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 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 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.