Sunday, January 31, 2010


Today is the last day of January.  The time is slipping by imperceptibly, and soon Mr. Punxatawny Phil Groundhog will tell us that winter will be loosening its grip on our part of the world. Or so we hope.

This is a time of deep reflection, perhaps fueled by the bad economy, perhaps by the passing years, or by self-imposed exile from the outside world as it shivers under this latest Nordic blast.  Whatever the reason, may we be grateful for the chance to gain new insight into how to relate to the world and my fellow travelers in it.

Over the years many of us have made bad decisions about aquiring expensive material possessions.  These decisions were at times impulsive, but were always driven by some deep-seated need for ego enhancement or a false sense of security that the acquisition would bring. 

Instant gratification and the notion of a throwaway society can transcend to similar attitudes in larger areas of life and relations.  Some of us seek instant and throwaway relationships, only to abandon them when their luster slightly fades.

Even worse, this mindset tends to make us regard life itself in these terms.  We fail to earn a measure of success from one effort and brush it off, blaming external circumstances.  Then we wander mindlessly into other projects with no more possibility of success or permanence than the last.

Some of us, including myself, go to the other extreme by internalizing, analyzing and criticizing our endeavors to an extreme degree.  If something doesn't work out the way we had hoped, it is our fault and our fault alone.  We do not feel worthy of success, yet we ply our insecurities with one rationalization after another.  A new car?  Sure - and it had better be a certain kind of car, appropriate for our imagined status in life.  A new house?  Of course - go ahead and be mortgaged up to our ears; everybody else is. 

Now this house of cards we have built for ourselves is tumbling down, and we must examine what might remain of value when the dust settles.

Clearly we must move beyond the idea that value equates to money.  But if not for money, why is life worth living?  What kind of meaning can we ascribe to the need for our existence besides our job description?  Is life just a random act, or does it have a higher meaning?

Of course the sages have pondered this question through the generations. I cannot pretend to offer a totally new take on the subject.  But perhaps I can contribute one thing, something small and simple that can assume a great significance if we allow it to.

And it is this:  our purpose in life is only to set a positive example for others.  We shall not sit in judgement of the small frailities of others or of their good intentions gone awry.  We shall not attempt to control the outcome of others' lives and activities.  We shall not let past experiences discourage us from discovering new horizons. 

Instead, may we ask this question before we act on any impulse: will this action bring about more peace and understanding in the world? 

We shall be accountable only to ourselves and to our Higher Authority. 

Let us act this way, and then our lives and the lives of others will be fulfilled.  We will emerge from the winter of misunderstanding into the spring of enlightenment.   We must lift the shroud of selfishness from our thinking.
This is not a new idea, but it bears repeating, every day.

The Appearance of Reality:
Cerebral Light

With homage to Mother Teresa

Saturday, January 30, 2010


It is January 30.  Already I have been back home for as long as I was in Panamá.  Already I am mired in the relentless regularity of work punctuated by weekends.

Everthing is gray here:  the sky is gray, the buildings are gray, even the people are gray, as if the life has been sucked out of them.

Today it is 19 degrees and snowing.  My fingers are stiff, my bones are cold.

Oh my Panamá, where are you?

The Lifeless City
(No, this is not a black-and-white image;
it just looks that way.)


Saturday, January 16, 2010


Getting Along
As in most countries, it is important to make some attempt to speak the language.  Any attempts to speak Spanish will tell the locals that you respect them.  It's also fun if you make it so.  If you mangle your Spanglish too badly, they will often switch to English.  English is the second national language of the country because of the long official presence of the U.S. there.

As a rule, Panamanians like Americans, not only because of their contribution to the country's economy through the Canal, but also because we were requested to come in and depose Manuel Noriega's military dictatorship.  Noriega is still sitting in a Florida jail today, even though his sentence has expired, because no one knows what to do with him.  While this may not seem just, no one in Panama doubts that the country is better off now.  He has a house in Boquete; maybe I'll be his neighbor!

