Thursday, July 3, 2008


OK, here's the new URL for Living In Potrerillos.  Don't expect perfection--I'll be playing with the new site for a while.

Advance Warning

           I've simply had it with Blogger.  I don't know why all of a sudden it's giving me problems, but if there is candidacy for sainthood for those with no patience, I'm top of THAT list!  I don't want to fool around with it, given other shortcomings.  Right now I'm investigating WordPress out of laziness because Mary uses it for her blog and she can fill me in on any questions I have.

           It appears that I can export all my archives from blogger to WordPress, so that's nice.  But it may be a few days before I'm up and running again.

I hate wasting time.

Price Increases

We eat a fair amount of chicken--it's cheap, we like it, it's healthier than red meat, it's in a good many Panamanian dishes, and Mary makes the most fabulous chicken in the province.  The last is enough to keep chicken high on our menu.  Some weeks ago--say 6 weeks (that warped sense of time again)-- pechuga (chicken breasts) went from $.95/lb to $1.05/lb.  Yesterday, Mary paid $1.29/lb, less for encuentro (leg and thigh joint), but I'm sure it went up proportionally. We buy both, but for some reason, only the price of pechuga sticks in my mind. So, since the beginning of the year, the price of that one item has gone up 37%.  I don't know what El Rey and SuperBaru are selling chicken for at this moment, but when we were paying $1.05, pechuga was selling at El Rey--the most expensive store in David--for $1.49.  I can't imagine what the price is now.  
Beef is strictly for the middle class and higher.  Chicken is the meat protein for most Panamanians, since it's affordable or used to be so for the working class.  Clearly, the working class people won't be able to afford to eat it as much or else they'll switch to the cheaper parts such as alas (wings).  As for the poor--forget it, they're already in deep trouble.
Somewhere I read that the official inflation figure here in Panamá was less than 10%, excepting fuel, of course.  Such official BS flies in the face of what is happening on the food front alone.
Because I haven't had time, I haven't been reading La Prensa daily nor have I been following The Panama News as much as I would like.  However, Eric Jackson has been running a few articles that at least touches on the unrest in the Comarcas, or indigenous homelands, and has briefly mentioned the serious unrest among the poor.While certain increases are not the government's fault, there are other problems that don't make international headlines but are important to the daily lives of the people here that are directly related to the corruption in the government, according to Jackson.  Streets in Panama City, sewers that discharge raw sewage into the streets, the miserable lack of funding to keep up schools, and more.
The Torrijos government is widely considered to be really bad, very corrupt government, with the rich getting richer, thanks to corruption on government contracts (that sound familiar at all?), and the poor getting poorer.  The economy is tanking--in part because of world conditions, without question, but also due to the corruption and indifference of the central government.  
Jackson has said that the only reason that there isn't a more pronounced opposition is that so far, there is no real leader around whom the opposition can coalesce.  I personally think that's hard to do, because there is no good way for an opposition party to get organized and become strong.  For example, Brasil elected its current President, Lula, because the PT, his party, built a solid base, electing representatives and senators, mayors, and--extremely important--governors of the various states.  Here in Panamá, the governors of the provinces are appointed by the president.  It doesn't take much imagination to understand how that weakens opposition organization and strengthens the incentives for corruption.  So, it's much harder to develop a political party within the different provinces.  Labor is somewhat organized but as you can imagine, is concentrated in the major urban areas.  The most powerful union is SUNTRACS, the construction workers union.  There is at least one political party more or less associated with the labor movement, but it's small.
There is also an autonomy movement here in Chiriquí, which certainly has my sympathy.  Chiriquí has tremendous resources which are funneled to the central government and either used in the province of Panamá (Panama City) or stolen.
It's hard to avoid the feeling that Panamá has the very real potential to develop into a powder keg.
An addendum:  Bear with what is working out to be Blogger's inability to take paragraphing commands.  blogger is definitely not the best place to blog--it has some really severe limitations--and today I'm unable to do things that were never a problem in the past.  i've been trying to fix it through the Edit function, but so far....
Not yet used to blogging again, so here's yet another addendum: in today's La Gringa's Blogicito, there is an excellent article about the electricity problem in Honduras. Well worth reading.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Time Out

I'm taking some time off from blogging--a few days, maybe a week--because I really have to do something about rearranging my schedule.  There are activities I really want to re-start and am having a hard time fitting them in considering the way I live my daily life now.  So--time for a little experimentation.  Got to find time somewhere, and right now the easiest thing to drop is blogging.

I'll respond to Comments as always, but new posts are out for a while.  See you soon.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Just a Little More on Animals

Steve has written a detailed account of the process of getting the required certifications and having them apostilled in the comments sections of Bringing In Animals.  That's exactly what we did.  We were lucky that our vet was an APHIS vet so that I didn't have to go through the extra stage--which a friend of ours had to--of getting the certificate from (in our case) Olympia, which would have added a minimum of at least one day to our process.

These days, you'd have to live in a really out-of-the-way place for your vet not to be aware of what it takes to ship animals internationally.  Always a good place to start.

But as I added in the Comments section and wish to emphasize: the rules for bringing in animals may have changed.  ALWAYS check with the Panamanian Consulate or Embassy, always.  Make no assumptions.

Also, for those who may be interested, Steve has given José Saenz's email address.  Again, you can do it on your own, but especially if you are bringing in animals in pet cargo, it is advisable to go through an agent.

I should mention, too, that if you arrive when the official vet is not there, your animals will go into quarantine overnight at the airport, for which you will pay (I have no idea how much).  Those with whom I've talked who had had to go this route say that the people in charge are kind and courteous, and helpful.  Panamanians love animals.  Steve's comment about drawing a crowd because of their dog's unusual breed is right on.

As for Eugene Malek International Airport in David: yes, they are lengthening the runways so they can use larger planes, but I have no idea when that's going to happen.  Perhaps they will then add animal immigration but I doubt it.  The airport itself is small, and while it's touted as being 'International", it just means routine flights entering from Costa Rica and I think, at this time, Columbia, but wouldn't swear to it.  My guess is that the Panamanian government will still funnel all formal immigration through Tocumen for the foreseeable future.  With immigration to Panamá from the US (and quite possibly soon from western Europe) dropping off, they don't have a lot of reason to expand services to David.

All great information.  Please send any additional, and I'll post it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Little Amplification on the Short Version

In my previous post, what you got was the short story, believe it or not, of our 36 hour odyssey of the actual physical move to Panamá.  I should mention that what carry on luggage we had was filled with what we needed for the cats we brought on board, including medications for the one cat who had cancer and who had to be medicated while we were in flight.  What luggage we checked had the rest of what we needed for the animals; all we packed for us was the equivalent of a toothbrush and a change of underwear.

I also want to amplify on the story of my little scene with Alaska Airlines.  I actually am not a confrontative person and will allow people a great deal of leeway if I see that they are trying to do their jobs.  But I had been warned by a Panamanian woman whom I met during my last trip to Panamá before we moved about getting confirmation of having the animals on board.  It was she who gave me the idea of standing at your seat, because she, as it happened had the same trouble I did--no formal confirmation.  She urged me to be firm and keep pushing until I had it.

I may not be confrontative, but no one needs to urge me to be "firm".  Especially where our animals are concerned.

The crew was in the final stages of preparing for taxiing away from the gate, and I had yet to receive confirmation.  I asked the flight attendant about it, told her I hadn't had word, and she just kept on strolling down the aisle, checking for upright seat backs, with "Don't worry, I'm sure they're on board", never even looking at me as she continued on her way.

That's when I stood up.  Believe me, I had everyone's attention, even hers, finally.  I said in a moderate but firm voice (waiting for some US marshall to jump out at me!) that I'd not had confirmation, that we were moving internationally and had to catch another flight, that I had heard stories about animals being left behind, and that I was frightened to death, and that I would not sit down until I knew the animals were on board the plane.  Every single word was true, especially about being frightened to death.  I never stopped being terrified until we landed at Tocumen and I saw those three crates .

