Panama Diary Chapter 3...Part 3

The new Museum of Biodiversity, with Panama City in the background. 
The fascinating Frank Gehry building is said to look like a giant bird from the air.

Last weekend we drove over to get a look at the Museum of Biodiversity, a colorful, multi-faceted jewel of a building by Frank Gehry, beckoning across the water since we arrived but to which we’d never yet figured out exactly how to drive. It’s perched on the Amador Causeway, a beautiful strip located at the Pacific entrance of the canal. They’ll rent you all kinds of wheeled contraptions for enjoying the scenery along the waterfront. It looks like there is a splendid museum for local crafts, designed in the style of the lovely old buildings of Casco Viejo, being built in the area as well. 

The whole thing will be really swell, if it ever gets finished. Getting things finished seems to be kind of a problem here though.

For all the skyscrapers going up, there may be an equal number that are stuck midway and going nowhere at all. We walked past a site that we thought was active the other day and noticed that all the materials on the site were actually covered with vines. To be fair, that might have happened within the past week. If you fall down in Panama, you’re likely to be covered with vines before someone can help you up. If the ants haven’t carted you home first.

I believe the Biomuseo is finally open, despite not being finished. It’s been on a rolling delay for years.  An article I read about it described it like this: “…the architect has had to come to terms with the local limitations and adjust expectations. And the effects of the tropical climate, which would slow down even the most energetic worker, cannot be underestimated. ‘Panama has a different expectation of construction practices and procedures,’ acknowledges Gehry’s office. ‘This naturally leads to a slower cadence.’”
They do stuff their own way down here. Plus, if you sit down, there’s the problem that things start growing on you.
I think that’s basically what Gehry’s people were saying, although not expressly, don’t you? But then that’s probably part of what makes Panama the place for a biodiversity museum to begin with.
The country is home to over 10,444 different plant species, 1200 of which are orchids. In addition, there are 678 types of ferns and 1500 kinds of trees. There are also 255 species of mammals and 972 different indigenous birds. I wrote previously about the remarkable and energetic growth of Panama City, but it turns out that Mother Nature is also remarkably alive and kicking up a storm. The whole place is bursting with itself. I’m in love.
We experienced a bit of trouble getting stuff done just this week, however, when notices went up in the building that the city had scheduled work on the main valve and we’d be without water the next day from 8:00am to 7:00pm. We were urged to take necessary steps to ensure that we would have adequate water for our needs, so we did. We filled up all the glasses, because the only other container in the apartment was the blender which had already been called into use to hold a bouquet of flowers on the table. We had some bottled water for drinking, but I wanted to have a bit to at least wash my hands, even if I wasn’t going to be able to flush the toilets.
Then we made sure we were up and dressed with the dishes washed before the appointed time…and at 8:00 nothing happened. We had water all day long.
About 8:15 am the internet went out for awhile, but then we never get an announcement about that, it just happens. Ditto the electricity. The water flowed without a hitch. The only reason that worried me is that the fact they didn’t show up to do the work doesn’t necessarily tell me they’re never coming, it just tells me they haven’t come yet. One of these days, I’ll surely get my hair full of shampoo 15 seconds before the city reports to turn the water off for twelve hours. So for the time being, we have a lot of glasses of water around.
That’s almost the kind of Panamanian pragmatism that I’ve come to love and appreciate, however. The motto seems to be, just do what you need to do. 
You certainly see it in the driving. There’s no road rage going on. A person merely assesses where they need to go, and then takes the steps necessary to get there. Other drivers on the road seem to respect the fact that the guy in the next car needed to turn left despite being in the right lane, and they give a honk that is basically as menacing as a shrug and let him go. It’s quite refreshing.

