Where am I now?

30 Nov

I have recently learned that some of you who subscribed to my Panama blog would like to follow my new adventures in Mexico.  My current blog, originating from the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, can be found at http://sanmiguelreality.com.

Many thanks for your readership.  Lynne

Through the Looking Glass

24 Mar

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

As we pack our last boxes and enjoy the company of our neighbors, it is a time of reflection, appreciation, and — anticipation.  We have made the bold decision to leave Panama for the highlands of Mexico where we have rented a home in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.  There is always the possibility that we will return to Panama; generally, however, it has been our style to move forward, rarely looking back over our shoulders.

Panama has been the perfect place for us these past 14 months.  It is, indeed, a beautiful country, enjoying a strong dollar-based economy, an emerging working class, and grappling with the many issues that rapid growth can engender.  It strikes me that Panama is like a teenager — a little uncertain, impulsive, excited, struggling with its identity and direction.  It is a country on the brink of — what??  As is true for the adolescent, Panama now faces many challenges that will test its commitments and may alter its course.   There’s something very “yeasty” about the environment here as this once third world country struggles to become a member of the first world.

Except for my family and friends, most of you who read this blog have been drawn to it by your interest in Panama.  I will not abandon you just yet; instead I will try to give you a sense of my current impressions, some of which have remained unchanged over the months but many of which have been altered or refined.  In addition to my own views, I have spent a good deal of time during the past year quizzing expats about their experience of Panama, why they came, how long they have been here, their initial impressions versus their current ones, etc.    As is probably true when asked to comment on any location in the world, attitudes here are many and varied but I will try to summarize the most common responses garnered from my informal and quite unscientific “research.”

The Weather:  While I find the weather to be warmer and more humid than my idea of utopia, many people come here precisely because of the tropical climate, sometimes driven by health issues but more often by preference.  Both temperatures and humidity are uniformly high with only minor seasonal variations.  During the dry season the low temperature at sea level on the Pacific side might be in the low 70s with a high of 90.   Although most of the beaches here are lovely to look at with warm water in which to swim, many times I have had to carry the dog across the sand until we reached the surf — the sand being so hot it would burn his paws. Of course temperatures vary depending on the elevation and here where we are it is approximately 10 degrees cooler than in the beach town of Coronado, and we enjoy lovely afternoon breezes.  Unlike Panama City, Coronado, and other locations on the ocean where air conditioning is the only option, we have been quite content here on the mountain with only our ceiling fans (although some of our neighbors have air conditioning in the bedrooms).   In other parts of the country there are places at higher elevations with even lower temperatures such as Boquete, a popular expat enclave.  Depending upon where you are, annual rainfall varies from around 50 inches to 120 inches with almost all of it falling during the rainy season which lasts anywhere from seven to nine months.  Happily, the entire country remains outside of the hurricane belt.  I occasionally hear complaints about the weather but most seem to enjoy it, particularly those who hail from northern climes.

The Cost of Living:  While it is true that housing costs are less here than in, say California, there are currently other locations in the United States which can now compete (although that is without consideration of property taxes or home owners’ insurance).  For example, I am aware of a handful of expats who have sold their homes in Panama and returned to the US to take advantage of the current real estate market in Florida.  Food costs vary greatly depending upon where one shops.  If one shops at the large grocery stores and purchases products from the United States, the cost is comparable or in some instances higher.  On the other hand, Panamanian products are significantly less expensive but I notice expats tend to stick with brands they know.  Recently I needed cream cheese for hors d’oeuvres and bought Panamanian cream cheese at half the cost of Philadelphia Cream Cheese; sadly, I didn’t care for it.  There are many fruit stands and farmers’ markets where produce can be shockingly inexpensive.  [NOTE:  It remains unclear the effect the recent signing of the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Panama will have on food prices; presumably the cost of US products could go down as tariffs are eliminated.]  If one is interested in “staff,” you can hire a maid or a gardener for $15/day.  Someone will come to your home to wash your car, inside and out, for $5.00.  You can buy nice fabric for $5/yard and have a sofa recovered for less than $100.  Although inflation continues to be a concern (as it is in any rapidly growing economy), you can eat at a nice restaurant for much less than in the US (assuming you do not order USDA beef).  Gasoline is currently $3.91 per gallon (91 octane) but public transportation costs are remarkably low.  I can take a bus (a mini-van) from our village 18 kilometers down the mountain for $.50 — or ride in the back of a truck for $.25.  I can get my teeth cleaned for anywhere from $15 to $45, depending on the dentist, and a physical at the clinic associated with Johns Hopkins for $15.

Banking / Free Trade:  After languishing in the US Congress since 2007, President Obama signed a Free Trade Agreement with Panama last October.  No one seems to know exactly how it will work, how long it will take to implement, and whether or not it will actually benefit Panama.  For example, I understand Panamanian pineapples can now be imported into the United States without any tariffs; however, it is generally believed that the Hawaiian pineapple is a superior product.  Although Panama has a reputation as a tax haven, in order to gain approval of the Free Trade Agreement Panama had to agree to a myriad of banking and tax regulations imposed by the United States (known as the Tax Information Exchange Agreement) and the days of banking secrecy (Panama used to be second only to Switzerland) are over.  At a recent dinner party I heard unsubstantiated rumors that the paperwork the IRS now requires of Panamanian banks is so onerous that banks are becoming increasingly reluctant to open accounts for US citizens.

Rose Colored Glasses:  Many folks arrive expecting to recreate the life to which they are accustomed and experience frustration at the lack of customer service, the cultural differences, the problems in finding competent tradesmen, etc.  Several people I have spoken to find it uncomfortable to live in a place of the haves and have-nots:  Panama’s strong economic performance has not translated into broadly shared prosperity and according to the CIA “fact sheet,” Panama has the second worst income distribution in all of Latin America with 30 percent of the population continuing to live in poverty.

