Friday, June 28, 2013

The Price Of Flying High.....

One of the benefits we receive here in Panama as retiree's is 25% off the price of airplane tickets.  Everyone knows all too well that flying anywhere nowadays it not cheap, and any little savings is worth the effort.  Since last year was our first year to cash in on the airline benefit, we only knew of one way to get the discount.  After looking online for a flight that fit our schedule we selected the flight, hit the button that said "pay cash," and then we made the 90-minute trek into Panama City.  Once there we had to find the United Airlines (Star Alliance Group which covers many carriers) office on Balboa, find parking, and stand in line to get our discount. 

This year several friends mentioned a way to do it via the internet, and someone even gave us an email address to reach that office.  But when the email wasn't answered after a day, we became impatient and tried to find a phone number to the office.  We searched online and dialed #120 directory assistance for all of Panama but any number given to us was for United Airlines International, and not that specific office. Since it's Panama that offers the discount and NOT the airlines it's self, it has to be done through this office.

Since we have plenty of time we jumped into the car and drove into Panama City.  Once we found the office on Avenida Balboa we even managed to find a parking spot right outside the door.  We were waited on immediately once inside the door, and just like last year the clerks were very nice, professional and even spoke English.  It was toward the end of the transaction when another clerk came out of her office and looked over the shoulder of the woman waiting on us.  She seemed to recognize us from our passport photos and stopped to ask, "didn't you email me," she asked?  Clyde explained that yes we did but made the drive anyway being impatient and not wanting the fare prices to change since we placed them on a "fare lock," which we paid extra for.



The sweet woman explained in English that next time after choosing an itinerary hit the "pay cash" button, send her an email and she will adjust the price from her office, eliminating the need for us to drive to her. She also suggested that we sign up for their "mileage plus" program for save a little more money in the future.  I asked about a phone number and she explained that while there is no phone into the office for the public they can call us if necessary. But it was nice to know there's a real person on the other side of that email address that really will take care of our needs, next time around.

Everywhere we go clerks chuckle when we hand over our credit card since our photo is proudly displayed on the front.  It's customary here for the clerk to ask for ID when using a card, but when they see our photo they tell us "never mind."  In the end the airline office adjusted the price of our tickets to result in a savings of over $300.  It's kind of nice that Panama is willing to pay us for living here, just one of the many perks of being retiree's here.  And in case you forgot from previous posts the following is a general list of benefits for those of us living here with "pensionado" status.  And that simply means that we've proved we have money coming in from outside of the country, through either a private pension or social security and are not allowed to work here in Panama.

Under the pensionado program we're entitled to :
  • 50% off entertainment, such as movies, theater, concerts, and sporting event
  • 25% off restaurant meals, 15% on fast food
  • 30% off bus, boat, and train fares
  • 25% off airline tickets
  • 50% off hotel stays Monday through Thursday, 30% off on weekends
  • 15% off hospital bills
  • 10% off prescription medicines*
  • 20% off medical consultations*
  • 15% off dental and eye exams*
  • 20% off professional and technical services
  • 50% off closing costs for home loans
  • And more…
*Unless insurance applies

Now if we could only get them to discount our grocery bill since that seems to be where most of our money goes.  But I suppose that we can't have everything, even though we all want it that way....along the gringo trail.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Things Have Changed......

As I sit here drinking my cup of cappuccino topped off with a layer of frothed milk, I realize how much my life has changed over the last two years. Two years ago I was a devout, confirmed, anti-coffee, tea drinker that didn't even like the flavor of coffee in ice cream.  But after we moved to Panama and visited a coffee farm in Boquete, I sampled the coffee at the end of the tour and thought "I could get used to this." And get used to it I have so much that not only do we grind our own beans, but just recently we even bought a cappuccino maker with a milk frother too. 

In Texas we ate tortilla chips, here in Panama we eat plantain chips.  Those long, green, things that look like bananas are sliced either lengthwise or into chips and fried to make tasty snacks.  The best "platanitos" or plantain chips can be found at these little grocery stories called "chino's."  These little stores are all owned by Chinese people, that's where the name comes from.  They're packaged in tiny, cellophane bags which makes me wonder if the store owner cooked up a batch earlier that morning in his kitchen?  And that brings to mind another common practice done here that would never be done in the US....eating things from the kitchen of a stranger.

