Category Archives: Fun

Gracias, Madre. We Won!

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Yesterday was an all-around excellent day here in Panama.

Not only did I get to honor Mom, one of my favorite people, on Mother’s Day, but I received word that I won first place in the Expat Blog Awards 2012 for Panama.

Mom was excited.

Thank you, Mom, for always believing in me.  And thanks to everyone who voted for me and reads my blog. I look forward to continuing to share my journey with you.

It’s a good life!

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

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Yesterday was a really awesome day.  I competed as a semifinalist in a microwave cooking competition sponsored by LG Electronics and TVN, our local news station.  Even though I don’t use the microwave to cook, only to heat things up, I registered as soon as I saw the La Prensa posting based on the grand prize: an all-expense paid trip to Chile!  Immediately I searched online for an appropriate recipe and found one for shrimp risotto with asparagus.  Never mind that I had never prepared this dish before; it sounded tasty, healthy and relatively easy to make.

Unfortunately, my morning got off to a rough start.  When I arrive at the Holiday Inn in Clayton, I quickly realize I had forgotten the cup-thingy I would use to plate my risotto.  I call home and Naya, Dad’s assistant — today mine was well — brings it to me.   When she drops it off, she keenly runs through a checklist of items.  Damn.  I forgot the asparagus, too!  Off and back when she goes, delivering my veggies before the competition begins and saving my day.  Thank goodness for support.

We draw numbers to determine the contestant order and I’m 4 out of 13.  After practicing at home a few times, I think the 90-minute time limit will be ample.  I finish my dish and leave the overheated kitchen with lots of perspiration and only one minute to spare.  My timing is actually quite good compared to a number of other contestants who take longer and loose points.  I present my risotto to the judges, one of them being the totally cute, smiley chef on TVN’s morning talk show, and introduce myself.  An effervescent host facilitates all of the mini-interviews; she mispronounces my last name, *Gay* instead of “Guy* so I correct her.  “De donde es ese nombre?” she asks.  “De mi padre,” I reply smartly and everyone chuckles.  Really I was just try to avoid having to say, “I think it’s Irish” in Spanish.

By some miracle, my risotto gains me a spot as a finalist.  Excellent!  Five of us are then challenged to compete in an Iron Chef of Panama type cook-off.  We are given “un ingrediente principal” and a bunch of other stuff to use in creating a dish of our choice.  After a bit of anticipation and bubbling energy in the kitchen, we learn our mystery meat is chicken breast.  Now, keep in mind that I’m not a chef and have never taken a cooking class.  While the contest is for amateur cooks and not professionals, I am competing against a number of culinary students who have probably cooked chicken breast 100 ways — they know how to stuff if, bake it, fry it, coat it, smack it up, flip it and rub it down.

I, on the other hand, don’t tend to cook full chicken breasts.  Due to my own insecurity and the 60-minute time limit, I decide to divide and conquer.  My plan is to grill the chicken, shred it, add it to a delicious tomato-based sauce and then layer it with tortillas and cheese.  Before we begin, I tell the judges I’m going to make *Tortilla con Polly y Chorizo con Pico de Gallo.”  Halfway into the round, I receive a creative insight and decide to call my dish *Mexican Lasagna.*

When I’m done I feel pretty good about my entry.  My dish isn’t as fancy as that of *Julio Childs* on the other side of the counter who expertly wraps his stuffed breast with string.  But at least I have a better experience than the woman next to me who cuts her hand with her own super-sharp knife.  I give myself an 8 out of 10 for finishing on-time, using all 3 features of the appliance – the microwave, oven and grill – and doing a decent job with my presentation.  A like to joke that I’m a black Martha Stewart.  Considering they’ve decided to weigh appearance as much as taste, this is a good thing.

I dart out of the kitchen again with my dish and enter the auditorium where the 3 judges and an audience of supporting family members wait for each dish to appear for presentation.  Mom is there along with our super-awesome neighbors, Don and Gloria Innes.  Gloria loves to cook so after tasting my practice risotto the night before, she thought it would be fun to come watch.  I’m grateful she and Don are there.

