Blog

Soft Landings and Protests

Many times we have told friends and family what a soft landing Panamá is, especially after living four years in Morocco.  It is much easier than in Morocco to find products and other creature comforts of life from the U.S. here in Panamá, and easier (and cheaper) to ship them from the U.S. to Panamá than to Morocco.  Not that we want our life in Panamá to be simply a remake of U.S. life.  If that is what we sought, we would just go back to living in the U.S.  We love our Panamanian life.  At the same time, we appreciate the ease of traveling to the U.S. for professional conferences or for family ties, as we also value having access to familiar things from the U.S. here.

Sometimes people mistake our “soft landing” description either to mean that we never encounter challenges that expats may confront elsewhere in the world or to reveal a blindness in us to the realities that exist in Panamanian life.  (Granted, we tell visitors that our very modern and convenient Costa del Este neighborhood is not the “real” Panamá they will experience when they go to particular areas downtown or, especially, when they travel into the Interior.)  Neither is the case, as evidenced by the impact of protests across Panamá that started at the end of June and expanded nationally in early July.

A mix of labor unions, indigenous peoples, educators, students, and other groups mobilized to conduct demonstrations and create road blocks across the country to protest the spike in gas prices and the general inflation that have wracked Panamá (as they have globally) over the last several months.  Protests are not new to Panamá, but these had a more menacing feel of determination to elicit action by the government that provides relief.  Initially a mix of disparate efforts by separate groups, as they continued through the month the groups met to hammer out a coordinated list of demands that included acute items like subsidizing gas and food prices, as well as broader policy and reform expectations of increased investment in education and addressing government corruption.  As days progressed into weeks, the government yielded on various demands, but the protesters remained unsatisfied and continued to hold hope for seeing their list of demands met.

While protests here are not new and tend to be peaceful, people who find themselves stuck in a protest blocking their travel are encouraged to stay in their cars and keep a safe distance from the heart of the protest.  The longer the July protests continued, the more spontaneous incidents of violence were reported, both as aggressive action by protesters against drivers or police and as action by police to shut down protests with tear gas and other means.  One Panamanian friend told us, “If you get too close to them, they will throw rocks at your car.”  Indeed, isolated reports of rock throwing came out over the weeks.  And when protesters threw rocks at trucks in a humanitarian convoy carrying food to the Capital, a pickup truck carrying food ran over two protesters after a rock went through his windshield and he sought to flee.  (The driver was arrested.)

The U.S. Department of State issued a couple advisories to expats and tourists in Panamá:

Situational Awareness on Recent Protest Activity 

In recent days, there have been multiple anti-Government of Panama protests in response to rising cost of living and gas prices.  In light of ongoing protest activity, the U.S. Embassy Panama City reminds U.S. Citizens in Panama to exercise caution near any large gatherings or protests and maintain situational awareness.  @TraficoCPanama on Twitter and local news outlets are good resources for the latest information on protest activity and impact to traffic.  Please contact local authorities (311) if you have any immediate health and safety concerns. 

Unfortunately, protests and road blockages are a part of life in Panama. There may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-U.S. sentiment.  While most demonstrations are non-violent, the Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or riot control munitions in response to demonstrations, particularly when roadways are blocked or aggression is used against the police.  Please read the Panama Country Information for additional guidance from the Department of State for U.S. Citizens in Panama. 

Actions to Take: 

  • Monitor local media for updates. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Avoid demonstrations.

The protests’ impact varied across the country.  In the Capital, where nearly half the nation’s population lives, protests flared up to block traffic in different places and at different times.  Other than a few days of heavy protest activity, the city remained fairly well travelable most of the time, with stalled traffic occurring when and where protests flare up.  The heavier impact was through the Interior.  Because the Pan-American Highway that runs through Panamá serves as the one conduit for transporting people and things from the west end by Costa Rica to the east end by Colombia, roadblocks on this arterial can shut down transportation with crippling effect.  Such was the case through much of July.  With supply trucks unable to travel to and from the key agricultural areas in Panama’s western half (especially Chiriquí Province), people in the Interior suffered from shortages of fuel while people in Panamá City found produce sections of grocery stores near empty.  After a few weeks, a humanitarian convoy of 100 trucks made it to Panamá City with loads of fruits and vegetables.  For a couple days, the grocery stores had produce, but they emptied out again.

We lucked out one week into the protests as we started a beach escape in Santa Clara with friends visiting us from abroad.  When Brian mentioned to a Panamanian friend that we were bound with our visitors for the beach, he said, “I hope you don’t get caught in protests on your way back.”  We hoped that as well, but we had planned this trip for some time and decided to take the risk.  While our friends currently live in the U.S., they spent three years with us in Morocco and understand the nuances of our “soft landing” description more fully than others who have not lived abroad may.  So we figured we would all make the best of whatever ended up happening.

Our trip westward on Saturday to the Río Hato corregimiento of the Antón District in Coclé Province was smooth and uneventful.  Normally it takes us about two hours to get there.  Not counting the time to stop for lunch and then to do some grocery shopping along the way, it took us two hours.  Our friends found the beauty of the drive into the Interior interesting.  Once we arrived, they were wowed by the beach, the water, and the calming view over the ocean from the flat where we stayed.  All good.

But all was not good throughout Panamá as protesters ramped up the force of their activity.  Had we continued driving along the Pan-American Highway out toward Chiriquí Province, we would have introduced our friends to quite a different Panamanian experience.  Protesters had established numerous road blocks along the Pan-American Highway as it runs deeper into the Interior.  Cars and trucks heading to Chiritquí were stopped for miles, and people were stuck in their vehicles for as long as 18 hours before blockades were removed and traffic flow resumed.

Brian reported this to our vacationing group, but was optimistic that we would not have difficulties getting back to Panamá City a few days later.

As we learned to say when we lived in Louisiana, “Bless his heart.”

We planned to return to the Capital on Tuesday because Audrey had kidney stone surgery scheduled for first thing on Wednesday morning; plus our painter was supposed to start painting our apartment then as well; and our friends had a flight out of Tocumen Airport leaving Wednesday afternoon.  After a morning of swimming and relaxing at the beach condo where we had stayed and a great Panamanian lunch at Los Camisones 15 minutes away, we started toward home around 2 pm on Tuesday afternoon.  

We got as far as Chame when traffic suddenly came to a stop.  We could not see why, but the stoppage seemed to begin only a few cars ahead of us.  Soon police worked their way through the line of stopped vehicles, and a few minutes later traffic began to move, if slowly.  Very soon we passed by smoldering trash blocking one of the two eastbound lanes of the Pan-American Highway.  Presumably the police had put out the flames of burning trash that spanned both lanes and cleared one lane so traffic could move through.  We felt relief in being caught in the protest for only a few minutes.

“Bless their hearts.”

We made it only a few more minutes past Chame into Bejuco before traffic halted again.  This appeared to be a longer line of cars, with nothing budging, and no police coming to clear the way for progress to resume.  We checked Waze, the GPS digital driving app, and saw ahead of us multiple stoppages marked with cautionary red on the map.  But we also saw an alternate route that teased the possibility of taking us on smaller roads through less dense and more isolated territory seemingly without protesters blocking traffic.  Fortunately we had reached our current stoppage while in the left lane, and there was no oncoming traffic, so we decided to hop the curb, drive across the median, and pop down into the westward lanes to try that other route.  

“Bless their hearts again.”

We drove back a couple minutes and started our detour that we thought would take us up into the mountains and reconnect with the Pan-American Highway about one-third of the way back toward home.  We did not get far.  Not one minute along this route, traffic halted once more.  We could see ahead of us a group of 25-30 protesters who had dragged a fallen tree across the roadway to block both directions of the two-lane road.  They chanted and sang and drummed on the roadside, and no cars passed.  Surveying our options, and considering that if by some chance we could get past this roadblock we did not want to get caught in another protest up in the mountains for hours, we decided to head back to Santa Clara and hope the roads would clear in time for us to drive back home before our important Wednesday activities.

So we did a 23-point turn to reverse course on the narrow roadway and headed back toward Santa Clara.  As we returned past the spot where we encountered our first roadblock, we saw that the dozen protesters there had pulled their smoldering trash back across both eastbound lanes so that no vehicles could pass in that direction.  The police were gone.  Those folks would have to sit and wait.  We felt quite fortunate to have a more comfortable “sit and wait” option back at Santa Clara.

Once we got back to the beach condo, we relaxed again…as much as we could while feeling the angst of pressing times approaching.  The boys of our friends swam some more.  We scrounged a dinner from leftovers and snacks we had picked up on a grocery stop heading back to Santa Clara.  Everyone except Brian napped, while he checked Waze every hour for the locations of protest activity.

A few minutes past midnight, protest spots on Waze disappeared one after another as if by magic.  Brian woke everyone up, we reloaded our things, and hit the road again, hoping the route would stay clear.

“Bless their hearts once more.”

Traffic moved along pretty well until once again we reached Chame.  In the time since our re-departure from Santa Clara, another protest had materialized.  We were stuck.

Fortunately, we remained stalled on the Pan-American Highway for less than an hour.  Promptly at 2:00 am the protesters blocking the roadway climbed aboard their large construction truck and departed with its horn blaring, bright lights flashing, engine revving, and people yelling proudly as they drove away into the night.  In a moment, the horde of stopped vehicles began creeping forward en masse.  We hit no more blockades for the remaining 90 minutes home, but traffic remained heavy all the way across the Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) over the Panamá Canal.

On Wednesday all went well with Audrey’s surgery.  Our painter arrived at our apartment and started his multi-week project.  And our friends made it to Tocumen Airport without incident for their flight back to the U.S.  Then, two days later, grandson Adam and His Parents arrived from Morocco in order for him to have adenoid surgery the following Tuesday.

On Sunday morning, Brian and Charlotte brought Adam to Pacifica Salud Hospital by Über so that Adam could get his requisite pre-surgery blood and COVID tests.  The Über driver said there was no protest activity over the weekend. The third week of protests in the City would start on Monday.  Big relief.

But then there was Tuesday, with Adam’s surgery scheduled for 7:30 am.  Brian drove Adam, Charlotte, and Zak to Pacifica Salud Hospital, leaving home at 5:30 am with little concern that protesters would halt traffic en route.  After all, protesters need sleep like everyone else.  But he worried about getting stopped later in the day after Adam’s discharge from surgery.  Protesters do not make allowances for medical issues to let certain cars pass, and he did not want to be stuck in a line of vehicles for hours with a post-surgical toddler freaking out in the car from the aftereffects of general anesthesia.  Fortunately, though rumors had flown around that protests would start that day in Panamá City at 10:00 am, they all got home without incident.

So it was, also, when Brian drove Audrey back to Pacifica Salud later that week to remove a stent the doctor had inserted during her surgery the week before.  While protests remained rampant in the Interior, in the city they merely flared up periodically.

While Charlotte and Zak held down the fort with Adam in Costa del Este, we spent that third weekend of July in Casco Viejo at a hotel where Audrey hosted her annual school leadership team retreat.  With rumors that protests would ramp up again over the weekend, Audrey considered changing the retreat format to online.  In the end, though, she decided to stay with the on-site plan.  But we opted to leave our car at home and Über to Casco Viejo 20 minutes away just in case protesters went through the Old City and vandalized cars while we were there.  They did not.  But on Monday morning Brian had to return home to buy some supplies with our painter.  The Über ride back to Costa del Este took more than an hour as Brian’s driver took multiple detours to avoid road blockages and protesters marching in the street.

