I got into San Jose, Costa Rica late last night and will be here (in CR,
but not in San Jose) for the next month or two. I was really getting to
love Panama – making friends, getting familiar with the climate and the
countryside and the pace of life. My last days there were spent on a
monkey preserve on the Punta Burica peninsula that is the Panama/Costa Rica border.

My mom’s former business partner and her husband have lived in panama as
gringo retirees for a few years now and I spent last week with them. That
monkey spot was our final adventure. It took 4 hours of driving to get
there, crossing the Panama oil pipeline, 4 rivers, a good couple hours of
unpaved road and another hour of driving actually on the beach, over crazy
rock formations and around fallen palm tree trunks, past a few horsemen
and a few fisherman. We’re talking remote. It was gorgeous. I’ll put up
my pictures soon. I mean, palm-tree-and-monkey tropical island paradise
style. Wow. And happens to house some of the biggest cockroaches in the
world (in my opinion, but we have photos of that, too) – longer than the
width of a coffee mug and almost as wide. that was a tough one to find in
my bed, I tell you what.

There, one is truly at the mercy of the tides, and only during 2 3-4-hour periods during each dayis the tide out far enough to leave the beach dry for driving.  The trip is rather nerve-racking for this reason.  Also, on the way out, we had a couple additional reasons for urgency -1) I had to make it to the border crossing (at least 2 hours from the preserve) by noon to get on a bus to San Jose that would arrive while my brother was still here and the low tide wasn’t until 10:46am, and the previous day one of the 2 owners of the Mono Feliz, this property, suddenly went deaf and we were the only option for him to get a ride to a hospital since they don’t have a car and his nearest friend with transport was out of town.  No pressure.

I made it to the border in fine time and arrived in San Jose at midnight last night after a 7-hour ride through what I’m sure was beautiful country, but I couldn’t see out the windows because the bus was so full I had to stand for the first 4 hours.  By the time I got a seat, the darkness was thick and all I could see was stars for the few moments when my eyes would actually stay open.

New country, new adventure!

real link to the 2nd album

February 23, 2009


Journal excerpts from the last couple weeks:

10 feb 09 –

I almost feel as thought my hand is being held because these SERVAS members give me so much without asking for anything in return.  I arrived, with a sore butt, in Santiago today at noon and Lineth picked me up.  She drove me around this small town to help me get my bearings.  We stopped by her sister’s house, etc.  I was made to feel welcome.  Not special, exactly, as I had in Marlen’s house, but welcome and trusted.  I concluded early on that I didn’t want to stay here more than 2 nights, so I’m going to the bus station in the morning to figure out how to get to Malena, where Serena from couchsurfing lives. 

When i’m comfortable, I begin to doubt the significance of what I’m doing as well as who I’m doing it for.

11 Feb 09

Woke up at 7 wondering why I’m here.  Actually sat myself down and went through yoga breathing practices and surya namaskar As.  Made my list for th day and left Lineth’s house.  First mission: breakfast.  Wanted to explore one place that Lineth had told me was a shop opened by a foreigner, but it was closed.  The next place that caught my eye was a botanica, and after looking around, I asked the proprietor for a recommendation of a breakfast spot.  El aire Libre.  She gave me her friendship. Found another helpful person who led me to the spot, an outdoor diner of sorts with sweet staff and regular customers. If I stayed longer in santiago,I’d come here every morning. 

My purpose at the moment seems to be healing wounds, both intentional and not, done by other foreigners (esp those from the States) who have come before me.  I can’t count how many times people have essentially said – you’re from the States?  But you speak Spanish so well!  I think my accent is fairly good at this point, but my vocabulary struggles.  This may sound arrogant, but I am not alone in this role, nor do i want to be.  I’m  just observing.

Examples of myself as a salve:

1.  Lineth’s empleada told me another SERVAS member had stayed with them and spoke no Spanish and they were entirely unable to communicate. (sense of frustration, confusion in the past and relief in the present)

2. The dressing room attendant at UNO –  are you from Germany or the EEUU?  The States?  But you understand Spanish so well!  They’re always telling me to speak slowerand they don’t understand me. (pleasant surprise, we both left grinning)

3.  Taxi driver in Panama city – the one that drove me to the bus terminal actually blushed when I asked him his opinion of Martinelli and what he would change if he were president (better schools, less crime).  We’d started the ride arguing over money and ended wishing each other well during Carnaval.

With such a fierce recent history of US-Panama relations, I fell like i have my work cut out for me.  Countless times, Marlen pointed out people or places affiliated with the US here in Panama and always her voice was resentful.  However, she always made it clear it was the big US (government) not the little US (me) that she opposed.

12 Feb 09

Here, in Santiago, I see many: tomatoes, car and tire repair shops, convenience stores.  I’m deliberately maintaining a strolling pace here, for many reasons: the heat – moving faster just makes me sweat more, my bearings – going slower gives me a chance to identify landmarks and avoid getting run over, and power – if I am undeterred by loud screams and whistles directed at me, I am still in control.

