Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Joy of Bilingualism

When one moves to another country where the language isn’t your own native tongue I really believe it is incumbent on you to learn the new one. Of course there are lots of people who expatriate themselves and seek out others of their own kind so that they can go on about their lives in their mother tongue. In the States, Hialeah, Florida, has the second highest percentage of Cuban and Cuban American residents of any city in the country, and I’d bet it would be safe to say that a large percentage of them don’t speak English, either.

Here in Chiriquí Province, up in the highlands around the town of Boquete, there is a similar phenomena taking place. Several thousand Anglophones have chosen the area as a place to retire , and many of them, for many different reasons don’t make much of an effort to learn Spanish. The excuses are numerous: “I’m too old to learn a new language,” “It’s too hard,” etc., etc.

There are several Spanish instruction schools in the area and some people are quite dedicated to learning the language of their adopted country. Like the couple I met recently at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

I haven’t attended any of the schools for various reasons, one being there isn’t one in easy proximity to where I live. The closest would be about a four hour round trip bus ride which I’m not willing to subject myself to. So I’ve studied on my own with a couple of good books and I never leave the house without my plastic-covered pocket Spanish/English dictionary.

I know I’m a long, long way from being fluent in Spanish. I probably never will be fluent and that really doesn’t bother me. All I’m aiming for is to be proficient in the language, and I think I’m doing pretty well. I talk with all my neighbors, none of whom speak English, and when I go shopping or have to deal with people at the utility companies or other places I do it in Spanish and the people all tell me I speak quite well. Flatterers.

But, I bumble ahead making horrible grammatical errors, confusing verb tenses and committing other linguistic offenses. I’ve also had some really great conversations with locals where we’ve passed my dictionary back and forth when I’m stuck for a word or don’t understand one they’re trying to relate to me.

I think one of the biggest mistakes newly-arrived expats make is buying a car. Cars insulate you from the rest of the world. You leave the sanctuary of your home and encapsulate yourself in your car to get from one place to another and never have to interact with those around you. Me? I don’t have a car and take public transportation everywhere. Much of the time I tune out the world by plugging into my iPod and listen to a book from But I also spend quite a bit of time talking to my fellow passengers. Many times I’ve had young people approach me and ask me if they can practice their English. I like that though I have to say I usually feel strange talking to Panamanians in English, but if they ask I help.

The other day I needed to go to a specialty store at the Plaza Terronal  in David. The Plaza is very modern and not unlike what you’d find in the States. There’s an El Rey supermarket, easily equivalent to stateside markets. There are department stores there. Conway is the Panamanian outlet for Target. There are several appliance stores, a Do It Center which is like Home Depot and there is even a Subway sandwich shop where I get what I call my “gringo fix.”

To get to Terronal I have to take two buses. The first from my home to the bus terminal (60 cents with the “old fart’s discount) and then I get on the bus bound for Dolega. One of those leave the terminal every 10 minutes. It’s a 35 cent ride to the Plaza and takes about 10 or 15 minutes. No discount.

I took a seat on the left side of the bus just opposite the door. I was soon joined by a thin man, about my age, with a cane and a couple of plastic bags. We nodded “hello” to each other but I was plugged into a good book. The ear plugs didn’t dissuade him. He asked if I was listening to the radio.

I detached myself from the audio book and reentered the world to explain that I was listening to someone reading a book to me and how hard it was trying to find English language books here in Spanish-speaking Panama.

“Ahh,” he said, nodding.

“Where are you from?” he asked in Spanish.

I gave him my usual, disarming, “Soy gringo,” (I’m a gringo) reply.

A broad smile broke across his heavily lined, cinnamon-colored, bearded face. “Norte Americano,” he said.

“No, gringo,” I replied. “No tengo una problema con la palabra ‘gringo.’ Canadians are norte americanos, too,” I said.

He nodded. “And not everyone knows that Mexico is part of North America,” He said. “They think it’s part of Central America, but it’s not.”

He asked me where I was from in the States and then he said he was from Colombia. Medellin.

“It’s dangerous there,” I said.

“Very,” he replied.

“You have some cocaine in that bag?” I asked.

Again a broad smile creased his weathered face.

