Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Good Luck Bad Luck Day

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

Monday was a good luck / bad luck day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Sloth; The Favor; The Traffic

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

No such luck.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So next time I know just how to do it.


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


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

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

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

I got home hours after dark.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Laura's Birthday; Spanish Study; Summer

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

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

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

So, a lot to learn still.

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Panama Real Estate and Classified Ads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Salma's Vocabulary

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

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

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