Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ticks, Ehrlichiosis, and Vet Care

Back off, buddy!

As usual, I have to make the disclaimer that when I talk about any situation, I refer only to what I know.  Sometimes that's just Potrerillos, sometimes that includes David, sometimes it's the country as a whole.  I usually try to make it clear how narrow the focus is.

In talking about the vet situation here, I want to say immediately that I've seen reports saying that there is outstanding vet care in Panama City.  But when you have a crisis, you need someone close to home.  And "close to home" is, for all intents and purposes for us, David.  Supposedly there's a Panamanian vet in Dolega, which is a lot closer to us, but given our overall experience with vets here in the province, I haven't even bothered considering leaving our current vet.  There's been too much anguish on our part and suffering on the part of one of our cats to consider another option at this point.

There are at least three problems, serious ones, for those of us who have dogs and cats.

1) Finding competent vet care. There IS good vet care in David, but there are a disproportional number of incompetent vets and outright frauds in the area, including David. I speak from bitter personal experience. I would classify our vet from "very good" to "excellent" depending on what's involved. I really, really like him for preventative medicine and for non-invasive techniques. He's a good vet surgeon. He knows well the parasite problem here in the tropics. And, rare with the vets I've encountered here or have heard stories about, he's careful with dosages. I have had a vet in David toss a box of medication at me and tell me to give it to one of our cats. When I asked him about the dose, he carelessly gave me a number. I looked it up on the Internet, and found that it was too high--appropriate for dogs but not for cats.  In addition, there was no indication that the medication itself was appropriate for cats.  There are many times where the two animals need very different medications for the same problem.   Our vet, who freely admitted to me early on that he had little experience with cats, is gaining that experience because increasing numbers of ex-pats are bringing cats to him, and Panamanians as well.  At that time, he told me that his practice was 90%  dogs and 10% cats but that his cat practice was increasing.  I'm sure the percentage of cats is now much, much higher.  Two vets, whom I will hate until I die, prescribed acetaminaphen, the basis of Tylenol, for one of our cats as a pain medication after surgery.  I didn't realize it at first, because the one vet bought the stuff, gave it to me--and it said paracetymol, which is how it's known outside the US and Canada. It's deadly for cats. The one vet had already killed two kittens in this way. We had to use him on an emergency basis, but I knew better than to give what he gave me to our cat.  I call the one The Butcher and the other The Cat Assassin; the latter is as well nearly totally incompetent at surgery.  But they're cheap, I'll given them that.

But our vet is basically a "family" vet, not a specialist. He misdiagnosed Chloe with kidney failure, based on blood tests, not on a specific test for Ehrlichiosis. First, Ehrlichiosis is supposedly rare in cats, and second, renal failure is one of the symptoms of the chronic phase. Plus, Chloe never did have an acute phase.  So, the mistake was easy to make.  Only when the usual avenues of medication didn't work did Chloe see a specialist. 

Which leads back to--did Chloe have some mutated form of the disease? Was it some other disease, given the difficulty in identification? We'll never know.  Frankly, given the usual prognosis for an animal showing the symptoms of chronic Ehrlichiosis, I don't think that an early diagnosis would have made much difference.

2) Tick control. The only spot insecticide available here in Chiriquí and most likely in Panamá is Revolution. Revolution is effective only against D. variabilis; it does not work against R. sanguineus, the more usual Ehrlichiosis carrier. I'm sure this insecticide was developed because this tick is a major vector of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Our neighbors import a broader spectrum spot insecticide.  Yet, what happened with Chloe?  They've been using that insecticide for 4 years.  None of us have any reasonable ideas.

The other method of tick control is keeping the grasses and shrubs, where ticks thrive, cut low.  There are any number of reasons why I spend so much time weed eating, but that's a major one.  Examining the dogs daily if not twice a day is yet another way, although even that isn't foolproof against the tiny forms of the red dog flea.

3) Obtaining medications.  You would be surprised what is not available in this country, never mind Chiriquí.  For example, according to the farmacia at Rey, you can't get Bufferin in this country.  I had thought it was just a provincial thing, because we had been searching high and low for it, but like some other products, it just isn't imported into Panamá.  You can get cardioaspirina, which is buffered, in 80 mg doses suitable to take daily as a preventative against stroke (which both of us do), but the usual dose size of Bufferin (and Tylenol, aspirin, and ibuprofen) is 325 mg, perfect for large dogs.  Aspirin is ok for dogs (but will kill cats) but the buffered variety is much, much safer.  Given the cost of the cardioaspirina, it would be prohibitive to use it except in a dire emergency for the dogs.  So, every year when Mary returns to the US to visit family, she goes with a list of things to bring back that we can't get here; that list includes large bottles of Bufferin for both animal and human use. 

 Another vet medication, a common one, that is not available here is PPA, which is used to control incontinence in dogs.   We use an herbal medicine especially formulated for canine incontinence, but we have to import it from the US.  Recently Panamá imposed a $15 import tax on all medications, even vitamins, regardless of quantity.  So, we order quarterly. Although I will say that our last shipment, which arrived recently, seemed to have an import duty of only $12.  Who knows.

Doxycycline is used to treat animal Erlichiosis as well as the human form.  I know that our neighbor had to get it from somewhere because it wasn't available in Chiriquí.  Whether she had to get it from Panama City or from the US, I don't know.  I imagine that Panama City would have a medication like that.

When you look at the country of origin of most vet medications bought in David, it's Costa Rica.  I have been able to buy quite a lot of the routine vet meds for the dogs here, but more specialized meds need to be imported, usually from the US.

There is no laboratory in Chiriquí devoted exclusively to veterinary medicine. Our vet routinely sends his samples to Hospital Chiriquí. I have no problem with this.  A more inconvenient problem is that at the moment, no vet in Chiriquí has a functioning x-ray.  There is one callous fraud who has a machine, but either it doesn't work or he doesn't know how to use it.  He took x-rays of one of our cats, made pronouncements about the lack of certain things we were looking for--and then charged us $66 for the two x-rays.  Later, when we finally discovered our current vet and he recommended x-rays, I showed him those that had been taken; he threw them aside with the comment that they were no x-rays--they were incredibly overexposed.  He then sent us to Hospital Cattan, which of course is a facility for humans, but the technician there is very used to doing animal x-rays.  I showed him the x-rays The Fraud had taken, and he just laughed.  After we saw the ones taken at Cattan, I could see why.  The price for two x-rays?  $15.

I often wonder if the massive dose of x-rays from The Fraud aggravated Tulip's cancer.  The Fraud, by the way, has no idea how to medicate.  He told me proudly that he uses only medications prepared for humans.  The only problem with that is many human medications won't work on dogs and cats.

Not that our current vet is perfect.  He tends to make snap decisions in ordinary sorts of things.  I have to slow him down with questions, but sooner or later we get to a satisfactory result.  Nor do I wish to imply that he's the only good vet.  There may be others, especially those who might have moved into David in the last year or so.  We're satisfied with ours, so we don't go looking.

Incompetent vet care is not limited to David and surroundings.  Where we lived in the US, in our area, there were exactly two vet clinics.  One was and probably still is run by an incompetent vet.  His associate is very good.  The other is run by a very good vet.   But for specialists, you have to go into Seattle.

I often reflect on what we ask of vets and doctors, which is nothing less than perfection.  Both are our mediators between life and death for us and our families, including our animal families.  Both vets and doctors are human; they make mistakes.  Sometimes, those mistakes result in the deaths of those we love.  Physicians are held to a higher standard of accountability than are vets.  After all, as I heard someone say not too long ago, pets are "just animals".   For those of us who consider our animals as part of our families, that's simply not true.  I remember well when my children were infants, before they could talk--when they became ill, I agonized because they couldn't tell me what was wrong.  I feel exactly the same way about our dogs and cats.

When we made the decision to move here, there was never a question in our minds about the fact that all our animals would go with us.  For us, it would be equivalent to deciding to leave a child behind. That included our three cats, two of whom had terminal cancer but in the early stages and could expect to live a quality life for a while longer. Moving those animals internationally was absolutely the most hair-raising part of the whole experience.  I might add that all five of them came through with flying colors (I can never resist plays on words), especially the dogs who thought it was a lark, while the humans barely survived.

Making such a move, no matter how well you are prepared, is still a jump into the unknown, a break with comfort, an acceptance of risk.  We deliberately decided that all seven of us would take that risk together, as a family.  

Ticks and Ehrlichiosis, Part 1

Photo  of red (or brown) dog ticks taken from Lyme Disease Foundation Website, tick identification page.

This post became so long that I've split it up into two parts.

Where we lived in western Washington, there were no ticks, but fleas were a really bad problem.  Very reluctantly, we used one of the insecticides on our animals that you apply in one spot to the skin during flea season.  I say "reluctantly", because as a biochemist, I'm aware that almost always, what is harmful to one form of life is harmful to other forms of life--the only difference is degree.  Too many effects are cumulative, and I resist putting our beloved dogs and cats at risk.  I will use anti-helminthics when needed; wherever you have a big flea problem, there, too, you have a big tapeworm problem.  But the "spot" insecticides?  Only during the months when fleas were a problem, never year round.  We had a wonderful Cairne terrier who at 10 died from a brain tumor.  After she died, we noticed a discolored spot on her back between her shoulder blades where we used to apply the insecticide.  I don't know if there was any correlation, but it just added to my skepticism about the use of these chemicals.  However, you have to make these risk/benefit decisions.  I knew someone back in Washington whose standard poodle died from anemia because of an uncared-for flea problem.  You have to choose the lesser of two evils and hope.

