Versatile Blogger Award

versatileblogger111Thank you to the thoughtful blogger/photographer at squirrel and pear for acknowledging me with this award. I have wondered from time to time if my posts were worthy of recognition, so this affirmation is appreciated.

Versatile Blogger Award Guidelines

  • Display the Award Certificate on your website
  • Announce your win with a post and link to whoever presented your award
  • Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers
  • Drop them a comment to tip them off after you’ve linked them in the post
  • Post 7 interesting things about yourself.

Blogs I admire and wish to recognize for content, quality, and general appeal:

  1. ardent & awkward / in a u s t i n – This writer motivated me to get started writing, and thus warrants the top spot. The content of her blog is not only fascinating, but also technically flawless as you might expect from an English teacher.
  2. Tales from the Motherland – This devoted mother and writer tells tales from the heart. We also have geographic roots in common.
  3. expatlogue – This lovely expat mother courageously bares her sole in some of her offerings with an entertaining and inimitable writing style.
  4. Go Curry Cracker! – This young expat couple makes Mexico come alive with interesting, insightful stories and great photo imagery.
  5. Writing by the Numbers – An aspiring author and entertaining blogger, once you read her blog the title becomes self-evident.
  6. brickthomas’s Blog – A kindred spirit; as he embarks upon a RTW (round the world) trip, I am eager to share his experiences vicariously.
  7. Loca Gringa – An expat Canadian living in the Dominican Republic, our common love of Latin American caused our paths to cross.
  8. Waves and Ruins – This attractive young couple is seeking the best surfing beaches and interesting attractions throughout Latin America. I am eager to read of their experiences.
  9. DavidCrews – Art, poetry, philosophy, and world travel – this blogger brings beauty and thoughtfulness to his web pages.
  10. Around The World With Steve – His RTW adventure started in January, 2013, and I am following along, perhaps to see where I might wish to go next.
  11. Life + Spanish + Travel A photo blog from a fellow expat now living in Mexico. The images are captivating.
  12. Comedy Travel Writing – A humorous and irreverent assortment of travel adventures ideally suited to readers with a somewhat warped sense of humor.
  13. RD REVILO – A poetry blog by an interesting fellow with topical relevance and thought-provoking opinion and insight.
  14. Let The Adventure Begin! – This couple is preparing to start a new lifestyle in Panama. Holly shares the experience of preparing for the exciting changes as they occur.
  15. Through Harold’s Lens – The title is self-explanatory. View various interesting places in the world through the unique images regularly offered.

Seven things about me you may find interesting:

  1. My wife and I met on a cruise to Alaska in 2005. We have done a lot of traveling together since.
  2. We have visited 10 countries in the past 18 months, most of which I have blogged about. Florence is the photographer.
  3. We are excellent at downsizing. We sold two cars, one house, and all other belongings worth anything. We are now unencumbered and free to move about the world at our leisure, and we do.
  4. I have had three careers (min. 10 years each) in my working life: parks and recreation supervisor, Teamster truck driver, and community relations manager with a Fortune 100 company.
  5. I moonlighted as a professional ski instructor for five years before I retired and started traveling. I still occasionally miss the slopes.
  6. I have two grown daughters, and now two grandsons, all of whom I am incredibly proud.
  7. I am coming out of retirement for Summer 2013 to work as a professional tour director in the Pacific Northwest. I will probably write about that, too.

Mexico De-Mythified

The town of Tepoztlán as seen from the surrounding hills.

The town of Tepoztlán as seen from the surrounding hills.

I have spent little time in Mexico prior to my recent move to Cuernavaca. I admit my mental images of Mexico have been dominated by two media-transmitted stereotypes. The first image is right out of movies like The Magnificent Seven or about Pancho Villa where the local people are peasant farmers and the bad guys are horsemen with big sombreros and bandoliers of bullets crisscrossing their chests. In these movies it is always hot, everybody is perspiring, and Banditothere is no water to be found for miles.

