The Value of Friends

I have found that making friends is one of the most important requirements when moving to a new community. I have been blessed to have made new friends who seem to have been just waiting to help me. My introduction to Cuenca would have been so much harder without their help.

I am subletting an apartment from a man who is in France for July and August. He has generously taken the time to frequently email or WhatsApp me with all kinds of information about the city. Additionally, he told me to look up a friend of his who has gone out of his way to show me around and given me helpful advice. We were sitting in the small park near my apartment when who comes walking by but Amelia and JP. I know there are those of you who have followed them on the Internet (website and/or YouTube). I started attending a church and I have been taken out to lunch and encountered a couple in a different restaurant. They started teaching me how to use a taxi app to get around. Where would I be without friends?

Walk Along the Tomebamba River

Generally, I am pretty good with directions. However, I made the mistake of thinking a major street through my neighborhood ran east and west when I later learned that it ran north and south. I have been working hard to reorient myself ever since. If only the streets ran in a predictable pattern, but they don’t. Add to that that there are few street signs, and I can become totally lost.

Fortunately, in El Centro, many of the buildings are numbered and there is a system to this. Numbers begin with 1 or 2 digits followed by a hyphen and then the actual building address. Those digits indicate the block, like 3-150. This is very helpful when you know the address of a store on a long street, for instance. Unfortunately, if you only know the name of the store, you don’t know in what block it is located. Outside of El Centro, house numbers and street names are almost nonexistent.

Even taxi drivers have some difficulty finding their way to a specific location. These drivers can drive around circles, intentionally or not, to keep the meter advancing. I’ve learned to hand the driver a note with an address to try to prevent this. However, if my destination is not marked, it’s nothing but a guessing game. I’ve had a driver tell me he couldn’t take me where I wanted to go because he had no idea where it was. Another drove around and around not finding the location and finally told me to just get out of his cab, in the rain no less!

Cuenca’s Tranvia

I haven’t begun to tackle the bus and train (think above-ground subway) systems yet. So, I walk when I can. Walking in Cuenca is really the best way to encounter this city and its many charms. I will write about this in my next post.

Fact: The riverside trails extend 13 kilometers through Cuenca (8 miles)
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No Way to Travel: A Message to My Panamá Friends

Is there a best way to travel? Of course not; it has many individualistic factors to consider. What’s right for you may not be right for me, and I’m beginning to think that what was right for me may not be right for me forever. I travel lightly: backpack and computer bag only. Let me tell you about my trip to Ecuador.

I flew from David to Panamá City and that’s when the problems began. Copa airlines landed at their new Terminal 2, but I had to walk outside to Terminal 1 in order to find a shuttle. I discovered there would be no free shuttle to the Crowne Plaza Hotel due to the strike that was taking place. Consequently, I tried to use Über to get to the hotel, but the Über drivers couldn’t get through. I had to cancel three requests. Finally, a fourth drive got through, but we could not find each other, even after extensive communication back and forth. I still would like to learn if there is a specific spot at that airport for Über pickups. Let me know.

All the while, what taxi and van drivers were at the airport kept hassling me to take their $10.00 ride. I refused, knowing I could do better. After an hour of standing in the hot sun, a man came up to me and said he had seen me standing there for a long time and was there anything he could do for me. I told him I was trying to get an Über driver. He then gently told me he was a taxi driver and that he would get me to the hotel for $5.00. I took him up on the bargain. However, that left the last Über drive hanging and I was charged over $12.00 for cancelling that ride.

The taxi ride to the hotel took an hour due to the strikers nearby when it otherwise should have taken 5 or 10 minutes. The ride went through slums and down dirt roads in a circuitous route, through areas I would never have seen or wanted to see. But he got me there. He was an educated, English-speaking former Texan driver I can recommend to anyone who like to use him when in Panamá City.

I had to leave the hotel early the next morning before the strikers took up their stoppages, so I was able to use the shuttle and got there in time. I had to wait a couple of hours, only to find in the last 20 minutes that they departure gate had been changed from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1. This time, I could move to Terminal 1 through the inside, but I had to run with my backpack and computer bag flaying on my sides. I had done a self-check in originally, but for some reason my name wasn’t in the system. So, I arrived at the gate with the wrong boarding pass. This took a while to straighten out, but because of the gate change, the plane left late.

