Tuesday, December 31, 2013

David and Penonomé Photos


The  photos for David (the city) and Penonomé are now uploaded here. Just click a name to be redirected.



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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Read, Swim, Nap


If my pedometer were waterproof, perhaps I would get credit for swimming. This is mainly what we did in Penonomé at the hotel. Our first full day, we did take a taxi to the center of town. It cost a whole dollar for the ride. Downtown is sweet. There is one long string of stores that runs about the length of 7 city blocks, but there are few intersections to really gauge the distance. Although it is Sunday, the stores are teeming with shoppers as if they were doing last minute Christmas shopping. Outside a few stores, there are woman stationed at gift wrapping tables still using the Christmas wrap with snow people, Santa, and Christmas trees, like they have never witnessed here in reality. They truly can only dream of a white Christmas.

At the edge of town, if you follow the business district, a quaint little Catholic Church sits opposite a park. The church has been whitewashed a brilliant white that is so striking, sunglasses are needed to ward off the sun’s reflections. Inside, people are busy being holy. The doors are wide open, so standing room only is extending out the doors. A bishop celebrated the mass; Ron got to shake his hand.

Walking through the park, one cannot help but notice that commercialization has taken over Christmas here as well. A large cone shaped object, representing a Christmas tree consists of enough ornaments with Movil, one of the phone companies to bring home the message. Without Movil, this space would be cheerless. Less than a block away, another tree is decorated with messages from the competing company.

After 2 ½ hours, we covered the territory with the thoroughness of investigative detectives. I wanted an espresso coffee so badly and I mentioned to Ron. This man selling incense on the street, over heard me and offered a suggestion as to where to find it. We looked and walked past the place he was referring to, but he tapped me on the shoulder and personally showed us. It was a coffee kiosk in a computer store. The espresso was Nescafé from a machine. Not exactly what I had in mind, but the helpfulness of the local was wonderful.

We are continually overwhelmed with the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals. They continually go out of their way if they notice we need some assistance with something.

At the end of our meandering, we returned to the hotel to swim, hang out by the pool reading, and just being lazy. It was a feeling that I adapted to rather quickly, which was astounding. What was just as astounding was what we did for dinner.

Because the hotel is set off behind the Iguana Mall, there are few dinner options other than fast food. Last night, we crossed the Pan-American Highway, but I was not willing to venture that again. We agreed on KFC, but once inside, the line predetermined a two hour wait from the looks of things; they were moving slowly. Trying Al Capone was no better, huge line. Finally, Dominos won our business. I am so ashamed.

Panama City 32.71 miles
Boquete and David 26.61 miles

Penonomé  6.3 miles and 4 miles swimming

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

If It's Whatever Day, We Must Be Somewhere


Three cities down: Panama City, Boquete, and David, we still have not found the paradise as described in International Living magazine. All three of them have their merits, but only the capital city is the only one that I would think persuade guests to come visit us. Yet, there the cost of living is far greater than other places offering retirement benefits for US citizens.

David was comfortable if you could get beyond the need for clean pretty streets. People in the smaller cities have been beyond pleasant often greeting us with good day or good afternoon, before we pass each other on the street. Yes, delightful people play heavily in the equation.

Today, we took what we thought would be a 4 hour bus ride to our next stop, Penonomé. Shockingly, the bus was a gorgeous, new Mercedes Benz double-decker. We were assigned at the very back of the bus, which was perfect for legroom. Appointed with beautifully upholstered, thick reclining seats, comfort was not an issue. Drop down screens showed movies, though only in Spanish without subtitles.One movie they showed was from Argentina, called Lotoman 2.0. It looked funny from what I could tell, but the crowds were roaring with laughter. I need to find a copy with subtitles to test if for myself.

When the bus stopped at Santiago, we thought it was just to let off passengers, but it turned out to be a meal break. Everyone had to leave the bus for the 30 minute stopover. Once we boarded again, we were at our destination after another hour. Quite funny was that we were the only two getting off at our stop. The ‘bus station’ sits directly in front of a hospital, but is surrounded by wooden huts where vendors sell everything from chewing gum to women’s personal needs. This sits on a major roadway, so getting a taxi was going to be an issue.

Gratefully, a gentleman who owned one of the stands, came to our rescue. He hailed a cab that actually stopped for us. He told the driver where we wanted to go, so I flung some of my things in the backseat, while Ron climbed in the front. After I positioned myself, I realized there was the most adorable little boy sharing the backseat with me. He smiled after his look of wonder. I doubt he has ever seen a white person before. Refusing to say a word in any language, he did give me the most flirtatious smiles, capturing my heart. When we reached the hotel, I gave him a quarter. It was a true bargain for the smile I received would have been worth much more.

