Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Panama So Far

A year and a half in and Panama still manages to bemuse, frustrate, confound and entertain me.

We started year two by moving to Casco Viejo, the one historic neighborhood left in the city that is gentrifying at light speed. We got a beautiful old colonial apartment building a stone's throw from the president's palace.

In Casco you find Porches and poverty in equal measure. Next to remodeled colonial buildings that charge $3,000 in rent, you find old tenements filled with squatters. Restaurants serving $10 cocktails are adjacent to families selling Panamanian staples for $3.50. It pretty much exemplifies Panama. All the recent money and investment paints a first world sheen over a still developing country.

Case in point, in our beautiful colonial apartment (not remodeled and not paying $3,000 a month), the water stopped working, sometimes for days at a time. If I showed you pictures of the place, the interior pillars and french doors, you'd be jealous. If I showed you pictures of the day I had to speak to audience of hundreds without showering, you'd probably laugh.

We moved out in a hurry, and have since used Airbnb to stay in two of Panama City's nicer neighborhoods. The juxtapositions are odd. Porches swerve to miss enormous pot holes and missing man covers. Immaculately manicured lawns lay next to the ubiquitous Panamanian litter.

This morning I saw a woman, decked out in fancy biking gear, riding a thousand dollar mountain bike, doing figure 8's in a park, weaving around styrofoam containers. All dressed up and nowhere to go.

No doubt this country is booming. Venezuelans and Cubans are flocking here in droves, while Americans and Canadians keep heading south. Construction is everywhere, malls are everywhere, glittering skyscrapers dot the landscape and mar the Pacific coastline for miles 60 plus miles to west. 

I just don't know that it's that good for Panama. Rent in the city is skyrocketing. Every inch of beach is being developed and bought up by foreigners. Huge infrastructure problems with water and waste collection still exist. Panama Bay literally smells like a sewer. But still, towers go up, developers get rich, and foreigners come in droves.

I went to a beach last weekend, passed the gated communities, the giant piles of trash those same communities dump on the side of the road, passed the mansions and the villas, before arriving at a nice little beach where a Panamanian woman charged me $5 to park. I pay that gladly. That's her slice of the action. The rest of it seems to be going to everyone else. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What I Aspire To

When I lived in Oregon, my big material ambition was to own a farm. I wanted some land so I could live off it. A huge garden, a few animals for meat, milk and cheese. More and more I've come to value the idea that where the food come from matters. I thought it would be awesome to live that out.

I was after a lifestyle.

Now I live in Panama City, in what is best described as a suburb of mansions (I live in the basement of one). My job places me in an extremely rich subset of what is otherwise a relatively poor country. I've seen more Porches and Ferrari's than I ever have in my life. Audi's are as ubiquitous as Honda Civics back home. And suddenly I found myself wanting an Audi. If everyone else had one, why couldn't I? 

I was after a status symbol. 

That reoccurring desire to drive those 4 interlinked circles led me to diagnose a very odd stage in my life. Discontent. I am making more money than I ever had, but am surrounded by people who make a whole lot more.

All my life I've read about wealthy people who weren't satisfied, and thought, "that'd never be me." One article in particular stood out, it chronicled the travails of Wall Street employees trying to get by on only $1-3 million a year, which isn't enough apparently when you're renting a fancy Manhattan apartment, send their kids to private school, have a beach house and do all that other stuff rich people on the East Coast do (I'm not entirely sure what they do).

It became apparent to me that never being satisfied is a danger inherent in the human condition. Alexander the Great conquered the whole world he knew, but still wanted to conquer India before his troops refused to go any further. Millionaires look up to multimillionaires who look up to billionaires who look up to Bill Gates. There is always someone with more. 

It surprised me to find I'd been doing that too in my own little microcosm.

Part of it no doubt is my setting and the people I'm surrounded by. Also, by and large my life is missing the small moments of bliss that I had every day in Oregon. Playing fetch with dog in the field, driving to work past vineyards, watching eagles pull fish out of the lake just five minutes from my house. I miss that. 

