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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 https://wordpress.com/post/expatexpedition.com/1197 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 (https://expatexpedition.com/2021/04/12/vacation-part-one-risk-reward-when-every-daily-action-becomes-a-calculation-of-risk-tolerance/) and after our first foray driving into The Interior (https://expatexpedition.com/2021/05/24/vacation-part-two-there-are-many-waze-to-the-airport-or-to-the-reclusive-beach/), 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, https://expatexpedition.com/2020/03/22/dealing-with-pandemics-covid-19-comes-to-morocco/).  In mid-February we had shared our observations about how all the development around us during our Moroccan tenure was captured in seeing 48 construction cranes along just one short span of road by our apartment.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/02/12/the-changing-landscape-craning-for-a-view-in-casablanca/)  Just weeks later, that development came to a screeching halt as the totality of our personal and professional routines derailed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Super Bowl Sunday in Panama: Life with a VPN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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

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

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

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

If only…especially during a pandemic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

COVID Christmas in Panama

‘Twas the morning of the night before Christmas

and all through the house

lots of geckos were stirring

instead of a mouse.

And so we have reached our first Christmas in Panama . . . and our 25th Christmas since getting married many years, continents, countries, states, and homes ago.  But this year is different for us not only because we celebrate it in Panama for the first time, but also because this is our first Christmas since getting married when we have no other family celebrating with us.

Even before the girls were born, we spent Christmas with either Brian’s or Audrey’s family, and sometimes with elements of both.  Since our household grew with the additions of Margaret and Charlotte, Christmas always meant either hosting extended family or traveling to celebrate Christmas with them.  When we lived in Virginia, except when traveling to the Pacific Northwest to be with Brian’s family (which meant three branches of his mother’s family tree celebrating together with as many as two dozen people sharing Norwegian meatballs, lefse, and julekake, and four generations of memories), we joined Audrey’s family at her grandmother’s big house outside Washington, D.C., or hosted fancy, wine-paired, multi-course dinners for them at our house, complete with printed menus tied with ribbon at each place setting.  Our girls grew up understanding time with family as an integral part of celebrating Christmas.

Before moving abroad, Brian promised his mother that he would return each December so they could celebrate Christmas together and check off as many boxes as possible on the list of family holiday traditions like making Norwegian cookies and joining the annual sing-a-long of Handel’s “Messiah” in Seattle each December 26.  (Indeed, Christmas 2016 was especially memorable for bringing Margaret and Charlotte to their first Messiah Sing-a-Long after they had grown up hearing about it, introducing an intergenerational family tradition that stretches back at least to Brian’s great-grandfather and grandmother, who respectively conducted the Messiah and sang in it at their small-town Minnesota church.  His great-grandfather’s conducting baton and his grandmother’s Messiah music score are among Brian’s most prized sentimental possessions.)  Each year he kept his promise.  Some years Audrey and Charlotte also flew from Morocco; other years they enjoyed mother-daughter holiday jaunts in Europe while Brian headed to the PNW, taking them to the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

This year, like people across the continents, we hoped to spend the holidays with family, perhaps even making Panama a meet-up destination for as many of the current four generations (from Brian’s mother to our new grandson) as could join us for a Rainforest Christmas.  Instead, like those across the continents abiding by pandemic best practices to keep loved ones safe, we awoke today to start our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations happy to be together, but missing all the family with whom we had hoped to exchange Christmas hugs, and one whom we can never hug again.

