Tuesday, October 21, 2008

San Francisco, California, and El Valle de Anton, Panama

this cozy, luxurious room could be my magical room

I want a magical room. This room would be fully equipped with a small library, a comfortable reading chair and desk, a small but cozy bed, and a cupboard stocked with good food. And of course a bathroom with a claw-footed tub and large fluffy towels (the room in the photo, by the way, is the Captain's Cove suite at a lodge called A Place by the Sea, in British Columbia, Canada. I've never been there).

You may be thinking, “That sounds like a wonderful room but not necessarily magical.” Yes, but I haven’t told you the best part. This room exists outside of time. You can spend a month in this room, relaxing, sleeping, getting caught up on your work, eating snacks and reading novels, taking hot bubble baths, and when you emerge no time will have passed in the outside world.

And since we’re dreaming, let’s dream big. You can access this room from anywhere, and exit anywhere. Just walk through any door anywhere in the world with the idea in your head that you are going to your magical room, and voila! There you are. When you are fully refreshed and ready to leave, envision any place in the world and when you exit, there you are.

I would use this room to relax, catch up on my work, read, and best of all, to travel back and forth between San Francisco, California, and El Valle de Anton, Panama.

Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, with MOMA and the PG&E building in the backgroundWow. Wouldn’t that be something. During the day I’d be in San Francisco, maybe exploring the incredible bounty of new restaurants that are giving flavor to the Union Square/Tenderloin area. Union Square itself has been renovated and is now an inviting open space in a uniquely San Franciscan style. Yes, the Tenderloin retains its dangerous edge, but it’s changing. There are Indian, Pakistani and Thai restaurants everywhere, along with cafes, edgy art galleries, smoke shops, and corner ethnic grocery stores (not liquor stores but real grocery stores). And this is considered one of the worst neighborhoods in The City!

The Ferry Building is now a gourmand’s delight. The Yerba Buena Gardens area (seen in the photo) is bustling, with so many new shops and restaurants you can hardly count them, and of course the distinctive MOMA building, with the art deco PG&E building towering behind it. There are a few unwelcome additions as well. The new Federal Building at 7th and Mission is a monstrosity, I’m sorry to say. I haven’t yet had a chance to explore the new Third Street corridor, the lower and upper Haight, the Mission, the new Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park, the new Asian Art Museum in Civic Center, or to check on the well established neighborhoods of North Beach, Nob Hill and Russian Hill, the Sunset and the Richmond.

After a day enjoying San Francisco’s bounty, I would walk into my magical room and take a restful nap. Then I would exit in El Valle, Panama in late afternoon, with a light breeze blowing and the mist draped over the forested hills of the caldera. I’d look up at Cerro La Iguana standing proudly in the sunlight, and on the opposite side Gaital hiding behind its shroud.

El Valle de Anton: Cerro Pajaro, Cerro Caracoral and Cerro GaitalI’d walk down the main road and stop in at Carlitos and Veronica’s Galeria to say hello and admire the original handcrafts for sale there. I’d buy a candy bar at the pharmacy next door (they have the best selection of chocolate bars in town), and walk further to the Mercado. There I would visit with my friends Cleo and Niko, both of whom are crafts vendors, and enjoy some fresh fruit. I’d go for a short hike in the hills around town, or just a pleasant stroll beneath the mango and acacia trees. I’d check in on Zach & Danyelle and Rudy & Christina and see how their home construction projects are going. I’d drop by my own house and make sure Marina and Alex, my friendly Russian tenants, are happy, and I would see how my home improvement projects are progressing.

In the evening I’d go to Pinochio’s Pizza for dinner, or maybe to Mar y Tierra or El Rancho for grilled corvina and french fries. I’d get a room at one of the many local hotels and sleep to the sound of the frogs, barking dogs, crickets, and cicadas. In the morning I would wake to bird song and rooster calls, ready for my return to the city by the bay, the city of fog, San Francisco.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Differences Between Panama and California

I'm back in the San Joaquin Valley of California and I miss Panama so much! My first few weeks back in North America were strange. I had forgotten the strange ways of the gringos.

For example, a few days after arriving I was driving along Blackstone Avenue in Fresno and was stopped at a red light. Intersections here in California have these strange four-stage light patterns where people go North-South, then North-South left turns, then East-West, then East-West left turns. Please, could we get any more organized? Can't I just push my way out into the traffic and turn, like I'm used to? So I was waiting and fiddling with the radio. Then I looked up and saw that I had the green light and all the traffic in front of me was long gone. And the people behind me were just patiently waiting! What? Come on people, how am I supposed to know the light has changed if you don't honk at me?

In fact the traffic here is eerily silent. Have we all gone deaf? Why do cars have horns if we don't use them? I feel like I'm in a silent movie.

So that's one thing.

Another is the dryness (see photo above). Ouch! My lips are cracked and my skin is drying out. I have to moisturize twice a day or my eyelids dry out! My friend Nora told me that she has the same experience when she visits Texas. She has to use eye drops every night, and eye gel during the day. I went for a vigorous walk and was breathing hard, and afterwards I had a slight rattle in my throat, almost a cough, from the dry air. Oh yeah, remember that? Never happens in Panama.

Do you have a problem with your jeans and heavy shirts mildewing? Just send them to California for a week, and I'll send them back bone-dry and summer sweet. Only a small fee for this service.

Rain... I miss the rain. I was filling my gas tank in Los Banos last week. The sun was beating down mercilessly, the air shimmering, and everything dry as a cow's skull (again, see photo above). The "Fresno River" outside of town looked like it had last seen water in the Jurassic period. Suddenly I remembered the daily rains in El Valle and I felt homesick for Panama.

People invite you to dinner at 7pm, and get this - they expect you to show up at 7pm! Ha ha! What kind of attitude is that? That leaves me no time to get ready, read a magazine and stop for ice cream!

You can't get anywhere on foot. Even in Panama City I could get around on foot, and in El Valle of course feet and bicycles were the norm. But here, only homeless people go on foot. Even teenagers take the bus if they are girls, or ride skateboards if they're boys.

Yes, so I'm experiencing some culture shock. My three years in Panama are such a sweet memory. I'll be returning soon to take care of unfinished business - I don't meant that to sound ominous - and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Earl Hall and the Anton Valley Hotel

Anton Valley Hotel, El Valle de Anton, Panama
I recently sold off most of my DVDs, and in the process I met a number of people who came to the house to browse my collection. One was Earl Hall, co-owner of El Valle's Anton Valley Hotel.

Earl, who is 55 years old and came to Panama from South Florida, has been in the hotel industry all his life. He got his start working as a busboy at the Holiday Inn when he was 15, going to school half days and then working the rest of the day, and working full shifts on the weekends. Most recently he was part of a hotel management group.

Earl says that owning his own hotel is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I think everyone in El Valle would agree that he and co-owner Les have done a great job with the Anton Valley. The hotel is always busy,and their Sunday morning breakfast has become a popular meeting spot for locals. It's one of the few places in El Valle where you can get an American-style breakfast. My only gripe is that I went there once on a Wednesday morning and was told rather brusquely that breakfast is only available on the weekends.

I looked up a few of those TripAdvisor.com reviews. Here's the first, by "LandCruisers":
We stayed here after a root canal in Panama City, and it was just what we needed. The place is beautifully decorated and maintained, with fresh flowers, towel art, stained glass, metalwork, and a wonderful garden. We took advantage of the free bicycles to explore the valley and had Juan take us birdwatching in the hills on his day off. The reasonably priced breakfasts were wonderful, and set in a lovely room filled with light and the sound of a gentle fountain. Our room was a little small; we "borrowed" a couple of the chairs from the patio, which allowed us to relax in our room without sitting on the bed. We also enjoyed the patio, where one can sip a glass of wine and watch the birds that are attracted to the flowers in the garden. Even without taking price into account, this is a very special hotel. Given the value, it can't be beat.

Rewards and Challenges

When I asked Earl what the best thing about owning a hotel in El Valle is, he responded with genuine emotion that it is the wonderful people who work for him. He pointed out that many of the staff are mentioned by name in TripAdvisor.com reviews. That's something you don't often see.

What's the greatest challenge of owning a hotel in El Valle? "Government paperwork and bureaucracy," Earl replied without hesitation.

What about the guests, where do they come from? According to Earl, about 40% are North American, 15% Panamanian, and the rest from all over the world, literally, with every continent represented.

Please note that the hotel will be closed the month of September 2008 for vacation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Taking an Animal Out of Panama

Are you making a trip to the United States or some other country and planning to take your pet? Panama requires that you complete certain procedures and get a license (naturally). Your destination country may have its own requirements but here's what you have to do to satisfy Panama's bureaucratic muckety-mucks.

