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

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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.

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.

Have a cigar!

Today I learned more about cigars than I ever thought mattered. Apparently it did matter because, even though neither my wife nor I smoke, we both bought cigars to try. Talking with the owner of Panama Caribbean Tobacco, David Reynaga, we learned how tobacco is grown, dried, prepped, sorted, rolled, shaped, finished, labeled, packaged, and ultimately marketed and sold. We were told the gift cigars we bought for $4.00 would retail in Panama City for at least $7.00, and in the U. S. they could sell for $15 or more.

The pipe-shaped cigar in the pipe-shaped box is a quality cigar and a novelty.

There were a few surprises in store, like cigars in shapes like a pipe, a hockey stick, and pencil-thin miniature cigars. There was even a monster cigar, and no serious cigar lover would attempt to light up such a manly smoke without a couple hours to kick back and contemplate life’s simple pleasures.

I was told you don’t inhale cigar smoke. The pleasure is in tobacco’s earthy aroma and the fragrances released in the smoke, not unlike incense. A major difference between cigars and other forms of tobacco like cigarettes is that you don’t light a cigar unless you have 30-60 minutes to relax and enjoy the experience. Cigar smoking is a social activity; like drinking fine wine, it is seldom done alone. Another difference is that cigars are not habit forming. When I asked about nicotine cravings, I was told nicotine isn’t what gets you hooked on cigarettes. It’s the other chemicals, the ones the tobacco industry won’t talk about, that make you chemically dependent on cigarettes.

Owner, David Reynaga (on right), loves sharing his knowledge. His company produces the only 100% Panamanian cigar, a great choice for the connoisseur.

Whether or not you have the urge to light up a cigar, the tour of Panama Caribbean Tobacco in Concepción, Chiriqui, Panama, is well worth the trip. Entry is free of charge. To find the place, leave the Pan American Highway in Concepción on the road to Volcán, about 19 km. west of David. The turn is well-marked driving west. Drive 3-5 minutes and look for the green building next door to and just before the Terpel Gas Station on your left. Say “hi” to David for me.

This monster cigar is the largest custom made cigar I have ever seen.

Cigars made petite and mild are designed for women. Florence hasn’t tried one yet.


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