February 2020: Leap Year Changed from Adding a Day to Losing a Year

As Facebook is wont to do, on Monday it shared “Facebook Memories” with each of us from one year ago.  What the algorithmic gods of Facebook offered to each of us differed significantly within the context of the snapshots that popped up on our feeds.  Yet, the different photo memories actually connected to a specific point in time, and together they point to a starkly common deduction:  the meaning of Leap Year changed from adding one day at the end of February to leaping through a year of our lives in what feels like a blink.

Brian’s Facebook photo memory marked exactly one year ago when he started GWA’s 2020 Winter Break by taking an Air France flight from hometown Casablanca to Paris and on to Prague for a week spent with college friends Nic and Lyle.  Based in Prague, they toured the city from top to bottom; took day-trips northwest to Terezín to pay respects to victims of the Nazi concentration camp there and east to Čelákovice to see the delightful town with the Elbe River wrapping gracefully around its north side just a block from the house where Lyle lives with his family; and savored deep conversation on illimitable topics at all hours, just as they had more than 30 years prior in their undergraduate days at Claremont McKenna College.  Traveling solely on public buses, subways, trams, and trains, Brian applied his early global awareness of COVID-19 developments in areas around Asia and other hotspots like the United Kingdom, Iran, and Italy.  He heeded his germaphobic tendencies (before germaphobic tendencies became cool) by avoiding direct contact with buttons, handrails, doorknobs, and the like as much as possible, and steering himself into as much open terrain (the precursor to what the world has come to know as “social distancing”) in enclosed spaces as he could find.  Otherwise, COVID-19 was more a topic included in their deep conversations as they pondered epochal trends in human history, politics, science, philosophy, and theology.  (Yes, their wives were happy to have them away for a week.)

Meanwhile, Audrey’s Facebook photo memory marked her start of GWA’s 2020 Winter Break – and her break from the culinary limitations of Brian’s shellfish allergy – with a commemoration of her cooking multiple seafood extravaganzas in a week split between Casablanca Staycation and a few days of time luxuriating with Charlotte an hour south in El Jadida at the elegant Mazagan Resort.  [Reflecting back to this, our stateside chef-daughter Margaret offered, “I remember Mom calling me all excited a year ago just to let me know that she was going to cook seafood every day.”  Meanwhile, Charlotte-in-Morocco reposted pictures of her mother-daughter Mazagan escape with a note that said, “I miss my mommy (and pops).  Can this pandemic end so I can see them again and so they can meet their grandson?”]

We both loved how we spent our vacation time, and we loved coming back together at the end of it on the quadrennial Leap Year day of February 29 to share with each other our respective details of the week.

And then the world changed.

Rather than enjoy a final 24 hours of relaxation before putting on our school leader hats, we spent the last day of the Winter Break strategizing with the rest of GWA’s crisis management team in the school’s Board Room over the sudden seeming inevitability that at some point soon the growing pandemic would force us to close on-campus operations.  Little did we know how soon that actually would come (not even two weeks later, as detailed in a March 2020 posting, https://expatexpedition.com/2020/03/22/dealing-with-pandemics-covid-19-comes-to-morocco/).  In mid-February we had shared our observations about how all the development around us during our Moroccan tenure was captured in seeing 48 construction cranes along just one short span of road by our apartment.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/02/12/the-changing-landscape-craning-for-a-view-in-casablanca/)  Just weeks later, that development came to a screeching halt as the totality of our personal and professional routines derailed.

Yet, at the same time, running off the tracks did not mean life stopped.  It continued, but it changed into something both much more simple and much more complicated.  The many ways in which life seemed to slow or stop from the pandemic – living inside, no social interaction, no changes of scenery, everything “outside” coming into our lives through two-dimensional rectangular views on the screens of digital devices, and no physical contact with people outside one’s bubble (a particularly difficult accommodation in Morocco where handshakes and hugs and bizous occurred too many times a day to count) – were counterbalanced by how other things in life seemed to speed up, strike with more immediacy and randomness, and require much more energy and concentration to manage them.  The more each day felt like the day before and people had to remind themselves not to put on the same clothes, the more we pushed forward to define unknown territory and forge a path through “life goes on” for all the good and bad that meant.

