Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Salma, Wasps and Pottery Dogs

I've been working on a few more thoughtful posts for this blog (and I'm still working on them). In the meantime, here are a few interesting photos for my dedicated readers to peruse. Above is some little creature that snuck into the house and tried to make itself at home. Actually, she is playing in her Greco Entertainer 480R saucer that was handed down to us by Crystal. I tried to find some documentation on it online to figure out how to change the batteries (it seems to be a secret process). Can you imagine, trying to find online documentation on an eight year old baby toy? What a dummy I am.

We've had two previous wasps nests at the back of our house, on opposite sides of the laundry room. Our gardener recently removed the second one, and here are the wasps, swarming on a wet leaf and trying to figure out what to do next.

Laura and I went on a craft-finding mission (sort of like a fact-finding mission, but more productive) up and down the highway, from Santa Clara to La Chorrera. Here's an outdoor tiled cement table, but more interesting are the pottery dogs designed to look as if they are digging.

We did not buy one.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Other Travelers' Visits to El Valle

In this photo you can see the former incarnation of the Hotel Campestre, the grand old dame of El Valle, before it was torn down. Laura used to say that it looked like the hotel from "The Shining." The golden frogs are gone, perhaps sheltered at the new amphibian facility in El Nispero. The square-trunked trees are not so square, but the grounds are still beautiful and it looks like they are re-building from the ground up. Nothing remains of the former structure except the central fireplace.

I'll try to drive by there today and take a few photos of the construction.


I have encountered several stories on the web of other traveler's visits to El Valle. Here are a few:

Stefnflo's visit to El Valle: It's interesting and nostalgic. They travelled all through Central Ameria and I read most of their journals.

From the description I'd guess that they stayed at the Hotel Campestre. I drove by to check it out a few days ago and it has been torn down, all except the brick fireplace in the middle. It looks like they are going to build a new structure, and they do have a side building with some rooms for rent in the meantime.


Another couple's daytrip to El Valle from Panama City. Their description of the bus ride is very familiar:

Bus Ride Panama City to El Valle


Martin is a German who was working in Panama and has now returned to Germany. He's got some nice photos of El Valle on his website: Martin's last visit to El Valle.


Mark and Emma's brief trip to El Valle. They did a quick jaunt from Chiriqui to Panama City.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thoughts on Racism and the Future of Humanity

Kind of a grandiose title, I know. I'll try to keep it from sounding too pedagogic. I'll begin with what my Hapkido instructor, Erik M., recently wrote:
I enjoy reading your blog, Step to Life, when I get the chance. I just read "Losing the Bear". After observing the incident involving the Indian woman and the girls in the golf cart, you asked,

"What is it about people with money and power, that they think it's ok to despise those who are less fortunate?"

I don't think it's a matter of being ok to despise the less fortunate. I think that it's necessary in order for the rich and powerful to blithely enjoy their lives of privilege without concern for the poor and disenfranchised. The act of despising reinforces a worldview: the unworthy poor deserve their fate, so I don't have to give a damn about them, or do anything to create a more just society. It's contempt as a psychological defense mechanism.

Erik, I think you're right, and I believe that this contempt itself is a product of dehumanizing stereotypes that are passed on from parent to child. Stereotypes such as:
  • Indians (native Americans) are lazy and they drink too much.
  • Black people are lazy and pre-disposed to crime. They are only good at singing, comedy and sports.
  • Arabs are violent by nature; it's in their blood.
  • Mexicans are hard workers but must be told what to do; they have no initiative.
  • Asians are cruel. They do not value human life like "we" do. They abuse animals and they will eat anything.
  • Jews are greedy and conniving; they secretly control governments and the media.
Many stereotypes are even self-contradictory: Jews are somehow perceived as both subhuman and superhuman. Arabs are generous and hospitable, but at the same time wicked and terroristic. Mexicans are hard working, but also thieves who will steal from you if they can.

These stereotypes say, "Those people do not possess the same human qualities that we do. They are less than human and should not be treated as equals. The rules of conduct that apply between us, do not apply to our treatment of them."

It's this dehumanization that makes it possible to exclude, imprison and even massacre people on the basis of their ethnicity. Or to eject them from their land, bulldoze their homes, and then build a wall to keep them imprisoned in a corner of the desert, as has been done in Palestine.

We live in a world where demographics are rapidly changing: the number of Muslims is on the rise globally; the Hispanic population in the U.S. is burgeoning; indigenous groups in Latin America are wielding their clout; the white population in Europe and Russia is steady or declining, as is the Japanese population; while China and India are ascending powers. In addition, the foundations of Western might - an endless supply of cheap energy, monopolization of resources, and a superior educational system - are quickly eroding.

These changes are frightening to those whose world view is founded on notions of racial entitlement; when people are afraid, they are capable of terrible things. Watch, out world.

We human beings are at a make-or-break stage, I believe. We have developed weapons of tremendous destructive capabilities; computers that calculate at mind-boggling speeds; and we are rapidly closing on technologies so powerful that I don't think we can even imagine what they will bring, namely nanotechnology, genetic engineering and cybernetics. We're going to see mind-blowing technological developments in our own lifetimes.

Based on this, we claim to be civilized. We're "modern". We have electric lights, paved roads, constitutions, space shuttles, credit cards, and Goretex jackets.

But in all in the ways that count, we're still cavemen. We're barbarians. We commit genocide (not a generation ago but now, today!), we imprison people for their words or thoughts, we torture, we make war for profit, and we are running the environment into the ground. We're not civilized at all. A jackal in a suit is still a jackal. If we do not make some serious changes, the powers of our technologies will outstrip our ability to control them, with disastrous consequences.

I admit I'm not optimistic about the future of the human race. I think it's not too late to save ourselves, but we'd have to make some changes, and I don't know if we can do it.

If we're going to survive this century, we must begin by basing our lives not on values of racism, capitalism, nationalism (i.e. exclusion) or greed, but on values of respect, inclusion and compassion. I won't say love, because that's something in the heart, something private. But respect, inclusion and compassion have physical manifestations; they can be expressed in practical ways.

Then we have to pass these values on to our children.

Justice is also critical, because without justice you can never have peace, neither within a society, nor between nations. By justice I mean two things:
  1. Criminal justice systems that apply equally to all, whether you're white or black, rich or poor.
  2. Economic justice. Economic justice does not mean re-distributing private wealth by force, as under Communism. It means that:
    • Public wealth should be collected and apportioned fairly, with no special favors for corporations and the rich;
    • Everyone should have equal opportunities for education and advancement, as long as they are willing to do the work;
    • A society has an obligation to care for those who are genuinely unable to care for themselves, such as the insane, the elderly, orphans and the seriously disabled. This is just basic human compassion.
    • Domestic policies have to be based on human values, not material values. Capitalism, communism and socialism are all systems of government based on distribution of wealth, in other words they are based on material values. Why not a society based on human values?
None of these ideas are new. In the Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) last Khutbah (sermon), delivered in front of a mass of over then thousand people during Hajj, in the valley of Arafat, in the year 10 A.H., or 632 in the Christian Era, he said:
"All humankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action."
One thousand, four hundred eighteen years later, we have not come close to realizing this truth.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tire Repair in El Valle - "Se Reparan Llantas"

As just about everyone knows, our car has experienced problems in the past and for a long time was out of commission with two flat tires, a rear tire and the spare. It's working fine now, but I never shared the tale of how I got the tires fixed. So here is the story:

Twice I paid Cleo the crafts seller to buy me tires on his weekly trips to the city, and carry them back on the bus. The first one was too small, and the second too large. He had written down the tire size on a piece of paper, and I could not understand why he could not bring back the right sized tire.

