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 something......it 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.