Benefits of the Expat Diet

Open air markets are common throughout Latin America.

Open air markets are common throughout Latin America.

We have reaped several health benefits since adapting our eating habits to our expat lifestyle. For one thing our digestion is better. My wife used to be gluten intolerant. That is longer noticed. She also used to react to onions and tomatoes we bought in the U. S. That has not occurred in Latin America. All the chemicals used in fresh and processed foods in the U. S. are not evident in locally produced foods.

There is no shortage of places to eat while on the go.

Tasty foods are readily available while on the go.

Our diet is defined by the foods most commonly available. In Panama, rice and beans were a staple, and chicken was the typical entrée at dinner. Fish was also in ready supply which we ate a few times each month even though neither of us are big fish eaters. We lived away from the big city in Panama, and produce vendors would drive right to our door.

We are city dwellers now in Mexico, and the variety of foods available is more like what would find in the States. Mexico also has big box stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart). However, we have no need to shop in bulk. Our six monthers lifestyle dictates we not stock up on food. What we cannot eat we will have to give away in a few months, so we only buy what we need.

Panaderías provide a variety of fresh baked good.

Panaderías provide a variety of fresh baked good.

We buy fresh baked goods, fruits and vegetables as needed because local panaderías and produce stands are ubiquitous, and their prices are lower than at the supermarkets. We have learned about many new food items. We use chayote, guayaba, guanabana, cherimoya, and varieties of melons and citrus fruits we never knew existed. Utilizing these foods has allowed us to economize, too.

A mango on a stick makes a great quick snack.

A mango on a stick makes a great quick snack.

More common fruits like pineapple, guava, and papaya are plentiful. Of course, we have aguacates (avocados), and thank goodness! Fresh avocado on salads, with rice and beans, fresh guacamole with totopos, or just eating it out of the peel with a spoon is so yummy!

We practice a lifestyle we will take with us everywhere we live, whether in the U. S. or abroad. Since we do not have a car, we do not load up. We buy what we need when we need it. No more impulse buying, especially snack foods and candy. We walk to and from the store as part of our daily exercise routine, and we shop at open air markets for fresh produce.

Whole or grated artisan cheeses are commonly available.

Whole or grated artisan cheeses are commonly available.

We knew about economizing and eating fresh before. Were we just too busy to incorporate these habits into our busy working lives? We now take life at a more reasonable pace, and we have found that to be a pleasant change.

living in Mexico

Announcing the Six Monthers

Mike and Florence at Estancia Cristina in Southern Argentina at the base of the Andes.

Mike and Florence at Estancia Cristina in Southern Argentina at the base of the Andes.

We are a new breed of expat travelers. We are the Six Monthers, thus named because we seek to live in a new country every six months. We live like the locals live, eat like the locals eat, and experience life in a different culture with each move we make.

Some of the world's most sought after coffees are grown in Panama.

Some of the world’s most sought after coffees are cultivated and grown in Panama.

We lived for six months in Boquete, Panama, up until January, and we are now living in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We are already planning our move to Scotland this July (Inverness perhaps?), and if things work out as planned, we will move to Spain at the beginning of 2014. We currently favor Costa Brava, but then deciding where to land is part of the fun. There are other countries we wish to experience as well, but they will have to wait their turn.

There are advantages to staying in a country for six months. Most obvious is that we take our time seeing the sights worth seeing and seeking out-of-the-way places that are known to mostly locals. We do not need a special resident visa which may be expensive or simply not available in some countries. No thanks, we won’t be staying that long. And in countries with a 90 day tourist visa limit, we just take a long weekend to a neighboring country.

The natural hot springs near Caldera, Panama reward the more adventurous sightseer.

The natural hot springs near Caldera, Panama reward the more adventurous sightseer.

We sold everything we own, i.e. – house, cars, furniture, appliances, electronic equipment, and artwork. What we could not sell or give to a relative we donated – clothing, books, lamps, sporting equipment. Some of that process was painful, although it was also quite liberating. And we find we do not miss those things. Now everything we own fits into two suitcases and a carry-on bag. We are free to go where we want when we want.

The open air markets like this one in Cuernavaca are common throughout Mexico.

Open air markets include many booths like this one in Cuernavaca and are common throughout Mexico.

We opened a bank account at an international bank so we can make withdrawals anywhere we go without having to open a new account. ATM’s give the best exchange rates, and we typically withdraw the maximum amount allowed because the transaction fee is the same regardless of the amount withdrawn.

We meet interesting people wherever we go, both expats and locals. Just like back home, not everyone is a likely friend simply because we were born in the same country or state. Even though we have hit it off with lots of interesting people, staying in touch is difficult beyond being friends on Facebook. The friends we had back home are still our best friends.

The pristine town square of Iquique, Chile is one of the places to which we would like to return.

The pristine town square of Iquique, Chile is one of the places to which we would like to return.

Making the transition to a lifestyle of moving every six months is not for everyone. Your house full of memories and a lifetime of purchases are not going with you. Nor are your closest friends and family members going with you. That is why you will always need a reliable internet connection. Thanks to Skype, we maintain regular contact with family and we stay connected with friends who are curious about our adventures and want to keep up with our latest stories from abroad.