Others come with an idealistic vision of life here (as has been widely propagated by organizations such as “International Living”) and immediately look to purchase or build a home.  In many cases this works out well.  But I am aware of a number of people who are now trying to sell their homes and are having trouble doing so.  Panama draws mainly from the North and South American continents, as well as Europe, and the housing crisis in the United States has had a negative affect on the sellers’ ability to sell real estate here.

What to Do:  Life is what you make it.  For those who live in Panama City, there is much that is available.  For those of us who live in what is known as the “interior,” it becomes more challenging.  The beach town of Coronado boasts a golf course, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, etc.  Unless I had a 6 a.m. tee time, I for one would give up the sport.  Here on our mountain we are just a few miles from the gated community of Altos del Maria, which offers yoga classes, gi-gong classes, a lending library as well as miles of gorgeous hiking trails.  One of my neighbors belongs to a sewing group and there are others who have formed a garden club.  In other words, we create our own reality.  Clearly this world works better for those who have rich inner lives and rely less on the stimulation of the external world.

Language:  It has been my observation that those who make an effort to learn the language have an easier time of it and are generally happier.  One of the negatives of living around a lot of expats is the tendency to stick together, to limit oneself to those with whom one can easily communicate.  For some people this works well.  For others it’s too much like home and diminishes the excitement of living in a foreign country, learning about its culture and interacting with its people.  By the way, although I purchased Rosetta Stone before leaving California, I have been most impressed with an on-line language program called Synergy Spanish; indeed, I am often complemented now on my pronunciation (I can even roll my “r”s).

Conclusions:  Some of our friends and neighbors absolutely love Panama and the life they have created here; they anticipate being here for the remainder of their lives.  Others view our departure with envy.  Saddled with homes they either bought or built, they are subject to the vagaries of the real estate market and with a plethora of homes on the market selling can take time.  If you are thinking of moving to Panama, my advice is this:  RENT — and then relax and enjoy.  I have known people who have rented first at the beach, then moved to the mountains — and visa versa.  It takes a while to experience what life here is going to be like and whether or not it’s the place for you.  For us, we’re just not quite ready to plant our flag.

Church and State

16 Mar

On a recent morning Oliver and I passed the school yard just as the morning rituals were getting underway; we stopped and watched.  Panamanian children wear uniforms to school which vary by district and age.  Here in our village the uniform consists of navy blue pleated skirts and either white or light blue shirts for the girls, and navy blue pants with light blue shirts for the boys.  In high schools located in larger communities nearby, the boys wear short sleeve white shirts with ties.  Apparently the government subsidizes the cost of school uniforms although I know of some expats who assume this expense for local families.

The school day begins with a person whom I believe to be the school principal saying to the children, “Buenos Dias!”  And the children shout back, “Buenos Dias!”  Morning prayers begin with the sign of the cross followed by recitations and ending, once again, with the sign of the cross. Then the flag raising is followed by some sort of pledge, offered with hand over heart, followed by a song, perhaps the national anthem.

There were an assortment of moms and dads, and probably grandmothers, standing just outside the gate, all with proud smiles on their faces like parents everywhere in the world. I was thinking perhaps this was the first day of the school term; however we have continued to observe these morning rituals, day after day, and the number of parents gathering outside of the gate does not appear to diminish.

As someone reasonably well versed in the doctrine of the separation of church and state, I was particularly interested in the prayer segment of the morning ritual since I am aware that not everybody in Panama is a Catholic.  Even here in our rural village of Sora, in addition to the Catholic church there is a Lutheran church and some sort of Evangelical church.  In Panama City, there are Jewish temples, Mormon temples, Buddhists temples, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Rastafarians.  I never trust the statistics I read but it is reported that there are over 40,000 Mormons in Panama, 60,000 Baha’i, 10,000 Jews, 10,000 Buddhists, etc., and over 2.5 million Catholics.

I have learned many things.  First, the Constitution of Panama states that Roman Catholicism is the “cornerstone” of the Republic and its predominant religion.  The diocese of Panama was founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1514, and the educational system first began with the arrival of the Jesuits later in that century.   However “public” education did not begin until 1903 when Panama, with the backing of the United States, seceded from Colombia.   Although not mandatory, the constitution encourages the teaching of Roman Catholicism in public school curriculums and, apparently, such religious instruction has always been part of public school life, with the proviso that children of other faiths, or non-believers, may be exempted from such instruction.  The Constitution clearly protects religious freedom and Panamanians have absolute liberty to practice and profess any faith or religion of their own choosing.   Indeed, Panama is known for its religious tolerance.  I wonder how this really works, in practice, since it would seem that village children here must either embrace or feign embracing Catholicism — or be subtly branded as different.  Panama is thought to be between 75% and 85% Catholic but I would imagine that number is higher in rural areas such as where we live.

School attendance is compulsory for only six years, beginning at the age of 7.  Private school education is, for those that can afford it, the favored option.  For example, 90% of the country’s Jewish children are educated in Jewish schools.  Similarly, Protestant kids go to Protestant schools, Muslim kids go to Muslim schools, and so on.  Those that remain, the local Panamanian children, are left with an underfunded system that few in the government seem to care about.  Indeed, public schools are considered to be a social “safety net” for only its poorest children.

While I do discern mild hints of religious bigotry, Panama is remarkably tolerant and, for example, is the only country other than Israel that has had two Jewish presidents.  Attempts to stir up religious “tensions” have not thrived here and when the legislators take up religious questions, most Panamanians shrug it off as another silly political game.

In addition to school being underway, it is also the Lenten season and the road is dotted with white crosses, adorned with purple ribbons.

As our lease nears its expiration, we muse about the future.  Seems like travel is in the offing and we may go exploring in Mexico for a time.  But as we contemplate our last days here on the mountain, we are again amazed at the changing landscape as the flora prepares for the rains to come.  Already we’ve had a few mornings of light rain and heavy winds out of the North.  The idea that Panama only has two seasons — wet and dry — is really a myth for each season has many faces.

