Thursday, May 30, 2013

Our New Kitchen Finally Done......

Our new kitchen is finally done, after months of hard work, sweat equity and hard labor.  First there was the five months or so waiting for the wood to dry and arrive from the other side of Panama.  Then the demolition of a 30-year old cement counter top to be ripped out and bashed to pieces.  And finally the installation of custom-made, solid teak cabinets designed by my personal carpenter Clyde.  Topped off with granite counter tops that Clyde managed to manhandle by himself for the most part since I could barely lift one end to help him.  His arms were so sore after days of lifting granite that he literally couldn't lift his arms for the rest of the night, although did manage to lift them enough to eat (and drink a few Rob Abuelos con Coca Cola).

And since I insisted on adding a dishwasher that caused more of a dilemma to the mess.  The bottom of the old counter top sat on about six inches of solid cement that we chose not to remove.  And since the dishwasher sat up higher than the rest of the counter Clyde decided on a split-level counter to accommodate it.  It works out well for him since he's over six foot tall so the higher level has become his work space and the lower level mine. 

A new stainless sink replaced the antique dirty white porcelain one that I absolutely hated, along with a garbage disposal. And a new six-burner gas stove replaced the old one that we'll put outside under our bohio.  That way we'll have an oven outside too for those hot days when we don't want to heat up the house, which is everyday here.



When it came time to design the upper cabinets leave it to a woman to make things more difficult.  Clyde's plan was two cabinets with open shelving in between but I had a different idea.  "Why not put a rack to hang stemware in the middle," I suggested and my loving carpenter came up with a plan.  The end result came out great and gives it new dimension. 


Clyde took down some old decorative border tile that ran along the top of the kitchen too.  Some texture added to paint would even out the wall and match the rest of the textured wall.  And a dark red paint added a splash of color to the room along with matching accessories and valances.  The valances were also custom-made by Clyde out of a pretty shower curtain that we found in the store.

Now that the kitchen's done it's time for some well deserved vacation before he begins the next project....along the gringo trail.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pamama Smells Like.....

Someone once told me about a well-known children's book in Germany called "The Trip To Panama," by Janosch.  It's one of those must read books that all German kids seem to know about that's as common to them as Bugs Bunny is to our kids. 

The story is about a bear and a tiger, two friends who live happily in the countryside.  The bear spends his days fishing while the tiger likes to spend time in the woods. One day the bear finds a box of bananas in the woods and on it is the word "Panama."  The box and the bananas smell so sweet and wonderful that the bear is convinced that the whole country of Panama must smell this way. Bear decides that he and his friend Tiger must go to Panama, the land of his dreams that surely must be the best place in the world since it smells like bananas.  They head out with no direction merely walking in circles yet making new discoveries along the way.  And with each new discovery they think they must be in Panama but end up right back in their own yard, suddenly realizing that there's no place like home. 

And those of us that live in Panama know for sure that Panama smells like many things but not so much like bananas. In fact we joke with other expats all the time that we must reek of onions because we eat so many of them.  We mix raw onions, green peppers, and tomatoes, with mostly everything that we eat.  With eggs for breakfast, with tuna or chicken for lunch, and with chicken or fish for dinner pretty much everyday so for those that meet us, Panama smells like onions. And garlic is used in large amounts here too as flavoring and is quite cheap, so between the raw onions and garlic, tourists probably leave Panama thinking that it smells like onions and garlic.

But that doesn't mean we don't have bananas here because we do have tons.  I believe I've heard there are five types of bananas here including red bananas whose reddish-purplish look messes with my mind, since bananas aren't supposed to look that way.  Although they do taste like a regular banana they seem to have less flavor than the yellow variety, but maybe that's just in my head?   The best bananas are probably the tiny, little, very dense bananas about half the size of a normal banana.  They're very sweet and never found in grocery stores but only at roadside stands and certainly live up to the saying "great things come in small packages." 

