Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Good Luck Bad Luck Day

Sunday night Laura, Salma and I spent the night at the Torres de Alba, a comfortable "all suites" hotel in Panama city. They were scheduled to fly back to the USA Monday morning and we didn't want to have to wake up at dawn in El Valle to get to the airport.

Monday was a good luck / bad luck day.

Good Luck: There was little traffic Monday morning - the city always empties out at Christmas time as people visit their families in the interior or take jaunts to the mountains, the beach, etc - and we made it to the airport quickly, where Laura and Salma enjoyed a smooth departure.

Bad Luck: I felt very sad, watching Laura and Salma leave, and walking back to the car alone. True, this is not a matter of luck, I knew I would miss them greatly (and I do).

Good Luck: After Laura and Salma departed Monday morning, I headed back to the hotel and discovered quite by accident that they offer a fairly good free breakfast. I had a plate of scrambled eggs, cheese, toast, fresh pineapple, orange juice and a banana, and took some extra toast and jelly back to the room with me. In the room I relaxed on the sofa, eating toast and watching a bad disaster movie on HBO (though a bad disaster movie is still better than a good romance any day).

Good Luck: I checked out and headed to El Dorado to make the usual stops on my way out of town: Mailboxes Etc., Arrocha, and Price Smart. Mailboxes Etc. often closes early on holidays, but the owner was just locking the door as I arrived and she let me in. I was excited to find the fourth season of The Wire in our box. Something to entertain me in my solitude!

Bad Luck: Apparently all the people who had not yet left Panama were shopping in El Dorado. The streets were choked with traffic, so I decided to forgo the Arrocha stop and just do Price Smart. It took me 30 minutes or so to cover that short distance, but I relaxed and listened to Talk of the Nation on my iPod.

Bad Luck: My office chair began to break down about a month ago. First the right side arm rest cracked, then the entire chair proceeded to come apart. I managed to jury-rig a temporary fix using yards of packing tape, but the chair still lists to the right and will probably collapse under me like a pile of toothpicks sometime soon.

So I went to Price Smart and saw this beautiful, sturdy office chair with brown cowhide leather on the seat and armrests. It looked solidly built and I decided to take it, though the $109 price tag would sting. I got up to the register with the chair and a few miscellaneous food items, and when the scanned the chair the register said $247! I said, "Wait, I thought it was $109?"

"It's clearly marked in the aisle" the register employee said.

But Price Smart is just like Costco and sometimes it's hard to tell which little price placard belongs to which pile of goods.

"I don't want it," I said apologetically.

Bad Luck: So the guy rang up my little collection of foodstuffs and it was $51, but when he ran my Visa card it came up invalid. Now I know there's nothing wrong with my card. I'm not near my limit, and I just used it to pay the hotel bill. "Run it again please," I said.

He ran it again, and still invalid. Everyone in line was watching. I asked him to wait, and I hustled to the store ATM machine and withdrew cash, and got out of there. How embarrassing and annoying.

When I got home I logged into Bank of America online but there were no holds or alerts. I still don't know what the problem was with the Visa card.

How about you, had any good or bad luck days lately? Tell me about it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Sloth; The Favor; The Traffic

I made a trip to Panama yesterday to run some errands, thinking I would dash into town and return by mid afternoon.

No such luck.


The first delay occurred before I even climbed out of the valley. As I drove up out of El Valle, I spotted what looked like a dead dog on the road. This happens occasionally, though not usually on the El Valle road. It's also not unusual to see dead possums, and recently I saw a belly up possum and a dead buzzard right next to it. The buzzard had tried to pick up a quick meal and ended up on the roadkill menu himself.

This time, however, as I neared the creature in the road I saw that it was moving slowly, and that it was not a dog at all but a sloth. It wasn't injured: it was simply trying to cross the road.

Sloths, as the name implies, are indolent, sluggish creatures. They subsist exclusively on tree leaves, which provide very few calories, so their metabolism is super slow. They are also helpless on the ground, being built for tree climbing, with huge hooked claws on each foot for holding onto branches. This sloth was on his belly, moving across the road with a swimming motion, but at a snail's pace, so that it might take 45 minutes to cross a narrow road.

There's a fellow named Mike Hinton who lives on a large forested finca out by Cerro Cama, and he often posts messages on the Panama Forum about his idyllic life. He has many sloths on this property and I remembered his account of helping them across the road so they wouldn't get run over. I thought I'd give it a shot.

The road out of El Valle is narrow and winding, but I pulled over at the next turnout and walked back to the sloth, having decided to help him cross the road but not quite sure how to do it. As I walked down a pickup truck passed me going into El Valle, and when they spotted the sloth they stopped and a woman got out.

"Were you going to move it?" she asked.

"Go ahead," I said, waving my arm magnanimously.

She approached the sloth, saying "Hola bebe," then grasped it firmly under its arms and lifted it up. It was a large, shaggy gray creature with long arms and legs, big hooks on its paws, and a black face. I noticed a rectangular area on its back where the fur had been flattened. Since then I've looked at a few photos of sloths and seen the same, though I don't know what it is.

The sloth turned its head to see the woman, but put up no protest as she carried it across the road and hung it on the branches of a bush on the side of the hill.

So next time I know just how to do it.


I'd barely gotten down to the highway when I spotted Mark, a shaggy haired Tennesseean who owns several properties in El Valle. He rents ATVs and golf carts to tourists, while his Colombian wife recently opened a restaurant. Mark was sitting on the bumper of his white SUV at the side of the road. I stopped and backed up. He had a flat tire, and though he had a jack it was bolted to the car and he lacked the tools to remove it. I gave him a ride to the nearest hardware store in San Carlos where he bought a pack of tools, then I returned him to his car.