Our hotel sits on the Pan-American Highway. We could tell from the looks that the reception staff gave us that they were not used to seeing white faces at check-in either, but regardless, they were extremely professional. The clue here lies in the fact that their website is in Spanish only without any other language options. With 84 rooms, it is dead quiet. There were a number of well-behaved people at the pool, but enough to dissuade me from venturing in. Situated next to the hotel is a strip mall with a supermarket, a KFC, Domino’s Pizza, Subways, McDonalds, Al Capone Pizza, in addition to clothing stores, a skin care center, municipal offices and assorted other stores. Across the highway are other small stores and two small, non-chain restaurants.

After going to the grocery store to bring some beers back to the room, we decided on going to the ‘Panamanian’ restaurant across the street. As it turned out, it is Panamanian-Chinese. Crossing the Pan-American Highway by avoiding traffic, had a similar feeling to being Pac Man all the while trying to avoid Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde soaring down the highway at German autobahn speeds. All during the dinner, all I could think about was having to cross the highway once again.

Why are we here? What is there to do in this region? Ron hadn’t a clue other than it was part way between David and Panama City. Even TripAdvisor is clueless on what to do here.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Life is a Beach and Then You Fry


Ron wanted to take a day trip to Playa Barqueta. It was supposedly close to David, so why not. Let me list the reasons. I grew up blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. Even when I was a kid, I preferred the pool club to getting sand in every bodily crevice, having a coating of fish water with a side of salt, and playing hide and fry with the sun.

This is where the conundrum comes to play. When I absolutely refuse one of Ron’s schemes, I wonder forever if it were something, I would have loved and missed the experience. Then the alternative is giving in, having a horrid time and needing to write about it endlessly to get it out of my system.

Trying to go with the flow, first I asked Ron why he wanted to go to the beach. When he responded that he wanted to relax, I nearly keeled over. Relax from what? We have been so relaxed most of this trip, I have given him CPR twice so far just to reassure myself there is life after arriving in Panama.
According to Luis at the hostel, there is one bus that leaves at 11 am and one bus that returns at 5:30 pm. The bus ride is one hour, giving us from noon to five and half hours later to do nothing. I am not good at doing nothing, but of course, I can bring my book to read. Luis told us there are cabanas that are rentable for $5 for the day. With this in mind, we thought there would be some hope to this.

In order to get to the bus station, we needed to take a taxi. Then we found that the bus doesn’t come until 1 pm if it was on time. Let me explain that ‘bus’ is a misnomer. They are actually oversized vans that can hold maybe 30 people. There were six people standing in the middle aisle for the first thirty-five minutes. The ride did take the hour promised, but it let us out at an area that looked like the outer make-out area before entering a drive-in movie. On either side are restaurants that look similar to what I remember on boardwalk circa 1960 New Jersey. Getting off the bus, I confirmed with the driver what time he would return. It would not be until 6:30 pm, not 5:30. I thought I misunderstood the Spanish, so repeated it. When he confirmed it, I repeated it again. I just didn’t want it to be so.

Walking onto the beach, we discover the ‘cabanas’. These were not what I would call cabanas under any stretch on the imagination. They were what you would expect near extinct tribes that have not yet been discovered yet, living in. Thatched A-frames sans a front or back. There were no chairs, but there was a wooden bench. That is all that existed in these cabanas. That is all there is on this beach.
Because the sand is from volcanic lava, it is dark in color. I wouldn’t call it black, but rather muddy brown with grey overtones. It is a glorious beach, causing you to excise those thighs getting to the water. Finally, a beach that doesn’t have erosion issues. But wait! The temperature is 90 degrees; the sand is hot enough to make glass without further heating. We have no blanket, towels, or umbrella. It is so hot out, there was no one to siphon $5 off of us for the use of the unfurnished palm tree lean-to poor excuse for a place to rest from the sun. 

After taking turns watching our meager belongings in the shade, for fear they would melt in the heat, the other explored the beach. We sat under one of the restaurants’ cover, but eventually we needed to order food to justify why we wanted to be there for five plus hours. Ron had a fish that arrived with a full grimace, teeth still showing the displeasure at his foolishness over getting caught. I had some pork that once went through a witness protection program, but finally got met its end. There is still no confirmation that this was indeed pork, but we will just let it go so I don’t feel sick.

After asking Ron what time it was so many times, he finally gave me his watch to wear. My watch absolutely refuses to stay in touch with Fort Collins, CO where it is supposed to automatically sync 6 times in a 24 hour day. I tried doing it manually after reading the manual, but still nothing. Strangely, I bought it in Spain; it should like these Spanish speaking syncing sites.

By 4 pm, I was ready to drown a lifeguard, but there were none to be found. By 5 pm, the restaurant next door opened up. Their patio has a clear view of the parking lot where the bus would arrive, so I made Ron move. I asked 35 people what time the bus would return, which was interesting since there were less than 20 people in the area. Some of them did I a second round to see if they would give me an answer I liked better the second time around.

