Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Are You Healthy? Are You Crazy?" Getting a Panamanian Driver's License if You're Over 70

Jan Knight writes on the Panama Forum that her husband, who is 78 years old, recently applied for a Panamanian driver's license. Apparently anyone over the age of 70 must have a letter from a doctor stating that he is healthy and mentally stable (i.e. not senile).

They went to a doctor who looked at Jan's husband and said, "Are you healthy?"


"Are you crazy?"


The doctor looked at Jan for confirmation of these facts, then wrote the letter out by hand.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things that take you back: ordering a Subway sandwich

After a gym workout this evening, I went looking for something to eat and noticed a Subway sandwich shop at Shaw and Palm, across from the Fig Garden Village center. I pulled up just a few minutes before closing and was not surprised to see a young Indian woman behind the counter. So far, every Subway I've visited in Fresno has been owned by Indians. Gotta love that enterprising spirit. Can you imagine going to India and monopolizing the samosa industry?

In Panama I went to Subway more often than I ever did in the USA. When I lived in El Dorado I frequented the one on the "Do-It Center" street, in the small shopping center that has the two Chinese vegetarian restaurants. After I moved to El Valle de Anton, I used to stop at the Subway in Coronado whenever I was on my way back from the city. The first several times I had to ask the names of the various sandwich ingredients, and the staff always answered me with a chuckle or a smirk. In time, as my Spanish improved and I racked up the Subway visits, I became very comfortable ordering in Spanish.

Walking into the Subway tonight, I had a flashback to Panama, and had to resist the urge to order "atun grande con pan integral."

Somehow life in Panama was richer, more full of the "stuff of life" in a way. More friendships, more interesting experiences, more challenges, more frustration and laughter and spirit-lifting beauty.

I was talking to a friend recently, and I said that I didn't know how to think of Panama now. What is it to me? What does it represent? And my friend said, "I think it is your home."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to eliminate silverfish

No, not this kind of silverfish:

This kind!

This creepy little insect is a silverfish. I hate these disgusting little creatures. They don't bite and don't carry diseases, but they move in a fast slither that is just plain creepy; and if you're fast enough to smack one, they smear into a grey smudge.

In Panama (especially in rural areas), silverfish will be found in any place that has books, paper, cardboard, boxes, etc. I never saw them in Panama City, but I saw plenty in El Valle de Anton. This may be because of El Valle's elevation and relative coolness. Silverfish don't like temperatures above 80 Fahrenheit.

Silverfish especially eat foods and products that are high in protein, sugar, or starch. This includes vegetable foods, such as flour and cereal; fabrics, including cotton, linen, silk, and rayon; sizing in paper; starch in clothing; and paste or glue. They also eat wallpaper, book bindings, and paper when trying to feed on the glue or paste underneath them. Their damage is usually recognized from their irregular feeding marks and the presence of feces. Silverfish and firebrats can go for months without feeding.

They lay eggs in cracks, crevices, and other narrow, confined spaces. Silverfish prefer cool, moist, dark places with temperatures between 70o - 80° F and a relative humidity between 75% - 95%. They are often associated with basements, closets, bookcases, and storage areas.

How to Get Rid of Silverfish

Silverfish and firebrats are associated with damp conditions. You can reduce their numbers by correcting moisture problems:

  1. Dry out damp areas with a fan or dehumidifier.
  2. Repair leaky pipes.
  3. Ventilate closed rooms.
  4. Repair leaking roofs.
  5. Seal concrete walls and floors.
  6. If the problem occurs in a bathroom, make sure the ventilation fan is used during baths and showers.
  7. If you can not move materials, provide air spaces between boxes and other objects to promote air circulation.
  8. Keep in mind that as air cools the humidity in that air increases, so using a dehumidifier or gently heating the surrounding air can have a big impact on the infestation!

You can also reduce silverfish and firebrats by removing sources of food, especially in damp areas. You can reduce potential hiding places by removing old papers, books, boxes and other clutter. Seal cracks and crevices, including those found in baseboards, cupboards, and walls to limit harborages.

Kill Silverfish with Boric Acid

Last but not least, poison them! This can be done with boric acid, a type of inorganic dust. Common trade names include Roach Powder® and Roach Prufe®. Diatomaceous earth, also known as silicon dioxide, is also available. A representative trade name is Concern®. Follow the label and place the dust in cracks and crevices where silverfish have been sighted. Do not apply dust where children and pets can reach it.

You can also make residual spot treatments along baseboards, cracks and crevices, and other areas where silverfish or firebrats are found. Insecticides, such as permethrin, deltamethrin, cyfluthrin, and cypermethrin are effective insecticides against these insects.

In Panama you can purchase boric acid (acida borica in Spanish) at most hardware stores or Chinos (Chinese-owned corner stores). Buy it in bulk, by the pound if possible, rather than the small packets sold in the Chinos.

Borax Soap for Ants

Doug on Panama Forum points out that you can also use a 50-50 mixture of borax soap and icing sugar to get rid of sugar ants. The ants take this toxic mixture to their nest and share with the colony, and they all die.

On that cheery note, take care and be silverfish-free!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Find a way further in

Stained and White Ivory Muslim Style Chess Set Cambodia 18th to 20th century

I'm watching a movie called The International. A high-ranking executive of a powerful but corrupt bank is teaching his son to play chess. His colleagues call him on a conference call to discuss a messy situation that is threatening the entire bank.

The executive turns to his son and asks, "What do you when you are stuck in a situation from which there is no way out?"

He's asking in terms of chess theory. His son understands this. His son replies, "If there's no way out... you find a way further in."

Whoa. He's exactly right. This is what the chess grandmasters do. They marshal their resources and launch an attack, and press it. They know that once they commit, it's do or die. They sacrifice and drop pieces to the left and right like shattered swords. And if they are clever, creative and persistent enough, they break through and topple the enemy's king. They play in a way that seems brilliant and reckless, but is actually brilliant, calculated and single minded. Bobby Fisher was famous for this.

I've often felt that chess is a metaphor for life. Imagine living your life that way. That would take much courage. But if you look at anyone who has truly made it big in life, you will see the same pattern, the same go-for-broke mentality.

I remember developing the website that is now my primary earner. It was back in 1998 or so. I hired a company in India to build what I needed for $5,000. I had no money and didn't know how I would pay them. Somehow I came up with enough money each month to pay installments until the website was complete.

Now I would not sell that website for less than $300,000.

Do you have a story of committing yourself fully to something, with no backing out? How did it turn out?

P.S. The photo depicts an antique Islamic chess set from Cambodia.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Arroz Con Leche (rice with milk) for a baby's first tooth

The little daughter of my lawyer and friend Berliza recently cut her first tooth. The baby's name is Maria Fernanda, or Marifè for short.

I mentioned to Berliza that some cultures celebrate this event, and she told me that indeed in Panama there is a custom for this:

"In our culture the tradition is that the first person who sees the tooth has to cook rice and milk (a dessert). We put them in little containers, usually nicely decorated for the occasion and we give them away to friends and family. We are working on that right now."

This rice and milk dessert is called in Spanish arroz con leche. In the photo you see the actual dessert that Berliza made.

And here is lovely little Marifè getting her first taste:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Should We Try to Change Panama?

There are always discussions on the Panama Forum between those who feel that new immigrants and residents of Panama have a right to try to effect change; and those who feel that we are guests in the country and should not be so presumptuous as to try to change their culture.

Ronald Davis recently wrote an interest post on this subject, and I'm reprinting it here. Comments are welcome:


"Those who come from far away lands to these Panamanian shores to seek refuge and a new beginning - and who often times spend a whole lot of their money, time, and effort in this new land, and who subsequently see an "evil" in their newly adopted land - once the rosy colored glasses have been removed - are, in my opinion, honor bound to try and achieve change so that such an "evil" does not continue to occur in the future. Whether you succeed or fail in youir endeavor is of secondary consequence.

However, those ex-pats who sit back and do nothing about said "evil", who merely observe the passing landscape as if said landscape were in a book of fiction they were reading should be, in a more just world, consigned to some inner circle of hell.