I present my Mexican Lasagna and the first comment from one judge begins with, “Well, I need to tell you what I honestly think.”  Uh oh.  I’m prepared for some type of Simon Cowell put-down but am pleasantly surprised when he actually helps me.  Based on the tortillas I used, which are not flat Mexican corn tortillas, but fatter, smaller, denser Panamanian tortillas, he renames my dish *Panamanian Lasagna.*  Brilliant, except now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t come up with that myself.  Cute Smiley Judge, however, gives me unequivocal props for my dish.  TWICE he mentions that it’s better than any Italian lasagna he’s tasted.  Not too shabby.

After all 5 of us present our dish we wait while the judges deliberate.  In the theater, excitement builds as they award 8 LG Smartphones to those who did not advance.  On the counter are a number of smaller microwaves and one larger one, the Solar Asadoar, the type we used today.  I’m already thrilled that I advanced to the final round, but then I get even more excited when I’m not the fourth, third or second runner-up.  Another contestant and I are called to the stage.  In American Idol fashion, we hold hands while Effervescent Host starts and stops, starts and stops in announcing the winner.

I am the first runner-up.

Of course, I’m a little bummed I didn’t win the trip to Chile, but honestly, I didn’t expect to make it this far.  I win my very own Solar Asadora, priced at $410, and realize I have some real cooking skillz.  Mom tells me she’s proud of me, which is always nice to hear, and the Inneses congratulate me as well.   I return home and fix some of my leftover Panamanian Lasagna for Ali, Mom, Dad and myself.  It’s really quite good.

Here is the recipe:

INGREDIENTS

Chicken breast, Chorizo, Parmesan cheese, Panamanian tortillas, Peppers, Tomatoes, Tomato paste, Chicken bullion, Onion, Garlic, Olive Oil, Lemon juice, Cilantro, Salt, Pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Cook and shred chicken breast.  Not sure how much — maybe about half a pound.

Chop 1/2 of an onion and add to olive oil.  Cook in microwave for 2 minutes.  Add as much chorizo as you’d like, about 1 C of chopped peppers (green, red, yellow — whatever you’ve got) stir and microwave for 2 minutes.

Get creative and make some type of tomato sauce.  Mix tomato paste, water, olive oil, bullion, garlic, salt and pepper.  Play with fresh tomatoes and try to stew them in water in the microwave.  Realize it kind of works.  Remove the skin, chop tomatoes and add to tomato sauce.

Add shredded chicken and stir.

Grill tortillas for about 5 minutes.  Move tortillas to a small oven-proof pan or dish.  Add half of chicken/tomato sauce mixture, then a layer of parmesan cheese, then another layer of each.

Bake at 200 C for 10 minutes.

Taste tortillas and find them a bit soggy.  Scrap that idea and go to Plan B.  Toast tortillas in a pan on the stove.  Feel much better about these than the others.

Remember that you’re also supposed to make a sauce!  Quickly mix fresh tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, chopped cilantro, salt and pepper.  Taste.  Give yourself a thumbs up.

Place 2 tortillas on a dish side by side.  Layer some of the tasty chicken mixture on top of each tortilla.  Sprinkle with parmesan and grill for like 1 minute.

Serve in warm dish and enjoy.

Eventually Leaving Las Vegas

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Last week I flew non-stop from Panama to Las Vegas to attend a conference.  The departure time for my non-stop flight was great; I left Panama around 9:00 am and arrived in Vegas around 2:00 pm.  On the way home, however, I’m not as lucky.  In order to fly non-stop again, I can’t leave Vegas until 5:00 am Monday morning, which is like the wee hours of Sunday night.  When I wake up Sunday morning, I’m not sure how I’ll kill 19 hour after checking out of the hotel.  For party-goers, Vegas is the easiest place on earth to stay entertained.  For Old Lady Laura, it’s a bit harder.

10:00 am
Michelle and I leave the hotel via shuttle. A Spanish-speaking male tries to board at the next stop; unfortunately, he needs the shuttle to Los Angeles and we’re only going to The Strip.  Driver tries to explain to him that he is in the wrong place but fails to communicate in English and asks anyone if they speak Spanish.  A woman in the front row starts to help.  I decide to interject from the third row declaring, “I’m from Panama.  I can handle this.”

“See-nior,” I say in my worst Spanish accent, “wrong-o bus-o.”  For some reason, he understands exactly what I’m saying.*

10:30 am
Michelle and I arrive at the Wynn’s amazing buffet.  Michelle tells the server she has a food allergy (gluten) and a cute, young chef meets her at the salad bar for a personal tour of all gluten-free options.  She orders GF pancakes and is offered GF bread from the back.  Special treatment is nice!

