Tuesday, July 26, 2011


There are very few things I miss about the U.S., but one of them is fresh blueberries.  They are virtually impossible to find in Panamá.  It's just too warm here.  One would think if they grow in Nacogdoches, Texas, they could grow in Panamá.  (Agricultural entrepreneurs take note:  this could be a gold mine. Panamá Blueberry Festival, anyone?)

So it was not without a lot of excitement that I discovered five-pound bags of frozen blueberries at PriceSmart (Costco) recently:

This is not the 5-lb bag, but looks like it.
Every day this week I have been rationing them out, straight from the bag.  Controlled experimentation has proven that the best method for eating them is to take one or a few frozen berries and press them between the tip of the tongue and the back of the teeth to express the rich, flavorful juice a little at a time.


I was going to make a blueberry pie, but there isn't enough left in the bag for that now.

I'll go back to PriceSmart tomorrow, on another mission, and hope to return with another bag of frozen blueberries.  Soon I hope to have something like this from my little bottled-gas stove with no temperature settings on the dial:

piekitchen.com - Not my pie, but hopefully a close facsimile
of the one I'll make later this week.
Wish me luck.

Life is good.


Saturday, July 23, 2011


It all started out because I had offered to take a new Panamanian friend and her little dog to the veterinarian in David. Maria (not her real name) had lived in the States for many years and had retired to Boquete. Like me, she is divorced and worked in the health field. She lives next door to the shop that does my laundry. I met her last week when she showed me a picture of her cute dog at the laundry and spoke to me in perfect American English.

She said her dog had not been doing well, had been steadily losing weight in spite of the best dog food sent every week by her sister in Panama City. I fawned over the picture of the dog she carried with her. She has an American attitude toward her dog, letting it sleep in bed with her. As someone who has slept with dogs for many years, I had to relate to her story. So I offered to let her ride with me to David because she doesn't have a car and can't afford a taxi. I was planning a trip for today anyway to get the ingredients for cooking San Antonio Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas for 150 people.

The cooking is for a charity event - Buenos Vecinos de Boquete is a local organization that donates food to people too poor to maintain adequate caloric intake and nutrition. It feeds eighty-five families regularly, but I know there are many more in need, mostly the Nagöbe-Buglé indigenous people who live here and work in the coffee fields. This is the wet season. The coffee has been harvested. Now there is less work for the people, and now more people are starving. So tomorrow Buenos Vecinos is having a charity Mexican Food Cook-Off at a local restaurant, where people will pay a $5 fee to taste the various entries and vote on the best of each category. And my San Antonio Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas were supposed to be among them.
So it was already an unusual day when I picked up Maria and her little dog in Boquete for the drive to David. The plan was to leave them at the vet - which is near the store where I needed to go for the groceries - and then pick them up after I had finished shopping for the trip back home. It seemed simple enough.

But unforeseen circumstances intervened to make it a day I shall never forget.

About halfway to David, I noticed the stick shift would not go into any gear. It was on a downhill stretch, so I was able to keep up with traffic at highway speed for a while. I knew I needed to pull over - and soon.

There was a driveway up ahead, and Maria said, "There."  I obediently pulled into the driveway of a fairly nice looking house and stopped. There was a little dog at the house who resembled one of my favorite dogs from years past, and who was bravely defending her territory by yapping at us constantly. I was totally flummoxed, and it took me quite a while to find the emergency telephone number for road breakdowns that came as part of my auto insurance here.

Thank God (or whatever you call it) that my new friend was with me. She was able to explain everything over the cell phone to the agent for the road service. Even then, the person taking the call said she needed to call me back sometime indefinitely later to confirm that I had the necessary coverage. And she needed to know exactly where we would be towing the car.

Thank God (or whatever you call it), I remembered a posting from the "Gringos in David" Yahoo Group that highly recommended the mechanic at the Texaco station in David. In fact, I had been looking at this information only a few days ago, so it was fresh in my mind. I also knew that the Texaco station was just around the block from where Maria and the little dog live, so they would be able to get home without taking a taxi. So the Texaco station seemed like the place to go.

After about half an hour, the operator hadn't called back to confirm that we would be towed.

Thank God (or whatever you call it) I had the cell phone number of my insurance agent in the car. One phone call to her quickly produced a call-back from the roadside assistance company. The operator said it would be a thirty-minute wait for the tow truck.

Not too bad, I thought. But thirty minutes later, no tow truck was in sight.

The operator called again. It would be another thirty-five minutes.

Strangely, I was not upset. I felt very safe, in no danger, even though cars and trucks were whizzing by on the highway. In the meantime, I noticed that the little female dog at the house had stopped yapping and had come outside the gate to flirt with Maria's male dog. Maria's dog was thrilled at the prospect of having a girlfriend, and the two dogs started to play with each other.

