Thursday, September 29, 2011

AZUERO PENINSULA - EAST

After covering the Western part of the Azuero, which is green and hilly, we ventured over to the Eastern side.  The Eastern Azuero is where the small Spanish towns are with their lovely architecture, churches and plazas. 


It was very hot here.  We'd been spoiled by the perpetual springtime weather in Boquete.  The air conditioner in my car konked out from the overload of being run for eight hours straight.  So we rolled the windows down for the rest of the trip and sweated a lot.


In general, I didn't care for Chitré and Las Tablas, the larger towns.  You won't see any pictures of them here.  Noted for their huge celebrations during Carnival, they were congested and busy.  We did find a great bargain in a hotel in Las Tablas for $15 a night (including our 50% Jubilada discount).  No hot water in the shower, but after being in the heat all day the cold shower felt good.


Did I mention it was hot?


But there are several smaller towns, some off the beaten path, that provided lovely views.  Some of these towns date from the 1500's - settled within one generation of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas.  The houses were built in traditional Spanish colonial style, with covered front porches going the entire width of the house, tile roofs and elaborately carved doors and transoms.  The people there were friendly and laid back.  Here are a few of my favorite sights:

La Elena, one of the first towns as you come south off the Interamericana.  Basically a tourist trap, but there are some lovely old houses there.  What were they thinking when they installed that electric meter on the front column?  Where is their sense of historic preservation?


A lovely house with green door in La Elena

Crab tracks scribbled in the sand at a beach near Las Tablas
These are tiny crabs, maybe half an inch across.  The sand balls up as they scurry across it.  You can mash the balls back into granular sand easily.  Beach was at low tide; tides can vary by 15-30 feet here.




A charming beach house we looked at on Playa Estero.
Yes, that's the beach on the left, just outside the door.

View from the Carretera Nacional near the turnoff for San José.
This is cattle country - note the windmill. 

San José was on a by-way off the main road.  They had just had a fair and rodeo in the town square.  Here is their church:


Church on the Plaza at San José.  Euphemistically described as "Modern Spanish".  I do like the  two-story bell tower, but that modern arch at the entrance needs some ornamentation, don't you think?
One gentleman came over from the beer hall, where several regulars were gathered, to tell us all about it.  We nearly sat down to have a beer with "the guys" but decided against it.  Everything was so peaceful, beautiful and fun. We had a great time during the short time we were in San Jose.  They are probably still talking about the two American women who stopped to talk with them.

Then, on the way out of town, a young man pointed a huge silver automatic pistol at us as we were driving by.  Scared the Bejeezus out of me.  We had wondered how so many people could live with no apparent means of employment.  Maybe we were naïve - perhaps this is a route for drug trafficking.  Seems fairly far inland for that.  Sad if it is true.


Heading on down the peninsula, we stopped at Pocrí, another lazy town.

Church and town plaza at Pocrí.
A lovely, artsy town.  I could live there.
Pocrí rocks.

Charming cottage on the town square in Pocrí.
The satellite dish and cell phone tower kind of spoiled the view for me. But, as they say, that's progress.

On a Panamanian friend's advice, we decided to go to Purio, another pueblo off the beaten track.  We were not disappointed.

Purio is filled with old houses, many in a sad state of disrepair.  Here is one of my favorites:

Purio:  La Casa de Marcelina Sanchez
I was fascinated by this old house with the dirt walls showing through.  I harbored a fleeting thought of restoring it to its former glory.  While we were standing in front of it, a lady from across the street came over to talk to us and explained that Señora Sanchez had been her aunt.

I so regret not having known Tía Marcelina.

Then, on the porch of the house next door, we saw this friendly woman (likely another Sanchez relative), who gave us permission to take her picture.  I love how her hair rollers are color-coordinated with her outfit and the walls of her house are two different colors:

This, my friends, is the real Panamá:
kind, gentle, friendly people.
I feel privileged to see them.

We looked around this fascinating town of Purio some more, and found this classic scene.  I don't know what the machinery is used for, but it seems to be the real thing.  No other tourists were here.


Old machinery on a porch at Purio

Private chapel on the Carretera Nacional near Purio.  We weren't allowed to go in.  Note the lovely spiral staircase going up to the bell tower, and the beautiful turquoise trim next to the cream walls.  ¡Qué estilo!
Then it was on to Pedasí, the southernmost town in our journey.  Pedasí also has the charming houses and town square, and boasts one regular restaurant owned by a Chinese family and featuring Chinese-Panamanian food.  Restaurants other than fondas and typicos were next to impossible to find anywhere on the peninsula, even in the larger towns.  I was beginning to realize how spoiled we Gringos are in Boquete, which boasts French, Peruvian, Mexican, and American-style restaurants among other cuisines.  We even used to get Thai food on a regular basis at the Gringo market until that family moved back to Thailand.