In addition to our various road issues, the other primary impact of the protests we felt was in the grocery stores.  The longer the protests continued, the more stores in Panamá City ran out of fruits and vegetables.  Aisles of canned, boxed, and other non-perishable foods or household goods remained on store shelves.  But produce aisles became micro food deserts.  Initially, while Panamanian produce ran out, stores continued to have imported produce that came off ships in port at the end of the Panamá Canal.  But eventually those imported produce stocks also ran low when that was all people could buy.  Next, with frozen vegetables being the only vegetables available, that supply depleted as well.  Needless to say, this made shopping for our visiting vegetarian daughter and our broccoli-loving grandson rather problematic.  Shelves magically restocked after the convoy of 100 trucks carrying produce finally arrived in Panamá City, the magic lasting a few days before emptying out again.

But finally, after nearly a month of protests with varying strengths, the unified determination of the protesters seemed to dissipate as the coalition of protest groups splintered.  Still, individual protests continue to appear.  Son-in-law Zak passed one just today as he took an Über home to Costa del Este from downtown.  But travel in the area has returned to the expectation of normal-unless-otherwise, rather than the avoid-going-out-if-you-can condition that existed for a while.  And grocery stores once again are well-stocked with the magnificent produce to which we are accustomed in Panamá.

As residents, not citizens, we seek to avoid getting mired in the politics of the country that has welcomed us.  We have enough politics to follow back in the U.S. where we continue to vote as expats.  In this case, the impact of the politics between the protesters and the government was impossible to circumvent in our daily lives.  That is expat life, no matter the country in which one lives.  And while the protests added challenges to our life here, six years living abroad has taught us that while plans are good to have, keeping healthy doses of patience, creativity, and flexibility in reserve allows us to stay sane and unruffled (or more truthfully “less ruffled”) when plans go awry due to things beyond our control.  In our world travels, we have lost water or electricity for days.  We have been stranded in airports.  We have had to get creative with food (always appreciating that “get creative” means that we still HAVE food when so many in the world do not).  We have had to get creative with money in order to buy what we need when accessing cash becomes difficult.  We have endured bureaucracy, traffic, bias, and other things that stall our doing what we plan to do.  We have become much more deeply aware of what privileged lives we led in the U.S. and continue to lead abroad.  And we appreciate the blessings that we enjoy and that we can share.

All things considered, Panamá is a soft landing.  We have already booked our first friends on the “Visitors Calendar” for 2023.  Lucky us.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Settling in for the Long Haul

Once again we find two months have blinked by since last we shared a post.  It is not for lack of material, but merely for lack of time amid so much happening.  Nearly two years into our Panamanian adventure, we feel a good sort of routine developing in our lives.  So much has transpired since we started our last semester in Morocco in January 2020 that, while we do not yearn for things mundane, there is a comfort factor that comes with settling in and looking toward things not changing for a while.

School administration has not returned to February 2020 status.  It never will.  But managing issues tied to the Pandemic has stabilized as “one more” thing added to all the other parts of running a school that have returned to front burner attention after being shoved aside for about 20 months.  Safety protocols, contact tracing, and shutting down classrooms with outbreaks will stay high profile into the foreseeable future.  But HR issues, strategic planning, curriculum development, and mission/vision implementation are back to make the work life of a Head of School challenging, exciting, and rewarding instead of merely exhausting.  In September, Audrey will welcome stakeholders to ISP’s 40th Anniversary gala event.  It will be a great celebration!

Brian is also getting back into the swing of gainful employment after two years on sabbatical.  In the next couple weeks he expects to start consulting for a U.S.-based company seeking to market both to U.S. schools and international schools its product that makes school buildings and classrooms safer.  With all the recent attention to school violence, the timing could not be more important.  He hopes also to continue volunteering in school accreditation work leading visitation teams at international schools, especially as the accrediting agency returns to on-site visits after spending the last couple years doing only virtual ones.  Meanwhile, since January he has been delighted to rejoin the music world as he started singing with two choral groups.  Last Sunday he had his first concert with Cantus Panamá, singing a diversity of music in English and Spanish.  In early July he will have his first concert with Cantemus Panamá, which focuses more on classical/spiritual choral music and will offer several performances of J. S. Bach’s “Christ Lag in Todesbanden.”

Much of Brian’s time remains committed to helping his octogenarian mother in Washington State.  Like he did last August and September, he returned to the Pacific Northwest for another six-week stint helping her with a range of projects from late-April through early-June.  Purging decades of stuff and making regular trips to the dump and to Goodwill, meeting with professionals for legal and financial appointments, cleaning up branches that fell around the mountain cabin property through the winter and other property maintenance, and fortifying her digital proficiency so that she can bring music back into her world thanks to Apple Music played through a Bose wireless speaker via the magic of Bluetooth all kept him busy during his PNW time.  And she seems to be developing a greater comfort with using him for assistance from Panama as well, he having FaceTimed last week for a two hour appointment she had with a very flexible and understanding Verizon guy to update her phone plan and devices for the first time in years.  One special part of this most recent trip to Skykomish was Brian being able to celebrate his 55th birthday with his mother.  They went to the Whistling Post, Skykomish’s town watering hole, where some friends treated them to dinner and they shared birthday cake with anyone in the WP who wanted a slice.

Another important focus for Brian while in the PNW was our storage units in Bellingham.  We started our Expat Expedition blog in 2016 as we prepared to depart for overseas jobs in Casablanca, Morocco.  After selling or giving away the vast majority of what we owned, we still filled three 5’ x 10’ storage units with furniture, artwork, china and glassware, generations of photos and memorabilia from both Audrey’s and Brian’s families, and lots of books (the consequence of two academics with multiple degrees…oh, and Audrey’s collection of roughly 300 cookbooks AFTER paring it down).  It has sat for six years, with us figuring that once we finally settle someplace we can ship it to that location.  Brian spent his first week in the PNW purging and reorganizing in preparation for a shipping company to collect our stuff and send it to Panamá.

It was finally time to ship our storage stuff after we decided that Panamá will be our new home, and after finding the “forever home” where we plan to live and someday retire.  Besides a beautiful sunset view of the water and of downtown Panamá, our Costa del Este condo gives us one-floor living, so we will have no accessibility issues when we are old codgers wheeling around instead of walking.  And anything we could want – from groceries to great restaurants to all sorts of stores to a new Emergency Room and clinic three blocks away – is available easily to us by walking a few blocks or by a quick drive.  Our effort to purchase our condo started in October.  Buying property in Panamá is very different from doing so in the U.S.  The most striking contrasts stem from there being essentially no process here for escrow.  We said goodbye to large chunks of our money long before closing ever happened, and surprises kept popping up along the way for this or that bank requirement that would cost us more money or threaten to kill the deal or both.  But after six months of ongoing effort, we finally were able to close on our condo just before Brian left for Washington State.  So now, even if we end up going somewhere else for another job for a time (which, for the record, we have zero intention of doing!), this is our base, this is where we will come “home,” and this is where we will retire.  Making that decision gave us and continues to give us an incredible sense of comfort.  We love traveling and seeing the world.  That will never stop.  But after six years of roaming, we feel home.  That is different from merely living someplace.  We belong.  We can plant.

Of course, after a decade of not owning a house (having bought and sold five houses in several U.S. states during our life together), the process of settling in as renewed homeowners means fixing things that need fixing.  Last week we had more days with workmen in our condo than not.  Next up is painting the whole 3200 square foot pad.  We hoped we could do that before our shipment arrives from Bellingham, but our painter cannot start until mid-July and the shipping company says the shipment will reach Panamá before then.  Assuming it goes through Customs without a hitch, we think Brian will have to move boxes from room to room to stay ahead of the painter.  One way or another, it will get done.

And then it will be ours.  Not just where we live, but our home.  We really miss that.

And throughout it all, we will have visitors.  Tonight Brian’s cousin and her two boys arrive from Seattle for a Panamanian adventure carrying through the end of June.  Then more friends come.  Then Adam and His Parents will return for five weeks for some medical work he needs that we prefer to do here than in Morocco.  Then more friends.  From today until the end of August, we will have only five days without guests in our home.  We love that.  It will just be a little crazy entertaining guests while also doing home repair, painting, and receiving our cargo shipment from Bellingham.  But we would not have it any other way.  The other day we even booked our first guests for 2023 on the Visitor Calendar that we created.

So let us know if you think you might be in town.  We would love to see you.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

International Grandparenting: Getting to Hold Our Grandson for the First Time…and Saying Goodbye for Now

For the first 19 months of our grandson Adam’s life, Brian presumed he thought of his Nana and Buhpa as two-dimensional glass-enclosed beings…like we lived in a kinder, gentler version of the Phantom Zone that held General Zod and his co-conspirators in the 1978 blockbuster movie “Superman.” Through a year-and-a-half of FaceTime conversations, we had built relationships with Adam. He recognized us, and he reacted and responded to us. We played peek-a-boo and other games through the video connection. We made him laugh. Charlotte even helped us “tickle” him, following up our “I’m going to tickle you!” pronouncements by tickling him with the phone while he cackled wildly and we made tickle noises on our end.

It was delightful and satisfying, and as good as we could imagine two-dimensional grandparenting could be.  Yet, we remained – and remained acutely aware that we were – virtual grandparents.

…Until Panamá approved travel visas for son-in-law Zak and grandson Adam.  Everything changed two months ago when, on February 9, Adam and His Parents arrived at Tocumen Airport after traveling for more than 24 hours.  Instantly we morphed from virtual grandparents to ACTUAL grandparents.

Actually, we were surprised – and, of course, thrilled – that Adam recognized us both the first time he saw the big 3-D versions of us.  

Given Adam’s fascination with balls and balloons (which he also calls balls), Charlotte had suggested that Brian bring a balloon with him to pick them up at the airport to help with Adam’s conceptual transition from Screen Buhpa to Big Buhpa.  As they processed through Passport Control, Char called Brian on FaceTime as he drove in circles around the passenger pickup outside Baggage Claim so he could say to Adam, “Look what I have for you!” and show him the blue balloon.  As soon as he did, Adam was not interested in Buhpa any more; he just said, “Ball!…Ball!”  But when Buhpa pulled up outside Baggage Claim and got out to welcome them, Adam recognized him and smiled…until he saw the big blue balloon Brian held and started again with “Ball!…Ball!”  Nonetheless, he had no resistance to Buhpa picking him up, hugging him, and relishing holding him.

Likewise, Audrey waited impatiently at home and met Brian and the “special delivery” downstairs at the building entrance.  When Brian pulled over to the curb, she went straight to the passenger door with Adam’s car seat, opened it, and descended on Adam with Nana kisses that Adam received with good humor and recognition of Nana.

