Men with Mangoes

Standard

On our way home from a long walk, Billy, Sammy and I pass a man with a cartful of mangoes. Admiring his bounty I ask, “Where did you get those?” “Just down the road. Do you want one?”  Uncharacteristically, I say yes and accept something from a stranger since there are few things enjoy more than a free mango.  I am happy and decide to find this giving tree myself so I continue walking past my usual turn-off.

Eventually, I do spot a huge tree to the left and start to approach it when an armed security guard stops me; I’ve just entered goverment property.

“Can I help you?”  “Hello, I’m looking for mangoes. Do you mind if I just go over there and find some?”  “Is it just you?” he asks.  “Um, yes — and my dogs.” “Wait right here” he commands and points to a shady spot near the gate. He climbs through brush, picks up a giant stick and hurls it in the air. Two huge green mangoes fall to the ground. He retrieves them and hands them to me. “Thank you so much. I didn’t mean for you to go through all of that trouble. I was just going to pick them up off the ground.”  “Those are damaged. You can can make a salad with these.”

For anyone who doubted it, chivalry is not dead; you just need to find a generous man and some mangoes.

 

mangoes

When Billy Came to Town

Standard

Everything was great before Billy came to town.  I was happy.  I was loved.  I was the king of my spacious condo castle.  Before Billy all eyes here laid on me.  When I ventured outdoors, others constantly complimented me on my handsome appearance — my cute, scruffy beard, my old man eyebrows — and my charming, effervescent personality.  Glee and delight were mine for the making and sharing.  Easily, and without competition, I won the hearts of each person I met.  Child or retireee — it didn’t matter; to them, I was the man.   

But when Billy moved in, my whole life changed.  I went from lead singer to member of the chorus, from celebrity to semi-lebrity, and from head honcho to pack rat.  At six months old, my 15 minutes of fame abruptly expired.  Now they weren’t just interested in me, in caring me for and making me happy but in doing the same for Billy as well.

If sharing attention wasn’t bad enough, I also had to start sharing my food.  Yes, I know!  Before Bill treats were ALL mine!  Now delicious snacks I used to devour alone were divided in two; full hot dogs became half.  And if he was positioned closer, he obviously got dibs to tasty morsels falling to the kitchen floor.

To make things worse, Billy arrived with sister Maven, another species all-together, the likes of which I’d never met and still don’t understand.  Unlike me and Billy, Maven moves slowly and deliberately.  I never know what she’s thinking, where she’s going to leap, or what makes her bottom smell so good.  She is a mystery and she drives me crazy.  I play with her a lot since she provokes me.  For some reason, though, I’m always the one to get in trouble.  “Sammy, no!” someone always shouts.  I obey but can only comply until the next time I get an enticing whiff of her rear.  

At first, I thought I could convince someone to make Billy leave.  I acted up, yelled and growled for attention.  I even tried to be extra cute.  

Image

But none of it worked.  

Billy is still here. 

Deep down I know they still love me as much as before.  Except that’s hard to remember when the two hands that used to rub my belly alone now have to work double duty and rub Billy’s simultaneously.  Love shared is not love multiplied.  Check your math — it’s half of love.  Sounds rather sad, I know.  But then again, I’m only human.

The Top 12 Surprises of Panama’s Three-Ring Circus

Standard

Happy holidays to all!  It’s that time of year when Expatsblogs.com holds their annual blog contest.  This year my topic is The Top 12 Surprises of Panama’s Three-Ring Circus.

Please take a few minutes to read and vote for me!

How to vote:

Thank you for support!

The Top 12 Surprises of Panama’s Three-Ring Circus

A year ago, I wrote a grandstanding post called The Top 8 Ways Living in Panama Can Make You Sexier. Still slurping the tropical Koolaid as a newly arrived expat, I highlighted the sultry and magnificent aspects of our Central American spectacle.  The beaches, the weather, the thriving capital metropolis — this was a place to be considered.

Fast forward one year and I urge, “Hold your horses!”  Having moved past opening night glee, experienced both rain and shine, today I’m dishing the real deal, the nitty-gritty every guide book omits in order to convince you to join the circus. The truth is that Panama is not a developed country, rather it is developing. Between the “ed” and “ing” lurks a world of difference and a level of chaos often beyond comprehension. Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages, prepare to be surprised.

