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Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving in Panama

I'm writing this on the Monday following Thanksgiving, so this isn't a "What to do for Thanksgiving" post, but more about how Panamanians I know have begun to embrace our holiday, and some have even made it their own.

This year, prior to the holiday, Panamanian friends and family of mine started calling my mother-in-law, asking if we'd be celebrating this year. They were more excited than I was. We weren't planning to make a big deal out of it the way we did last year, when I put together a bunch of games for the kids and we had a lot of activities going on. We just wanted to have a small get together with family. My mother-in-law makes an out of this world turkey, so I begged her to make the turkey again this year. She didn't disappoint. In addition to the turkey, she made a ham (she makes an amazing ham too), potato salad, arroz con guandu (rice with pigeon peas), and even desserts like pesada de nance (a pudding-like dessert made with a fruit called nance) and tres leches (a moist, three-milk cake).

I had too much going on to add anything to the meal. Plus, last year, no one seemed to like my stuffing and green bean casserole. I plan to bring it back next year though. Hahahaha (evil laugh).

Since I didn't have this blog last year, I thought I'd put a photo of everyone who participated in last year's dinner. It was a great turn out. We had a lot of fun, played a lot of games, and even danced.

Last year's celebration

This year saw many of the same family members at our house. This time, the night was filled with kids playing, my daughters and their cousin putting on a musical performance under their new stage name The Chica Girls, and conversation filled with the usual gossip. A new annual tradition of "Asking Chris why he doesn't speak Spanish yet" was well underway. I tried my best to dodge questioning by introducing the family to my new book, but it didn't work. I was ridiculed most of the night. 

Gloria's out-of-this-world turkey (before it hits the oven)

Another tradition that my Panamanian friends and family have really started to appreciate, is the "Saying thanks for something before the meal" part of Thanksgiving. Usually I start it off, thanking everyone for coming to our house and enjoying the holiday with us. I say everything I'm thankful for, then it goes around the table. Most of it I don't understand since it's in Spanish, but my wife fills me in the best she can. Even the kids get involved. It's a lot of fun and it gives Panamanians, people who are by nature very religious and thankful people, an opportunity to vocally announce all of the things they're thankful for that year. 

This year's celebration

One thing that cracks me up each year, is the making of the potato salad. When the potatoes, carrots, corn, and eggs are being mixed in with the mayonnaise, no one's allowed to speak near it. My wife was doing the stirring this year when I walked into the kitchen and approached. She quickly threw her hands up to warn me to stay away. I had no idea what she was talking about. She turned her head and said, "No talking near the potato salad."

The first time this happened, I thought, "What the hell are they talking about? Is this some sort of religious thing? You can't disrespect the potato salad? Should I take my hat off around it too?" Then she explained to me that when you talk, spit could fly into the potato salad, and any saliva would instantly make it go bad. Makes sense. But if that's the case, why do we talk around any of the food? I'd rather not accidentally get spit in my cereal either. But I've learned...don't say a word when potatoes are in the mix.

A delicious 2012 Thanksgiving dinner

Schools in Panama have started to celebrate the American holiday (at least some of the schools). My daughters go to a Panamanian school (they do have English class) and I was surprised to hear that they were going to have a Thanksgiving party. They go all out here though. One of my daughters was required to bring a baked chicken and paper plates. My other daughter was asked to bring potato salad and plastic cups. That's a full meal. Whatever happened to chips, cookies, soda, and maybe pizza, like when I was in school? 

With the holiday now over, Christmas planning has already begun. I can't wait to get together with family for that holiday too. We have a blast no matter the occasion. 

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Keeping in touch in Panama

Leaving home, whether it be the U.S., Canada, somewhere in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, is a scary thing. Especially when you've heard that the place you're considering basing yourself out of is considered a Third World Country. Is Panama a Third World Country? In some ways it still is. Definitely in some of the small towns in Panama's interior. However, it's nothing like you might expect.

Infrastructure is top notch in Panama City, and in many other towns. The ability to connect with the rest of the world is taken very seriously here, especially since Panama is considered the Hub of the Americas, and an important business center for all the world. It is, after all, where the Panama Canal is located.