In the days that followed, we got our own taste of Adam being a 3-D grandson moving into his prime as a toddler who gets into everything.  Notwithstanding all our efforts at baby-proofing our apartment, Adam helped us immensely at finding where we needed to tighten up our safety implementation.  As just one example among many, we learned that he is particularly good at throwing things into any toilet left with the bathroom door open and seat uncovered.  We lost count of how many full rolls of TP went swimming during his stay with us.  Ditto cars, trucks, dinosaurs, and more.

And our plans for encouraging a Montessori-like system of playing with one thing at a time and putting it back where it belongs before getting something else out went out the window.  (Not literally, of course, because one success of Brian’s baby-proofing was installing dowels in all window tracks so that Adam could not open any windows and risk throwing something out a window and down 45 stories below or, worse, falling out of a window himself.)  Adam’s Toy Box had puzzles and blocks and balls and things to whack with a hammer and dinosaurs and trucks and stacking toys and more.  And everything came out without going back into Adam’s Toy Box.  Our floor was a minefield of painful things on which to step.  That, of course, is not even to mention food that ended up on the floor.  We do not know if he has better prospects as a pitcher or outfielder in MLB or as a quarterback in the NFL, but the boy has an arm…at least when he is chucking grapes he gets from Buhpa or bowls/plates of food to show he has finished eating in his high chair.  We upped the time our house-helper, Berta, came to clean from once a week to twice a week.  And it seemed that she cleaned the apartment three times each day she came:  once when she arrived, once after Adam had restored its status to chaos, and once more before she left at the end of the day.

Similarly, confronted with the reality of our insufficient baby-proofing, our apartment became “The Land of No”:  plants, telescope, cabinets, toilets, fan, no-no rooms.  We began Adam’s six week stay saying to Charlotte and Zak, “There’s only so much baby proofing we can do.  He’ll have to learn.”  Hah!  Spoken like people who have not had toddlers in the house for two decades.  He even turned off the projector in the middle of everyone watching the 10’-wide super-sized Super Bowl on the pulled-down shades covering our wall of windows…Quite a feat that requires not one “no-no” push of the power button, but two…executed masterfully despite four adults sitting close by.

It did not take Adam long to create a new favorite game:  throwing things under our bed and then using the “broom” (really a long-handled window washer brush/squeegee) we bought him to push them back out again.  He toddled around our room tossing things under our bed, then laid himself on the floor next to it to go to work with his broom.  He found the bedroom of Nana and Buhpa special for other reasons as well.  He liked to get Buhpa’s cowboy boots out of the closet, stand in them up to his thighs, and try walking…looking like a cowboy who had thrown back a few too many whiskeys in the saloon as he wobbled for a few steps then fell down laughing.  He liked to bounce on the Moroccan poof that we had in the room as a footstool by a rocking chair.  He liked to climb everything from the rocking chair to the divan to the bed itself.  And he really loved exploring in our bathroom, especially climbing into our bathtub.

One thing that impressed us greatly was his multilingual capability.  With language still developing in age-appropriate ways, he seems to speak four languages:  Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic), English, French, and Adam.  He had the job to speak; we had the job to understand (and distinguish between) things like, “doh doh” (sleep), “doo doo” (self-explanatory), “di di” (boo-boo), “caca” (self-explanatory), “tehtah” (binky/pacifier), “tee tee” (sit down), “pee pee” (self-explanatory, as well as his favorite body part when he has a diaper put on and it gets covered…as in, “Bye-by, Pee Pee”), “hadi” (this, that), “wa wa” (water), “num num” (food), and more.  Likewise his references to people:  “Baba” (Zak), “Ba” (Zak’s father), “Bubba” (Adam), “Buhpa” (Brian), “Nana” (Audrey), “Mama” (Charlotte), and “Mmi” (Zak’s mother).  Over his six weeks with us, his vocabulary grew significantly – though that makes sense given he spent about 1/12th of his entire life with us – to include things like “dump truck” and “dinosaur” (usually accompanied by “Rrroooooaaaarrrrrr!!!) and “ciao.”  Perhaps most adorable was his moniker “Buhpa bubble wa wa” for the seltzer he saw Brian drink daily.  By the time he went home, after asking Buhpa to share his seltzer, Adam had developed a taste for the fuzzy flavored water and liked to walk around with his own liter-sized bottle holding a couple ounces so that he and Buhpa could drink bubble wa wa together.

Adam went to lots of places during his visit.  Buhpa took him to our building’s playroom to climb and slide and swing, as well as to the building’s outside playground to climb and slide and swing.  Buhpa also took him out in the stroller on some of his morning walks along the promenade of Avenida Paseo del Mar.  Along the way, Adam commented on scenery he passed, exclaiming loudly “PUPPY!” and “BABY!” and “BIRD!” (and, whenever he saw a vulture perched somewhere, “CHICKEN!”).

As a family we all went to Casco Viejo, and to Parque Omar Torijos (the large urban park of more than 140 acres on the north side of Panama’s San Francisco neighborhood).  We also enjoyed family trips to Taboga Island for a beach day, ferrying across the Bay of Panama through shipping traffic like a real life game of Frogger; and then heading across the Canal for a beach week in Santa Clara off the Pan-American Highway a couple hours into Panama’s Interior.  While in Santa Clara we took a day-trip to El Valle de Anton, the small Panamanian town (with a population of fewer than 8000) famous for being nestled in the six kilometer-wide caldera of a volcano formed 50,000-200,000 years ago.  People always ask, “Is it extinct?” and then often do not like the precision of the typical response:  “It is dormant and has not erupted for many thousands of years.”  Feeling edgy, son-in-law Zak laughed nervously about the possibility of a new eruption until we left El Valle and headed back down the mountainside.  Adam and all of us nonetheless had a great time visiting El Valle’s public market, the zoo (where he called the toucans and hawks and macaws and parrots and geese and all the dozens of birds there “Chickens!”), and more.

Adam’s most regular destination was Aqua-Tots swimming school just two blocks from our apartment.  Throughout his six weeks with us, Charlotte (and occasionally Zak) suited up to take him to swim lessons three or four times a week.  By the time he flew home to Morocco, he had become a water-loving fish, able – with parental propulsion –  to fetch colorful rings on the pool’s bottom and, by himself, swim back up to the surface unaided.  And he rocked his cute toucan-print swim trunks.

Adam was not the only person learning things during their stay.  He introduced us to a whole new digital generation of earworms for households with small children.  In particular, we encountered Blippi as a force that we can neither unsee nor unhear.  If you know, you know; if you do not, let your life remain whole and undisturbed by garbage trucks, excavators, loving dinosaurs, and going to the zoo.  The catchy YouTube monotony of Blippi has now joined our own children’s catchy music monotony of Raffi from more than two decades ago as what may prove to be the only thing we will remember in the senility of our most senior years.

Adam’s father also learned things on this trip.  As our son-in-law’s first trip outside Morocco, Zak first marveled at Panama’s skyscrapers that dwarf Casablanca’s tallest buildings.  By the time he left, though, he had grown used to them and thought he would find Casablanca’s skyline very small.  Living for six weeks in a non-Muslim culture brought another big adjustment.  In Morocco, one can presume food is halal (permissible) unless something says it is not; in Panamá one encounters the reverse, so one should presume food is haram (not permissible) unless something says it is halal.  So we shopped for meat at Super Halal, and options for eating out required clarity on the question of halal.  (Zak celebrated going home with his first McDonald’s cheeseburger in over six weeks!)  And his mind exploded each time he entered the warehouse shopping environment of PriceSmart (like Costco here in Panamá).  He walked down the wide aisles of clothes and food and other supplies taking pictures on his phone to send to family and friends.  Then he just started making video calls to family and friends and showed them the store as he walked around.  Brian remarked to Audrey that people here probably saw him in the same way that Moroccans saw us when we first arrived in Morocco in 2016 and took hundreds of pictures of every little thing at the souks, hanouts, patisseries, and any other place we went that was part of everyday Moroccan life.

Then, sooner that we realized, we had to say goodbye.  Adam went to his last swim lesson, then took a last nap laying on top of Buhpa.  Charlotte and Zak bought a huge cheese pizza at PriceSmart to put in a Ziplock bag and take with them for halal food they could eat on their long journey back to Morocco.  We blew up another balloon for Adam to play “Ball Ball Ball!” in the hours before leaving.  Then we took them to the airport, hugged them all, and bid them a safe journey back home.

Since leaving, they have transitioned back to life in Casablanca.  Adam is so glad to sleep in his queen size big boy bed instead of in a pop-up tent.  His first night back home he slept like a happy lump until 7:30am without moving.  He also is so glad to be able to ride his tricycle across the tile floor of the salon on their floor of Zak’s family’s house (as opposed to Buhpa and Nana not wanting wheels on their wood floor in Panamá).  Char and Zak unpacked, sorted, and gave to family and friends gifts from Panamá that comprised the bulk of their four bags stuffed to within micrograms of the 23 kg per bag limit.  Zak told us that he had to readjust to the sounds of traffic, noting that in Panamá we had “cute” traffic on the Costa del Este roads 45 floors below us, whereas in their Oulfa neighborhood of Casablanca they have “savage” traffic.  And the buildings of Casa, indeed, now seem “teeny tiny” to him.

And in the wake of their departure, we have transitioned back to empty nesting.  We celebrated, after dropping them at the airport, with an empty nesters dinner out at a restaurant wholly of our choosing.  We cleaned up in the kitchen and around the apartment, and Berta deep cleaned the high chair, stroller, and car seat for storage.  We have relished having a quiet, clean kitchen, furniture where it belongs and without handprints/faceprints/drool/liquids/food (chewed and not chewed)/quiet/quiet, and life back to our empty nesters routine.  “Wait,” we will say to each other, “Do you hear that?” followed by contented smiles from the shared quiet we hear.

Still, at other times, we say to each other, “I miss hearing Adam” and then pull up video clips that Charlotte and Zak send us, like the one of Adam saying, “Hi, Buhpa!”  Then we sigh.

Now, nearly three weeks after they left, we have returned to interacting with Adam virtually.  But we no longer are merely virtual grandparents who live two-dimensionally inside device screens.  Adam has been to our world, and the digital connection does not merely present flat screen Nana and Buhpa to him.  It brings that world of Nana and Buhpa back to him to perpetuate our relationship as “real” grandparents who live internationally.  Each time he sees Brian on a FaceTime call he still smiles broadly and says, “BUHPA!” and then asks Buhpa to show him his ball that he kicked and rolled around the house with Buhpa and Nana.  Brian gets the ball and holds it up to the phone camera for Adam’s view, leading to excited chants of “Ball Ball Ball!”  Or, Nana comments to Adam – who once again is hours ahead of us on Casablanca time – that he is wearing the dinosaur pajamas that we bought him and Adam responds with a hearty “ROOOOOAAAAAARRRR!”…which, besides cueing visual and auditory playback of Blippi clad in blue and orange singing the “Dinosaur” song in our heads, prompts Brian to fetch one of Adams dinosaurs to hold up for Adam to see, eliciting from our grandson a delighted smile and another big “ROOOOOAAAAAARRRR!”  And Adam likes to show us the dump truck he brought with him from Panamá, remembering how he played with it here.

As before his visit, we still reside many hours away on opposite sides of The Pond, but we are complete and full-sized in his world now, as he is in hours.

We cherish the order and quiet of our empty nest home.

And we cannot wait for Adam and His Parents to return.

Meanwhile, our Visitors Calendar continues to register both prospective interest and actual plans for family and friends to visit us in Panamá.  One week after bidding adieu to Adam and His Parents, we welcomed Bellingham friends Chris and Dave Carlson, who shared the first three of our four years in Morocco with us at GWA.  And apparently Uncle Tom shared with family a positive report on his Panamá trip in January, because Brian’s cousin and her two sons have bought tickets to visit us in June.  We look forward to more friends and family letting us know of their interest in basing with us during a tropical escape!

On your mark, get set, here we go!

The Visitors Calendar:  Bringing Back the Joy of Hosting

You know that feeling when, suddenly jolted from a deep sleep by a piercing noise, your fuzzy brain loops unproductively until the adrenal medulla floods your body with enough epinephrine to reset it to consciousness?  In that moment before awoken clarity, “What’s wrong?!” is the only thought allowed in fight-or-flight mode.

That is how Brian started the month of February.

Sleeping soundly for not quite five hours, following a late-night FaceTime conversation with his mom, his dreams evaporated at 5:48am when Audrey – up and getting ready for school – screamed from our bathroom.

“YOU’RECOOOOOMIIIIIINGTOPANAMAAAAAA!!!”

Quickly brain fuzz disappeared and he realized she was talking with daughter Charlotte in Morocco, and the Panamanian travel visas for son-in-law Zak and grandson Adam finally must have been approved.

So started a marathon of planning and execution that nine days later culminates with their arrival tonight at Tocumen Airport.  To say we are excited merits calling the Guinness World Records folks for consideration in the “Greatest Understatement” category.  For the next six weeks we will welcome the joyful disruption of our routine by having “Adam and his parents” (as we love to tease Charlotte as Zak) in our daily presence.

We love visitors.  Throughout our life together we have welcomed family and friends staying with us wherever we may happen to live.  Whether hopping across the USA or across oceans, we have always collected people and sought to keep them actively in our lives even after we moved to wherever in the world served as the setting for our next chapter.  Throughout, Audrey – schooled by her southern grandmother (and former First Lady of the USMC) in hostessing – has had a special knack for making guests feel welcome.  What started years ago with putting chocolates on guests’ pillows has grown into constructing visitor baskets that feature local snacks and amenities.  Brian’s mother recently recalled how, years ago when grandparents GJo and GBob joined us and our then-very-young girls for several days on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Audrey arranged welcome packets for them that included a beautiful half shell which she still keeps today as a remembrance of that trip.  For 25 years Brian (and later both of us) hosted an annual “Wine-Tasting for the Masses” (i.e., an excuse for a social occasion, not an organized tasting of Church wine) that typically brought together not only local friends but also long-time friends who traveled across states and even across the Atlantic to continue their streaks of attendance.  Our children grew up knowing aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who lived far away because they traveled to us and we traveled to them.  When we moved abroad, we welcomed family and friends to Morocco and loved touring them through as much of the beautiful country as the lengths of their stays would allow.  As much as we enjoyed it in our stateside life, hosting visitors abroad certainly marks one of the thrills of expat life.

Then came COVID-19 and the global pandemic that has changed everything about life for the last two years.  As the COVID trajectory improved last fall, friends and family started talking about coming to Panamá to visit us and use our accommodations as an anchor spot for exploring the country.  We had so many people registering their prospective interest with us that we added a “Visitors” calendar on our Google Calendar to keep track of who might come when.  We blocked out days and weeks for prospective trips people said they wanted to take with great anticipation of restoring the hosting component of our lives soon.

Even when the Omicron variant started surging in parts of the world, Panamá continued to have very good stats regarding daily new cases, so we remained optimistic about folks still being able to visit soon.  But, of course, the inevitable happened here as well.  Numbers skyrocketed in the first half of January.  We did not know how long that would last and how many visitors would have to cancel or reschedule their plans.  Brian’s Uncle Tom chanced it as numbers were climbing, becoming our first international visitor in Panamá after living here for 18 months.  We tested before he came.  He tested before he came.  He flew with a KN90 doubled by another mask.  We and he practiced reasonable caution before and during his visit.  While Audrey worked at ISP, Brian toured Uncle Tom around Panamá.  We took a “rum tour,” closing out each night with another quality rum from somewhere in Latin America while toasting the sunset from our balcony.  We had a blast.  And, thankfully, we all stayed COVID-free…even though Panamá hit its pandemic-long peak of daily new cases on January 20 midway through his stay.  One day before his departure, he tested at the facility four blocks from our house and was cleared to fly back to the U.S.

In the three weeks since that January 20 crest of the Omicron wave, numbers have dropped precipitously, and thankfully, back 75 percent.  That leaves a long way still to go to reach pre-Omicron numbers, but when Zak and Adam got approved travel visas, we sprung immediately into rescheduling the visit they had hoped to begin before Uncle Tom returned stateside.  But Morocco had re-instituted an international travel ban in the early days of Omicron, then extended it again and again through December and January.  So when Morocco announced its reopening to international travel as of February 7 and they got their visas approved, we started right away to explore when to reschedule their flights.

From February 1 until this moment, their trip has dominated our days and nights.  First we needed to buy tickets.  Then we needed to finish outfitting the guest room that Uncle Tom had so kindly beta-tested for us.  (Read:  the guest shower did not drain well, so Brian had to play plumber; we needed to buy a pop-up tent that could serve as Adam’s room-within-a-room to ensure that he would sleep inside the same walls as his parents; and Audrey had visitor baskets to restock.)  Then Brian went on a child-proofing frenzy around the apartment.  We now know how many outlets we have unused throughout the apartment that we need covered to keep Baby safe.  Finally, last weekend we went on a grandparent shopping extravaganza.  After all, Adam needs toys to play with while here.  And we needed to add a high chair and stroller and a car seat to our lives for the first time in two decades.  When we got home, we laid out the toys and puzzles and whatnot next to Adam’s Toy Box that Brian made back in December when we started talking about having them come visit.

According to FlightAware.com, in a little over an hour we will get to hug our daughter for the first time since 15 July 2020; our son-in-law will have traveled across an ocean on his first trip outside Morocco; and our grandson will discover that his Nana and Buhpa are not merely small people living inside, and traveling between, the screens of his mother’s phone/iPad/computer.  Audrey will stay home to receive food being delivered from a halal restaurant, and Brian will drive to Tocumen Airport with a blue balloon to give Adam to help with the conceptual transition to Big Buhpa.

Meanwhile, the Visitors calendar never sleeps.  As we prepared for Adam, Charlotte, and Zak to arrive, on Sunday we had a video chat with USA friends from our years in Morocco who will arrive for a week’s stay just days after our grandson and his parents return home to Morocco.  Notwithstanding future pandemic disruptions, our Costa del Este apartment in Panamá is open to visitors.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Boosted!…and Trying (Dubiously) to Boost our Hopes for 2022

Happy New Year!…we hope.  The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has reconstructed the Calculus equation for making a best guess as to when some measure of settling into “new normal” will occur.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Panamá is caught in the same topsy-turvy daily ambiguity as the rest of the world regarding what behaviors qualify as more or less safe or amid efforts to go forward with work and home life balanced with acceptable levels of risk in both.

At least we are both boosted…finally.

Toward the end of November we shopped at Panama’s upscale MultiPlaza mall in the Punta Pacifica neighborhood.  We had gone there in search of the tembleques (beaded flower-like headpieces), necklaces, and shoes Audrey needed to accessorize the Panamanian attire she would wear when joining on stage at ISP’s PAC (Performing Arts Center) in traditional Panamanian dances in her school’s bicentennial Independence Day celebration.  While hunting for the store where she was instructed to purchase them, on the mall’s bottom floor we happened upon a huge COVID-19 vaccination site run by Pacifica Salud (our Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital next door to the mall).  Seeing that they offered Pfizer vaccine booster shots without appointments, we decided to hop into line.  Very quickly an attendant came to check our vaccination and other documents.  Audrey qualified, but because six months had not yet passed since Brian’s second AstraZeneca vaccine shot, the attendant said he would have to wait.  So Brian continued hunting for the store selling Audrey’s dance attire accessories while Audrey eased forward gradually through the line, moving toward getting boosted with all the speed of a sloth in Panama’s rainforest.  When Brian called Audrey half an hour later to say he had given up his failed hunt for the store, she told him she had received her shot and just needed to wait the obligatory post-shot 15 minutes to ensure no adverse reactions.

She had no adverse reaction to the shot, and Brian had no adverse reaction to waiting to reach his six month date on January 1.  Except, of course, that January 1 was New Year’s Day and we figured no shots would be available.  So he waited a couple more days until January 3 when he could piggy back getting boosted with a doctor appointment he had that morning in the consultorios (doctors’ offices) at Pacifica Salud.  Finishing his checkup just before noon, he navigated the typically bad stretch of traffic on Boulevard Pacifica, taking only about 15 minutes to travel the 350 meters from Pacifica Salud to the parking lot at MultiPlaza.  Lucky Audrey had waited only 30 minutes to get her booster in November.  When Brian arrived at the vaccination site, an attendant pointed toward what Brian thought was the back of the line by the mall’s doors.

Wrong.

Upon his reaching that spot, she pointed again, indicating farther out through the doors, and said, “Afuera.”  Outside.  Stepping outside into the underground garage, Brian saw that the line continued to the far end of the parking structure – at least 60 or 70 people ahead of him just to get back inside.  Apparently, since Audrey’s booster in November and the proliferation of Omicron the vaccination business has been good in Panamá.  So Brian had to wait outside in line nearly an hour sweating in a hot garage just to reenter air conditioning before continuing to wait in a designated “sala de espera” (waiting room) packed with the same 60-70 people in rows of chairs…before moving to a third waiting location outside the vaccination room…before waiting in the vaccination room registration line…before taking a seat to wait for his turn to get boosted.  After nearly two hours of waiting, the boosting itself went quickly and easily, with Brian pleased to get a Pfizer boost to his AstraZeneca vaccination shots.  Panamá is updating its concept of “fully vaccinated” to mean three shots, not two, so now we both are up-to-date in being up-to-date.

As such, we felt ready to step further toward life as we once were used to living it.  One thing we have missed terribly:  entertaining.  Audrey decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with that practice, and invited the leadership team of her school to an afternoon “soirée” in our new home with wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Everyone was vaccinated and we welcomed each person by inviting them to leave their masks on or take them off as they wish, no peer pressure either way.  As it was a very homogeneous group of which almost everyone either worked together or was the significant other of someone who works at ISP, and with ISP having a staff vaccination mandate for some time, most people took off their masks.  Some left them on.  We had a good time, and it felt so good to entertain again.

And, Omicron being what it is, we then waited to see if anyone at the party subsequently reported a COVID diagnosis.  That was made easier by ISP’s requirement that all staff get cleared to return after the holiday break with a negative PCR test last weekend before staff reported back this week for some professional development days and then for the start of the second semester.  Two of the two dozen people who had been our guests did test positive, but so far it looks like they became positive (and contagious) after the party.  Still, with case numbers in Panama skyrocketing in the last week, we feel like the window of opportunity for big entertaining has closed again and do not plan to tempt Omicron fate to that extent for some time.