We'd heard from acquaintances in Boquete that fleas were a big problem there and assumed it would be true where we lived, but to my delight and relief, our vet told us that we didn't have to worry because it was too hot for fleas to survive in Potrerillos. And it's true that in the 4 years we've been here, we've had no signs of fleas except when we brought Rickie and Senna, our kittens, home from the cat rescue place in Boquete. After getting rid of Senna's fleas, we've had no trouble.

We were told, however, by our extraordinarily helpful American neighbor that ticks were pretty bad.  We also discovered that the spot insecticide available here, Revolución, was NOT effective against all the tick species in the area.  So we resorted to combing the dogs twice a day (we just had Lucy and Ethel then--Fred's a Panamanian), and I was introduced to the joys of removing ticks from both the dogs and me with a tweezers.  

We really didn't have that much of a problem, except for one day when we removed 6 ticks from Lucy's neck.  Ugly but we had it under control.  After we bought our property a short distance away, we noticed that every time we went there with the dogs, they would come back with ticks.  At that time, the place was an overgrown unused pasture, filled with high grass, weeds, shrubs and young saplings.  Perfect tick territory.

Even before we moved into the house, we had the property "cleaned", as they say here, by two young men with machetes.  I bought a heavy-duty weed eater, and got to work maintaining.  As I brought more and more of our 3+ acres under control, mostly with weed eater and machete, and then, as we cleared, with a lawn mower, our tick problem pretty much disappeared, despite our bovine neighbors.

We used to walk the dogs in a pine woods close to the property, and there, of course, we'd come across ticks. I'll never forget the day last year when Fred suddenly started shedding little brownish-red spots--that moved. The next 24 hours were a nightmare as we kept combing ticks from him, committing mass tick murder. I'm sure we removed or he shed over 100 ticks. We figured he must have picked them up in the woods or had a hatchout on his coat (which doesn't seem too likely but then who knows). All I knew at the time was that they were the little brown ticks that another American complained were not affected by the common spot insecticides available here. I had no idea then that they were one of the species of dog ticks.

We don't walk the dogs in the woods anymore because Fred the Happy Lab Wanderer will bolt and run off to play with one or more of the horses in the neighborhood; it's a royal pain in the buns to chase him around until he's finally tired of playing with us and trots up for his lead.  doesn't matter that he spends the next 5-7 hours in his crate, thinking over his sins; after contemplation, Fred is totally unrepentant and is ready to go play games with whatever large, unfriendly animal is handy.

Since we stopped the woods walks, we've had very few incidences of ticks.  One of which occurred this morning, when we removed a common dog tick from Fred.

One of our American friends participates actively in a spay/neuter program that was originally a Panamanian/American joint venture started in Boquete.  Stray dogs and feral cats are a problem, and the program offers either free or very low cost spaying and neutering for pets.  In addition, many of the volunteers use humane traps to catch feral cats in particular and bring them in to the clinics which are held about every 6 weeks, I think.  It's an outstanding way to reduce the stray population.   I was told that they routinely test for Ehrlichiosis, which is a really nasty disease transmitted by ticks.  I had never heard of it before I came here.  We don't have Lyme disease here, for which I'm grateful, but Ehrlichiosis is supposedly becoming more of a problem because of the large numbers of stray animals in Panamá.  

I also learned that an ex-pat--An American, I believe--in Potrerillos had come down with Ehrlichiosis and was gravely ill, taking a long time to recover.

Then our next door neighbors' cat, Chloe, got very sick.  To make a long story short, she was diagnosed with Ehrlichiosis, which completely flabbergasted her owners who have been importing special flea collars that supposedly is effective against both types of dog ticks.  To make another sad story short, after a heroic 2 month effort on Marion's part, they were forced to have Chloe put down.  All of us who live with and love our animals know what that decision costs.

Now worried, we began an earnest research effort into Ehrlichiosis.  I'll give you a very brief summary:

Ehrlichiosis is a relatively newly-identified tick-borne disease. Ehrlichiosis is primarily a problem with dogs; it's very rare in cats. It can also occur in humans, where it's very serious indeed.  Erlichiosis is transmitted by several tick species but mainly by the two dog tick species, R. sanguineus and D. variabilis.  R. sanguineus is the most usual culprit.  Evidently the human form of the disease can be transmitted by a number of other ticks, such as the lone star tick, the deer tick, and others.  It's hard to tell from what's available online, because in humans the disease is difficult to identify and can be confused with other rickettsial diseases.  Ehrlichiosis is widespread in the US, although it occurs mostly in the southwest and south.  California seems also to  be a hot spot, especially southern California.

The disease has two stages in dogs, an acute and a chronic phase.  I've copied a short summary of symptoms from an article in Wikipedia:

"The acute stage of the disease... begins one to three weeks after infection and lasts for two to four weeks. Clinical signs include a fever, petechiae, bleeding disorders, vasculitis, lymphadenopathy, discharge from the nose and eyes, and edema of the legs and scrotum. There are no outward signs of the subclinical phase. Clinical signs of the chronic phase include weight loss, pale gums due to anemia, bleeding due to thrombocytopenia, vasculitis, lymphadenopathy, dyspnea, coughing, polyuria, polydipsia, lameness, ophthalmic diseases such as retinal hemorrhage and anterior uveitis, and neurological disease. Dogs that are severely affected can die from this disease.
Although people can get ehrlichiosis, dogs do not transmit the bacteria to humans; rather, ticks pass on the ehrlichia organism. Clinical signs of human ehrlichiosis include fever, headache, eye pain, and gastrointestinal upset. It is quite similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but rash is not seen in patients."

Treatment is usually with doxycycline, a member of the tetracycline family of antibiotics.  Catch it in the acute phase, and the dog usually recovers.  If it enters the chronic phase, the risk of death is much, much higher.

This is by no means an exhaustive explanation--ti's incomplete, as a matter of fact-- and you should consult your vet for local levels of problem and far more inclusive information.  No one should EVER make an amateur diagnosis about any disease that show symptoms such as fever.  I freely admit to overreacting to anything that seems wrong with our animals.  I usually have to force myself to wait the classic 24 hours before whisking one of our precious babies to the vet.

This disease and its transmission have not been all that well studied even in the US, and one of the things you learn fast here is that in the tropics, all bets are off.  We medicate our animals against a much broader spectrum of parasites than exist in the US.  In the US, the dogs would get their annual baths; it really is not in their best interests to bathe them too frequently in temperate zones.  Here, as I've mentioned, ideally we should be bathing them every two weeks.  while it's more like every 3 weeks, we are far more serious about dog bathing, thanks to experiences with demodetic mange, seborrheic dermatitis, and fungus diseases.  Fungus diseases are rampant in this climate.  Fred in particular is susceptible to them.  

The humidity and heat of the tropics means that lots more nasties can live here, and they even can mutate faster than in temperate zones.  Perhaps you remember the Ebola virus?  Originated in the equatorial zone of Africa, as did the AIDS virus.  I've read speculation that the reason that hominid species very early on migrated away from these zones is that they are mutational "hot spots", where new forms of life can originate very rapidly through mutation, thanks to the heat.  Just one of the more important chemical facts; the rate of any chemical reaction doubles with every 10 degrees Celcius rise in temperature.  All life is based on a set of incredibly complicated cellular chemical reactions.  For mammals, exterior temperature is not all that important, because we are creatures that regulate our internal temperature to stay within very narrow limits.  But bacteria and viruses do not do so, and of course, the warmer it is (up to a killing temperature), the faster they'll reproduce (which is why we refrigerate sensitive foods like meat, to slow the process down) and the higher the likelihood of mutations.

You know, it just dawned on me why I blog the way I do--I really miss teaching!

Enough about personality disorders and back to problems here in Panamá in Part 2 tomorrow.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Rainfall Update

Lloyd Cripe lives in Palmira, which is close to Boquete.  Our climates are not the same; we're hotter and if I listen to the locals here, wetter.  Lloyd just emailed rainfall data for May, including a breakdown of yesterday and the past week.

Yesterday:    9 inches
Past 8 days:  26"
May so far:  40"

So I figure this is low end for us--we might have received more.

His comment was that "we really broke last year's record for May".  All I can say is that last year was the really wet year!  I'm also green with envy--he has all this lovely data and we don't!! (yet)

May is not over, and as I write, at 2:19 pm, rain is falling again after a partly cloudy morning.

More on Unrealistic Expectations

I'm working on another post about ticks and Erlichiosis, but thought I'd write further on scaling down expectations, thanks to a comment from a dear Irish Internet correspondent.  Will and I  have never met, but still, given this wonderful day and age of instantaneous communication over large distances, we're Internet buddies, so to speak.  He always brings up interesting points, and I want to address one of them.