At 6 pm, I was standing in the street ready to throw myself in front on any vehicle that looked like a bus. Three times Ron had to drag me off the gravel; I mistook three vans as the bus. I begged the people climbing out to take us back to David, but they were ready for beach fun, even with the sun setting. When the real bus finally turned up, the driver must have characterized me as a dog happy to see its owner. When I climbed on the bus, the passengers on-board already started to giggle.

We didn’t get back to the bus station until 7:40 pm. There are few bus stops, but the bus will stop whenever hailed by someone on the side of the road.

I set my pedometer to zero when we arrived in Panama City. When we left Panama City, we racked up 32.71 miles. Then resetting it for Boquete and David we added another 26.61 miles. So far the total is 59.32 miles
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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boutique Boquete and Earthy David


Our time in Boquete has ended, so today we took the bus to David, Panama. It is an hour and ten minutes away, but may was well be a different region entirely.
Boquete sits on the most western part of the Chiriquí Province, surrounded by mountains. Costa Rica is 60 km away. The altitude could be difficult for some; it is 1,200 meters (3937.01) above sea level

According to government statistics, there are over 3,000 foreigners permanently living in Boquete representing over 30 different countries, but the vast majority are from the US and Canada. Boquete’s weather forced me into wearing a sweater at times during the day and often in the evening. At times, it was not the temperature, but the wind that created the change of attitude about the altitude. I have checked this off our list of possible places for a future move.

David, Panama is the capital of the province of Chiriquí. It is the 3rd largest city in the country with a population of 144,858 as of the 2013 census. Average high temperatures run from 89 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit with lows ranging from 66 to 71 degrees. There is enough humidity to make the temperatures feel warmer, but not enough to drain your energy like Panama City.

Now this is definitely a cultural thing and probably really a North American thing, but if we lived here, I could not see having guests visit for more than a couple of days at a time. There is not much to do for entertainment. However, Americans like things pristine. I don’t mind seeing torn up sidewalks, holes in the cement, or bags of trash that have broken open and spilled along the sides of the buildings. I really get stimulated from the earthy feeling, but most likely, not many would feel the same way.

Between yesterday and today, we discovered that David has a vibrant downtown area with a tremendous number of shops, restaurants, and kiosks on the sidewalks, but none of these are name brand stores or any that are recognizable from outside the area, I would guess. 

Interesting distinctions!
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Boquete Photos are Posted


The pictures for Panama - Boquete are posted.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Story of Mc Pato


Once upon a time, there was a Panamanian man who wanted a McDonalds franchise. After investigating the possibility, he realized he could not afford a franchise, but he wanted a restaurant so badly, he created his own.

When it was time to name it, he used a series of skewed logic steps to arrive at the name.

1. He liked the Mc of McDonalds

2. Pato means duck in Spanish

3. His favorite cartoon character was Donald Duck.

4. Donald Duck has Donald in it like McDonalds.

5. He named his restaurant McPato.

6. If you still don’t get it, go back to number 1 and start again.
McPato is said to be one of the largest fast food chains in Panama.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cafe Au Lait and Merry Christmas Eve


If you are going to take a morning tour, make it a coffee plantation one. Carlos was waiting for us at 8:50 am making us the first to get seats in the van. We had to shuffle a couple of times as the van exploded with 10 other tourists, but then we were on our way.

The tour lasts a little longer than 3 hours. It start with one of the farms the family owns. They have 12 farms, but each is branded differently to distinguish the beans from each. A coffee plantation has much more than coffee. This one has banana and orange trees intermingled with the coffee trees. Not only does the variety of trees keep the soil filled with nutrients, but it also distracts bugs and birds from the coffee beans. Because coffee has to be handpicked, the trees get pruned about every 5 years to keep them at a manageable height.   

Carlos was a wealth of information that needed to be recorded, not just listened to. The beans go through 11 processes before they are even close to being roasted. Afterward, there are another 5 steps to go through before being bagged for sale. We went to 3 different locations: the farm, the plant where beans are processed, and finally a café for tasting.We learned that the stronger the roast of coffee, the weaker in caffeine the coffee is. French roast and Italian roast have less caffeine than Medium roast. The longer roasting times, take the caffeine out of the bean as the beans burn to make the two latter roasts. Also, they recommend 48 beans per cup of coffee when grinding it yourself.

Nescafe and other companies buy the poorer beans with shells and twigs, grind them up and produce 'instant coffee' out of all of it.

During each part of the drive, Carlos showed us the areas that are now ex-pat gated communities. We had to drive through one to pick up guests from a hotel within it. He told us that during the rainy season, the land erosion caused from clearing the land in order to build this community, led to flooding. Much of the community was under water. He shared that this is happening more often. Developers come in to buy land in extensive quantities and then strip the trees. Without the roots of the trees, there is nothing to hold the earth in place.