Trouble in the Tropics

1 Mar

The Natives are Restless:  One of the consequences, intended or not, of living outside of the United States is the distance one gains from the body politic; we harbor no regrets about being absent during the current election season.  We have not lost interest nor do we fail to stay informed  — indeed, CNN is on our Dish TV lineup and the New York Times is my “home page” — but it’s a little like being on morphine during surgery — it still hurts but the distance takes the edge off.

Yet as Tip O’Neill so aptly observed, “All politics is local” — and Panama has politics.  Early in February, the State Department posted a travel alert for Panama.  The U.S. Embassy in Panama City sent out an emergency message alerting U.S. citizens of the risks associated with travel along the Pan-American Highway, mostly in Western Panama, some distance from where we are.  One of seven indigenous tribes, the Ngobe-Bugle Indians, were successful in closing the highway for five days and nights with trees, tires, concrete, rocks, people, etc.  Travelers in transit from Costa Rica were caught in the conflict leading the President of Costa Rica to temporarily close the border between the two countries.  It was only after violent confrontations between Panamanian security forces and the Indians that the road was reopened.  The losses from the road closure are estimated at $12 million.  At least two people died; many were injured.  Although the major protests occurred a significant distance from where we live, there were incidents of solidarity protests in Panama City and elsewhere in the country, leading to significant traffic disruption; indeed one day the highway was closed just down the mountain from us but only for a few hours.   [I have since learned that closing the Pan-American Highway is a well tested and proven form of protest for any number of grievances, from silly to serious.]  I hadn’t planned to write about this incident since the government has been in negotiations with the Indians and I was assuming an agreement would be forthcoming.  However it appears the two sides have reached a stalemate and future demonstrations are expected.  So what’s it all about?

Here’s the short version (as I understand it):  Under a 1972 Panamanian law, the government is required to set aside certain ancestral lands for the exclusive use of various groups of indigenous peoples.  These lands are called “comarcas,” or reservations, and enjoy considerable administrative autonomy and exclusive land rights, with special protections of mineral resources, water, and the environment of the region.  In 1997 a comarca was established for the Ngobe-Bugle Indians.  I don’t know if it was known at the time, but this comarca sits upon massive copper deposits in addition to being adjacent to significant waterways.  The current conflict arose when the government passed a new law which would open up the western portion of the Ngobe-Bugle cormarca to mining, reversing established policy, and announced its intention to (1) mine for copper and (2) build a hydroelectric plant adjacent to the Ngobe-Bugle comarca.  The Indians, supported by anti-mining environmentalists, said “No Way!”

Panama’s economy is the fastest growing and best performing economy in all of Latin America, indeed one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  In 2011 alone Panama’s economy grew at 10.5% .  All of that growth translates into the need for more electric power just to keep up; one way or another, production capacity has to expand.   During the past few years there has been such an increase in building, with new mega-malls sprouting up everywhere, that the demand for electricity is enormous.   In order to keep pace with the expanding and rapidly growing economy, something has to give — either through hydroelectric plants — or thermo electric plants that burn either oil or coal.  Within the country there are currently 26 hydroelectric projects under construction or design, and 54% of Panama’s electricity is provided by hydroelectricity.  Environmentally it seems like an obvious choice, hydroelectricity being a cleaner and more abundantly available option.  But that ignores the earlier promises made by the government to its indigenous peoples.  Although it appears that the government may be willing to forgo copper mining, at least for the moment, it continues to hold firm on the need for the hydroelectric plant.  The Indians continue to maintain their “take no prisoners” position and negotiations have broken down.  I find the dilemma an interesting one and an example of the complexities that face emerging economies.  It causes one to think about the theory of utilitarianism — i.e., the right action is that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number.  In that context it would appear, from my vantage point, that the government may have the superior position.

Village Life:  Speaking of water, we are in the middle of the dry season and, as was true when we first arrived here last March, water is a problem.  Our little “sub-division” of nine homes has its own well but for reasons that remain mysterious to me, we sometimes have no water.  Turn on the tap = nothing.  Generally this is a temporary situation, most often at night, but the water pressure is consistently less than ideal.  There’s a little man that walks around, turning valves on and off, but my Spanish is not yet at a level where I could even remotely discuss the intricacies of the water system.  I’m told that the wells that service the village of Sora are so stressed that villagers are not allowed to water outside during the dry season.  The trees that lost all their leaves and seemed to go to sleep in December are starting to bud again and while all the grass is brown, the landscape is awash with color as the bougainvilla is at its peak and I see plumeria blossoms reappearing on our trees.

While the temperatures have been warmer, we have been visited by strong winds out of the North and the evenings have been downright cool.  I don’t know the temperature variance between the shade and the sun but it is significant; perhaps as much as 10 degrees.

“Summer” has ended and the children started back to school last Monday.  I might be dreaming but it does seem that the young mothers I encounter exhibit a marked change of temperament — more smiles and a more leisurely pace.  I suppose the commencement of school brings similar changes to mothers everywhere in the world.

Reflections on Living Abroad

10 Feb

I’ve been long away from my writing desk, the hiatus punctuated by a quick (5 day) and happy trip to San Diego, my first time on U.S. soil in nearly a year.  It was lovely to see my brother and sister, and then two of my nephews and their wives, together with the newest member of the clan, my grand-neice, Emma.  Had a brief visit with Marcella and Jack, readers of my blog, met a remarkable woman named Virginia, and with my sister’s help managed to cross off all the items on my “to do” list, including the purchase of a new camera to replace the one lost to sticky fingers here in Panama.   Relished the almost-perfect San Diego weather, the lack of biting insects, and found time for a few great walks along the bay before climbing back on the plane, traversing the 3,000 miles that separate Panama from that southernmost part of California.  It was a fast and engaging time, and while I was particularly impressed with the customer service I received, a concept not fully understood in Panama, I did not hesitate to board the plane that took me first to Houston, and then back to Panama City, arriving here with blisters since my feet had not known anything but flip-flops for nearly a year.

