Gridlock:  Travel During the November Holidays

Nearly a year has passed since we wrote about our first experience with Panama’s November holidays.  (  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!

IDAAN: Water, Sewers, and Lotteries

Paying utilities tends to fall into the doldrums of life anywhere.  And so it was upon our arrival in Panama.  After spending 11 months figuring out the various ways paying different utilities can or might (or might not) work, we have added all our utilities to our bank account for online payment.  Accounts we set up ourselves, such as cable/internet with Cable Onda and Brian’s cell phone with Claro, gave us no trouble paying online.  In fact, in addition to sending us invoices by email, once we entered our account numbers, we were able to check utility account balances through our bank’s online bill pay even without the invoices in hand.  Initially, though, we found paying the electricity and the sewer/water bills challenging for several reasons.

First, we receive no utility bills in our mail at home because…well, frankly, because Panama does not have a system for delivering residential mail.  Of course, that stands as an issue with much greater breadth than receiving (or not receiving) monthly utility bills.  When Brian served on a virtual accreditation visiting team for a school in Africa last October, the school’s Head asked visiting team members for their addresses in order to send suitable-for-framing “Thank You” cards, hand-painted by one of the country’s artists of note who also happens to teach art at the school.  With Audrey’s permission, Brian gave her ISP’s address.  Postmark stamps on the envelope show that the card, stuffed with pages of appreciative “Thank You” messages from stakeholders at the accredited school, finally arrived in Panama at the end of March…six months after his virtual visit to the school…and then took another six weeks to make its way across town to ISP for Audrey to receive it and bring it home to Brian.

Second, while our landlord sent us the electricity bill (from ENSA, or the Colombia-based company Elektra Noreste S.A.) by WhatsApp, initially we could not pay it without the personal ID information for his wife (who holds the account and did not want us to switch it to our names).  Once the landlord shared his wife’s cédula and passport, Brian could set up an easy electronic payment through our Panamanian bank account, like with Claro and Cable Onda; so the only obstacle to keeping our electricity running was the frequency with which our landlord might send the bill to us via WhatsApp.  Usually he did this monthly; but sometimes he did not.  Now that Brian has figured out how to check the invoice balances through our online banking, even that should not be a problem.  But for a while the best we could say is that we paid our electricity bill frequently enough that ENSA threatened to shut off our power only once.

Third, without residential mail delivery, our water/sewer bill from IDAAN, el Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarriados Nacional (the National Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers) mysteriously gets delivered to the garita (the guard house at the gate of our neighborhood), and the guard on duty then comes to our house either to put it in our hands if we are home or to leave it in the door for us to find.  Throughout our first year here, we have not determined whether we get invoiced by IDAAN only every couple months or if some invoices simply never get to us for payment.  More challenging still, the first IDAAN invoice arrived without explanation of what it covered or how to pay it.  Eventually we learned that we could go to a Super 99 grocery store to pay it; but when we tried the clerk would take payment only for the water portion of the bill, saying we had to go to the IDAAN office to pay the sewer portion.  Needless to say, we had no idea where to find the IDAAN office, and at the time Brian still did not have a Panamanian phone to facilitate search and navigation.

After a few months, our landlord told Brian (approximately) where to find IDAAN, so he went with house helper Iris (for language support) to find it and pay.  They hopped into our car and drove to the expansive labyrinth of Centro Comercial Los Pueblos (an outdoor shopping center spanning many blocks of crowded streets and busy buildings here in San Miguelito), finally finding IDAAN after stopping three times to ask people where it was.  Then they had to find a place to park amid a scene that reminded Brian of a Casablanca traffic jam, with multiple lanes of cars turning in all directions from any lane at each intersection within Los Pueblos.  At last they found a spot on the third pass by IDAAN about 50 meters away from its door.  Getting out and approaching IDAAN, they encountered a looooooong line of people waiting to get in.  Iris, a woman of action with a gift for making things happen, told the security guard at the door that her “gringo” was old (see for Brian’s benefit of having white hair when getting his driver’s license) and only needed to pay a bill.  So the guard let Brian in and he went to the back of the office to join the line of people only paying invoices, bypassing the outside line and the front-of-the-office line queued to take up other water and sewer challenges.  With successful completion of the bill-paying task, Brian told Iris that henceforth he would know where to go and could pay future invoices by himself like a big boy.