We asked what the natives thought about the ex-pat community. He said it all started with International Living magazine, which promoted Boquete as an inexpensive place to live. Now that people are coming in droves, the cost of real estate has been skyrocketing. He repeated what Chichi, our guide yesterday had said. Neither they nor other locals can understand why people need to build ultra-luxury homes when there are so few of them living in them. He has an American acquaintance who has a 6 bedroom/ 6 bathroom house, but lives alone and doesn’t entertain. A Dutch couple built a home that looks like a castle at a cost of one million dollars, but is now trying to sell it for two million.

Locals cannot afford to buy property any longer. Farmers are giving in to proposals for tremendous amounts of cash for their property, so they are selling out. The ex-pat community is trying to create a law where all the stores on the central street have to paint their stores beige with red roofs. The local government is paying for the first painting.  Within the gated communities, there are strict rules to follow. You cannot paint your house any color than the authorized color of the community. Only one dog is allowed and only certain breeds. Guests have to register before using the pool, but even then only with community owners.

With the wealth from outside filtering in, the prices of everything are rising. Locals who do not own property are having to move away from Boquete in order to survive. If they can prove they have absolutely nothing, the government will give them money for a little box house. It was an enlightening tour. The things that come from this that I find so incredible is that these people are leaving their homes to find a cheaper place to live, yet they spend as much or more to recreate what they had back home. This is also the ugly side to immigration.

Well it is Christmas Eve, which within the town is not apparent at all. Unlike the towns and cities in Ecuador last year, it is not very festive here. We walked to the church to check on mass times, but with doors wide open when we went to check, there were no signs, postings, or other hints of information about any masses at all, not even Christmas. Ron questioned a number of people in local stores about Christmas Eve mass with multiple responses reporting it was at 10:30 pm.

By the time we reached the church at 10:15 pm, it was obvious that the mass was over and everyone was leaving in peace. People were pouring out of the aisles, down the stairs and into their cars. Not a soul was heading into the church other than the two of us. Being a non-religious person, I was only there for Ron. He took it in stride, but I could tell there was disappointment there. We went back to the hostel and watched Christmas movies instead. 

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Monday, December 23, 2013

I Failed Hiking 101


Ron booked a tour to the Cloud Forest at $25 each. Had I read the description beforehand, we could have saved $50. The tour was rated ‘easy’. I have learned that is as much of a lie as “_________ is only a ten minute walk from here.” Liars, all of them are liars. This is the great marketing maneuver. It could be the adult version of the nasty children’s trick when they tell you there is a spider on your shoulder. You go crazy trying to find it and brush it off only hear them chant “Made you look!” Regardless of the motivation, it is a lie we continually find ourselves trapped by.

At 8:30 am Chichi, our guide and the owner of the company was outside our door waiting patiently. Chichi, a nickname is a small statured young man who is a 4th generation Boquete resident. We climbed into his four-wheel drive vehicle, which seats one alongside the driver. Other passengers have to sit in the back of the jeep like vehicle. It is not much larger than a golf cart, can only go 40 km an hour maximum, but is a champion on rough roads and flooded out terrain. Ron opted for the back of this whatever we call it, where he was exposed to the elements and only able to see where we have been rather than where we were headed. I sat next to Chichi with no door on my side. During inclement weather, a plastic cover zipped into place to create doors on either side for the driver and passenger. Likewise, the windshield is heavy duty plastic, therefore has no windshield wipers. Needless to say, I used the seatbelt as well as grabbing the handgrip over the ‘door’.

We drove up the mountain for over an hour with Chichi stopping intermittently to point out a flower, tree, bird, or anything he thought may have been of interest. What would have really interested me at that point was having a door and a hot café latte. Everything else was secondary, tertiary or of no interest at all. Of course, the day we do a Cloud Forest Tour, the sky is as clear as newly blown glass. There are no traces of clouds.

Finally, after finishing the drive after the hour and a half mark, Chichi parks in this area covered with twigs, branches, dead leaves and surviving fauna of various species. My heart doesn’t sink until he informs us that he brought walking sticks for the two of us to make it easier. Easier for what, me thinks? We are walking a trail, aren’t we? My mental picture of a trail is basically flat land with maybe a stone or limb of a tree to step over. You need to realize that my idea of ‘hiking’ is climbing from street level up to the curb of the sidewalk. Beyond that, I am calling for mountain gear with no thoughts of ever needing a use for it. The last time I went Hiking with a capital H was in Franz Josef, New Zealand where we hiked to and then over the icebergs. It nearly killed me then and I swore I would never do it again. Once I realized what was involved that time, I nearly killed Ron for even thinking I would enjoy it.

Well, I decided to play this game for a short time. Through the woods, we trekked without any clear path. Crunching down on dead leaves, broken branches, skeletons of dead animals or insects, pushing aside green foliage, walking over rocks, avoiding the slippery moss, and trying to balance while traversing a ledge, reinforced my thinking. This was not my idea of fun no matter how I stretched my imagination. Mind you Chichi had said there was one short piece that was a bit difficult, but the rest was easy. I am secretly taking satisfaction in thinking this is the difficult part, so once this is over the rest will be child’s play. The walking stick kept me from serious injury a multitude of times. Rather than make me feel gratitude for having it, I was feeling resentment that this trail required it.

