Monthly Archives: May 2009

Reflections on Panama

“If we’re really going to start a new life, we have to kill the old one. That’s why most people never really start anything new. They’re claimed by old lamps and bureaus left to them by their grandmothers.” — Betty Wilson-Away From It All

So now that I’ve received my Pensionado I’m back in the States and involved in the process of ridding myself of those old lamps and bureaus to start my new life. My One More Good Adventure.

Actually I don’t have any old lamps and bureaus. I do have a picture, a pencil sketch of a painting by a marginally famous relative, Richard Morrell Staigg, and was probably the study for this painting:

I am Richard Staigg Philbrick. I remember this pencil sketch from the time I was very young. But there’s no way I going to take it with me to Panama? There’s no place for it on the houseboat I hope to build and live on down there. It will be going to a niece who is the only other person, as far as I know, to carry the name Staigg. There is also an heirloom silver tea pot that I will be sending to a nephew. All the rest of the detritus I have accumulated will be sold or given away. I really don’t intend to take much more than some clothes, my cameras and my computers to Panama.

I readily admit that my personal knowledge of Panama is very limited at this point. I’ve only been to a few towns and cities, Santiago, Chitre, Los Santos, Pedasi, Bocas del Toro and David.  But my three trips to the Republic have left me with several impressions,..

So far I have found the Panamanian people to be nothing but friendly, kind and helpful. I have not met the least bit of animosity towards my “gringoness.” My Spanish is far from fluent, but I can hold a basic conversation with people who don’t speak any English. It’s rough Spanish and filled with grammatical mistakes, but the essence of what I’m trying to express comes through and that goes a long way.

Much of the country are breathtakingly beautiful. Just as long as you don’t look at the side of the roads. If you do you can almost imagine Poppa telling Momma, on a Sunday afternoon, “round up the kids and we’ll take the car for a spin and throw shit out the windows.”

On the other side of that coin, I saw young Nôbe-Buglé Indian children leaving shacks that homeless people in the States would refuse to live in wearing spotless, brilliantly white shirts and blouses and pressed blue skirts and blouses as they set off for school.

I’ve met quite a few Americans and Canadians who have retired to Panama and all seem to love it though I know there are just as many who are disillusioned with the experience. But I also have a lot of friends in the States who are so locked into the United States culture they would never be able to adapt to living in the Republic. These are the people who will end up retiring to “creative retirement” communities in places like those Asheville, North Carolina, giving them access to spas, seminars, etc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s certainly not the challenge many of us are looking for.

Retirement abroad definitely has a broad appeal. Many believe they will be able to live in the lifestyle they’ve always had on a much smaller budget. Well, kids, when you move to Panama you’re not in Kansas anymore. Sure, the high rises in downtown Panama City remind you of Miami Beach and everyone’s speaking Spanish like they do in Miami. But it’s different. You get out into the hinterland and you’re living in a land of primary colors. Stores and buildings are often painted with bright, almost garish to some eyes, reds, blues, yellows. The signs on what seems to be the majority of those buildings are crudely hand-lettered. Small cement block houses outside of the towns are only painted on the side that faces the street.

Move to another country and you’re going to be hit hard smack in the face with culture shock. But that’s what attracts many of us. The challenge of it all. That opportunity to have One More Good Adventure.

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My Newest Blog

As readers of this blog know I post on a variety of subjects.  Whatever happens to interest me at the moment. But one subject that is of great interest to me is houseboats/shantyboats. Building them, living on them and modifying them. New posts on a blog get driven to the bottom quickly as newer ones are added and the houseboat/shantyboat posts sort of disapper. So, for others interested in the same subject I have started this new blog:

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Some Travelling Music

Returning to Panama City today so we need a little bit of travelling music…

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Pedrigal Off the List

In the search for a place to live on a boat in Panama I saw that the area around Pedrigal has lots of rivers and islands. It’s on the Pacific side of Panama where the tidal range is about 19 feet. I went down there today despite the negative comments I’ve had about the place. They were right.

The marina is very small with floating docks.


The water is brown and when the tide is out it’s muddy all around and the mangroves would be a mosquito factory


There’s a nice restaurant at the marina. I had the mixed seafood platter consisting of shrimp, fish fingers (I didn’t even know fish had hands to get fingers from) and calamari. If calamari is cooked too long it’s sort of like chewing on rubber bands, but these were done just right…tasty and tender. After the Jubilado discount the dinner was $6.60.


The town itself isn’t much to look at and some of the houses are pretty bad…


But across the street was a flowering tree I’d never seen before


Bus trip back to Panama City tomorrow and plane ride back to Fort Lauderdale Saturday.