We also looked forward to celebrating our first Christmas after moving to a Catholic country.  During our years in Morocco, we enjoyed trips to Spain where we often saw parades through the streets on Holy Days, with spectators crowding the sidewalks as waves of iconic statues and bands marched and played solemnly from churches onward through their town.  We wondered how the New World Catholic traditions would compare to the Old World ones.  But the last time either of us went to church was at the end of February when Brian attended Ash Wednesday Mass with two college friends in the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague.  With Panama’s COVID-19 numbers rising sharply since the November national holidays, the country has stepped backward in its lockdown protocols:  at least for the next two weeks women can go out Monday/Wednesday and men can go out Tuesday/Thursday, with no one able to go out Friday/Saturday/Sunday.  We will have to wait at least another year to see what Panamanian Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Nonetheless, we have persevered to will ourselves into the Christmas spirit over the last few weeks.  We found a box with an artificial tree in the attic space of our house, and assembled its branches in a spot where we pass it multiple times a day.  Looking a bit ragged and thin, and without any decorations, it has served symbolically as a totem for our family this year:  a bit off, not quite what we would prefer, and a bit worse for the wear of this year with empty spots from what and whom we have lost; but standing just the same, and with a quiet appreciation for all the blessings we have enjoyed.  With the tree urging us further, we started playing Christmas music.  Last week, Brian watched “Polar Express” by himself, thinking about when we took the girls to see it in the theater when they were four and six years old.  And earlier this week together we watched “White Christmas” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – two more things we try to watch each year.  Tonight we will cap our family Christmas movie tradition with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as George Bailey and Clarence the Angel remind us of life’s blessings – especially the people who know and love us – even in difficult times.

We also have gotten a little festive with food plans.  Last weekend Brian cooked a ham, then Audrey made a batch of rolls with cast-off from her sourdough starter so that we could continue the ham feast for a couple days with ham sandwiches warmed so that melted swiss cheese oozed down the sides.  Originally we had planned to roast a chicken for Wednesday’s dinner, then keep alive the Menard family tradition of Christmas Eve Pizza before roasting a turkey for Christmas Day with green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  But the chicken that Brian took out of the freezer on Sunday was still frozen yesterday, so we changed plans to roast it in Audrey’s Instant Pot tonight instead of making pizza.  And if the chicken had not thawed by yesterday, that also meant the end of any hope for the much larger turkey being ready to roast tomorrow.  So last night we pulled a couple duck breasts out of the freezer as a new Christmas dinner plan, with turkey coming . . . well, coming whenever it finally thaws so that we can roast it.  Whenever that finally happens, we will have tons of turkey to feed the two of us with roast turkey, turkey sandwiches, turkey and wild rice soup, turkey tetrazzini, and whatever other turkey things we might make from even a small turkey roasted just for two people.  As a final note on dinner tonight and tomorrow – less a note on food, and more a commentary on maintaining this year’s great flexibility all the way to the end – it looks like the chicken may have to wait one more day to thaw fully, so we will probably make one more menu adjustment to have it tomorrow and feast on Christmas Eve with pan-seared duck and a blackberry-pear sauce.

In an inspired moment, yesterday Audrey decided on a whim to decorate our homely tree with what she found available in the house.  It has no presents beneath its fake branches; but, with two rolls of toilet paper and a mask she took off after going to her office at school, she transformed it perfectly to complete its status as a totem for this year and season.

In 1943, Bing Crosby’s original recording of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on Decca Records charted for 11 weeks.  Since then its fit has grown from soldiers and sailors abroad in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II wishing they could come home for Christmas to encompass anyone far away from those they love.  After graduating from college, any year that Brian could not celebrate Christmas with his mother, he has called her to sing the song.  They both cry a little, say they love each other, and wish each other Merry Christmas.  This Christmas, after a year dealing with a pandemic that has changed the world in so many ways, after losing his stepfather suddenly in September, and now unable to be together for the safety and health of everyone, they might share an extra tear or two when he sings to her, “I’ll be home for Christmas . . . if only in my dreams.”

Yet the heaviness this particular Christmas brings us remains laced with so many blessings that fill our lives, even in a year like this one.  And so – like the Mel Torme song Nat King Cole first recorded in 1946 – we offer this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two, although it’s been said many times, many ways:  Merry Christmas to you.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Panama’s Climate: “If you don’t like the weather now, just wait a few minutes!”

American humorist Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemons) said famously, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”  We think that sentiment may apply equally well in Panama’s delightfully confusing seasons and weather.

Two weeks into December, we have started the transition from “the Wet Season” (aka winter) to “the Dry Season” (aka summer) in Panama.  Yes, even though Panama is a tad more than 1000 kilometers (a bit over 620 miles) north of the Equator, here people insist that Panamanian summer comes during the northern hemisphere’s winter, and – after Panamanian summer expires in what otherwise would be spring north of the Equator – the rest of the year is Panamanian winter.  Spring and fall entirely drop out of people’s concepts of seasons here.