Be it plantain chips, baked goods, candy, cups of fruit or anything else that one can buy on the street corner here that was processed in some one's personal kitchen.  Although I'm a bit of a germaphobe, I've never hesitated to pick up some local goodies from roadside stands to help support the poor, innovative, hardworking Panamanian.  Things are different here and people don't seem afraid to buy this stuff out of home kitchens.  Perhaps people here are naive, crazy or just still trust other people to do the right thing?  We've bought cookies, breads, meringue candy, tamarind candy and other stuff from local stands alongside the road.  Drive through Panama City on any given day and it's easy to find bags of cut up fresh fruit, pizzas, cooked meats, breads and other delights.  Vendors stand in the middle of the street and sell things to drivers stuck in traffic.  But how great is that to be driving home after a long day at work and be able to pick up fresh cut pineapple for very little?  Or a loaf of fresh baked bread to take home to the family?  Yet despite the home made nature of this stuff, the package always seems to have an expiration date listed on it, crazy as that sounds!

My innovative husband decided to try his hand at making plantain chips because he likes to cook, or more likely because he's cheap?  He even picked up a handy-dandy, wooden, plantain slicer to slice up the hard, green gems before frying.  They actually came out good and one plantain between us was plenty for a cheap snack. 

Plantain Slicer

This is what the plantains look like,
For frying, the greener the better

The plantains peeled and
ready to slice

The perfect slices ready to fry

Yes, I am using vegetable oil
they don't seem to soak up the oil
as bad as potatoes do

The finished product
perfect "platanitos"


A few weeks ago it was time for Clyde to get the stitches taken out of his toe after he broke it on the cruise (refer back to blog called "Caribbean Cruise To Hospital"). Our Spanish teacher Jasmine suggested a local clinic located right on the highway and told us we'd be charged $1 to $2 per "punto," or stitch that had to be removed.  The place was called something like Montenegro Clinic and probably had 20 people waiting to be seen by a doctor when we walked in.  Jasmine said there's three doctors there, her favorite being Dr. Ortega but there's also Dr. Montenegro and a female doctor too.  Clyde explained to the receptionist what he needed and she asked us to come back in one hour which we did.

We were escorted into a small room where I sat in a chair and Clyde sat up on the exam table.  Next to the chair where I sat was a stash of drug samples piled high on a book shelf.  Having worked as a medical assistant back in Texas, I know drug samples are NOT made accessible to the public for obvious reasons, but here things are different and there they sat right out in the open.  The doctor entered the room, a middle-aged man wearing a dress shirt and slacks with a stethoscope hung around his neck.  He chatted with Clyde in Spanish inquiring as to what happened to his foot before removing the stitches.  As we left the clinic we paid the receptionist $10 cash for his services, so apparently we were charged $2 per stitch, less than we paid WITH insurance back in the states!

Our computer died beyond repair, so yesterday we made the trek into Panama City to buy a new one.  The computer savvy young man that diagnosed the problems on our old one suggested one particular store to shop at, so that's where we headed.  A place called YoyTec who's up-to-date website listed all of the models that they had in the store, and which ones were in English and Spanish.  Before we left  I suggested to Clyde that he write down the name and model number of the one he was interested in, before we left for the long drive and it's a good thing he did.

Inside YoyTec was a large counter with one line for internet purchases and another for sales.  To one side was a row of computers for customers to use, apparently a type of virtual showroom since there was NO actual showroom with items on display.  Clyde gave the item number to the man behind the counter who sent a runner to fetch the computer.  Next we were sent to the cashier to pay for the laptop that was still in a box and we hadn't actually seen yet.  And then to one more window we we'd pick up the item.  It's at this station that the clerk usually opens the box, sets up the device to show the customer that it's in working condition before it leaves the building.  You see here in Panama it's takes almost an act of God to return anything, so it's important to make sure it's really what you want before purchasing.  But since the electricity was out in this computer store we were sent next door to their service department where a generator was running.  There the man plugged in the laptop and had Clyde go through the prompts for initial setup, verifying that it  worked and that nothing was missing from the box. 