I arrived in Quito and had to wait a couple of hours. I then quickly made it to Cuenca, when a 6.1 earthquake occurred upon my arrival (no smart remarks!). Whatever could happen next? Fortunately, nothing. I got to my apartment and settled in. I then discovered I had two bruises on my right hand from constantly having manhandled my backpack.

Why am I telling you all of this? Probably to relieve my own frustrations with travel. I had waited two weeks for the strikes in Ecuador to come to an end, only to then have to endure strikes in Panamá. Traveler beware. Never travel during strikes. I recommend flying with only carry-ons, but not when those carry-ons contain your whole life. Luggage or shipping would be better in that case.

As a traveler then, how am I going to travel the next time I make a major move? I’ll have to let you know what I decide. In the meantime, I will start to write about Ecuador, with the sights and learnings that I am encountering.

Fact: Only 19% of travelers carry on their luggage
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Flying High

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon – er, plane. I’m off to the world’s third highest capitol city – Quito, Ecuador – at 9,350 feet. From there, I drop down to Cuenca, Ecuador at 8,400 feet. The big news is I bought a one-way ticket. Yes, I have left Panamá to spend the next two years in Ecuador.

Panamá gave me the joy of traveling, of experiencing a new culture, and a permanent visa with e-cedula (permanent residence card). I will miss all the wonderful friends I made in Boquete. However, I can see them when I return every two years to keep my permanent visa active.

Cuenca’s Cathedral –

Why two years in Ecuador? Besides the acquisition of a permanent visa, I want to further exercise my goal to travel slowly. Slow is a concept originating with food – the desire for better food cooked well. It has extended to all facets of life, advocating slowing down and experiencing a simpler life. This idea began with Carlo Petrini in Rome when he protested the opening of a new McDonald’s fast food restaurant. The year was 1986. From that protest, the slow movement grew fast.

Central Park –

In the book, In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré describes the movement as a philosophy which

is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

Tomebamba River Walk –

Slow travel is not about traveling from one place to another but immersing into an understanding of a place. How long should this take? There is no answer to the question. Some say a week, others say a month or more. I say six months or more. The real joy of traveling is to have no agenda but to stop and smell the roses. This is my aim for Ecuador. I hope you’ll come along for my slow experiences.

I will begin my stay in Cuenca, the most European city in South America. It has also been called the “Athens of Ecuador,” implying Cuenca is famous for its architecture – churches, cathedrals, cloisters, and homes – and its literary and artistic novelists, poets, and writers. I’m excited to find out for myself why these attributes have been assigned to Cuenca, and you can feel certain I will be sharing these with you.

Fact: Lhasa, Tibet is the highest capital city in the world at 11,995’
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Live Anywhere

How you can escape working 9-5 every week, living anywhere, and joining the new rich was a radical idea presented in 2007 by Tim Ferriss. He published what became a cult book, The 4-Hour Workweek (now expanded and updated), contradicting the long-held beliefs of balancing life and work, retiring well, and having a great nest egg. Instead, he advocated a plan of finding a new way of living a fulfilling life.

The essence of this involves the phrase geographic arbitrage, better known as geoarbitrage. Geoarbitrage is moving to a place with a lower cost of living while keeping your same level of income. That way your disposable income stretches further, and you are able to live the life you choose.

How is this possible? First, you must have an income that is not tied to a specific location. This might be:

  • Working remotely as an employee
  • Freelancing online
  • Living off your passive income
  • Living off retirement income or savings

Second, you should look for a desirable location. This might be:

  • A new neighborhood
  • A new city or state
  • A new country

Third, your perfect place should include:
  • Reduced taxes
  • Reliable internet
  • Affordable quality health care
  • Good schools (if you have kids)
  • Transportation
  • Safety
  • Language spoken
  • Food and culture
  • Lifestyle and activities
  • People with shared interests

Fourth,  your low-cost location in the United States might be:
  • Mississippi
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansas
  • Missouri

Or internationally:
  • Panama
  • Costa Rica
  • Mexico
  • Colombia
  • Portugal
  • Ecuador
  • Malaysia
  • France
  • Malta
  • Vietnam

These criteria are subjective, of course and constantly changing (do your research). However, they can lead to a new, enriching  life, and a broadening of your horizons. You will find that your identity changes – you are now a foreigner. You may find that you no longer want what you once wanted, that you have fewer regrets, and that you have the option to become the person you would like to be.