Of course, that required actually receiving the IDAAN bill, which did not arrive at the door again until after a couple months.  Brian went by himself to pay, driving to Los Pueblos and looking for a place to park.  Parking was again a challenge, with people double-parked and long lines of vehicles not moving quickly.  Brian feared another long queue to get inside at IDAAN.  But then he saw two things that made him happy:  First, he saw a parking space across the street from IDAAN.  Second, he saw that all the people trying to park, letting out passengers to stand in line, and double-parking their cars, were getting in a very long line for the National Lottery next door to IDAAN instead of for IDAAN itself.

One need not live long in Panama before understanding that la Loteria Nacional de Beneficiencia, or LNB, is a very big deal.  While the current lottery was established in 1919, its history traces back to 1882 before Panama existed as an independent republic, when the Colombian government issued a charter for the lottery in its Panamanian province.  In 1910, the Los Angeles Herald published an article (“The Panama Lottery” by Frederic J. Haskin:  Los Angeles Herald, Volume 37, Number 139, 17 February 1910) noting the trouble American authorities in the Canal Zone had keeping American workers from crossing the border of “The Zone” into Panama proper to buy lottery tickets:

The Panama lottery has its home in the bishop’s palace and is within a stone’s throw of the cathedral itself.  In fact, one can stand in front of the counter at the Panama lottery and look into the sacred precincts of the cathedral when its doors are opened. . . . Their lottery is a legacy of the French regime on the isthmus, it having been chartered at the time when [Ferdinand De Lesseps, leader of the failed French effort to build a canal 1881-1891] was there.  Speculation and gambling were everywhere in evidence then, and it had a prosperity that rivaled the old Louisiana lottery in its palmiest days. . . . They are held on Sunday at the lottery headquarters.  Forty little ivory balls are placed In a box. These balls consist of four sets numbered from zero to nine.  A child is called to do the drawing, and the mayor and two witnesses chosen from the crowd assist.  The child draws out one of the forty balls, and the mayor posts it on the board.  Then another ball is drawn out, and the result is posted.  This is repeated until the drawing is completed.  Thus, if the first number drawn was 2, the second 7, the third 9 and the fourth 6, the ticket calling for the grand prize would be numbered 2796.  It will be seen that by this system there is no chance for crooked work.”

Notwithstanding technological and other updates, today’s lottery keeps a bit of the same flavor from over a century ago.  Though there are several ways to play with different payouts, the basic lottery remains a speculation on a four-digit draw, with a large proportion of the population paying close attention to the numbers drawn when they get pulled live by children every Sunday and Wednesday.  Unlike in the U.S., with no limits on how many people can buy chances on a certain number, because LNB tickets are preprinted in ticket books, someone wanting a particular number must hope the books at their location still have tickets with their number available.  The greater the number of people buying tickets ahead of you, the greater the chance of your number being sold out before you can buy your tickets.

And so people queue up to wait in long lines snaked down walkways across shopfronts.  In this case, the line moved away from IDAAN’s entrance instead of blocking it.  When Brian parked, hopped out, and walked across the street, he nodded politely at the throng of hopefuls holding steadfastly to their places in line.  He entered IDAAN without a wait, went straight back to the cajeros (cashiers) to pay, and was out again all in just a couple minutes.

Then he saw that in that brief time a taxi had double-parked behind our car, leaving it running without the driver inside.  Brian deduced quickly that this was not a driver waiting for a fare, but rather a driver popping out of his taxi to buy a lottery ticket.  He looked around, saw the crowd lined up to buy LNB tickets watching him as entertainment during their long wait, and saw a security guard at the LNB door point to a particular guy in the lottery line.  Brian tried signaling the taxi driver from where he stood across the street from the line, but the driver pretended not to notice by staring at his phone.  So, spectators’ eyes following him to keep watching the unfolding telenovela (soap opera), Brian went over to the guy and asked politely for him to move his taxi because he was blocking in Brian.  The guy ignored him, pretending to be lost in his phone, as he chuckled and stayed in line so he would not lose his place.  Other people in line rallied to Brian’s cause and urged the driver to move his taxi instead of being obstinate, some gesticulating with some gusto, but he ignored them as well.  With his gaze fixed on his phone’s screen, he smiled sheepishly and tried to play it cool despite being busted by his queue-mates for his rudeness.  So, deciding to give the audience a bit more drama, Brian went to the Lottery security guard at the front of the line and told him he was going to move the taxi (remember, the driver left it running) back 10 feet so he could get his car out.  The security guard just smiled, raised an eyebrow, and tilted his head as if to say, “As you wish, my friend.”  So Brian walked back across the street to the taxi.  Opening the driver’s door, several of the spectators raised their arms, nodded their heads affirmatively, or otherwise signaled their approbation for his problem-solving action.  The driver initially broke character from his calm bravado, then decided Brian getting into his taxi was less important than staying in line to buy his lottery tickets.  Dropping in behind the wheel, Brian stuck the taxi in reverse and moved it back 10 feet, then got out and left it running again…tempted to lock the doors with the keys inside, but opting instead to keep to the high road.  The crowd in line continued endorsing his solution as the taxi driver kept one eye on his phone screen and the other eye on his cab.  Brian got into our car, pulled out of his parking spot, and drove away pleased with being able to find a creative solution to a problem inflicted on him by someone a little too fixated on the National Lottery.

