Happy reunion

LOCATION: House-sitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: Hot and humid again

Mac was able to have a nice sleep-in after having to get up early yesterday AM. We played with him in the apartment and did computer work. Every day I receive an email with new housesitting assignments listed from http://www.trustedhousesitters.com. Now that Christmas is over, there are more assignments posted. I’m applying for ones in late spring/summer 2018. I had applied to one in North Yorkshire, England. We did a Skype interview call today, and they selected us. Hooray! We are thrilled to be going there. It is near the village where James Herriott’s “All Creatures Great and Small” took place.

We took a walk around the area and had lunch in an Indian restaurant. It is strange to hear Indian people speaking Spanish.

There is a large Jewish population in Panama City. We live right around the corner from a Jewish synagogue.

And, our street sign in front of our building is in Hebrew…

There are a lot of ultra-conservative Jews that live in our building. Saturday (Shabbat) is their holy day. Per their religious beliefs, they cannot interact with electricity on Shabbat. So, a workaround has been created for using the elevator. One set of elevators in our building is marked “Shabbat” and on Saturdays it is programmed to constantly go up and down, stopping at every floor. This means that they can use the elevator without technically touching or involving themselves with electricity. Our homeowner had warned us about this….getting on the Shabbat elevator on Saturdays can mean that it takes forever to go down 31 floors….

Years ago when we were living in Gainesville, Florida, I taught in a boarding school. There were several international students. The owners closed the dorm at one point, so many of us teachers took in the foreign students as boarders. We invited a girl from Panama to live with us for 2 years. Through the wonders of the internet, I was able to look her up and we had dinner together this evening.

They took us to a high-end seafood restaurant.

George and I shared a bowl of ceviche and a seafood mixed grill with melt-in-your-mouth octopus, cuttlefish, grouper and shrimp.

It was a lovely evening, and so good to see her again.

From the Pacific to the Atlantic and back in one day!

LOCATION: Housesitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: 90s and humid. Downpours

On Fridays, the homeowner’s maid comes and can take Mac, our dog, for his mid-day walks, meaning that we can be away from the house on Fridays for longer periods. With that in mind, we planned our day to cross the isthmus from ocean to ocean.

We got up early and caught the train here in Panama City.

Our car, with an open dome, was for tourists, but the other cars shuffle businessmen between Panama City (on the Pacific) and Colon (on the Atlantic). .

Had we taken the tour, it would have cost $300+ each, but we did a “do-it-yourself” trip. The one-hour train ride, including coffee and snacks, was $25. The train route follows the Panama Canal.

We could see big cargo ships going up and down the Canal.

The Canal, and train route, go between the Pacific and Atlantic.

The map shows how the Canal shaves off several days of traveling around South America. We arrived in Colon, the Atlantic port. The tourists on the tour were whisked away in tour buses. We had met a Dutch guy on the train traveling alone, and decided to pair up with him to share costs. The 3 of us found our own taxi, and I negotiated a flat fee for taking us to see the new locks, then to take us to the bus station. So, for $13 each, we had our day trip planned! Much better than $300!!!

We toured the new set of locks. They were only recently finished, in 2017, allowing even bigger container ships to go through.

We were lucky to be there right when this big guy came through.

Then, it started to rain. It was a real downpour. This part of Panama gets rain like this daily. Guidebooks had warned us that Colon is an extremely poor and dangerous town. The book actually described it as a “hell hole” and warned tourists to not walk around AT ALL. I’m afraid they are right. The taxi took us through the town to the bus station. It was dismal, especially with the streets flooding from the downpour.

From the safety of our bus, I took this picture of the street…

Then this photo of one of the housing areas, chock full of garbage, next to a sign saying “Keep our neighborhood clean”. So sad…

The 1.5 hour bus ride back from Colon to Panama City was another $2.50, compared to the $50 that the tour guide people had to pay on top of their $300 tour. (Can you tell I’m full of myself from these savings???!!!)

In addition to saving gobs of money, we “enjoyed” a unique experience that you don’t get on a guided tour! A guy got on the bus and started preaching. He went on and on and on, at least 30 minutes. I could understand most of what he said…..Mostly that we owe everything to God. He was a sinner, spent 12 years in prison, and has now found God. He talked about the poor people of Colon. Then, he passed the hat and almost everyone gave him a dollar or two. He wasn’t real clear about where that money would be going….

Arriving in Panama City, we found the subway and took it to a stop that is somewhat near the Old Town, our destination for lunch. (Now back on the Pacific side). As we were standing there figuring out which exit to take, an official-looking guy came up to us, asked us where we were going, and escorted us through the subway to the street and hailed a taxi for us. So kind!

We had lunch in the Old Town, now about our favorite place in Panama. It is full of restaurants, bars and boutique hotels. We went to a rum bar where we had coupons for free mojitos. (Of course!) We each had a drink and split a “Panamanian Cuban” sandwich.

Now it was pouring here in Panama City. We waited until the deluge abated, then caught a cab home.

A great day!

