Monday, June 29, 2015

The Time Is Now.......No Plans, No Problem

Everyone knows at least one crazy person who quit their job to go backpacking through Europe, joined the Peace Corps or took up volunteering in Latin America. For many of us those wild days of trekking around the globe are done during our youth. Perhaps while trying to find ourselves and still attached to a parent who's shelling out the dough? But for those of us that discovered travel later in life it's never too late to set out for new adventures. 



Retiring to Panama nearly four years ago was the first part of that adventure.  We learned a new language, adapted to a new culture and learned many great lessons.  Maybe the most important of those lessons is that life outside the good ole' US of A can be as good if not better than the life we left behind. 

On a recent trip to Europe, a first for both of us, Clyde and I both had an awakening of sorts.  We woke up to the realization that there's a whole big, whopping world out there just waiting to be explored and wondered what we were waiting for?  Returning to Panama we found ourselves restless and ready for more rendezvous.  But like so many we bought into the whole American dream that says we must own a home filled with tons of terrific trinkets.  The house however helps to tie us down making it less easy to pick up and leave for whenever and wherever we want to go. So after serious contemplation we decided to put the house up for sale and become renters.  This way we'd be ready to drop everything, lock the door and go when opportunity calls.

As word of this worked it's way out to our friends both near and far the queries began to come. "What was our plan?"  "Where would we go?" "Would we be staying in Panama?" And our answer to this inquiry of investigation was as simple as, "we don't know," as we have no definite plans yet.

I always thought that people who traveled a lot had tons of money.  After all surely they were flying first class staying at 5-star hotels and eating at high dollar restaurants. But then I started hearing about other ways to travel and began doing research. There are websites that offer house swaps and house sitting worldwide.  Or perhaps borrowing a couch or guest room is more to your liking?  How about working on someone's farm in exchange for free meals and lodging? There are thousands of free, yes free opportunities out there for the taking.  That way the traveler in this case being us would merely have to pay transportation costs to the destination.  Assignments can be short term or long and literally cover the whole world.

During a recent road trip Clyde was driving down the mountain, slightly on edge each time the car turned a corner.  There was that feeling of not knowing what was coming around the bend that would face us head on. A reckless car that didn't notice us?  A herd of cattle standing in the road or a pack of street dogs? Suddenly he realized was just that feeling of uncertainty that he enjoyed. That feeling of not knowing what was coming next that gave him a slight adrenaline rush and made him want more.  It's that feeling that we search for while we travel and explore.  The new, the unknown and the wonderment of what's around the next bend.

Once we have a signed contract on the house we'll still have a month or two before everything is finalized, giving us a bit of time to find a place to go.  Probably at first we'll load the remains of our worldly possessions into our car and explore more of Panama. Then we'll search for house sits or maybe just go somewhere and rent a small apartment for a while.  We'd love to explore more of Central and South America, Europe, Australia and anywhere else we get the urge to go.  For the longer destinations such as Europe the big expense is the flight from here to there.  But once we're over there we can take trains and other forms of public transport to get around.

Countries throughout the world all have stipulations as to how long a foreigner can stay without needing to apply for a visa. A visa is a permit granted by a country which gives a foreigner permission to reside there longer. Many countries allow US citizens to stay for up to three months before requiring a visa.  Panama for instance allows visitors to enter the country on a tourist visa which is good for six months.  Since we live here long term we hold a residency visa which allows us to remain indefinitely. 

Everyone always asks about our kids, where they are and how we get along without being involved in their daily lives.  I have a daughter and a grandson who's eight years old now. They live in San Antonio, Texas and they know I'm alive by following us on Facebook. Clyde has a daughter and a son-in-law who live near Austin, Texas and two sons that live in Corpus Christi, Texas. And they too follow him on Facebook via posts, chat and occasional phone calls to keep in touch.  All of our kids are mature 30 something's with their own lives, jobs and interests.  Both my Mom and Grandmother travelled around the US during their retired years.  It became a family joke with Grandma since we had to make arrangements to visit her only to hear, "I'll be in Hawaii that week so don't come visit."

