Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Trials of the Panamobile (or How We Got a Lemon Tree)

This is THE story that prompted us to begin writing a blog. To set the stage, our automobile in Panama is a Ford van, that is lovingly dubbed, The Panamobile. She's practical, she holds a lot of stuff, and we do a lot of airport runs. Anyway, last year we hit a log (yes, a full-size log) in the middle of the road ... full on, high impact. We thought she would pull through the ordeal unscathed until we gradually noticed a vibration, which, in true Panamanian style, we completely ignored ... for months. Then, a few weeks ago, she started "missing" a bit. Added to the vibration, it was either (a) a sign of more problems to come, or (b) she has spent too much time playing "rock band" in our absence. Finally, we took the hint that she needed attention, and she needed it soon. Thus began our recent journey to Panama City to repair our faithful and somewhat neglected automobile. It all started with my brave but naive attempt at making, by telephone, a "reservation" for diagnosis and repairs at the Ford dealership in Panama City. After consulting my Spanish dictionary, I managed to make the appointment. Encouraging signs of an easy chore ahead of us were that the Panamobile made the trip with no major difficulties and we were able to get an early check-in for our supposedly one night's stay.

With the Panamobile safely inducted into the Talleres de Mecanica y Servicios en General (Ford dealership), we set about the business of "waiting." Waiting is an art-form here because you don't always know what you are waiting for and why. I decided to multi-task and put in a call to Diego, the TV guy and beg for a new remote control. Diego is a tricky one ... he promised to come out to the beach months ago with a new remote, but so far, there has not been a sighting. Successes come in small bundles sometimes. Upon hearing that I brought the old remote with me, Diego arranged for an exchange. He agreed to bring the new one to our hotel's front desk if I would leave the broken one for him to retrieve. When the switch happened as agreed upon, I wondered, "If this feeling of elation what people feel when ransom is paid and prisoners are released?"

We managed to kill time for about 24 hours when I got the courage to call Ricardo, the auto "consultor de servicio," and ask him when the car would be ready. After a lengthy explanation of "con mi auto," I was informed that it would be ready at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The list of problemas did seem to correspond with the major cost of the repair "cotizacion" and I authorized the work to be done.

We entertained ourselves on day 2, Tuesday, without shopping .... well, without shopping a lot. I did buy two bottles of Tilex and a bottle of spray starch. You see, we did not want to have too much excess baggage since we would eventually take a taxi cab back to the auto repair shop. In our quest to keep busy with no shopping, we discoverd a real gem in the City, the VIP section of the Multi-Plaza Mall's movie theater. For $4.50 each, we watched a pretty good movie while relaxing in very cushy lay-back loungers and drinking vino blanco, delivered to our seats by the waiter who comes when you press a call button. Nice!

On Day 3, Wednesday, I called to confirm that the Panamobile would be ready by 4:30. "Si," was the response. (I should have known this was too easy). We packed up and patiently waited until about 2:00 p.m. before heading on over to get her out of hock and be on our way back to the playa. (Hah!) Feeling confident that she might be done early, we arrived via taxi cab ... with 2 suitcases, 2 bottles, of Tilex, a bottle of spray starch, a new table runner, a dozen new kitchen dish towels, and three bags of decorative rocks for my flower vases. Pero no! (But no!) The car, she was not ready. BIG problema ... and Senor Dan was definitely not amused. Back to a hotel. We were already tired of the first one so we decided to change the scenery and the choice of restaurants. I might mention that the only positive so far was the plethora of excellent restaurants in Panana City! Anyway, we climbed into another taxi with 2 suitcases, 2 bottles of Tilex, a bottle of spray starch, a new table runner, a dozen new kitchen dish towels, and three bags of decorative rocks for my flower vases. Oh, and I forgot the new lint roller with 2 extra rolls. All is this important, as we are now hauling around WAY more than we brought with us ... in a taxi cab. However, before leaving the car shop, I pleaded with the techician to PROMISE me the car would be ready on Thursday, day 4. He promised and gave me a big smile with a "thumbs up."

