April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, March 2, 2009

Paul and Sandy's Visitor View

Paul & Sandy’s Visit to Panama 1/28/09-2/9/09
“Short” Recap

Q1: How was Panama what you expected?

Panama was about what we expected. Panama is a large metropolitan city surrounded by neighborhoods of varying levels of socioeconomic conditions. We were slightly surprised (but probably should not have been) how poorly many Panamanians live.
Q2: How was it different than what you expected?

The most striking thing for me that was different than I expected was how many Panamanians have cell phones. Regardless of living conditions, they often having more than one phone, and they use them regularly.

About the weather - Absolutely terrific the entire time. Even though it was the dry season and has little rain, we had a 5 day stretch where it rained each day, but not enough to change or alter any of our plans. Temps hovered around 90 during the day with a breeze and maybe high 70s in the evening for lows.
About insects – maybe it was because it was the dry season, yet we had little contact with them on our skin. I saw only a few mosquitoes flitting about. I was gnawed on by some no-see-ums a few times but probably only because I washed the bug repellent off when I washed my hands. We were infested with tiny micro sized ticks after our trip to Barro Colorado, and spent a day or so picking them off of us as we discovered them. They were hardly a nuisance, and since they don’t carry Lyme disease, we were not worried.
The little dot to the left of the penny is a tick
Q3: What struck you about the USA when you returned home?
When we returned to the US, I was struck and moved by the US immigrations officer’s declaration as we were leaving his station, “Welcome back Home folks.”
Q4: What was your best moment in Panama?
See below about walking to the tienda on the island.
Q5: What did you find most interesting or most notice about Kevin and April's life in Panama?
Concerning April & Kevin’s life in Panama, I was struck on how connected they were to the Cuerpo de Paz (Peace Corps) organization in Panama. I certainly didn’t realize they had so much contact with the organization on a regular basis. I also get the sense that they don’t fully realize the impact they are having on the people they work with on the island and in the Peace Corps organization. April’s & Kevin’s Spanish is outstanding, and it was great fun watching them negotiate and arrange things in Spanish.
Q6: Free response - anything else you´d like to say about your trip and time here.
Sandy’s and my visit to Panama to visit Abril y Kevin consisted of three parts:
1. A few days in Santa Fe, Veraguas, an hour and a half north of Santiago
2. Several days on their island
3. Four days in Panama City

Our trip getting to Panama was eventful only in that winter descended on Cincinnati the day before our departure, which resulted in our flight from Cincinnati to Miami being cancelled at the last minute. This cascaded into us flying to Ft. Lauderdale and taking a taxi to Miami; then missing our scheduled flight to Panama. Yet, somehow we managed to get to Panama just a couple of hours later than our original scheduled arrival time.

After wading through Immigration and Customs in Panama, we found Abril y Kevin waiting for us. They were with Brian Naranjo, part of April & Kevin’s Embassy host family in Panama. When in Panama City, April & Kevin stay with them, thus saving some money. Brian is the senior political officer for the State Department at the US Embassy in Panama. Now, as most of you know, I am NOT a big fan of our federal government, particularly the State Department which I feel is a big unwieldy bureaucracy, yet after visiting with Brian and Devon, I am happy we have people like him representing the interests of the US abroad. If all State Department political officers were like him, we would be in good shape.

One of first things we learned about Panama is that Panama has a pretty decent transportation system. Not sophisticated but serviceable. The buses between most major cities are large and clean. There are plenty of mini-buses or “coaster buses” to go between smaller places. Now in Panama they play the game “How many people can you cram into a mini-bus?” There may be seats for 30 but you can actually cram 40-50 into one of these things, with people getting on and off the entire trip. Luggage that can’t fit in the small luggage compartment gets tied on top. In most of the cities there are plenty of taxis.

In Panama City, the bus system around town consists primarily of the famous Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) which are retired American school buses painted and decorated. The drivers of these buses compete for passengers and often race each other to bus stops, since the more passengers they carry, they more they make. Diablos Rojos are considered dangerous, and the government appears to be taking steps to bring these buses under government control, replacing the privately owned Diablo Rojos buses with a conventional public metropolitan bus system.

Santa Fe. The first few days were spent in the mountainous area of Santa Fe. The tallest mountains in Panama are only about 3,000 feet high [Editor's correction: The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú (formerly known as the Volcán de Chiriquí), which rises to 3475 meters / 11401 ft. but we did not go out that far West. Where we were in Santa Fe is at 400m / 1312ft. above sea level.], so the weather change between Santa Fe and Panama City or even Abril y Kevin's island wasn’t all that dramatic. Maybe just a few degrees or so cooler in general.

We spent our days relaxing (a common theme for our trip), and wandering around seeing things. We learned that many if not most of the homes and places to stay in rural Panama are “open air,” no glass in windows, lots of open doors. The hostel we stayed at was essentially a bamboo log home without the chinking between the bamboo logs. Nevertheless, for our entire stay in Panama, we really didn’t need any more than a sheet for cover at night.

View from Hostel terrace

In Santa Fe and everywhere else we found the Panamanian people happy and engaging people, despite many of them living in what we would consider very poor conditions. There were two highlights to our trip to Santa Fe. The first was a tour of a coffee farm and coffee processing plant.

Sandy & me during walk to coffee farm

Our Guide Francisco for the coffee farm & plant trip

The second was our visit to the Santa Fe Feria, sort of like a county fair. We had a good time there sampling Panamanian food. Sandy even had a Panamanian specialty, spiral sliced hot dog on a stick cooked on a grill made from an old tire rim. At this feria is where April told us her philosophy about Panamanian food. Initially, upon arriving in Panama, she was determined to try everything offered her. Now she has two rules:
1. No endangered species, and
2. No food with hair still on it;

April either ordering or saying “There is still hair there.”

