The Slow Seduction

The word panama means abundance of fish, butterflies and trees according to the indigenous Indians of the region, the Kuna.  Nowhere is this more evident, at least the fish part, than the Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market) in Panama City.

As my partner in crime, photographer, best friend, travel buddy, logistician, all around good guy and husband observes,  “Panama grows on you daily.  It is like a slow seduction and before you know it, you are in love.”  Sam does not usually wax poetic until way after the sun goes down, if at all,  so I know he was truly inspired.

We started walking the cinta costera (coastal ribbon), surrounding the fish market area watching the colorful boats deliver their sea treasures to the docks for weighing and payment. The boats are old, beat up and charming in their simplicity.  It is obvious that this particular “dance” has been performed each and every day for many, many years. Watching the Panamanian fishermen come in after hours of fishing,  is something I had wanted to see before but had always come to the market too late in the day.  Clearly, this is hard work but the smiles on their faces and the camaraderie at the docks indicate a pleasure and satisfaction in their work.   Ok, it’s possible I am romanticizing a bit but it sure seems like that.  DSCN5312

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We left the dock area and wanted to see the actual bounty in the market.  Curiosity overcame the pungent smell that tickled my gag reflex.  It took some self-convincing to keep breakfast down.  I managed it and was rewarded by the sight of gorgeous fresh fish of all shapes and sizes. Enormous tuna, red snapper, sea bass, crab, langostinos, shrimp, lobster, octopus and a multitude of other sea creatures.  Let me say, I am a fish fan and have had fresh seafood almost every day since I have been in Panama.

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We left the market and decided to have a cool drink at one of the many stalls that surround the market.  The sights and smells are amazing, people watching is great and the fresh seafood is incomparable.  Every fonda (stall) has someone showing you their menu and gently urging you to to take a look.  We settled on the shadiest, breeziest spot and ordered two beers.  The menu looked so good we decided we needed a snack.  We ordered langostino cocktail.  It’s like sort of like a shrimp cocktail you get in the United States but with many more shrimp,DSCN4792 a kind of lime mustard sauce and lots of onions.  Unlike ceviche, the cocktail leaves the seafood whole but still “cooked” in the lime juice.  It was delicious and cheap.  We thought to take a picture only after we were half way through, but it was originally heaping with shrimp.

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We decided to do more exploring and rounded the front of the market to find a bathroom.  Let me say public bathrooms can be found in Panama but sometimes its not easy.   We found a small indoor restaurant and decided that in order to use their bathroom (customers only), we needed to have another beer also it was a great way to cool off.  As is usual with us, we ended up staying about an hour talking to Uber our waiter who was Columbian and was trying to learn English just as we are working on our Spanish.  The more people we meet, the more we realize that people are basically the same all over the world.  Even though we don’t speak each others language perfectly, we can usually share a laugh, find commonality and show our genuine interest in their families and respect for their culture.

Panama City traffic can be horrendous, so before rush hour we needed to get back to our hotel.  Regrettably, I was unable to conquer that huge lobster I spied at the market for dinner but I vow to return very soon and one of them will be mine!

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Toboga – Island of Flowers

We purchased a ticket at the dock in Amador for the Isla Toboga fast ferry. We checked in with Steve, who runs the fast ferry business along with a logistical service for supplying  ships going through the canal. “We handle every request and have had some interesting ones like finding a captain’s favorite hot sauce, he explained.”  Steve is a very happy Canadian who arrived in Panama 8 years ago and never looked back.   So we departed Amador and Steve told us he would have someone meet us on the dock in Toboga to explain the points of interest and how to navigate the island on foot.

It was a 25 minute ride and I was searching for my elusive whale friends on the way but no luck.  I think it is just out of season for them.   I had done some research and was really interested in a church that was established on the island in 1512.  It seems that beautiful Toboga had been conquered and invaded a number of times by the Spanish, English, pirates and even during the construction of the canal,  was used to quarantine workers who contracted yellow fever and malaria.  We arrived at the dock a short time later and met our guide who told us where to find everything and explained how safe it was to walk anywhere we wanted.DSCN4979

We went on a Friday so the island was virtually deserted.  There were very few people around because they were at work.  So let me explain.   They mostly work at a neighboring island which is a refueling station for ships. They leave every morning for a 5 to 10 minute boat ride. Then they come home to their beautiful little island every night. Pretty sweet commute.

