America, I Miss You!

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Dear Ones,

In an interesting turn of events, my Panama adventure will soon come to an end.  My family and I have decided to move back to the States — and not just because we miss Whole Foods.

But first we need to sell our beautiful Panama City view condo.  It’s really a nice place.  :)

More pics and info here.  Ok!  And now for my post.

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America, I Miss You!

Last month on a quick trip to Florida I realized I miss the US. I miss it because it works, because for the most part, people and operations there are efficient.

When a package mailed to the hotel didn’t arrive before I was set to depart, I asked the hotel if they could do me a favor and forward it to our Miami post office box. “I realize you would be doing me a huge favor and am willing to pay for this service — in addition to the postage.” “No, you don’t have to pay us — just the postage,” replied the kind concierge who actually gives a damn about doing a good job.

Unlike my experience would have been in Panama, I did not have to explain what I wanted 3 times or, as the customer, enroll him in the possibility of giving good service. In fact, it was his idea to make the transaction even simpler my charging postage to the same credit card used for our stay instead of me having to leave cash. Brilliant!

Back at my tropical ranch, I’m still waiting for the director of the Summit Park here in Panama to email me. Two weeks ago, I visited the park to inquire about volunteering, met him briefly and followed his instruction to email him “my information.” Um, ok. Within the hour, while observing other volunteers at the park, I emailed from my phone. Five days later, no response so I email him to see if he got my message. Yes! He did — he’ll get back to me in a bit. I’m still waiting.

For the hotel, there was nothing in it for them and they surpassed my expectations. For the park, there is only upside — I mean, how many people are willing to clean poop from cages without pay — and I’m basically ignored. America, I miss you. Especially you, Whole Foods greeter. I miss your energy and your smile.

Men with Mangoes

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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.

 

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When Billy Came to Town

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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.  

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.