Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Land Of Good And Plenty......

Every time we go back to the US we're just amazed at the endless aisles of boxed foods in the groceries stores. Frozen meals pretending to be healthy, loaded with salt, sugar and preservatives that Clyde and I ate for years.  The endless choices of cookies, candy, ice creams, snacks and more that seduce us into buying them and stuffing our faces.  I counted twenty-four linear feet of cake, cookie and brownie mixes along with frosting in one store.  The quicker way to bake someone happy, with little effort and lots of ingredients that we can't even pronounce on the labels.  Huge restaurant buffets every where we looked offering cheap, all you can eat hog-like portions of food.

Living in Panama we don't realize how little choice we have when we shop for groceries.  Don't get me wrong there are plenty of choices of groceries, just not nearly as many as in US stores.  Our stores here have a four foot section of cake mixes because most of the locals make desserts from scratch.  Cookies, candies, chips all are here too but with many less choices than the states too.

But while visiting the Land Of Plenty we had to indulge a bit and take advantage of the things we don't get to eat here, like Tex-Mex food.  For the first few days we stuffed our faces with every taco, tortilla, enchiladas, burrito, chips and salsa or whatever else was on the menu of the restaurants. And since some of the wait staff didn't speak English too well, we surprised them by speaking to them in Spanish.  It actually felt comforting to hear Spanish being spoken since it felt like home, and my ears just seemed to focus in anytime I heard it. The first place we hit was Taco Palenque, just a few minutes outside of San Antonio Airport.  Signs in Spanish lined the walls and it was comforting to recognize the words, as if they were in English. And a few days ago here we discovered that "taco" refers to more than just a flat bread eaten in Mexican cuisine.  Clyde went to buy brake pads for our car and asked for "frenos" which is brakes and the girl behind the counter asked if he wanted "tacos" too.  At least he didn't say, "no thanks, I'm not hungry."  So now we know that "taco" is Spanish means "pad" along with a few other things too.

After we had our fill of Mexican food and loads of free chips with various toppings, we headed toward Austin to visit Clyde's daughter Christy and her husband Jerry.  She had planned for our arrival with delishly seasoned ribs with an array of spices that made them finger lickin' good.  Along with that was some zucchini, guacamole and salsa along with some tantalizing desserts.  After a long day of travel we decided to find a hotel room in Austin where we could crash for the evening. We literally fell into bed as soon as we made our way to the room.  Early the next morning I woke up well rested and we found our way to the hotel gym for some much needed workout time before heading out to Corpus Christi.

We found ourselves driving around Corpus sometime in the afternoon wondering who to call or what to do since everyone we knew was working.  In Panama this doesn't pose a problem since most of our friends here are also retired. Eventually we made our way out to the town of Ingleside where we'd spend the next week at the home of Andrea and Ronny.  Their large five bedroom, three bathroom home is quite inviting to guests, since they both like to entertain.  Their tranquil, spacious, beautifully landscaped backyard seduced us in to taking a dip in their private pool.  And just like last year they encouraged us to make their house our own, where we could let it all hang out in any way we chose.

The week flew by fast as we kept busy visiting with family and friends. We picked up my grandson Vash for some shopping, mini golf, and swimming before sending him home to Mama.  But since he's such a picky eater, I felt bad that I couldn't sugar him up and send him home, like many grandparents do.  One day I offered him a yummy, chocolate covered graham cracker which he looked at and said, "it's square," and refused to eat any. Another day we went for ice cream and he ate just a few spoonfuls before rejecting the rest because the chocolate topping wasn't applied exactly right.  Although frustrating it was in some ways refreshing to realize that Vash is a "normal" eater.  He seemed to eat only when he was hungry, and knew enough to stop when he was full, unlike Clyde and I or many other people in the world.  It was nice to get to spend time with him alone, without his Mom's influence.  And we all know that kids are usually better when they're parents are not around, and he was.  But it seems that OCD (obsessive, compulsive, disorder) skips a generation and Vash just may have inherited that from this grandma, who admits to having just a touch of it.  During one hole of mini golf he realized that the flag was missing.  He stopped an attendant that was cleaning the area and adamantly complained that there was no flag in the hole in front of us, as if it was a major offense.  The young man quickly found the missing flag and carefully put it in the hole making Vash a happy six-year old once again.