The most important factor for us is our health. Thankfully, we are strong and healthy enough to satisfy our wanderlust. We know we only have so long before we can no longer travel. Therefore, we are living a life many people only dream of while we have the opportunity, and we are sharing our experiences as we go.


living in Mexico

Cuernavaca – The City of Eternal Spring

Our flight leaves Panama City after dark and it is getting late as we touch down in Mexico City. We gain an hour moving into the Central Time Zone. It is dark on the entire drive from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, so we see little else but the road reflectors that mark our lane of traffic and the pine trees lining the highway. That is, until we crest the last hill overlooking the high valley full of the city lights of our destination. We are excited as we catch the first glimpse of our new home – quite a change moving into a metropolitan area the size of Seattle after living near the village of Boquete nestled remotely in the mountains of Panama.

During the drive from the airport, I say to our driver, Vincente, “You know, other countries have their own national drink. In Chile it’s the pisco sour. In Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica it’s rum. What’s the national drink of Mexico?” To which Vincente simply replies, “Beer.” After a good laugh I tell him I was expecting him to say tequila. He grins and says, “That, too.”

There are many choices of fresh fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market.

There are many choices of fresh fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market.

Our temporary living quarters is without provisions, so our first stop the next morning is La Glorieta Restaurant, a 10 minute walk up the street. Our eggs are served ranchero style on a bed of deliciously spiced beans. We use our fresh corn tortillas to soak up the beans. The coffee and pastries are included in the meal which we are now too full to finish off. When we tell our host, Julio, that we are new in town, he provides us with a map of the city. I ask where we can watch our favorite NFL football teams during the playoffs this weekend. He walks me back to the adjoining room with the big flatscreen TV which is obviously where the local soccer fans come to cheer on their favorite teams. Julio says, “You come back here when the game is on and I will put on your football game for you. I have the satellite dish.” I love Mexico already!

The cut watermelon sells for $.19/lb at the Market, which is open 7 days/week.

The cut watermelon sells for $.19/lb at the Market, which is open 7 days/week.

After stocking up on food and supplies our landlady, Ruth, takes us on a quick tour into the town center and the public market. Surprise – they have apples from Washington for the same price they sell for back home! I cannot resist the prices and selection. We purchase a papaya, two pounds of tangerines, six bananas, a fresh-cut pineapple, a new variety of orange we’ve never seen before, plus some tomatoes and avocados for a total cost of about $5.00. I almost forgot to mention the kilo of fresh strawberries we purchased for 80 cents, which I am munching on now as I write this. It is still 80°F outside where I am sitting as the sun sinks into the West. I think we will like Cuernavaca, Mexico just fine.

living in Panama

What’s Wrong With Boquete?

Boquete is known for its lush and beautiful gardens.

Boquete is known for its lush and beautiful gardens.

My wife and I have enjoyed our six months in Boquete. We have lived inexpensively allowing us to travel out of the country three times and take two trips in-country. Boquete is a lush, beautiful garden spot. Tourists have discovered it and flock here. Panamanians from the big city also visit Boquete, and many of the more prosperous families have lovely vacation homes here. Which leads to the question we have been asked many times: “If living in Boquete is so nice, why are you leaving?”

In the middle of planning to bring friends to the area we had a business issue with a Panamanian colleague. It could have been resolved with a simple apology for an abusive verbal exchange with my wife, but that did not happen. One of the basic rules of a happy existence is simply this: don’t piss off the Italian woman. Since this colleague was also our landlord, we no longer felt welcome, so we planned our departure.

Boquete's Central Park is a great meeting spot.

Boquete’s Central Park is a great meeting spot.

We could have made other living arrangements. There is no shortage of rental property in Boquete, which leads me back to the original question, what’s wrong with Boquete? Why wouldn’t we stay? (This is the part the over-eager real estate people will not tell you.)

1. This is no place for children. There are no playgrounds, no theaters, and no safe place to ride a bicycle.
2. Shopping is limited to the supermarket, the hardware store, and a small department store. The nearest mall is 25 miles away.
3. The Panamanian people are friendly, but they are not your friends. Even if you are fluent in Spanish, they are only interested in a relationship if there is money to be made. This is understandable when you consider the average monthly wage for a Panamanian is maybe $600.
4. All outsiders are gringos, and it is assumed gringos have lots of money even if you don’t. The gringos have driven up property values such that the locals can no longer afford to live in the town in which they grew up. There is some resentment about that, although Panamanians are generally tolerant by nature.
5. The weather is temperate year-round. What you are not told is that the area also gets over 100 inches of rain per year, and during the dry season the winds are nearly constant.
6. The humidity is high, which means mold and mildew are common. There is lots of pollen from the lush vegetation. Anyone with allergies could suffer in this environment.
7. There is crime in Panama. Almost every house in Panama has a high fence around it and iron bars on the doors and windows. Whenever you have a privileged class of people living in close proximity to a much poorer population, crimes of opportunity are not uncommon. Violent crimes are much less common, but not unheard of.
8. Power outages occur on a regular basis. Fortunately, they seldom last more than 30 minutes, but it does make you wonder who is playing with the switches.

The village of Boquete is nestled in a beautiful subalpine rainforest.