Taxicabs don't have meters. You just tell them how much you want to pay, and they tell you whether or not they'll take you where you're going.
They have figured out that everyone needs health care, so they provide it. You can buy more expensive insurance if you like, but if you don’t, you’ll have a basic plan. 
Everyone in the country gets 4 weeks of vacation. You don’t earn more, you just get 4 weeks allotted the first day you report for work. They seem to understand that a worker at McDonald’s needs a vacation as much or more than the CEO does, so they make it happen. 
Every worker in the country gets paid once a month, but everyone also gets paid for 13 months. The 13th month’s salary is divided into three equal payments that are given at different points during the year. These coincide with things like Carnival and Christmas – times when they seem to understand that everyone could use a bonus. I think there’s something to be said for that kind of thinking.
But for an American, Panamanian thinking does not necessarily come naturally. 
Russ had been trying to find a place to buy a tennis racquet for months. Every sporting goods store we tried directed us to another store, but none of them seemed to carry anything for tennis. Finally, he asked his instructor, who told him that we would find them at La Nota and gave us directions. When we pulled up in front of the store, we could see that there was a large treble clef on the sign. Also an advertisement for music lessons. That, in conjunction with the name of the place, made me think we’d been sent on a wild goose chase yet again. And a strange one.
When we got inside, we found a beautiful music store, packed to the rafters with instruments of every kind. 
And yes, also tennis racquets and golf clubs and swimsuits. Next to a grand piano, there was a punching bag. The saxophones were hung on a post they shared with a kayak. It may be the oddest, most unexpected thing I’ve seen in Panama so far. But as I’ve thought about it, I suppose sports and music are both hobbies. We like both things too. Makes perfect Panamanian sense.
And just like Frank Gehry, it’s really good for me to be forced to come to terms with local limitations and adjust my expectations. It also gives me a renewed appreciation of some of my significant personal limitations. I'm not a person who "just rolls" with any kind of ease at all. But the fact that I don’t yet know enough Spanish to order my meat well done or my dressing on the side requires me to put away some of my thousands of rules for daily living and just get along with whatever they bring me. And I manage to survive, and even thrive. Which makes all the personal stretching feel worthwhile. 
Panama is making even me grow.
Thanks, Panama. I’ll miss you, but please leave the light (well, lights…and water) on for me. Because I’ll be back as soon as I can.



Panama Diary...Chapter 3, Part 2

(pretty much year-round)

and the Livin' is Easy 
(for the most part)

There's a lot to love about our lifestyle in Panama. Our apartment is just a few blocks from Russ's office, so he walks to work. We meet for lunch in the middle of the day, and there's a wide and growing assortment of really good places to eat right on our street. The only drawback to this arrangement is that it's not always easy to navigate even the few blocks between here and there. With construction and traffic, one never knows what to expect. But one should always expect something.

One of the reasons I almost get killed on my run regularly is that I haven't really figured out the rules of the road. As a pedestrian at home, when I make eye contact with a driver before I venture into the street, it serves to reassure me that they see me and that they will observe the crosswalk. In Panama, when I make eye contact, I've come to realize that the driver is equally as likely to hit the gas as to hit the brake. This morning a courteous driver flashed her lights at me, which I took as a signal that she would remain stopped and I should proceed to cross. However, at lunchtime a driver flashed her lights at us as a signal that she was going to plow through the crosswalk and we'd best let her pass. You can see the problem.

It's equally difficult to understand the rules of social engagement. In an elevator, one should acknowledge all other passengers, both as they get on and as they get off. On the street, it seems one shouldn't acknowledge anyone, even if you see them every day. I've got as much to learn about the non-verbal communication here as I do about the actual language. It's all clear as the river outside my window, which when the tide goes out is basically a menacing ooze of smelly mud.

Russ has recently found a tennis academy where he plays weekly. Judging from the big-ticket vehicles and the beautiful high-rise buildings in Costa del Este, one might expect tennis here to be a swanky affair. One would be mistaken.

The great thing about the Academia de Tennis is that it has a roof over the court. Roofs matter in the rainy season. The scary thing about it is that staircase on the left that you have to climb to get to it.

He wasn't sure he could get in, because the roster was completely full. Then he learned that a lesson cost $20. By offering $25, he was able to magically secure a permanent spot during a very prime piece of weekend real-estate. I have a feeling this anecdote could have broader implications. 

For instance, people carry cash here. That's because apparently, car accidents cost $100. I'm not sure who set this agreed-upon price, but the prevailing wisdom is it's a good idea to always carry $100 because if you have an accident, that's what the other party is going to expect you to hand over to make them go away. These are the things they never print in guidebooks, but should. Especially because every time you don't get in a car accident in Panama, it's a pleasant surprise.

There is no test to qualify for a driver's license, you need merely request one. And it shows. (Side note: Florida did not require Driver's Ed, which explained a lot, but they did at least require a test. I believe my daughter passed it with her parking brake engaged, however....which come to think of it also explained a lot.) 