11:45 am

Michelle and I arrive at the Canyon Ranch Spa at the Palazzo.  I get a manicure and brow wax and she gets a pedicure.  Both of us overpay for our services.

1:30 pm

Michelle departs for the airport.  I am sad to see my sister go since our time here together was quite short — only about a day and a half.  I look forward to seeing her again in December.

1:32 pm
Time to get my spa on!  Spas are one of my favorite places; I’ve been to a number of them, including the *real* Canyon Ranch in Tucson, so I kind of know what to do with myself here.  Between showering, hot-tubbing, cold-plunging, steaming and meditating in the aromatherapy chamber, I kill three hours without peeking at the clock.  In the spacious and comfortable lounge, I fall asleep reading Conde Nast Traveler dreaming about my next vacation.  A bit later, I wake up with a little bit of drool at the side of my mouth.  Too bad the lounge is co-ed but good thing it’s dark in here.

5:00 pm
Head to the outdoor pool where I eat my complimentary spa orange.  I think about going into the hot tub but it’s kind of packed so I return to the sanctity of the women’s spa lounge.  On the way, I stop at one of the 2 stores, chat about favorite beauty products with the attendant, and buy pricey vitamin C facial cream.  At the register, a book called “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food” catches my eye.  After a week of over-consumption and quick weigh-in on spa scale, I really feel I need this author’s advice and buy the book.

6:05 pm

Take another shower and get dressed.  Since I checked my suitcase in at the hotel downstairs and forgot to bring a change of underwear, I have to do the underwear inside-out trick.  I know — kind of gross, but it’s either this or go without.

7:00 pm

Jump onto wifi in the spa lobby, check in for my flight, and read email.  I think about reading my new book but I’m actually really hungry.  Off to get more food!

8:30 pm

Arrive at upscale Mexican restaurant in Palazzo Shops.  I sit near the pretty, man made canal and listen to gondola drivers serenade tourists with “That’s Amore” and the “fuli-culi-culi-culi-fuli-culi-culi-cula” song.  I enjoy homemade tortilla chips, fresh salsa, and tasty enchiladas — until I see the bill and realize they charged me 3 bucks for chips the server offered.  Yes, I just spent $50 a manicure but I don’t want to pay $3 for something that’s customarily included.  I complain to the waiter and then the manager who removes the charge from my bill.

9:30 pm
I walk around Palazzo shops then follow signs outside leading to Sephora.  After the spa, Sephora is the happiest place on earth for.  I make friends with a woman working there after she tells me the sample lipstick I just tried looks great on me.  I buy Lip Tar, super sharp Tweezerman’s to keep my brows in shape, and a bunch of other stuff I want but don’t really need.

11:30 pm

I decide to pick up my suitcase but arrive at the wrong hotel.  After 12 minutes of searching for my bag, the attendant realizes my error and sends me from the Venetian back to the Palazzo.  I walk what should be a short distance next door.  In reality its like a mile since I have to maneuver through the entire casino, then down a long hallway, down stairs, up and over the outdoor walkway and then down again.  With my 10-pound laptop in my backpack, I start to feel exhausted.

12:15 pm

I’m done.  Rather than head to a nightclub and party the night away, I decide to head to the airport.  The Copa counter doesn’t open until 1:30 am so I have no choice but to wait in the non-carpeted check-in area.  I watch 2 episodes of Damages on Netflix and fall asleep on the cold floor with my legs propped on my suitcase.

2:30 am

I wake up — no drool this time — to find a really long line at the Copa counter.  Before I’ve even reached home, I’m welcomed back to my country by a couple of people — a younger girl and an older woman — trying to jump the line in front of me.  They don’t know I’m at my worst without sleep; behind me they quickly go.

4:00 am

My flight starts to board.  I look forward to getting sleep on the plane but am seated next to a man who snores the whole time.  At one point his snoring gets even louder.  Before gently whacking him with my airline pillow, I look around to see if it’s bothering anyone else.  The woman behind him, likely his wife, has a huge grin on her face, like she thinks it’s cute or funny or something.  I’m clearly not amused and she gently taps him on the head from behind to wake him up.

