Monthly Archives: September 2010

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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What’s In A Name?

I have a Facebook page even though I rarely go to the site. For a whole lot of reasons it irritates me, but sometimes surprises come through it. Yesterday I got a “friend” request from someone I haven’t seen or had contact with for more than 40 years. We knew each other when we were going to a small college in northeastern Missouri. She was married to one of my friends and was matron of honor at my wedding.

I granted the request and then sent her an email so I could add her to my address book. She emailed back with the salutation of “Dick” which is the name she knew me by back then. I can date people I know by what they call me. My family, of course, called me Dick and so did everyone I knew until 1980. That’s when I got the job skippering a large Hatteras motoryacht in New Orleans.

For whatever reasons the owners of the boat didn’t like the moniker “Dick” so I became “Captain Richard” and have been known as Richard ever since.

In the mid 1990s a friend and I ran a yacht repair business in Fort Lauderdale and did the repair work for the country’s largest boat repossession company. People coming to check out the repo inventory often wanted to borrow tools, and, of course, we couldn’t allow them to wander off with what we needed to do our jobs so we assembled a 5 gallon bucket in which we placed worn out and discarded tools. Anyone was welcome to use them.

There was one particular repo client who, because he bought so many of the boats, thought that he stood in a somewhat exalted status and would come in and borrow stuff from our personal tool boxes. His name was Dick. In spite of repeatedly telling him to keep out of our personal gear he constantly ignored our admonitions.

One day I caught him trying to walk off with one of our good tools and I told him to put it back and that he was no longer allowed to even enter our shop ever again. Our exchange became rather heated and his wife, who was often with him, said, “Come on, Dick, let’s go.”

“Dick,” I said, “what an appropriate name. You know, I was a Dick to my family. I was a Dick all through high school and college. I was a Dick in my early working career, and I was a Dick to nearly everyone I met and I often regret having been such a dick to so many people. Then I became a Richard and it changed me.  But YOU, you’ll be a DICK UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE!”

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Solving Problems From A Distance

Just before leaving the States I sold my car to my roommate of five years. The amazing thing is in all that time we never had an argument. Yesterday, however, we had our first. I was really pissed off. Here’s why:

The idiot didn’t transfer the title to his name. He has been working a job in Stuart, Florida the past few months and got caught speeding. Normally not a big deal except for the fact that he doesn’t have a driver’s license. It had been taken from him several years earlier in New York where he comes from. So now the car has been impounded and his excuse for not transferring the title is his lack of a license.

It seems the only way the impound yard will release the car is by my sending them a notarized letter authorizing the car to be released to another friend who DOES have a license.

This wouldn’t be a big deal in the states where it seems that just under the number of lawyers, real estate agents and used car salesmen comes notaries public. I was a notary. Big deal. You send a bonding company $75 bucks and they send you a rubber stamp and a cheesy certificate signed by the governor. Being a notary in a Latin American country is something else, again. It seems to be just one step below being a lawyer. I remember the surprise my immigration lawyer showed when I mentioned that I was a notary in the States.

I designed a letterhead with my Panamanian address and wrote a letter to the impound yard authorizing my friend with the driver’s license to have custody of the car. Then, not having a printer here at the house, I downloaded the letter onto a thumb drive, took the bus down to Dolega where I had it printed out at one of the internet cafes. Not too difficult and only 20 cents. Then I asked where I might find a notary and they directed me to the alcaldía, the mayor’s office. It is only a short walk from the cafe to the alcaldía and in short order and payment of a $5 fee it was done.

Next came another bus ride down to David center to find some kind of international courier service to send the letter as quickly as possible to my miscreant friend. Luckily there was a place called MailPak only about four blocks from the bus terminal that serves as an agent for FedEx, UPS and DHL.

Two very attractive young ladies in their early 20s run the place. I told the girl who greeted me, in Spanish, that I wanted to send a letter to the States as fast as possible. I have no problem expressing such things in proper Spanish but her immediate reaction was to ask me if I spoke English. Of course, I told her, but added that I feel uncomfortable speaking English to Panamanians since Spanish is the language of the country. This didn’t deter her in the least and she insisted that we conduct the transaction in English. I think she wanted the practice and she spoke English quite well. Both of them did.

