Friday, December 30, 2011

Muñecos of Panamá......Up In Smoke....

Lately we've noticed life-sized dummies standing in front of homes here in Panamá.  Some resemble super-hero's, other's tv personalities or politicians and some are anonymous people that we don't recognize.  They are similar to scare-crows or figures that us Americans would display in front of homes for Halloween.  Here in Panamá they are called "muñecos" which means "doll" in Spanish.  This time of year they are created out of old clothes stuffed with paper, straw, or trash and burned during New Years Eve celebrations.  This is a way to get rid of the past while welcoming the new year.








Some of us may like to create a muñeco that looks like our ex-husband or wife, our boss, a political figure, annoying neighbor, or anyone else you want to see go up in smoke. Although the tradition is throughout Panamá, it's more prevalent in the interior around the towns of Chame and San Carlos because local politicians have awarded prizes for the best ones, and continue to do so today. And since the gym we use is in Chame, we'll take this as a photo opportunity to snap some pictures of this years display, and hope that we don't see our likeness staring back at us.







Today we went in search of muñeco's and since Clyde is brave and not shy about taking pictures in front of peoples homes, he snapped these photos.  Some we noticed from a distance and then as we made our approach and got ready to snap a picture, the figure would move and we realized it was a real person.  Some of the muñecos were quite well done and I was impressed.







And speaking of Panamanian traditions, at about 7pm tonight a group of kids made their way through our little neighborhood singing and playing instruments.  The voices were almost chant-like as they tapped drums, xylephones and moraccas stopping in front of each home for several minutes.  We sort of hid in the house not knowing what we should do, if anything and eventually they went on to the next house.  The music gave me the feeling that we were being blessed in some sort of local, end of the year ritual.  And we felt honored that they stopped at our house as if they're accepting us as one of their own, maybe, sort of in some small way.  So many unusual local traditions in this foreign land that we now call home.  Perhaps as the years go on we'll come to understand the people and their traditions a little more, as we stay open-minded to expand our horizons.... along the gringo trail.

Moon over Panamá......

Why does the moon in Panamá look like a smiley face instead of the letter "C" or a backwards letter "C" here in Panamá?  Apparently it has something to do with the location of Panamá in the universe.  But when I looked up online the phases of the moon, the list showed different locations throughout the world, but they were all letter "C" and not the smiley face.  Does the moon only look different here in this tiny, "S" shaped country of Panamá?  Maybe someone out there will have an explanation!


Yesterday we said good-bye to our first Christmas on the isthmus.  The tree came down, the ornaments were packed away until next near as the house was filled with glitter, fake pine needles and garland.  And since we had to rearrange the living room furniture for our Christmas party, we put the room back in order too.  Then it was time to clean whatever mess was left behind and redecorate the living-dining room area. 

Clyde has been on the lookout for a gas grill with a side burner, to be able to cook fish outside to avoid smelling up the house.  We share the same attitude of whatever we want we want "now."  But he took his time in this case looking for the best deal and finally bought one.  We used our gas grill in Texas a lot since it's a healthier way to cook and doesn't cause a mess in the kitchen.  Even I was willing to cook once in a while, as I pressed the button and threw a few pieces of chicken on the "barbie."  But I have been known to cook chicken until it's crispy and black being impatient and wanting it done "now." 

Last night after dinner we were in the mood for some ice cream and decided to take a ride into La Chorrera.  We knew we could stop at Dairy Queen and pay American high prices for a sundae or blizzard, but thought we'd look for some Panamanian priced "helado" which is ice cream.  A tiny place called "Pizza Express" had a sign outside so we stopped in to see what they had.  For only $2.00 we were able to purchase a sunday in a waffle bowl.  A smaller version in Dairy Queen in the US anyway would cost about $5.00 since they charge extra for nuts, whipped cream, topping etc....


Today we need to hit the gym, clean up our act, get back into eating fruits, veggies and lean meats, and getting out of the "holiday spirit" which means we can eat anything.  Although we'll probably end up somewhere for New Years Eve tomorrow night where I'm sure we'll partake in a few drinks.