Finally I asked him to simply return the tire and forget about it. For weeks the car had been sitting there in the carport! I was disgusted with the whole situation and I blamed myself for relying on other people to solve my problem. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

I remembered that we have a small tire repair shop - actually sort of a shack - here in town. It's in a wooded, lightly populated area. You find it by following a series of signs. The first sign is a truck tire standing on its side next to the Hong Kong market, with the words "We Repair Tires" painted on the side in white, and an arrow indicating the direction. It's shown in the photo at the top.

Then you go down a potholed road for a ways, until you see a dirt road marked by a car tire, again with the words "We Repair Tires" and another arrow.

You follow this road a ways - there is nothing around at this point but trees and shrub, and a few small houses under construction - to a hand painted sign pointing in a new direction. The shack itself is identified by another painted tire.

I put our tire in a wheelbarrow and walked it to the repair shack. Every now and then I paused to let my shoulders rest. As I walked, I listened to a book on tape on my cassette walkman. It's a fascinating story about an old ex-con trying to make it in L.A., trying to work his job and not lose his cool under the constant harassment from local cops who want to hold him responsible for every crime in the neighborhood.

When I'm listening, I become immersed in the world of the story, and I could walk miles without noticing the passage of time or distance.

I was pleased to see that the repair shack was manned today. The man, a tanned, muscular Panamanian named Sol, set about repairing the tire while I looked around. On the wall were two pieces of rebar welded into the shape of a cross, along with an actual painted wooden cross, a plaque of the Virgin Mary, and a framed page of printed material with a photo of a priest.

A sign advertised sodas for sale for 30 cents, eggs for 10 cents, and another sign said, "We Repair Bicycles."

Two coconut trees next to the shack were bursting with dozens of immature coconuts.

The tire rim was bent, allowing a trickle of air to escape. Sol hammered it into shape with a ball peen hammer, the sound ringing out loudly while I covered my ears. He patched two holes with putty and put the tire together. It seems to be in working order now. I'll put it on the car this afternoon and test it. Repair cost: $3.

Salma has an appointment for her four month vaccinations tomorrow. It would be really nice to be able to drive rather than take the bus. My cold is just beginning to dissipate. I have been sick now with one thing or another for over two weeks - very unusual for me - and I am not willing to risk another bus ride.

Postscript: So the car was repaired, and we drove to Salma's doctors appointment in comfort. Ah, the little luxuries we take for granted.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Questions About El Valle de Anton from a Reader, Part Three

In Part One, I answered questions about dry season wind in El Valle de Anton, average temperatures, and internet access. In Part Two, I looked at a property that Zach, a reader, is thinking about buying, and offered my opinion.

Zach wrote in response, "I'm disappointed but value your honest assessment... I think my main concern is the bus noise and diesel fumes. I'm surprised to learn that the street is a (busy?) bus route. Where are these buses going? Any idea on their frequency?"

So I headed out this morning with Laura and the baby to time the frequency of the buses. Hey, I have to blog about something. And it gives me an excuse to get outside in the sunshine and the breeze, and enjoy the local scenery, and lets my readers see more of El Valle.

We drove to the lot with Salma sitting in her car seat, looking out the window and babbling happily. I parked the car in the shade at the front of the property at exactly 10:30 am and proceeded to eat my breakfast of scrambled egss with black beans and hot sauce.

I decided to do a half-hour photo survey, taking pictures of the buses that passed. I missed the first two because I was still eating my eggs and couldn't get the camera out fast enough.

This minibus was the third bus to go by. It passed the property and headed out toward the end of the La Piedra Pintada road.

A few minutes later it came back, returning to town. So the end of the route is not too far away. As the sign on the bus says, it goes from El Valle to Panama. Standard fare is $3.75 to Panama and the buses end up at Albrook Mall. Notice the lovely forested hillside in the background. As usual, you can click the photo for a much larger version.

A big diablo rojo came from the direction of the Oriente Market.

It stopped immediately in front of the property to board a passenger. This one was belching diesel fumes.

And then continued up the road. This bus, oddly enough, did not come back. That was the last bus in the half hour test period. So, five buses in 30 minutes, with one of them passing twice.

This pickup taxi is typical of the taxis that operate within the town limits in El Valle. Of course many other vehicles drove by as well, as well as dozens of pedestrians, includling locals going into town, children, dogs, and tourists walking out towards the painted rock. At one point a small Datsun drove by honking its horn. The driver had a cooler in the back seat and I suppose he was selling fresh fish that he had caught down on the coast that morning. Many vendors do this. Some have a special tune that they play, but many just honk their horns.

This house is catercorner. The signs on the tree and fence proclaim that they sell cypresses, juices, arraucaria (I don't know what that is), ornamental plants, popsicles, drinks, ice, jello and ice cream.

This little corner store is only a few dozen meters from the property. Certainly handy when you want a cold drink, a candy bar or an emergency roll of toilet paper. These types of small corner stores or kiosks are scattered throughout the back roads of El Valle and all Panama towns.

This little place, offering fried frish and Panama style ceviches, is even closer than the corner store. Just a few paces down the road. And if you need a dose of evangelism to go with your corvina, look at the fish store's larger sign below:

It says, "Kiosk Jesus is My Guide: fried fish, ceviches, saus (sauces?), sandwiches, chicken, drinks. Open until 12:30 am."

Great if you need a midnight snack.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of backroads El Valle.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Questions About El Valle de Anton from a Reader, Part Two

In Part One, I answered some questions from a reader regarding El Valle de Anton's summer winds, temperature and internet connections. He also asked me to look at the El Valle property he is thinking of buying, and share my impressions.

To get to the property, go...

"beyond the Catholic church...

"...turning right to cross the bridge..." (with La India Dormida, the Sleeping Indian, perfectly framed in the background)

...past the Oriente Market...

This is the property. It's a good size, larger than it looks in this photo. And notice the view of Cerro Gaital through the trees at the back of the property. I like that.

And looking in the other direction, towards the front of the property, you have a partial view of La India Dormida.

One side of the property is bordered by a creek.

The Bad News

Ok. Let's start with the bad news, and before you accuse me of being a snob, let me preface my remarks by saying that this does not necessarily reflect my thinking, but it is the common wisdom and I am sharing it as such.

