Monthly Archives: April 2011

Two Nights – No Lights

We’re just starting the rainy season here. A little rain each day after weeks of none at all. And yesterday we had our first real drenching downpour in a long time.

Wednesday morning started wet and dreary. Rain and then fog. I usually meet with a group of gringos who get together on Wednesday mornings to practice speaking Spanish with each other, but with the fog cutting visibility down to about a hundred yards at 8:30 I wasn’t about to risk the bus ride down the mountain. Bummed me out because I would be missing my third session in a row. However things cleared up around 10 and I went down to David to do some grocery shopping.

When I got back to the house around 3:30 it was raining pretty heavily and there was no power at the house. This isn’t too unusual around here when it’s raining so I gave it little thought. But as afternoon turned to dusk and still no lights I began to worry and then when I saw lights in the houses below and above me I was a little peeved. Fortunately I have a couple of lanterns and the stove uses gas so I was able to eat. Of course there was no internet connection and I get testy when I can’t get online at will. I like to read and there are some books here at the house I’ve never read so I wasn’t at a complete loss for something to do and I ripped through The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. It’s about seven prisoners who escaped from a Siberian camp in the Soviet Gulag just at the beginning of the Second World War. They walked from the camp near the Arctic Circle to India. They walked  across the Gobi Desert. Eventually four of them made it to India.

In the morning I went to the home of Feli and Alba, my nearest neighbors and asked if they’d had lights the night before. Alba said they had and then went into the house and returned with my light bill in her hand and an attitude of “oh, here.” The bill was 30 days past due and the power had been shut off. Now here in Panama the bill is hand delivered since there is no mail delivery. There are no real addresses, either. My electric bill in Boqueron had an address of “the two-story house near the health clinic.” (You’ve got to love that.) Here in Potrerillos the bill is given to Feli who then passes it on to me, but right now he’s working off in the mountains planting tomatoes and Alba…well, who knows.

Anyway, I hightailed it down to Dolega where I paid the $48.36 due and a reconnection fee of $10.99. The woman at the Union Fenosa branch office said the electricity should be on by the time I returned home. Well, it wasn’t. I called the company around 1:30 in the afternoon and they said it should be turned on by 3:30. It wasn’t. I called again at 4:00 and was assured I’d have power soon. Then came our downpour for the next couple of hours. I called again at a quarter to six and was told the man who reconnects the power doesn’t work after six.

So, another night without lights. I listened to Bryce Courtney’s Brother Fish on my iPod until the battery died and then ripped through The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby before turning in for the night.

Now, I’m getting a little worried because everything in the freezer is starting to thaw out. Not a good situation because there’s a lot of food there and I sure can’t eat it all before it goes bad.

This morning, at 9:30 the power got turned on again. Whew. Most of the stuff in the freezer is a bit soft but we’ll just see how things develop.

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Tomorrow Starts Year Two

According to the stamp in my passport I arrived in Panama on April 29, 2010 so tomorrow will be the first day of year two. If you’ve been following this blog you’ll see I have been enjoying my adopted country.

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Panama’s Latest Road Hazard

Well, today, just before noon I completed the Panamanian Driver’s License saga.

I arrived at the license bureau in David at about a quarter to 10 to stand at the end of a long line. On a previous visit I’d asked the guard at the door if there was a day or time that was better than others. He said there wasn’t. You just had to take your chances.

The line actually moved quite rapidly, my papers were all in order and accepted and then I simply had to wait to be called. That took about an hour and a half. Quick photo followed by an eye test and immediately afterwards a hearing test. Go pay $40 and wait again for about 20 minutes and there it was. In living color with an absolutely horrid photo but done and done. I’m now eligible to take part in the demolition derby known as Panamanian traffic.

To be honest, the Florida DMV could take lessons from the office here in David. They were courteous and efficient and a lot easier to deal with.


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Panamá Wrap Up

I finished my trip to Panamá shortly after six p.m. last night when I unlocked the door to the house on the side of the mountain. I accomplished everything I wanted to do in a whirlwind of activity.

Sunday took the bus to the city and checked in to La Jungla House Hostel at the edge of the El Cangrejo (The Crab)  neighborhood which is where I have always stayed when in The City. It’s full of good restaurants and it’s probably one of the safest areas there, too. I can’t find a home page for the hostel but just Googling it will bring up dozens of hostel booking sites where you can check it out for yourself.

Hostels aren’t hotels and you have to accept that by hotel standards hostels are generally dumps. However hostels have some advantages over hotels which is why I prefer to stay in them. They are generally less expensive than hotels, especially if you’re willing to take a bed in one of the dorm-type rooms which I’m not. Dorm room = $10 Private Room $28. But I had A/C and a ceiling fan. The bed was comfortable and being at the back of the facility it was quiet.