The flight attendant was clearly furious but indeed it would have taken a US marshall to get me back into my seat (more likely, to carry me off) until I was sure Lucy, Ethel and Tulip were with us.  She came back and gracelessly gave me the confirmation slips that somehow had not made it on board.

I sat down, heart pounding, and the plane left the gate.

Bringing in Animals

This is in answer to a request.

Re animal importation regulations: absolutely the ONLY way to go on this is to contact the Panamanian consulate nearest you and get the information on requirements. The rules regarding immigration and visas have changed and go into effect I believe on August 1. My friend knew about the proposed regulations some of which were quite severe, and among them, she said, were much stricter rules on bringing in animals. BUT--there are always lots of proposed regulations; always at least some do not get finalized.  So it is vital that you ask the people who should know--at the Panamanian Embassy or Consulate nearest you.

Second, what is likely to be more restrictive is the airline regulations on how you travel with your animals. There are deadlines for final vet examinations, shots, etc. When we brought in our animals, you had to have a certificate from your vet stating that the animals were free of diseases and fit to travel which then had to be sent to the Panamanian Consulate for certifcation--stamped or apostilled--and then that document was what you presented to the airline to get your boarding pass. The rule used to be 10 days from the time your vet signed the document to date of arrival, I think, in the foreign country.

Check with the airlines, for these are their regulations, not those of Panamá.

Also, check with the airlines on rules for pets on board.  Many people--us included--wanted to bring their animals in the cabin with them.  All US airlines that we knew of at the time limited the number of animals on board in the cabin to a total of two for all passengers.  In other words, two animals per flight.  And, as I recall, one per person.  Since we brought 5, two of the cats came with us on board and the other three were shipped in pet cargo.  Airlines vary in their handling of pets in pet cargo and in their prices.  I believe, Will, you are only bringing in one cat, so you stand a  good chance of being able to bring your buddy on board. 

 BUT you MUST make a reservation and get it in writing!!!  Especially if you are dealing with COPA.  We found that COPA was very good with the animals.  But friends of ours, who had made arrangements to bring two of their cats on board with them, found out at the very last minute that COPA had lost their reservation and were about to allow another animal ahead of them on that flight.  Which meant that they would NOT be able to bring both cats on board and had not made any arrangements for shipping the other cat pet cargo.  The two requirements are very, very different.  Fortunately, they had an email document from a supervisor confirming the reservation, and so by persistence and presenting this document at JFK, I believe, they were able to get their two cats on board with them.  The other person, who evidently had not made arrangements was flat out of luck.  He/she could not fly with the cat or dog that day.  

These rules are absolutely rigid--RIGID--and you MUST make sure you are going to be able to board with your cat.

But you're not through yet.  You have to make an appointment, basically, with the official government vet who is on duty at Tocumen only until noon.  When we emigrated, this and other paperwork had to be done in advance because the vet was not there all the time; he only made an appearance when animals were coming in that day.  There are these hoops you must go through vis-a-vis paperwork, and I don't know what they are because like most people, we went through an agent who specializes in bringing animals into the country.  If you do not go through these hoops, believe this like you believe the sun rises in the east--your animal will NOT be allowed into the country.  Depending on the situation at that time, if you--not the Panamanian government-- can't arrange for immediate shipment back to Ireland or wherever, they will put the animal down.  Also, get out of your minds instantaneously any notion about the folded $20 dollar/euro/ruble bill slipped under the table and the vet will look the other way, allowing the animal in.  At the time we moved, there were horror stories about what happened when stupid Americans who had seen too many Grade Z movies or read too many comic books tried to do that.  It will not work.

We used an agent in Panama City who filed the required official notification and made arrangements for the vet.  There are two whom I know of.  We used Allan Pittí (whose family turns out to live in Potrerillos); the other one is José Saenz.  I do not have current information on either one of these people.  I know we were more than satisfied with Allan, who showed up with his wife at Tocumen because she had never seen anyone bring in 5 animals before!

Related to the use of an agent:  because of the heat on the tarmac, there are severe airline restrictions as to when you can ship an animal cargo.  If the predicted temperature will be over 85 degrees Fahrenheit at ANY stopover or at Tocumen, you will not be allowed to ship your animal cargo.  Animals have died of the heat after hours waiting planeside.  Allan and José are licensed to go out to the plane and facilitate the unloading of the animals, getting them into the air-conditioning of Tocumen.  In fact, our two quite thrilled dogs (who were ready to hop the next flight to Berlin or Rome, they didn't care where) and one very disgruntled cat made it into the cargo area at Tocumen before we did!  One of the happiest sights of my entire life was that of those three crates, waiting for us as we cleared Adoana and Migración.

By far and away, the worst part of the whole move was everything involving the animals.  When some of us get together and trade horror stories, we are right there with June 2-3rd, 2004, getting to Seattle from an island off the coast with the menagerie, getting them on Alaska Airlines flight to Los Angeles, and then the nightmare wait until the midnight flight to Tocumen.  On the Alaska Airlines flight, contrary to airline protocol, I received no word confirming that our animals had made it to pet cargo.  I had heard too many stories of animals being inadvertently left behind.  We had absolutely no leeway for error because of the difficulty of getting the documentation to the LA Panamanian Consulate back in time to avoid the Memorial Day holiday, and running against that 10 day deadline.  US marshall or no US marshall on any flight, I stood up at my seat and refused to sit down again--thus paralyzing the plane at the gate--until the flight attendant (vastly annoyed) brought me confirmation personally that the animals had made it on board.  They were supposed to give me a piece of paper that said that the animals had made it and they never did.  I would have preferred arrest rather than leave without that confirmation.

The flight was ok, but the 7 hour wait at LAX in the cargo area of Alaska Airlines with two dogs who were dying to get out there and meet all these new friends and three utterly miserable cats was a nightmare.  There are situations where you simply endure, simply suffer through them, and this was one.  

If you bring animals on, you must have regulation size carriers that will fit under the seat.  Do NOT make the mistake of hard-sided carriers.  The soft carriers are best, as they can be the regulation 9" high (at least that was the situation when we flew) in order to fit underneath the seat with no problem.  The woman ahead of us tried to get on board her flight with a non-regulation carrier.  She was turned away and had to buy at the airport a regulation carrier.

Be very careful in this arena.  Check with the nearest Consulate about the rules, and then check again, since the rules have changed and it may take time for the word to get out.  get absolute clarity with the airlines.  We split up the work.  Mary dealt with the airlines and I dealt with the Panamanian Consulate.  It was the single hardest aspect of our move.

Also, remember that the rules change all the time here, and as I warned in the beginning, there are rumors of rule changes involving animals.  Be very, very careful.

Addendum:  I forgot, and this is important:  if you are bringing in animals by means of pet cargo--and with multiple animals you almost always have to--then check with the airlines about possible "blackout" dates--a period of at least 3 months when the airline will refuse to carry pets in pet cargo because of excessive temperatures at any--I repeat, any--airport the plane lands at during its flight.  One of the reasons why we flew the way we did is that we had to choose a route that would meet these requirements.  There were cheaper and less hair-raising ways to go, but we wound up having to fly to LA from Seattle, then wait for a midnight flight to Tocumen because at that time (and it has since changed) Copa always allowed animals in pet cargo because the flight arrived so early in the morning.

Everything we did, including the schedule for our entire move, revolved around getting our beloved family to Panamá.  As soon as you have even a rough idea of when you want to move, start checking into both airline and Panamanian regulations.  Also, be prepared to spend a bundle per animal.  There are vet fees and other fees here in Panamá, but the cost of flying your animals can vary really wildly from one airline to another.  We had to do what we did but we chose Alaska Airlines over Northwest, for instance, because the cost of flying the animals varied well over $100/animal at that time.  With five animals, that was no mean consideration.  Both airlines had pretty good reputations for treating animals.  Alaska had one of the best reputations, but I frankly was far more pleased with Copa.  I don't care how annoyed that flight attendant was with me, Alaska did not follow their own protocol for confirmation.  You can not depend on any one and don't even bother making the assumption that you can.  There are plenty of horror stories--and I have confirmed several--about animals dying thanks to the idiots at the airlines.  Like pilots forgetting to turn on the environmental control in the pet cargo area.  Imagine your animals dying because the plane went to 30,000 feet with outside temperatures and an unpressurized cargo area.  I corresponded with one woman who had that happen to her with her dogs.

