Monday, January 28, 2013

Another Week Gone By....

Now that we're almost to the end of our 3 months here, I think it's time to write about some of our OBSERVATIONS of this wonderful country!!

The people here have been fabulous!! They are a happy people (maybe that's why Panama was just recognized as having the "happiest" people in the world!).  They also work hard, very hard!! They also play hard, very hard!! 

We've been met with smiles and Buenas or Holas everywhere.  They drop the "dias", "tardes", or "noches" here.

When either waiting for a bus or on the bus, they want to converse with us. We know they appreciate that we're showing we're no better than they are by getting around just like the majority of them do.  And, believe me patience IS a virtue!!

We love the diversity of topography within an area about the size of South Carolina.  It's easy to go from the beach to the highlands of the mountains in only about an hour!  At some points you can see both the Pacific and the Caribbean Oceans.

We love the ease of taking the bus wherever we want to go!  They run smoothly and very efficiently with regularity.

We love the weather along the Pacific Ocean coast.

We love that we have been able to live within our budget of only $1,800 per month for EVERYTHING!!!  And, feeling like we're living well!!

We love that we have felt safe everywhere we've gone. The crime here is no different that at home.  If you're prudent, just as you should be at home, all will be well.  Those here who feel a need to announce that they are wealthy will pay a price.  Again, we've walked at night in local neighborhoods, walked about towns at night, and never felt uneasy.

Assimilating in this beautiful country is very easy!!  Having the same currency and driving on the same side of the road is a big factor.

We have found out that we love the new friends that we made in Boquete but would probably not live there year round.  We've discovered that it's time to say "good bye" to cooler temperatures and lots of rain.  We want a more dry tropical climate where we can wear our shorts or sun dresses every day and never have to worry about a sweater or a coat.

We know we love the language!! Mike's Spanish has gotten very good and I'm so very impressed by him!!  He just charges into conversations and has learned so much from so many locals.  He's a true student and EVERY day he practices and studies his language books and dictionaries. Such dedication!!

And, I'm able to partake in conversations without totally making a fool of myself.  It's still hard for me to initiate a conversation but I'm beginning to do that too.  Not too bad for a true beginner in only 3 months with only 10 hrs of real classes.  Practice makes perfect and by opening yourself up to being in the company of the locals, you can't help but grasp some of it.

We know we can laugh at ourselves.  We know that with a good, happy attitude life is a whole lot easier no matter where you are!! That by "trying" no matter what it is, you'll be rewarded!

I now that I HATE the chitras, no see ems, and sand fleas because they just LOVE me and I'm allergic to them. But, it was the same in the states for me too. So I just have to keep remembering to spray on the bug spray.

My finger nails LOVE it here!!  They've never been healthier and I love showing them off with beautiful color polishes purchased for only $.60 - $1.50 instead of the $5-$10 per bottle in the states!!

Mike has really relaxed and he looks years younger because of many factors. And, I hope the same goes for me.

We just know that we are truly enjoying this journey and look forward to many more great experiences in many more countries with many more wonderful people!!

So since I last wrote, we've done a few more exploratory day trips.

Last Wednesday we attended an Expat meeting in a small town called El Espino about 4 km up from the Pan American Highway toward El Valle.  We met some new people and saw some that we already knew.

The speaker was an attorney from Coronado explaining the new Friendly Nation Visa, which allows someone to work in Panama.  This is a new visa that is quite easy to qualify for but we're told that it will probably be revoked once Martinelli isn't in office any longer come May, 2014. 

Anyway, the point I wanted to make, is that there is ONE or TWO in every crowd that have to speak louder, be more insistent, think they know more than the "expert", and feel compelled to just be a jerk!!  This has been our experience at every expat meeting we've gone to and this was no exception! How absolutely embarrassing! Go get a life and your thrills elsewhere or better yet, go home where you came from!  If you know it all already, why even come!!!  You make life for the rest of us who are thankful to be in such a beautiful country and allowed to live well here, much more difficult. 