On another track, while Panamá seemed to manage Omicron well in December, Brian auditioned for and joined Cantemus Panamá, an SATB choral group of expats and Panamanians that sings sacred music in multiple languages.  He has missed his choral involvement in the U.S. since we moved abroad, and hoped when we decided in 2019 upon Panamá as our next billet that he could find a group here for musical and social enjoyment.  Joining Cantemus Panamá thrilled him, with his first concert scheduled for this Sunday to reprise the group’s December presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio.  For the last couple weeks he rehearsed on his own, both in his home office and during his walks on the promenade of Avenida Paseo Del Mar, singing softly while music played via Bluetooth in his head for no one else to hear, and hoping passers-by who saw the white-haired guy with floppy sun hat in t-shirt and walking shorts singing the bass part to Handel’s Messiah – without apparent accompaniment – did not think him schizophrenic.

But COVID had its way with musical plans as well, and Sunday’s concert has been canceled – at least for now – because several choristers and soloists have recently joined Panama’s wave of positive COVID test results.  He hopes they can reschedule the Messiah concert, and that plans later this year to sing Bach’s “Christ Lag In Todesbanden” and Haydn’s “The Creation” come to fruition.  We shall see.

So “up-to-date” with our boosters grants only tempered relief in the Age of Omicron.  As per ISP’s declaration that Audrey sent out last week, and as Omicron quintupled Panama’s COVID numbers in the first week of January (and still more in this second week), on Sunday we walked four blocks to the north side of Costa del Este to get tested at the drive-thru/walk-thru testing facility set up in a parking lot next to the Super Rey grocery store.  Both negative.  Whew!  And how fortunate we felt to have such easy and cheap testing available when tests in the U.S. are hard to find and, when finally found, often cost several times what testing costs here.

After testing we walked over to Town Center so Audrey could get a caprese snack.  We also got a reminder lesson on Panamanian National holidays when Audrey was told she could not order a cup of sangria because it was Día de los Mártires (Martyrs Day).  The January 9 commemoration each year remembers the 1964 flag protest which began when Panamanian students marched into the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone to hoist the Panamanian flag next to the U.S. flag that “Zonian” students had raised at Balboa High School.  A scuffle ensued that resulted somehow in the Panamanian flag tearing, and days of rioting followed in which 28 Panamanians and four Americans died.  After caprese, we walked home appreciative to live in a Panama with still-complicated but less-intense dynamics between Panamanian and American elements.

Besides the ISP staff testing mandate, getting tested also was good to reinforce our negative status before next Monday when Brian’s uncle will become our first international visitor since we arrived in Panamá 18 months ago.  Another thing we loved from the Before Times was hosting visitors.  With Panama managing COVID well through the last several months, we looked forward to Brian’s uncle marking a restart in that part of our lives as well.

How quickly things can change!  We still look forward to his visit, but with us and him all accepting the “unless it does not happen” caveat that pervades our times.  In preparation for his arrival, Brian has been researching and setting up tours for while he is here.  We will open up to spending time with tour guides, but not with large groups of other tourists.  And as a final check before Brian’s uncle comes, we will get tested one more time this weekend to ensure he has a COVID-free zone in which to stay…unless he picks it up on a flight or in an airport on his way to Panamá.

Meanwhile, Audrey’s ISP COVID test mandate before staff returned to campus led to more than 15 percent of staff testing positive – people who traveled during the three-week break, and people who went nowhere.  Consequently, she had to push back the return of students for the second semester until next week, and also expanded the testing mandate to include students before they return.  Teachers are preparing for students mixed between on campus and online once again, at least for a short term.

We started writing this post more than a week ago with a very different emphasis. We began 2022 with confidence in Panama’s management of COVID numbers despite Omicron blowing up so quickly elsewhere in the world. We hoped that we would soon emerge from two years of pandemic haze – not that COVID would be gone, but that it would settle into a stable presence around which we could shape new lives. As we already said, how quickly things can change. Like everyone, we are trying to determine the path forward in the current pandemic phase to find the balance between living as normally as possible while being as responsible as we can.  Consistency on either front yields to living in the massive gray area between the two extremes.  After all this time, we find ourselves still in the realm of everything we choose to do or not do coming down to a risk-reward assessment.  We want to boost our hopes for 2022.  So far, it is a bit better…until it is not…but then it is…before it is not.  [Sigh.]

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Fir Trees Do Not Grow in the Rain Forest:  Getting into the Spirit…and a Break

No sooner did we post a few weeks ago about decorating for Christmas in Panamá, including mention that we had not yet taken the artificial Christmas tree we inherited with our house upon arriving in Panamá last year out of its box to put up in our new apartment, than our seasonal decor plans took an unforeseen turn.  We had figured that – sometime after Thanksgiving – Brian would start listening to Christmas music channels on AccuRadio.com, inspiring him to pull the fake tree out of its box in our guest room closet, and Audrey would grimace slightly while granting her willingness to put it up, so long as Brian promised to take it down soon after Christmas (in order to avoid the “Easter tree” phenomenon that past procrastination sometimes brought into our otherwise wedded paradise).

Nope.  Not how it happened.

On the last Saturday of November – Thanksgiving Weekend and the official start of the Christmas Season by American calendar and custom – we found ourselves out running errands.  First we walked to Town Center, the mall just a few blocks from our Costa del Este home, to buy presents for some kids whom Audrey had “adopted” to make sure they had a good Christmas.  As we walked to and from Town Center we kept seeing cars driving on the roads with honest-to-goodness real fir trees tied on top.

That’s strange,” we said to each other, “there sure are a lot of Christmas trees buzzing around the streets.  Fir trees do not grow in the rainforest.”  And these trees looked good – healthy, green, fresh, and big.  We figured the ritzy class of Costa del Este were willing to pay several hundred dollars for real trees from some designer store instead of having fake trees, and left it at that.

A bit later we hopped in the car and drove to Costa del Este’s Riba Smith for grocery shopping.  As we wound through CDE in our car, we again saw lots of cars topped with real trees…

And what happened, then?  Well, in Panamá they say

That Audrey’s small heart grew three sizes that day.

And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through,

And Audrey said…“What would you think about getting a real tree this year?”  (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.  We know, it does not rhyme.)

Not that Audrey is a Grinch.  Far from it. For the record, she has always had a very large and compassionate heart.  But this is the Audrey who, throughout our years in Morocco, urged each Christmas that we not bother getting a tree and that Brian not go “overboard” on decorating our apartment with lights and bowls of ornaments (since we had no tree upon which to put them)…

Indeed, the same Audrey who, during our years in Arizona, wanted to bother so little with Christmas decor in Scottsdale’s desert environs that each December we would just move a small potted Norfolk pine to the middle of our living room and hang a few light ornaments on its flexile branches.  Audrey still insists it was her version of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, saying, “I’m a minimalist, and less is more.”

Nearly a decade has passed since our last real tree – a giant of a fir that filled-well our large 14-foot ceiling living room in Louisiana, our state of residence at the time.  Brian, with evergreens in his Pacific Northwest DNA, last year had rejoiced merely to be able to put up our new-to-us fake tree, then loved Audrey’s decorating it with two rolls of toilet paper and a COVID mask to give it as much personality as we could muster in Panama’s reprised pandemic lockdown.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/24/covid-christmas-in-panama/)  So he knew not what wondrous stirrings suddenly caused Audrey to want a real tree, but he needed no convincing.  Somehow, after filling our grocery cart with a week’s worth of supplies and getting into the checkout line, instead of thinking, “Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!” she wanted a tree…a real tree…with real decorations.

It was as if she had a smile to her soul as she descended Mount Crumpet cheerily blowing “Who! Who!” on her trumpet.

From two people behind us in the Riba Smith checkout line we heard the husband of an ISP teacher calling out to us.  Audrey asked if he knew where people were buying the Christmas trees.  He did, in fact, and had almost bought one himself for his family’s apartment two buildings over from ours.  He told Audrey where to find them (not a crusty fru-fru establishment, but a different grocery store in the neighborhood) and how they cost no more than if we went tree-shopping in the U.S. (not the hundreds of dollars we had predicted).  So we checked out and went home to put away our weekly storehouse.  And all the while Audrey grew more excited about buying a real tree and ornaments.  And all the while Brian grew more excited about Audrey growing more excited about buying a real tree and ornaments.  

After finishing stowing things in the fridge and pantry, we hopped back in the car and drove to CDE’s Super99 grocery store in search of a Christmas tree.  In a corner of the parking lot stood a blue-tarped, fenced enclosure fronted by a blanket of  pine needles on the ground.  Under the blue tarp, the small enclosure was dark, and housed only a handful or two of remaining trees.  But they were beautiful – lush, green, fresh, and rich with natural pine scent – not from the rainforest but shipped down from Quebec.  They had just one size left:  2.5+ meters (more than 8 feet).  Audrey worried they might be too tall for our apartment’s nine-foot ceiling, but Brian felt confident we could cut the base and top to fit even accounting for the extra inches of a tree stand.  So we bought the smallest of the remaining trees and had them lop off several inches when they cut the base.  Then they ran it through a netting device like Christmas tree professionals and tied it to the top of our car.  Had we gone even a few hours later, the fenced blue-tarp tree cave would have had no more trees to sell.

Then, tree atop our four-wheeled sleigh, more rapid than eagles our coursers took us over to Novey (like Panamanian Home Depot) to buy some Christmas balls and a star for the top.  By American standards we were at the start of the Christmas shopping and decorating season.  However, with Panama’s yuletide having run for almost a month at that point, it was nearing the end of its season and had 50 percent off all Christmas supplies that were left.  Knowing that we have three big boxes of Christmas decor shipping next spring from our storage when Brian makes his next PNW trip in April/May, we did not need much to make the tree look merely sufficient this year.  Lights, however, were a problem.  Novey had only outside icicle lights left.  Brian rectified that a couple days later when he walked to Arrocha (sort of a Michael’s-type chain in Panama) in Town Center and bought several strings of tree lights.  With lights secured, we decorated the tree one evening.  Brian capped the decorating by placing the star atop the tree as it just kissed the ceiling, doing his best Bumble impression to reenact a favorite scene from our childhood Christmases watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  It is sufficient for this year, and we know that next year we will have our family history of ornaments to put on another real fir tree to make our home Christmassy.  

So for the last three weeks it has smelled like pine needles in our apartment.  The aroma helps foster an increasing sense of Christmas spirit.  And today Audrey made her full transition into Christmas mode with her last day of classes at ISP before a long – three week! – Christmas break.

Last year, with schools operating virtually only, ISP could not do much to lead students into the Christmas break with festivities.  “Enjoy a virtual candy cane and virtual Christmas cookies” would not play too well with student stakeholders…or with teachers, for that matter.  But this year, with ISP in full on-campus operations since kicking off the year in August, Audrey got to experience the traditional ISP all-staff Christmas sendoff at the end of the school day that she missed in her maiden year leading ISP 12 months ago.  It began with Christmas music blasting and faculty and staff lining the hallways adorned in Santa hats and reindeer antlers while carolling for students as they headed down the halls.  Then they moved to the parking lots and pickup areas to wave and cheer – still in Santa hats and reindeer antlers – as buses rolled out and parents rolled in to pick up their kids.  There was much horn-honking to express delight and to reciprocate Christmas cheer back to the faculty and staff.  