I hate to be this grim, but these are real worries.  If you ship cargo, demand confirmation--demand it, it is your right--and ask politely but confirm that the captain knows that he has live animal cargo on his flight.  If you love your animals, worry and be fanatical about details.  I called the LA Panamanian Consulate so many times, checking, that the consul there recognized my voice on the phone immediately.  He was truly kind, truly compassionate, and treated me with all courtesy and kindness, even though I must have made upwards of 20 calls to him, many times checking the same thing, since I was getting contradictory information.   It turned out that, at that time anyway, the State of California required an additional certification that had to be apostilled and I wanted to make sure that, since we were stopping over in LA, I didn't have to go through the CA certifiation as well.   This would have delayed us, since we were working around the US holiday of Memorial Day when all government offices, including foreign consulates, shut down.

I hate to be this alarmist, but the incident about Copa losing the reservation for bringing pets on board in the cabin happened less than a year ago.  The people involved were nervous wrecks over the whole animal immigration thing.  All I could do was empathize from a distance because there is good reason to be worried.  Mostly, it goes smoothly.  We really had no trouble except for confirmation about the animals being aboard the Alaska Airline flight.  Just pay attention to detail and hound the people involved.  That's what they're getting paid for--to make sure that you're getting the right service.

Start early.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Leaf Cutter Ants

Leaf cutter ants on a piece of rope--from Wikipedia.

Normally, I don't work on Sundays unless there's an emergency.  This morning, while walking the dogs, I finally found what I was looking for--on plants that had been losing their leaves, I finally saw leaf cutter ants.  I had looked for nests but in the grass it's hard and leaf cutters can go impressive distances. 

Leaf cutter ants fall well within my definition of emergency.  I've been really worried about 2 young  papaya plants and a small Chinese hat plant, all of which are trying to make it and all of which have been under attack.

After breakfast, I hauled out my handy-dandy industrial strength sprayer and my small hand pump of Hormitex, a very specific, really excellent ant killer in powder form.  Many people use bait that they lay along the trails so that the ants will take it back to the nests, but I put nothing down on the ground that the dogs can pick up.  Ethel and Fred are Labs and they will eat rocks, I swear, if they thought it was any kind of food.  Lucy is a little better, but not by much.

I waited patiently (well, for me) until I could identify the column of ants and then started tracking it back to the nest.  When I did find it, it was conservatively 60 ft away; I've seen trails much longer than that.  That is the danger with leaf cutters--they don't even have to be on your property.

Fortunately I found the nest, but in doing so, I was amazed to see that the ants had cut--actually cut--narrow tracks through the grass down to the soil that resemble in miniature superhighways.  Sure enough, you should see the little red monsters truck right along!  It should not be surprising, however, because they have mandibles that vibrate a thousand times a second to saw off pieces of foliage.  I have seen a small bougainvillea stripped overnight; I've read that some species of leaf cutters can strip a small citrus tree overnight, which is pretty impressive.

Their nests are huge underground chambers that can measure 45 ft in diameter and be 15 feet deep, containing as many as 8 million ants, all after my papaya trees!

No.  Not without a fight.

A standard way of dealing with them is to locate the nest, plug up all the entrances except one, and then insert the tube of your pump powder sprayer as far as you can.  You tamp dirt around the hose then pump powder into the nest.  Given the size of the underground chamber, you pump a lot.  I did what I could this morning with not just one but two nests, because I'm almost out of Hormitex.  Have to get some tomorrow.  It may not have killed all of them, but I'm hoping it has given them pause, because I was really appalled with the numbers swarming over my best papaya.  I sprayed that plant and around its base with Arribo, hoping to give the poor plant a breathing space until some of the other measures take hold.  I've fertilized the papayas, trying to give them a boost for recovery.

And just to keep reminding me of who is really boss of the planet, I ran across yet another column of nomadic army ants.  Looking for something else, I didn't notice that I had walked right into the column until I felt this nasty bite on my leg, and looked down.  Hey, brothers and sisters, no problema, have it all your way--and while you're at it, could I invite you over in this direction where there are 8 million snacks waiting for you?

Some Info on Alisson Staff

I actually wrote a little post about the information the Espinosas gave us about Alisson Staff, but I have this feeling I posted it inadvertently on another blog.  Both are on Blogger and show up on the Dashboard when you're creating a new post.  I was still pretty sick at the time, and I may have just gotten careless.  If so, regulars who belong to the Pulitzer Challenge--reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction--must have been mystified as to why this post came in about an 11 year old girl and where she lives!  Hey, keeps them on their toes.

Anyway, it turns out that she won the national competition all right--but 3rd prize.  Someone who reads this blog told me that last year a girl from Boquete won it, so it could very well be that two chiriquenas won last year!  That would be exciting.

Alisson is actually from very near here, a little community just a couple miles away from us if that, just south of Potrerillos Abajo.  Just fits in with my general impression that there are a lot of Staffs in that area.

Alisson also turns out to be the daughter of Ricardo Espinosa's cousin.  Families are close here, so naturally the entire clan is very proud of her.

Yesterday morning was beautiful, but today is another in the partially overcast, close, muggy mornings we've had recently.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Ugly American Syndrome--Again

Yesterday, my first real day out of bed, we went into David because the US Consulate (Embassy?) was holding an information session at the Gran Nacional Hotel.  We were interested in voter registration, since I'm not sure whether or not I'm still registered in the state of Washington.  We had hoped we could somehow register at this meeting.  In retrospect, this was just a vain wish out of laziness, because of course each state has it's own requirements.  But we went.

There were quite a few people in the room, and we immediately spotted a couple we knew who recently bought a house in Alto Boquete.  They had rented just down the road from us for months, trying in vain to find property they could afford in Potrerillos.  But some doctor in Florida is convinced that his next million is just one deal away, and they were unable to buy the land they wanted.  Tired of waiting, needing to get on with their lives, they bought a house from someone who is desperate to get out of Panamá and back to the US.

We were standing there chatting, just beyond the "Hi, how are you" stage and into the reasons why we were at the meeting.  They mentioned getting driver's licenses, and karen was just starting an explanation of their situation when some jackass American, dressed in shorts, sandals and flowered shirt that cost enough to keep a Panamanian family in food for a year, walked by and said in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the room, "Driver's license?  You don't need a driver's license.  That's just a folded $20 bill..." by which time he had passed out of the room and was down the hall far enough that even his overly loud and smartass voice couldn't be heard through the doors.  

He really didn't have anything to add to a conversation to which he was not invited.  He had nothing useful to offer.  He was just trying to show how hip he was, how "smart", how cynical, what an insider he was--and what a total pr_ck he was.  He succeeded admirably with the last-named.

Why me, God?  I'm not a particularly nice person but even I don't deserve this sort of exposure to the ugliness of the standard Boqueteño.  You can not believe how many times you get exposed to this kind of crap in Boquete.  It's now a stereotype, which is why all of us assume that any ill-mannered jerk acting out in public is from Boquete.  It isn't that we don't have our share of cynics or that we are romantic idealists, but in Potrerillos, anyway, we don't act out in public.  Our mothers taught us better manners.  Then again, maybe he didn't have a mother.  He might be a biological experiment that failed--badly.  Somebody contact the lab and tell them to dump that particular Petrie dish of genes.

I was tired and still weak, and in no mood to be polite but unfortunately before I could react appropriately--like booting his overdressed rear end into the Pacific and back to whatever godforsaken piece of dirt he came from--he was gone.

There were Panamanians outside, staff of the hotel, going about their duties.  People like this mentally retarded boor always treat the Panamanians as if they don't exists as human beings, perhaps to show their "superiority" as Americans, born by divine right (which God?) to be above all other inferior nationalities.  Perhaps to show how insecure they are, maybe their contempt.  Because believe me, it is contemptuous of the Panamanians to treat them like furniture.

It's also a mistake to treat them as if they don't understand English.

