Thursday, January 31, 2008

Eric and Virginia's El Valle Blog Entry

I recently came across this travel blog by a couple named Eric and Virginia:

They have a nice post, with many photos, about their trip to El Valle last year:

Some serious globetrotters, here.

Wind Like a Freight Train

There are two seasons here:

"Winter", or the rainy season, which the tourist industry calls the "green season" - 8 months long, rainy, warm, and unceasingly humid.

"Summer", or the dry season - almost 4 months long, dry, cool, and massively windy.

Right now it's summer. The wind is strongest at night and it sometimes sounds like a freight train rushing through the dark house. The other day one of our nice glass-bodied table lamps tipped over and shattered. Opening a window just a crack, especially on the windward side of the house, is enough to start doors slamming.

I had Listo cut back some of the branches from a tree outside Salma's room because the night winds were driving the branches against the roof and waking her up.

Last year we lost two trees, but this year we are still hale and whole, with a few months left to go.

In the daytime, however, the wind calms to a steady breeze and it's actually quite pleasant. All in all, I prefer the dry season. I like the cool breezes, the dry air, and the lack of mud in the streets. It's like a San Francisco summer.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Gringos Moving to El Valle

There's a new restaurant in town, a little burger & hot dog joint called Massiel. I haven't tried it (not my kind of food) but it's often busy at lunch time. We also have a new pharmacy that has a pretty good stock of drugs and various magazines and snacks.

By the way, I know that many tourists and newcomers stay and eat at Los Capitanes Hotel, but let me just say that it's by far the most expensive restaurant in town and not any better in quality than the other much more affordable eateries in town. Do yourself a favor and go to El Rancho (formerly NiƱa Delia), Mar de Plata, Don Pepe or Bruschetta.

Gringos (North Americans and Europeans) continue to move here to El Valle in a steady stream. Whether this is good or bad I don't know. Let's examine the pros and cons:

Pros of Gringos Moving to El Valle:
  1. Gives us (Laura and I) a larger pool of potential friends and more people with whom to trade English language movies and books.
  2. Supports new businesses and restaurants here in El Valle.
  3. Provides employment for some jobless locals in areas such as construction, maids, gardeners, etc.
  4. Gringos here organize services such as ambulance service for El Valle, movie nights at the library, a cooking school for retirees, and my own wife teaches an English class for Panamanian children at the library.
  5. Real estate prices continue to climb, which would benefit us if we sell. We are told that our house is worth significantly more than we paid in 2006.
Cons of Gringos Moving to El Valle:
  1. As locals continue to sell their properties to "wealthy" gringos, it changes the nature of the town. Right now there are not enough gringos here to fundamentally alter the character of El Valle, but I would not like to see a "Boquete-zation" take place here, where El Valle becomes an insulated gringo enclave.
  2. The jobs created are primarily service jobs, which means the locals become a population of maids and gardeners in their own land. I know that this bothers some Panamanians. It's no one's fault, but it's a disturbing dynamic, even if it is an alternative to poverty for many.
  3. Spurs inflation. Restaurant prices in El Valle have gone up in the last year, and one restaurant (Bruschetta) has even decreased portion size while raising prices. Of course some of this may be due to the declining dollar and increased costs.
Do you have any arguments in favor of - or against - the increasing numbers of North Americans and Europeans in El Valle or in Panama in particular? Please share your thoughts.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Real" Spanish

Today was our friend Rudy's birthday and a Saturday as well, so we took him down to Santa Clara for a day at the beach. It was a beautiful summer day, with a clear blue sky and a steady breeze. The water was wonderfully calm and shone turquoise in places and azure in others. Less than a dozen yards out a "banana boat" owner dropped anchor and dozed on his water ski while he waited for customers. Later a second ride seller cruised up and down in a fishing boat, towing his inflated banana (yes, this is still a G-rated blog - I'm talking about an inflatable boat) up and down the beach just a few yards past the many swimmers. A tall three-masted sailing ship crossed in front of a small island just off the coast and headed out to sea.

We took Salma out into the water and she enjoyed being held by me or her Mama as we played and bobbed in the calm, cool sea.

Later we lazed in a palm-thatched bohio that we rented for the day for $5. There are a score of these all up and down the beach. In the bohio next to ours, two young American girls were playing in the sand as their parents relaxed in hammocks. We could see that Salma was curious about the girls, so we took her over and introduced ourselves.

The couple told us that they were with the American embassy. They had previously been posted to Madrid, and had arrived in Panama only a week ago. They were aloof and not terribly friendly.

"So," I said, "You probably speak Spanish already."

"I speak real Spanish," the husband replied. "I don't know what this is they speak here. It's like the difference between an Ivy League graduate and an Alabama redneck."

The Spanish of Spain is accented differently than that of Panama. The Spaniards enunciate more crisply than Panamanians, but they lisp their c's and s's in a way that Latin Americans do not. Presumably this is what the embassy fellow was referring to.

Later on, however, we heard him on the phone talking to his driver, and his Spanish was not in fact very good.

Rudy, who has traveled extensively, later commented that this behavior was typical of U.S. embassy staff everywhere. "They're cliquish," he said. "They stick to other embassy people."

I suspect that since they go where they are posted and are often moved from country to country, they don't develop deep attachments or friendships.