About this time the owner of the house drove up. We knew about him already, because his housekeeper had visited with us earlier and told us all about him. He is a young Panamanian man who makes his living refurnishing furniture and also from organic farming.

The owner stayed with us by the highway to make sure we would be safe until the tow truck driver came.  We talked of parents and families and life, thanks to my translator-friend Maria. He said his parents hadn't done right by him, and hadn't let him manage their farm. I told him that had made him be a stronger person. I thanked him for staying with us two older women - by this time it had been about an hour. He said that he lives his life to help others. I felt safe, surrounded by the love of these two people who until recently had been strangers.

Thank God (or whatever you call it) for leading me to these wonderful people.

After a while he asked my permission to look at the shift linkage. I said of course. He brought his tools out from his truck and took the stick shift apart. He said that a screw was missing, that it was a simple problem to fix. He said to tell this to the mechanic in Boquete so they wouldn't overcharge me.

Then the tow truck came. The driver said that my friend and her dog would have to ride in my car on the back of the tow truck, while I got to ride in the cab. The owner of the house kissed me goodbye on the cheek, much like a son would kiss his mother. He invited us to come back and visit anytime. And so we took off for Boquete with Maria and her little dog hanging on for dear life in my car on the the back of the tow truck.

We must have been quite a sight. I was hanging on to the Jesus strap in the cab because the tow truck driver insisted on passing traffic at will - and this was with a major highway construction project the entire length of the trip. I could only imagine what Maria and the dog were experiencing in the back.

We were stopped by the traffic control police at the usual place at the top of the hill in Boquete, where the road construction crew is removing part of a mountain to make room for the new four-lane highway.  Someone was knocking on the side window of the tow truck next to me.  It was the owner of the house, who had followed us all the way back to Boquete to give me the two nuts that had stuck in his socket wrench. Then he waved good-bye, got in his car and disappeared into the traffic.

It was all I could do to keep from crying at the extraordinary kindness of this young man.

We made it safely to the Texaco station. Maria and her dog stayed with me for quite some time, and she explained in detail to the mechanic what the problem was. Then she left to walk her little dog home, and I was left alone at the station.

During the two-hour wait, the mechanic rebuilt the part of the shift linkage where the screw was missing. He drilled out a different opening for a new screw, and used the powerful drill for tightening the screws that mechanics use on the lug nuts of wheels when changing tires. That new screw wasn't going anywhere. If this had happened in the States, I'm guessing the mechanic would have said that a new special-order part would have been necessary and the car would have been out of commission for a month or longer.

Bottom line: when I thought I was looking at having to get a new transmission, the mechanic charged me $20 - which was probably a gringo price but which I gladly paid. The previously mushy shift linkage, which was probably a symptom that the screw had been loose ever since I bought the used car - was nice and  crisp.  Just like new.  Probably better than new.

The car was fixed.  It was now 3:30 pm. I had to make a decision - should I go on to David or not to get the groceries?  It was an hour's drive each way. It would have been so easy to forget the whole thing, after all I'd been through.

But I didn't. I went to David and bought the ingredients. And I'll be cooking tomorrow as if nothing had happened.

But life as I know it will never be quite the same, thanks to the wonderful people who helped me today.

And thanks to God (or whatever you call it) for bringing these wonderful people into my life.

Oh...and next Saturday I'm taking Maria and her little dog to the vet.


Monday, July 18, 2011


UIIt all started because my little house doesn't have window screens.

Here in this tropical climate there are many bugs and many of those get into the house because there are no screens.  As a result, remains of dead bugs in spider webs have been accumulating in the corners of all the rooms and windows.  Not a pretty sight.

Lacking a full-size vacuum cleaner, I decided some time ago to attack the problem by buying a battery-operated hand-held vacuum cleaner.  This was easier said than done.  After looking in several Big-Box-Equivalent stores, I finally found one last Dustbuster® in a large hardware store and bought it.

One must understand that the custom of selling large and small appliances here is to sell the floor model, and then have several employees of the store re-pack the floor model into the original carton.  I'm not sure why this is.  Perhaps it allows the stores to keep less inventory.  In any case, Panama seems to be a "What you see is what you get" place to buy appliances.  And the buyer must beware, in case a previous customer has returned a defective item which the retailer has put back onto the shelf for re-sale.

Not that I'm into buying a lot of things.  But I decided to make an exception and get that Dustbuster because all those dead bugs were giving me the creeps.

After getting home with the Dustbuster, it became apparent that this particular unit had been returned.  The box had been sloppily sealed with packing tape.  I hoped that all the parts were there.

But no.

After charging the battery, I tried the Dustbuster on some especially bad dead bugs, and noticed that the bits of insect debris were ejected directly into my face through the housing of the motor.