Even the times for sunrise and sunset do not change terribly much through the year (certainly nothing like the eight-hour swings of daylight Brian had between long summer days and short winter days growing up in Washington State), gifting our body clocks with a welcoming consistent routine.  As a consequence, Panama has no cause to spring forward or fall back to navigate Daylight Savings Time.  With Panama’s contra-Equatorial concepts of winter and summer, that would get too confusing anyway.  Moreover, with one daughter in the U.S. state of Arizona (where they call Daylight Savings Time “silly time” and do not change their clocks) and another daughter in Casablanca (where the Moroccan government declared a few years ago two days before Daylight Savings Time was supposed to end that they would remain on DST year-round instead of changing their clocks, causing havoc with digital global clocks and prompting us to abandon using conventional time designations in favor of MTS – “Moroccan Time Syndrome”), we appreciate counting on the consistency of one child always being two hours behind us and the other child always being six hours ahead of us.

So through the parade of months, we can expect in Panama to have only the change from wet to dry and a commensurate increase in temperatures of about 5ºC (fewer than 10ºF) as we move from the aptly-named Wet to Dry Seasons, or Panamanian winter to summer.  Based on what people have told us, the high daily humidity will remain just as high.  We simply will not have daily rain pouring down; and so, for a few months, we will not need to follow the otherwise prudent practice of keeping an umbrella on one’s person any time going out.

But as of today we have not yet reached that point of humid-but-rainless days stretching through weeks and months.  Instead, we have stepped back from wondering when our daily downpour will come (and, indeed, if it will repeat one or more times in a day) to enjoying a good rain shower only a few days each week.  Amid this, we still have not mastered the art of predicting whether and when such rain may come.  It seems that clouds can come from nowhere at any time, and suddenly the sky sobs.

That ever-present prospect can be problematic for Brian on his regular walks along the quiet roads lined with hints of wilderness around our house.  His regular route runs from our house, out the gate of La Montañesa, and along the solitude of his steps for 6.3 km (just shy of 4 miles).  In that solitude, many of his steps he takes while watching the magnificent movement of clouds that Panama’s changing weather rolls over the panorama’s green hills.

White fluffy clouds moving briskly cause him no concern.  Dark clouds, especially moving briskly, merit closer watching to make sure their trajectory leads them in a direction other than where Brian walks.  At the high rotonda (traffic roundabout) one kilometer into his route (a bit more than a half mile from our house) he can look southwest to the modern skyscraper condominiums of Costa del Este and Punta Pacifica on the eastern edge of Panama City, and even across the water fronting the coast of Panama City to the four Channel Islands that form a breakwater for the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal on the city’s west side.  At times Panama’s crazy weather lets him stand at the rotonda in strong sunlight under bright blue skies while the black shadow of a heavy storm covers Costa del Else 12 km away (7.5 miles) or Punta Pacifica 18 km away (11 miles) and completely obscures the Channel Islands.  Other times, the perfectly clear sky lets him see outlines of the distant Taboga Islands, 33 km (20.5 miles) from us in San Miguelito, where Francisco Pizarro made his island base in the Pacific while building a fleet to conquer the Incas in 1539.

Weather can change so quickly here that the dark clouds sneak up to threaten a drenching.  Still air suddenly yields to breezes that whip up seemingly out of nowhere to bend the three-meter high (ten-foot) tall grasses and make the trees lean, and Brian looks up to see a wall of black make the fluffy white clouds scamper away like a schoolyard bully has entered the sky.  Yet, even then things can change quickly.  While he has seen the black wall move rapidly toward him more than a few times, each time it has changed course to sprint off and wreak havoc in another direction before more than a couple drops of rain land on him.