With more options, you will discover more happiness. What’s stopping you?

Fact: The Panamá Canal contributes almost 10% to Panamá’s economy
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Boquete on the Rocks

Boquete, Panamá, haven for North American and European expats (ex-patriots) has gained worldwide attention for being a superb retirement community. Former residents of many countries have flocked to Boquete for a new life. The reasons for this include a moderate climate (yearly average 70º F), clean air, no hurricanes, and sometimes a lower cost of living.

Expats, however, arrived late on the scene in Boquete. The town is nestled in a valley with mountains rising on the sides. As such, it was a pass through to reach more distant lands. Miners going to the California Gold Rush of 1868 often stayed, but they found no gold here. There were no roads in the early days; most people traveled by horseback. The district was founded on April 11, 1911, but people have existed in the area since about 600 BC. This is evidenced by petroglyphs in the outlining community of Caldera.

There is evidence of even earlier habitation. Anthony Ranere from Temple University conducted an archaeological survey in western Panamá in the 1970s. What he found has astonished not only archaeologists but also general history buffs and inquisitive people. Outside Boquete, Ranere excavated a site which came to be known as Casita de Piedra, a natural cave-like indentation in the mountainside. His discovery shows this structure had been used for thousands of years for domestic life and work, as well as for shamanistic practices.

A natural cave-like indentation in the mountainside
Casita de Piedra –

In 2007, Ruth Dickau, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Exeter, arrived on the scene and discovered a cache of unique stones. Below these rocks was a piece of charcoal radiocarbon dated to be 4800 years old. A similar fragment was found in the layer above which was dated to be about 4000 years old.

Carbon dating further indicated the base of the rock shelter showed this area had been used about 9000 years ago. The way these rocks were placed, as well as their composition, suggests they were used by a shaman. If so, this would be the earliest material evidence of shamanistic practice in lower Central America, according to Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panamá.

It is a known fact shamans used rocks and crystals in their practices. These rocks were often unusual in some way. Some of these would have been quartz, pyrite, and magnetic minerals, carved or uncarved. This evidence shows the Boquete site was most likely to have been used by a shaman.

Quartz, pyrite, and magnetic minerals

Why these pre-human beings gathered crystals is still a mystery to modern science, but it is possible to deduce crystals had some intrinsic value for these people, and if they were making cave drawings, they had a spiritual life and, if they had a spiritual life and, if they gathered crystals too small for use as tools for manipulating objects, the crystals may well have had a spiritual or energetic value to them. [attrib. to Richard Cooke, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute]

Crystals are more than a power object for the shaman. He and his practitioners believe these are living beings from the spirit world and they transmit energy for healing and can affect a change from negative energies such as sickness to health.

The receivers of shamanistic knowledge were hunters and gatherers living off the land. They gathered fruits, nuts, and roots and captured animals and fish. These people progressed to be herders and farmers. Farming is an indication people moved from finding food to growing food. This occurred some 10-15,000 years ago, a significant practice which is still primary for survival.

Expats have made their mark on Boquete, but Casita de Piedra shows a handful of rocks are an even bigger mark for the town. Even though this excavated site must remain in seclusion for its protection, just knowing the importance of its existence puts Boquete on the map.

Fact: Boquete is home to Barú Volcano National Park
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At the Chocolate Factory

Once again, I have asked my friend Myra to share with us one of her recent posts. She has been in Boquete longer than I have been and gotten to places I have yet to visit. I see no reason to reinvent the wheel, so I welcome her post which I think you will enjoy:

Please visit Myra’s blog at Thanks, Myra.

Fact: Chocolate is big business in Boquete
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Panamá Has a Desert

A desert in Panamá. Doesn’t that seem contrary to tropical living? Yet, a desert does exist and the worst thing about it is that is man-made. The desert is now a national park, a contrast to the Ecoparq of an earlier post.

A northeast portion of the Azuero Peninsula has been stripped bare from over grazing and cultivation for thousands of years. What had been there were coastal forests and mangrove trees. This vegetation was chopped down in the 20th Century to allow for farming. Unfortunately, the loss of trees caused the soil to be blown away and farming was at best difficult to sustain. The Azuero Peninsula is the driest region of Panamá, and this desert area has higher temperatures and less rainfall than even adjoining areas. The rock pictured was split due to heat.
cracked by the heat

Fortunately, this area has become the Sariqua National Park in an attempt to revive the land. It consists of 20,000 acres or 18 square miles on the Pacific Coast. It had once been covered by the sea and remains a salt-encrusted land. What mangrove trees remain at the edge of the park serve as breeding grounds for shrimp. These shrimp have contributed to the renewed growth of vegetation, which has slowed the loss of soil due to winds, rains and tides. Sariqua might be more correctly called a salt bed than a desert.