I'd forgotten what a mob scene Panama is in December. The roads are congested with traffic, and the stores massed with people doing their holiday shopping. These are not only Panamanians: Latin Americans fly in from all over the region - Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia - to spend Christmas here or simply to shop. Because of the Free Trade Zone and generally low import duties, Panama is a shopper's dream compared to much of Latin America. On our trip to Cartagena, Colombia last year I was struck by the dearth of imported products in the stores. And I remember Costa Rica being very much the same. Not a place you'd go to buy a new stereo, or the latest game machine. Panama, on the other hand, has it all.

I made as quick a tour as I could manage of the bank, the post office, the drug store, the sandwich shop and Price Smart.

On the way home I stopped at Tracy's house to exchange the first season of "24" for the second. I've built up a pretty good collection of DVDs, so rather I try to exchange with other ex-pats when I can.

I got home hours after dark.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Laura's Birthday; Spanish Study; Summer

Yesterday was Laura's birthday and we went down to the beach at Santa Clara for the day for a day by ourselves (we left Salma with Ani). It was a lovely day, bright and warm, and the water not too rough. We swam, lounged in the hammocks, ate three entire fish for lunch - one corvina and two red snappers - played cards, went back in the water for a while, and then returned home by 4:30pm. A nice day overall.

Zippy unfortunately is sick again, and Laura has just left to take him down to Dr. Jaime Reyes in Coronado once again. Zippy improved markedly after the last visit to Dr. Reyes, but after a week he once again refused to eat. So we'll see... I know he's old, but I don't think that's the problem. I suspect he has a parasite or infection of some sort. Fortunately veterinary care here is quite cheap.

We've been taking Spanish lessons with Cleo twice a week. He comes to the house at 7:30pm, after he's finished with work and Salma is asleep. Our classes are typically two hours. The first hour we make conversation, and the second hour we study grammar. I do feel that my skills have improved, but it's very difficult and I have so much still to learn. I have not really mastered the use of direct and indirect object pronouns (se, le, lo, la, etc), I confused preterite and imperfect tenses when speaking in the past, I don't know future tense very well, and I don't know conditional tenses at all (could have, should have, might have, etc).

So, a lot to learn still.

Summer is almost here. It's raining much less, the wind has already picked up, and it's much cooler these days. I was hoping to install some wooden shutters on the living room window screens before the summer winds arrive, but it will have to wait.

Laura and Salma will return to the U.S. for Christmas. I will stay here, though I will make a brief trip to Costa Rica by bus to renew my visa. We're close to initiating the residency application process; it will be a relief to have that taken care of.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Panama Real Estate and Classified Ads

Real estate in Panama has been booming for several years now. The latest wave of buyers are middle and upper-class Venezuelans, who are coming to Panama in large numbers to escape the uncertainties of life under Hugo Chavez. In fact one thing I love about Panama is the diversity of the population here. For a small country, you routinely meet people from many nations.

I also appreciate the warmth of the Panamanian people, and the sheer physical beauty of the landscape.

One problem is knowing who to trust. It's best to seek referrals and recommendations from people who have successfully made the move.

There is a scarcity of large, established real estate firms or real estate listing websites in Panama. But there are a few. Today I was looking at the website of Their website is in both English and Spanish, which is handy. They have some good Panama real estate listings, along with general Panama classified ads. They have listings for condos or apartments in Panama, vacation rentals, and development properties all over the country. Check out the cool real estate map of Bocas del Toro on their website.

Bocas del Toro is a group of islands on the Caribbean side of Panama, near Costa Rica. These islands are beautiful and idyllic, with incredible diving, snorkeling and fishing opportunities. If you are contemplating buying real estate there, however, be aware that public service infrastructure (electricity, water, garbage service, etc) ranges from poor to non-existent. The most successful ex-pat settlers in Bocas are do-it-yourself types who are comfortable living off the grid: solar power, water cachement, garbage composting, etc.

As for me, I love the cool highlands of El Valle, but it certainly would be nice to have a little beach condo as well. We can only dream.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Salma's Vocabulary

As usual, click the photo to see a larger version.

Salma has built up a small but varied vocabulary so far. She can understand almost everything said to her both in English and Spanish, but her spoken vocabulary consists of:

  • Mama
  • Baba
  • cat
  • how how (this means dog)
  • gookoo (gecko)
  • ball
  • hello
  • okay
  • bubble (Mama blows soap bubbles for her often)
  • bye
  • frog (and rup rup for a frog sound)
  • faaar (fire)
  • ot! (hot)
  • be be (baby)
  • na na (banana)
  • cor (car)
  • fr (flower)
  • kee kat (kitty cat)
  • boon (balloon)
  • beep beep (car horn)
  • no (this is a recent one and a new favorite. If she's just talking she wags a finger and says no. If she's really upset it's a shriek: "Oh na-na-na-na-na-na-nooooooo!")
  • gato
  • agua
  • hola
  • oye ("listen". This is usually accompanied by tilting her head and pointing to her ear, for example when she hears thunder or a dog barking.)
  • Most likely she has other Spanish words as well, but uses them with Señora Ani or Señora Rosa, not with me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

El Valle Bridge is Falling Down

El Valle bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down,
El Valle bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

Did you know that the London Bridge nursery rhyme goes back almost a thousand years, to the destruction of London Bridge by Viking invaders, led by King Olaf II of Norway in 1014? In fact that ill-fated bridge over the Thames was destroyed and rebuilt many times: the wooden bridge was burned by Olaf I, torn down by Olaf II, destroyed by a tornado of all things about 80 years later, and then burned down again in the early 1100's.

Finally, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine - the "fair lady" - commissioned a new bridge with permanent stone construction. Eleanor was queen of both England and France, mother of Kings Richard and John, and perhaps the most powerful and wealthy European woman of the Middle Ages. The new bridge was completed under the reign of her son, King John, and was so well built that it lasted over 600 years.

