Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Here Comes the Rain; La Estancia; Darién

Invasion of the Bugs

Well, we're gearing up for another rainy season. The humidity has already kicked in, and the insect population is burgeoning as it always does at this time of year. The house is full of flying brown beetles, and small moths, and out in the yard the cicadas are stuttering and droning like little air raid sirens. Fireflies appear at this time as well. Sometimes a firefly gets into the living room and I can see its glowing eyes milling about at night. Last but not least, the sugar ants are making their first forays into the house, sending out scouting parties into every room.

We returned our friends Gillian and Elliot, who had been visiting us from California, to the airport last Friday and saw them off. We enjoyed their visit and I think they enjoyed themselves as well. They're preparing for a marathon and they spent their days running or hiking in the mornings. One morning they ran the dirt road behind Hotel Campestre that goes to Mata Ahogado and Altos del Maria. I believe they ran all the way to Altos and back. Afterwards they'd sleep or sit in front of the fan eating pineapple, watermelon and papaya, and reading magazines. Gillian would walk over to the market every day and buy the fruits herself, then cut them up for us all to enjoy.

La Estancia

Their flight was very early Friday morning so we actually went back to Panama on Thursday and spent the night at La Estancia. It's listed as an "author's choice" hotel in the 2006 Lonely Planet guide to Panama, but it was not what I expected. True, it's on the side of the forested Cerro Ancon, but it's basically a former apartment building in a row of other apartment buildings. Not exactly the forest hideaway I imagined. The hotel is hard to find, the rooms are quite small, and they could not provide us with a cot or small bed for Salma, so Laura created a makeshift crib out of two chairs and a pile of blankets.

On the other hand, the place has a homey feel to it. There's a common area with magazines on the table, Kuna molas on the walls, a piano, coffee and tea, an internet terminal for guests to use, and a balcony with a nice view of the Bridge of the Americas. In fact, each room has a good view of the bridge, which is lovely at night when it's lit up and glowing. In the morning the owners lead a 6 am hike up to the top of Cerro Ancon, where you may be lucky enough to spot some wildlife. G&E naturally went on this hike, and I naturally did not - not because it's an especially difficult hike, but because it's at 6 am, for goodness sake.

The kitchen staff makes breakfast to order, and Mi Pueblito is just down a trail.

I might stay there again sometime.

The Darién

I've become increasingly fascinated with the Darien, both the province and the forest. I've spent a lot of time looking at maps of Lago Bayano (technically in Panama province, but on the way to Darien), the little towns along the InterAmerican, La Palma, and some of the more obscure small towns along the Pacific Coast near La Palma, like Garachiné and Playa de Muerto (the Beach of Death).

Nico has been saying that he wants to make a trip to Darien to buy crafts from the Embera and W ounan Indians who inhabit that area. I may go with him.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Updated Post

See my post from a few days ago below, titled, "Uncle Osama, Cousin Naglaa, and Cousin Heba." I added a few photos.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Salma's First Blog Entry

Laura asked me to hold Salma just now, as I was sitting at the computer. Salma immediately reached for the keyboard and began banging it and dragging her fingers across it. I guess she has seen me working and she knows that you are supposed to do something to the keyboard with your hands. I did not realize she was that perceptive.

So I am posting Salma's first official blog entry. This is what she typed:

, .
0/////////////////0.20.03 ♥
kkkkkkkkkkkkkkmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm kk,m /
+-* nb

+-* *-+

How did she make the heart symbol at the top? It does not appear on the keyboard.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Uncle Osama, Cousin Naglaa, and Cousin Heba

Most of my extended family (grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins) live in Egypt, and I have not seen them in many years. A few of my cousins have settled in the USA or Canada in recent years, and I have been able to see them occasionally.

I just received an email from my cousin Naglaa, who lives in Canada with her husband Nasser and their two children. She is the youngest child of my father's older brother, Osama. She sent me photos of herself and her sister, Heba.

I last saw them in 1980 or so and I remember Naglaa as a tiny little playful girl. The photo below shows my grandparents, my Uncle Osama and all his family. Naglaa is the one in the green dress.

Here is the full grown Naglaa with her family:

Naglaa also sent me a photo of her father (my Uncle Osama) and her older sister, Heba, who in the photos above is the skinny young girl wearing the red dress and thick glasses. The photo also includes Heba's in-laws, but I have split the photo in two because it was so large.