You need two documents from a veterinarian in Panama:

Vaccination card showing that all vaccinations (especially rabies) are up to date.
General certificate of health.These documents must be dated within ten days of your departure. In other words, if you get them one month before your departure they will not be valid.

Make a copy of each document, and take it to the government office called Ventanilla Unica. This office is in Edison Plaza at the corner of Via Brasil and the Tumba Muerto in Panama City. The office is on the Via Brasil side, a few doors down from Mango restaurant. The words "Ventanilla Unica" are written in large letters on the window. You must pay to park in this lot.

By the way, if you haven't had a chance to make copies of your documents you can do it at the pharmacy a few doors down from the Ventanilla Unica office.

Tell the clerk in the Ventanilla Unica office that you want a "licencia de exportacion." The clerk will give you a form to fill out and a payment slip for the $5 fee. You must take the payment slip to the Banco Nacional, also in Edison Plaza, at the corner, in the base of the tall conical building. The line in the bank is often quite long, unless you are a jubilado in which case there is a shorter line. Wait in line there and then present the slip and your $5 to the teller, who will give you the yellow copy. Take that back to the Ventanilla Unica clerk, along with all your documents including the form that he gave you to fill out. Hand the documents over to him and he will tell you to wait until he calls your name.

Have a seat and be prepared to wait. The clerk will eventually call you up and give you a yellow paper titled, "Licencia fito-zoosanitaria de exportacion." Check the information on the paper and make sure it is correct. If so, you are done. You now have a license to take your pet out of the country.

Of course you should also notify your airline and make all appropriate arrangements with them. Continental Airlines, Copa and TACA allow dogs and cats in the cabin as long as they weigh 15 pounds or less. They must be able to stand and turn around within the carrier.

P.S. The dog in the photos is Molly, a rottweiler from Wales that adopted these two lambs.

Update August 25, 2008: I have completed my trip to the United States with Lil Fishy, my cat. No one asked to see any of my paperwork whatsoever. Really. But of course you have to have it, just in case someone does ask for it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Poverty in Bocas del Toro

Schoolgirl from Bocas del Toro, Panama

I spotted this story in an old issue of The Bocas Breeze, and I found it to be rather touching:

A National Geographic Moment, or A Big Wake-Up Call
by someone who cares

Yesterday we decided to have a sleepover and each of our girls could invite one guest. The older one phoned her friend and it was a done deal.

My younger daughter asked me to walk to her friend’s house to ask her parents for permission. Her friend had been to our house many times and she seemed to be a bright and happy child. I suggested we take a taxi, and my daughter laughed, saying, “Mommy, we can’t take a taxi there.” And I soon found out why.

We walked, and we walked, and we walked. Down a dirt road, through the bush, along trails to another path. Along the way I told my daughter to please ask that her friend remember to bring her toothbrush. She said, “Mom, she doesn’t have a toothbrush. They’re poor.” Stupidly I said, “Then be sure she brings her pajamas.” At this point my daughter stopped me and said, “Mom, they don’t have pajamas. They sleep in their everyday clothes.” I thought my heart would fall out of my chest.

Arrangements have been made for our Saturday dentist, Dr. Wong (who I highly recommend), to donate 50 toothbrushes and toothpaste. I have extra fabric that I will sew into clothes. Please look through your closets to find shoes and clothing of any size, or buy a few personal care items. The Bocas Breeze newspaper has graciously agreed to accept these donations and I will deliver them to this village in need.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Good car for sale at a great price!

As my readers know, I am returning to the USA for family reasons. I am selling my car for only $5,000. This is a great deal! It's a four-door 2003 Nissan Sentra B-15. An excellent street & city car with a great engine, good acceleration, strong AC, and in all-around good condition. Only a few minor cosmetic problems. If you live in a rural location with an unpaved road I don't recommend this car, but if you are in Panama city or on a paved road then it's a good opportunity to get a nice car at a good price. If I were staying longer in Panama I'd ask for more, but I'm leaving very soon and want to get this done before I go.

You can contact me through the email form on this blog or call my cell at 6707-8250 anytime. My name is Wael.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Salma at the Beach in Alameda, California

My daughter Salma recently attended a birthday party at the beach in Alameda, California. This is not an ocean beach but a bay beach. Here are some photos:

Salma's not in this last photo, but I think it's cool the way downtown San Francisco appears so close, as if it's just across a narrow strip of water, not on the other side of a broad bay.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Cops

Yesterday I headed into Panama to once again attempt to get my car up to date. I needed to renew my auto insurance policy, get the car inspected, and then renew my license plate. All are expired. They must be done in that order, as each step is a requirement for the next step.

Past Gorgona, coming over a rise, I saw a traffic cop parked on the side of the road (that's not him in the photo above - it's just a random shot of a couple of Panama Tourist Police). I immediately reduced my speed but I was too late. He had already hit me with the radar gun. He waved me over (that's how they do it here) and I pulled over a short distance beyond him. I've heard of some people ignoring the wave, driving past and successfully evading any consequences, but I also remember one person who did that and then was pulled over by another car that was waiting for him up the road. When I was younger and stupider I might have tried it, but not anymore.

The officer looked at my U.S. passport and California driver's license, told me I was doing 110 kph in an 80 kph zone, and wrote a ticket for $70. Then he let me go. He didn't seem to notice that my plate was expired, nor did he say anything about my visa status. I made a short trip to Costa Rica recently and returned to Panama on June 2, so I have only been here 2 months. The tourist visa is 90 days and I am allowed to drive with my U.S. license during that time, so I am within the law on that.

I will have to go to the municipal office that handles traffic tickets and wait in line for the better part of a day to pay the ticket.

Continuing on my way, I noticed that the traffic cops seemed to be out in force. This is "spring break" in Panama, a two week school vacation, so maybe the traffic cops are targeting young, reckless drivers, I don't know. I also saw many accidents, and the InterAmerican highway was undergoing major roadwork in several places. I quickly realized that it was a bad day to be on the road.

Entering into Panama, I made my way to Avenida Balboa where I found myself stuck in a traffic jam due to a bad accident on the road. I was inching along in traffic when suddenly I was struck hard from behind. I got out of the car. The trunk lid had popped open. I shut it and it seemed fine. I studied the rear of my car but amazingly could see no damage. The driver behind me had not emerged. His windows were tinted and I could not see inside. I continued to check my car carefully and finally the driver got out. I didn't understand everything he said but I gathered that he was apologizing. Since there was no apparent damage to my car and I did not want to spend the next two hours filing reports, I told him to forget about it.

I went to the insurance office on Calle 50 and found that they had moved. Fortunately the new location was easy to find. It took only about an hour to renew my insurance for another year. I chose basic liability coverage only as I plan to sell the car soon.

I needed to stop at a Western Union office so I made my way to the main office at Plaza Concordia on Via España. By the time I was done it was too late to do anything else that day so I decided to go home. I knew that the route that I usually take to Avenida de los Martires (the road that leads to the bridge) was under construction, so I tried a new route and got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam where I was boxed in by diablos rojos and moved slower than the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks. I spent an hour and a half in that, listening to the radio and watching the pedestrians, and then realized that I was lost.

When I finally got back to a road that I recognized I found myself once again in very bad traffic. Thoroughly disgusted at this point, I said to myself, "Forget it," and decided to go to Albrook Mall where I could eat something and wait for traffic to die down. I headed that way, talking to a friend on my cell phone as I drove. Yes I know it's illegal in Panama. So of course as I'm about to pull into Albrook Mall I pass a traffic cop and he waves me over.

Right away I knew I was in trouble. This cop said to me, "It's prohibited to talk on a cell phone while you drive! Show me your license." He looked at my passport and driver's license and then said, "When did you enter Panama? Show me the stamp." I showed him the immigration stamp that said June 2, 2008. He studied it and said, "You have overstayed your visa. The limit is 90 days." After this pronouncement he folded his arms on his chest and looked up at the sky.

"I have been here just a little over two months," I told him. June and July, and the beginning of August.

The cop squinted at me. "You entered at the beginning of June. So that's June, July and now August. More than three months! Furthermore, your plate is expired and you were talking on your phone. I am calling a tow truck. This car will be impounded."

Wonderful. I didn't try to argue with him on the visa issue. He had me dead to rights on the plate and the cell phone anyway. I began to pack my stuff into my backpack, thinking I would go home on a bus and come back the next day to sort the problem out. I know that some people might try offering a bribe in this situation, but I did not do that for a few reasons:
  1. I don't believe in encouraging corruption. If a police officer is honest and doing his job, then I would not dream of attempting to corrupt him. My religion of Islam teaches that it is wrong to demand a bribe or to offer one. Both are equally corrupt.
  2. If the cop is honest then my offer of a bribe could get me into deeper trouble.
  3. This just perpetuates the perception of the rich gringo as an easy target and can buy his way out of anything.
The cop spoke into his radio, calling for a tow truck. Then he turned to me. "It's going to cost you $80 to get your car out of the impound lot, plus $50 for the cell phone ticket, plus the ticket for your expired plate, plus your expired visa. Altogether about $400."