Regardless, it is always illuminating to see how people act when they think no one (important) is looking.

We found out we had made the trip for nothing, got out of there, and escaped back to our little piece of the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alternative Medicine

Sunday afternoon about 5 I came down with what was most likely food poisoning.  2 hours later, I was still vomiting (with nothing in my stomach) and in such shape that I was seriously considering calling my doctor.  Mary decided to call the Espinosas instead; both Maritza and Ricardo are big believers in medicinal plants and have a great many in their beautiful garden.

Maritza recommended an infusion of guanabana leaves in water; she said it would have effect rapidly.  Guanabana is a delicious fruit here, the soursop, and we had planted 2 trees three years ago.  Mary gathered leaves, made the infusion, I drank maybe a couple of tablespoons of this concoction that tasted like boiled leaves--and just about instantly, the vomiting (and the accompanying diarrhea) stopped.  I was able to rest for the first time, and managed a half-way decent night's sleep.

  Yesterday afternoon, they came over with another medicinal remedy, the resinous bark of a tree whose name I didn't catch but which we'll get tonight.  Ricardo brought us a small branch that we can plant in order to  have our own tree.  Another infusion, which tasted worse than the first!  Imagine something that smells--and tastes--a little like turpentine.  Maritza, laughing, said that of course it tasted bad--it was medicine, and therefore it was supposed to!  I well remember this theory from my mother who was convinced that the worse it tasted, the better it was for you.

I reserve judgement on the correlation between taste and benefit, but I am a believer in the guanabana leaf infusion.

Ricardo has this  old, old book called Indigenous Medicines which I'm going to search for.  It has a lot of remedies from medicinal plants.  Last night, Martitza and Ricardo recited a whole list of such remedies, from ingredients that are easily available here, never mind from the plants themselves.  I was in no shape to remember them, but it's something I intend to pursue.

It's like having your own physicians just a few minutes away.  

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Alisson Staff

The following video is of an 11 year old girl from Chiriquí, Alisson Staff, who recently won a national competition.  She's a fresh-faced girl who looks perfectly ordinary--until she starts singing.

Mary and I were completely blown away by this girl's voice.  In fact, I spent 2/3 of the first song trying to figure out if she was doing karaoke or something similar but we both agreed later that no, it's her voice.  If so, in a few years, all of Panamá and possibly a good part of the world will be hearing about this young singer.

The first song has to do with some kind of angel, possibly a guardian angel, but not sure--it sounds to me like "juridica" which would be Portuguese, not Spanish, but then who knows.  For some reason, I have a hard time translating all of it but then I'm not one for the normal type of song lyrics--I prefer Pittí's poetry, myself.    Whatever it is, the song itself is a tear-jerker because I happened to glance behind me when Alisson was finished, and Maritza was wiping her eyes.

The second song is a standard girl(boy) meets boy (girl) and falls in love.  No translation needed--I'm sure you'd understand it if it were sung in Farsi or one of the Malay dialects.

That's about it--there were some more entertainers but this has been a massive enough project as it is.  I hope you enjoyed our rural school celebration!

Mary and I are going to make cautious inquiries to see if we can possibly help out in the school.  We're both scientists, we're both former educators, both of us are fanatics about the importance of education.  It would be both fun and satisfying to help out in that particular way.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Songs of Dimas Pittí

Dimas Lidio Pittí (or Pitty) is a famous poet, author, and writer who was born in Potrerillos in 1941.  I had heard about him from Maritza, and had resolved to get some of his works.  He was present at the school celebration, and made a brief presentation about the life of Felix Lara.  This is a very brief video of him below, just to give you an idea of his presence and his voice.

The next videos are of interpretations of some of Pittís poetry, set to music and sung by a young man from the community of Macano which is in Boquerón, near Concepción, and accompanied by the trio of musicians you've already seen and heard.

I don't know what the title of the first poem/song is, but the second one is "Chiriquí, Provincia Mia".

Other Musicians From Potrerillos

There were some adult entertainers, too.  The video shows a group of three musicians--one playing guitar, another recorder, and the lead, Sr. Enrique Quiroz, who is a violinist from Potrerillos.  I have three clips of their music, but this one is their best: La Palomita--The Little Dove.

Rising Young Stars

After the school children's presentations, there was other entertainment.  This video is of a group from Dos Rios, which is a little community just south of Dolega.  They took part in a national competition.  They didn't win; given how good these kids (and a dad) are, I can't even imagine how good the other groups were!

This, after all, is a school celebration in a small community in Panamá.  People wander in and out of the camera field.  Some even have the nerve to stop and take pictures, blocking my camera view!  The one woman wound up being my nemesis most of the day.

Stay with it, though, because the music is worth it.  Darío is here today.  When he heard the music as I was editing, he told Mary, "Just wait until that boy is 20!"  You bet!

Notice how solemn and concentrated the young accordionist is.  He's a little cutie, certo.

School Presentation: Make Way for the Kids!

I love this picture of who I think are 8th grade boys.  Many of the different grades gave mini presentations.  The 8th graders (I think) gave a mock interview with three well-known experts in the infotech field.  the interviewer was a girl, suitably dignified and solemn.  these boys were--well, their age!  I happen to get a big kick out of this age group of boys (so long as I don't have to deal with them on a daily basis).  The look on the face of the middle one is sheer mischief.  Of the relatively few stills I shot  (I spent most of my time filming), this is my favorite.

The children's presentation started off with the Jardin Infantil--kindergarten.  They are singing along to music--the voices you hear are not theirs.  They are utterly darling.  the song they're singing talks about wanting a world where children can live in peace.  At two points in the song, the lyrics say that they are singing for those children who are in pain, and for those who have no bread.  At that point, I started to cry.  There is absolutely nothing worse in the world than hearing a child cry from hunger while knowing that it will not get anything to eat.

But here they are, the Jardin Infantil of Escuela Felix A. Lara in Potrerillos Arriba!

I didn't catch the poetry reading by the first-grade girl, but here's a recitation by a 4th grade girl. The poem is about when the school bell sounds--"tin, tin", everyone goes to class, and  they discover the world in books. ( Sorry about the pole in the way).

The School Presentation, Part 1

I thought I'd devote this post to still pictures, to prepare the way for the kids.

The presentation was held outside in front of the school.  The pavilion was for special guests, which meant retired teachers.  We were with Maritza Espinosa, who is a retired teacher, and she invited us into the pavilion with her.  It's the reason why I shot the videos as best as I could around flagpoles, umbrellas and other objects; our angle of viewing underneath the pavilion was worse than the chairs set out under the sun.  However, it was nice to be in the shade.

The woman to the extreme right with her hair pulled back and wearing a red blouse is our friend, Maritza Espinosa.  To her right is her daughter, Marisin.  As with any of these images, if you click on them, you'll get a larger one.

Here we have the Minister of Education, all the way from Panama City to lend his august presence in order to open the proceedings.  Forgive me if I wasn't impressed.  The picture flatters him because it doesn't show the phony politician's smile pasted on his face for most of the proceedings.  It was especially prominent, the smile, when he announced that the Escuela Felix A. Lara right here in Potrerillos was going to become THE model school for all of Chiriquí once the government was through upgrading it.

Yeah, sure.  

Panamanians are polite.  Under similar circumstances, given the realities of where the money really goes and the history, an American audience would at best have been stone silent; realistically you'd have heard jeering laughter.  Here, people pretended to believe it.

What offended me even more than his phony smile was the fact that he was unshaven.  Mustaches are very common among the men here; beards are not.  Last I saw, razors were readily available in all the stores.  I personally thought it was insulting, but then I'm American and I don't know how Panamanians view it.  I didn't ask.

He left after his thankfully brief remarks, trailing an entourage of about 6 to 8 women.

This is the director of the school which is known formally as the Centro Básico.  It's more than just a primary school since it includes Grades 7 through 9.  after that, the kids go to the colegio or high school in Dolega.

She's young to have such an important position.  Maritza told me that she's been in the position 4 years, and that she's worked extremely hard.  I can believe it.  Getting three new classrooms in any kind of reasonable time must have taken Herculean effort, given the way things go here in Panamá.