The second image comes from movies and news stories portraying drug cartel violence where the bad guys drive shiny Escalades or Humvees, carry machine pistols in their thigh holsters, and are seldom seen without an AK-47 held across their chests. (How they keep those SUV’s shiny while driving on dirt roads all the time is a mystery.) These guys have either just killed a bunch of rivals and innocent civilians, or they are prepared to do so if anyone interferes with their drug transaction to move a few bundles of cocaine across the border into the United States.

Sundays at the market in Tepoztlán are the busiest days.

Sundays at the market in Tepoztlán are the busiest days.

As it turns out, I have seen little evidence of poverty, violence, or water shortage. The grocery stores are immaculate. The open air markets have amazing selections of fresh fruits and vegetables at great prices. The arid reaches of the northern desert are nowhere in evidence in the central states. And I have not heard a single gunshot at any time during my first week in Mexico.

My first impression of the cities is they are clean. Even with a scarcity of garbage cans, garbage and litter get picked up regularly. The countryside is a mixture of open space, scenic mountains, and pine forests stretching beyond the horizon. The weather is mild even in January with daily temperatures in the 70° – 80°F range. With these considerations, Mexico is pleasant.

The State of Morelos in Central Mexico is lush, fertile, and scenic.

The State of Morelos in Central Mexico is lush, fertile, and scenic as seen from this mountain view.

The best part of Mexico is the people. On the drive from the airport, I commented to our driver, Vicente, that people seemed less reserved than the local people of the Central American countries we have visited. To which he replied, “Nuestros corazones están abierto.” Our hearts are open. And he is right. I have not felt the suspicious eyes of people watching me like I am an exploitive American. (Latinos have stereotypes of Americans, too.)

It is with a sense of ease and comfort that we begin to settle into our daily way of life in Mexico. We have experienced some of the culture and history of Mexico along with some amazingly good food. These are some of the benefits of living here, and we have barely scratched the surface.

living in Panama

Traveling and Living Abroad Cheaply

Even the automobiles are preserved in historic Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay.

Even the automobiles are preserved in historic Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay.

My experiences traveling and living outside the United States over the past two years have provided me with some insights which I will share here. Please add ideas from your own experiences so that those who follow in our footsteps might benefit. I am not addressing traditional vacationers who travel on a larger budget and stay in more upscale resorts or who prefer cruises.

This article addresses two distinct groups:

  1. those who wish to travel abroad cheaply, and
  2. those who wish to live abroad cheaply.
We learn how easy it is to make new friends at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile.

We learn how easy it is to make new friends at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile.

The former group consists of those whose objective is to see some of the world on a tight budget. These folks typically backpack, camp, couch surf, utilize hostels, and travel mostly by bus. They will discover places they love and perhaps one day they will return to live for awhile.

I enjoy traveling with this group. Hostels are great places to meet travelers and there is a constant turnover of people. The hostel is a communal environment, and everyone has a story to tell. Also, hostels provide the use of a community kitchen where we can prepare food ourselves rather than eating every meal at a restaurant. Think twice about hostelling if you like to go to bed early because hostel folks are generally better at partying than us older people.

An incredible variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, etc. is sold at the Central Market in Valencia, Spain.

An incredible variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, etc. is sold at the Central Market in Valencia, Spain.

Most people decide to live abroad because it is less expensive. They have a source of income, and most often they are retired. I am a member of this group. I have spent time in a dozen countries. In each locale I ask myself the question, “Would I want to live here?” Here are some sample criteria, all of which pertain to quality of life:

  1. Is living here affordable?
  2. Would I feel comfortable going for a walk or bike ride here?
  3. Is the air clean?
  4. Are there interesting things to see and do?
  5. Is the climate agreeable?

Once you find a place where you would like to live, here are some basic tips:

It takes two Walk lights to cross the Av. 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It takes two cycles of the WALK light to cross the Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, the world’s widest boulevard.