We decided to take our walking tour first before going to the beach which is unique in itself but more on that later.  We saw the steeple on the church and headed in that direction. The church is located in the town square.DSCN4982

The word charming barely covers it when describing the somewhat hilly walk along the ocean.  The narrow streets are barely wide enough for a small car and we saw only a few.  On this particular day it felt we had the whole island to ourselves.  The  walkway was dotted with multi color houses and buildings and small alleyways and streets. The beauty is really only surpasssed by the amazing smell of the multitude of flowers blended together in a beautiful perfume.  We arrived at the town square and noticed the church was closed. Our guy at the dock said just ask someone they will open it for you.  Trouble was there was not anyone around except two German backpackers, young women in their twenties.  We quickly noticed the angry clouds gathering and we looked for some shelter from the impending downpour.  The German girls found a spot in a doorway off the square.  We joined them and  learned they had been traveling for several weeks.  Their English was pretty good and we managed to have a nice conversation.  They were planning to go on to Costa Rica next.   They were going to try to climb the mountain on Toboga which promised a great view of the surrounding Pearl Islands.  The Mom in me had to bite my lip to keep from saying “not in those flip-flops, you’re not”.  The rain was stopping, and we wished the girls well and headed down to the beach.DSCN5003

So, the beach was very interesting.  A wide strip of soft sand with water on two opposite sides.  We spent a beautiful afternoon collecting shells, exploring and relaxing.

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We reluctantly started heading back to catch the ferry, but along the way we decided to stop for a beer at a little “fonda” or stand.  The beer was $1.00 which was great but the only nearby bathroom cost $1.00 to use so it was hard for us to reconcile having more than one.

Toboga is definitely worth another day-trip for more exploring and fun!  Can’t wait!

The Frog Strangler

Today, the rain is falling in sheets.  It’s the kind of day our ex-pat friend Don calls a frog strangler.  You know, the kind of rain that Forrest Gump described in a letter he was writing to Jenny while sitting back to back with Bubba in the jungle in Vietnam. He explains all the different kinds of rain, stinging rain, sideways rain, even rain that seems to come up from the ground.  I was totally feeling that except for the fact, I was cozy, dry, out of the rain and not marching through the jungles of Vietnam so I guess its not similar at all.   It is really warm though and feels good even when it is raining sideways.

It is still the rainy season here in Panama and we are told in December, when it is over, the weather becomes dryer, sunny and not as humid.  For now, though, this is what goes with our adventure.  It is actually kind of fantastic sitting by the pool, watching the warm rain come down in waves. IMG_20151014_101408_hdr

Everything is lush and beautiful when the sun comes out.   The Panamanians barely blink an eye, of course and continue their outdoor work while being soaked to the skin.  Weather reports are iffy at best, a torrential rain can blow in and an hour later it’s sunny and beautiful.

We are beginning to realize that while making plans, we need to be flexible and have options. So, while we were hoping to visit  Isla Toboga by Ferry, the better choice was to  grab a cab and go see to the Miraflores Locks and Panama Canal Museum.  DSCN5480We arrived just in time to see a tanker and a container ship go through the locks.  I say just in time, but in reality, it takes each ship eight to ten hours to make it through so I guess there was really no rush.   It certainly is a mechanical wonder and while I enjoyed it, my detail oriented husband was intent on every last movement of each piece and part.  I am so glad we went though and can scratch that off the list.  After all, we are in Panama.  I guess if we didn’t it would be like going to Niagara Falls and not actually going to see the falls something I confess to doing many times while living in Upstate New York.

Each day brings the knowledge that what you thought you planned to do can morph into something completely different.  .  It’s all good!

Disfruta!

The Spanish word for enjoy, delight, to take pleasure in,  is disfruta! I believe this sums up our stay in Panama so far.

We arrived last Sunday on Copa Airlines, a United partner.  Clean, on-time and as a bonus, a fresh hot empanada served just when I was getting hungry! DSCN4610

I am not going to lie and say I have not had certain pangs of homesickness or at least a sort of visceral response from being extracted from my comfort zone.  It quickly passes though and I get excited about doing something new, meeting someone or eating something fabulous.  I can tell you it would be much worse if I was not able to connect with my family so often. I love that Viber App and our amazing internet connection.

So I just finished the laundry and am settling into a month long stay at the Country Inn and Suites on the Amador Causeway in Panama.  It sits on the pacific mouth of the canal where we can watch tankers, container boats etc. traverse the canal.  It is weird staying for a whole month at a hotel.  This one, however, has some amazing amenities.   This beautiful room was $63 a night, with a balcony and a great view.  It also includes internet, TV, an amazing pool where I am sitting right now working on this blog. It has a great workout room, and every morning a massive buffet breakfast with fresh fruit, yogurt, coffee, eggs, pancakes and they even had tacos one morning with all the fixins.  None of those pre-prepared deals you see in most free hotel breakfasts.  Also, free shuttle service to the enormous mall (biggest in Latin America) when we need to stock up on supplies. We are near a bike shop and a Friday’s, (in case I get homesick for potato skins). We thought instead of renting an apartment, it was a good solution.

