Gettin it done in Panama (aka technology we love, don´t love, and are amazed by)

Greetings from the tropics! Ian and I continue to stay in Bocas, where we go to Spanish class daily, work dilligently not only our verb conjugation but also on perfecting the siesta, honing our skills in the surf, and dining on the freshest and most exotic fruit. Not a bad way to spend two months, is it?!

So far, we are also amazed fairly regularly by the little things, things that are striking in their contrast from what we are used to seeing, things that are far removed from our Austin norm, things that are rich and interesting and new to us here. -hence, this post: Gettin´it done in Panama.

First off, an example of something that is so NOT getting it done. Before our excursion, Ian and I got an incredibly generous gift certificate to REI (Thanks, Charlie!!). We bought this little sucker. It is called a SteriPen, and it is a water sterilizer that uses UV light. Awesome, right? A couple of AA batteries, and small, simple, elegant device, and we are good to go, right? Great solution, right?

I don´t know if the text will show up clearly on this picture, but the device says below the brand name, ¨Safe drinking water anywhere.¨ It should say, ¨Safe drinking water anywhere you buy it already bottled or the municipal water is already potable.¨

It doesn´t work. We´ve gotten the little light to turn on only 3x, after much jiggling and praying and cussing and fussing with it. File this under ¨Things to be returned to REI upon our return to the States.¨ This also could be filed under ¨technology with which we are deeply, deeply disappointed¨. So much potential and such a crappy yield. Alas.

On to technology that wows us! Check out this ingenious/terrifying shower head! In place of a hot water tank, lots of the showers here have heaters right in the shower head. That is sort of like a potentially electrocuting version of ¨your peanut butter got in in my chocolate!¨Two great things together at last. It is sort of like a toaster on the inside, where electricity goes through heating coils that heat up the water. Sort of like putting a toaster in the bathtub, really. Unlike the other heaters that populate much of Latin America, the wires on our unit are not bare, and it seems to work fine. Note please the connections, where there are little plastic clips that we hope don´t get wet while we´re electrically grounded in municipal water and brass pipe fittings.

Ian has said that if his shower is not hot, he jiggles the wire. I tried that once, and the wire was hot to the touch, so I jumped back in horror, knowing that my immediate death via a gazillion volts was half a heart beat away. It wasn´t. I´m fine. I live to blog on about deeply meaningful things like monkeys and shower heads. (Ian is also still not dead.)

Just think of how much more efficient this is, though! You heat only the water you need heated for your shower. No extra.

Here is another totally rad thing we saw here. This is a Harley Davidson motorcyle with a little truck bed welded/machined/affixed to the back. It has a second chain engineered to run the back axle. The front has the all important registration sticker, and a big light held on with wire. This little beast is obviously a work horse. Amazing, no? I don´t think safety inspection is an issue here.

As an aside, there is a helmet law here for motorized vehicles (excluding motor boats). You see folks on motorbikes and scooters in all sorts of helmets, including bicycle, construction, and football helmets. And WWII German-type helmets! We guess that is to avoid the shelling on the island. There would never be any reason for WWII German military periphernalia to be in Central America.

Another fabulous example of how things get done here that is so drastically different from how things get done back home is basic transit. We are on an island that is a few hundred yards from another little island, that is a few hundred yards from a few other little islands. To commute, you take a water taxi. It costs a buck to get from here to the next island, $2 to get to the next one after that. If we go surfing at a break at one of the other islands, or go to visit our friend who runs an organic fruit plantation the next island (more on him and his whole undertaking later), we take a boat. Rather than waiting in the street for hours for a water taxi, throngs of dudes in baseball hats harass you into taking a trip. They are generally errand boys for the taxis; their buddy drives the boat while they go into town and scare up business. It is not really like catching a regular taxi, like, say, in New York, which courteously reminds you to pick up your luggage in some celebrity´s voice.

Besitos to you all! All 2 of you who read this blog!


Meat on a Stick Guy

Travel is all about adventure, getting exposed to new things, improving one´s perspective, and broadening one´s horizons. So even though Ian had his first real surf lesson yesterday, and even though the tropical weather is dramatic and turbulent -it rained 6" in an hour, then was sunny within moments- and even though we are learning how to salsa dance from a handsome tri-lingual German, this post is dedicated to the true gem of the week, Meat on a Stick Guy.

