Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eight Months and Eighteen Days

In July of 2006, we traded our time-share condo for one in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive west of New York City. It was a pretty rural area, but there was a large condo development there, which is used by skiers in the wintertime. In the summer, the place is pretty dead (which suited us just fine).

Just before we left, my can of shaving cream ran empty, so I got on the plane without any, figuring I could certainly buy more of my preferred brand. I figured wrong.

The ski resort had a gift shop, but didn’t sell toiletries. I was directed to a small General Store about a half-mile away. The General Store was classic Americana, selling everything from ammunition to kitchen utensils. There was an ice-cream parlor inside, and a tiny deli if you wanted a sandwich. All of it was crammed into an area about the size of a living-room/dining-room combination.


So while they had lots of stuff, the selections were limited. In fact, they only carried one brand of shaving cream, in one size: Barbasol. I don’t use Barbasol, I use one of those newer, high-tech gel shaving creams. Barbasol is the product of a different era, packaged in a bulky, gaudy can.


I had to buy this grotesque symbol of bygone days, and used it during the trip. I felt foolish using it, because it’s a foam-type cream, and every morning, I had to look at myself in the mirror, wearing a ridiculous foamy white Santa-Clause beard before shaving. I couldn’t wait for it to run out, so that I could go back to my regular brand.

But it kept producing shaving cream. Month after month went by. Being thrifty, I refused to throw it away. I developed a peculiar relationship with the can, wishing it were gone, but respectful of its relentless, consistent presence in my life. The nearest thing I can compare it to would be a prison cellmate. Not friends, not enemies, but accommodating due to circumstances beyond my control.

Today the can of Barbasol finally delivered its last sputtering gasps, producing a final, bubbly dollop of shaving cream before expiring, eight months and eighteen days after purchase. I’m lucky if I get three months out of my regular brand.

I guess it’s a testament to a time when competing in the marketplace meant giving customers more for their money than your competitors. Today, the mantra seems to be “Give them less but make them want it more.” Advertising is all image and sizzle, hot girls, fast cars and popularity. Barbasol plods along, trailing the pack by a large margin, offering nothing more than economy. Maybe more people would buy it if they realized that by saving money buying products like Barbasol, they could afford that jet-set lifestyle that advertisers are trying to sell.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Famous Mystery Heart Patient

On our last day in Panama, we drove up to El Valle, a small town in the mountains of Panama. El Valle has become a weekend retreat for lots of city dwellers, because it’s much cooler than Panama City in the summertime.

We drove along a twisty mountain road, occasionally stopping when we saw interesting handicrafts, such as this bamboo helicopter. I can’t imagine anyone actually buying such a thing.


The mountain scenery was really beautiful, although everything looks parched at this time of the year. In the summer, these hills are lush and green. Unfortunately, a thin haze obscured the views, because during the Dry season, people cut back brush and burn it.




On the way, we came upon this bus, which calls itself the “Expresso del Amor” (The Love Bus). We puzzled over what must go on in there.


In El Valle, we shopped for souvenirs. Although tempted, I didn’t buy a Panama hat. The primary reason is that I think they look awful. But who knows – maybe in a hundred years, people will look at photographs of me wearing a baseball cap and wonder how I could wear such a stupid-looking thing on my head.


On the way home, my wife was lamenting that we didn’t have time for her to buy one of her favorite Panamanian treats, called a “bollo.” This is a pulpy concoction of corn and sweetened condensed milk, wrapped in a corn husk and cooked. They’re sold by street vendors, but we hadn’t seen one. No sooner had she expressed her dismay when we saw a sign for a restaurant by the side of the road called “BOLLOS.” We pulled in and discovered that they only sell bollos and empanadas. In fact, they had about 6 different kinds of bollos, so we bought one of each.


Outside the restaurant was a guy selling lottery tickets. This is a common sight in Panama, where the lottery commission pre-prints the tickets, and you have to shop for a number you like. Poor people buy lots of them at a discount and display them arrayed on card tables in public places.