Experimenting with Panama’s public transportation

LOCATION: Housesitting in Panama City, Panama through http://www.trustedhousesitters.com

WEATHER: Hot (90) and humid again.

After morning chores with Mac, our dog, we headed out for the day, planning to try different modes of transportation. We first tried to catch Uber from our condo to a brewpub. It didn’t work, as our wifi is limited. We stood in the hot sun for about 15 minutes, then gave up. Then, we hailed a taxi. He had just picked up another passenger and asked us if we wanted to share. Since we weren’t in a rush, we said ok. We had already negotiated the fare ($4), so we didn’t mind the drive all around the city.

The brewpub was pretty cool. Its name is the Rana Dorada – the Golden Frog, which is a highly poisonous frog in the nearby rainforest.

We each had a beer (IPA for me; Porter for George) and a sandwich. We got directions for the metro (subway) and took off walking. At the metro, we bought a ticket that will be good on the subway and busses here. We just have to add money to it periodically. We boarded the subway and rode it to the end, the national bus station, for $.25 each. (At this rate, the card will last quite a while!).

The bus station is massive and chaotic. There are busses going in all directions, including to Costa Rica, all parts of Panama and to the Darian Province, the death zone between Panama and Columbia. There was absolutely no signage, but we were able to find our bus by asking helpful policemen.

Our destination was the BioMuseum. For 25 cents, we rode about 45 minutes to the Peninsula where the museum is located.

The museum is fairly new, and is brilliant. The young guides, eager to practice English, gave us an informative narrative along the way.

Then, time to go home. We hailed a taxi, and I negotiated the fare down from $10 to $7. The cabbie was not too happy, but it was probably an act.

Before bedtime, I walked Mac in the park in front of our condo. I, along with about 5000 other people, enjoyed the Christmas lights….

Getting to know our neighborhood

LOCATION: House-sitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: Hot (90) as usual. Strong, but brief rain shower in the AM

We stayed around our neighborhood and apartment today. We are in a nicely-appointed 48-story condo. The lobby is decorated nicely…

We checked out the amenities floor, including a quick dip in the swimming pool…

Along with the pool, there is a squash court, children’s play room, meeting room, workout room, sauna and a golf putt-putt course.

Mac was happy that we stayed with him most of the day..

As I walked him, he wanted to “do his business” right in front of this sign!!!

We had lunch in a Greek restaurant next door. We learned that the Spanish word for gyro is yeero, just the way it is pronounced. In the late afternoon, we discovered a very authentic Irish pub not far from our condo. We chatted with some British customers. On our way home, we enjoyed the Christmas lights along the boulevard..

A visit to the fish market

LOCATION: House-sitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: Same – Hot (90) and humid

Our responsibilities here at the housesit are to walk Mac 3-4 times a day, feed him morning and night, and play with him when he fees like it. So, today after his breakfast and first walk, we headed out for today’s outing.

Our destination was the city’s fish market. We walked along the avenue in front of our house that parallels the Pacific.

The fish market was about 1.5 miles away. We knew we were getting close when we started smelling fishy fish.

These are the boats that go out for the fish. They were unloading some as we got near. They look pretty rickety.

Next to the market is a large outdoor eating area with about 10 different restaurants. Each had a hawker in front of it waving menus and trying to get customers in. We walked to the end where it was quieter and randomly selected a restaurant. This hawker said we would get a free ceviche with our meal, if we ordered an entree. There weren’t any tourists. All the other customers were fishermen and people just hanging out.

We ate our complimentary fish ceviche (very good) with an ice cold Panama beer called Balboa. It is only good when it is really cold.

Our entree reminded us of a seafood-type poutine (think Canada). It came to us sizzling on a hot cast iron skillet. It was a layer of French fries (although we could have selected rice, yucca or plaintains) covered with octopus, baby shrimp, clams and fish pieces, along with green and red peppers, all in a creole sauce. $12. It was quite tasty.

While we were eating, various vendors walked around, selling their wares. One guy had a bunch of jewelry. Our waitresses were quite keen…..

Then after lunch, we wandered around, finding the fishermen’s stalls where they were cutting up huge fish, then the market itself. These filets are corvina (sea bass) and red snapper.

And here is a big red snapper being weighed – at $4.00/pound.

It was too hot and our tummies were too full to walk back home, so we caught a taxi.

Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!

LOCATION: House-sitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: Hot (90) and humid.

Speaking of weather, the temperatures here do not vary much throughout the year. There are 2 seasons: the wet and the dry. The dry season starts now, the end of December, so we should have fairly pleasant weather here throughout our stay.

We spent a quiet Christmas day, mostly in the apartment, as everything is closed. We took Mac, our dog, for several walks in the park. Here we are in the park in the morning…..

Then, in the afternoon walk in the park, there were just a few people strolling around. Mostly kids learning how to ride their Christmas-present bicycles and roller skates.

We had a fairly traditional Christmas meal — rotisserie chicken, dressing and Lima beans. We splurged and paired the meal with a nice bottle of dry champagne.

We listened to Andy Williams sing Christmas songs on YouTube….