Now that we finally have added all our utilities to pay online from our bank account, we expect paying bills to offer far less drama.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Vacation, Part Three: Feeling Like We Moved to the Tropics

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of our departure from Morocco.  That event started our two-week pandemic purgatory in a hotel room outside Dulles Airport in northern Virginia while waiting for all the stars to align for us to complete our journey to Panama at the end of July 2020.  The Pandemic gave us a very different – and much more limited – first year in Panama than what we had expected, but we nonetheless have loved being here as much as we were sad to leave our friends and family in Morocco after four wonderful years in Casablanca.  In our tropical Year Two, we look forward to exploring so much more that Panama has to offer, and feel like our second year here will be more like the first year we expected.

Our one big exploration came during Semana Santa (Holy Week) nearly four months ago when we escaped to the black sand beaches of Cambutal at Sansara Surf & Yoga Resort.  We have let a few months creep by before closing out our vacation trilogy of posts, but we enjoyed our week of R&R in Cambutal too much to let it go without comment.

Arriving at Sansara after our vacation planning ( and after our first foray driving into The Interior (, we found it a relaxed and healthy place without having an overly “crunchy” atmosphere.  Sansara has a small, intimate setting, that we found even more so by there being only a few guests staying at the same time as our visit.  A good place to stay at any time, we found it an ideal escape location for us during our cloistered pandemic lives.

After spending a sedentary pandemic year perfecting our unhealthy habits, Sansara was exactly what we needed to begin our quest back toward mind-body-soul healthiness with not lots to do except relax and do healthy things.  In the mornings we did “old people yoga” – aka restorative yoga – for just the two of us in the open-air yoga theater that (like pretty much everything at Sansara) looks out to the Pacific.  In the afternoons we played cribbage in our Casa OM (yes, as in, “Ooooooohhhhmmmmm”) abode while watching the waves roll in and out.  Apropos of its name, Casa OM struck us instantly as the perfect place to just chill.  Spacious, an attractive use of wood and natural elements, a huge bathroom, sitting spaces inside (to maximize use of a/c) and outside (to maximize enjoying with the ocean sounds), huge windows looking out toward the water meters away, and a small infinity pool as a great place to relax together, we think what we liked best of all was lying in the big bed while listening to the tide come in and watching the waves crash up the beach.  At night the patio outside Casa OM would welcome crustacean visitors as small crabs paraded around on their evening constitutionals.  We found much – and much-needed – peace there.  We wore comfortable clothes every day.  We got two-hour long massages in the massage hut (that, you guessed correctly, opens out to waves making their way up the black sand beach).  One morning Brian tried SUPping…and eventually was able to get up and paddle a bit.  But to achieve that minor success he had to offer as a sacrifice to Neptune his internationally well-traveled leather hat bought more than a decade ago in the Cascade Mountains town of Leavenworth, Washington.  It having logged many miles of hikes and trips on four continents with him, he hoped someone would find it someday so it could continue its grand adventure without him.

And then there was the food:  amazing, beautiful, healthy, and tasty at every meal.  Brian enjoyed many things, but his favorite meal was chicken tacos with sweet slaw, which he devoured for more than one day’s lunch.  Audrey had a harder time choosing a favorite.  “Everything they served fed your eyes before it fed your mouth.  When they served it, you just wanted to go right in and get it, but first you had to take it in for all its beauty.”  The restaurant (which, of course, is open-air and looks out onto the Pacific) also had a nightly Happy Hour specialty drink that we found quite yummy while watching the sun set over the Pacific.  Brian took lots of photos, especially of the food, which he shared with the owners who quickly added a few of them to the Sansara website.