Scale down your expectations of services here.  You MUST do so or you risk being really unhappy.  Will's biggest concern is Internet access and he remarked that he hoped through rapid advances in technology, cheap Internet access would be planet wide pretty soon.

For first-world countries, such as Ireland, Canada, Germany, Japan and the US, just to name a few?  Without question.  For Panamá and other 3rd world countries?  I sincerely doubt it. 

 Is there Internet access here?  Yes.  Is it reliable in the way first-world countries are used to thinking about reliability?  No.  Is it cheap?  Except for dialup, which can be expensive for extended use, no.  Is it going to be cheap in the foreseeable future?  I'd say the probability of that is vanishingly small, always allowing for the fact that the Age of Miracles may not yet be in the past.

I'm one of those perverts who finds statistics interesting so long as you don't believe that they're the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Because I want to make a point, I'm going to bore you to tears with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the final value of all goods and services produced domestically for 2007.  This data comes from the CIA World Factbook.  Hey, why not use them?  I should get something for the taxes I'm still forced to pay.

Oh yes--all US citizens are required to pay Federal income tax except for very restricted circumstances.  Speaking from personal experience, the IRS dearly loves to harass you, because you're so far away so that you're not likely to go to Philadelphia for an appeal, and you have no real representation in Congress any more.  Welcome to the life of an American ex-pat.

OK--back to my list, in trillions of international dollars for 2007:

World economy:                              $65.8
European Union:                                14.4  Next, by world ranking:
1.  US:                                                   13.9
2.  Peoples Republic of China:           7.0
3.  Japan:                                               4.3    
4.   India                                            3.0   
5.  Germany                                      2.8
6.  UK                                                     2.147
9.  Brasil                                           1.838   
13. Canada                                             1.274
97. Uganda                                       0.31
98.Ghana                                          0.31
99. Nepal                                          0.31
100.Bosnia and Herzgovinia             0.31    And finally
101. Panamá                                     0.29

If you're interested, the complete list can be found here.

I've listed these only to show the HUGE difference in economies.  Panamá ranks right down there with some very poor countries.  Of course the GDP is not the only measure.  An ok one--but one that does NOT take in the disparity in income between rich and poor--is the per capita income.  For Panamá, that's about $4,600/yr.  (The US, by the way, is 7th at $45,000). Ghana is around $700.

You figure out what the monthly average income is here in Panamá:  not quite $400/month.  This number also includes the income or lack of it of the official 25% living below the poverty level as well s the incomes of some very, very rich people here.  According to the UN, Panamá is a country with one of the greatest inequalities of income in the world.  The richest 20% earn an annual family income 32 times that of the poorest 20%.  Panamá in the pst 6 years or so has seen a rise in chronic malnutrition in children under 5.  Over 50% of children under 5 live in poverty and 20% in conditions of extreme poverty.  Courtesy of the World Bank and UNICEF.

Average income for the middle class is considered to be between $12,000 and $18,000/year, or $1,000 to $1500/month.  At the moment, you can still live comfortably on the middle to upper range for the middle class income, although it's now getting much harder at the low end.  But that's a Panamanian style of living comfortably.  Yes, you can afford a car, nice furniture, a TV (but I doubt a 60" plasma, for example), probably a low end computer--and dial-up Internet access.

So?  Tell me, Will, where is the customer base, with these kinds of numbers, for your cheap Internet access?  It'll be cheap for first world with a large base of paying clientele so that volume will drive prices down.  It will NEVER be as cheap for those countries that don't have the base to pay for that access. And you will have to pay.  Maybe in Ireland large communications companies are willing to carry for next to nothing those who can't pay, but I guarantee you the US is not one of those countries.  Any US company is going to have its hand out for payment for services provided to other countries.  Period.  "Cheap" depends on volume, always.

Let's look at Internet access prices right now.  In the US 4 years ago, we paid $37/month for excellent Internet service.  That was a little high because we lived on an island, and things were more expensive there than on the mainland.

Here, Internet access--if you have a landline phone--used to be--I don't know what it is now-- $10.95/month for dialup, with an additional amount--I think 3 cents--per minute of time used.  You could get a contract for unlimited time, but I believe that used to be about $35.  And those were very, very slow speeds indeed.  Very slow.  You can get DLS in many areas, such as Boquete and of course David--even in Potrerillos, it turns out--but I have heard nothing but gripes and grumbles about it here in Potrerillos.

For us, it's not even an option.  I emphasized if you could get a landline because we and almost anyone who is building a new home now (and in the past 4 years) can NOT get landline service any more.  Cable and Wireless is the main communications provider here as they are in the Caribbean.  They are a British-owned company, and they have a monopoly here.  Just to give you an idea about what the general opinion of them is--in the American ex-pat community, Cable and Wireless is referred to as Clueless and Worthless, and they fully live up to that reputation.  The problem is that Cable and Wireless refuses to lay down any more cable (then, shouldn't they change their name?) and therefore new fixed line connections are not available.

Sure, cell phones are available, and we have two.  But it limits us and most others to wireless Internet service, which is incredibly expensive.

There are two main wireless ISPs here, both, as I understand it, costing the same; the more commonly used one is MobilNet, a company based in Panama City but with extensive services here in the province.  We pay $75/month for 256K service.  You can get faster, but the price goes up practically logarithmically.  Thanks to limited access to the country itself, the speed is often much slower.  There are plenty of interruptions in service.  One time we went nearly a week without Internet because the tower for our area, located at the summit of Volcan Barú (11,398 ft), had been struck by lightning during an electrical storm and the necessary parts had to come from the capital.  I might add, that no sooner had they fixed it, the tower was struck again by lightning, and we were down again, but for a much shorter period of time.  Interruptions are frequent whenever there are electrical storms, which in the rainy season is just about every day.

I think in April, when I went in to pay our bill, one of the managers told me with a smile that our bandwidth was going to be increased for the same rate.  She said she'd call us the following week to let us know when a técnico would be out to instal the new antenna.

Anyone who believes the ETA of any service or goods here in Panamá is insane and should be locked up for their own good immediately.  We were told not more than 2 weeks ago about Canadians who live in La Barqueta who really believed what contractors told them for dates of completion for housing, I think.  The Panamanian woman who was telling us the story just shook her head.  "I keep telling them," she said, "not to believe a word they say.  Just relax, take it easy, or you're not going to live long!"  But, she said, they still get angry.  They don't understand.

Mary and I always add 1-3 months, depending on what it is, to any date promised on a stack of Bibles by a Panamanian.  It just doesn't happen that way.  Needless to say, it's more than 1 month later, and we haven't heard a word.  Since we never expected to, it doesn't bother us.  

MobilNet, by the way, is one of the better-run companies we've encountered here in Panamá.

You must scale your expectations back.  You must face the reality of what it's like to live in a 3rd world country.  If you don't, you raise your probability of being unhappy here to near 100%.

Please don't bank on pipe dreams that are based in first-world reality.  If you're depending on technology making your life happy here, you're making a huge error.  

We're happy here because we don't have the same expectations that too many gringos do.  We like the life style, we enjoy Panamanians, we knew what we wanted and knew what the price would be.  For us, it isn't high.  But then we both knew from the start what we were getting into.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rainy Season Weather

West side of house, 4:29 pm, October 15, 2007.  Looking out from dog run attached to house.

My Irish buddy Will has asked a question about what the weather is like here in the rainy season.  Immediately I have to start out with the fact that it's going to vary some from area to area. For example, the Potrerillos area is considered to get more rain than does David; I think Boquete has about the same rainfall as we do, but at times they get what is called the bajareque, a fine mist/drizzle/light rain that comes down that valley when we're having good weather.  It's hard to say without hard data.  Lloyd Cripe has a Web site, (sidebar) that reports the weather in and around Boquete, and has a year's worht of solid data.  While our friend Ricardo Espinosa keeps rain data, he does so manually and I haven't yet asked to see his records, which I imagine are in notebooks.  In October, we're purchasing the same weather station that Lloyd has, and we'll be able to compare rather nicely at least between Boquete and here.  David, of course, has official meteorological records that can be accessed pretty easily.

The Pacific side of the country does not get as much rain as the Caribbean side.  Everybody jokes that Bocas has two seasons:  wet and wetter.  

OK, that's one thing.  The second is that it's hard to talk about a "normal' year because that varies.

The rainy season here starts in April or May and runs through December or even part of January.  Most years, January through March is drought season--little to no rain.  Not this year.  We had enough rain so that I only had to water first-year trees and shrubs once.

Trying to strike some average:  usually, after the rainy season starts--usually--we start out with maybe 2-3 days of rain per week in the afternoon with lovely mornings.  It's the reason why May and June are my favorite months.  In mid-June, we have what the locals call "San Juan summer".  The feast of San Juan is June 19, and in most Latin American countries (especially Brasil), it's a big event.  Here, we get 2-3 weeks of dry, gorgeous weather.  In late July, the rains set in in earnest.