The dates you see on the lectern are first, the date the school was inaugurated and the second, when it was named after Dr. Lara.  Maritza told me that there used to be, in the earlier days of the pueblo, a lot of two story houses; she grew up in one.  She said that before there was a school, classes were held in the private houses, on the bottom floors.  This was true of her house as well; the family lived on the upper floor.

In the museo, there are some very old photographs, especially of the first "educators", as they're called here.  One was taken in 1905 of a woman who was the first in Potrerillos.  there are a lot of old photographs there; I want to go back and take more pictures, learn more.

A Day of Celebration: The Memorial Mass

Chapel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Potrerillos Arriba

Yesterday (June 13) was a special day in Potrerillos Arriba, because the school (which contains grades K through 9) put on what turned out to be an extraordinarily impressive program celebrating the completion of three new classrooms, one of which will be a computer classroom.

Because this is Latin America and even though Panamá is a very secular country, religion is a vital part of the community life.  So, for the Catholic parents and children, the celebration started off with a special Mass at the church at 9 am.

Dr. Felix Antonio Lara as a young man.

 This was a memorial Mass for Dr. Felix Antonio Lara, a distinguished educator in Chiriquí and for whom the Potrerillos school is named.  June 3rd this year was the 100th anniversary of his birth.

I just took a few clips from the Mass itself, more to show what the community looks like than anything else.  Our priest is a young Franciscan.  The Franciscans are very prominent in Chiriquí, which suits me just fine, since I'm quite Franciscan in my attitudes.

Just some things to look for:  the first clip is before the Mass started, just to show the community adn the inside of the church.  The school children are all wearing uniforms.  White shirts are for grades K through 6, while the blue shirts are worn by grades 7 through 9.  Pants and skirts are dark blue.  Uniforms like this are universal in the province; every school kid wears one.

I panned the front of the church to give you an idea of what it looks like.

The older woman reading the first Scriptural reading is Maritza Espinosa's aunt.  She and her husband are very active in the congregation, as is Maritza herself.  

The priest is reading the Gospel.

Finally, just showing the communion line, for more visuals of the congregation.  You'll see a Ngobe Buglé woman in traditional dress.  She's wearing one which is aquamarine with brown and white decorative "bands"; she's sitting towards the front of the congregation.  

I got the biggest kick out of watching one of the 8th graders, I think, telling off either a sibling or a school chum towards the end of the last clip.  Her facial expression is just classic.


Something that the priest said during his homily, which emphasized the value of education, intrigued me. He remarked that at least teachers in Panamá were more or less well-paid, but that was not true in most of Central America. He specifically mentioned Guatemala and Honduras where, he said, many classes were held outdoors in the forested area due to lack of schools. He also said--and given the currency units, he had to be talking about Guatemala, not Honduras--that teachers were paid the equivalent of $20/month.


I'm still processing and editing stills and videos, but I should have at least one video up tomorrow.

Friday, June 13, 2008

An Encounter with the Representante

Yesterday afternoon I went up to the pueblo to take pictures of and gather information about the Potrerillos library and, as it turned out, the little museum.  After chatting with Marisin and Jovanna and taking pictures, I shot some footage of Jovanna's blue and yellow macaw who lives out back and of the front of the building itself. There was a man standing there who wound up being incorporated into the picture.

After I finished filming, he introduced himself as the representante for the area. His position corresponds more or less to a member of the US House of Representatives. I had met him once before and reminded him that he had visited our house after our bodega was robbed. He looked a little blank, and I put it down to the fact that perhaps all us gringas look more or less alike. Plus I'm not a voter. Yet.  It did occur to me that since everyone seems to know about the proposed change in immigration laws (the government appears to be notifying various people including my physician) and thinks that they are going to be approved, he might be making sure a potential voter got to know him.  He is a politician after all, and they're all alike.

First he spoke in rather bad English, which I could barely make sense of, so I replied in my good if not fluent Spanish, and we went on from there with no problem.

I had heard from Jovanna and he confirmed that the small building that houses the library, museo and Infoplaza sits on 15 hectares of land that used to belong to Cítrico, a major citrus growing and processing company in Potrerillos Abajo. At that time, Cítrico was owned by an American whom everyone refers to as Señor Louis. He sold it to a Columbian, and to listen to the locals, everything has gone downhill since then. That may be just the Panamanian prejudice against Columbians or it may be true, but anyway, Señor Louis, the American, is always spoken of quite highly. In any event, he donated the land, not to the municipio, which is the governing entity of the pueblo but to the community itself, which I gather is administered by something known as a Junta Comunal. You see that phrase a lot, on bus shelters, for example.  I'm not sure exactly what that means but it seems to be a sort of community committee that handles little projects outside of the official government municipio.

We walked the area and talked (actually, like any politician, he talked and I listened), while he described to me the very ambitious projects that he would like to see happen.  To summarize: he would love to see a recreational area in back of the Infoplaza/library building--there are already some swing sets there--that would include a swimming pool for the kids, a reforestation project, gardens, and a home for the aged.

The last surprised me.  In a family-oriented culture such as this one, it's not something I expect.  I know that the only place you find them in Brasil is in the large cities in the south; in the northeast, it is amazing to what lengths adult children will go to take care of their aged parents.

When I asked him about this, he told me that there were many poor, elderly people who were ill and who were abandoned.

He also talked about the poverty in the area.  Once a month he and an American (I think) woman go in his truck to deliver food to the poorest people in the area.

This is where I want to get involved in helping out the community.  Next time he goes on his rounds, he'll notify me, and I'll go with him.  We can go from there to figure out exactly what Mary and I can do to help.

What interested me a lot is when he began talking about the foreign community here, which, he said, is a great deal smaller than in Boquete.  I muttered something about quality vs quantity which I'm fairly sure he didn't understand.  Just as well.  What he wants to do is to have a meeting with the interested foreigners ( I kept reminding myself that I wouldn't be a 'foreigner' technically anyway for much longer) in order to discuss his projects.

Ah.  We come to the heart of the matter.  The American money machine.

When we first moved to our rental house, our helpful next-door neighbor described what the basis of some of his problems with labor were.  Campesinos, he claimed, really and truly believed that Americans actually made money in their houses--we had printing machines (if they thought that technically) and we could make as much money as we wanted.

With ever-increasing exposure to Americans and other foreigner nationals, I'm sure that particular belief is long gone.  However, it lingers in many other ways.  There is the solidly-held conviction that all Americans are rich and therefore it's quite all right to steal from or cheat them.  I've gone into this cultural attitude extensively so I won't say more.  I did however point out to the representante that the three rural communities of Boquete, Potrerillos and Volcán were home to three very different colonies (using his word, by the way) of foreign nationals.  Without question, Potrerillos is far and away the "poorer" of the three.  On average, there are far more of us Americans, Canadians, and British, for example, who are living on Social Security or its equivalent and who are definitely and absolutely not rich.  There are a few well-off but they are the exception not the rule.  We correspond in income and life style in general to the Panamanian middle class.  Boquete has the rich Americans and Canadians; while there are people of modest means there, they are outnumbered by the well-to-do.  It seems to me that Volcán is somewhere in between.  The attitude in the three foreign communities is also very different but that's something else again.  Overall, we here in Potrerillos appear to be very much closer to our Panamanian hosts.

I wanted to get that across to him because I know what's coming.    He wants the "rich" foreigners to help out with his pet projects.

I have extensive experience in Brasil with what happens to foreign aid of any kind, whether from governments or from private sources.  The overwhelming majority of it is wasted, thanks to cultural assumptions or from ignorance of the realities of Brasilian life and politics.  To give an example of what will be my main concern here, an Irish missionary priest made several trips to the US to get the funds necessary to complete a second day care center in the poorer sections  of São Paulo so that mothers could leave their children in a safe place while they went to work.  This is a massive problem in Brasil, because unattended kids get out--and all too often get lost on the streets to become a staggering social problem.  The priest had a commitment from the São Paulo city government to pay salaries and expenses for the day care center once it was erected.