I don't expect El Valle de Anton to be invaded by Vikings, but our bridge is shut down nonetheless. El Valle actually has three main bridges that I can think of, all on the main road: one at the entrance of town, just past Centro Commerical; one in the center of town, just before the Melo store and chicken shop; and one past the church.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a small pothole developing in the middle of the center bridge. This is a crucial bridge, since 90% of the town's traffic passes over it at some point. Nothing was done, and the hole widened, until it was a literal hole in the bridge - you could see the water rushing down below. The rebar held, but the concrete was gone.

Now there are two holes in the bridge, and the police have taped it off so no one can cross. This means that anyone who wants to get from one side of town to the other by vehicle must go all the way around on Calle de los Millonarios ("Millionaires Street"), which is itself badly rutted and potholed and is in no condition to withstand heavy traffic. Other vehicles are using smaller side streets - most of which are unpaved, just dirt and grass - as detours, and are digging ruts and holes in these small residential roads.

Cherry, a friend of ours, dropped by yesterday and told me that she ran into a woman named Irene near the market. Apparently this Irene is a wealthy woman with connections. Cherry talked to her about the bridge, and Irene said, "Usually someone has to get hurt before they fix things. But I'm seeing the President today, I'll mention it to him."

I guess there's some benefit to living in a town where some residents lunch with the President. Let's see if it gets fixed quickly or not.

Update: they welded a steel plate over the hole in the bridge, but since then another hole has begun to open up to the side of the plate. For now it remains open and driveable.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Zippy the Cat

A few people have expressed concern about Salma, since I wrote some time ago that she was not feeling well. Not to worry, she's fine.

It's true that for more than two weeks she had a fever, vomiting, diarrhea and sleeplessness, and we couldn't figure out the problem. Well, it turned out that she had four molars coming in at once. That's a painful change and it was wreaking havoc on all her systems, but once the teeth came in she was fine.

Our cat Zippy, on the other hand, is not doing so well. He's the orange on on the right, above.

Zippy is almost 14 years old now. He lived with me for years in my studio apartment on Market Street in San Francisco, then years more in Oakland after Laura and I were married, then in Linda's house in Palo Alto after I moved to Panama, and then finally he made the trip here to El Valle de Anton.

Both Zippy and Li'l Fishy settled in well here and have been quite happy, but I'm aware that they are getting quite high up in years for a cat.

Zippy has always had a healthy appetite, but about two weeks ago he suddenly began refusing to eat. At first we thought maybe he had eaten a toad or a gecko. The thing is he still has the desire for food. He cries for food at his mealtimes, but when we put his bowl down he simply walks away without tasting it. We called the local vet and he thought that maybe Zippy had an infected tooth, so he gave him antiobiotic injections for three days, and gave us a vitamin solution to feed to Zippy with a syringe.

Two weeks later there has been no change. Zippy's weight has dropped from 18 pounds to 13.5. We can get him to eat a spoonful of wet food at a time but it takes five minutes of following him around, enticing him and petting him.

We may take him down to a vet in Coronado who has more diagnostic facilities. But in the end I think we have to accept the fact that our beloved companion is nearing his last days.

I'm happy that Zippy has been able to live out his last years here in this beautiful place. He loves to go out in the yard and watch the birds, chase frogs, eat grass and lay on the car in the sun. There are no cars to worry about, and the few dogs who wander into our yard leave Zippy alone because he's much larger than the local feral cats. The house itself is by far the largest place we have lived in and Zippy has many comfy spots to sleep or relax. So I feel good for him that he has been able to experience this perfect place.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

HBO Evenings

We don't get good reception of Panamanian TV here, and we have not signed up for cable because I'm afraid that the temptation of 24-hour English programming will be hard to resist and we'll end up TV junkies.

Instead we order movies on Amazon and have them delivered to us via our Miami P.O. Box. We almost always order them used - it's much cheaper and we've never had a problem with quality.

Often we order entire seasons of TV shows. You get so much more viewing time for your money - for example I got the first season of NYPD Blue for $14 - and it's fun to watch an episode of the same show every evening. Every night after Salma has gone to bed we sit down with our dinner in the bedroom and watch one episode of whatever show we are viewing.

Over the last several months we've watched the first three seasons of The Wire. This is a fantastic HBO show. It's about a crack police surveillance squad in Baltimore that is approaching urban crime in a different way. Each seasons deals with a single case. At first it feels slow, but then you begin to realize that this is TV on an entirely new plane. The depth of characterization (of both the good guys and the bad) and the level of detail is unlike anything else on TV. Situations don't get neatly wrapped up in 60 minutes, and a as a result it feels very real.

More recently we needed a break from all the drama and we decided to try another HBO show, a comedy this time (we never had cable TV in the U.S., so all these shows are new to us).

Curb Your Enthusiasm stars Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld. Curb Your Enthusiasm is unscripted. That is, they come into each episode with an outline of the story, but the actual dialogue is improvised. In addition, they use the actors' real names for the characters. The result is that, once again, it has a very real-life feel to it, even if the situations that Larry gets himself into are ridiculous.

It's funny and I do laugh out loud, but I get frustrated at the idiotic situations that Larry ends up in time and time again. Still, comedies this good are rare, so I think I will order season two.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Salma's New Game; Worrying About the Kid

In the past, whenever we got home from a big shopping trip, one of us would have to care for Salma while the other put the groceries away. Not anymore. We have discovered that all we have to do is put Salma down on the floor with a bag of (non-breakable) groceries and she will happily spend an hour stacking the items on top of each other, knocking them down, and sorting and re-sorting them. Sometimes she gets stacks of three!

I worry about her a lot. Most of the time she is energetic, playful, happy and talkative. But she seems to get sick a lot. Little things like colds, fever, mysterious rashes that come and go... For the last two days she's been very irritable, not sleeping well and wanting to be held all the time. Today we noticed a rash on her chest and back. It could be insect bites and frankly I hope that's the case, because that's easy to fix. Put some ointment on her, air out her mattress and bedding and make sure there are no bugs around.

