If the Tooth Hurts…

photo credit: deviantart.com

photo credit: deviantart.com

On our last day in Panama as we were waiting for our plane to Mexico City, I bit into a hard candy and broke a tooth. It was the first molar, top right – or to borrow from the technical terminology of the dentistry profession, tooth #14.

dentistI cannot fault the hard candies of Panama, which are actually quite yummy. This dental fracture was an accident waiting to happen. The filling in this tooth was probably 40 years old, and as you will learn as you get older, nothing lasts forever. I knew I was going to need a crown for this broken tooth. I have a few of those already, so I know from experience what is involved. Armed with this knowledge I did the logical thing. I put off going to the dentist for as long as possible.

Our deadline for departure from Mexico is looming, and I know medical and dental costs are less here than in the U. S. So I finally made an appointment based on my friend Jim’s referral. The dentist (orthodontist, actually) fit me in the following morning. He looked at my tooth, cleaned it up a bit, and as cheerfully as one can deliver this message he said, “You need a root canal.” He then took an X-ray of the tooth to take to Dr. Martinez, who he assured me, was the finest dentist in town when it comes to root canals. Dr. Martinez scheduled me for two days later.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

I had never had a root canal before. Call me a wimp if you must, but based on all the root canal stories I have heard, I was seriously averse to this dentist visit. But I went anyway. Just like with any dental work she first numbed my mouth. Ha – I did not feel a thing! She was good with the needle, but how about with the drill? All I can say is the orthodontist was right. Dr. Martinez was the best. I caught a glimpse of her dental school diploma on the way out. She graduated from dental school in 1988 – twenty-five years ago. She did not look old enough to have twenty-five years experience, but she certainly performed like a seasoned professional! I was impressed.

Dental expenses in Mexico

The consultation with the orthodontist including the X-ray: 400 pesos ($33)
Root canal and filling on my broken tooth: 3,200 pesos ($264)

I looked up the cost for a root canal in the U. S. Figures range from $700 to over $1,000. Many insurance programs cover only 50% of a root canal, so I think I did pretty well. We will see what the crown ends up costing.

What’s on TV, or Who Stole the Remote?

Photo credit - CBS Television

For entertainment we turn to books first. I like mysteries. Florence prefers biographies. However, we can only pack so many books. And since neither of us is inclined to spend $10 or more for our eBooks, we turn on the television when the last paperback is finished.

Photo credit - CBS Television

Over the past two years we have become quite familiar with the prime time television shows from the U. S. that Latin Americans love the most. Number one on the list has to be Two and a Half Men. Latino men in particular love the sexual innuendos, especially the episodes with Charlie Sheen. Coming on strong in popularity is The Big Bang Theory. These two shows along with Friends are often shown in hours-long marathons.

We learned these popular sitcoms serve as a means for Latinos to learn English. We also found that studying the English lyrics of popular music has helped people become fluent in English, particularly with the student population, who view English fluency as an important step toward better job opportunities.

Photo credit - CBS Television

Given our level of Spanish comprehension, our television viewing usually comes down to what is being broadcast in English. In the past two years, I think we have watched every rerun ever made of Law and Order, Law and Order – SVU, House, CSI, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami.

We had some favorite TV shows before leaving the United States. Florence loves NCIS, which plays in Mexico about a month later than new episodes in the states. My favorites include Burn Notice, Justified, and The Closer, none of which are shown in first-run. I would have signed up for Hulu+ or Netflix except copyright laws prevent streaming outside the U. S. Fortunately, our cable service in Mexico airs a couple of old favorites in both Spanish and English under different names: Pawn Stars is El Precio de la Historia (The Price of History), and American Pickers is Cazadores de Tesoros (Treasure Hunters).

csiTelevision shows broadcast in English typically have Spanish subtitles, and since literal translation is not always possible, there are sometimes funny interpretations. For example, a character on one show said, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and the Spanish translation on the screen was, “Just like Pinocchio.” My favorite translation malapropism was when a character said, “It’s Greek to me,” and the subtitle read, “It’s Chinese to me.”

Warning to family and friends: If we visit and you think we are spending too much time in front of the television, it is only because we have a lot of catching up to do.

Photo credits – CBS Television

Expat Living – Financing the Dream

Aconcagua, highest point in the Western Hemisphere as seen from Libertadores Pass.

Aconcagua, highest point in the Western Hemisphere as seen from Libertadores Pass.

A previous post, Announcing the Six Monthers, describes our desire to move to a new location every six months. This lifestyle gives us time to acquaint ourselves with the local culture and discover places and things that are off the beaten path. This is how we did it.

The ancient city of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.

The ancient city of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.

First, we have no debt. All credit card balances are paid off every month. Next, we downsized. This was the most significant challenge, and sentimental value cannot be casually dismissed. Take the time to enjoy the things you have. Then ask yourself if you want to pack them with you. We made a rule. If we boxed up stuff and we did not reopen the box within a year, we did not need it. Whatever you do, do not purchase storage space because the cost of storage will soon be greater than the value of your stuff.

The view from our cabin at Selva Negra Eco-lodge in Nicaragua.

Selva Negra Eco-Lodge and coffee farm in Nicaragua.

We are not wealthy by any means. In fact, when we first decided to move outside the United States it was because we could not afford to live most places in the States on my retirement income. Florence will not be eligible to retire for another ten years, and she would have to work full-time for us to afford living in the States, especially given the cost of health care. That still leaves many countries where we can live comfortably on my $1,500/month Social Security check. Any country where rent and utilities cost under $800/month is within our means, including Mexico where we live now, and Florence works only if she so chooses.

Villefranche on the French Riviera near Monaco

Villefranche on the French Riviera near Monaco

The fun part is deciding where to live. As you consider your options, you should also plan how to adapt to your new lifestyle. Do you need to learn a new language? If so, it is not too soon to start studying. Is hot water a luxury or a necessity? We lived in Panama for $300/month with hot water only in the shower. We saved a lot of money, but it got old after awhile. The key is to live within your means and to adapt your lifestyle to your income.

This is not a vacation. This is the part of your life you will spend seeing the world, so pace yourself. Have fun making plans. Also, be flexible and change your plans should you discover better options along the way.

Mike and Florence at Laguna Gray, Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Mike and Florence at Laguna Gray, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

Perhaps most important of all, be on excellent terms with your significant other. Traveling abroad is not couples therapy. If you think this goes without saying, let me ask this. When was the last time you and your significant other shared a confined space while it rained for several days in a row? Do you still make each other laugh?

If you would have told me two years ago I would be moving every six months, I would have laughed at the thought of it. I did not even have a passport two years ago! All I am saying is if I can do it so can you. Good luck and buen viaje!

living in Mexico

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

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.

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

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.