Sunday, March 23, 2008

Salma in a Guaymi Dress and Playing in the Water

As usual, click on the photo for a much larger version. This photo below is Salma in a Guaymi dress. The Guaymi, also know as the Ngobe-Bugle, are the predominant Indian tribe of this area.

What is this thing you keep pointing at me, Mom?:

We fill this yellow tub with water and let it sit out in the sun so the water gets warm. By afternoon the yard is shaded but the water is just right. Salma loves playing in the water. Of course someone is always watching her:

She enjoys filling a glass and pouring it out onto the grass, or onto herself.

Some of Mama's creative photography:

Entrepreneurial Spirit--Panamanian Style

Someone named Bull posted this great story on the Panama Forum, and I thought I'd share it with my readers (the photo is not the fellow in the story, just a random Panamanian farmer whose photo I found on the web). Read all the way to the end. You'll be glad you did:

His name was Joseul and the clothes he wore would've been rejected by the raggediest scarecrow on the poorest piece of hardscrabble farm land in Lower Alabama but I needed a gardener not a GQ wannabe so we cut a deal sans contract for him to mow my lawn in Albrook Air Force Station family housing for seven bucks a week.

A nosy neighbor told us she'd seen his lineup photo in a book the Sky Cops showed around the housing area and she suspected him of stealing a pair of shoes from her clothes dryer. I told her if they were the shoes I always saw him wearing she needed to go to confession as soon as possible since I was convinced she'd reached a point people smarter than me called a nadir. I added for good measure that I thought Joseul's surname was probably Nadir.

He was so rail thin if he turned sideways I couldn't see his shadow. He lived
in an area called Hollywood situated between the vegetable market where Gaillard Highway almost becomes Fourth of July Avenue and a PCC housing area up on the hill behind it. The best thing you could say about Hollywood was it was waterfront property. Course you wouldn't drink or cook with that agua (browner for more reasons than mud) and if you were a reasonable person driving by it you'd pinch your nostrils together if your windows were down in which case you'd be considered less than reasonable.

Joseul wasn't a standup comic but he uttered one of the best one liners I've ever heard. After a particularly strong thunderstorm he said, "My house blew away but I found it."

During the five years he worked for us and other families on Albrook he endured
the violent and tragic death of his wife, run down by a Diablo Rojo, leaving him to
raise their three young children. To supplement his gardening income he fought boxing
matches he almost always lost and on more than one occasion he was mugged by maleantes who knew he was a gardener paid in cash. Yet every time I saw him he was smiling.

If I asked him "Como esta?" he always replied, "Muy bien, gracias!" This all occurred
from July 1984 to July 1989 when I returned to Phoenix and my old job at Luke AFB. We returned to Panama for a second tour in April 1993 and things had changed considerably.

Our family unit was the wife and me. I thought it was the ultimate vacation until my wife pointed out that one of the establishments we hadn't found yet was a laundromat. We lived in the El Panama Hotel for two months while looking for permanent housing downtown.

Every Friday morning I tossed our dirty laundry into the car trunk and on my lunch hour would scoot from Howard AFB over to Albrook where I used the washer/dryer behind the Bachelor Officers Quarters.

One day I'm driving up to that location when I spot none other than Joseul, standing in someone's yard, overseeing his 16-year old son mow the lawn. I pulled to the curb and got out and it was as Yogi Berra famously said deja vu all over again for both of us. The next time I saw him was two or three years later as I walked to my car in the Howard parking lot and here comes Joseul, resplendent in dress slacks, long sleeved white guayabera, looking dapper and contented as all getout.

We chatted awhile and he told me he had his own landscaping business and he was
certainly the picture of success. We exchanged a firm handshake and fuerte abrazo and as I walked on to my car I could feel a bit more spring in my old feet.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

El Valle Hotel Restaurant Reviews

Although I've lived in El Valle de Antón, Panama, for almost two years now, I've never dined at some of the hotel restaurants here. After all, when was the last time you dined at your local Hilton Hotel?

I've eaten at Los Capitanes several times (mostly to my regret) because the Valleros ex-pat group holds functions there and I've had friends and family staying there.

I've had the well-regarded breakfast at the Anton Valley Hotel and it was quite good.

I often eat at El Rancho (formerly called Niña Delia), which is technically a hotel since it has several inexpensive rooms for rent, but is much better known as a restaurant.

But I've never been to the restaurants at La Casa de Lourdes, Rincon Valley Hotel, the Park Eden Hotel, or any of the various cabañas around town such as Cabañas Las Mozas.