The side of El Valle that lies on the other side of the bridge (the side this property is on) is generally considered less desirable, and for this reason the prices per square meter are usually about $5 lower. The reason for this is that it's on this side of El Valle that most of the permanent, year-round residents of El Valle reside. Most are very poor. They are subsistence farmers, or construction workers, or work at the local stores and restaurants, or serve as gardeners, caretakers, maids and nannies to the wealthier population.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, except that when you take a family (such as a gringo family) that by comparison is quite wealthy, and sit them down in the middle of this poor environment, then you have to worry about things like petty theft and maybe even burglary. There are not many such crimes in El Valle, but those that do happen often occur on that side of the bridge, usually around the tourist spots. Also, whenever I see a drunk staggering home at the end of the day, he is inevitably heading accross the bridge.

End of "common wisdom" remarks. Remaining comments are my own thoughts.

I don't really care for the Oriente Market. There are always so many men just lounging around in front, sitting on the benches. I don't like the vibe there. And because the Oriente services the lower income side of town, they tend not to have any of the nicer products, like real cheeses, real juices or Snickers bars (my own bias there).

The last item of bad news is that your property sits on a busy bus route. I saw several buses plying the road in front of the property just in the short time I was there, both the small coaster buses and the larger diablos rojos. This means a steady supply of noise and bus exhaust during busing hours.

With that said...

The "common wisdom" on any issue is often B.S.. There are many nice homes being built on the far side of the bridge, and a number of large haciendas as well. As the trend toward gentrification of El Valle continues, you'll probably see some better stores and restaurants opening up on that side of town. Also, your property is only a short walk from the church, the library and some good restaurants such as Pinocchio's Pizza, Bruschetta, and the Panaderia.

And in any case, the immediate area around your property seemed to be quiet. It's not a crowded area at all, and seemed quite peaceful. As far as the bus traffic, if you build a wall along the front of the property and line it with bamboo or other vegetation, it might block most of the traffic sounds. And of course if you plan to use the buses, then being on a bus route could be an advantage.

The Creek

The creek that runs through your property is lovely, but will require some maintenance and upkeep. I noticed some trash in the creek. You will have to clean it out occasionally. Also, you should terrace your side of the creek to prevent it from eroding your property. A well built and planted terrace can be quite pleasing. I can just imagine spending an evening sitting on a terrace planted with flowers, watching the stream go by.


The property has nice views and the area is green and peaceful. It's within walking distance not only of the the town center and restaurants, but also of El Valle's best known natural attractions, such as La India Dormida, La Piedra Pintada, Chorro Las Mozas, and Chorro El Macho. Two thousand square meters is a very good lot size and will afford you plenty of room for a home and a beautiful yard. There are very few lots of this size for sale in El Valle. Most of the available lots tend to be very large - I'm talking hectares - or very small, 1000 m2 or less.

I don't have enough information or experience to judge the property as an investment, eyeing future returns, though I can say that all of El Valle is appreciating to one degree or another. If I had the money and I were in the market, I would be willing to buy this lot as an investment.

There are potential problems, but as long as you are aware of them and prepared to deal with them, I would say this is a good buy and could make a fine homesite.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Day Trip to the Beach

We took a day trip down to the beach at Santa Clara. It was a fun day, though not without its perils for me. Read about it on Laura's blog.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Questions About El Valle de Anton from a Reader, Part One

Back in April 2006 I got an email from a fellow named Zach who lives in Colorado. He wrote,

My wife and I have been exploring the idea of living outside of the US for several years. We traveled to Panama in January 2006 and visited Panama City, El Valle, Santa Clara, Boquete/Volcan and Bocas and fell in love with Panama and the Panamanians.

Since then we've been considering where we would like to try and purchase some land. El Valle is high on our list for a lot of reasons including the amazing beautiful landscape, proximity to Panama City, the availability of a good internet connection and overall 'good vibe'.

We currently live in Colorado. My wife works as a project manager/drafter in architecture but is also a talented artist, and I'm a web developer with a video production background. We're both in our thirties so it's encouraging to hear about other folks who are not of retirement age making a move from the US to Panama. I also noticed you're also in the web development field. We have been emailing another couple who are video production professionals in Arizona who've purchased a lot in El Valle. Seems like there will be quite a vibrant creative community in Panama in the coming years!

Zach and Danyell

We stayed in touch by email, and Zach later wrote,

My wife and I are taking a trip to Panama in late November to look for property. We're planning on staying a few days in El Valle (Los Capitanes probably) and would love to meet you and your family.

Since I last emailed, we've been working with a local agent to find properties around El Valle, but it seems like there just is not much available and what is for sale is very expensive. So, we've been focusing our search on property in Chiriqui (our other favorite area) but feel like we should compare El Valle to that area one more time before we decide!

Indeed Zach and Danyell did come to El Valle in late November 2006, and Laura and I met them at NiƱa Delia (a local motel and restaurant) for dinner. We found them to be likeable and easy to talk to, and in one of those ubiquitous "small world" coincidences, we learned that Zach used to work at a movie theater in Berkeley that Laura and I used to patronize.

Just a few days ago Zach emailed me a few questions about El Valle:

Like I mentioned in my comment on your blog (which rocks) Danyell and I are hunkering down and trying to decide which area of Panama to settle. We have a tendency to "over think" things! At any rate, we're favoring El Valle and have some questions that perhaps you can answer from your experience living there. I hope that we are not too much of a pain in the a** - we just feel like we can trust you guys...

1. We understand that it can be pretty windy during the dry season. How windy and how often? Has this been a major nuisance for you or is it just "breezy"?

2. Also on the weather front, I've had a hard time finding a good weather website that has accurate current or historical weather trends. Do you know of any good sites? We're trying to figure out how hot/cold it gets.

3. I will continue to do web development work for a living which requires a good and reasonably consistent internet connection. I remember your story about the installation process, but how well has your wireless system worked since then? How often does it go down and what other
options are there in town if you need to get something done?

4. Finally, on our trip we looked at a lot that we really liked - it's about 2000 m2, has a little creek next to it, lots of established trees and plants and seems to be on a quiet streets (it's a corner lot). We're curious if you could go by this lot and see if, as a resident, you would notice any negative attributes that we wouldn't have considered as a tourist. Below are instructions - you'll see the for sale signs:

"beyond the Catholic church, turning right to cross the bridge..."

Zach, I did not include the complete directions to your lot, so that none of my other readers will snatch it up. Here are my answers to your questions:

1. The Wind: Sometimes I think I could trip and fall, and the wind would hold me up. The wind blows day and night in the dry season. In the daytime it's a refreshing breeze that makes fans and air conditioning unnecessary and feels lovely on your skin.

At night the wind seems to pick up in strength. The temperature is still quite comfortable, but with the wind it can feel downright chilly. We have to shut all the windows, otherwise the drafts tear through the house, blowing pictures off the walls, slamming doors and even blowing cushions off the sofa. Sometimes the wind dies down a bit and becomes just a gentle carress. Then suddenly it revs up to gale force strength, howling above the house, sounding as if it's going to tear off the roof. In fact it did recently rip away one of our rain gutters.

Our living room does not have solid windows, only screens, and three celing fans. High on the wall is mounted a sort of demon's head, a local craft left by the previous owner. Last night I went into the living room late at night to get a book I had left there. It was dark and the wind was rushing through the room. All the ceiling fans were spinning from the force of the zephyrs, and the demon's head was swinging back and forth, as if surveying its tempestuous domain.

And now I've exhausted all my synonyms for wind.

2. The Temperature: You've been here, so you know what the temperatures are like. Panama is sub-tropical, so the temperature is almost the same all year round, though of course the wind makes it feel much colder in the dry season. The year-round average high temperature is 20° C (68° F), and the average nighttime minimum is a comfortable 16° C (61° F). There's almost no difference between "summer" and "winter" temperatures, the only real variation being the amount of wind and rain from season to season.

3. Internet Service: Yes, I use a service called Mobilphone, based in Panama. I pay $75 a month for a 284K connection, not quite fast enough to watch real-time video, but good enough to qualify as broadband. It's very reliable. Maybe once a month I wake up to find that the connection is not working. I call Mobilphone tech support, they adjust something on their end, and it comes back up within minutes. Only one time was service completely disconnected for a long period of time - 2 days - because a primary cable into El Valle had gone down. No one in El Valle had internet service during that time. I went to the city to get my work done.

There is a small internet shop next to the serpentarium. It's cramped, hot and the connection is unreliable. Cost is 40 cents an hour, I think.

The local library, next to the church, has about 20 internet terminals. It's a more comfortable environment, and the connection is more reliable, though it does drop out frequently. Cost is $1 an hour, I believe.

Your last question, about your lot, will be answered in Part Two.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Losing the Bear

Laura and I went for a long walk today after dinner. It was cool and breezy, and every now and then the sky sent down a little mist, just to keep us fresh. Salma rode in her stroller, talking to herself and playing with her stuffed toy, a small, pink Beanie Baby bear named "Cure". The bear is a breast cancer toy (the proceeds go to breast cancer research) and was given to Laura by the parents of Trinity School, when her mother developed breast cancer a few years ago.

We did a long circuit, along Calle Los Millonarios, down to the hot springs road and then back along the main street. As we walked, Laura listened to a Spanish instruction cassette on a walkman, and passed the phrases on to me, both of us repeating each sentence several times.

We took a shortcut, a small dirt road over a bridge, and discovered the Gaital Tennis Club. It was quite busy, with a gaggle of teenage girls getting a tennis lesson from a man in his thirties. A sign proclaimed it to be a members only club.

We came around to the main road, and pulled the hood over Salma's stroller to protect her from the dust devils kicked up by the winds. As we neared the house, Laura stopped and said, "Where's her bear?"

Indeed, it was gone. She must have dropped it out of the stroller, something she's learned to do recently. I suggested that Laura go on to the house, and I would backtrack. So I walked back, watching the road. About halfway I began to tire, and I slowed down, taking my time and practicing Spanish sentences.

Walking along the hot springs road, I saw something I did not like. First let me explain that it's summer here in Panama (i.e. the dry season), and the kids are off school. El Valle is full of families who are summering here, many of them wealthy landowners with large estates. Their kids zoom around town on little ATVs, golf carts, motorcyles, and horses. And I mean the children, many of them as young as seven or eight, actually pilot these vehicles themselves.

Ahead on the road, an elderly woman walked slowly with a cane, carrying a purse and a shopping bag. From her dark skin and hair, and colorful clothing, it was clear that she was an Indian woman, an indigenous person. A golf cart came zipping up the road, driven by four girls, none more than twelve years old. As they neared the old woman they swerved in her direction and honked, then swerved away and continued down the road.

I know they would not have done this if she were not an Indian. I also know that children do not develop such prejudices in a vacuum. What is it about people with money and power, that they think it's ok to despise those who are less fortunate? Then they pass these sick values on to their children, and the cycle of injustice perpetuates itself...

I did not find the bear.

Part Time Nanny

We've decided to hire a part time nanny to work half the day, five days a week. Her duties would be to care for Salma, feed and change her, and also to teach her Spanish by speaking to her, reading, and singing. We want someone who will interact with her and keep her engaged. We put up a flier today on the bulletin board at the Centro Commercial, and I just got a call from the first applicant. She's coming by in the morning for an interview.

So we'll have three employees (I'm not going to call them servants, because we are all servants of Allah): a gardener, a cook and a maid. We're becoming bourgeois, for heaven's sake. Who'd have thought? But it's so easy here.

I think it's ok as long as Salma grows up understanding that our employees are still her elders, and people to be treated with respect and deference. And as long as we ourselves do not begin to think we are important in any way. Last I checked, I did not live off my investments, and I do not own any means of production. And though I don't work with my hands anymore, I do work. So perhaps I can still cling to my proletarian roots.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Going to Casco Viejo

We're leaving for the city shortly, as Linda is departing today. I thought we'd stop at Casco Viejo along the way and tour the old quarter, since she's never been there. I'll be sure to take some photos Insha'Allah.

Zach Daudert has asked me a few questions about El Valle and I'll answer those in an upcoming post.

Lately I've been pondering the concept of "Ummah" and what it means to Muslims. I think I might do some research, and write a long post about it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dripping With Dreams

Dreams are postcards from our subconscious, inner self to outer self, right brain trying to cross that moat to the left. Too often they come back unread: "return to sender, addressee unknown." That's a shame because it's a whole other world out there--or in here depending on your point of view.
- Dennis Koenig and Jordan Budde, Northern Exposure, Roots, 1991

I woke up several times during the night just dripping with dreams, really, my mind coated with a condensation of visions and nightmares. Dreams of secret societies (in which I was a member), alien invasions (I was an alien), chases, gunfights and close escapes, and Panama. I wonder what that says about my perception of my own role in society.

Dreams have always been as vivid and real to me as waking life. There are some that stay with me forever. Sometimes this can be tiring. Which reminds me of another quotation about dreams by someone, I don't know who:

I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're going and hook up with them later.

Moving on...

The night before last the wind tore off one of our rain gutters, and pushed the vacuum cleaner along the floor until it blocked the front door. Yesterday these "summer breezes" blew the paintings off the walls, knocked a framed photo off a table, tipped over a few of my tagua carvings, blew some pillows off the living room sofa, and just generally caused a ruckus. Needless to say, all of us are unnerved, except perhaps Salma.

Zippy is adjusting well to his new life here in Panama, though the strong winds worry him. I try to give him a lot of attention, particularly by combing him, which he needs desperately with that long fur of his. Panamanian visitors to our house are not used to such a large cat, and keep their distance. Actually that used to happen in Oakland too.