The weather is perfect again with temperatures in the low 80's so far. As the day goes on the breeze picks up cooling it off a bit. We feel like we're back along the Texas coast since it's been so breezy here lately.  It makes the evenings a pleasure as we hear everyone in the US complaining about cold fronts and snow this time of year.  It's easy to forget that this is winter in parts of the world.  Yet here in Panamá it's the beginning of summer which means the temperatures stay about the same but the rains will be few and far between.  For us that means it's time to head out for fun in the sun to explore new places, meet new people and get into into trouble.... along the gringo trail.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Out on the Town Today......

Our day today began with a drive into Panamá City to have a physical for health insurance.  If you remember this was scheduled a few weeks ago but cancelled when the doctor was called away on an emergency.  I was called in first by a black women in scrubs who I later learned was a technological assistant.  The first thing I said to her is "yo aprendiendo espanol." which means "I am learning Spanish."  She responded with "yo aprendiendo ingles."  After that we laughed and managed to understand each other throughout the whole process.  She took my height and weight, measured my body with a tape measure, had me take off my shirt and bra and lie down where she put the leads on for the EKG.  In the meantime she left the room a few times, each time leaving the door a bit open while I was lying there topless.  At one time the doctor even came in and when he realized she wasn't finished prepping me, he left again.  After she got done applying all the leads to my body, she helped me close the paper gown to hide my bare chest, and she strapped a belt around my waist to hold the leads in place. She then instructed me to step onto the treadmill and wait there for the doctor. 

It seemed like forever but eventually the door opened and in walked a "gringo-looking" balding gentleman in a white lab coat who I assumed was the doctor.  He said "hello" and shook my hand.  He spoke fluent English and we chatted as he started the treadmill.  The typical medical questions were asked as he charted what I was saying.  He explained how the stress test on the treadmill would work and I walked as I kept talking to him.  After a few minutes he asked where we moved from and I told him Texas.  He asked "what part," and when I said Corpus Christi he explained that he used to practice medicine in San Antonio and would go to Corpus Christi often with his family.  What a small world that here I am in a different country, in some unknown clinic and the doctor is from San Antonio, TX.

I had to ask him "so how different is it being a doctor here in Panamá compared to being a doctor in the U.S.?  He said "oh, it's soooo different."  He went on to say that he was so sick of filling out piles of paperwork just to get paid.  Also the high price of malpractice insurance in the U.S., the insurance companies and so much more.  Here in Panamá he's free to take care of patients which is why he became a doctor in the first place.  I asked if he carries malpractice insurance here and he said "no, I don't need it."  Then I asked if someone could sue him here and he said "yes, but they won't get too far." 

Later on when I talked to Clyde about the whole experience, he seemed to think that the doctor is Panamanian.  His name is Dr. Jorge Paz Rodriguez so he might be right.  We have discovered that the more educated Panamanians tend to speak fluent English.  The cost of each physical with the stress test was $140 for each of us which turned out to be a whole lot less than we had expected. 

No trip to Panamá City would be complete without some shopping before heading home. On the way home we stopped by the Pedro Miguel Locks, to watch a few ships transit the canal.  This set of locks runs parallel to the road which makes it easy to pull off the road and play tourist for a while watching the ships go by.  The more famous set of locks is the Miraflores Locks which are only visible after paying a small entry fee and going through a visitor center.



 

Final stop was to fill our bellies at our favorite "parrillada" or barbeque place called Los Arrieros.  The waitresses seem to know us now since they don't bring us menu's.  We ordered our usual fare of pork and chicken which come with an "arepa" for $3.00 each meal.  An areapa is a thick, corn tortilla sliced and filled with white cheese, then grilled to perfection.  We topped the meal off with a "batido" or milk shake made with fresh pineapple, milk and who knows what else. 