So after the meeting and a lovely lunch, Mike and I, along with the swimsuits we had packed, continued up the mountain by bus to experience the Pozos Termales, the Thermal Pools.  It's only $2.25/person to get in and is run by the community of El Valle.  Visitors and Panamanians alike utilize this wonderful spot!

You begin by slathering the medicinal mud - barró - onto your face.  There's "regular" and "sensitive" skin mud. The "sensitive" mud being much darker than the other.  Mike chose not to do it all!  But, me, of course, had to take full advantage of this experience!!  Please no laughing from the peanut gallery!!  The mud dries so hard that I was actually trying to smile in this picture and failed miserably!!

As you can see, I wasn't the only one.  There was a couple from Holland that didn't read the signs and proceeded to slather the mud all over their bodies!!  Now, that was funny to see!!

Once it's all dry, you wash it off from the warm water being spewn from a pipe.  You can either let it dry by sitting in a "waiting" area or, as I did, sitting in a warm pool that has wonderful nutrients in it.  Mike said he could feel his body tingle.  I didn't. 

We took a stroll into an area we hadn't been before but decided to get back on the bus and get off at a sweet Italian restaurant that we had seen a few times just outside of the El Espino.  When we got there, it was only 5pm so we were the only ones.  Met the Italian owner, Fabricio, and they took good care of us!!  A nice drink, which included a rare dark Belgian Leffe for Mike,  a little leisure conversation, and then the most exquisite hand made and wood fire cooked pizza!! OMG! To die for!!

Thursday, the highlight, was being invited to swim in the pool at Costa Grande with friends.  We love the beach but there's nothing like bringing your body temps down in a refreshing pool without all the blowing sand. Funny thing was that my flip flop broke on the way there so I did some recycle shopping and found a discarded shoe to help me get up the gravel road!! There's many a shoe discarded everywhere here!! Chip came to my rescue and duck taped my broken shoe so I could make it the rest of the night. Thank You!!

From there a group of us headed over to La Ruina for dinner.  A very nice day, indeed!

Friday was adventure day again! We set out to go back to the BIG city.  We were at Albrook Mall by 11:30 am and the first thing we did was go have a Quiznos!  The food court in this humungous mall is mostly American food chains.  You'd never know you were in a foreign country except for all the Spanish speaking people. But, then that could be Miami!!

Our list in hand, we set about looking for several items, which we found almost immediately.  We found the movie theater and saw that Django was showing that afternoon, so we bought tickets. Even though we aren't residents and don't have our Pensionado Visa, the lady gave us the tickets at the senior rate of only $2/each!!  Thank you!

After 3.5 hrs of shopping, we were in the theatre and enjoyed the movie tremendously!  It was with Spanish sub-titles so we didn't have to struggle to understand. 

It was dark when we got out, so off to the bus terminal across the road we went to find our bus back to Gorgona.  By the time we got back to our drop off on the highway at the Gorgona exit (after a 2hr trip back due to construction traffic), the local busses and taxis were no where in sight!  A local took pity on us and offered us a ride at taxis rates and dropped us off at LaRuina for a night cap.

A leisurely weekend with some beach, a swim in the pool again, brunch at Café Coronado, more beach, and drinks back at LaRuina for the Pro Bowl.  I used the time to stroll the beautiful grounds of LaRuina and talk to friends, Tina and Linda, back home. 

We've made our private reservation for our transport to Panama City on the 5th in preparation of our departure from Panama to Costa Rica on the 7th.

I've also begun conversations and inquiries about our impending trip to Ecuador beginning in July.  So many gracious expats out there willing to help you muddle your way through.  There's only so much that research on the internet can do.  Experienced boots on the ground help you piece it together.

So much more  ahead!!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hump Week in Gorgona, Panama

I can't believe how much we've done and seen since I last posted, so you better get another cup of coffee or something to sip on - if it's cocktail hour, pour a glass of wine or grab a beer - because this might be a little long especially since I have lots of new pictures and videos!

