Monthly Archives: September 2010

What If You Get Sick Down There?

I’d known for nearly 20 years that I would spend my retirement years south of the Rio Grande. Where, exactly, I wasn’t sure. After having spent three months on the Rio Dulce on my wonderful Nancy Dawson I thought it would be in Guatemala. I seriously thought about Mexico, too. As followers of this blog know my final destination has been Panama.

Invariably when telling people of my plans they would ask: “What if you get sick down there?” My response was, half flippantly, “you either get better or you die.”

The reason I say “half flippantly” is because isn’t that really what life is like? When you get sick you either get better or you die. We, in the United States especially, have been brainwashed to believe that medical care in the States is unequaled anywhere in the world. ‘Taint so. Most expensive is NOT a synonym for BEST. And consider this: it has only been in MY lifetime that the world has had anti-biotic drugs that were life savers. Sadly there are now more and more nasty things that are becoming completely resistant to these drugs.

These days coronary bypasses are so common it’s likely that everyone knows someone who has had the procedure if not having had it done themselves. It wasn’t always so, of course. One of my classmate’s sisters, who graduated a couple of years ahead of us, was part of the team that invented the heart-lung machine without which open-heart surgery would be impossible. (BTW-my public high school class consisted of all of 60 students and the girl who pioneered the heart-lung machine and traveled all over the world teaching others how to use it graduated in a class with considerably fewer students.)

I have to admit that I was extremely lucky when I had my heart attack a couple of years ago to be living, literally, within eye sight of one of the best cardiac care facilities in southeast Florida. When I realized what was happening to me I had my roommate drive me the six blocks to the hospital. No sense waiting around for an ambulance. When my two and a half day stay was over I was presented with a bill for nearly $70,000.00!

But what if you don’t live six blocks away from a good hospital? What if you live out in the middle of the farm belt? Even back where I grew up on Cape Cod you’re still a half hour’s drive from the nearest hospital. There’s a good chance you’re not going to make it. So even in the country with the “best” health care in the world, as some would like you to believe, in a lot of cases you either get better or you die.

I certainly don’t profess to be an expert but my impression is that Panamanians have access to some of the best health care south of the Rio Grande. Certainly, I’d bet, head and shoulders over Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua. There are hospitals in Panama City that would stack up favorably with any found in major metropolitan areas in the States. There are 12 hospitals in Panama City, many staffed by doctors that have studied in the United States. Hospital Punta Pacifica, in fact, is managed by world-famous Johns Hopkins of Baltimore, Maryland. Medical tourism here in Panama is a growing segment of the economy.

Outside of the capital things get a little sketchier. I noticed that there were a couple of modern-looking hospitals in Chitré when I was initially roaming the country looking for a place to settle. I know if one chose to settle down in the Bocas del Toro area and had serious health concerns they might be living on the edge. But I’d say it’s not too much different than someone choosing to live in most rural parts of the United States, either.

Here, near David, the country’s third largest city there are several hospitals, two of which, Mae Lewis and Hospital Chiriqui (this is Chiriqui Province) are privately run. Hospital Chiriqui, shown below,

has a program called Medical Services Chiriqui which is sort of an in-house HMO. Here is what it covers:

http://www.mschiriqui.com/coberturas_en.html

This week I signed up for it. On Monday I had to get blood work done. I HATE being stuck with needles. Absolutely DETEST it. However, the girl at the lab was a true artist with the needle and I can honestly say I didn’t even feel the needle going in. All my test results show me to be in pretty good shape. Yesterday with the test results in hand I met with Dr. Julio Osorio who will be my primary physician. Nice guy. Speaks good English and gave me a thorough exam. The only thing wrong is my cholesterol is just a hair over the limit, but I’m not upset by that. After all, we’re all going to die of something eventually and if eating twigs and bark is what it takes to extend one’s life, what’s the point?

The lab tests were a FRACTION of what they would have cost in the States. Of course I had to pay full price out-of-pocket for them but with my “Jubilado” discount I got ten bucks whacked off the top, never the less. If I do it again next year and being in the program the tests will cost me less than $20.00. In general what you spend on health care here is unheard of back home. Here’s a sign I saw on a clinic when I was wandering around Chitré:

That’s right! Feeling achy and out of sorts? It’ll set you back three bucks to talk to a doctor in Chitré,

As always, there’s a bit of a hitch in all medical programs and the Chiriqui program won’t cover pre-existing conditions for the first two years. That means my heart condition is up for grabs, but while Medicare doesn’t cover anything once you leave the U.S. I’ll continue to pay for Part B which covers doctors. Should things get really bad and  to the point where I can’t pay for it here I can go back to the States and be a leech on the country’s taxpayers.

The cost of the program, at my age and next year when I’m 70, is $62.00/month. There’s an 8% discount if you pay the whole year at one whack and 6% off if you pay six months at a time.