Eventually I'll get around going to those, just so I can blog about them, but in the meantime I spotted these informal reviews on the "Restaurants in Panama" Yahoo discussion forum:

Dining at La Case de Lourdes

"bwh12b" posted this review of La Case de Lourdes, which is the highest-end hotel and restaurant in El Valle:

This past weekend I went to El Valle de Anton to try La Casa de Lourdes, which I'd only read about. Wow. La Casa de Lourdes is the restaurant for the hotel/spa Los Mandarinos (, and it may be the prettiest place, architecturally speaking, that I've seen in all of Panama. I didn't stay at Los Mandarinos, because this was a last-minute trip and they were full -- so I can't comment on the rooms. (I stayed at Los Capitanes, which is a reliable alternative nearby.) But I did have dinner there. The food was superb, and reasonably priced; entrees range from $8-18. (I had the pork chop, 1.5" thick, with fig compote glaze; I think that was $13.) The owner/hostess, Lourdes, is charming and attentive to all. And the setting, well... even if they only served sancocho, it would be worth a visit. :-)

Clearly a very positive review. However, I must point out the experience of my friends Christina and Rudy, who went there for Chris' birthday. The meals, they said, were good, but when they received the check and presented their pensionado cards (a retirement visa that guarantees the bearer a special discount), Lourdes became angry and hostile and created a scene, accusing the "gringos" of taking advantage of Panamanians. This spoiled the whole experience for them, naturally.

"Vicki" also had a positive experience at La Casa de Lourdes, saying,

"We'll second this recommendation! We were there last year, our meals,
the setting and the service were fantastic."

"thebeachisgud" confirmed it with this comment:

LOVE this place. If you are staying overnight, request room 4A or 4B
(in the old part, on the top floor where you have a view and breeze,
and close to the spa).

The menu changes with the season. We're looking forward to the return
of the "winter" menu with the "to-die-for" cassoulet + warm mango
crumble (available in mango season). That being said, we were there
over Carnival and our selections off the special Carnival menu
(gourmet riffs on Panamanian classics) and the summer menu were
memorable and luscious, as always.

Dining at the Hotel Rincon Vallero

About the Hotel Rincon Vallero, Vicki wrote:
"We stayed at Hotel Rincon Vallero, which was lovely and the food was excellent in their restaurant. We had the Suite with a bedroom, living room and a fabulous bathroom...the shower is a waterfall. My mom in law was with us and this worked out well for us. She was ready to sleep on the fold out sofa bed but no.....they brought a real mattress to put on top of the lousy mattress for her comfort. Mind you, we didn't ask for it they just showed up with it right after check-in. We would go back there again."

Ok, so that wasn't specifically a restaurant review, though she did say the food was excellent. Anyone else dined at Rincon Valley? Care to share your experience?

Dining at the Crater Valley Resort

I myself have dined at the Crater Valle Resort, along with Laura and her mother Linda. We went over there on a weekday evening just to check it out. There were no other diners there and the hotel staff seemed surprised by our appearance, but they seated us and took our orders. We found the outdoor patio and pool, although quite lovely and scenic, to be too exposed to the wind and rain, so we asked to be moved to an indoor dining room and were accomodated.

I ordered the corvina. It turned out to be not quite fresh, though it was topped with a tropical fruit compote that was delicious. In general I would describe the restaurant as creative but disused. The food was decent, not outstanding. Prices were in the $10 to $15 range, too high for El Valle or for what was served.

Monday, March 10, 2008

28 Business Ideas for Entrepreneurs in Panama

Panama is booming, with real estate projects going up everywhere and immigrants flooding in from the USA, Europe and South America (particularly Venezuela and Colombia). Panama City is a sprawling metropolis struggling to make an awkward transformation from third-world to first world. There are many people with money, but there's a dearth of high-end services to meet their needs. There's a flood of gringos coming in, but outside the areas of real estate and law, there's a shortage of agencies and services to help them settle in.

This creates many business opportunities here in Panama.

These first eight ideas come from halloranc at Panama Travels, and I'll follow them up with some comments and ideas of my own:

8 Money Making Ideas for Entrepreneurs in Panama

1. Convert Condo to Condo-Hotel — There simply are not enough hotel rooms in Panama City. I run a travel agency and see this first-hand. Scarier still is that there are scant new hotels even in construction, much less nearing completion. So while supply is scarce, prices are rising sky high for room nights at average hotels as demand rises. A fantastic opportunity exists for an investor or developer to purchase several floors of a condo or an older 8-10 unit building and convert it to a condo-hotel. Several smart investors have already done so with great success.