Complications and Nuances: Clearly there is such a thing as cultural relativity, even situational ethics. And this is something that must, by all means, be taken into account. To wit: What is good or culturally acceptable in Country A is not always considered good or culturally acceptable in Country B. Some examples of this would be female genital mutilation, consigning newly widowed woman to funeral pyres, eating primates or dogs, beating wives and children, keeping slaves [yes, slavery still exists in parts of this world] and so on and on. Of course, there are many other examples of these cultural differences, some important, some not so important - and thus my use of quotes around the word evil.

Sooo . . . if you are living in such a new land and you were to see something that gives you great distress, something that you see as truly wrong, what should you do about it? Just sit back, look the other way, and accept these practices - whatever they may be - as indigenous to a given culture and, therefore, not worthy of public comment or even public action on your part? That's certainly one way to look at it. But if you were to decide to travel down this path, would you not also be complicit - in part or in whole - in what is - by your own definition - an evil? And would it not be condescending, really condescending, if you were to say that a given culture, a given people, has been doing same for a thousand years and, after all, they cannot/will not change, and, so, who are you, one person, to try and change them?


All cultures, all peoples change, evolve, and metamorphize into something new and different over the years. Some from internal, some from external forces. Some quickly, some slowly.

So the only question for me is how to achieve change when you decide change is really neccesary and to what degree can an individual do so? Trying to ram something new down someone's throat rarely, if ever, works. So the method of going about how to change someone/something need - common-sense should always dictate - be one of evolution, not revolution; one that is carried out with great care and greater tact. And it often needs be shown that there are specific benefits - usually economic - to adopting a new way, a new method, if you are to be successful in your endeavors.

On a tiny, even infinitesimal level, as an example, it is showing visible displeasure when a Panamanian worker shows up three hours late for a job you have hired him/her for. But how to express your obvious displeasure is the key to this kind of situation. Humor, anger, sarcasm, even economic sanctions [i.e., firing the bobo/boba on the spot and telling him/her you will only deal with workers in the future who can tell time, and, in addition, that you find it personally insulting that he/she cares so little about you that he or she can needlessly waste your time like he/she already has], all these methods and others have their place in your possible responses to this kind of situation.

But to just sit back and say nothing, except on this forum, or to stew in your own angry juices and do nothing about this kind of a situation, is to my way of thinking, totally unacceptable. To say that the "manana" concept has been and, therefore, will always be a part of Latin culture is also unacceptable and, again, such an approach, I believe, is to treat people in a condescending manner, much like you might treat a retarded child whom you believe is incapable of growth or change. Tell me that kind of attitude here in Panama does not often border on racism?

England like Panama has been a racist society for many years. There were times in Great Britain when an English worker refused at his place of employment to even sit next to a "Packy" and now, years later, the most popular of all foods sold in Great Britain comes from the Indian subcontinent and who you work besides has as much relevance as where your shoes are made or the color of your socks.

The U.S. like Panama has been a racist society for many years. There were times in the U.S. when having a black president was as conceivable as flying to the moon and then . . . ahem . . . things changed.

My wife and I have had many excellent Panamanian workers in our employ since our arrival here four years ago - and some true slackers too. Many of the best of them were trained in the Canal Zone and are proud of their acquired skills and the importance of being on time. There are also companies here in Panama who have spent considerable time, effort, and money in training their workers to be more efficient and proud of their work. If they can do it, so can you, albeit, on a more personal level, IF the desire, patience, and good will is there. Small changes over time can become big changes.

Else, in my opinion, go quietly into the night and dare not criticize your newly adopted country for any reason, for you have no right to do so - at least not within my hearing."

- Ron

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Essential Ramadan Reading

Some phrase or image on my blog related to Ramadan seems to be sending some serious search engine traffic my way - as in 800 readers in a single day! - so I thought I would give you folks something productive to do with your time, ha ha.

Here are some excellent books that I consider essential Islamic reading. Any one of them would be great to read a little from every evening after Iftar, or to give as a gift. All are available through the link below:

1. An Interpretation of the Qur'an : English Translation of the Meanings : A Bilingual Edition (Majid Fakhry) - I have this and I read it often. It's an excellent, modern and scholarly translation. If you're still reading Yusuf Ali's poetic but archaic translation, it's time to check out something different.

2. The Qur'an : A New Translation (Dr. Thomas Cleary) - I would have listed this first except that it's in English only. The language is modern and clear, yet retains some of the powerful poetry of the Arabic. I highly recommend it.

3. Muhammad : His Life Based on the Earliest Sources : Revised Edition : Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din) - All-time best-selling book on the life of the Prophet (pbuh), now the latest revised edition. You may have read some of the briefer Seerahs (biographies of the Prophet Muhammad) such as The Sealed Nectar of The Life of the Prophet Muhammad, but you have not experienced the breadth and depth of Muhammad's (pbuh) struggle and indomitable character until you have read this book.

Well, as you can see my preference is for more scholarly works, but you can find all kinds of good stuff at IslamicBookstore.com, including children's books, movies and CDs, and toys. I have been shopping with them for several years now.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Happy Ramadan and may every year find you well

The holy month of Ramadan is almost here and I'd like to wish a Ramadan Mubarak - blessed Ramadan - to all my Muslim readers.

Ramadan is such a special, unique time. On the one hand the fast of Ramadan is the most personal and challenging act of worship that a person can dedicate to God, aside perhaps from the Hajj. On the other hand, it is a time of family and community. It builds and strengthens so many of the best aspects of human character: patience, compassion, perseverance, and taqwa (God-consciousness).

We fast not only from food and water, but from anger, impatience, corruption, selfishness, and causing hurt to others. We renew our spirits so that we come out of Ramadan with a new feeling of dedication to God, pledged to do better, and strong to face the challenges of life.

I always have mixed feelings about the coming of Ramadan. After all, it is quite difficult, especially during these summer months when the days are long and hot (not so much for those of you in Panama, lol, where the days are always the same length and the seasons are only rainy or dry - but here in Central California summer days are in the 100 to 110 degrees range).

On the other hand, it's such an exciting time, offering the prospect of spiritual purification and forgiveness from God. And that overcomes any trepidation that I may have.

At the same time, I have a major web project going on - a complete overhaul of the Zawaj.com Muslim matrimonial service. I'm excited about that.

Take care. My best wishes to all of you, regardless of your faith. Keep your heads up, know God, and know yourselves. If any of my Panama friends are reading this: Henry and Nora, Rudy and Christina, Cleo and family, Niko and family, Zach and Danyelle, Berliza and family, Dr. Medrano, Bill and Adam Brunner, Rosa and family, Listo, Ani, Corrin, Rene, and all the rest (forgive me if I did not name you!), you are all dear to my heart and I am thinking of you.

To my non-Panama friends, well, there are too many to list, so: Ramadan Mubarak, and peace be upon you.

I've been browsing the web, reading articles about Ramadan and looking at photos, and I have come across some of the most amazing and beautiful Ramadan photos. Here are the links for your pleasure. The first batch comes from Boston.com, published last year.

Next are some outstanding photos from Time Magazine:

And a couple of beautiful images from National Geographic (one photo per URL):

Friday, July 3, 2009

Keeping Small Children in El Valle?

kids in El Valle
I just received this question from a reader:

Hi, I enjoy reading your blog occasionally! and have some questions for you. I would be most appreciative if you could answer some.

How was it having your daughter Salma in El Valle? Did you feel she got enough interaction with other kids? If you had stayed married and lived there, would you have homeschooled? Did you meet any expats with children, or were they mostly retirees? Are there Panamanian families with kids who live in the nicer area year round?

Lot of questions I know; we're thinking of moving to Central America and trying to decide where. We have a 2 1/2 year old and she is our main concern, with kids/school/etc.

Thanks, Saro

Hello Saro. First, thanks for reminding me that that are real people that actually read my blog, ha ha.

Growing up in El Valle was wonderful for Salma. I might have liked for her to have more interaction with other English-speaking kids; but she often played with our neighbor's children (a local Panamanian family), or they came to our house to play. Though I think they came as much for Salma's toys as for Salma herself.

Our neighbor's daughter, Alba
There are so many children in El Valle, that it would be hard not to find kids to interact with. When I went to the Video Store (Videos El Valle, on the Orchideas road), there were always so many kids playing down there at the end of the road, in the ANAM parking lot, it was like a playground. I used to take Salma and let her play for an hour or so. When we pulled up in the car the kids would shout, "Salma! Salma!" and rush to take her hand and play with her.