“No. I don’t like cocaine, but I do like ‘yerba.’” (Grass)

I smiled this time. “I’ve smoked a lot of your country in my time,” I said.

We exchanged smiles.

He said he had family living in the States and that two of his sons worked as contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Now that’s dangerous,” I said.

“Worse than Medellin,” he said. “I fear for them.”

We came to the stop for the Plaza and I told him, “Pase un buen día, señor.” (Have a nice day.)

“Iqualmente,” (you, too) he replied.

As I was stepping off the bus, I heard him say, in heavily accented English, “God bless you.” And then the doors closed and the bus departed.


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Living In The Nature Channel

Sometimes life in Panama is like being a part of The Nature Channel. Like when you catch sight of a stunningly colorful bird flitting through the foliage in your yard, or when you see something like this:

There are several destructive insects we have to deal with here. One is a very large, black and yellow grasshopper that eats about any kind of leaf around and I often find a bunch of them happily feasting away on the foliage in the yard. I’ve found an insecticide called Dos Tigres (Two Tigers) that knocks them out almost instantly. The leaf cutter ants are exceptionally destructive, especially to citrus trees and can strip them bare in a matter of days. This is a problem for me since there are three citrus trees in my yard including a very productive lime tree. I harvest the limes nearly daily and they make a wonderfully refreshing drink.

Recently these ants have been attacking two of my trees. I sprayed their paths and nests with the Dos Tigres and within a couple of hours all activity had ceased, and there’s been no indication of their return. Parts of the trees that had been stripped of leaves are now showing new shoots. But I’m not so naïve as to believe new colonies won’t take hold. Eternal vigilance is the key.


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Feathered Friends

Panama is said to be home to more bird species than anywhere else in the world because it sits between the two American continents. I’ve seen some wonderful birds in the last four years. My mom’s brother was a real dedicated birder. Kept logs of the species he spotted and everything. Today I saw this bird out on the lime tree in the back yard and thought how much Uncle Howard would have loved this place.



It’s a Passserini’s Tanager.


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Just Saying…


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August 11, 2013 · 3:44 pm

Belated Birthday Present

My regular readers know I’m a big fan of Over the years I’ve downloaded dozens of great books to my iPod. Recently I bought several books written by my old friend, Paul Kemprecos. Paul and I worked together at the Cape Cod Standard-Times (now simply the Standard Times) back in 1964. Paul kept on as a journalist long after I returned to college and pursued other dead-end avenues of employment.

Paul created a detective series featuring a character named Aristotle “Soc” Socarides, a Cape Cod character. I read a couple of those early “Soc” books, in one of which he drops in on my family’s restaurant, Philbrick’s Snack Shack, for our famous onion rings and fried clams. Paul also co-authored several books with Clive Cussler known as the NUMA Files.

The problem I had with these books is that while I was able to download them to my iTunes folder on my computer they would not download onto my iPod. I called Audible’s help line and talked to three different reps with suspiciously foreign accents who each gave conflicting ways to correct the problem. None of them worked which is why I made three calls. My iPod is nearly 10 years old, and while it works fine with what has already been loaded on to it I really wanted to hear Paul’s books on my bus trips into David and over to Bugaba.

Fiddling around trying to get my new purchases onto the iPod I noticed when I went to the audible book section there were several lines across the screen that I’d never seen before. A fourth call to Audible was no help, so yesterday I bit the bullet and bought an iPod Nano. I’m calling it my belated birthday present since I didn’t buy anything special for myself this year. Last year I shelled out over $2,500 for a motorcycle and kit which should have been enough to serve for a couple of years. The Nano is a fraction of the size of the original iPod.


Of course it only has about half the capacity of the original and it costs less than half of what a new, large iPod does, but it also does a couple of things the original doesn’t. For instance it has an FM receiver so you can listen to live radio broadcasts. I plugged it into my computer when I got home and the new books downloaded seamlessly into the Nano.

Large or small, these things are a monument to cyber technology. I mean you can download operas and fantastic orchestral programs onto one of these things and then, using just zeros and ones they will send them directly to your brain in high-quality sound. How? Who knows? It’s sort of like flipping a light switch in your house and having the bulb brighten a room. You don’t need to know HOW it happens, just be happy that it does.


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