I found the comment about "real Spanish" to be very off-putting, so I returned to our bohio to lay in the shade and read, but Salma continued to play with the two girls and with just about every other neighbor. She's so amiable and trusting of everyone, even adults she doesn't know, which I think is great, but also worries me a little. When she's old enough to understand we'll have to have a talk about the difference between friends and strangers.

Later we enjoyed a good lunch of grilled corvina and french fries at the seafood grill on the beach, and then we dug into the chocolate cake that Laura made for Rudy's birthday. Instead of the usual sugary frosting, Laura created a gourmet frosting out of melted dark chocolate mixed with honey. It was so rich that I had to have two pieces and then I felt a little sick, maybe because I haven't been eating sweets much lately and I'm not used to it.

We discussed what to do with the rest of the cake. "I thought I'd share it with the other restaurant patrons," Laura said.

"These people can buy their own cakes," I said. Let's give it to Rosa (our maid) to take home to her kids.

"Or I could give it to Ani," Laura said (Ani is Salma's nanny).

"Since tomorrow's Sunday," I said, "Why don't we give it to the Kunas at the market."

Finally Rudy interrupted. "It's my birthday cake," he said. "Why don't you give it to me?"

So we did.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Hey, is There a Kid Stuck in a Tree?

For a few months now I've been meeting a fellow named Alex and his twelve year old son Keola for long martial arts practice sessions every Sunday. We meet at Tracy's house in La Chorrera since it's sort of a halfway point, and we practice in his carport, on the jigsaw mats that I brought from home.

Alex studied Silat for several years, so we generally do a four hour session where he teaches me Silat and I teach him Hapkido. Alex and Keola are both excellent students, very fast learners, perhaps because of their previous Silat experience.

I've found that Silat and Hapkido mesh quite well. They differ in philosophy, in that Hapkido is a modern self-defense art that offers graduated responses depending on the seriousness of the attack, while Silat is a battlefield art focused on destroying the attacker utterly. There's no restraint or mercy. It is a close-range fighting art that employs rapid blows in succession, both to the upper and lower body, and doesn't stop until the attacker is crumpled on the ground at odd angles.

So it might seem that the two are not compatible. But the interesting thing is that many of the techniques are quite similar. A classical Silat punch defense looks very similar to a Hapkido defense, but where a Hapkidoist might move inside for an elbow strike or a break and then walk away, the Silat practioner would move inside with the identical elbow strike then follow up with other strikes, then whip the attacker's head around one way then the other to cause whiplash or fracture the neck, then throw him while trapping his leg so that he falls badly.

When you add Hapkido joint locks/breaks to Silat techniques (or vice versa), it starts to look scary!

Anyway, I digress. What about the kid in the tree?

Right, so we were practicing last Sunday, and I suddenly realized that I could hear a child crying out, and it had been going on for some time. It didn't sound like a happy or playful cry. It carried a note of fear or distress. It sounded like, "Mama! Mama! Mama!"

I stopped and looked across the fence to the neighbor's property. The neighbor has a sweeping expanse of grass, then the house and a shed, and behind that the land drops down to a stream gully, with tall pine trees all around. The cry seemed to be coming from behind the shed, or perhaps from the stream bed.

Alex and Keola came to the fence to listen as well. "What does that sound like?" I asked.

"Sounds like a kid in trouble," Alex said. We looked all around, but we could not locate the source of the cries. There was no one in sight.

Alex vaulted the fence and began crossing the neighbor's property. As he neared the shed, a woman came out of the house. She and Alex had a conversation and she pointed up into one of the tall pine trees near the stream.

Alex turned to us and shouted, "The kid is stuck in a tree!" The woman touched his arm and pointed up to the tree and they talked some more. Then Alex came jogging back, shaking his head.

"It's a parrot!" he said. "A parrot in a tree."

The neighbors have a few young children and I'm guessing that the parrot has heard them calling for their mother, and has learned to imitate them.

We continued our practice and the parrot continued calling, "Mama! Mama!"

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Hazards of Hiking Solo

Now that summer's here (January to April, more or less) I want to tackle the challenge of climbing Cerro Gaital, the tallest peak of the caldera around El Valle. You can see it in the photo above. It's a breathtakingly beautiful, heavily forested, mist-shrouded peak. A climb up Gaital would probably be a dawn-to-sunset hike for me, or maybe even a two-day trip.

I'm mindful of an incident that occurred last year.

One day we heard the loud thumping of a helicopter circling over the valley. Salma had never heard this sound before and became alarmed. We went out into the yard and managed to spot it in the distance, traversing the north side of the valley.

A few days later I heard that a North American tourist in his 60's had gone hiking up Cerro Gaital on his own and gotten lost.

The tourist was lost on the mountain for three days and two nights.

I saw Cleo at the market later and I said, "Hey, did you hear about the guy who got lost on the mountain?"

"Sure," Cleo said. "They searched for him by helicopter and then they sent a rescue team to bring him off the mountain. Look, I have the video here!"

(So that's what the helicopter was doing that day!)

And indeed Cleo did have a video on his cell phone of the man being carried down a trail on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. Turned out the guy was alright, just dehydrated and severely insect-bitten.

I have gone hiking along many of the local trails by myself - I went up Cerro La Cruz alone and at night. But Gaital? No way. I would not attempt that without a guide.