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.