That's another thing about the local people, they are very warm and friendly and Salma grew up thinking that everyone in the world is her friend and that it's the most natural thing in the world to take another child's hand and say, "What's your name? I'm Salma."

Now that she's been in the USA for several months she's lost some of that natural ebullience and trust and that saddens me. As often as not, when she approaches children here and tries to talk to them, they ignore her.

We also had a very nice local nanny in El Valle who worked five hours a day, five days a week; that's something we would never have been able to afford in the USA.

We often talked about what we would do when Salma reached school age. One option was to put her in the local public school, then homeschool her on top of that. In the local school she would learn Spanish fluently, and the hours are rather abbreviated anyway. Then at home we would teach her in English.

Now there are more options. I've heard there is a good English-language private school in Gorgona now, about 1 hour from El Valle. And at the rate that Coronado (45 minutes away) is growing, I wouldn't be surprised to see a private school there soon.

Best of luck to you and I hope you'll write again later and let me know what you decided and how it's going.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Avoiding Heat Rash in Panama

On my first visit to Panama, I stayed at the Las Vegas Hotel in El Cangrejo and I walked everywhere around the city. I wore an old messenger bag, made of a semi-waterproof, neoprene like material. It kept my belongings dry in Panama's tropical rains, and was easy to wear. It fit snugly against my back and I could spin it around to take things out without having to take the bag off. Very handy.

In the evening of the second or third day, I noticed that I had developed a bad rash across my back, consisting of horribly itchy bumps looking like mosquito bites. In fact I thought maybe the hotel bed was infested with bedbugs, or a mosquito had feasted on me during the night. I tried applying a cortisone cream and the rash got worse. It was driving me out of my mind.

I talked to a few Panamanian friends but they could not help (have you ever noticed that Panamanians hardly sweat, even on the hottest days?!). I did some research online and finally I realized that I had heat rash. I had never experienced this before. The waterproof bag resting against my back (combined with the constant high humidity in Panama) had caused my back to perspire excessely. Because no air was reaching my back, the sweat was trapped, and that in turn trapped further sweat beneath the skin, causing the rash.

All told I've had heat rash four times in Panama, each time within a few weeks after my arrival.

WebMD describes heat rash thus:
Heat rash -- also called prickly heat or miliaria -- is a common condition in which areas of the skin itch intensely and often feel prickly or sting due to overheating. Heat rash looks like tiny bumps surrounded by a zone of red skin. It usually occurs on clothed parts of the body, such as the back, abdomen, neck, upper chest, groin, or armpits and goes away on its own within a few days. In severe forms, however, heat rash can interfere with the body's heat-regulating mechanism and cause fever, heat exhaustion, and even death.

Heat rash occurs most often in hot, humid conditions. It's most common in infants. Active people, newborns in incubators, and bedridden patients with fever also are more likely to get heat rash.

Heat rash begins with excessive perspiration, usually in a hot, humid environment. The perspiration damages cells on the surface of the skin, forming a barrier and trapping sweat beneath the skin, where it builds up, causing the characteristic bumps. As the bumps burst and sweat is released, you may feel the prickly, or stinging, sensation that gives this condition its common name.

Preventing Heat Rash

Wear light weight, light colored, loose-fitting clothing. Heat rash often occurs in the groin, armpits or elbow creases, under your watch (and under the breasts or along the bra line for women), and believe me, it's no fun.

If you are staying in Panama long term, you will adjust to the humidity and you won't sweat so much. But for short term visitors and those newly arrived, beware of heat rash. If you wear a backpack or even carry a purse, move it around. Don't let it rest against one part of your body for too long. Even if it's raining, don't wear a jacket that will cause you to perspire excessively (stick with a light shirt and an umbrella).

If you are outside and you begin to feel very hot, or you are aware that you are perspiring excessively, go back to your hotel to cool off. Drink plenty of fluids. When you return to your hotel, take a cool or cold shower immediately, dry your skin thoroughly, and allow your skin to be cooled by the air conditioner. A fan alone may not be sufficient. An air conditioner will provide cooling and will also dry the air, reducing the humidity.

Treating Heat Rash Once You've Got It

The only treatment for heat rash is to wash the skin clean with cool water, dry it gently, and keep it exposed to air (preferably cool, dry air).

Do not apply any ointments or creams, as these will block the skin pores and keep the sweat trapped beneath the skin. When you are outside, apply sunscreen to those areas exposed to the sun, and when you return to your hotel, wash it off and let the skin dry and cool. If you've already got heat rash, stay out of the sun as much as possible, and don't drink alcohol excessively, as that may make it worse.

Certain powders, like Gold Bond medicated powder or corn starch, may provide temporary relief from the itching and pain, but do not leave the powder on. Once the itching fades, wash the powder off with cool water and let the skin dry and get air.

In my experience, heat rash properly treated fades within two or three days.

Have you had heat rash? What was your experience with it? How do you avoid it now?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Salma at Casa de Fruta

Quick Note: my house in El Valle de Antón is for rent. I have dropped the rent a little and it's a great bargain. See it here: http://www.CasaPanama.com

I usually pick up my daughter Salma at Casa de Fruta on the weekends. Located on Highway 152 in the coastal mountains of Northern California, Casa de Fruta is a roadside stand gone wild. True to its name, it sells a vast array of fruits and vegetables, but also sells nuts of every imaginable variety and flavor, condiments, and chocolate covered delicacies; in addition there is a large candy store, an ice cream shop, a burrito shop, a wine shop, a restaurant, a gas station, a motel, a miniature train for children to ride on, a carousel, a playground, a duck pond... it has become a destination in itself. Salma always enjoys her time there.

Here are some photos of Salma taken in early May, the last weekend I spent with her before my Panama trip (and one photo of Casa de Fruta's fruit selection):

Salma is getting tall

Salma in the stocks

Salma looking cute, and making me chase her

Salma on the slide

Casa de Fruta

Friday, May 22, 2009

What to Bring to Panama, What to Leave Behind (Updated)

A few years ago a friend from California who was planning a move to Panama asked me what she should bring, and I wrote a post about it. The subject has come up again in the Panama Forum Yahoo discussion group, as it does from time to time, so I'm updating my old post. I have also expanded the list of things to leave behind.

If you live in Panama (or anywhere in Central America since all deal with similar challenges of humidity and lack of local manufacturing) and you have any further suggestions of your own, please add them by commenting to this post:


  • Quality tools of any kind, whether hand tools or electrical tools. The ones here are imported from China and are poor quality.
  • Quality kitchenware, including pots and pans, silverware, can openers, etc. Again, not the best quality here.