I don't have that kind of money to spend, but what could I say? I just shook my head and began taking my important documents out of the glove box and putting them in my backpack.

Suddenly the cop said to me, "So, what are we going to do about this?"

Aha. In an instant the situation changed. I understood exactly what he meant, which was, "Make me an offer." Maybe it's hypocritical of me, maybe it makes me guilty, but if a corrupt cop is offering me the option of either suffering some pretty serious financial/legal consequences or getting away with a small dent in my wallet, I choose the latter.

Playing along, I said, "What are my options?"

"Your options," the cop replied, "Are to pay $400 in fines and lose your car for a few days, or if you help me then I can help you."

"How can I help you?" I asked.

"You tell me," he said. "How much can you help me with?"

"Thirty dollars?" I offered.

He raised his chin and looked down at me over his nose. "Only thirty dollars? The tow truck is on its way. It will cost you hundreds of dollars."

"Ok, how about forty dollars?" I said. This was a new one for me. Negotiating a bribe just like I would haggle on a purchase at the market. In a way I felt comfortable, back in familiar territory. It was just a matter of finding a price we could both live with.

"Is that the best you can do?" the cop said. "Maybe you can do a little better."

"Fifty dollars," I said. "That's all I can manage." At that point I took out my wallet and began to remove the money. I held the wallet low, so passers by could not see, but the cop said, "Not here, follow me."

The officer got back in his car and drove several hundred meters to a quiet spot beneath some trees. I followed him. He walked back to my car and said, "Put the money in your passport." I did so. The cop took the passport to his car, removed the money and returned. He gave me the passport and said, "Don't talk on your cell phone while you drive." Then he drove away. Looking back, I suspect that he only pretended to call the tow truck. He probably did not key the radio when he put on that show.

These guys earn maybe $300 per month and nowadays it's impossible to feed a family on that, so "rich gringos" like me are a tempting target. I'm not justifying the corruption, but I do understand it. Anytime you have a society with vast disparities in wealth you're going to have corruption, and a disenfranchised group like foreign expatriates is especially vulnerable. I have a great admiration for those honest police officers who resist temptation.

I finally made it to Albrook Mall, ran into a friend from El Valle and talked, ate at Crepes and Waffles, then on the way home visited with Tracy and Ela in La Chorrera, and a made a final stop at El Rey grocery store in Coronado. I got home at midnight.

If you're driving in Panama, be careful out there. It's wild and woolly these days.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Downside to Life in El Valle de Antón, Panama?

The boys in the photo above live at the end of Calle La India. They play around there and volunteer their services as guides for anyone visiting either La Piedra Pintada (the Painted Rock) or La India Dormida (the Sleeping Indian, a local mountain). Any one of them can take you to La Piedra (it's a short walk), and then give you a long explanation of all the pre-Columbian petroglyphs carved on the rock. $1 is the usual fee for this service.

A reader recently asked me if there were any downsides to living in El Valle de Antón. The truth is that El Valle is a beautiful, special place and I could go on for hours about all the joys of life here. I must leave for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of life here. But yes, there are a few downsides.

Downsides to Life in El Valle
  1. Annoying weekenders. El Valle is a resort town. Many wealthy Panamanian families have weekend/summer homes here. It's been this way for decades. They arrive here in force on Saturday morning, rolling into town in their big SUVs. That's great for local restaurants and stores, but the problem is that the weekender kids all have ATVs and dirt bikes and they spend the weekend roaring up and down the streets with no regard for safety or peace. The older kids, in their teens and twenties, zoom up and down at all hours in their SUVs. I like to walk in the evenings but I don't walk on Friday or Saturday nights because it's too dangerous.
    Why don't the police do something? Because these are wealthy, influential families and the small town cops know better than to interfere in their affairs. Aside from the fact of their status, these families support many local facilities such as the public library and the nursing home. So, like the locals, I put up with it in silence. This is one of those cultural differences that gringos must accept.
  2. No hospital. This is has not been an issue for me, but for many of the elderly retirees here, it is. El Valle does have a clinic that can treat common sicknesses and offer limited emergency care, but for comprehensive medical care one must go to Panama city, 90 minutes away. In a life or death situation, that's a long ways to go. El Valle has an ambulance that was donated by Japan, but it will take you only to Penonomé, which is one hour away and has a hospital but not of the quality you would get in Panama city.
  3. No private school. If you have school age children, this could be a problem. There are public schools here but they are underfunded and the quality of instruction is not stellar. I have heard of a private bilingual school in Penonomé but I know nothing about it. It's possible that within a few years we may see a private school in Coronado. So at the moment you'd better be prepared to home school if you want to live in El Valle with children. You might consider a combination of public school and home schooling.
  4. Insects. This is the tropics, and in a mountain town like El Valle you feel it. The battle against the six-legged kingdom is never ending. Be prepared to live with mosquito bites and noseeum bites, and to take extraordinary measures to keep ants out of your food. Other insects such as beetles, termites, spiders and cicadas can be a bother but are tolerable.
  5. No quality grocery store. This is a minor complaint. There are several local chinos (Chinese-owned mini-markets), but they don't carry higher-end or gourmet items. For those kinds of things you must go down the mountain to El Rey in Coronado (45 minutes away), or for real specialty items to the Riba Smith stores in Panama.
  6. Higher construction costs. I have no direct experience with this, but I've heard that construction costs can be higher here because materials (and often crews as well) must be trucked up the mountain.
  7. No paying jobs. Again, not an issue for me since I work over the internet from home. This is a small town. If you are not retired or rich, then you must have a source of income or be prepared to start a business. I do believe there are business opportunities here (I've been saying for ages that an ice cream shop would do well here, and we'll see since the owners of Pinocchio's Pizzeria just opened one last week).
  8. Life is slow. Everyone is different and I happen to enjoy the easy pace of life here, and like I said I work full time and that keeps me busy. I like going to the market and talking to the vendors, going out to eat, and taking long walks in the evening. But some may find life here to be dull. The important thing is that you have something to occupy your time and enrich your life, whether that is volunteer work, writing a book, or starting a business.
If any of you readers live here in El Valle and can think of anything I left out, please chime in.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Last Month in Panama

Salma's second birthday is coming up soon. Unfortunately I'm still here in Panama, but I'll be back in the USA in a month and I'll give her another party at my parents' house, Insha'Allah. I have finally begun sorting things for packing, but my first priority is the car. I went to Panama to renew the plates, but I forgot that first I must get an inspection, and also the insurance expired on July 3. Both are requirements, so I will get the inspection, renew the insurance for another year with basic liability coverage only ($150 a year), then renew the plate, get the wiper tank fixed, and put the car up for sale. It's a good car (a great city car), a 2003 Nissan Sentra in excellent condition, and I'm hoping for a good price.

I noticed recently that a leafcutter colony had set up shop in the front yard and was systematically stripping a willow tree. The leafcutters worked only at night, so it took me a few days to realize what was happening and by that time half the willow was bare. I located the leafcutter nests and pointed them out to Listo, and he put some kind of poison in the nests, so they have disappeared.

Rosa's on vacation for a month. Panamanian employees are entitled to a month's paid vacation every year, and this is her second year. The house is gradually getting a bit dirty, though I've managed to keep the dirty dishes from spiraling out of control by using only the same few plates over and over. She'll be back August 3rd, in time to clean the place up for the tenant if I find one. I do miss her cooking. I've been eating cereal for breakfast, tuna fish or peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and either going to Mar de Plata for dinner or just skipping it altogether. Been eating lots of fruits as well. Between that and my nightly walks (to relieve boredom/loneliness and get out of the house) I've dropped a few pounds. I've become much more regular with my prayers, even waking up at 5am sometimes for the morning prayer then going back to sleep. I feel good about that and I think it's helping me cope with this transition.

I've decided to hire Bill and Adam Brunner to manage the house rental. They have experience with this, they have contracts already prepared, and their fees are reasonable. And it's handy that if anything breaks, Adam himself can fix it and deduct the fee from the rent. He will deposit the rent in my account at Scotiabank and the bank tells me that I can transfer the money by sending them a signed fax request. There's a fee for that of course, but I see no alternative. The Scotiabank ATM card does not work in the USA, and Paypal doesn't work with Panamanian banks.