Once we got home, we flopped in front of the TV and my daughter and I tuned to our favorite channel. You can get a lot of TV channels in Panama, some in English, some in Spanish, some in English with Spanish subtitles. But our favorite was this channel:


There’s no sound, just this oscilloscope image that jiggled and twitched to some unseen input. My daughter speculated, “Maybe some famous guy is sick and in the hospital, and they broadcast his heart monitor so people can check on him.” We left without ever finding out what it really was.

A lot of Panama is like that – bamboo helicopters, the Expresso del Amor, and the Heart Monitor Channel. Don’t try to figure it out, just go with the flow.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Invisible Monkeys

We took a drive across the “Transistmica” highway (so named because it crosses the Isthmus of Panama from Panama City on the Pacific coast in the south to the city of Colon on Caribbean Sea to the north). Panama City is a bustling metropolis, but Colon is a small hellhole of poverty. Colon is also the location of the Free Zone, where goods are offloaded from ships, sold in huge wholesale lots to distributors from all over the world, and then reloaded onto ships heading for those ports. This is accomplished without paying Panamanian import duty on the merchandise, which must remain within the confines of the Free Zone. Because so much commerce takes place in the Free Zone, merchants from Panama have established trading offices there.

Unfortunately, Colon is an armpit of a city, so all of the merchants live in Panama City. Every day, they drive across the country (about an hour and a half) to Colon where they work. Many of my wife’s relatives make this trip every day. Most of them have drivers so they can nap or make phone calls during the ride.

You would think that with so much money involved in Free Zone trade, Panama would have constructed a modern, multi-lane highway from Panama City to Colon. You’d be half right. As you leave Panama City, the road is wide, smooth and fast. After about half an hour, it deteriorates into a shoddy, two-lane road full of potholes and stray dogs, which merchants negotiate in their sparkling Mercedes sedans every day.

Several people told me that within two years, the wide, smooth highway would be extended the full way to Colon. But one of my wife’s cousins told me that he’s been hearing such stories for 40 years, and nothing ever gets done.

On the way, we stopped at a small “kiosko” and bought “pipas frias.” These are green coconuts that are kept in a cooler. For about 50 cents, a guy will hack away at it with a machete until he exposes a small hole, providing access to the coconut water inside. You stick a straw in the hole, and it’s a delicious treat.


We avoided Colon and headed to the Gatun locks of the Panama Canal. There is a small one-lane drawbridge that folds down, enabling cars to cross the canal at sea level when there are no ships coming through. Our car approached a small guard hut, and a traffic signal indicated how long we would have to wait. When the signal changed to green, we drove across. Here you see a huge cruise ship in the lock, waiting to transit to the Caribbean:


As we drove across the bridge, we could see the ancient, leaky lock doors, holding back millions of gallons of water and the giant cruise ship.


I wondered if I would even have time to think, “Holy shit!” if the doors suddenly burst open, throwing the cruise ship on top of our car.

We continued through Fort Sherman, which is an abandoned U.S. military base. For some inexplicable reason, the Panamanian government has allowed this base to sit empty since 2000, even through it has large functional buildings already constructed, sitting on gorgeous white sand beaches.

We continued along the coast until we came to a dirt road that would take us to Fort San Lorenzo, a fort that was built by the Spanish in the 1570’s and sits on a promontory defending the mouth of the Chagres River. The road runs through thick jungle, and you have to be careful because there are sometimes deep ruts and washout areas. At one point, a coatamundi (a Central American version of a raccoon) crossed the road, but too quickly for a picture. For years, I’ve wanted to see one thing in my lifetime: wild monkeys in the trees. But the raccoon was the only animal we saw that day.


We had visited the ruins about 20 years ago, and they were overgrown with thick jungle vegetation. It has all been cleared away, and the fort offers spectacular views of the Caribbean and the mouth of the Chagres.