All things considered, I think the health care system here in Chiriqui Province is a pretty good deal but I do hope I don’t have to use it.

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Arachnophobic’s Nightmare

It was a damp, drizzly, dewy dawn with just a touch of fog that greeted me this morning as I took my steaming cup of Panama’s finest out on the front porch to de-crumpyfy myself. As the caffeine started to kick in what I saw spread out all over the fields to the east and south was an arachnopobic’s nightmare. Hundreds of spider webs glistened as the sun started to break through the gloom. I’m not arachnophobic though I admit I don’t care for the critters much and after a few minutes I was compelled to get out the camera.

Each of those white spots in picture is a spider’s web.

Of course the morning wouldn’t be complete without a couple of photo clichés of dew drops on the webs…

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Culturally Discombobulated

Culturally Discombobulated is the name of a blog written by a Brit transplanted to the States and dealing with the phenomenon of “Culture Shock.” Culture Shock is something experienced by everyone thrust into living in a foreign country as opposed to just visiting. The other day I remarked to a gringo neighbor that I haven’t been going through that here in Panama. I think it’s probably because I went through all the symptoms when I moved to France and now, here, when things don’t go as they would in the States I just shrug it off. Been there, done that. After all, I’m not in Kansas any more, Toto.

In Anthony Windram’s most recent post he writes about missing foods he grew up with that are either unavailable to him in the States or if they are to be found at “British” food stores they are only to be had at extortionate prices. I can attest to the culinary jonesing for comfort foods from my time in France.

Of course France is a gourmand’s delight, don’t get me wrong, and the food is one of the many things I actually miss about the country. There was, in Antibes, a “foreign” food store catering to us non-natives. Most of the store’s inventory catered to English, Irish and Australian tastes since they made up a large portion of the expat community there.  There was a decent selection of American stuff, too. We were able to buy Old El Paso taco seasonings and taco shells and refried beans along with a limited choice of Chef Boyardee goods.  Why anyone would want to buy a can of those soggy raviolis when made-fresh-daily ravioli with a fantastic assortment of fillings was available at several nearby charcuteries will forever remain a mystery. One item I found delightful at the store, having lived in New Orleans for so many years, was Dixie beer. Unfortunately in cans and not the beloved long-neck bottles.

When I left for France one thing I didn’t want to leave behind was my Crystal hot sauce…the only one to use on popcorn…so I packed away three of the largest bottles of the spicy red liquid I could find only to discover on my first visit to the local Carrefour grocery store that Crystal was prominently stocked on the shelves.

One thing I found rather disconcerting, though, was my craving for foods I rarely bothered with when living in the States. Worst among these was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. When one of my brothers asked me what I wanted for Christmas I told him Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Send me some of those chemical packets of cheese sauce. Keep the macaroni we had plenty of pasta in France. He and his wife sent me three dozen of the packets. I tried it and I was right…the stuff is horrid.

However, one of the bar maids at Chez Charlie’s Pub, a hangout for English speaking expats in Antibes, was a New Orleans native named Jane. Odd thing was when I was living there Jane and I used to go to the same music venues and when I went to the laundry as I’d be sitting outside reading a book while my clothes were being done if I looked up I looked at Jane’s front door though we wouldn’t meet until years later in France. Every now and again when paying up my bill at Charlie’s instead of leaving a cash tip for Jane I’d leave her a couple of Kraft cheese packets. She absolutely LOVED the stuff and appreciated it more than a few francs left on the counter.

Another odd phenomena happened when I returned to the States after a four year absence. I drank a bottle of root beer one afternoon and then I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I went on a root beer binge that lasted for a couple of months after that first frosty glass.

Here in Panama, probably from its long association with the U.S. and the growing number of gringos choosing to spend their dotage here, lots of what we think of as “comfort” foods are available at the supermarkets. Yes, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is everywhere as are such staples as Jiff and Peter Pan peanut butter though you’d gasp at what they cost. I avoid most of it for locally produced stuff, but in some cases there aren’t acceptable substitutes as far as my pallet is concerned. I’m sorry, but Maggi tomato paste just doesn’t hold a candle to Hunts or Contadina.

One of the things I missed when I left France was the wonderful availability of fresh produce. After several years of buying top quality fruits and veggies at the open air market returning to Stateside supermarkets where the produce is all shrink wrapped in plastic it was a real bummer. Here in Panama while good produce is available in the supermarkets, and none of it shrink wrapped, the best stuff is to be found at roadside stands. Imagine a wonderfully ripe, succulent and fragrant pineapple for a buck each. Tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes. I’m eating good again.

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The Difference Between Houses and Boats

Houses are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you can not think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable, not the animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of gay transition…. The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thence forward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place. — Arthur Ransome

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Ransome#.22Swallows_and_Amazons.22


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Words of Wisdom

“Never test the depth of the water with both feet.”

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Workshop Definitions

The Handyman’s Dictionary

SNAP-RING PLIER: Special pliers used to propel snap-rings from the part you are working on to the farthest, darkest, spider inhabited recesses of the garage .

DRILL PRESS: A tall upright machine useful for suddenly snatching flat metal bar stock out of your hands so that it smacks you in the chest and flings your beer across the room, denting your freshly-painted vintage car (or boat or airplane) which you had carefully parked in the corner of the shop (or hangar) where nothing could get to it.

WIRE WHEEL: Cleans paint off bolts and then throws them somewhere under the workbench at the speed of light. Also removes fingerprints and hard-earned calluses from fingers in about the time it takes you to say, `Oh sh-….’

ELECTRIC HAND DRILL: Normally used for spinning pop rivets in their holes until you die of old age.

SKILL SAW: A portable cutting tool used to make studs too short. PLIERS: Used to round off bolt heads. Sometimes used in the creation of blood blisters.

CRESCENT WRENCH: Used to prepare a bolt head for the application of pliers.

BELT SANDER An electric sanding tool commonly used to convert minor touch-up jobs into major refinishing jobs.

HACKSAW: One of a family of cutting tools built on the Ouija board principle It transforms human energy into a crooked, unpredictable motion, and the more you attempt to influence its course, the more dismal your future becomes.

VISE-GRIPS: Generally used after pliers to completely round-off bolt heads. If nothing else is available, they can also be used to transfer intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

WELDING GLOVES: Heavy duty leather gloves used to prolong the conduction of intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

ACETYLENE TORCH: Used almost entirely for igniting various flammable objects in your shop. Also handy for igniting the grease inside the wheel hub out of which you want to remove a bearing race.

TABLE SAW: A large stationary power tool commonly used to launch wood projectiles for testing wall integrity.

HYDRAULIC FLOOR JACK: Used for lowering an automobile to the ground after you have installed your new brake shoes, trapping the jack handle firmly under the bumper.

EIGHT-FOOT LONG YELLOW PINE 2X4: Used for levering an automobile upward off of a trapped hydraulic jack handle.

E-Z OUT BOLT AND STUD EXTRACTOR: A tool, ten times harder than any known drill bit, that snaps neatly off in bolt holes thereby ending any possible future use.

BAND SAW: A large stationary power saw primarily used by most shops to cut good aluminum sheet into smaller pieces that more easily fit into the trash can after you cut on the inside of the line instead of the outside edge.

TWO-TON ENGINE HOIST: A tool for testing the maximum tensile strength of everything you forgot to disconnect from the engine being removed.

CRAFTSMAN 1/2 x 24-INCH SCREWDRIVER: A very large pry bar that inexplicably has an accurately machined screwdriver tip on the end opposite the handle.

AVIATION METAL SNIPS: See hacksaw.

PHILLIPS SCREWDRIVER: Normally used to stab the vacuum seals under lids or for opening old-style paper-and-tin oil cans and splashing oil on your shirt . It can also be used, as the name implies, to strip out Phillips screw heads.

STRAIGHT SCREWDRIVER: A tool for opening paint cans. Sometimes used to convert common slotted screws into non-removable screws.

PRY BAR: A tool used to crumple the metal surrounding that clip or bracket you needed to remove in order to replace a 50 cent part.

HOSE CUTTER: A tool used to make hoses too short.

HAMMER: Originally employed as a weapon of war, the hammer nowadays is used as a kind of divining rod to locate the most expensive parts adjacent the object you are trying to hit.

MECHANIC’S KNIFE: Used to open and slice through cardboard shipping cartons delivered to your front door . Works particularly well on the contents of the carton such as seats, collector vinyl records, caustic/flammable/difficult to clean up liquids in plastic bottles, collector magazines, refund checks, and rubber or plastic parts. Especially useful for slicing the work clothes of the person using the knife or anyone standing next to that person.

GOD-D*MM*T TOOL: Any tool that you grab and throw across the garage while yelling `GOD-D*MM*T’ at the top of your lungs. It is also, most often, the next tool that you will need.

The first comment on this post reminded me that I’d failed to mention this is not an original post. I found it on http://www.duckworksmagazine.com/index.cfm

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Was This Written By A Panamanian?

From the Queen of New Orleans music, Irma Thomas:

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It Doesn’t Just Rain Here

As my readers know it’s the rainy season here in Panama and we’ve been getting more than our share this year. New records for rainfall being set nearly every month.