I've found that being a parent means worrying a lot. I worry that she'll fall down, eat the wrong thing, become ill, get stung, or simply be unhappy.

When Salma is irritable and weepy like she has been lately, we have a standard set of distractions that we employ to keep her occupied and entertained. We take her to the Centro Commercial - the main store in town. She knows all the employees, the store has two cats and several pigeons living in the store or the storeroom in back, and they have a small tricycle that Salma likes to sit on.

Then we go down the street to the open air market. Again, Salma knows the vendors there and often there are children or babies for her to look at and interact with. I enjoy walking through the aisles and browsing the crafts, though I rarely buy anything except perhaps some fruits or vegetables.

Back at home we try reading books to Salma, walking around the house with her, or even letting her play with things that are normally forbidden, like my cell phone.

If none of this works and Salma is still grouchy, there is a last resort: the TV.

Well, what are you gonna do? Idealism is fine, but when you've got a crying kid, believe me, you're glad for Sesame Street. No matter how bad Salma's mood is, if I sit her down in my lap and put Big Bird and Elmo on, she gets a big smile on her face and settles down to watch peacefully and happily.

By the way, we don't curl Salma's hair. That's 100% natural.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Power Outages; Salma is Better; Ramadan Half Over; Microwave is Dead

We've had two long power outages this week, for several hours each time. These usually occur in the late afternoon or at night. Whenever this happens we get out our candles and light them, wind up our lanterns and flashlights, and settle down for an evening of quiet reading. We have a pair of very nice crank-powered lanterns. 100 turns of the handle gives more than an hour of light.

If I want to work I get out my large UPS device, basically a super-duper battery back up unit that can power my computer for up to eight hours on battery power alone.

I don't mind any of this. I'm kind of glad that Salma gets to grow up in a place where the power goes out. I remember this happening during my childhood in Libya and other places; it's kind of exciting for a child, like camping in your own home. Now, as an adult, it remind me how thin our veneer of modernity really is: take away the power, and we're back to doing things much as they were done by our ancestors.

Today when the power went out I went to the Centro Commercial and bought several more votive candles with stickers of San Jose (the saint, not the city) on them. That's the only kind of votive they sell - I just peel off the stickers. By the time I got home, the power was back.


Salma was sick for almost a month, vomiting at night, eating very little, crying a lot, and carrying a fever. We took her to the doctor, had a stool sample tested, and just worried a lot. We thought it might be a virus, or a food allergy. Well, it turned out to be her teeth. She had four molars coming in all at once. Apparently this can cause all the symptoms mentioned, and of course the pain would be bad as well. Poor baby.

The teeth have now come in and she's back to normal - Alhamdulillah, thank God. Playing, laughing, shrieking at cats, dogs, balloons and piñatas, eating, and sleeping well.

We just received a gift for her from our friends Jen, Brian and Greta - thank you, guys! It's a wooden, articulated crocodile on wheels with a string attached. See the photo to the left (click on it for a larger version). The crocodile undulates and clacks loudly when Salma pulls it. Salma loves it and likes to hold her Mama's hand and walk while pulling the crocodile with her other hand.


Ramadan is about half over. I do miss being around other Muslims during Ramadan. I go to Panama or Penonome for Friday prayer, but that's about it. The rest of the time I pray at home, break fast by myself, listen to Qur'an on my iPod... still, Ramadan is a special time.

I find myself eating less and less. My appetite is simply drying up. I break my fast with a date and a sandwich, maybe a banana, and then I'm full. I mean really, I feel stuffed, and cannot eat anymore for several hours. I don't even feel the desire to eat. It makes me realize that outside of Ramadan I eat so much more than my body really needs - it boggles my mind.


Our microwave just quit for good. Enter the time and press start and it will count down the time ok, but no microwaves. Not even an itty bitty wave. I'll have to go to Panama and buy a new one next week, but I've been to Panama and Penonome three times in the last week and for now I need a break from driving. We'll just have to get by with an oven and a toaster, like cavemen!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ramadan Mubarak

I'd like to wish a belated Ramadan Mubarak (blessed Ramadan) to all my readers. May your Ramadan be full of joy and may God accept our sacrifice and our pure intentions. Many of us have experienced difficulties and pain in the last year. Let's use this holy month to turn to our Creator and ask for mercy, forgiveness, guidance and tranquility. Remember that fasting is not just about hunger and thirst. It's about re-dedicating yourself to Allah; trying to become an excellent person in every way; and remembering those less fortunate than us. It's a spiritual recharge to carry us through the year.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Trip to the Doctor for Salma

Salma has experienced several bouts of diarrhea and night-time vomiting over the last few weeks. Monday night she began vomiting around 2am and continued every few hours. She couldn't hold anything down. We called Dr. Medrano, Salma's pediatrician, and make an appointment to see him that same day. That's him with Salma in the photo above. You can see that she's not in a good mood.

Dr. Medrano speaks fluent English, and despite the photo above he's good with children and Salma is generally quite comfortable with him. He's a good doctor.

By the time we saw him in the afternoon Salma seemed to be doing better. She had not vomited since 8am or so and she was able to keep her drink and food down. Dr. Medrano says that there are some viruses going around, and if the problem reoccurs we'll get a stool sample and analyze it, but for now just keep her hydrated.

Today she's much better. It's hard to know what the problem is exactly. Our house is clean - we have a full time maid - but we're going to have to start keeping the floors pristine, because Salma will eat anything she finds on the floor, including cat food, insect parts or gecko droppings. Lovely, I know.

Also, I believe that Ani, Salma's nanny, is a very clean person, but just in case we'll have a talk with her about the importance of thorough hand-washing after changing Salma's diapers or going to the bathroom.