Salma is gradually getting back into her routine. Linda is helping tremendously and I think that once she's gone I may hire a part time nanny to care for Salma in the mornings and early afternoon, while Laura catches up on her sleep and I work.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Crater Valley Resort and Adventure Spa

Laura, Linda, Salma and I left the house around 4pm today and made a trip up to Chorro El Macho. This is El Macho waterfall, the same one I took Ramon and his family to. In fact, here is a photo of Ramon and his family in front of the falls (Linda took some pictures today, but I don't have those yet).

So we took our little trip up to the falls, walking down narrow stone paths and over two precarious swinging bridges, carrying the thick walking sticks that they loan you at the ticket booth.

Afterwards we drove to Crater Valley Resort and Adventure Spa for dinner. I have been there before and surveyed the grounds, but I have never eaten there. I suspected it might be pricey, but I wanted to try it out at least once.

The restaurant and grounds are lovely. There are several covered patios for dining, a pool and hot tub with a few large hammocks swinging nearby, a water garden, and some beautiful trees. They also have a climbing wall on the property, certainly the only one in El Valle. We did not view any of the rooms, but I see from the website that they fall in the $80 to $100 range, which puts them at the (very) high end for El Valle. But if the grounds are any indication, the rooms are probably quite comfortable. If I were the type of tourist who could afford accomodations in that price range, I would definitely stay there.

We were the only ones there for dinner. In fact, when I told the clerk that we had come for dinner, he seemed momentarily nonplussed. "For dinner?" But he quickly recovered his aplomb and escorted us to a table, then informed us of the specials: Beef roast, prawns in a guava sauce, and corvina in a tropical fruit sauce. If I recall correctly the roast and prawns were each $15, and the corvina $12.50. This is twice to three times the price I would pay at other local restuarants, but not surprising for a commodious hotel such as this one.

We all ordered the corvina, Laura with a white sauce and Linda and I with the fruit sauce. As we waited we walked the grounds, admiring the water features, then returned to our table where we shivered in the cold wind blowing through the patio. Nowadays there is always a strong wind blowing in El Valle, and once the sun goes down it gets quite nippy. Salma was enjoying herself, just hanging out and talking a lot as she does these days, but we were worried that she might become chilled, so we tried wrapping her in a sling that Laura had with her.

Word of warning, if you visit El Valle in dry season, bring a jacket.

The waiter noticed our predicament and moved us to a semi-sheltered table in a room off the patio. It was much warmer.

The food was good. A small salad was well presented and fresh. The dinner plate came with a generous helping of vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and potatoes, which is unusual in Panama. The corvina was perhaps slightly tough, but the fruit sauce was delicious and unlike the simple presentations that are common in local restuarants.

When we left it was dark outside and we were still the only ones there.

Is Crater Valley an "Adventure Spa"? I don't know, but I believe the hotel is owned by an adventure tourism outfit. As far as dinner goes, I will not be a regular patron, but I may go there for special occasions or when I simply have a hankering for something different.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Letters from My Readers

I've received a few nice emails recently from readers of this blog, which I will copy here. Also, Earl, I checked my P.O. Box yesterday and your letter has arrived, though Laura has not read it yet as she is still asleep this morning (and the baby too - she finally drifted off around 1am).

From my former Hapkido teacher in California, Erik M.:

It’s great that you’re holding informal Hapkido classes in your living room (which I got a peek at on your blog). You are participating in a long and esteemed tradition of backyard/living-room / garage training halls, which are more faithful to the true spirit of the martial arts than the vast majority of commercial schools. Sorry, but there’s not much of a chance of me coming to Panama (even though you make a powerfully persuasive pitch in your blog). If I did go abroad, it would most likely be to New Zealand, Singapore or India.

Regarding your blog entry for December 31st, I couldn’t agree more heartily with your wish to end the practice of torture. It’s appalling not just that the US practices and supports torture (sadly, that’s not new), but under the Bush regime, we now practice torture openly, brazenly, without any sense of shame (previous administrations knew, at least, that it was something they had to hide)...

Erik <*_*>

P.S. That’s a very nice looking garbage basket you’ve got!

And from Diane S., a faithful reader:

Thank you Wael for the blog update. I have been thinking of Laura and Salma all day... flying and waiting and getting back to Casa Salaam. I am SO glad to know they arrived safely and are soundly in your arms again.

Isn't little Salma just a joy? We so enjoyed seeing her yesterday morning (Sunday) for a short time. Her smiles will hold us for a long time, but we will be so glad to see them in person again.

Again, thank you for taking the time for the blog update. I was just waiting for 9pm PST to arrive to check, was on the phone trying to explain blogs to my 79 year old aunt just now. So I filled her in and was able to report to her how great a communication device it is, especially for us who always long for info on our dear Salma and her parents who are taking good care of her. By the way, this is the aunt that taught me by example how to be a aunt. I hope I can match her great "auntness".

I hope you get some sleep tonight. I am sure your adrenaline will wear off soon.


Monday, January 8, 2007

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

All have arrived safely and even a bit early, Alhamdulillah (all praise and thanks to God). Laura and Linda, the little munchkin Salma, and Zippy the cat. Zippy's size turned out not to be an issue. Nora helped us get him through customs as usual, with the standard payments of $50 each to two separate veterinarians, and a $130 customs fee.

We could not fit everything in the car, so Nora took the ice cream maker home with her. We managed to squeeze everything else in, and tied the trunk lid down with bungee cords. I had left the spare tire at home so that gave us a little more room. Fortunately we had no flat tires and no rain on the long drive home.

Salma has been giving me lots of smiles and laughs. She is much larger than when I last saw her, and her hair is lighter in color. She holds herself upright in my arms and turns fully in any direction.

When we brought Zippy into the house and let him out of the carrier, Li'l Fishy recognized him right away and made a beeline for him with her tail up in the air. Zippy proceeded to explore the entire house as Fishy followed him, occasionally smelling his fur.

Salma will need some time to adjust to the time change. Right now everyone in the house is asleep or feeling very sleepy, except for Salma, who is laying in her crib a foot feet away from me, talking to herself and thumping her right foot (her kicking leg). She is saying, "Oh da da da. Hey, hey. Ya ya ya. Dat, dat, aya. Heh, heh, oh ya da da." This da-da sound is new, I've never heard it before. But I'm not so vain as to imagine that she is saying "Daddy" just yet.

I Hope We'll All Fit

On my way to Panama in a few minutes to pick up Laura at Tocumen International Airport, along with her mother, Salma the baby, Zippy the cat, and at least four large bags. I hope we'll all fit in my Nissan Sentra. They'll arrive about 6:45 pm Panama time, it will take at least an hour to process the cat through customs (probably longer) and then about a three hour drive back to El Valle in the dark. So I'm guessing we'll be home around midnight if all goes well Insha'Allah. Upon arrival I'll post a brief message here saying, "All have safely arrived," and then I'll hit the hay, or hit the banana leaves as the case may be.

During the time that Laura was gone, I realized that there wasn't much work for Rosa. Cook me breakfast and dinner, go shopping, wash a couple of dishes, launder a few clothes, sweep the floors, make the bed, clean the bathroom and that's about it. Four hours of work at the most. So I told her, "It's ok if you want to take a break in the afternoon. You can sit and read, or whatever you like." So I think these days have been fairly relaxed for her, though she still keeps the house very clean.