What I absolutely hate is having to cross bridges. I even avoid gangplanks when I can if they don’t have solid railings. Well, we came across a wooden bridge without rails of any kind. I would have settled for Tarzan’s vines, but there was nothing. Chichi informed us we needed to cross one by one and only after the other person was off the bridge on the other side; the wood was rotting and could not hold much. Crap, and I had a big breakfast today of all days. Add to this the fact that I have had permanent double vision since I was 22 years old. It throws off my sense of balance at times of stress when I am not sure which image to focus on. Even when not stressed, I can be a klutz. We all made it. Light the fireworks, we need to celebrate.

After another 10 minute of this torture, we come to an area that I didn’t notice at first. Chichi stops us to say “Remember the short difficult part I mentioned? This is it. We have to go down this incline and then back up the other side, then down and up one more time. I am now seriously scrutinizing this next challenge. Cripes, this is a 90-degree incline. I would be afraid to do an incline like this if there were an escalator involved. Doing extremely fast calculations in my head, I realize several things. A) If I attempt this, I will be using my travel insurance for my recovery. B) I may never return to flat land once I am down there. C) Eventually, I will be vulture-chow without the benefit of Purina.

I did the only logical thing I could think of, I voted myself off the island. Okay, so we were not on an island, but I voted myself off anyway. Chichi tried to convince me it was not so bad. Ron had enough sense not to weigh in or there would be hell to pay later. Getting down could be easy. You take one false step and roll the rest of the way. It is getting back up again that concerned me. My zodiac sign may be a mountain goat, but my soul is really a prairie dog. I offered multiple times to stay put and let the other two have their fun, but Ron resisted and Chichi was reluctant. I really would have been perfectly fine, but they would not have any of it.

All the while I am thinking of my friends who would have loved this adventure and who would have scoffed at my reluctance. To Ruth and Henry Ferguson I say your faces appeared before my eyes more than once, yet your little voices in my head were still unsuccessful in changing my mind. To Gabor Pál, our massage therapist who loves all of this crazy outdoor stuff, I say to you – good for you, but leave me out of it.

This gave us 40 extra minutes to ride around or stop for a coffee and chat with Chichi. We discussed what locals think about so many ex-pats invading their area. Regardless of what magazines say, the locals are not happy. The invasion has driven up property costs to the point where locals cannot afford a house any longer. Many have had to move outside of town as the rents have skyrocketed.

Those that do own land are selling to foreigners at inflated prices to cash in on the gold rush. Farmland is decreasing as farmers sell their land to developers who put up gated communities creating an Us vs Them mentality. He shared that many locals cannot understand why these ex-pats have to build such ridiculously oversized houses when there is only one or two people living in them. It continues to happen because the current president is a businessman and reportedly has a partnership in one of these construction companies. However, there is an election in May 2014, so something may change then.

I had asked Chichi, what people do for entertainment here. The answer was basically nothing. There is no cinema or mall. There is a small theater built by ex-pats where they offer a play about 3 times a year. Some of the gated communities have their own golf course, generally 9 holes. A few have their own swimming pool. Other than this, there is no entertainment locally. As we meandered around the streets, we wondered what we would do with our time if we lived here. The answer was not much, because you really need a car to get around.

Chichi told us that some bus routes are only 3 times a day when school is out. Other routes around the center of town arrive once every 30 minutes, but they don’t venture into the Gringo area. Although many articles try to make this sound like paradise where everything is in place and waiting for you to join the Rotary or Lion’s Clubs or alternatively to do some volunteer work (where is never mentioned) for life fulfillment during retirement, we found the restaurants and coffee shops filled with people who seemingly had nothing better to do than hang out. Because I could understand their conversations, there was a 90% chance my impressions were right on target.

Although we did not fulfill our original goal with Chichi, it was an enlightening experience and well worth the time and money. He has an excellent command of English and we wholeheartedly recommend him to anyone heading this way. You can find his contact information here under the Panama section.
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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Flying Time Again


By 7:02 am, we were biting our nails wondering where our ride was for getting to the airport. Our flight was scheduled for 8:30 and it was supposedly a short ride, but still. Three minutes later, she showed up and dropping us off by 7:23 am. The airport is so small; you could fit about 40 of them in Albrook Mall. Air Panama is the only airline flying today to David, San Blas, and Costa Rica. We are going to David where we will immediately try to find the bus station to take us to Boquete (Bō-ket-eh). The last part sounds like an exasperated Italian – eh!