Meat on aStick Guy is possibly one of the best new things we have been exposed to here in Panama. Meat on a Stick Guy is more interesting than crazy weather. Meat on a Stick Guy catches my imagination more than anybody else we have met. Meat on a Stick Guy is unique, a rare tropical bird one can spot only here, after the sun goes down, on his particular corner in town next to the grocery. Meat on a Stick Guy is is amazing.

Meat on a Stick Guy has a tricycle, with two wheels in front - one in back, with a barbeque/hibachi set-up welded to where the handle bars would be, were there not a barbeque. The back rack, behind the seat, is fitted for a cooler. The bbq itself is made out of some kind of thick metal, maybe 1/2 of a big pipe or a drum of some sort? Who knows. The tricycle is also fitted with a big huge umbrella, like one would find on pation furniture. It is quite festive.

In the little bbq pit nests coals, nice perfectly hot coals dusted with white ash, and over the whole coal shebang is a nice heavy wire grate. Think bbq grill.

To one side, he has a candle, for ambiance.

To the other side, he has a little holster on his cart with shakers of salt, pepper, hot sauce, and really really hot sauce.

In his cooler, he has meat marinading and in anther container, some veggies.

Meat on a Stick Guy puts the meat and the onions, the bell peppers, the whatever, on a bamboo skewer and cooks it right there on his bicycle grill. It is ridiculously delicious.

It is served up hot, and sizzling, and is absolutely freakin wonderful. We love Meat on a Stick Guy. It is magically absolutely delicous. It is not just cooked meat. Meat on a Stick Guy is an artist and a chef. Meat on a Stick Guy is a culinary soul mate. What a find!

As of late, our dinner has been beans and rice that we make in our apartment, augmented with the pure Panamanian deliciousnes of Meat on a Stick.

If only you all could be so lucky.


Where we have spent the last 2 or 3 days

Here is another picture of Luna the Monkey, just because she is darling. Luna was being naughty, and getting into my purse to steal my notebook.

In current news. . .

Remember the grubby children on the bus from David to where we caught the boat to Bocas? Well, Ian and I have both been sick for the past 3 days with the same gross cough and runny nose they had.

The difference is that we are covering our mouths when we cough, washing our hands frequently, and blowing our noses in tissues that get thrown in the garbage. I am all for public health education world wide. From now on, more charitable donations go from the Montgomery Quigley coffer to international organizations that contribute to public health. A little hand washing and mouth covering can go a long way.

I am glad we have a good apartment as our home base, because otherwise being ill while on a long trip would be really hellish.

I also am glad we brought down antibiotics and a little aresenal of vitamins, herbal remedies, and decongestants, because I got sick as a dog and had the sinus infection turned bronchitus thing going on. I put off the antibiotics for a few days, then once we both got to the point where we were sleeping more hours of the day than we were up, and not getting better, it was time to bust out the Cipro.

The tide has turned. Cipro is good stuff. My cough is almost gone, and the atrociousness has subsided.

These are pictures of our nice bed, where we have been sleeping a lot since we are both sick. Notice the lovely mosquito netting.

Here is our good little kitchen with running potable water, a 2 burner gas stove, and a little dorm fridge. On the counter, I am cutting a slice of huge squash we got at the market yesterday (I thought we were getting a watermelĂ–n but it turned out to be a monster huge squash).

The last picture is of our couch/extra bed and, behind it, our private balcony. I usually drink tea in the morning on the balcony, and spend time at the little table there studying and blowing my nose.

Big banana, cave with bats

Ian eats a big banana.

Another Bocas day. . .when it isn´t raining, we go out on adventures. When it is raining, I post things to the blog, or take naps. It is a good life! As our new Costa Rican friends say, "Pura Vida, man!"

We rode all the way across the island, which took about an hour or an hour and a half, to a lovely beach called Drago beach. Again, it looks just like a big ol´ lame postcard.

The beach was kind of boring. It was like a big, cool, salty bathtub with a swath of golden sand, fringed by palm trees and tropical greenery. BOOOORING! You would have totally hated it. The sun was too bright and the sky was so blue it hurts your eyes. It was not nice in the least.

Beach boringness aside, we (meaning Ian) explored a cave. About half-way across the island, there is a lovely natural cave, with stalagtites and stalagmites and a clear little stream flowing from deep in the cave. The stream flows out through the greenery speckled with butterflies and hummingbirds, and flows down little burbling waterfalls. There is a lovely little path down to the cave, and two very beautiful, flower strewn statues of Mary outside the entrance. Ian, being the awesome caver and good Catholic that he is, went into Mary´s cave. I, being the lover of open, non-cave spaces, went in part way, got claustrophobic, and left.