And despite the fact that Rosetta Stone Latin America taught us "banana" as the Spanish word for banana here in Panama they disagree.  Go into any supermarket here and you'll probably not find the word banana displayed above any produce.  Instead you'll need to look for the word "guineo" pronounced "gee nay oh" if you want to find bananas to buy.  Although I DO think PanameƱo's know the word banana our Spanish teacher forbids us to use it since according to her "it's an English word and when speaking Spanish one should not mix in English words." 

Our banana trees however,  aren't producing bananas anymore than our chickens are producing eggs.  But our mango trees are dropping mangos everywhere and as they ripen and ferment, our Panama smells like rotten mangoes.  And since it's mango season our neurotic, crazy, mango-maniac Doberman is happily munching away all day, chasing away every bird that she thinks is after her mangoes. 

So if eating an apple a day keeps the doctor away perhaps eating an onion a day keeps everyone away, except for the others that also eat them and become used to the smell.  Well known TV personality, author and cook Rachel Ray always said she could never marry a man that didn't like garlic since she smells like a salami all the time.

They say we are what we eat and I'd rather smell like onions and garlic then a greasy burger any day.  But hopefully the sweet smell of bananas, mangoes, pineapples and other fruit will neutralize our smells making us smell sweet to the world.....along the gringo trail.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Countess of Cheap Conjures Concoctions.....

For years I've been a yogurt eater and when we moved to Panama the price seemed a bit higher than the yogurt in the states.  Although back in Texas I was buying pricey Greek style yogurt because it's so high in protein for my after workout breakfasts which I'd pack and take to work with me.  The prices back then were about $1.25 a serving just for the yogurt before I added any fruit and I also like to add a sprinkling of dry oatmeal to give it even more substance. 

Here in Panama an eight ounce serving of the local brand of regular yogurt sells for around 80 cents and either has sugar or artificial sweetener added.  So one day I looked up how to make yogurt at home and it seemed like a long, cumbersome process that involved a thermometer.  Last summer while visiting the states I even invested a whole dollar or two in a candy thermometer with the idea of someday making yogurt at home.  I stashed the thermometer in a drawer still in the package and never bothered to try out yogurt making.  Then one day while scrolling on facebook a local friend posted that she made yogurt for the first time so I finally fired up my new stove and gave it a whirl. Make sure the thermometer you buy has a clip on it to hang it on the side of the pot and goes up to 185 degrees.

I was amazed to discover the whole process was easy, only took about 30-minutes or so from start to finish, and the final product cost about half the price of store bought yogurt.  Besides that there's no added sugar, artificial sweeteners, or anything else. 

First I bring a pot of water to a boil and dip in my spatula and thermometer for a few seconds to sterilize them.  I'm not really sure why this needs to be done, but the water needs to be heated anyway so it's no big deal. 

Next I pour a half gallon of milk into another pot (I use non-fat milk but any type works) and sit the pot of milk into the pot of hot water to form a double-boiler effect.  The handles of the smaller pot rest on the side of the larger pot to hold it in place.  Since milk burns easily this is a safe way to make sure it doesn't burn or scald and it doesn't have to be watched as closely. The milk is supposed to be at room temperature, but I usually don't remember to take it out of the fridge until I start boiling the first pot of water and it hasn't been a problem.  Heat the milk until the thermometer registers 185 degrees which is just where it's starting to get frothy on top.

Then I take the whole pot of milk and sit it immediately into a sink of ice water to bring the temperature down to 110-115 degrees.  Since we live in the tropics cold water is warm here so I add ice to the water to cool the milk quickly. 

And the most important step is next.....add two tablespoons of plain yogurt with active cultures to the milk (2 tablespoons per quart of milk so I use 4 tablespoons to a half gallon of milk).  Basically however much milk you use, that's how much yogurt you'll end up with.

Now lift the whole pot out of the water, put a lid on the pot and wrap the whole covered pot with blankets or towels to keep it warm for 7-8 hours.  Then I sit the whole thing in a cooler (ice chest type of thing) close the lid and leave it untouched (don't peek or touch it) for the whole 7-8 hours.  The longer it's left the tangier and thicker it gets and from what I've read 7 hours seems to be the optimal amount of time.  The past two batches I've made I left for 7 hours.  Once the time is up remove the towels or blankets and stick the whole pot in the back of the fridge where it's coldest for at least 4 hours or overnight before eating.  And who knew that Greek yogurt is simply regular yogurt put through a strainer to take out the excess water....imagine that?  Guess that's why it's twice the price of regular yogurt!  So if you want to strain it using cheese cloth or a strainer overnight, you'll end up with a thicker product.  I did try this with some of the yogurt the first time I made it and it was great, but decided to leave the rest alone.

The next day you'll have pure, natural yogurt at a fraction of the cost you'd pay in the stores. It's very tangy just like yogurt used to be back in the 70's.  We like to add a little honey or agave nectar, some dry oatmeal, fruit and nuts for a great breakfast.  It lasts for about a week in the fridge and one batch made with a half gallon of milk is just about right for the two of us for a week.

The first time we looked to buy pickles here I was shocked at the small selection and high prices, although pickle prices in the US aren't cheap either.  So I've started making refrigerator dills, also very quick and easy.  Since I can't find pickling cucumbers here I just use the regular ones found cheap everywhere. 

First I  wash and slice the cucumbers (I don't peel them) along with some onions.  I mix together equal amounts of white vinegar and water, throw in some dill (either fresh or dried) along with a few peppercorns and about a spoonful of sugar. Put the cucumbers and onions in a jar and fill it with the liquid.  Refrigerate for at least a week before eating, and the longer they sit the tastier they get.  Again, quick, easy no preservatives and cheap!

I saw a post online about making homemade Febreeze and since I haven't been able to find the stuff in Panama, why not try to make it?  I used a cup and a half of water, two tablespoons of liquid fabric softener (any type) and a tablespoon of baking soda.  Pour into a spray bottle, shake well and wah-lah....Febreeze.....very cheap and easy and it smells great too!

Last night we concocted a cheap dinner of French bread pizzas using local long, skinny, bakery-type of bread. I've heard these type of breads called, flautas, bagettes, or Italian bread.  Here's they're long and thin and only cost around 50 cents each, enough for us to make pizzas for three night if we wanted to. 

We pick up a pound of pepperoni from the deli for around $2 a pound and throw it in the freezer.  A pound goes a long, long way and lasts a long time in the freezer.  Our pizzas get topped with tomato sauce sprinkled with some Italian dried herbs, peppers, onions, olives, tomatoes and cheese and we bake them till the cheese melts for a cheap, easy meal.

Squeezing a dollar out of a dime is what this dazzling, duo does with the Countess of Cheap clutching closely to every entity ensuring that the eyes of each President pop profusely. Thus providing profound popularity to her friend in frugality and favorite husband .....along the gringo trail.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Making The World A Better Place....

"There's no better time to make a difference is some ones life...then now," said retired computer engineer Clinton Donnelly.  An active participant of Engineers Without Borders Panama, he and his wife Linda have been helping to change lives since it's inception over a year ago.  "We work closely with Peace Corp volunteers living in remote areas who recognize a need, and we come up with a solution," said Clinton. 

Just imagine living in a remote location on a river with no way to cross it to buy food, seek medical care, go to work or school.  Children would need to walk through moving river waters to get to school.  Mothers would wade through dangerous waters over slippery rocks with sick babies that needed to see a doctor. Then during the rainy season when the waters  became to high to cross the entire village would be cut off from civilization. 

Can you Imagine having to do this
to get to your own home?

The completed bridge

This is where EWB-P can help by coming up with a project idea to build a bridge, a school or medical clinic, a community center, install irrigation systems, provide electricity, clean water or sanitation.  Made up of volunteers with engineering backgrounds, or students in engineering programs, EWB-P is helping to change lives, one project at a time.  A not-for-profit, secular, non-government organization, EWB-P is part of Engineers Without Borders International with partners in over 45 developing countries.

"Our goal is to come up with sustainable projects with affordable technology and teach the people in these communities how to use the materials," said Clinton.  Volunteers work closely with Panama's indigenous people and poverty-stricken communities to provide them with basic human needs like clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity.