Apparently, there was no need to rush to the airport, the flight was delayed almost an hour. We kept seeing these little piper cub planes making us wonder how this enormous group of people would fit. Once they started boarding our flight, we realized that our plane was out of view from the waiting area, but we still had to walk to it. It was a Fokker 100 twin-turbofan, which looked sparkling new with a 2-3 seat configuration. We had 2 seats on the emergency row, but frankly I was depending on the 3 on the other side if there were an emergency, since directions would be in Spanish. I don’t do well with Spanish under pressure. Flight time is only 30 minutes, yet the exceptional staff of three provided a drink service after passing out Quaker Oats oatmeal cookies. I have never been so happy to see a Quaker before.

Arriving in David, we were trammeled by a series of taxi drivers. They wanted anywhere from $9 to $15 to take us to the bus station. Ron had already asked at two kiosks in the airport learning the maximum should be $6-7. We refused all offers until one driver offered to drive us to Boquete for $22. Now we figured the cost of a ride to the bus station and the cost of 2 bus tickets to Boquete weighing in on the time we would have to wait for a bus and finally schlepping the suitcases from the bus station to the hostel. His offer was reasonable and we accepted it. The drive was an hour and 30 minutes, not a bad deal at all.

The hostel is great! Just a short walk to the downtown area, the staff is friendly and the room has plenty of space for us to spread out. We have an ensuite room for $38 a night; kitchen facilities are upstairs. Once we dropped things off, we went to explore the town. According to International Living, for the last 5 years, this has been named as the 2nd most popular place for ex-pats to retire. First impression is it is like one extended strip with little shops and restaurants on either side. There are few sidewalks, so at times you have to dodge traffic. My impression is that a number of the ex-pats have cars, so drive everywhere.

We did walk blocks parallel to the main street, but found little of interest. There were a few shops, but not much else. Tucked on a corner at the end of one bridge is a theater that ex-pats use to offer plays. The last one was a few weeks ago. There does not seem to be much to amuse oneself, but time will tell.

Some ex-pat offered the suggestion for where we should eat lunch. Big Daddy’s was pricey for an ex-pat community that has moved here to live off Social Security. Ron had the special fish tacos and I had a chicken platter. My chicken was on the tough side. We found a grocery store for our evening meal and some munchies for breakfast.

Ron booked a Cloud Forest Tour for tomorrow morning and then for the next morning a coffee plantation tour.

By 5 pm, we were twiddling our thumbs wondering what to do. We found a coffee shop open, but once that was down the hatch, we only had our room to sit around in and watch movies.

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Panama City Photos Are Posted


Panama City photos are now posted here.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Mugged, Beaten, Robbed – All in a Day’s Panama Adventure Part 2


Ready for anything, clutching our bags and bodies with both arms, I asked a young man in Spanish which way to the train station. The response was kindly given, but with a machine gun rapidity and excessively long. Having a general impression of what he said, we walked in the general direction. There is a walkway in the center of the main street so believing this was the safest route we used it. The alternative was to use the sidewalk with was tunnel-like with stores on one-side and shanty shack stores on the sidewalk. We would have to dodge the crowd in limited space giving many opportunities to inflame someone’s ire. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head, but so did visions of getting beaten, robbed, or worse.

We asked directions two more times, each time getting us closer to our destination: the train station. Once it was within sight, we started across this desolate area to make our way. This well-dressed man who happened to be crossing the street in the opposite direction, started yelling at us. At first, we ignored him, but he continued. I stopped; Ron continued. He asked where we were headed. When I told him, he said we needed to do the walk around via the street even if we were dodging traffic due to a large puddle. The way Ron was heading was the RED Zone. He explained the RED Zone was one of the most dangerous areas of the city where you were pretty much guaranteed to get robbed or worse.

We safely made it to the train ‘station’ where this is the one and only train and track for passenger trains. There are other tracks used for freight. Modern looking on the outside, the interior is like stepping back in time. Most of the interior has dark wood paneling, tables and carpeted floors. Dark green glass shades covering bulbs softening the effect, line the walls. Wooden blinds cover the windows and the entire train is air-conditioned. There are several open-air viewing decks allowing passengers to step outside to watch the view pass them by. The train consists of five passenger cars each named after a river of Panama. The Rio Chagres car is a refurbished 1938 Southern Pacific Dome Car. Each car is equipped with a snack bar.

What threw us a bit was the cost of the tickets. They were no longer $20 a person, but $25. This depleted our cash on hand by $10, something we had not counted on. With the difference in bus tickets and now this, we are desperately short on cash. Trying to focus on the ride, I set aside worries about money for the time being. Trees whipped past us as we navigated through the rainforest as well as old US Army compounds. 

We arrived in Panama City at the Corozal Passenger Station. Fortunately, for us, there was a tour guide on the train, so we could ask about transportation from here. As we suspected, the taxis would charge us a tourism rate of about $15 to get back to our accommodation, but he suggested we try for a taxi from the road where it would be cheaper. Between us, we had $7, plus change. 