Vash
 

Terry at the Miniature Golf Course

 

Vash the Pirate

We were able to meet up with Cobey and Caleb, Clyde's boys to see that they were doing good and to catch up on a few things.

The rest of the week was spent trying to meet with as many old friends as we could, over coffee, lunch, dinner or mid-day rendezvous.  On Friday night Andrea and Ronny invited a bunch of our old friends to meet for dinner at a steak house in Calallen before a night of bowling.  While waiting for a table at the restaurant I was spotted by Stan, my former boss who owns Inmon Respiratory Services.  He came over to say hi and chat a bit before he rejoined his wife and kids at their table.

Since our friends love to entertain Saturday was spent preparing for an evening get-together at their house.  We were thrilled to see so many of our old friends show up to see us, and even more impressed at how many were following this blog and knew about all of our adventures here in Panama. A fun night of catching up, eating too much, enjoying some drinks, and cooling off in the pool under the stars. 

And we've come to realize that while prices have gone up here in Panama they've gone up in the US too. One of the reasons we couldn't retire early and stay in Texas was because of the high cost of health insurance.  When Clyde was working in the fire department the city supplemented his insurance premiums, but after retirement we'd have to pay the whole amount.  Two years ago when he retired the after retirement premium would have been close to $1,000 for both of us.  A recent increase of 26% would have that premium at $1,200 a month today!  Here in Panama we pay just $200 a month for health insurance should anything major happen.  But to see a local Panamanian, English speaking doctor we pay just $6.00, or a specialist for $30-$50. 

Getting back to life in Panama this week we had to replenish groceries yesterday.  First stop was a local "Mercado" in San Carlos where locals sell their produce.  Tomatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, green beans, bananas, two pineapples and garlic for the week was around $12.00.  At the grocery store we picked up any additional produce like fresh spinach for 50 cents, endive or escarole for the same price and sweet potatoes.  Clyde bought two large, whole chickens for around $5.00 each which he boiled up to have for lunches or quick meals for the week.  Some corvina, a type of sea bass for around $2.00 a package (of three fillets), along with some ground beef for $3.00 a pound (prices range from 60 cents a pound here up to $4.00).  Before heading home we stopped for lunch at the Caney Café, a restaurant attached to El Machetazo, the three-level grocery store we were at.  Clyde and I shared a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, beans and salad for around $4.50.  We drank water which is provided free, and the local tap water is quite good.  On a side note....El Machetazo is like Panama's version of Walmart.  The first floor is home to groceries, toiletries, pet food, and the restaurant.  Up the escalator for people, while our grocery cart rides a separate escalator for carts only to the next floor. The second floor is full of housewares, gifty items nicely displayed, cleaning supplies, crafts and fabric, clothing, shoes, instruments and musical equipment, party supplies, and baby stuff. The top floor has appliances, exercise equipment, school supplies, toys, hardware, garden and paint.

Our flight home was uneventful and boring since the plane offered no movies or Direct TV for entertainment. The meal was a chicken wrap, salad and brownie and we chatted with a US businessman coming here for a quick business trip to pass the time.  We flew thru a brief thunder and lightning storm before landing safely in Tocuman International Airport.

Immediately upon walking outside of the overly air conditioned airport I actually felt my hair begin to frizz from the humidity.  My frizzy head was filled with Spanish being spoken all around me as we waited for the shuttle to the parking lot.  We were back on mañana time, as things moved slowly and no one seemed to be in a hurry.

A big thanks to everyone that welcomed us with open arms throughout our trip.  For those that bought us meals, drinks, or allowed us into their homes we can't thank you enough for your hospitality and friendship.  And especially for those that were willing to put up with us and let us stay with them, like Clyde's sister Donna in Kansas and our friends Ronny and Andrea in Texas.

Maybe just one of these days we'll find ourselves saying, "Bienvenidos a Panama," to some of you that venture out and come to visit us here in Panama.....along the gringo trail.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Goin' To Kansas City....Kansas City Here We Come.......