While driving through Panama City we noticed the price of gas was a bit cheaper than here in the interior.  It was selling for $1.01 per liter which is something else we've been forced to finally learn a little of.....the metric system! 

Yesterday was a cool rainy day with temperatures hovering around 22 degrees Celsius which translates to around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Recently while grocery shopping Clyde ordered two kilograms of turkey breast, thinking he was asking for ONE pound.  The clerk kept cutting and piling the meat up high on the scale.  Clyde was getting upset and finally told him, "no mas, solomente dos kilos."  Finally we figured out we had the conversion backwards.  Two kilos is about 4-1/2 pounds so instead we should have asked for 1/2 of a kilo instead of asking for two.  Instead we walked away with over four pounds of meat which turns out freezes nicely and we just take out what we'll use that week.  The grocery stores here recently converted from pounds to kilos making everyone confused.

On the roads here we drive between 60 and 100 kilometers per hour instead of miles.  Land is measured in hectares instead of acres or meters squared and not square footage too.  When I bake it's at 176 degrees instead of 350, since the oven is also metric.  So besides struggling with learning Spanish we're also learning a bit of the metric system, something we probably should have learned years ago.

Well I think it's time for another cup of coffee which is brewed so strong here that it's served "mitad y mitad," or half and half. I didn't realize this until one morning on the cruise when the waiter asked this question and I watched him pour half a cup of coffee into the cup and top it with half a cup of hot milk.  Funny to think we live in a world of people pumped up on coffee here when they move so slow at everything they do. And I do think we're moving a bit slower now too since there's nothing that really has to be done right now, since there's always tomorrow....along the gringo trail.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A European Feel With A Latino Vibe On The Monarch.....

A while back soon after moving to Panama, I stumbled onto a website for a cruise line out of Spain that was geared toward Spanish speaking passengers called Pullmantur.  Back then I was intimidated at the thought of being stuck at sea surrounded by people that spoke only Spanish, but two years later things have changed.  Since we moved our lives to Panama nearly two years ago and live our day to day lives surrounded by Spanish speakers, a cruise would be no different.  And since we're feeling more confident in our ability to communicate in Spanish a little more with each passing year, we were ready to embark on an adventure.

Playing the slots

View of the glass elevators in the main atrium
 


We booked our adventure through a website called www.vacationstogo.com which I closely watched as the price of the cruises went up and down.  Once we had decided on a date to start our cruise I watched until the price seemed to be at an all time low before we made the call.  The  lowest price for an inside cabin was $370 a person but since the lack of natural light bothered me on our last cruise, I wanted to go with an ocean view room this time around.  Clyde called the toll free number to speak to a cruise counselor to see if he could sweet talk his way into any further discounts. 

Did I do something wrong officer?  Was I a bad girl?
  Nope, a kid got sick in the pool and it had to be shut down for cleaning.

Sexy Guys contest for the ladies. 
Number 7 had the best body but another guy with belly overhang (not in the photo)
 who hammed it up for the female judges and crowd ended up winning. 


The first thing the cruise counselor explained to Clyde was that the language on board would be Spanish, and that the ships in the Pullmantur fleet are older and smaller without all the bells and whistles of the larger, fancier cruise lines.  But what people do like about these cruises are that everything is included and the ships stop at great ports of call. Pullmantur is owned by Royal Caribbean and the ships that bear the Pullmantur logo used to be in the  Royal Caribbean fleet until they were replaced by larger ships. Once all of the preliminaries were understood, the counselor gave us a free upgrade to a "superior ocean view" cabin with a guaranteed unobstructed view.  Then he sold Clyde on the idea of purchasing travel insurance through them for an extra $112, a decision we'd later appreciate.

Is a Mermaid made out of Butter really better?

Pineapple Owl

Hell!  I don't know.  This was a special Asian buffet.

More Restaurant Art

Pullmantur cruises offer an ALL INCLUSIVE package that includes food, alcohol and on board activities for one low price.  Other cruise lines offer food but alcohol and even soft drinks are not usually included and add up to a significant amount through the duration of the cruise.  The price for each ticket we purchased was $550 before taxes and port charges were added bringing the total up to around $1500 for the week.