12. Leaping Prices
Panama concession prices are high and year after year they rise like helium balloons.  Dinner in the Pie Car costs just as much as in any American city.  Rent does, too; the one-bedroom apartment next to mine is on the market for $1400/month. We just paid $250 to reupholster 2 chairs; last week I paid $80 to attend a tango show; and a small container of spinach dip at Deli Gourmet costs $4.95.  Regardless of what anyone tells you, you will want to bring extra moolah to this show.

11. Unlikely Mafia Artists
Of all the mafias a country can have, we have a dentist mafia that keeps service prices tight wire high, enough make you gag.  This troupe can be shrewd, diagnosing you with a dozen phony cavities in order to meet their monthly ring payments.  Be prepared to pantomime “No, thanks” several times during your next dental cleaning.

10. Boss Clowns
Instead of ringmasters, boss clowns run the show.  At each mall corridor turn, store managers create and enforce zany rules to keep us amazed and entertained. Even though I’ve paid my cell phone bill in full and on-time via credit card for 18 months, Cable and Wireless boss clowns still demanded somersaults in order to renew my contract: provide a copy of my mother’s ID and personal letter from her authorizing me to make changes to our family account. I would try to talk the junior juggler of this hassle but I know he will only repeat what he’s been told without considering any workarounds.

9. Five for Two and Three to Get One
For two weeks, five acrobats came to our home to install double-pane windows.  For most of the time three remained balanced on the ground while the other two performed.  When you want something done and ask for a referral, be sure and gather at least three names.  That’s how many it will take for just one stunt guy to appear and get the show on the road.

8. The Wonderful Walkaround
Honestly, we have the worst customer service of any city you’ve ever visited. When you enter a big top, someone will approach you.  But instead of offering assistance and then going away when you say, “Just looking,” they will follow you around the store like a suspicious Bengal tiger, hovering close by, softly but steadily breathing down your neck to make sure you stay in line.  The best is when they follow you around an appliance store as if you’re really going to steal something.  If you actually ask them a question, they won’t know the answer since they receive little or no training from their boss clowns.

7. Excuses Flow Like Canal Water
Each performer has one at the ready.  “I’m busy” es la classica for not showing up, “tranque” is the most popular for being late.  Other time-tested reasons for flakiness — new cell phone, lost your number; ran out of saldo, couldn’t call you; car broke down, I can’t meet.  Our aerialists will offer an excuse before offering a solution or giving you what you want.  I tried to order a combination of squash and lentil soup in the same bowl at Crepes and Waffles but the waitress denied my request.  When I asked why she just said it wouldn’t taste good.  Must have been too complicated, not worth the cherry pie.

6. It’s Freezing!
Regardless of the tropical climate, your costume will often require a jacket.  Banks, hospitals, theaters, and restaurants all love to crank up the A/C.  It’s almost as if there’s no setting between 18 and 30, no room for variation or calibration.  If you’re stuck under the Teatro Nacional’s big top without a scarf, you will shake miserably like you’ve been pushed onto a double-decker wire without a net.

5. Franchises on Clown Alley
Franchise operations are often totally slacking.  Mailboxes, etc. runs out of copy paper, Subway runs out of bread, and Baskin-Robbins runs out of ice-cream.  According to another expat circus-goer, the post office in Bocas del Toro does not have any stamps and has not had any for a long time. “They do not know when they will get more.  But there are still two performers there doing whatever the post office does without stamps.”

4.  Muy Sucio
Our three-ring circus is quite dirty.  Not only does the trash pick-up process leave full bags along the road for a day or so before being picked up, but folks here haven’t been taught not to litter.  Styrofoam and pizza boxes fly out of moving car windows, soda cans and water bottles dirty our beaches, a menagerie of filth ruins our natural beauty.  Send in the clowns —  and make sure they have brooms and trash bags.

3. Crooked Cops
If a cop actually stops you for breaking the law on the road, you can bribe him him with cash or a kazoo to avoid a ticket.  But don’t worry — they’ll only catch you if they’re not already occupied by texting — so your chances of escaping sin boleto are quite good.