What happens after that is usually--usually--the mornings are sunny or at least high overcast and the rains come in the afternoon just about every day.  As the rainy season progresses, the time of day that the rains start gets closer and closer to noon.  September and October are normally the worst months.  Not only does it rain every day, but it's possible to have 3-4 days of nothing but rain.

And what rain!  The phrase "tropical downpour" must have been coined for Central America and the Caribbean, because by August, we really have the aguaseros regularly--the heavy downpours that can last for up to several hours where the rain comes down so heavily you can't see to the end of the hood of your car if you are so unfortunate as to be driving when it occurs.  We always try to get any driving done in the morning and really work hard at being back at the house by noon at the latest.  It's extremely dangerous on the roads.

By November, the rain usually starts to slacken off a bit, and December is pretty good.

That said, there are all kinds of variations on this theme.  But that's the "normal" pattern.  Because of this, our hottest month here is April, because by July and August, the afternoons are overcast and rainy, driving the temperature down.

And of course, as I sit here typing this post, we are having a weird combination of the low pressure variable rain bands along with an electrical storm!  Never let it be said that this area lacks drama.  Contrary to my last update on the previous rain post, the rain re-intensified.

 Glad you liked the picture, Will--just for you I uploaded the above picture which was taken last year on the west side of the house, looking out from the dog run.  I haven't cropped the picture so that you can get some idea of the length and volume of this stream of water ruuning down on the opposite side of the house from the earlier photo.  If there is suffficient resolution, you'll be able to see that it was still raining when I took the picture, on October 15 last year. Could have been taken today--both streams are running just as enthusiastically down the property.  It's been raining now for over 36 hours straight, maybe even longer.  The ground is utterly saturated.  Fortunately, we live on the lower slopes of the mountains, we don't live anywhere near a river, and both quebradas are both deep enough and far enough away that we have no danger to us.  That can not be said of Boquete; I've been wondering if they've had flooding from the river there.

Indeed, do bring your wellies!

Another Scary Electrical Experience

I'm beginning to wonder if I have some fatal attraction--literally--for electrical discharges.

Last night at 11, thanks to one of the dogs trying to become a second skin, I raised my head preparing to turn over on my side.  There was a sudden flash of light, a low-pitched "zzzt" sound, and I felt as if I'd had a nasty blow just below my left eye that really hurt.  I did my usual under stressful circumstances--yelled for Mary--and touched the area with my fingers--which came away wet with blood.

In the bathroom mirror I saw a long (about an inch and a half), jagged, wide but shallow cut that Mary describes as looking as if done with a blunt knife about a half inch under my eye.  I was also in a good deal of pain, and nauseous.  

The only plausible explanation that Mary and I can come up with is a very nasty, very strong discharge of static electricity from the headboard of the bed.

All of our beds, which we've had for three years, have sort of filigreed metal "headboards."  I read in bed every night unless I'm deathly ill (as happened last year), propping pillows against the headboard, removing them when I'm ready to go asleep (keeping one for me and one for Fred, who likes his comfort).  I've never had any discharge, no spark, nothing from the headboards in that time period.  Neither has Mary.  Our pillowcases are made of cotton or blends with synthetics.  To top it all off, humidity suppresses the buildup of static charges; the average humidity in our house is about 80% right now, which should prevent the a buildup.  The windows were closed; while it was raining, we weren't having an electrical storm.

And why so strong?  It isn't as if I hadn't touched the metal in months.  The last time I can remember clearly that I did so was the night before.

We have no explanation.  Which kept me "wired" for the night, finding it hard to go back to sleep when I had no idea why it had happened.

I spend very little time in the past; "What if" doesn't hold a lot of charm for me because, analytical, linear thinker that I am, practical, problem solver, "it" didn't happen, so why dwell on it?  Just learn and move on.  

But the three worst words in the English language for me are "I don't understand".  One of the most basic aspects of my personality is the drive to understand the world around me.  I don't mean mere collection of facts, which I regard as almost useless.  I mean the ability to connect those facts and makes sense out of them, see the pattern, understand what's happening.  It's part of the reason why I chose a career in science, why I wound up my career in industry, and it still dominates my everyday life.  What kept me awake was not that "it" happened, but that since I have no idea why, I also have no idea how to prevent a reoccurrence.

I finally fell back to sleep about 2 am.  This morning, I'm resigned to a black eye here sooner or later.  The cut has stopped hurting and the pain which felt localized in the bone just underneath the eye has dulled way down.  Mary is researching ways to insulate that metal headboard--we just can't remove it, since it stabilizes the frame--until we can replace it with something different.  But believe me, while I do have an adventurous spirit, this isn't the sort of experience I wish to repeat or have had in the first place.

Gasoline and Diesel Prices

Today at noon (legally, but usually sooner than that) we'll see the rise in gasoline and diesel prices here.  This one will be a whopper.  Don Ray will do his best to depress us all by posting pictures of bombas in David with their new numbers. 

When we moved here four years ago, we bought a truck with a diesel engine for two reasons--better fuel efficiency and the price of diesel was 40-50 cents cheaper per gallon than that of gasoline.  Double win.  this was unlike the situation in the US where diesel has always been significantly more expensive than gasoline every place I've ever lived there.

When fuel prices started their upward trajectory about two years ago, we all noticed that the gap between diesel and gasoline was closing.  About a month ago, diesel surpassed gasoline in price--by a few cents, true, but it was the first time we'd experienced that situation here in Panamá.

As a chemist, I do know the broad principles behind refining, but nothing more.  Since I'm a biochemist, I really never had any reason or interest in worrying about the different grades of crude oil.  I always assumed, thanks to the price differential here, that diesel was a lower "cut" from the refinery, never thinking through the better fuel efficiency.

So I was quite surprised when reading the other day that diesel is produced from light, sweet crude, the exact grade that is pushing oil prices up to record highs.  It certainly made the difference in prices understandable, although not the earlier gap.

But one way the Panamanian government earns its income is through fuel taxes.  Unlike the US, where the Federal tax, as we all now know, is 18.5 cents per gallon, the tax here in Panamá, according to an article in La Prensa earlier this week, is 60 cents per gallon, for gasoline.  Because of public transport and transport in general, which uses diesel, it may be that the taxes on diesel were considerably lower.  Now the gap may be closing due to the price of the crude going ballistic.

The same article reported a proposal that the government lift the 60 cent tax until the end of the year in order to alleviate the extraordinarily high burden placed on the average Panamanian. I've already mentioned that we've had one death here in the area, thanks to high fuel prices--an old man returning from work on his bicycle hit (by someone we know) and killed by a motorcycle.  the victim was riding his bike because he could no longer afford the money for gas.  That was back in November.

I'd be more in favor of it if the "average" Panamanian weren't driving a d____d SUV.  That seems to be the ego, status vehicle car for many of the relatively new middle class here in the province.

But does that apply to diesel?  The article just talked about prices of gasoline, as I recall.  One of the real problems with the Panamanian press is that the articles are not as well-written as is usual in the first-world press.  If an article in a US paper is misleading or vague, you can just about bet the farm that it's highly probable that's deliberate.  Here, it seems to be standard, and exasperating.  

Of course, you always have to deal with the fact that the government officials here can be vague and misleading, too, just like anywhere else in the world.

Update:  According to La Prensa, diesel has reached a historic increase in price, going up today 39 cents per gallon.  91 octane gasoline will go up by 20 cents, 95 octane by 13 cents.  That means that given the lowest price I've seen around here for diesel has been $4.09, we'll be paying a minimum of $4.48.

The government also is not going to subsidize diesel more than it already has for transport, at least not immediately.  The government subsidizes (doesn't say how or by how much) 2.6 million gallons of diesel per month.  Ye gods, that's a HUGE amount!  The "red devil" buses alone use 1 million gallons per month.  The government says it wants to see what happens to prices in the next few months before deciding if more steps need to be taken.


We had an odd sort of rain experience here, over 24 hours of what sure seemed like rain bands--heavy (but not aguasero) rains, then a dry interval, then rain again.  To me, it seemed like everything I've ever read about rain in hurricanes which, fortunately, I've never experienced.  No wind, though.  And definitely coming from the south.

Then today I received an email warning of potential flash flooding in mountainous regions of Central America thanks to a massive tropical depression just off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  Tropical depressions, of course, are the forerunners of hurricanes, so it made sense.  Thus the warning of flooding.

We don't need storms like this to provide drama through water.  Last year was a particularly wet one, with flooding in Panamá in areas that rarely experience overflowing rivers.  We had several flash floods in a quebrada near us.  The picture shows the stream that forms from runoff water in back of the house that is diverted to the east side and runs down a little gully that passes underneath our driveway.  I took it from our side door while it was still raining.

We always have runoff like this in September and October during the height of the rainy season.  Last year, though, it occurred far more frequently than in previous years.  Yesterday, thanks to the rain band phenomenon, we didn't have that kind of severe runoff.

The tropical depression was supposed to move north yesterday, and it finally did--the rain stopped about 3 am this  morning.

Addition and correction: 
Latest satellite image shows that we're probably not done with the system yet.  Evidently it's gotten bigger.  True to report, just as Mary was telling me this, the rain started up again.