The question comes up all the time, "Can you keep in touch with the rest of the world?" or "How would I talk to my family without spending a fortune if I moved to Panama?" It's easy. I've been doing it for years now. In fact, it's cheaper to talk to people in the States from here in Panama than it is for people in the U.S. to reach out to other countries.

So what are the top ways to keep in touch in Panama?

1.  Skype - Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) services, like Magic Jack, make chatting with family very easy.  Skype is free as long as you're talking with other people who have Skype. I meet with my mom every Sunday at 8 p.m. The kids have gotten to know their grandmother (sadly I know) over the Internet. They talk to her about everything and it's as if she's sitting right in front of them. In the photo below you'll see how we handled my daughter's birthday. We called up my mom, carried two pies (my daughter wanted pie instead of cake) and sang happy birthday with my mom in front of the computer. She loved it and was so glad she could be a part of the celebration from all the way in San Diego, California.

Internet service in Panama is high speed and reliable. I've visited small towns like Aguadulce, where their town center is set up for WiFi. You can literally go to the gazebo at the center of town, open your laptop, and Skype with family in the U.S. I was in El Valle, a mountain town, last weekend. I was in the jungle, climbing a mountain called The Sleeping Indian. My wife was wearing the wrong shoes. In her defense, flip flops were fine for taking a dip in the waterfall. As usual, I say crazy things like, "Hey let's climb that mountain and get photos of the town below." So while she was resting about halfway up the mountain, I climbed to the top, and wrote her on my Blackberry from the top of the mountain. That's how well wired in most of this country is.

2.  Whatsapp - For anyone who has a Smart Phone or Blackberry, a program called Whatsapp allows you to chat with people back home as if they were right here in Panama with you. All you have to do is download the program to your phone (it's free), which can usually be done right from your phone, then tell your family member to download it to their phone. It's like text messaging, except it's unlimited and you don't get charged extra for going over. Here in Panama, I pay only $10 plus tax per month to have unlimited internet and Blackberry chat. I pay for talk time on my phone separately (I just buy the $5 prepaid minutes since I don't talk on the phone very often).

The great thing about cell phone service here, which differs from back in the States, is you only pay for calls you make. So if someone calls me, I don't get charged for the call. I remember having AT&T back home. Most of my bill consisted of charges from people calling me. I rarely call anyone. So if you have your phone set up like I do, you'll only pay that $10 per month and can use Whatsapp all you want. I'm not sure if your friends or family from the States will be charged on their end. They'll have to check into it.

3.  PO Box companies - The Panamanian mail service is unreliable. I've sent things from the States by U.S. mail, and it never showed up here. For that reason, as soon as I moved here, I set up a PO Box. It used to be that Mailbox Etc. was the main choice for expats. I'm sorry, but Mailbox Etc., in my opinion, price gouges the hell out of people. That is, unless they've changed their prices recently. When I first visited one of their branches, they quoted me some sort of twenty something dollar monthly charge, plus a charge if you went over like two pounds. I don't receive mail every month, and if I did, I imagine it would be easy to go over two pounds (I could be wrong about the specifics, so no hate mail please). Maybe there's some sort of insurance they provide that makes it worth it? I don't know. I'm not a visitor here. I live here permanently, so I'm looking for the best deal.

What's great about setting up one of these boxes here in Panama, is you're given a U.S. mailing address, usually somewhere in South Florida. That way, when you're shopping online, you just enter this address and your items are shipped to that Miami address. Then, the company you're using, will bring the items to Panama.

Shopping around I found a few other companies. I use one called Panama Air Facility, which has several branches. I use the newer one in Costa del Este. I pay no monthly fee, but pay around $1.60 per pound for letters and $2.60 per pound for packages. Or something like that. There's also some sort of 5% customs fee which you'll be charged at any of the companies. Panama Air Facility is okay. I've had my complaints. They're supposed to call or email me every time something comes in, but they don't always. I picked up letters that had been in my box for 3 months one time. They'd never called me. So I suppose if you pop your head in frequently you wouldn't have a problem.

Panama Air Facility website is

A couple of other companies you can check out, which I don't personally know much about, but I have friends who've used both companies and have no complaints, are Airbox Express Panama and Miami Express. A friend of mine hates the company I use and swears by Airbox Express. You really have to shop around and see what works best for you. Plus, you probably want to find one of these companies that has a location near where you're living or where you plan to live. For example, out in the beach town of Coronado, there's a Mailbox Etc. That's convenient for the people living out there, many of which can probably afford to pay the monthly charge. It's worth it to them to use that company.