The village of Boquete is nestled in a beautiful subalpine rainforest.

I am not bitter about my experience here. There is much to like about Panama, and I am by no means seeking to turn people away. By the same token, I am sharing honest impressions without much sugar-coating. If you find any of this information is helpful, that is good. If you wish to share your own insights and experiences, I welcome your comments. I will be writing from a new venue next week. Adios from Panama.

living in Panama

Costa Rica for the Weekend

The world's largest oxcart is on display in Sarchi, Alajuela, Costa Rica.

The world’s largest oxcart is on display in Sarchi, Alajuela, Costa Rica.

The clouds parted long enough to reveal the lagoon in the crater below.

The clouds parted to reveal the lagoon in the crater below.

After a two week cruise of the Caribbean and a week playing in New Orleans, we included a stopover in Costa Rica on the final leg of our return to Panama. There was insufficient time for cultural immersion and exploration, so we did all the touristy stuff. First was a tour to Volcán Poás National Park in the mountains north of the capital city of San Jose. We arrived so abruptly at 8,000 feet elevation that we didn’t even notice the rarified air. We were completely immersed in the clouds of this alpine jungle. Fortunately, our patience paid off. A sudden break in the clouds revealed the mile wide crater directly below us with its aqua blue lagoon nestled deep within.

The coffee plantation is decorated with immaculate gardens.

The coffee plantation is decorated with immaculate gardens.

On the return drive we stopped at the Doka Coffee Plantation for lunch and a tour. The weather was perfect, the gardens were spectacular, and the coffee was world class, so naturally we bought some. Our tour took us through Grecia, a beautiful town on the eastern edge of the central valley, and home of the Iglesia Metálica, The Metal Church. Anywhere inside or outside the church, if you rap your knuckles against the church wall, it reverberates just like the sound of an iron-hulled ship. The church was shipped in red-painted prefabricated steel sheets from Belgium and assembled in Grecia piece by piece in the 1890’s. The doors and windows were custom-made in Italy.

The Metal Church in Grecia is spectacular inside and out.

The Metal Church in Grecia is spectacular inside and out.

One last stop was an artisan shop in nearby Sarchi. The wood carvings and paintings on display were beautiful. However, nothing surpassed the intricate craftsmanship of the traditional hand-painted oxcarts or carretas. The oxcart tradition dates back to the 19th century. The carts were the only means available to transport coffee from the fields to the shipping ports. Such pride was taken in their construction that only the finest woods were used and the painted designs were ever more elaborate. The spokeless wheels, modeled after the Aztec-style, were designed to keep the wheels from getting bogged down in mud. The Costa Rican government in 1988 declared the carreta the National Symbol of Work. The tradition is kept alive today and celebrated with an annual oxcart parade and a public display of the world’s largest oxcart at the central park in Sarchi.

Local artists create beautiful hand painted oxcarts.

Local artists create beautiful hand painted oxcarts.

I will say the coffee of Costa Rica is every bit as good as that of Panama. I know saying this sounds a little like rooting for the visiting team, but why not? The two countries are similar enough that whatever grows in Panama will grow equally well in Costa Rica. Now I have to make a confession. Upon entering Panama when the bags of Costa Rican coffee were revealed during our luggage inspection, I told the Panama customs officer that we still preferred the coffee of Panama. The thing is I may have overstated that a little.

living in Panama

Uruguay – South America’s Well Kept Secret

Montevideo's Plaza Independencia features a mixed of architectural styles.

Montevideo’s Plaza de Independencia features an interesting mix of architectural styles.

If you know little about Uruguay, that is understandable. Uruguay seems to fly under just about everyone’s radar. The country is largely agricultural with an emphasis on farming, renewable forestry, and grazing land. Little manufacturing takes place in Uruguay, perhaps because her larger neighbors are so dominant at producing and shipping goods. Uruguay seems comfortable wedged between Brazil and Argentina. With over 400 miles of Atlantic coastline and situated at a temperate latitude, Uruguay is perfectly situated to serve as the playground for its wealthier neighbors. Its 68,000 square miles of rolling, fertile countryside, about the size of Missouri, serves as a relaxed getaway for all who come to enjoy the highlights.

Having arrived at the Montevideo airport around midnight, we glimpse silhouettes of palm trees on the drive to our hotel. September is still winter in Uruguay. We wake up the next morning and venture out in the brisk air to gather our first impressions, and we see Montevideo is peaceful, clean, and welcoming. A day tour takes us by train to Juanico to visit the Don Pascual Winery about 20 miles north of the capital, and the award-winning wines we sampled were every bit as good as the fine wines from Argentina and Chile.

Punta del Este's world famous sculpture, El Mano

Punta del Este’s world famous sculpture, El Mano

We choose public transportation to tour the countryside, first to the coast resort cities of Piriopolis, Maldonado, and Punta del Este. Almost everything is closed until the holidays when Argentineans with their families pour across the border by the thousands to summer homes in fancy neighborhoods. Punta del Este actually has a suburb appropriately named Beverly Hills, and it rivals its namesake with its stately mansions and its luxurious estates.

The hot springs near Salto have been turned into a great water park.

The hot springs near Salto have been turned into a great water park.