Without some diligence, the rat race is a very easy thing to fall into. Maybe it's more like a hamster wheel, you just spin and spin and spin chasing something that you'll never obtain, unless you're Bill Gates. And even the Bill Gateses of the world figured that whatever they had isn't worth keeping so they're giving it all away. 

The best things are life in priceless, I've always believed. Hopefully by refocusing on creating and recognizing those little moments of bliss, I'll find some better object for my aspirations,    

Sunday, January 18, 2015

7 Benefits of Finally Learning to Cook for Myself (at 31)

My life has reached a tipping point.

I officially like the food I cook more than I like eating out, almost anywhere.

Today, in about 15 minutes, my girlfriend and I whipped up some rice bowls. We added lentils, sauteed veggies, crunched up tortilla chips, and some homemade habanero sauce. To not make it too healthy, we piled lots of cheddar cheese on top. 

Delicious. Cheap. Healthy. 

I like my food in that order. Delicious. Cheap. Healthy.

I don't want to get too preachy about food. I'm not a vegetarian, and though I dabbled in the Portland foodie scene a little, the Junior Bacon Cheeseburger from Wendy's remains my favorite meal of all time. I'm just happy I can cook edible food. It wasn't that long ago that all I really knew how to do was make spaghetti or overcook a steak. 

So what are the benefits of finally being to cook well? They are many:
  1. I'm eating better tasting food.
    I'm kicking myself for all the times I've paid $8 for some reheated chicken wings, or a quesadilla. Even at the fancier places I'm not blown away. It's rare I don't walk away thinking, "I could have done better."
    We pay a lot of money for inferior, reheated, really-not-that-good food. I guess they do our dishes too, so that's nice. But you can do better. Just saute some peppers and onions and through them on anything, rice, a burger... you name it. And it will be better than what you get at 90% of restaurants.
  2. I'm saving a ton of money.
    Here in Panama, if we sit down, its going to cost my girlfriend and I at least $30. Then I feel stupid because that bowl I mentioned above probably cost $2.00 total (veggies in particular are very cheap here), and tastes 10x better. We are saving hundreds a month by eating out less.
  3. I'm eating way healthier.
    More cooking means less fast food. On top of that, I find I'm eating less meat and way more veggies not because of some diet, but because I like the taste.
  4. I have way more energy. 
    Since I started cooking more, I find I'm drinking way less coffee. Even on days I don't get a lot of rest or don't exercise in the morning, my usual energizers, I'm not dragging. I guess what we put in our bodies really does matter.
  5. It's a great way to score boyfriend points. 
    Nothing earns more me love and respect from my girlfriend than cooking for her, unless I do the dishes too.
  6. I learned that yogurt is everything.
    Seriously. Yogurt. Did you know that natural yogurt is pretty much sour cream? I love sour cream. Want to make an awesome sauce? Take "x" ingredient, and blend it with yogurt. Bam. Now you are winning Chopped.
  7. I watch a lot of the Food Network.
    Guy Feiri haunts my dreams. I love Chopped in particular though, what those people whip up in 30 minutes blows my mind. Some day. 
Those dishes are the downside, especially since we don't have a dishwasher here. But that's it. It took me 31 years, but I finally learned how to cook! 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Comparing Homes: Panama vs. the United States

My recent trip back to Oregon for Christmas got me thinking again about life in Panama versus life in the United States.

We did Christmas shopping in both places, and one thing really stuck out: customer service in America is amazing. Wherever I went, Marshalls, Wendy's, small mom and pop stores, the sales associates smiled and were happy to help with whatever.

In Panama, that ethos hasn't been created yet. Take my recent visit to Multicentro, one of Panama City's ubiquitous malls to catch a movie and a bite to eat.

We decided we would try the much ballyhooed VIP movie theater, where for $12 you get to sit in a giant leather chair that reclines all the way down. Arriving inside the VIP area, we decided to order some food. It was a picture of modern commerce: I, the consumer, in front of the register with wallet in hand. He, the young sales associate, behind the register ready to take my order. We were ready to do business. Except, he was on his phone. And he stayed on his phone (while my girlfriend and I smiled knowing at each other) for about a minute until some supervisor saw him and told him to take our order. And of course the food wasn't delivered so I had to leave the movie an hour later to remind them.