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Native Watercraft Around Bocas

Being an island archipelago, boats are a way of life here in Bocas del Toro. Not the cruising sailboats in the marina and at anchor, but the way people travel here. They are the cars, buses, taxis and trucks of the area. If you don’t fly here the only other way to arrive is on a boat.

A water taxi


An Indian SUV (How many life jackets do you think they have on board?)

Indian SUV

An Indian truck

Indian Truck

The boat above went just a few buildings down, side-tied to a steel work barge and headed back to Almirante

Pushing Barge edited

These native craft almost always seem to be paddled or pushed along by an outboard. Yesterday while having lunch at a restaurant in town I saw, in the distance, a canoe with a sprit sail rig. I didn’t have my camera and it was too far away anyway. But this morning sitting out on the porch reading the newspaper on line I glanced up and caught this going past. Almost missed it. Had to run down to my room and grab my camera.


Just down the street, in a little shed, someone is building a dugout canoe.

Dugout under Construction

In all the times I’ve passed it I’ve never seen anyone working on it and wasn’t ever able to speak to the builder.

Dugout Transom

Note how the transom is filled in and the log is carved to shape a skeg to provide some tracking ability when the boat is underway. The area above the green paint has been built up by strip planking with epoxy glue. A traditional Indian building technique?

Across the street, sitting out over the water is another dugout build by the same man I was told. In the first picture above you can see thwarts inserted either to give the hull some extra rigidity or to be used as seats. This dugout has ribs inserted.

Green dugout trimed

Well, I’m packed and ready to head to David. I’m flying back. Coming over there were sections of the road high up in the mountains that had been washed away in the heavy rains back in November. In several places the road was barely one lane wide. With the torrential rains of the last two days I’m sure that the conditions haven’t improved. Although I’m very leary of third world puddle-jumpers I think it’s probably the safest way to get out of here. With my Pensionado discount the flight only cost me $30.10 for the 40 minute ride. Hopefully this won’t be my last post.

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More Rain in Bocas

My friend, Frank, has always said, “I see you in Bocas del Toro. It’s a natural for you.” So, on my first couple of visits to Panama I would ask people who said they’d been to Bocas how they liked it. The answer, almost invariably was, “I don’t know. It rained the whole time I was there. If you read my post yesterday you know how it can rain here. Well, it started last night about seven and it’s 7:25 a.m. and it’s still raining. There isn’t the wind like yesterday but it’s blowing out of the west today instead of the south.

I’m supposed to go back to David today but in order to do that I have to take the 20-minute water taxi ride to Almirante. The closest taxi is three looooong blocks away from the hotel and everything I have would get soaked. And after you get to Almirante you have to stand at the side of the road to catch the bus that takes you across the mountains. I’m just going to have to sit here for a while and make a run for it when the rain stops for a while.

I can see why the rainfall amount here is nearly 11-1/2 feet in a year. One of the people I had lunch with yesterday said that the rainfall in the first 10 days of May this year had already equalled what fell in all of May last year. It seems that it rains for five days out of every four in Bocas…and yes, I did say five days out of four.


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The Best Immigration Lawyer in Panama

This is a shameless plug for Lizi Rose; probably the best Immigration Lawyer in Panama. She shepherded my Pensionado Visa through the labyrinth of Panamanian Immigration in just over four months. I don’t think it’s a record, but it’s a shorter period of time than some people I have talked to went through.

When Lizi walks into Immigration she owns the place. She takes no prisoners and doesn’t deal gladly with fools. She speaks absolutely flawless English. I should hope to be half as good in Spanish.

If you’re considering Panama as a retirement destination you couldn’t do better than getting in touch with this fine young lady.

Lizi Rose

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Storming in Bocas del Toro

Part of the nearly eleven and a half feet of water that falls in the Bocas del Toro area each year is coming down right now. It’s been raining for at least the last three hours and there’s little sign that it’s going to let up any time soon. The wind is blowing a steady 20 knots probably gusting up to 30 on occasions. A work boat, like a large cayuco motors past the back porch of  my hotel. The skipper hunched over with his back to the wind has no foul weather gear and is chilled by the rain as he morosely bails his boat. With wind like this the rain drops feel like needles when they hit exposed flesh. I know. I’ve been there many times when I was running a crew boat in the Kerr-McGee production field in Breton Sound, Louisiana.

The rain is almost horizontal now and the boats on the hook and over at the marina are just vague shadows. Lightning streaks across the sky and almost instantly cracks and rumbles so close it shakes the building a bit.