On the other hand, any written test of Panamanian road rules would only have one answer, so I can understand why they don't bother. To most any question, the correct answer appears to be, "Do whatever the hell you want or need to do to get where you're going."

The buses are mostly unofficial vehicles that appear to run without schedules or published routes. But that's probably okay, because there aren't really addresses. 

Yet somehow it works. 

Perhaps America needs to relax a little, and just enjoy more fresh pineapple.

The view from our hotel room at sunset. You can see ships lined up for the locks all along the horizon. They're there 24 hrs a day. Getting through the Panama Canal is actually a long process. 

To that end, we're doing our part. We spent the past weekend at one of the beautiful Pacific resorts on the other side of Panama City. It was only about 10 miles from our apartment, but seemed a world away. We saw an iguana that was a good 2.5 feet long, skulking around a lava flow after the tide went out. It was one of those moments where you have to keep reminding yourself you're not in an engineered habitat at the MN Zoo. You're just out for a Saturday morning walk on the beach. 

The rules for growth here seem to be just about the same as the rules of the road. Nature is neither disciplined nor polite.

It's also full of surprises! There are cacti, and in fact, there was an enormous one growing right on the beach. (Maybe you knew that, but I didn't.) This one grows right outside our apartment. I believe they've put it there to make me feel more at home, which was most kind of them. It's working.

Those moments happen a lot here, and it amazes me when I remember that I'm hanging out in Panama's "parlor"...the fancy part of the house where they entertain guests.

I'm eager to get a glimpse of some of the other rooms, parts of the house where Panama actually lives. I can't say for sure yet, but I have a hunch I'll find...it's a jungle out there.



Panama Diary...Chapter 3, Part One

What's a Nice Girl Like You 
Doing in a Place Like This?

Panama is a Cheshire Cat. A smile in a tree. 

To me, Panama feels perched and waiting. But whether it waits to pounce or merely purr seductive conversation is unclear. It can be extremely charming, yet having had cats, I know a thing or two about them. And every time I see the split of its wide, clever grin, I am reminded that in addition to the smile and the fast talk, Panama almost certainly has teeth.

Once again, the moment I'm off the plane, I know I'm here. It's the smell, first. It may not seem kind to classify a place as smelly, but if I am honest, Panama is. It's fruit so ripe, it's forever on the cusp of turning. Or piles of steaming garbage brought in by the tide, a gift dropped on the doorstep of even the finest neighborhoods. It's thick air and grass cut daily. It's sweat and exhaust and mud and bananas spilled from a truck, peels and pulp squished all over the freeway. It's rain just fallen and rain about to start, all at once. And it lives its life on a warm stovetop, never hot enough to boil but just warm enough that you can tell what's cooking from the next room. Yes, I know Panama by smell.

The next thing I notice is the sounds. It's almost as if Panama likes to hear itself make noise. But as the soundtrack has become familiar, I'm beginning to hear it as a welcome each time I return.

It's a dozen skyscrapers being built 
right outside my window:

a metallic rhythm -- 

cough of jackhammer -- 

underlying current of machinery -- 

forever backing up to do it again -- 
beep beep beep beep beep

and now and then, the BOOM of something dropped from a great height.

In our building, there's the chime announcing the elevator, 
a cheery triad outside our door: 
bing bing bing!

The swsh swsh swsh 
of the mop in the hallway

The thunk...thunk 
we can't identify that goes on somewhere above our heads, day and night

The whisperwhisperwhisper 
of the air conditioner on the wall of each room.

On my run, it's birds and birds and birds I hear but rarely see: 
flutter, wheep, squawk, tweet, twitter...wheep, squawk, twitter, tweet

The traffic jam's looping 
rush, honk, beep, squeal...rush, honk, beep, squeal

The motorbikes' small 

And a voice in my head that warns 
look out! look out! look out!

My ears are happy to be back. I want to sing along. 

There is Old Town (Casco Viejo - see previous post) and then there is Old Old Town (Casco Antiguo). Casco Antiguo is comprised of ruins from the 1500-1600's, and is very close to where we live. If I'd had a better camera, you could see parrots perched on these buildings. 

And then there's the beauty. The daytime is every kind of green, and a pile of grey clouds pushed up against distant hills. The birds wear feathers in picture-book colors. Nighttime wears a necklace of lights across dark water. Ships blink a bright line along the horizon, waiting patiently for passage. For eyes accustomed to desert starkness, there is almost too much to see. I sit at my desk high above it all, looking out the window in every direction and filling my eyes, bit by sparkling jeweled bit. I've not spent enough time here to stop noticing the beauty yet, and for that I am grateful. 