Now that we're in the dry season, the days seem to be getting warmer but breezy.  The nights cool down nicely so much that we tried to keep the windows open but heard dogs barking and our neighbors baby crying, so we decided to close them and put on the air conditioner. 

Here in Panamá the crescent shape of the moon is like a smile instead of like a letter "C" and I have no idea WHY?  I would have never noticed this except some friends pointed this out to us recently.  I did some online research but the pictures always come up "C" like instead of the crescent being on the bottom or top.  I'm sure somebody out there will know and tell me why.  Until then I'll keep wondering why which will probably lead me into trouble.... along the gringo trail.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Retirement is Exhausting.......

When we first thought about taking an early retirement we thought we'd be bored and drive each other crazy.  But retirement in another country is a totally different story.  It's full of new adventures with new friends that leave little time for sleep and relaxation.  Plainly stated....retirement is exhausting!

Christmas eve was Saturday and after our house full of guests left, we cleaned up a bit and fell into bed at 3am.  Sunday, the next day we relaxed by the pool and went to bed early to catch up on sleep.  On Monday we went to the gym and pool as usual and got home around 1pm for lunch.  Friends called and asked if we wanted to take a ride up to visit Sharon and Phil in the mountain village of Chicá.  Six of us headed out in hiking attire with bathing suits, back packs and water for some fun and adventure. 

A future B&B in Chicá



Land Around the B&B

Phil and Sharon moved to Chicá, Panama two years ago from their homeland of Canada with a desire to open a bed and breakfast.  They fell in love with the mountain village of Chicá, bought a piece of land and the hard work began.  Like everything here in Panama, construction has taken longer than expected and the project is no where near completion.  But the two story structure overlooks a gorgeous, mountain vista surrounded by fruit trees, streams, waterfalls and crisp, cool mountain air. 




Since we were geared for hiking, Phil grabbed his machete and gave us a little guided tour around his back yard.  Climbing up the steep driveway was a challenge in itself, before we headed into the thick, sloping forest.  Clyde and I have hiked before both here in Panama and in the states, but this backyard tour was by far the toughest terrain we'd set foot on so far.  There were times when a human chain was needed to make it up the steep embankments, or down over huge jagged rocks. 


Once back at the house, Sharon served up a feast of various snacks and baked goods along with some alcoholic beverages.  I was wearing my expensive L.L. Bean hiking shoes that I bought back in New Hampshire when I lived there.  This was the first time I wore them here and was I horrified to see the Vibram rubber soles are disintegrating from this humid, hot environment.  Others in the group said they had the same experience with their expensive hikers and now only wear cheap, local ones.  I guess that's why everything here is made of plastic to endure the moisture and heat. 

My L.L.Bean Hiking Shoes Disintegrating

Why Would This Happen?

 
We watched the sunset over the mountains and enjoyed the cool night breezes as we chatted the night away.  The tired group rolled their vehicles down the mountain and headed for home as another late night of expat fun came to an end.  We extend a big thank you to Sharon and Phil for their hospitality and great treats.  Hopefully our little impromptu visit was a welcome break for this hard working couple, that made them stop and relax for a few hours, and have a few drinks with friends. 


Sunset Over the Mountains

Panama has such a diverse landscape of mountains, beaches, rain forest and everything in between that only takes a willingness to explore, and a lifetime to forget.  It's nice to have time to stop and smell the mountain air, pick some fresh fruit and savour new friendships here.... along the gringo trail.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in the Tropics.....

There's something to be said about Christmas in winter with the warm glow of a fireplace, pretty snowflakes falling outside, sleigh rides and the smell of cookies baking in the oven.  Here in the tropics very close to the equator Christmas actually comes at the beginning of summer. It's wonderful to be able to go outside in shorts and swim in the warm bath like waters of the ocean. No snow to shovel, no need for parka's and boots and no scraping ice off the windshield. 