Downside: shared bathroom. It was very clean but only cold water shower and sometimes when you REALLY gotta GO, someone else is using the place so you search for one of the other bathrooms which might be empty.

La Jungla is on the sixth floor (5th by their reckoning) and on Monday afternoon and evening the elevator was out of order. HUGE bummer!

They have a big kitchen and a lot of the really budget guests cooked their meals there. They have a GREAT, FREE, pancake breakfast. A local girl comes in and cooks them for everyone between 7:30 and 8:30. There is also a cooler where you can purchase a variety of cold drinks, sodas, Gatorade, beer, at reasonable prices or you can go to one of the “super minis” nearby and keep your stuff in the refrigerator.

What I like most about hostels is meeting the other guests. In a hotel you get your room, and unless there’s a bar/lounge in the hotel you never get to meet anyone else, and I’m not a bar/lounge habitue anyway. At La Jungla there were people from all over the world, but only one other old fart like myself. Here’s the lineup of guests I met there. They came from Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Australia, England, Wales, Sweden, Holland, Canada and a couple of other gringos who were in PC studying Spanish. The Canadian had ridden a bicycle from the US/Mexico border all the way to PC. He had 25 flat tires on his journey.

I got the the bus terminal Wednesday morning a little before 8 a.m. to find the line to the ticket counter for David stretching, no exaggeration, more than a city block long. It took an hour and twenty five minutes to get up to the counter to buy my ticket. I was absolutely positive that with all the people in line I wouldn’t get on a bus that would be leaving before the middle of the afternoon but was pleasantly pleased to be leaving on a bus only an hour later. One thing to remember on these nice, shiny new buses is that they are air conditioned and they love to crank it up full blast. Knowing this from previous trips I always carry a small travel blanket and it saved me yesterday.

We pulled into David at ten to five. The bus for Potrerillos Arriba leaves the terminal on the hour and there’s only one each hour. Fortunately my bag was one of the first unloaded and I was able to scramble up to my local bus gate and get on board about three minutes before it took off and I arrived back home at just after six o’clock, tired but satisfied with my little trip.

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Paperwork Done

The first steps towards acquiring my Panamanian driver’s license was accomplished yesterday.

First stop was to the New American Embassy, out in Clayton in the old Canal Zone. Unlike the old Embassy which was an attractive building in downtown Panama City Bay facing the bay, the new one reflects today’s realities of mad bombers and terrorists. To my eye it had a bunker-like appearance with more in common with a super-max prison than anything else.

What surprised me was that there were no marines on guard at the entrance where you check in but instead it was a private Panamanian security company with people of limited English fluency.

Inside the Consular Services section people waited patiently for their numbers to be called and a loudspeaker was in constant operation directing people to one of 14 windows to address whatever business they had at the Embassy. It was surprising how fast people were dealt with.

To get the affidavit I needed to get my driver’s license I was directed right to the 15th window. The girl checked my current Florida driver’s license for the expiration date and my Panamanian-issue “carnet.” While I was filling out the form an American woman took her place at the window with a stack of papers at least two inches high. Something to do with the sale of a house or property somewhere. The girl behind the bullet-proof glass went through each page and putting little Post-it tabs on each one that required a signature. I had to wait patiently while all this going on. Her fee was $300.

When I got my shot again I had to pay $51 for the affidavit to be notarized. But the girl didn’t do that, she took my money and said I would be called by name to window 13 which didn’t seem too auspicious to me. There was a man and a woman at the window when I took my seat nearby. He was an older gringo and she was a young Panamanian. They were married and there was some issue with paperwork they were having a problem with. I couldn’t follow what was going on too well, but I believe it had something to do with getting her a visa to live in the States. It went on and on and on and on with the gringo digressing into stories that seemed to have little to do with the problem that needed to be addressed.

I was next up, was given the affidavit  which I signed and in less than a minute I was done. All together I was there for less than an hour.

The next stop was the Panama Foreign Ministry office (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores). I had about a 10 minute wait before my number was called. The girl at the counter (NO bullet-proof glass) glanced at the papers, gave me some kind of a form, told me to go to the Banco National directly beneath their offices and purchase two $1 stamps (timbres) and return at 4:30 to pick up my affidavit.

One of the nice thing about Panamanian banks is there’s a special line for “Jubilados” like myself.  There was a man at the counter who left in less than a minute. I presented the forms I’d received upstairs which were stamped with a rubber stamp. They love those things here and the wielders bang them on the papers with as much force as they can muster. I was out of the bank in less than five minutes.  It was just past 10 in the morning so I returned to the hostel.