This morning I told her that I am going to Panama today to pick up Laura, and you should see her. She's like a dynamo, mopping, scrubbing, airing out the rugs, dusting and polishing everything. She knows that the lady of the house has somewhat higher standards than mine, or perhaps she just wants to welcome Laura to a spotlessly clean home.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Busy Time

It's been a busy few days for me. Friday I was in the city, taking care of the paperwork to bring Zippy into the country, and visiting with Tracy on my way home. On Saturday my old Hapkido teacher from Panama City, Ramon Navarro, came to visit with his wife and daughter. It got dark sooner than they expected and I invited them to spend the night. Ramon and his wife slept in the baby's room, and their daughter on the sagging cot in the "office." In the morning we toured El Valle a bit, driving out to El Macho waterfall and making the short hike to the falls. Tonight I'm catching up on work, and tomorrow I head back to the city to pick up Laura, her mom and Zippy, Insha'Allah. For now, enjoy these photos of my parents with Salma, taken a few weeks ago by Laura.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Going to Panama

No time to write this morning. I'm going to Panama to attend Friday prayer and complete a few errands. I also have to make preparations to receive Zippy, my cat, when Laura arrrives on Monday. Here in Panama everything requires reams of paperwork and bureaucracy.

I got an email from Erik M., my former Hapkido teacher. That was a nice surprise. Seems quite a few changes have taken place with my old Hapkido school. I'll write more about that later.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Salad Avoidance Syndrome

Rosa makes dinner and leaves it on the stove every day at 4pm when she departs for the day. We are always urging her to make more vegetables, so she often makes a salad to accompany the meal. As much as I believe in the healthy benefits of salad, I tend not to think of it as real food, and I often avoid it or put it off until last.

The problem with that is that then I'm full and I really don't want it.

Today I skipped my salad. But I'm afraid that Rosa will come to work tomorrow and say, "Why didn't you eat your salad?" So right now, at 10:45 pm, when I should be going to bed, I'm going to go and force myself to eat a heaping bowl of salad.

Life is full of unpleasant tasks.

Even When Life is Easy...

It's hard.

The lead weight of your thoughts, the irrevocable pull of gravity on your forehead. The fact that someone, somewhere is crying for help and not getting it. I find confused pain to be particularly troubling, whether it's an abused child or the last Siberian tiger pacing a cage.

I don't know where we'd be without Allah, without the assurance of comfort and justice. An entity who is always ready to listen, to share your reality and to forgive or simply understand.

I think I'll go down to the Centro Commercial and buy some chocolate, even if it is only 10:30 am. Still can't get over the fact that some horrid little biting insects could have anything to do with a Cadbury bar.

I realize this post is disjointed... witness the clunky workings of the morning mind before caffeine and sans editing.

Why Panama? Part Two

In "Why Panama? Part One" I explained our reasons (or in light of my wife's comment on that post I should say my reasons) for moving to Panama.

But perhaps your question is not, "What do you like about Panama?" but rather,

"Why did you choose Panama over the myraid other places in the world?"

For example, why not...
  • Canada? - Expensive, hard to get residency, and Laura doesn't like the cold.
  • Europe? - Too expensive. Presents no savings advantage over the USA. In addition, Europe is experiencing a wave of cultural turmoil and xenophobia that makes it not much more attractive than the USA.
  • Asia? - Certain parts of Asia are very enticing to me, particularly India, and affordable; but it's too far away. We want to be able to visit our families regularly, and vice versa.
  • Australia or New Zealand? - Australians are weird. New Zealand, however... I've heard so many good things about it. Again, though, it's too far from California, in fact it's as far away as you can get.
  • Africa? - Utter chaos, corrupt governments, civil wars, starvation. A place to go if you want to dedicate yourself to helping humanity, but not a place to start a family.
  • The Arctic? - It's melting.
  • Antarctica? - No one there, aside from a few insane scientists.
  • The Caribbean? - Too hot, too poor, and land is expensive because there's so little of it.
So Latin America was the logical choice. It's close to California, it's affordable, and much of it is startlingly beautiful. Of course there are many Latin American countries.

So why not...

CENTRAL AMERICA (STARTING AT THE TOP AND MOVING DOWN - click on the map above to see a much larger image):
  • Mexico? - It's the Wild West. Too many problems to count, including drugs, kidnappings, serious pollution in the capital, and police corruption. The government has been known to seize private properties, including those owned by Americans, on behalf of influential developers. I love Mexico but it's just not secure. And yes, for the smart alecs, I am aware that Mexico is technically part of North America.
  • Belize? - A swamp with buildings on stilts and hostile locals.
  • Guatemala? - Fought a brutal civil war from 1960-1996 that resulted in the deaths of 200,000 civilians, mostly Mayan Indians. The effects of that war are still felt in Guatemalan society and a lot of guns are still in circulation.
  • El Salvador? - Also fought a long civil war in which a brutal dictatorship, supported by the United States, killed and disappeared tens of thousands of civilains. As a reslt, there is still much residual hostility towards Americans.
  • Honduras? - A massive crime problem and the occasional big hurricane make it unattractive.
  • Nicaragua? - Cost of living is certainly rock bottom, and property is very cheap. I've heard nice things about a small city called Granada. And Nicaragua by all accounts is a beautiful place. But extreme povery is a problem, along with overbearing government bureaucracy and an underdeveloped infrastructure.
  • Costa Rica? - Sure, it's got the Pura Vida. The people are friendly, the country green and lovely, the government solidly democratic. But it's already overrun with Americans and Europeans, property values are almost equivalent to the United States, and getting residency is becoming more difficult. The roads are bad and the capital suffers from awful air pollution (I had to hold a rag over my mouth much of the time in San Jose).
  • Panama? - Well, here I am. A democratic nation in which the military (like Costa Rica) has been disbanded. An incredibly biologically diverse environment, with more species of birds than any nation in the world. Large tracts of virgin forest, thousands of miles of coastline and beaches, a well-developed capital city which is becoming the shopping mecca of the region. A low cost of living and a simple residency process. No hurricanes or earthquakes. A racially diverse population with large minorities of Chinese, Jews, and Muslims, and a fairly large indigenous population. Sure, it's got problems, but they are minor in comparison to its attractions.
  • Colombia? - Yeah, right.
  • Venezuela? - From what I've read, street crime is out of control and the capital is not a particularly pleasant place.
  • Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana? - Hot, stifling, sweaty chunks of jungle.
  • Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil? - Each of these nations is unique and vast, but in general I think it's fair to say that they are unstable. Conflicts over allocation of land and resources, grinding poverty, drugs, crime and sprawling overpopulation make these nations a risk. But there certainly might be liveable and lovely places within each nation for someone who is willing to look.
  • Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina? - These four nations at the southern end of South America have cosmopolitan capitals, first-world infrastructures and interesting cultures. But they're a little too far away, and not as cheap as I'd like.
So there you have it. A global process of elimination leaving Panama as the last nation standing. Do you live in Panama or one of these other nations? What's your opinion?

