Friday, March 30, 2007

Cartagena, Colombia

We've arrived in Cartagena and checked into our hotel. Salma gave us a hard time on the flight, screaming and fussing, but she is not nearly as sick as she was yesterday - in fact she seems almost well - so that's a real blessing, thank God.

Cartagena, or at least the old quarter in which we are located, is a fascinating city. As you approach from the airport, the ocean is on your right, mile after mile of sandy beaches, with boys playing soccer and children swimming in the ocean. On your left is a long wall of stone with turrets and entrances every few hundred meters, and the entrances manned by traffic cops.

Cartagena is a walled city, with very little traffic inside. The wall was built over the course of two hundred years - ending in the late 1700s - to protect the city from pirates. In fact, our taxi was not allowed to enter the city and we had to walk the last few blocks, from the entrance at the city wall to the hotel.

Even though Cartagena is said to be far from the violence of inner Colombia and is quite safe, there is definitely a heightened awareness of security here. Uniformed policemen are seen throughout the city, not in an intimidating way, just hanging out, chatting with the people in the streets, and letting themselves be seen. When we located our hotel we rang the doorbell and someone opened a peephole in the door. We identified ourselves as guests, and the door was opened, then closed again behind us.

The hotel is called Casa La Fe (house of faith). You can see their website at

Here is a map showing the location of the hotel within Cartagena´s old town:

In spite of this heightened security, the city is packed with people and reminds me of Cairo. Close set blocks of colonial buildings with massive wooden doors everywhere - this city was founded in 1533 and you can feel it. This plus the throngs of people walking in the streets and the virtual absence of automobiles, make the city feel almost medieval. Everywhere you see fabric stores, restaurants, small pizza parlors, electronics shops, street vendors selling candies or fruits... crowds of schoolchildren in their uniforms, walking arm-in-arm in the streets. Horse drawn carriage taxis ferrying tourists about, clopping down the cobblestones. Little scooters zipping in and out between pedestrians, people in streetside cafeterias watching a football game on TV and cheering... the city is full of life, vibrant.

The weather is balmy, warm and humid with ocean breezes and the scent of cooking food.

Our hotel is quite nice, a four story colonial structure with stained glass windows, and an interior courtyard garden. The room has air conditioning, a fan, cable tv, a nice bathroom, and a mini fridge fully stocked with Coca Cola, juice, peanuts, beer and wine. Of course I have no use for the last two, but it's nice that they are so thoughtful.

This internet cafe that I´m writing from closes at 7:30 pm, so I'm not sure how I'm going to get my work done. I'll figure something out Insha'Allah. Gotta go now, Laura and Salma are waiting for me in the street outside. I'll write more when I can.

Back at the Hotel

Added note: I´ve discovered that the hotel has an internet terminal on the third floor, so that´s where I am now.

We wandered around earlier and found a pizza parlor. Like everything here, it was in an old colonial building, with big wooden rafters in the roof, and open to the street to let the breeze in. The food was decent and filling, but I was disappointed to discover that the pizza was $15, much more than I would expect in Colombia, a country that is supposed to be cheaper than Panama! We´ll have to look around for some place cheaper tomorrow.

Later I was somewhat mollified when we found an Italian ice cream shop that sold us two cones of rich ice cream for about one dollar.

Laura was carrying Salma in a front-mounted sling as we walked around, and I guess people here have never seen one - come to think of it, I´ve never seen anyone else with one in Panama either - because she got a lot of looks, with people smiling and pointing, and women turning to look. But it didn´t seem intrusive, just friendly and amused. Laura told me that while I was in the internet cafe, one little girl pulled her mother by the hand over to Salma, then the little girl kissed Salma on the cheek and stroked her face.

There is a lean, sleepy looking yellow cat that hangs around the courtyard of the hotel and loves to be petted. Of course we did pet him, and then he followed us to our room. When I opened the room door the cat zipped inside, jumped up on the bed, and promptly fell asleep. For the next few hours he made himself comfortable, playing with one of Salma´s toys, and walking around the rooom sniffing all our things. After Laura took a shower the cat slipped into the bathroom and apparently drank the water on the shower floor, as he came out licking his lips. Once we put Salma to bed and turned off the lights, the cat went to the room door and bumped it with his head to indicate that he was ready to leave, so I let him out.