  • English language books, CDs, DVDs. Even if they're books you've already read, you can trade them at the various book exchanges, like the one at the expat center in Panama City.
  • Light clothing made of natural materials such as cotton or linen. I recently ordered a bamboo fiber shirt online and found it to be extremely light and soft. Also, you may not find your size here. Panamanians tend to be shorter and more slender than North Americans.
  • A pair of waterproof boots or shoes for the rainy season.
  • If you'll be in the highlands, a waterproof or water-resistant jacket might come in handy during rainy season. In Panama City, however, it would be too hot for this.
  • Comfortable house shoes or house slippers. I have removed three giant spiders from our house, and I always wear slippers now. In addition, floors here are tiled, not carpeted, and so may not be as soft as you are used to. I have a pair of Crocs that I wear around the house and I'm very happy with them.
  • A computer. The computers sold here have Spanish-language operating systems, so if you prefer an English-language model you should bring it with you. Also, computers and electronics in general are more expensive here than in the USA. Other electronic items I have brought from the states include a digital camera, aSkype-enabled cordless phone and a PDA.
  • If you have particular cosmetics or skin care products that you like, I suggest you bring a supply with you, since there's no guarantee that you will find the same brand here. Certainly the Farmacia Arrocha is full of imported skin care products, but you may not find that particular brand that you're used to.
  • High thread count sheets and pillowcases. Hard to find here, I've heard.
  • Alice, a reader of my blog says: "Face Cloths! When we traveled to Panama in January most of the mid-priced hotels we stayed in did not have face cloths. When browsing different stores for items like towels, pillows, etc there was a VERY small selection to choose from. I also noticed that the quality of plasticware was very poor. I dare say you wouldn't put any of it in a microwave, so I'll bring my own. Just a couple of observations while in Panama."
  • Richard adds, "Right-on about the face cloths. My wife and I spent considerable time even in Panama City trying to find small wash cloths and just ended up with what we call 'hand towels' that were much larger than needed."
  • The power goes out here occasionally. On her last trip to the U.S., Laura brought back a hand-cranked lantern and flashlight made by Freeplay. I love these. You just wind them up and you have light. No batteries needed. I take the flashlight with me when I go on my evening walks.
  • Update regarding hand-cranked devices: I brought back another hand-cranked flashlight and a hand-powered radio and I gave them to my gardener as gifts. He lives in a village in the mountains with no electricity, and walks an hour every day to get to El Valle. And I know that he (like many locals) is too poor to buy batteries for battery-operated devices. He was very happy with them and I believe they will significantly improve his quality of life. I can imagine the whole family sitting around in the evening listening to the radio and taking turns winding it up.
  • Connie from the Panama Forum came up with the following list: "Lots of refills for anything that requires refills: coffee filters, vaccuum bags, Swiffer refills. They aren't available here very often... I don't think you would want to ship them, but you may find yourself bringing back spices and extracts (just try to find peppermint extract in David or > Panama City) and other goodies like special flours or canned green, chilis or whatever it is you like to cook... Susan G-G would probably recommend a good can opener... Plastic shelf liner from the Container Store (if you have an American style kitchen, you may have trouble finding enough liner of any kind). If you are building, kitchen knobs; without being picky, I could not find enough of any kind in David or Panama City unless I wanted plain wooden ones. Anything for organizing: hooks, drawer dividers, shelves, etc. (very limited selection here). More gardening tools (good quality) and some of my favorite plant pots. An electric space heater (I live in the mountains)."
  • I second the vote for a good can opener. I searched everywhere for one. Many stores carried electric openers, but it wasn't until I visited one of the department stores on the peatonal (the pedestrial stretch of Avenida Central) that I found a low-quality manual opener. I had to show Rosa (our maid) how to use it because she had never seen one and had been punching cans open with knives!
  • Susan Guberman-Garcia says, "If you have a high end computer with a lot of data and software in it, bring that. If you have a good saw and a few high end tools bring those. Bring your cotton clothes. If you have books you particularly treasure, bring those. Everything else leave home, sell it, give it away, or put it in storage if you aren't sure whether you are coming back. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it. (and I think it's nuts to ship a car here...)."
  • Another reader of the Panama Forum says, "Well I would recomend being sure to bring all small appliances from the States. We paid good money for a coffee maker at the Do-It Center (in Panama) and it died this morning. Just a short 8 week life span. Yesterday, a $40.00 tower fan died a slow death. Actually it was a massive heart attack and very quick. The fan lived a short 6.5 weeks. Not really long-life appliances."
And a few more unusual ideas:
  • Are you an ice cream fan? It's hard to get good ice cream here. They do sell Haagen Dazs pints at the Supermercado El Rey, but they are expensive and often have that icy texture characteristic of ice cream that has melted and re-frozen. So Laura brought back a "Lello Gelato" ice cream making machine, pictured here, from her last trip to the States. It makes fantastic home made ice cream. Laura has made coffee, honey and chocolate flavors.
  • When you're ready to build a house, you want to make sure that any wood used in the construction is thoroughly dried, otherwise it may warp later. This is a problem here in Panama, as wood kilns are extremely rare and air-drying is not effective in this humid climate. If you can afford it, I suggest buying a meter that will measure the moisture level in wood (costs about $350).
  • A final word from Connie: "What we brought that I am glad we did: books, my husband's tools, my sewing machine (cleaned and checked out before I came), yoga equipment, all my kitchen stuff, our computers. Oh, yes, my husband's box of suits and ties, so I can tease him about never wearing them. By the time we unpacked them, the wool suits were already moldy."


If you maintain a home in the USA, or you can leave a few things with a relative, you should consider leaving the following items at home. If you really must bring them, take extra care with them:
  • Anything that would be adversely affected by constant humidity. For example, a baseball card collection, personal artwork, or family photographs. Of course you want to have some family photos with you, but is it necessary to bring them all? If you have time you could scan them and put them on CD's or a hard drive.
  • One reader of this blog commented, "With regard to family photos. I totally agree with "not bringing them. My wife and I have spent the last two years, on and off, scanning 22 years and 12 albums onto C.D's. These can be kept forever and with a DVD player viewed on television on the game setting. Works very well."
  • And Randy added, "Take care with putting archives on cds. I believe removable hard drives are the way to store this sort of thing. CDs and DVDs are not designed to last forever."
  • Anything fragile, such as glass-framed posters, glass collectibles, or ceramics. These kinds of things are easily damaged in shipping. If you must bring them, pack them very carefully.
  • Heavy clothing, woollen clothing, jackets, sweaters, etc. Unless you are going to be in a highland town like El Valle, Cerro Azul, Boquete or Volcan, you will not need these things at all. Even in the highlands, a few windbreakers and sweatshirts generally suffice.
  • Another list by Connie Grant from the Panama Forum: "What I wouldn't bring: Henredon or other brand wood furniture from the U.S. It swells in the humidity... Anything wool; it tends to mold in the humidity... Same problem with some but not all leather goods... Cars (everybody I know who did it wishes they hadn't)... Front loader washers (sometimes special detergent is available, sometimes it isn't in David). Also, last rainy season, our wooden spoons got moldy. Now we use only nylon spoons for cooking."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bugs on the Brain: Wild life and insects in Panama

Toucan seen in Soberania National Park, Panama
Quick word: I have finished the website that showcases my house for rent and for sale here in El Valle de Anton, Panama. See it at http://www.CasaPanama.com/

Now on to the wildlife:

One of the joys of life in the tropics is the incredible wealth of life, both plant life and animal life. Panama boasts more species of birds than any nation in the Americas. El Valle is a birder's mecca. People come here from all over the world to hike up into the hills and birdwatch. Within a few hours hike you can spot toucans, a huge variety of hummingbirds, herons, eagles, many species of quail, macaws, parrots, cuckoos, owls of all kinds... the list goes on.

In this house, I wake up to bird song. It's a lovely sound to be greeted by. Often when I walk in the evening, I pass horses grazing on the road in front of the house (it's a grass "street"). I see owls, bats, possums, armadillos, ñeques, and the occasional sloth. And I sleep to a symphony of frogs and crickets.

Speaking of crickets, however, that brings me to an aspect of life in the tropics that may annoy some people: the bugs.

Beetles are common in Panama
Anyone who is afraid of insects would need some therapy here. This is a tropical country, and bugs of all kinds are a fact of life. Right now it's beetle season. Every day I find several in the house, usually upside-down and waving their legs in slow motion, like a drunk trying to flag a taxi. They are beneficial insects, so I pick them up and take them outside.

By the way, did you know that there are more species of beetles than of any other animal in the world? There is a mind-boggling 350,000 known species of beetles in the world, which is 40% of all described insect species, and 25% of all life on earth!

Every now and then I'll find a large spider in some corner. They are gray, hairy spiders the size of my palm. Again, I scoop them up with a dustpan and toss them out.

There are at least four varieties of ants that are common here. One always has to be aware of food storage and disposal. Leave anything sweet or sugary out (even juice residue in a glass) and tiny sugar ants will be all over it within a half hour. Breakfast cereal, candy or sweets, and of course sugar must all be stored in the refrigerator. Leave anything with protein out, and black ants will march in to devour it. The same black ants will consume the beetles or other insects if they die in the house and remain on the floor too long. These blank ants bite, and if you accidentally step in their way they will be all over your leg before you know it, biting like Mike Tyson.

I have my own strategy for dealing with mosquitoes. I have gotten very good at killing them and can snatch one out of the air with one hand. The real problem comes at night, when one becomes an unconscious feast. What I do is, in the evening I keep the bedroom dark, and I turn a bright light on in some other part of the house to draw them out. When I go to sleep I shut the bedroom door so they can't get in. If I do get bitten, I've found that a brief application of ice to the bite will cure the inflammation and itch completely, if you don't scratch.

The mosquitoes and moths attract geckos, which can frequently be seen on the walls or ceiling. Again, I don't know how they get in, but they are beneficial and I leave them alone. In fact in Panama they call them "limpia casa", house cleaner. They have a distinctive call that sounds like a mocking laugh. Occasionally they time it just right, for example after I've said something silly or forgot what I was doing, and I have to say, "Yeah, very funny!"