I went to São Paulo on my first trip and saw for myself the day care center.  It was gorgeous.  Then I visited the first one he had been instrumental in building in another area--and ran into the realities.  

It was clearly not as well kept up as the one that had just been built.  The major problem was that the São Paulo city government had decreed in increase in salaries for day care workers and other such service personnel--and then didn't have the money to pay the salaries.  So they stopped paying.  They also ran out of money for whatever reason to pay for food and upkeep.  The workers all signed petitions saying that they would be happy to have the lower salaries and pleaded for the money for at least food for the children.  Nothing came of it.  When I visited, the staff had not been paid in several months (this was standard for Brasil at that time and may still be in the northeast).  The way they were getting food for the children was to go to the open-air markets after closing time and begging for the left-over vegetables that the vendors had been unable to sell.  Sometimes they were reduced to picking up the garbage that had fallen under the tables in the stalls.

I have more stories like this.  I have examples of aid wasted from both the US, the European Union, and major non-profit outstanding charitable organizations.  I learned the most from the last-named ones, because the people there told me the lessons that they learned and how they did things differently now. 

The point I want to make is that you have to look long-term at the consequences of what aid you're prepared to give.  It's a wonderful idea to build a home for the elderly--but where is the money going to come from for staff and upkeep?  It can't come from the foreign community.  

Years ago, I heard that the foreign community--mainly Americans--in Boquete had raised money to do something for the local schools.  The story as I heard it said that the local teachers did not want to accept the money/aid because then, they said, the government would cut the money it gave to the school, reasoning that the foreigners were going to support the school.  I have no idea whether or not the story is true, but based on my experience in Brasil, I tended to believe it.  Panamá has a centralized, corrupt government, and believe me, there are problems like that here.  Money just sort of disappears here.  I've already posted about the disappearance of money from the Public Health program.  This is in addition to the fact that Panamá is a poor country that doesn't have sufficient resources to begin with, and that most of those resources go to Panama City anyway.

I had a lot of contact with different Catholic (and some Protestant) missionary groups in Brasil.  One such group was composed of lay American Maryknoll missionaries, hard working people who did their utmost to help the poor especially in health education.  I remember one night where there was a lively discussion about Mother Theresa's organization, and the missionaries were really indignant with her efforts.  They claimed that all she did was treat the symptoms but did not address the root causes, which were political in nature.  Most missionaries sooner or later start sympathizing with reform political movements in South America because of problems with corrupt governments and endemic poverty.

I have come to agree with Mother Theresa herself who said that while all the reformers were arguing and fighting for reform, people were dying.

She and Dorothy Day are two of my greatest heroes (along with Abraham Lincoln).  I agree that political solutions are necessary.  But in the meantime, I have watched children dying of hunger, cattle already dead of starvation, and the homeless building pathetic shelters in garbage dumps and along the beaches of the Amazon River where the rising waters will destroy them.  I've also seen, as we do in the news today, aid misdirected and misused.

So yes, I want to help and yes, I'll go to the meeting, but with both eyes open and some hard questions in mind.  In the meantime, if the representante is serious, I'll go with him in his truck to help distribute food and do what I can to ease the suffering--if only in very small ways--right now.

I used to have a small plaque hung on our bathroom wall with a quote from Mother Theresa: "We can do no great things.  We can only do small things with great love."

Driver's License Renewal

Yesterday was a busy day. Among other things, I went to David to renew my driver's license which expires in a week.  I always go early when I face the bureaucracy, because despite my efforts to find out exactly what is necessary, you just never know what details you've missed.

I already knew--quite by accident--that since I would be past 70 when the time came for renewal, I would have to get a certificate from my doctor stating that I was fit enough to drive.

I personally think that this is an excellent law.  When I first saw the requirement, my mind flashed back almost 35 years when I was in Minnesota, stopped to make a left-hand turn with my signal on--and a 74 year old man plowed into the back of my car.  One of the things that came out in the next hour is that this man was driving with a serious aneurism, which meant he could die instantly at any minute if that aneurism blew, doing God knows what damage to other vehicles, drivers or even pedestrians.  Yet, it was perfectly legal for him to do so.  It was NOT perfectly legal, however, for him to be driving without glasses, which he was.  I left him to Minnesota justice in the form of the State Police and went on my way.  I've never forgotten the incident.

Certification was no problem because I always have my annual exam right around my birthday anyway.  To be insufferably smug about it, I am in excellent health.  So clutching my certificate and a raft of results of blood tests and ekg scan, I went to the appropriate office for renewal.

To my surprise and gratification, it all went smoothly.   I went early to avoid crowds and was waited on almost immediately.

One of my worst personality defects is that I can not resist playing the clown.  Fortunately, once the Panamanians get over the shock of a 71 year old gringa doing her best to make jokes in Spanish (jokes that believe me, are lame in English), they humor me and even laugh.  You can see why I love living here.  No one used to laugh at my jokes in the US!  One of the main reasons why I moved, to be frank.  The young woman giggled, even, when I tried to get her to read my ekg.

Anyway, we got to the part where you have to have your photo taken.  Ever the idiot, I mugged for the little camera; given what those cameras are like, it came out with me looking like some disreputable homeless beggar who was out to steal an old lady's purse in order to get my next meal.  Except  of course I am an old lady, too, but I have never let age get in my way.  Mary and I have this competition going to see who can take the worst official photos.  As hard as I tried, I have to admit that she still beats me out--but just barely, just barely.

Next were the eye and hearing tests.  All ok.

The shock came when I went to pay the fee--$40.  That is double what it was last year!  

In no mood to laugh now, I returned with my receipt to pick up my new license--to find out that because of my age,I have to have it renewed in 2 years instead of the usual 4.  While I hate the inconvenience, I think this is a good law.  It won't do everything, but it will reduce the number of problematic drivers on the road.  God knows they're bad enough when in perfect health.

So I left, bruised from the unexpected increase in the fee but happy with the way the process went.  

My only dissatisfaction was that I couldn't get anyone to read my ekg.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Bougainvillea with wildlife.

Wednesday morning I looked out over the yard and noted where Darío had finished mowing after almost 8 hours work the day before.  There was still quite an area to go.  It dawned on me then that this was the first time that Darío had left such a large area unfinished; in the past, he's been able to mow the whole yard or close to it.

Some day I should take a video of Daréio with his beloved (our) lawn mower.  He zips along with a fierce look on his face as he scans the ground searching for hidden rocks or other obstacles that might damage the blade.  He moves.  He works.

So what I was seeing was, in part, the result of 6 months of back-achingly hard work, both on his part and mine, of clearing out rocks, filling in holes and leveling ground.  It's showing up in the fact that he can mow a much larger area (the reason behind all the work) and I get much more done in a session with the weed eater.  It's clear that I don't have to work quite so hard.

This Sunday will mark exactly 4 years that we've been in our house.  I've always heard it said that it takes 5 years to get a raw property under control, and I've always believed it.  I've found that it takes me one full  year just moving into a different house, whether a brand-new one or not, to make that house feel like home.

So it was with great satisfaction that the dogs and I (meeting up with Rickie the Flash Cat on the way) strolled along on our walk, seeing how far we had come in 4 years. 

Not bad.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hola, La Chiricana

We love living here in Potrerillos, which is why I decided to stop writing about warning people of risks and go back to what I wanted to do on this blog--show what life is like here.  For us, it is far better than living in the US.  Yes, there are problems but there are problems everywhere, and the ones here are minor compared to those in the US.

We are becoming more Panamanian every day in how we live.  It does look as if the immigration laws are going to change, and if so, we will be eligible for Panamanian citizenship next year.  We have already told our lawyer that we want to apply.  Unless you are a citizen, you can not live fully in a country--you can not fully take part in the life of the country.

The Espinosas spell their appelido with an "s".  We had a funny conversation one day about the fact that there are those who spell it with a "z" and those with an "s".   They are wonderful, warm people.   They have an absolutely incredible huerta.  On Monday, I'm going up to their place during the day so that I can take pictures of their huerta and show people what a subsistence farm looks like here--and all organic.  Not only that, but he mixes up his plantings beautifully to reduce the problems with pests.  However, he is having problems with moscitas blancas--white flies--and at the moment, I am not.  I tease them and tell them that they have an orchid factory.  I will have to do one post just on their orchids.

Unfortunately, until we can somehow get a real fogón (wood-fired stove), we'll never be able to cook some of the really delicious food that Maritza does.

This afternoon, I want to go up to the library and find out more about Charles Colburn and the growth of the Potrerillos library.  Also, the oil paintings are still on display, and I want to take photos of them.

So I have lots planned to show on this blog!

As always, thank you everyone for your comments.  I read every one and appreciate them all.

Casera Cooking (For Chiricana)

As I've mentioned before, your chances of getting decent típico (Panamanian) cooking in a restaurant are, as we say in science, vanishingly small.  Your typical típico kiosko, which is a roadside restaurant, serves rice and beans, a very small helping of potato salad or cole slaw and a very small piece of chicken, fish, or pork, usually pan fried. Some kioskos will serve patacones, which are twice-fried plantain.  Many serve breakfast as well, but usually shut down by about 3 in the afternoon.

When we first moved here 4 years ago, we ate out once a week.  The serving sizes were fairly large, and you could get a whole meal for $1.50.  Coffee was $0.30/cup and was good to very good, depending on where you ate.  Our favorite kiosko at that time was Doña Mary's, which sits at the  junction of the turnoff of the Potrerillos Abajo road from the road to Arriba.  Later, we discovered Las Brisas outside of Dolega.  Both were very well attended by Panamanians, many of them truck drivers, but quite a few casual travelers and some obvious regulars.  

But as time went on and inflation set in, the serving sizes got smaller and smaller to keep the prices the same.  We also got tired of the limited menus and as we settled into our home, began eating out less and less frequently.  These days, we almost never eat out.  The food in any type of restaurant, whether típico or otherwise, is mediocre at best.  There are a few decent restaurants in David, one on the road to Boquete, and that's about it.  There are two quite decent típico restaurants in Boquete, Sabroson and Genesis, or I should say, they used to be.  We haven't been to either one in nearly two years so I can't comment on the quality now.

We first met the Espinosas last year, when Mary started taking Spanish lessons from Maritza Espinosa.  As time went on, we became closer with them, until now Maritza insists to our delight that we are part of the family.  Mary's Spanish lessons after a while also turned into lessons in casera (home) cooking and that's how we discovered true Panamanian cuisine.

I've already talked about some of the ways that Panamanians use corn.  American equivalent cooking is wheat-based; here, it's corn-based.  Tuesday night when I visited the Espinosas, Maritza was cooking crema de maiz.  Like all authentic ethnic style cooking, it's a lot of work.  You start off with "new corn", which means fresh corn ears.  First you "rasp" or shell the new corn, then put the kernels through a molino which, as I've mentioned, is a corn grinder.  Then you cook the ground corn in water until it's soft .  Maritza passes this through a colander which Ricardo has made from the shell of a gourd into which he has drilled fairly large-sized holes.  This is simply to separate out any coarse debris.  Maritza explained that you can't use the usual small sieve because the mixture won't pass through.  I think we could use a standard colander.  after that, you cook it some more until it has the consistency of thick oatmeal (but a much, much finer texture), which is when it's ready to eat.

Maritza filled small bowls for us and for Ricardo, who never needs to be called to the table.  There are lots of different ways you can eat the crema.  Maritza explained that a really good way is to add queso blanco, which is the soft country cheese you can get in the supermarkets and which she uses in bollos many times or if you really want a treat, add nance, a small tropical fruit that grows quite easily in the area.  The Espinosas claim that that's the tastiest way to eat crema.  But since they had neither of those Tuesday night, we "merely" added milk, much as you would to oatmeal, for example.  The crema had gelled in the bowl and reminded me of cream of wheat. The texture is a little coarser, but not much.

It was hot and delicious.  Polite guest that I was, I finished before anyone else, even before Ricardo, who is one of the country's great trenchermen.  We understand each other, Ricardo and I, when it comes to food.

Later, as I was about to leave, naturally Maritza who thinks that we are starving here (never mind that I am 15-18 lbs overweight) filled a bag with goodies.  There was crema for Mary and also a dish that Mary likes a great deal--rice cooked with pineapple.  Maritza told me that the way to make this dish the tastiest was to cook it with hunks of the pineapple rind, although Ricardo warned me not to use commercial pineapple because of the hormones and pesticides that are used.  That eliminates our cooking the dish for a while, since our pineapples won't be ready until next year.  Just in passing, I should add that the corn came from their huerta, which is far more than a vegetable garden--more like a small subsistence farm.  

While you can eat the rice and pineapple dish as is after removing the pineapple rinds, you can also put the pineapple-flavored rice into a blender and make a very refreshing, very tasty drink from it.  I've had it at Las Brisas when I've asked for it.

Part of the 5 lbs or so of food I toted home was a small container of a bean I've never seen before but which the Espinosas had shown me a couple of weeks before.  It's tiny, tiny, a long bean that is about the size of long-grained rice.  Maritza explained how to use this bean--you mix the cooked bean, which takes a long time to cook because it's so hard, with a rather large amount of rice to make quite a tasty dish.  She warned me not to use too much of the beans or the dish will become "mala".  I've had this form of rice and beans a few times at Doña Mary's, and I can tell you that it's excellent.  She gave me a half a cup worth, saying that that was enough to flavor what she considers barely sufficient rice to feed two people (in other words, enough for 6).  They both urged me to plant a few hills of the beans, because a few plants will produce heavily.  I hope to get to that soon.

Before I went to Brasil for the first time 10 years ago, I had no idea that there were so many different types of beans in the world as there are.  We've experimented with just what's readily available in the supermarkets and have settled on one type of poroto that is excellent.  Martitza and Ricardo urged me again to find a bean that is called colombiano redondo grande, which, they say, is the tastiest bean around.  I inquired at our fruit and vegetable kiosko yesterday, but they didn't have any at that time.  We're regulars there, so I asked the young woman who usually waits on us to tell me when they had it in stock, and she will.

You'd never know it from what's available in restaurants here in Chiriquí, but Panamanian cuisine is really good--you just have to have it casera.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Because I never know if the comments section is being read, I want to thank in this post those who did post there for their extremely kind words.  I'm getting the same reaction from friends here.

However, tomorrow, anyway, I am going to talk about food--I had home made crema de maiz (take note, Chiricana!) last night at the Espinosas, and it was delicious!

Point of View

I woke up this morning realizing that in a destructive way, for me, this blog has started to dominate my life.  I understand that that happens.  What interests me is that La Gringa in Honduras has gone through the same thing.  Our blogs are similar, in that we talk about life here and she, too, takes an interest in trying to point out the risks of uninformed decisions to move to Central America.  Lately, however, that seems to be all I'm doing or thinking about, and that's simply not what I want to focus on.

I realized that through the Comments I've come to "know" a few of you--certainly not well, but have gotten a little bit of a nice "feel" as to who you are. 

I'm not concerned about the rich, and I sincerely doubt that any of them read this blog, which is just as well.  But I am concerned about people like us--retirees or anyone else who is living on modest incomes, who is feeling perhaps financial or other pressures and who dreams about getting away "from it all" and fulfilling some--again-- dream, of comfortable living in a tropical paradise.  Too much Hollywood.

It's these people to whom I address my concerns, almost frantic when I read about the innocence and naiveté upon which people seem to be headed towards making life-changing decisions.

Mary and I went through the list of the ex-pats we know around here--not every ex-pat who has moved here because we certainly don't know everyone by any means--and counted how many households are in the process of leaving or trying to leave.  It adds up to 40% or 50%, depending on what we think one person is going to do.  Of 10 households, fully 4 and possibly 5 want out or are on their way out.  The financial loss for at least two is or will be considerable.  I'd hate to see some of yo wind up in that position, or so unhappy that what should be really good years for you turn out to be miserable.

However, I have the nasty character attribute of sort of taking responsibility that definitely isn't mine on my shoulders.  Whether or not any of you make informed decisions, whether or not you come here at least considering the risks, whether or not you're going to continue to be so desperate or so blind or so in love with a fantasy that you move here regardless and then fall victims to the predators, both Panamanians and gringo (especially American), who are here waiting for you, is really not my concern.  