While having this last picture taken, I could hear howler monkeys hooting and grunting in the jungle across the bay. It was discouraging to know they were so close, but completely hidden from view.

We saw these cool bird nests hanging from a tree outside the fort. This kind of weaver bird is found all over Central America and the Caribbean.


There are signs posted around the fort that give you the story of its history. From what I gather, it was a colossal failure, failing to repel a single siege. It was most notably conquered by Morgan the Pirate, who took boats up the Chagres River and hacked his way through miles of thick jungle to attack and destroy Panama City.

Friday, March 16, 2007

One Night in Hell

I doubt that anyone will contradict me when I say that men and women are different. Sometimes the differences are small and meaningless, providing a kind of interesting spice in the relationship between the sexes. For example, in general, women seem to prefer wine, while men tend to prefer beer. Men don’t dislike wine, but given a choice they gravitate towards the keg rather than the carafe.

However, sometimes the differences are so profound that it would seem that men and women are different species entirely. It’s a miracle that we can produce offspring.

Last night, my wife announced that she and her friend Jody wanted to “go out” and see some “night life.” I’ve been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and I can tell you that those words send a chill down my spine. Norberto and I were taken to a place that I can only describe as hell on earth.

It was a dinner club called “Tinajas,” consisting of a large dining room with a stage at one end. Tables were crammed into this space in such numbers that the waiters had to dance along sideways, carrying trays of icy drinks and scalding entrees balanced over the heads of the diners.

As we entered, the dinner show was about to start, and there was one table left. Four customers had entered ahead of us, and the hostess was about to seat them. Norberto, thinking quickly, told her that we were from the Disney cruise line, researching tour destinations, and had just raced over from our hotel when we heard about their restaurant. The hostess elbowed the other customers out of the doorway and led us to the last remaining table.

Our waiter was busy fulfilling orders that had been placed by customers who had arrived ahead of us, so we had to wait. During that time, the show started, and I realized what I was in for.

Four musicians came onstage in traditional Panamanian peasant clothing, and began to play. There was an accordion, a guitar, a drum and one of those gourds with the grooves carved in it that is scratched rhythmically. The music was irritatingly repetitive, consisting of two chords, a chord change, then back to the original two chords, over and over and over.

Feeling a sudden, urgent need for beer, I grabbed the waiter as he danced sideways past our table and ordered una cerveza, which took forever to arrive. By the time it did, eight dancers had come on stage – four men and four women. They began performing Panamanian folk dances, which enthralled our wives, but had me counting the fire exits.

The women seemed to do nothing more than hold their skirts out and spin to show off the ornate, colorful costume, then rotate in a large circle, over and over and over. The men would skip and spin and wave their hats in the air, occasionally doing a totally dorky kind of shuffle.

By this time, I was grabbing the waiter at every opportunity, but no matter what I did, the beer just couldn’t get there fast enough. Time had come to a standstill. Eventually, the dinner orders tapered off, and the waiter was able to satisfy my need to numb my senses. When the show ended, I was positively jovial.

So it seems as though beer and wine are the means by which men and women manage to tolerate each other’s differences. It’s a difference that moderates the other differences. Vive la difference.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Raspadero

Our friends Norberto and Jody arrived in Panama last night. They had been on an extended visit to Nicaragua (which Norberto describes as a “cesspool”), Guatemala and Costa Rica. Norberto arrived with a suitcase full of coffee from those countries, and a large cardboard box full of bottles of Coca-Cola, which he collects. He has an entire room in his house devoted to the collection, which occupies floor-to-ceiling shelves. I’ve tried to talk him into collecting stamps or coins, which are much more portable, but he won’t listen. Wherever we go, if he sees a small market, we have to stop so he can look for some hidden gem from one of the local bottling companies.

