Monday, February 22, 2016

When Panama Gives You Lemons

Living overseas can be rough, but one learns to adapt.

We heard about a new stand up paddle board club not far from the city. It was a near a place called Playa Bonita, a beach distinguished by the immense amount of plastic wrappers and beer cans found on the shore. While the irony of a beach so named permanently resembling the aftermath of a frat party once struck me as profound, really it's a sad analog for much of Panama. A beautiful country drowning in trash.

Today was a fortuitous day though. There was nice breeze blowing, but the seas were calm. Only a few beer cans could be seen, and the ocean was nearly plastic of trash. My fiancé and I paddled happily around the bay, sometimes with our Panamanian puppy on the back of the board.

A few hours later, we loaded up to head home. Almost immediately I heard the thump thump thump. Flat tire. My car has been the bane of my existence here. I paid too much for it, it has no airbags, it breaks down constantly. It's an evil blue avatar of everything difficult in Panama, the embodiment of the tropical struggle.

The side of the road where I pulled off was slanted, the ground uneven and grassy. I jacked the car up as far as I could, while drivers roared by honking as they're oft wont to do. Then the jack slipped on the uneven surface and lodged itself like Excalibur between my car and the ground. As I threw my hands up in frustration, I saw my lovely finance had taken out a beach chair, and was sitting on the side of the road as if she were on the white sands of the Caribbean.

So I joined her. If you can't change the way things are, you might as well be comfortable.

A nice sunny day.
We sat, drivers honking, as the nice breeze blew over us and kept the mosquitos at bay. I called our road side assistance, and a nice lady assured me someone would be out in five minutes. An hour later a car rolled up, and two men eagerly helped me tighten the last lug nuts. Once I figured they won't coming any time soon I had freed the jack with a number of ferocious kicks.

When Panama gives you lemons, make lemonade.

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.