Community Center

Old Tree Bridge

Troubled by the plight of Panama's poor population CH2M-Hill, a global engineering and construction firm decided to establish a division of Engineers Without Borders International in Panama.  They supported their decision with a generous grant in 2012 and Engineers Without Borders Panama was born.  But change doesn't come cheap and they need donations, grants and people to come up with the ideas that can make a big impact on communities in need.

Water Purification System

Water Catchment System

Clinton and Linda are passionate about this cause and need to spread the word.  I had the chance to chat with this dynamic duo who are just trying to make positive changes in the lives of others.  Mahatma Gandhi once said, "be the change you wish to see in the world," and these two certainly are doing just that.

It's always fascinating to see who we bump into on our daily lives here in Panama....along the gringo trail. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Gettin' Our Hurt On...

During the course of every marriage there comes a time when the wife wants to beat on her husband and what better time then now?  After all being together 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year can be trying on some couples, but us?  I've always said this is not your grandma's retirement we're living here, so why not learn some down and dirty street fighting.  Yes, Israeli street fighting has come to Panama in the form of self defense classes

Ever wonder what you’d do if you were assaulted or attacked by a criminal?  Would you know how to fight back to defend yourself or would you just kiss your belongings good bye?  No matter where we live, how old we are, or what kind of shape we’re in, everyone needs to have a plan so we don’t become the victim.  

Although it sounds a little bizarre, the art of Israeli street fighting has come to the area to help us turn our bodies into lean, mean, fighting machines.  It’s called Krav Maga and was originally developed to teach the Israeli Defense Force how to fight.  The name in Hebrew means, “contact combat,” and this form of self-defense is based on real world situations. Using basic moves like punches, kicks, chokes, holds, grabs and pressure points on the body students are taught to turn fear into aggression.  By practicing the moves over and over the body builds muscle memory and instinctively reacts when confronted with danger.   

The classes are taught by Richard Hamilton, a 6th Degree Black Belt, TaeKwonDo Master and Certified Krav Maga Instructor. Having spent the last 47 years studying, competing and perfecting his craft, Hamilton first became interested in martial arts training before the age of 20. He fell in love with the sport the first time he walked into a studio owned by well-known karate expert Chuck Norris, who became his first instructor.  After taking a 15-year break from competing in TaeKwonDo, in 2006 his sons who also compete in the sport talked him into doing one more competition.  It was there at the Fifth-Degree Male Seniors Tournament Of Champions held in Little Rock, AR, that Hamilton succeeded in winning one last time.  He proudly won all three events walking away with the coveted Triple Crown.  His “never stop fighting” attitude has gained him all but a few wins throughout his competitive career in martial arts.  Hamilton, now 68 is a force to be reckoned with that enjoys sharing his knowledge with others. 

By participating in the local self-defense classes students gain self-confidence, agility, develop reflexes and cardiovascular stamina.  “Classes are ongoing and students are invited to join in at any time since I always review the techniques,” says Hamilton.  The philosophy of Krav Maga is to avoid confrontation if possible, but also teaches students how to fight to the finish as quickly as possible when necessary. It builds on the concept of maintaining awareness at all times, make a mental map of escape routes, look around for everyday items that can serve as weapons, make eye contact with those around and don’t look like a victim.  But in the event that an assault does occur the victim knows how to counter attack at lightning speed, causing bodily harm to the assailant within seconds.   

“Our classes fit everyone, regardless of size, age or fitness level,” says Hamilton. Each class begins with stretching to avoid injury to the body, and then progresses to some cardiovascular conditioning.  Then a review of the basic moves taught in an easy to follow format, one move at a time.  Students are taken through a series of jabs, punches, kicks, grabs and holds practicing on each other until it feels comfortable.  “Kicks are kept low at first for those with knee problems, and everyone is encouraged to perform at their own fitness level,” said Hamilton.  “Those looking for a good workout can get one,” Hamilton explained, “but those that can’t do as much don’t have to.”   