Here is the first half of the photo, with (from left to right): my Uncle Osama, Heba and her 13 year old son (apparently everyone tells him he looks like Harry Potter), and Heba and Naglaa's mother, my Aunt Tahany.

And the other half of the photo, with Naglaa's in-laws, her two sons, and her brother in law Alaa. These photos were taken in Egypt in July 2006:

And here is the entire photo, but not at it's full original size:

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

An Odd Occurence at Cartagena Airport

Cartagena, Colombia airport:

I wrote previously about the strict security when flying out of Colombia. That reminds me of something odd that happened in the departures wing of the Cartagena airport. As I was waiting in the very first line, where the check-in bags get scanned and searched, the man in line behind me said, "Habla inglés?" I said yes. He said in English, "Is this the line to check in?" I said yes. At this point the man set his two bags against the wall and walked off. I saw him go into one store in the concourse, then another store, then he walked off the other direction.

Twenty minutes later he had still not returned. There was no one watching his bags.

Who does this? It's bizarre. He didn't seem concerned that his bags could be stolen, or that someone could hide a package of cocaine in his bag, or that security might become alarmed. I mean, what kind of an idiot leaves his bags unattended in an airport, and in Colombia of all places?

I began to worry that it might be a bomb. I think this is a realistic concern in these times. I considered whether I should tell security. On the one hand, if I told them, they might call in the bomb squad and evacuate the area, and then I might miss my flight, or at least be delayed, not to mention cause a lot of inconvenience to a lot of people. Furthermore, I hate to get involved with cops, because then you get dragged into the situation and the cops are not always nice about it. I've had this experience before, where I've reported crimes, or in one case I apprehended a purse snatcher, and most of the time I've regretted it. And finally there's my dislike of being a snitch, of making trouble for someone.

On the other hand, if it was a bomb and I did not say anything, a lot of people could get hurt, including me and my family.

I asked Laura what to do. She said, I think you should tell them. So I called one security man over - this was not difficult, they were everywhere - and I said, "A man left those bags there and walked away thirty minutes ago."

The ending is anticlimactic, sorry. The guard spoke to another guard and gestured at the bags, and then... nothing happened. They were busy dealing with other matters and they simply ignored it. I was very surprised. But I had done my duty.

Amusing denouement: the man who had abandoned his bags obviously returned eventually, because when I found my seat on the plane there he was, in the seat behind mine.

I did not tell him that I had reported him, or that I thought he was crazy.

Back in El Valle de Anton, Panama

This is a birdhouse that I hung in our front yard. So far the birds have not been interested. Maybe I need to put up a sign saying,
"Available for immediate occupancy: cozy house with excellent location, well out of reach of local cats. No credit check needed. Families welcome."

Yes, we're home now. Even though flying time from Cartagena to Panama is less than an hour, the trip was long and tiring anyhow. I'd advise you to get to the airport very early when flying out of Colombia; security procedures are strict. Two or three rounds of questions (just the normal questions, like purpose of trip, etc), two metal detectors, two pat downs, a drug residue detector, careful checking on their computers, and some people get their bags opened and searched as well. I believe they are looking for mules smuggling cocaine out of the country.

Then on the flight back Salma gave us a hard time again, screaming and shrieking at times, trying to grab the arm of the woman in front of me, and then flirting playfully with any passenger who would look at her. And then shrieking some more. Crazy kid of mine.

We arrived in Panama at 5:40 pm. It was good to be back in a familiar place, and a place that in comparison to Colombia feels relaxed and easygoing. I popped a green tea pill and listened to my walkman to stay awake as I drove through the dark, with Laura and Salma sleeping part of the way, and we got back to El Valle around 9pm. So if you count from the time we went to the Cartagena airport - 12:30pm or so - it was almost a 9 hour trip!

Our friend Cleo took good care of our house and cats in our absence, and Rosa had left dinner and a cake in the refrigerator, but we were too tired to eat. Unfortunately, Salma was worked up I guess by all the travel and excitement, and would not sleep until midnight or so.

There's more to write about Colombia, and photos to upload. Gotta catch up on my work first.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cartagena Tales

This first photo was taken not by me, but by Christopher Kirk.