However, living in a hot, humid climate without air-conditioning brings up other issues I've never had to deal with before. Christmas chocolates can't be put out in the pretty candy dishes because they'll melt.  I took out a stick of butter to soften when getting ready to make the carrot cake and it practically liquefied sitting on the counter.  The carrot cake had to hide in the fridge until we were ready to eat it for the same reason.  And tropical living is not without it's share of bugs.  Since we do see the occasional ants in our house we had to watch over the food like a buzzard looking for roadkill. 

So I've come to believe it's probably a good thing that Christmas happens in winter.  Holiday baking is a welcomed way to warm up the house.  A cozy fire is nice to gather around while sipping on eggnog.  The smell of apples and cinnamon cooking is a favorite of mine and I love to make homemade applesauce for the smell and the enjoyment of eating it. 

But for those of you feeling sorry for me now keep a few things in mind.  I can sit on the beach or by the pool tomorrow and bask in the sunshine.  Or perhaps lie in a cozy hammock with a tropical drink in my hand being gently rocked to sleep by the balmy breeze.  We can wear shorts and swim year round and don't have to heat the house.  And the best part is that we pay less than $30 for our electric bill each month.

Our Christmas Eve get together was nice with a bunch of new friends sharing stories.  We also learned that the Panamanians display their Christmas trees outside of their homes as a way to show off that they can afford a tree.  And in a culture where minimum wage is $1.55 an hour, those that can afford a tree for $25-$45 should be proud to display it to the world.

Our potluck dinner was a cultural mix starting with little sandwiches, green Chile chicken enchiladas, drunken beans, carrot cake, fruit cake and chocolates.  A few margaritas and rum and cokes helped the food slide down and make everyone happy.

Right on schedule at the stroke of "medianoche" or midnight the pounding of fireworks began. We stepped outside just in time as the sky exploded into a medley of colors and explosive sounds that lasted for about 30 minutes.  The neighbors shot off some from the road as others could be seen in the distance.

Once back inside the uproar of "fuegos artificiales" or fireworks diminished as the night went on.  The conversation continued until one of our friends fell asleep between 1 and 2am, and we decided to call it a night.  Clyde and I cleaned up a bit and made it to bed by 3am but still woke up around 8am as the sunshine coaxed us out of bed. 

Yesterday for Christmas day we enjoyed a leisurely brunch of last night's leftovers while watching a Christmas movie.  Now just having a lazy day at home, recovering from a late night of over-indulgence and staying up too late. Nothing too strenuous for us today, in fact we may end up back to bed for a Christmas nap.  As the day heated up we headed to the pool to cool off.  We were the only one's there so we had the place to ourselves. 

After that we headed home to finish off the leftovers, then some friends came over for a visit. The evening ended on the couch watching a Christmas movie before we both fell asleep.  We headed to bed to catch up on sleep that the night before lacked. 

Today we're off for our morning workout at the gym followed by the usual dip in the pool to chat with whoever might be there to listen.  After that who knows where we'll go or what trouble we may get into today... along the gringo trail.



Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dia Antes de Navidad.....

Today is "Dia antes de Navidad" or the day before Christmas here in Panama.  The birds are chirping, the sun is shining and it's a hot, humid 80 degrees at only 8am.

People always ask us now that we don't work any more, what it is that we do all day.  Let's take yesterday for example. We left the house around 9:30am to head for the gym. After working out for a little over an hour we changed and took a dip in the pool with our friend Daniel.  Since we were all hungry we stopped for a cheap lunch at "El Pamparo", a typical Panamanian style place where we had grilled chicken and fries for $4.00. From there the men needed to stop at a local "ferreteria" or hardware store for a few things then we stopped at Daniel's house a minute so Clyde could borrow a tool.  Clyde and I needed a few things from El Machetazo, Panama's version of a department store after which we made it back home by 3:30pm. 