Outdoors is another matter. There is a teeming variety of both beneficial and harmful insects, with the real pests being ants and noseeums (also called chiggers or sand flies). Leaf cutter ants are everywhere, and it's not a good idea to step in their path. Fortunately they are easy to spot, with their clear-cut trails through the grass, and their leaf pieces moving along as if by magic.

The noseeums fertilize cocoa trees, so I realize that they too have a purpose in God's plan, but their bites are maddening, much worse than mosquito bites. I never walk outdoors (even in the yard) barefoot or in slippers. I always wear shoes, socks and long pants.

Bees and wasps are common, and we have twice had to remove wasp nests from the eaves of the house.

With all that said, you get used to it. It's a part of life here and eventually you adjust. It's the price you pay for the fruits that drop from the trees right into your hand, the profusion of flowers, the hummingbirds that can be seen outside the window every day, the amazing variety of bird calls, and all the other wonderful aspects of life in the tropics.

Monday, May 18, 2009

House for Rent in El Valle de Antón, Panama

I'm in the process of building a website to showcase my house, which is available for immediate rental in El Valle de Antón, Panama.

The website is http://www.CasaPanama.com/

Check it out and see what I've got so far.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi
This has nothing to do with Panama, but is an important issue. The government of Myanmar (Burma) is bringing new charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement there. Ms. Suu Kyi is also the rightful leader of Burma, having won the last elections held in that country in 1990.

The charges are baseless and are merely an excuse to extend her house arrest, which has been ongoing for almost 20 years, and which was due to expire this month.

Update: in the latest development, Ms. Suu Kyi has been arrested and taken to Insein prison.

Learn more and take action here:


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I (heart) El Valle de Anton

It's so nice to be back in El Valle and this house. I love this place. It is peaceful here. Last night I slept nine hours almost uninterrupted, which is really an unheard of thing for me. The only downside is that I miss my daughter Salma very much. I hope that when she is older I can bring her back to El Valle sometimes in summer to visit. So many people here ask about her.

I walked to my next door neighbor's house and before I even got to the front gate they were all rushing out to see me. Senora Teresa, her daughter Maria, and Maria's children Alba and the baby Emily. Another girl I didn't know, probably a niece. All their faces were shining and they were so happy to see me. I had gift for all of them. A little outfit for the baby, a copper bracelet for Alba, and a big jar of mixed nuts for the ladies (from Cosco). Senora Teresa held up the nuts and said, "Ay, que rico!" I saw Elvin hanging back by the chicken coop shyly. He waved at me and I called him over. He came running and I gave him a pack of Life Savers. Even Kissy the dog wagged her tail at me. As I left Teresa told me repeatedly that they were at my service for anything I might need during my stay here. I walked away with a big smile on my face. Later I saw the patriarch, Senor Rufino, sitting on the porch and waved to him. He doesn't get around much anymore. Last year he fell and broke his arm and I drove him to the hospital in Penonome.

I'm spoiled, used to having a car here in El Valle. I need to buy some groceries from the Centro Comercial but don't feel like walking all the way down there, so I've been going to some of the closer but smaller stores like the Yin. I also need to take my clothes to the laundry and buy a cell phone from the new Digicel store here in El Valle. I'm told I can get a phone for $10. That, plus a $10 card for talk time, should get me through my two remaining weeks in Panama.

I met a fellow at Los Nances named Ray Underwood. He sells medical equipment and knows all the doctors in Panama. He told me there are three dentists in Panama who use lasers rather than drills, and he recommended one in particular, a Dr. Felipe Magh who is located at Consultorios Paitilla. I need to have two cavities filled and a thorough cleaining. Ray says that all this can be done easily with lasers and that laser procedures are almost painless. So as soon as I get a phone I'll call him and make an appointment.

Other things that I want to do during my stay here include shipping some of my boxes back the USA and finding a good storage facility for what's left. And of course find new tenants for the house, and list it for sale.

Adam has been trying to get a carpenter for me to do the closets project for the house. There's a Guatemalan fellow named Emilio who lives here in El Valle, and who, when he is not drunk, is very skilled. He's always busy and we've made an appointment for him to come to the house Friday to see the closets.

I also want to buy a bed. We don't have a bed in the master bedroom, just a box spring and mattress that sit on the floor, and while I find it comfortable enough, I feel it doesn't make a good impression on prospective renters. Adam is going into Panama tomorrow and I think I'll go with him and check out a discount furniture store. We could pick up my friend Tracy along the way, and he and I could hang out together. I haven't seen him since last year.

I've been going out for walks every night. I carry my stick to keep the occasional aggressive dog away. The dogs are mild mannered and even cowardly during the day, but at night they seem to think they own the roads. I listen to my iPod, walk the dark roads past the fruit trees and flowers, and enjoy the sounds of the strange night birds.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Beautiful house for rent in El Valle de Anton

I am offering my furnished house for rent in El Valle de Anton. For those who don't know, El Valle is a lovely town 90 minutes outside of Panama. It sits at 600 meters elevation and has a pleasant, cool climate. El Valle is a reort town and a popular weekend destination and as a result it has many nice restaurants, a thriving crafts market, a hot springs, waterfalls, and an established expat community.

The lot is 1,500 m2 with beautiful mature trees of all kinds, including papaya, eucalyptus, bananas (the banana trees produce a small, uniquely flavored banana called "guineo de manzana"), and various berry bushes.

The house is 260 m2 with three bedrooms and three baths. Some of the house's features:

* Convenient location two blocks off the main road and close to the center of town. Everything is within walking distance.

* Plenty of windows and lots of light.

* Split AC's and ceiling fans in each bedroom.

* Stone flooring and teak cabinets in the bathrooms.

* A huge kitchen with a large island and plenty of counter space. Refrigerator was purchased last year.

* Large living room built in a unique "patio style" that keeps the room cool year round and allows the breeze to pass through.

* A barbeque in the living room and an exhaust fan to take away the smoke.

* Plenty of closet and storage space.

* Internet ready with a MobilNet dish on the roof and the cable already installed. All you have to do is call them and activate it.

* Furniture includes rustic-style couch and chairs, built in tables and seating, rocking chair, hammock, kitchen stools, two beds plus sheets and pillows, nightstands, large TV and DVD player, small desk and leather office chair, three UPS devices and several surge protectors, lamps, Vornado floor fans, quality cookware and silverware from the U.S., garden shed equipped with tools, and more. It's turnkey. You could move right in with just the clothes on your back.

Our last tenants were very happy and comfortable here.

An excellent maid and gardener work one day a week each in the house, keeping it maintained and clean (you pay them). They have worked in this house for five years and know it very well. You will not find better employees anywhere. By the way, Rosa (the maid) would be happy to cook for you as well if you like. She has really branched out her cooking skills over the years and can prepare very nice local style food, Chinese stir fry, Italian and even vegetarian.

Rent is $1,100 per month (negotiable), plus security deposit.

Cats or small dogs are ok and in fact the side door has a small pet door built in.

If you are interested please call Adam Brunner at 6517-2947 and make an appointment to see the house.

House with a view

Bill Brunner's son Adam has been managing my house in my absence. When I left I had pakced a few dozen boxes that I was not prepared to ship back to the States, so Adam put them in storage at his house. Adam's house was built by his grandfather and a german engineer in the 1960's. It's on the road to El Valle, high up on a ridge looking out over the Pacific. It was not lived in for many years and it's a mess, but Adam has been gradually fixing it up. Here are some photos of the house and the view:

El Valle house

Panama house

El Valle house

El Valle house

Los Nances bed and breakfast in El Valle

The view from my room at Los Nances

Renovation work at Los Nances in El Valle

Construction at Los Nances bed and breakfast

Heading up to Los Nances bed and breakfast, I was not sure what to expect as Adam had told me the place was undergoing renovation. I imagined a small, dusty room with furniture covered in plastic.

In fact it was a lovely, large room with attractive wooden furniture, a mini kitchen and a great view. The top photo in this post is the view from my room, through the screen.

Los Nances used to offer four spacious and comfortable rooms for rent. When it reopens, it will offer eight rooms outside the main house, plus a few suites downstairs. They are also building a large deck that will offer a spectacular view of the valley. Although they are not open for business, Bill has been kind enough to let me stay in one of the rooms. They have fed me breakfast and dinner, and I have been able to use their wireless internet network.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Getting a ride to El Valle; Los Nances Bed and Breakfast

I subscribe to the El Valle Yahoo group, and I noticed in a recent posting that Jackie Johnson, a Zonian who lives in El Valle, was going to be in Panama City on Friday. I emailed her and asked if I could get a ride back to El Valle with her Friday afternoon, and she agreed. I was so happy that I did not have to take a taxi to Albrook mall in order to take the noisy, crowded bus to El Valle, lugging my suitcases with me. Jackie told me she was getting her car fixed and she'd pick me up outside the hotel at 3pm.

I checked out of the hotel Friday at 3pm and waited for Jackie. Time went by. I listened to my iPod: first a Spanish lesson, then an episode of Talk of the Nation from National Public Radio. More time went by. I don't have a mobile phone and could not call her. But I was not worried or agitated. I know how things are in Panama. It could be that her car was not ready when they promised it, or she was stuck in traffic. Jackie showed up around 4:30 and as I suspected, she had had a difficult day. We got on the road, and we talked along the way. I've spoken to Jackie more than once in the past but never in depth. So I got to know her for the first time. Like me, she has had a difficult year, but hers was a matter of fate while mine was more of my own doing. Anyway, we found a lot to talk about.

I was going to be staying in Los Nances, high on a hillside above El Valle, but Jackie didn't want to drive that steep road up to the inn, so we called Adam Brunner and he met us in the center of town, in front of the Supermercado Yin. Adam picked me up, I had dinner at Los Nances, and settled into a very comfortable room for the night.

A lawyer, a chef, printing photos, and a good laptop repair shop in Panama City

I got an early start the next day and went directly to the offices of Berliza Arosemena, Abogada (Attorney). Berliza has been my lawyer for four years now and I recommend her services to anyone who needs a capable, competent, agressive attorney. Her website is http://www.MyPanamaLawyer.com. Tell her Wael referred you.

Berliza got married recently and just had a baby, and she looked good. Her skin was glowing and she seemed generally more content and easygoing than I remembered. She showed me a photo of the baby and she (the baby) looks exactly like the mother. I conducted some business with Berliza and gave her the gift Laura had sent for her, some nice clothing for the baby. Berliza filled me in on the latest gossip regarding expats that both she and I know. It was a good visit.

I walked up the street just a few dozen meters to La Novena, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant run by Chef Arturo. I used to eat at La Novena often but had not been there in a long time. Arturo was in the kitchen busily preparing the special of the day, a yucca pie. He looked up and saw me and said, "Have mercy!" Later his trainee chef - a tall, painfully thin woman who needs to sample more of her own cheesecake - took over, and Arturo sat with me to talk. "What are your intentions?" he asked me in his clearly enunciated, oddly accented English. I filled him in on some of the changes in my personal life and he was shocked. "Life changes," he said. "That is the only constant."

I mentioned that the Hotel Marparaiso has wireless internet. What I did not mention is that after the first night in Panama, my laptop stopped charging, and the battery life dwindled steadily until the computer shut down. I should have known better. I lived in this country for three years. You simply do not plug expensive electronics into an unprotected wall socket here, unless you want to end up with a very pricey paperweight. The electrical current in Panama is not steady. It sometimes cuts out for milliseconds and then comes back with a surge. It will quickly fry almost anything you plug in, from a floor fan to a refrigerator. To protect your electronics, plug everything into a surge protector, and in the case of computers I recommend a heavy-duty surge protecter and UPS device (uninterruptible power supply) that will kick in automatically if the power fails for even a microsecond.

I got lucky. I wanted to print some photos of Salma to share with friends here. I have a CD with 100 photos on it. I took it to the MultiMax store on Via Brasil near MultiPlaza. I hoped that I could also find a laptop battery there. They didn't carry laptop batteries, but they have a Kodak machine that prints photos from a CD or USB drive. You put the CD in the machine, and your photos come up on a touch screen. You select the photos and quantity that you want, and the machine gives you a receipt. Then you come back a few days later to get your photos. It only cost me $10 to print 100 photos! I couldn't believe it. Other people tell me they've seen these machines in the States, but I doubt they printing for 10 cents a photo.

That's not the really lucky part. Walking back up the street from MultiPlaza, I tried to catch a taxi but could not. It's always difficult on that stretch of Via Brasil. As I approached the Idaan building I saw a small show called simply, "Computadoras." I went in and saw that they specialied in laptop sales and repairs. The young man told me he could not help me without seeing my computer.

I finally caught a taxi back to the hotel. The driver was talkative, praised my Spanish, and told me that he wants to retire and travel the world. I told him that I want to go to Africa, and he warned me that the tigers there would find me to be a fat and juicy morsel. I know some North Americans would find this offensive, but Panamanians are very open with these kinds of comments and I laughed.

Grabbed my computer out of my hotel room, and caught a taxi right back to the computer shop. Traffic was horrendous and it took forever. The driver had his wife in the front seat and his young daughter (perhaps seven years old) in the back, next to me. She had apparently just gotten out of school and was wearing her uniform and trying to sleep on the seat. The driver was listening to evangelical music and when a particular song came on, the girl sat up excitedly and began to sing along. I didn't get all the words, but some of it was,

El es todo,

El es grande,

So the lucky part is that the fellow at the computer shop found me a battery. It's not exactly the right model and charges more slowly than my old one, but it works. And I bought a surge protector this time.

Like I said, it's called Computadoras, has pictures of laptops on the front, and is just down the street from Idaan.

Panama City Hotel Reviews: Hotel Marparaiso

Henry gave me a ride to ScotiaBank, where I keep a checking account. By the way, I recommend ScotiaBank for personal checking or savings accounts. It's not perfect, but I've never experienced any real problems, the fees are reasonable, and I've never heard of ScotiaBank perpetrating the kind of customer service horror stories associated with many other banks in Panama.

After that Henry was kind enough to chauffer me around Calidonia looking for a cheap hotel. By the way, Henry and Nora run Paradise Services, an expat services and real estate company. They are great people and you simply could not find someone better to help you get settled and find property in Panama. Their website is http://www.PanamaRetire.net

Back to the subject of hotels in Panama: three years ago I used to stay at the Las Vegas (in the heart of El Cangrejo) for $35 per night, but good mid-range hotel rooms have become extremely scarce in Panama due to both increased tourism and lack of new hotel construction. Prices have more doubled at the Las Vegas and it's always booked far in advance.

We drove around until Henry spotted the Marparaiso, which he had heard good things about, so we stopped and I rented a room for $40. The room was not luxurious by any means, but adequate. A bed, chair, a few small tables, a wardrobe, cable TV, and lukewarm water in the shower. I was very happy to find that they have a free internet network for guests. Oh, and check out time is 3pm! My room also had a hole in the wall that seemed to lead to a crawl space, but that's Panama. Unfinished construction and odd flaws are normal. The only real problem was a weak air conditioner that did nothing to moderate the furnace-like heat on one of the hottest days that Panama City has had lately.

I was so exhausted that it hardly mattered. I stripped naked and slept in a light sheen of sweat all afternoon long. Later I got up and showered, and went out to eat. Not feeling like spending the hour and a half that it takes to dine out in Panama, I got a Subway sandwich to go, Went to El Rey supermarket for a soda and chocolate bar, and to Farmacia Arrocha where I bought a strong desk fan. Caught a cab back to the hotel for $1.50.

The next day I asked to change rooms. All the guide books say that you should ask to see a few different rooms first, and I suppose that's good advice. The second room was far better than the first, for the same price. Better furniture, a functioning air conditioner, and a better view.

Summary: I recommend the Marparaiso for the price, but ask to see a few rooms first, and make sure the air conditioner works well. Be aware that the neighborhood is not safe for walking around at night. If you go out at night, take a taxi.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Engine engine number nine: when the train of life derails


I sometimes recite to Salma a "choosing" rhyme that I learned as a kid:

Engine engine number nine
going down Chicago line.

If the train goes off the track
Do you want your money back?

Then if the person says, "Yes", for example, you would count out y-e-s-spells-yes-and-you-are-not-it. Of course like all choosing rhymes, if you are adept you can manipulate it to bring about the desired outcome.

I wonder about the origin of this rhyme. Was there a real accident in Chicago involving an engine number nine? Anyway, each time I recite it I get to thinking about it in a deeper sense. Because at some point, every train goes off the track of life, and you never get your money back, nor any compensation at all, except maybe the karmic variety. As the Quran says, "Whoever does an atom's weight of good shall see it, and whoever does an atom's weight of evil shall see it." So yes, everything is counted and weighed.

Nevertheless, in the short run all you get is a pile of tangled metal.

Derailment happens in many ways. You get caught up in the mundane realities of life - work, bills, debt, family - and lose sight of your dreams. Or God presents you with special opportunities and you reject them out of fear of the unknown. Or you suffer an unexpected loss. Or betrayal, that's a big one, especially if it is perpetrated by someone close to you. That's explosive on the tracks. It shakes the ground beneath your feet. So you lose faith in God, or in yourself, or in the world around you, and BOOM, engine engine number nine goes crashing off the track.

What now?

Well, you are still alive. Still breathing. Other opportunities will present themselves. God is still here, you are still here, the world in all its shambling glory is still here. If you've suffered a loss then take some time to grieve and allow yourself to function at less than full capacity for a while. Then get up, dust yourself off and, armed with the wisdom of lessons learned and losses survived, step out into the world bravely, unflinching from what may come. You will recover from your loss in time. Human beings are resilient. After all, we managed to survive saber toothed tigers, ice ages and the black plague to make it this far.

So no, I don't want my money back, thank you very much.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Retirement in El Valle? - Questions from a Reader

I received an email from a reader named Rick with some questions about life in El Valle. Here are his questions and my answers in blue:

"Hi Wael, Thanks for all the information on your website. I have a few questions regarding year-round living (i.e. retirement) in el valle de anton:

(1) What is the low temperature and the high temperature on a typical day in El Valle?"

Answer: Temperatures in El Valle are extremely comfortable. The wet season (April to December, approximately) is warm, rainy and humid; dry season (January to March) is slightly cooler, windy and dry. Heating is never needed and AC is rarely used. You will often run a fan on a warm day. If you go out in the evening, you might sometimes need a light jacket, but mostly not. I'd say the lows to highs during the day are 65 to 85, and at night 55 to 70.

The humidity of course is high. In the beginning this can be quite uncomfortable, but eventually your body adjusts and you don't feel it anymore, except maybe when it rains on a warm day. The high humidity presents many other challenges when it comes to storing and caring for food, clothing, electronic equipment, etc, but that's a different subject.

Weather in El Valle is mostly lovely and perfectly attuned to human comfort, but at times it can be dramatic. Crashing thunderstorms, heavy downpours, lightning shows... the dry season is also very windy in El Valle - I mean, at times it sounds like it will tear your roof off - and that takes some getting used to.

(2) "Are there any houses to RENT on a long-term basis, or must I buy a house if I want to live there?"

Answer: The rental market in El Valle is always tight, but there are usually a few houses available. They range from "typical" Panamanian homes with small windows, no AC and primitive kitchens, to newer, more upscale houses. Rent could be anywhere between $400 and $1500 or more, depending on the house. In fact my house will probably be available for rent in May. I saw a recent posting on the El Valle forum regarding a house for rent and you should contact Larry and Becky from the Golden Frog Inn about it.

(3) "Since the juice of the green (young) coconut seems to help my kidney problem, I'd like to know if fresh green coconuts are readily available in El Valle - or do I have to go down into the lowlands to buy them?"

Answer: Coconuts grow everywhere in El Valle. You can buy them at the mercado or climb a tree with a ladder and cut them down with a machete. "Coconut water" is also sold in all the stores.

(4) "How long is the ride (by bus or motor scooter) from El Valle to nice beaches with very clean seawater for swimming?"

Answer: It is a 45 minute drive down the mountain to nice beaches such as Santa Clara beach. The bus might take a little longer.

(5) "Are the any freshwater options (rivers, lakes, waterfalls) near El Valle that are clean enough and warm enough for bathing and swimming?"

Answer: There are streams in the hills around El Valle with natural pools (in the photo at top you see a local waterfall called Chorro El Macho). The water would be slightly on the chilly side. I have often seen locals swimming in them, but never ex-pats or tourists. If you hike up the La India Dormida trail, you'll see some natural pools. I don't see any reason why you could not swim in them. There is also the thermal hot springs in El Valle, which charges (last I checked) $1.50 for admittance. Also, a few local hotels have swimming pools and will let you swim for a nominal fee.

Thank you!
You're welcome.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Panama's Promised Land - Without Water

There's an article on the University of Miami School of Communications website about a little town called La Tierra Prometida - the promised land - about 30 minutes outside of Panama City. It sounds like it might be in the direction of Darien. It's a village of 500 people with no water. Their situation is rather desperate. People, especially children, fall ill constantly to diarrhea and fever from drinking fouled water.

Please read the article and the accompanying video. I want to know what can be done about this situation. Those of you with experience in such maters, please comment.

Here is the article in full:

La Tierra Prometida: Panama’s waterless Promised Land

By Andrew Donovan & Natalia Vanegas


Tucked away among the rolling hills of Panama’s impoverished Sector C countryside rests a small and secluded village known as La Tierra Prometida. Just a 30-minute drive from the sultry skyline of Panama’s thriving cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, La Tierra Prometida – translated means “The Promised Land” in English – represents a far different world than that of the country’s well-known capital city.

Rotting wood and rusting scrap metal adorn the small, dirt-floor shacks that line the rocky and winding dirt roads of this seemingly forgotten shantytown in southern Panama.

However, this represents only part of the cruel irony of the place called The Promised Land. The approximately 500 men, women and children who inhabit the close-knit community of La Tierra Prometida live most of their days without running water.

Water only flows through the village’s pipes once every three to six months and the government car that brings water during the dry times only comes every eight days, if at all, resident Maritza Correa said. Even when the car does show up, that water lasts only two or three days before it becomes contaminated and unusable.

Without the proper means to store and conserve the transported water and without a dependable supply of fresh water from the pipes, citizens of La Tierra Prometida have done their best to cope, but continue to endure unending problems.

Residents collect rain water in large barrels for drinking, taking showers and washing clothes, but due to changing climates and insufficient storage procedures, this water source is not reliable and undrinkable.

“During the winter, we have fewer problems, but during the summer, sometimes it doesn’t rain,” Correa said. “And even when it does rain, the water only lasts two or three days before it starts to smell bad. This has affected the kids. It gives them diarrhea, vomiting and fever.”

Hoping to prolong the water’s useful life, one resident added Clorox to the rainwater, hoping to clear up the black residue that had accumulated at the bottom of the barrel. The residue cleared, but the resident, Clara Santos, was left with rashes throughout her body after bathing in the improperly-treated water. “Look at me how I am,” Santos said, painfully revealing several scars spread across her forearms.

Like the rest of the people of La Tierra Prometida, Santos is fed up with the waterless conditions.

“For a whole week, my grandson had a fever and diarrhea, and he was vomiting,” she said. “There are no more options. The water from the rain is making us sick.”

“When there is no water from the water car, from the pipes, from anywhere,” Correa said. “We have to go to the stream to shower. The stream is in the woods and there could be snakes or other animals. That’s dangerous. Aside from that, there are people with bad intentions living in the woods. They can take a girl and take advantage of her,” she added.

From the car, to rain water, to the streams, Correa said the people of La Tierra Prometida have tried tirelessly to come up with a solution, but have yet to find one. “I have been living here for seven years and the problem is still not over,” she said angrily. “We have tried in everyway to solve this issue, but they haven’t solved our water situation.”

“They,” according to Correa, is the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (IDAAN), the country’s national aqueducts and sewage institute.

“We’ve ask the IDAAN to do something about it, but they haven’t solved our problem,” Correa said.

Their pleas to the IDAAN – the country’s water distributor – have gone unanswered other than the time some of the villagers banded together in protest, creating a human roadblock on a nearby street.

“When we did that, we got water,” Correa said. “And what does that tell us? That tells us that there is water available because the day we closed the street, the engineer from the IDAAN came here and the next day we had water, and a lot of it.”
But, within days, the village’s pipes were again dry, leading Correa and other residents to believe their situation is the result of a lack of compassion and competence on the part of the IDAAN rather than an issue of supply.