Vendors and Touts

Cartagena is truly a lovely city for walking. The only drawback is having to resist or ignore the constant entreaties of street vendors and touts pushing the services of certain restaurants, emerald shops, or other stores. They are very aggressive. The vendors sell sunglasses, watches, (Rolex! I gotta Rolex for you!), so-called Cuban cigars (made in Colombia of course), water, soda, fruits, handbags, necklaces, wristbands, and artistic drawings. They get right in your face or step right in your path, pushing their wares.

The touts are even worse. Apparently they get "points" if they can get you to enter a particular emerald shop, restaurant, crafts store, art gallery, you name it. They come up, hollering "amigo," asking where you are from, what are you looking for, come on we got the best emeralds right here (Colombia is the world´s biggest producer of emeralds, and Cartagena is packed with scores of emerald shops), this is the best restaurant... some will follow you down the street, and even when they give up the chase will call out to you to come back. One very persistent fellow kept shouting out from a block away, calling me to come back to this restaurant! Another fellow followed me a long ways, telling me how he was trying to save money for his education and that he would get five points if I just went into "his" shop, and wouldn´t I help him out?

By the way, I came across this bizarre descripton of Colombia´s emerald industry, written by an ABC foreign correspondent:
Colombia is the world's biggest producer of emeralds, but this lucrative industry is dogged by corruption and violence. As one pistol packing emerald dealer puts it, "where there's money there's madness. Andrew Clark visits the badlands of Colombia's emerald empire. On the way he meets "Emerald Barbie", so named because of her blonde mane, fancy clothes and four inch heels. But don't be fooled by appearances - this one-time beauty queen is one of the shrewdest operators in the emerald business. Just ask any of the 'guaqeros', the men, women and children who are the lowest rung on the emerald mining ladder. They work tirelessly day and night for no pay, hoping to one day strike it rich, but of course few do. Instead the riches flow to the ruthless warlords who preside over the rough and tumble of the emerald industry with gun barrel justice.

Church of San Pedro Claver, "Slave of the Slaves"

Laura and I ate breakfast at 7am on Saturday and headed out early to explore the town before it got too hot. It´s hot here, by the way, hot and very humid, even more so than Panama. I lather on the sunscreen before going out, and I carry a face towel to wipe the sweat. We also carry an umbrella to shade Salma from the full sun. But because the streets here are so narrow and are lined on both sides with two or three story colonial buildings, one side of the street or the other is usually shaded, except at high noon.

We walked around the old quarter, through Centro and San Diego districts, taking turns carrying Salma and fighting off the vendors and touts all the way, until we came to a massive stone church in front of a large plaza. Here it is on the left. Near the entrance to the plaza is a cluster of emerald shops. One another side of the plaza is this church, on the far side is Cartagena's museum of modern art, and directly opposite the church is a large multi-ethnic restuarant that actually had Thai food! But at $15 a plate and up it was too expensive for my taste.

The plaza was full of playful black metal sculptures - for example, two men playing chess - and others depicting a priest.

After observing the statues in front of the church and being lectured by a tout, we learned that it was the church of San Pedro Claver, a Spanish priest who had dedicated his life to converting and ministering to the African slaves, and was thus known as "slave of the slaves."

Here is a statue depicting Pedro Claver lecturing one of the slaves:

We paid an entrance fee of $2.50 each to enter the church. An old man with a long and sharply hooked nose, wearing a buttoned up shirt and baseball hat, approached us and offered his services as a guide. Thinking that this might be included in the admission price (yes, I should know better by now), we accepted.

This old man (whose name I did not catch, but if you have superb vision perhaps you can make it out from his nametag on his shirt in the photo on the left) spoke heavily accented but understandable English, and insisted on conducting his tour in English, even though we replied to him in Spanish. He told us he was seventy five years old, though he looks ancient. He warned us not to use the services of streetside money changers, who would rip us off or give us fake bills. He told us a little about San Pedro Claver, or as the old man called him, Peter Claver, and how he had died of Parkinsons.

"You know Parkinsons?" he said, shaking his hands in front of us. We assured him that yes, we had heard of Parkinsons.

"He dedicated his life to take care of the slaves,"he said. That´s why he called himself, slave of the slaves! You understand my English? Slave of the slaves?"

We said yes, we understand.

Suddenly he turned and headed for the stone steps ascending to the second floor. "Come, we begin," he said.