So now we have moved officially into full Christmas mode.  Our plans remain simple.  We have no friends or family visiting us this Christmas.  Like last year, we will celebrate quietly together, talking with family and friends through digital screens instead of face-to-face.  But this Christmas season just feels more festive, like we have moved closer to how we hope next year we can celebrate.  Our real fir tree, from Quebec instead of from the rainforest and decorated sufficiently with lights and undistinguished ornaments, has helped to boost that feeling.  On Christmas Day, Brian will carve a Christmas ham for the two of us instead of the Grinch carving rare Who roast beast for a long table of Whos.  We will celebrate the blessings in our lives and in our life together.  And we will switch from Dr. Seuss to Dickens in order to say, “God bless us, every one.”

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Decorating for Christmas:  No Thanksgiving Debate

Today is Thanksgiving.

At least that is the case in the U.S.  Various other countries have their own Thanksgivings celebrated on other dates.  But the big Turkey-family-friends-football-shopping-blessings-materialism-travelfest holiday on the annual U.S. calendar has arrived for celebration in the land of E Pluribus Unum and among its expats scattered around the world.

As expats in Morocco we confronted more difficulty seeking to obtain the makings of a Thanksgiving meal, but found the supply stock we needed at the U.S. Embassy Commissary in Rabat (https://expatexpedition.com/2016/11/28/the-commissary-a-thanksgiving-blessing/).  Moreover, because we worked at an American school in Casablanca that built both U.S. and Moroccan holidays into its calendar we had a full four-day Thanksgiving weekend to celebrate in stereotypical American fashion:  cooking and gorging on Thursday (as often as possible introducing American Thanksgiving to Moroccan friends and, after Charlotte got married, to Moroccan family), followed by tryptophan-induced napping and general sluggishness, followed again by leftovers that provided the option for three more days of the same.

Panamá gives us the reverse situation.  For the last few weeks our old Riba Smith grocery store in San Miguelito and our new Riba Smith in Costa del Este have stocked cases of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce (usually the cylinder-shaped jelly kind that Audrey likes and that drops out of its can with a loud “Shhhluuurrrrp!), cases of StoveTop Stuffing (which we are not too proud to admit became an expat indulgence during our Morocco years), and unnaturally huge Butterball turkeys filling the freezer section.  Last week Brian bought a not-too-outrageous “Festive” brand turkey breast weighing 3 kilos (shy of 7 pounds) without its wings and drumsticks.  That should lead to good gravy and leftovers aplenty for days of turkey sandwiches.  (NB:  We also can get King’s Hawaiian Rolls here…SCORE!)  But that feasting will not begin until this weekend, because Audrey’s International School of Panamá has that “International” thing leading its name.  Hence, ISP’s calendar treats the fourth Thursday of November like any other typical Thursday through the school year.  Last year we opted to do our own Thanksgiving celebration on the weekend after the stateside Big Day.  We figured a two-day delay seemed a reasonable exchange for both of us spending all day in celebratory mode instead of cramming Thanksgiving into a couple hours after coming home from school on Thursday and before going to bed in order to get up for school again on Friday.  It worked, and so we will do that again this year.

Panama does not ignore American Thanksgiving completely.  This morning Brian saw online ads from some local restaurants featuring Thanksgiving specials today.

Churrería Manolo invited people (in Spanish) to “celebrate . . . with your loved ones a special #Thanksgiving with a delicious #Menu” that started with a Thanksgiving Breakfast of a “corn tortilla with shredded turkey in its sauce.”  After noon, its Thanksgiving Menu featured squash cream and house bread, a choice of turkey breast in black pepper sauce with honey or turkey breast in mushroom sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes with vegetables and glazed sweet potato.  The churrería’s dessert, of course, is a churro stuffed with apple and cinnamon.

Portolá declared (again in Spanish) that “the date of the richest meal of the year has arrived,” before introducing it not as a Thanksgiving menu but as a Christmas menu.  This captures better our experience with Thanksgiving in Panamá:  Thanksgiving does not rate here.  Christmas is King.

No one wonders whether to wait until after Thanksgiving to decorate for Christmas.  Generally speaking, Panamanians are too busy with their own five . . . yes, FIVE . . . national holidays that appear each November to get excited about an American turkey holiday.  This year doubles down on that, because Americans giving thanks today comes just three days before the bicentennial of Panama’s independence from Spain in 1821 on November 28.

This plethora of November holidays not only squeezes out any hope American expats might have for celebrating American Thanksgiving on Thursday instead of a couple days later, it also presents a completely different marketing environment than in the U.S.  Plenty of stores and restaurants and municipal governments and individual homes in the U.S. still stand by Thanksgiving as the unofficial official kickoff to the Christmas season, for all that means spiritually and festively and commercially.  Sure, plenty of others seek to push it earlier than Thanksgiving, but the debate over the appropriateness of that rages hotly.  And in our travels we have marvelled at the power of American commercialism to spread the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping fests to other continents that do not celebrate American Thanksgiving, with that as a Christmas season kickoff not appearing unusual.

But in Panamá the entire month of November takes on a festive feel as soon as Halloween’s costumes come off and kids come down from their sugar highs.  (To be clear, Halloween is not a big thing in Panamá either, but the commercial and American expat forces seek to build that up as well.)  Panamanian flags and red-white-and-blue bunting go up in schools and shopping malls and neighborhoods and apartment building lobbies to mark the first three holidays on November 3-4-5.  But candy canes, nutcrackers, elves, reindeer, and Santas also appear in abundant grocery store displays, and once the earlier patriotic holidays finish, Christmas decor pours out of stores and neighborhoods like the floods that follow our daily thunderstorm downpours (that soon should wane into the dry season Panamians call “summer”).  Roundabouts in roadways sport strings of Christmas light displays made to look like Christmas trees several stories tall.  Courtyards of commercial buildings and shopping malls put up and decorate trees 20, 30, 40 feet high or more.  Christmas music – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English – pipes through speakers.  In the Town Center mall, just three blocks from our new home, a huge teddy bear (appropriately masked for Panama’s COVID-19 protocols) wearing a Santa hat at least 15 feet high sits next to a big Christmas tree at least 10 feet taller and a large, plush, red bench with a sign that advertises it as Santa’s seat.  (We do not know if that is for display only, or if Santa appears now and then to have pictures taken with kids while sitting on his cushy bench.)  In sum, this place goes Christmas crazy throughout the month of November and continues all through la navidad (Christmas).  Thanksgiving as the kickoff to Christmas?  Not a chance. Not here.

And so we turn attention to our abode.  When we moved at the beginning of this month from our house in San Miguelito to our condo in Costa del Este, we brought with us the boxed artificial tree that we put up for our COVID Christmas last year.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/24/covid-christmas-in-panama/)  As of today, it remains boxed on a shelf in the guest room closet.  We figure the rest of Panama has done more than enough decorating throughout the month of November to cover us for a few more weeks without us oozing holiday cheer.  We do not feel Scroogey and call Christmas a humbug.  We just feel tired from a busy last few months of negotiating, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling into our new home.  We suspect that once Brian starts listening to AccuRadio Christmas music stations, the tree will appear . . . perhaps even with an ornament or two (unless we opt again for Audrey’s brilliant decor theme from last year).

So Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating it today or later this weekend.  We count our family and friends as our greatest blessings, and wish you all the best today and every day.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Gridlock:  Travel During the November Holidays

Nearly a year has passed since we wrote about our first experience with Panama’s November holidays.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/01/thanksgiving-for-two-november-holidays-in-panama/)  At that time, Panama’s government had recently ended its strict lockdown that kept people sealed hermetically inside their homes all but a couple hours a day for two (men) or three (women) days per week.  Preferring to keep insulating our then-unvaccinated selves from the uptick in COVID-19 cases that a month of national holiday vacationing wrought, we – just the two of us – celebrated a quiet Thanksgiving during the weekend after the U.S. Thanksgiving Thursday date.  This year, our now-vaccinated selves (and with Brian’s blood still coursing with post-COVID antibodies from his August infection) welcomed the arrival of  Panama’s November holidays with an escape to a beach condo offered to us by friends for a few days of rest and relaxation overlooking the Playa Santa Clara (Santa Clara Beach).  Still rather reclusive behavior, but by choice instead of by mandate.

Following a few days in Miami the previous week so that Audrey could attend a school governance training conference with her board, and so that Brian could catch up with a college classmate and former housemate from his D.C. days whom he had not seen in 30 years, we arrived home at night on the last Friday of October too late to participate in the pre-Halloween trick-or-treating sponsored by our La Montañesa homeowners association for the neighborhood kids.  On Saturday we picked up keys from the realtor for the Costa del Este apartment we are buying.  Then, with ISP on break for the first week of November, on Sunday we packed a few clothes and lots of food before driving 137 kilometers (85 miles) out from the Panamá City metro area, across el Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge) that spans the Panamá Canal, and along la Carretera Interamericana (the Pan-American Highway) to Santa Clara.  We stopped along the way at the regionally-famous Quesos Chela (Chela Cheeses) in the Capira District of the Panamá Oeste Province to pick up good cheese and delicious rolls for making lunchtime sandwiches during our mini-vacation.  With only about 30 people in line ahead of us at Quesos Chela (a relatively small number, given that we have seen more than triple that crowd there), we incurred not too much of a delay (though, arriving at 1:30pm, our shopping reprised Monte Python’s “Cheese Shop” skit as most of the cheeses had sold out for the day), and completed the trip with minimal traffic on the road in roughly two hours.

We arrived.  We settled into our digs.  We felt rejuvenated by the ocean view and the constant sound of waves rolling up the beach.  We ate well.  We stayed in pajamas some days and had Aperol Spritzes daily at noon because we could.  Life was so good.

Then we had to leave, needing to prepare for the craziness transitioning into our new apartment would bring over the next couple weeks.

We had driven to Santa Clara on October 31…a Sunday…a day of the week when people typically drive BACK to Panamá FROM the Interior instead of FROM Panamá TO the Interior.  So we found the drive rather pleasurable with minimal traffic.

Not so for our return to Panamá City three days later.  We headed back home on Wednesday afternoon, November 3, the first of the November national holidays and the first of three consecutive days remembering Panama’s 1903 split from Colombia (November 3’s Separation Day), the creation of its flag by Maria de la Ossa de Amador three months before she became the first First Lady of Panamá (November 4’s Flag Day, changed to Patriotic Symbols Day in 2013), and the people of Colon preventing Colombia’s military from marching across the isthmus to Panamá City to put down the bloodless revolution (November 5’s Colon Day).

Often people living in Panamá City own additional homes along the beaches or in inland towns of the Interior.  Traffic across the Centennial Bridge and el Puente de las Américas (the Bridge of the Americas) and along the Pan-American Highway typically backs up so much heading out of the Capital on Fridays and back from the Interior on Sundays that many of our friends and associates with beach or mountain homes rarely brave the weekend traffic.  Instead they stay put in their skyscraper condominiums in neighborhoods like Marbella, San Francisco, Coco del Mar, Punta Pacifica, Costa del Este, and Santa Maria, saying that one day of pleasurable escape does not compensate for many extra hours lost to driving each way.