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

What Happened to Listo

Our gardener, Listo, did not show up for work yesterday. This is very unusual, as he has missed only one day of work previously, when we had a huge storm a few months ago and no one could venture outside.

I thought perhaps he was hungover from New Year's, but Laura said I should not speculate.

I woke up a bit late this morning, around 9am, and I looked out the window to see if Listo was in the shed, but the shed door was closed. I went out front to see if he might be working in the yard, and I found a small, rounded woman with dark skin standing patiently at the front door. I have no idea how long she'd been standing there. Such people tend to be very deferential toward those they perceive as upper classes. She would not have called out or made any noise to rouse me.

I immediately guessed that she might be Listo's mother, and she was. She said that Listo was very sick, with pains in his stomach and chest, and she had come to let me know why he was not at work.

Listo lives in the mountains above El Valle, about a one hour walk. I had no doubt that this woman had walked all that way.

My Spanish being relatively weak, I try to avoid lengthy conversations (I know, I should do the opposite), so I thanked her and she left. Then I thought, I should have offered to help, so I ran after her and caught her about two blocks away. I asked her if Listo needs any medicine. She said yes, she was going to buy a "pastel" to rub on his chest. I don't know the word in this context. The only pastel I know is a cake or pie. But I told her I'd like to pay for it - these people are very poor - and I gave her a little money. I said, "Espero que esta bien pronto," and we parted ways, the old woman shuffling away in a deceptively fast gait, back up into the mountains.

One Mosquito...

... can ruin your whole night. Particularly when you live in a country where it's too warm to sleep under the covers, or even clothed.

Now that the dry season has arrived, the insects have reappeared in force. I am seeing spiders on the floor, sugar ants everywhere, crane flies, moths, and the occasional mosquito. And the dreaded noseeums...

Anyway, by 3 am last night I had a cluster of mosquito bites on my left hip, another on my left shoulder and another on my left arm. I must have been sleeping on my right side.

Enough was enough. I applied this wonderfully effective cream called Systral (active ingredient chlorphenoxamine) to the bites, then I put on socks, jeans, and a long sleeved linen summer shirt. I opened the windows to the night breeze, turned the ceiling fan on the lowest setting, and went back to sleep. I still got another bite on the back of my hand.

But I've learned that mosquitos are to be appreciated and commended for the moderation of their bites. There are much worse buggers out there, like the noseeums, also known as midges or sand flies, shown greatly magnified at right. In Spanish they are called purrujas. These little monsters swarm in the late afternoon and around dusk, and they will drop a cluster bomb of bites on your ankles, legs and arms before you even know what hit you.

These bites are nasty, far more irritating than mosquito bites, and they last much longer. With mosquito bites I slap on a bit of Systral cream and leave them alone, and within a matter of hours I forget all about them. Noseeum bites, however, persist for days, and the itch is maddening. The bites are much more prominent and raised, with a crimson red spot in the center. Systral cream soothes the itch only a tiny bit. I hate these little devils! I always wear long pants now when I go outside, and sometimes I smear on some insect repellent oil. I recently learned that they lay eggs in water and rotting vegetable matter, so perhaps I should reconsider my compost pile and simply burn the waste like everyone else does here.

The University of California at Davis, Calif., a well known agricultural and environmental center (and the one from which my parents graduated), reports that no-see-ums will bite humans, domestic and wild animals and birds. They also may feed on other insects. Voracious!

But they say that God created everything for a purpose, right? And guess what? Noseeums are responsible for pollinating cocoa trees. So, no sand flies, no chocolate! I suppose I can put up with a few bites now and then...

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Why Panama? Part One

The inevitable question. Whether it's an American I've just met at the grocery store, or an email from an old friend, they always shoot the same question:

"Why Panama?"

Now why would an American in Panama ask me this? After all, he or she is already here. He knows perfectly well what is attractive about Panama. But the person always asks, just the same, like a parrott with a pet phrase. Why Panama! Why Panama! Polly want a cracker!

Ok, I'm being unkind. People are genuinely curious. Alright, let's answer it then and be done. I'll get a business card printed up with this blog address, and anytime someone asks me, "Why Panama?", I'll just hand them the card. Or maybe, since it's such a popular topic, I should create a website called, "Why Panama?"


The number one reason for any American to move to Panama, according to a recent poll of expatriates living here, is the low cost of living. Noriegaville News calls us "cheap but happy." By the way, Noriegaville is fine for exposing corruption and scandals, but if you are looking for more balanced Panama news, the only real source is Eric Jackson's The Panama News.

And guess what? "Cheap but happy" goes for me too. I guess I could summarize my reasons as follows:
  1. Low cost of living allows my family to make do with my income alone. Laura can take time off work in order to devote herself to the baby, learning Spanish, and personal projects. We're out of the rat race, no longer running just to turn the wheel. We have a maid and a gardener - try to do that in the USA on a middle class salary.

  2. People are kind here. Anytime I go to the store or one of the local restaurants, they ask about Laura and the baby by name. People smile, shake your hand, make conversation. Friends call and ask how I'm doing. People are kind.

  3. It's beautiful here in El Valle de Anton. Peaceful, green, and natural. When Salma gets older she can run around outside with no worries of traffic or kidnappers. I wake up to birdsong and fall asleep to the chorus of crickets and frogs.

    Of course sometimes I want to wring the necks of the neighbor's roosters, and occasionally the other neighbor's dogs start yowling like Armageddon has arrived, until I go to the window and shout, "Shut up!" To no avail, since they are Spanish-speaking dogs.

    And none of this applies to Panama City, where you wake up to trucks shifting gears, or cars honking because the traffic light turned green one tenth of a second ago, and fall asleep to the sound of car alarms.

  4. The chance to experience something different, to learn a new language, and to broaden my horizon as a human being.

  5. It's nice to live in a country where I don't have to worry that I might soon have to wear an armband and register as an Alien Minority, just because I am a Muslim. Think I'm being extreme? I hope you're right.
Ahh, but maybe your question was really, "Why Panama and not someplace else?" I'll address that question in Part Two, to follow soon.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Letter from Sarah Ross

I got an email from our friend and Laura's former colleague Sarah Ross, who writes:
"I am so happy to know that Laura is alright and will
be returning soon. How you must have missed these two
incredible women in your life! Salma is beyond
beautiful! She is evidence of all the love that grows
in your family. She has such a happy, smiley,
beautiful face. I can not imagine a more loved child.
She is one lucky little girl to have two such amazing
and loving parents!

I am glad to know that you are thriving in Panama. I
love hearing about your adventures and am living
vicariously through your accounting of them. I always
thought that I might live abroad some day, but...
I guess that California might be as far as we

Please give Laura a BIG hug for us when she is back
in your arms and lots of love to the three of you!
Keep on writing... you both write so beautifully and
well and of course I adore your perspective on life.
Take care, Sarah"

Sarah, thanks very much for your kind email. This is the danger of writing to a blogger! Your email might be published for all to read! Dastardly bloggers!