Once inside we threw our wet stuff into the dryer, pulled the workout clothes out of our bag for the hamper and put away the groceries we had bought.  I gathered all the ingredients to make a "scratch" "torte de zanahorrias" also known as high calorie, lots of fat and sugar carrot cake.  Since we'll have 10 people here tonight for Christmas Eve I opted for the full calorie version instead of the healthier choice which resulted in a much smaller cake.  I think the last time I made a carrot cake from scratch my now 30 year old daughter was a toddler.  After hours of cooling the cake in the fridge I made cream cheese frosting and spread it over the top and sides of the cake.  When I was only half way through
it began to soften and melt due to the heat and humidity here.  Good thing I wasn't using a frosting bag and decorating a fancy cake where the frosting needs to stay at a certain firmness.  It would never work in this heat.  I used to do cake decorating back in my "fat days" when I was in retail management running a craft department. 

While I was baking Clyde worked on unclogging the toilets using a toilet snake and replacing the rubber seals, which involved taking up the whole toilet. Then he cleaned the window screens from the house with a hose outside, since they had some sawdust on them from his woodworking projects.   We nibbled on some cheese, crackers and meat for dinner before plopping into the lazy-boy to watch a Christmas movie.  I fell asleep after a while and finally crawled into bed around 10pm. And people wonder WHAT we do all day!

Thursday was two for one margarita night at our friend's Mexican Restaurant.  We joined five other expats for drinks and dinner.  Stephanie, one of the owners of the restaurant moved here with her husband from Austin, TX and brought a dog.  She was describing how her dog hates his life here in Panama since fireworks are part of everyday life and the dog shakes constantly.  The dog is on constant alert, and lives in between the toilet and the sink in the bathroom most of the time.  When he's up against her it's like having a personal massager due to his constant shaking and she wonders if he'll ever get used to his new environment.  Stephanie, wide eyed and animated went on telling this story with every detail.  My silly husband got to laughing so hard that he and his chair fell over sidewards to the ground.  He said it was because the leg of the plastic lawn chair he was sitting on got caught in the gravel on the ground and tipped him over.  And he swears that it had absolutely nothing to do with the amount of margaritas he had downed thus far.  He suggested I add here that he was not injured during the fall, or perhaps was feeling too good to notice?  (Clyde here)  Actually I told her to "act like a caring wife" and mention that I was not hurt.  Yeah right!

Tonight we are having some of our new expat friends over to celebrate Christmas Eve.  The evening includes a "white elephant swap" along with a potluck dinner and who knows what else.  Included in the group are some Canadians, some Swiss Germans, and the rest being from the good ole USA.   Some good food, local rum, margaritas and good company will help make the night enjoyable.

And since the locals celebrate the birth of Christ at midnight with fireworks that probably go on all night long, we don't expect to get much sleep tonight.  But I'm sure we'll have lots of stories to tell as we experience our "First Christmas on the Isthmus" here in Panama.....along the gringo trail. 

A very Merry Christmas.....Feliz Navidad.....to all of our family, friends, new acquaintances and those we don't know yet, that are enjoying our blog-ful of adventures here in our new home in Panama.  Thank you for your kind words and encouragement about the blog and our decision to move our lives here.  Keep reading and we'll keep exploring as you journey with us..... Along the Gringo Trail.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Twas the Night Before Navidad


                 Twas the Night Before Navidad
                      (My version:  by Terry Coles)

Twas the night before Navidad and all through the land
Not a creature was stirring except my sweat gland

The  stockings were hung on the palm tree with care
As the warm balmy breezes blew through my hair



The monkeys were nestled in trees up way up high
And the jungle was quiet, not a creature did fly

Mama in a bikini with a drink in her hand
And Clyde with a fish pole, a catch would be grand


When out in the water we heard such a clatter
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter

Away from my chair I flew like a flash
Stepped on a shell and tripped over some trash

The sun on the water sparkled with glow
And the break of the surf looked almost like snow



But what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a boat full of gifts and eight tiny reindeer

I noticed the Captain was chubby and thick
And knew at that moment it must be St. Nick

It tousled and joustled to shore it took aim
As I heard the old fart call out some name

"Jump Dasher, and Dancer, swim Prancer and Vixen
Quick Comet, swim Cupid paddle Donder and Blitzen!"