Sarigua is likely to be the oldest, pre-Columbian settlement in Panamá. The area was settled by fisherman 11,000 years ago and was a farming community from 3,000 BCE to 500 AD. There still are remains of ceramics and tools used to farm.

This land was farmed until the 1900’s when the devastation began. Eventually the farmers had to move to greener pastures. The land they left remained devastated for decades until recently. See nature’s attempt to revive the land in this 6 minute video:

People come to this sad-looking park to see the beauty in eroded valleys, the salt deposits, quartz, and volcanic rocks. What they also see is a park on the mend with flocks of pelicans, and 162 migratory birds that have stopped on their way to somewhere else. With the slow growth of new trees, forestation is taking over where it once thrived and now this land is beginning to show a new life.

Fact: There are 16 national parks in Panamá
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How Does the Panamá Canal Work?

What is your conception of the Panamá Canal? Many think it is a slot of land which has been dug out from one ocean to another. It’s true that it goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa, yet it is anything but dug out. The Pacific Ocean is nearly 8 feet higher than the Atlantic Ocean. Ships can’t travel uphill or down, so a series of 12-18 locks (depending on lanes used) were built to raise and lower the ships. Here is an animated video of this process (see the first 1:32 minutes):

or perhaps you would like to take a real ride through the Canal:

The Canal is 85 feet above sea level. Ships take 8-10 hours to travel through the Canal; each lock takes 8 minutes to fill. The Chagres River supplies most of the fresh water needed to keep ships afloat. Each ship displaces about 52-million gallons of fresh water to the oceans. Nearly 1 million ships to date have passed through the Canal.

How does the Panamá Canal compare with other canals in the world? Panamá’s is not known for its length (51 miles) but for its construction. By comparison, the St. Lawrence Seaway is the world’s longest natural waters passage at 2,342 miles. The Grand Canal of China, 1,103.5 miles, is the world’s longest man-made canal. The Suez Canal is 120 miles long.

The Panamá Canal is what makes Panamá famous. Not only ships but also a swimmer have made this Canal known.. It is one of the busiest waterways in the world. About 15,000 ships pass through the Canal each year. An average of 38 ships use the waterway each day. How much money does the Canal produce? Panama’s GDP is approximately $68.5 billion with the Canal taking in about $2 billion a year in revenue, of which approximately $800 million goes into the country’s General Treasury each year. Still, the Canal overrides everything in the Country.

The Canal is important not only to Panamá but to the world. Ships no longer have to cross through the dangerous Cape Horn of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago at the tip of Southern Chile. This saves about 8,000 miles, 12 less days of travel, and a large amount of money not spent. Most countries of the world make use of the Canal. Panamá has reason to be proud of the canal, while at the same time profiting greatly.

Fact: 12,000 lives were lost building the Panamá Canal (mostly from cholera and malaria)
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Chiquita and Oil

Downtown Shoreline

For all of Panamá’s 1500 miles of coastline, there is only one actual beach town. That honor goes to Puerto Armuelles, situated on the western end of the country near the border with Costa Rico. Other Panamá towns are near the beach, but none are actually on it.

Puerto Armuelles is named for Colonel Tomás Armuelles, a hero in the Coto War, staged in the 1920s. This war was fought between Panamá and Costa Rico over a small piece of land. Panamá won the war but then 10 years later returned the land to Costa Rico.

Carmen’s House

The United Fruit Company arrived in 1927 and really built the town, laying the street grids and building houses by the thousands for its workers. It created a class structure as company towns do. The workers’ houses were built on stilts to escape the dampness and bugs (picture the movie The African Queen). The executive’s homes were large and painted every color available, giving the town a unique flavor.

United Fruit Company was the first company to use refrigeration during open sea transport and then gave their bananas the unique name of Chiquita. They introduced the brand in 1944 and advertised it with a catchy, calypso beat jingle which made it a household brand name.

That brand name was registered three years later and is still known today.