Close by is a little slice of mariner lore called the Balboa Yacht Club.  It seems this Yacht club has been around  for 100 years in some form or fashion.  Hard to believe as it looks like a really large palm covered hut. Sailors and shipping coordinators from all over the world mix with tourists and locals to relax and swap stories.  Yesterday, A group of Aussie and Italian sailors were discussing their travels. At another table, an older English gentleman was sipping beers while coordinating two ships, one running East, one running West waiting their turn to be piloted through the Canal. Really cool to be sitting here in this historic location.  Also on any given night you can get amazing sea bass, seafood ceviche, sandwiches and delicious local draft beer for $2.00. If you happen to get there for happy hour, which is 5 to 7, you can get them for $1.50. Perfect for two people on a fixed income.

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Also, close by is the Ferry to two of the Pearl Islands, Contadora and Taboga which are absolutely on our list for exploration.  I also saw a local guy with a Survivor Crew t-shirt.  It seems 2 or three seasons of Survivor have been filmed in the Pearl Islands.

Have got to say the food is absolutely amazing.  Fresh and delicious.  Sam and I have both vowed to stay in the best shape possible.  Yesterday, I bought a Yoga mat, we are walking around like crazy exploring, we plan biking on the approximately two mile long walkway by the ocean. We are also eating the healthiest food you can imagine.  So far, so good,  except for the beers and sangria which are hard to resist.

The days are starting to have a little routine which I like.  All these lifestyle changes can be awkward but I think we have a good handle on expectations.  As always, we keep them low and are usually pleasantly surprised.

Rat Pack Aruba

This is my last post from Aruba.  We are on to Panama tomorrow.  We moved down to the low-rise hotels on Eagle Beach for a couple of days to a sweet little hotel called the Tropicana.  Very 50’s inspired and a bit (ok more than a bit) outdated but clean.  Yes, I am talking pink and turquoise right down to the bathroom.

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It’s funny how you can have a completely different experience in the same destination. Comparing this to the elegant Renaissance Ocean Suites is like comparing Pavarotti to Sinatra in the best of all possible ways.  Sometimes you just crave a different flavor and this place was yummy.

So, check in was a breeze and our very eager bell-hop Pablo was more than willing to help us to our room.  Pablo reminded me a little of Joe Pesci.  We were chatting all the way and learned he was born in Columbia and lived in Aruba for 25 years.  We mentioned we were going to be staying in Panama for a while and hopefully learning some Spanish.  So he spent the next 45 minutes giving us a very detailed Spanish lesson.  I am serious. He was so sweet, wrote every word down for us to study and told us he would quiz us the next day.  Meeting people is my favorite part (so far) about traveling.

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That afternoon we decided to try the swim up bar and stayed for happy hour and Karaoke.  Now, neither my husband nor I can sing but my husband can impersonate singers amazingly well.  So, lubricated by a couple of drinks, he was soon crooning that old Frank Sinatra favorite “Summerwind”.  He followed up with the popular Willie Nelson tune “On the Road Again”.  The crowd (about 5 people) went wild.

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The next day while Sam went to the Gym and I was having breakfast, along came Pablo to teach me the Spanish words for each part of my breakfast.  He was a little stumped on “muffin” for some reason but collaborated with the server to get just the right pronunciation.

When we left the next day, Pablo walked us out, hugged and kissed us and told us in Spanish how kind we were.  Seriously, was it weird to tear up after spending such a short time with a very sweet Spanish teacher/bell-hop?  Some people can make an impact very quickly.  Should you find yourself at the Tropicana on Eagle Beach, look for Pablo and you will see what I mean.

Next stop – Panama!

Senior Paddle Boarding

I have decided that on my new adventure, I will try different things.  I will say yes to uncomfortable situations.  I will step outside the box. I will live large. I will shoot for the moon.  I will never stop using clichés even though writing teachers everywhere abhor them.

So I tried paddle boarding for the first time today.   I had plenty of help from my uber talented daughter Lindsay and her new beach friend.  They were nice enough to rent the board and even steer me to shallow water where I not so gracefully mounted the board.  Ok, so my advisors told me to get on my knees and then ever so slowly, rise to standing.  I thought that it was pretty easy getting to standing while holding on to Lindsay until I turned around and realized that our new beach friend was holding the board steady making it seem like I was doing great when I was far from making it happen. As soon as he let go, it was over.  There was this really unpleasant wobbling effect I should have anticipated.  Sitting on the board and taking pictures was much easier.    I really appreciated the help in making me believe I could do it and one day I just might.DSCN3749DSCN3751

To be expected, Sam was doing laps on the paddleboard and making it seem easy. He analyzed the waves and adjusted his paddle while calculating currents and making adjustments.  This is the way he approaches new skills and why he is always good at them.  I wish I was one of those  people. DSCN3760

Then there was Lindsay, able to do headstands, yoga poses and other super-bendy tricks.  All the while looking sensational.   That’s my girl! DSCN3742

So, I intend to say YES whenever possible within reason.  One does not want to make any stupid moves at this age.  Breaking a hip or anything else for that matter is a slippery slope.  So I am going to redefine my chance-taking as calculated risks but I am open to anything …….almost.