2. A Surf and Water Sports Shop — Sure there area few in the mall in the city, but where’s the nice surfboard repair, bikini, and sunscreen shop at THE BEACH? With as many projects going up in the Santa Clara area, it would sure seem like the first guy to build a proper shopping center catering to tourists would make a bundle. At least that’s how it went in Costa Rica…

3. An Ultra High End Casino-Hotel — The Veneto is well…kinda nice. But the service is pretty shabby, a lot of the common areas are poorly kept and the casino is a gong show. With the high roller money pouring into Panama, it would seem a no-brainer to build a super swanky and exclusive hotel/casino in Panama City. Until then, I’ll have to roll the dice while hearing live salsa music blaring at a volume of “11″.

4. Earth Moving Equipment Rental — It’s hard to even find a backhoe in Panama City right now, much less in more remote locations. With all the construction and land improvement going on, a quality provider of heavy equipment and likely, equipment operators, would net a king’s ransom.

5. Pool Services — There are no firms that I know of who are strictly in the business of design, construction and maintenance of swimming pools. I’ve seen dozens of fantastic and original swimming pools at hotels and homes in Costa Rica, but cannot name three in Panama.

6. Hospitality Training — Wow, does Panama ever need this. From simple “please and thank you” to, “how to handle an angry client”, Panama desperately needs some outside training.

7. Ad Agency/PR Firm — Tons of local businesses are attempting to get their message out to the world, but as confused, misspelled, poorly translated and very often, off-target as the messages are…one can safely assume that talented PR and Advertising consulting would be a hit.

8. Buy Remote Land — Pretty simple advice and one that certainly should entail an entire series of articles. In short, if you have a some cash to invest and know what you are doing, prices seem likely to rise over the next 5-10 years.

I agree with all of the above points, though with regards to number 6 (hospitality training) and number 7 (ad agency), I think you might first have to convince Panamanian businesses that poor hospitality and poorly written ads are indeed hurting their business, and that they could make more money by spending a little on the problem. The fact is that poor customer service and weak attention to detail are simply an accepted part of the culture here and most Panamanians don't view it as a problem.
More Money Making Ideas for Entrepreneurs in Panama

I'll add some of my own business ideas for entrepreneurs in Panama, in no particular order:

9. Employment Agency - providing domestic help to gringos. Many Americans and Europeans arrive here not knowing the language or the culture, but needing some household help right away. Often they end up hiring someone who works poorly, charges too much, or steals from them. There is a need for an agency to provide newcomers here with screened and qualified maids, nannies, gardeners, caretakers, and drivers.

10. Limousine Service - I have seen only one limo in all my time here in Panama. I don't think the problem is the traffic, it's just that there is no perceived need for it. This is one of those instances where providing the service creates the need. There is plenty of money here in Panama. If you can plant the idea in people's heads that certain special occasions require a limo, pretty soon everyone will want one.

11. Quality Furniture in the Interior - Right now quality furniture is available only in Panama city. Furniture in the interior tends to be very rustic, handmade in primitive workshops and sold on the road. But there are growing ex-pat communities in interior cities like La Chorrera, Coronado, Penonomé, and Santiago, and I'm sure these people would rather buy quality furniture locally rather than truck it all the way from Panama.

12. Interior Decorator - Particularly for the new luxury apartments in Punta Pacifica and Costa del Este (Spanish speaking market) and the luxury beach developments in places like Playa Blanca and Rio Mar (English speaking market).

13. Ethnic Food - There is a glaring absence in Panama city of quality Mexican food (or even better, Tex-Mex!), Thai, Vietnamese, or gourmet North-American style burgers. Actually, I suspect a good burger joint could quickly open branches all over the country and make good money.

14. Pet Services - In the past there was not much of a pet culture in Panama, and it still doesn't really exist in the interior, but in Panama city pet ownership is growing rapidly and people are spending more and more money on their dogs in particular. I think there's a market for high-end pet services like dog grooming parlors, luxury kennels ("pet hotels"), and special pet items like outfits, gourmet treats, jeweled collars, etc.

15. Food Processing or Manufacturing - this is not my area of expertise, but I've noticed that although Panama has a thriving agricultural industry, most processed foods are imported from Costa Rica, Colombia, the USA and China. I suspect that there is a huge untapped market for food processing and manufacturing, both for the domestic and international market. Chocolate, for example. Panama has grown cocoa for hundreds of years and more farmers are planting it every day because the price of cocoa is high. The cocoa is exported to other countries who turn it into chocolate for the international market.