We also went to the Riba Smith grocery store for things we can't get here in El Valle, like tofu, diet root beer, almonds, cauliflower, and nice cheeses. We got back from the city late, and Salma went straight to bed. Here she is this morning doing one of her favorite things:

Now, before we get any lectures, we only let her watch a little TV each day, and she normally sits in her mama's lap a good distance from the TV. But if we let her up she heads straight for the TV, holds on to the edge of the cabinet as you see here, and dances to the Sesame Street songs by bobbing up and down and shaking her rump from side to side. It's very funny to see. We'll have to make a video.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Salma Loves to Walk

Salma has been practicing walking while holding a parent's hand. She can walk fairly well now with one hand. She enjoys it tremendously and she often laughs as she walks. She has taken a few tentative steps on her own, but she only manages two or three steps before she falls on her rump.

Laura was feeling restless the other day and wanted to get out of town, so we went to Panama city on Friday. I made it to Friday prayer just in time, then we went to Multicentro mall for lunch. We haven't seen Nora Smith (of Paradise Services) in a while, but luckily she had a few hours free between appointments and happened to be in Paitilla, so she joined us at the mall. I fed Salma and walked her all around the food court while Laura and Nora visited.

Nora says that some property sellers are asking $75/m2 for land here in El Valle. Unbelievable. I'm glad we bought this house when we did, Alhamdulillah. I've been convinced for years that good timing is one of the secrets of a happy life.

Afterwards we went to our post office, where a bounty of goods awaited us. I received a DVD I had ordered from - Searching for Bobby Fischer. I heard an interview with Josh Waitzkin, the subject of the move, recently on NPR (I download the podcasts). After becoming a chess champion he went on to study Tai Chi and win national championships in that as well. He says he seems to have an intuitive understanding of certain learning principles that he applies to anything he does. He's written a book about this, called, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.

I also received some mail and magazines from my parents, and Laura got a number of surprises, including children's books that friends had sent, and some new shirts. Someone must know of my interest in the domain name business, because I received a new magazine called Modern Domainer, that I have not subscribed to.

It's always fun to get packages in the mail.

We always stop at Arrocha as well. This time we picked up some cabinet guards to keep Salma out of the kitchen cabinets, and two Swiss chocolate bars - our favorite!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Mac and Tuna Memories

Rosa made macaroni and tuna for lunch. I love this dish, and it brings back old memories.

From 1993 to 1998 I lived in a loft apartment at the corner of 6th and Market streets in San Francisco. It was a rough neighborhood, one that the travel books advised tourists to avoid. Drug dealers, junkies and alcoholics, homeless people, nutcases and just plain down on their luck folks lived in this neighborhood. There were often homeless people - including children, at times, and once a boy and a dog - sleeping in the doorway of my building, and I'd have to step over them to get in. It's incredible to me that we could have homeless children in America, but we do. Most are teenagers, but some are as young as eleven or twelve. I volunteered for a while at the Larkin Street Youth Center and I saw many of them.

Once I had to step over a man who was seizing, foaming at the mouth, blocking the doorway to my building. Often I had to step over or around human waste.

At night I would hear the street people fighting, bottles breaking, drug dealers clapping out their codes, police sirens. Black dust from car exhaust came in through the window and formed sludgy little dust balls. The smells on the street were disgusting at times.

So why did I live there? It was cheap. The rent was only $550 a month when I moved in - cheap for San Francisco. The landlord, a burly fellow named Rocky who was gradually buying up many of the nearby buildings and renovating them, allowed me to pay my rent bi-weekly when I couldn't manage the entire month at once. Since I was a bike messenger at the time, riding 10 hours a day through San Francisco traffic for a meager paycheck, the low rent was very helpful.

Also, there were a few interesting features to the neighborhood. On the ground floor of the building there was a legendary burrito joint called Taqueria Cancun. My Irish friend Ian, another messenger who worked with me and was my closest friend in those days, used to drop by my apartment regularly and drag me downstairs for Cancun's fiery, sauce and cheese covered, $2.75 "wetback burrito."

Next to Cancun was a Cambodian-owned donut shop that made good chocolate twists and cake donuts, and beyond that a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint called Tu-Lan that was so delicious that I still compare all Asian dishes to it. I used to eat at Tu-Lan three times a week or more. I'd get a delicious place of curried shrimp fried rice - a big mound of yellow rice with eggs and chock full of shrimp - for $4.75.

Here's a photo of the lunch counter at Tu-Lan. It's a small restaurant, and I often had to stand in the doorway, waiting for a table or a stool to open up. Either that or go up to the second floor, where they have a few extra tables, but where the kitchen staff also chop the vegetables and meat.

Also, my building itself wasn't too bad. It was a haven to artists and working class folks. Yes, I got tired of sharing bathrooms and showers with the entire floor (actually the showers were shared by two floors) but I met some interesting people there, including the young woman who would later become my wife.

The building is still there, with its artists and odd characters, leading a very slow process of gentrification along the Sixth Street corridor. That's it on the right.

We're getting to the mac and tuna. Be patient.

A few doors down from Tu-Lan on Sixth Street was a small neighborhood market called Tom's Groceries. Tom's was utterly unique in this area because they did not sell liquor. Tom, a tall, elderly black man with a blond Swedish wife, did not want to contribute to the degradation of the neighborhood, so he steadfastly refused to sell beer, wine or spirits of any kind. Tom's truly was a grocery store: milk, vegetables and fruits, sodas, and a number of cheap prepared foods that were popular among the street people and the residential hotel residents.

One of the prepared foods that Tom's sold was - you guessed it - mac and tuna, or Tuna Mac as Tom called it. I don't think it was more than $1.50 a dish, in cellophane-covered Styrofoam dishes in the fridge. Whenever I needed a hot and filling snack late at night, I'd go down to Tom's and get a Tuna Mac, then pop it in my microwave and add a dash of hot sauce.