Last Thursday, January 17, 2013 we had to set our alarm!! OMG!!!  It went off while still dark but we got to see the sun rise and it was gorgeous as usual coming up over the Bay of Panama on the Pacific Ocean.  We were so excited about venturing to the Big City to meet up with friends, Lesley Mann & David King from Colville, WA!!! 

At the bus stop by 7:15am and it came within minutes of getting there.  The busses run very consistently here every half hour that take us out to the BIG highway - the PanAmerican.  Only this time we didn't have to cross the highway as we were headed northeast to the BIG City, Panama City. 

Our timing couldn't have been better because as we exited the Gorgona bus, they were waving us into the bus to go to PC.  This bus was a medium sized "Coaster" and holds about 40 or so people when all seats are full and we are crammed in. Actually, it's quite comfortable and air conditioned. Since this was the first time we were going in this direction in the daylight, it was quite interesting.  Stopping to pick up more people until it was completely full then getting into that left lane and rushing toward the city. 

We saw beautiful countryside and went up and over a huge pass through a mountain range. Come to find out that's the jungle that our new friend, Frank Marcheski, the owner of LaRuina in Gorgona, fought in during his tour of duty in PA fighting the Noriega days.  Weird to look at all this beauty and think of the past.

Anyway, we crossed over the Bridge of the Americas in only 45 minutes from leaving Gorgona. This is the bridge that crosses over the Canal and is it ever spectacular!!!!  Ships lined up at the mouth on the bay to come through.  More about the Canal later.

This is where we hit "rush hour" traffic!! Came to a stand still.  Reminder of my days in many US cities.  It wasn't far though before we left the highway and circled down toward Allbrook Mall, our final destination on the bus.  However, as we were passing through the Balboa neighborhood, which is where our meeting place was to be at a hostal, I had an inner feeling we should just have the bus let us off.  It felt like we were very close to where we were ultimately going. But, my security senses kicked in and we decided to just ride the bus to Allbrook, a place we were familiar with and then take a cab to our hostal.

HaHaHaHaHa on us!!!!  Once at Allbrook, we used the restrooms, still using Metro Cards we bought our first day in PA, bought some wonderful breakfast pastries and headed out to find a cab.  Some told us flat out NO, they wouldn't take us because it was basically only around the corner.  We did finally find one but he charged us $6 to, yes you guessed it, right where we had passed while on the bus, less than 5 minutes away!!  Our whole bus ride for both of us to PC was $6 and $6 is what they charge to take you into the "real" city by cab from Allbrook.  Oh well, we got there safe and sound but laughed at ourselves!!  What else can you do?  Staying flexible, humble, and have a sense of humor (especially at yourselves) is the best way to travel in a foreign country.

The Hostal Amador Familiar was right there on the corner with a very small sign RIGHT where the bus had passed!!  Anyway, we checked in for the night but our room wasn't ready.  No worries, we only had a backpack.  As it was a bit after 9am and Lesley & David had gone to get their rental car, we knew we wouldn't see them until around 10ish. 

So Mike & I went for a walk around the neighborhood to explore.  It was a typical neat neighborhood with Canal personnel housing since we were on the mouth to the Causeway and just at the beginning of the Canal, where there's lots of government buildings.  We did happen upon a souvenir shop right on the main drag so, of course, we had to go in.  Typical, their prices were quite high compared to the same items we found in El Valle.  We bought nothing but met a couple from Canada - LOTS of Canadians here!!  They had driven down in an RV. Now, that's exploring!!

Not wanting to venture too far, we went back to the hostal close to 10am.  I read my book and Mike did some TV watching.  Once 11am came and went, I told Mike that I would bet anything they were driving around in circles!!  Driving here is absolutely insane and NOTHING is marked!!  You eight know how to get there or you don't!