Our drive back from Santa Clara to Panamá City went counter to the endless line of vehicles of all sizes packed with people heading west..slowly…very slowly…to meet up with families and friends for the patriotic triduum in the western provinces from Panamá Oeste and Coclé to Veraguas and Chiriquí.  Like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S. and like Ramadan and Eid in Morocco, Panama’s November holidays are when it seems the entire nation travels to spend holiday time with those they love.  Soon, however, the overloaded highway lanes across the median burst like a controlled automotive aneurysm as orange cones narrowed our eastward path to a single lane and oncoming vehicles flowed into eastbound lanes to lessen the pressure of cars, vans, and trucks on the westward arterial.

First we slowed from our good pace.

Then we slowed to stop-and-go traffic.

Then we just stopped.

And sat.

We felt cast into a living version of James Taylor’s 1977 song Traffic Jam:

“Well I left my job about 5 o’clock, it took fifteen minutes go three blocks,

Just in time to stand in line with a freeway looking like a parking lot.

I said, ‘Damn this traffic jam!’ How I hate to be late, 

It hurts my motor to go so slow. Time I get home my supper’ll be cold.

Damn this traffic jam.

Now I almost had a heart attack, looking in my rear view mirror,

I saw myself the next car back, looking in the rear view mirror,

About to have a heart attack.

I said, ‘Damn this traffic jam…’”

For roughly 45 kilometers (shy of 30 miles) we moved a little, then waited a while, then moved a little more.  We watched people get out of their cars to fetch items from their trunks to help them pass the wait time.  We watched people pull their cars over to the shoulder so they could get out and pee while pretending everyone else with nothing to do but watch them pee could not see them next to their cars.  We watched policemen not notice the three guys on the side of the road peeing next to the car from which they emerged, standing together and conversing while emptying in a urinal line of nature.  We watched minutes tick by on the dashboard clock.

Stretching from the Coronado area (popular with American expats for retirement living and with Panamanians for beach residences) onward to La Chorrera, we wondered if it would continue all the way across the Centennial Bridge and, if so, how many more hours we had left before arriving home.

And then, just past La Chorrera, it stopped.  That is to say, all of a sudden the orange cones disappeared to open up multiple lanes again, and instantly traffic started once more to move at normal travel speeds.  We went from crawling to cruising speed in a blink, making up for lost time almost the rest of the way home.  (Of course, there was the one detour spot Brian tried to preempt by reminding Audrey in advance that she always insists forcefully on his going the wrong way on Corredor Norte; which Audrey then acknowledged and owned completely; and then promised not to insist forcefully that he go the wrong way on Corredor Norte; and then screamed involuntarily at Brian, “CORREDOR NORTE!…There!!…There!!!…THERE!!!”; leaving Brian, knowing all the while it had been written in stone through the ages as that which one must do, to smile and embrace this fated irony, and head in the wrong direction on Corredor Norte for a few kilometers before reaching the now-familiar turn-around maneuver at the Clayton exit.)  Somehow, even with James Taylor along for the ride, what should have been a two-hour trip took us only an extra 30-45 minutes to complete.  We suspect that had we stayed a few days longer and traveled home with the masses instead of pitying them on the start of their holiday journeys while we headed home from ours, our drive time would have doubled or tripled.

Needless to say, in a couple weeks when Panamá celebrates the bicentennial of its 1821 independence from Spain we will be home enjoying the view of the Pacific from our new condo balcony in Costa del Este.  And with several bathrooms at our disposal, we need not pull over to pee on the side of the road in front of an auto-encased audience while hoping the police will not notice.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Riding the Roller Coaster

Throughout 25 years of marriage – and especially through our child-raising years – one of our favorite movies has been the 1989 Steve Martin film Parenthood, and particularly its famous “roller coaster” scene when Grandma shares a life lesson story with main characters Gil and his wife, Karen.

Grandma says…

You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.

Up…down…up…down…Oh, what a ride….

I always wanted to go again.

You know, it was just interesting to me that a ride could make me feel so…so frightened, so scared, so sick, so…so excited, and…and so thrilled all together.

Some didn’t like it.  They went on the merry-go-round.  That just goes around.  Nothing.

I like the roller coaster.  You get more out of it.

Sometimes our roller coaster ride through life seems rather tame.  Other times it pops and rocks and climbs and free-falls before loop-de-looping and rolling through a sudden pitch left and pitch right.  Since last posting in early August, we have appreciated being strapped in while the rumbling track we follow carried us through one thing after another and, ultimately, shot us through to an exciting decision.

We love living in Panamá.  We would be thrilled if Audrey’s role leading the International School of Panamá ends up as her “caboose” job that lasts well into the 2030s.  [Perhaps, at this point, people we have collected through decades of moves around the U.S. and internationally will say, “Ummm, yeah.  We’ve heard that before, so we always book your new addresses in pencil instead of in pen.”]  But even if at some point we end up going somewhere else during the many years before retirement, this is where we plan to spend our jubilado (retired) life.

Since posting last on August 5, much has transpired in our lives.  We had full plans for August and September.  As things turned out, they proved to be quite full months, but very little went according to plan.

On August 11, we celebrated (one day late) 25 years of marriage by staying home and enjoying an anniversary dinner Brian grilled, and Audrey devoured, of a mammoth steak, asparagus, and baked potato.  Then early the next morning Audrey said goodbye to Brian at Tocumen International Airport as he took off for a seven-week stint in the Pacific Northwest helping his mother with a long list of projects accruing since his stepfather passed away a year ago.  Brian’s preparations for the trip included making a detailed Gantt Chart of at least a dozen projects to try squeezing into the nearly two months with his mom.

Then, a few days after arriving back in the U.S. he tested positive with a breakthrough case of COVID-19.  Fortunately, being vaccinated, the worst of it lasted less than a week (though the lost taste and smell and the achy lungs lasted much longer).  Then, given the close quarters in which he stayed with his mother in her mountain cabin in the Cascades of Washington State, despite his efforts to quarantine she tested positive a week later.  Likewise vaccinated, and able to get a Regeneron treatment, she bottomed out below Brian’s condition but still pretty lucky that her case was not worse.

As Brian recuperated from his own COVID case and cared for his mother with hers, Audrey called one afternoon to tell him that she came home from work to find our house had been robbed.  The place had been made to look like it was ransacked, but the police said it was likely a staged inside job.  Could have been worse, but most of Audrey’s jewelry and all the cash in our house was taken.  So between COVID coughing fits, for several days Brian talked by phone with Audrey, police, and prosecutors in Panamá as they worked through their investigation.  In the end, the authorities felt quite certain about who did it, among other reasons because there was nothing stolen in the robbery’s narrow window of time that could not fit into a woman’s shoulder bag; but as of yet they do not have evidence to file charges.  It seems everyone has stories about how their homes, their parents’ homes, or other relatives’ homes were robbed at one point, often perpetrated by people known to them and typically without recovering stolen items.  Audrey heard a story about a family that secured their valuables in a safe bolted to the wall of a room in their house, then came home one day to find a huge hole in the wall where thieves literally had cut the safe clean out of the wall and carried it off.  In one sense, expat life means having to make peace with the notion that “it’s only stuff” that can be lost or stolen or destroyed in so many ways, so excessive material attachment becomes inadvisable.  But we also remind ourselves that such things happen everywhere, including in the U.S., so we find value in cultivating the “it’s only stuff” mindset regardless of wherever we happen to be.

With COVID and cops consuming Brian’s first two weeks away, his manicured Gantt Chart planning slipped further behind each day.  Each evening he would return to it and shift tasks back another day, and another, and another.  Not that no progress occurred, but strategy changed from plotting how to knock projects off the Gantt Chart to prioritizing what tasks on which projects he and his mother would pursue.  Meanwhile, Audrey followed through on her plans to eat as much seafood (to which Brian is allergic) as she could during his absence; but other plans to enjoy peace were robbed with our cash and her jewelry as the authorities continued calling her with developments for weeks.  At one point, after Brian had scanned a couple dozen pages of jewelry receipts and records from files in our storage unit back in Washington and emailed them to Audrey to pass to the investigators, the police called her at school one day to tell her that they had found in a raid of a jewelry party some of the stolen jewelry, including (drum roll, please!) Brian’s Rolex watch.  The problematic fact that Brian has never owned a Rolex watch made her skeptical that she would find anything of hers among the loot they had recovered.  Nonetheless, she detoured from her day to spend a few more hours traveling to, finding a way to enter, and then sitting in an official location where she was shown a bunch of jewelry, none of which had ever been in our possession.  Finally, she decided she needed to escape and spent a weekend in a hotel in Casco Viejo, the old city of Panamá.  For two days she spoiled herself with the delights of good food, good wine, and the history of Panamá that surrounded her.

Recovering from COVID and getting past the robbery investigation, Brian was finally getting into a workflow when he and his mother learned that one of her sisters, Brian’s aunt and godmother, had taken a very bad turn in her long cancer battle.  So just as the unresolved grief from losing Brian’s stepfather a year ago climbed higher and higher, they again detoured from prioritized projects and onto the path of added family grief from preparing to lose another loved one.  Yet the tradeoff for lost productivity was Brian’s presence with his mother through this very difficult time.  Despite living in Panamá, his presence in the PNW let him spend long enough with his aunt a few days before she died so they could exchange “I love you” words and recollections.  And he was able to be with his mother both on the September 20 one-year mark of losing her husband, and on the next day when her sister died on September 21.  And a few days later, he and his sister joined their mother in an intimate and much-overdue remembrance of beloved stepfather Bob by the riverside of the mountain cabin home he loved.  However unscripted in advance, being present with his mother in this way during his last weeks before returning to Panamá proved far more important and more valuable than ticking off tasks on the Gantt Chart projects.

Throughout the roller coaster ride of all those weeks, one more rail followed the track on which it ran.  Several months ago we decided, quietly but confidently, that Panamá had overtaken Italy and Portugal as our likeliest retirement location.  We started looking at real estate options to buy a place that we can call “home,” and not just “the place that we rent.”  After many weeks of hunting across the Panamá City metro area, we thought we had found a house right for us.  It was under construction in a new development close to ISP, with completion planned for December.  We put down a small deposit to hold it while we explored other options.  Ultimately we decided that while it was not the “forever” house we sought with just one floor to allow us to stay even after getting very old and feeble, it could serve our needs sufficiently for some time and would be a prudent investment with the likelihood of being able to rent it to a teacher’s family (with three schools to employ them just minutes away).  But we hit a wall as hard as the house’s concrete framing when we tried to negotiate anything from the purchase price to details that we wanted to substitute during its construction.  So we let go of that option as Brian prepared to leave for the PNW, and figured we would leave real estate alone until Brian returned in October.