2:20 pm

I arrive in Panama with a 3-hour time change.  After a very long day, I am happy to be home.

*I’m kidding.  As much as I wanted to flaunt my Panamanian pride, I kept my mouth shut on the shuttle.

A Night at the Casino

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Because our plans fell through a couple of times last night, a friend and I decided to head to a local casino for a few hours. I don’t really go to casinos, except when I’m in Vegas and only to pass through, but Friend is an avid slot machine player who likes to visit Hotel Panama and Veneto a couple of times a week, which means free valet parking for us.

Once we arrive, Friend heads to a row of machines and plants herself in front of her favorite. I proceed to walk around, buy an expensive glass of (cheap) red wine and get a lay of the land. Apparently, Veneto is known for the abundance of women — prostitutes and sugar-daddy seekers alike — who hang out looking for men. It’s kind of creepy to see so many women sitting in slot machine seats, not playing, but rather surveying the crowd for Mister Moolah. In my purple sundress, cropped sweater, ponytail and size B cup, I stick out like a sore thumb amidst the too-tight tube dresses overflowing with cleavage. Of course I’ve seen women with boob jobs before, but the women who tend to get them in the States look different. There women are more apt to be a size 2 or 4 with huge boobs. Here they’re more of a size 12 or 14 with naturally ample breasts; augmentation takes them from big to OMG.

Anyway, I’m kind of shocked as I walk around the casino, checking everything out and looking at various machines. At one point, I pass a Wheel of Fortune machine and happen to notice that there’s a credit on it. Strange, I think. Perhaps someone forgot they had money in it and left. I look around and don’t see anyone. So I hit the “cash out” button and take the ticket over to Friend. “Hey, I just made $43.50 and I didn’t even gamble anything.” “Great,” Friend says focused on her machine. “Where is the cashier?” I ask. Friend points me in that direction and I cash out. Free money is great.

But as I head back to Friend, two women approach me. One of them points right at me and tells the other one, “That’s her.” At this point the other woman proceeds to yell at me. I know what’s happening right away and don’t even try to play dumb. The money I took from the machine belongs to her and she wants it back. I apologize — a few times — and explain that there was no indication that someone was still using the machine. Four security guards surround us and Victim explains that she went to use the bathroom and that I robbed her while she was gone. Whatever. I return her money right away and split, heading back to Friend. I tell Friend what happened and she explains that people usually do something to show they’re returning to a machine, like tilt the chair to lean on it. I tell her I didn’t see any sign.

I think the situation is over until Security Guard Enrique approaches me and asks me to leave the casino. I try to defend myself in Spanish but lack full self-expression so I ask him if he speaks English. He says he does a little bit at which point I which languages and sternly repeat that I didn’t know anyone was using the machine. I promise that he won’t have any more trouble with me and tell him leave me alone. Enrique replies, “Ok” and goes away. Phew, totally embarrassing moment — wherein Enrique has to drag me out of the casino — avoided.

Truth be told, I thought it might not be ok to take the money when I saw the machine. But sometimes I like to see if I can get away with stuff. I did look around, walked slowly over to my friend, had a short conversation with her and then meandered to the cashier. I figured I was giving someone ample time to come up to me. Well, obviously not enough time for someone who was using the restroom. Next time, I keep my hands on my own machine and order a gin and tonic instead.

The First Lady

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As I’m bumbling around this morning, Mom asks me what I have planned for the day. I give a few examples of what I’m up to, how busy I am and then stop to ask why she’s asking since I can tell she’d like a favor. “I have an appointment with the First Lady in Panama Viejo,” I hear. “I think it would be interesting for you to see where the President lives. You haven’t been there before.”

I had not yet been to Panama Viejo and think meeting the First Lady would be a good use of my Wednesday morning so I take the bait. Plus, I’m always up for supporting Mom, especially when it also involves supporting her non-profit foundation which raises funds for the hearing impaired.I clean myself up by showering, dressing and putting on make-up and, I have to say, I do a really nice job! Have you ever seen before-and-after pics of Oprah with and without make-up? The difference is astonishing. Really. Well, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing, but my ability to transform myself from blah to wow is almost as impressive. Chances are you’ve never seen me without make-up so you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about. If you have then you do and I apologize.