IDAAN officials do not deny the accusations of the village’s residents. However, officials say they have no foreseeable solution to the problem and they do not know when running water will be consistently available to the area. “The people that live in the metropolitan area have different conditions of service of potable water,” IDAAN official Catalina de Guema said.

“There are zones in the city of Panama that always have the flow of water. “There are other zones that have it sporadically.” La Tierra Prometida is located in one of those zones and its lack of water is due to the nature of its establishment said fellow IDAAN official Julio Cefar.

”Those are zones that were not planned and the communities are growing without the government being able to keep up,” Cefar said. “Because of that, we cannot always cover those areas with water.

“Despite that, I believe we have one of the major coverage areas of potable water based on population in all of Latin America,” Cefar said. “That’s what the statistics say.”

But, it’s not the statistics that matter to the people of La Tierra Prometida. “They always tell us to wait and it seems that we are going to stay waiting,” Santos said. “Nobody listens to us or comes here to see the situation. We’re totally abandoned.”

Here is an accompanying video::

VIDEO: Tierra Prometida: Panama's Waterless Promised Land

And here is a blog post about it by one of the university students:

Panama Day 3: Harsh Reality

Why is the rainwater undrinkable? Why does it go bad so quickly? What storage solutions can be implemented so that rainwater can be cached safely for longer periods of time?

Comments please.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Living in the Past, Living in the Future

Living in the Past

I have an American friend in Panama who seems to dwell in the past more than the present. He grew up in the Bahamas in the 1970's, a particularly carefree place, and his walls are covered with photographs of the days when he flew high in many ways - he was a surfer and a pilot, but also a drug and alcohol abuser and lived in what was essentially a commune. Someone in his life was a painter and he has several of her paintings on his walls, most of them depicting idyllic scenes of the Bahamas: a curving beach lined with palm trees, the water lapping at the shore.

He began to lose his vision in his late teens. It was a progressive condition with no cure. He sobered up and became a drug and alcohol counselor. He can still see, but not well.

His life is very different now. He has been sober for fourteen years, he is divorced, and he lives alone in a comfortable house in the Panama countryside.

He speaks of the past often, and when I visit we frequently end up talking about one of the photographs on his walls or in his albums: him sitting on the stoop of a ramshackle house with a big German shepherd dog on his lap; standing next to a small airplane, wearing shorts and a tank top; sitting in a bar with his arm around Count Basie, a famous jazz pianist who died in the 1980's.

This friend of mine becomes easily discouraged when things don't go his way here in Panama. He doesn't have a clear idea of what he wants from Panama, aside from a comfortable, peaceful place to spend his days (which would certainly be enough for many people, but is not enough for my friend); and I wonder if his inability to visualize his future is what causes him to turn to the past for comfort. Sometimes I think that the loss of his sight is responsible: that in losing the ability to see the beauty around him, he is forced to detour in his mind into the past, where everything is as bold and bright, and pleasantly nostalgic as he wants it to be. Herb Caen, who for many decades wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle before he passed away, said half-jokingly that he tended to live in the past because most of his life was there. I wonder if my friend believes this as well.

The Unreality of Linear Time

What is the past, anyway? Sure, there are physical remains of the past all around us, such as volumes of ancient books under glass in museums, or the bricks of the pyramids, or the bones of a dinosuar embedded in the earth. But those things exist in the present. What happened to the past? Where did it go?

Nowhere, according to modern physics. Einstein believed that the disctinction between past, present and future was an illusion, and that all exist simultaneously. It's only we humans who are limited to our linear reality and our moment-by-moment perceptions.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said in what Muslims call a "hadith Qudsi," or a statement in which the Prophet is narrating a statement of Allah that is not a part of the Quran:

"Allah said, 'Sons of Adam inveigh against [the vicissitudes of] Time, but I am Time, in My hand is the night and the day.'"

So if God himself is time, and He is eternal, existing in all times and all places, then time must also be unconfined by our incredibly limited linear perspective.

I find it interesting, by the way, how much of modern quantum physics echoes and confirms religious concepts expressed in the Quran.

Coming to Terms With My Personal Past

But I'm thinking more of my personal past, or yours: my childhood, my pains and joys, my humiliations and victories. Are they just chemical markers in my brain, perhaps remembered wrongly, or do they exist? What am I supposed to do with this past, how am I supposed to use it?

You see, I don't have quite as comfortable a relationship with my past as my friend.

I know that I need to come to terms with my past. I have a vast and motley assortment of memories colored with regret, shame, confusion, and yes some happy memories as well but they are widely spaced lights on a dark road.

Virginia Woolf wrote, "Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title."

This not to say that I have no worries about the future or that I am supremely confident. But I am strong. I always have been. Watch me wrap my knees and get under a 450 lb. bar on a squat rack. I'm strong, mind and body. I can take whatever the future might throw at me (but that's not a challenge, God)! I can ride it, bust through it, go around it, tunnel under it. I'm strong.

What I want is not to be free of any ill that might befall me, but to conduct myself well. I want to do the right thing and have no regrets. And that's the thing about the past you see, that there are times when I did the wrong thing, and there's nothing I can do about it now.

Like the time, many years ago, that I was walking along Seventh Street in San Francisco with Laura, only a block from our building. We were probably on our way back from the Brainwash Cafe or some SOMA restaurant, I don't recall. Seventh street is a sketchy neighborhood, especially at night. Lots of drug dealers, homeless folks and nutcases. We were coming up to Market Street from Mission, when across the street in the dark mouth of Natoma alley we noticed three men beating and kicking a man who was on the ground. Laura said, "What should we do?"

I could see that this was not a case of some innocent tourist getting robbed. All the men involved looked like thugs. I didn't feel like running over there and getting stabbed or shot. So I said, "Leave it alone, we'll call the cops from the apartment." We kept on walking.

This was not the right thing to do, and I knew that even then. At the very least I could have shouted from my side of the street, or hollered for the cops. Maybe the three men would have run off. I could say that I was thinking of Laura's safety, but the truth is, I was just afraid to intervene.

There are other examples in which my behavior was less understandable or rational, and I don't particularly feel like discussing them. Suffice it to say that I have caused pain to others deliberately and inadvertently, and now that I am older, calmer, wiser, more understanding of other peoples' behavior, and more in touch my own soul, I regret many of the choices I made when I was young.

I can't go back and re-do any of it. I just have to live with the regret. All my strength and courage in the face of the future seems to avail me nothing when thinking of the past.

I know the AA folks say that regret for the past is a waste of spirit. And I believe that. In spite of this post I don't sit around crying over the past. I mostly just avoid thinking about it. And that's exactly my point. I wish I didn't have to do that. I wish I had a better relationship with my own past and could allow myself to experience it, relish the bright parts, laugh over the stupid mistakes, and remember the day to day pleasures. But in fact my memory of the past is very poor, perhaps because I avoid it. I find that when I meet old friends and they tell stories of things we have done together in the past, I rarely remember. I rely on them to be my memory, in a since, which is rather pitiful for someone who hasn't been in a coma or car accident.

I acknowledge that some of the problem may not be my actions themselves, but the way that I veiw them. My life in Panama was full of small joys and happy days, but now that I am back in the USA even that has become tinged with sadness.

Living in the Future

Perhaps because my past is a closed book of regrets, I focus on the future, almost obsessively so. Unlike my friend in Panama, my vision of the future burns like lasers. I am constantly thinking, planning, dreaming. I have bright dreams and no shortage of self-confidence. I am willing to take risks. I try to expand my horizons every day. I try to challenge myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I take tremendous pleasure in parenting my daughter Salma, though she does run me down sometimes like an Energizer bunny on its last legs. I'm a person of faith. I believe in God, the essential goodness of the world, myself, and the people I love.

Still, I need to find a way to come to terms with my past and even find joy in it. Focusing exclusively on the future is like driving a car and never looking in the rear view mirror. There are times when you really need to know what's coming up behind you, for your own safety. I'd like to remember my past better. It's been said that past is prologue, and I'd like to have a clearer insight into my own early chapters. I don't know how to go about this.

Any ideas? And please, don't just say, "Get over it." Give me something real to work with, ha ha. Share your insights, I am open to them.