Like everyone, we did a lot of unimportant things.  We have logged more Netflix and Amazon Prime time than we ever could have imagined possible.  We have repeated the same conversations multiple times before remembering that we have had them already.  We have become experts in Zoom and other face-to-face digital communication platforms.  We have played more Cribbage in a year than perhaps either of us did in our lives up to the pandemic’s start.

We also did some very important unimportant things.  Chief among them:  spending time not only with each other but also with our daughter and son-in-law who moved in with us from the start of Casablanca’s lockdown until the start of Ramadan when Charlotte and Zak went back to his family’s house for the holy month.  We have not merely survived the pandemic together, we feel blessed that our relationship stands stronger now because of our time together during the pandemic.

And, as much as we often feel like the “unimportant” and “very important unimportant” have governed our last 12 months, we also feel like we have done some “very important important” things.  We worked with a great team to keep a school running successfully throughout the most challenging semester of our education careers, then continued working with them to plan – as best could be done amid government and public health circumstances that changed constantly – to structure the upcoming school year there even though we would move from Morocco to Panama before the school year began.  We gave our daughter a baby shower in as socially-distanced conditions as we could create.  We packed up our home and shipped it across the Atlantic, then navigated our own relocation with the assistance of incredible people in the U.S. Department of State in a process that took weeks instead of days.  We set up our new home in Panama and started adjusting to our new life here, with Audrey assuming leadership of a school as the new Director in unparalleled virtual conditions and Brian setting up his new routine that does not include going to an office or classroom for the first time in a long while.  It helps to remind each other of what we HAVE accomplished along with all that we have not in this year.

Reflecting on this year leaves us processing the incongruent pieces of one reality that in the time we blinked through a year we worked very hard to do some important things and, when we escaped having to do important things, we worked very hard at not doing much of anything.  As a result, a year after we slipped into the vortex that took us from the world we knew into a new (still developing) world, we feel tired.

Not like “new parent” tired, when weeks after bringing a baby home from the hospital we celebrated getting the first four-hour stretch of sleep.

Not like “frontline healthcare worker” tired, when the superhero nurses and doctors of the world (including those in our extended family) doubled down on their exhaustion after seemingly endless stretches of days trying to save COVID-19 patients (or just to comfort them as they died alone and without family in hospital isolation).

Not like “dinosaur” tired, when a meteor crashed into the planet, bringing a cataclysmic end to the Mesazoic Era and the big lizards worked hard but unsuccessfully to adapt.  But kind of like that, to a much lesser degree of planetary cataclysm.  Perhaps like the tired we expect people felt…well…a century ago when people trudged forward through the Spanish Flu pandemic that transitioned society from WWI’s end to the start of a very different era in the Roaring 20s a couple years later.

Future anthropologists will look at this time period following February 2020 like a societal fault break recorded in the bedrock of our sociological history.  Perhaps the suddenness and austerity of the break, like a societal earthquake, will make us more nostalgic about “back then” than we otherwise might have become.  Perhaps we will feel less tired as the pieces of what comes next settle more clearly into place and we feel more confident…more secure and safe as we keep stepping forward…in how we can adapt with less timidity and in more long-term ways to the “new normal” and the “new new normal” people have cited repeatedly for a year.

For now, we choose to appreciate our recollections of the very good week we had a year ago, leaving what came next for a different consideration.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Super Bowl Sunday in Panama: Life with a VPN

More than a decade ago we welcomed Emma into our family.  Emma came to us as an au pair from a German family living in the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.  She brought her zest for life and for expanding her international experience into our house.  She joined our daughters and Brian in Tang Soo Do martial arts training.  She had high tea at the Empress Hotel with our family in Victoria, British Columbia.  She helped us move Audrey and girls to Louisiana when they headed south from Ohio a year before Brian could leave his school turn-around project in Cleveland, enjoying an alligator-watching pontoon boat tour of the Atchafalaya Swamp and attending an outdoor Fourth of July celebration in Lafayette that featured a teenage Hunter Hayes (from neighboring Breaux Bridge just before his first headliner national tour) on stage and fireworks in the sky.  And she learned about the Super Bowl.

