Monday, October 31, 2011


What can one say about Alamo Heights, the urban enclave where my friend Sarah lives and where I am living until I figure out what to do with my life?

Alamo Heights is a slice of the past surrounded by the San Antonio Metropolitan area.  It's right next door to another enclave, Olmos Park, where I used to live twenty years ago:
Alamo Heights - Bigger in Google Than It Really Is

Alamo Heights has lots of old and beautiful houses.  We are in the "Cottage District" where houses are often small, dating from the 1920's.  But many of them are being turned into McMansions to occupy virtually every square foot on their lot:

A McMansion in Alamo Heights - formerly a cottage
Not the house where I'm living
Olmos Park is where the "old" money is.  Needless to say, we were not among that elite group.  We probably had the smallest and cheapest house in Olmos Park.  McMansion-itis  has struck Olmos Park too, as you can see in the "Old" and "New" photos of our old house:

What our old house in Olmos Park used to look like -a comfy, homey cottage
What our old house looks like now.
There's actually room for about three more gables -
don't know why the speculator didn't go ahead and put them in.
On the market for $850,000 - and no garage.

Here are a few things I've learned about Alamo Heights in the week or so I've been here:
  • People still wave at each other.  This is an old Texas tradition, part of my childhood, where strangers passing each other smile and wave.  And I thought Panamá was the only place left that did that.  It actually brought tears to my eyes when I first was the recipient of a wave this last week while walking the dogs around the neighborhood.
  • People don't lock their houses or cars.  There has been a spate of about four thefts of laptop computers left in unlocked cars.  (DUH!)
  • Neighbors speak to each other and are friendly and made it a point to tell me my barking dogs wouldn't bother them.  (This is in stark contrast to Baltimore.)
  • The only commercial area in central Alamo Heights is on Broadway, and many of the shops look exactly the same as they did fifty years ago.
  • But there is a huge new upscale shopping center - Alamo Quarry Market - built on the site of the old Alamo Cement works:
Quarry Market - Consumerism within walking distance
  • And another large strip center nearby contains a huge supermarket, more restaurants, etc.
  • Alamo Heights is still pretty much white  - very white (95.3% according to the 2010 Census).

Alamo Heights is the dream to which many American families and communities aspire.  But right next door, in Olmos Basin where Olmos Creek meanders, the sex offenders still hang out just as they have been doing for years.  These are often prominent, upstanding people who become very embarrassed to see their pictures in the newspaper after their arrest.

And there is a raw sewage leak somewhere and garbage piling up in Olmos Creek, that neither the City of San Antonio or Alamo Heights wants to take responsibility for.

Maybe the American Dream is a bit tarnished here.  But you'd never know it from the housewives driving their Mercedes SUVs back and forth from the hair salon.

Alamo Heights lives on in the minds of its residents as the quaint village it always was.  It's a rather strange reality here.

But, to be totally honest, I love it.


Sunday, October 30, 2011


Well, I never thought I would say this, but I love Walmart.

We went to a relatively new Walmart in Alamo Heights, and it was wonderful.  (There will be another post on Alamo Heights, the urban enclave where my friend Sarah lives.) 

Perhaps this is still reverse culture shock, but their groceries were fabulous - fresh strawberries bursting with flavor, gourmet bread, tremendous variety.  One-stop shopping for everything you need.  I guess I'm still recoiling from not being able to walk into a store in Panamá and find everything on the shopping list.

Yes, Walmart has oppressive practices such as driving Mom-and-Pop businesses out of small towns and discriminating against women in their employee practices.  But hey, this is the Land of Plenty, the Home of the Brave and the Free, the Culmination of Capitalism in All Its Glory.

So now I'm faced with a moral dilemma - shall I shop at Walmart and save money, or do I seek out those vendors with the most ethical corporate practices?  Or is "Ethical Corporate Practice" an oxymoron now?

On the other hand, my old retail friend Target still gives five percent of its income to community services and now has similar fresh groceries, so perhaps I'll remain loyal to my formerly favorite big box store.

Needs more research.  Oh, the complexities of capitalism.  It was so much simpler living in Panamá where the choices are so few.

In the meantime, I have closed out my Bank of America accounts and transferred to a large local credit union in anticipation of November 5 Bank Transfer Day:

Guy Fawkes Mask
Symbol of the 99%

(Guy Fawkes led a rebellion against the British government on November 5,  1605.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


After much hassle from American Airlines about flying my two mini-wienies together in one box as checked baggage, we arrived safely in Miami on Wednesday morning.  There was another four-hour delay to get the rental car, we made it to our friends' house in Coral Springs to spend the night.  (Note:  rental car agencies don't accept cash, which I thought was legal tender in the US of A.)

Then on Thursday, October 20, we were on the road for the two-day drive to San Antonio, up Florida's Turnpike to I-10, and then straight across I-10 to our destination.