Don't Panamanians eat chocolate? Of course. Go into any Farmacia Arrocha and you'll see chocolate bars from the USA, England, Switzerland and the Netherlands. But Panama, which grows the beans, does not manufacture chocolate.

16. Spanish Schools - nearby countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica have scores of Spanish immersion schools, where students of all ages come from North America and Europe and spend anywhere from one month to one year at the school, studying Spanish for up to six hours per day. Panama, however, has only three such schools that I am aware of (Spanish Panama, ILERI, and another that I can't remember). Why? Panama has locations that are just as good as any in Costa Rica. How about El Vallé, where students could explore the forest and many other attractions in their off-hours? How about a Spanish & surf school on the Pacific coast? Or Spanish & dive school on the Caribbean?

17. Offshore Web Development Services - there are a number of good web development companies operating in Panama, several of them based in the City of Knowledge. However, they seem to focus on the Panamanian market only. As far as I know no one is catering to the North American market, which is too bad since labor costs here are low and a good web development firm here could capture some of the business that is currently being outsourced to India and China.

18. Bilingual Education - There is a growing need for quality, private bilingual education, from pre-school all the way through University level. And not only in Panama city, either. More and more expat families are settling in the interior, and middle class Panamanians in the interior need options like this as well.

19. Courier Service - It's true that Panamanians like to take their time with things. What's the hurry? But the number of North American & European expat communities along the Panama-Penonomé corridor is growing, and these folks might appreciate a reliable same-day or overnight courier service that could do any of the following:
  • Pick up mail or packages in Panama city and deliver them to coastside communities.
  • Deliver documents to lawyers or banks in the city.
  • Buy requested items (or even do a full-fledged shopping trip) in Panama city and deliver.
With the rising price of gasoline, a day trip into the city to do any of these things is cost prohibitive. A courier service could use fuel-efficient mopeds and small vehicles to keep costs low.

These last 10 ideas come from Enilda Watson, writing for the American Chronicle (see the original here). I have added my comments in italics after each idea:

10 More Panama Business Ideas:
19. Language Tutoring: With a total investment as low as $2,000 you can start running a language tutoring business. English for executives and tutorials to enter U.S. universities are in high demand, as well as for call center agents. You do not need to rent an office or furniture, you can go to people’s offices or houses for an hour or two a day. This arrangement will only require a small investment, and it will also put you in contact with other prospective clients and allow you to offer other services. (I agree that the need is overwhelming, but I'm not sure you could charge enough to make it worth your time. Perhaps Ms. Watson could have elaborated on the "other services" that one might offer).

20. A Tour Leader Company: You know what tourists like and expect in order to enjoy an unforgettable experience. In Panama, there are all kinds of things to see, places to go, things to shop for and unspoiled beaches to visit, so the opportunities are there for the taking. An investment of $8,000.00 for a small office, renting a car, and a lot of Internet marketing and hotel contacts are needed at the beginning, but referrals in this business are high and you should have a growing clientele in a short time. If you are friendly and like meeting new and interesting people every week and enjoy guiding them around the country, this could be your opportunity. (Yes, I think there is a lot of room for growth in the tour industry, particularly for someone who can market himself/herself).

21. Setting up a Restaurant: If you like cooking and mingling with people, opening a restaurant is an excellent option for you. The Liquor licenses could be expensive, but a Bring-Your-Own-Wine Bohemian Bistro has the smell of success in any part of Panama. To keep your investment to a minimum, you can look for a partner and start by renting a small place with no more than 30 seats. Parking space is of importance, and house courtesies will give you great word-of-mouth advertising. Most entrepreneurs are not wealthy, so, avoid investing too much in decorations, and use your resources for flyers and other forms of direct marketing. (Agreed, I mentioned this one in my list).

22. Business Consulting: If your expertise is in marketing, finance, logistics or technology, there are more than 20,000 small and medium enterprises that could use your experience and advice. Approximate for $6,000.00 or even less, you can rent an office, get a license to operate, buy a computer, office furniture, purchase a business database, and prepare your brochure and introductory letter. Panamanians like to do business with people they know face to face, so you can start getting appointments with members of AMCHAM, professional associations and friends and can serve as referrals. (Just realize that business is done very differently here. It's all about who you know. To succeed at this you must be good at networking and making friends. Also, Panamanians do not have the same concept of punctuality, and are not accustomed to moving quickly in business deals, so you'll need to be very patient and learn to adjust to the culture here).

