Category Archives: Living in Panama

Yipee, It’s Raining!

We’re deep into the middle of the “dry” season here in Panama. It’s only rained a couple of times since the wonderful fireworks displays of Christmas Eve and New Years, and it usually stays dry until sometime at the end of April or early May. The afternoons have been incredibly hot. I rarely use the air conditioning which is why I’ve come up with a couple of $8 electric bills. For the most part I’m very comfortable if I’m in some shade with a breeze blowing, but over the last month I’ve shut the doors and windows around two or three in the afternoon and cranked up the a/c.

Everyone’s lawns have taken on the color of a shredded wheat biscuit with tiny hints of green poking though like bits of mold. The river, only a few yards away from the house has been silent and normally I can hear it running over the rocks but recently it’s been nearly dry, and you can easily walk across it in quite a few places without getting your feet wet. A patina of fine dust coats everything inside and out.

Yesterday morning when I got up it was gloomy. I thought it was just breaking dawn and was surprised that it was nearly eight thirty, and I almost never sleep that late. It stayed overcast all day which moderated the heat of the afternoon and a couple of times a few drops of rain fell, but only a very few. Not enough to wet anything down.

This morning it was also overcast, but a slow, steady rain was falling and it still is three hours later. What’s remarkable is that almost instantly the lawn, which was 95% brown is now more than half green as the rain soaks down to the roots of the grass. I doubt that the dry season is over, yet, but it’s nice to see some rain again.

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Another Shock

I recently posted about my shockingly low electric bill. Last week I got another bill from Union Fenosa. This one was slightly higher. They said I owed them $10.94 for the period between November 7 to December 7. I went to the Plaza Teronal shopping center to buy my monthly medications and stopped at the Union Fenosa payment center at the El Rey supermarket and received another shock. The girl said I only owed $8.46, not the $10.94. I figure the way things are going Union Fenosa will start paying ME for being hooked up to their service sometime around the end of April.

Another Shock

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Third Christmas In Boquerón

This is the third Christmas I’ve spent in Boquerón, Panama. Christmas Eve was a little different than the previous two in that no carolers appeared to sing for anyone in the neighborhood.

In the early evening  my next door neighbor brought me a delicious plate of arroz con pollo and the most delicious platanos maduros I’ve ever put in my mouth. Another neighbor invited me up to her house for hot chocolate and some moña bread (click here to find out what  moña bread is ) which is a tradition here in Panama. This was the same family that invited me to the wife’s birthday party back in July, and like then, I was the only person outside the family that was invited. When one of Llalla’s daughters and her husband and their two kids arrived. Their little six-year old girl, who I’ve only met a couple of times, came up to me and gave me a warm hug and a hearty “Feliz Navidad.” Really sweet for this old Gringo.

After a couple of hours of trying to follow the rapid-fire Spanish conversation the party broke up and I made my way back to my house having to say, “Feliz Navidad” about a dozen time between Llalla’s gate and my own.

As is the tradition here, people have been setting off fireworks for the past few days. Primarily bottle rockets and Roman candles. But at the stroke of midnight, turning Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, the whole area erupted. An incredible din of fireworks being set off reverberated all over the area. A racket you just have to actually be here for to believe how much money is going up in smoke. The other day I passed by one of the almost endless number of Fuego Artificiales stands and noted that boxes the size of a case of canned Budweiser was selling for about $175. (It’s easy to know what it costs in terms of U.S. Dollars since there’s no need to do any currency conversion since Panama uses the dollar as it’s paper currency. (Officially the currency here is the “Balboa” and the coins, one, five, 10 and 25 coins are the same size, weight and metal content as their gringo equivalents, plus the B/1 coin as well.)

About five minutes after midnight mi barrio’s display began. Judging from the angle from my house I think I know who set off the display. There’s a large house just down the road with a couple of expensive SUVs in the drive most days. I’m sure it was them. The following videos took several HOURS to upload to YouTube this morning. I’m sure their servers were working overtime with people uploading vids of their kids opening presents. The first display was more than six minutes long. Then there was about a 15 or 20 minute delay, though the hills were still echoing with distant detonations, and a nearly three-minute encore ensued. Unfortunately the camera didn’t capture the brilliant colors but you’ll get the idea. Enjoy. I did.

 

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My Translator’s A Champion!