Lineth’s distinctly upper-middle class house is filled with rattan rocking chairs and a heavy wood dining table, complete with silk placemats and a maid.  Here, where they call out “chino!” to bad drivers, Lineth keeps statuettes of buddha’s head and pastel-painted carp carrying golden balls in their mouths.  Cognitive dissonance, I suppose.

After hearing some volume of words I can’ t understand (too much slang or new vocab), my brain gives up and I fall silent, forgetting I have the ability to participate in conversation at all.  I’m sure they consider me strange – quiet, dumb or rude – but the constant striving to follow the trail of foreign words is truly exhausting.  I prefer to follow the path of the waning amber moon as it rises over the fields where I imagine tomatoes and watermelon are growing, reflecting off the humped spines of the bright white cattle whose skin hangs from neck to knee.

12-14 Feb, Malena

In a small town, the identity of each is distinct, apparent. 

He rode a small bike to Juan’s tienda to say goodbye, biting his lip as he asked when I’m coming back: Johny, “el negro,” the best volleyball player in town.

A fishing village, cows, pin~a, can~a, aguacate, mango, 3 chorros, 3 tomas de agua limpia, evangelist christians, chicheme.  The whole town is literally one family, with every conceivable skin tone and facial shape.  My first twinge of attachment and power because I chose to break it. 

Sense of meeting in the middle.  Germans, Dutch, Panamanians and North americans.  Our common languages were english and spanish.

Serena lived on the pupil’s outer edge and brought me in on a path like a bloodhsot.  I was a stray eyelash, quickly washed out with wind, water and time.

I left: The Letter Opener, a small bottle of Ron Abuelo, one cookie, small container of peanut butter, bag of knotted bread, a felt pen, blood, hair, nail clippings.  I took (into my body, mostly): water, seeds, photos, soil in my clothes, sun in my skin, 2 eggs, 1 pineapple, 4 pieces of bread, 3 potatoes, 1/2 onion, 1 carrot, 2 celery stalks, 2 cups of rice, beans, mushrooms, oil, salt, ketchup, seco, naranja, pork n beans, tomato, tortilla, vanilla, sugar, coffee.

This land is trimmed with living fences, stumpy peeling trees 2 feet apart, united by barbed wire, built to contain the vacas flacas.  It is spotted with burn scars, smoldering garbage piles charring the red soil.  But, it is the green, leafy, humid beauty that dominates.  A church from the States donated toilets to every house in Malena, but only brought the bottom half.  Dozens of tankless toilets are visible around town.  They’ve been sitting for months now.  It’s one of those places.  Hammocks instead of rocking chairs. 

Rural Panama – Santiago, San francisco, Malena, Mariato – bus from Melana to Santiago, Santiago to Arraijan

palm-frond thatch roofs on cinder block buildings.  In Malena, the “bus stop” is also the only pay phone and the only speed bump and the only store and the home of the Peace Corps volunteer.  These days, I’m a diurnal animal completely, keeping the same schedule as the cows.

Dusk over dry fields, ranch land.  This ‘inefficient’ itinereary gives me the rare luxury of traveling the same roads more than once.  I’ve gone: Panama City to Arraijan and back multiple times; santiago to San francisco and back; Santiago to Malena and back; Santiago to El Valle and back.  I begin to recognize the land.

16 feb 09

After buying books at the Fundacion de Omar Torrijos, I remembered all the books I’d bought in Cuba.  I could start a spanish-speaking revolutionary book group in Seattle. anybody interested?

19 Feb 09 – Playa la Barqueta

Wow.  Gringo-topia. 7 hours of a/c bus (including 3 movies about black biker gangs) and 30 minutes in a fancy pick-up after parting with Marlen and Julissa at Altbrook Mall in Panama City, I’m in ex-pat beach paradise.

More photos up!

February 21, 2009

check out the link i put in the last post to see a new album of my photos from Central Panama.

Photos are elsewhere

February 11, 2009

The truth is, it´s much easier for me to send you to this link to see my photos than for me to upload them here, so:


Full Moon in Panama City

February 10, 2009

Today marks the first day of the second week of my time in Panama. I arrived knowing very little about this country, let alone the role of this city in this country, I admit.   8 days in,  however,   I´m sharing my knowledge of local history and sites with other travelers as though I´m familiar with this place.   Slowly, I am becoming so.

Here´s how it´s gone so far:

First, if you aren´t aware of SERVAS (www.servas.org) please note their existence.   This is an organization started by WWII refugees to build peace through international friendships.  They facilitate homestays, that´s the tool they´ve created.  I´ve been so cared for here by the members of SERVAS, I´m in awe.  I already have a family here.

Day 1: I was picked up at the airport last Sunday by a SERVAS member, a wonderful woman who works for C itibank and speaks the rapid Spanish of Panama.  While still extremely groggy, she sent me off with another SERVAS member to their family´s home outside Panama City in the forested small town of Arraijan, where many poor folks who work in Panama City live.  I was enchanted immediately: green parrots,  picking beans and papaya   from the bushes  in the backyard, resting in the hammocks, welcomed by this wonderful family who patiently and persistently conversed with me in Spanish (and English every once in a while, as the 12 year-old daughter is fluent).  I stayed with them for a week, and we were all weepy upon our separation.  We´re all going on a trip this coming Sunday to a beautiful area a few hours away to see the waterfalls and wander in nature.