23. The Import-Export Business: Panama is an excellent service-provider. If you are able to obtain the representation of some products or services, you will be able to market them in all Latin America. For this you will need to invest in office equipment and some databases, but avoid having any inventory, and the credit responsibility should lie with the manufacturer. You should just have to sell and get your commission. Panama is the hearth of the Americas and as you know your home market and have the contacts for some export-quality Panamanian products. Helping exports, from hot sauces to craftsmen’s products, could get you dollars and recognition in Panama. (Agreed. Many opportunities here).

24. Event Organizer: In Panama has need of professional event organizers, so if you are good planning things, have a touch of glamour and can take care of details, you can try this. From parties, weddings, product launches and business meetings, there are very few people specialized in this area, and practically none outside Panama City. You will only need to develop relations with multinational companies, advertising agencies and hotel personnel. This is a business that you can run from your home and outsource all requirements. Your investment of $5,000.00 for a computer, an e-mail database and lots of business cards should be enough to start. You must schedule a month in which you should personally visit a minimum of four prospective clients per day. Thereafter, the guests at your first events should become your biggest promotional asset. (I don't know much about this. See my comments on point number 4 above. Nepotism is an accepted practice here.)

25. The Nursery Option: If you like kids and have experience dealing with them, Panama has a big need of bilingual nurseries. With $7,000.00 or less you can rent a house, hire a teacher and an assistant and purchase the basic furniture and games. You should also invest in some flyers for pediatrician’s offices and be in contact with area schools that usually start at the kindergarten level. (Sure. Similar to my idea about bilingual education).

26. The Golf Pro: There are less than ten Panamanian golf pros trained to teach this sport. So if you love golf and are good at it, this is an opportunity to start a career you can brag about to your friends at home. The initial investment will be in being trained on how to teach and to get some kind of certification. After that, you will be sought by hundreds of locals and foreigners that dream of improving their game without their golf buddies knowing. Night lessons on ranges will become popular. (No idea. Sounds plausible).

27. The Scout: If you love soccer, baseball or basketball, and know how to recognize great athletes, you can become a scout for your favorite university or professional team. There is a lot of untouched talent in many sports, and Panama has a disproportionate number of world-class jockeys and boxers. Your major investment would be your time. Try this! (Again, no idea... anyone tried this?)

28. A Garden Expert: There are plenty of lawns to mow and gardens to take care of, but not enough professional services in this area, especially in the countryside of Panama City. The cost of labor is low, and year round contracts will be the rule. Your start-up investment for equipment probably should not exceed $6,000. You may focus your efforts on small, well-to-do communities, and you should have all your business by the end of the first year. (Yes, or see my idea about an employment agency providing maids, gardeners, etc).

I am sure that you readers have some great ideas of your own. How about sharing them here?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Pot Sellers of El Valle

A moment ago I was at my computer working, and Laura was trying to put Salma to sleep. It's Saturday, so Rosa, Ani and Listo are off.

I thought I heard someone call out, "Buenas!" I tilted my head, listening. A moment later there was a much louder call, "Buenas!" I hurried to the front door, not wanting any noises to disturb Salma, but I wasn't fast enough. Just before I got to the front door there was a veritable shriek:


Two women with clay pots piled on their heads greeted me. "Sorry, I wasn't sure anyone was home," one said.

Vendors often come to the house on the weekends. They are villagers from the impoverished hamlets around El Valle de Anton. They walk into town, often from great distances, hoping to make a few dollars selling their wares, which could be crafts, vegetables, fruits, or flowers.

"Please, can't you help us out?" the smaller of the two women asked. "These pots are very heavy. Only three dollars each." They set the pots on the ground and removed the small turbans that they wore on their crowns to cushion the weight.

I didn't feel that we needed any pots, but I knew that these woman most likely have families, and are certainly very poor. I could find a place for a few potted plants.

I examined the pots and selected two of roughly equal size. They had a nice orange gloss. At this the shorter woman protested.

"But those are both her pots! Can't you buy some of my pots too?"

I didn't want four pots. But the short woman's pots were smaller than the other woman's pots, and I wanted a matching pair. I puzzled over this a moment, then took the largest of the squat lady's pots and the smallest of the hefty woman's pots. I gave them three dollars each.

The women thanked me, re-wrapped their turbans and hefted their pots to their heads. I returned to my office, then had a thought. Snatching up my camera I ran outside.

"Señoras!" I called, and chased after them, catching them at the front gate. "Can I take your picture?"

"But I'm ugly" the taller woman said. Nevertheless they both set their pots down and faced the camera.

"Please," I said. "Could you place the pots on your heads for the picture?"

They graciously posed for the photo above, then continued on their way.

Here are the two pots I bought: