Having lived the better part of three months in Nuestra Casa de las Tortugas (our house of turtles), safe inside our domestic shell and rarely risking to stick our heads outside other than for supplies, the opening of Panama has started to coax us out and discover – poco a poco – the country we have waited nearly a year to enjoy and call home. Make no mistake: the residual impact of COVID Shock continues, Panama is not in the clear, and numbers of positive cases here could at any time start creeping up – or even shooting up – again to have us relapse into lockdown, as Europe and other parts of the world have seen in the newest phase of the pandemic. But since August 23’s 1420 new cases (the third largest number of daily new cases since Panama confirmed its first cases in early March), Panama has averaged a little more than 650 new cases daily with even the few outlier days staying well under 1000 new cases and ongoing active cases staying at a level that does not overwhelm Panama’s health care system. According to medical personnel we know, that consistency comes from Panamanians tending to follow the rules that came with opening up the country again: respect social distancing, wash hands, and wear masks in public. We continue to live cautiously, but with more willingness to venture out into a concrete, tactile, interpersonal world instead of staying cloistered in a virtual one.
Audrey’s big milestone came in mid-October when, for the first time since our arrival in July, she could set foot legally on campus at ISP and start working from her office at school instead of working only from home. She had no problem working virtually from home, and much of what she does from her office at school remains virtual because most people with whom she meets through her packed days do not come to campus to meet. But living across the street from the campus she could not enter made starting this year virtually feel incomplete. Passing by ISP’s entrance on grocery runs to Riba Smith or other necessary outings, the school did not taunt her but did seem sadly empty and forlorn. Just being on campus, creating feng shui to align her office setup and decor with her energy as a school leader and relational personality, she feels more connected personally and more complete in assuming her role as the school’s Director. Some people respond with disbelief when she tells them how happy she is to be in her office until she explains, “Now that I’m in here, I finally feel like I’m really at ISP instead of just in virtual ISP on a flat screen.” Typically she starts her work day hopping into our car to drive all the way across the street to spend the morning working on campus. (To be honest, it would be about two and a half football fields to walk to the gate of our neighborhood, up the main road with no sidewalk, and down ISP’s access road to the school’s entrance, often with a good chance of a Panamanian rainstorm either going or coming back during the walk.) Then she comes home for lunch and continues with virtual meetings through the afternoon from her “home office” that comprises the entirety of our house’s common space. Midday heat provides one big reason for heading home, because she cannot run air conditioning in her office without turning it on for the entire administrative building while much of the space remains empty of people. One day last week when she arrived in her office she discovered a gift left for her by the spouse of one of her coworkers who also spends time on the hot campus without a/c: a necklace bedazzled with two personal fans to blow air on her face while she works. Together with the portable fan she brought from home when she started working in her office a few weeks ago blowing on her feet, this makes enduring the hot and humid office more bearable. That notwithstanding, she remains overjoyed to steep in ISPness while on campus, and looks forward to completing the experience by eventually welcoming students and staff back to campus…in February…if all goes well and as planned.
Audrey’s big step forward into her office at school pleases Brian as well. While he has revelled in his Sanctum Sanctorum home office upstairs with big windows offering views that stretch across our small neighborhood to the green rainforest-covered hill that backs our cluster of short streets, when Audrey works from home he must default to “silent mode” upon emerging from his office to go anywhere else in the house so as not to disrupt Audrey’s virtual meetings that might happen at her faux desk (née “dining room table” where we push aside her work piles to eat dinner) or in the living room or anywhere else where she paces. (All those who know her know that tile makes much better flooring for Audrey so that she cannot wear it down with a pacing path like befalls a carpeted floor under her tread.)
Brian’s new sabbatical life also has allowed for stepping out more broadly than Audrey’s expedition across the street to her office. Two weeks ago he sallied forth into the rainforest and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center with new friend Martin Arias. Brian’s longtime friends Karen Fernandez Nagy in Los Angeles and Bob Castro in Cyprus both recommended separately that he connect with Martin, their Georgetown classmate, knowing through the “transitive property of friendship” that Brian and Martin would enjoy each other’s company. Brian met up with Martin and family in a parking lot in Santa Maria then followed their vehicle 45 minutes out from Panama City, northwest along Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera as it parallels the Panama Canal, past Gamboa, and further along as the road switched from asphalt to dirt and narrowed with rainforest vegetation closing in. At several points before and after Gamboa they encountered slow traffic accommodating flocks of bikers on the two-lane road for some bicycling event. Then, happily, they could continue to their destination fitting under the social distancing limit on how many cars can go to the PRDC’s entrance. The trails make for mini-hikes that reveal much rainforest flora and fauna beauty, especially when climbing the 174 steps of the Observation Tower to pierce the rainforest’s canopy 100+ feet in the air. Elsewhere on the trail they went from observers to observed as at least six or eight Capuchin monkeys came swinging through the branches above them to check out the bipeds on the ground below. The way back to Panamá City included pulling off the road to wait out a torrential downpour, then a stop at the French Cemetery, a quiet piece of history from the 1880s, where rest some of the 20,000+ who died in France’s failed effort to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific. Sadly, nearly all the rows of graves climbing up the hillside are marked not with names, but only numbers – perhaps a consequence of the rapid deaths and interments that happened due to scourges of yellow fever and malaria during the French effort.