More to the point, she learned that Americans participate actively in Super Bowl Sunday by eating and drinking with abandon in grand celebrations. Wanting to understand this American phenomenon better, she asked what goes on a Super Bowl menu. “Basically, crap,” Brian told her as he prepared to shop for supplies. She asked to come along on the shopping escapade, and said proudly to Audrey, “We’re going to buy CRAP!” And so they did, clearing out the freezer section of Giant Eagle grocery store in Rocky River, Ohio. When they returned home, Emma announced their arrival to the house with even greater pride, “WE BOUGHT CRAP!!!

While we do not claim to be football fanatics, we both have always enjoyed a good game.  Audrey’s grandparents bought season tickets for the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Football Team) starting in 1975 when her grandfather retired as Commandant of the Marine Corps, and in 2003 Audrey inherited the tickets (one of the hottest commodities among NFL fans despite only two playoff appearances since winning the Super Bowl in 1991), which – though we sold or gave away all but a handful of games over the years – on the off chance that we or our kids might someday end up back in the D.C. metropolitan area we kept buying until midway through our tenure in Morocco.  Our girls did not grow up in a house dedicated to football every Sunday, but as a family we did watch our share of televised games over the years, and older daughter Margaret (who played a season of community league ball) is an unapologetic Cheese Head fan of the Green Bay Packers.  Each year we made a big hoo haa about watching the Super Bowl, especially once we moved to Arizona and reunited with a University of Virginia friend of Brian’s and his wife, who had continued the friend’s tradition of annual Super Bowl bashes that began with a bunch of geeky Department of Government & Foreign Affairs graduate students and got classed up by his wife when they got married.

But we enjoyed our last Super Bowl extravaganza in 2016.  Moving multiple time zones ahead to Morocco, some of our expat friends arrived at school on post-Super Bowl Monday exhausted after staying up most of the night to watch the game live.  We liked football; but we loved sleep.

We came late to the world of VPN – virtual private networks.  For the uninitiated, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, “A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network.”  VPNs have existed for quite a while, as businesses use VPN’s to allow remote users, mobile users, and branch offices to operate as if they had connected from inside their business’ private network.  But the commercial use of VPNs has developed as well, letting Internet users connect to proxy servers to hide their IP addresses from the target servers with which they connect (like someone trying to watch Netflix shows available in the U.S. but censored in the country where the viewer resides, as well as other more nefarious purposes).  Preparing to move to Morocco in the spring of 2016, we read often that we would find getting a VPN before heading abroad very handy, especially for buying things and watching video content – movies and t.v. shows – online.  But we decided that we would not have a television in Morocco, and we had what we considered ample access to movies and t.v. shows logging on from Casablanca.  Yes, Brian had to binge-watch The Americans when traveling in Europe or the U.S., because Netflix-Morocco did not carry it.  But in general, because we were not too picky, because when we watched something we tended to watch movies instead of t.v. shows, and because we worked a lot (too much?) instead of coming home to plunk down in front of a television (which, anyway, we did not have), we still did not get a VPN during our four years in Morocco even though many expats we met there really enjoyed having theirs.

In Panama, the lot of household things we bought from our house’s previous residents included three televisions.  But when we ordered cable service from Cable Onda, we stuck only to a generous Internet bandwidth instead of adding t.v. service, and after deliberating again over the VPN questions we again decided we did not need it for our empty nest lifestyle in the tropics.

But a couple weeks ago, after our football loving daughter Margaret (the chef in Phoenix) shared her excitement over streaming NFL playoff games on her phone’s Yahoo Sports app, something started to stir in Audrey.  She decided that, after a four-year hiatus, she really missed watching the Super Bowl and explored getting a VPN that would allow us to stream it by computer onto our two-story “home theater” living room wall.  Brian said, “But even with a VPN we’ll still have to buy Pay-Per-View access to the Super Bowl in order to stream it.”  We together having seven collegiate and graduate degrees, a few intellectual rounds of “Nuh uh!” versus “Uh huh!” ensued between us.  Then, before he knew what had happened, we had spent $100 for 15 months of VPN service and Audrey hopped to action setting it up.  (For the record, Audrey was right; we do not need to purchase additional PPV access to stream the game.  On the other hand, Audrey also surmised that the VPN would give us access to the final season of “Homeland,” which was filmed in Morocco and GWA had some interactions with the cast.  Brian suggested ever so politely that such access would come only by signing up for Showtime, and another intellectual “Nuh uh!” versus “Uh huh!” dialectic ensued until Audrey initiated another solo expedition, then a few minutes later declared a Pyrrhic victory saying that we would not have to pay for it if we initiated a free Showtime trial.  So the score that day was 1:1…or was it 2:0?…not that we have any element of competitiveness in our relationship.  We insert that purely to fit the background context of competition in a post about the Super Bowl.  Really.  No, really…ish.)