So I went on-line to the Black & Decker website and after much searching found this model, which was sold only in Latin America.  That should have told me something.

I then found an expanded parts diagram and determined that the filter was missing:

The construction of the filter was not apparent in this simple line drawing.  Here is a close-up:

Hmm, still not very informative.  So I ordered one on-line, hopeful that my problem would soon be solved.

That was about two months ago.

It turns out that the part was back-ordered from China (as in slow-boat-from).  Finally about a month ago I received an e-mail that the part had been shipped.

Nothing arrived in my Mailboxes Etc mailbox.

After what seemed like an interminably long wait, I inquired at Mailboxes Etc and asked them to trace the order.  It turns out that the shipper had failed to put my unique MBE box number on the shipping label, even though I had clearly put it as part of the shipping address, and the package was stuck in the mail forwarding depot in Miami.

That taken care of, the package finally arrived and I picked it up today, flushed with excitement that I would finally get to use my Dustbuster and be rid of all those ugly dead bugs in the corners of my house.

But, alas, it was not to be.  They shipped the wrong part.

Instead of a simple foam filter, I got a large heavy metal piece with a clamp that weighed more than the Dustbuster itself.  I dread what the MBE fee will be on this one.  And the Dustbuster was still useless.

Total cost so far (not counting the cost of the Dustbuster):  $3.50 for the part, $12.50 for Black & Decker postage, and probably $20 for MBE postage.

I was not going to take this lying down.  I debated whether or not to re-order the part, but figured there would be a sizable chance of the wrong part arriving again.  So in a fit of common sense, I decided to take matters into my own hands and go to the nearest hardware store.  Armed with my Google Translate machine translation print-out, I said to the clerk that I needed flexible foam.

He showed me a can of aerosol foam insulator:

Not what I needed

I drew a little diagram of a rectangle with many holes in it.  He showed a glimmer of recognition and quickly retrieved a piece of flexible foam from across the room:

Now we're talking.
Cost:  $1.00.
Then I referred to the Google Translate print-out and said I needed a utility knife to cut the foam.  He produced several models for me to choose from, and I selected the least expensive:

This is the actual kind of knife I bought - not that it matters,
but I wanted a little visual variety in this otherwise boring blog.
Cost:  $.90.

I got home with the foam and the knife, drew an outline of the opening in the Dustbuster on the foam with a marker, and cut out the opening with the new knife.  Then I used the knife to slice the foam into several thinner sections.  I figure there is enough foam to make a lifetime of filters.

And now the Dustbuster works great.

There are several lessons to be learned from this little exercise.  Mainly, one should rely on ingenuity to get by in the first place.  This is true in Panamá, but also anywhere in the world.

This was an expensive lesson for me.  I hope you can profit from it.  And now I will enjoy my mostly bug-free house.


Friday, July 15, 2011


We are in the throes of the rainy season.  It has been raining off and on for the past twenty-four hours - perhaps longer because I didn't start keeping track until it was clearly an extraordinarily rainy day.

I, and the other gringos who are not accustomed to the rain yet, venture out in the early mornings before the rain usually sets in.  We take care of our errands, perhaps stopping for a cup of coffee and a visit with friends, then head back home when it starts to rain, anytime from late morning to mid-afternoon. On the way home we pass Panamanians walking in the road, enduring the rain with or without umbrellas, as part of the life they have always known.

This is the usual pattern, but this rainy season may not be usual.

As the planet gets deeper into climate change and the average temperature of the oceans relentlessly increases, the increased energy creates more evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere.  Hence more rain.

We must get used to it. It will get worse.  The Intertropical Convergence will kick in earlier and longer.

And so today we are sitting under a "Monsoon Trof", as the meteorologists call it:

That pesky Monsoon Trof (Trough)

That Low Pressure cell centered over Costa Rica produces a counter-clockwise rotation of the string of rainstorms caused by the Intertropical Convergence, where the air currents in the Northern and Southern hemispheres collide:

End result:  Rain, rain, and more rain.

Isn't it nice to know that all those years of watching The Weather Channel have not been in vain.

And so here we are, getting used to this amazing rain.

The rain that makes this luxuriant growth possible.  The rain that feeds the plants, which feed the insects, which feed the birds, which feed the plants.  And so it goes.  On, and on, and on.

Speaking of insects, here is an interesting Long-Horned Beetle that has been seeking shelter under my front eave for the past day.  It has hardly moved, except to rearrange its legs.  Its body is about two inches long:

In the "old days" I would have just killed it without thinking twice.  Now I just let it be, and check on it from time to time.

Why should it not deserve to live any less than I?  It has its place in nature, feeding on rotten vegetation and helping to complete the cycle of life. (Update:  It was gone by the next day.)