Well, they finally showed up a bit after noon with tails of their adventure.  We just laughed and enjoyed it right along with them!  They were so apologetic and we just kept telling them not to worry.  That's just the way things are here.  No harm no foul!  We certainly weren't on any time schedule. And, by that time, we were able to check into our room.

Our first goal was to go to the Miraflora Locks on the Canal.  Since I had the iPad with the map, I got to be the navigator.  So off we went!  I got us through the detour maze but before I knew it, we were headed to the BIG city.  In order to turn around (Returno), we had to go through a toll and then weave back around and come back through the toll again!!  A whopping $1.80 mistake!  Actually, this mistake cost us no more than about 10 min. and we found ourselves following the Canal north. The turnoff was fairly evident and we snaked our way through the buildings with the help of a Panamanian guard who had quite a handle on the English language!! So pleasant!! 
Amazing that once you park, the Canal is right there!!  We walked up the stairs and bought our tickets. Mike & I qualified for the "retirement" age and our tickets were only $2.50/ea.  You walk around the corner and BAM there are the locks!!  What was so cool was that one of the biggest ships allowed through was making its final step through the locks within minutes of our arriving!!  Great timing!!

There are several stories of viewing decks but we were able to get great viewing from the very first level.  Since I've seen the locks at the St. Lawrence Seaway - Sioux St. Marie, the process seemed very familiar to me.  It is amazing!!  The largest cargo ships pay about $500,000 to pass through with the smaller ones  paying about $250,000.  The locks are operational 24/7 with the largest passing through during the day and the smaller ones at night.  They wait almost 4 days out at sea before it's their turn!!  And, they are truly lined up one right after the other to get through.  It takes about 8 hours to go through the Canal from one end to the other.  Each ship has a Canal Captain that boards to take it through. 

Canal videos:;

We were also able to see where the Canal expansion project is being done on the west side.  We've met several people along the way that are employed and working on the project.  One being the owner, John Brock, of Smiley's in Pedasi.  The project is supposed to be finished in 2014 but one gentleman we met from England whose working on it said it would be more like 2016.

Anyway, we were all very hungry for lunch after watching the big ship and wanted to eat up at the sit down restaurant on the 3rd floor but the waiting time was 30-45 minutes so we just decided to grab a snack down below at one of the viewing decks.  So very disorganized!!! 

People kept butting in line, which is pretty much how it is here.  We really don't mind or shall I say we keep quiet as "gringos" when they're Panamanians.  However, when it's other foreign tourists, Lesley couldn't resist calling them on it!! LOL  I know it was because she was really hungry and had no patience for rudeness.  There are now 2 foreigners who know they were VERY rude!!  I must say if she hadn't said anything, I would have but she beat me to it!  LOL

After watching another large car container ship go through, we decided to head further north up to the Soberania National Park.  There we found a great short hike up into the jungle.  What a find!!  We saw many leaf cutter ants. Stunning to watch how organized they are!!  Supposedly they will get very angry and bite the heck out of you if you disturb them.  Better just to watch in awe!!

While standing at the end of the trail watching the ants, we all of a sudden began to hear this amazing scary howling sound so very close to us!!  They were howler monkeys!!  We've heard about them but hadn't witnessed them until now.  OMG!!  It was simply incredible!!  Never, ever heard anything like it!!  There seemed to be about 4 or 5 of them but it's hard to see them through the jungle canopy.  But they certainly let you know they're there.  We were all glad we weren't alone when this happened. It would scare the bejesus out of you!!

This is my video link of the howlers:

After listening for quite awhile, they calmed down and we walked down to the waterfall and swimming pond.  As the water didn't look very inviting, we decided NOT to dip our toes in. But the waterfall was pleasant to look at.