So who knows how we'll finish that sentence when our kids decide to visit us, if they ever do. Perhaps we'll be snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, sipping wine in Tuscany, or taking a safari in Africa? The universe is ours to explore if we only believe that it's possible.  How exciting to see where we'll go next, who we'll meet along the way and where we'll end up next......along the gringo trail.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Do You Know The Way.......To Santa Fe?

With only one road that goes through the whole country of Panama, finding the way to Santa Fe wasn't all that hard. As long as we didn't miss the turn off near the city of Santiago, the rest was rather easy especially since Clyde was doing all the driving.

You might say we took the high road and headed into the mountains last week bound for the home of Mitzy and Bill Martain.  It was last year that we met them at International Living's conference in Panama City when I was first asked to be a speaker.  Mitzy was also a featured expat speaker who told their story of how they ended up in Panama.  While living in North Carolina they lost their retirement and would be forced to live on social security alone.  Like so many of us they had to come up with an alternative plan which was to opt out of the US and find a cheaper way of life abroad.  After trying out a few other spots in Panama they bought land in Santa Fe and hired someone to build a house. Since both of them enjoy farming the seven acre parcel of land was just what they needed.  Today they raise chickens, grow produce and have a large selection of fruit trees too.

Santa Fe, Panama

The Lovely Mountains

We instantly became friends with the sweet duo and I believe that I sort of invited ourselves to come visit. But as life got in the way we never managed to visit them. This April we saw them again at the International Living conference and talked about visiting once again.  So finally with the completion of their new house we ventured out and spent the night, enjoying their company once again.  Their lovely two-bedroom home sits along the Santa Maria river just fifteen minutes outside the town of Santa Fe.  Having just a few other expats nearby they've really become immersed with the local community.  Of course it helps that Mitzi is fluent in Spanish which she learned prior to serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. She later cemented her language skills ever further as she stayed in Ecuador an additional two more years where she worked for the Corps as a trainer.

Mitzi was almost born with a passport in her hand and she always wanted to travel the world.  And travel she did since she worked as an airline flight attendant, owned a travel agency and served as a tour guide before retiring to Panama.  Her bubbly, sweet personality lights up the room as she spreads joy to all those around her.

Santa Fe is a nature lovers paradise as it's surrounded by majestic mountains, rivers, streams, wildlife and so much more. It's the perfect place for river rafting, horseback riding, hiking, cycling, touring coffee farms or learning about the indigenous cultures.

A Tiny Bridge

After the Spanish conquests in the Americas the Veraguas province was given to Luis, the grandson of Columbus as a reward. He later sold his rights back to the Spanish crown after his attempts of control failed.  The Spanish called the province Veragua and made Francisco Vazquez the first governor in 1560. Santa Fe was founded soon after because of it's gold mining potential. The town remained rather isolated until the 1950's when it became dominated by a few powerful families who controlled the resources. Travel to the nearby bigger town of Santiago was severely limited with no paved roads which also meant there was little access to the outside world.

In 1967 a Catholic priest from Colombia arrived in Santa Fe and things began to change for the better.  Jesus Hector Gallego Herrera organized the peasants into cooperatives that would bypass the monopolies of the towns elite.  By 1971 this movement had extended outside of the town limits and Gallego was viewed as an advisory by the country's dictator Omar Torrijos.  With help from one of the local prominent families Gallego was arrested one night and vanished, never to be seen again. Soon after Santa Fe was connected to the main roads giving it better access to the rest of Panama.  But still today the cooperatives started by Gallego are still functioning.

Donkey In Someone's Yard

Here's The Beef

 A Panamanian Road Block......A Cattle Drive

Mitzy and Bill took us by one of the famous "cooperativas" which sells everything from groceries, hardware, live chickens, farm equipment and more.  Still today the cooperatives are owned and operated by the people of the tiny village, which keeps the money and power within the community.

We stopped by the local coffee plant El Tute, which is also run by the local farmers cooperative.  We followed Mitzy as she walked right into the place giving us a peek at the small packaging operation that was in progress.  Along with large bags of packaged coffee were tiny bags bought by locals homes that live without electricity. With these single or smaller servings packs people can boil water and pour it over the coffee grounds, allowing the grounds to fall to the bottom of the container.  Being the coffee lovers that we are we just had to buy a few bags of the whole beans for the low price of just $5.25.