Here are some impressions from the drive:

  • Florida's highways are amazing.  No potholes, totally clean, perfect condition.  This was my first culture shock, after learning to drive carefully and changing the steering every day to avoid the continually forming potholes in Panama.
  • Other infrastructure is so impressive to be overwhelming (see pictures of highway interchange in Houston below).
  • Billboards on I-10 are now two-sided, so drivers can see them on both sides of the road coming and going.  I tried to get a picture of one stretch on I-10 in Florida where there were constant billboards on both sides of the road, along with one 18-wheeler after another, all as far as the eye could see.  I can accept the 18-wheelers (which by the way don't seem to speed anymore), but the billboards are sheer ugliness and a visual blight on the landscape.
  • I-10 was thoughtfully designed in the rural areas with buffers of trees along both sides and, where possible, in the median.  These trees not only help to purify the air from the vehicular emissions, but also hide whatever ugliness might be behind.  The trees also block the sunlight at low angles and oncoming headlights at night.  Kudos to whoever thought of leaving those strips of trees.  Now if we could just get rid of those billboards...
  • It takes a long time to get out of Florida when you're coming all the way up from Miami and then all the way across the panhandle.  After driving 12 hours we made it as far as West Mobile, Alabama to the Motel 6.  I had printed out maps and phone numbers of all the Motel 6's along the route and had called ahead to the one in Mobile to hold a room on the ground floor once I knew we would make it that far.
  • Motel 6 is not just your family-friendly place anymore.  Maybe it never was.  This particular one seemed to be filled with construction workers staying there long-term and one poor woman who was so high on drugs she could hardly function.  She seemed to know the desk clerk well.  I guessed she was a regular guest there, working as a Woman of the Night to support her drug habit.  Sad.
  • I saw billboards advertising programs to clean people up from methamphetamine addiction.  Evidently the meth problem is not going away in the South.  Sad.
  • There is a beautiful old wooden bridge partly fallen into the water in the Pearl River basin at mile mark 133 on I-10 in Louisiana, just north of the highway.  Didn't get to stop to take a picture of it, but will someday.
About midway in the second day we crossed the state line into Texas.  Here are the dogs and I by the new iron Texas state markers at the visitor's information center.  We are all happy to be here!

The state has done away with the old limestone markers.  Too bad.  I think they had way more class than the new iron ones.

Here are two more welcome signs seen along the highway:

As the day wore on we arrived in Houston.  I had lived in Houston for several years, so could thread my way through the downtown expressways to get through town heading west:
Houston skyline - pretty much unchanged.
(Note:  Taking picures while driving in freeway traffic is probably not a good idea.)
Again the extent and the newness of the infrastructure were impressive.  Here is a relatively new highway interchange on the west side:

Lots of concrete

Some of the new architecture is underwhelming:

What were they thinking when they built this monstrosity?

The countryside was greener than I had expected from a recent rain in the all-time record drought.  We passed through familiar scenes, including my all-time favorite, Woman Hollering Creek.  This most interesting name apparently comes from the famous legend of La Llorona in Mexico and the US Southwest.  It seems that the ghost of a single mother who drowned her baby in the creek haunts the area with her mournful cries.

After what seemed like an eternity we finally saw the skyline of San Antonio:
First view of San Antonio - welcome home

The route took us through downtown past the Alamodome, home of the San Antonio Spurs:
The Alamodome - not the "Cesar Chavez Alamodome" as the roadsigns imply
We reached our destination - my friend Sarah's house - about dark.  Sarah and I went out for Tex-Mex food.  

All is well with the world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


After much thought and planning, I'm leaving today with my three dogs to go back to the States for an extended visit. I expect this to be on the order of three to four months.

So these posts will morph for a while into how this Gringa will be dealing the with culture and sticker shock of being back in the States. Should be interesting.  I'll be in San Antonio, Texas - my home town and still my most favorite city in the world.

Those few of you who are my faithful readers know that I've been homesick for a while.  I think this is normal to some extent for any ex-pat.  My homesickness, however, was profound.  Need to get it out of my system.

If all goes well, I'll be back in Boquete in January - February, and will be able to go back to San Antonio - or wherever I want - once or twice a year.

The rain here is almost daily for several hours. So far today, and for most of last night, it is a gentle one - the famous Bajareque mist.  I don't mind the rain at all.  It is relaxing and makes the green beauty in the surrounding hills.

But the all-pervasive mold is something else again.  When I return I will crank up the dehumidifier and likely get one for every room.  This, I have found, is the secret of living here in the rainy season.

Wish me luck in flying the dogs out.  Hopefully American airlines will allow the two mini-wienies to go together in one kennel, as they did coming down. I'm armed with a print-out of the IATA regulations saying this is permissable. We have all the supposed necessary documentation to get back into the US:  current original rabies certificates showing vaccination within the past year, and a Certificate of Health signed by the veterinarian for each dog, which must be within the past ten days.  We went to the vet yesterday, the latest possible moment, just in case we can't fly out to Miami because of heat or flooding in Florida.

Today we're flying from David to Panama City for our 7:00 am flight tomorrow morning.  My man-on-the-ground in Panama City will take us to Tocumen and go into the airport with me to bribe the ticket agent if necessary.

Hey, this IS Central America, after all!

Funny, I am already missing Boquete even though I'm not gone yet!

See you soon,