In the morning, we went to Panama Viejo, which is the ruins of the original settlement of Panama City. It was burned to the ground by Morgan the Pirate, who was looking for treasure. In particular, he wanted to steal the Golden Altar (the altar of a Catholic church that was covered in gold). But the priests concealed it by burying it in mud and ashes. Surprisingly it worked, although the entire city was ransacked and destroyed.





The holes you see in these walls were put there intentionally when the wall was built. Timbers were inserted in the holes, and planks laid across the timbers. Then workmen would use the platform as a scaffold to construct the next level of the wall. Later, the timbers were removed, and the holes plugged with mortar or covered by exterior finishing of the walls.

The city was moved to a more easily defended area called Casco Viejo, and the altar was restored to a newly built church, where it resides to this day.


After touring the ruins with a friendly police officer, we drove to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal and had a meal in a first-class restaurant overlooking the locks. A large table nearby was occupied by members of the Panamanian legislature and several officials from the People’s Republic of China, all huddled in a meeting that could be bad news for the USA.

When we finished lunch, we went out on the observation platform and watched the slow, carefully synchronized water ballet as a ship was herded into the locks for transit to the Pacific.




We hopped back in the car and headed down to Casco Viejo, only getting lost in dangerous slums about 5 times. Eventually, we found the Golden Altar and the Plaza de Francia, which marks the site of the rebuilt city. It's an area that used to be a frightening slum, but is undergoing a gradual gentrification. It's full of charming little shops, beautifully-restored villas, and an occasional whorehouse.



It was a brutally hot day, so we stopped a “raspadero” who made snow-cones (raspados) for us using a weird planing tool to shave ice right off a block. Norberto tried it and failed. The raspadero pours sweet cream over the top of the snow-cone, which gives it a delicious creamy taste.



Afterwards, we negotiated the dangerous slums again, only getting lost 3 times, until we found Avenida Balboa, which led us back to the hotel. We were more or less outraged to discover that they close the swimming pool at 5 p.m., so I had to content myself with a cold shower. Unfortunately, I forgot one important fact about Panama: they don’t have cold water here. The coldest it gets is around 86 degrees, which is just cool enough to wash off the sweat, but not nearly as refreshing as a raspado.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Drugs by Room Service

Last night, I was in such agony from my stupid back injury that we called Ellie, one of my wife’s cousins who is also a doctor. My wife explained the situation to him and within 15 minutes, he showed up at our hotel room door with boxes of pills. He produced a pain reliever and a muscle relaxer, and told me that I should take two of the pain relievers immediately, and the muscle relaxer in six hours. Then he said, “You should also apply a medicated cream to your lower back. I’ll go get it for you.” And he left.

Within 10 minutes, he was back with the medicated cream. After a few instructions, he left. No charge. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think an American doctor would have provided this kind of service, even if he was a member of the family.

I took the pain reliever, and within a half-hour, it put me into a deep sleep equivalent to being hit on the head with a large, blunt object. During this time, my wife contacted one of her cousins, who sent over her 17-year old son. He picked up my daughter and drove her around the city, showing her the sights. Had I been conscious, I would have had serious misgivings about sending my daughter out in a foreign city with a kid I don’t know.

My wife was concerned about sleeping in the same bed with me, afraid her movements might cause me pain. So she got into bed with my daughter. I came out of my stupor briefly at about 2:00 A.M., and noticed that my wife was not in bed with me. My head was swimming with the pain medication, but I had just enough time to wonder if she had been abducted by armed men before I blacked out again.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt 100% better, but I still had not taken the muscle relaxer. I was woozy and unsteady from the pain reliever, a feeling that lasted almost all day. Needless to say, I didn’t take any more of it.

When my wife packs for a trip, she starts 2 weeks before departure, constantly reevaluating her packing job. When I pack, I do it the night before. I always forget something, and she never lets me forget it. For some reason, on this trip I forgot to bring pants. I brought the pair I’m wearing, but that’s it. After enduring some hostile “I told you so’s,” we went out to buy some cheap pants at a local shopping center. In Panama, they only sell pants by waist measurement; they’re all the same length. You must find a seamstress and have them altered, even blue jeans. This proved to be too much of a hurdle, so I’m just going to wear the same jeans all week.