The Clydester who found a fire hydrant on deck.

Art by the pool




But what Pullmantur offers that no other cruise line does, is the freedom for passengers to embark and disembark at ANY of the ports of call that they stop at, making for an interesting mix of people on board.  There were passengers on board from Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Holland and the islands of the Antilles just to name a few.  Along with hearing Spanish it was quite common to hear Dutch, German, Papiamentu, Australian and other languages among the crowds of passengers.  The European crowd although multi-lingual didn't seem to speak any Spanish.

A view of deck with two pools and two hot tubs on a day at sea!

A view of the pool goddess. 
A great place to get some sun in just a few
 inches of water, until they closed both pools for four hours for cleaning when kids
 got sick in both of them.


Although our ship was scheduled to leave Colon at 6pm we were allowed to board the ship four hours early.  It must have been around 3pm by the time we made our way through the check-in process and onto the big, blue floating hotel.  We had expected to board an old, simple, worn out ship but were quite impressed by the beauty and layout of the Monarch.  The large center atrium in the middle of the ship housed a grand piano, round glass elevators, and a luxurious staircase surrounded by shops and  restaurants. The twelve decks of the Monarch held 2,744 passengers, 858 crew members and featured live Broadway type of shows nightly.  It also included  a beauty salon, spa, casino, library, Internet café, , kids and teen clubs, basketball court, ten bars and lounges, two swimming pools, two hot tubs, jogging track, gym, aerobic and spinning classes, shops, restaurants and so much more. 

Another view of the pool

Clyde's poolside entertainment

He was still amusing himself

Butts in thongs everywhere

And more butts



Our cabin was located on the fourth floor nearby elevators, the internet café, excursion desk and international relations desk.  The cabin although compact like on any other cruise line had a safe, phone, hair dryer, tv, bathroom with shower, and large oval window for our viewing entertainment.  The ship was carpeted throughout making it easy to walk around even when the seas were a bit rough. 

Sitting at our favorite place

The Fragatta Bar and Lounge


The crew all seemed to speak at least some English so those that spoke no Spanish were not left in the dark.  All safety drills and announcements were made first in Spanish and then in English, so anything that we needed to know was easy to understand.  But since the two of us enjoy a challenge we tried to speak in Spanish as much as possible.  We did find that most of the Spanish speakers on board were easy to understand as they used a more formal language than what we've become used to hearing on the streets of Panama.  We even began to understand the different Spanish dialects and what country the speakers were from, including those from here.

Our Restaurant Every Night

Coming into Colon


In typical European fashion the two dinner seating's were 7:30 pm and 10:00 pm much later than we ever eat at home.  But during the afternoon there was either a lunch buffet or pizzeria with sandwiches open so we never went hungry.  And although the casual buffet's presented quite the assortment of meal choices, salads, fruits and desserts, it was certainly not the gluttonous type of buffet found in the US that went on for miles.  Some passengers compared the food selection to Carnival cruises and said that there was no where near as much food offered on Pullmantur as they offer on Carnival.  But that being said I still found a way to pack in plenty of calories by sampling a bit of everything the buffet's had to offer.

View of Colon
 

Finally Docked in Colon which means the week long party is over,
but at least we don't have to go back to work


During the formal dinners we were seated with other English speakers throughout the duration of the cruise.  A couple from Boquette that divide up their time between Panama and the states, and also a mother daughter traveling together from Utah.  The menu was available in both Spanish and English and offered a different selection of appetizers, entrees, side dishes and desserts nightly.  Our waiters Javier and Carlos, were attentive, bilingual gentleman, who always kept our glasses filled with wine.

Ships in the distance waiting to transit the Canal


More ships waiting


After dinner each night we stopped by one of the many lounges or bars for a few more cocktails before taking in the nightly show in the Broadway Showroom.  And we usually love to kick up our heels on the dance floor and tried out the Cyan Disco the first night aboard.  Bumping butts with a mixed group of ages and nationalities on the dance floor made for a fun evening, complimented by some tropical drinks from the bar.  But later that night Clyde broke his toe ending our nights of dancing for a while.  Since I detailed this ordeal in an earlier blog I won't explain it again, and if you missed that blog please refer back to "Caribbean Cruise To The Hospital."