But I digress.

Pedasí is on the verge of being ruined by huge California-style developments.  They are in sight of the ocean but not directly on it.  The beaches are still public.  Million-dollar homes and huge, out-of-proportion gateways dot the previously unspoiled countryside.

What a shame.  I wonder what the native people will do after the prices for daily commodities go up.

Here is a doorway in Pedasí.  I didn't show the hole in the dirt wall, but it was there.  Another project begging for sensitive historic preservation, while the outskirts of town see ticky-tacky McMansions that look like they could blow away in a strong wind.

Pedasí Doorway

Finally, my favorite picture of the whole trip.  This group of elders was engaged in conversation on the porch of a house in the town square, probably as they have been for many years.  I love them.  I hope to return someday soon and give them each a copy of this picture, with grateful thanks for helping me to see "The Real Panamá".

Pedasí:  "The Conversation"
-bjd

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

AZUERO PENINSULA - WEST

This is the first of two posts about our road trip to the Azuero Peninsula.  This is the part of Panama that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean.  It is known for its beaches and colonial Spanish architecture.  I went with a friend who was looking for a place to live on the beach, while I was looking for the architecture.  These are merely brief, fleeting impressions.  It is difficult to get ideal light for pictures when one is just passing through.  Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy these.

Not sure if the bump to the left is considered part of the Azuero or not, but we didn't go there anyway.


We started out at Atalaya, a lovely little town just south of Santiago known for its  Jesús Nazareno de Atalaya  pilgrimage church.  Some 200,000 people descend on this little town during Lent.  Frankly I liked it better in the old photos, where the trim is a beautiful shade of purple.  Any way you color it, this is one of the loveliest churches in the country.

Eglisia Jesús Nazareno de Atalaya

We ate dinner at a typico (a small restaurant serving typical Panamanian food with limited choices on the menu).  I was impressed with the lengths they had gone to prevent their TV from being stolen and watched:

TV in Atalaya - rather difficult to watch
We stayed in one of the nicest hotels in town, a boutique hotel where nothing worked, including my toilet, the Wi-Fi and the shower.  The shower was so complicated I couldn't figure out how to turn on the water:

The beautiful but too complicated shower.
I was able to get those vents near the floor to work,
but couldn't stoop that low to get thoroughly wet.

I don't know about you, but this shower reminds me of Woody Allen's "Orgasmatron" from his movie Sleeper:

Wood Allen's Version
We did see some lovely sights, however, some of which are shown here:

Caballeros on the Beach

Beach View at Torio

View at the restaurant
where we ate freshly caught fish by the sea

 And my favorite sight of all: giant grasshoppers on the beach.  These whoppers were several inches long:

The feeling of being watched.
Nice view, but I wouldn't want to live here.

By the second night a plumber had come to work on the toilet.  He had lengthened the rod from the handle inside the tank but hadn't attached the rod to the float.  In other words, the toilet still wouldn't work on its own.  But the receptionist did show me how to work the shower.

Then it was time to move on.

-bjd

SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE NIGHT ORCHID

This week my gardener cut down most of a lemon tree because it was dead.  He kept the lower part because it was supporting some other plants.


Low and behold, today I noticed this:

A surprise in the garden today


An orchid!  In full bloom!  I have no idea how long it's been blooming.  I knew there were orchids in the tree, but they looked dead.  I'm so glad I didn't throw them away.


And - more excitement - there are others about to bloom.  You can see one of these in the upper right corner of this image.


Here it is at night, where you can see the detail better:


The Night Orchid


How can these plants know seasons, when the days and nights are the same length all year round here, and the temperature is constant as well?  I have noticed bouganvilleas also in full bloom now, when I thought they were triggered by the dry season.


These plants have an intelligence that we will never know.


-bjd

Thursday, September 1, 2011

EL EINSTEIN DE LOS CARROS

Lately I've been feeling a little more confident in speaking Spanish to the natives, even to the point of making jokes.  I also needed to have some car repair work done.  This post shows how I have cleverly combined these two activities in the past two days.


Yesterday I returned to the amazing mechanic at the Boquete Texaco station to have the oil changed.  I also had him look at the steering because a worrisome "clunk" has recently appeared when I turn the steering wheel all the way to the left.  He diagnosed the problem and told me exactly which parts I need to get.  He said it happened because of the bad roads here.  Unfortunately he didn't have the parts.  


This meant a trip to the Suzuki dealer in David, which I'd been putting off for several months anyway because of another problem - the felpas needed to be replaced  - related to switching from 2- to 4-wheel-drive, and I know that the agent who helped me buy the car in the first place made sure that Felipe Rodriguez Suzuki in David had ordered the parts.  