2.  The Circle of Death
Most circus-goers are not violent but they are certainly overly aggressive bumper car drivers.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were trying to push me off my trapeze on purpose.  They brake with their horns and make right turns from the left lane.  Give them one inch and they’ll take a mile; if you let just one clown car merge, you’ll remain stationary forever.

1.  Everyone.  Loves.  Living.  Here.
Yes, regardless of the each and every surprise, you will be alone if you don’t believe “Panama es una maravilla.”  If you don’t give this show a standing ovation, others will be offended.  They will try to convince you to stand, to sell you on its grandeur.  And eventually you will be sold or at least jaded.

You will get used to the mediocre performance, the big top’s disarray, and the general chaos.  After about one year, the circus will be old hat.  A friend was eating lunch at a busy cafe last week when another customer walked through the door and it fell off the hinges.  The customer caught the door.  My friend just kept eating.

Another friend drove through dicey Chorrillo one night and witnessed a totally naked woman breaking car windows with a baseball bat.  Surprised by this behavior, he retold the tale to local talent, his teenage sons. They both just looked at him like, “Yeah, and then what happened?” as if a naked, crazy lady with a bat wasn’t sufficient to impress them.

Prepare to be surprised — and after a while you won’t be.  Welcome to Panama!

A Warm Body

Standard
bad-trainer-WH-300x225

Photo by Queen City Kettlebell

With Panama’s unemployment rate at an impressive 4%, I’ve come to appreciate just having a warm body.

A couple of months ago I decided to hire a personal trainer and asked for recommendations via a robust expat Facebook group.  Only send me your best referrals, I requested.  I only want to train with someone who has experience getting results.

Back come 4 recommendations including someone several folks touted as “the best” trainer in Panama.  Of course, I contact him first.  After one conversation, “best” promises to get back to me in 2 days.  I never hear from him again.  When I follow-up with him on Facebook, I get no response.  So down the list I go contacting another trainer via phone and txt, who promises me call me at 8:30 am the next morning.  I never hear from him either.  Via Facebook I strike out a couple more times with referrals for people who aren’t actually in the country.

Figuring I’m on my own, I renew my gym membership and start showing up.  I’d seen the way trainers there worked with other clients and none of them struck me as “the best.”  Having lived in LA for many years and trained with some amazing people, including Bob Harper from The Biggest Loser, I wasn’t impressed by PowerClub’s crew.  Many of them trained several clients at a time and didn’t appear as fit or focused as I’d prefer my trainer to be.

But I’m now a bit desperate to share the effort of my weight training, which I hate to do, and ask for a recommendation at the front desk.  I’m not sure if the attendant thought he was the best or if he just happened to be walking by, but I’m quickly introduced to Eduardo (not his real name) who looks more interested in where he is heading for lunch than chatting with me.  While I can’t say I like it, I’m now accustomed to the less than effervescent greeting most Panamanians give their customers.  I let Eduardo’s expression slide, explain what I’m looking for and make my first appointment.

The next morning I arrive and Eduardo tells me to jump on one of the cardio machines for 30 minutes.  Then we hit the weights for another hour.  I’m getting a good workout but it’s not entirely due to Eduardo’s exceptional training skills.  While he checks WhatsApp, talks to another trainer who’s off the clock, and crosses the gym to chat with another lady, I complete the second and third sets of exercises unsupervised and using the wall clock to time myself.

Honestly, this is not the worse thing in the world since 1) I’m pretty good with exercise and don’t need a lot of instruction or correction; 2) I’m only paying $20/session; and 3) I couldn’t get any other trainer to call me back!

Forget criteria, checking references and asking about previous clients.  If I’d held out for “the best” I’d still be waiting to tone my triceps.  This week I’m grateful for a warm body.

I Miss My Desk Job

Standard

This afternoon around 2:30 pm, when I finally arrived at the treadmill in my building’s gym, I missed my desk job. 

Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t miss the tedious contract, email and other document drafting and review that filled the bulk load of my legal career. I didn’t miss sitting still for 9+ hours in front of UV ray-emitting monitors — often utilizing 2 at a time forincreased speed and efficiency. And I certainly did not miss building someone else’s dream in exchange for a good, but never really good-enough wage instead of manifesting my own vision, which is priceless. 