Panamá is nearly on the Equator; latitude is 9 degrees North.  As a result, the days and nights are of equal length - 12 hours - yearlong.  There are no "seasons" as defined by changes in temperature.  The year is divided into a rainy season and a dry season.  In Boquete the rainy season is April through December, and the dry season is January through March.  However, the rainy season has showers mainly in the afternoon and there are many hours without rain.  Similarly, it can rain during the dry season.  During my visit there were three straight days of rain.

Boquete is known for its Bajareque Mist, a very light rain (or heavy mist, depending on how you look at it).  This is because Boquete is down in a valley created by a volcanic caldera.  The word "boquete" literally means "hole".  This mist has the effect of keeping vegetation green year-round and also of creating many rainbows:

Rainbow over Boquete
(Not my image) 

It took me a while to figure these things out.  The legal speed limit on highways when no speed limit is posted is 100 km/hr (62.5 mph).  It is absolutely important to honor any posted speed limit.  Even the Panamanians do this.  Speed limits in highly built-up areas are usually 40 km/hr (25 mph), and in semi-built up areas are 60 km/hr (37.5 mph).  Sometimes the lower speed limit is just for a dangerous intersection.  However, the signs  may or may not be posted.  Even when they are, they may be vague:  "Reducar su velocidad" (Slow down).  You must use your best judgement always.

When the signs are posted, sometimes (but not always) there will be a sign, "Rezumar la velocidad" (Resume your speed) at the end of a built-up area.  When these signs are not present, you must use your judgement to know when it is OK to speed up again.  This is usually obvious, but when in doubt just keep with the flow of traffic and err on the side of caution.

On my first day of driving, from the City to El Valle, I didn't know about the judgement factor and just kept going at the last posted speed limit as we would do in the States.  People were passing me like bats out of hell, and it seemed to take forever to get to my destination.  Now I know why.

It is very important to follow what seem like conservative speed limits because of the ubiquity and unpredicable behavior of pedestrians.  They are walking by (or sometimes in) the road.  When they are not walking they are usually waiting for a bus.  Buses of various kinds are everywhere, and many stop anywhere along their route to pick up and drop off passengers.  One must always be on the lookout for buses that stop unexpectedly because stopping lanes are not always present.

There are also unusual varieties of personal tranportation that can be traffic hazards.  I once saw a man on a tricycle-ice cream cart pedal across the Carretera Interamericana (the Panamanian equivalent of I-95) and proceed to pedal the wrong way down the divided highway right in front of me .

In general Panamanians are excellent and polite drivers.  When a vehicle starts to pass you, either in town or on the highway, the driver will beep the horn.  Drivers will also beep when they see someone they know.  These are all very short beeps, and the horns themselves have a "beepy" flat tone, not the foghorns we are used to.  As a result, if you are listening you will hear a constant chatter of beeps in traffic.  Don't count on seeing turn signals, so give other vehicles a wide berth.

The country is safe, but safety is a relative term.  There is no such thing as absolute safety anywhere. In all my comings and goings I never felt endangered.  Of course a little precaution can be prudent.  I always carried pepper spray in my pocket and kept the long-distance pepper gel that can "slime" an opponent at a distance of 18 feet next to the machete on my bedside table.  (Ahh, the warm comforts of home.)

Petty crimes can be a problem.  Many ex-pats report having personal property stolen and seem agast that things they leave in cars and unsecured yards are taken.  I was shocked at their naiveté.  Anyone living in Baltimore knows not to leave anything where it can easily be taken.  It's just a matter of common sense.

Nevertheless, there does seem to be an increase in breaking and entering.  Several individuals offer workshops on personal safety in Boquete, including instruction on firearms.  In my opinion the ex-pats are very slow to catch on and seem to think they can import their property and mindset from their home town, and everything will be as it was where they came from.  Not.

Panamanian Economy and Legal System*
The currency is the Balboa, which is indexed to the U.S. dollar.  Panamá mints its own coins, which are identical in size, shape and value to and interchangable with U.S. coins.  They use U.S. paper currency even though it still called Balboas.  So traveling is greatly simplified for Americans because there is no need for currency exchange.