Fun fact — my piano teacher was Andy’s aunt and she had photos of him all over her studio. She waved at me one time from the TV audience when she attended his Christmas show.

After dinner, I took Mac for his final walk of the day in the park. It was absolutely wall-to-wall people. It must be a custom to stroll around the park after the day’s festivities. Mac enjoyed all the glorious smells ……and garbage.

Hey, mon…..no problem! Island life..

LOCATION: Housesitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: Hot (90) and humid

We eked out the rest of our Hop On/Hop Off bus travel time, and took the circuit around the city. We stopped on the peninsula again, and this time caught a ferry to Taboga Island. It is a popular beach destination for local Panamanians.

On the 30-minute ferry ride to the island, we zig-zagged our way around the big cargo ships that were waiting in line for the Canal.

The island is pretty small, with just a few restaurants, one hotel and a beach with umbrellas and chairs for rent.

Panama’s culture, music and food are a combination of Latin America and Caribbean Island influences. We stopped to enjoy this rag-tag reggae band.

After a short stroll through the town, we found a seaside restaurant with a little breeze. We shared a red snapper whole fried fish.

We ate very slowly, as this place was about the only place on the island that was shaded from the very hot sun. We had 2 hours to kill before the ferry back to the city.

Then, a walk through the beach area. You can see the Panama City high rises in the background.

We sneaked on the Hop On/Hop Off bus once again to get home, even though our tickets were now expired. No one cared — hey, it’s Christmas Eve, mon!

DINNER: Chicken in spaghetti sauce. Peas.

The fireworks went off around midnight, scaring our poor little dog Mac.

Getting to know our way around Panama

LOCATION: Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: Hot (90) and humid.

Yesterday, we bought a 48-hour pass on the Hop On/Hop Off, so we are using it a lot to get our money’s worth. We planned our trip today and waited at the bus stop for our bus. This colorful one (not ours) came by….

Our first stop was the area’s largest shopping mall. I easily got my 10,000 Fitbit steps in. It is a popular place, and of course, crowded for the holidays. We stopped in a Conway Store (Panama’s Target -even with the Target logo) and bought a few things.

Then, back on the bus to a drop-off stop at an island connected to downtown via a causeway. We had a drink at the marina, admiring the yachts.

You can see Panama’s skyline in the background. One of those tall buildings is our condo; another one is a Trump Tower.

For lunch, we had corvina (sea bass) ceviche and grilled octopus, Greek-style. All very good.

Back on the bus with a drop-off in front of our condo.

For dinner, we bought 3 fresh tamales from a lady selling them at the market. They are different from Mexican tamales. More cornmeal; less meat. They are wrapped in plantain leaves and tied up in a string. We split a pork one and a chicken one. There were some strange things hidden in the cornmeal — olives and raisins. Pretty good.

Then — our evening’s treat. The Nutcracker Suite was performed on a stage in the park below our condo. We sat outside and listened to the Panama Symphony Orchestra. Then, I took Mac for a walk in the park and glimpsed some of the ballerinas. A nice culture fix!

Old Panama

Continuing our trip on the Hop On/Hop Off bus….

The next place where we disembarked was Old Town, Panama City. It was built in the 1600s. It has been declared a UNESCO Heritage site, and is undergoing lots of renovation. Construction everywhere. We walked through some dreary areas, then found the nice bits.

Many of the buildings are really decrepit and you wonder why they are still standing. This is a “before” look….

Then you see the “after” results….

The area is full of cute shops and restaurants. George wants to buy a Panama hat while he is here…

Back on the bus, we had lovely views of downtown Panama City from the causeway leading to some nearby islands…

Back home, we took care of Mac, then went grocery shopping at our nearby market. We bought a take-and-bake- pizza for dinner. Our homeowner, a bachelor, doesn’t have much in his kitchen; he must eat out all the time.

The lovely day ended by listening to the Panama Symphony practicing in the park below for an upcoming Nutcracker performance.

The Panama Canal – Wow!

LOCATION: Housesitting in Panama City, Panama

WEATHER: About 90 and humid. Overcast with a 5-minute PM shower

Today, the maid and her brother came to clean the house. The arrangement is for them to clean the house on Fridays, including taking a walk with Mac our dog during the day. This means that Fridays we can be gone for longer periods of time. So, we decided to do the Hop On/Hop bus. We waited for it in front of our condo. Our building is 48 stories tall, and we are on the 31st flor. This is the view of the apartment from the bus stop, along with the Christmas tree decorations….

We got off at the Panama Canal. We watched a movie (in Spanish) about its history and walked through a museum learning a lot of interesting things. The canal is about 50 miles long and it takes boats about 8-10 hours to go through, as they have to negotiate the locks. It costs the big cargo ships $800,000 to go through!

After the tour, we had an absolutely perfect lunch in the canal’s visitor center restaurant, appropriately called “The Atlantic and the Pacific”.

We shared a platter of mixed ceviche – raw baby octopus, clams, shrimp, and red onions in a spicy lime cold broth.

We ate outside, overlooking the original locks

Back on the bus to our next destination….More to follow!