I still think of those days when Rosa makes mac and tuna. It's funny how some things stick with you, years later.

I have another tale to tell about Tom's Groceries, if you're interested.

As I said, in those days I was a full time bike messenger. For a while I also drove a Yellow Cab on the weekends, doing the day shift that all rookies get, and I sometimes worked as a bouncer at the Bottom of the Hill club on Friday and Saturday nights. Jim, one of our dispatchers at Professional Messenger, got me that job. Mostly I would just patrol the club with an extra long flashlight in my hand, making sure no one made trouble or tried to sneak in. For a five hour shift - 8 pm to 1 am - they'd pay me $80, and when I swept the club after closing time there was often money on the floor. That's the bouncer's version of job perks.

Even with three jobs and occasional financial assistance from my mom, I was always looking for a way to earn a little more money, so I once asked Tom if he needed any else at his store. He hired me. I don't know if he really needed another person, since he already had his son Tom Jr., his Swedish wife, and three lesbians in boots and flannel shirts, or if he was just helping me out.

Tom's was halfway down the block on Sixth Street, a rough stretch in a rough neighborhood. Even though Tom didn't sell liquor, he still got plenty of junkies and street people coming into the store. When the junkies had no money for dope they'd buy candy, since sugar in large quantities mimics the action of heroin and provides some relief from the jones, apparently. Shoplifting was always a problem.

The first day I started at Tom's, one of the women showed me the layout of the store and the back room. Rather than teach me how to work the register or stock the shelves, she taught me the security procedures. She pointed out the locations of the mirrors, and how to use them to monitor the customers at all times. Then she walked me around the store and showed me all the hidden weapons that the staff used to beat up shoplifters: a crowbar, a baseball bat, and a hammer. In case all that wasn't enough, Tom kept a shotgun and a .357 magnum pistol behind the counter.

"But we don't shoot the shoplifters of course," the girl explained to me. "We beat them up with the ball bat. We don't bother reporting it to the police because it happens so often that we'd spend all our time filling out reports, and the cops would get sick of it too. Just give them a few good whacks with the bat so that they know not to try it again."

I did work there one day, but the second day I told Tom that it was not the right job for me. It's not that I was afraid for my safety. I'd spent a lot of years in rough environments. I just didn't want to be in a position of having to beat up homeless people, junkies and crazies. I didn't need that kind of karma or emotional energy.

Some time later I read an article about Tom in the newspaper. It was one of those community interest pieces, describing how Tom had stayed in the neighborhood for so many years, working with the local merchants to bring about positive change. The article listed some of the challenges that Tom faced in that neighborhood. I learned that he had been forced to use that shotgun behind the counter more than once. Between he and his son they had shot five people over the years, and killed two, all in self defense.

Even after I'd moved to Oakland, I used to go to San Francisco for business or to check my P.O. box, and I always made it a point to go to Tu-Lan for lunch. One day I saw that Tom's had closed down. Tom had once told me that his wife had land in the countryside back in Sweden, and his dream was to move back there and sit on the porch with his wife, drinking lemonade and listening to the birds. I hope he is doing that now, just as I am doing it here in the lovely town of El Valle de Anton, Panama.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Laura's Molas Have Arrived

Laura and Crystal recently started on a project to sell molas and other Panamanian handcrafts online. To that end, Laura has been building a store,, using Yahoo's small business tools. Last year I began buying up Panama related domain names, since it's a topic that I'm interested in, so I'm happy that one of them has come in so handy.

Last week Laura gave Cleo some money and sent him on a journey down to the San Blas islands, home of the Kuna people, to buy some top quality molas, so that she can begin stocking the online store. Cleo returned this morning, looking deeply weary.

Cleo opened the waterproof bag that Laura had loaned him and spread everything out on the table. He managed to secure 35 high quality molas. We gave him some coffee and cookies and he spent a long time explaining to Laura the cosmological significance of each mola. You see, the authentic mola patters all represent some aspect of Kuna belief regarding the origin of the universe and the meaning of the sun, moon and stars.

I loaned Cleo my camera for the trip. The Kuna people in general do not like having their pictures taken, believing that it steals the spirit, but Cleo managed to take a few candid shots of women working, excluding their faces:

Look for Laura to be adding these molas to the online store within about a week or so.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Huge thunderstorm going on right now. The lightning is hitting right here in the valley, and the thunder is ripping across the sky like cannons firing. So much water is falling that the yard looks like a lake and the ditches are full to the top.

Salma was napping but the thunder woke her up. The cats are in hiding. Rosa has just finished work and Laura is giving her a ride in the car, rather than let her walk in the storm. Listo cannot get a ride, since he lives in the mountains where there are no roads, so I told him to come into the house and I served him a bowl of spaghetti to eat while he waits out the storm.

I've been developing several blogs and working hard on them. The most important is, which is a blog about my experiences buying, selling and managing domain names. I started last week and I'm trying to post something new almost every day. I'm working on promoting it among other "domainers" and building it into a useful resource.

The humidity here is hard on electronics. The latest victim is our microwave oven. It has developed a glitch which causes it to turn itself on when you open the door, so you get a face full of radiation. I was thinking about calling Eric - the apprentice electrician who gave me such a headache last year - when lo and behold, he showed up on his own! He knew that our washing machine was broken down and he wanted to buy it for spare parts.

He says that he has quit drinking because his wife pulled his ear.

So I had him take a look at the microwave. He found a small relay that has rusted and is no longer working. He says the relay must be replaced, but we cannot find such a small part outside of Panama City. So for now we are stuck with a malfunctioning microwave.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gourmet Vegetarian Cuisine in El Valle de Anton

Where do you go in El Valle de Anton, Panama for gourmet vegetarian cuisine? Bruschetta? No, though their vegetarian sandwich is not bad. Mar de Plata or El Rancho? No. Los Capitanes? Definitely not.