On December 31, 1999, the ownership of the Canal passed from the U.S. to Panamá.  Income from the Canal has created a situation where there is no personal or corporate income tax.  However, as an outsider you cannot necessarily own a business there.  It depends on your legal status.  Anyone can own property. As an incentive to invest in the country, there are no real estate taxes for the first thirty years.  Buying real estate is very different from in the U.S. - always work with a Panamanian attorney.

There are different legal categories for foreigners, some involving a minimum commitment to invest in the country, some leading to permanent resident status and some not.

Panamanian banks are among the most confidential in the world and surpass even the famous Swiss banks for not releasing clients' financial information. As a result some people come to Panama to avoid paying taxes in their home countries and to shield their assets from government scrutiny.

Most Ex-Pats living in Panamá are under a pensionado arrangement for retirees.  The minimum age to qualify as a retiree is 19 years.  All you have to do is prove that you have at least $1000 a month guaranteed income for life from some government or private pension fund like Social Security, and for a small legal fee you can gain pensionado status.  Once you are a pensionado/a, you enjoy substantial discounts on travel, hotels, restaurants, medical care, etc. 

Medical Care
Speaking of medical care, the quality of services at the larger medical centers is first-rate.  This is because many of the physicians are U.S.-trained, but they do not operate under the "revolving door" system that has hurt heathcare in this country.  Johns Hopkins Hospital has an affiliated center in Panamá City, Punta Pacifica.  As you can see in this image, it is new and modern:
Johns Hopkins affiliate hospital in Panamá City - prettier than ours!

The Chiriquí Hospital in David is the closest comprehensive medical center to Boquete.  As mentioned in a previous posting, anyone can participate in their self-insured plan for approximately $600 a year.  This entitles to you physicians, in-patient and ambulatory care, and lab work.  The Chiriquí Hospital is modern and well-equipped:
Chiriquí Hospital, David Panamá (30 minutes from Boquete)

Cost of Living
In general, the cost of living is 30-50% compared with the U.S.  Of course, if you wish you can buy a multi-million-dollar high-rise apartment in Panamá City or ocean-front condo.  But there are also many bargains to be had.  Panamá is rapidly becoming the new Costa Rica, and real estate prices are rising in desirable areas including Boquete.

When I ate out, I made it a point to go to places frequented by Panamanians and to eat Panamanian food.  Boquete has several charming restaurants where you eat whatever they happen to cook that day.  There may be a choice of two or three entrées.  Panamanian food is very mildly seasoned.  Typically the fare is fresh and seasonal. Lunch would consist of wonderfully seasoned chicken or beef, rice, beans or lentils, plantains or fried bananas, and a lettuce and tomato salad.  Usual cost would be approximately $3.00 - cheaper then eating at McDonald's.
*Disclaimer:  The author is not an attorney nor an expert on legal affairs in Panamá.  This information has been pieced together from several reputedly reliable sources but should not be construed as legal advice or counsel.  Seek your own legal opinion before making any financial decisions regarding Panamá.


Friday morning.  The voyage is coming to an end, with so many sights, so many memories.

The last leg of the drive to Panamá City was uneventful, even enjoyable, now that I had figured out the system (or lack therof) to driving.  (See next post for helpful hints about driving in Panamá).

Here were some of the sights along the way.

This little church was the prettiest I had seen in this rather unadorned country:

Capilla Villa Rosario

Here was the first glimpse in this direction of the Puenta de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) over the Panamá Canal:

Bridge of the Americas

And here is a fleeting glimpse of the Canal:

Panamá Canal

Soon the third passage of the Canal will open.  This, one of the largest construction projects in the world, will bring even more revenues to this rapidly growing economy.

Next the rapidly growing profile of the City punctured the sky:

First glimpse of Panamá City

Then the City was revealed fully.  Note all the construction.  It's quite apparent that the economy of Panamá is expanding in spite of the global recession:

View of Panamá City from Avenida Balboa

I arrived at Tocumen Airport with no wrong turns and had a leisurely lunch in the airport.  The new international airline security measures were much in evidence.  All our carry-on baggage was manually searched at the gate, and we were all frisked just before boarding the plane.  It was the first time I'd ever been frisked.  This was in addition to the usual X-ray check at security.