Here are the websites for Airbox Express and Miami Express, both of which are in English.

Airbox Express Panama:

Miami Express:

4. Telechip International - Okay, there are many other phone cards you can use, but this one is easy to purchase and is reliable. If you go into any Super 99 or El Rey supermarket, or maybe even El Machetazo (I'm not sure), you can pick one of these cards up at the cash register. Just tell the cashier: "Dame una tarjeta de Telechip Internacional por favor. De cinco balboas." You just said, "Give me a Telechip International card please. Of 5 dollars." Any Spanish speakers, don't make fun of my gringo Spanish. I'm trying here.

I started off buying the $10 card, but I could never use all the minutes before the expiration date and I'd end up losing minutes, so I started buying the $5 card. For $5 I get something like 3 hours of talk time. I've used this card to call my dad, my mom, and the Department of Veterans Affairs back home. As I said before, I don't talk on the phone all that often, so even using all of the minutes allotted on the $5 card is hard for me. Here's a photo of the Telechip International card:

With the 4 options I've listed above you should have no problem chatting live with your family on the Internet, chatting with people over your Smart Phone or Blackberry, picking up mail and packages, or making phone calls from your home phone. Sending packages is something I haven't mastered. Maybe that's a service Maibox Etc. provides. Panama Air Facility doesn't. If you need to send money you can use Western Union or Moneygram here, but I'm not sure about sending packages. People have told me they use the Panama Mail system to send mail to the U.S. and they've had no problem with that. I suppose that's because they're actually dropping mail off at the post office and from there it's loaded onto a plane and taken straight to the U.S. FedEx and DHL are here, but it's not cheap. The last time I sent an envelope with forms (maybe 10 sheets of paper) I paid somewhere around $55.

A lot of people, both expats and Panamanians, use traveling friends to send and receive packages and mail. Usually, if someone is headed to the States, they'll ask if anyone needs anything while they're there, or if they need them to take something to the States with them.

If anyone knows of an easy and inexpensive way to send packages to the U.S., let me know.

Thanks again for reading,


Friday, November 9, 2012

An American author in Panama

Hey everybody,

I'm shamelessly promoting my book again. Free right now--Mirror Images Book 1: The Darkness of Man is a love story mixed with maniacs & monsters.

From today, Nov. 9,  'till Tuesday, Nov. 13, you can pick up a free copy for your Kindle at Amazon. Click here to check it out

Here's the book cover, front and back. To buy a copy in print for $11.99, click here:

All reviews are greatly appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you enjoy the book.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Living local in Panama

Hey everybody,

I was driving home today when a sight caught my eye that catches it every time I enter the neighborhood. I live in an area of Panama City (or the outskirts of) called Villa Lucre. Directly behind my house, and I mean right behind it, is an area called Samaria, that is known for being kind of a not-so-desirable place to live. Some parts of Villa Lucre are amazing, with homes that cost half a million dollars. I live in the more local part of town. Driving into my part of the neighborhood, you head down a hill, and out in front of you is the picture below. Remember, that's not my neighborhood...that's "beyond the wall."

Every time I see this, I instantly think of Kung Fu Panda, and Po struggling to make it all the way to the  top of the steps. Can you imagine being a kid in that neighborhood? You'd be dodging any elderly person around, knowing that at some point, someone would say, "Would you mind helping me carry this 20 pound bag of rice up to my front porch at the top of the stairs?"

I thought the priest from the Exorcist movie had a long fall down the steps. Imagine if that split pea soup spitting possessed girl lived at the top of these steps.

So...that's the neighborhood behind my house. Also, directly behind mi casa, is some sort of disco/nightclub. I've gotten used to hearing the blasting reggaeton (latin reggae), salsa, tipico, and bachata that wafts through my sealed shut windows until the wee hours of the morning. Seriously, I don't know who's still dancing at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, but someone needs to put that poor thing out of its misery. I imagine cowboys with six shooters firing at somebody's feet and hollering, "I don't care if it's 9 p.m. or 9 a.m., you gonna dance boy!" Really...9 a.m.?