We both know that his luck surely will run out at some point, for we have seen from home too many times when clear skies morph into torrents of rain in not too long a span of time.  From our sun room (or maybe we should call it our rain room) it looks like a giant water balloon moved in and burst above us to drop measurable rainfall within an hour before the clouds push away just as rapidly and the sun returns.  We doubt Brian will find it as enjoyable when a storm finally catches him on a walk still 20 minutes out from home to soak him instantly and completely.  But that will just give more existential context to life in the rainforest through history, from those who have lived here for millennia to Balboa and Pizarro traversing the isthmus 500 years ago to the railroad- and canal-building efforts of the French in the 1800s and the Americans a century ago.  If all goes well, he will be in the clear, literally, and will not have the dubious heuristic benefit of that context until Panama’s Wet Season returns in April.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Thanksgiving for Two: November Holidays in Panama

One year ago we hosted a mini-Thanksgiving celebration in our Casablanca apartment – just Audrey, Brian, our daughter Charlotte, and our new son-in-law Zak.  With just four people, our table spread – of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, Commissary-purchased Stove-Top Stuffing and Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, and Brian’s apple pie – compared humbly to what larger groupings across the U.S. and in American expat gatherings around the world likely enjoyed.  We enjoyed it, though, and noted Zak’s cross-cultural experience marked by his return trips to the kitchen for seconds, thirds, and fourths of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy on his plate.

This year, having moved from Morocco to Panama, we celebrated Thanksgiving just the two of us in our big house in San Miguelito on the northeast side of Panama City.  As happened across the U.S. and in American expat homes around the world, COVID took its toll on the ability to gather with others.  Moreover, because Audrey worked all day on Thursday we decided – since it was just the two of us – that we would celebrate on Saturday instead of on Thursday.  One good mark COVID has left on us, as with so many, is a heightened appreciation of all the many blessings for which we are thankful…

…And with it, our heightened efforts to express that thankfulness not on one designated day, but always.  So, since we try to make every day Thanksgiving Day, what does it matter to do it officially on Saturday instead of on Thursday?

Some of our favorite family memories raising our girls hail back to Thanksgivings past with the four of us spending all day cooking together in the kitchen, or hosting extended family staying with us for the holiday.  With just the two of us, we again spent the day together cooking in the kitchen while keeping to a restrained menu.  When the Riba Smith grocery store three minutes from our house (which caters to many expat tastes) dedicated a huge portion of its frozen food section to Thanksgiving supplies a couple weeks ago, we bought a turkey breast to roast.  Riba Smith also got a shipment of Stove Top Stuffing (which we shamelessly say has become an expat treat for us when we can find it), so we had BOTH mashed potatoes AND stuffing…and Audrey found Ocean Spray cranberry sauce at Riba Smith as well.  To go with turkey, potatoes, and stuffing, Brian tossed the “gravy packet” of chemical nastiness that came with the turkey breast into the trash and, instead, made his typical gravy from scratch.  Audrey also tried her hand at steaming artichokes in her new Instant Pot.  And Brian rounded things out with apple pie for dessert.  We gave thanks for all the blessings in our lives.  We ate.  We relaxed in the IKEA rocking chairs that we shipped from Morocco (since Panama has no IKEA stores) and watched a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Amazon Prime in our “home theater” projecting from our Epson on a stepladder in the dining room more than 20 feet away onto the massive two-story wall of our living room.  The calm and quiet of the day reinforced our thankfulness, especially with so much COVID craziness flaring up again around the world (including, we fear, in Panama).

In Morocco we still celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November because GWA is an American school abroad, and thus worked American and Moroccan holidays into its annual calendar.  As an international school, ISP operates on a typical international school calendar, not an American one.  Its school year runs August through June instead of the typical Panamanian school calendar running March through December, but does not include USA-specific holidays like Thanksgiving, so we had to settle for a usual two-day weekend instead of an American four-day Thanksgiving weekend.  In our acclimation to Panama, though, it seems like Thanksgiving is the one holiday NOT included on Panamanian calendars in the month of November!