Good, a different part of the City where the temptation to buy anything else to travel around town with us was small. Wednesday night was highlighted by a great dinner, fun at the local casino paying penny slot machines, and a good night's sleep. Then came breakfast and a chance meeting with our friend and sometimes tour guide, Gisela. Gisela was so happy to see us, as she had just returned from Chiriqui, where she bought a lemon tree for us. She immediately called her husband on her cell phone and told him to bring it to us at the hotel. Great ... now a lemon tree to haul around. Not that we were not grateful for the tree but the timing was just not the best. What to do? Say thank you and wait for the arrival of the tree! As promised, the tree arrived and we piled into the smallest taxi cab in Panama City with 2 suitcases, 2 bottles of Tilex, a bottle of spray starch, a table runner, a dozen new kitchen dish towels, 3 bags of decorative rock for my flower vases, a new lint roller with 2 extra rolls ..... and a lemon tree.

After unpacking the taxi cab, we hiked down a hill with all our belongings and were greeted with the encouraging news that the Panamobile was ready for us. Senor Dan loaded our possessions into the van in record time while I went inside to pay our bill. I was THIS CLOSE ... pero no. Just as the cashier started to take my credit card, her computer crashed and she was not able to print out the receipt that detailed all the work that was done. I managed to comprehend that she wanted us to return the next day to complete the transaction. Senor Dan ... and you all know this ... has only so much that he can tolerate. I thought the fuse was finally going to blow. But wait. I did the only thing I could do. I called our friend Tania on my cell phone. She talked to the car folks for us and negotiated that we would pay our bill, take the car, and they would send the receipt to a contact across town, who would then relay it to us out at the playa by courier.

So it was that we finally left Panama City on day 4 in our repaired van, with 2 suitcases, 2 bottles of Tilex, a bottle of spray starch, a new table runner, a dozen new kitchen dish towels, 3 bags of decorative rocks for my flower vases, a new lint roller with 2 extra rolls, and a lemon tree. Oh, and I forgot to mention the new TV remote control and the extra 5 pounds each that we gained while eating out (actually, porking out) for 4 days.

Today, we are safely back in our house. It does not bother me that the painter is upstairs painting the outside wrought iron, the maid is apparently using a whole bottle of PineSol to mop the kitchen floor, and the electrician is trying to install new light sockets in various places throughout the house. We probably should go to the grocery store. Pero no! We are not leaving the place ... maybe for days. The Panamobile needs her beauty rest. And we are watching TV with our new remote control and looking out the window at our new lemon tree.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maid in Panama?

To maid or not to maid? That was the question. It's just one of the many perplexing dilemmas we never thought too much about before moving to Panama. Neither of us has ever had a maid. And, BP (Before Panama), we didn't know anyone else who's ever had a maid. But here, it's part of the culture. And cultural acclamation is definitely one of the biggest challenge faced by an expat living in a foreign country. Time and time again, we have watched friends and acquaintances arrive in Panama with (a) the mindset that the country should adapt to them or (b) the enthusiastic goal of immediate immersion into local customs and norms. Each, in our view, is fool-hearty.

In Panama, we discovered that, with a high low-income population, a low high-income population (and a very small middle class), a whole lot of poor people are working for a small number of rich people. Not to make it sound too simplistic, but wealthy and upper-middle class folks are pampered and poor people have jobs. That's just the way it is. This way of life is even reflected in and encouraged by the home-building industry. The nicer homes built in Panama come with a maid's living quarters. Ours is no exception. We bought the house after construction began, so we really had no choice in the matter. The maid's designated bedroom and bath are just beyond the kitchen, away from the primary living space. Sounds exotic, right? One can definitely be seduced by the prospect and glamour of a having a full-time maid when the house is already equipped for it and the cost of doing so is extremely affordable. We must admit we did think about it. But, our cautious natures proved to be advantageous for ultimately deciding what works best for us.