The trip back was very tiring, mainly because of having to deal with the crowd at immigration and customs in Miami.  After the immigration agent documented our arrival, we all had to claim our bags for customs, then re-check them and pass through security again. The procedure in Panamá had been much simpler:  the customs agent had just waved me through without even stamping my passport.  But Panamá doesn't need to worry so much as the U.S. about people coming into the country.

And then we were gone.  I watched the little country fade from view and wondered what the future would hold for it and for me. 

Flying over Cuba revealed long plumes of industrial pollution illuminated by the setting sun.  These are the horizontal lines going fom the coast of the bay toward the bank of clouds on the right:

Plumes of pollution in Cuba

This view served as a reminder of the need to readjust to the reality of my job in environmental health, especially with the new challenges facing the world in the recovery of the people and country of Haiti.

There is much to do, but I will always be grateful for this interlude in Panamá, and for the friends and glimpses of a new life that it presented.

And so this phase of the blog and of my life is drawing to a close, with the wish that you too may be able to find a similar life-changing experience. 

"The real voyage of discovery consists not so much in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
-Marcel Proust


Thursday, January 14, 2010


By this morning the weather had finally cleared, and there was a chance to take some more scenic drives in the area of Boquete.  From the Bajo Mono (Lower Monkey) loop, the view is fantastic.  This must be what Shangri La looks like.  Volcan Barú is a large massif obscured by mist behind the hills.  This was one of the loveliest drives of the trip, rivaling Colorado but in a softer, greener way:

The Bajo Mono (Lower Monkey) Loop -
Shangri La Revealed

Volcan Barú -
Dormant but not truly extinct

Along the loop there were giant organ pipe cacti, as tall as trees:

Giant Cacti

I left my hosts and Boquete around mid-day and drove to Santiago, mid-way to Panama City, to spend the night before flying back home tomorrow morning.  Amidst many hugs and kisses, we agreed that this was not good-bye, just Hasta luego (until next time).

Here are some sights along the drive to Santiago on the Carretera Interamericana, the main highway in the country:

Day-O, Da Dayee-O,
Daylight come and me gonna go home.

Panamá is much like my home state of Texas: Johnson grass, cowboys riding along the highway, strangers waving when they see your car, and Brahma cattle:

Hauling Heifer

Cattle aren't the only interesting sights in those quaint trucks:

Hauling Hombres

In other ways Panamá is very different:  bananas growing next to pine trees, everywhere people by the side of the road, the colorful Nagöbe Buglé indigenous people, the constant contrast between the old and the new.

I'm going to miss it. A lot.

I slowly got out of the car at La Hacienda Hotel in Santiago, emotionally and physically exhausted.  But soon the colorful Mexican decor cheered me up:

Colors at La Hacienda Hotel in Santiago
Note the outside hallway.

Get a load of the Frida Kahlo dining furniture in the restaurant - don't you love it?  They also had a matching table, but I couldn't get a picture of it without running off the people who were sitting there.  My Spanish wasn't up to explaining to them why they should move and let me grab the place mats.

Frida Chairs - Gotta Have 'Em!

I spent a fitful night in the colorful hotel with noisy walls, sorry to leave this country which is so warm in many ways.

Hasta luego, mi Boquete.  You are already fading in my memory.

But this is not good-bye - it is just the beginning.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Here are the close-up flower portraits from Boquete's Feria de los Flores y del Café (Fair of Flowers and Coffee):

Feria #4

Here is another case where I couldn't decide which was better. So I put both of them up for you to enjoy:

Feria #12

And a detail from #12:

Feria #13

Feria #11

Feria #10

Feria #6

Here is the mural for the fair.  Don't you like how they built it around the edge of the roof?

Feria #16

Today my heart goes out to the people of Haiti.  One of my favorite students, now graduated, is from Haiti.  She is living in the U.S. but many of her family are there. 

May all these people have a way to rise from the depths of despair and find beauty in their lives.



Wednesday.  My last full day in Boquete.  Already.

This morning it was still windy and raining.  By mid-morning the sky had begun to clear, but the wind was still overpowering.