Our next stop is Cabo Polonia National Park on the Atlantic Coast. This isolated seaside village, accessible only by safari truck, is home to a large herd of seals and features scattered quaint summer cabins, a Coast Guard lighthouse, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of hotels, one of which opens just for us thanks to advance reservations. There are perhaps ten other people in the village, and five of them are in the Coast Guard. Blanca, the hotel housekeeper, prepares us a room and opens the kitchen at dinnertime, providing us with our choice of fried fish or baked fish, with or without mayonnaise. She fires up the hotel generator for an hour or so of light before bedtime. The portable propane heater supplements the wool blankets to keep us warm. The highlight for me is when Blanca shuts down the generator and I step outside into total darkness to see the Southern Cross and strangely new constellations for the first time. It is literally like being on another planet.

The central park in Fray Bentos is scenic and inviting.

The central park in Fray Bentos is scenic and inviting.

Our travel route takes us clear across the country to the western cities of Mercedes, Fray Bentos, Salto, and eventually back to Colonia de Sacramento. Each of these towns has a unique and special appeal. Mercedes has a beautiful riverfront park and spectacular cathedrals and plazas. Fray Bentos is the quaintest of these towns. It features one of the few factories in Uruguay, a paper fiber plant that produces cardboard boxes, mostly for shipping customers in Buenos Aires. Argentina is just across the bridge over the Uruguay River. Salto has an historic playhouse that oozes charm, and there is a nearby hot spring park that we enjoyed on an uncrowded day.

The Street of Sighs retains its appearance from Portuguese colonial times.

The Street of Sighs retains its appearance from Portuguese colonial times.

Colonia de Sacramento was an appropriate location to end our three week tour of Uruguay. The oldest of Uruguay’s cities, it was settled by the Portuguese in 1680. The Spanish and Portuguese fought over this strategic port during colonial times for 150 years. The city changed hands a dozen times between Spain, Portugal and Brazil before it became part of the independent Republic of Uruguay in 1828. One highlight in the historic center of Colonia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the Street of Sighs. Some say this historic street derived its name from the prostitutes who served the desires of sailors visiting the port. Regardless of the story, it remains much the same as it was in colonial times with its cobblestone streets and low stucco houses that now serve as shops to the many tourists. Buenos Aires is 45 minutes away by ferry, and that’s where our travels take us next on our Vacation of a Lifetime.

living

Bocas del Toro – Panama’s Jewel of the Caribbean

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

We are climbing off the water taxi in Bocas Town and walking the three blocks to our hotel when my friend, Bill remarks, “This place reminds me of New Orleans, Jamaica, and Key West and all rolled into one.” The comparison is appropriate. The town of Bocas is eight blocks of hotels, shops, hostels, and restaurants. Bocas is the focal point of an island tourism haven, part of an extensive tropical archipelago not far from the Costa Rican border. My first experience with Bocas was shared in Panama from the Caribbean Side. We are about to discover a couple of gems we overlooked on our first visit.

We are fortunate to be guests at the historic Gran Bahía Hotel where the owner, Tito Thomas, sits with us to discuss lesser-known attractions. No one knows more about Bocas del Toro than Tito. He was born and raised in Bocas, raised his family here, and still lives and works in Bocas as a hotel owner and as unofficial ambassador to the place he loves.

Tito drives us in the hotel van to our first stop, the Botanical Garden just a mile outside of town, Finca Los Monos. Because we are with Tito, owner-operator Lin Gillingham opens her gate and gives us a quick introductory tour. To say we are impressed with the beauty and diversity of the place is an understatement. Lin has created a haven for tours, weddings and receptions, retreats, and exploration and discovery.

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Tito then takes us to Playa Bluff, a popular surfer hangout just a few miles from town. It is easy to find comfort and solitude as this beach stretches for over five miles up the coast. The golden sand and clear, warm water make this a relaxing picnic and sunbathing spot.

The following day we decide to divide and conquer. While the wives are heading back to fully explore the Botanical Garden, Bill and I hire a water taxi ($20/person round trip) to take us to La Loma Jungle Lodge and cacao plantation at Bahía Honda on neighboring Isla Bastimentos. Owners Margaret Ann and Henry Escudero welcome us even though we are unexpected, thanks again to the referral from Tito. Their 50 acre eco-lodge retreat puts visitors in the midst of nature with birds, butterflies, monkeys and lush forest literally at arm’s length. Among the adventure of nearby attractions is the fully operational cacao plantation. Henry invites us to join his guests on an interpretive tour of their estate with his extensive naturalist knowledge. Everyone gets the opportunity to help prepare and sample fresh chocolate after the tour.

Cacao pods harvestedPhoto credit: Henry Escudero, www.thejunglelogde.com

Cacao pods harvested
Photo credit: Kate Malone

In Bocas Town the backpacking traveler will find several inexpensive hostel and guest house lodging options. Adults and family groups will find a wide range of hotel accommodations. The town can be reached by driving the mainland route to Almirante and catching a water taxi, flying in from Panama City, or arriving by boat. English is more commonly spoken in Bocas than anywhere in Panama. Whether you wish to explore jungles, snorkel or scuba dive, go surfing or swimming, or just hang out, Bocas has something for everyone.

living in Panama

Top 10 Things I Will Miss About Panama

When the time comes to say goodbye to a place that has been home for many months, one cannot help but reflect on the experiences gained in that time. It is with mixed feelings that I think back on this unique period before setting off on a new adventure. One of my first stories was The Top 10 Things I Love About Panama. Interestingly, the two lists are not as similar as I thought they would be.