The picture of me shows pretty much exactly how I felt about the cave. What is so awesome is that I was not making a face for the camera. I really looked that way.

I turned around, Ian kept going and found a bunch of bats.

Bocas Bicycle Adventures

Here is another picture of Luna, the monkey from Portobello, just becuase she is cute. You can se her trigger-finger and missing digit on her left hand. Poor baby.

On to other news and our travels to Bocas.

We took a ferry/motorboat packed with people across to Bocas town and arrived totally dirty and sweaty and grumpy after our long day on a packed bus full of dirty children and sweaty grown-ups.

Our mood was greatly improved by the cold pina colada we drank within minutes of arriving.

Bocas town is pretty built up, and very touristy. There are pros and cons to that. The pros are that there are a few internet cafes, and I can post pictures of Luna so you all can be in love with her, too. The cons are that there are tourists everywhere. Lots of young, loud, drunk, college-aged tourists. It sort of feels like West Campus in Austin, or The Hill in Boulder. On one had, there is a great gormet deli and a German bakery, and a vegetarian Indian restaurant, and on the other, it is a huge tourist place.

Since our language school is here, we are here in Bocas town for about 2 weeks. I am learning to hablo Panamese. It is pretty different from the Mexican I can habla. We spend 2 hours a day in classes, and I study usually another 2 more. Ian doesn´t have to study as much, as he has already had formal Spanish. All my Spanish is Mexican kitchen slang, and that doesn´t get us very far here.

Anyway, we rented bikes for a few days, and rode out to the beach where we broke open cocunuts on a rock, drank the coconut milk, and ate the meat. It was awesome. We forgot to take pictures, but the beaches look just like a postcard.

The bike ride was pretty muddy, but totally fun. Check out the mud on Ian´s legs.

We also saw this bike in town. The steering wheel/handle bars are totally rad. I know what I am doing to my bike when we get back.

Bus to Bocas

Once we finally caught a bus out of Penonome, we travelled all day by bus to David, then across the isthsmus up to where we caught a ferry to Bocas town on the Island of Colon. This is not the same Colon of which I spoke earlier, that was the biggest craphole of all time. This is a lovely island on the Caribbean side.

The drive across the mountains in the middle was glorious, and long. None of the pictures turned out, so imagine the Blue Ridge mountains, a little bit bigger, and covered with tropical plants. Imagine little jay birds that are the color of orange safety vests. Imagine trees full of parrots. That is what we drove through.

Now imagine a 15 person passenger van with 20 passengers, 3 of whom are little kids with nasty colds. That was what the ride was like.

When folks travel with their dogs on busses here, the dog does not go in a dog crate. It goes in a big woven bag, with its head, and often with one leg sticking out the top. The bag y dog go on the top luggage rack, nestled in with the duffel bags and bushels of produce. All the dogs we saw seemed so used to it that they were totally relaxed and didn´t seem to mind at all. El perro es tranquilo, man!


Penonome - best bakery in Panama

We hopped on a bus (and check out that bus!!) after our stay with Luna in Portobello, and rode to Penonome. It is where Panama hats are made.

I got a huge sun hat for $10, which is fantastic. As my skin is made out of some incredibly flimsy, bisquick-like material that is not designed in the least for exposure to sun, a big hat is necessary. My people are not of sunny climes.

My lack of melanin aside, Penonome is where the best bakery in all of Panama is.

We were planning on staying in Penonome only one night, and then going on to David and then up to Bocas, but all the busses were full. I mean ALL the busses. We waited for hours. We played a lot of dominoes. We played a lot of rock-paper-scissors. We slouched and rolled our eyes. All the busses were still full. All day long. ALL DAY.

Turns out there was a huge party all weekend in the next town over. Patron Saints´holidays are a really big deal. Since we were stranded in Penonome for another day, we went back to the bakery, and discoverd not only where their struedels amazing, but their chicken empanadas were astounding. Being foodies in a foreign land, we love it when we find the goods.

The other nice thing about being stranded with nothing to do was that it made laundry an appealing and totally reasonable use of our afternoon. Given the choice between swimming or doing laundry, I will usually go swimming. Or hiking, or to an old fort, or whatever. Adventure trumps laundry. But on that day, laundry won out over all other possibilities and it was totally fantastic. I am all for washing things in the sink and all, but there is something really nice about a real washing machine, and detergent, and a dryer. Ah, the luxories we appreciate more when we travel.