After meeting yet another new friend for coffee downtown, I decided to see the fair.  This would be just about my last chance to see it.

There were hardly any other people there who had braved the elements.  This was ideal for taking photos, but the wind was buffeting everything.  It was amazing that the flowers, which we think of as so fragile, had survived three days of wind and rain.

I did get some nice pictures, but all the coffee exhibits were closed.  And I purchased two bolsos (carrying bags) as souvenirs of the trip - one for me and one for a gift:

Here are the pictures from the Feria.  These are all from a distance.  Close-ups are in the next posting.


Feria #1:  Welcome

Feria #2:  Kid's Sandals at the Mercado

Feria #3

Feria #8
Celosia (Cockscomb)

Feria #9

Feria #14

Feria #15

Feria #7


Tuesday, January 12, 2010


After the gringos' talk today, I had the pleasure of being invited to Olga's house for lunch.

Olgo is a Panamanian native who lived in the States for many years.  I met her through my hosts, who are best friends with her.

Olga gave us some homemade soup, fresh-baked bread and wine.  It was wonderful.  We lingered quite a while after the meal and exchanged stories of how we found out about Boquete.  She gave me much useful information about the nuts and bolts of moving here.  But mainly we talked about emotions, in typical Panamanian fashion:  about how you have to want something in your heart and have faith that it will work out - and then work hard to make it happen.

The lunch and conversation lasted at least two hours.  I wasn't timing it because neither of us was in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything.  Ahh, the bliss of vacation.

On my way out, Olga mentioned that she wanted someone to take pictures of her garden for making into cards.  Of course, I have done that and as luck would have it, had my camera.

So here are the images of Olga's garden.

Every once in a while I take a picture which is so good that I have trouble believing that I actually took it.  Today I was blessed with not one but two such images.  I have saved them for the end.  By the magic of PhotoShop, Olga's fountain was transformed into a painting.  I think Olga's Garden series tells a lot about what it is like here.  Her fountain has become a symbol of Boquete and Panamá for me.

Olga's Garden #1
(This is one of the two images of the fountain
that I transformed into "paintings" below.)

Olga's Garden #4

Olga's Garden #14

Olga's Garden #7

Olga's Garden #8

Olga's Garden #11

And now, for the "magical" images:

Olga's Garden #10

Olga's Garden #13

A most magical end to a most magical day.



Today it is raining again, though not as much as yesterday.  I had planned to go to the Tuesday get-together for gringos.  This is a local institution that gives newcomers a place to meet each other and to learn about living here. 

Yesterday the Fair was rained out, so I figured I would go to it today after the gringos.  They are right across the street from each other, across the bridge from town.  At this point I don't know if the bridge is under water or not.  I know it was closed to traffic for the fair, so I'd planned on walking to both.  Without an umbrella, which was left at home.  In the wind and rain.  After all, this is the dry season.

Should I go or not?

One thing I learned from living in the U.K.:  if you plan your life around the weather, you will miss out on a lot of things, including life.

So off I go...more later.

(Later in the day):

As it turned out, my host offered to give me a ride with another friend to the gringos' get-together.  We were able to drive across the bridge and park close by.  It was still raining and windy.

The Tuesday gringos meeting has been going weekly for about six years.  Its main purpose is to give newcomers critical information on what they need to know to live here, such as real estate and construction.  They emphasize cultural sensitivity.  For example, the moderator told us today not to get intense and angry when we get upset because Panamanians don't do that.

Another thing I learned is that Chiriquí (the state where Boquete is) is pronounced like "Cherokee", of which I am one-sixteenth.  Another sign!

Before and during the meeting there is a gringos market, mostly of homemade baked goods and used books.  The proceeds from the book sales go to four local charities.

The meeting takes place in the new local playhouse, which is also a community center.  The facilities are first-rate.

Here is a view of the market:

Gringos' Market

And here is a view of the meeting, which takes place in the theater.  Today the speaker was the marketing director of the Chiriquí Hospital health plan, which is an independently operated health plan system that covers 70% of your medical expenses including hospital for $60 a month for people in my (high) age group:

Gringos' Talk - and Gringos Talk

I was surprised at the number of young gringos here, some with infants and young children.  A new International School will be opening in Boquete this year, undoubtedly because of the demand for such education for these gringo children.  The new school will not be just for gringos, as I understand it.