This is where we live, in what is definitely a new part of town called Costa del Este. Those windows on the top floor? Those are ours. If I were home instead of across the street taking this picture, I'd wave to you from my desk.

bing bing bing!
flutter wheep twitter tweet


Hola, mi Panama. 



Panama Diary Chapter 2...cont'd.

Well, my time here is once again drawing to a close, and it's been just as quirky and wonderful as I expected.  

The growth continues to astound.  The skyscrapers in the neighborhood have begun putting out new shoots just since I was here last. To give you a sense of the rate of growth, imagine Panama backing herself up against the doorframe and let's see where she hits and mark it with a pencil: 

The round building crouched behind the tree in this photo used to be the tallest building in Panama, when the kids Russ works with were growing up (that would be in the late 1980's and 90's...yeah, I said kids).

Now it's been swallowed whole. I wouldn't begin to know where to find it in this shot. It's probably a speck in there somewhere though.

That's an impressive number of marks on the wall in 25-or-so years, isn't it? 

It shows no sign of slowing, but seems only to want to get everywhere faster, pulled along by the excitement of its own expanding reach.

Last weekend, we decided to venture out of our insulated Panama experience a bit and took a 2 hour drive up to El Valle de Anton, a beautiful valley nestled in the second largest volcanic crater in the world. 

Jungle meets pine trees meets ocean, making the scenery a bit like something tossed up hastily in Mother Nature's salad bowl using all the ingredients she could find in the fridge...with the endangered and radiant Panamanian Golden Frog sprinkled on for protein. 

The rich volcanic soil turns the whole darn place into a spectacular garden. We didn't see any golden frogs, but at the market we saw some swell plants I wished I could slip into my carry-on. 

The whole twisty 40 minutes on the mountain road getting to El Valle are spectacular too, and make the drive worthwhile in itself. If you ever visit, I promise we'll make the trip. If you are prone to carsickness, we'll swing by Arrocha for some Panamanian Dramamine first. (Word nerd moment...look at that! Don't you love how those words look together?! That's a word marriage made in heaven! But I digress.) 

We were fortunate to be in very good company on part of the descent. Jesus is a common theme on the Red Devil buses, although pin-up girls make the scene with equal frequency.

Getting between here and the highway to the mountain road, you get a taste of what I think of as real Panama City. It seems a world away from the 40th floor of the Riverside Apartments. Some of the guys in the office call it "New Delhi" and though I've never been there, I imagine that the nickname is an apt description. (Although I have a hunch that either Panama City or New Delhi may probably have a right to take offense...I'm not qualified to say which.)

None of the people who make our area of the city run can afford to live anywhere near our area of the city, so when I see neighborhoods like this it truly gives me pause. Panama City runs on cheap, plentiful labor. Instead of one parking or security attendant in a booth, there will be two or three. There's a maid for every apartment, and often a driver too. We walked into a drugstore the other day and I counted 7 clerks standing around chatting and not doing a single thing. Those were just the ones I could see. In front of our apartment building runs a wide tiled driveway with steps and a ramp...they are mopped every day. 

Mopped. With a mop. Every day. 

They don't just hose them off, there is an actual guy whose job it is to mop them. I'm never sure whether to feel bad each time I go down those steps or happy that he is employed. I guess I feel some of both.

My Spanish hasn't improved a bit, although Russ's has and since he's the one who has to live here, I'm happy to let him win that race as long as he's around to order me lunch. I did feel a little cranky with one waiter who pretended not to understand Pellegrino (although he himself said Pellegrino) and Penne al Vodka (although he said Penne al Vodka too) just because they came out of my mouth.

In case anyone wonders, no, I still haven't drunk the banged-up Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi that was found spookily lurking in my 12 pack of Diet Coke. The store must have heard my complaints however, because there hasn't been a real Diet Coke to be had since. So I'm going to need to learn to keep my smart aleck Facebook remarks to myself and know that I don't need to, and probably more importantly don't want to, understand everything that goes on here. 

That's okay. By and large they've all been enormously welcoming and patient, and I feel privileged to get to escape the AZ heat with a little time spent in their jungle paradise now and then. Just when you don't know what inconceivable tidbit Ms. Fate is going to throw your way next, she reaches in her tricky hat and pulls out Panama. 