That was six months ago.  I didn't know if they still had the felpas.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.


So my mechanic - whose name starts with an "A" and I think is Alonzo but I'm not sure so just go to the Texaco when you need your car fixed in Boquete and you'll find him in the back to the left around the stone wall wearing the red polo shirt - gave me a written list at my request of all the parts I needed to fix the steering problem.  He did change the oil and oil filter. It was truly a pleasure to watch the care he took in pre-lubricating the oil filter so it would make a good seal.  I have no idea if the US mechanics do this because I have never been privileged to watch them work.  In any case, Alonzo is truly an artist.


I had also asked him to change the air filter, thanks to a pre-printed sheet of instructions from Google Translate, an essential tool for any person in a foreign country with internet access.  He didn't have an air filter in stock but did take out the existing air filter and blasted it with compressed air to make it as good as new.  


Jiffy Lube, please take note.


At this point I decided to try some Panamanian humor.  I said to him, "Estas el Einstein de los carros."  (You are the Einstein of cars.)  He laughed his head off.  Actually, I'm not sure if he laughed because he thought it was truly funny or because he thought I was incredibly stupid for trying to make a joke in Spanish.


So today I took off for David to get the rest of the repairs done in preparation for a road trip to the Azuero Peninsula, which I'm sure you will hear about in more detail than you would care to know.  I left the dogs in the house a little before 7:00 am to make it to my first appointment at the tire store to have my tires rotated and balanced and an alignment.


I love this tire store - Tambor on the Inter-American Highway in David, just past the one traffic light going toward Costa Rica on the left.  This is where I had bought my tires shortly after buying the car, and was recommended by the same man who ordered the felpas for me.  Tambor is clean and the customer service people are outstanding.  I have these awesome Yokohama Geolanders A/TS (again recommended by my car man), which are good either on- or off-road (read:  good either on the highways or on the road where I live):
Not my actual tire, but mine are just like this.
However, the rotation couldn't be done until I got the steering problem repaired.


So after the hour that it took to rotate and balance the tires (with an appointment), I made my way to Felix Rodriguez Suzuki/Goodyear to see if they had the parts.  I decided to have their mechanic look at the car just to be sure of what needed to be replaced, and also checked about the felpas.  They were still in stock - good.  So I decide to have the shop at Felix Rodriguez fix the steering problem and the felpas and go ahead and do the alignment so I could head on back to Boquete once everything was done.


This was at 9:30 am.  The car was finally ready at 5:30 pm.  During all this time - count them, EIGHT HOURS - I sat in the shop at Felix Rodriguez reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love except for two short forays to the pastry shop down the block to buy Coca Colas and lunch.  This is a most excellent book which I would have never read if I had never seen her TED talk on creativity.  (Surely you know about the TED lectures?  If not, you're missing out on something good.  Check this one out for starters and you'll want to read the book too.)


Now the ironic thing about reading Eat, Pray, Love around all these Panamanians is I was just like Julia Roberts in her role playing Elizabeth Gilbert in the movie of the book, except that I was reading the book around Panamanians and Julia / Elizabeth was eating gelato around Italians.  I love it when life imitates art imitating life:

This is Julia Roberts / Elizabeth Gilbert
eating gelato in Rome in the film Eat, Pray, Love, but it could have been I / me
reading Eat, Pray, Love in the auto shop in Panamá,

except I'm better looking than Julia Roberts.  (Just kidding.)


It could have been during the fourth hour when an old man, a street vendor, walked into the shop selling foot-long mesh bags of garlic.  As it turned out, I had already bought one of these bags from another vendor shortly after arriving.  (What's the deal about garlic?  I have no idea.)  I had hidden the previously purchased garlic in my fanny pack.


The street vendor must have taken me for a sucker because he walked straight up to me.  Actually, I was making eye contact with him in the hope that he would do so.  He asked me if I wanted to buy garlic.


I opened my fanny pack and pulled out my garlic, saying "No necesito mas aijo, pero gracias." (I don't need any more garlic, but thanks anyway.)


He and I both laughed until our sides hurt.


Somewhere around the sixth hour, a young super-macho Panamanian man backed his repaired car out of the garage and got his car caught up in the framework of the lowered lift rack.  His tires were between the tracks of the rack.  He managed to get back onto the track but over-corrected as the nearby mechanics were yelling at him to straighten out the wheel and fell off the track on the other side.  This seemed like a good opportunity to crack another Spanish joke:


"El conduce como una mujer." (He drives like a woman.)


Again the mechanics along with the female receptionist laughed heartily.  I was beginning to feel like I belong here.


It' a nice way to feel, whether it's true or not.


-bjd