Actually, I just found a picture of him on the hotel´s website. His name is Tom, and here he is:

The Lonely Planet guide book says that Cartagena is packed with historical sights and the best thing to do is just wander around and experience them, so I suppose that´s what we´ll do. We´re also planning to hit the beach at least once.

By the way, the Panamanian customs official did not even ask to see my exit permit when I left.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Salma with her duck, looking grown up

Click on the photo to see a much larger version.

Here's Salma with her bath ducky, looking somehow grown up (Salma, I mean, not the duck). And her mommy in the background. This photo was taken at Bruschetta, a local eatery here in El Valle de Anton.

Salma has a cold now, unfortunately. I suspect she caught it at the doctor's office when we took her for her eight month checkup. The stream of mucus from her nose into her mouth is constant. She woke up twenty times last night... we'll see how it goes tonight. Bad timing, since we are going to Cartagena, Colombia tomorrow.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting an exit permit to leave Panama; Doctor's appointment at Hospital Nacional; Heaving, sweating and running around

Click the photo below to see a much larger version.

Long day today. We went to Panama city because I have overstayed my tourist visa and need to get an exit permit so I can leave the country. Also, Salma had an appointment for her eight month checkup.

A tourist visa in Panama is good for 90 days. Before the expiration of the 90 days, if you need more time you can go to the immigration department (take two passport sized photos and your passport) and pay a small fee. They'll issue you a laminated card that allows you to stay for 90 days more.

However, if you overstay your visa - whether the original 90 day visa without getting an extension, or the extension itself - you are technically an illegal immigrant and you can be arrested and detained, and eventually deported.

Obviously this is not a good position to be in, and I was worried about it. I spoke to Berliza Arosemena, my lawyer, and she informed me that I can pay a $60 fine and get an exit permit, whereupon I must leave the country within eight days. I asked her if I would thereafter be banned from re-entry into the country.

"No" she said. "We're not the U.S. We don't keep track of these things."

The immigration office in Panama closes early, so I had to get to my lawyer's office by 9am, and from there we'd go directly to immigration. This would mean leaving the house by 7am.

Since I tend to work until 2 am or so, this was an unlikely scenario, and indeed we did not leave until slightly after 8am - still quite good for me.

Chucking Up on the InterAmericana

In the last few months, Laura - who has never been carsick before - has been experiencing headaches and nausea when we drive the winding mountain road from El Valle down to the InterAmericana. On the last trip she felt downright queasy. We don't know if this new ailment is the product of driving a mountain road so frequently, or something to do with her recent gallbladder removal, or the result of some biological change brought about by pregnancy and childbirth.

Today was the worst of all. By the time we got to the highway she was moaning in discomfort. I thought once we got down to the long, undulating stretches of the highway we'd be ok, but on the approach to Capira, just before El Espino, Laura said, "Can you pull over?"

I spotted a little Chino (Chinese-owned mini-market) and barely pulled into the parking lot before Laura yanked open the door while the car was still rolling and threw up in the dirt.

We waited until it passed. I went into the Chino with Salma (where the Chinese lady started telling me in Spanish about how her daughter had once had a hemangioma as well), and got Laura a Gatorade and some saltines and we continued to the city, but the feeling of discomfort stayed with Laura the rest of the day.

Getting an Exit Visa

Berliza has moved to a new office just off Via Argentina, but we found the office, and rode with her downtown to the immigration office. If you've ever been there, you know the routine. Take a number, wait your turn, fill out forms, pay a fee... for the exit visa you must supply two passport sized photos and your fingerprint as well. At the clerk's window was a graduated chart showing the fees for the exit permit. The fee goes up the longer you have overstayed your visa. In my case the chart said $180, but fortunately I only had to pay $80. I don't know why. I don't question these things.

As I mentioned, now that I have the exit visa I must leave within eight days, and remain out of the country at least 72 hours. As it happens, we are making a four day trip to Cartagena, Colombia, on March 30th. It's said to be an interesting and attractive city, and is close enough to Panama that the airplane tickets are fairly cheap.

New Doctor, New Problem

From immigration we needed to go directly to Hospital Nacional for Salma's checkup appointment. Hospital Nacional, seen in the photo below, was originally a maternity hospital, founded almost a century ago, and is now a general-care private hospital with good facilities and excellent doctors. Salma was born there, and we've always been happy with the care we've received there.