Then Audrey, who kept trolling Panama’s online listings just to see what might pop up, found something new that excited her.  She sent Brian a link to an apartment (though we had looked mainly at houses) in the trendy Costa del Este neighborhood (which we considered unlikely to find something in our target price range) with features that unexpectedly fit our preference for classic style instead of Panama’s popular modern feel.  Typical of her, Audrey visited it, loved it, and checked with experts we know to confirm both the soundness of the building and the listing’s claim that the price was, indeed, a below market deal.  She did not want to miss the opportunity; but, typical of him, Brian put on the brakes and said he had no interest in buying a place where he would spend the rest of his life without even setting foot inside it first.

So began our two month ride through climbs and drops and loops and turns that started out trying to negotiate an agreement that, for a reasonable deposit from us, would have the owners take it off the market until Brian could visit it and we could get it appraised and inspected.  Quickly our ride accelerated into something much more complicated and topsy-turvy.  Through multiple incarnations, additions, negotiations, and even a number of head scratchings requiring a fair bit of patience, we did not actually sign an agreement until after Brian returned on October 1, saw the apartment on October 2 and loved it as well; we got very favorable inspection and appraisal reports; and the timeline changed from us closing in February before moving in to us actually taking possession of it in November and renting it from the sellers until we close in February.

But it all worked out.  Two days ago we met with the sellers and our respective attorneys in a notary office to sign the final version in true Panamanian legal style:  with our firmas (signatures) and with our right index fingerprints rolled out next to them.

And so it seems we have sunsets returning to our daily lives very soon.  One of the things we most loved during our four years in Morocco was our apartment balcony’s 180 degree view of the Atlantic’s African coast, and each night we enjoyed watching the sun drop down into the ocean and, as Audrey liked to say, “dissolve like a lozenge into the water.”  Often it became a community event as neighbors across the apartments on GWA’s campus simultaneously went to their balconies or to the buildings’ rooftops to appreciate the gift of nature’s beauty, then hear the gift of human beauty when the Calls to Prayer from all the area mosques would follow immediately to echo across the many-hued sky.  The photo above, taken from the balcony of our soon-to-be-home, shows how before too long Brian will again be able to post nightly sunset photos to remind folks that – no matter what else we encounter in our days – at least there remains beauty in the world.  What an unexpected surprise to have traded our Atlantic sunsets in Morocco for Pacific ones in Panamá.

We don’t know what twists and turns and ups and downs lay in wait on the track ahead of us.  But in a couple weeks we will move into our new home with a sunset view of the Panama City skyline and the Pacific Ocean.  (Americans in Panama often have difficulty remembering that we have the Caribbean Atlantic to the north and the Pacific to the south, rather than to the east and west like in the U.S.)  Even more significant is that no matter what twists and turns toss us around in the coming years, we will have a place to which we can always come home, and a most pleasant station at which the roller coaster ride ultimately will come to rest.

Visitors are always welcome.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

And, Exhale: Getting Vaccinated

For months we have read about the failure in the U.S. of incentivizing people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.  Apparently free donuts from Krispy Kreme, free cheeseburgers from Dick’s Drive-In (shoutout to Seattle!), and free entry into million dollar lotteries in multiple states do not tip the scale enough for those still missing their Fauci Ouchies to trade in their resistance to getting the jab in exchange for building their resistance to COVID-19.  Meanwhile, as public health and government officials in the U.S. begged people to get vaccinated, in Panama we waited not for donuts, cheeseburgers, and vaccination lotteries; rather we waited simply for the ability to get vaccinated.  

The Panamanian government said in January that the first shipments of Pfizer vaccines were coming soon, and laid out a tiered system of who could get vaccinated in what phase of the grand public health project.  As the Head of ISP, Audrey would get her shots in an early phase that prioritized educators.  Brian, as a “jubilado” (retired person) still more than half a decade away from age 60, would have to wait through the phases until the general population had their turn.  Still, Brian registered online  back in February so that he could get a date as soon as possible.  

In March, ISP took care of registering Audrey and arranging for her shots with the rest of the staff.  Brian drove her to her first dose appointment at a Panamanian school about 15 minutes from our house.  Knowing that unused Pfizer shots have to be discarded, he bundled up hope and walked with her through the entry line on the off chance that he could sweet talk his way into getting a shot with an extra dose.  Guards at the entry point checked off Audrey’s name on their list, then gave Brian a look that said implicitly he would go no farther.  Undeterred, he smiled and asked brightly if he could go in and wait to see what leftovers might be available at the end of the day.  Their stone-faced, simple, and clear response:  No.

So Brian returned to the car and watched Netflix on his phone while Audrey got her shot and waited 15 minutes to see if she would have a negative reaction.  She was fine, and after a total of about 45 minutes she joined Brian at the car and we headed home.  A few weeks later they repeated the process, though this time at a different school 20 minutes away in the opposite direction and without Brian bothering to ask if he could wait for an extra dose.  Again it took at most 45 minutes for her to finish.  Neither time did she suffer any noticeable side effects, and we were relieved that at least one of us had Pfizer’s vaccine coursing through her veins.

That was the last we heard about Pfizer until just recently.  With the U.S. holding off emergency approval of AstraZeneca in the wake of reports that several people out of millions had suffered blood clots after receiving the AZ vaccine, the USA started sending its stockpiles of AZ abroad for other countries to use.  Brian cared less about getting Pfizer specifically than about getting whatever reputable vaccine he could (which he counted as Pfizer, Moderna, or AstraZeneca) as soon as he could.  With Panama planning its vaccinations with AstraZeneca instead of with the Russian or Chinese vaccines about which Brian had concerns, he steeled himself to be patient.

Even after Audrey got her shots, we both continued living in a relatively small bubble until Brian could get vaccinated as well.  Initial hope in early 2021 that this would come quickly dissipated.  As weeks and months passed, we learned of many people who traveled to the U.S. to take advantage of the readily-available vaccines not being taken by people living in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere.  Once shipments of AZ started coming to Panama, despite having registered online months before, Brian needed to go online again for one of the AstraZeneca vaccination events sponsored by MINSA (the Health Ministry), with the windows for doing so opening sporadically and briefly.  He tried several times when he heard that the online site had opened up for an event, only to discover time and again that the limited number of doses available had been claimed in a matter of hours.  After hearing one night that people who showed up at a vaccination event at Estadio Rommel Fernández were able to get vaccinated without appointments, he drove to the stadium the next day only to find the entire complex empty, a ghost town with abandoned signs announcing the event as the only evidence that it had happened at all…It had closed the previous day after running out of doses.  Frustrated that he could not secure a date, Brian decided that if he failed to get shot locally by the end of July he would exercise the U.S. option as well.

Then, finally, it happened.

With several people on the lookout for helping Brian get an appointment, our ISP neighbor Priyanka (who had been so helpful when we first arrived a year ago) once again saved the day by plugging his residency information into the online site, then texting Brian to say she had an appointment for him on June 1 in a grand vaccination event to be held at Estadio Rommel Fernández.  Brian quickly contacted friend Tupac, another ISP trailing spouse, to let him know about the opportunity to register.  Tupac got an appointment for June 2, and they decided that Tupac would drive Brian on June 1 and Brian would drive Tupac on June 2.

On the morning of June 1, Tupac picked him up at 10:15 for the 11:00 appointment and drove him to the stadium.  What they found did not resemble Audrey’s school vaccination site at all, and impressed them greatly.  First, with all the flags and signs (including sponsorship signs from grocery store chains, health organizations, the ever present “Claro vs. Tigo” mobile phone marketing battle, and more), the event seemed almost festive.  Second, the cars lined up moved at a good pace through the long line due to excellent organization of the event.  Third, when they stopped at the first checkpoint and Brian showed evidence of his appointment for that morning, Tupac asked if he could get his first shot as well.  Showing the official the email confirming his appointment for June 2, he let Tupac get his shot as well rather than having to return the next day, and put “first shot” stickers on both their residency cards.  Winding through the Disney-like car line of switchbacks to make people feel like they proceeded more quickly than they actually did, with additional check points to check IDs and get vaccination cards, they eventually discovered that the entire “Auto Rápido” process occurred outside on the stadium grounds’ access roads and parking lots without ever exiting one’s vehicle.  After pulling into the drive-through tent where the jabbing took place, they got their shots and then followed the Disney course to a section of the parking lot that Brian dubbed “the Facebook Area.”  Meant for people to park and wait 15 minutes to ensure no bad side effects (and with a medical tent on site to care for anyone with a bad reaction), there seemed an unwritten rule that everyone waiting there had to snap selfies and post for posterity their receipt of the vaccine.  Tupac and Brian, of course, did so as well.  After waiting 15 minutes and posting photos on Facebook, they headed home.

Though Audrey suffered no side effects from her Pfizer shots, by that evening Brian’s upper arm felt very sore.  By the next day, he exhibited flu-like achiness and exhaustion, and slept most of the day.  Then all passed and he felt fine again.  One dose down, and MINSA started sending daily emails reminding Brian of his second dose appointment scheduled for July 1.

When July 1 came, this time Brian picked up Tupac (who also received a July 1 appointment for his second dose) at 7:18 am and they set out to repeat the process.  With morning traffic, the 15-minute drive to Estadio Rommel Fernández took 30 minutes, marking their arrival at 7:48 am.  Driving through the entry arch welcoming them with “Bienvenidos – Centro de Vacunación – Auto Rápido” they found no cars lined up until some ways down the chute.  Upon stopping with a handful of cars lined up in two lanes, an official held them briefly.  The first check went quickly and they got their “second shot” stickers on their residency cards, then the official waved them forward past the right lane filled with cars and into the empty left lane driving past 20-30 vehicles.  At the second checkpoint where they showed their vaccination cards, they again found no cars in their left lane and got waved forward to curve through the Disney line past another 10-20 cars and straight on to an empty vaccination tent while the other tents had lines waiting at them.  Inside the tent, they again showed their vaccination cards and IDs, got their shots from an efficient vaccinator, then rolled on to the Facebook Area to post about COVID liberation while making sure neither suffered bad side effects.  With their assigned vaccination appointments at 8:00-9:00 am, they hit the Facebook Area at 7:54.  A mere total of six minutes expired from their arrival to receiving their shots.  This time, Brian had no side effects at all; just a little soreness at the injection spot for a day.

Then the waiting game began, knowing that it takes a couple weeks for the vaccine to take full effect.  Despite the temptation to pop out of his bubble, Brian resisted until two full weeks passed, celebrating Liberation Day at a (still outside) rooftop restaurant birthday dinner surprise for Audrey planned by several of her leadership staff at ISP.  We came out further the next week when we headed to El Valle – a town  2 ½ hours away in the Interior nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano – for Audrey to lead an ISP Leadership Team Retreat.  Overall, though, we have remained restrained in order to minimize Brian’s exposure before heading to the Pacific Northwest for seven weeks to help his octogenarian mother with a number of projects with which she needs assistance.

While she will miss him during his absence, Audrey looks forward to shellfish-allergic Brian’s departure so she can eat seafood every night and open her bubble more freely.  Brian looks forward to his return in October when finally he can open his bubble and see the inside of a church for the first time since 26 February 2020 when he went to Ash Wednesday Mass with friends Nic and Lyle in Prague.

Despite our lingering practice of precautions for the time being, with both of us finally vaccinated, we breathe more easily with much less worry about COVID making it harder to breathe at all.

On your mark, get set, here we go!