The road where we were supposed to try getting a taxi was in essence a freeway with speeding cars. We were not alone in wanting a taxi, having to compete with three other groups, two of whom could speak Spanish fluently. The odds were against us. After one taxi rejected the other groups, he was willing to take us for $12. More reasonable, but still too much for what we had. Walking down the side of the freeway was the only option, heading in the direction of a major supermarket sign with hopes it really was a store and not just an advertisement. After fifteen minutes of walking, a taxi stopped along the side. Ron figured that if we could get back to the Albrook Mall, we could get a local bus from there. The taxi driver wanted $3 to take us to the mall. Perfect and reasonable considering the traffic, had it been a metered cab, it would have been quadruple the fare. This left us with $4.00 in bills.

Now we were at the mall, but had no idea what bus to take. All the local buses line us behind each other. Not one of them is numbered and there are no routes or schedules posted to gather intelligent decision-making information. The only option is to ask the drivers one by one. After receiving several negative responses, we did get one affirmative or what we interpreted as one. We handed him money, but he pointed to a machine. There was nowhere to put money in the machine. Finally, a young woman noticing our dilemma used her bus card to swipe the reader twice so we could pass the turnstile. She spoke great English, so she explained that a Metro Bus Card was needed to ride public buses. You add money to the card as needed and then swipe it when using it. Each time you use it, it costs you 25 cents for the ride. We offered her the 50 cents, but she refused. She further explained that we would need to change buses as this bus was only going partially in our direction. She would be getting off before us, but she arranged for another passenger to warn us where to get off. 

We thanked her profusely multiple times during the ride and as we said good-bye. As promised the other woman signaled where we were to get off and change buses. There was no familiarity of the area, nor did it seem to be within walking distance of getting us back. Scrounging through our change, we could come up with another $1.54 making our grand total wealth $5.54. At the bus stop where we were told to get off, there were no schedules or postings of which buses stopped there so we were again clueless about the next step.

Thinking we cannot be too far away by vehicle, we hailed a taxi. His quote was $5. We jumped in and off we went. He had a companion in the front seat that kept asking us if we wanted women or a casino. All we wanted was dinner. When we arrived, we gave him the entire $5.54. 

The original plan was to get back earlier and have dinner at the vegetarian restaurant in our building. By the time we arrived, we only had 30 minutes before they closed. I left Ron there after we ordered and ran up to the apartment for money. We took it back and ate on the balcony reflecting on the day.

We had multiple opportunities to get mugged, beaten, robbed or worse all day long, but we managed to survive all of it while having a great adventure.

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Mugged, Beaten, Robbed – All in a Day’s Panama Adventure Part 1


This is long, so I am breaking it into 2 parts

More than one person has told us we really should not miss riding the historic Panama Canal Railroad. Billed as one of the great train rides of the world, who could resist? My father worked for a railroad most of his working life and I did a two-year stint working for the New York & Long Branch Railroad in my youth. The ride promises to traverse the lush rainforest with possibilities for animal and birdlife sightings. Interestingly, the railroad is responsible for the creation of the city Aspinwall, now called Colón. Kansas City Southern RR and Mi-Jack Products from Chicago currently own it. For more information on the history, visit here.

Today, the rail service is mainly for tourists or business people who are commuting between Colón on the Atlantic Coast and Panama City on the Pacific. Being informed that the cost of the ride was $20 per person each way; a one-way trip was sufficiently going to drain our budget. Service is limited to once a day in either direction. You can go from Panama City to Colón at 7:15 am or return from Colón at 5:15 pm. These are the only two options. Travel time is one hour.

After reading a great deal about Colón, we knew it was the pit. Any Google search for Colón was rife with articles to make the back of the head hairs stand up and cry for mercy. In order to do this train ride and not really wanting to get to the Panama City train station by 7:00 am to catch the outgoing train, we opted for a return trip instead. The plan was to take a mid-afternoon local bus to Albrook Mall in PC and from there, we could take the inter-city bus to Colón to arrive just in time for the train back. We did considerable figuring of how much money we would need for the day. Reason dictated that if you are robbed, lose the least amount of money you need to, so we planned accordingly. The best laid plans…never seem to go as planned.

After considerable walking, we did find the bus to take to Albrook Mall. Traffic is horrific, so what should have been a 20-minute ride took closer to 45 minutes. We passed through some rather unsavory parts of the city, finding the ‘open air markets’ with fruit and vegetable vendors side by side with police men with machine guns patrolling the streets. This section of the city was beyond derelict.

Albrook is not only a mall, but also the terminal for all buses, local and otherwise. Arriving around 1:30 pm, we had plenty of time to get our bearings and further develop our plan. Checking with the ticket agent for the Colón buses, getting information was impossible. There is a glass wall with a tiny opening to pass money, but nothing to allow communication to flow freely. After screaming our questions through this glass barrier and receiving some response, we were still as clueless as when we started. The noise level in the terminal was equivalent to a gang of ghetto blasters all blaring full volume at once.