Monkey and Swimming - Portobello

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Portobello swimming. It was so very lovely!

The hostel where we stayed, while kind of cruddy, did have a fantastic patio, and a fabulous little pet monkey named Luna. She was rescued by a friend of the hostel owner´s after she was injured in the wild as a baby, and now is a pet. Little Luna is missing a few fingers, but that doesn´t stop her from getting into everything.

She is very affectionate, and loved to sit on your shoulder and be carried around. Nice belly rubs were also a favourite.

At night, Luna nested in the pocket of the fooz-ball table.

Fort Portobello

Ian and Jessica in turret at Portobello (check out angled walls around slit through which one would point their gun at the invading bad guys)

Old canon, still can read seal on it.

These are vultures waiting for a tourist to die so they can eat them.

We took a Red Devil bus from Colon to Portobello.

Portobello was a huge and very important fort for the Spanish in their pillaging, counting, and exporting of all things valuable from Central and South America.

Unlike in the US, where one can visit historic forts, but one is kept at a bit of distance from the actual artifacts, there is no velvet rope between you and the ruins in Panama. People walk all over this old fort. Half the town is built using walls from the fort as walls for current building. Historic preservation is not a priority.

Forgive me for having some of the pictures sideways. I can´t figure out how to turn them. Oh well. You will live.
Much of the fort was built using coral taken from the bay. Coral preservation was not the issue it is now. The Spanish Conquistadors were not environmentalists. Check out the picture of the close-up of the wall. Those are big chunks of coral. Check out the pic with Ian, just for size reference.

Ian and I also decided re-do our senior portraits here. Parents-please print and replace our actual senior portraits with these.


Texas to Panama City

Greetings from Panama!

Ian and I are in Bocas del Toro, taking intensive Spanish lessons, and avoiding the tourist crowds to the best of our ability.

Here is a brief run-down of our trip since we left ATX. . .

Thursday, January 8 - Driving.

Packed up the car, ate our last Texas breakfast taco until May (when we return for Ian and Kisha´s graduations, and Ryan and Emily´s wedding. Props to you all!).

Thursday, Friday, Saturday Jan 8, 9, 10, - Driving. The picture above is pretty much what it looked like the whole way. Really. THE WHOLE WAY.
I followed Ian, as I have a congenital defect with the bone density in my right foot that makes that foot very very heavy, particularly on the highway. It isn´t fatal, but the only treatment we have found is that I follow a car driven by somebody who does not have the same irresistable urge to speed. It is like trying to stop digestion, or stop your neurons from firing - some things are not voluntary. I can´t help that open highway causes me to speed.

Three days and no speeding tickets later, we made it to Utah.

Saturday, Jan 10 - Canyons.

This is the Colorado River at Navajo Bridge at Lees Ferry. The little specs down in the river behind/below us are kayakers. For real. Lees Ferry is considered the start of the Grand Canyon. It blew Ian´s mind. We are definitely headed back here so this sweet boy from the Northeast can see some real mountains and canyons, like we have out west.

We made our way to Cedar City, where we spent a lovely evening with my dad. He made sure we left with full bellies and clean laundry - Thanks, Dad! Elaine is there now, wintering with the glitterati at the ski resort, and being waited on hand and foot by her new butler, my dad. She has a good life for a kitty.

Sunday, Jan 11 - Last of the driving. We drove to Vegas, dined with Deanna, snuck in a nap at her house, then were off to the airport for a red-eye to, of all places, Houston. From Houston, we flew to Panama City.

And here begins the Panama tale.

Monday, Jan 12 - Too old to party.

We got to Panama mid-day, got taken to the wrong hotel by a taxi that overcharged us (always happens at least once when you travel in a foreign land, so we can check that one off the list and move on), caught another cab to the hotel where we had reservations, and were stoked to arrive.

In addition to our excitement, we were so super tired from the airport all-nighter, the 3 days of driving, the 2 weeks of packing and moving from the rent house, and the 6 months of PhD`ing that we slept, and slept, and slept. We took a nap at 3 pm and didn´t get up until the next morning.
Tues Jan 13 - Awesome sights, sounds, tastes.
Ian and I caught a cab to the Parque Natural Metro, and hiked a loop there. Turns out every single office plant in the US grows wild in the nature preserve here in Panama. Check out my facebook photo album of all the plants we saw. Also, at the bottom of this post there is a leaf-cutter ant video we took at the park (if I uploaded it properly. . .the computer here is from the 80´s) .Leaf cutter ants -SO COOL.