The one venture we had off the grounds of Sansara came on our second full day of escape when we drove an hour and a half along the coast around the southeast corner of the Azuero Peninsula to the small town of Pedasi.  Finding Pedasi’s Playa el Arenal (literally, The Sandy Beach), we met up with Capitán Irving and his family to take us in open fishing boats to Isla Iguana for the afternoon.  Capitán Irving’s daughter served as translator for the trip, traveling in our fishing boat with us, Irving, and another tourist couple.  Capitán Irving’s sons and nephews captained other vessels to round out four boats taking a total of a dozen tourists to the island for the day.  First, though, we had to check in at the national police station set up across from the beach, showing our IDs and signing the log that monitors who goes out to the protected island preserve inhabited only by birds, crabs, iguanas, and other fauna.  Audrey had found the tour online and made all arrangements without being able to speak Spanish, with details on the other end presumably arranged by Capitán Irving’s daughter.  After registering, we watched the men roll the boats from the sand into the surf, then we waded out and climbed aboard Capitán Irving’s boat, the “Silvia Rosa.”  Once we got seated and were pushed out a little further into the waves, Capitán Irving fired up the outboard motor and steered us for 90 minutes to Isla Iguana.  Throughout the journey, the boats crashed through big and choppy waves, but upon reaching the reef just offshore at the island, the waters calmed and we found our afternoon slice of heaven.  One could not name the island more appropriately, because its population consists entirely of critters like large sea birds, gazillions of painted ghost crabs and hermit crabs, and (of course) a plethora of iguanas (no, not of piñatas).  We snorkeled over the coral reef off the beach; sat in the shade of trees along the beach and read while listening to the tide coming in; and communed with the hermit crabs and iguanas.  (The scores of Brown Pelicans and many hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds all over and above the island in search of food had more interest in communing with potential nesting mates than with us.)  After several hours of tropical island paradise, we collected our things and waded out to the boats again for a quicker and much less choppy zip back to the mainland, followed by a late-afternoon, tour-provided lunch at a local restaurant.  With bellies and souls well-sated, we took the 95 minute drive back to Cambutal.  We recommend that anyone coming to visit us in Panama make plans for an outing to Isla Iguana.

Our week in Cambutal proved a very relaxing time to enjoy just being together and to recharge for the first time since the pandemic began.  Usually when we travel it is either to see family or to go someplace with an unending list of cultural and historical things to see and do.  We enjoy both those types of vacations, but often we come home as poster children for the “I need a vacation after my vacation” syndrome.  This was the first time in a very long time that we took a vacation to do nothing except enjoy each other, and we did it well.  What a wonderful way to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary several months early.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Vacation, Part Two: There are Many Waze to the Airport (…or to the Reclusive Beach)

Our decision to escape our home for the duration of Audrey’s school’s weeklong Spring Break proved most refreshing.  We would say “rejuvenating,” but the joint pops and bone creaks of our early 50s years leave us satisfied with “refreshing” while thinking nostalgically of when we were truly “juvenated” without the need for the “re” part.  As we planned the six-hour drive from our home in the Panama City suburb of San Miguelito to Cambutal, midway along the Pacific coast of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, we hoped the adage “Getting there is half the fun!” would come close, if not apply fully, to describe the trip.

Once we had made our reservation at Sansara Surf & Yoga Resort a few weeks ahead of our escape, Brian did his standard plan-for-all-contingencies über-preparations.  (NB:  That is not Über, for we would drive ourselves; but über, because he has superhuman contingency planning skills that Audrey accepts with loving grace and, after 25 years of marriage, without too many eye rolls.)  As such, he printed out turn-by-turn maps from San Miguelito along Corridor Norte to Via Centenario to take us over the Panama Canal on the Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge, opened in 2004, a century after construction on the Panama Canal began in 1904, as only the second permanent bridge over the Canal); along the Autopista Panamá-La Chorrera (Panamá-La Chorrera Highway) to connect with the Carretera Interamericana (the Central American section of the Pan-American Highway); then turn south onto Avenida Dr. Belasario Porras (named for Panama’s sixth President just 11 years after its 1903 independence from Colombia, who served for 10 years in three terms spanning 1912-1924) to follow the peninsula’s coastline south and then west to Cambutal.