You go to 10050 Calle Las Medinas, the home of Wael, Laura and Salma, where Rosa, their maid and cook, is really outdoing herself these days. Well, now that I'm looking at the pictures I realize that it looks a little messy, but both dishes were really very good.

The first was an egg salad with tomato, garbanzos and parmesan slices:

The second was a hot potato salad with peanuts:

We still had some broccoli casserole from the day before - it was delicious - and white rice and curried fish from the day before that. A plethora of tasty choices.

Rosa's come a long way from the days when every dinner was rice and lentils, or lentil soup. And it's such a nice change. I can put up with a lot of inconveniences and even outright tribulations, as long as I have a nice meal at the end of the day.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Australia in the Clouds

Ok, I guess we don't have enough entertainment here in El Valle. Laura and I were walking along the main road, and I pointed at the sky and said, "Hey, there's Australia!" I just happened to have my camera on me. What do you think? You be the judge:

Salma and Laura in the Yard

A few photos of Salma and her Mama in the front yard. These photos are quite large. Click on them to see the larger version:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Salma's Kiss; Getting Ready to Walk

If I ask Salma to give me a kiss, she will sometimes do so and sometimes turn away. If I lean in to give her a kiss, she often kisses me back.

Yesterday Laura and I were getting ready to go out for an evening walk. I was holding Salma in my arms, and because I knew she was tired (it was only an hour before her bedtime) I was speaking to her softly, telling her how we'd go for a walk and wave to the neighbors and see the doggies and the skateboarders, and then we'd come home and Mama would give her a bath, etc. Suddenly she turned to me without any prompting and gave me a kiss on the cheek, as if she was thanking me for my reassuring speech. She's never done that before and I was touched.

Salma started crawling late, and it seems her crawling phase will be short, as she is already pulling herself up to standing, strengthening her legs in preparation for walking. She loves to grab my computer cart and haul herself up, then grab my pens, highlighters, tape dispenser and other office supplies and throw them on the ground.

Anytime she's sitting down and you reach out a hand to her, she will pull herself up and begin walking, with help. She loves this. She laughs as she walks, as if it's a game. Her balance is still poor, so she takes not more than twenty or thirty steps, then sits down.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A few recent photos of Salma

I've been having a little trouble lately with the images I upload to Blogger. They don't seem to upload in their full sizes, or they are not clickable. But here goes. These photos are quite large, so click on the photo to see the larger version:

Playing on the living room carpet with Mama:

Salma with our friend Cleo at her birthday party:

Friday, July 27, 2007

Real Taguas, Fake Taguas

Ok, they're not really fake. They are carved from tagua nuts. But they're not what I expected.

For those who don't know, I have a collection of these fascinating figurines, hand-carved by the Embera and Wounaan Indians from a nut called tagua or palm ivory. The designs typically represent animals endemic to this area, such as native frogs, birds, fish, wild cats, etc. You can see a few of my pieces below. The photos is a little blurry, sorry, but the "garza imperial" (imperial stork) in the center is my finest piece:

I've been buying taguas for about a year and a half now and I've become something of a connoisseur. I know where to go in Panama city to find the best pieces at good prices (Mi Pueblito sellers have the best pieces, without a doubt, while Panama Viejo is the most expensive). I know what to look for and I know how much to pay.

The other day Laura, Salma and I were on our way out of the city after saying goodbye to her family members at the airport. Laura wanted to look at a few molas (her hobby) so I detoured to the Balboa Artesans' Market, where I know there are a lot of mola sellers. The day was broiling hot, so I parked in a corner of the parking lot where there was a small patch of shade.

When we walked into the market, a young Kuna woman was enamored of Salma and took her off our hands while we browsed the stalls. Salma never complains about this. She has grown up being held and carried around by everyone in El Valle.

I came to a stall where the vendor was selling tagua carvings of a type I have not seen before. They were unpainted and had broad, obvious features, unlike the fine work I am used to. The lines were smooth, but they were cute in their own way. These pieces reminded me of children's toys - and in fact the seller claimed that they were carved by children. Here are the ones I bought:

I bought these two, paying $9 each for them (a fairly low price), and back in El Valle I took them to Cleo at the market to get his opinion.

"These are machine made," Cleo said. "Imported, most likely from Ecuador."

"Machine made?" I was very surprised.

"Yes, you see these broad, smooth lines? That's typical of factory work. You'd better keep these away from your other taguas. Look here, you see these tiny holes? These are from insects eating the tagua."

Even though I had paid very little for the two pieces, I was disappointed and annoyed at the seller who had either tricked me, or who was clueless himself.

"You want to buy them," I asked Cleo?

"No, thank you!"

"I'll sell them to you at my cost!" I said, using one of Cleo's favorite lines. "No gano nada!" (I earn nothing!)

He wouldn't take them, so I've stored them in the freezer for now, until I figure out what to do with them. Give them away to local children, perhaps?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brownie the Dog

Last week Laura, Crystal, Salma and I went for an afternoon walk. This is something we do almost every evening, between about 5:30 and 6:30 pm. Somewhere in the vicinity of the church Crystal spotted a small, skinny brown dog with big ears. The dog had a piece of chewing gum stuck to its thigh. Crystal coaxed it over and removed the gum, and from that point it tagged along as if we were its new family. It trotted along with us up the hot springs road, all the way along Calle de los Millonarios, and back down the dirt road to our house.

I named the dog Brownie, though Laura preferred to call her Dulce (sweet). She was very skittish at first, but once she realized that we were not going to kick or hit her she became very enthusiastic and friendly. I fed her (cat food actually, but the dog didn't seem to mind), brushed her, and put out a cardboard box with a blanket to sleep in. She spent the night, but the next day she disappeared. I was a bit sad about that, but I figured maybe she just preferred life as a stray, or perhaps she was in heat.