So, thank you to those who have made comments that they've found my blog informative.  I think I was never so happy with the blog as when it served as an information exchange for tick removal and suppression, because that sort of thing is exactly who I am.  I will continue to write about what I encounter here--I have one post in mind about problems with labor that have come up for us quite recently--but mostly I want to document the real reason why we came here--what we enjoy about living in this area.  I'm going to be busy for the next few days, but when I return to this blog, it will be with photos, hopefully videos about the Potrerillos library and the new additions to the school.

By the way, Dan, I did follow up on Charles Colburn and learned some things last night; I intend to learn much more over the next few days. but you're right--he helped the Potrerillos library enormously.

So I want to leave the subject of risks with this warning:  if you intend to buy land and build, you will face the two greatest risks you have in moving here--buying the land and not being taken (no water, for instance) and then finding an honest and/or competent contractor.  There is absolutely no way to overemphasize those dangers.  It's not possible.

If you decide to buy in a development or another type of existing house, you are merely facing those risks once removed.  I know every screw, every tubo, every bag of cement, every piece of rebar, every beam in this house because I bought them and I checked them out as they arrived.  This is not the US--you don't have the same disclosure laws protecting you.  Buying into a development that exists only on paper is or is only partially complete is, at this point, a horrendous risk for many different reasons, not the least of which is that developers are going broke and leaving people high and dry with no possibility of getting their considerable deposits back.

Sometimes I think I make it sound like we knew everything and avoided all problems and had some sort of easy time of it here, because we were all-knowing.  No.  But from our individual experiences in Latin America--Mary spent three years in the Caribbean doing graduate work, me the equivalent of over a year in the poor parts of Brasil--we knew what we were in for as far as culture and the lack of infrastructure was concerned.  We knew the kinds of things we would have to do without but we also knew what we considered to be the benefits.

We also listened to the advice and warnings of some gringos--American and Canadian--who had been here for a long time.  I will be forever indebted to those three people for their kindness, patience, advice, and help.  Without them, and the sharp but honest and extraordinarily helpful Panamanian businesswoman who sold us our land, I don't know that we would have come out of the experience here in any kind of good shape.  We are not rich.  We built here based on the proceeds of the sale of a very modest house in the US, and we live on Social Security.  We could not afford a major disaster and we didn't have one, thanks in good part to these three people.

Without question, we also had a certain amount of luck.  What percentage that was, I couldn't say.  But it factored in.

Even then, we made mistakes.  But after you get through the major hassles, the rest you can deal with.

So that's it.  If you have questions, you can ask me, and I'll give you whatever information I have based on my experiences and those of people I know (within limits--don't ask me about real estate).  But for the most part, I need to get out from underneath what this blog has become.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Water Again

I think just about everyone who reads this blog also reads Don Ray's Chiriquí Chatter.  Today, June 10th, he posted an outstanding article about the problems with water here in Chiriquí.  It's a must read.  It isn't as if he's saying anything really new; he's responding to a Yahoo group discussion and he's repeating a lot as well as adding disquieting news about the meningitis outbreak--I had no idea it was in Dolega, too.  My post on utility reliability contains much the same information except Don has expanded on the information in his post, and he specifically addresses the situation in David, which is different from the rural areas.

I would have to say that pueblo-wide here in Potrerillos, we have water outages maybe a half dozen times a year.  BUT because of water delivery lines and the fact that people tap off each others' lines (yes, it's illegal--just try to get it enforced), you wind up having far, far more outages than just with the main delivery system.

At any given moment in time, I can take you over a 2-3 kilometer stretch of road and point out to you at least two very visible leaks, plumes of water spouting into the air.  They are not IDAAN pipe leaks--they are leaks from private lines.  There are leaks like that--water plumes, easily visible--as you go down the road to Dolega and to David as well.  If you happen to be downstream of such a line and you're on it--well, if there are outages finally in that line, you, too, have no water.  And IDAAN will not help you.

I posted a comment on Don's blog about the fact that right after the tropical depression that became Tropical Storm Alma left us, Valle Escondido, the over-hyped development in Boquete, suffered a mud slide that blocked one of their access roads.  Fortunately no houses were involved.  Yet.

If you go to the Palo Alto area or the Jaramillo Central area and look at the development on the slopes that has turned Boquete into a slum as far as I'm concerned--if you go look at the steepness of grades of access roads to individual residences (I know there are some that are more than 6%--I've driven on them)--if you look at the way pads for houses have been carved out of the slopes--if you're someone like me who has lived in an area where bluffs are unstable when saturated with water--what you see is certain catastrophe just waiting to happen.

Many of the housing (and access roads) that you see on those slopes would NEVER be permitted in the US.  Never.   And for good reason.  One of these days, too many of those houses are going to wash down the mountainside on what is called here a "patina" of mud.

I don't truly understand the makeup of the soil here--it isn't clay--but I can tell you from sometimes scary personal experience that it layers when wet and you slide on it.  Those layers slip.  And that's on level ground.  4-wheel drive has saved our necks, literally, at least once and gotten us out of some nasty situations at least a half dozen times if not more.  But even 4-wheel drive is not going to help you if you're caught in a mud slip.  I know.  Nearly three years ago, I wound up sliding out of control and lodged gently (thank God) against a small sapling--on level ground.  In order to get out of the situation, we had to chop down the sapling (with a borrowed ax) so that the truck could slide just a little further where the 4-wheel drive could take hold.  That occurred maybe the length of a football field from where we live, never mind in a really rough area.  Or on an unpaved road on a slope, of which there exist many.

So water is a problem in many different ways, and you have to be careful.  Don made a point which he should have put in bold and italics--if you're looking at land, particularly in the Boquete area, ask around about water--don't ask the seller.  DON'T ASK THE SELLER. Should you be lied to, take it from all of us--you have no realistic legal recourse. Contracts are a joke around here.   It's Buyer Beware.  Everyone who thinks you are coming here to a United States on the cheap or Paradise is living in La-La Land.  

I hate to be so negative but Don's post actually alarmed me.  If HE feels he has to post about this yet again, then there are still the sheep out there who are ready and eager to be fleeced, who are ready and eager to come nearly totally unprepared to a foreign country, a foreign culture with no Spanish language skills and no idea of what they're letting themselves in for--and who will join the growing numbers of discouraged and bitter people who are trying to sell their homes and get out.  La Gringa in Honduras estimates that the return rate from that country is a good 50%.  I think that for other reasons--after all, it's a little hard to be pie-in-the-sky blind about a country as poor as Honduras--the percentage here will be similar.

It's not that I think no one should immigrate here.  Far from it.  there is a couple who live near us who have been here 5 years or more, and while they have suffered far, far more than we have (right now, for example, they're in the middle of a fairly grim legal fight with a former employee that could cost them literally thousands of dollars), I think they're good for the long haul.  Yet I see signs of stress in someone else we know, whom I have felt for quite some time does not have either the judgement or the skills to survive here.  Some else we know who has been here for 12 years is finally giving up and trying to sell his home (unsuccessfully) so that he can move back to the US.

I have no actual statistical data to base this impression on, but I would guess that fully 9 out of 10 people who came here during The Boquete Boom have no business here.  I would guess that there is a similar percentage still out there but who think that they're going to be on the right side of the statistic.

I think the best way to describe what it takes to thrive here is that you have to have a frontier attitude--not a Hollywood frontier attitude but the real thing.  A spirit of adventure, a willingness to cut loose from what you know, a good set of real survival skills (not urban commuter ones), and a realistic attitude that on any frontier, there is not the kind of order, never mind law, that exists in more civilized places.  In many respects, Panamá is NOT a "civilized" place if you mean by that the sort of comforts you have and assumptions you make in the US, the assurances and protections.  They don't exist here, and there is simply no use whining about the lack.   And you're  not going to get them soon, either--another common and fatal error--"Oh things will be all right once I get there or in a little while".

This is not a first-world country and it's not going to be one in our lifetimes.