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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lunch for $1.50

Hey friends (Panamanians, expats, new online friends, and friends back home),

I spent the first half of today...well, now yesterday morning at the Ministerio de Trabajo. That's the work ministry here in Panama. Being that I'm married, and going through the process of becoming a permanent resident here, and that I don't have the lifetime guaranteed permanent $1,000 per month income required to obtain the pensionado visa, I'm allowed to work here in Panama. 

However, that means that every single year I have to fill out a bunch of paperwork, pay some fees, drop the paperwork off 3 months before my work license expires, then go in for an interview with my wife (which is a joke, they literally only asked the ages of my children and my address), then wait another month and a half for them to finish up with my paperwork so that I can visit them again and get my new work license. Needless to say it's a huge pain in the butt, and it has to be done every year for ten years straight (unless you become a citizen). 

Anyways...that's not what I'm writing about...not really. Just needed to vent a little. What I'm really writing about is the cheap lunch I had at Plaza Edisson, which is where the Ministerio de Trabajo is located. 

After going through the interview, we were in a bit of a rush to get my wife back to work, so we ran quickly into this little bakery there in the plaza. They were selling empanadas for 75 cents each. If you've never eaten an empanada, you should. They're usually either fried or baked pastries filled with carne (meat), pollo (chicken), queso (cheese), or sometimes you even find them with tuna or ham & cheese inside. I'm more of a fan of the flour empanadas, but the corn based ones are pretty good too. 

These empanadas were fairly large. They come in all sizes depending on where you're buying them. My wife's lunch came to 75 cents since she just wanted a meat-filled empanada, and she was full afterwards. I paid $1.50 for two (a cheese filled and a meat filled), and I was satisfied.

One of the greatest things about Panama is the ability to pick up cheap treats like this. I was driving home from work (back when I was working full time) and there on the side of the road, at a traffic light, was a woman selling fresh coconut ice cream on a cone for 50 cents. And they were awesome. The best ice cream I've ever eaten. It was refreshing and absurdly cheap. Try getting a 50 cent cone at Baskin Robbins (they have those here too, though they rarely have 31 flavors...more like the same ten flavors three times in a row). 

In Las Tablas, a little town on the Azuero Peninsula, mostly famous for their wild carnaval celebrations, my wife and I both had a full lunch for a total of $5. I'm talking rice, beans, soup, a little salad, chicken or meat, and juice. $2.50 each. That's nuts. 

Now don't get me wrong. Panama isn't nearly as affordable as it used to be, but it's still possible to find these bargain buys all over the country. I bought a phone charger for my car for $3. Again, that's nuts. 

Oh...if you're in favorite empanadas, the best I've ever had, are served at a roadside shop on the Pan American Highway, at a place in Capira, called Quesos Chela. Their cheese empanadas are amazing. The arroz con piƱa (rice and pineapple) juice is great too. I have to warn you though, their service isn't outstanding. The place is always packed with people surrounding the counter, shouting out their orders, and the young men behind the counter are more likely to help the beautiful young woman who has just approached the counter than a guy like me who has been waiting patiently (happened to me). You get used to poor customer service here though (man...don't get me started on that...I'll never get to bed). 

Goodnight and thanks for reading. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

A kiddie wonderland in Chitre

When I first moved to Panama I would complain about the lack of fun stuff for kids to do here. I still feel that there's a great opportunity for business-minded folks to slide into the family-friendly market right now. Other than a place called Game Box inside the Multicentro Mall on Avenida Balboa, and the  Kids Planet inside of Extreme Planet right next door, there aren't many Chuck E. Cheese like establishments.

That's what I loved most about living in the Chicagoland area. From the suburbs out near Naperville and Aurora to the city itself, there was never a lack of fun things to do with the kids. Here, in Panama, outdoor activities abound (you've got rivers, and beaches, and walking trails), but what do you do on a rainy day? Finally, the malls are starting to get this.