One of my contacts who lives out on Bastimientos Island and owns and operated the Tranquilo Bay Eco-adventures resort probably aren’t having a very good time at the moment but I’m sure that for them it’s an Eco-adventure from hell. I am supposed to meet him over at the Starfish Cafe but having no protection from the rain, myself, I’m not so sure it’s going to happen.

A rather large ketch is dragging anchor and it appears there is no one aboard, and no one seems to be going out to render any assistance. I know that the water taxi drivers aren’t about to do anything to help. They’re sitting ashore watching it drift towards the reef or an island to be wrecked. Then, like the ship-wreckers of yesteryear they will go out and strip the remains clean.

Finally, after the boat has made it at least a half mile from the anchorage a small dinghy wet out from one of the other boats in the anchorage and headed out to try and do something. I can’t tell what since the buildings on that side of my hotel are blocking the view.

Around 7:15 the rain has slacked off to a slight drizzle and I’m going off to meet with my one contact Jim at the Starfish. He wasn’t there though his boat was tied up behind, so I assume he’s still with his clients out at the airport.

As I was waiting for Jim to show up a young couple I had met yesterday pulled up to the dock in their little dinghy, soaking wet. They were the ones who went out to the boat. It had been sitting on a mooring for the last six months with no one aboard. The mooring had parted in the storm. They contacted the manager of the marina. I met him yesterday and he was a typical cruising doofus blown up with his own self-importance and cruising “knowledge” which totally turned me off. The young couple, she an American and he a South African (white) have been down here on their boat for the last four months. They said the manager purports to be “friends” of the owner of the imperiled boat but refused to to anything about it. So much for the cruising “community” and how they supposedly look out for one another. I guess since that boat wasn’t in the marina and leaving money there he was just as happy to see it destroyed.

The young couple caught up with it and went aboard. There was an anchor on deck which they attached to the remaining rode and tossed it over the side and at least securing the boat in the short term. The attitude of the marina manager, coupled with meeting him yesterday, reminded me of why I hate “cruisers” who travel from one marina to another and seem incapable of living without the yellow umbilicus of a shore cord. I’m supposed to be having lunch with the owners of the marina and though they are long time friends of my friend Frank, it remains to be seen how I’ll like them.

One the other hand, when I finally met Jim, he turned out to be the kind of person I could really relate to. He’s been in the Bocas are for 10 years. Before it became the “in” place with the backpacker crowd and touristas. He and his family live about a half hour boat ride away only coming in to deal with Bocas Town when absolutely necessary. I enjoyed my meeting with him very much. What he had to say about the area in general has given me pause to think of altering my view of whether the area might not deserve a second and longer look, especially if there are more people around here like himself. And the area is beautiful without a doubt. Quien Sabe?


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David to Bocas del Toro

I used to have a list of the three prettiest places I’ve visited. After today I either have to make it the four prettiest places or knock one off the list.

In no particular order, the first list was:

  • The haute cornice from Villefranche, France, west to Nice.
  • The beach south of Quepos, Costa Rica where I stood and as far as I could see to the north and south there wasn’t a footprint in the sand.
  • The gorge into the Rio Dulce, Guatemala.

On Friday I got to the bus station in David just a few minutes before nine and got on the bus which departed exactly at the stroke of nine. Within a half hour we started to climb into the mountains. We climbed and climbed and the views were absolutely spectacular. Breathtaking. We were crossing the Continental Divide and at the top of our climb we were actually looking down on some clouds. You had to yawn to clear your ears from the altitude like you do when you’re taking off in a plane.

About two thirds of the way up the driver pulled over to a small, purple-painted house, kissed the girl who came out on the front porch and left his back pack with her. I sort of assume that it was his house and the view he had was a million dollar view.

There weren’t many people on the bus making the ascent. Seven of us to be exact, not counting the second driver and the conductor. All but the smallest busses in Panama have a conductor. He takes care of luggage and collects the fares when people leave.

Several months ago there were torrential rains in Chiriqui Province, especially up in the mountains causing several deaths and sweeping homes into the rivers. There are half a dozen places along the route that had been wiped out and only a single lane existed. In a couple of places it was just barely a single lane and one little slip up and we would have fallen at least a couple of hundred feet.

Unfortunately some snag downloading the pictures in the mountains but will be going back on Tuesday and try again.

On the down slope we started to pick up additional passengers who would ride for a few miles and students here and there. They came out of homes that, if you called them “shacks” you were being generous, but the kids were always clean in their white shirts/blouses and dark blue pants and skirts. All of them Indians.