The Nearly Fatal Haircut

Yesterday we got together with members of my wife’s huge, extended family. My wife’s mother was one of five sisters. Two of the five sisters remain in Panama, two live in Florida, and the eldest, who lived in Panama, passed away several years ago. Each sister was obligated by Jewish tradition to name their eldest daughter after their mother. Thus, there are 5 cousins, all with the same name, and my wife is one of them.

We visited the home of one of the other women with my wife's name, where a huge group consisting of her mother (Blanca, my wife‘s aunt), her sister, her children, and her children’s children showed up for a massive luncheon, conducted in nonstop Spanglish. I thought my daughter’s head would explode.

After lunch, we went out to a local mall where Panamanians go to shop. My wife bought my daughter 15 pairs of underwear at about 50 cents apiece, constantly lamenting that she had to spend $7.50 for one pair in Florida. Shoes were 5 bucks a pair. Tank tops were a dollar. It was crazy, and my wife and daughter went into a shopping trance.

I went out to the mall area and sat on a bench, watching the tide of humanity pass. Panama is home to many diverse ethnic groups. Native Indians, Spanish, Africans, East Indians, Jewish, and Chinese, who were imported as labor to dig the Panama Canal. They’ve been interbreeding for generations, and have produced some incredibly beautiful offspring. But of course, this kind of unregulated genetic breeding experimentation has also resulted in some unfortunate accidents, and they were all there at the mall.

The next day, we went to the home of Corina (the other Panamanian aunt), where we were joined by hordes of family members from that branch of the tree, including another cousin with my wife's name, all conversing in a kind of furious intensity. You have to be careful what you say, because if you promise to call someone the next day, they will order food and you will be expected to accept an invitation to come over if you place the call. Forget to call, and commit an unforgivable insult.

While we were there, two of my wife’s cousins began talking about the deaths of family members. One had lost her husband, the other lost her father, all within the past couple of years. They recounted the events in detail. The first woman said her husband had died on Father’s day, in his sleep. I was thinking that there are worse ways to go. The other woman described how her father had died laughing, in the middle of a joke. Once again, it seemed that there must be worse ways to go.

While at Corina’s, I leaned over to pick up our camera and felt something in my lower back go “SPROING,” followed by intense pain. I tried to cover it up during the visit, but by the time we got back to the hotel, I was in agony. This has happened before, and the usual solution is muscle relaxers and a couple of days of doing nothing. But we’re on vacation, and that wasn’t going to be an option. My wife gave me two muscle relaxers and a tablet of Oxycodone that she keeps around for just such emergencies, but they barely touched the problem.

That evening, we went out to a shopping area. I limped painfully along, trying to keep up, but I was in agony. Eventually we came to a beauty salon. My wife and daughter both claimed to “need” manicures, so we went in. Gay men bustled around, attending to the clientele. While my wife and daughter were getting their nails done, my wife suggested that I might consider a haircut. So I asked for “una corta de pelo” and the woman at the desk sent me over to a chair, where a stunningly beautiful Panamanian woman was waiting. She was one of those lucky breeding products: tall, beautiful, flawless cafĂ© au lait skin, long, silky black hair, and the kind of body that makes an otherwise healthy man stop breathing. As she cut my hair, she pressed against me briefly, and I think my heart stopped. I suspect there are worse ways to go. At least the mortician wouldn’t have to cut my hair.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chickens are Stupid in Coronado

We got up fairly early and discovered that there were only two towels in the bathroom shower area. Since my wife and daughter require two towels apiece to take a shower, we were 3 towels short of our family minimum daily adult shower requirement.