Nevertheless, the food we ate was very good. I particularly liked the potato salad made with beets (I don’t even like beets) which gave the potato salad kind of a purple hue.

April & Kevin talking worms and compost at the Feria

On our first morning in Santa Fe we were introduced to the Panamanian alarm clock system. About 5:30 am or so, some rooster in some distant place in Santa Fe or outside decided to do its version of pathetic cockle doodle doing. Before long, the entire community of roosters (and there are a lot of them) were doing their thing, followed by dogs barking and cows mooing. Eventually, as it began to get light, even workers started using tools and making noise. April & Kevin slept through it. Sandy & I sort of laughed at all the noise, wide awake. Since we were around roosters every day except when in Panama City, we often experienced it; although Sandy got to the point she actually slept through it a couple of times on the island.

The Island. After Santa Fe we made our way to Abril y Kevin's island via a night’s stay in Santiago to stock up for groceries. We left early the following morning to a cute little port town an hour south of Santiago where April and Kevin depart for their island. Upon arriving, April found we had a couple of choices for rides. April, Sandy & I hitched a ride with Búho (Booho) in a nice fast fiberglass boat. Kevin went with Carlos and family in their slower wooden, leaky boat, only because we had our “cargo” loaded into Carlos’ boat already. We waved at Kevin as we passed them on the way to the island.

Island dead ahead!

One of the things that was remarkable to me was that on maps it appears that there is more water between the islands. In a boat it seems that the mainland or other islands were close by all the time.

A low tide view from April & Kevin's island of the small island off theirs and the mainland beyond

Living on the island reminded me of camping. The typical routine while there was get up, eat breakfast, relax, do something, have lunch, relax or maybe do something, cook and eat dinner as it is getting dark, clean up, play cards by candlelight, take cool showers and hit the sack. I think Sandy managed a nap each day. The last three days, April put out her camp shower water bag, so that in the evening we had a few bowls full of warm water to rinse off with. What decadence! But it felt good.

The outside of April & Kevin’s house

A view of the inside of the house

The first day we were visited by 10-15 islanders welcoming April & Kevin back to the island, and also I am sure checking out her Gringo parents. The last day we were there, we had two families come over for lunch. Now April uses a lot of vegetables in her cooking, and the islanders do not, so they are usually wary of April’s cooking, yet despite the looks and smirks, for the most part they ate what they were given. After lunch, the men played dominoes and the women bingo. I think we all had a good time.

April, Kevin, and Sandy relaxing on the rocks after a walk to a beach

Besides the joy of seeing April & Kevin in general, I think my favorite part of the time in Panama was when Sandy & I took a walk after breakfast the second day there up the sidewalk past the school to Carlos’ tienda, where we managed to order cold sodas ($0.40 each,) and then sat around there for awhile trying to converse with people very different (but the same) from us and feeling comfortable doing so.

Paul & Sandy on a hike around part of the island

Sandy and a young woman spent some time trading words in Spanish and English looking through the Peace Corps calendar that the young woman had. Big smiles all around. I am sure they got a hoot from us Gringos. After that Sandy and I walked back past April & Kevin’s place and sat on the step by the Casa Comunal (community center) overlooking the bay for about a half hour, just enjoying the view and the time together.

The palm trees near the Casa Comunal

In general, what I took away from the island was that it is clear the islanders love Kevin & April a lot, and that April & Kevin have made a difference in their lives. In fact they mentioned that they really don’t want a new volunteer when April & Kevin’s term expires, they have the volunteers they want!

Panama City. We spent three full days in Panama City, not counting the travel day to get there and the day we left. It was action packed. Friday we spent at Barro Colorado Island, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in the middle of Lake Gatun, in the northern half of the Panama Canal. It was a nice visit, yet I came away a bit disappointed, and can’t quite put my finger on why. We saw plenty of animals and plants, and the hike was nice. April felt it too and we think maybe it was because we didn’t hear much about what projects are currently going on and what the various scientists are finding out. Nevertheless, it in general was a fun day.

Wilma (our guide) and me looking at something

Kevin checking out the Big Tree

April & Kevin at Barro Colorado

April & Kevin by Big Tree

Saturday we spent doing a partial transit of the southern half of the Panama Canal, starting at Gamboa and ending in the Pacific Ocean. It really was pretty neat.

The narrow Gaillard Cut

It was clear Sandy had a great time, and it was great fun watching her jumping around, standing on benches to get a better view. When asked if she wanted her picture taken for a little certificate that proved she transited the Canal, she stated “Yes!”

On the Pacific Queen by the Centenary Bridge

And talk about small world, after calling Kevin’s Dad and Hilary and Grandma Miller, they were able to see our boat going through the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal webcam.

Leaving the Pedro Miguel Locks

In first lock of Miroflores locks

Leaving Miroflores locks

After we returned to Amador Marina, we wandered around the Amador Causeway, and had a pleasant meal at the restaurant Leños & Carbon.

The Bridge of the Americas marks the beginning (or end) of the canal

Sunday started out with a ride on a Diablo Rojo to where we started the day shopping for souvenirs, then wandering around Casca Veijo, and finally having April & Kevin buy us dinner for our 30th anniversary (just a few weeks ago).

A decked out Diablo Rojo “Red Devil”

A bright yellow building in Casco Antiguo

A Cathedral in Casco Antiguo

Monday we headed back to the USA. :(

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