These shacks are raised off the ground four to six feet. The siding is planks of wood and most often there are gaps between the planks. I’m sure that when it rains, and it rains a lot here, wind would drive it right through the sides of these people’s homes. They aren’t tight fitting. Roofs are most likely to be palm thatched and my guess would be that while rain comes through the sides of these people’s homes very little of it comes through the roofing. Occasionally you see one thatched with banana leaves or tin. Windows are simply spaces cut into the sides of the houses, or framed out and planked around the openings. The better “quality” shack might have shutters that can be closed at night. None of them have glass in the windows. I caught some pictures on the fly out the window of the bus but had to be circumspect because I’m sure the people don’t want gringo touristas snapping pictures. Sometimes there are small, I would presume nameless, villages of these shacks. The majority of these shacks are probably ten or twelve feet square though some of them are quite large. Maybe 25 by 10.



Got dropped off in Almirante and picked up the water taxi out to Bocas Town. Naturally I used my Pensionado discount. It’s a twenty minute boat ride on a fast boat. Staying at the Dos Palmas Hotel. Run by a black lady. Speaks English. Very pleasant place. Built out over the water as so many are. Look down the shower drain and it’s direct overboard discharge. I don’t think the toilet is, though. Almost all of the “facilities” in Almirante are simply outhouses built over the water.

The area itself is beautiful, but I’m not impressed with Bocas Town itself. Someone had told me, or I had read that it was very similar to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye in Belize, a place I detested. I stayed there exactly one night before pulling anchor and dropping down to Caye Caulker which was a cool place.

This is the view from the back porch at Dos Palmas:



A not untypical house in Bocas Town


But there are some places with a view


Main drag in Bocas Town Saturday Morning 10:30 a.m.


Concrete “pumping” Bocas Style


But my hotel is cool


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A look around David

Went down town this morning to look around at what David has to offer. I took a $2 cab ride to the bus terminal first to see where I would need to go to catch the bus to Almirante where you have to go to catch the water taxi out to Bocas del Toro. It’s on an island, you know.The terminal is a pretty good sized place and I thought it would be best to be prepared after having spent two hours in the wrong spot in Santiago my last trip.

I walked around the down town area for about an hour. David is the second (or third depending on which link you click on) city in Panama. Downtown is a bustling place crammed with small shops and large, too, for that matter. On the outskirts of downtown there is a KFC (gasp, choke), a Pizza Hut (I just threw up in my mouth a little bit), a TGI Fridays, a Do It Center (the Panamanian equivilant of Home Depot) and other larger chain stores.

But there’s only so much you can see on foot, so I decided to spend $10 on a taxi to drive me around. I figured an hour would be sufficient to give me a taste of the place and would stretch the limits of my Spanish knowledge if the driver didn’t speak any English. He didn’t.

I was semi in luck.  I asked how much he would charge for an hour of his time. If he said less than $10 I’d be a winner, but that’s exactly how much he said. Since I had decided before hand that that was an acceptable amount, if he thought he got one over on the gringo by asking for ten, then so much the better for both of us.

He drove me all around the downtown area which was a lot larger than I had thought walking around on foot and then we went a bit further afield through nearby neighborhoods and I got to see what the housing was like. Most of what he showed me was middle class, smaller homes that he said could be rented, when they were available, for around $150 to $200 a month. Quite similar to what equivilant housing goes for aroung Chitre and Los Santos.

I only took a couple of pictures downtown.

The fountain in the central park:IMG_0584

Tobacco for sale in the streetStreet Tobacco

There were eight or ten people on one side street selling this tobacco. Each bundle weighs about a half pound and the guy selling this quoted $4 a pound. Since I wasn’t in the market, and didn’t ask any of the other vendors I suspect that was probably a gringo price.

After wandering a bit more and getting a cheap lunch I hailed another cab to bring me back to the hostel. The driver was a young guy who spoke fairly good English. He had lived for about six months in Miami and for three months in Minnesota, working on a dairy farm. “Why,” I asked, “did you want to live in Minnesota?”

“I wanted to see what snow was like. Now I have and I don’t need to see it any more. It got down to 25 degrees below zero one morning. It took me about six months to thaw out when I got back home,” he said.

Across the street from the hostel where I’m staying was this old house. I thought the construction was interesting. It wasn’t typical of the houses in the area which are all modern but I suspect this is what they all looked like years ago:


I also find the flowers and trees down here quite fascinating, too. This is right in front of the hostel. Greg, the owner of the hostel says that all the branches are cut down each year at the end of the rainy season and then they spring back again when the rains start back. Unfortunately he doesn’t know what this tree is called.IMG_0587

Tomorrow I head to Bocas.

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