As we were preparing to leave, I locked the computer and some other valuables into the safe concealed in a closet in our room. But I noticed that the safe was not bolted to the closet, so any thief could simply walk out with the safe, which weighed no more than an average microwave oven.


At 9:30, the chauffeur arrived at the hotel. His name was Mariano and he spoke no English at all. When we went out to the front of the hotel to meet him, we looked around expectantly and immediately, three cab drivers who were waiting for a fare jumped up to help us to their taxis. Eventually, we separated Mariano from the crowd and he loaded us into a Toyota Land Cruiser for the hour-long drive to the De Castro family beach house in Coronado. The house was owned by my wife’s uncle, who passed away and willed it to his son, Felipe. Felipe has made a tidy living in real estate, and also owns a horse breeding ranch in Coronado.

We saw lots of crowded little subdivisions once we left the city, and the occasional little village perched awkwardly on the sides of unstable-looking hills. My daughter wondered if kids learn early not to wander out of the house in the dark.
I made casual conversation with Mariano in broken Spanish, and he told me that you could buy a middle-class house in the country in Panama for $20,000 - $30,000. But he was unclear on what constituted “middle class.”

The beach house is lovely, with a pool, a tennis court, and a structure called a “bohio,” which is a thatched-roof pavilion with hammocks strung in the shade for the siesta period after lunch.






Before lunch, we were served appetizers. The cook had prepared “mango verde” which is a kind of mango that is served green (unripe). You dip the pieces in salt, and the texture is kind of like a tough apple. The cook also made “empanaditos” with eggplant filling.



For lunch, one of the ranch hands barbecued chicken, which was accompanied by avacado salad, plantains, rice, and something called “kibee” with artichoke hearts. For dessert, they brought out Chilean strawberries the size of baseballs and apricot tarts, which are called “humentoschen” in Jewish culture.

After lunch, everybody took a nap, so we went down onto the beach, which is marbleized mixture of black sand and brown sand. We walked about half a mile to an outcropping of rock covered with tide pools. Tiny fish had been stranded in the tide pools, and darted frantically around, waiting desperately for the next high tide. Ravens danced around the tide pools, picking out the slowest fish.



Mariano drove us to Felipe’s horse ranch, and we wandered along a path while my daughter rode a very tame mare. We came to a tree with a huge termite nest way up in the branches. I began noticing these nests everywhere. Felipe says he doesn’t destroy the nests because he’d rather know where the termites are than send them looking for a new home.



After awhile, we realized it made more sense for my wife to ride the horse, so she mounted up, and we continued on. We saw all kinds of exotic plants: trees with huge melons hanging from them, trees with tiny, olive-like fruits, a tree with bright yellow bark, and a cashew tree. The cashew is not a traditional nut. It grows at the bottom of a pear-shaped, bright red fruit. The cashew is from the same family of plants as poison ivy, and the husk of the nut contains the oil that causes the poison ivy reaction, so you have to be careful. But the fruit is juicy, sweet and slightly astringent.


We passed a corral where the primary stallion is kept. His name is Madrigal, and he made it clear to us that he’s the head honcho around the ranch by charging the fence to scare us away.


Felipe’s son, Itzak, took us to a pen where he keeps rabbits. One of the rabbits darted out of its cage and sprinted around the margin of the enclosure. Realizing it couldn’t get away, it ran to the center of the pen and flattened itself out trying very hard not to look like a well-fed rabbit. It was surprisingly effective. If I looked away, I had trouble finding him again.


When we visited the horse stalls, Itzak discovered an escaped chicken that had hatched its chicks in the corner of a stall. Felipe picked up the hen, intending to move it and the chicks to the chicken coop, and found a large toad nestled in with the chicks. I suppose that toad figured it had found a pretty sweet deal, capitalizing on the inability of the chicken to detect a toad among its own children. Once Felipe lifted off the chicken, it realized the jig was up, and it hopped and flopped frantically out of the stall.