Chris had to drive her car to Panama last Thursday to get it inspected and get a new plate, and she asked me to accompany her as she has never driven in Panama city before, so I agreed. She also ferried me around for my usual errands. I closed the Mailboxes Etc. box, by the way. We ended up in Calidonia in late afternoon where she got a cheap hotel room at a place called La Cantora, at Avenida Mexico and Calle 32. I was planning to head back to El Valle, but Chris suggested that I get my own room and stay the night so I could go to Jumah prayer next day. So I rented a room for $23, a fairly small room with dingy walls and no blankets. It did have clean sheets, a comfortable bed, cable TV and AC. We went to Multicentro in the evening and ate at the food court and then saw a movie! My first movie in Panama since Salma was born. We saw "The Happening" which turned out to be quite creepy, and it didn't help that the picture was slightly out of focus and washed out, and there was a large white streak in the center of the screen.

Back in the room, I discovered that the AC was neither adjustable nor automatic. There was a switch on the wall to turn it on, and it stayed on until I turned it off. The room quickly got very cold and there were no blankets (yes, that's right, no blankets). So I slept in my clothes and when I got very cold around 3am, I turned it off for the rest of the night. All in all it was acceptable for $23.

The next day after Jumah I accompanied Chris to the auto shop, and we headed back to El Valle around 6pm or so. We stopped at Quesos Chela on the way back - Chris had never been there - and I bought some Lebna with Zatar, which I actually have not tried yet. I had not given Lil' Fishy any extra food before I left and she was practically climbing the walls. It's alright, one day without food did not kill her. Not with that belly of hers. All in all it was a good trip and I got to know Chris a lot better. I discovered that the core of her identity is a dedicated teacher. She's very serious about teaching and making a difference in the lives of the children. I wonder how she will cope when she retires and moves down here full time. Maybe she'll get involved in teaching the local children. The schools could certainly use the help.

I eat out with my friend Cleo about once a week. I pay for his dinner but in exchange I get to practice my Spanish. His cute little daughter Anaidili got burned. Somehow some hot soup spilled on her and she was burned on her shoulder and chest. The hospital bandaged her and gave them some salve to apply daily, and Cleo says Anaidili most likely will not have a permanent scar.

I went to the video store the other day and when I was leaving little Alejandro was walking home from school with his mother. He's a little boy who is five or six years old but tiny. He lives near the video store and whenever I went there he would run around with Salma and teach her games. He looked very cute in his school uniform. I said hello to him and he said to his mother, "That's Salma's papa!"

I'm planning to give many of Salma's baby things to our neighbor Maria for her baby Emily, such as the bouncy seat, the blue bathtub, the boppy, etc. I'll bring some toys with me and the rest I'll distribute among babies Katleen, Anaidili, and Ani's son Antoney. As for the crib, I guess I'll try to sell it, I don't know. Very unlikely that any renters would need it, as most of them are retired couples.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Salma's Visit With Her Grandparents in Fresno, California

Some photos of Salma during her recent visit with her grandparents (my parents) in Fresno, California. We call her grandmother Nena, and her grandfather Giddu.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Entering Panama at the Paso Canoas Border Station

Buses leave the Ciudad Neilly terminal for the border every half hour in the morning. The fare is only 300 colones (less than a dollar). At the station, two Costa Rican asked to see Tracy's passport and mine. They examined our passports then declared that we were in Costa Rica illegally. I told them we had come in on the Panaline bus, and I showed them the immigration stamp. They finally realized that the passport was legally stamped, but that the stamp was faint and hard to see. Perhaps next time I should make sure the immigration agent has a full inkpad. And I could bring him a morning coffee as well, and a few pastelitos de queso.

The bus dropped us off only a few meters from the Panama border post, exactly in the spot that you see below. On the Panama side of the border there is nothing but the border station, but the Costa Rican side hosts a thriving town called Paso Canoas (Canoe Passage - a very old name, I imagine). There must be an Arab community there, as I saw a large store called "Almacen Jerusalem" - Jerusalem Department Store - with a sign depicting an image of the Dome of the Rock mosque.

We walked back to Costa Rican immigration to get an exit stamp, a simple process. Then walked back up the street a hundred meters, through an area very busy with truck traffic, to the Panama border station. There is no fence or wall between the two countries. You simply walk up or down the street to cross from one nation into the other. You could easily cross without going through immigration, but of course you would then be illegal.

Actually I take exception with the idea that a human being can be "illegal" for simply moving about on this earth that God made. I find the entire concept of borders and immigration controls to be artificial and random. But that's another issue.

At the Panama border station I waited in line for almost an hour to get an entry visa. When I got to the window the agent told me I must get a five dollar tourist card, and I have to go to a different building to get it. He said he would hold my passport and I should go get the tourist card and come back to the front of the line. I wandered around until I found the window where you get the tourist card, and the woman said, "I need to see your passport." So I went back to the first building and convinced the man that I needed my passport back. Returned to the tourist card window, bought the card, back to the first guy, got the stamp. At this point no one had checked my bag yet. I asked the immigration agent, "Do I go through customs now?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "If you like."

The customs building is a circular room with tables all around. About thirty people were waiting to get their bags searched, and not a customs agent in sight. Tracy and I set our bags on the table and waited. We met a young American named Brian who was looking for a volunteer opportunity. I gave him Corrin Skubin's number, since she is working with the indigenous tribes to help them plant cocoa and coffee trees and develop export markets for the cocoa.

Our plan was to get through immigration, take a local bus to David, then catch a bus from there to Panama. As we were waiting a fellow in a TicaBus shirt came through and asked us where we were going. He told us there was a TicaBus express going through immigration and offered us seats for $17 each. That was a lucky break and we paid him. A few minutes later he had still not returned with the tickets. I began to think that maybe I should have paid on the bus. After all, anyone could put on a TicaBus shirt and pretend to be an agent. In Panama they call that juega vivo - literally something like "sharp game" but refers to a cultural attitude that is all about taking advantage, and if I can screw you over or trick you out of your money then it's your fault for being stupid. Goodbye pura vida, welcome to Panama. I went looking for the agent and did not find him.

Finally a customs agent showed up. We opened our bags and he went around the tables, only glancing at each bag, not even touching most of them. He looked at my bag and said, "Ok." No stamp, no tag, nothing. I could have skipped the whole thing and no one would have known the difference.

We went out to the TicaBus and I was relieved to find the agent who had taken our money. Not a juega vivo after all. We got on the bus, which was large and comfortable, with many empty seats.

The bus showed two movies in a row, the first a dark Italian comedy called "Life is Beautiful," then one of my favorite action movies, "The Transporter." I kept an eye on the countryside, which mostly consisted of grassy hills where cattle grazed. Very few trees.

The bus provided a boxed lunch consisting of a cheese and salami sandwich and some sort of pastry. I passed on it. The driver kept the pedal down, passing quickly through David - second largest city in Panama - then Santiago, and AguaDulce. Before I knew it we passed through Penonomé, where I sometimes go for Friday prayer, and then Antón. I moved to the front of the bus and when I saw the El Valle entrance I knocked loudly on the driver's cabin, and he let me out. The eight hour trip had passed quickly.

I caught a local bus up the mountain to El Valle. The bus was completely full, and the driver kept up an insane pace on the mountain road in a light rain. I held on with both hands to keep from being thrown right and left. Soon enough I found myself home, at 5:30 pm. The streets were full of water, the sky still light, and El Valle was as beautiful as ever. Gaital was covered in mist, and the frogs chorused loudly on the backroads as I walked home. Cleo had left the front lights on for me, and it felt good to be able to call this place home.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Working and Working Out in Ciudad Neilly

View of Ciudad Neilly Costa Rica from the mountains
Our plan was to catch the 2pm bus back down the mountain to Ciudad Neilly. We walked in the afternoon heat to the sleepy bus station and found it closed for lunch. Took a taxi back to the town square and I went into the air conditioned internet cafe. They have nice computers with large flat screen monitors. $1 per hour seems to be the standard fee for internet access in all these small Costa Rican towns.

At 1:30 I met up with Tracy and we asked a taxi to take us back to the bus station. "Where are you going?" he wanted to know. "Ciudad Neilly." "I'm going there," he said. "I'll take you both for 3,000 colones."

3,000 colones is only $6 or so. True, the bus would only cost 600 colones apiece, but the bus is slow, crowded, and takes a very indirect route.

Just at that moment a tall American woman approached us. She was only the second gringo I had seen in three days. "Can I help you guys with something?" "Do you live here?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "in Sabalito. We come here now and then to shop."