  1. Clean air – I was raised on oxygen-rich air in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The rains regularly washed the pollutants out of the air. In that sense, Panama has been just like home.
  2. Locally grown coffee – After a recent visit to Los Angeles and tasting what passes for coffee in restaurants and hotels, I realize I have been spoiled by some of the greatest tasting coffee on the planet.
  3. The weather – Even on the rainiest and windiest days it’s still 75°F during the day all year round.
  4. The ocean beaches – The tropical Caribbean waters are so clear and warm, you just want to jump in whenever you get the chance. (The Pacific is nice, too.)
  5. The flowers – Everything grows here, so it is no surprise about the abundance of flowers.
  6. Fresh fruit – Like the flowers, fruit grows abundantly. I love getting fresh pineapples for a dollar, giant papayas year round, and avocados and mangos and guava and bananas and…

    This beautiful hummingbird species is common outside our front window.(Photo credit: John C. Avise)

    This beautiful hummingbird species is common outside our window.
    (Photo credit: John C. Avise)

  7. Fun things to do – Even though we spent too much time indoors working on stuff, there was never a shortage of things to do and places to go.
  8. New friends – We met some incredible people, gringos and locals alike, and they have been a great source of warm, friendship, and support.
  9. Our host family – Our home has been very comfortable and conveniently located. The owner and her son made us feel welcome from the time we first met.
  10. Missed opportunities – We are leaving prior to the Flower and Coffee Fair, the Boquete Jazz Festival, and the visit by the Sooke, British Columbia firefighters. I didn’t get to follow-up with a lot of interesting people working to make a difference in a community with lots of needs.

There are more things I may miss about Panama. However, I will be busy discovering new things to enjoy and to share on my next adventure. Won’t you join me?

living

Goodbye Panama

Panama: Photos
(This photo of Panama courtesy of TripAdvisor)

The unforeseen events of the past week have forced us to reexamine our current path. We have been living in Panama since August of this year. Although Panama was never intended to be our permanent home, we had anticipated living here for a year or two. That is not going to happen. It is sad in a way because there is so much to like about Panama. We have built relationships and we have come to know much about the incredible, unique beauty of the country.

I know many of my family, friends and readers are dying to know what occurred that would cause such an abrupt departure from Panama. Being a person who detests drama, I will not delve into details. Suffice it to say we were planning a business activity that included locals, and we arrived at an impasse that jeopardized our venture. My wife and I always hold ourselves to the highest levels of integrity in our lives. When our ethics were called into question, the damage was done.

This is not a story about regrets. My situation is analogous to breaking up with a college sweetheart. I loved her, and I will always cherish the memories of the moments we shared. Our paths converged for awhile, and now they diverge. It is not good or bad. It simply cannot be helped.

Now is a time to reflect on what originally drew us to Panama and what made us want to live here. Above all, Panama is beautiful. The diversity of flora and fauna is enough on which to feast your senses with the sights and sounds of birds, flowers and monkeys. And let us not overlook the taste and aroma of freshly brewed, locally grown coffee. Every breath of air is oxygen-rich, clean and fresh thanks to the cleansing rain that nourishes the abundant trees and shrubs. Above all, the people are generous and kind.

Not every aspect of life in Panama is easy. The heat and humidity at lower elevations is uncomfortable when you are not accustomed to it. People with allergies or respiratory conditions can suffer from the pollen, mold and mildew typical of a tropical climate. There is also the language barrier. Without adequate Spanish-speaking skills, it takes a little courage to venture out to shop, dine out, or converse with locals.

Panama, you are a young country with much to offer. I wish you well as you manage the challenges of economic growth and resource management as more and more people discover your beauty and rich diversity. Now it is time to say goodbye. It has been nice to know you.

A Panama Christmas

The town square is festively decorated for Christmas.

The town square is festively decorated for Christmas.
Photo credit: Lee Zeltzer, Boqueteguide.com

Amid the cheerful holiday trappings of Christmas are the aromas wafting from our kitchen as Florence bakes traditional holiday breads as gifts for our wonderful friends – cranberry orange bread, carrot bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, and her classic banana bread with chocolate chips. I have performed my solemnly sworn duty of quality control, making sure each variety of sweet bread is good enough to share with others. I am pleased to report that all varieties passed with flying colors again this season.

Decorations adorn most shops and businesses. Holiday breads are sold by street vendors. The town square in Boquete has a two-story tall Christmas tree with lights and stars and bright red ribbons adorning it. A Christmas party was held for the local children last weekend, and I saw smiling faces as bright colored balloons and toys were handed out by generously supportive organizations. Miniature ponies were saddled to provide horseback rides for the youngest children.

As you would expect in a country that is 90 percent Catholic, the Christmas season is especially meaningful in Panama. Attending midnight mass is common, and gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day. It is a family time, and relatives come from all around in order to spend time together.