Saying that the United States has had an influence on the Republic of Panama is an horrific understatement. You can see the Gringo influence right down to the playing fields of Panama. While soccer (fútball) dominates most of the world baseball rules in Panama. Philadelphia Phillies All-Star catcher, Carlos Ruiz, hails from right here in David and has a World Series ring. You certainly can’t overlook Mariano Rivera. Twelve-time All Star pitcher and five times World Series winner with an 18-year career with the New York Yankees. He is MLB’s all-time leader in saves (608) and games finished (892). While I’ve never followed baseball, names like Juan Berenguer, and Rod Carew really don’t send you to Wikipedia to find out what sport they play.

In the last couple of years American-style football has been making inroads into the sporting scene here in Panama. There aren’t any Panamanians, that I know of, playing in the NFL, but who knows what will happen a few years down the road? One of the girls who translated my book, Stephany Peñaloza, has been posting photos on her Facebook page about a local girl’s flag football team here in Chiriquí. Recently they went to the Province of Veragua and played for the championship of LCFA flag football. They won, and Stephany is their quarterback! (#11 for the girls with the yellow and black jerseys.

Now, if they get into the Lingerie League, I’d pay to go to their games.

Congratulations, Stephany and all the girls on the Wildcats’ team!

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My Shocking Electric Bill

When I lived in Fort Lauderdale my electric bill normally ran around a hundred to a hundred and twenty five bucks a month. Granted, I had the air conditioner running most of the time. It’s about the only way you can survive there for three-quarters of the year. The other three months you need to have the a/c turned to the heat function.

When I was first researching the possibility of retiring to Panama, I read a lot of different blogs and paid special attention to posts about the “cost of living.” People often wrote that one of their largest expenses was for electric service and that the cost per kilowatt hour was higher than it was in the States. Well, you’d probably expect that you’d be needing to run your air conditioning 31 (that’s 24/7) in a country that’s only eight degrees north of the equator. It wasn’t unusual to see people saying that they had monthly bills in Panama similar to what I was paying in Lauderdale.

When I finally made the move it was to a house in Potrerillos Arriba, Chiriqui Province in western Panama. The house didn’t have air conditioning, but at 2,600 feet above sea level it wasn’t necessary. In fact I spent a great deal of the time wearing a sweat shirt to stay comfortable. My electric bill there generally ran about $25 a month. Certainly a bargain compared to what I was used to in Florida and a fraction of what I’d been lead to believe I’d have to pay according to the blogs I’d read.

Boquerón, where I currently live, is 2,000 feet lower than Potrerillos Arriba. The house I rent does have air conditioning, but I rarely use it. The house is small and with the front and back doors open there is generally a nice breeze flowing through. I’m usually comfortable if I’m in shade with a breeze, and when there is no natural breeze one of the two pedestal fans I have works just as well. There are three reasons I turn on the air conditioning. 1) On the first of each month I turn the upstairs unit on for an hour just to make sure it’s functioning. 2) When a neighbor down the street decides to crank up the music and it forces me to close the doors and windows to block out the bass. 3) When I’m using the oven and it heats the downstairs to an uncomfortable level. When the food’s done I shut it off. At night, if I’m not cooking, there are only two lights on and they are the kind conservatives in the U.S. condemn as part of a nefarious socialist plot against their individual freedom to use incandescent lighting. My monthly bill here is pretty much the same as it was in Potrerillos…around $20/month or a bit less.

Last Friday I received my most recent Union Fenosa bill for October’s service. It was shocking! The electric company wants me to pay them $9.87!!! Just so you don’t think I’m pulling your leg, here’s a pic of the bill.

While I came to accept hundred dollar electric bills as normal while living in Florida I also had exceptionally low electric bills when I was living on my shanty boat in Louisiana where it’s every bit as hot and humid in August and September as it is in Lauderdale.

As you can see, I had a window-banger a/c unit but I never used it. Each slip at the marina had its own electric meter. My bill was usually just the minimum necessary to have electric service. It was $7 a month.

One month when I went to pay the bill I stood in line and watched people paying three, four and five hundred dollars just to keep from having their service cut off. The only thing I could think of that would warrant such bills is that they kept their a/c going day and night keeping the temperature of their homes at a level where they could store meat just by leaving it on the kitchen counter.

When I made it up to the window I told the woman, “I’m almost embarrassed to give this to you.”

She looked at the bill and said, “well, you don’t live there.”

“I do,” I told her. “The thing is, when I’m not home the only thing drawing electricity is the refrigerator. If I’m home during the day you can add the television or the stereo. At night you can add a single light bulb.”

The lady took my seven-dollar payment and I left.