The American woman told us we must be mistaken, no taxi would take us all the way to Ciudad Neilly for 3,000 colones. "It must be 30,000," she said. I verified the price again with the driver and the woman said, "Well, it's an incredible deal." I would have liked to talk to her further and find out what she and her husband were doing in this remote place - most likely they were farming, or perhaps running a hotel - but the taxi was leaving right away.

The trip that had taken 2.5 hours in the bus took only 1 hour in the taxi, though of course the taxi was going downhill. It rained much of the way and the road was draped in mist and fog. I ate almonds and an apple and listened to Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) songs on my iPod. The driver let us off at the Hotel Andrea, the largest and nicest hotel in Neilly, and we paid him the 3,000 colones. I almost expected some sort of problem, since the American woman had been so incredulous that we could get a ride at that price, but no, the driver said, "Thank you and have a good day."

Hotel Andrea, Ciudad Neilly, Costa Rica
The Hotel Andrea is comfortable and attractive, and not a bad deal at $40. I went out to find an internet cafe and located one only a few blocks from the hotel, across from the large Loaiza grocery store. Air conditioned, good computers, not crowded. I worked for three hours (again $1 per hour for access), then back to the hotel.

The restaurant at Hotel Andrea, Ciudad Neilly, Costa Rica
I asked the concierge about finding a gym in Neilly. She was very young looking and I later found out that she'll be 18 in a week, and is working at the hotel in summer, and going to university soon to study journalism. She told me of a gym 2 kilometers down the highway. I decided to look around on my own, and lo and behold, I found a small neighborhood gym catercorner from the Loaiza grocery, just around the corner from the hotel.

The gym consisted of one small room crowded with equipment and almost 20 people exercising, more of them women than men. I paid $2 to use the facility, and proceeded to work out very hard. No one was using the leg press machine or the lat pulldown, so I went back and forth between those two, working them heavy, breathing hard. I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because one fellow approached me and wanted to know if the pulldown is for the chest. "No," I told him. "La espalda." The back.

The walls were mirrored and occasionally I saw that people were watching me, probably because I was a stranger and a foreigner to boot. A gym that small, they probably all know each other. The gym was not air conditioned and soon I was dripping sweat. I did some heavy shoulder presses with dumbbells - there were several sets of dumbbells but no one using them, maybe because many people don't know what to do with them or believe that machines are better (they're not) - then washed up in the tiny bathroom, thanked the clerk, and went across the street to the grocery store.

Again, people watching me, but maybe now because I was drenched in sweat. Maybe they thought, "Look at this sweaty gringo, he can't take the humidity." In reality I don't even feel the humidity anymore, since Panama is the same.

Tracy had the AC on high back at the room, and was already asleep, tucked under the heavy blankets. I've had to adjust to our different sleeping patterns, as he is usually out by 8pm and up at 5am. I quickly changed out of my sweaty clothes, prayed Ishaa (the night prayer), watched a little tennis on TV with the volume on low - Tracy could sleep through a bombing run anyway - then hit the hay at only 10pm, very early for me.

Neilly doesn't have the charm of San Vito, and it's much hotter, but it's a nice town. The people are friendly and curious, and best of all Neilly is a good gateway for trips into the mountains and the parque Amistad, or down to the beaches at Zancudo or Golfito, or across the Golfo Dulce to Puerto Jimenez and Corcovado national park. The food at the Hotel Andrea is not great but the rooms are nice and I am comfortable recommending it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Canton Coto Brus Real Estate Tour

The little mountain town of San Vito is part of a larger canton, or county, called Coto Brus. The canton includes three other towns - Sabalito, Agua Buena and Limoncito - but San Vito is the largest, with a population somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.

Tracy was curious about real estate values here in San Vito and the surrounding area, but we had not seen a real estate agency - we later learned there are two in San Vito - so we stopped in at the office of an attorney that said Bienes Raices (real estate) on the window.

The receptionist turned to the lawyer in the back office, a portly, baby faced fellow, and said, "We don't do real estate, do we?" "Yes, we do," he replied, and she turned back to us with a big grin on her face, and I read her thoughts clearly, "My crazy boss says yes because he can't bear to turn any possible customer away."

We went in anyway. The lawyer couldn't have been more than 30 years old. I later learned he was 28. In Costa Rica, as in Panama, a real estate transaction cannot be completed without a lawyer, so although the attorney - whose name was David Salazar - does not sell real estate himself, he has been involved in several transactions. He told us about those, showing us photos and detailing for us how much the properties sold for. So we got what we were looking for. Turns out property in San Vito proper is surprisingly expensive. A 1,000 m2 property with a small house might go for $150,000. Outside of town is a different story. A hectare of coffee-producing land or of cattle land can be had for as little as $2,000 if it's part of a larger finca or ranch. A stand alone hectare might go for $10,000.

David said he knew of one finca for sale, and offered to take us there. I wasn't too keen on this simply because I knew it would tak all afternoon, but Tracy jumped at it. So we went to David's wife's optometry shop to get the car they share. It was a very comfortable Mitsubishi SUV with leather seats. We headed out of town and along the way David pointed out to us various houses and properties that had sold in the last few years.

San Vito is full of banks, clothing stores, electronics shops and other businesses. Much more than you would expect in a small town. Tracy asked David where this money comes from. David said, "This is coffee country. So there is money for six months, then no money for six months. San Vito is the center of all of Coto Brus, so all the stores are here."

David pointed out a huge house with modern styling that he said was his father-in-law's house. Later on he indicated vast areas of hillside and forest that belong to his mother-in-law. I began to realize that David had married into money. I never heard a word about his own parents. He took us 15 kilometers outside of town to a large sawmill owned by his father-in-law, and in fact we met said father-in-law, who apparently buys and sells the coffee from the finca that is up for sale. The father-in-law said to us, "Let's play a trick on David," and he rushed us out to David's SUV, where the father-in-law got in and started the car, then began to pull out. David came hurrying out and got in the passenger seat.

The coffee finca was quite large, but on a sharply sloped hillside running down to a river. The coffee trees stood in orderly rows, with occasional patches of yucca and corn. The hillside was blanketed in a heavy afternoon mist, giving the area a remote, isolated feel. I would never live there, though David says there is an American couple with a dairy farm nearby, and another wealthy conservationist American couple who have bought an entire mountainside and are reforesting it. Supposedly a jaguar killed someone's horse, and they wanted to hunt the jaguar, but the American said, "No, we'll buy you more horses."

David drove us back to town and dropped us off at Lilliane's pizzeria. I felt a little guilty, as if I had taken up three hours of David's time by pretending to be something I'm not. I tried to give him some money for his time or at least just for gas, but he adamantly refused. "It was my pleasure," he said. That was very generous of him, but hey - can you guess what I'm going to say? - that's the pura vida.

Second Day in San Vito, Costa Rica: Jardin Botanico; Funeral Procession

I worked out fairly intensively in the room first thing in the morning, doing pushups with my feet elevated on the bed, and lateral shoulder raises with the desk chair. There was a gringa on the hotel computer - first foreigner I´ve seen here in San Vito - so since I couldn't get online, I suggested to Tracy that we go for a hike.

The hotel owner recommended the Jardin Botanico. Took a taxi there, about five kilometers further up into the hills, at 1,200 meters elevation. The air was pure, clear and cool. The Jardin Botanico turned out to be a scientific research station, owned by a consortium of universities based in North Carolina. Sixty years ago this land was clearcut for coffee plantations. An American couple from Florida, founders of something called the Fantastic Gardens in Miami, came here and with the help of a British philanthropist they re-planted the forest. Today there is a healthy secondary growth forest covering many hectares. They also have several areas segregated by species, so for example there is a palm garden with 200 species of palms, a bromeliad garden, etc.

We spoke to the young woman at the reception area for a few minutes. She told us that she had studied tourism in Panama for four years, at the Universidad Latina de Panama. Many of the Ticos I´ve met have either been to Panama or have friends there. Not surprising since this town, San Vito, is only 15 kilometers from the Rio Sereno border crossing in the Panama highlands. That´s not the one we´ll be crossing through on Thursday, unfortunately.

The gardens had a small football (soccer) field surrounded by forest. What a setting for playing football! I went on one of the more difficult jungle hikes while Tracy sat on a bench in the shade. It was incredibly beautiful, deep in the green, with water running and birds everywhere, but the trail was very muddy and my arms were movable feasts for the bugs. I came out of it with several awful bites coming up already on my arms. There was a huge old fig tree which we were told pre-dates the gardens. It was not cut because it provided shade for the cattle that used to be here. Now it´s one of the anchors of the forest, with the figs providing food for hundreds of species of birds and animals. How incredible that one tree could have such an impact. That one tree matters more to more living creatures than many human beings ever do. SubhanAllah.