When I first visited here, 11 years ago, most of the malls didn't exist. Now there are 4 major indoor malls here in the city, and a couple more on the way. Even 3 years ago, when I moved here permanently, indoor play areas were unheard of. I believe Multiplaza might have had theirs in place. I'm not sure. Now, however, Multiplaza has a nice indoor play area, Albrook Mall has a couple of different kid zones, Multicentro has only the Game Box, which you'll pay to entertain yourself there, and it's not all that cheap. I just noticed the other day that Metro Mall has ripped their play area apart. I'm hoping it's to clean it up and build onto it (the carpet was getting a bit raggedy).

I was amazed to see the play area in the photo above, when I visited the Paseo Central Mall, in Chitre. This is one of the coolest I've seen, and it's in a little mall in a small town out on the Azuero Peninsula. Other than during carnaval time, you don't hear a lot about Chitre. During carnaval it's almost all you hear about. There and nearby Las Tablas. In a mall that isn't very large, this play area takes most of its top floor (the 3rd floor), and right behind it is a small arcade.

Hopefully Panama will continue to build more family-friendly establishments. Someone open a Chuck E. Cheese (I'd love to eat a pizza and just let the kids go nuts). Even a Build-A-Bear would probably do great here.

I'll write soon about some of my favorite outdoor parks. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

I love when it rains, but for cryin' out loud, I can't hear the TV!

So there I was last night, forcing my wife to watch one of my favorite films (don't make fun of me), Eddie and the Cruisers, when it started to rain. Come on, she's forced me to watch every episode of every season of Sex and the City. They were kind of funny so I can't complain too much.

Usually, I love the rain here in Panama. When it rains it pours. I remember the first time I witnessed a storm here. The sound of the rain hitting the tin roofs all around me was amazing...and scary. A regular ol' rain storm here sounds like one of the hurricanes I lived through in South Florida. I'm telling you, it sounds like baseballs are slamming against your roof.

Now, when you're lying in bed, there's no better sound than rain hitting the pavement outside and the roof over your head, but when your sitting with your family, forcing them to watch a movie no one cares to watch other than you, it can be downright aggravating. It's the music in Eddie and the Cruisers that makes it worth watching. I had to turn on English subtitles so we could read the lyrics John Cafferty was belting out with his Beaver Brown Band.

The rain finally subsided just as the credits began to roll. Guess I'll have to wait 'till the rainy season ends...then force my wife to watch it all over again. Hahaha.

Friday, August 24, 2012

We need good ol' American comfort food

I can't even begin to explain how thrilled I was when I saw the first Papa John's Pizzeria open up in Costa del Este. Of all the fast-food pizza chains in the U.S., Papa John's was my favorite. Now there's one in Punta Paitilla and I'm not sure if it opened up yet, but the last time I was in Brisas del Golf there was one on its way. I get excited every time I see an American company open up here. It's no that I want Panama to become the United States. There are reasons I left home. In some ways I hope Panama never changes. However, seeing a little slice of home show up here from time to time is awesome.

Yesterday, while driving onto the Corredor Sur, right in front of me was this Cinnabon/Papa John's van. I'm a big fan of the Pecanbon too, so my stomaching started growling the whole time I was stuck behind the moving billboard. Some of you reading these posts may not realize how many American companies are here, so I thought I'd take a second and fill you in.

McDonald's is huge here. They're on every corner in Panama City, and you even see them out in the interior of the country, like in Coronado and Chitre. McDonald's is great for non-Spanish speakers because we can still order food fairly easily. If you know the numbers you're all set. You just say combo numero uno or dos or cinco.

Wendy's and Burger King are both here as well, although not as popular. At all of these fast food chains you'll see one combo you don't see in the States. They all serve fried chicken. You can pick up a quarter pounder with cheese combo or a fried chicken leg and thigh combo. Pizza Hut and Domino's are very popular here too.  Taco Bell just popped up over the last few years. They started out only in the mall food courts, but have since opened several free standing locations. Carls Jr. just opened up in Metro Mall and Johnny Rockets in Albrook Mall.

TGI Friday's, Bennigan's, Hard Rock Cafe, and Hooters all have locations here in the city. Customer service isn't usually what you're used to back home, but at least you can get wings, a burger, and a beer from time to time.

Gap, Banana Republic, Tiffany & Company, Cartier, Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole, XOXO, Victoria's Secret, and Zara are a few stores you might be familiar with. They're all located here inside of the malls.  Sears was here at one time, but isn't any longer. I wouldn't be surprised to see them pop up again sometime in the future.

Rumors have been going around for a long time that Walmart will be headed to Panama. I don't know if that will be a good thing or a bad thing. The Disney rumor has gone around too. It started out as an April Fool's Day joke stating that Disney was coming here and buying up a lot of the beachfront land and renaming towns to match popular Disney movie towns like Agrabar. However, aside from that joke, I have been told by respectable contractors that Disney has visited and is planning to buy several plots of land. Remember though, Disney owns hotels, cruise ships, restaurants, stores, maybe they just want to build a timeshare. So even if they do show up, it doesn't necessarily mean the Latin American Walt Disney World is what's in store, although that would be great and would bring with it a lot of jobs for the locals.

I'll finish this post off by saying this: Please...for the love of God...will someone open up a Boston Market here? I want some good ol' fashioned comfort food. Give me good rotisserie chicken, meatloaf, stuffing, cornbread, baked mac & cheese. Oh how I miss biscuits and gravy (maybe that can be added to the Boston Market menu). I'm just sayin'...think about it. A Starbucks wouldn't hurt either.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Take care of your garbage men

Is garbage men politically correct? Is it trash collectors? How about sanitation specialists? I'm not sure. Either way, I've learned in Panama it's a good thing to take care of your trash collection team. When you put just the average amount of garbage outside your front door, you don't really have to worry about it. However, if you're piling tons of trash in front of your house, and bags of cement, and pieces of broken furniture, and old get the point, it's a good idea to throw the guys a bone.

Every once in awhile I'll give the guys a cold beer. Or a dollar if I have change. Trust me, it'll be appreciated. These guys work for very little pay and they're out there from morning until night (I've seen the sanitation specialists picking up garbage at like 9 p.m.).

I recently had a large cardboard box from an air conditioner I'd bought sitting on my back porch. It had somehow become the trash collection point for all of the contractors we'd had at the house fixing the roof, working on the plumbing, and fixing my car. So the box was full of garbage. I didn't really know what to do with it, and I was worried that if I left it out on the curb, the trash team would just look at it and say, "No way, Jose."

It's funny. I learned that term in the States, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone from any Central American country say, "No way, Jose." Unless of course they were talking to someone named Jose and were asked which way Jose should go and they didn't necessarily agree with either of the choices so they simply said, " way, Jose. Don't go no way, Jose."

I'm being a goofball again, sorry. Back to my story. I had that big box full of garbage. I waited for the garbage men to show up. Then I ran outside with a cans of Coors Light; one for the driver and one for each of the guys hanging on to the back of the truck. They were thrilled. Then I asked if they would take the big box. They happily accepted it.

Be careful though. Where I used to live, the previous owner had given the garbage men too much. Apparently they'd become his best friends. He gave them money, sodas, beers, wine, food...everything. So when I moved in they would approach my house and ask me for stuff. It was super annoying. It got to where I would close the blinds and tell the kids to keep quiet whenever the truck rolled onto my street. I seriously, all joking aside, had a guy come to my front door and ask if I had any beer or coffee or a sandwich or anything. I got pissed and told the guy this wasn't Niko's Cafe (like a Denny's here in Panama). So you don't want to go overboard, just hook the guys up from time to time. Trust me...your life will be a whole lot easier when you need to get rid of larger garbage items.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My new urban fantasy/kick ass action novel is available at Amazon and Smashwords

5 star review for Mirror Images Book 1: The Darkness of Man by C. Michael Powers

"The Darkness of Man is an awesome concept by a remarkably talented author. I've often thought there's magic in mirrors and Powers brings it on home. Don't miss it!"

Ok, this has nothing to do with Panama, but everything to do with me. I've finally published my first e-book on Amazon (for anyone owning a Kindle) and at a site called Smashwords (for anyone owning pretty much any other kind of e-book device). It's only $2.99 for readers living in the U.S. and some other places, but it jumps up to $4.99 if you live in Panama or many other countries. They add some sort of delivery charge to people living in foreign countries.

