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.