We said goodbye to Berliza and tried to walk to the hospital in the noonday heat, carrying Salma, who now weighs more than 20 pounds. I thought it was only a block or two, but I quickly realized that I was mistaken. I hailed a taxicab and I was glad I did, as it was perhaps ten blocks to the hospital.

Salma's regular doctor is attending a seminar in New York, and we had made an appointment through his secretary with a doctor named Nelson Rodriguez, who we've never met before. As it turned out, Doctor Rodriguez didn't seem to know we were coming, which I found very annoying. Nevertheless, he agreed to see us at the appointed time, and he turned out to be quite nice and very knowledgeable. However, he could not speak English.

Of course, that's our problem, not his. This is a Spanish speaking country and it's our job to learn to communicate with the Panamanians, not vice versa. And we are trying.

I was able to digest perhaps half of what Dr. Rodriguez had to say. I do better with the ordinary citizenry, but a doctor of course uses a fuller vocabulary, and there was a lot I did not understand. Dr. Rodriguez spoke at length about some of the problems we are having. He listed many fruits that may help to relieve Salma's constipation, and spoke about creams that may alleviate her diaper rash. He informed us that the two things we have been giving her specifically to ease her constipation - apple juice and bananas - are actually binding. Great. Try pears, he said, or grapes, pineapple, papaya, or plums.

We spent an hour in his office, dicussing these things, weighing and measuring Salma, charting her growth, checking her diaper rash, and more. The doctor listened to her heart and lungs. He checked all her new teeth, then put her through her paces as he watched her sit up, turn over, and try to crawl. He wanted to know what foods she was eating, how she slept, and whether she was generally happy or not. He was very thorough, and seems to be a good doctor.

Salma's not crawling yet, and the doctor said that this is normal. Some babies begin crawling as early as six months, and some not until ten, but the average is the ninth month.

Salma is also in the 95th percentile for weight, so my perception that she is a little chubalub has been professionally confirmed. Laura and I agreed that we'd cut back on the cereal and fruit juice and start giving her actual fruits and especially vegetables.

The doctor said that he normally advises parents to give their babies iron supplements, as many Panamanian babies are iron deficient, but Salma's blood test from a few weeks ago showed that her iron levels are quite satisfactory, so there is no need for that.

Overall she is progressing well and if we could just get rid of the diaper rash, she'd be on top of the world.

Lunch at the Las Vegas, Chocolate from Arrocha, Mail from USA

Afterwards we caught a taxi back to Berliza's office, conducted some business with her, then drove our car to the Las Vegas Hotel to meet a friend for a late lunch. The Las Vegas, pictured below, is where we always stay when we visit Panama, and it has a good Italian restaurant with an outdoor eating area beneath huge trees.

Perhaps this trip would have been easier if we had gotten a room and stayed the night, then returned to El Valle in the morning. We've done that in the past. But there's something comforting about returning home at the end of a long day, to our own beds, our two cats, and the dinner that Rosa has made waiting on the stove.

After lunch our friend came with us as we headed out to the Farmacia Arrocha on the Tumba Muerto to fill some prescriptions, buy the latest issue of Business 2.0 (my favorite magazine), and pick up a few good chocolate bars, something we can't usually get in El Valle. The Arrocha has many varieties of excellent imported chocolate. We also buy baby wipes there, and miscellaneous household and bathroom products.

Then over to the Mailboxes Etcetera in El Dorado to check our P.O. Box, where we found several letters from the U.S.A. and the latest issue of "Parents" magazine.

Keep in mind that all of this, all day long, is done with Salma in arms (or in the car seat when we're driving). Sometimes she plays and laughs, sometimes she screams and makes a fuss, sometimes she naps and sweats on my shoulder, as I too sweat profusely from the heat of her body against mine. She tries to grab the placemats and silverware, yanks my sunglasses off my face, talks to every stranger as if he/she is a best friend, drops her toys on the ground, spits up or has to be changed, cries when she is upset or uncomfortable... she's not spoiled or difficult. She's a baby.

It was evening rush hour by this time and traffic was thick as a boa constrictor. We braked and gassed our way out to the highway that leads to the Puente Centenario (the newer bridge over the Panama Canal) and headed for home, dropping our friend off along the way.

We arrived just before dark, in time for Salma's evening bath ritual. Rosa had made spaghetti and bean salad, and the food looked good. Two parrots were calling from the trees across the street, the neighbor's chickens were cooped up for the night, a breeze was blowing, and a large oak in our front yard was blooming pink blossoms everywhere, like a young woman at a ball.