So, having committed ourselves to joining folks stateside and expats around the world in watching the Super Bowl tonight, the next step was in planning how to do that.  Since Panama retains its weekend lockdowns, and we remain inclined to avoid avoidable human interactions until we score a couple COVID-19 vaccinations, we knew we would not host a big Super Bowl party…or a small one, for that matter.  We will miss gathering with others on this best/worst of America day.  “Super Bowl, party of two!” sounded good to us.  And what does one do at a Super Bowl party for two people?  Why, of course, we eat CRAP!

So earlier this week Brian cleaned out the freezer section of Riba Smith grocery store three minutes away, texting Audrey from the store, “At RS buying CRAP,” to which Audrey responded, “Yum!  I love CRAP!”  He came home with our freezer bag full of potato skins, Jalapeño poppers (with cheddar, not cream cheese and bacon like one of Brian’s Roosevelt High School classmates posted on Facebook that he’s making today from scratch), ham croquettes, black bean and cheese pupusas, onion rings, with super-deluxe nachos planned as a “main course,” all accompanied by a batch of Brian’s internationally-famous “Brian’s ‘I Think I’d Better Sit Down’ Margaritas.”  Lest one think that two people cannot rightly consume such a load of Crap, we would agree.  The purpose of Super Bowl Crap, though, is not to eat it all, but to have a wide array of Crap available for enjoyment.  Leftover Crap consumption can happen later.  Of course, foodies that we are, we cannot just enjoy Crap.  We feel obligated to make it the best Crap possible.  So, again in the spirit of Super Bowl-inspired competition, we will have a Crap Test Kitchen that compares Crap prepared in the oven versus Crap prepared in the air fryer.  Cue the brass instrument-led fanfare, and let the competition begin!

After not seeing Emma for a decade following the year-and-a-half she spent as a daily part of our family, we were so happy to have Emma join us from her Canary Islands home in Casablanca for the cultural milieu Moroccan wedding of our daughter Charlotte two summers ago.  We wish we could watch the Super Bowl tonight with her, with our girls, and with all sorts of friends.  But thanks to our VPN, at least we will get to watch it on the BIG SCREEN of our Panamanian “home theater” while we think of them all.  Good luck to both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they battle it out tonight.  And good luck also to our gastro-intestinal systems as they do battle as well.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Navigating Panamanian Bureaucracy: Residency Cards, Driver’s Licenses, and the elusive PanaPass

The COVID pandemic slowed our orientation into regular Panamanian life, among other ways, by limiting our exposure to Panamanian bureaucracy. One “must do” item on our task list that has taken months to complete: get Panamanian driver’s licenses. Finally, task completed…at least for one of us…kinda.

In Morocco we lived four years without needing to subject ourselves to the dubious pleasure of obtaining Moroccan driver’s licenses.  Our U.S. licenses were good for one year, but after that we were able to drive legally with international driver’s licenses that we secured online with proof of holding legal licenses in the U.S.  Indeed, getting those prior to moving to Morocco was one of the better preparatory actions we took, because the Moroccan driving bureaucracy offered its licensing test only in French (with the prospect of passing hopeless for Brian and merely unlikely for Audrey) and Arabic (with no chance of passing for either of us).  Many expats count on being able to talk (or bribe) their way out of legal jeopardy if they get stopped on the road past their allowed one year without a Moroccan license.  One person we know even spent a decade living in Morocco without ever taking the test, due less to insufficient French than to her disdain for dealing with bureaucracy if she could avoid it.  Thinking about how we expected foreigners living in America to follow the rules of the road in the U.S., we complied willingly with the easy act of securing the international driver’s licenses, and always encouraged newbies coming to join us at GWA to do the same.

But Panama has a much stricter expectation for foreigners wishing to drive on Panamanian roads.  One has three months to get a Panamanian license, and the clock starts ticking upon arrival even though one cannot actually apply for a license until after securing a temporary residency card.  On the plus side, though, the process does not require taking a written test in Spanish…kinda, again.  Presenting an affidavit from the U.S. Embassy certifying that one holds a legal license to drive in the U.S. suffices for reciprocity to get a Panamanian license.  Sounds simple, right?