An extraordinary rain, an extraordinary insect, for these extraordinary days.

May these extraordinary days touch you as well, wherever you are and whatever your surroundings, and may they help you appreciate the sweetness of life.


Sunday, July 10, 2011


Earlier this morning I had the pleasure of seeing my new friend Emily's garden for the first time.  This garden is a hidden jewel, tucked away from the public eye.  One would never know it was there.  I will treasure this secret garden.  Here are the first of what I hope will be many images taken through the year.

I'll add the botanical names later as I learn them.  Check at my table next Tuesday at the Gringo Market, and you just might see some of these as cards.

In the meantime, come take a walk with me through this beautiful space:

Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Marianne'

Rex begonia: an excellent example
 of the power of grouping
 a single plant type in a large space:
less is more

Thunbergia mysorensis

A pink ginger - possibly Alpinia 'Kimi'

A dreamy portrait of Aphelandra
with orange bouganvillea

Aphelandra spp.

'Flame Vine' - Prostegia venusta
One of my favorite plants

Holmskioldia sanguinea

Heliconia psittacorum - not sure which variety

A beautiful banana in flower,
possibly Musa uranoscopus ('Red Torch')

More of the pink ginger -
can't get enough of it!

Last of the pink ginger - for today, anyway

A magnificent dahlia in the rain -
must go back and get this one again when it's dry

Russelia equisetiformis
(Also known as R. juncea,
'Fountain-Plant', 'Horsetail Firecracker Plant' 

Dutch Iris in the rain,
still beautiful after being ravaged by bugs.
I'll get more of these later.

Thank you, Emily, for sharing your beautiful corner of Boquete.  I'm looking forward to capturing more of your garden vision as time goes on.


Saturday, July 9, 2011


Pam and Bob are fellow Texans living here in Boquete.  I met Pam totally by accident when we sat next to each other at a concert and I admired her shoes.  It turns out she and her husband live on one of my favorite properties.  It was thrilling to get an invitation to visit them and to see their extensive garden.

This garden is situated at a higher elevation than Boquete, in the region called El Salto, and gets more sun than many other locations here.  I have visited El Salto many times; the drive there through an alleé of huge  hundred-year-old pine trees is my favorite side trip, and the view of the nearby mountains is breathtaking.

I finally had the opportunity to visit them and their garden after their interlude in the States. Here is my take on these Texans' garden in Boquete.  While they have mostly regional plants, you will see a few touches of the Lone Star State:

Texas Bluebonnets - Lupinus texensis 
one of the FIVE (count 'em) official state flowers of Texas
More bluebonnets - can't get enough of 'em
Pink Bluebonnets - I'll grant you they are pretty,
but they don't hold a candle to Indian Paintbrushes in my book.
Their legend says they are pink from the blood shed at the
Battle of the Alamo in my home town, San Antonio.

Aloe mudenensis - Fairly common in gardens here
Another equally nice example of the Aloe mudenensis
at the peak of its bloom 

Banana bloom - possibly a 'Red Torch'

Plectranthus scutellaroidides -
Red coleus hybrid

These might be dahlias - help please!

One of many fuschia varieties - I'm a sucker for them too.

Two coleus varieties

Daylilly - a perennial favorite

We don't know what this is -
a vine with flowers that are red at first,
then become this fabulous purple

New Guinea Impatiens

Datura metel 'Cornucopeia'?- a lovely specimen.
Note that Datura flowers grow upright,
while the more common Brugmansia
(Angel's Trumpet) is pendant -
Thanks to Bonnie Williams for this distinction.
A different Datura metel,
equally lovely in its own way

Interesting Double Impatiens

Large, brooding, dark-leaved.
Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic' Ealephant Ear Black Magic

Unusual Iris
Daylilly?  Amaryllis? Hippeastrum?  Help!

Another fuschia - my personal favorite kind.
In-your-face-gaudy and so, so beautiful

Passiflora coccinea - Red Passion Flower

We don't know what this one is -
interesting spotted foliage reminiscent of caladiums,
but with this anthurium-like bloom.
Any ideas?
Another view of our "Mystery Plant"
showing fabulous foliage

I should know what this is, but don't

Pam and I don't know if this is a thistle or what -
she is doing watchful waiting to make sure
it doesn't take over the garden.
Its mallow-like bloom is fetching.

Purple Buddleia/Buddleja (Butterfly Bush) and Orchidiae -
I've seen these orchids that grow on the top of tall stems
and even have some - have been told they are Bamboo Orchids.
One doesn't need to know what they are to know they are beautiful.

Blue Hydrangia - a huge specimen

Many thanks to my friends from Texas for sharing their garden with me.

Now I think I'll go whip up some Chicken Fried Steak (just kidding).