To the end of the beach it came with a crawl
Now swim away, swim away, swim away all

As sand from the beach when the wind blows does fly
High up to the treetops and gets in my eye


The boat came a shore and slammed into a tree
And a coconut bounced off and landed on me

And just at that moment I heard on the reef
Santa looking for something and shouted “good grief”

He pulled out a bottle and chugged down a beer
Said now I can take on those children I fear


Dressed up in a speedo and flip flops to boot
He said this is Panama? Oh what a hoot!

He called for a taxi the size of a bus
And filled it with toys with out much of a fuss

Then tied up the reindeer under a tree
And jumped in the cab after taking a pee


We heard him yell loud as they drove out of sight
Feliz Navidad to All, Along the Gringo Trail tonight








An Early Christmas Present......

An old friend of Clyde's from high school in San Antonio, TX sent us a Christmas Care Package that we received yesterday.  It was like getting an early Christmas present not knowing what was inside and unwrapping each item.  She asked what we wanted and Clyde requested some Blackened Cajun Seasoning which we just love to sprinkle on fish.  I asked for some make-up remover wipes from Wal-Mart since similar items here are about ten times the price.  Thank you so much Dee-Dee for your warm generosity and thinking of us in our new home, far away from family and friends. Along with those two items was a collection of other things which included: some Texas potholders and coasters:; chili powder; body lotions and bath accessories; a pocket planner and a music cd.   Thanks again Dee-Dee and here's wishing you a happy, prosperous and healthy Christmas and New Year from Panama!

After our stop at Mailboxes Etc. to pick up our box yesterday, Clyde was in search of a tire store.  A few days ago we had a flat tire and once Clyde swapped it out with the spare we realized that we needed a new tire.  But after examining the remaining three tires, Clyde decided that it was time to replace them all.  We found a place in Coronado that sold Bridgestone tires and after receiving a quote Clyde decided to go for it.  Tires are NOT one of the cheap things here in Panama, but since our lives are riding on them every time we leave the house, they are a necessary expense. 

They took the car in immediately and Clyde watched in amazement at how slow and carefully the technicians moved.  We left for a while and walked to a nearby store to pickup a few things thinking they'd be done by the time we got back.  Three and a half hours later they had completed the task of mounting and balancing four new tires on the car along with an alignment.  They picked the best one to keep as our spare and pulled the car out of the bay.  It took about another ten minutes to produce the paperwork for Clyde to sign and pay the bill before we were on our way out the door. Since our Toyota Rav 4 is a 2010 model it seems to me that the tires should have not needed to be replaced this soon, but what do I know?  Hopefully these new tires will last us for many years of exploring happily here in Panama.

The rest of our day was spent re-organizing our lives here at home.  Clyde made some shelves for the kitchen cabinets to make better use of our space in the tiny kitchen.  And his latest project had been an over the toilet teak shelf for my bathroom since I needed a place to store more things.  He completed this yesterday which meant I needed to re-organize the stuff in my bathroom too.

Over the Toilet Organizer

Shelves under the kitchen sink

Napkin Holder out of Scrap Teak

Coasters made out of
Scrap Teak
 
Once everything was back to normal we crashed for the night on the couch and had a quick bite to eat. We enjoyed feeling the cool night breeze blow through the windows as another day came to an end.... along the gringo trail.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No Piece of Cake.......

Holiday baking is no piece of cake here in Panama!  We're having some expat friends over to the house for Christmas Eve, and since I love carrot cake but don't allow myself the caloric splurge too often, I thought I'd make one for our get-together.  Off to the store we went with a list of supplies needed, most of which we'd seen here before but a few odd ones.  We had never seen baking powder and finally found it in the baking aisle on the bottom shelf in tiny packets that looked like yeast.  I also needed powdered sugar and thought I'd seen it here before, but where?  It wasn't with the brown sugar which is in the baking aisle.  Could it be with the regular sugar?  No, not there either.  Clyde called a friend to find out how to say "powdered" in Spanish.  Once armed with the phrase "polvo azucar" we asked around but the store clerks just looked at us confused.  We left one store and tried another since I thought I'd seen it there.  We asked around and after running around the store like mice in a maze, we found it in the baking aisle in bags on the bottom shelf.  They do sell "torta de zanahorria" or carrot cake here, but it's not the high sugar, high fat American version that we've come to love.  It's more like a coffee cake with carrots that they make here in Panama.