One thing that impressed me about the gringos was all the hugging and kissing going on.  They are a close-knit group.  In fact, everyone knows what everyone else is doing, like in any small town.  There are few secrets here.

I decided to forgo the Feria today because of the rain.  There were only a few people there.  The weather is supposed to clear tomorrow.  Hopefully I'll be able to see it, along with Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin, all in the same day.

The time for my visit is running out.  Only one and a half more days left in Boquete before I head to Santiago, the half-way point to Panama City, to spend the last night in another hotel.  This is just in case it takes longer than planned to make it to the airport.

I wouldn't want to get stuck here ....... or would I?


Monday, January 11, 2010


Today is 01-11-10.  A symmetrical binary kind of day.

The wind has been howling and the rain pouring down all day.  It's now 3:00 pm.  This storm actually began yesterday, as mentioned in yesterday's posting.

Here is what the weather looks like:

Notice those "GALE" labels.  They are actually on either side of Costa Rica, but I assure you there has been a gale here for the past 24 hours. And that stationary front is causing a training effect on the showers, with new ones coming in as soon as the others move on.  (All those years of watching The Weather Channel are now paying off.)

And here is the rain picture:

The red circle shows the rain cell over Boquete.  But look at all that other weather to the west!  Typically the equatorial air currents bring that weather from the west over here.

I have had to put on a turtle neck and sweater, and it is summertime here!


I am concerned because it has already been raining longer than it did last November when the flood came.  Am trying to find out if there are any reports of flooding so far.  This area floods easily because many streams and rivers converge here, and their rocky beds and banks are not conducible for absorbing any overflow.

(Note to self:  Build your house on a hill when you move here.)



Two nights ago I was awakened by a phone call from my son. I turned on the bedside light, and in the middle of our conversation I saw a HUGE black spider climbing down the wall right by the lamp. Its body must have been an inch long, and its total diameter was about the size of a half dollar coin. I could see all of its body parts, including a huge well-formed mouth:

Life size.
This was not the spider I saw, but looks like it.

Like many people, I have a long-standing fear of spiders. This one was no exception.

My host had told me about the machete in the corner for killing bugs when I checked in.

“Must be big bugs,” I had replied. Now I know why.

Bedside machete - everyone should have one.

I grabbed the machete and attempted to hack the spider with the blade. Unfortunately this swipe missed and the tip of the blade hit the wall near Mr. Arachnid*. He scurried across the wall to hide behind the headboard.

I wasn’t about to pull the king-size bed away from the wall just to find him. If and when that happened, I would try to take him outside unharmed, using the trick of putting a drinking glass over him and then sliding paper under the glass.

Two nights passed with no more sightings.…here…somewhere.

It was difficult to fall asleep with the frequent sensations of something crawling on my skin. (There is a medical name for this: formication, from the Latin “formica” for ants. Don’t you love it? And you thought Formica® was just a countertop covering.)

This morning I decided to move some dirty towels on the floor of the bathroom, and there he was. He ran out of the towels just long enough for me to spot him, then disappeared again inside the pile. He doesn’t want a confrontation any more than I do.

After some thought, I decided the best way to get him outside would be to carry the whole pile of towels, and then gently shake them one by one over the grass. I did this and: no spider.

I decided to have another look at the towels, and there he was. It took quite a bit of persuasion to get him to leave the safety of the towel for the grass.

I went back inside with a great sense of relief and decided to make the bed.  But when I pulled the bedspread off the floor, there was another one! This one was brown, smaller (but still not small by U.S. standards), and missing two legs on one side. She* still managed to get around just fine.

What were they doing, having a convention?

Had they been in here with me the whole time?

That thought made me shudder. I was able to use the drinking glass method to take her outside to join her partner. By then there was no sight of the black one. It would have been reassuring to know where he was.