In retrospect, the first thing that held us back from going the full-time maid route was the fact that we couldn't see how anyone could live in that tiny bedroom! And, while the rest of the house is plumbed for hot water, the maid's quarters is not. There was no way we could ask someone to live in such a tiny space with no hot water while we had luxurious living quarters and warm showers. That, and we know ourselves too well. If someone came to live with us, we would end up making that person part of the family. And we already have a big family. So, we waited. And we observed. And we learned.

In Panama, employing domestic help is more complicated than just giving someone a paycheck for hours worked. Registration at the local Social Security office is required. Benefits, vacations, maternity leave, etc. are legal rights of the workers. Dismissals are accompanied by severance pay. For those readers who do not know about our backgrounds, Dan and I are very pro-worker oriented. I'm just saying, "google" Dan Terry and firefighters and all you see is Union! However, while we personally applaud the country for it's protection of worker's rights, we have seen too many people forge headlong into this system without understanding their obligations as employers. And, then, we saw training issues, language issues, cultural issues ... all kinds of issues, in fact, that made us too leery to jump on that bandwagon. At the end of the day, in our observation, it's an "eyes wide open" thing. When live-in maid arrangements have worked out well for the expats we know, it's because they have taken the time to learn the rules here first. And the Panamanians who have maids? We have more than a few Panamanian friends who say their maids and nannies have gradually become part of the family. (See, that's what we were trying to avoid!) And those relationships become more complicated than just those of employer/employee. We love the story that our friend, Fredo, tells. When his long-time maid used steel wool to clean the new and very expensive stainless steel hood over the kitchen stove, leaving the obvious deep scratches, he did the only thing he could do. He just bought another hood.

Having said all that, our idea of enjoying life at the playa did not include cleaning six bathrooms and mopping 3,500 square feet of tile floor every week. We tried it twice. And, since we have lots of company (yes, "build it and they will come" is a truism for us), changing all those beds after every visitor did not exactly fit into our exercise plan. So, the hybrid of employing domestic help that works for us is to use a weekly maid service, provided by our community development for a very reasonable fee. Mind you, we never know who's going to show up and sometimes we don't know when, but the house stays clean and our only responsibility is to tip them well and remember them on holidays. Like I said, it works for us. And Dan and I have become quite fond of the eclectic assortment of maids who help with our household chores. They are all ages, all sizes, and there are a few weird inconsistencies in the chores they prefer to do, but we love them all! Besides being very efficient in their own unique ways, they teach us Espanol, they talk about their families, and they sometimes bring us flowers and mangoes from their yards. And we even gossip together about some of the other neighbors! I really knew we had a special thing going on when, recently, one of the maids appeared at the front door in an apparent state of dismay. It was not our cleaning day and she was with a group of other maids who were waiting for her in the driveway. "Senora Lynda, Senora Lynda," she wailed, as I opened the door. "Enfermo, Enfermo! Ayudarme!" She walked quickly past me, motioning for me to follow her to the kitchen. She then grabbed her stomach and pointed to an upper kitchen cabinet. "Pepto Bismol, Pepto Bismol .... necessito Pepto Bismol!" Well, of course she would know where my medicine stash is; she does clean the house every week! I reached up, pulled down the big bottle of magical pink stuff, and poured her the recommended dose. She drank it down, gave me a big smile, and was out the door in a flash to join her friends.

Time will tell if Dan and I give in to the temptation to bring a full-time maid into our world here in Panama. Certainly, as we age, that temptation may give way to necessity, as it has with some of our older counterparts in the neighborhood. But for now, we kind of enjoy the variety of maids who grace our home each week and we're just not ready to become employers. As a side note, the experience with our maids has further reinforced one of the things I have come to enjoy about our life here, which is the simple pleasure of enjoying the people with whom we connect on a day to day basis. Maybe there is something to be said for "smelling the roses," after all. I may not have roses in my house, but the maids see to that I have lots of flowers!

