----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: May 2008

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Panama: The Canal and the Hat

When someone mentions Panama, you think of two things, hats and the canal. The two are related, one having created the name of the other.

Panama hats are from Ecuador, but got their name from their popularity during the construction of the canal. Once you've handled or worn one of the hats, it's easy to see why they were so popular in this hot, wet climate. The hats are amazinly light, and spring back into shape instantly. Pack one flat, roll it up and tuck it in your back pocket and sit on it, it doesn't seem to matter what you do it, it survives in its original shape and condition.

The canal itself, while a great engineering feat, is really a tribute to preventive medicine. Walter Reed eradicated yellow fever from the area by draining swamps and any other standing water he could find, distributing mosquito nets to everyone, and installing screens in houses.

As with malaria, the mostquito must bite an infected person to acquire the disease and transmit it. If fewer people are bitten, fewer infected people are available to be bitten, and the disease finally dies off. Malaria doesn't thrive in the US, although the anopholes mosquito is common, but we don't have many infected people.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Panama: What I'm Enjoying

I'm enjoying some familiar things in Panama City, Panama. In addition to the wide variety of American restaurant chains (MacDonald's, Burger King, Domino's, Mrs. Fields, Subway, Tony Roma's, Bennigan's, Quizno's, Pizza Hut, KFC) I've been entranced by other changes.

For instance, sidewalks are used here for walking. Not as a restaurant, extension of a store, street stall, living room, patio, or a place to sleep, but for walking. Odd changes in level, unexpected steps, and strange protuberances are marked with yellow paint. It's faded, but it's there.

A building down the street is being painted. Behind the scaffold, a sheet of netting prevents pails of paint from accidentally falling on passersby. The men on the scaffold are attached to it by a safety harnees. "Obviously," I think, "this is a place that has tort law."

The money is the same, which is nice. The driver's use turn signals, which is even nicer.

You can drink the water and flush the toilet paper.

And since I have been here, the electricity has only gone out twice. Although the rains started late, and they've been warning of rolling blackouts.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Panama: The Panama City Retirement Blues

Well, Panama City is out as a retirement option. Rents have skyrocketed since I was here last. That was before several magazines annointed the country as the best retirement destination in the world. On top of that, wealthy and well-to-do Venezuelans are buying expensive luxury condominiums as a bolt-hole, a place to go if Chavez goes on a nationalization spree. Because one way to guarantee residency is to invest $200,000 in the country and keep it there.

What followed was a luxury building boom, and the typical legislative decision to start taking away the things that make it a great destination. For retirees, one of them is the guarantee that a retirement visa will be renewed at least four times, as long as you don't turn into a criminal and still have the income you qualified with. Starting at the end of August, the guarantee is for only one renewal.

The Panamanian legislature obviously think that people will be willing to spend a half million on a condo with no guarantee that they will be able to live in it for more than two years. But then, in practice, renewals will probably happen fairly automatically. Or the law will change. A new law that only allowed a 30 day stay for tourists, and required renewals for stays beyond that, lasted only a few weeks.

The exception is those that meet their pensionado income requirement using a government pension. Then the pensionado is permanent. Since the requirement is currently $500 per month for a single person, and an additional $100 per month for each dependent, that isn't a difficult standard to meet.

For some, the rise in values has made for large profits. Over on the couch here in the New York Bagel Cafe, a man just told someone that his $86,000 condo is now worth $700,000.

Sound familiar? Everyone is waiting for the bubble to burst.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Panama: Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is old Panama, a formerly bad area being restored to glory. Until the recent renaissance, Panama was probably the only country in the world where the presidential residence was in the middle of a slum. But that is changing rapidly.

There used to be a lot of police in the blocks surrounding the presidential palace. Now there are a lot of police in the southern part of the peninsula, from thirteenth street down. Fabulous remodels sit half a block from decrepit old buildings, some mere shells. And everywhere you see construction, as these shells are turned into modern buildings on the inside.

The hostel that I stayed in has three stories of old woodwork, a huge courtyard/atrium, a balcony with a view of the modern skyline across the bay, and immense rooms. It was a convent at one point, then nursing home. Now it is a hostel, renovated just enough to work. In a few years, the owners, three American men in their twenties, will be sitting on a fortune.

Meanwhile there are restaurants and a few souvenir shops, little mini-supers and hole-in-the wall beauty shops, and remarkably, sidewalks that are for walking, not blocked by displays of clothing and pirate DVDs.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Panama: Finally

Well, I finally bought the ticket and made the pilgrimage to Panama. I came all the way to Panama City, which took fourteen hours, including a layover for a few hours in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Generally it was a dull trip. I got a pleasant surprise when I looked at my tourist card, though. Panama had changed the law to grant only 30 days on entry with a possible two extensions, and there I was with 90. Later I found out the law had been changed back. That happens a lot here, apparently.

My theory had been that since it was Semana Santa (Holy Week, I'm way behind here), I wouldn't have the same difficulty finding a place to stay that those headed for the beach would have. I was so wrong.

The problem was compounded by the closing of one hostel and the relocation and reduction in size of another. Luckily I had a taxi driver who knew all the hostels, and he drove me from one place to another until I found a bed for the night. Just the night. Voyager was booked solid for the rest of the week.

The next morning I found a bed in a hostel in Casco Viejo, the old city. A couple I had met at Voyager had been promised two beds, so I tried, too. Success! And they would let me stay once I was there, since they don't take advance bookings.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Nicaragua: Wandering Around Granada

While wandering around Granada, I managed to take in many of the tourist sights. I went for pancakes one morning, and ended up in the convent museum across the street.


Rather than being filled with religious artifacts, it contained pre-Columbian sculptures and information about life before the arrival of the Spaniards.

I set off to find an ice cream shop someone had mentioned, overshot my mark, and found a park and several churches.

And of course there were the houses with historical plaques on them. Some of them I passed every day for weeks before noticing that some famous (to Nicaraguans) person had been born there or had lived there.

After weeks there, I would walk down a street and suddenly notice a grill or a decoration I hadn't seen before. Or someone would ask to have a picture taken, and I'd really look at the street for the first time.

One of the benefits of staying in one place for a while is the chance to accept as normal the things you saw as unusual when you arrived, and find another layer of new sights and experiences.