From there we continued west through the jungle park back upon the Canal and then headed further north as far as we could go into a small village called Gamboa.  Not much there except for employee housing.  As this is the end of the paved road with only a dirt road continuing on into the depths of the jungle, we decided to turn around and went up to a hotel/marina just on the edge of town that sits on a river that empties into the Canal.  The hotel is actually an Eco Lodge where you take a swinging tram up to your rooms in the jungle.  Way cool!!

Due to timing, the restaurant was only open for another half hour but it was plenty of time for us to have drinks and a snack overlooking the waterway/estuary!  Simply beautiful!!  A great way to end the daylight hours of sight seeing!

Once back at the hostal, it was time for a bit of "down time" before heading out to the Causeway for our evening dinner and entertainment.  The Causeway is actually 4 islands that were connected by the Causeway to change the currents of the Bay for the Canal.  We drove the whole way down to see all of what is there.  Allot!!  Lots of tourist shops, restaurants, and bars.  A great place in the daytime to rent bicycles or just to walk around.

We first chose to stop at Bennigan's - yup, the US chain.  ONLY because Mike thought they would have good draft beer.  Hahahahaha - NOT!!  So we only stayed long enough to have one drink and went back north and stopped for dinner at a "typico" Mi Ranchito, a very popular Panamanian fare.  But, they had a table for us right away and an absolutely stunning view over the Bay of the City all lit up!  Sitting under a thatched roof pagoda eating wonderful food while listening to live Latin music with a gorgeous view is hard to beat!!

So after a full mean, drinks and even desert, we moved our very full selves back to our hostal.  A great fun evening with friends in a foreign land!!  Gotta love it!!

Up and at 'em and on the road by 9:15am, we were easily navigated via iPad and a sign(!!) within minutes of departing.  Crossing over the Bridge headed west this time, David skillfully got us through traffic and into Coronado by 11am where we had brunch at a new restaurant called Café Coronado. Really yummy food at a good price!!

David's mission was to get his lovely long silver locks all cut off!  He said he wanted a haircut like Mike's. So that's exactly what he did!!  We took him to same place Mike got his cut and after waiting awhile while 3 other men got their buzz cuts, it was his turn.  Here are the before and after pics. He looks great!!  Hope you still like it, David.

A few fresh vegetables purchased for them because you can't get them that easily in Pedasi and they were taking us "home".  Showed them our place for comparison purposes and they did like our view of the ocean.  And, they were off by 2pm to their own journey here in this beautiful country!!  Thanks for sharing a little time with us along the way!!  Would love to travel with you guys any time so come find us wherever we are!

Mike and I decided to lay low on Friday evening but I did book our hotel for our last 2 nights in Panama City.  We decided since we'd already been at the Causeway, we would book into the El Cangrejo district of the Big city.  Our "digs" will be in the Victoria Hotel & Suites with a pool and close by lots of shopping, restaurants, casino, etc. within walking distance.

Saturday we took another long walk in the northern direction of the beach from Gorgona.  We stopped along the way to see the place where a couple of new friends are staying - Coasta Grande.  They are individual bungalows with a beautiful pool and a view of the ocean.  When I was looking for rentals, they were all way over our budget.  As is the case here, the prices for the same thing are all over the board.  The least expensive we knew someone rented one was for $750/month and there are those that are paying as much as $1,200/month for the very same thing.

That evening a new friend, Ohton, who lives in our building was playing his drums with another expat at a local place called "Locos".  It's only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  We had a most delicious dinner that Mike and I split because it was HUGE - the Cuban sandwich.  Yummy!!  During the course of the evening we met the owner, David, and another couple, Len & Lynn.  They actually live in Playa Blanca.  We learned that there IS a true gringo community but it's not "in" any specific village/town, it's those all along the beach area. So we fortunately will be going to their monthly Wednesday meeting on Wednesday, which is in the village of Uvas, which means "grapes"!

After bidding our adieus there, we stopped into LaRuina for a night cap.  Met up with friend, Steve, and played Jenga again!!  LOVE that game!!