Before studying martial arts all over the world, Hamilton worked as a singer and dancer in Las Vegas.  He also served as a Special Division Narcotics Officer working undercover for the police department.  At one time he ran an air charter company and even served as a bodyguard for Oliver North.  He turned his love for martial arts into a business and ran a dozen or so studios and fitness centers before retiring.
A good way to get in shape and stay safe, we've tried one "beat up" session so far and perhaps there will be more? Just a kickin' and a screamin' here in Panama....along the gringo trail.



Monday, May 6, 2013

Not So Lazy Days In The Tropics.....

Since the middle of December we've had no rain at all here in the "dry arch" of Panama.  The rest of the country hasn't done much better, although more rain tends to fall in the mountains and in Panama City. This time of year is the beginning of the rainy season and a welcomed relief to the dried up, dead grass and plants that turn our landscape brown. But the rains seem to be arriving late this year as we've only had a few recent showers to moisten our yard.

Our latest endeavor is to apply for a Panamanian type of identification card called a "cedula."  Unlike the states, here a drivers license does not serve as a form of identification since the country issues cedulas to all Panamanian citizens once they turn 18.  In order to establish residency here we've already gone through the process of obtaining a "pensionado visa" which allows us to remain here for as long as we desire. But to some the pensionado card still shouts out that we're tourists that live here most or all of the year.  From what we understand having a cedula that looks the same as the card the locals carry puts people at ease when they see it.  To a Panamanian it says that we've taken the time to get entered into the system, and have been thoroughly investigated by the officials of the country before they issue us this card.  And in five years after receiving the card we'll be eligible to apply for citizenship should be choose, although I have heard that the process is not easy.  Just like when someone becomes a US citizen there's a written test about the history of the country.  And here there's also some type of verbal test from what I've heard conducted in Spanish of course, that involves local terminology that no one but a Panamanian would understand. And in case you're wondering should we ever become Panamanian citizens and receive a passport from this country, we would never give up our US citizenship or passport but instead could hold both.

Most people use a lawyer to apply for the cedula, but some friends told us that they did it without one and the cost was only $68 a person.  The process begins at "Servicio Nacional Migracion," which is simply the immigration department of Panama.  Once inside we told the receptionist what we were there for and she gave us a number.  Our number was Y116 and we had to sit among hundreds of people and wait for our number to come up. Once it did we approached window #21 and handed in our paperwork.  We had to provide two passport photos, two copies of our passports, two copies of our pensionado cards and two copies of the resolution statement from when we applied for our visa.  The girl efficiently took our documents, entered us into the system, stapled the papers together and instructed us to return in 30 days.  Quick and easy and no money involved yet.

From what our friends told us, once the 30 days is up we go back to pick up the paperwork and take it to the Tribunal Electoral.  Here in Panama the Tribunal Electoral is a government office that issues cedulas along with being responsible for the electoral process. Although I don't know much about them, I do know they're a vital part of this process since they're the ones that decide if we'll be issued a cedula. Not sure what we do there other than pay our money but we'll find out next month.

Went on a little shopping trip yesterday to Westland Mall, a 45-minute drive from here.  The three story mall is located near La Chorrera and much easier than driving into Panama City. I browsed through some $1.99 blouses and picked up six different tops for around $18 along with a few new area rugs for $7.50 each.

I'm keeping busy writing for a website called which also has a print version called The Playa News. Clyde tags along with me as my photographer whenever I have a story to cover. It's been fun going new places and meeting new people along the way.  My last story was about my dear husband "fireman clyde" who recently conducted a meeting on fire safety.  There seems to be a misconception here that since all homes are built out of cement they can't burn.  But the contents can and will burn in the event of a fire.  You can read the story at the above link along with others I've done, keeping me too busy to blog more often.

Clyde is still busy working on the kitchen project which isn't quite done yet but is looking great.  He's working on building upper cabinets now and then has to make new doors for two floor to ceiling pantries. 

Time for some homemade yogurt with fruit for breakfast and some more coffee to get me ready for my morning workout. A few other errands will make for a full day of busy retirement....along the gringo trail.

Life In Portugal....At A Snails Pace....

Yesterday was just another day in Portugal when my dear husband Clyde said he was going to run to the pharmacy for a few things. Time passed...