So yes, it’s been almost exactly a year since we first de-planed on the isthmus of Panama and began our first year abroad.  I was initially reluctant to use the word “abroad,” thinking it more properly referred to life across the ‘pond’ —  a European experience such as a stint at the Sorbonne in Paris, a summer in the Greek islands, or plying the canals of Venice.  As it turns out Central America qualifies:  the word ‘abroad’ refers to that which is far and wide; outside of one’s birth country.

Each person’s journey abroad is, of course, different.  If you’ve followed our path from the beginning you know the ups and downs, the ins and outs we have traveled, beginning with a month in the dynamism of Panama City, and then here, in the serene mountains of Panama, in the Village of Sora.  I’ve come to believe that a few days or weeks in another country is not remotely similar to what it means to fashion a life somewhere.  And I’m not a stranger to travel:  in my early 30’s I spent several months on the south coast of Spain — and then another several months in the mountains of Switzerland.  I was surrounded then by like-minded Americans, who, like me, gave not more than a passing nod to the culture and language available just outside the door.   It was like being a passenger in a double-decker bus, observing with great interest, but not actually experiencing.  It has altered my view of travel which seems to me now to be almost worthless unless one is willing to stay a year.

One of the unexpected internal benefits of living in a foreign country is the heightened awareness one has of the “now” — the past is a prequel, to be drawn upon as needed — the future a chapter, yet unwritten.  One is left with one’s self — and how that self interacts with the day at hand.  One still does the laundry, of course, and pays the electric bill (by standing in line at a special counter in the grocery store), but the eye observes new and unexpected images every day.  I remember being worried, initially, that the newness might wear off; that the novelty would become ordinary.  Happily that has not occurred.

Even after a year here the complexities continue to fascinate me.  As my language skills improve, I try even harder to un-peal the surface of the society, the culture in which I find myself.  Why do my neighbors think and feel as they do — what is the historical and cultural background that informs their approach to life’s exigencies.  Why do they seemingly exhibit such a striking level of happiness while living in what we would consider utter poverty.  It stretches me — makes me re-think preconceived notions.  Sometimes I get glimpses of answers — but mostly have learned to be comfortable with the questions.  What’s it all about?

Although we have cobbled together a kind of “routine” (i.e., Oliver and I circumnavigate our village every morning, although at no predictable hour), every day offers up something unanticipated.  This morning a group of small children, probably ages 3 to 6, followed us on our walk, giggling and trying to get Oliver’s attention.  He continues to garner much interest and admiration from our villagers, many of whom have never seen a pure-bred dog, much less an English Cocker Spaniel as handsome as he.   And every afternoon around 5, some neighbors, all expats, together with their respective “garbage can dogs” (s0-called because they have an uncanny ability to ferret out the best garbage cans in the neighborhood — and then suck up to the owners of those garbage cans who eventually invite them into their homes, first as a visitor but ultimately as a member of the household), find their way to our gate where Oliver and I join them for an evening stroll, punctuated by stick throwing — to the dogs —  and pleasant conversation, most of which has to do with the most recent frustrations of being an expat in Panama.  I’ve thought a good deal about the level of our conversations and it has made me somewhat nostalgic for the discourse I used to share with my dog-walking friends in Marin County.  I guess because there we all experienced a more or  less ordinary life, comfortable and predictable, it gave us the leisure to explore the more abstract, sometimes even the profound.  Here, because life for an expat is challenging, sometimes downright daunting, our conversations seem to reflect a focus on the more mundane aspects of human existence.  I would imagine that that would change, as the years proceed, yet most of the expats in our neighborhood have been here much longer than we.

Our lease is up the end of March and we have yet to determine our next destination but we will be leaving this village which has been our home since that first full moon I described in March of last year.  I will miss the various shopkeepers who take note of Oliver and me as we walk by each morning — and shout out “Buenas dias”  — except they actually say “Buena dia.”  I’m told Panamanians generally speak what is know as “trade-route Spanish”; for reasons I have yet to discern, they drop all the “s”es.  And don’t ask me why nearly everyone says “ciao” when parting.  We have felt welcomed here and are generally hailed by wide smiles and warm greetings.  Once in a while, as happened this morning, someone will approach me and say “Good Morning” with great pride at their attempt at English.  And yesterday we found our gardener eating his lunch while purusing a Spanish-English dictionary.

Having divested ourselves of nearly all of our earthly possessions before leaving the States, we have now acquired a portable lifestyle.  We have learned to appreciate the flexibility that a minimalist life of simplicity offers.  As to the future, there is much that is possible, many places yet to see.  It’s a little like Christmas Eve — I can only imagine the gifts that tomorrow will bring.


Hats and Martyrs

8 Jan

The Panama Hat:  I would like to think that I am not the only person who thought that a Panama Hat was made in Panama.  It may be that Cuban cigars are made in Cuba and Swiss timepieces are made in Switzerland, but the Panama Hat is not made in Panama.  Of Ecuadorian origin, Ecuador continues to be the source of all authentic Panama Hats.  Hand-woven from the plaited leaves of the paja torquilla straw plant, found only in Ecuador, these hats were sought after even in early Spanish Colonial times.  So how did it come to be called the Panama Hat, referred to by hat enthusiasts as simply a Panama?