 El Tute Coffee Plant In Santa Fe, Named After A Local Mountain
Coffee Plant

Bagging Up The Coffee

Fresh Coffee Beans Waiting To Be Roasted

Coffee For Sale


Since this is the rainy season in Panama we returned home to find over four inches of rain in our gauge.  Apparently it came fast and furious as it flooded our yard and soaked our dogs who seem to enjoy playing in it.  Here's to another fun little road trip of good times with great friends......along the gringo trail.

We Became Part Of History.......Panama Canal Expansion Project

In a world where bigger is better and excess is the norm it's no wonder that we've outgrown the famous Panama Canal. When the canal first opened in 1914 the term "Panamamax" was spouted off for the first time. Simply stated, panamamax is the maximum size a ship can be to safely transit the canal.  Any ships that don't fit into the specifications would not be allowed to make the transit and instead would need to take the longer route. Currently the maximum length of a ship to pass through the canal is 950 feet while the width is 106 feet, although are exceptions to these rules. A ships height is also a factor since it has to pass under the Bridge Of The Americas but dimensions vary depending on water depth.

These days Panama is all abuzz with the birth of the term, "New Panamax," as a new set of locks prepares to dazzle the world. Known as the Panama Canal Expansion Project the intent is to double the capacity of the canal by 2016.  The new set of locks will accommodate much larger ships plus increase the volume of ships that pass through daily.

Plans for the project include the following:

To built two new locks, one on the Atlantic and the other on the Pacific side. Each will have three chambers with water saving basins.

Excavate new channels and widen the current ones.

Accommodate ships 1-1/2 times the current size to pass through with twice as much cargo.

Raise the maximum operating level of Gatun Lake.

Ports around the globe are having to be revamped also in order to allow for the larger vessels.  Renovations include dredging, blasting and bridge raising which is being done in order for the ports to handle the New Panamax ships.  The project was first proposed by Panamanian President Torrijos in 2006 but didn't officially begin until the following year.  Originally it was hoped that the project would be completed by 2014 in conjunction with the 100th year anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.  But with various setbacks and strikes the project was never done and is now scheduled to open in December of this year.

Never forget this day in history

Lots of People!

The lines snake around
Finally on the bus, already a little wet

We are in one of the locks!

A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to make history by visiting and standing in the massive locks before they were filled with water. The site was open to the public for a brief period allowing more than 45,000 visitors to marvel at the construction. Our day began with a drive into Panama City to the site where we managed to find a rather close parking spot. We followed the crowds and took our position in the long line with no end in sight.  Extremely well organized for Panama, the volunteer staff provided FREE water and there were plenty of porta-potties along the route too.  The vivacious, cheerleader-like staff wore bright yellow tee shirts that read "Somos Parte De La Historia,"  translated means, "we are part of history."  The excitement was evident in their faces as they escorted the crowds from buses that brought us all into the massive locks.  Soon after the skies opened up and it began to pour with buckets of rain dumping down on our heads.  Thankfully my dear husband remembered to bring along an umbrella which helped to at least keep our heads dry. But as the rain inched up it soon was above our shoe level as we trudged through ankle high waters.  Perhaps this was Mother Natures way of doing her part as she helped to fill the locks with millions of gallons of water.

This is a huge lock!

This is where the water will drain out

A view of one of the huge gates that
will slide out to close the lock

This is the rail the gate will slide out on

But the spirit of the crowds and the staff never dampened as people stood in awe viewing this spectacle of engineering.  The shear enormity of the humongous locks and gates that would once again prove to the world that Panama is something special. As we looked over at the buses they appeared like tiny bugs compared to the sky high locks behind them.

Mother Nature is trying to fill the lock
with her rains!

Louise and Terry trying to stay dry

The busses look so small in the huge locks

A view down showing two locks

An incredible experience
Looking out toward the Bridge of the Americas

After our tour inside the Locks, they took us to the end
so we could look down the three locks.  This was a massive project

During our time in Panama we've been fortunate enough to view all of  the locks.  From the more famous Miraflores Locks with its viewing platforms to the unobtrusive San Pedro Miguel locks that follow the roadway.  And then over to the Caribbean side for a peek at the Gatun Locks along with the construction site of the expansion project nearby. And then we took to the high seas as we boarded a 42-foot catamaran for a real life canal transit.  Thankful to friends that let us tag along we spent several days going through Gatun, San Pedro and Miraflores before docking in Panama City. What a thrill to see the locks from the inside out where Clyde even served as a line handler.  And now as Panama prepares to open up the new locks, once again we were there up close and personal as we trudged our way......along the gringo trail.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

I Think I've Died.....And Gone To Venice....

As I stood near the tiny bridge a local restaurant owner was setting up outdoor tables.  Carefully she placed dark red placements on top of sparkling white tablecloths along with silverware rolled in napkins. I watched as workers unloaded dirt from wheelbarrows into a platform boat that sat in the nearby canal.  Just then a gust of wind came out of no where and the red placemats went flying by.  Quickly I took a few steps toward the canal to retrieve them before they blew into the water and placed them back onto the tables.  The young lady working on the tables came running out of the restaurant yelling, "grazie senora." Just then a lone gondolier sailed by under the bridge in an ornate, black boat trimmed with gold.  My lips curled up into a smile as a few tears ran down my face.  "Wow," I thought, "I think I've died and gone to Venice."

The Port Of Venice, Italy

Our First Ride On The Vaporetto

Looks Just Like A Bus....But It Floats

Just then Clyde returned from the other side of the bridge where he went looking for an ATM machine. As his eyes met mine I looked at him and said, "this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen."  He said, "yes it is," with tears in his eyes too. We needed cash to pay the apartment owner and he was on a wild goose chase.  I asked a shop owner if she spoke English and she said, "yes."  But when I asked where we could find a bank or just a cash machine she gave me a blank stare.  Thinking Spanish might be similar I said, "banco," and she said, "Oh banca,"  and gave directions.  Over that bridge, around the corner and you'll find one across from a pharmacy was the gist of the conversation which was all in Italian.

Nearby The Outdoor Café & Hardware Store

The First Of Many Gondoliers We Spotted.....This Ride Costs About $120

Soon after arriving we stopped in a restaurant that offered free WIFI for a soda.  Clyde needed to contact the owner of the apartment we were renting to see what time we could get into it.  And we had to figure out how to use the international cell phone we picked up just for this purpose.  Next we had to figure out how to get to a part of town called Santa Croce. From there we'd need to find Campo San Giacomo dell' Orio, the plaza closest to the apartment.  We stopped to pickup tickets for the vaporetto (water bus) which would be our means of transportation with luggage. A one way ticket was 7 euros each and gave us each one hour of water bus service.

Mommy's & Baby Carriages Go Up And Over The Bridges


One Of The Many Campos Or Plazas

Perhaps A Street Performer?

Great Cheap Pizza Everywhere......Around 2-3 Euros For A Shareable Slice

With wonderful Clyde being good at directions he managed to find our apartment where the cleaning staff waited for our arrival. Although the apartment owner spoke English the cleaning ladies did not. We stumbled through with them telling us about the apartment in Italian, thankful for our knowledge of Spanish which is similar in some ways. The two women told us they still had another hour of cleaning to do but we could surely leave our luggage there and they gave us the keys. Albeit rather risky, we trusted them to not run off with our belongings and left the luggage and went off to explore Venice.

A Fire Hydrant In Residential Neighborhood

Entrance To Our Ground Floor Apartment

Our Street

The apartment was in a lovely restored mansion on a side street connecting to the Grand Canal.  Complete with shutters, a bidet and heated towel holder the fridge was stocked with yogurt and some food basics which we were told we could have. Nearby the street opened up to Campo San Giacomo, which is simply a plaza or space for people to hang out. Lined with tiny shops, a grocery store, benches, green space and a water fountain. We watched as kids drank from the ornate public water fountain, finding ways to lean into it without getting wet. A few days earlier I ordered a glass of water in a nearby restaurant when the waiter said, "no we don't drink the tap water in Venice.  It's not safe." Apparently just trying to sell us a bottle of water which in Europe usually came with bubbles too.