It's good to be home.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Four Ghosts and an Indian

I dreamed last night that Ali, Zaid, Hisham and I had a reunion in Los Angeles. The old foursome from high school. The four ghosts of Christmas past, or should I say Eid past. The four musketeers Ali and Zaid's mother used to call us, though I never thought of us as being that united or mutually supporting. Too many power struggles and influence battles, mostly because of Ali's mind games. Nevertheless, no matter what the truth was of our friendship back then, I still have this dream often, the four of us together again, though the circumstances change from dream to dream. Why I still dream this, I don't know.

In this particular scenario we were in our early thirties perhaps, as I was no longer a bike messenger but not far from it. I hugged each of them hard when we met, and a few tears sprung from my eyes.

We had lunch at an outdoor restuarant, went to a movie, and later just hung out at the hotel. Ali was very serious. He's always been moody but this time he was unusually silent. I tried hard to cheer him up, spending a lot of time with him and telling him jokes, but without success.

We went to another restuarant and took a trip on the metro, arriving at the other side of town, maybe at the Pacific, and I realized that I had left my backpack with all my important belongings back at the eatery. In a panic I called an Indian friend of mine, who said that he was busy. But when we arrived at the beach, there he was, with the backpack. He was very apologetic, saying that he should never be too busy to help me out and he is always at my service. I think this represented Fuad, who became my fast friend in our senior year, after Ali had already graduated and gone.

When I awoke with this dream fresh in my mind, a somber feeling settled over me. Ali will not be reuniting with anyone anytime soon, and the rest of us have not spoken in many years. Perhaps the dream was prompted by the recent communication I received from Fuad, who located me (not hard to do) and contacted me out of the blue, twenty five years downstream. Perhaps he is indeed at my service, here to salvage my memories of the past and thereby ward off these dreams of the spectral foursome.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Happy Baby, Panama Canal Cruise

Here's Salma sitting on her Grandpa Hale's lap on the upper deck of the Pacific Queen, the boat on which we took our Panama Canal cruise recently. She's a happy baby, Alhamdulillah, always excited to see someone she knows, and usually even happy to see a stranger.

I'll write a little more about the Panama Canal transit later.

Friday, March 9, 2007

1and1 Internet Inc - Good Prices, Bad Service

I'm writing this, but no one will be able to read it for a while. The true address of my blog is, but all my readers know it only as The domain name (which I own) is registered with a company called 1and1 Internet Inc, a very large web hosting company and domain name registrar based in Pennsylvania, USA. The domain name is parked on the 1&1 servers, but I set it to forward to, so that my readers will have an easier address to remember.

The problem is that the forwarding is not working, and 1and1 has been unable to help me. I've been using their service because their prices are wonderfully low. Until now I've never had a problem, and now that I do have a problem I'm discovering how terribly inadequate their customer service is.

You get what you pay for, right?

In fact I have 541 domains registered with 1and1, and approximately 40 of them forward to other addresses. One of the things I do for money is to build small websites, called mini-sites, that are narrowly focused on a specific topic. I create useful content for these sites, and I place Google Adsense ads on them. Then I use other advertising services, such as Google Adwords and Miva, to drive traffic to the mini-sites. I carefully select my keywords and adjust my bids so that I'm paying less with Adwords than I'm making with Adsense. I want at least a 1:2 ratio, in other words I want to make twice on one end what I'm paying on the other end, though 1:3 is better.

These mini-sites are all subfolders of my primary hosting account, then I simply set the respective domains to forward to the mini-site.

Anyway, you don't have to understand all that. The point of this post is to tell you that for the last three days, 1and1's domain forwarding service has not been working. None of the domains are resolving. They keep saying they're working on it. In the meantime, my mini-sites are useless, I'm losing money, and my blog is inaccessible through the normal address. I've told 1and1 that I'm giving them until tomorrow morning to correct the problem, then I'm moving all my domains to GoDaddy. They are one of the biggest registrars in the business and the one that is most used by domain name professionals. They also have fairly low prices for bulk operators like me.

By the time you read this, the problem will have been resolved, one way or another.

UPDATE: The problem is solved. I threatened to transfer all my services to GoDaddy if they did not get it fixed by morning, and guess what? They fixed it. I should have threatened them three days ago.