Even before the arrival of the Spaniards and long before there was any thought of a Canal, Panama had long been a center of trade in the Americas and the departure point for goods destined for ports around the globe.  As this prince of all straw hats found its way around the world it came to be associated with the place from which it had been shipped: Panama.   Then, at the time of the California Gold Rush, many gold seekers from Europe as well as the East Coast of the United States sailed first to Panama, avoiding thousands of miles at sea around Cape Horn, walked or rode mules across the narrow isthmus, and then sailed on to California.  It seems the Panama Hat caught their eye and was judged to be an asset in the climate awaiting them in the gold fields of sunny California.   So as the prospective miners passed through Panama, both coming and going, the hat gained in popularity.  “Nice hat.  Where did you get it?”  “Panama.”  Widely seen in European capitals during the late 1800’s, its popularity soared when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing one during his visit to Panama during the Canal construction in 1906.

The quality of these hats varies greatly and is generally gauged by the number of weaves per square inch as well as the quality of the weave.  A low quality hat might have fewer than 100 weaves per square inch while a high-end hat could have between 1600 and 2500 weaves per square inch.  It can take between two to six months to weave one hat and can cost up to thousands of dollars.  The most prized version is called the Montecristo, named for the town in Ecuador in which the most expert weavers reside.  It is said that fewer than a dozen weavers remain who are capable of weaving a Montecristo.   The towns of Cuenca and Jipijapa are also known for their Panama Hat production; however with fewer and fewer competent weavers it is thought that within the next 15 to 20 years the Chinese-made imitation will dominate the straw hat market.  Tis a pity for it is truly a thing of beauty, conjuring up visions of rum cocktails under swaying palm trees on a tropical beach.

Day of the Martyrs:  When the holiday season began in early December with the Panamanian celebration of Mother’s Day, I heard some folks joking that with Carnival coming up in February (when virtually the entire country shuts down for a week), nothing much would happen in Panama until after Easter.   Panama does indeed have many holidays, celebrated with great enthusiasm by its citizens.  Traffic out of Panama City toward the Pacific Beaches has been heavy the last few days as another three-day weekend is upon us.  Tomorrow marks the commemoration of a very interesting event in Panama’s history; an event of which I was unaware at the time it occurred.

On January 9, 1964, rioting broke out in the Canal Zone between Panamanian students and Canal Zone Police officers over the right to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the United States flag in the Canal Zone, the approximately ten mile wide zone girding the Canal as it travels the 51 miles between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  Prior to his death President Kennedy had issued an order allowing the two flags to be flown, side by side, but he was killed before those orders had been implemented.  Having ignored the President’s order, within a month of his death the American Canal Zone Governor decreed instead that neither flag would be flown.  The Governor’s order outraged many who interpreted it as a renunciation of Panama’s sovereignty.

Demonstrations began, initially by students, but joined by others as the next few days progressed; the crowds grew to estimates that vary between 5,000 and 30,000.  Canal Zone authorities, overwhelmed by the protestors, requested assistance from the Panamanian armed forces who refused to interfere.  Finally units of the U.S. Army were deployed to suppress the increasing violence.  American-owned businesses were set afire as news of the confrontation spread across the country by way of radio and television; within a few hours cities and towns all over the country erupted.  Intense fighting continued for the next three days after which 21 Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers were dead.

International reaction was universally negative toward the United States and for several months diplomatic relations between the two countries were curtailed.  Once relations had been re-established, both countries agreed to work toward a new treaty.  The incident is considered to be a significant factor, perhaps the catalyst, for the U.S. decision to transfer control of the Canal Zone to Panama, first with the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Agreement in 1977 which established a 22 year timeframe for transfer, and then when control of the Canal was finally turned over to the Republic of Panama at noon on December 31, 1999.

48 years ago tomorrow.  I wonder how this event is viewed in Panamanian classrooms and whether or not it continues to inform the Panamanian view of the United States.  I also wonder how many Panamanians who are spending this weekend at the Pacific beaches think about the origins of the holiday — probably about as many as we Americans do when celebrating the Fourth of July.

That Space Between Christmas and New Years

28 Dec

Without even lifting my head from the pillow, I am able to watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean every morning.  Dawn comes quickly in Panama, like a time-lapsed photograph in fast forward motion.  It still surprises me.  When the sheer beauty of the sunrise recedes, all too quickly, I am left with the knowledge that this is the sun rising from the waters of the Pacific.  After a lifetime spent watching sunsets on the western edge of the North American continent, this new reality causes a bit of cognitive dissonance.  Is this really the sun?  Is this really the Pacific?   In one of my earlier ‘posts’ I speculated about the speed in which one might come to take one’s new environment for granted.  It hasn’t happened yet.  I think it must be one of the benefits of living in a foreign country.  We’ve been here ten months now and still, every day, I see things that surprise me and I look about in wonder.

Christmas in Panama.  Strange.  Certainly the tropical weather is the first thing that seems “out-of-season” — then there are the traditions of a different culture.   In Coronado, there was a Christmas tree lot in front of the local supermercado (I’m told the trees were all imported from Canada) but the prices were such that I suspect gringos were the primary buyers.  In early December and continuing as the month progressed, I began to notice people painting the front of their homes. Virtually all Panamanian homes are built of concrete brick, no doubt because of the cooling properties of concrete.  I have learned it is a Panamanian tradition to re-paint the front of one’s house before Christmas.  If one underestimates the amount of paint required, the result can be less than complete — half or three-quarters of the front will have a new color.  If one overestimates the amount of paint needed, one just keeps going until the paint is gone — so in some cases the front and half of the side may be freshly painted.  I’m told there is less of this going on this year than in the past as the cost of paint has risen recently.  Although inflation is ‘reported’ to be running at 5-1/2 percent, for reasons that elude me the price of paint has risen some 12 percent.