Even if we were both speaking English, I would not have been able to hear what he was saying. We walked away frustrated. It was weird a ticket was needed to leave the bus station to enter the area where the intercity buses were loading. It was not necessary for the local buses. In frustration, we went to the mall, deciding to return later and try again.

The Albrook Mall at first glance looks like any other. It is only after spending ten minutes there that you realize you have entered another world. This has to be the largest mall I have ever been in after Mall of America in Minnesota. There are 469 stores with an additional 400 kiosks. Other than Christmas time, it is still decorated with hot air balloons, sculptures of wild animals (used to designate exits), and an Italian carousel. There are four humungous food courts, the largest seats over 400 people and we had a difficult time finding a table. The latest information I could find about its size was from 2011 when they were still adding on.

“It takes 5,592 steps to walk Albrook Mall; roughly equal to going up and down the Empire State Building twice plus a few more New York City blocks. Within the total area of Albrook Mall you could build 36 football fields or five Sidney Opera Houses. For the exercise minded one full walking circuit of Albrook Mall is 2.4 km (7,874.016 feet) and would burn 204 calories. It is huge!”

One would think with this number of food courts, that it would be easy to find something to eat. It wasn’t. Nothing looked good, because we are not really into fast food. After much deliberation, we finally settled for a slice of pizza, which turned out to be surprisingly good. We walked and walked before and after our snack working off the minutes until we had to deal with the bus once again.

Returning to the terminal, we were able to determine with the help of a young man that the Colón bus left every hour on the hour. We pay the driver; there was no need to buy at ticket at the ticket counter. How non-intuitive is that? Here is where we were flummoxed. To get to the bus, you had to buy a Metro Bus card. When we tried this, they wanted Ron’s picture ID. I could not figure out why his and not mine. Later, I realized he asked if there were a senior discount available. We held up the line for a good ten minutes while they hemmed and hawed over whether a photocopy of his passport was good enough. After $1.25 passed hands, we were able to scan the card for both of us to cross over to the other side. Even for this we needed the aid of some local angels to show us the way.

Once on the modern, air-conditioned express bus to Colón, we found the fare to be $3.75 each for the pancontinental journey. We had been told by others it was $2.50 each and this is what we had budgeted. ETA for Colón was about one hour, give or take depending on traffic. For an express bus, we made a number of stops.

As we entered Colón, it felt like we were entering a different country. Poverty polluted the air. Buildings were in severe decay. Litter decorated the streets where they were not pock marked with holes large enough to get lost in. Loose electric wires hung from poles like Maypole streamers. This is where the bus had its final stop or we presumed; everyone left the bus here, though we were not at any type of terminal, but just a crossroad in the center of town.

Continued with part 2.
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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Between a Hard Rock and an Ocean


Panama City has relatively few tourist attractions, surprisingly. There are less than a handful of museums; the major attraction is the Canal Zone or the historic Canal Zone train that runs from Panama City to Colon. We intend to do this trip tomorrow.

With nothing pressing us to get out and move, we left later in the morning than we normally would. The positive side of this is that it allows for natural awakenings; not need to heed to the alarm clock is a joy in itself. With no particular destination in mind, we started out toward the water, but on the way, discovered the Hard Rock Hotel. There is no restaurant, but the hotel sells pins, allowing us to add to our collection.

Not realizing we may need the extra cash, I didn’t bring enough to buy pins leaving enough left over for a small lunch or just drinks later. We will have to return. The hotel is glorious and on the cutting edge for décor. It would certainly be a special place to stay if the lobby and the mezzanine are any indication. They have a young woman greeting people to inform potential guests about their New Year’s Party. It is only $150 per person with an open bar. For $495, you get a room for two nights included. She told us the hotel is only 2 years old and had 1,400 rooms. There is a direct walkway to the mall across the street.

Without plans, we went over to the mall to kill some time exploring. As malls go, it was lovingly filled with just about every branded store you would expect to see in most US malls. We were seduced into buying a cinnabun at their shop. The odor of cinnamon, which I used to dislike, came wafting through the corridors, wrapping itself around our noses, like a comfortable blanket on a cold winter’s night.

It would have been appropriately funny if the picture above were in the Pull and Bear store, but it was in a store called Moose.

On one floor, there was an extensive village display with the miniature stores, houses, carnival rides and much more. It had to have taken an entire day to set up. It was a visual delight, reminding me of the village set I have in storage that I hope to see again some day.

We checked out the cinema to see if we could catch a show, but there were slim offerings in English, most were dubbed.
Not much excitement for today, I am afraid. After the mall, we continued down to the ocean for a short walk, but the threatening clouds prompted us to head back; we were umbrella-less. 

I did Google PC museums and came up with a short list. Some are not even completed yet. Hopefully, we will find something to occupy our time.
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