Here's the synopsis:

When an average Joe's reflection in the mirror switches places with him, he finds himself trapped in a strange mirror world, battling his way back to the other side so that he can stop his reflection from destroying the life he knows.

"Have you ever wondered why so many people in prison claim to be innocent? It's 'cause most of 'em are," Dozier whispered.

On the other side of the mirror, lies a horrific world where each of us has an image, our violent replica, capable of fulfilling our darkest desires, and only released into our world when we're unable to follow through with an evil deed. Gabe Cutter, an average paper pusher, has his life ripped out from under him when his image switches places with him, hell bent on destroying the life Gabe knows, and killing his cheating fiance'. Now, stuck on the other side of the mirror, Gabe must join together with a band of stranded survivors and find a way to get back to his world before his image destroys it. Along the way he battles his way through maniacs, monsters, and ultimately his own heart, as he realizes that the woman he's been trying to save...wasn't worth the price of admission.


and (for other e-book devices)

I'm becoming a tortilla expert

I've always been a fan of Mexican food. I love just about anything that has a flour tortilla included, but it took me awhile to get used to the Panamanian version of the tortilla. The Panamanian tortilla is corn based and thick. I like mine covered in melted American cheese. You can pick up a pack of these (usually about 10 to a pack) tortillas at any Panamanian supermarket or mini-super for about a dollar, give or take a few cents depending on the store and the brand of tortillas. 

To fry these just fill a frying pan with oil (I use canola) about an inch deep. Heat the oil on high heat. You never want to put your tortillas into the oil until it's hot enough. If you do you'll end up with a mushy mess. I usually use a pair of tongs to just touch the tortilla to the oil. If it starts sizzling and going nuts, you're good to go. Carefully place however many tortillas will fit into the pan and let the oil go crazy. 

I'm kind of nutty and every time I'm in the kitchen my imagination goes wild. To me, oil is like a calm psychiatric ward or a prison, where everything is cool and quiet. When you insert the tortilla it's like dropping a new inmate into the mix. All the sudden the oil goes apeshit, like "What the hell are you doing here?!" 

Ok, back to reality. So you'll want to touch the center of the tortillas from time to time with your tongs to see how soft they are. Once the center feels firm, you can go ahead and carefully turn them over in the oil. From that point it doesn't take long for the tortilla to be finished. Just let it fry until when you lift up the tortilla, the bottom side is golden and crispy. The idea is for the outside to be cooked and the inside to be somewhat soft. 

Place the tortillas on a plate covered in napkins to soak up the grease. Cover each tortilla with a slice of cheese and serve. Tortillas go great with saucy dishes like bistec picado where you can use the tortilla to soak up the sauce. It's easy to get addicted to these little orange treats. Panamanians love their fried foods, but I try to only eat them every now and then. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tonight I bought rolling eyeballs

You're probably thinking the same thing I was thinking when my seven-year-old daughter told me what her teacher expected her to bring to school tomorrow. What the hell is that? And in Spanish they're called Ojos de Mentira, which translated would really mean "lying eyes."

I was on my way to the supermarket to pick up some things for the kids' school lunches when my daughter stopped me with this strange request. I looked at my wife and asked, "What is she talking about?" She said, "You know...the fake eyes." No, I didn't know. Finally, through a discussion that lasted longer than it probably should have, I figured out that they were talking about the fake, rolling eyes that you might see on a sock puppet. Where was I supposed to find something like that? My wife told me they're everywhere. Just look at the supermarket or at the pharmacy. I made my daughter tag along on this scavenger hunt.

We checked the supermarket and couldn't find them, so I drove over to the Farmacia Arrocha, which is the closest thing to a Walgreens or CVS here in Panama. I went straight to the art supply section, just knowing they'd have to be somewhere in between the yarn and glitter. Where else would something like that be, right? Well they weren't there. I went up and down each of the aisles scouring the school supplies and the art supplies and scented candles and greeting cards. There were no Ojos de Mentira to be found.