It had been my intention to observe and share with you a description of Panamanian holiday traditions.  But Panamanians, like all peoples around the world, experience holidays in uniquely individual ways and I now find it difficult to generalize.  Half of the country’s population reside in Panama City and surely their experience varies greatly from that of our village.   The City is host to a large Christmas parade with some 12,000 children participating, along with a parade of boats plying the waters of the Bay, gaily lit with bright lights and typical Christmas decorations.   At midnight on Christmas Eve it is not church bells that one hears but firecrackers and  a large fireworks display over Panama Bay with dancing in the streets and revelry into the early morning hours.   In contrast, for the typical villager in our town, the 24th was spent in food preparation and house cleaning.  A typical Panamanian Christmas dinner consists of pavo (turkey) along with relleno (stuffing), arroz con pollo (rice and chicken made with saffron, onions and capers), and tomales.  The meal is generally eaten late in the evening and before the fireworks.  We, too, had a fireworks display here on the mountain, beginning at midnight and lasting about an hour, and we could also see the fireworks originating in Coronado, the beach town at the foot of our mountain.  Fireworks and firecrackers are a requisite part of any significant Panamanian celebration, a tradition much grumbled about by gringos; at such times it is well to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, guests.  Normally Oliver barks at the sound of firecrackers, probably thinking the third army is on the march, so I was not looking forward to that part of Christmas Eve but it was so noisy he finally gave up barking and resorted to growling — a marked improvement.  When Oliver and I took our morning constitution on Christmas day we saw the evidence of spent firecrackers everywhere and very few people were up and about.  Now that Christmas is past we find another tradition displayed along the roadways.  Munecos (dolls) which are, I believe, made mostly of straw, are seen all along the highways and byways the week between Christmas and New Years.  They are effigies, often of political figures, entertainers or historical characters, and are ceremonially burned on New Year’s Eve.  The burning of these effigies represents the burning of evil spirits and, on an individual level, the burning of one’s troubles or miseries.

I should either curb my propensity to cite statistics — or hire a fact-checker.  Obtaining accurate statistical data in a third-world country can be challenging.  Let me quickly correct a few of the errors contained in my last post.  First of all Mother’s Day (or Dia de la Madre) is celebrated in December only in Panama — not in South America nor in the rest of Central America.  It is an important holiday here and many businesses were closed in honor of the occasion.  Our gardener arrived early and handed me a note in Spanish (which I translated on the computer) explaining that it was his obligation to spend the day with his mother and would it be alright if he came Tuesday instead.  The children had the day off of school, at least here in our village, and I saw many mothers walking around with children in hand.  Secondly,  I erroneously stated the anticipated growth rate for  2011 at 9.2 percent whereas it is now thought to finish the year at over 10 percent.  As to 2012, the projection I had read of 13 percent has been downgraded to 7.5 percent.  Finally, Manuel Antonio Noriega is 77 years of age and not 72 as I reported.

Ah yes, Noriega.  He’s back, ensconced in El Renacer Prison, literally on the banks of the Panama Canal, which will no doubt become a new point of interest for the microphone-carrying guides to point out to tourists transiting the Canal.  Although there was initial interest in his return, it was less than I had anticipated and now, a few weeks later, hardly of note.  Although I had read there were to be “huge” demonstrations in Panama City, there was apparently only one a few days before his return with, reportedly, about 100 protestors; when he arrived by convoy from the airport to the prison there were a total of 12 protestors.  He seems to be viewed as irrelevant and his existence appears to arouse little passion among the populace.  Today the median age in Panama is 27.7 years; at the time of the U.S. invasion in 1989, three-fourths of the population were children who remember little if anything of his reign of terror.  Although he was convicted, in absentia, of three murders, it is alleged that there are 110 cases of murder or “forced disappearances” for which he is responsible and for which he may be tried.  His legal team is being led by one of his three daughters, Lorena Noriega.

The lovely autumn-like weather that prevailed during the first half of the month gave way, temporarily,  to a prolonged wet season.  For the first time since arriving in Panama,we had many days when it rained more or less steadily, hour after hour, which made dog walking a challenge.  The Panama Canal Authority had to open two of the gates at the Gatun Dam to pour off excess water, alerting communities down-river to prepare for flooding.  Apparently we are in a La Nina year which is predicted to delay the onset of the dry season.  Nonetheless it’s officially summer here (called ‘verano’ by the locals) and the children are out of school until March.

The new year beckons with yet untold adventures.  My goal is to embrace its’ possibilities as the world becomes ever larger.

This and That

7 Dec

Noriega:  There is much excitement mixed with consternation in the air these days now that all legal requirements have been met for the extradition of the former military dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega from France to Panama.  It is believed that he will arrive here in the next few days.  As you may recall, Noriega was the de facto leader of Panama from 1983 until 1989, when the United States invaded Panama with “Operation Just Cause.”   He then spent 20 years in prison in Miami, Florida, for drug trafficking and then was extradited to Paris, France, where he was sentenced to seven years for laundering drug money through French banks.   The government of Panama has submitted several requests to have Noriega returned to Panama where he was convicted, in absentia, for numerous murders of political opponents in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Having served more than half of his sentence in France, the French judiciary finally decided Noriega could be released on “parole” in order to be extradited back to Panama.  Here’s an interesting twist:  The laws of Panama provide that any person over 70 may be released from prison to serve the remainder of their sentence under house arrest.   There is some concern now that Noriega, 72, might be allowed to live outside of prison.  Although President Martinelli has said he will go straight to jail, it is the judiciary that will ultimately make the decision.  Considering the gravity of his offenses it seems unlikely that he would be granted house arrest, but one never knows.  Huge demonstrations are planned in Panama City on the day of his return, thought now to be Friday, the 9th.