Yet another addendum:  the rain is much worse than yesterday--the rain is lasting longer between intervals, the intervals are shorter in duration, and it is coming down much, much harder, although in waves.  I have a feeling that instead of dry intervals, all we're going to see is a lessening in intensity, almost like surf.  I'm glad we went to David yesterday, because I wouldn't dream of driving in this rain--suicidal.

Lloyd Cripe, whose Web site ( is on the sidebar, has just cracked that if this keeps going on, we're all going to have tropical depression!

Another update:
La Prensa this morning reported that the Panamanian Weather Bureau has issued an alert for heavy rains and possible flooding and mud slides until 4 pm today for the provinces of Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, Los Santos, Herrera, Panamá, and the Ngobe Buglé Comarca.  Yesterday's rains caused flooding and mud slides in the capital.  Another article reported that Bocas del Toro had been cut off from the rest of the country by land because of a mud slide on the highway, but our friends (whose son works there) tell us that that's so common as to be unremarkable.  However, it's one of the reasons why he hates working there.  He likes to come home for the weekends and sometimes he can't due to problems like this.

Llloyd Cripe reports that he's recorded 3.9" of rain since midnight over near Boquete.  I'm really anxious to get our weather station in October.  Our rain bands are decreasing in intensity and frequency.  We've got our usual streams (one of them in the above picture) in both gullies on each side of the house, but they're lessening in volume.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

News Briefs, 28/5//2008

Fred, Rickie the Cat, and Ethel

It is pouring here, and has been through most of the night.

The biggest story in most of the on-line newspapers today is the report of a mula--a large, flat-bed truck, falling on top of a house in one of the Gatún neighborhoods in Colón.  I've linked to La Prensa's front page.  

Another brief article states that while the water level at Fortuna is increasing, Bayano is still below normal, so there's increased production of electricity from "thermal" sources in order to keep up electrical production.  I'd read that earlier in the week.  I'm not exactly sure what that means.  Normally, I'd assume that meant geothermal energy; while there are hot springs in Chiriquí, I don't think they're large enough to generate electricity.  So I'm assuming that fossil fuel plants are what's meant.

Another article that appeared earlier in the week in Crítica quoted the ex-director of IRHE (no idea but a hazarded guess is some governmental agency that oversees energy), Gonzalo Córdoba, as saying that the current energy crisis is a created one, thanks to self-serving decision-makers (I assume in the electricity-generating businesses) who don't listen to the experts but only act to increase profits and against the interests of the country.  According to Córdoba, one of the big problems is that there isn't adequate regulation, and those that are in charge of regulation now are the same ones who are involved in the privatization of IRHE. 

Well, I see that they've certainly learned from the US.

Don Ray from Chiriquí Chatter sent me this link to a blog that has a post with more complete information about governmental food subsidies here in Panamá.  The blog also mentions the potential for a "social explosion" to hit the streets here if something were not done.  I have been reading brief references in the on-line papers to demonstrations: University of Panamá students, other students, labor groups.  The Panama News has mentioned "restlessness" about food prices.  I was really surprised to read in the blog that the price of a pound of rice (I would guess in Panamá) had risen to $0.70/lb.  I have not seen anything more than $0.50/lb here, but that's one advantage of living in an agricultural area (and is one big reason why we chose to live where we are)--food prices are almost always lower.  Still, we're going shopping today, and since we have to buy rice, we'll see.

I should mention, for those who are in the area that, at 3:00 pm on Sunday, there will be a presentation (in Spanish) at the Potrerillos Arriba Infoplaza about the history of Chiriquí province, as an adjunct to the celebration of the 159th anniversary of David.  We intend to go.  I'm bringing the cam corder--this time, complete with tape.  I still haven't forgiven myself for Easter's faux pas.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Outbreak of Viral Meningitis in David

Critica reports that the Ministry of Health has just announced an outbreak of viral meningitis among children in David that it considers epidemic; there have been 63 confirmed cases as opposed to 55 in the same period last year.  

News Briefs, 27/5//2008

La Prensa:  "English: A Stone in the Shoe."  The article reports on the failure of colegio students to demonstrate proficiency in English as evidenced by poor performance on exams.  According to the article, a 60% grade is passing; average grade was 53%  for 12th grade students.  The test has been mandatory since 2007.  It's bad news for the universities, too, because, since 2007,  proficiency in English is required to get a diploma.

La Prensa:  Panamanian economy, while growing, is slowing in rate, down 4% from this time last year.  Those sectors that have slowed: pretty much all the agricultural sectors, which is very bad news at this time of higher food prices, tonnage passing through the Canal, manufacturing in the food and textile industries, among others.  Officials are blaming the slowdown on high fuel prices.

La Estrella: Hydroelectric production at the plant in Bayano stopped this weekend due to low water levels.  However, the situation at Fortuna, here in Chiriquí, is getting back to normal with the steady--and at times--heavy rains we've been experiencing over the past week.  Heaven knows it's beginning to feel like August around here.

Interestingly enough, there have been demonstrations (reported in La Prensa in the past week) over Volcán way, protests by farmers and residents against a proposed hydroelectric project that would reduce if not outright eliminate water that has traditionally gone to small farmers there.

There have been accounts in La Prensa recently of demonstrations by parents and students at different primary schools that fiberglass removal has been inadequate and badly done. Today in Panamá Américana, there's an article quoting the Vice Minister of Education as admitting that many companies don't have experience in that work. Always leads me to wonder if there's a money trail there.

La Estrella: Torrijo's plan for assisting the agricultural sector with high costs consists of reducing the interest rates on loans to that sector to 2% and broadening the insurance coverage in case of natural disasters, accidents, etc affecting crops and harvests.  The president of ONAGRO (Organización Nacional Agropecuario) congratulated Torrijos on this measure, but also requested steps to reduce the number of middlemen between the producer and the market, saying that this is a major cause of the increase in costs to the consumer.

There's a much longer article in Dia a Dia on steps being taken to give consumer relief over high prices of basic foods.  It doesn't say when, but a program was started in the Azuero Peninsula that introduced measure to help producers and guarantee lower prices to the consumer.  One of those measure is that the government would buy 100% of the rice crop, which has at its base the rise of oil to $135/barrel last week.  this also would help eliminate speculation.  Urea, which is a prime chemical fertilizer used, would be sold at half the going rate.  The hope, of course, is that these measures benefitting producers will lower costs that will be passed directly to the consumer.

But meantime?   At the beginning, the article does mention some steps taken in other countries, such as the issue of food vouchers.  That certainly would help the poor in the short term.

Yesterday, I went to our local mercadito to buy a bag of cement, since our favorite construciton worker is coming here today to do a small project for us.  I shelled out $7.35 for the bag, remarking as I did so that the price had risen $0.06 since I last bought one.  The young woman at the cash register, someone I'm not familiar with, shyly started talking about the rise in food prices.  Then we got to talking about the increase in fuel prices.  

Panamá regulates the price of fuel, adjusting every two weeks; the next price adjustment is on the 28th.  Right now, we're paying $4.10 for a gallon of diesel, which about as cheap as you can get it locally.  Boquete is traditionally $0.10-$0.15 higher.  We were surprised last weekend to see stations in David $0.15 higher than our local bomba.  

For dead certain, the price is not going to drop, not with oil reaching ever higher records.  All we can do is wait and see, and continue to implement our plan to do even less driving than we are now.

So much for a brief post.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lord of the Flies


June is usually the worst month for flies around here, but the season seems to have started early this year; they've annoyed us for at least two weeks.  In addition, the sheer number of flies seems to us to be much more than during the past two years.  Three years ago, when we moved into this house in June, the flies were so bad that they covered the hood of our white truck; it was almost black with flies. They're not that bad this year, but they're a problem.  I checked with Darío, to get his opinion of what was happening up in the pueblo proper, where he lives, and he agrees that this is a bad year for flies
Most people in this barrio blame the fly problem on Avicola Athenas, which is a big (as Panamá goes) chicken farm near here.  Hard to judge, but I'd say the main sheds are about a kilometer from here, maybe a little more, as the crow--or fly--flies. However, I have a hard time believing that flies from the Avicola can travel the 2+ miles to Potrerillos itself.  I'd have to check but I'm skeptical that flies can traverse that long a distance.

But since we've become sensitive to their presence, during my morning scan of La Prensa some time last week, I noticed a short article talking about corruption in the program that is designed to control the gusano barrenador. "Gusano" is the generic term for caterpillars or other larvae, but I didn't recognize "barrenador" nor could I find it in the dictionary.  I had a hunch, given the information in the article, that it referred to the screwworm.  There is a name for the fly in Spanish that is related to tornillo (screw), but I hadn't heard it for years, and I couldn't (still can't) remember what it is.  

When we first came here, we listened patiently to those of our gringo neighbors who delighted in telling us horror stories about living here.  I don't mean advice about construction--I mean about potential dangers.  Snakes, scorpions, fire ants, you name it.  Knowing the syndrome of wanting to scare the newbies, I more or less ignored all this while keeping up a polite pretense of listening.  But what caught my attention was the description of a fly which laid its eggs on the skin of an animal.  Naturally, the eggs hatch into larvae about the length of a thumb joint (standard unit of measure around here)--in other words, about an inch or more.