There is a local custom I learned about related to Christmas. If you have a friend or family member who does not own their own home, you give them a gift of a manger which includes the Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. However, the manger is not complete. Once that person moves into his or her own house, custom dictates they obtain additional figurines or toy animals that help complete the manger scene.

A model nativity scene is given in hopes the recipients will find a home of their own.

A model nativity scene is given in hopes the recipients will find a home of their own.

If the manger gift recipient knows someone else who needs a house of their own, then prior to the next Christmas they pass the gift forward to the new recipient after removing all but the human figures. These gifts are passed on and on among family and friends in the form of a Christmas wish for the recipient to find a home of their own. Each time this nativity gift is given, the giver replaces it with one to keep for the holidays.

In a country where gifts are not elaborate, these nativity scenes are given to spread the joy and cheer that comes from deep religious conviction and Christian love. However you choose to celebrate Christmas, may the gifts you give and receive bring joy to you and those you love.

What type of bridge do you wish to build?

Fresh chayote tastes like the stalk of broccoli.

Fresh chayote tastes like the stalk of broccoli.

My wife loves to cook. I know, lucky me. Except now that we live in Panama, many of the foods and items we used to get back in the states are either not readily available or they are quite expensive. So we are attempting to familiarize ourselves with local foods and how they are prepared.

Recently, we were chatting with Aida, our landlady, and she told us about piña juice and its curative properties. She had just made some, and she gave us some to take home. It was yummy! Kind of like a pineapple smoothie. She takes the rinds of a freshly cut pineapple and boils it in a pan of water and throws in some rice. Aida also recommends adding ½ cup of linaza, which is Spanish for flax seed. She boils it all together for 45 minutes and then takes out the pineapple skin which is then disposed of. Using a blender, she mixes the pineapple water and rice with milk and sugar to make a shake or betida. Not only is it tasty, it also helps soothe indigestion and aids the intestinal tract.

Building Bridges, One Recipe at a Time

Aida is so sweet, we just love her.

Aida is so sweet, we just love her.

This morning after I cut up a pineapple, my wife boiled the rinds and proceeded to make the piña water. Aida could smell it cooking, so she asked to sample it. She smiled and remarked, “Que bueno!” Low and behold my wife made it right. Aida smiled and commented how she thought we were unusual. Puzzled by her comment, we asked her to explain what she meant. Aida said, “So few people stop to ask the local people how to do something or make something, much less trying to make it. Your wife is different. She tries everything we have shown her.”

Thin-cut plantains taste like potato chips. Thick slices taste like sweet potato.

Thin-cut plantains taste like potato chips. Thick slices taste like sweet potato.

We have learned so many things from our hosts. We have enjoyed adding delicacies such as chirimoya, yucca*, otoe, plantains, chayote, and dachine. These are things we would never have discovered on our own. Somehow this made me think of the bridges we are building here in Panama. We already have bridges to span the canal. We are building bridges of a different type – the bridges of friendship and meaningful relationships. Whether you are thinking of moving to Panama, some other country, or perhaps just across town, ask yourself, “What type of bridge do you wish to build?”

*Note:  Yucca recipe and photos available at this link.

Everybody Loves a Bombero

Car Fire BannerI came upon this story through my editor at panama.escapeartist.com for whom I occasionally write. In a previous stage of life I was a professional firefighter, so I was immediately drawn to the story. My appreciation for Boquete, Panama, and for the fire service inspires me to share this story with you.

Boquete Bomberos to Host Canadian Firefighters

The Bomberos (firefighters) of Boquete are hosting a cultural and training exchange between the fire departments of Boquete, Panama, and Sooke, British Columbia. Currently, five or six volunteers with the Sooke Fire Rescue Service plan to travel to Panama for five days of joint training exercises. The training is scheduled for March, 2013, which is near the end of Panama’s dry season when brush fires pose the greatest threat to grazing land, forests, coffee plantations, and private homes.

Among the things that connect the firefighters of Canada and Panama is the commitment of service to the community. These are men and women who frequently put themselves in harm’s way to protect property and save lives. They commit to long hours of training, both to stay current in their skills and to stay physically fit to face the rigors of their profession. In this respect, the firefighters of these and other countries have a common bond.

While field training may span five days, another feature of this exchange is the opportunity to experience another culture. Most of the Sooke firefighters plan to stay in Boquete for at least a week beyond the training. None of the Canadians have met their Panamanian counterparts. They look forward to taking the bomberos and their wives out to dinner at some point so they can get to know one another off the job. One Sooke volunteer, Ben Temple says, “Fortunately, I minored in Hispanic Studies in college and I have traveled quite a bit in Latin America. I think my Spanish-speaking skills are adequate to overcome any language barriers. We all look forward to making new friends and experiencing life in Panama. This is a big deal for us!”

Firefighter Temple says, "This was a drill fire and our training session was finished. In general, when houses are on fire, we're busy putting them out."

Firefighter Temple says, “This was a drill fire. Our training session was finished and the owner wanted the house burned down. In general, when houses are on fire, we’re busy putting them out.”