I realized at some point during the day that I was understanding every word that everyone said. I wondered if my Spanish comprehension had taken a leap forward, but once I began paying attention I realized that the Ticos enunciate much more clearly than the Panamanians. Panamanians tend to drop their s´s and even final consonants. Ticos don´t seem to do this.

Back in town I bought a nice pair of $2 sunglasses at the drugstore. The last pair of cheap sunglasses I bought in Costa Rica survived three years. I hope these will do so well. I have an Ironman watch with a plastic band and the band had broken. I went into a watch shop and in less then two minutes I had a new band, exactly like the old one. Cost: another $2.

A funeral procession came up the street, with young men carrying the coffin on their shoulders. About a hundred people walked behind, mostly women, and only a few wearing black. I guess that is not a requirement here.

There´s more to write about the long real estate tour we got in the evening, but no time now. I have a bus to catch down to Ciudad Neilly. I´ll write more later.

Oh, one more thing. People actually stop their cars here to let you cross the road. That would be unthinkable in Panama. In fact I think you can be stripped of your Panamanian citizenship for such a thing. Also, store clerks come up to you, smile and ask if they can help you find something. Not just in clothing stores, but in large grocery stores! Where am I??? Oh yes, I remember. I´m in the Pura Vida.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Travelling in southern Costa Rica: Ciudad Neilly and San Vito

After only half a day back in Costa Rica (I spent a week here in 2004) I am reminded of the incredible beauty of this country, the openness of the people and the innocent quirkiness of the culture. It´s the Pura Vida! I had forgotten how different it is from Panama. How can it be right next door and yet so different in every way? Ahh, Costa Rica, how I´ve missed you.

I boarded the Panaline bus at eleven o´clock at night, catching it at the El Valle entrance on the InterAmericana, where it made a special stop for me. Tracy was already on the bus and had reminded the driver to stop there. The bus was huge, dark and cool, but when I boarded the light came on and the sleepy passengers - who had all boarded 90 minutes back at Albrook - squinted at me in annoyance. The bus was perhaps one quarter full, so I took two seats and made myself comfortable. The bus was so dark and I surprised myself by sleeping comfortably.

I woke up to find the bus empty, except for myself. I asked the driver where we were and he said, ¨La frontera!¨The border. I was amazed that I had slept through most of an eight hour bus trip, but annoyed that Tracy had not awakened me when we arrived. He´s done this border crossing before, I haven´t. I hurriedly got my things and the Panaline trip manager, a young woman named Leydis, directed me to the immigration line.

I´ve heard horror stories about the Paso Canoas border crossing, but it wasn´t so bad. Perhaps those people who complain so bitterly have not lived or travelled extensively in the third world and aren´t used to the way things are done here. Wait in one line, get some papers stamped, wait some more. So what, big deal. I listened to my iPod, read a book, stretched my legs.

So, yeah. You wait in line at Panama immigration, get your passport stamped, then literally walk a few hundred meters up the road and you´re in Costa Rica. You walk into the immigration station there, and in our case they weren´t open yet, so all the bus passengers sat or stood waiting for perhaps an hour. I saw one of Corrin´s friends there, a woman named Isabel. Small world, small country. When the agents arrived they stamped our passports, gave our bags a perfunctory search and we were on our way.

Leydis the trip manager was very helpful through the entire process. She noticed my name on my passport and said, ¨Abdel!¨ I said, ¨Yes?¨ She said, ¨Are you Arab?¨¨Yes,¨I replied,¨and?¨ ¨Nothing.¨ ¨Are you Arab too?¨I asked her. ¨No.¨ ... I thought for a moment... ¨Your boyfriend is Arab?¨ ¨My old boyfriend,¨she replied. ¨Same last name as you. Are you Jordanian?¨ I told her no, that my ancestry is Egyptian. She kept up a conversation with me all through customs on both sides, trying out some of the Arabic words that she had learned. Tracy really liked her and as he always does, imagined how it would be if he were dating her. "I´d have to move to Paso Canoas" he said. As for me, my mind is in other places, thinking of my future and what it will bring, and also just enjoying the experience of doing something new.

Immediately upon passing into Costa Rica the difference is striking. Southern Costa Rica is so lush, so overwhelmingly green. The Pacific side of Panama is mostly clear cut and is now agricultural land or cattle country, but Pacific Costa Rica is heavily forested, even in the farm areas. Lovely rivers and streams race across rocky beds on their way to the gulf. Small towns roll by but the natural beauty is persistent and immediately seductive.

Our plan was to disembark at Ciudad Neilly and take another bus to San Vito, a small town high in the mountains. I had read about San Vito in the guidebook and it sounded like a cool place (literally) to spend a few days. At 700 meters elevation it is even higher than my home town of El Valle de Anton. Founded by Italian immigrants, San Vito supposedly has some of the best pizzas in Costa Rica. I was looking forward to finding out.

I was nodding in and out of sleep and at some point I realized that we had just passed a large town called Rio Claro. I looked at my map. We had passed Ciudad Neilly. We had gone too far. I asked the driver to stop and he let us off at a bus shelter in a forested area with few homes. The sun was bright and warm, the wooden shelter was clean, and the narrow road disappeared into the endless green in each direction. There was some graffiti scrawled into the shelter, but instead of dirty words there were geometrical diagrams... some schoolboy practising his lessons? There were several women waiting at the shelter, including a young woman of classic Spanish beauty, with aquiline features and wearing a simple long white skirt and brown blouse. Buses passed occasionally going in the other direction and I noticed every man on every bus craning their necks to look at the young woman sitting next to us. One man stuck his head out of the window of a bus and made funny faces, and the woman laughed. An old man approached the bus shelter and said good morning, and everyone in the shelter replied, ¨Good morning!¨¨How are you all?¨the old man asked and everyone answered in chorus, ¨Fine, thank you, how are you?¨ This is Costa Rica, you see. Land of the pura vida.

Finally the bus arrived to take us back to Ciudad Neilly. It was full and I had to sit on the entrance step. A woman boarded selling bags of plantain chips and pork rinds. She had a large bottle of hot sauce and a bottle of lime juice. Customers chose their poison and she squirted a large helping of sauce or juice into the bag.

Another vendor was practically a walking kiosk. His long sleeved shirt was strung with goods of all kinds. He went to the front of the bus and in a loud voice began proclaiming and promoting his wares. Skin cream to cure any acne problem. A herb called cat´s claw that would soothe any stomach disorder. Indian soap for natural beauty. Hair scissors, leather scissors, pocket knives, nail clippers, pens, cell phone cases, key chains, toys, even a back scratcher. All this came off his shirt or out of his pockets. He sold a nail clipper and a few other items and disembarked at the next stop.

Ciudad Neilly is a lively small town with two or three commercial streets at odd angles. We took a taxi to the Hotel Andrea. Both the bus and the taxi were $1 each. The Hotel Andrea is the nicest hotel in Ciudad Neilly. A large, Spanish style hotel with two stories, it´s $40 per night for good rooms with AC. We made a reservation for Wednesday night, which should be our last night in Costa Rica, then went to the restaurant for breakfast. Omelettes and pancakes, not very good but passable. Afterwards we walked to the bus station which, it turned out, is only a block away.

The bus to San Vito was leaving in one hour. Fare, 600 colones, about $1.20. The station was very busy, with dozens of people waiting for buses going in five or six different directions. A small covered mercado abutted the station and I walked about, passing time. Many small sodas, as they call these tiny local eateries here, and a few clothing stores. I seemed to be the only foreigner in the area and I got a lot of looks. I also saw several Guaymi women in traditional dresses. I had not realized that the Guaymi tribe was so prevalent in southern Costa Rica, but looking at the map later I noticed several Guaymi reservations.

An old woman selling bags of piva fruit (a small, nutty flavored and soft fleshed fruit) persistently tried to convince me to buy some. Finally I told her honestly, ¨I don´t like them.¨She was offended by this. ¨Don´t like them!¨she huffed. ¨Eat them with mayonnaise.¨And she walked away.

We boarded the bus to San Vito and immediately proceeded to climb, climb, climb. The bus rose slowly on a steep, winding mountain road that ascended through stunningly beautiful cloudforest. Soon there were views all the way to Panama in one direction, and the gulf in the other, and then beyond the gulf to the ocean. At one point the road was confined to a ridge with immense drops on either side. The bus was very large and had trouble navigating the gravelled and potholed road. At one point we rounded a curve and came face to face with another large bus. Both buses backed up meter by meter until there was enough room to pass. At times I gripped the seat in front of me tightly, as if that would save my life if we tumbled over the mountain. Soon the air became cool and damp, and the forest disappeared, replaced by cattle land and coffee plantations.