Medi Help Clinic and Hospital where Clyde had his surgery in Cartagena, Colombia


Our first port of call was Cartagena, Colombia on Saturday followed by a day at sea on Sunday. Monday we woke up docked in the port of Oranstad, Aruba for a day of fun in the dry, arid, sun.  Tuesday we headed up to the city of Caracas, Venezuela after landing in the port of La Guairá.  Wednesday was a day spent enjoying the enchanting island of Curacao, after or ship docked in the port of Willemstad.  Thursday was another day at sea to relax before getting back to Panama on Friday where we ended our vacation.


Formal Dinner Night
 


The nightly shows were full of song and dance numbers in both Spanish and English, with scantily clad hot bodies parading around on stage. The last night on board the show was titled "Rock Never Dies," where the cast performed an hour of popular songs that we all sang along with.  He we sat sandwiched in between Spanish speakers who clapped, swayed and sang along to the music in English.  It just showed me how music has the ability to unite all people, regardless of culture, language, upbringing or country of origin.

Clyde loves this picture
 

After a week of Spanish immersion I found myself thinking in Spanish, understanding more when I eavesdropped, and returning to Panama a little wiser.  We thoroughly enjoyed the all inclusive package, the different ports of call, and the attentive staff that just about knew us by name before the week was over. Already I long to return home and find the bed made, with an endless variety of food to choose from, and free drinks with little umbrellas and fruit poking out of them.....along the gringo trail.






Tuesday, June 11, 2013

One Dushi Island....Curacao

They saved the best for last as our Caribbean cruise dropped anchor in the port of Curacao, pronounced by the locals as Kewr-rra-sow.  As we docked in the historic port of Willemstad, our eyes were greeted with rows of colorful buildings of Dutch architecture, from the 17th and 18th century, that reflected in the clear, turquoise waters below.  This utterly charming little village was loaded with shops and restaurants within walking distance from the ship.  One of six UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Caribbean, this lively little port has preserved 765 buildings as national monuments.  The locals are of African and European heritage with more than 50 nationalities represented.  We heard many languages spoken here including Spanish, English, Dutch and Papiamentu, a native, creole dialect. 

View from the ship

Another View

Pullmantur's Monarch docked in the port of Curacao



"Just Call Me Dushi," was printed on many of the T-shirts that lined the windows of the little shops in Curacao.  We entered one shop to inquire about a tank top I saw in the window and Clyde asked a male clerk, "what does dushi mean."  The young man said "mi amor," "hey sweetie," "or anything nice" and went onto explain that it could be said to anyone.  As he gave us this explanation he moved in close to Clyde and stroked his back, while calling him "dushi."  But fortunately for him, whatever happened in Curacao stayed in Curacao, unless your wife happens to be a writer that tells the world about your chance encounter of being touched by a local. The young man sold us the tank top for $7 whereas the female clerk quoted us a price of $8 each or 3 for $20.  So just perhaps a little innocent flirtation saved us a buck?
Love this plate!
House Boats docked nearby

Shopping Area where US dollars were gladly accepted!
Colorful shops on a cobblestone street

 
Music for the tourists, the only thing missing was a monkey

Closed Car Wash in port and numbered parking spaces.
There were little machines nearby to pay for parking spots. 



Curacao is world known for a liqueur that bears the same name, and that was our first stop on today's bus tour.  The Curacao Liqueur Distillery owned by the Senior Family since 1896, is located at Landhuis Chobolobo, a country estate built in the 1800's.  Made from the dried leaves of the laraha tree, a non-native plant similar to a Valencia orange that was brought to the island by Spanish explorers.  They tried to grow oranges on the island but due to the poor soil quality and arid climate the trees produced only small, bitter fruits which they later cultivated into a new variety with bitter fruits used only for the liqueur. 

Boni Bini means "welcome," and here we are at the entrance
 to the liqueur factory. 