The planned exchange between the Canadians and Panamanians traces back to an international connection between Rotary Clubs. During a Rotary exchange project in Panama, a conversation between club members led to the idea of fire departments sharing their best practices with one another. Back home on Vancouver Island, Sooke Rotarian Dave Bennett shared this idea with the Sooke Fire Chief, Steve Sorensen. Since then the idea has taken hold, and several volunteers have stepped forward to participate in the Panama exchange. Temple says, “Our respective departments are similar in size, and we have similar challenges. By comparing our expertise with that of the bomberos, we will determine how to structure our training to best benefit both departments.”

The Cost Factor 

The Sooke Fire Department might have more equipment and supplies in reserve than their Boquete counterparts. In that case, Chief Sorensen has identified equipment his department is willing to make available for donation. The cost of shipping is expensive as is the cost to the individuals who must take time away from jobs and family to participate in this training and cultural exchange. Transportation costs alone are expected to be $1,500 – $2,000 per person. With shipping of equipment the total cost of this trip is estimated to be $15,000 with $3,500 raised so far.

In order to cover these costs, the Sooke Fire Rescue Service is pursuing several avenues for financial support. They have held a car wash and solicited donations from local businesses. Firefighter Temple says, “We are all prepared to pay our fair share, but contributions will help ensure we are able to see this project through.”

An online donation website has also been set up to accept your donations. Autographed Sooke Firefighter posters and Sooke Fire Department logo T-shirts are provided to donors. Please consider a donation.

Note: If you are aware of a special project or an idea that will benefit the people of Panama and you would like me to write about it, contact me via email: mike.lince@hotmail.com.

Retirement – It’s Not What You Think

Statistics tell us that 10,000 baby boomers in the United States will reach the retirement age of 65 every day for the next nineteen years. Some will keep working either because their retirement savings were wiped out in the banking crisis or because they have worked all their adult lives and that is all they know. Those are not necessarily bad decisions, as long as those decisions are made for the right reasons.

Hiking up Cerro Negro in Nicaragua

When I announced to friends and acquaintances that I was planning to retire at age 62, I cannot tell you how many people tried to warn me against that idea. The reasons given were typically:

  1. You will be bored.
  2. You will lose 25% of your Social Security benefit, and you won’t have enough to live on if you live to a certain age.
  3. Inflation will eat up your purchase power when you are on a fixed income, and you will not be able to maintain your lifestyle.
  4. The cost of health insurance will eat up your life savings, especially if you become ill.

While none of those ideas are wrong, they all have one thing in common. They are all rooted in fear. Fear of the unknown. The unknown is often scary. Anyone without a sense of adventure will always seek the most comfortable, the most predictable, and the most secure path through life. This story is not for those people. My message is for any younger reader who wants to know what retirement might have in store for you, because unlike life after death, I am still able to contact you from the other side and give you a glimpse of what retirement might be like.

First, you will not be bored. Boredom is for people who never developed any interests outside of their careers. And you will finally have time to do many of the things you put off while pursuing career goals, raising a family, or seeking to fulfill your version of The American Dream. You will suddenly have time to go hiking or skiing, time to play with grandchildren or nieces and nephews, time to volunteer at a school or a shelter or a hospital. And perhaps best of all, now you will have the time to travel! All those expensive vacations you put off your whole life, other than maybe Hawaii or The Bahamas, are now a real option.

Macaw photo op at the Bird Park in Iguazu, Argentina

I don’t have time to be bored. I am doing things I always wanted to do and didn’t have time. I am writing for three blogs and I have a children’s book ready to self-publish. I am traveling (40k air miles in 15 months). I also just completed training to be a Certified International Tour Manager through the International Guide Academy. I am now qualified to work as a tour director anywhere in the world, and I am applying for jobs I only dreamed of when I was younger. Who knows what 2013 will bring?

If retirement is not what you think, then what is it? In a word, it is opportunity – the opportunity you have worked your whole life to experience and enjoy. It is a gift of time, something you haven’t had enough of since you were a child – time to read, time to write, time to play, and time to work at whatever you have been putting off.

You don’t have to be all that adventuresome to enjoy retirement. You just have to decide what is important and to live within your means. I accomplished this by moving outside the United States for the time being. I have been blessed with excellent health my whole life, and that is a gift I don’t intend to squander by sitting around. I still have three continents I haven’t yet visited, and I have my blog name to live up to. Part of my legacy will be that of a global explorer.

Florence and I in Argentina near the majestic Andes Mountains.

Back Home in Panama

We are on the turbo-prop commuter flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, and through the clouds I recognize the Pacific coastline of Panama coming into view. We’ve been traveling for over three weeks, and the now familiar landscape surrounding the city of Davíd below us evokes a visceral sense of contentment that comes with knowing we are almost home.

It seems remarkable to experience this sense of pleasure when I reflect on the fact that we lived in Panama for only three months prior to this trip. I compare living here to falling in love. Panama is like an attractive woman with a personality and charm that is irresistible. When you are with her you are immersed in a sensation of heightened pleasure. Food tastes better. Colors seem brighter. We have all experienced something like that. Likewise, when you are apart you can’t wait to see her again. It’s like that. And so I am comforted to be back in Panama.

From The Big Apple to The Big Easy

I’m cruisin’, Mon!