Economy:  On another subject, unemployment in Panama fell to 4.5 percent in August, the lowest in four decades.  Practically speaking, there is almost no unemployment here as there are more jobs available than people to fill them.  Most of the folks who are unemployed are essentially unemployable due to illiteracy or criminality.  Although Panama claims a literacy rate of 93 percent, I’m not convinced; the educational system is poorly lacking.  There is so much demand for labor that the government is instituting training classes to improve people’s skill sets and President Martinelli has created incentives to lure Spaniards to immigrate here.  Bilingual workers are in such demand they can almost name their price.  Panama’s economy is growing rapidly and it is estimated that the figures for 2011 will be about 9.2 percent; the forecast for 2012 is 13 percent.  And, of course, there is an expectation that when the widening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014 (although I understand they are about a year behind schedule), the economic impact will be dramatic.
Weather:  I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about the weather — but I can’t help myself — and I keep learning new things to report.  For instance, I was always under the impression that it is warmer in the tropics because it is closer to the sun.  As is often the case, I was wrong.  While Panama may be a few thousand miles closer to the sun than, say, San Francisco, it has a negligible effect given that the sun is some 93 million miles from earth.  Another mis-conception I had was that the sun was always directly over the equator whereas it actually passes directly over the equator only twice a year, at the time of the two equinoxes in March and September, as it performs its annual dance between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer.  Before moving here I had read that Panama does not experience seasonal changes.  Situated between 7 and 10 degrees north of the equator (we are at about 8 degrees north), the temperatures are more or less constant year round; but while slightly smaller than the State of South Carolina, the varied elevations make for many different climates.  For the last several days we’ve had a string of autumn-like days here in the mountains, complete with the long shadows associated with fall.  As the sun makes its way to the Tropic of Capricorn, soon to arrive there, it now streams through our south-facing windows.  There are trees, too, whose leaves have yellowed and fallen, blowing about in the autumn-like breezes, and different  flora are coming into bloom.  So we do have a sense, however slight, of the passing of the seasons.

While the equator experiences equal periods of daylight and darkness, we have observed about a 45 minute change in the amount of daylight since the Summer Solstice in June.  Of course this doesn’t compare to the contrast that we experienced in Northern California at 37 degrees north latitude where the difference in daylight between June and December was in the range of five hours.  It surprises me that we would even notice such a subtle change but we do.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in Panama (and, I believe, in all of Central and Latin America) and we’re told it’s a big deal.  I’ll let you know . . .


November Ramblings . . .

29 Nov

Thanksgiving in November seems to be a quintessential ‘American’ holiday, a tradition that does not extend to Central America.  Nonetheless the expat population is large enough that frozen turkeys were found in the supermarket, together with sweet potatoes (which I did not buy), cranberries, corn bread stuffing, etc.  The only thing we were unable to find was a pumpkin pie — nor any cans of pumpkin.  Despite that lack we had a lovely time of it.  We invited our good friend Suzanne to join us who has become one of our favorite people.  The turkey was already in the oven when she arrived and for the next few hours she and I had fun cooking, interspersed with  practicing a few fancy dance steps around the kitchen as we listened to Michael Buble on the i-pod and prepared what are commonly referred to as the “side dishes.”  Having never made gravy before I inadvertently threw away the giblets but my co-chef still managed to create a rich and savory rendition which made for a delicious feast.  We took a few breaks to look in wonder at the rain storms which punctuated the afternoon and then sat down to what I call “the full catastophe” — a line from Zorba the Greek which does not, of course, refer to Thanksgiving.   It was a lovely day, simple yet elegant.  It did, of course, give rise to remembrances of Thanksgivings past and we all found ourselves reaching out via the internet to those we love and miss the most.  Celebrating Thanksgiving in a new land made me ponder its meaning.  If I had been asked to explain the holiday to my Panamanian gardener, what would I have said?  My Spanish remains inadequate to speak of pilgrims and harvests.  Canadian expats, who are in large number in Panama, celebrate Thanksgiving in October; I had always thought that was because the snow flies earlier in the north necessitating an earlier harvest.  Turns out the origin of the Canadian Thanksgiving goes back to the 1500s and has to do with an explorer’s long journey from England in an attempt to find a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean; he and his crew were simply grateful to have survived the perilous journey.   So what is America’s Thanksgiving about?  If I were a foreigner observing a typical Thanksgiving in, say, Illinois for the first time, I might conclude that everyone takes the fourth Thursday of November off so they can worship a large game bird and watch football.  Keywords such as family, feast, pilgrims, turkey and gratitude may offer hints but fail to describe its meaning.  We learn as school children that Thanksgiving harkens back to America’s beginnings; a kind of creation myth perhaps, prompted by a good harvest.  But it is so much more.  It is ineffable.  It remains an immutable part of my American soul and I suspect I will always find a way to eat turkey on the fourth Thursday in November regardless of what country in which I reside.

As promised, November has indeed proved to be the rainiest month.  And the pattern of rain has changed in that it no longer arrives in the form of afternoon thunder showers but sometimes will rain off and on all day or all night long.  We’ve also experienced less thunder (which Oliver, the dog, appreciates) and cooler temperatures.  We’re told the rainy season, or “wet season” as it is known, will begin to recede in mid-December giving way to the dry season which will last until mid-April.  It’s hard to contemplate the dry season now that everything is so lush and green, the ground so saturated that it mostly runs off into gullies, streams and rivers and down the mountain to the ocean.  Some people actually prefer the dry season — apparently the flora will be in prolific bloom — but I, for one, am reluctant to see the wet season draw down to its close, having been the source of so much awe.

Unfortunately my camera was stolen from my purse a few weeks ago (along with a few other things) during a midnight foray through our neighborhood by — who knows — a band of thieves? — a Panamanian needing extra cash for the upcoming holidays?  The good news is that it could have been so much worse and my passport and credit cards and all other identification were left for me to find.  The bad news is that it may be a while before I get to Panama City to purchase a new camera so this blog will be without visual aid for the immediate future.  Sadly our favorite neighbors were not so fortunate and suffered a much greater loss.  We have gone together to post a $100 reward poster in the local grocery store — mostly as a sociological experiment  — it will be interesting to see if it garners any information as to the identity of the culprit(s), $100 being a lot of money to our local Panamanian neighbors.   It is well to remember that these things happen everywhere and, in the main, the crime rate in Panama is low.