After the movie, we visited the Quiznos in the same mall. The mall was nearly empty, and we were the only ones at the Quiznos. I ordered a sandwich. My girlfriend ordered soup and a drink. Inspiration struck, and we realized that we could combine those into a combo and save a dollar. Yet, the woman working the register refused to change the order.

"It's done!" She said.

"It's simple, just make it a combo" I repeated.

"No," she said.

"Can I speak to your manager?"

"I am the manager." I doubted this, but didn't challenge her on it.

"Ok, if you won't do this simple thing for us, I'm not buying the food."

"Ok," she said. And away we walked.

Yes, it was only a dollar. But like hell was I going to give any money to anyone who wouldn't accommodate a simple request.

What's missing is the simple idea that the customer is why I'm here. No customers, no business, no job. To be fair, I think America has gone through something of a customer service revolution in recent years. I read a business book awhile back called Give Em the Pickle!, which starts with an anecdote about a customer who won't return to a restaurant because the waitress wouldn't give him an extra pickle.

Whatever the reason, its time for Panama to give em the pickle.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mailing a Post Card in Panama

I promised about 100 kids that I would write them a post card from Panama. I wasn't expecting 100 of my students to put their addresses down. More like 10. I've offered before to write post cards whenever I took some trip overseas during the summer, and usually about 5 kids took me up on it. Since I was leaving for two years I expected a few more. But not 100.

So I bought 10 post cards and wrote the first batch to my 8th graders who graduated last year. These are kids who I had taught for 4 years, and who moved on from Butte Creek the same time I did. I felt a closer bond with than I had any other class, it felt right that they should receive the first of my 100 post card salvo from Panama. 

Then I came to discover that Panama has no national post office. There are no mail boxes, no mail men, nothing. Private businesses fill that void a bit, like Fed Ex for example, but they mostly cater towards businesses. After asking around in my neighborhood, a number of kindly strangers who could put up with my bad Spanish directed me to a store called "Mail Boxes."  Perfect.

Arriving at Mail Boxes yesterday, I pulled out a post card and asked how much it would cost to send one to the west coast. I was hoping for under a dollar, would have been OK with $1.50, and really hoped it wasn't more than $2.00 a post card.

The lady looked at it, smiled, and grabbed some laminated chart and a calculator and began pounding away furiously. For over a minute she was calculating, chk chk chk on the calculator, before pertly popping her head up and proclaiming "$46.47." I of course asked her to repeat it, and after confirming a second time, I did some calculating myself, and decided I sadly will not be mailing 100 post cards at the cost of $4,647 dollars.

Panama is like that. It seems so similar to home at times with its skyscrapers and glittering malls and ubiquitous American chain stores, but try to mail a post card and bam! Panama-ed.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Trip to the Barber in Panama

I haven't been to the barber for approximately three years. Until today.

During that time, I've cut my own hair. It works fine, apart from the occasional really long random hair I miss that sprouts from my head like an antenna. I really don't care how it looks to be honest. It just needs to look OK.

But my clippers didn't make the trip to Panama. And my first attempt to cut my own hair here with a beard styler ended so badly my girlfriend had to spend hours fixing it, while she alternated between amused and horrified at the large chunks I took out of the back of my head.

This time I went to a salon.

My Spanish is still improving, so all I could say is "I want it shorter" and "I want to look like a man of business." In Panama this was understood as "Make me look like Vanilla Ice." While he trimmed the sides nicely, he kept the top much longer than any farm boy from Eastern Oregon would want.

A number of other odd things occurred. While not positive if these experiences are consistent with all salon visits or just here in Panama, I found the following noteworthy.