  1. Rent, do not buy. Anything can happen to change your mind about where you wish to live. Do not get tied down until you have lived someplace for an entire year. If you decide to buy a home, make sure you fully understand the laws governing property ownership. And yes, you will probably need to consult with a local attorney, so ask around for a good one.
  2. Determine if you will need a car. Is the local transportation system reliable? You can save a lot of money doing without a car, and you can always rent a car for special outings.
  3. Learn the language. Even if you only know a few words in a foreign language, use them. And keep studying to improve. The more you learn the more you will enjoy the local culture.
  4. People typically over-pack. Go light where you can, especially with books. (Invest in an eReader.)
  5. Make sure you have a good internet connection. This is how you will stay in touch with the folks back home.
  6. Be flexible in your plans. You may discover something better than what you planned once you hit the road.
  7. Start researching now for the lifestyle you wish to pursue later. Get excited!

My blog is all about the places we have seen and the places where we have lived. We do not plan to stay in one location for more than a year, so we will not be buying a house. We are already thinking about the next place we wish to live. Until then I will be sharing my stories from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Sicily, I Haven’t Forgotten You

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

I have focused so much on our travels and life abroad in Latin America that I have completely overlooked our recent trip to Sicily. This story is all about family. My father-in-law’s family emigrated from Sicily. We are talking about a BIG, Italian-size family. There are still over a hundred of their relatives living in and around Santa Maria in the north mountain country of Sicily.

Every biblical scene is done in mosaic detail.

Every biblical scene is done in minute mosaic detail.

My wife has visited Sicily on five previous occasions. This time, however, was the first time she visited with a husband. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what the local customs were for greeting a new member of the family. I can now tell you there is a lot of hugging and kissing involved. I finally got the hang of the alternating-cheek air kiss. The hugs vary depending on the family relationship – longer hugs with grandparents than with second or third cousins. The children give big hugs as soon as their parents announce, “He is your cousin.” Then they want to play.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

Leading up to the family reunion is a twelve day private motorcoach tour of Sicily with family from the States. There is so much history here and so many sights to see. Every civilization that ever amounted to anything left its footprint in Sicily, and with good reason. Sicily served as the breadbasket to every empire that spread through the Old World. Geographically, Sicily is situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea. To this day there are more preserved Greek ruins in Sicily than there are in Greece. And the Romans picked up where the Greeks left off. There is also Spanish blood and Anglo blood in the Sicilian pedigree, which is evident when you notice the many Sicilians with light hair color and blue or hazel eyes.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

We arrived by cruise ship in the Port of Catania after stops in Naples, Florence, and Pisa, Italy, Villefranche, France, Valencia, Spain, the Spanish Isle of Ibiza, and Tunis, Tunisia. My in-laws meet us in Catania. They had to rush home to the States for a family funeral the last time they were in Sicily. This may be their last opportunity to see family. Plus, Dad speaks beautiful Sicilian, and that is a huge benefit for the giant reunion that awaits.

My wife’s favorite spot in Sicily is Taormina, perched precariously on top of a small mountain. The Greek Amphitheater overlooking the sea is beyond compare. My favorite spot was the Aeolian Island of Lipari. The crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and the views from the cliff road make this island paradise idyllic.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

You cannot mention Sicily without mentioning the spectacular cathedrals. The 21,000 square feet of mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale overlooking the capital city of Palermo are among the finest in Italy, if not the world. And in Tindiri, there is the Cathedral of the Black Madonna with its amazing folklore to go along with the architecture. There are other churches of note. However, the final stop on the ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) is the one in Santa Maria with the family name carved in stone along with the date, 1598.

I have not even touched on the food. I started out thinking the national dish of Sicily is eggplant because I could not get away from it. I eventually found alternatives. The world can take lessons from Italy on how to make dessert. The gelato is the best to be found anywhere and the cannolis are to die for!

A genuine Italian cannoli - whipped ricotta cheese and honey filling and rolled in crushed pistachios.

A genuine Italian cannoli is filled with whipped ricotta cheese and honey and then rolled in crushed pistachios.



living in Panama

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.