Monday, July 27, 2009

I know a Guy ....

Yea! My weathered outdoor furniture just got a face lift. Local Yellow Pages? Nope. I found "a guy." In my neighborhood, if you need something done, just make it known. There's always a guy. There's a guy who paints, a guy who makes screens, a guy who builds furniture, a guy who moves furniture .... well, you get the gist of it. Recently we needed some major painting done at our house. Sure enough. Our lovely friend Tania knew a guy: Hedo the painter. Well, actually, Hedo is not his real name. I don't think it's nice to use real names of people without their permission. Unless, of course, they are public figures. Then all bets are off. Not that anyone will become famous based on my blog, but you just never know. And I don't want to get sued.
Like most of the workers trying to get ahead in this developing country, Hedo is very enterprising. Soon after we made it known we needed a painter, Hedo showed up out of nowhere ... on a bicycle, of course. Bicycles are a common mode of transportation around here. It is not unusual to see people hauling tools, produce, chickens, or even babies on their bicycles. I guess you can't have a seat belt law to cover that one. Anyway, Hedo looked around at the job to be done, and left as quickly as he arrived, with the promise of a cotizacion (price). Senor Dan has learned to fear the word "cotizacion." He says it translates to dollars flying out of his wallet.
When it comes to arranging work to be done, it seems the Panamanians don't adhere to the same time constraints or schedules we have come to expect from our own past experiences. I am not exactly criticising this apparent cultural norm, as I have noticed that people who live and work in this country seem to laugh and smile a lot. I have found that "manana" does not necessarily mean tomorrow, nor does it mean anytime soon (or ever). But, I must admit, it has taken me three years to lighten up on my expectations. I would like to think I am a better person for it. Anyway, to my surprise and delight, the next day, Hedo came back with his price. We agreed, and soon his crew started showing up. How he and his boys got all that painting equipment here on their bicycles is beyond me. And I am pretty sure they all have real day jobs but are earning some extra cash. Because wages here are so low, moonlighting during break hours, lunch hours, and after hours seems to be a commonly accepted and even encouraged practice.

Hedo and his team spent 3 or four days painting wrought iron, outdoor light fixtures, gutters, furniture ... you name it. They'll paint anything. But I am still trying to figure out which one of them hauled the electric sander here on his bicycle. The painting jobs at our house are done and everything looks great. And the price, well, let's just say I could do all that every few months and still think it was a good deal. Well, actually, after the rain we had last night, the furniture probably will need Hedo's attention again in a few months anyway! When we settled up with Hedo and gave him a nice big tip, we realized we have a new friend. And, as he left, he flashed his big smile and asked if we wanted a cotizacion for painting the whole outside of the house. He hooked me right up ... come dry season, we'll see him again, for sure. Oh, and a side note: While Hedo gets around during his work days via bicycle, he actually lives about 80 miles away. Every morning, he boards a bus, travels to our community, picks up the bike he keeps around here somewhere, and goes to work. Then he heads back home by bus every night. And he doesn't seem to think this is unusual. The more I learn about the lives of the wonderful people who live here, the more humbled I feel and the more grateful I am that Dan and I are on this adventure.

You Speaka Spanish?

Sometimes our encounters here in Panama are just too weird. Take our relationship with Garry, the apparent local version of Mr. Fix-It. He is obviously Panamanian, so I am a bit puzzled about the name. But anyway, Garry is very polite, rarely smiles, and is always in need of bottled water. I now keep extras in the refrigerator just in case Garry drops by. When we first started seeing him zip around here on a fast four-wheeler, wearing the tale-tale company emblem on his white shirt, we knew he was "official." The first time he showed up at our house, we thought he needed to check out our electrical outlets in the house, but he was merely offering to help us fix a flat tire. Funny how language barriers create such misunderstandings. Anyway, after struggling to communicate with us, Garry asked me, in perfect English, "Do you speak French?" Well, I am a loser in Espanol but really dead meat when it comes to French. So I did what I always do. I called Elena, the go-to girl for us residents, and asked her to interpret for me. I gave the phone to Garry. Garry talked to Elena. Then I talked to Elena. After being assured we had things under control, Garry sped away as quickly as he arrived, with a big "gracias" from us and a cold bottle of water from our fridge ... kind of like Zorro on a four-wheeler.