I didn't want to ask for help. My Spanish is lousy. Usually I'd try to explain myself, but I just knew they'd laugh at me asking for lying eyes. So there I was, standing in front of a rack full of party supplies, trying to convince my seven-year-old to go ask one of the store's employees. I felt like a kid all over again, trying to convince my younger brother to go ask Dad if we could stay up past our bedtime.

This is how the conversation with my daughter went:

Me: Just go ask.
Daughter: No, Dad. You go ask.
Me: I don't want to. I'll sound stupid.
Daughter: I don't know how to say it.
Me: Just say, "Ojos de Mentira."
Daughter: No, you go say that.
Me: Let's go together.

So we walked hand in hand over to the photo counter where three of the employees were hanging out. We just kind of stood there looking at the employees. I kicked my daughter's shoe and said, "Ask 'em." She shook her head and whispered, "Uh uh." So finally I got up the nerve to ask, "Tiene ojos de mentira?"

Without even a second's hesitation, one of the employees told us (in Spanish) that we'd find them at the cash register. Well why hadn't I thought of that? So we moseyed on over to the cash register and there they were. Hanging next to a few other completely random objects, were these fake eyes. They were dangling from the wall behind the cashier, just above spare pencils and erasers, and not too far from the variety of condoms for sale. For about a buck sixty-five I walked away with a whole bag of lying eyes. It always amazes me the things you can pick up here in Panama. In the States I'd have had to go to Pearls Arts & Crafts or some other art store. Here you can get them right at the cash register at your local pharmacy. Here's a photo of the lying eyes:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Me at one of the many Pedasi beaches.

Pedasi is my new favorite place in Panama. Nowhere else have I found such a friendly group of both expats and locals. It's such a cool, hip, fun little town. More to come on Pedasi, later...

The Oil Change Debacle

Yesterday I decided to get my oil changed. It's the first time that I've gone myself to get it changed here in Panama, but I figured, even with my limited Spanish, something as simple as an oil change shouldn't be much of a challenge. Wrong. 

I pulled in to this auto maintenance place on the side of the road because I read their sign stating they changed oil. In Spanish that's "cambio de aceite." I pulled in, drove up to one of the attendants, and asked how much. He said $8. That seemed pretty cheap to me. I think I remember paying somewhere around $20 in the U.S.

So I stepped out of the car, handed him my keys, and he put my car up on the lift. He asked me if I needed a filter. That was new to me. I'm used to the attendant taking a look first and then telling me I need a new filter. So I said, "No se." That's I don't know in Spanish. He nodded his head and went back to work. I had my 7 year old daughter with me, who was complaining about being thirsty, so I told the guy I'd be right back and that I was headed over to Super 99 (one of the major supermarkets here). 

We walked over to the supermarket, bought something to drink, then headed back. The attendant then asked me if I'd bought oil. What? Again, this was a first for me. I've never bought oil and taken it to the oil change myself. Usually they have it there on hand and just charge me the overall cost of everything. So I kind of laughed and told him I hadn't bought oil. He seemed a little surprised, but then dipped into the main office and came back out with a gallon of oil for $25. That seemed expensive to me. I was adding up $25 for the oil plus $8 for the oil change and about $8 for the filter replacement. I was looking at over $40 just for an oil change. 

I walked back to the Super 99 to check the cost of oil and see if it would cost less to buy four quarts myself. In the end, the cost would have come out to about the same, so I just told him to go ahead and use his oil. It took about a half-hour in total to get the job done. 

Finally, the guy handed me the bill. I have no idea how the final charge came out to $20. With tax I think I paid $21 and change. He mentioned something about a promotion. Still...a full day later, I have no idea how what I thought was going to come out to over $40 wound up costing only $21. 

I'm happy with the overall price, but I definitely learned my lesson. Next time I'll make sure I bring the oil with me...and maybe a Spanish to English dictionary too. 


Saturday, August 11, 2012

I have gas now...and I love it!

Yup, I have gas. I'm talking about for cooking and doing laundry. I just picked up a cheap tank. I love those gas tanks. Crazy right? Who loves gas tanks? I do, that's who!

Living in South Florida, I never had to worry about gas (for the house of course. Get your mind out of the gutter). Everything was electric. Then I moved to Chicago, and for the first time, I had to figure out how to light a gas burner. I thought I was going to blow the house up. I was scared to death. Now I'm a pro.