We flew to New York City October 20th from Tocumen Airport in Panama City to board the Norwegian Star for a repositioning cruise that ended in New Orleans two weeks later, our objective being to complete the International Guide Academy’s Certified Tour Manager Training. The seven days at sea were our classroom days. There were twenty-two of us in the class from five countries. Many had no prior group-leading experience. Ultimately, we learned a great deal and we all passed the course.

We were just a couple days ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which impacted a number of the guests on the cruise who didn’t know for several days if they had intact homes to return to back in The Big Apple. Nevertheless, spirits were high and we lucked out with great weather the entire cruise.

Our cruise ended in New Orleans. This was my first visit to The Big Easy, and it is like no other city I have ever visited. Total strangers walked up to us tourists (the camera hung from the neck is an obvious tell) to ask where we were from and if we needed help finding anything. The beignets were so good in the morning that I went back for more at lunchtime. Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River evoked recollections of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. Incredible music wafted from every direction. If ever there were a city I would want to revisit it would be New Orleans.

Florence brings a gift to Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen.

We had one last duty to perform before our departure. It so happens that my wife, Florence, had visited the grave of Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen, back in 2005 before we met, and wished for a husband. As this wish was obviously granted, Florence was obligated to return to Marie Laveau’s gravesite with a thank-you offering (because you don’t mess with voodoo). Florence had picked out a ring of beads to honor her pact, which she dutifully placed on the tomb with a blessing of thanks. We were immediately engaged in a conversation with a local visitor to this famous site, after which we turned our attention back to the tomb. The ring had disappeared. It had not fallen to the ground, and no one else had approached the site during this brief encounter. We are at a loss to explain this event other than to say that perhaps The Voodoo Queen recognized the gift as genuine and took it with her to wherever she now resides.

Now we can head for home.

Vacation of a Lifetime – Conclusion (not)

La Portada near Antofagasta is an attraction on Chile’s amazing coastline

I’m looking out over Lake Llanquihue from our hillside hotel window in the Bavaria-like town of Puerto Varas, Chile, with some apprehension. My spirits are high after my field trip by bus and boat to the mountain retreat of Puella, a resort hidden away in a national park near the border with Argentina. I am awed by the natural beauty of crystal clear lakes and rivers, snowcapped volcanoes, and lush green countryside.

The fertile Lakes Region of Chile has a distinctly rural feel.

As I gaze upon the compact pickup truck that Hertz dropped off out front, the realization hits me that I am committed to six weeks of driving the length of Chile. That’s a little intimidating. Most of the leading on this trip has been done by someone who knows the area, the language, and perhaps most important, the route. I’m good with directions. I can envision a route after reading a map. However, locating addresses and landmarks in cities I’ve never been to makes me as nervous as going to the dentist. (Is this going to hurt?)

The back seat is loaded and we’re off to our first stop, the coast city of Valdivia. Right away I love Route 5, the Pan American Highway of Chile. Accurate road signs are great, and the gas stations along the freeway are truck stop havens with restaurants, convenience stores, and showers. Most driving days require about four hours on the road, and we typically allow three days in each town. That’s pretty easy going with plenty of time to explore each spot along the way. We are in the aptly named Lakes Region of Chile which is lush and fertile with a distinctly rural feel. Locals pour into the area for summer vacations, and Pucón is a tourism paradise. The town is pretty dead when we are there because it’s not summer.

Volcán Villarica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, overlooks the town of Pucón.

Spring is only a week away, but it’s still cold. Our host tells us they have already used an extra cord of firewood for heat this year.Heading north into the Rivers Region, we enter Chile’s agricultural heartland. Everything grows here – citrus, berries, vegetables, potatoes, olives, and grapes. Especially grapes, as Chile is now being one of the world’s leading wine exporters. Like the San Joaquin Valley of California, this area has the capacity to feed most of the continent. We leave the main highway opting for the coast route to Concepción, and we see hundreds of acres of eucalyptus trees growing on tree farms. Logging trucks slow our progress going uphill and tailgate like hell going downhill. AAGH!

I fast forward past Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, La Serena, Bahía Inglesa, Antofagasta and Iquique. Each location is worthy of mention. However, the Atacama Desert of northern Chile cannot go without elaborating. Average rainfall is measured here in millimeters. Absolutely nothing grows for countless miles. Vast areas look like the surface of Mars. Its beauty is almost haunting in its desolation. And in the middle of all this seclusion is

Valley of the Moon National Park
Parts of the Atacama Desert look like the surface of Mars.

San Pedro de Atacama. Its treasures lie hidden behind high adobe walls and dusty dirt streets. There are restaurants, gift shops, hostels and campgrounds, hotels, spas and resorts. At first glance no one would expect the allure and incredible diversity of this remote outpost.

We have a week in Santiago before our departure. There is time to reflect on the Vacation of a Lifetime. I have had four months to see amazing places, to meet people I will never forget, and to recalibrate my perspective. This was unquestionably a lifetime highlight, and there is no conclusion to the story. I now treat every day as an extension of a vacation I waited too long to begin. I have dubbed myself global explorer. I will share my stories with anyone who is interested as I endeavor to live up to that title. I suppose that will be my legacy.