Panama has 14 official government holidays each year.  The first seven drop between New Year’s Day on January 1 and international Labor Day (May Day) on May 1.  Between those bookend dates appear Martyrs’ Day (Día de los Mártires) on January 9 (commemorating the 1964 Flag Protests that resulted in 21 Panamanian and a handful of American deaths after 150-200 Panamanian students marched into the Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag next to the U.S. flag at Balboa High School) and the Catholic or Catholic-culture holidays of Carnival Monday, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday.  December features Panamanian Mothers Day on December 8 (a nationwide “momma-thon” in a country where respect for mothers matters, linked on the calendar to the Catholic Church’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception – when Mary the Mother of Jesus was conceived and protected from Original Sin) and Christmas on December 25.

Which leaves five more holidays all smushed within November’s 30 days to commemorate important historical events tied to its development as an independent nation.  Panama celebrates not one independence day, but two:  chronologically, first came independence from Spain in 1821 when Panama separated from the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru and joined the Greater Republic of Colombia (consisting at that time of modern Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela); second came independence of Panama from Colombia in 1903 after the Colombian government rejected the USA’s desire to build a canal across the Panamanian isthmus and Theodore Roosevelt’s administration facilitated Panama’s declaration of independence in order to grant the U.S. rights to build the Panama Canal.  November 3 marks Separation Day, when Panama officially declared its separation from Colombia in 1903.  November 4 marks Flag Day to commemorate the new Panamanian flag created days before the 1903 declaration on November 1 by Maria de la Ossa de Amador (wife of Manuel Amador Guerrero, first President of independent Panama).  November 5 marks Colon Day, commemorating the date in 1903 when citizens of Colon, at the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Railroad, convinced Colombian troops stationed in Colon to stay there instead of following orders from Bogata and advancing to Panama City, at the Pacific terminus of the railroad, where the declaration of separation had taken place two days prior.  Had the Colombian troops crossed the isthmus to move on Panama City, they likely could have quashed the orchestrated but not widespread independence effort.  A few days later, Panama harkens back eight decades earlier to the Los Santos Uprising Day (Primer Grito de Independencia de la Villa de los Santos) on November 10, commemorating the date in 1821 that Rufina Alfaro, a young woman living in la Villa de Los Santos roughly 300 kilometers (shy of 200 miles) west of Panama City, shouted, “¡Viva la Libertad!” (“Long live liberty!) and led villagers armed with sticks and stones to take the Spanish barracks without spilling any blood, launching the independence movement that resulted in the less than three weeks later in Panama’s declaration of independence from Spain on November 28 (celebrated now as Independence Day) and its joining of the Greater Republic of Colombia.

Consequently, November is a month of holidays during which time people tend to focus more on vacations than on school and work.  ISP teachers, students, staff, and administration may have had school as normal (as much as online school now seems “normal”) on Thanksgiving, but the first week and a half of November had school closed in recognition of the first four holidays of the month.  Panamanian flags and bunting of red, white, and blue adorned streets and buildings everywhere as the month started and have stayed up through the month except where replaced by Christmas decor.  Even the guard station at the gate of our neighborhood got festive with patriotic colors (see the photograph with this post), and remains festooned as such as we move into December.  Interestingly, as a side note, despite not having Thanksgiving in its lineup of November holidays Panama nonetheless sports big Black Friday sales in its advertising.  We masked up and gloved up last Friday – a day before our own Thanksgiving celebration – to shop for furniture we have wanted to complete the process of making the house we rent into the home we want, finding a great deal at an (American) Ashley Furniture store far away from crowds in downtown Panama City and expecting living room and dining room completion upon upcoming delivery at the end of this week.

On the downside of all these festivities, just as we saw in Morocco when relaxing pandemic precautions combined with holidays (in Morocco’s case, the end of Ramadan), after a month of Panamanians gathering with family and friends for the November holiday season, the number of daily new COVID cases has more than doubled from its pre-November numbers, with the total number of active cases whiplashing from a reasonable rate of decline to a sharp increase; and the number of daily deaths jumping from six on November 1 to nearly 20 per day at the end of the month.  We will see what that brings in terms of renewed restrictions, hoping it does not mean we return to men and women going out for limited hours on separate days.  As of today, tightening up is starting again in some parts of the country; just not yet in the capital where we live.  But whatever it brings, we will adjust accordingly, and we will remain thankful.

On your mark, get set, here we go!