I do indeed miss them both, though I don't know if I'd call that drooly little munchkin a woman. I'm speaking of Laura, of course. Ha ha, just kidding, honey - you're all woman!

I am sure no one has been tossing Salma up in the air like I do (carefully of course! - I don't actually let go), so she'll have to get used to me all over again.

As for her happy, smiley, beautiful face, I agree and I say, ma-shaa'Allah. I always give credit to God because we human beings (though we may talk about "making a child") are really powerless in the end. We can manipulate, but never truly create. Only Allah does that.

The strawberry on her head is the little flaw that throws her beauty into relief and makes it all the more noticeable.

And isn't every baby beautiful? A baby is a human being who is utterly trusting, curious, and innocent. A human who has never cursed, lied, cheated, or stolen; never been greedy, abusive or mean. A pure, untainted soul.

Well, Sarah, you never know what the future holds for you. You might find yourself living in Delhi one day, or Tokyo, or Nairobi... who knows. And if you never get any further than California, rememer that many Americans consider California to be as strange as Mars.

Dinner at Tracy's

I went to the city a few days ago, picked Tracy up at the Hotel Las Vegas, did some shopping and brought him back to stay the night here in El Valle. He had never been to the house before and was very impressed. In the process I retrieved my camera, so now I have photos from last week's dinner at his house in La Chorrera.

Above (and below, for that matter) is Tracy in front of his house in La Chorrera. He bought an unfinished, Panamanian-style home and spent a good chunk of money renovating it. He has a fairly large property to go with it.

A slightly closer view. The taxi belongs to Nelson, who you will see in a moment.

Tracy with Brooke and Nelson, a married couple. Brooke is from Toronto, Canada, and Nelson is Panamanian. Tracy met Brooke at the airport on his first visit to Panama, I believe. She is five months pregnant and is planning to return to Canada to have the baby.

Notice the mosquito bites on Brooke's arms. My arms were just as bad. This was right at the beginning of the dry season, when the insect population seems to explode almost overnight.

Tracy's water tank. He has city water, and it is stored in the tank to create pressure.

New Circuit Boxes for Air Conditioners

Among the recent electrical upgrades on the house - which has been completely rewired, from the street to the house interior - the last thing to be done was an upgrade of the wiring to the air conditioners. We have three split AC units, one in each bedroom. Apparently they run on 220 volts and the wiring was not sturdy enough to handle the flow. The electrician said that eventually they would have burned out.

To avoid tearing the wiring out of the walls, the electrician built a new master circuit box for all three ACs, and an individual circuit box for each unit, and ran the wiring along the outside of the house to each AC. Here you can see the outside setup for the master bedroom AC. The white unit at the bottom is the external half of the split AC. The grey box above is its circuit box; and where you see the box at the top, it goes through the wall to the internal cooling portion of the AC, which is mounted high on the wall in the bedroom.

The final bill for all of the electrical work was $3,600. A big hit for us but necessary. I have been paying Adam in installments, withdrawing $500 at a time from the ATM machine when I have it available. Not quite paid off yet.

A Few More Photos of Tracy's House in La Chorrera

A few more photos of Tracy's house in La Chorrera, taken last week. Descriptions appear below each photo. Click on any photo to see a larger version:

Above is Tracy's front yard, essentially. It's quite large. He had the wall built at the front, with two automatic gates for cars to enter and exit.

One of the two gas tanks behind the house. This one supplies gas to the clothes dryer. There's another for the oven and stove.

The table set for dinner. The house has a very spacious kitchen, though Tracy complains bitterly about the appliances (which he bought) not being installed properly, things not lining up correctly, etc. He's having a tough time settling into the house and getting things done the Panamanian way, which is to say, with plenty of delays and errors.

Laura's New Travel Date

One of Salma's recent phases of learning was the discovery of her tongue. She went through a period when she was constantly sticking out her tongue and feeling it (not a very hygienic habit). Fortunately that stage is passed and now she has moved on to rolling the tongue around the inside of her mouth, exploring the contours of her cheeks and palate.

I sent out Eid greetings and New Year's wishes to many of my friends, some of whom have not heard from me in a while. So for those who are new to my blog, welcome. If this is your first time seeing photos of my daughter Salma, you're probably wondering, what's that lump on her head? Did she fall?

No, she did not fall and she is not growing antennae. It is a type of birth mark called a strawberry hemangioma, a collection of blood vessels under the skin. We are told that it will begin to shrink as Salma grows, and will finally be only a flat mark. Most disappear by age 5 or 6, and some by age 9. It is not dangerous and recommended treatment is simply to wait.

Laura is now at her mom's house and doing well, AlHamdulillah. She's back to eating solid food and is happy to be reunited with Salma. Laura and Linda's new travel date to Panama is January 8th. They were able to reschedule the flight date with a note from Laura's doctor explaining that she could not travel on the earlier date. They will also be bringing Zippy with them, I believe.

I'm looking forward to seeing them all, Insha'Allah. I have missed them but especially Salma. It's been hard, being separated from her for so long at this early stage in her life. When Laura was in the hospital for two days she said, "I'm afraid Salma is going to forget me," and I practically sputtered, "Well! What about me?"

I'm a very skilled sputterer.

By the way readers, occasionally I also have trouble getting back to the site after clicking on a photo. But you'll notice that in both Explorer and Firefox there is, next to the back button, a small arrow that allows you to pull down the recent history and select the previous page that way.

Hapkido in My Living Room

As usual, you can click on any of these photos to see a quite a bit larger version. Since I came to El Valle I've been trying to find someone to practice Hapkido with me. I finally enlisted Niko, a local crafts seller with an oddly intense demeanor, and Eric, the super-athletic apprentice electrician who did some of the work on my house. Then Eric informed me that his brother, a karate blue belt, would like to attend as well, and I said ok.

Basically I'm going to be teaching them what I've learned, and practicing in the process.

So I went to the Price Smart in Panama and bought some thick floor mats for our practice sessions. These are puzzle mats consisting of squares that can be joined together to make larger pieces, then broken down for easy storage. The mats are about one inch thick foam, and I've stacked one on top of the other. They're not quite as soft as a normal martial arts mat, but they're good enough.

You can see that I've moved all the furniture to the side of the living room and laid the mats down on top of the rug in the center. After class I'll put the mats away and move the furniture back.

The first photo is taken from the front door looking in, and the second one from the other side.

Near the front door there you can see Li'l Fishy as well, thinking about whether she wants to venture outside.

I went to the mercado today and a craft seller that I don't know at all told me that he would be coming to practice with Niko next Tuesday. I'm not too happy that Niko is inviting people without telling me. Space is limited, and if this turns into a true class it's going to limit my own practice time, since I'll be busy instructing instead of getting in the mix myself. I'll have to talk to him about it.

If it looks necessary I'll set a maximum of four students, and a strict attendance policy.