OK, I decided, maybe he is not an electrician. Shortly thereafter, when Garry was the lone responder sent to our house for a minor plumbing problem, we surmised he must be the plumber. But when he called for reinforcements, we knew he is not a plumber. But here we go again: "Do you speak French?" To which I replied, "No, Garry, no hablo Francais, pero, hablo un poco Espanol." To which he replied, "You speaka Spanish?" I swear, as my name is Lynda Terry, he asked this with a perfect Italian accent!" Thus began the language dance I have with Garry each time he comes to assess a "situation" or problem at our house: "You speaka Spanish?" "Un poco." "Un pequeno?" "Si, un poquito." Then he proceeds to give me about a 10 paragraph dissertation in Espanol. I nod. He nods. I call Elena and hand the phone to Garry. He talks to her and hands the phone back to me. I listen to Elena. Garry asks for bottled water and then he leaves.

But, back to what Garry actually does. I was just about to decide that he is the neighborhood trouble-shooter when he showed up to personally check out a lighting problem in our bathroom. So, maybe he is the electrician, after all? After a couple of bottled waters, Garry called me into the room to show me that he had taken the recessed lighting fixture apart and to tell me the socket needed replacing. I won't repeat the whole dialog dance again, but you know the drill. Elena, as usual, ultimately gave me the news on my cell phone. Garry would be getting a new socket and would be back to install it. And as Garry messed up the ceiling a bit, he wanted me to take a picture of it (for proof, I guess). Anyway, we decided to get used to the fact that this bathroom would have no light in it for a while. We have a few other bathrooms here anyway .... 5 more actually. Panamanian house builders seem to like building bathrooms.
After a couple of weeks, I reminded Elena that we needed an electrician to fix the light problem. The next week, Garry arrived, with a young man who was probably not the electrician. Here we go. "You speaka Spanish?" (Still the Italian accent!) "Un poco," I say. Un pequeno?" he asks. Si, un poquito," I reply. Now this is the other thing. No matter who shows up to fix/repair/mend something, they never have any tools. So, we now have tools at our house. With our ladder and our screwdriver in tow, the two of them headed up the stairs. I went for broke and pointed out two more of our recessed lights that were not working. A few bottles of water later, Garry tells me that new light sockets will be needed. Humm ...... I thought we had already arrived at that conclusion a few weeks ago. No matter. Garry and I were making communication progress. He told me, and I understood, that he would be glad to get the new sockets for me. But this time, there is a cost involved! It will cost $8.00 total. Sounded fair to me. I gave Garry $8.00. But Garry, being very official, wanted to give me an official receipt. He took out his official-looking receipt book and carefully wrote out the information required (name, address, amount of cash received, and for what). Then, because he had no sheet of carbon paper, he wrote the information all over again on the duplicate copy. He gave me the white copy and he kept the green copy. (Mental note to self: Add carbon paper to the list of supplies for us to have on hand.) Garry asked for water for himself and the apprentice and they left. Garry has not been back since. That was two weeks ago. We exchange waves daily as I see him out and about, looking very official. Maybe I should take him some water.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why Panama?

Dear Friends and Family,

For those of you who are interested in our day-to-day life as expats in Panama, my very own blog, Our Life in Panama, is born today. I know some of you still think we are nuts for living here, as in, OMG .... it's a third world country run by the likes of Noriega! Others of you have visited us and have seen what we see: a slice of heaven with great weather, a stable government, and a throwback attitude that somewhat resembles the U.S. in the 1950s. The rest of you are just curious about what we find to do here all day. So, for all of you who have expressed either interest or concern, here goes: the first "Our Life in Panama" post!