The Foreign Ministry Office official closing time is listed as 4:45 so I showed up a little after 4. There was only one other customer there so I went directly up to the counter, presented the rubber-stamped forms to a young man who came out with the Embassy affidavit. I attached the “timbres” to the back of the form which were then whapped with another rubber stamp and I was finished. Total time at the Ministry was no more than five minutes and I was back out on the street. It took me much longer than that to catch a cab bck to the hostel.

In the cab I looked at the form that had been attached to the affidavit. Essentially it said something like “yeah, this looks like it comes from the U.S. Embassy but we aren’t going to vouch for its authenticity.”

So now I have  free day in Panama City. I just returned from lunch with Omar and his wife. He took me to the nearby Popeye’s Fried Chicken place nearby (at my request) and after work hours today I’ll be meeting with my lawyer, Lizi, for drinks. Early tomorrow morning I’ll get on the bus and head back to the mountain. I should be home before it gets dark.

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Made it to Panamá

Well, I made it to Panamá without any problems. Here they don’t say Panama City. It’s  Panamá . Actually things worked out pretty well. I caught the 8 a.m. bus down to David and there was no line at the ticket window to speak of. I was the third person. The price of the ride, after using the Jubilado discount was $10.60. The last time I did it the cost was $8.80. The cost of diesel is just a whisker under $4 so it’s not a surprise that the price of everything is going up.

I got into the city at 4 in the afternoon and, as you have to, I asked the driver how much it would cost to get to the hostel. He said $5 and my response, in Spanish, of course, was “how much would it be for a Panamanian?” He said “four” I said “three” and the deal was done. It was two bucks last year but the price of regular unleaded is now $4.18/gal so the extra buck was reasonable.

I’m staying at a hostel called La Jungla (The Jungle) not far from where I used to stay but that one closed down.  This isn’t too bad and I’ve got a private room with a/c.

Tomorrow I go to the U.S. embassy to get my U.S. driver’s license authenticated and then to the Panamanian Foreign  Ministry office. If my luck holds I can get it all done tomorrow and I should be able to wrap it up Tuesday and head back to the mountain Wednesday.

I hope to meet with my lawyer Lizi and a fellow blogger, Omar who hosts

Wish me luck tomorrow.

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Off To Panamá

I’m writing this on Saturday but posting it Sunday morning because I have a long day of bus rides ahead of me Sunday. I have to go to Panamá to do the paperwork necessary to get a Panamanian driver’s license. That shuffle means a trip to the American Embassy and another to the Panamanian Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores.

For those of you who have never been here Panama City is simply referred to as Panamá by the natives and the word “City” is rarely used when referring to the capitol.

I’ll keep you all updated on what the ordeal is like.

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Another One Bites The Dust

In the last month I’ve encountered three people (that includes a couple) who are packing up and returning to the Great White North. Their stories illustrate some of the common things that happen to people whose retirement dreams turn sour.

The three came to Panama and settled in Boquete on the other side of the valley from Potrerillos Arriba. In the last couple of years Boquete has been heavily promoted as being one of the premier spots for people to retire to when the wish to retire outside of the United States. It’s a place that was described by a sixth grader at a school in David as “Gringolandia.”  There are a lot of expats who have settled in and around Boquete many of them in gated “communities” where they are insulated from the reality of Panama and way too many of them don’t learn Spanish and are often an embarrassment when I see them in the local stores pissed off that the locals haven’t learned English so the expat’s lives would be easier. They’ve been taken in by the misinformation publications and sites like “International Living” who say “many of the locals speak English. NO THEY DON’T! Nor should they. The language here is Spanish and YOU should learn THEIR language, not the other way around.

Dealing with the language for the monoglots who only operate in English is one of the biggest reasons so many people leave. Of the three people mentioned earlier not learning to speak Spanish played a great part in their decision to return north of the border. I talked to the single man who was leaving. He is doing it for health reasons which is a valid excuse but part of his problem is he “can’t find a doctor, here, who speaks English.” Well, MY doctor here speaks near-perfect English. Also this gentleman is from Mississippi and his accent is so thick you can, as they say, cut it with a knife. Now, not to put down anyone from the great state of Mississippi, I had a problem understanding his speech and I’ve been speaking English since I was able to speak at all. He said he’d tried to learn Spanish but he was too old, which is another weak excuse although I’m sure that with his accent no Panamanian would have been able to understand his Spanish anyway.

The couple fall into the biggest category of quitters. Though they say they did all their “due diligence” before committing themselves to living here I think they deluded themselves. They read all the propaganda about how this is a paradise. They came down, looked around, found “Gringolandia” and bought a house. Then, not speaking the language, they became disenchanted and when “culture shock” landed on them with both feet they succumbed and are selling their house at a loss. Besides not learning to speak the language they didn’t do one of the most important things of all which is to have come down here and rented a place for at least six months to see if they could actually make the transition.