So this old man proceeded to lead us all around this huge multi-story church, leading us from one room to another, telling us to sit here or sit there while he explained about this artifact or that, the history of this room or that tomb. He showed us the ancient cell where San Pedro Claver had lived and died, and the adjacent room with a grand table where he had met with the representative of Rome who came to see San Pedro´s work in Cartagena. There was no bed for the representative, he explained, so he had to sleep in a very big hamaca (hammock).

"You understand hamaca? You like Spanish or English? Can you guess how big was the hamaca? You see the hook here on the ceiling? Where is the other hook?"

We spotted the other hook on the opposite side of the room.

"That's right! You see how big was the hamaca?" He found this very amusing and laughed out loud.

"Now, you see these paintings, how he is caring for the slaves? That´s why he call himself, slave of the slaves. But he died of Parkinsons. You know Parkinsons?" Shaking his hands in front of him, demonstrating. Then turning away abruptly. "Come, follow me now!"

These themes were repeated many times. Don´t use the streetside money changers... slave of the slaves... Parkinsons... you understand me?... you like English or Spanish?... follow me! He walked quickly, sometimes seeming so intent on his lecture that he was not looking where he walked.

He sat us down next to San Pedro´s actual skull and bones, in a glass sided tomb set on huge slabs of white marble imported from Italy. He walked us through a room with a massive pipe organ beneath the round stained glass window that you see above, then another room with nothing but a big round, illuminated globe that was suspended by a long cable from some contraption on the celing and was swinging wildly back and forth, from one side of the room to the other.

"What is this?" we asked.

"Oh, it´s for the bell, you hear the bell?"

And indeed we realized that each time the globe passed the center of the room a bell rung from somewhere. But before we could ask for an explanation the old man said, "Come, follow me!" He turned and walked right through the path of the swinging globe, not paying any attention whatsoever, and it brushed his shoulder as it came rushing past. A worker in the church called out, "Hey, be careful", but the old man just kept on walking, oblivious.

It was humid and still inside the church, and by the time the tour was over we were soaked in sweat and tired. At the exit I had just gotten 5,000 pesos out of my wallet to tip the old man for hte tour, when he said very matter of factly, "You pay me twenty thousand now." The exchange rate is one dollar for 2,050 Colombian pesos, so this was almost ten dollars, quite a high price it seemed to me. But I paid it, what could I do?

At the very end of the tour the old man said to me, "What did you say was your name?"

I told him. "What kind of name is that?" he wanted to know.

"Arabic," I said.

He got a surprised look on his face. "But Catholic, right? Not Jewish or Protestant!" He said this as if to be an Arab Jew or Protestant would be a terrible thing, something he could not abide in his grand church.

"Muslim," I said.

The old man spun on his heel so quickly that I never saw his expression. He walked us to the door, then said, "Goodbye, Muslims!"

Not Cheap

Actually, Cartagena is not a cheap city. It's not like Panama. I mean, there are little fondas (small neighborhood restaurants) and streetside vendors who will sell you food quite cheaply, but if you want a quality meal in a nice restaurant, it will cost you the equivalent of $25 for two. U.S. prices, basically. A short taxi ride in Centro is $2. A bottle of water is $1. Hotels are pricey, with budget hotels running $35 and up, good hotels at $100 or so, and luxury hotels at $300+.

Also, don´t come to Cartagena thinking you will be able to buy a lot of cheap goods. There are four things you can get here at good prices: emeralds, cigars, Colombian coffee, and locally made leather goods. Anything else will be expensive or simply unavailable. There are hundreds of small shops here specializing in goods of all sorts, especially locally made crafts, shoes, natural herbs and drugs, Caribbean style clothing, artwork, and of course emeralds, but there are no big stores selling imported goods. I had a hard time finding a disposable camera, and I could not find an English language Colombia guide book.

Cartagena´s Real Treasures, Aside from Emeralds

Cartagena´s treasures are its beauty, the impressive weight of history in every building - most of these buildings are 500 years old and have gone through many iterations, both in design and use, having been used for a half a dozen different purposes over the centuries - the warmth and friendliness of the people, and the sheer vibrancy of the place. It's a place that hums with energy and laughter. Little plazas shaded by tall tropical trees and bordered by museums, with people relaxing in the shade and cotton candy vendors plying their wares, while horse drawn carriages trot past at a steady clip. An open square (plaza Santo Domingo, I think) with a row of restaurants and a sea of tables filling the square, and a large metal sculpture of a very buxom black woman. Shoe shiners and pretty girls, and babies everywhere.