In 1990, United Fruit Company changed its name to Chiquita Brands International and expanded into ready-made salads, and health foods. The banana was still the queen, however, noticeable by the little stickers on the bananas. These stickers began to appear in 1963 and are still affixed today by hand so as not to bruise the bananas.

About this time, the workers began to strike and carry on activities harmful to the company. In 2003, Chiquita Brands sold out to a cooperative of local banana farmers, but these farmers seemed not to know how to run a company. They faltered and Panamá began negotiations with Del Monte Foods, who eventually took over. By 2018, the company was employing 20,000 workers in 70 countries.

When Chiquita Brands left Puerto Armuelles, the town’s population was cut in half to about 23,000 and, by 2010, it had fallen another 2500. All is not lost, though. The banana industry continues, but now there is oil flowing in and out of the community.

The other industry in Puerto Armuelles oil transporting. As supertankers became larger and larger, they could no longer traverse the Panamá Canal. Supertankers coming from the Mideast and elsewhere found the Blue Ditch, a small island about 6 miles offshore from Puerto Armuelles. Because the depth there is great enough to accommodate these large tankers, storage tanks were erected and the crude oil subsequently off loaded onto smaller tankers which then went through the Canal.

In 1982, the search for a better way to get the oil across the country resulted in building a pipeline. It runs from Puerto Armuelles to Chiriqui Grande in the province of Bocas del Toro. The pipeline has to go over the continental divide, so pumping stations are needed along the way. Not only does the pipeline get oil from the Pacific side of Panamá, it reverses to bring other oil from the Atlantic side of the country. Seemingly never being satisfied, the Canal began construction to accommodate the large supertankers, resulting in two ways for oil to cross the country.

Such is called progress. Panamá has become the leader in Central America through its economic policies, as well as the hub for shopping and international flights. Currently, Panamá ranks ahead of its neighbors in its drive to become a stable and progressive Westernized country.

Fact: Panamá is outside the hurricane path
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Thanks to Barrie Thomson, Jr. for suggesting this topic.

The Day Panamá Changed the World

Were you to guess that it was the Panamá Canal with which Panamá changed the world, you would be right. However, you would be a little late in time. Of even more importance is the fact that about 3 million years ago, the isthmus of Panamá rose out of the sea and connected two continents. From this occurrence rose one of the world’s great natural events, the evolution of plants and animals migrating between continents. At the same time, this land bridge also brought about two distinct marine ecosystems, separating the waters into two oceans.

The years 1910-1912 saw the beginnings of study on the tropical biology of the Panamá Canal area. Scientists set about establishing a base for the natural environment which was about to be torn up with the building of the Canal. Specimens were then sent to the U.S. National Museum to preserve a bit of ecological history. From this was born, in 1923, the Institute for Research in Tropical America made up of private industries and universities.

This evolved in 1946 into the Canal Zone Biological Area under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institute. This is still based in Panamá, now known as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), where researchers are studying biodiversity and human culture throughout the tropics. Now almost a century later, the Smithsonian in Panamá is breaking new ground on the study of tropical forests and marine ecosystems and their astounding biodiversity. Pertinent to my former neighborhood up in the mountains, the Smithsonian, in collaboration with the University of Illinois, is also studying one of Panamá’s treasures – Geisha coffee.

Journalist Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee (2008) is an elaborate study in itself. Much of Central and Northern South America make claim to having the best coffee in the world. The inside cover of Weissman’s dust jacket poses three questions:

Geisha Coffee Beans –  
  •  Can a cup of coffee reveal the face of God?
  • Can it become the holy grail of modern-day knights-errant who brave hardship and peril in a relentless quest for perfection?
  •  Can it save the world?

She answers her own questions by saying, Yes to all three. God can be found in a cup of Panamanian Geisha coffee, as it sells for about $1300.00 a pound or $75.00 a cup! Climbing the Smithsonian’s hills, I saw row after row of Geisha coffee trees. There are also many rows of other coffee trees. Clearly, there is a comparative study going on.

Geisha Coffee Tree –

Today, the STRI has a staff of 40 scientists, while playing host to some 1400 visitors made up of students from undergrad to postdoctoral and tenured professors. There are some 350 research projects taking place in facilities across Panamá, though most are located in the Canal Zone.

Score another important kudo for Panamá. It’s no longer a sleepy little country. It has coffee to keep it awake.

Fact: 10,000 plant species reside in Panamá.
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