The least expensive way of sending the letter was with DHL but at the exorbitant price of $42.80 cents. Almost ten bucks cheaper than FedEx. And there’s no such thing as “overnight,” either. Three to five days and the impound lot is charging $25/day to keep the car. So, I forked over the money for the letter and sent it on its way.

With that out of the way I spent another 20 minutes or so talking with the girls in Spanish…MY turn to practice and they complimented me on how well I spoke. Whether they were simply flattering me I don’t know, but aside from having to deal with a problem at a great distance I enjoyed the task.

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A Quick Look At La Concepcion

As I’ve mentioned previously my current position as house sitter here in Potrerillos Arriba ends in November. I have written how I like the small town of Dolega down the hill a ways. But I decided to expand the possible places to move by taking a look at the town of La Concepcion yesterday.

When I first started looking for somewhere to live while I was in the States I’d made contact with someone who lives in Boqueron to the west of David. After some initial correspondence he said he had found someone who wanted the spot. Then, a little while later, he said that person had backed out and had fallen in love with the town of La Concepcion and decided to move there instead. By that time I had found this current gig so Boqueron was out.

I’ll start out with the one good thing I can say about La Concepcion…the buses run there every few minutes and transportation would be much better than it is here near the top of the hill.

I got out early yesterday and at the terminal in David was on a bus to La Concepcion within minutes of my arrival at the terminal. It wound through some city streets so I no know how to get to a couple of places that I’d normally taken cabs to before. A spike in the learning curve.

In short order we were on the Interamerican Highwyay and out in the countryside and it was interesting since I’d never been out in that direction before, headed towards the Costa Rican border. We passed a few dozen small fonda type restaurants and a bunch of auto junk yards on the journey and turned off the road towards downtown La Concepcion.

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression and my first impression of the place was “what a dump.” Trash everywhere. Now David isn’t the cleanest place I’ve ever been. In spite of the copious amounts of rainfall at this time of year there seems to be a “dusty” crust to the commercial area that doesn’t seem to wash away. But there are neighborhoods in David that rival many you’d find in southeast Florida. Nice, well-kept houses in clean neighborhoods. The residents of Dolega take pride in their town. For the most part it is clean. Very little trash is to be seen along the sides of the streets. That’s not to say there aren’t some lots and houses there you wouldn’t want to live next to but for the most part Dolega it seems to be a nice place to put down roots. I like it. La Concepcion, on the other hand. . . well, let me put it like this. . . when I got off the bus at the town center all I wanted to do was FLEE!

Some people would say it’s vibrant. And there’s a lot going on right there in the center. There are small kioskos selling all kinds of goodies. Sort of mini WallMarts. Cheap plastic crap.

There were pickup trucks pulled to the curb selling fresh produce which is a good thing.

And the people enjoy their park. It was filled with people just watching the passing parade. But underlying it all was litter. It was as if the people just didn’t care. On the other hand, in Dolega last week while waiting at the bus stop for my ride back home an Indian family came to wait a short distance away. There was mom in her native costume, a little girl dressed like mom and the husband and son were dressed in jeans and shirts. The kids were maybe four or five and each eating some ice cream in cups. When the little boy finished his he dropped the cup on the ground and was instantly cuffed on the back of the head and made to pick up the cup and take it to the trash can about 50 feet or so away. When the little girl finished her ice cream the little boy took her empty cup and ran to deposit it in the trash. I like that.

But I didn’t get that sort of feeling in La Concepcion. Now, it’s a much bigger and busier place than Dolega by a long shot. Around the square there were at least four banks and two decent-sized super markets which are missing in Dolega. There you have a couple of small markets where you can buy basic staples but nothing approaching supermarket status.

There were furniture, clothing and jewelry stores around the square. Pretty much everything you would want you could get right there without having to go in to David as you would have to if you lived in Dolega. I walked out side of the commercial center for a ways but all I could see was trash. Maybe that’s only my perception of the place but it overwhelmed me and in about an hour I was back on a bus headed back to David.

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Something You Never Think About

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