The larva then burrows underneath the skin of its host, leaving behind a hole which it needs to breathe.  According to my tickled-pink narrators, everything is really ok, because when the larva matures into a fly, it leaves the host--unless of course the fly immediately deposits more eggs and re-infects the host.  I was given jovial accounts of driving by a cattle pasture and seeing the skins of the cattle rippling with movement from the larvae.  I was gleefully informed that our dogs were at risk, since they, too, could serve as hosts.  One person kindly offered to teach me how to pinch the skin of the dog so that the larva would be expelled.  I declined as politely as I could.

Fire ants--no problem.  Scorpions--not the least bit fazed.  Snakes in the bathroom when you get up during the middle of the night--hey, I can handle that.

But this?  I wasn't so sure.

Not too long afterwards, a 12 year old Panamanian friend of ours mentioned casually that she had had a gusano in her scalp some years ago.  That's when I learned that the problem extended to humans as well.  Friends of ours bought a Rottweiler puppy in Dolega about the same time and noticed an odd sort of movement under the shoulder skin.  The vet squeezed--and ejected an inch-and-a-half larva across the room, according to the woman who told me, shuddering with disgust as she did so.  The vet, she said, was pretty matter-of-fact about it.  Nothing unusual.

Worried about the dogs because of living right next door to a cattle ranch, I checked with our vet who told me that while it had been a problem in the past, it was pretty much eliminated now.

Tuesday, when I had my "class" with Maritza, I asked her for the translation of gusano barrenador.  My hunch was correct--it was the screwworm.  Ricardo, who was surfing the TV (is there something in the Y chromosome?  This behavior seems to cross national and cultural boundaries) came over and gave me a good 5 minute lecture on the screwworm and the measures taken to eradicate it.  Since Ricardo insists on believing that I'm fluent in Spanish, he usually lapses into the Chiriquí dialect when he talks with me, and carries on at a Panamanian rate.  Which meant that I understood maybe 1 word in 10 that Tuesday night.

However, I picked up enough--and Maritza reinforced his comments--to understand that they believed the fly was bien controlado through the government's program of sterile insect control--releasing irradiated, sterile male flies into the wild population.  

But Martiza, who was a primary school teacher until she retired, told me that she had seen children, especially indigenous ones, come to school with the gusanos in their scalps and underneath the skin of their shoulders.  I assume this was before the program.

Intrigued by all this, I did some Internet research and found out that the screwworm is a problem in the southern US as well as Central America and Africa.  There are two species, the Old World screwworm and the New World one.  The major control effort is through the Sterile Insect Control (SIC) technique, although insecticides and creams are used as well.  In areas where the screwworm is more or less endemic, there isn't a hope of a stable cattle industry without control efforts.  Losses can be pretty substantial.

I didn't pursue it too far, but got the impression that it was far more of a problem in Africa.  Might be due to the different species of fly, for all I know.  What impressed me was a picture of a child (nationality not disclosed but looked Caucasian) who had a fly burrow the extent of his shin--a good 12-15 inches long if not more.  That's like nothing I've heard of here.  It was gruesome.

The fact that money is disappearing into someone(s) pockets from this program, therefore, is not funny.  I personally have no problem with sex between consenting adults and have always found hypocritical the uproar in the US when politicians engage in it.  But as far as I'm concerned, stealing public funds, especially from public health programs, is tantamount to treason, no matter where it occurs.  But, the officials of the screwworm control program remain mystified as to where the majority of the "missing" funds disappeared.  If I remember correctly, well over a million dollars vanished.  My guess is that at least some of that money came from international public health sources, not just from the Panamanian government.  I've seen that happen over and over again in Brasil.

I really don't believe that the risk from screwworm is high, but it's one more reason to bathe dogs frequently.  Our vet recommends every two weeks, both to control skin diseases and for parasite control.  We've learned through unpleasant experience to take him at his word.  We often don't get to it quite every two weeks--in the rainy season, it's likely to be once a month--but we work at it.  

I recommend the practice.

Thanks to Don Ray of Chiriquí Chatter who sent me this link for a YouTube video of the Bot Fly in Panamá.  As I mention in the Comments, I don't know if they're the same gusano, but sure looks like it could be.

This video is not for the squeamish, ok?  It shows the gusano being pulled out of someone's back by means of tweezers.

Blog Guidelines

I've received a request for information about real estate.  

I'm not a real estate agent.  My blog is mostly for me and somewhat to give out information I consider essential to understanding this area and what you're most likely to find here.   I do not promote living in Panamá.  I think most people who want to live here are out of their minds, because they're simply not capable of adapting.  They read International Living, or some other such rag, are stupid enough to believe developers (who make sharks look altruistic), and then come here after a 3 week vacation in the dry season.  I sometimes wonder why I'm putting out all this info, because I know from experience that the people who need to listen the most will nod their heads happily, agree that they know this isn't the US, and then blithely proceed to act as if it is.  You simply can not teach fools.

However, I seem to insist on clinging to the unreasonable belief, for which I have no proof, that if you lay out facts for people, they will act rationally and logically.  All one has to do is read the political news from the US to have that silly notion blasted from one's head, but being an old (literally and figuratively) college instructor, I keep on trying.

Read my blog if you want to, but don't expect any help from me in finding real estate.  Don't waste my time and yours by asking.

On a lighter note:  I'm going to try, every morning, to put out a short post (hard to believe, I know) with a brief summary of what I find interesting in the Panamanian press.

Today: in La Estrella, a short piece quoting the president of the Rice Growers' Association here in Chiriquí as saying that the price of arroz de campo is going to go up due to the increased costs of production.    According to Sr. Arúz, within a few months, the price of rice will increase 25 centavos or more (I have no idea per what).  He says that the rice inventories in the country are low, and that there is a need for incentives for better distribution of rice for maintaining the supply.

Granted that the country imports a good deal of its rice.  Still, the predicted price hike for Panamanian-grown rice is not good news.

From another article in La Estrella, Torrijos is supposed to announce today measure to support both producers and consumers with the high cost of living and of the canásta básica.  this in response mostly to economists who are forecasting a possible crisis of inflation in Panamá.

Possible?  The country has already been experiencing about 10% per year, if not more.  I recently read about a 17% increase in the price of wholesale goods here in the country in April.  

We'll see what Torrijos does.  It's an election year, after all.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Time Out


It's raining today, so I'm going to take the time to catch up on reading I've let slide.  Much of the latest edition of The Panama News is available, and from hurried peeks at the briefs, it looks extremely  interesting.  Also, I'm behind on my reading of the Panamanian press, which has articles on the electrical generation situation, malnutrition among children, and other articles.  I haven't read much in Crítica, La Estrella and others, so I really can't make any sort of informed opinion about them, but I hope to correct some of that lack today.  However, I have updated the Links section to include the URLs for those as well as other online newspapers.  So, in case you're interested in browsing these publications (which are in Spanish), the links are available.

Nice thing about the rainy season--I get to read more!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Good Help Is Hard To Find

                         Katya the jacaré (caiman).  Amazon River, Brasil, 2007

There has been a scarcity of workers in the area lately, since construction has soaked them up.  I have no idea what unemployment figures were and are (and doubt that the government does, either--not real figures) but there's no question that the last 2 years has seen a decrease in the people who were available for hiring as handymen, gardeners, light construction, the like.  The fact is, many workers can make far more in construction or construction-related jobs such as driving trucks, than they can as unskilled labor.  More power to them.

But there are other problems that have existed for some time--certainly as long as we've been here (4 years).  There are a number of facets. 

1) Cultural attitudes towards work.  Originally, we were more than happy to hire young men, especially teens, because we knew the high unemployment rate among those age groups.  But we've learned the hard way, believe me, not to hire young men either in their teens or early twenties.  Only possible exception: if they're married and have a family.

Otherwise, the experience around here is that they'll work for you for anywhere from 3-6 weeks--and then suddenly never show up again.  Doesn't matter that you pay them more than the going rate or treat them much better than most Panamanians treat their workers.  

I refer a lot to the book I reviewed in one of my earliest posts: Path to Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush.  It's fascinating history.  In the very earliest parts of the book, when there was no other transportation across the isthmus except by mule and boat, travelers desperate to get to the Pacific from the Atlantic on their way to the gold fields of California, complained about the fact that Panamanians worked until they had whatever money was good enough for them, and then disappeared--along with their boats, mules and knowledge of the country.  This behavior isn't limited to Panamanians by any means but it's not universal across Latin America.

2) You get what you pay for.  One of the topics I hear about most frequently from those who want to or are about to move here is the joy over cheap labor.  It's quite a different story from those of us who have been here for a while but the newbies or wannabees are quite enthusiastic.


I've said it before in another post, but what you find here is a population of unskilled labor that is exactly that--unfamiliar with the powered tools such as lawn mowers and weed eaters that we take for granted and assume even the most unskilled can use.  Wrong.  10 years ago, give or take a couple of years, the overwhelming majority of the workers here had never seen never mind operated one.  That has come with the latest American Invasion.  Now, everyone has seen one--but very, very few know how to operate them.