Tour guide pointing things out

Our visit to the distillery included a self-guided tour along with tastings of four or maybe five samples, but who's counting, of the famous liqueur.  Although the most famous variety is known as "Blue Curacao," the liqueur is actually produced clear with colors and flavors added later.  It comes in blue, green, red, orange and the original clear and also comes in three flavors, coffee, chocolate and rum raisin.  I can't recall which flavor was my favorite since I downed the samples quickly at this 9am stop making my memories of Curacao a bit fuzzy.  We did buy a sampler package of coffee, chocolate and rum raisin to help remember our day on Curacao with, at a later time.
Bottling Process in this small operation

The company also makes a product called "Alcolado Glacial," used for cooling off and keeping bugs away. Our tour guide sprayed some in the palms of our hands but mine ricocheted and splashed me in the eye, causing it to burn.  So I downed the samples of booze with one eye open as we were pushed along through the tiny factory to keep the tour on schedule.
Landhuis Chobolobo connected to the Liqueur Factory. 
 This building was the gift shop where they sold the stuff.

Next stop was for shopping at the Caribbean Handicraft, which was supposed to be the largest tourist shop on the island.  Featuring a large selection of handicrafts, and typical touristy stuff we picked up a few keepsakes.  The terrace behind the building opened up to a breathtaking, panoramic view of the Caribbean where sail boats and yachts from around the world could be seen.

Found this giant lizard slithering
close to the entrance of the shop




The Vacationers

View from Shop




Our last stop gave us some time to relax and sink our toes into the white sands of Mambo Beach.  Located on the southwestern coast of the island, this beach, bar, pool, cabana, and restaurant area was just gorgeous.  The white chase lounges and canopy beds were inviting and the perfect place to lay to catch some rays.  Although Clyde couldn't enjoy the crystal clear water with stitches in his foot, I could and quickly undressed and took the plunge.  A jetty of rocks ran parallel to the shore line keeping the larger waves further out, making it easy and safe to wade.  Clyde found his own type of entertainment snapping pictures of tight, tanned butts wearing thongs while I marveled at the muscled male eye candies escorting them.  Chocolate skinned, multi-lingual, young girls walked around as waitresses trying to sell us drinks and food while we lounged on the lazy beach.  After an hour or so I felt well baked by the tropical sun and ready to board the bus and head back to port. 

My beautiful lady in the blue waters


Jetties across from us


Close but not "in" with the
bandaged toe



Too many people around to
rent one of these



OOPS!  I don't know how this picture got in here.
She must have been 18 years old, very young!



After our bus trip we walked back onto the ship for a quick shower and some lunch before heading back into Willemstad for some shopping.  The historic area near the port consists of two areas, the Punda and the Otrobanda  separated by Saint Ana Bay. The two quarters of the city are connected by a floating pontoon bridge called Queen Emma Bridge.  Built in 1888 the bridge sits on 16 floating pontoon boats that support it.  Also known as "The Swinging Old Lady," it swings open powered by two boat motors,  allowing ships to access the port. From 1901 to 1934 a toll was charged for pedestrians to cross the bridge, except for those crossing barefoot. As you can imagine people simply removed their shoes to cross for free and eventually the fee was dropped.  For us crossing the bridge felt like walking drunk, as we swayed back and forth just like everyone else until we reached the other side.  A loud alarm bell sounded when the bridge was about to swing open to allow a boat to pass and pedestrians ran, jumping over the open section over the water to get the other end before they closed the gate. On our way back the alarm rang and we got stuck on top and had to wait until they reopened the gate at the end.

Approaching the bridge

Walking on the bridge

Bridge opening for a boat

Tugboat passing through

 


Back on board we stopped for a few drinks in the nautical themed Fragata Bar before getting dressed for dinner.  Tons of food for dinner with some white wine always made us wonder if the ship was a rockin' or maybe we were always a bit tipsy?  The Broadway type of shows were usually at 10pm and with a few more pina coladas and margarita's to hold us over, we fell into bed each night well relaxed. 
Star of the show

It was a good show


And although I enjoyed the early morning sunlight poking through our ocean view window, Clyde preferred to cover his head with a pillow and catch a few more winks as he gave me my "alone time" to get ready for another day on board the Monarch....along the gringo trail.