If only…especially during a pandemic.

Besides the HAZMAT-like reception we had upon arrival at Tocumen Airport last July, our first experience with bureaucracy in Panama came with efforts to update our car’s electronic PanaPass sticker on the windshield that charges tolls for driving on the Corredor Norte and Corredor Sur toll roads directly to a bank account.  We had a PanaPass on the car, thanks to the previous owner having an account.  But that account went inactive when we got the car, so until we could update the account it has just tallied the accumulating deficit each time we drive through a PanaPass toll booth, along with adding a per-passage penalty for not having a positive account balance.  (At least we learned eventually we can do that.  But not before Brian’s first encounter with a PanaPass toll booth – of course, during a torrential rainstorm with very poor visibility – so he did not know he could go forward without paying electronically on the spot.  As a flexible, creative, full-of-grit 21st Century-skilled expat, he used his Moroccan driving skills to back around nearly a half mile of multi-lane access road with cars sloshing forward around the cloverleaf at high velocity through the rain as he reversed his way back to the main road.  Audrey remains very glad she did not accompany him on that outing.  Brian, each time she states this, merely smiles with raised eyebrows and nods in agreement.)  Our car had four appointments with the PanaPass people from September through December, and each time they had another reason why they could not issue the new PanaPass.  Meanwhile, each time we came to a PanaPass toll booth we had to stop and wait as the bar blocking our transit stayed down for 15 seconds a pop while the digital display told us, “Saldo de cuenta bajo: ¡recargue su cuenta!” (“Low account balance – recharge your account”) along with displaying the accumulated deficit that had approached $200.  Each time we thought, “We would if we could, really!  PLEASE let us recharge our account!!!” often adding, as we learned to say in Morocco and regularly have found apt in Panama, “Inch’allah.”  This week, on the car’s fifth appointment with PanaPass officialdom, finally updated the PanaPass account so that we can zip through the toll booths without stopping, just like everyone else.

Our PanaPass experience taught us that in Panama we can benefit from the tolerance we built up in Morocco to expect that bureaucratic things seeming easy may instead play out with much greater difficulty than one might otherwise reason they should.  As it turned out, getting a driver’s license proved not as burdensome as we feared (imagining a hot and crowded room chock full of bureaucrats exercising their absolute power from one edge of their own respective window counters to the other).  Instead, the people with whom we came into contact generally seemed in good spirits and wanting to be helpful; but the full process requires patience and a high tolerance for bureaucratic steps to find ultimate success.

Panama began counting the three months we could drive on our U.S. licenses upon our landing at Tocumen Airport on July 29, even though we could not initiate efforts to get Panamanian licenses before securing our Panamanian residency papers.  Like so much else hindered by the pandemic lockdown, Servicio Nacional de Migración (National Migration Service) had a flood of applications once Panama’s phased opening restarted immigration activity.  We confronted the calendar’s ticking days with bravado, outwardly confident that required pieces would fall into place in time while inwardly trying to reassure ourselves and each other that our first weeks here stuck in quarantine and without wheels demonstrated our ability to manage just fine with grocery deliveries.  More important for holding as much confidence as we did, ISP’s very capable HR office offers the tremendous service of facilitating residency visas for expat employees, and on October 1 they took us to our first SNM appointment to get temporary residency cards.