Cue Audrey:  “Well, we need to pack for lots of different things…clothes to stay a week, plus yoga, snorkeling, dining, shoes…I do not think this is too much.  And what is all that stuff that you are putting into that extra suitcase?”

Cue Brian (and his über-preparations):  “I have two 5-liter bottles of water, because we do not know what the water situation will be like.  I have enough Coke for me to have my daily bubbly caffeine.  I have some wine and other things for evening refreshments, including that bottle of Fonseca 30-year Port we can crack for our four-months-early 25th Anniversary celebration, because there is no place for miles to pick up anything we might want.  I have snacks so we do not have to stop anywhere along the way for food and so we have stuff to munch on in our room during the week as a supplement for the extra-healthy food the restaurant will serve.  Anyone who tries to pick up this bag will think we have a body inside it.

After loading many more supplies than we ought to have needed into the back of our car, Brian offered Audrey a pre-anniversary present by giving the “All aboard!” call more than a half hour ahead of our planned 9:00 am departure time.

Traffic flowed easily for us all the way across the Puente Centenario while we saw all lanes coming in the other direction stalled, extending out from both ends of the bridge for at least a couple kilometers.  (With only two bridges across the entire southern half of the Canal, traffic backs up heavily even on weekends, and weekday traffic can turn a 30-minute trip across the bridge into one lasting several hours.)  Then as we continued along the Autopista Panamá-La Chorrera we slowed to stop-and-go traffic as well.  That made it easy for us to view the surroundings as we crawled toward the Carretera Interamericana.  Before long we realized this lone spine shooting westward through “the Interior” carried us through one battleground after another in what we dubbed La Guerra de la Red Móvil (the Mobile Network War).  Like school sports programs in the U.S. seem owned by either Coke or Pepsi in the infamous Cola War, each town of Panama’s Interior seemed aligned by ubiquitous exclusively bright blue or red advertising (across pedestrian overpasses, encompassing bus stop shells, even on the sides of buildings and walls bordering the roadway):  blue for Tigo or red for Claro, the two big mobile phone networks in Panama.

The further out from Panama City we drove into “the Interior,” the more surprised we were to discover the central Pacific Coast’s non-rainforest climate of el Arco Seco, the Dry Arc.  The Dry Arc starts in Panama Province around Coronado; wraps westward through Coclé Province around the Gulf of Parita into Herrera Province; and southward into the eastern half of the Azuero Peninsula through the large town of Chitre (Capital of Herrera Province with a metro-area population of 80,000 people) and into Los Santos Province’s Las Tablas (Capital of Los Santos Province with a population on the upside of 9,000 people), Villa de Los Santos, and on to the seaside village of Pedasi.

Except that we did not see Pedasi on our ingress trip, because Audrey’s near-religious dedication to Waze had us depart from Brian’s just-in-case maps printed out from Google Maps.  Instead of hugging the Azuero Peninsula’s coast as Brian had pre-navigated, after we passed through Chitre and approached Villa de Los Santos, the very American (i.e., bad Spanish) pronunciation of Spanish road names in Audrey’s Waze routing instructed that Brian should detour from his coastal route to zip diagonally across the peninsula.  When Brian sought to note politely that the different route was, indeed, different from what he had planned in his über-preparations, Audrey emphasized…more emphatically…the emphatic need for him to detour as instructed by Waze.

This navigational incongruence actually carried more weight accumulated through the last several years of mostly marital bliss than the immediate moment might imply.  In Casablanca, Audrey eschewed Google Maps because it often took us to places other than where we wanted to go.  On numerous occasions we typed in a destination and followed directions only to find ourselves with no idea where we were or how close we were to our intended target stop.  Instead, Audrey liked Waze for its nimble routing that could alter course based on immediate traffic circumstances and, more likely than not, actually take us to our intended destination.  Brian acknowledged the shortcomings of Google Maps, but liked its start-to-finish route maps so he could see the big picture of the prescribed route, progress along said route, and see other routing options that allowed him to call audibles while on the road (which, for the record, literally drives Audrey mad).  Mostly, he did not like Waze’s propensity to take us through the narrow roads of Casablanca’s old city medina at every possible opportunity, because we drove a big Honda Pilot that Waze would quickly get stuck in a cramped street scene not much wider than our vehicle.  More than once, despite Brian’s protestations, Waze (and Audrey) made us drive our huge tank into the medina, which then required the assistance of kindhearted Moroccans to help us turn around or steer past obstacles and small children in streets of shrinking breadth.  Panama is different.  There is no medina.  Brian defaults to Waze on his Panamanian phone to navigate around town.  But for start-to-finish map planning, he prefers to use Google Maps.  Nonetheless, leaving San Miguelito at 8:49 am on a six-hour drive to Cambutal, Audrey made clear at the outset that Brian would not fail to respect her Navigator role while he drove.  He would choose not to follow Waze at his own peril.