It's hard not to wiggle your toes along to the music when you're trying to force yourself to sleep...especially when the sheep you're counting are swaying their hips and spinning each other around to salsa's greatest hits.

I'm not trying to scare you. That's just my neighborhood. On the bright side, I think it's really cool how the people in my neighborhood get along with each other. I'm not involved in that, but that's just because I don't speak Spanish well enough (I know...I need to learn). Many of the adults in my neighborhood get together at the center of the street, drag tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk, and gossip while drinking beer and sangria. The kids play in the street all around them. Many of the boys play soccer or futbol in the street, quickly moving out of the way for each passing car.

If you're not living in an all American community, or mostly expat retirement hot spot, and you find yourself in a more local neighborhood, like I'm in, here are a few more things for you to know.

1.  Garbage collection. Take a look at the picture below. Trash is usually placed in these metal baskets, which fill up quickly, meaning you're forced to put your trash bags on the sidewalk or grass below them. That means the stray animals are going to rip through it. No matter how clean I try to keep the front of my house, something always tears through my garbage bag and pulls my trash out onto the street.

2.  Something else you'll see in a lot of the local Panama City neighborhoods are "for rent" or "se alquila" signs. However, look closely, because most of these have nothing to do with real estate. I found this out when I drove up and down every single street in San Antonio, Brisas del Golf, Cerro Viento, and Villa Lucre, the four realistic living options that aren't too dangerous. Rent in these areas can usually be found for around $800 per month, give or take a hundred bucks. Some will argue with me that a couple of these areas aren't great to live in, but that's truth if you're comparing them to the high-rent district of Marbella or live in the old town of Casco Viejo. 

If you're on a tight budget, don't care about life on the beach, and want to live like Panamanians, these are the 4 places real estate experts in the city will send you towards. Especially if you can't afford more than $1,000 per month...and you want to live in a single-family home. 

Anyway, I'm rambling, so I drove up and down every street in these four neighborhoods, trying to find "for rent" signs. I found very few. Most rentals in town are found through word of mouth. These "for rent" signs, like the one in the photo below, are for chairs and tables. I've mentioned that Panamanians love to party, right? They do. That's one of the great things about living here. Panamanians are laid back and love to unwind. So many Panamanian entrepreneurs have started renting out cheap plastic chairs and tables. They'll drop them off the day of the party and pick them up the morning after. So get used to seeing these signs around.

Mariachi bands for hire and d.j.'s for hire are a couple of other signs you'll see around most small neighborhoods. 

3.  Bars on the windows. Don't be frightened when you visit Panama and see many of the homes with bars on their front windows or around the properties. Some homes even have crushed beer bottles glued to the tops of the walls that surround their home. Seeing this isn't a sure sign of a bad neighborhood. It's just an old-school security system. Most people can't afford to have a high-tech security company monitor their home's alarm system, so instead, they put up these bars, or crushed glass, or even razor wire. 

I like to think of it as extra protection against a zombie attack. The bars would be great in that situation. Unless the zombie was inside...then that would suck. 

Something to think about, if you find yourself in one of these homes. Many times the front door is barred up as well, and you'll have a key to get in and out of it. It might sound like common sense, but trust me, sometimes you're in a rush, and it might slip your mind. Make sure anyone staying home has a key. I've rushed out of the house before and found out that my mom-in-law had my wife's key for some reason. So if there had been a fire or something, she would have been stuck in the house. Imagine bars on all the windows, and you can't get out the front or back doors. Not a good scenario.

4.  Learn your area's emergency contact numbers. 911 does exist here...kind of. It's the number for an ambulance service. The cops have their own numbers. 104 is the general number that will connect you to the police, no matter where you are in the city. However, if you want a rapid response, it's a good idea to know the number for your neighborhood. I saw the sign in the photo below posted at the Rey supermarket in Villa Lucre. As you can see, the bomberos or fire department can be reached by dialing 103. 104 is the police. SINAPROC is the national civil service department, which I believe handles natural disasters and things of that nature. The other numbers are pretty self explanatory. So...looking at the photo below would give you the contact numbers you may need, but again, find out the number to your local police station. They'll have a direct number and it's a good idea to know it. You never know when your wife/husband might find a tiny snake in the bathroom that she/he claims is humongous.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm sure I'll come up with some other neighborhood tips for a later post. Have a good Wednesday!