This provided our second encounter with Panamanian bureaucracy.  Unlike our PanaPass experience, success came smoothly and with reasonable dispatch.  Arriving at the SNM building, we met our HR miracle worker in the parking lot.  Typical of days in the rainy season, the morning sun hung bright and hot in the clear sky in order to make people thirst for the rains that would dump a waterfall in an hour once the afternoon clouds rolled in.  Fortunately for us, we took advantage of the appointment our HR Wonder Woman had set up for us and followed her past the long line of people baking outside.  Once inside, our brains jarred from the opposing sensations of appreciating the building’s unexpected air conditioning while simultaneously our eyes glazed over at the sight of multiple banks of windows, all with pools of people sitting in well-organized fashion with a big “X” marking every other seat to keep people from sitting too close for appropriate social distancing.  Not sharing our bureaucratic shock, Wonder Woman pursued her mission and found among the throng ISP’s attorney, who held a small stack of manila envelopes and folders in the crook of his arm which – more importantly – included all our residency paperwork, which he had prepared for us.  He led us around a corner to a smaller and more crowded bank of windows reserved for those lucky folks ready to submit applications and have their photos taken.  Standing there not long in an air-conditioned building, we mused at how much easier and less intimidating we found this process compared to our first trip to la Préfecture de Police du Grand Casablanca when we first arrived in Morocco.  Then, one at a time, our turns came to approach the relevant window, turn in our papers, and have photos taken for our ID cards.  Then, again trained by Morocco, we readied ourselves to wait a long time for our applications to process and cards to print.  Then the attorney disappeared.  Then Wonder Woman went after him.  Then she returned to tell us the attorney was taking care of final details.  Then, in what seemed like no time in the world of bureaucracy, the attorney reappeared with his armful of papers that now included our temporary residency cards.  Wonder Woman told us we had gone through in a record time of shorter than 45 minutes, she having spent more than two hours there with someone else not too long before.  Then she gave us the joyous news that while we would need to return in the spring to get our permanent residency cards, with the temporary cards we now could get our driver’s licenses…Inch’allah again.

Panama contracts out its licensing services to a company named Sertracen, with three locations in the Panama City metropolitan area and more spread around the country.  But before we could make an appointment with Sertracen we needed an appointment with the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) office to secure affidavits verifying our U.S. driver’s licenses.  After gaining our Panamanian temporary resident status, we had 28 days left on the clock to get the affidavits and trade them for Panamanian driver’s licenses…probably plenty of time in normal circumstances, but not when Panama still had to emerge fully from its pandemic lockdown.

Because of Panama’s pandemic lockdown, most embassy staff have worked remotely (like the rest of the world) since last spring.  Understandably, that made getting an appointment difficult, with efforts somewhat hit-or-miss.  We know someone who also arrived last summer but could not get an embassy appointment until December.  We lucked out and scored an embassy appointment days before our three month driving grace period would expire.  The ACS office had not even a handful of staff doing their best to move through the roughly two dozen people ahead of us seeking some sort of American citizen service that morning.  Audrey got Brian’s hopes up by telling him before we went to book an hour in his calendar.  In contrast, the four hours we actually spent at the Embassy just to get the affidavits seemed more like 10 because – par for the course in American consulates and embassies around the world, we had to leave our electronic devices at the entrance.  We enjoy spending time with each other and talking, but we prefer to do that at home instead of sitting socially-distanced in an embassy waiting room.  Once our turn finally came, obtaining our affidavits meant going to one counter to start the process…then to another counter to pay for the affidavits…then to a third counter to get the printed affidavits and sign them for notarization…then back to the second counter to pay again for another Audrey affidavit after she signed the first one on the wrong line…then back to the third one again to pick up Audrey’s reprinted affidavit (which the most kind and understanding Foreign Service Officer this time had marked with a “Sign Here!” Post-It so that she would not sign it on the wrong line again).  Of course, between each counter trip we had to wait again until whichever counter was our next destination called us.  The U.S. Embassy staff treated us warmly and well; but with our phones left at the entrance we had no way to contact anyone about being stuck at ACS while missing other scheduled appointments, or to let the driver waiting patiently for us in the parking lot outside the embassy know that we were delayed way past the time we thought it might take.  Finally we had the affidavits in hand, and when we arrived back at the parking lot outside the embassy’s entrance we found that our patient driver had not abandoned us.

All we needed now was the final step of going to Sertracen for our licenses.

Except for that old pandemic thing.  We could not get an appointment with Sertracen until December 11, six weeks after our three-month clocks ran out.  Expecting this, with understanding that we had done all possible to get our Panamanian licenses with no available Sertracen date before our deadline as the only reason we had not procured them, one of the ACS staff suggested we keep our affidavits handy if we had to drive before we finally obtained the licenses.  And so we did, driving minimally and always ready to plead our case should we get stopped for some reason.

We waited impatiently for December 11 to push through the calendar.  Then another surprise popped up.  Audrey and ISP’s board had worked hard to hold parent elections to fill vacant school board seats, with parents able to vote in person or online.  Farming out the process to one independent third party to run and another to certify the results, the board set the date and time to certify the results exactly when we had our long-awaited appointments to get driver’s licenses.  Audrey told HR Wonder Woman of the conflict, and she suggested in response that she marshall Brian through without Audrey to get his license, and then he could play chauffeur for Audrey until she could get her license later.  So that is what we did.