Brian also has explored downtown, sometimes for specified purposes and sometimes just to get familiar with the city. One of Audrey’s coworkers says it does not take long to realize that Panama is really a relatively small town, but Brian’s codicil to that epiphany states that such a realization does not make it any easier to learn how to get from Point A to Point B with narrow, twisty-turny, one-way streets. Last weekend Brian marked the first Sunday with the lockdown lifted fully to allow reconnoitring by driving downtown to see what stores with “to buy” items on his shopping list would be open. Channeling his inner 15th Century Portuguese navigator, he made it to San Francisco on Panama’s west end and Costa del Este on Panama’s east end to find, serially, that every place he wanted to stop was closed. But the drive treated him to snaking past grand old homes that look like they have housed Panama’s elite for many decades; next to the Jardin de Paz, a peaceful cemetery of open green space (best guess from Google Maps around 75 acres) surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city; and various neighborhoods. Then yesterday we both headed back downtown to buy a long-awaited grill at the Original Weber Store (because Audrey has waited five months for Brian to reacquire grilling ability since we left our apartment in Casablanca) and Felipe Motta Wine Shop (because we need good wine to go with the dinner that will celebrate finally getting a grill) and Pretelt Gourmet Meats (because we need well-marbled beef to sear on the grill) and Hermanos Gago Casa del Jamon (because…well…because they have Smithfield hams and beautiful pork chops and more). We emerged well and had a good day.
But as Brian’s main emerging activity, he has met Panama opening up as an invitation to start walking through the area around our neighborhood, wearing nearly 30 miles off the soles of his hiking shoes in the last three weeks. Despite a fair bit of construction underway in the area, our neighborhood remains remote enough to have lots of green with a mix of rainforest plants and trees and grasses reaching more than 10 feet high all stretching over the hills around us. In addition to walking the area streets, he frequently heads into the Club de Golf de Panama to walk without worrying about dodging cars. As Panama launches into November and the season of independence days (yes, plural; the country celebrates more than one this month), he finds bunting in national red-white-blue colors all over – from buildings downtown to the gates of Club de Golf de Panama to the guardhouse of our neighborhood. (More on this in an upcoming post.) On his first walk outside our La Montanesa neighborhood, he crossed paths with an older, rail-thin man also out for a walk. They stopped to greet each other, masks securely in place. They traded enough words all in Spanish for Brian to know that the gentleman started walking all the time to lose weight, hoisting his spacious pants to show how they clung loosely to his waist only because he cinched his belt tightly. Brian told him, “Ahora necesita ir a compras para comprar pantalones nuevos!” (Now you have to go shopping to buy new pants!) He really must walk all the time, because since then Brian has seen the ubiquitous walker every time he has gone out to walk, regardless of whether at 7:00am or 4:30pm or some time in between. When he walked yesterday they stopped for a longer conversation when they saw each other. Brian’s part of the conversation consisted of a few carefully constructed sentences formulated while trying to process the long monologues his walking friend delivered. Sometimes Brian’s Kindergarten-level Spanish comes out rather easily, but interlocuting with this gentleman becomes more like speaking Spanish while trying to tie a maraschino cherry stem in a knot with his tongue. Poco a poco. Yesterday’s conversation went from his asking Brian – in Brian’s quest to get back into shape after four years of physical inattention in Morocco – if amid his health push he drinks beer or whiskey. Brian told him he cannot drink beer because of an allergy, but he enjoys whiskey (particularly bourbon). Then, encouraging Brian’s healthy walking habit, the gentleman asked, “¿Bebe ron?” (Do you drink rum?) and said, “La cerveza es mala, pero ron te hace más fuerte.” (Beer is bad, but rum makes you stronger!) Conversation then worked around to our having come to Panama from Morocco and one of our daughters still living there with her husband and our new grandson. This led to a very non-American conversation about whether Grandson Adam’s skin color was white or brown, which of course led to Brian’s first opportunity to pull out his phone proudly and show someone a picture of his grandson. Upon seeing the photo, the walking friend smiled, then grabbed his own cheeks in big pinches to squeeze them and show his admiration for the pudgy cushions on Adam’s three-month-old face.
We remain in an early phase of our re-emergence from our COVID lives, and we know well that numbers going up again could send us back into lockdown and take away the gains we now enjoy; but, for now, we are pleased that our re-emergence from our COVID lives and our emergence into life in Panama has begun.
On your mark, get set, here we go!