Hanging Laundry

No Screens.....Shutters Open Up For Fresh Air

Venice Celebrates Carnivale (car-ney-val-eh) Before Easter But Plenty Of Masks
 Were On Sale For Tourists

Evening Over Venice

A Flower Shop

Outdoor Market With Fresh Fish

A Tiny Bridge To Ones Front Door

Walking in Venice was easy on the feet as the cobblestones were mostly flat and level.  Months ago when I first researched Venice one of the most important things ALL of the information said was, "pack light."  Streets are narrow and with over 400 foot bridges so moving even the lightest carry-on bag up and over the canals is challenging. Even after dumping off our luggage in the apartment going up and down thousands of steps over bridges was tough after many hours of walking. Yet the beauty of this magical place helped the heaviness in our legs subside.  In the midst of tiredness we'd spot a gondola with a handsome gondolier donned in a striped shirt and dark pants rowing his passengers along a canal.  In the past it was common to hear them singing "Oh Solo Mio," but that was before the government cracked down on their alcohol consumption.  Nowadays, we've been told that alcohol levels on gondoliers are tested regularly which seems to have lessened the amount they sing on a regular basis.

Plenty Of Gondoliers On The Grand Canal

Personally my husband has a great voice, loves people and would look just adorable in a striped shirt and straw hat.  My theory is we could move to Venice and he could develop a whole new career as a gondolier. Clyde unfortunately, didn't like the idea of going back to work regardless of what he was doing.

The loveliness of Venice lies in the waterways which serve as a lifeline to all that happens. From mail delivery, to trash pickup, police, ambulance, fire, moving and delivery, and anything else you can imagine goes via water. We watched as women with babies boarded the vaporetto and ladies in evening gowns with heels headed out on the town.  A man with a foldable cart of groceries and stacks of toilet paper piled on top, headed home from shopping.  Old folks with walkers and canes, families with babies in strollers. All of life in Venice happens on the water which is just fascinating to me.

An Ambulance On The Grand Canal

A Vaporetto Or Water Bus

The Most Expensive Taxi's In The World.....Watertaxi's

The Fire Department Boat.......Clyde Used To Drive A Fire Truck In Texas.....Here They're Called "Pompieris"

Beyond the waterways are the campos, tiny streets, alleyways and bridges that connect them all together like one big jigsaw puzzle. Over the next few days we visited the popular touristy spots like St. Marks Square.  This large plaza houses a great Basilica, Dodge's Palace, museums, shops, pricey cafes and hoards of tourists.  The famous Rialto Bridge is one of the four bridges over the Grand Canal.  It's lined with a large market, tourist shops, lots of steps and even more people.

The Rialto Bridge Over The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal Is The Main Boulevard Through The City

The Doge's Palace used to be the home to the doge (a leader) and the seat of the government.  The palace features three wings with an endless series of grandiose rooms and halls.  The famous Bridge of Sighs connects the interrogation rooms of the palace to the prison.  Named that because prisoners would cross the bridge, stop to look out the window and sigh as it would be the last time they saw freedom before being locked in a cell. While the palace was opulent the prison and bridge gave us chills as we viewed dark, tiny cells where prisoners were kept.

St. Marks Basilica

Giant Clock Tower

More Of St. Marks Square

Inside The Bridge Of Sighs

Bridge Of Sighs Outside......Connecting Prison To Doges Palace

Thus far we'd taken Venice by foot after only one trip on the vaporetto.  But with limited time and so much more to see Clyde suggested a day pass.  The full day pass cost 20 euros each but would allow us to see more and serve as our airport transfer the next day too. On our last evening we decided to stay on the vaporetto a while taking in the sights and sounds of Venice from the water.  We positioned ourselves on the outer platform where we stood watching people come and go.  Eventually we got off far from the tourists and walked down a back street looking for a place to eat.  We spotted a tiny restaurant with empty tables and a sign saying that the restaurant was full.  Clyde decided to ask if we could be seated and to our surprise we were told "yes." 