While Audrey masked up and went to school to witness the certification of the board election, Brian went to Sertracen for his license.  Mid-December means transitioning from rainy season to dry season, so the bright and hot afternoon sun had hung in the clear sky all day with little hope for rain when Brian arrived at Sertracen on Avenida José Augustín Arango and saw a very long line stretched along one side of the building, around the corner, and down the entire adjacent side to the back corner.  Setting his internal bureaucratic tolerance threshold to “high,” he prepared for a long, hot, miserable time waiting.  Then Wonder Woman came to the car and said with a smile, “I’ve been looking for you to tell you not to get into the line.  I talked to the guard at the front and told him I’m helping someone that is old, because you have white hair, and he said that I can just take you inside instead of waiting in the line.”  (Brian has always looked older than he is, taking it in stride and with good humor now that on at least one occasion someone presumed Audrey is his daughter instead of his wife, even though we are separated by only one year.)  So Brian went with her to the guard, and when she pointed to his white hair the guard let them in.  Inside, there was an entry room with a snaked line leading to windows and tables, and another guard just inside the door checking identification as people entered.  Wonder Woman looked at Brian, shrugged, and said, “We’ll see if your birthday or your hair is more important.”  The hair won.  Wonder Woman led Brian through the line to a table set next to the windows and staffed by a professional-looking woman wearing a Sertracen shirt.  Wonder Woman spoke in Spanish to her to explain his expat status and to give her the affidavit from the U.S. Embassy.  Brian appreciated very much having Wonder Woman with him to handle the Spanish discussion.  Then the Sertracen staffer looked at Brian and said in perfect English, “So you want to go through that door and go all the way to the back where they will help you and get your information.”  She was the only person at Sertracen who spoke English to him, but he felt silly nonetheless.

Brian and Wonder Woman went through the door and into a very large room that had even more stations than he saw at Migración, with even more banks of chairs set up with social distancing “X” marks on alternating seats.  The process entailed six stations – first to collect his personal information that Wonder Woman provided in Spanish; second to take a photo for the license; third to take a vision test; fourth to take a hearing test; fifth to pay for the license; and sixth to pick up the printed license.  Sertracen had tried to virus-protect each station, but at each one (especially for the vision and hearing tests) Brian thought about how Panama’s coronavirus infection rates had skyrocketed since the start of November.  Each time he signed something, he wished he had brought some of the latex gloves that have become ubiquitous for him…or some hand sanitizer…or at least his own pen.  When he received his license at the last station, Wonder Woman pointed out that it would expire at the same time that his temporary residency card expired, so once he obtained the permanent residency card he would need to get another driver’s license.

But at least one of us FINALLY had a driver’s license.  Brian’s ability to chauffeur Audrey lasted only a couple weeks, though, as Panama’s return to lockdown at Christmas meant returning to designated days for women or men to go out exclusively.

Fast forward to this week and we had our return to SNM for our permanent residency cards.  The process repeated our experience from October 1:  straightforward, thanks to the attorney managing the paperwork burden, and relatively quick by bureaucracy standards.  When she handed us our permanent cards, Wonder Woman reminded Brian that he needed to update his driver’s license and said he could do that online.  So yesterday Brian went to the Sertracen website to navigate the updating process all in Spanish, using Google Translate to check every instruction out of fear that a minor mistake could negate his ability to update his license.  The online process impressed him – straightforward, pretty easy to navigate, even doing online vision and hearing tests.  He had no long line in the bright and hot sun for him to avoid, so no need to refer online to his white hair.  Now he waits to see if a courier, for which he already has paid online, will deliver his updated license to him in the next 10 days as promised.  He has until the end of March to figure out how to make it right if something in the bureaucratic process goes haywire as bureaucratic processes sometimes do.

Meanwhile, next week Audrey will take her permanent residency card to an appointment at Sertracen and get her permanent driver’s license (good for either four years or ten years, depending on who you ask).  As Panama continues easing out of our renewed lockdown and, starting next week, husbands and wives can once again go out together on the same days, perhaps she will play chauffeur for Brian.

On your mark, get set, here we go!