And it turns out it's quite a place they've got here.

I'll be back.




Panama Diary...Chapter 2

I started this diary during my last visit to my new home-away-from-home. You can find Chapter 1 here.

We live in the Riverside Apartments, Costa del Este. The building is lovely, and being river-side sounds splendid. However, this is what the river looks like behind the building. Panama is so busy working on coming into the 21st century in so many ways, 
it has not yet gotten around to some basic things like picking up the trash. 

The moment we land, there are plenty of things that make it clear I'm back. It begins when I am almost required to swim up the jetway and immediately wish that I had kept a tankini handy in my purse to slip into on approach...

It turns out that Panama during the rainy season is legitimately damp.

Like most folks after a long international flight, I stopped to use the restroom in the airport. It's very large, and has two sides to it. I noticed that all the sinks on one side had no running water, so I walked around to the other side. The first faucet I tried fell off in my hand. The next one had water, but then I noticed that every soap dispenser was missing. Blank plates all the way down the wall. So I walked back to the first side. There was one soap dispenser there, laying on its back in a goopy puddle, but at least I managed a little soap and by walking back around, eventually some water to rinse it off with. Towels? Six dispensers, all empty. But the trash cans were all completely empty too. Someone has figured out that if you don't stock the towel dispenser, you won't have to empty the trash. (I almost have to respect whoever thought of that...it's working for them. And now they're watching World Cup soccer.) 

The thing I notice most often here is that you can almost get what you want. Or that you get almost what you want. Coca Light is a perfect example. It isn't Diet Coke. They think it is, but it isn't. It is almost Diet Coke. It is what you will get when you order Diet Coke. But it isn't Diet Coke.

In my first couple of days, I am reminded:

1) Never assume. For instance, do not assume (as a pedestrian or a driver) that anyone on the road will stop for you. Even if they are already stopped, you cannot assume that they will remain so. Bring two extra sets of eyes when you visit. You'll need them if you ever want to get across a street.

2) Never stand still. The people aren't actually in charge here, the jungle is. And the insects will eat you alive. (Speaking of which, will someone watch me for signs of malaria? I've been bitten.) If the mosquito-fogging truck comes by while you're out for a run, even though it spews a thick fog of unknown origin, you will eventually have to breathe. You won't be able to wait until the air clears. Living here requires the occasional act of faith. You drink the water because they assure you it's safe, you breathe the air because you see all the Panamanians breathing it. But I have a feeling we have banned some chemicals in the US that have probably drifted south to combat mosquitoes in Panama.

I know you can't tell what this guy is doing, but he ran out in front of our car in traffic to display his juggling talents for us. That death-defying feat deserved more than the dollar that we gave him.

3) You can't blow-dry your way out of a hot flash. I learned this truth some months ago. The good news is, here you can't really tell whether you're having a hot flash or not, most of the time, and the blow-drying is pretty pointless anyway because your hair is going to do exactly what the jungle commands it to do within about three minutes.  Menopause could just be an ordinary June Tuesday in Panama.

4) At the grocery store, you can trick yourself into believing you're not that far from home. However, there must be some reason that the Cap'n Crunch is labeled "For Export Only." Yes, they make it in Chicago, but then they slap that label on it and I'm thinking there has to be a reason. I fear it may be related to the reason that Hyundai ships automobiles here with only one airbag. When Russ asked why at the dealership, the answer was, "Because they can." So whatever it is that differentiates the export-only Cap'n Crunch from the regular Cap'n Crunch...well, I don't want to know. In other news, we own a new Hyundai Santa Fe.

5) Most things mostly work. (We hope that will apply to the seat belts in the Santa Fe.) My phone will occasionally even send texts here, although it seems to struggle with important ones.

6) Panama City is very, very safe. Pay no attention to the 6 policias in combat gear that have just zoomed by, two to each tiny motorcycle and with large automatic weapons balanced on their knees. How they are managing to travel as a single 6-gunned blur in gridlocked traffic is a mystery. They find lanes where there are none (which I have decided must be the first lesson in Panamanian Driver's Ed: "What Constitutes a Lane? Establishing Your Rightful Place on Any Road"). I am assured these guys are what makes it so safe. In the US, the police do not zoom around at breakneck speed on tiny bikes with loaded machine guns propped precariously on their laps, but then maybe if they did we could solve some of our problems. Panama City is very safe. Have I already told you that?