What I was present to missing, as I finally started to sweat, was the easy, practically mindless push of unsatisfaction. You see, many things seemed brilliant, unequivocally appealing, when I was bored and not engaged in work I loved. The grass was always greener. When I build my resume, when I find a better position, when this contract ends, THEN I will be closer to leading a life I love. 

Today I realize the push was both strong and necessary. Most of my life, I was that person career counsels and life-coachie types hate since I’m terrible at answering their silly, “What-gets-you-out-of-bed-in-the-morning” question. Um, the alarm clock? Honestly, the first time someone asked me this, I didn’t realize getting out of bed was an option. “What are you passionate about?” they’d continue. Shoot. I don’t know. Since I’ve always been good at most anything I do, could it be that my passion was being awesome? Apparently not. 

All of these thoughts ran through my mind as I ran on the treadmill. In the past, running was something I thought about all the while sitting at my desk; it was easy to run 6 miles along the Embarcadero before work instead of immediately schlepping in to my cube. 

With no away-from motivation this afternoon, finally arriving on the treadmill required several conversations in my head. I negotiated things I really wanted to do — giving the dogs an extended morning walk, chatting about the weekend ahead with mom over breakfast, spending time preparing to teach my next class, giving my dad a much-needed pedicure — with working out. 

I have to admit, exercise was much easier when it beat the alternatives. But I suppose I’d rather be happy and chubby than fit and frustrated. I think this is the same trade-off people make when they get married…

Culture Creep

Standard

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m finally becoming a real Panamanian. How can I tell? On my way to an appointment last week, I stopped for lunch at Deli Gourmet. I buy chicken salad and a bag of platanitos con limon, which I love, love, love and immediately scarf down.

Still hungry, I buy a dollar bag of pixbae, a squash-like fruit of the palm tree, from a woman in the street. I squeeze one in half, remove the tiny coconut pit and slather it with chicken salad. Delicious. Happily, I’m eating, driving and taking a pic of my lunch with my phone — at the stop light, of course. I then call a friend, get caught up in conversation and miss my next exit. No problem, I think, as I’ve learned from the best. I pull a quick u-turn and get back on track.

Unfortunately, I do this in front of a police officer while holding my mobile. Damn. I kind of deserve this one. But instead of fining me right away, he starts chatting and asks me why I don’t have a headset. I smile in a girlish way I’m not totally comfortable with and tell him I forgot it at home. I also offer him some of my pixbae and pollo — which he gladly accepts. Jajajaja — ticket avoided! Buying food while driving, flirting with a police officer and offering him tasty eats is not something I would ever have done in the U.S. But I’m experiencing culture creep, the slow and subtle integration of local norms, and seeing it as a good thing — even if my questionable driving habits are not.

Notes on My One Year Panama Anniversary

Standard

Image

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”  – Rumi

One year ago I moved to Panama on a whim.  When Mom fell and fractured her hip, I immediately flew from San Francisco to Panama to be with her.  While visiting for two weeks I received what I now refer to as *a calling* guiding me to move here.  I was kind of shocked to consider this relocation since, at the time, I didn’t even like it here.  Panama paled in comparison to San Francisco; it’s wasn’t nearly as beautiful, interesting, technologically sophisticated nor socially progressive.

But, as they say, no one leaves a great relationship.  For all of the amazing things living in San Francisco provided me, the City and I were not getting along well.  I wasn’t doing work I loved, I wasn’t being emotionally supported by my friends and family the way I wanted to be supported and I led an overly-independent, mostly single and often lonely life.

So after giving it just 2 weeks of thought, I packed up my California condo and brought Billy and The Maven with me to Panama.  If I’d taken more time to think about it, I would not have moved.  I didn’t have much of a plan, my Spanish was terrible and I would have to live with my parents.  The transition was fierce.

So, yeah, I went from living alone to practically never being alone at home.  Dad doesn’t get out much and there’s always someone here to help take care of him.  I’d wake up in the morning and immediately have to talk to someone.  Why are they talking to me?  What are they saying?  Is this really important before I’ve had my coffee?