A few months back when I began thinking about this year's trip to the states, I came up with a new idea.  Maybe this year we could visit my favorite sister-in-law Donna and her husband Dean near Topeka, Kansas.  Clyde hadn't seen his sister in three or four years, and I'd only ever visited with her when she was in Texas.  So we booked a flight for Kansas City, Missouri which seemed to be the closest airport to their house.

We headed into Panama City the night before our trip to make things a little easier on the long day of travel.  With two large suitcases accompanied by two carry-on bags, plus personal items, we quickly stood out as gringo's that needed help.  Promptly, a Panamanian man brought us a cart for our luggage which he pushed to the ticket counter and stood by while we checked in for the flight.  After he passed our luggage through to be checked in Clyde handed him $1.00, which seemed adequate for his five minutes of work.  The man rejected the dollar and said his services would cost $4.00 which Clyde paid since he had no choice.  The ticket agent chuckled and said in English that it should have cost no more than $2.00, and even she said that we'd just been "gringoed." 

With airport security heightened we went through the first security check point as usual and then thought it was safe to buy a bottle of water, after stopping for breakfast.  But lo and behold there was a second security search right before we boarded the plane.  A woman nicely told us that we could step out of the line and drink our bottles of water, or throw them away. Despite the fact that we'd just paid $2.00 per bottle, we chugged down as much as possible before throwing them away and getting back in line.  Did she really think I'd be drinking from the bottle if it contained explosives, poison or some other deadly substance?  Another feeling up from a TSA officer of the same sex and we were allowed to board the packed plane. Little did she know that this travel rebel smuggled small bottles of hand sanitizer and lotion in my purse that I neglected to pull out with my liquids bag.

The first leg of our trip took us to Houston, TX where we would have to collect our luggage that had been checked in, and go through the process to re-check it for the next flight.  Apparently this is a standard procedure on International flights, although I don't remember having to do this last year.  Clyde was complaining all day about having a three and a half hour layover in Houston before boarding the plane to Kansas City.  But as it turned out, the flight was delayed 90-minutes due to bad weather somewhere which made the wait even longer.  Since Clyde's sister Donna was picking us up at the airport which was nearly a two hour drive from her house, we needed to contact her as soon as possible to alert her of the delay.  Clyde tried to find free WIFI in the airport, or even some he could pay for, but there didn't seem to be any such thing.  He walked around for a long time looking for a pay phone but those seem to be a thing of the past.  Our cheap, pre-paid cell phones from Panama didn't work in the US and it was frustrating to have no way to contact her.  Finally Clyde asked a man sitting nearby if he would let us use his cell phone, briefly explaining our situation.  The man agreed and we were able to catch Donna and Dean before they left their house for the airport.  Our hour an a half delay turned into two hours before they let all passengers board, making us even later on the other end. 

But eventually we made our way to Kansas City and spent the next few days reuniting with family and reminiscing about old times.  They showed us around the area including the Tall Grass Prairie, one of the last displays of tall grass in the nation that sits near the Flint Hills Region of Kansas. As it's name suggests, the tall grasses range from five to ten feet in height and some have roots that burrow just as deep. Parts of the prairie's are among the top ten eco-regions and home to an array of reptiles, birds, butterflies and various tree species. Herds of bison roam freely on the prairie's and provided an impressive back drop for our eyes to behold. 


Clyde's Family in Kansas
Sister Donna, Niece Denise and Brother in Law Dean

Dean and Donna with Clyde and Terry in Kansas


And since Donna works for Weight Watchers, she was always conscious of points in the foods she was serving us.  I have to admit that despite the many diets I'd been on throughout my life, that was never one of them because it required asking for help.  But looking back maybe it would have been easier than the drastic road I ended up taking nine years ago when I had gastric bypass surgery and lost 150 pounds.  Funny how our lives can change at any moment just from the little decisions we make, or fail to make along the way.

And just maybe from now on whenever we hear the words to that song we'll remember what a great time we had in Kansas City, just another detour.....along the gringo trail.