The 33 kilometer trip to San Vito took almost two hours. San Vito itself is a true mountain town, with a small public square in the center and from there five main roads climbing or dropping steeply, each road rising and falling as it curves through town. It´s a surprisingly large town. There are no population signs, but I saw at least six banks, dozens of clothing stores, three large pizzerias, a huge church with a large grassy compound and outlying buildings, a well-equipped grocery store and much more. Also many motorcycle shops. They love their motorcycles and pizza here. Must be the Italian blood.

My hotel, El Ceibo, is at the end of a gravel driveway coming right off the center of town. Surprisingly, it´s very quiet and in fact is backed by forest and a fast running stream. The room is cool without AC, and has a small balcony that looks out onto the forest. At $40 per night it´s a bit pricey but is undoubtedly the best hotel in town and is quite nice. Since I am a traveller I combined the Dhuhr and Asr prayers, guessing at the direction of the Qiblah, then Tracy and I went to one of the pizzerias for a late lunch. It was delicious, with spicy tomato sauce, plenty of cheese, and loaded with broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions. Better than any pizza I´ve had in Panama, and the small was large enough that I only ate half and took the rest back to the hotel for lunch tomorrow. Tracy had a very meaty pizza with chorizo, pepperoni and ham... ugh.

One thing I don´t see in San Vito: foreigners. Aside from Tracy and myself, I have not seen a single gringo, Chinese, Arab or any other foreigner. Very unlike Panama in that respect. The population seems to consist universally of slim, fair-haired, attractive locals. I have not even seen any indigenous people here and I wonder why. Do they live only on reservations? I get a lot of looks as I walk about town. Sometimes entire groups stop and watch as I walk past, not at all in a hostile way, but more like, ¨Oh look, a stranger!¨ Occasionally someone asks me if they can help me find something. No one would do this in Panama.There are no restaurants selling ethnic foods other than Italian and local Tico dishes. Also no call center, which makes sense in a town with no tourists, but I was really hoping to find one. Tomorrow I´ll see if I can purchase a phone card and use a public phone, though talking to Salma without a webcam won´t be the same.

Reading this, I realize now that I have not done a good job explaining what it is about Costa Rica that I love so much. There are so many things, but let´s forget about the stunning landscape for a moment and talk about the pura vida. In the USA when you walk into a store the clerk smiles and offers to help you because that´s what they are trained to do. In Panama they simply gaze blankly. In Costa Rica they smile and help you because they are genuinely interested and friendly. People greet one another in street heartily, and beyond that they are genuine. Costa Ricans don´t wear masks. They laugh, talk, joke, flirt, and they do it all honestly and openly, without pretense. Perhaps because they have been a stable democracy for so long, with no military and no wars, they have forgotten how to mistrust. Their lives are simple.

Sure, there is crime in the cities and in San Jose yóu´d better watch your bags, and you could even get mugged. On the other hand I´ve had someone stop and offer me a ride because he was concerned that I was walking in a bad neighborhood.

And the landscape is part of it too. Costa Rica has done a better job preserving their forests than any nation in the world, because to the Ticos the land is precious, it is pure and therefore a part of the pura vida. Sure, the roads here are potholed, high speed internet is rare outside of the major cities, and poverty exists. But the pura vida enriches everyone.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Salma May 2008

Some recent photos of Salma at the local park in Palo Alto, and at the Children's Science Museum in San Jose (I think).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Taking the Harder Path

The other day I went over to the mercado and talked to my friend Cleo for a few minutes. Cleo sells crafts at the market, especially the painted feathers that he makes himself. A teenage fellow there told me that he wants to learn Hapkido. I told him, "Es dificil. Es mucho trabajo." (It's hard, a lot of work). I was trying to discourage him, I guess, but he said, "No importa" (It doesn't matter). I'm not sure I want to take a student at this point. I'll probably be gone in three months. I told him I'd consider it, but in reality I need to spend this time preparing for my move. I´m not looking forward to returning to California but my daughter is there, so my destiny must be there.

Then I went to the Minisuper Yin, one of the five Chinese-owned mini markets here in town, and bought a Hershey bar and a $10 phone card as it was a cuadruplica day (the value of the card is quadrupled), then came home, did my afternoon prayer, and then served myself some of Rosa's food from yesterday. It's quite good: corvina with vegetables, rice and lentils, and some sliced mango for dessert.

I got my food and sat down to watch a movie called, "Himalaya." It's about a village in the highlands of Nepal. Every year they take their yaks on a long, dangerous mountain journey to trade salt for grain. The chief is killed in an accident and they don't know who will lead them. The chief's father Tinle, who was chief himself long ago, insists that he will do it, even though he is old and has not led a caravan in a long time. Before they have to leave he goes to find his second son Norbu, who was sent to the monastery at the age of eight to be a monk. Tinle asks Norbu to come with the caravan. Norbu objects and says, "You sent me here to be a monk. I know nothing of mountains and yaks."

So Tinle decides to lead the caravan himself, even though the villagers have grave doubts. Just before he is to leave Norbu shows up. Norbu comes along and proves to be a big help, once he learns to tie a salt sack properly and to manage the yaks. At one point Tinle asks him, "Why did you decide to come?"

Norbu says, "My master told me, when two paths open before you, choose the harder one."

That's not common sense, but I believe there is a profound truth there. The harder path, the path of challenge, struggle and fear, is the one that allows you to grow as a human being.

Leaving my life in California and coming to Panama sight unseen was in many ways the harder path, but it has proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Leaving my job back in 2002 to work on my own business was hard, but now I have a steady income while many people have been laid off or seen their jobs outsourced. Leaving Panama again will also be difficult, but that is where the path leads.

Taking up Hapkido and almost never missing a class, and driving all the way to San Francisco on Saturdays for Master Jung's brutal classes (or Master Forrest's less brutal but still excellent sessions), was definitely the harder path. I was often bruised, and sometimes wanted so much just to skip class and rest... but I went.

Paul Graham wrote in "How to Make Wealth",
If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.

Paul calls it a trick, but it's more than that. It's a discipline, a way of living a progressive life. I am also reminded of something from the Quran, in Surat Al-Balad (Chapter 90). Quoting from verse 8 on:
Did (God) not give him two eyes,
One tongue, and two lips,
And showed him two roads?
But he could not scale the steep ascent.
How will you comprehend
what the steep ascent is?
To free a neck
(from the burden of debt or servitude),
Or to feed in times of famine
the orphan near in relationship,
or the poor in distress;
And to be of those who believe,
and urge one another to persevere,
and urge upon each other to be kind.

So the path to Paradise (or heaven on earth) is the steep road, the one that many people refuse to climb. The hard path.

I suspect this is an essential principle of life. The easy way leads to comfortable mediocrity. To grow spiritually, or in strength, or even materially, or to build something meaningful that will outlast you, you have to take the harder path.

Consider some of the most famous figures in history: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Sheikh ibn Taymiyyah, Galileo Galilei, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr... all men and women who took extraordinarily difficult paths in life.

Not that I'm looking to go that extreme. I'll pass on the martyrdom route for now. I'd be satisfied with a happy medium, somewhere in between laying around on the sofa and giving up my life for civil rights. More towards the sofa end of the spectrum.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Frogs; First Rain; Weighted Walks; Rosa

We had a few light rains last week and the toads and frogs have come out in force. Some are quite large and must have been hibernating all summer long. They are everywhere in the road. Yesterday evening driving home from dinner with Cleo and his son Caliler, I stopped the car four times to shoo the frogs out of the road, so as not to run over them.

We had our first long, heavy rain this afternoon. Looks like we're easing into the rainy season, or perhaps we are already there. I checked the entire house for leaks and so far just the same minor leaks in the foyer area and the center of the living room that we had last year. We meant to have those patched but never got around to it. Now it'll have to wait until next summer.

I did another of my 30 minute "weighted walks" this evening, wearing a pack holding two 30 lb dumbbells. I would have liked to go longer but the strap was really cutting into my chest. I need to figure out some way to carry the weight more comfortably, maybe by padding the straps with something. I enjoy walking at night, and with the weight it's the equivalent of a one hour fast march.

I managed to get Rosa all booked up six days a week, out of which I will employ her two days. I needed to cut her hours back to save money, but I wanted to find other work for her first, and I'm happy that I was able to do that.