The Panamanian "Red Devil" buses are slowly being replaced by more modern public transit, but there are still plenty on the streets. Most notably, they stop right on the freeways to pick people up who wait on the side of the road. Every one of these old US school buses is a unique work of art. In the mornings and evenings they are so crammed with commuters, people actually hang out the open door as they weave along the freeway.  

7) Mormon missionaries are exactly the same everywhere you go. At dinner, they'll always eat as many things as you can order. But now that I've seen their apartment building, I want to buy them breakfast and lunch too. Every day.

8) The US has nothing to compare with the World Cup here. The entire country is literally standing still. There are televisions outdoors on the streets, and in every place of business. Saturday we were shopping and when anything happened in the game, the entire mall would erupt. It sounded just like being in a stadium. People were blowing horns and whistles in the stores and restaurants. Imagine the Super Bowl going on, and on, and on...while also being broadcast everywhere you go. Men, women, and children are equally engaged. It's amazing.

9) Compared to Arizona, Panama in June actually feels fairly cool. And my dehydrated skin has almost fully reconstituted! I think this arrangement could work out splendidly. We wanted a place where we could get away from the summer heat, and we almost got what we wanted. It's hot, but (get this!) it's a wet heat! And sometimes all you need is a change of pace.

Which makes it perfect. Bienvenidos a Panama! 

(Su casa es mi casa...I like that.)




He used to take me dancing
when I was just
a little girl --
unspooling me
across the floor, my skirt
a twirl, my hair
long ribbons then
and when I missed a step
he hardly noticed,
both his feet knew
what to do with any kind
of beat, sure enough to cover
my mistakes, his grace
I learned to dance
standing on his wingtips, now
I would rewind it daily
if I could, you know
sit back forever,
watch the old man go
and go and go

-- smh

Thanks to Tess at The Mag for the prompt. 

And to Grandpa Clarence for dancing me through my childhood 
and calling me "His girl".  



photo by Kelsey Hannah


If all the birds in the world
stopped singing
something else would begin
to carry their song, I see
the world spins on
the same when you were here
as since you've gone

 -- smh

Saw the prompt and had to sneak in a last minute magpie...
check out the whole week's worth over at The Mag



Panama Diary...Chapter 1

So we've had 10 days to get acquainted, and I can tell you a few things. 

Panama is an awkward teenage boy -- early teens, perhaps 13 or 14 -- whose pants are too short. But he's growing so rapidly, it's not really worth buying new pants for now. He will just outgrow them again before school starts. 

He's starting to think a little more about things like attracting girls, and is trying different things to see what might work. But there's also a desire to just hang out with friends and be a kid awhile longer. Get dirty, play rough, show off in the neighborhood, learn new tricks on his skateboard. He can be a bit sneaky, might skip chores, blow off homework, maybe steal a candy bar now and then. 

Panama wants to drive a car but the very thought makes all the grownups in the room nervous. Sometimes Panama sneaks the car out anyway. There's going to be a fender bender at some point. 

Does any of this explain it? I don't know, but it's the best explanation I can think of.

Driving in Panama is crazy. I've never seen anything like it. If you want to do something, you do. Whenever you want to. That seems to be the only law. Things like lights and signs are suggestions, but then most people don't appreciate helpful suggestions from others while driving, right? Which seems to be how they regard lights and signs.

Speaking of helpful advice, it took 7 Panamanians to get Russ into this parallel parking space. They were hanging out of windows, learning in doorways, jumping up and down on the sidewalk, each with a different opinion about which way he should turn the wheel and willing to demonstrate. The guy who found us the space wanted his 5 bucks and wasn't going to give up for anything. It was one of the funniest situations I have ever been in...parking by committee in 100 easy steps! Luckily, when it came time to leave they had managed to get one of the other cars out first. 

When we started thinking about taking on this adventure, I did a little cruising around online to see what I could find out about living here. One of the first things I came across is something that made us laugh uncomfortably and often while we weighed our options. It has since become part of our permanent lexicon:  "The electricity doesn't go out nearly as often as in most third-world countries." 

This is a selling point?

The restoration of Casco Viejo (Old Town) has begun...however, this is what most of the buildings still look like (notice the tree growing out of the building?)

The restored buildings look like this. It's already a fun and fascinating destination, but Casco Viejo is going to become a true national treasure.