After the great 2 hour hike through the nature preserve, we rented bikes and rode down the Amador Causeway. It is a lovely palm lined path and road from the mainland out to a few little islands. From the causeway you can see the entrance to the canal to one side, and the Panama City´s syline to the other.

The islands at the end of the causeway were a US military fort through WWI and WWII, but after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed the name of the game, forts without air power bacame less crucial. Now this area has a marina, and a weird mall, and a Benigan`s. US military presence used to reign supreme on these islands, now US consumer culture calls all the shots.

We had a good beverage at the marina´s dive bar, and watched the grackles. Yes, the grackles. We came all this way to still have grackles getting up in our business when we sit outside with a cocktail.

In the evening, we went to Casco Viejo, which is the historical district. I fell completely in love with it, and can´t wait to go back. The old fort at the end of the point of land is still there, and some of the storage cells used by the French for explosives and later for prisoners have been turned into a very striking, but somewhat mildew smelling, and totally overpriced restaurant. Worth seeing, not worth staying.

Down the block there is the bombed out shell of a building where Noriega used to hang out, and lots of fantastic Colonial architecture. SOme of the buildings are a mess, but some have been very nicely renovated and refurbished. Think French Quater in NOLA. We ate at Cafe Rene, which was off-the-hook amazing food. Delicious. Outstanding. Fresh. Inventive. Fantastic. Best food ever. Loved it.

Then we took a cab back and called it a day!

Weds, Jan 14 - Get up early or sleep in late.

We learned an important lesson on this day, which is that nobody serves breakfast after 9am, and nobody serves lunch before 12:30. So, get up early, or sleep in late, but don´t half-ass the start of your day.

By 9:00, we missed the ferry to a nearby island, and also missed the train across the isthmus to Colon. We missed breakfast. We missed it all.

We went back to Casco Viejo, as the guide book said there was a breakfast place there. Unfortunately, it has turned into a dance club in the time since the book was published. We were hungry until 1, when Cafe Rene opened for lunch. It was worth the wait. Rene never disappoints.

After lunch, we went to Grand Clement Ice Cream, also in Casco Viejo. It was opened a few years ago by some french folks who bought a building, fixed it up, and started making the best ice cream on God´s green earth. I didn´t know ice cream could be so good.

Checked out more of Panama City, and found the only Buddhist centre in town. It was 2 blocks from our hotel. I miss my Austin meditation posses already, so it was thrilled to go sit and chant; it made my heart sing with such bright elation. What a treat!

Thurs, Jan 15 - Got up early. Learned our lesson.

Took a 6:15 am taxi ride to the train station and waited in line to get a ticket to ride the 7:15 Panama Railway train along the canal to Colon.

The lady selling tickets said it was sold out, but that wasn´t my first rodeo. I knew that if we stuck it out, it was likely that we could get on. 5 minutes before the train was to depart, a few more seats magically openned up, and we got on.
The train ride was amazing. AMAZING!! The car itself had windows all the way up the side and a bit up onto the roof, so you could see the trees and so much more of the view. We spent most of the ride on the platform between train cars, were the sides were open. The windswept experience was much more fun tha sitting in seats.
During the building of the railroad, thousands of workers died from yellow fever and malaria. Some of the bodies were put in pickle barrels, and sold to medical schools for anatomy disection.

Thurs mid-day, Jan 15. Colon=shit hole
The train crossed the isthmus in under 2 hours, and we arrived in the super trashy town of Colon mid morning. We wanted to catch a bus there to a nearby beach town, but didn´t know where the bus stop was. We got in a cab, and he drove us about 500 yards to the bus station, and charged us $3. It was about 5x as expensive as one would think that ride should be, but it was worth every penny. If you walk around Colon, you are just asking to get mugged. It is a horrible, dangerous, smelly, ugly cesspool of a city. Don´t go there.
From Colon, we caught a Red Devil to Portobello. The Red Devils are old schoolbusses that have been painted in bright, amazing ways and act as the public transportation.

Coming up - pictures pictures pictures, Red Devil bus rides, more historic forts, lost hats, pet monkeys, best bakery in Panama, getting stuck in the interior, longest bus day of all time, Bocas, bike rides to the beach, more bike rides to the beach, caves with bats, and learning Spanish (Jueves and huevos are not the same).