  • After rinsing my hair, the stylist vigorously dried my ears using his fingers and a towel. That felt slightly forward.
  • An equally vigorous head rub with the towel was used to dry my hair.
  • He shaved my cheeks with clippers.
  • He spent about 5 minutes blow drying my bangs so they would stand straight up.
  • He then liberally applied gel and mousse until my hair was stiff enough you could iron a shirt on it. 
He then sent me out into the mall looking like this:

Please help! My hair won't come down.
Even as I write, its still sticking straight up in the air.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Missing Home

Sometimes it rains when I wake up and I think I'm back home. Then I realize the curtains are bright green, my dog isn't anywhere to be found and there's a gecko looking at me.

I'm not sure I should be missing home. Panama meets my expectations in every way. When I left Silverton for two years, I pictured myself working in a new and challenging school and traveling to tropical beaches on the weekends.

Check and check.

I love school. They demand so much more from than I'm used to, but give me ample time and resources to implement what they want. I feel in over my head, and insecure about my job performance for the first time in half a decade. Yet I can tell I'm growing. I've even had teachers come in three different times and say "I heard you're doing (teacher thing) really well, can you show me what you're doing?" What? Really? Ok.

The weekends blow my mind. This Saturday my girlfriend and I decided we'd go to the beach. Flipping through Lonely Planet, we settled on Kuna Yala, a semi-independent archipelago on the eastern end of Panama's Caribbean coast. We loaded up, and 2 hours later we crossed the continent arriving on the Carribbean shore.

Kuna Yala has over 400 islands ranging from the luxurious to deserted. Being late in the day, we didn't have many options, we joined a group of Panamanians and Colombians heading to Isla Ukuptupu. Why not?

30 minutes later our motorboat pulled into port. Ukuptupu was about the size of a football field with traditional thatch roofed lodgings. Quaintness aside, Cabanas Ukuptuku would not be categorized as luxurious. No fan, no mosquito net, and the toilets flush right into the ocean. I quietly renamed it Isla IckyPooPoo. That night I fell asleep sweating dreadfully, and awoke thinking a bat was attacking me.

Still, our hosts were incredibly kind. The Kuna speak their own language, have their own dress, and even make their own laws. Our host John, an elderly man of 77, spoke English and told me the story of how he learned my language while working on a US Army base in the canal zone. For dinner they served us freshly caught fish, and there was a litter of 6 new born puppies to make my girlfriend happy.

We didn't swim off of Isla Icky Ukuptupu, for obvious reasons. But each day they took us by boat to waters a little less fecal. The first evening we snorkeled off a little coconut studded atoll that held a single thatched hut and family. For the first time in my life I saw that thing I've always dreaded on the beach. The sting ray. This small animal has the world's most painful sting, I heard once.
They blend right into the sand, so they can be easily squished by careless ocean goers. One even swam towards us passive aggressively, no doubt wanting to get stepped on so he could sting us.

"I'm not your doormat!"
The next day we went to a busier island, quite a few boats dropped people off. The snorkeling wasn't as great, but Kuna fishermen did row by about every 15 minutes with live lobster, crab, red snapper and barracuda that you could buy and have cooked for you right there. Rebekka and I had two lobsters for $10.

Kuna Yala was amazing, thrilling, scenic and a little uncomfortable. Sadly, like all of Panama, garbage lay everywhere. I never want to buy a plastic bottle or bag again. It's one thing to read about giant trash islands in the middle of the Pacific, but another to swim with Diet Coke and Frito Lays.

With all the excitement, its hard to explain exactly what's missing. Or maybe not. My family. My dog. My house. My kids I've taught the last 7 years. That's all not here. But I've traveled before and loved it. I think. Maybe I'm forgetting all the times I felt homesick before.

More likely, Oregon has molded me over the last 7 years. I've become a part of it. My clock ticks to its seasons. Fall is for football and Oktoberfest, not tropical beaches. My fridge back home was full of blueberries from a kid I taught. And now its mangoes and pineapples. I had Oregon figured out, I knew its secrets. Why should I be surprised to wake up somewhere else day after day and feel like something's not right?

No doubt Panama will leave its mark. Will it ever become home, if only for two years? I hope so, but it has big shoes to fill