Anyway, once I’m all dolled up, Mom and I head to her appointment along with one of her audiologists. I’m driving so I quickly figure out that we’re going to Casco Viejo, not Panama Viejo, a neighborhood with which I’m already familiar. I try to tell Mom that she promised something different and in her “I-told-you-so” voice she says “You never listen to anything I say.” Once we arrive at the Presidential area of Casco Viejo and announce ourselves we’re able to pass through the gate to the parking area. Since Mom runs early — a trait I greatly admire since most people, especially Panamanians, are unwilling to be early — we catch a small group of men assembling a wheelchair accessible ramp so that Mom can enter the building. One thing I’ve noticed about Panama is that you’re either screwed or in like Flynn; either there’s NO access for disabled people or you’re treated like royalty in an attempt to accommodate. Mom is great at getting royal treatment because, in addition to running early, she also calls ahead. If she lets folks know she’ll need special access they do everything in their power to make it happen before she arrives and once she’s there. The last time, after dropping off Mom at a special event, a cute, young guard escorted me to a free, underground garage I didn’t even know was there. Pretty awesome.

What is not awesome, however, is that our appointment is not in fact with the First Lady. Not sure if it’s my Spanish, my English or my selective hearing, but our meeting is with the wife of the ex-Minister of Health — a very lovely woman — who is in charge of the health-related issues for the First Lady. Mom explains that if the First Lady is available, she will attend the meeting. But she is not available and never arrives to the office overlooking the Bay where Mom proceeds to discuss her foundation’s good work and do the hard job of asking for dough. Fingers crossed that Mom’s appeal for both preventative, routine hearing screening for newborns and operating capital for her organization result in successful outcomes. Then maybe I can get support for my hearing as well.

I Heart Uruguay

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Last night two new friends and I attended an art sale and fundraiser in support of the non-profit for which Mom’s friend volunteers. Since everything here is new for me, I’m never really sure what to expect. To my delight, the location and art event were quite nice. I liked the donated paintings very much, even if I didn’t like the $300 to $650 cost of each. And the background music provided by an older American couple singing such hits as Mr. Bojangles and The Rose made me chuckle and kept me entertained.

After about an hour, we decide to kill time before the raffle drawing by snooping around the exclusive club. First we head downstairs but are stopped by a guard. “Are you members?” he asks in Spanish. “No, we’re just looking for a place to sit,” immediately lies Friend Number 1. “You can ask the servers in your salon to provide you with chairs.” Humph. “Can I use the elevator?” I ask since it’s located towards the back of the foyer and offers an opportunity to at least peek down each corridor. “Yes,” says the guard, knowing it’s not cool to deny someone the use of an elevator and off we go.Once upstairs, undeterred in our exploration, we decide to enter a salon where the Consulate of Uruguay is hosting a wine tasting. We pop in hoping no one notices we weren’t invited and make our way around several tables loaded with bottles of imported wine and other tasty treats like Brie and Camembert, provided by companies introducing their products to Panama. I stop at one table and notice a cool, empty, green glass bottle that usually holds milk. Since I’m already pushing my luck, I decide to push it a bit further, which I do quite a lot here. Due to not being fluent in Spanish, people’s words don’t land on me quite the same way they would in English. Assuming I can understand what they’re saying, regular conversation tends to not have the same impact as in the States. Plus, I’m really good at playing dumb and pretending I don’t understand or didn’t know the rules, so I’m sort of extra fearless here which is fun.

Anyway, I ask Cute, Young Uruguayan Company Rep if I can buy the green bottle. He tells me to wait a minute, goes over to someone else to ask a question, and returns. He then gives me the beautiful bottle for free. I love free stuff so much that I am giddy with excitement — and, admittedly, buzzed from the wine. Cute Rep also gives Friend Number 1 a smaller version of the same bottle and offers all three of us Uruguayan grappa to taste. It’s delicious. At this point, Cute Rep Number 2 comes over and starts chatting with us as well. Friend Number 2 and I decide we’re not going to tell people there what we do — that we’re with Friend Number 1 who works with the canal and therefore has a much more plausible reason for being invited to the event. But it doesn’t come up. We just each cheese, drink wine and chat with Cute Reps for the remainder of the evening. None of us won the art raffle but we all had a great time touring the club and butting in where we didn’t belong. Now I need to plan a trip to Uruguay.