The first worker we hired as a gardener cost us two burned-out carburetors for our weed eater and a burned-out power drill.  That's the damage I'm sure of.  Others that we hired, who assured us that they knew how to operate a weed eater wound up costing us a damaged starter, damaged heads, and damaged shafts, as well as motors that after a while just simply gave up.  I'm on our 3rd weed eater now, and no one--I mean NO ONE--touches my obscenely expensive but tough Stihl F55.  I have refused to lend equipment out to other ex-pats, knowing perfectly well that they are not going to the do the work but have their Panamanian workers use the tools.  When I first ran across that attitude with a neighbor, very early on, I was a little indignant; I now have exactly the same one.

The ignorance coupled with lack of money means that Panamanians themselves don't care for their equipment.  We use a very good welder for all our ironwork.  He installed our puertas and verjas for the house.  For this he needed a power drill because his, he explained, wasn't working.  He wanted to know if he could use mine, until he could get his repaired.  Far along the pathway to becoming a Panamanian, I lied and said I didn't have one.  Since I'm a woman, he accepted that.  Saves face all around.  He borrowed one from a Panamanian friend and I noted with interest that he was still using that same drill (at much too low a speed for concrete) months later when he came to install a gate.

The correct oil to use in the weed eaters is NOT the common 2-cycle one found everywhere for both water-cooled and air-cooled engines, but just for air-cooled engines.  It's not easy to find, and it's far more expensive.  Guess which one most Panamanians use.  The only exception I've seen is my friend Ricardo Espinosa who knows how to use and care for his tools and does so.

God bless Darío and keep him healthy and safe for many years to come, but he, too, has no clue about power tools.  I know perfectly well that he contributed to the demise of our last weed eater.  I won't allow him within 10 meters of my Stihl, with the excuse that I like doing that work (another flat-out lie) because it gives me needed exercise (true).  He has, however, taken over the operation of the lawn mower, which he treats lovingly and carefully, taking pride in his work.  I've believed for some time that Darío unconsciously views the lawn mower as "his".  Good.   Mary keeps an eye on oil levels and changes the oil while I sharpen the blade--all when Darío isn't here.  We are incredibly fond of Darío, who has been a godsend after literally years of being unable to find decent help, and take very good care of him in many different ways, including preserving his pride.  We depend on Darío but I know his limits and do not ask him to go beyond them.  

So if I look at just what its cost me to replace tools and to have them inadequately repaired after unnecessary damage--I'd have to add about $1000, minimum, to the labor costs.  We only recently started having Darío come in twice a week; before that it was only once a week for everyone else and for the first year he was here.  So the damage and repair/replacement costs have almost equaled our labor costs.

3) Most workers will lie to your face about all sorts of things, including their competence.  We're so used to references, being able to check on people and to assuming that people will represent themselves more or less correctly.  Plus I think that most Americans coming here are blinded by that seemingly cheap dollar value on labor here.  It's also hard to nearly impossible to get formal references.  Most Americans wouldn't do so anyway, because it would mean, heaven preserve them, speaking Spanish.  Chances are pretty good that the references would lie, too, so why bother.

The best possible advice I can give you is treat everyone as if they are lying to you and depend on word of mouth.  Our original gardener made all sorts of claims which in our naiveté at the time were true because his brother worked next door, was pretty good and assured me that his brother would work out well.  I should have noted the ambiguity.

We fired that young man for many reasons, not the least of which was that he was nearly totally incompetent as a gardener.  Thanks to his ignorance and neglect, some precious fruit trees died.  He had no idea if plants needed sun or shade, and didn't know how to plant trees.  The trees that I planted did well from the beginning, and are now fruiting.  The trees that he planted either died or are just now starting to take off.

He lied because he was desperate for work and his brother lied for him.  Never, ever underestimate the strength of family here.  Americans, who love to jabber a lot about "family values", have no clue whatsoever because culturally we really place very little value on family values.  It's too often just a code phrase for homophobia, anyway.

We hire no one anymore--don't even consider consider them--unless they have been referred to us by people we know and trust: long-time ex-pats and Panamanian friends who really understand what we need.  Darío recommended someone to fix our lawn mower because he naively assumed that this man, who can indeed work on car and tractor engines, could therefore work on small motors.  Wrong.  Another lesson learned but a cheap one.

Another nice young man whom we had for a few times assured me that he could run a weed eater.  By this time, I was a sceptic, so under the excuse of well, this one is a little different, I went through the steps of staring it.  Yes, yes, I know.  OK.  I watched from the window as he worked and worked the pull cord--and couldn't get it started.  So I went out (by that time the motor was flooded and he didn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of getting it started--of course, he didn't realize that) and asked him if there was some problem.  He complained about the weed eater, but when I went through the steps with him, he had left out a small detail like turning the switch from "off" to "on".  In reality, after I started it for him and watched him work, it was very clear from his clumsiness that he had never touched a weed eater before.  Heaven knows how much life he took off  that particular starter and what other damage he did to the motor.  They do not understand about loads on  a motor and thus are prone to burn out motors because they don't run them fast enough.  And the reason they don't run them faster is because that uses up more, precious, expensive gasoline.  Then they abandon their weed eaters and either revert to machete (the honest ones) or steal another if they can.  So the cycle goes on and on.

4) Arrogance, which is in large part cultural.  I've written already about "playing the game".   It shows up in different ways.  When we first came here, a neighbor whose advice was invaluable during our first two years here, warned us never to let a Panamanian feel that he's "gotten ahead of you".  If that happens, he said, they will have nothing but contempt for you and you'll have nothing but trouble.  That applies either to lending them money or in fact treating them too well.  We did, with our first gardener, by giving him lunch AND paying him $10/8 hour day, which was extremely high at that time.  Now, it's nearly standard, but not then.

We also wanted to encourage him in his career aspirations.  He was going to the university in David at the time, and we started paying his tuition (which was an entirely $30/term).  Like most Americans, we wanted to help someone better himself.

He repaid us by starting to slack off on his work and slowly, slowly decreasing the amount of time he was spending here.  When I came back from a trip to Brasil, I found that he regularly was leaving an hour early.

We decided to have a talk with him, and put him under contract which he had resisted.  I had everything all ready one day, when he came to work without the power drill I had lent him and that he had promised to return that day.  When I asked him where the drill was, he nonchalantly said he wasn't done with what he had to do at home.  And of course, never bothered to call me on his cell phone to ask permission.

In my quiet and restrained fashion, I blew sky high, started yelling in Spanish, and fired him on the spot.  Drove him home, got my drill, and told him I'd find out about what was due him in severance pay.  Then contacted my lawyer in Panama City by email--we work very, very well that way--but inadvertently did not give her the entire picture.  As a result, we wound up paying him a severance package (pretty low--we had not employed him for that long and we only had him over once a week) that I now know we could have avoided because we had just cause.

Panamanian labor law is very generous to workers, and they have rights to severance pay that US workers do not have under the same conditions.  If you employ someone for tiempo completo--full time--over a period of just a few years, you can wind up owing the worker several thousand dollars in a severance package depending on how your work relationship ends.  If they quit, no problem.  But if you fire them, and you do not cover your buns, you can be in deep doodoo.

Case in point with our next door neighbor who is smack in the middle of an all-out fight wither their former employee.  He's claiming $3000.  He did very well in manipulating, over a period of months, our neighbors into just this side of firing him.  Had they done so, they would have no choice but to  pay the money.  That's not quite what happened but he's claiming they did.

There's even more that they did for him but I don't want to get into it because I don't want to identify people.

Over the years, they've lost a great deal of money through naive trust, doing things they never would have done in the US.  But I've never heard them so angry, furious over what they view as betrayal.  This time, I think they've learned.  Finally.

Fortunately, they have someone at the Department of Labor who agrees with them and is helping them out.  But it can be totally dependent on who you deal with as to which way the law is interpreted.

Me, I don't make a move without checking it out with our lawyer.  Everything I do goes past her.

6) Bordom.  It's a fact that Panamanian workers don't like to stay in one place or one job too long.  Darío has a real mix of work, for instance, that keeps him from getting bored.

There are no doubt other points except that I'm getting tired of writing.

However, you can find honest, competent workers who will give you real value for your money.  It's not easy, but you can find them.  When you do, hang on to them, because they are worth more than gold.

We are blessed with Darío, who is 68; he's retired and collects his Social Security, but still works, both for us and at a job in David.  I thought it was for the extra money, but our friends in Potrerillos, after much laughter and giggling, told us that it's more likely that he wants to get away from his wife! He is proud to the point of vanity about his ability to work harder than a younger man.  He has saved us enormous amounts of money, has given me invaluable advice when I've asked him.  Because of the incredibly hard work he's done in the heat of summer, my part in maintaining the property--weed eating--has been cut to about 25% of what it has been in the past 3 years and will go down even further when other areas can be mowed.  We joke and laugh together, we trade horror stories about near misses (he was polite when I told him about the near-miss on the lightning strike but it was clear that he thought I'd been an idiot), we share outraged self-righteousness over the prices we have to pay, and trade tips on the best places to shop.  He tells me what's going on in Potrerillos, and asks me about extremely intelligent, informed questions about events in the US.  We are completely comfortable with one another.