I went from being surrounded by college friends, city friends and people my age at work to not having any friends at all.  I socialized for months with family friends and people Mom introduced me to until I made new friends on my own.  I accepted every invitation.  I eagerly gathered numbers in WhatsApp.  Every acquaintance was a possible BFF.

I also went from being overly scheduled to being able to fully control my time.  Over the past year in Panama I’ve taken time to get settled — get a driver’s license, buy a car, get lost, find my way, register for health insurance, unpack, etc. — and to give myself a break from the hectic life I had created for myself.  Back in the Bay each day was a long day due to work and commuting.  Morning planning included tricky arithmetic as I tried to maximize efficiency in my personal life versus work requirements of me at work:

24 hours minus at least 9 hours sitting at a desk minus 1 hour for exercise minus 1 hour to get clean, dress and eat breakfast minus 2 hours for commuting minus 1 hour for dinner minus 7 hours of sleep =

an unsatisfying way to live

Undoubtedly, the best part of my new experience is that I lead a more fulfilling and intentional life.  Surprisingly, my intent stems not only from a desire to create my Ideal Life but also from necessity.  You see, it’s much harder for me to be a leaf-in-the-wind when I don’t like where the wind blows.  Here I’m forced to figure out what I really want because the default kind of sucks.  Things other people love to do or love about living here don’t really interest me.  Not to sound like a snob, but chances are I’ve seen them done better or had a better experience doing that same thing somewhere else.  I’ve bathed on beautiful beaches. I’ve partied at awesome street fairs.  I’ve lived in and visited amazing cities filled with the best art and culture.  Lots of things really are better over there.

But the incredible part of my intentional life experiment is that it’s actually working.  About a year ago, I wrote a lengthy description of what my Ideal Life would look like.  I remember feeling weird writing it, like who am I to declare to the Universe what I want?  What makes me think I can actually have it?  I mean, if it were this simple, why wouldn’t everyone do it? Don’t be silly, Laura, this won’t work.

Today I not only love reading my description but willingly share parts of it with others.  Frequently I catch myself saying things like “My dream is to…” which I was way too embarrassed or scared to articulate before.  And although I’m not yet doing exactly what I want to be doing, I’m certainly getting there.  Here is a list of qualities I’m working to incorporate into my days:

  • Billy goes to work with me

  • I do not sit at a desk for 8+ hours each day

  • My days include doing more than one thing — I have several lines of works or projects

  • I work from home or office that is nearby

  • I have time for myself each day

  • My work and lifestyle allow me to be fully self-expressed

  • My work is location-independent and provides with me flexibility to travel

  • I work with people I like/ability to choose who I work with

  • I am respected in my community and have a positive impact

  • I enjoy sunshine and fresh air each day

  • I donate 5% of my earnings

The other amazing thing about my life is that I am opening to love.  You know how I said I didn’t feel supported in SF?  Well now I understand that being perfectly supported means being open to a deep level of love and support.  Today I have more support than I could ever imagine simply because I choose to accept a level of support that has my greater good at heart.  If abundance is being aware of and receiving what has already been provided, then I truly have an abundance of support in my life.

As I write this I’m nursing a slight cold.  Mom and her scooter enter my room.  “Laura, I have your honey and lime.  And Naya is making you chicken soup.”  Because I’ve already decided to juice for the day, the thought of eating chicken leads me to say something along the lines of, “No, I don’t want it.  And don’t do me any favors.”  Really, Laura?

You see, as much as want to be supported my ego still fiercely resists it.  Yeah, I know, it sucks to be me. It also sometimes sucks for the people around me.  A couple of weeks ago I met an amazing person at a party.  We proceed to go on 4 dates in one week and one week later — since it was going so well, I suppose — I practically ruined everything one night for no reason.  Crap.  What am I doing?  Why am I creating separation?  While my change of location has created a real shift in my life, my complete transformation cannot occur until I change as well.

So that’s really what I’m up to, folks — self-discovery and transformation.  Like it or not and whether I was ready for it or not, Panama is my crash course in creation and love acceptance.  Not bad lessons to learn so I’m grateful to be in this ride.