This Baking Powder was
found on the Bottom Shelf in trays

This is Powdered Sugar
 

Some of our neighbors have decked the streets with PVC pipe bent in a curve from side to side to form a tunnel.  Then they wrapped red ribbon around the red pipe and strung lights on them for a nice touch.  In the town of La Chorrera we saw a much more elaborate version of this that went on for many blocks.  Panama City is loaded with larger than life nativity scenes and Christmas trees with cantaloupe size balls and wide mesh garland.  And one of the malls even put in an ice skating rink to add to the "wintry" feel.

The Street Next to us
with the decorated PVC arches
 

One major difference in Panama compared to the U.S. is that this time of year in the U.S. the holiday candy practically jumps into your cart as you walk by.  Huge displays scream out.....eat me, eat me, you know you want it!  And being faithful Americans try as we may not, last year we too fell victim and gorged ourselves on chocolates wrapped in pretty red, green, gold and silver wrappers until we passed out from the sugar crash.  Here in Panama we noticed only a small display of holiday chocolates high priced at over $4.00 per bag.  And as I was unpacking the groceries at home I noticed a few bags had apparently jumped into my cart.  Perhaps it was the elves or my husband that snuck them in among our groceries, or maybe even me.  Ok so I admit that Christmas reminds me of my childhood in New Jersey. And growing up chocolate was part of the holidays, and the holidays were a happy time so chocolate is associated with happiness.

Panamanian Fruit Cake
VERY POPULAR!
Also in the U.S. this time of year are large displays of items for baking.  Baking dishes, nuts, cake mixes, cookie cutters, sugar and more.  Along with displays of pre-made cookies in brightly colored tins.  No such thing here in Panama.  I've seen small displays of packaged cookies which did not look tempting at all. But there are large displays of fruit cake here which is freshly made and not the "hard brick" like fruit cake found in the states.  Also displays of "Pan de Navidad" or Christmas bread which is braided bread formed into a wreath.

It seems that the holidays here are more about spending time with family and friends and less about going into debt buying expensive presents.  In fact there are no displays of gifty items here like in the states either.  It was even hard to find gift bags, wrapping paper, bows or any other stuff like that.  We did see signs on kids bikes that had been reduced 30% so the gift giving must be more for the kids, which is should be.  In Spanish it's "Papa Noel" instead of Santa Claus that delivers the toys.  There are no chimneys to slide down so he must use the front door. 

To help the locals have a bit more money for the holidays, workers in Panama receive a 13th month of pay.  Their monthly salary is divided into three and paid out at three separate times of the year, the last being before Christmas.  Panamanians make very little money as compared to us Americans and don't carry credit cards so this extra money helps buy presents for the little ones.  Despite the little bit of money workers here receive, the labor laws grant each worker 4 weeks of vacation each year.  Other than then firefighters, I don't know anyone in the U.S. that has that much paid vacation time. 

So later this week I'll be doing some holiday baking after I find a conversion chart to change 350 degrees from Fahrenheit to Celsius.  And the recipe I found is for a "healthier" version of carrot cake which simply means a bit less sugar and smaller servings. 

But since Christmas is meant to be in winter not summer it's hard to get into the Christmas spirit in this balmy, humid environment.  There is a slight coolness in the air today as the early morning temperatures are a mere 74 degrees.  Despite my complaining I'll take warm and humid over cold and snowy any day.  Maybe I should go find my Christmas bikini and head out to the beach to make some new holiday memories here.... along the gringo trail.