After a one day absence, Brownie returned, seemingly very happy to see us. Once again we fed her, watered her and played with her a bit. She had an unfortunate habit of barking at our cats, but after a few stern reprimands she seemed to calm down.

All the girls were going to the beach and then to the Rey in Coronado, so, thinking we had a new member of the family, I asked Laura to buy a bag of dog food, and one of those dog pillows. However, by the time Laura returned with the dog food, a new dog bowl and a toy, Brownie had disappeared again.

She never did come back.

Today we went out to run a few errands and stopped at the Centro Yin, the only store in town that carried fig newtons. Lo and behold, who do we see laying on the cement in front of the store? Brownie! I don't know if she belongs to the Yin or just likes to hang out there during the day. I suspect the latter. Next time I'm there I'll ask the owners about her.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Surprising Place for a Hammock; Cheap Sushi; Escalator Fun

The sun had just dropped away, it was a warm, drizzly evening, and I had just parked in the far corner of the lot at Multiplaza, the newest, shiniest mall in Panama. There was a truck parked in the corner, and Laura noticed that the trucker had strung a hammock beneath the truck, anchored to something on the underside of the carriage, and was fast asleep. The truck had a Guatemala license place. Apparently this was a long haul trucker, taking a break or putting in for the night.

For some reason I keep mulling this over, thinking about this trucker driving from one country to another, so poor that he has to sleep under his truck. On the other hand, what great luck to be in a part of the world where it's never really cold, and to be able to stretch out in a hammock and sleep without having to spend any money at a hotel. I wondered if this was a common phenomenon, so I looked online and found several photos of this same tactic, like the one above, taken in Belize.

We went into the mall, window shopped, and Linda bought Salma a new stroller at the Poppy's store. We went up to the food court. Laura, Crystal and I shared five plates of sushi - 50 pieces! Fortunately, in Panama you can get 50 pieces of good sushi for about $20. Another perk of living here.

Linda and Crystal have gone back to the U.S., and Laura is feeling sad. Salma really loves airports, by the way. She's been to Tocumen International several times now, and she enjoys gawking at the busy groups of people, the children running around, and oh, she really loves the escalators. Going up and down the escalator is a huge thrill for her. As it is for all children. Hey, if I could get away with it, even I would enjoy running up the down escalator.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

To Blog or Not To Blog? That is the Poll Question

I haven't been posting much, as my friends have no doubt realized by now. I've had some severe disillusionments recently in the realm of family and friends, and I seem to have stopped caring about writing in this space.

I have also come to the abrupt realization that not everyone who reads this blog is a friend. Some may object strongly to what I write here. That would be fine if I were, say, a journalist, covering political, crime or business issues for a newspaper. A journalist doesn't post baby photos and write about his residency status or financial situation.

The problem here is that I combine posts about my personal life with my opinions on political and religious issues. So anyone who might be offended by my writings has access to much more personal information about me and my family than they would if I were a journalist for the L.A. Times. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that.

So what are my options?

1. Issues Blog: I could write only about the political, social and religious issues that are on my mind, and eliminate all personal information. But that's no good, because most of my readers are family and friends who want to see photos of the baby, learn more about our lives in Panama, and be informed about our doings.

2. Family Stuff Blog: Alternatively, I could take the opposite tack: stick to the family stuff and baby photos, and leave out my pseudo-intellectual musings about society and religion. But that's not how I think. Everything is tied together. My decisions about where to live, what sort of work to do, who to take as friends and how to interact with those friends, are all tied in with what I believe about the world and how to live. I make very few random choices. And the same is true for my moods and feelings. If I'm depressed one day, it's as likely to be about the ongoing destruction of ancient Iraqi monuments and archaeological sites as it is about the trouble I'm having getting a website configured properly.

Besides, I'd be bored just writing about the family's daily doings and nothing more. I'd find that to be superficial and lacking substance, like a spoonful of saccharine.

3. Private Blog: I could make the blog private, with access allowed to approved members only, so that only my close friends and family could enter. They'd have to put up with the hassle of logging in just to read my ramblings. Still, I am seriously considering this.

4. No Blog: The final option is, of course, to shut the blog down. This approach has merits. Before I began this blog I used to keep a private journal. My journal entries were more detailed and honest than much of what I write here, because I never had to worry about who might read them. So I described people I met in detail, including positive and negative observations. I wrote about my hopes and my naked fears, my hates and desires. I wrote the things that a person thinks but does not share with the public at large, and if someone might read it after I die, well, that's ok.

If all they have to read when I die is this blog, they'll get sore jaws from yawning too much.

Got an opinion? Answer the poll below:

What should Wael do with his blog?
Issues blog
Family stuff blog
Private blog
No blog
It's fine, just stop worrying about it
Is this guy for real? Who cares? free polls

Thanks for your opinions! From now on all my blog posts will contain polls. Welcome to web 2.0!

Monday, June 4, 2007

Zach and Danyell, Can We Pick Your Mangoes?

Got a call from Zach. He and Danyell, a young couple from Colorado, ended up buying sight unseen a nice little corner lot one block off the main road here in El Valle. It's only a few blocks from our house. Z&D are still in Colorado, and the reason Zach called is that he was concerned about some of the recent laws passed by the Panamanian legislature. I'll write more about that later, but first, I forgot to ask, hey Zach! Can we pick your mangoes? Your lot has a large mango tree on it and the fruit is ripe and falling.

Lack of response will be interpreted as consent.

Here are some photos of Z&D's lot that Laura took some months ago when Linda was thinking about buying something here. Click on the photos to see larger versions:

Looking at the lot from across the road:

Along the side of the lot, looking at Cerro Gaital and friends:

Front of the property:

Middle of the property, with the neighbor's house visible beyond. Joe and Lori, a couple from Oklahoma, are now renting that house:

Back of the property: