheaply while she self-publishes and markets her books. Norm, an old Zonian who loves to talk. Dorothy and Olga, two very elderly sisters (85 and 92, I believe) who used to own Los Nances. Olga lives there, while Dorothy lives and continues to work in the city. Dorothy is very light on her feet and has an excellent memory, whether you're talking about some incident last week, or a department store in Colon in the 1930's. Apparently Dorothy's father was a Cherokee Indian who came to Panama and married a native. She grew up in Panama and speaks English and Spanish fluently, as do Norm, Bill, and Bill's two children Adam and Holly, all of whom were born and raised in Panama.

Bill has a booming voice and likes to make provocative and borderline insulting comments. I think he knows he's being a bit of a jerk, but to him it's all in fun. If anyone were to get angry I think he'd be surprised, or maybe laugh it off, I don't know. He was telling us Dorothy's history, how her father had immgrated to Panama and gotten into real estate, and then he called Dorothy over and said, "Dorothy, wasn't your father a big slumlord in Colon?"

Dorothy frowned and said in a very even tone, "He was a property owner. I don't know that I'd call him a slumlord."

On another occasion Bill complemented Adam on the black shirt he was wearing, saying, "You look very slim in that shirt."

I said, "Adam is slim."

And Bill says to me, "I should stand next to you so I'll look slim too."

So that's Bill. On the other hand he is thoughtful, efficient, and was kind enough to invite me to dinner, knowing that my family was away.

All of which has nothing to do with this joke he told, which is not offensive to anyone, and which I will tell in the next post, so tune in tomorrow.

Is Panama the Land of Lovers?

I've been asked if Panama is the land of lovers. I would say that for the locals, it is the land of working two jobs at a time, living with an extended family, trying to survive, trying to make ends meet, and not worrying too much about things that are seemingly beyond your control, such as a corrupt government, services that don't work, and unrestrained development. Love is not in the forefront of the imagination.

For gringos, however, Panama may indeed be the land of lovers, or perhaps I should call it the "land of young, attractive Panamanians who are happy to romance older gringos who can provide them with financial security."

These relationships are irritatingly common in Panama, particularly the matchup between the older male gringo and the younger female Panamanian. Some seem almost equitable, like one couple I met at cafe Pomodoro: he was a handsome 50-something retired Canadian hockey player, she was an attractive 40-something president of a large Panamanian law firm.

Of course some of these relationships are truly loving and healthy, like Henry and Nora Smith: he a white American from Texas, she a black Panamanian, the two of them married now for thirty something years, proud parents and grandparents.

The more extreme pairings, however, are hard to stomach. A 75 year old American gringo with a 25 year old Panamanian girl. A 55 year old man with an 18 year old girl. Often the women in these twisted little partnerships are pretty and black, and come from Panama's poorest communities. These are women who in Panamanian society would have no chance of getting involved with a "rich" man. And the men, in turn, are dried up old lechers who would never be able to score such a lovely woman in the USA, but here in Panama their two thousand dollar a month pensions, or two hundred thousand dollar savings, make them rich.

Is this moral or not? Let's face it, both players are using each other. I find these relationships to be cynical and distasteful because they are not based on true love or caring, but on expediency. Both parties had better know going in that they are using each other. The man better know that for the rest of his life he will be a bankroll for all her extended family. Anytime someone in the family is sick, or in debt, or has a problem, he will be expected to "help out." And the woman better know that she will be little more than a housemaid and sex partner.

Just to be clear, I'm not referring to my friend Tracy here. Yes, Tracy and Ella are twenty years apart in age, but Ella is a professional woman, a chemist and a teacher, from a middle class family. And I believe that Tracy and Ella genuinely cared for each other, even if it ultimately did not work out.

Nor am I referring to Brooke and Nelson (mentioned in a recent post), who are roughly equal in age and earning power. Don't want to get in hot water with any of my new friends here.

Laura is Out of the Hospital

Laura is out of the hospital now and continuing to recover nicely at her mother's house. She is back to breastfeeding Salma. She's still weak and sleeping a lot. Her mom and sister wake her up to breastfeed the baby, then she goes back to sleep. She does expect to return to Panama on January 1st as planned, and to bring Zippy with her. Linda will be traveling with her on the same flight, fortunately.

Dinner at Tracy's House in La Chorrera, Panama

On Saturday I drove to La Chorrera, a town of about 50,000 a half hour's drive from Panama. I had been invited to dinner at Tracy's house, sort of a Christmas dinner, but I think the "Christmas" part was really just an excuse to get together. I took some photos, but I forgot my camera at Tracy's house, so here's an older photo of Tracy with his Panamanian girlfriend Ella, though apparently they are now officially broken up, as I just learned on Saturday.

I first met Tracy at the Hotel Las Vegas when I had been in Panama only about a month. He too was new here and I met him in the hotel lobby the day I was moving out of hotel and into my rented apartment in El Dorado.

Tracy is in his mid-fifties, a former hippie, hobby pilot, and a retired drug and alcohol counselor with a disability, namely that he is mostly blind. An affable fellow, easy to talk to. He was married for many years to a Cuban-American woman, but they had trouble conceiving a child. They came to Panama to visit a fertility clinic here, since that sort of thing is much less costly in Panama. They loved Panama and decided to stay, but then they had some sort of falling out - I'm not clear on this - and she returned to Florida. After that they had many protracted phone conversations, but in the end they remained apart.

Tracy ended up renting an apartment not far from mine in El Dorado, so I used to drop by frequently. He's an easy going guy, though he does have a tendency to rant when the subject of George Bush comes up (he's vehemently anti-Bush). He began dating a 30-something Panamanian woman, but I always had my doubts about this relationship. Tracy calls himself an atheist. His family have been farmers in the midwest for many generations, and he says even his grandparents only believed "in the weather." Ella, on the other hand, is a staunch Catholic. In fact, though Panama is a majority Catholic country, Ella's family were evangelical Protestants, and Ella converted to Catholicism. She attends mass and church every week and on all holidays.

Ella also speaks very little English, and Tracy very little Spanish.

But ended the relationship was much more prosaic. Ella, like many Panamanians, works three jobs to make ends meet, and she simply had very little free time. Tracy felt neglected and broke up with her.

So apparently Tracy is now seeing someone new, a young woman named Moa who lives in La Chorrera. She was supposed to come over Saturday but had not shown up yet by the time I left at 10pm or so. Hmm... another person with limited free time? We'll see.

When I arrived at Tracy's house on Saturday - he just bought this new house in a very rural area of La Chorrera, some distance from the town itself, and has been working hard to make it comfortable - I finally got the chance to meet an old friend of his, Brooke. I've heard about her many times. She is a Canadian from Toronto who came to Panama on vaction a few years ago and met a Panamanian man at the Decameron resort. I think he was her taxi driver, in fact. Brooke fell in love and later returned to Panama to be with him. She and Nelson are now married. He continues to drive the taxi, and she teaches English in Panama.

Brooke and Nelson, if you're reading this and I got any of the details wrong, forgive me, or just comment.

Brooke had made the entire Thanksgiving dinner, even though she is five months pregnant. We three guys did not do much except sit around and every now and then call out, "Can we help you with anything?"

After dinner I was putting together a small plate of leftovers to take home. Tracy had gone over to the neighbors' house, a rural Panamanian family, to ask them if they wanted any leftovers. There was quite a bit of turkey left over, and much of everything else. The neighbors replied that they were not planning to have any Thanksgiving dinner this year because they had no money, so yes, they would be very happy to take the leftovers.

When I heard that I quietly returned to the platter what little I was planning to take home. I forget how much I have, how rich I am, and how blessed, not because I am worthy or deserving, but only as a test of character.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Adam Martin, My Nephew-in-Law

For some reason this morning I am thinking about Adam, Laura's nephew. Here is a photo I took at Adam's high school graduation in Chowchilla, California. He is with his mother, little sister Tawni Jo, and brother Dakota.

The last I heard he had gone to live with his father, with whom he has a very rocky relationship, or maybe with his nutcase on-again off-again girlfriend Ashleigh.

Adam is intellligent, imaginative, athletic, and makes generally poor choices. You never quite know when he's lying or telling the truth. He lived with Laura and me in Oakland for several months during his last year of high school. I used to pick him up from the BART station after school, get him something to eat, talk to him about his life and mine. I sensed that he was a bit lost, trying to find some meaning or purpose to his life. He had just become a father at the age of 16, and it was a very confusing time for him. I hammered away at the importance of education, thinking in that self-delusional way that all parents do that I was making a difference.

After some time I was disappointed to realize that Adam was lying to me about many things. He was skipping classes and some days not going to school at all... oh, well. He is who he is. He's young, confused, and trying to figure things out. But he's a good hearted kid. He moved back with his mother and as I mentioned, he managed to finish high school. But after that he left his mother's house for parts unknown.

I will try getting his contact information and calling him.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Laura's Progress

I just had a conversation with Laura. She is still in the hospital today, but she is up and walking, breathing well, and generally feeling better. She will be released to her mom's house tomorrow. Her gallbladder had some stones, and was enlarged, so they removed it. She should be able to return to Panama on January 1st as scheduled.

Thank You to Auntie Crystal

Salma's Auntie Crystal has taken time off work and is taking care of her right now. I know she will do a wonderful job and I am very grateful to her. Still, it makes me sad that Salma must get by without either of the two people she knows best in the world, her mother and father.

We don't know yet if Laura will be able to return to Panama at the scheduled date of January 1st. We'll see how her recovery goes. I have not called for an update today as it is still quite early, but I will do so before I leave for Christmas dinner with Tracy, the atheist.

Swimming Academy

I dreamed that I joined a military swimming academy, perhaps something like the Navy SEALS. My sergeant was Tom Cruise, who I do think is a great filmmaker by the way, in spite of the wide contempt in which the public seems to hold him. But come on, you've got to admit that Vanilla Sky, Collateral and War of the Worlds were great pictures. And even his earlier films, like Jerrry McGuire and Rainman had value, portraying these arrogant, shallow characters who go through some transformative experience and are forced to become more humble.

Back to the swimming academy. The first day my sergeant (Tom) harangued me and singled me out for abuse because for some reason I did not have the proper haircut, and I did not have the sheet of instructions all the other recruits had. I was behind in my training and had not yet swum a single lap. I asked my bunkmate for help and he said, "Why should I help you, what do we have in common?"

"I don't know," I said, "Where are you from."


"Oh," I said, "I have a good friend in Cincinnatti." Which is not exactly true. Dr. Sayed's son Ayman was relocated to Cincinnatti by the company he works for, The Gap, and I have known him since he was a baby but we are not exactly friends.

I decided to forget all other considerations for now and just start swimming, but I discovered to my horror that I had not brought any swimming trunks. I went to find Tom Cruise. I said, "Sir, I know this is going to sound idiotic, but I don't have any trunks. Can I go buy a pair?" He shook his head and laughed and muttered something under his breath, then said, "Go ahead."

I figured I'd go by Supercuts to get the right haircut while I was at it, then maybe Taco Bell. I hurried to the barracks to get my wallet. When I opened my bag I spotted a pair of pink swimming trunks, that I now rememered bringing. I said to my bunkmate, "My swimming trunks are back!"

"Oh yeah," he said, "The captain borrowed a bunch of stuff for a skit. Your pink trunks were a riot."

What was I thinking, bringing pink trunks? I'd never hear the end of it. I'd better buy a new pair anyway.

Just then the barracks phone rang. "Hey recruit," someone shouted at me. "It's for you."

I picked up the receiver. A woman's voice declared, "I saw your website on TV."

"Who is this?" I said. "Someone of the female persuasion clearly, but I don't recognize your voice."

"Maymuna, of course," she replied. Which was odd since I have not seen her since she was six years old. "I've been watching this current events roundup show on cable, and your website was mentioned three times."

"Yes," I said. "They have software that does that now."

"You know," she said. "Ismail is waiting for you to take him camping."


Saturday, December 23, 2006


A hummingbird followed a scent
or a stray thought into our house.
A brave bird, a traveler, thinking fast
or acting on impulse,

known to others
as the ibn Battuta of his kind.
He came to a good place
for I would never harm an intrepid soul.

I turned out the lights and opened the doors wide
but the tiny bird went to sleep in our attic,
where the moon shines,
his fast-beating heart trusting in Allah

or following its own imperatives.
In the morning I caught him in my hand
and tossed him into the blue Panamanian sky.
He disappeared so fast

that I think maybe the real bird escaped last night
and left only his shadow here,
his dim double, his dream,
and that's what I set free.

Have I too have left my shadow asleep
in some strange prison or lamplit street?
And when will it fly free
to join me?

Or am I instead
the shadow, the dim double, the dream, the ghost,
Lost and asleep in the moonlight?

Laura's Status

For over a year now, Laura has had periodic bouts of abdominal pain, usually late at night. We had an ultrasound done at one point but it showed nothing unusual.

When I spoke to her yesterday evening, she had just returned from a small get together at a friend's house and complained of some stomach pain.

Apparently the pain continued to worsen last night and Linda took her to the Stanford Hospital emergency room. They discovered that her gallbladder was inflamed and enlarged.

This afternoon the doctors performed surgery to remove Laura's gallbladder. It was removed laporoscopically and the operation was successful. Laura remains in the hospital for now. We owe Crystal a debt of gratitude for caring for Salma during this time.

My Daughter Salma at Five Months

My daughter Salma, almost exactly five months old now.
Thank you, Diane, for the photo.

Lights, Action... Well, Lights Anyway

Wow! Though I may be alone, I am not in the dark! Adam's team has finished the majority of the electrical work. All the lights are functioning, our new refrigerator is plugged in and busy refrigerating, and I am back online, obviously. I am able to run several different appliances at once with no trouble. So far so good. I don't cross my fingers or knock wood, but I say, Alhamdulillah, praise be to Allah in every case.

There is still work to be done. In particular the lines running to the air conditioners are substandard and will need to be replaced, which will necessitate tearing the walls open in all the bedrooms. In addition the water heater must at minimum be cleaned out, and possibly replaced. Next week, or sometime, or later.

I have been invited to Christmas dinner at Tracy's house in La Chorrera on Sunday. An atheist inviting a Muslim to Christmas dinner, isn't that a riot? Ridiculous, but kind. And the Brunner's have invited me on Monday, perhaps because I am employing their services, but maybe also just because they are nice people and they know I am alone right now.

I'm really looking forward to seeing Laura and Salma again. Only nine more days, Insha'Allah.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Just Me, Li'l Fishy and the 'Puter Makes Three

Friday afternoon and Adam's crew is off until after Christmas, as are Rosa and Listo. It's quiet here, just the insects buzzing outside, the neighbor's dogs barking occasionally and sometimes a rooster crowing. Li'l Fishy sits by the window, watching the geckos and wishing I would open the window so she could climb the screen to swat at them.

I went out in the car today to run a few errands and Mancha (spot), Teresa's dog, was sitting in the middle of our street. I honked at her and she looked at me but did not rise. I shouted, "Mancha! Muevate!" I honked the horn again and moved the car forward just a bit. Mancha looked at me with concern, but still did not get up. Finally Teresa, who must have heard me, came out and called the dog home. I think Mancha believes that I'm a nice guy, that's the problem. All these fools think I'm a nice guy!

Don't they know that I am a mean, bad-ass fighting machine? Don't they know that I have a temper like a junkyard dog on speed? I need to let people know how mean I can be, that's what. Watch out El Valle. This is a joke, by the way. Not to be used against me in any future court cases, please.

I saw Niko and asked him how the tour went. He told me he had taken Eric to La Piedra Pintada (the painted rock, an old rock with pre-columbian hieroglyphics), and El Nispero, the local zoo, and maybe a few other places. He said, "You are going to teach me, right?"

I said, "I'll teach you what I know."

Niko glowered and said, "Good! Because I want to learn!"

I'll show him how mean I can be. No, that's bad martial arts. That's wrong mind, not no mind.

Second Year as an Expatriate is the Hardest

I think the second year here in Panama, living as an expatriate in a foreign land, is the hardest. The first year you are still excited at the newness and strangeness of it all. Everything is interesting or amusing. Sure there are frustrations, and an inability to speak the language can make you feel like a idiot at times, but taken as a whole the experience is fresh, and disappointments are largely shrugged away.

In the second year the novelty wears off. You begin to take your life here more serously, and the frustrations begin to take on an edge of unpleasantness. The voluminous paperwork required for anything official, the way service and repair people fail to keep appointments, the lack of mail service, the blandness of traditional Panamanian food... all these things begin to grate on your nerves. And in my case in particular, living in a town with no other Muslims can be hard. I try to go to the city for prayer on Fridays, but it would be nice to have some daily interaction with other Muslims.

As for Laura, I can't say. She went through a very difficult period even though she had only been here a matter of months. But she was not taking her medication at that time and it's hard to say how much was culture shock and how much her usual anxieties, not to mention the difficulty of raising a newborn baby for the first time. Once we began filling her prescriptions again, and once we learned to develop a routine with Salma that worked for everyone, Laura seemed to return to her usual well balanced self and even better, taking genuine pleasure in her life here.

Anyway, somewhere in the second year more than one expatriate says, "I'm thinking about going back home."

My friend Tracy is saying just that. His life here is so much richer than what he left behind in Florida, but he is suffering from a bad case of culture shock.

So I think the second year is make-or-break. If you can learn to accept the flow of life here in Panama, and to find workarounds to problems in the ways that Panamanians do, then you can begin to relax and take pleasure and even find joy in the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people.

For example, the power is off right now. Instead of getting upset about the fact that I cannot get online to do my work, I am running my laptop off a battery backup unit that provides up to eight hours of power, and I am writing in my journal, something that does not require an internet connection.

Some Americans in particular - I think the Europeans are generally more relaxed about things - cannot make this adjustment. They become deeply frustrated with the attitudes of Panamanians, and they begin shouting at workers and service people. I mean, literally shouting any of the following:

"You've been telling me for a week that you are coming to fix this! This is B.S.! What kind of Mickey Mouse operation is this?"

"Why should I have to get this document renewed? Nothing has changed since the last time I filed it! And every time I have to pay another fee? This is a scam!"

"What's the matter with you? Why did you tell me you could fix it if you don't know how? Look at this, it's a mess!"


These people don't last here in Panama. By the second year they are gone, back to the rat race and their empty, consumerist lives where everything runs on time but no one actually has any time.

Lost Tourist in El Valle; Ways to Say Yes

Adam's team resumed work today and I went to the library to get some work done. I worked for a few hours, with a nun on one side of me and a retired American woman on the other. I could have done more but I got sick of the old, unresponsive computer mouse, so I went to lunch. After lunch I noticed a young American standing in front of the Melo store, sweating profusely and poring over a Lonely Planet guide. This being Christmas season, I have seen several American tourists about town. Many of them are out walking in the midday sun, a bad idea at any time of year but especially right now, the beginning of dry season, when UV levels are very high.

This particular young man looked lost and uncomfortable. I went over and asked him if he was trying to figure out where to go.

He said, "Yes!" in a tone that implied great relief, and said that he needed a guide. He told me his name was Eric and he was from Los Angeles. He is staying at Los Capitanes for a few days then moving on to some other part of Panama.

I took him to see Niko, a craft seller at the mercado. Niko asked him for three dollars an hour, and the young man said yes, but since neither of them have a car they will have to take a taxi. Niko is an odd young fellow with an attitude that is a mixture of intense, tough and ingratiating. Actually I have met many young Panamanians like him.

I later found out that a man named Mario, who runs the Serpentario (the snake shop) here in town, is a licensed tour guide and is bilingual.

As I turned to leave, Niko took me to the side. He thanked me for bringing him some business, then asked me if I know martial arts. He must have heard this from Cleo, another craft seller with whom I have developed sort of a friendship.

I said yes, I know some Hapkido, a Korean art. Why do you ask, do you want to learn?

Niko responded with a very intense, "Yes!", glowering and getting very close to me, like some young warrior trying to prove his sincerity at wanting to go to battle.

I may regret this, but I told him to come by the house Tuesday evening for a practice session. I do need a practice partner to hone my skills on. I made it clear to him that I am not an expert, but I will teach him what I know. He said, "How much I pay?" I waved him off and shook my head to indicate that there would be no charge.

When I got home Adam's team was gone. Rosa informed me that the mini fridge - the new one I bought just last week as a temporary measure until full electrical power is restored - is no longer functioning.

In addition, I discovered that one of my new surge protectors, one I just took out of the package yesterday, is fried. It smells burnt and no longer lights up.

Called Adam and he says that he's waiting on EDEMET to install a new transformer on the street pole. His team will put in the new wiring tomorrow. Looks like I'll have to go back to the library to get some more work done. I'm tired of this.

But would I trade it all to be back in Oakland, or even San Francisco, for that matter? No, no. Definitely not.

Living Without Electricity in Panama

The problem with the electricity has continued to worsen. To run the mini fridge, I have to turn the lights off. To run my computer, I shut down the mini fridge. Sometimes as I am working at my computer, particularly at night, the low power alarm sounds and I must roam the house, shutting everything down until I am sitting at my computer in total darkness, the glow of the LCD screen attracting every mosquito, gnat, termite and moth in the house to my location.

Occasionally even that's not enough and I must hurriedly shut my computer down as the alarm on the backup power unit sounds. Sometimes the shut down process is too slow and the power cuts out while the computer is stil running. Not good for the system at all.

The hot water heater consumes too much power so I take cold showers. I have a hand-cranked flashlight and I rely heavily on it at night, rather than turning on the lamps or room lights.

Adam Brunner has arrived with his local crew to address this problem. Adam and his father Bill own Los Nances, a local bed & breakfast on a hill above town. The B&B does not attract many guests, so they also sell local real estate, do construction, and manage repair projects. Bill is an American who has resided in Panama for many decades. His son Adam was born and raised in the Canal Zone, attending Balboa High School and Florida State University's Panama branch. If you ask him where he's from, he'll say Panama, as do most Zonians. He is fluent in both English and Spanish and comes across at first glance like an American, but once you begin conversing with him you discover that in his attitudes about politics, the environment, and life in general, he is more of a Panamanian than a gringo.

His repair team consist of Eric, the apprentice electrician super-athlete with the little bionic dog Clifford, both of whom run ten miles in the mountains every morning before work; a large, experienced electrician whose name I don't know but has bad breath and body odor and is so hairy he looks like he fell into a tub of glue and then rolled around on the floor of a barbershop; and Lazaro, a rotund, born-again bald plumber with a high pitched voice and excitable mannerisms.

The electricians determined a few days ago that there are several problems. Several circuits are shorted, excessive humidity has built up in the circuit box, and most seriously, the house wiring, and the electrical wires coming in from the street, are of insufficient gauge to handle the electrical load. The wires from the street are No.8 guage, really not appropriate for a large house like this. Of course this house was never meant to be lived in full time. William Silen built it as a weekend house and did not even put in phone wiring.

All of the wiring will have to be pulled and replaced. Adam and I went to the city in his pickup truck and bought three spools of No. 2 gauge copper wiring to replace the old stuff. Cost for materials alone was $2,2oo.

By the way, I'm writing this on my laptop and the zero key is dead, hence the little o's in the place of zeros. This laptop is in bad shape, suffering many malfunctions. I believe they are the result of many months of unprotected use in Panama City, when I plugged it directly into the wall socket with no surge protector or voltage regulator to guard it from the constant fluctuations in the electrical current here in Panama. I did not know better at the time.

Adam and I proceeded to the Do-It Center where I purchased a new refrigerator for $8oo. The compressor on the old fridge has been burnt out by those same power fluctuations.

Laura had requested a fridge with an external ice maker and I wanted to accomodate her, since it was her only request, but those models were all over a thousand dollars and were high energy consumers. I was concerned about getting an energy efficient model, to keep our electric bills low and also to minimize the demands on the house electrical system. So, no external ice maker. I also bought a $5o power adaptor made especially for refrigerators, called the Refri-Line.

Salma requested a fridge with external milk dispenser, but I could not find one. Anyway, she already has one, the Mama model. Price: priceless.

The next day Adam's crew proceeded to dig up the old wires and put in the new. However, additional hidden problems surfaced. The subsurface wires ran in odd, multiple directions. A section of the wiring runs beneath the concrete at the side of the house and will be hard to reach. Most disturbingly, Adam discovered that the previous owner, the aforementioned William Silen, had installed a secret box to siphon power illegally from the electric company. As much as half of the house's power had been coming through this box, but the box had shorted out, so the house is no longer getting a sufficient electrical flow. Adam said he would have to tear this out and put in a new circuit box.

Then something unfortunate occurred. Adam had filed a work request with EDEMET, the local power company, notifying them of the work he would by doing. The inspector happened to come by in the afternoon as Adam was discovering all these problems. The inspector spotted the illegal box, and threatened legal action. He is obligated by law to report this to his superiors at EDEMET. I would be fined between $3,ooo and $7,ooo, my meter wall would be knocked down and my electricity would be cut off until the conclusion of the court case, which could take up to ten years. The fact that I did not install the box and did not even know of its existence is irrelevant at the moment. I could try to prove it in court if I wished, but Silen might claim that he knows nothing about it.

I told Adam to try to resolve this problem with the inspector on a one-on-one basis. After some negotiation, Adam paid the inspector $25o, and the man drove away without filing a report. This is what we call, paying an unofficial fine. Adam's team immediately removed the illegal box and its wiring, so that no further evidence of its existence remains.

However, this means that I cannot take action against William Silen to recover the cost of these repairs. Officially this problem never existed, and I cannot make an issue out of it without exposing this payoff and coverup. So I just have to eat the cost of these repairs, bitter though it is. Or maybe I can sue him for the cost of upgrading the wiring, unrelated to the illegal box. He and I will both know what's really up, but neither of us can mention it.

Meanwhile the chubby, fast-talking plumber is hard at work. We have no hot water at the kitchen sink, only cold. The plumber discovered that at some point in the past the hot water hose had been damaged and repaired with cigarrette box tin foil, which of course did not hold.

Many of our faucets drip, and the plumber told me that Silen had used cheap, thin washers that would not last more than six months. There are other problems with similar causes, all having to do with the use of cheap materials and shoddy repairs.

I'm not too happy about this. I have to wonder if Silen ripped us off, if he conned us. He had a story about building this house for himself and his wife, then discovering that he had cancer and therefore had to sell the house to pay his medical bills. His wife in turn acted upset at having to sell the house. But I wonder if that's what it was, an act. I wonder if his plan from the beginning was to build a house with cheap materials, sell it to a gringo and move on with his profit.

No, I just can't see that being true. The house is beautiful, and for the most part is sturdy and well designed. And Silen's wife's upset at selling the house was too genuine. She actually cried. She insisted that she be allowed to remove a large stone with a Virgin Mary statue that stood out in the front yard. She wanted to stage a goodbye party in the house and was upset when the lawyer informed her that the contract had already been signed and the house was no longer hers. For a few months after I bought the house, but when I was still living in the city, she pestered my lawyer because the grass at the house was not being cut, until finally the lawyer began blocking her calls. Clearly the woman was very emotionally attached to the house and planned on spending her retirement years here.

Night Time Parade in El Valle de Anton, Panama

If you read the last post you remember that I was eating at Nina Delia as the school Christmas parade took shape outside. I had left the front doors of the house wide open in the hopes that a trapped hummingbird might make its escape.

The parade itself took a long time to arrive, as things are wont to do in Panama. It's not unusual for a parade to begin hours after its scheduled starting time. No one is upset by this. They wait, talk, and sit quietly. They are the real sabireen.

For about a half hour I ate my dinner and listened to the drums approaching. Finally the first car arrived and I stepped outside the restaurant to watch. In actuality the restaurant is a large open air, palm-thatched bohio, so it's just a matter of taking a few steps to the edge of the bohio.

The first car was a fire marshal's pickup truck with a siren wailing and blue lights flashing. It carried a large display with Santa on one side and a Raggedy Ann on the other. At their feet were recreations of what looked like white seals frolicking.

Behind this car was a four wheeler ATV driven by Mark, the tall fellow from Tennessee who rents these electric golf carts here in town. Mark wore a Santa cap and smoked a cigarette as he drove, slouching in the seat. In the back seat several children waved to the crowd.

Then another fire truck, the occupants throwing entire bags of candy to the crowd, children in the streets scrambling to retrieve them. In fact I saw my waitress scurrying to get some.

At this point the parade halted. A little ways down the street a squadron of drumming boys continued to play.

I went back into the restaurant and ordered a piece of carrot cake. I brought the cake outside and stood on the grass, eating my cake and waiting for the parade to resume. As usual, it was a long parade. Girls in knee high boots and skirts marching and twirling batons, other groups of girls playing Christmas music on xylophones, squadrons of as many as forty boys drumming, a group of children in nativity costumes... and all of them wearing flashing lights on their caps and shirts, making the whole thing ridiculously festive and almost surreal.

At one point a small girl who could not have been more than three joined the marchers, twirling her own baton. Her mother came out to get her and she ran between the marchers, leading her mother on a chase, swinging her baton, determined to be a part of the parade. I pointed at her and laughed out loud, and said to no one in particular, "Panama is so funny! Panama is a trip."

And it really is.

When I got home, the doors still wide open and the lights out, I found that the hummingbird had gone to sleep in the loft. So I left the doors open all night, hoping the bird might wake up and find its way out.

It did not. The next morning it was still there, but when Adam came by to resume work he climbed up to the loft and caught it in a towel. We took it outside and set it free in the yard just as Rosa was arriving for work. She saw me open the towel and a small bird shoot into the sky, and watched with a startled look as it flew away. Life is a precious thing, subhanAllah, so fragile but so resilient.

A Place of Innocence: El Valle de Anton, Panama

I went out to eat yesterday evening, December 20th, because it was Rosa´s day off. A hummingbird had gotten into the house and kept trying to fly through the loft windows, even though I climbed up into the loft and tried to wave it in the right direction. So I left the front doors of the house wide open, and turned off all the lights in the hope that it might exit on its own.

I walked down to Nina Delia in the dusk after sunset, and along the way I noticed a large crowd gathering in front of the Hong Kong market. Many wore red shirts and santa hats with flashing lights. Pickups and buses were pulling up and disgorging more holiday clad revelers as I watched. One family had a toddler sleeping in a stroller, also wearing the ubiquitous santa cap.

I continued on to Nina Delia. I ordered the corvina with garlic and french fries - always tasty - and read my Robert Ludlum novel, Apocalypse Watch, as I ate. By this time it was dark outside.

The crowd continued to grow, now lining the entire street from the school to the Hong Kong market (as far as I could see). I asked the waitress what was going on and she said in Spanish, ¨School Christmas parade.¨

They love parades in Panama. And here in El Valle, parades are all-town events, with half the town either participating or watching, and people coming in from surrounding smaller towns like Los Llanitos, Las Margaritas, Caimitillo and Mata Ahogado.

It reminds me of the Davis that I grew up in, a small town back then, with tree lined streets and everyone getting around on bicycles. When there were parades I used to climb one of the many oaks as my parents stood below. It was a place and time of innocence, before I was aware of such things as oil wars, genocides, torture, intolerance and environmental exploitation.

El Valle reminds of that time. Of course I am now aware of all the ills of the world and I have to deal with the emotional effects of that knowledge, while at the same time trying to figure out what I can do to bring something good into the world, or to make a difference in even a small way.

But in El Valle I am often able to forget all that, or to feel happy in spite of it. When the sun is shining on Cerro Gaital in the morning, when the breeze is blowing and the yard is full of birds and the odd iguana, when the frogs are sounding at night, and when the locals smile at me and ask about my wife and my baby - or when the town revels in the pleasure of its amateurish but enthusiastic parade - I feel that the world is a good place and that there is some happiness to be found here, Alhamdulillah.

Friday, December 1, 2006

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