We sat outside in the row of tables perched in the cobblestoned alleyway. Above our heads hung laundry from the apartments up above.  Locals walked by with dogs on leashes and kids skipped by trying to keep up. After viewing the menu we each ordered ravioli with manicotti and spinach for 8 euros. When in Italy wine is a must and was cheaper than water so we ordered a small pitcher of white wine for around 4 euros.  The waiter spoke English and explained that he was the son of the owner.  This was a family run business where he grew up for the past 26 years and the recipes were his Mom's. He brought out a large basket of bread that we munched on with our wine.

Lovely Little Streets

Not Sure What This Is......Notice The Purse

Little Restaurant Where We Ate Under That Umbrella

The ravioli was divine, probably home made with subtle tastes of olive oil, spices, and cheese.  Definitely the best meal we had in Italy in a rather eclectic setting among the locals.  Once again for us getting off the beaten track and among the locals proved a better alternative. On our way back  to the apartment we couldn't resist stopping for gelato one last time.

Close Up View Of Restaurant

 Manicotti-Spinach Ravioli

The next morning we checked out of the apartment around 11 an headed to the vaporetto stop.  This time we had to board the Alilaguna Line which went straight to the airport.  We climbed down to the inside of the boat and sat on the long benches that offered no view because the windows were up too high.  The waters of the lagoon were rather rough as the boat bounced around and splashed the whole way there.

Special Vaporetto Line To Airport

We boarded a Swiss Air flight bound for Zurich, Switzerland where we chose an 18-hour layover so we could see Zurich for the night. Our plan was to meet up with my nephew Joe, his wife Dana and kids Howie and Sophie.  A Lieutenant Commander with the Navy, Joe is stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. While chatting to Dana online one day she mentioned a Mediterranean cruise and I told her about our plans.  Since we hadn't seen each other in about four years they offered to drive to Zurich for the night so we could have dinner together. Zurich was just a few hours from where they lived so they booked the hotel rooms and made reservations at a restaurant.

Once we arrived in the airport we had to take a the train to the central station where we picked up the tram, a type outdoor train. The lady who sold us the train ticket spoke English and was helpful mapping out our route.  She told us where to exit the tram but wasn't really sure where the hotel was from there.  Trying to find a hotel in a foreign place where all signs are in German was another adventure  Fortunately everyone we stopped on the street spoke fluent English even though they didn't necessarily know where the hotel was. But finally while Clyde was studying a map I spotted a small yellow sign with the name of the hotel on it so we walked in that direction. The hotel room was lovely with a fluffy down comforter on the bed.  In typical European style the toilet was not in the bathroom but in a separate water closet nearby. We freshened up and then headed out to find my nephew and his family who seemed to be out exploring the city.

Since it was getting close to dinner time we had to figure out where the restaurant was and stopped to ask the desk clerk.  Although the clerk had no idea where the restaurant was he was nice enough to look it up online and gave us some idea how to get there.  We headed back outside to the tram and got off at the nearest stop.  From there we began walking along what looked like a major highway which seemed crazy to me.  I doubted Clyde's directional skills continually asking, "why do you think it's out this far?" But then there it was.....a sign with the name of the restaurant on it.  Joe, Dana and the kids arrived a while later and we selected a table inside since it was too chilly to dine outdoors. We chatted for hours reminiscing about old times and catching up on current happenings too. After dinner we strolled back to the tram which took us all back to the hotel.  We bid farewell with plenty of hugs so thankful for this time we had together on our adventure in Switzerland.

Joe, Dana & Terry

Joe, Howie Age 8, Sophia Age 4 & Me
Zurich, Switzerland

The Tram

Lovely Gardens

Locals In Switzerland

 Hotel Swiss Knight

The next morning we took the tram then the train back to the airport for a 9 hour flight to New Jersey.  From there just another 5 hours and we'd be back in Panama City although late in the evening.  With a two hour flight delay we arrived around 11pm, thankful that we'd reserved a room for the night at a nearby hotel. After checking in we picked up our complimentary glasses of wine and headed to our room.  With the time change from Europe to Panama we had literally been up 24 hours and hoped to sleep in the next morning.  Our month long trek through Europe was a wonderful experience, full of great memories that we'll cherish forever.  It opened our minds to new worlds just waiting to be explored.  Decidedly there will be much more travel in our future as we move on to yet another chapter of our lives.....along the gringo trail.