During that week, I rested a lot, got my bearings geographically and was taken to sites that otherwise I probably never would have seen.  Here´s  are a journal excerpt  from Monday or Tuesday:

It makes me so happy to be able to speak with Marlen and Julissa (the mother and daughter) in a Real manner.  This is very significant for me because what I´d feared was constantly having to compromise myself to be accepted/comfortable… I already feel more comfortable here then any other time I´ve spent in Latin America.

Here´s why – that family is self-educated left-wingers who, as they took me to:  their favorite pupuseria, their favorite beach for fried fish, the local artisan markets, the old parts of Panama City where the president lives, the huge national park in the middle of the city, etc, gave me a political history of this place to ground me here.

The timeline, as I currently understand it (after a few museums and many conversations):

late 1800s, the company who had built the Suez canal proposed building a similar canal across Panama long after Balboa had ¨discovered¨how narrow this country is and what a great boon to trade it would be to have a channel through it .  The French worked for 20 years and failed to complete a canal.  22,000 workers died, mostly of malaria and yellow fever.  Most of them were from elsewhere and I´m still not sure whether they were indentured servants or what.

1903-US proposes to build the canal and completes it in 1913.  1,000s more people die in the process. Most of the workers are from Barbados and I imagine  were very poorly compensated.

1914-US assumes control of the Panama Canal upon its completion when they write and sign a document turning The Canal Zone over to their authority In Perpetuity, without the presence of a representative from Panama (they just arrived late and had opposed this idea vehemently).

1964-Students at a public university in Panama protest the ownership and control of a significanty portion of land and  income in Panama ( the canal and the surrounding areas) by the US, and are summarily shot and killed.

1960s and 1970s, US and Panamanian presidents try to agree on a power-sharing deal for the canal and fail.

1977-US Pres Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos write and sign the Carter-Torrijos Treaty that guarantees complete control of the Canal Zone and canal to be returned to Panama on Dec 31, 1999.

1989-US invasion of Panama to oust Manuel Noriega.  My host mama here remembers hearing these bombs fall and many people died and/or were radicalized during this period.

2000 – complete control of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone turned back over to Panama.

So, what this means is that huge swaths of land just outside Panama City that had been immense US military bases (and hence off-limits to Panamanians) were emptied of US citizens and opened to the public.  There is deep resentment of the US government here, although people are very curious about Barack Obama and ask if we think he´ll be the next Hugo Chavez ( I always say no).

However, there is a major US economic presence here.  As my SERVAS friends have explained ¨Somos copias de ustedes.¨ Meaning ¨we´re copies of you (in the United States.¨

In May, there´s a presidential election here, and of the 4 original candidates, 3 remain:

Balbina, a woman supported by Hugo Chavez and my left-wing friends, wants to redistribute wealth and land and comes from poverty with a history of supporting the poor.  Her support from Chavez includes a requirement that upon her success, all relations with the US are ended.  That´s a huge deal.

Martinelli, an extremely wealthy man, supported by his chain grocery store notorious for buying at low prices and selling at high prices, apparently buying off the votes of poor communities by building a few new houses and a beginning construction on a third set of locks for the Canal.  No real platform except ¨change¨

3rd candidate, whose name I´ve forgotten, was president during the US invasion in 89-2000 and already an old man, but running without affiliation to any party.  The person supported by people who don´t like Chavez and resent being controlled by the super-rich.

Okay, that´s a snapshot of the political landscape here, as I´m learning it.

Here´s a quick list of what I´ve done personally (photos to come as I find quick internet connections):

  • Visited the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal
  • saw sloths (known as ¨lazy bears¨in Spanish) and toucans hanging in the trees in town
  • visited a vast $1 zoo and saw the national bird, the Harpy Eagle*
  • ridden in many ¨red devils¨the buses here, airbrushed with cartoon characters or naked ladies or mountains and decked out with pleather dashboards but driven by insane people
  • taken many $1-2 taxis driven by very conversational men who have never hit on me
  • spent an afternoon exploring the Ciudad de Saber (city of Knowledge), a project that´s redeveloped some of the former US military property into a series of colocated NGO and UN offices, very interesting place
  • eaten plenty of fish, fried plantains, rice and fruit smoothies made with all the delicious fruits I´d  missed since I was in Cuba and others I´d never tried.  Today I tried Marguya, sour like grapefruit, but sweet as well
  • spent today on a tranquil beach on the Island of Taboga, a 1-hour boat ride from Panama City and swam in the warm (really!!) waters of the Pacific

*interesting political note – The Harpy Eagle is about 3 times as big as the Bald Eagle and direct comparisons are made between them at the zoo…

So, that´s the long and the short of my time here so far.  I´m heading to a region NW of here, on the Caribb ean side, tomorrow morning to meet up with other folks from SERVAS and Couchsurfing.com.

I´ll explain a little more about the comarcas – areas owned collectively and controlled by some of the indigenous peoples here – as I learn more.