So, rolling into Villa de Los Santos, when Audrey told him to turn right and he said that was not the way his über-preparations told him to go, Audrey told him differently, in the most loving of forceful ways, insisting that Waze said it would be 30 minutes shorter a trip.  Little did she know that saving 30 minutes on the drive would take more than 30 minutes off of our lives.

Audrey continued to gaze out at our surroundings, but Brian could grab only glimpses here and there because the road became one narrow lane in each direction with no shoulder to guard us often from levee-like drops.  As we climbed in elevation, Audrey began sharing presages of what she called “curly-cues” on the map.  Falling entranced by her map-reading, she described what she saw on her phone screen as different body parts that she hoped would give Brian some sense of how the curly-cues combined in the roadway ahead:  “Next it looks like an ear…so now we’re driving down around the earlobe and there will be a REALLY TIGHT curly-cue before it gets more straight for a little while, then it bends around the top of the ear and then there is another REALLY TIGHT curly-cue” or “Okay, this one is like a nose, so we’re starting with a bit of a curly-cue to get onto the bridge of the nose, then it is straight for a bit before a REALLY TIGHT curly-cue at the bottom of the nose and another REALLY TIGHT curly-cue around the nostril.”  Brian, figuring she suffered a mild case of altitude sickness from slight oxygen deprivation, stayed focused on the road and just drove slowly and conscientiously while pretending to have some inkling of what she described.

Whether from Audrey’s gazing looks or Brian’s glimpses snatched along rare straightaways, we puzzled over how differently the scenery looked from what we had expected.  This was not the lush and all-encompassing rainforest we imagined, looking more like grazing land of the cattle ranches in the western U.S.  We saw cows and horses (including people riding horses along the roadside as their choice of transportation) instead of sloths and monkeys.  Later we learned that the area’s long history of cultivation and grazing turned the peninsula into one of Panama’s most heavily-deforested parts of the country.

Winding through the curly-cues and past the cows and horses, Audrey kept calling out our remaining distance and time for arrival in Cambutal, and we wondered when we would descend from the hilly highlands to see the Pacific coast.  Even when we noticed that we drove down more than we drove up from incline to incline, it still felt a world away from a coastal scene.  Then, rather suddenly, we whipped around some more curly-cues and saw the Pacific Ocean laid out past the trees ahead.  The road cut to the right and turned west to run parallel to the coast as we moved through the sparse collection of houses and small hotels on either side of the road that made up Cambutal.  At the end of the road we found Sansara Surf & Yoga Resort, parked, and left the cadaver bag and other über-prepared supplies in the car while we walked across the street to register for a week of escape and decompression.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Vacation, Part One: Risk-Reward When Every Daily Action Becomes a Calculation of Risk Tolerance

Five years ago, knowing that the exact date of our 20th wedding anniversary would come just as we started our first overseas jobs in Casablanca, we opted to celebrate a few months early by driving the Pacific Coast Highway from its southern start in San Diego (CA) to its northernmost point in Port Angeles (WA), then ferrying across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria (BC) and back again to Washington State to finish three weeks of celebration together in Bellingham and on Whidbey Island, before switching gears to transition into moving abroad.  Now, with Audrey’s Spring Break approaching and the exact date of our 25th wedding anniversary again hitting at the beginning of Audrey’s upcoming school year, it likewise seemed a good time to celebrate early.

But what to do when we have spent the last year living in a fairly tight COVID-19 bubble, and both of us still not knowing when we might get vaccinated?  For the sake of exploring options, we entertained briefly and scuttled quickly (i.e., Audrey entertained and Brian scuttled) the idea to hop on a plane and fly to another country as a start to exploring Latin America.  (This proved quite wise as Panama’s government subsequently barred all non-citizen/non-resident people seeking to enter from any South American countries in order to protect against the highly-contagious Brazilian variant strain of COVID-19 rampaging currently in South American countries.)  We next nixed flying to hop-scotch around Panama in a week of domestic exploration.  “We will have plenty of time to go anywhere we would like in Panama once the pandemic finally passes,” said Brian, “But I really prefer not to expand our bubble much yet.”