Laura tells me that Salma has learned the word "heavy" - more or less - and now everything she carries is "heawy, heawy!" She's been having some long crying fits and nothing comforts her. I know she is missing everything and everyone she has grown up with (except her Mama, of course). I may return to California to be near her later this year, in which case I will most likely rent out this house in El Valle. I will not sell it. This is one of the beautiful, peaceful places of the world and I hope this house will one day be passed on to Salma, who is a Panamanian citizen as well as an American, Egyptian, German, Muslim.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Night Walks in El Valle de Antón

I have a daily phone call with Laura and Salma. I use Skype and call computer-to-computer to it costs nothing. This morning I sang the ABC's to Salma and Laura told me that she bobbed and danced to my voice. Linda has some potted ficus trees in the house and apparently Salma is getting great enjoyment out of scooping out the soil and dumping it on the floor. Laura took her to Target and chased her through the clothing aisles and Salma loved that.

I have to cut Rosa's hours back to two days a week but I can't bring myself to do it, so I've tried to find someone to hire her on the other three days. I posted a message on the Valleros website. Corrin, who says she desperately needs someone to do housework, has agreed to employ Rosa one day a week. So I still have two days to fill.

I went for a night walk with Rudy. At about 8:30 pm we set out to visit his property. He is in the middle of building a home. The property is in an isolated location. Rudy warned me that the gate might be locked, but that we could squeeze through a gap. It turned out that his workers had strung barbed wire across the gap, but there was a small opening at the bottom so I got on my stomach and shimmied through the dirt. "Go on," I said to Rudy. "It'll be just like boot camp forty years ago." So Rudy did it too, and we proceeded to his property with dirt all down our fronts. The trail crosses a small stream (you hop on three stones), and up through a wooded area to the site of the construction.

There was no moon, only bright stars, though of course we had our wind-up flashlights. We toured the property and Rudy explained the layout to me. The wind has grown quite strong at night lately and it kept picking up fine sand from the construction and flinging it into my eyes. A frog had gotten into the house and was trying to climb the wall. Huge clouds of mist obscured Cerro Gaital in the distance.

I love walking around El Valle at night. It's all wind in the trees, mountains, clouds and stars. Wandering dogs, frogs, sometimes ñeques or opossums, and the occasional silhouette of a sloth if you're lucky. Sometimes youths making out in the shadows.

We walked out the long way, along the Casa de Lourdes road, and parted ways on the Los Capitanes road. Returning home I detoured through the far end of my yard and stopped at Zippy's grave to say hello. I found Li'l Fishy outside and meowing at me her unhappiness at being left alone. Now I'm back in the office and she's in her box next to me, happy and purring.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Lightning Bug, Ani, Voicebox, Heavy Pack, Stars

Last night there was a bug thrashing on the bedroom floor, apparently dying. I didn't know what kind of insect it was but I stepped on it with my sandal. Suddenly it began shining light and I realized it was a lightning bug, and then I felt bad about stepping on it, as if it were somehow a beacon or a lamp and I were a dark giant.

Ani came by today to get her pay for last week. We won't be needing her services for now, so I gave her a month's severance pay. I could see she'd been crying, whether because she is out of a job or because she misses Salma, I don't know. Perhaps both. She has been Salma's part-time parent since Salma was six months old. I told her that Salma loves her, and that she (Ani) will always be a member of the family, and that when Salma returns I will call her to come back to work.

I decided this evening to go for a walk. I enjoy listening to my iPod as I walk. When I picked up the iPod from the kitchen counter the cord was tangled up with some small plastic box, and the little box suddenly began emitting a loud crying sound. I stared at it in alarm and confusion before I realized that it was the "voicebox" for Salma's doll. She has a doll that used to "cry" when you squeeze it, but for some reason we had removed the voicebox and here it was. The noise was startlingly loud in the large, silent kitchen.

That got me thinking about Salma and how much I miss her. It's very hard, but I know that my bond with her is strong enough to weather this absence.

Just for fun, I decided to put a couple of dumbbells in a backpack and wear that on my walk, to make it tougher. I wrapped two 30 lb dumbbells in a towel and stuffed them in the backpack, then set off on my walk, listening to a novel called "The Traveler" on the iPod. The pain in my shoulders and the hammering of my heart quickly reduced the length of my planned walk from a long circuit around town to a few blocks, and then just around the one block.

A few local dogs befriended me and walked with me, every now and then nuzzling my hands to be petted. One was a large black puppy, and the other was a fat old dog with a limp. They followed me all the way home. By the time I returned home the weight of the shoulder straps had cut off the circulation to my arms and my hands were tingling. Elapsed time: 20 minutes. I don't know how they do it in the army. Don't they have to run 10 miles wearing 100 lb packs, or some crazy thing?

There's no moon tonight and the stars are incredibly bright. The sky is packed with them, stacked on top of each other like apples at the market. SubhanAllah. This is a beautiful place, beautiful people, in the crater of a volcano nestled beneath the stars.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ants and Pasta, Welcome Home

Laura and Salma flew to California this morning. Or their plane did, and they just rode.

After seeing them off at the airport I stopped by my friend Tracy's house in La Chorrera. There was a salamander on his kitchen floor and I helped it out into the yard. Two cats lounging about the house on the cool tile floors, and the smell of burning leaves in the air. No sign today of the parrot that calls, "Mama, mama." Tracy is having a running dispute with his Panamanian neighbors. He recently discovered that his property is larger than was previously believed, so he moved the fence accordingly. A large chunk of what was believed to be his neighbor's property is now his. They have responded by loosening the fence posts, breaking into his backyard casita, tossing dogs and chickens over the fence, and on one occasion striking him with a board. The case has gone to the local magistrate and one of the neighbors may face jail time.

I got home just in time to see Henry and Nora Smith pulling up to my gate. They were in town to scope some properties, so I quickly fed the cat and went with them. They brought their granddaughter Ana Sofia with them to meet Salma. Ana Sofia is a happy, friendly little girl, charming in the way that Panamanian children can be.

I guided them to the new place that Silen is building and selling. Silen, who sold me this house, asked me about all my fruit trees. "How's the papaya tree? How's the mango? How's the guanabana?" Etcetera. I told him the bananas, papaya and mangoes are great, but I didn't even know that I had guanabana.

I took Henry and Nora to see the two-story house past Dan & Cherry's that a developer built on spec and is trying to sell. Nora took lots of photos.

Returning home I found Listo watering the yard on his day off. I asked him about the guanabana and he showed me, and he also pointed out a chirimoya tree (another one I didn't know I had).

I opened some windows and the kitchen door and stepped out into the side yard, only to step into a new anthill next to the sidewalk. I didn't even notice it until I got the first bite, and by the time I got my slippers off I had a half dozen bites on my foot. Welcome back to El Valle. In fact the insect population seems to have burgeoned lately, perhaps because of the light rainfall we've had. Termites, spiders, and a mouse-sized cockroach are running rampant in the house. I took off my slipper and aimed it at the cockroach but he escaped beneath the bathroom sink. Such sensitive little monsters.

The sugar-ant super highway has disappeared from the kitchen counter but a few scouts remain.

On the other hand it was nice to look in the fridge and find the delicious macaroni and mushroom dish that Rosa left, along with an olive and feta salad, and the remains of the chocolate cake that Laura made before she left.

The house is large, empty and silent, with a cool night breeze blowing through now that I've opened the windows. Salma's room is dark. There's a scent of jasmine in the air. Li'l Fishy is very glad to have me home and follows me from room to room. I have turned my phone off because I'm not in a talking mood, so if you've tried to call I'm afraid I have not received your messages. I still read my email.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Questions About Life in El Valle

This is in response to the comments on the previous post:

Hello Claudia,

I went over and looked at the house today. I am amazed that it's for rent. Those types of homes are usually owned by rich weekenders and they don't typically rent or sell them. How much are they asking?

So, the street that goes off the main road is at first unpaved, then paved but badly pitted. An ordinary car can manage it, but in general for living in El Valle I recommend an SUV or 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Once you get near the house the road is smooth. The house itself is nestled in the foothills among the trees and birdsong. It's a lovely location. I viewed the house from the street, but from what I can see it looks large, and the yard is huge.

Seeing the inside is important however, because Panamanian homes are often dark inside (to minimize sun exposure and heat), and some people don't like that.

Answers to your other questions:

American TV: You can sign up for Direct TV (cable service) which offers a wide selection of American programming. I don't know how much it costs.

Internet Connection: The most reliable service provider here is Mobilphone. It's wireless. I don't know if they offer 5mps, but another web developer here (Zach) has 1mps and I think he pays $150/month. I have 256K and pay $45 per month. Are you sure you really need such a high speed?

My internet connection is stable, though sometimes slow in the afternoon. The power goes out often here (a few times a week, several hours at a time, usually at night but occasionally during the day) and of course when that happens you won't be able to use your computer unless you have a large battery back-up unit. I do have one and it provides about 5 hours of power.

Things to bring: for us, nothing but thank you for offering. For yourselves, I wrote a post on this topic some time ago. See it here:

What to Bring When Moving to Panama