Last January I wrote a post about fog. Up here at 2,600 feet overlooking the Pacific Ocean we often encounter the phenomenon of “up slope fog” which forms when winds blow air up a slope  (called orographic lift), adiabatically (occurring without loss or gain of heat) as it rises, and causing the moisture in it to condense. This can happen at any time of the day and we get plenty of it here. One minute it will be clear and sunny and the next thing you know you can’t see the far side of your yard. And then, a few minutes later it will be clear again.

This is what it was like a couple of days ago just after noon time.

It lasted like this for about 20 minutes then disappeared. THEN it started to rain…LOL. When it did start raining we had thunder and lightning like I haven’t seen here before and while friends not far away lost their electricity for several hours for once this house was spared that irritation.

We had several more episodes of fog during the day and on into the night. The street lights on the dirt road that passes by the house were eerie yellow dots in the distance in contrast to the fire flies blinking brilliance and I can only imagine what driving must have been like for those out on the narrow, twisting two-lane carreterra heading down to David.

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Down At The Depot

Back in 1958 Marshall “Mike” Dodge and Bob Bryan recorded their first collection of “Bert and I” records. Sort of an early Down East version of Lake Wobegon immortalized by Garrison Keillor. Bert and I depicted Maine fishermen and woodsmen with dry, classic humor and spot-on Mainer accents.

One of the stories that always stuck with me was the one in which Bert won a raffle for an all-expense-paid week-long trip to Boston. When he returned everyone in town came to greet him and were hungry for details of his trip and the delights he had experienced in the big city. “Well,” he said, “there was so much going on at the depot I never did get to see the village.”

That story sprang to mind the first time I stepped off the bus at the bus terminal in David, Panama. If you want to get a true slice of Panamanian life there’s no better place than at the terminal. I just love it there and enjoy waiting for my bus to arrive to take me back up the hill. It’s a people-watcher’s paradise.

The terminal is filled with dozens of little kiosks where you can buy an eclectic assortment of snacks, ice cream and shoddy goods. There is a good sized cafeteria and a couple of small “fondas.” Street vendors walk up and down hawking belts and pirated audio CDs. Students in their pressed uniforms walk together in groups and the Ngobe Indian women and their children in their traditional mumus  add color to the parade. Over it all are the “puerteros,” young men who are sort of like conductors opening the bus doors and collecting the fares from the departing passengers, sing out the destinations of their bus routes which are plainly visible in huge lettering on the windshields of the buses.

I’ve never understood why some people say that the transportation system in Panama is so poor. I find it to be excellent. Buses run throughout the country. True, they aren’t all luxurious motor coaches and I’ve noticed that as you get away from the more metropolitan areas the buses get smaller and smaller. In my early explorations of the country I went from Panama City to Pedasí on four different kinds of bus. A large coach from PC to Santiago, then on a smaller Toyota seating about 30 people from there to Chitré. A slightly smaller Toyota from Chitré to Las Tablas and then a 12 seat rattle trap from there to Pedasí. And then there are the ubiquitous yellow taxis everywhere. Check them as they come out of the terminal exit and passing by on the street.

A word of advice…NEVER get in a cab until you have established how much it’s going to cost to get to your destination and if it sounds unreasonable to you move on. I’ve been quoted prices I KNOW aren’t right and I always ask, “and how much is it for a Panamanian?” before going elsewhere.

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At Last

As I’ve written before, the bread here in Panama isn’t very good. In fact it’s pretty horrid. I’ve made several attempts at baking my own and they’ve been pretty lame.

A few days ago I tried a “no-knead” recipe. After mixing the ingredients it sure didn’t look like the photos on line. The whole thing was pretty runny but I had followed the recipe to the letter and figured that at the end of the 24 hour period prescribed things would be different. They weren’t it was pretty much like it had been the day before and I ended up throwing the glop in the garbage.

Today I set out to try another recipe. I did make one modification. While it calls for three cups of flour I used two cups of regular flour and one cup of wheat flour. I kneaded the glop until it was smooth like the instructions call for, put it in a covered bowl and waited an hour. It rose beautifully in the bowl. I punched it down and kneaded it a second time as per instructions and put it in the loaf pan to rise for another half hour. Again, it rose beautifully and crowned over the top of the pan.

I slid the thing in the oven and soon the wonderful fragrance of baking bread filled the house. At the appointed time I took the pan out of the oven and “thumped” it getting the hollow sound the instructions said told of a finished loaf. It slid out of the pan and after waiting an interminably long time for it to cool I cut off one of the ends and voila…a real slice of delicious bread. The butter melted into the still warm slice and I topped it with some strawberry preserves…with a name like Smucker’s you know it has to be good. And it was. Next comes tuna salad.

Right now the aroma of baking bread has been replaced by simmering beef as I’m going to try making that Cuban (and Latin American) favorite Ropa Vieja (Old Clothes).  I have black beans and plantains to go with the rice. I rarely go wrong with cooking “food.” It’s just the bread that needed practice.

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