This is the great dilemma faced by so many as the pandemic stretches past its one-year mark.  Compared to the daily angst and uncertain darkness of March 2020, March 2021 had approved vaccines shooting into people’s arms and helping people feel optimistic about the future…

…Except for the delays in vaccinating people (at least in Panama) that left us still vulnerable should we unknowingly encounter someone infected, and except for the variant strains that kept people worrying just when they thought they could emerge from their safety cocoons.

We have felt increasing confidence in testing the elasticity of our COVID bubble.  After paying our wonderful newly-hired house helper, Iris, NOT to come to our house for a couple months (not only to keep our house bubble very small, but also to allow her to protect herself by avoiding exposure on the trains and taxis she takes to come to our house), Iris resumed regular work at the end of January.  Brian has gone out for a couple haircuts and Audrey has had someone come to the house a couple times for the same.  Brian has hiked a few times in different locations with friends, always masked.  And, of course, Audrey goes to school each day with faculty and the majority of students back on campus with social distancing since mid-March to supplement the online curricular activity that continues as ISP’s primary pedagogy.  Two weeks ago we even went to lunch at P.F. Chang’s in the big MultiPlaza mall, albeit sitting outside on the terrace as soon as they opened in order to minimize the chance of finding other diners there.  And a week ago we capped both of us hiking with friends in the Panamanian Rainforest Discovery Center by joining them for a lunch of take-out food with two more friends in the open-air City of Knowledge Square (which, we must note, is triangular instead of square).

All of that is to say that we have moved past the cloister that ruled us for so many months; yet, not-yet-vaccinated and not sure whether vaccines will protect against the Brazilian and other variants, we remain a bit nervous about opening up our lives too much too quickly.  As much as we feel our lives lighter than what we felt for so long, we still feel trepidation that tethers us to a default of caution.

Put simply, we have entered a phase in which every daily action becomes a “risk-reward” calculation of risk tolerance.

Deeply philosophical libertarians, rational choice proponents, and game theorists might say that particular circumstance always has described life despite most people operating on default settings that obviate the need for discerning calculations about most daily life activities.  But a year of pandemic has given most people time to think more deeply about things they used to take for granted or used to do de rigueur.

Things like planning a weeklong vacation to celebrate 25 years of marriage a few months ahead of the actual anniversary date.

So after testing and rejecting various options on the risk-reward spectrum (Audrey testing and Brian rejecting), Audrey found the Sansara Surf & Yoga Resort a six-hour drive away from Panama City on the Pacfic Ocean shores of Cambutal.  She shared the website with Brian, who checked it out and ran a bunch of variables through his internal risk tolerance calculator (his being the more strict of our two).  With our hybrid car, we could drive the entire way without having to stop for gas.  Once there we would find a small establishment (it has only 12 rooms) with a small staff pretty much in the middle of nowhere Panama.  Yes, we presumed there would be a few other guests; but far fewer than if we went to a hotel in a town or city.  And other than four walls enclosing us while sleeping in our cabaña, everything we did – from eating meals to doing yoga – would take place outside with ocean breezes providing an ample supply of fresh air.  Besides, Brian thought on the reward side of the equation, rather than spend a week celebrating our anniversary by seeing cultural and historical things, this would give us a week to enjoy just spending time together as we think about how quickly we have run through the last 25 years.

So we decided it was a perfect way to spend the week of Semana Santa, Holy Week leading up to Easter, that comprises ISP’s Spring Break.  (A related topic for posting in this year’s shared seasons of Easter and Ramadan:  Similarities and differences moving from a Muslim country to a Catholic country.)

It’s weird packing a suitcase,” Audrey said as she stuffed things into the large suitcase she asked Brian to get out of our storage room after she decided the less-large one he had already fetched for her did not suffice for all she wanted to bring.  “I haven’t done it in so long that I forgot how to do it.  I was going to just throw all my makeup in a suitcase and then realized I need a bunch of plastic bags to keep it from going all over.”  Packing for a week away, Brian thought, is like riding a bike.

We had yet to see if we could relapse into the comfort of actually taking a vacation in this “emerging from the pandemic” time just as easily.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

And then the world changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Super Bowl Sunday in Panama: Life with a VPN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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

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

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

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

If only…especially during a pandemic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!