One morning, a few days later I was lying on my sofa reading a book (I’d been laid-off at the time). I heard a vehicle crunching down the shell road along the docks. It came to a stop nearby and I heard two doors open and close. Curious, I raised s slat on the blinds and saw two men from the electric company with an instrument testing my meter. The lady at the counter had pimped me out, unable to believe that anyone could exist on seven dollars worth of electricity a month.

The following month I went back to the electric company and paid my monthly seven dollar bill.

 

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The Problem With Yard Maintenance

Part of the agreement I have with the owners of the house where I’m living is that I maintain the yard. That’s not all that easy since everything grows ten times faster here in Panama than it does anywhere else I ever lived. I could choose to pay someone to keep the lawn trimmed, but I do it myself. The only problem I have is that it’s a two-hour yard and I have a one-hour back.

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Tropical Storm Sandy

The weather here in Panama, the last couple of days, has been really lousy. While we are in that part of the “rainy season” when our rainfall is greatest what we’re been going through now is unusual. Just to recap what I’ve said about the “rainy season” before…It doesn’t normally rain 31 (that’s 24/7). Most mornings are glorious. Blue skies, puffy white clouds until early afternoon. Then things start to cloud up and just before early evening the sky dumps several inches of water in a couple of hours. Yesterday morning (Wed. Oct. 24), was one of those very rare days when I woke up to rain. I can’t remember more than three or four mornings like that in the two and a half years I’ve been living here. Worse than that, it rained all day long. Not the usual downpours we’ve all come to know and love, but a light, steady rain that just didn’t stop. And it’s still raining this morning and probably will all day long.

Why? Believe it or not, Tropical Storm Sandy which is hovering over Cuba as I write this. We don’t get hurricanes here in Panama. It’s too far south, but that doesn’t mean the storms don’t effect us. They do! Hurricanes are giant weather factories with far-reaching consequences. If you remember your high school science lessons you know that hurricanes, cyclonic disturbances, rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, and that’s what’s changed our weather pattern here.

Look at this NOAA photo of Sandy.

That’s Panama just under and to the left of that huge patch of red. As you can see, the storm is drawing its strength from water vapor all the way into the Pacific Ocean and dragging the bad weather across the isthmus. We’re only about 50 miles or so between the Pacific and the Caribbean here. And it’s causing big problems.

In Tonosi, at the foot of the Azuero Peninsula about 300 houses have been affected by flooding when the Tonosí river overflowed its banks.

(Photo from Panama Guide.com)

Here in Chiriquí Province the river in Puerto Armuelles (about an hour and a half away by bus from my home) over on the Pacific side on the border with Costa Rica, has been threatening to overflow its banks. People in Nuevo Chorrillo, in the district of Arraiján, near Panama City, are living under the threat of landslides from the super-saturated hills above their homes.

While other rivers are threatening homes the river a mere 25 yards or so from my house is doing fine. I’ve written about, and posted videos, about how fast the river can rise to frightening levels in a matter of a few minutes. Right now it’s what I would categorize as “high normal.” Most of the huge boulders as still well above the water level. Since the rain has been light but steady the watershed isn’t being overwhelmed and there’s little to worry about right now.

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Things I’d Rather Not Know

Ignorance, they say, is bliss. There are certain times it’s better not to know some things.

For instance, yesterday two men were working to clear out the weed-clogged field next door so that it could be planted with corn. They worked for about six hours and during that time they killed two small fer de lance snakes.

The fer de lance is one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. If there were two next door you can be sure there are a lot more around. Sometimes there are things I’d just rather not know about.

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It Finally Happened

Living, as it were, in a total-immersion language learning situation it finally happened. In the last week I’ve started having dreams in Spanish. I don’t mean that ALL my dreams are in Spanish, but when I have one that’s located here in Panama the dream language is Spanish.

I remember the first time I had a dream in French. It woke me up. It was a “WOW” moment. When you start dreaming in another language you know that it has become a part of your subconscious.

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A Mountain Retreat in Chiriquí Province, Panama

This morning’s cup of coffee wasn’t my usual brew. It came from a very special place and my ritual for brewing it was different, too.