First of all, I would like to thank Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and California Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger for giving us the opportunity to live here in Panama: Al Gore for inventing the Internet so we can pay our California bills online, Gray Davis, who handled his historic recall with a great deal of grace, and his subsequent replacement, Governor Terminator, for giving both Dan and me the final impetus to retire. Since I was appointed by Governor Davis to run California's Department of Aging and Dan ran the anti-recall campaign to try to prevent the whole recall debacle from happening, we were, to put it mildly, ready to change our lives after the recall became a reality. Not that the Schwarzenegger team was mean to me, but when you spend a whole year without anyone asking for your advice or input .... it's time to go. And Dan, after 32 years as President of the California Professional Firefighters, decided to change his emphasis from politics to training. He is the current Administrator of a large apprenticeship program that trains firefighters in California.

Long story short, when we make a change, we make a BIG one! A much needed five-week vacation in Panama in early 2006 turned into a full-on property search. After putting 1,500 kilometers on a Toyota Yaris rental car and exploring every inch of the Pacific coastal area of Panama, we settled on the one development project that, at the time, required passage over the most god-awful road in the history of roads to find. But find we did. And it felt right. I must admit though, after we wrote the deposit check for the house we now call home, I woke Dan up in the middle of the night screaming, "We can't do this! Call the bank! Cancel the check!" Like always, he talked me down. Like always, he was right. Well, sometimes he is wrong, but never about money.

I have to warn you. If you read my blog entries, I sometimes ramble. On the other hand, give me a break. I don't work anymore and I have a hard time doing crossword puzzles in Espanol.
That said, let me give you a snapshot of a typical day for us. It's Saturday. I slept in until 7:00 a.m. Dan, of course, was up at 5:00. We had coffee, watched a few birds in our yard and almost ran out of time before heading to the beach in our new red Kawasaki for low-tide sea shelling. Our first encounter out of the driveway was a chance meeting with the National Police truck ... followed by an big entourage. Our Panamian Minister of the Treasury, Alberto Vallarino (like a Tim Geitner for you U.S. folks) and the President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, were pulling out of Senor Vallarino's driveway and were out for a leisurely drive in Senor Vallarino's green Kawasaki. THANK GOD I was dressed for the occasion, in my INC conservative black bathing suit and my Sacramento Kings ballcap. We waved; they waved. We went to the beach. We have no idea where they went. I swear, this is not unusual. When we first moved here, we did not know that we lived down the road from the previous President, Martin Torrijos. And we did not know our neighbor, Senor Vallarino, would end up as a major candidate for President in the last election. Dan says it's our destiny. We just cannot seem to get away from politics! Anyway, in my observation, Panamanians are very civil in their political alliances. And they don't seem to hold grudges. Or if they do, they keep it from the press better than their U.S. counterparts. Former opponents from different political parties seem to end up as trusted appointees after the election dust clears, as is the case with Senor Vallarino, who is now serving in the administration of President Martinelli. And get this, according to a recent article in The Visitor, they are both fans of American pork and beans. Talk about a bond!

Political encounters aside, the rest of our Saturday was relatively mundane. Lunch, pool time, and checking out the "haps" at the on-premises hotel and beach club took up most of our afternoon. Oh, and we did drive the Kawasaki down by the river to pick a few ripe Mangoes. Helicopters are still coming and going around here, picking up dignitaries as I write. Music is still blaring from the wedding reception at the hotel. The bar was so busy over there, we couldn't even get a drink! Lucky for Senor Dan, I make a mean long island iced tea. Well, Senor Dan is calling. He needs a refill. Oh, and I need to make a dinner reservation. Life here is so dang hard. I just cannot fit it all in. Chao! (I don't know why they say this in Panama ... but they do. Go figure.)