Now that we've had a bit of experience here, I find it to be one of the most apt descriptions I've seen. In fact, I think Panama would have written that line about itself. The people are openly proud to proclaim things like the fact that, "Even the tap water is safe to drink!" or "In Casco Viejo, we are actually building the first sewer system!" or "Panama has no major earthquakes!" (All things I have heard/seen in print while I've been here. And good to know, especially after I experienced the 5.8 earthquake that none of the Panamanians even noticed.)

Panama is the shopping destination for the entire region. Step into one of the malls, and you'll find all the same stores you find in an upscale American mall. But the veneer is thin. Finding a few basic items has proven to be challenging, and we have encountered limited selection and poor quality on some things. 

Just about as soon as I forget that I am shopping in Panama, something pops up to remind me. But you have to consider the fact that in 2001 there was not a single mall in this country. Now it is the shopping center for all of Central/South America. Still, if you move here, bring area rugs. And a mattress pad. Also an alarm clock and a bathroom scale, if those are things you like to use.

I will definitely be needing some hand-stitched mola shoes.

The food has been a delightful surprise! Panama takes its restaurants seriously. Whether fine dining or in a strip-mall, I have found every restaurant we've eaten in to be sleekly dressed-to-the-nines, with sophisticated world-fusion offerings. I love it when I can feed my eyes and my mouth...at the same time!

And everything seems to taste good. Eating is not my best talent, and eating in foreign countries is more difficult still. But I am bringing home a little excess baggage from my first 10 days here! 10 more, and I would definitely have to start using that bathroom scale. And if you like seafood? Panama may well be heaven.

That being said, when the tide goes out, it reveals amazing piles of garbage. The ocean is brown until you get an hour or two outside the city. There are chickens in the streets, and no one has ever once picked up after their dog, although everyone owns one. And that's in the fancy neighborhoods.

Loved this chicken living on the balcony. Notice the tether.

Panama City's toenails are painted but there's dirt under its fingernails. But then it is attempting a feat unlike anything I've ever seen. It's literally working around the clock, a city building itself at breakneck speed and trying to look good for the camera while doing it. 

I would describe the soundtrack as construction noise with a latin beat. The noise starts early in the morning, the music goes late into the night...and seems to be a hybrid Latin/Caribbean sound I'm calling "drums from hot climates".

I've heard Harry Belafonte sing Day-O live...twice...but this rendition may have beat it. A true highlight.

It wasn't raining. He dances with the red umbrella while he plays the trumpet. Highlight #2. 

The people are friendly and have been quite patient about our extremely rudimentary Spanish skills. Russ's team is comprised of bright, friendly youngsters (they do make them young nowadays, don't they?!) who have been educated all over the world and speak English like natives. They call him Papa, and Mr. Russ, both of which I find to be extremely charming. Sometimes they call him Fashionista, which does cause me to wonder whether we might be having a failure to communicate. But they seem genuinely excited to be working with him and the affection is mutual. Russ finds himself in a very happy place.

I haven't totally figured out why Panamanians don't seem to harbor a grudge against the US...the invasion was quite recent and seems to have been unnecessarily ugly in many ways. We did bomb/destroy significant areas of the city and kill 10,000 civilians -- but they are pragmatic about the cultural influence and the infrastructure benefits the US has provided as a result of our close ties. Panamanians have been as excited about the NCAA tournament as Americans, and have wasted just as much time at the office filling out brackets.

On Sunday, the park behind our building brims with teams playing cricket and people flying remote-controlled airplanes. The city seems to operate a large and curious nursery there as well -- starts of tropical plants and trees growing in hundreds of old paint buckets. Someone comes by to water them now and then, but no one seems to steal or bother them. Things grow here like crazy. The mold in your shower begins before you've even toweled off. And it appears that anything that stands still will be reclaimed by the jungle at an alarming rate. 

A balcony in Casco Viejo

I'd say the best surprise about this self-described Crown Jewel of the Americas is how much I already love it. How after 10 days, I don't want to leave. How, even as the world's most reluctant traveler, I think I'll be willing to endure cramped, long flights to get here and visit. Often. 

For someone who has spent as much of her life complaining about winter as I have, it seems fitting that I've ended up with a summer home and a summer home. A steam bath and a sauna. A quirky urban high-rise to complement my desert hacienda. 

I think that's going to be just the way I like it. 

Bienvenidos a Panama!