So December is just around the corner and we look forward to our first Christmas in a Roman Catholic country.  Christmas in Panama is apparently a combination of both American and Panamanian traditions.  For the Panamanian people, the holidays begin on the 8th of December with the celebration of the Immaculate Conception — which is also Mother’s Day in Panama — an important day indeed, for mothers are greatly revered.  I am looking forward to observing and sharing with you the various festivities which accompany the approaching holidays — although in thinking about it it is clear I should get that new camera pronto!

Milk in a Box; Eggs on a Shelf

31 Oct

As noted in an earlier missive, supermarkets in Panama are similar to ones in the United States and it is relatively easy to find what one desires.  Indeed, in Panama City itself, there is a chain of high-end supermarkets in which I have consistently been able to find any item I was seeking.  Although not as large nor home to as many products, both of the supermarkets in Coronado, the beach community where we do the bulk of our shopping, have delis, butcher shops and bakeries, and it is relatively easy to find most of the items on one’s shopping list with the possible exception of some fresh herbs and unusual spices.  There are challenges, however; sometimes surprising ones.  For example during the “dry” season it is often difficult to find good lettuce.  Fresh cut flowers of good quality are often hard to come by which seems especially odd given that 90 percent of Panama’s flora is of the flowering variety.  It turns out the problem is with delivery; there are not many trucks with refrigeration.  Then there is a common problem, much complained about, especially to the brand-conscious.  For example one might see a particular brand of mustard week after week — and then not be able to find it at all; sometimes months might pass before a particular brand might reappear if at all.  And every now and then they will be out of something that seems like they should never be out of — like onions or grapefruit — or once even bananas.  I often end up going to both markets in an attempt to complete my shopping but often when one store is out of something, the other one will be as well.  It makes planning a dinner party challenging since one can’t always count on being able to find the ingredients required for a certain menu; I’ve found it useful to have an alternative menu in mind.

We had been in Panama only a few days when I turned a corner in a supermarket and found myself in an aisle filled with boxes of milk.  Unrefrigerated.  Sitting there quite happily, at room temperature, were boxes of whole milk, low-fat milk and skim milk.  Although I don’t considered myself to be terribly well-traveled, I have been around the block a few times but I had never seen milk in a box; I was intrigued.  Upon inspecting the label I learned that the expiration date was between 6 and 9 months hence.  How convenient it would be to never run out of milk; to just get another “box” out of the cupboard.  A little research was in order.

I learned that normal pasteurization heats milk to between 140 and 160 degrees fahrenheit to kill disease-causing germs.  It does not, however, kill all the micro-organisms which multiply over time and those little critters, coupled with exposure to light and air, cause milk to spoil.  Milk in a box is treated with ultra high temperature pasteurization (UHT) which heats the product to 275 degrees fahrenheit for a few seconds, thereby killing virtually all the bacteria.  Since the package needs to be airtight and protected from exposure to light, it is packaged in a box made of polyetheylene (to make it airtight) and aluminum foil (to keep out the light) and cardboard (for structural integrity).  The nutrients are unaffected by the heat because the exposure is so brief; it does, however, affect the taste.  As long as I refrigerate it before opening, I can’t tell the difference in cereal or coffee; I can, however, when I drink a glass of milk.  I think it’s just a matter of getting used to it, similar to the process I went through when, years ago, I switched from whole milk to low-fat milk.

An aisle of milk boxes

The grocery store held yet another surprise: unrefrigerated eggs.   I turned another corner and there they were, stacked up on a shelf, right by the bread.  From what I understand, there are many countries (all of Central and South America and much of Europe) in which eggs are not refrigerated before sale. Apparently fresh eggs have a natural protective layer on the outside of the shell which preserves the egg for a long period of time without refrigeration.  In the United States, the USDA requires a washing procedure that removes this protective coating.  The unrefrigerated eggs that I purchase have an expiration date, generally about 20 days, and I do refrigerate them once I get them home.

Eggs on a Shelf

I can’t leave the subject of the grocery store without mentioning meat, specifically beef.  The core of all Panamanian herds are Brahman cattle.  They are particularly well suited to heat and drought (the dry season last for three to four months), and have a natural resistance to insects and parasites as well as tropical disease that decimated most of the cattle introduced to the region by early Spaniards.  Unlike U.S. cattle who spend the last several months before slaughter in the feedlot munching grains, Panamanian cattle are grass-fed.  Of course grass-fed beef is on the increase in the United States since it appears to be better for the planet (it takes less energy to grow grass than grain), better for the consumer (1/3 to 1/2 less fat) and better for the animal (no need to be transported to the feedlot).  However, Panamaian pasturage is low in nutrients and the animals must be moved frequently from pasture to pasture.  There have been several times when going up or down our mountain we have had to stop for a herd of cattle being moved to a new pasture.

Traffic troubles . . .

Consequently these animals get much more exercise than cattle in the States, resulting in a product that is tougher and less flavorful than USDA beef.  As you might observe from the photo below, Panamanian meat is significantly less expensive.

The Butcher Shop

Speaking of grocery shopping, we have been advised to accomplish all such errands early in the week as the holiday season is about to unfold.  Today, of course, is Halloween, which Panamanians celebrate, followed by the “Day of the Dead” on November  2nd.  Then November 3rd is “Separation Day” marking the separation in 1903 of Panama from Colombia.  Later in the month is “Independence Day” marking Panama’s independence from Spain in 1821.  I don’t know if it will really happen but rumor has it that parades later this week may close the Panamerican Highway for brief periods of time and that the grocery stores will be mobbed with people from Panama City on their way to the Pacific beaches for the long holiday weekend.  I’m going to turn on the tea kettle and settle in with a good book.