After grinding the beans, I cupped my hands around the bowl of the grinder and shook the grounds lightly. I put my nose between my hands and inhaled the rich aroma, gathering in all the complexity of the beans. I poured the steaming coffee from my mocha pot to my mug and went out to my rocking chair on the front porch where I noisily slurped a bit of the nectar in a way guaranteed to draw disapproving glares had I been in a restaurant. I held it in my mouth for a few seconds and then spit it out into the flower bed. There was nothing wrong with the coffee, but I’d learned to do that recently at a coffee “cupping” at Finca Lérida in Alto Quiel, Chiriquí Province, Panama. As I savored the wonderful variety of flavors that toyed with my taste buds and palate I was instantly transported, as if on a magic carpet, back to that extraordinary place high in the mountains.

There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the beauty of this Shangri La. To say it is “breathtaking” is like saying the Mona Lisa is a “pretty good” painting. Calling it “awe inspiring” is akin to calling the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, a “pretty deep ditch” as you stand on its rim. Two-dimensional photographs and videos simply are inadequate to convey the magnificence of it all. The majesty of the surrounding mountains, the rugged hills covered with coffee plants offer the world some of the best, and, not coincidentally, most expensive coffees in the world, and sometimes being enveloped by clouds…

Sitting at 5,602 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Finca Lérida is, first and foremost, a working coffee plantation with a boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant. It is not a hotel that happens to have a few coffee trees scattered around for the guest’s amusement. The finca covers 150 hectares (370 acres) of which 43 hectares (106 acres) are devoted to coffee production. Finca Lérida borders Amistad National Park, the largest nature reserve in Central America, with nearly one million acres of tropical forest jointly administered by Panama and Costa Rica, which gives the visitor the sense of the immensity of undefiled nature.

A boutique hotel is defined as being a smaller hotel that is not part of a huge chain, but is top quality, has individually styled rooms offering customized service. This “customized” service is evident in the personalized, handwritten greeting left at bedside from the general manager of the hotel, Jessica Real:

The hotel is small having only 11 deluxe rooms like the one I stayed in:

There are four “standard” rooms that would qualify as being “luxurious” by most anyone’s standards:

There are six suites that feature a fireplace and a Jacuzzi:

And the Historic Suite (Casa Centenario) built by the original owner, Tolef Monniche back in 1929:

This was the home Tolef Monniche, a Norwegian engineer who worked building the locks on the Panama Canal. After suffering four bouts of malaria he set off to find his own piece of heaven high in the mountains. He built the lodge with his own two hands. It has a cozy living room with a fireplace, dining room, family room, library, and a second floor with an unsurpassed view of the carefully landscaped grounds meticulously maintained by four gardeners.

Every room has a 42-inch LCD TV with satellite cables (but I can’t imagine why you’d want to veg-out in front of a television here), Wi-Fi Internet connection and phone service. All rooms and suites are 100% non-smoking.

Just as neat and tidy as the grounds are, the rooms are also spotless and well-cared for. A Marine drill instructor giving the place a white-glove inspection would be hard-pressed to find a speck of dust anywhere.

What would a luxurious hotel be without a fine, gourmet restaurant? The one at Finca Lérida is presided over by Chef Gean:

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

Don’t let the serious pose fool you. Gean was nothing but smiles and good humor when I talked with him.

The dining room is light and airy and offers spectacular views of the grounds and the mountains in which it nestles.

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

Or you can dine al fresco:

I started my dinner, the evening I spent at the hotel, with a delicious roasted tomato soup topped by a healthy serving of fromage aux chevre (that’s a fancy way of saying “goat cheese” which happens to be one of my favorites and was what tempted me to order it).

The cheese was a fine complement to the dish and the garnish was picked fresh from the garden just outside.

For the main course I chose the trout topped with onions, tomatoes and candied cashews:

My dad was a chef. My first French girlfriend was the chef on a 180-foot mega yacht, and when I was captain of the Lady Ann in New Orleans the renowned Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme used to charter us several times a year for dinner parties he’d have for his friends, so I know good food. What I ate at Finca Lérida was as good as any I’ve had anywhere. And they stock a good selection of imported wines to go with your meal.

One thing you won’t find anywhere at the finca are machines dispensing carbonated soft drinks or packages of “munchies” made from chemicals you can’t pronounce. Instead there is a small coffee shop adjacent to the reception area

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

Here you can savor some of the finca’s coffees and fresh “dulces” (sweet pasteries). The coffee is also packaged either as whole beans or ground for you to take home so you can, as I was, taken back to this magical place when you brew a cup.

I’ll leave you, today, with this short video. Listen carefully to what Eden must have sounded like…

In an future post I’ll fill you in on the activities available at the finca either as a guest staying at the hotel or for those who might simply want a “day trip.”

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