Being a male, naturally he adores being fussed over by women, and believe me, we fuss (I have this terrible feeling that we even coo).  He's something of a hypochondriac, and we more or less indulge him.  If he has a headache, he comes to us for Tylenol, which he loves.  We exchange remedies for various ailments and aches and pains.  I've learned not to scold him for working too hard in the sun, because latino machismo takes over, and he works even harder.  Almost always, I give him cookies, or part of a cake, or muffins to take home to his family.  One of his daughters and her children live with him and his wife, and I'm pretty sure he's supporting them.  The kids are cute and incredibly polite.   He's fascinated by the leaf lettuce I'm growing now, and I plan to give him a head when they mature.  

Yes, he most certainly has his limitations but then so do I.

Recently, we decided to raise his salary from $10/ 8 hour day to $12, starting the first of June.  Given the steep rise in the cost of living and truly grateful for his work, this was something we felt we wanted to do.  When I told him that, driving him home for some reason or another (usually he takes the bus), he was unable to look at me, choked up, and thanked me feelingly.  Since that time, he has worked even harder, if that's possible.

He's more than a worker but less than a family member.  Not quite a friend but not outside our our circle, either.

95% of me believes that he will continue to be so.  But there is that dispassionate 5% of me that knows Panamá, and that will sit back, watch and wait.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

More Wildlife Encounters

Three toed sloth in the Brasilian Amazon region.  Has absolutely nothing to do with the post topic.  I just like the picture which I took a year ago.

Anyone who spends time in the tropics certainly discovers a zoological fact: insects far outnumber any other form of life (other than microscopic) on the planet.  That includes not only numbers but varieties.  I've always been grateful for the fact that the percentage of insect species more or less incompatible with  human life is very small.  Otherwise, our species wouldn't be able to survive.

Those that aren't compatible range from the uncomfortable to the downright lethal.  Of the former, I give you the common ant.

Living in the Pacific Northwest as we did, we were aware of a few species of ant.  The most exasperating to deal with was the carpenter ant.  Nowhere near so bad as its cousin, the termite, carpenter ants could pose a serious problem to your wood-based house if left unchecked.  OK, from time to time I had to call in an exterminator, but it could be dealt with.  Other ants were pretty harmless.  Sugar ants could be a problem if you were careless around the house, but only seasonally.  Then there were the large black ones who seemed to mind their own business and pretty much operated on a live and let live basis.

Then we came to the tropics.

Our first year here, we rented a furnished Panamanian house not too far from where we live now.  It was, I discovered rather quickly, not well sealed, and we had a variety of unwelcome insect guests, the worst of which were the at least 5 different species of ants, some of them truly scary.  The most frightening from a size and numerical viewpoint were the black ones with red heads.  They were huge--almost the length of my thumb joint--and their heads were disproportionally large, or at least it seemed so to me.  They colonized everywhere in the house, and especially on the second floor which we were using to store some books and a few other thing that we didn't need in our rental house.  

I'll never forget going upstairs one day for some reason or another, and hearing this very strange, ominous rustling noise coming from one of the boxes.  I opened one of the boxes---

--and there was a HUGE colony of these ants, all in motion, it seemed.  I felt as if any minute they would rush out of the box in some irrepressible wave and carry me off.

I did what any sane person would do in that situation--I yelled for help.

Mary came running, and between the two of us, we managed to haul out what we could of the things inside, stomping ants like crazy.  Then we took the whole mess and tossed it over the side from the balcony to the garden below.  Left it there for a few days before we had enough nerve to approach it.  By the time I gingerly rolled it over, all the ants were gone.

Another time I found a colony under a decorative pillow on the rocking chair upstairs.  Must have used a half gallon of Raid.

Oh yes, you bet--this environmentalist kept Johnson and Johnson's profit levels up that year. It does work--and yes, it does have a residual.  I used it in corners of the floors and outside in cracks that ants were using to come in.  Killed them dead, I'm happy to say and would work for about 6 weeks or more.

The worst time I had with these ants was was during the time when Mary was in Missouri visiting family.  I was using the downstairs bedroom.  One night, while I was reading, I happen to glance up and over to the floor just in front of the bathroom door.  There, to my horror, was a line of ants coming from the bathroom and fanning out, headed straight for my bed.

It was dark, I was alone (dogs and cats really don't count in a situation like this), and I was unreasonably terrified.  I don't even remember what I grabbed, but as the ants had now reached the floor underneath the bed, I started a killing frenzy.  Then I raced for my handy cans (yes, plural) of Raid, and started spraying in the bathroom until there were nothing but ant corpses littering the floor.  I shut the door so that the dogs and cats wouldn't be able to go into the bathroom, and tried to sleep that night, ever afraid that ants would make it into the bed.  Not an irrational fear that one, since it had happened before, but with smaller, less threatening ants.  NOT your most pleasant memory, waking up in the middle of the night feeling something small crawling around on your legs.

However, the bloody ants were back again for the next two or three nights.  

I finally figured out where the armies were coming from--behind the bathroom cabinet that was under the sink.  there were two consequences from this discovery: 1) approximately 1.5 cans of Raid were used to saturate the area behind the cabinet and 2) I swore that we would never EVER have built-in cabinets.  Three and a half years later, we still don't, although we do know now what type to have to prevent this problem--no backs, built on to the wall, no place for the ants to hide.

You can't imagine the  lengths I went to while we were building this house in order to have sealed exteriors.

However, the Ant Wars went on after we moved--just a different location and with yet different species.

The first time I had a run-in with leaf cutter ants, we had moved in but there was still some exterior work to be done on the house.  I had already fallen prey to my craze for bougainvillea, and had bought my first small plants, which I put along side the car port driveway.  One of the workers, Joel, pointed to a conical-shaped hill of dirt and told me that I should kill "them" because otherwise they would kill all my plants.  I had no idea what he was talking about until the next day.  I had three or four potted plants; not one had a single leaf on them.

That hill, of course, was the mouth of a leaf cutter ant nest.  Our then-gardener told me what to do.  I bought a powder dispenser, quite common here--it looks like a bicycle tire pump.  you put an insecticide in powder form--in this case Hormitex--in the main compartment, shove the dispensing hose into the ant hill, and then work the handle, pumping the powder into the nest.

It worked.  Well, sort of.  The ants picked up and moved to another location.

One of the real problem with leaf cutter ants is that they will forage a very long distance from the nest--10 to 15 meters is as nothing to them.  What you have to do to eradicate them is to keep following the trail of nests until you've cleared them out.  It took me quite a while, but I did so.  We haven't had leaf cutters in years.

And finally, my favorite ants of all time--the stinging ones.

When we first came here, we were told that there were fire ants here.  After my first encounter with stinging ants, I was sure I'd run across them, but I now don't think so.  There may indeed be fire ants here, but the nasty little devils I've stepped into I think are just stinging ants.  "Just".  The bite stings like crazy thanks to the formic acid the ant secretes ("formiga" in Portuguese and "hormiga" in Spanish are derived from the Latin name for ant from which "formic acid"comes).  It stings like crazy for about 15 minutes and then goes away--to leave behind a blister filled with a white semi-fluid.

There are at least three different types of stinging ants that I am aware of, based on color and the way they build their nests.  Some nests are obvious and can be avoided, and others are not.

Doesn't matter--I hate them all and if I find a nest anywhere near the house, I haul out my trusty Arrivo and spray the nest.  I have some evidence but am not entirely certain that even some forms of stinging ants eat the leaves from young plants.  If I see a plant that is slowly being nibbled to death over a period of days (leaf cutters will strip a plant overnight), I look for a nearby ant nest, and almost always find one.  If I spray the nest, the problem seems to go away.  That's not enough proof to be certain but enough to keep on with the policy until I find out otherwise.

Another thing I really like to do is disrupt a nest if I find when when I'm weed eating.  This morning, I came across one near the bougainvillea (which are now too large to be in danger from that type of ant although a few would be susceptible to leaf cutters) while weed eating, and I ripped it open at half speed.  Why just half speed?  Having disrupted ant nests accidentally,  the line has thrown the miserable little beasts onto my feet and legs--whereupon they proceeded to climb towards various unprotected parts of my body.  Half speed avoids this.

Have you ever read the phrase "and they boiled out of the building" or something like that?  It perfectly describes what you see when you disturb in any way, including just brushing the edge, of one of these nests.  The ants come boiling out--no other description does it justice--by their hundreds and possibly several thousand.

And come straight for you.

Fortunately, they don't go more than a foot or two away from the nest, so there's safety in distance.  But you do, believe me, want to put distance between you and them.  Which is why I prefer to do my malicious mischief with a weed eater, with that nice long shaft between Me and Them.

I do not have a concern in the world about killing these ants.  They are not now nor ever will be on the Endangered Species list.  However, I don't wantonly go out and kill them if I don't have to.  If they're in the orchard area or any place some distance from the house--and don't look like they're threatening my new plantings--I leave them alone.  

Make no mistake, though-- it's war and the battle lines are drawn.