Not everyone can, nor should they, pack up their old way of life and move to a different country where the customs and language are so different. It takes a special kind of person to pull it off. It take a commitment that most people don’t possess. Of all my friends, relatives and acquaintances in the States I only know ONE who could pull it off and that’s because he has at various times in his life. Because of circumstances beyond his control he’s living in the States now, but in the past Bill’s lived for at least six years in France, three or four in Spain and spent, literally, years in Mexico and Guatemala. He speaks both French and Spanish. He’s a few years away from retirement age but it wouldn’t surprise me that when he hits the magic number he’ll drift south of the Rio Grande and be successful at it.

The big hurdle for everyone who leaves their comfort zone in the States is, of course, culture shock. It WILL hit you. Just how long that will take before it hits varies from person to person but it is inevitable. Your success depends on how you cope with it and whether you can work your way through it or not. It hit me in France at about the six month mark and that’s about when it gets most people. I really wanted to leave, but I’d committed myself to doing a job and so I stuck it out and am glad I did. In fact, I was hit twice with culture shock. When I returned to the States after being abroad for nearly four years again at about the six month mark I wanted to clear out and thought seriously about returning to France. I didn’t, of course, but the determination to leave the States stayed with me until I could actually get things together and do it. I haven’t had a problem with culture shock here in Panama and I don’t think I will, having gone through it twice I know how to roll with the flow now and deal with things as they are.

It isn’t just moving to another country that can be a problem for people in their retirement years. Want a great deal on a nice sailboat? Go to places like the Virgin Islands, the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and other “destination” ports. There are plenty of boats there that are owned by people who dreamed of sailing around the world, bought a boat, sold everything and took off only to abandon their dream at their first distant port of call. Reality bit them in the pooper and they discovered that the “cruising life” is little more than repairing broken gear in exotic locations without the proper tools or the skills to actually do the job. Usually, though not always, it’s the woman who gives up first. I remember one woman in Guatemala who was forcing the end of the adventure because she couldn’t cope with the lack of shopping malls and places to get her nails done. I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Of course I think that’s stupid, but for her it was a valid reason for going back and who am I to ridicule her reasons. There hers and not mine.

I feel sorry for those people whose dreams lie ship wrecked on the bleak shores of reality but that’s how life goes sometimes.

Things are changing here in Panama recently. The 29th of this month will mark my first anniversary. The seasons are changing. After a long dry spell we’re starting to get rain on a nearly daily basis now. Not the drenching frog-choking gully washers of last year, but a couple of hours of the wet every day. Gas prices are over $4/gallon now which is driving up the cost of transportation and as a result food prices are rising and it’s hard for the ordinary Panamanian. Yesterday I took the bus down the mountain to do some grocery shopping. What used to cost 90¢ for the one-way trip is now $1.05.


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The Power Of Words

I may be getting soft in my dotage but this brought a tear to my eye…

Thanks to my good friend Frank Hilson for sending it to me.


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An Arrrrrgh! Moment

And that’s not pirate talk.

This morning, as every morning, I got up and fumbled around in the kitchen. Ground my Finca de Ruiz Tuesta Italiano beans to brew my morning eye-opener. Add water to the bottom part of the mocha pot, grounds in the funnel and set on the burner. The stove is gas and has an automatic lighting function. Click, click, clickclickclickclickclick. Nothing. Zero! Zip! Nada! Rien!

Minor irritation because I’m not caffeinated yet, and there are two 100 pound tanks out in the shed (it’s called a “deposito” here. I like that word. A place where you “deposit” the detritus of your life.)

So, I go out, switch from one tank to the other. Back at the stove…Click, click, clickclickclickclickclick. Nothing. Zero! Zip! Nada! Rien! Again!

Now THAT’S an Arrrrrgh moment.

It’s only 6:20 a.m. so it’s too early to call the gas people, but thank goodness there’s a microwave and a French Press and at least the electricity is working so I was able to get that first cup of coffee.

An hour later I called Tropigas and made arrangements to get the tanks changed. While I enjoy talking to the locals in Spanish I HATE talking on the phone. You don’t get the body language signs that you do when talking to someone face-to-face and waving your hands around in the air has absolutely NO IMPACT when you’re talking on the  phone.

Anyway, we got things worked out and supposedly Señor Kenny will be here around 2:30 this afternoon. I didn’t ask if that was ACTUAL time or PANAMANIAN time. Those are two entirely different things. We’ll see.


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