In Panama, most stoves and dryers run on gas. However, unless you live in a condo building, most people here either have large gas tanks (about $40 each) delivered to their home by either Panagas or Tropigas. What most people do is order two tanks. That way, when one is empty, they call the gas company to get it switched out while using the other tank. There's nothing worse than baking a Thanksgiving Day turkey or a Christmas lasagna (I've got Italian in me, and lasagna is tradition) and having the gas tank run out. Especially if you don't have a back up tank to switch to.

I recently moved to a small house in Villa Lucre, an area of Panama City, and we started using the small $5 propane tanks. These are the ones most people in the States have connected to their gas grills for barbecues. I have one connected to my dryer (the washer is electric) and I have a second one connected to the stove. When I had the larger $40 tanks, it seemed they were always running out, quickly. I've figured out the reason. Back then I had a maid working every day, who cooked and cleaned for us. She'd cook lentils or red kidney beans every single day. Beans take a long time to cook, so the gas was running for several hours straight, every day.

Now, without a maid (well I do have one, but she only comes twice a week for $30 each day she works) the gas is lasting a lot longer. When I cook beans it's usually pork & beans out of a can. I'm more of a pasta guy.

Anyway, the point I'm getting at is, I have two $5 gas tanks. One of them ran out yesterday, so I dragged the one from the dryer into the house and hooked it up to the stove. Problem solved. Then, today, I made a quick run over to one of the little mini-supers (like a 7-11 only dirtier), paid $5, gave them my empty tank, and picked up a full one. I don't have to worry about larger $40 bills ($80 if you count two tanks). The small tank lasts about a month (can be a shorter or longer period of time depending on how much you cook, or how much laundry you do). Plus, I no longer have to wait for a tank to be delivered, which can sometimes take several days.

I love it. I love gas tanks. I love the $5 gas tanks anyways.


My name is Chris, and I'm an expat

Hi everybody,

Thanks for taking the time to check out my blog. This is my first post, but I write freelance about living here in Panama, so you can be sure there will be many more posts to come.

So first off, what is an expat? Well, expat, being short for expatriate, worries some people. They don't like the label and don't want anyone thinking they're part of an expat society. Yes, technically the term expat does mean someone who is expatriating, or leaving their country behind to establish a new one.

However, the term expat nowadays isn't quite so extreme. It's used now as a loose term, meaning anyone who lives outside of their home country. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have no desire to go home one day, and it definitely does not mean that you hate your country.

In fact, many of the expats living here in Panama, are ex-U.S. military members. Many of them were based here in Panama, back when the U.S. occupied this country. Many of them fell in love with this beautiful country while spending time on the base here, many of them met their best friends in this country, many of them even met their wives while living here. So they've moved back to Panama with only the best of intentions, wanting to live out their retirement days in peace and tranquility, where their retirement dollar could be stretched much farther than it could back in Miami, Florida, or Chicago, Illinois, or anywhere else their lives were originally based from.
Some expats are not living a retired lifestyle here, but were sent here by American corporations to run their Panama-based branch. Dell has a huge center here, mostly customer service and sales, but I know there are Americans and Canadians here often because of this. Tons of other foreign businesses are based here and have sent employees to Panama.

Expat does not mean American or Canadian necessarily. I just recently visited a small town in Panama where I met an Australian couple, a French lady running her own business, a Spanish lady running the local newsletter, an American couple selling real estate, and a team of Israeli developers building a new beachside community. People from all over the world are looking for an exciting new place to spend their future.

So being an expat is not a bad thing. It's a great thing. And although having a steady retirement income will definitely make life easier in Panama, many people, younger than you'd think, are making the move, running their internet based businesses, doing online teaching, or even teaching English as a second language here. Being an expat is a daily challenge, especially if you haven't learned the local language, but it's a rewarding lifestyle, where at least here in Panama, the mindset is work to live, not like in the U.S. where it always seemed to me that everyone was too busy living to work.

So if you haven't already joined us here in Panama, keep checking my blog, for info that may help you finally make the decision to "Just do it!"