Sunday I laid low all day and did about nothing while Mike went to LaRuina to watch the football games.  I just watched the first game on my computer through Satellite Direct, which is live TV direct to my computer, took a nap, and found the Dexter series on Netflix to watch.  Need one of those kind of days every once in awhile!  LOL

Yesterday it was time to go exploring again!  Decided to head up to Altos del Maria, which is up in the mountains but not far from here.  Took the bus again and found ourselves dropped off in the town of Sora.  You could tell that things were beginning to change there due to the new hotel and allot of new construction on shops and restaurants. 

However, it was still another 2kms UP to Altos!!  And, I mean UP!!  So UP we walked and walked and walked.  The views from up there were tremendous!  We could see our building, which is only 7 stories high, from there.  Upon reaching Altos though, we weren't given the time of day by the sales staff.  I guess they figured if we took the bus and had to walk in, we didn't have the resources to live there!!  Don't want to live in a gated community like that anyway - so there!

So after catching our breath and enjoying the views, we started back down the mountain working different muscles. LOL  Once at the bottom we were going to try and find somewhere to have a drink but the bus was there and we decided it would be safer to take it as we didn't know when the next one would come.  Don't seem to run as often up there.  Funny though, the bus we climbed into turned up the mountain to go up towards Altos right where we had just come from!!  At least it only went half way up so we didn't feel too bad.  At least we got our aerobic exercise!

Once down the mountain, and because we were already most of the way toward Punta Chame, we decided to catch another bus there.  Punta Chame is literally a long peninsula that is about 27 miles long.  It has beautiful white sand beaches and is almost completely undeveloped.  Mostly because the sting rays love to swim all around and you have to be very careful when going into the water.  There is a small bay that catches lots of wind and the hotel at the end, NitroCity, has a wind surfer school. 

Once the bus let us off at the beginning on the highway we waited for a bus but none came.  We decided to catch a cab and Mike thought he had negotiated $10 down and back, which I had my doubts about. The cab driver had his wife and little son in the front seat and drove about 120km/hour to get us there.  A little harrowing!!  He let Mike & I out at the end to get some pictures of the point and then back we went at harrowing speeds again!!  When he let us out, he and Mike had a "discussion" about price, which I wasn't surprised at!! LOL  Final decision - $15 for the round trip.  I was just glad to be in one piece!!

We took the bus back up to Coronado to find a bar and have a drink.  Mike sat next to this Panamanian who was just delightful and wanted to practice his English.  He was an electrician up at Altos and needed to converse with all different nationalities.  Mike worked on his Spanish and the guy worked on his English.  A great exercise!!

Found a Panamanian bar that was open on a Monday and we sat with ice cold Panama's quenching our thirst!  Again, the only gringos in there.  Love it!!  A few groceries purchased and wanted to take the bus back.  However, at "rush hour" it's almost impossible to get on a bus especially when we hang back to let all the locals get on first.  They packed them in like sardines!!  So, decided to catch a cab.  Yup, avenue of least resistance!!

A nice gourmet lasagna cooked at home last night and a Face Time video call with good friends, Lily & Bret to catch up with them. 

I've started communicating allot more with expats in Ecuador as our time there is close enough to begin that process.  Our thoughts are that we will fly into Cuenca but may not stay as long as we had originally thought there due to weather.  Mike & I definitely want something warmer with less rain and having the ocean/beaches is really, really nice!!  So have been focusing on other areas to spend our 3 months - Salinas, Manta, Vilcabamba, Loja.  Anyone out there have any thoughts or comments on this??

Today maybe over to our friends swimming pool but definitely a walk on the beach and probably a swim.  Oh, did I mention that my hips are screaming at me today from our "walk" up the mountain yesterday??  Oh baby, screaming!!

And, have I mentioned the winds?  Today they're gusting at about 40mph!!  They usually arrive in the dry season here.  Today is exceptionally windy though and we aren't opening our windows until things calm down a bit, which they usually do later in the afternoon but maybe not today.

Chau for now!