*Disclaimer: The use of specific genders to identify spiders in no way is meant to associate arachnoid behavior with one gender or the other, and most certainly is not intended to translate to human behavior of that gender. It is merely a device for distinguishing between one spider and another. In case there is a higher arachnoid consciousness that may have been offended by my use of these gendered and/or chromatic terms, I hereby apologize for any prior statement that may have related any specific gender or color to any specific kind of behavior.†

†Adapted from Sen. Harry Reid.


Yesterday I decided to venture out and see some new places outside of Boquete. Boquete is very crowded now because of the annual Feria de Las Flores y Café (Fair of Flowers and Coffee). This is actually a good thing, with my visit timed to coincide with it, because it combines two of my favorite things in one place.

I headed south toward David, intending to take the Volcancito loop that would bring me back to Boquete by the back way, thus avoiding traffic and the apparently permanent police check-point on the main highway. The turnoff is opposite the Visitors Center on the David highway between Boquete and Alto Boquete.  This proposed route is shown in red in this map:

Credit:  Google Maps

Darn – somehow I missed the turn, not realizing this until I was practically in David. Very foolishly, I had forgotten to bring a map. So I turned around and tried the turnoff for Potrerillos instead, heading west in the hope I could pick up an alternate route to Volcancito.  This is shown in blue.

But no…this was a dead-end road. I turned around and headed back to the David highway, thinking there might still be enough time to take the loop. Strangely, the sights along the return route did not look familiar. I started to panic. It was impossible to make a wrong turn, but why isn’t the scene familiar? Could this be the same reason I missed the Volcancito turn?

Being in a foreign country can play tricks with one’s mind. Thankfully, I remembered that my cell phone has Google Maps on it. Sure enough, it showed my location with great precision as well as the missed turn to Volcancito.

By the time I reached the turn, it was almost dark and was raining to boot. In a rare moment of lucidity I decided to go straight back to Boquete and treat myself to a restaurant dinner.

I pulled up at The Big Food Grill, which is just on the other side of the Naböbe Buglé neighbors. Two doors down from the casita, in other words.

The Big Food Grill is an open-air bamboo hut with ten tables or so, on the banks of the same stream that runs through our back yard. The kitchen is about 4 x 5 feet (no, this is not an exaggeration) with a pass-through in the back wall to the “dining room”. The gas grill is in a stone fireplace just outside the kitchen, in the dining room. I didn’t stop to see if the grill was clean because I didn’t want to know. There was no way it would pass a restaurant inspection in the U.S., but I suspect there is no restaurant inspection here. The wind was blowing furiously, so much so that I was glad to be wearing two layers of shirts.

When the waitress/cook/hostess came to take my order, I quickly realized that she didn’t speak English. Nevertheless, she told me that they were out of ribs with a long explanation that I didn’t get at all. So I ordered a hamburgesa con mozzarella y bacon, “con la carne roja” (with the meat red - my best attempt at saying “rare”).  I also took the plunge and for the first time in my life ordered patacones (twice-fried plantains, which is their French fry). They also had exactly the same wine I was used to drinking at home, Concho y Toro Merlot. As it turned out, this was the only wine they carry.

Ahh, another good sign of divine intervention.

I had to wait for the grill to heat up, which took about 15 minutes, before they could start cooking my burger. Remember, this is not fast food, even by Panamanian standards.

What followed was one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever eaten. The meat was lean and flavorful, and cooked exactly to my liking. (Which, come to think of it, they can’t do in the U.S. because of those pesky restaurant inspections.) It reminded me of the beef we used to get in my childhood, raised on grass long before the advent of industrial animal farms and corn-fed fatty beef. The patacones were delicious too, with no taste of banana – only a pleasant mild taste with an interesting texture, made perfect with a modest shake of salt.

When I got up and stopped by the kitchen on the way out to ask for the check (“La cuenta, por favor.”), the cook/waitress/hostess thought for a moment and said “Siete dollares” after adding it up in her head. There was no written check and no need for one.

Total price for a half-pound burger with cheese and bacon, pantacones and a glass of wine: $7.00. I highly recommend The Big Food Grill when you come here.

This was a good lesson in suspending judgment until all the information is in, an important thing to do wherever one might be.