Two Years and Counting

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I remember like it was yesterday. I sat on the front porch that night looking at the stars, knowing there was nothing inside of my house except the bags I packed to take on the plane. I had accomplished everything I had set out to do: sold the house, the cars and every single possession I owned. I had only 12 more hours in the United States before heading off to Costa Rica to begin my new life abroad. My 15 year dream was finally coming true and it felt so liberating, albeit uncertain at the same time.

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Casita in Cocles, Costa Rica

It doesn’t seem like it was two years ago that I stayed in that hot, buggy casita in Cocles. A lot happened during those three months. I learned how to take care of monkeys and sloths; I encountered wildlife beyond my wildest imagination; I lived without mod cons; I ate healthier but became ill due to the water; I got in shape by walking or riding my bike everywhere and I met people that I’m still friends with today.

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Hot buggy room

There were days when I felt broken but swore to never give in. Then there were days of pure bliss, like riding my bike to a beautiful beach and having chocolate fondue for lunch. Without a care in the world and nothing to have to rush home for, I knew I had made a good decision to follow my heart to Costa Rica.

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San Antonio de Turrialba

The long term house sit in Turrialba was magnificent with an abundance of wildlife in my own yard. I loved taking the machete through the pathways and slashing unruly vines and yellowing banana leaves. I chopped up the felled twisted branches of the rainbow eucalyptus tree to put in the fireplace during chilly nights. I would beam with happiness as I came across grapefruit trees in the village and carried home the heavy fruit in a plastic bag. I revived beautiful birds that slammed into the windows and ate bananas straight off the trees. Best of all, I think, was being the only expat and having to practice my Spanish almost everyday. The people there were genuine and kind.

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El Valle de Anton

Having always wanted to visit Panama, it was my next move. There, I lived in the beautiful little town of El Valle, nestled in a crater of an extinct volcano. I helped launch a tourist attraction and learned how to raise butterflies. I felt more than ever like a mother to all of those babies. From egg to caterpillar to butterfly, I had my hands full everyday. On my days off, I still couldn’t keep away from them and found myself, like a mother, constantly worried about their well being. I would personally care for butterflies that had malformed wings and couldn’t fly. The butterflies in the flight house always got breakfast before I did and I took great pleasure in making sure they were happy.

Middlemarch, New Zealand
Middlemarch, New Zealand

After leaving Panama, I made the decision to travel half way around the world to New Zealand. A beautiful country on many peoples’ bucket list, I was happy to finally see it for myself. My new found lack of planning didn’t prepare me for the harsh winter ahead near the bottom of the South Island. Not realizing I could practically blow a kiss to Antarctica, I had a hard time adjusting after coming from the tropics. Working outside most of the day on a sheep farm was a complete turnaround from what I had ever imagined doing. Living with a family after being on my own for so long took some adjustment, but it was good for me. It forced me out of my comfort zone and prepared me for future stays with complete strangers in their homes instead of opting for impersonal and expensive hotel rooms.

Nobby beach, Gold Coast, Queensland
Nobby Beach, Gold Coast, Queensland

When my visa was up, I went to Australia where the heat overwhelmed me. Everyone said it would be hot but I didn’t expect it would take so long to adjust to the new climate. People wouldn’t use their air con even though they had it and the convenience of a dishwasher was usually shunned as well. I was back to doing dishes by hand but living in nicer homes than Central America. I missed not having an open air house and tangible items were readily available at nearby shops. I found myself longing for challenges. I realized that it had been good for me to not always have what I wanted. I didn’t want life to be this easy. I had enjoyed not having a car and buying fruits and vegetables from roadside vendors. My heart belonged in Central America. I felt out of place on this side of the world.

Marlborough, New Zealand
Marlborough, New Zealand

I will be spending my two year anniversary in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. A beautiful grape growing area that reminds me of my life back in the tropics. There are fruit trees of all varieties in every yard it seems and the weather is typically pleasant and sunny. The rolling fields of grapevines imply a certain peacefulness that makes me smile every time I pass by them. The many rivers, mountains and beaches are all nearby and never crowded. You can let your dog run free and watch the ever changing sky over the endless sea.

I have been changed by the people I met on my travels, something which would’ve never happened had I not left my old life behind. I have affected the lives of others as well, sometimes not for the better. With every new encounter, I learn, I grow and I evolve. I am embracing the ebb and flow of change instead of being satisfied with the stagnation of habit and conformity. As Camille has said, I am forever changed and I look forward to more years of eye opening experiences and cultural exchanges around the world.

2nd Anniversary spent at Yealand's winery
2nd Anniversary spent at Yealand’s winery

 

 

 

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Panamanian Post Office

Linda had been telling me since January that her friend sent her a Christmas present from the States, but she hadn’t gotten it yet.  She heard it was at the post office and went there several times to get it, but it was never there.  Somehow, she found out that it was in Penonome, which is a good 45 minute drive from us.  So off we went with Jackie driving.

I’ve been to post offices in Costa Rica before and this one was no different.  She tells them who she is, the guy goes and looks for it and miraculously comes back within a few minutes with the tiny priority mail box.  The cost to mail it was about $24 and was sent three months ago.  The man looks at the package, writes some things down then motions us to go pick it up somewhere.  We stand there waiting, as the package is now in the hands of the woman that was next to him.  We wait.  And wait.  By this time, we’re getting antsy.  She finally motions to come over there and she too inspects this box like there’s some kind of invisible writing on it she must decipher.  She takes out a clipboard and writes things down.  She asks Linda for her passport and her signature.  Jackie and I kid that we hope her friend didn’t send anything illegal because then we’re ALL going down with her.  They’ve made sure at this point that Linda has agreed this is really her package so there will be no question about ownership if indeed there is something illegal inside of it. The woman asks Linda for $3.20 and Linda is a bit irate about it at this point, but we encourage her to not argue and just pay it.  She does.

It’s been about 25 minutes at this point, if not longer.  Then we’re told to go outside and pick up the box next door.  We step outside of the post office and about half a foot away is another door.  A guy opens the door which leads to a small hallway with an office on the left.  An air conditioning unit blows hot air into the hallway making practically unbearable to stand in.   We step into the office where there’s another guy sitting behind the desk.  It’s a typical government kind of scene.  Metal desk, uncomfortable chair, nothing on the walls…very plain jane.

Of course he has to inspect the package and get her to sign AGAIN for it and he wants her to open the box in front of him.  Linda jokes that it was a Christmas present that should’ve been here long ago.  So here comes the moment of truth.  We sincerely hope it’s just a cutsie gift.  He takes out a small box cutter, instead of just pulling the tab which easily opens the box and proceeds to cut where the glue holds the box shut.  We sigh heavily under our breath, just wanting to get this over with.  Linda opens the box and inside is a small jewelry box wrapped in Christmas paper.  Ripping off the paper we see ‘Hallmark’ on the front and we all say ‘Ornament’.  Linda shows the man the Christmas paper and exclaims “Feliz Navidad!” and we all laugh.  Sure enough, she opens the box and there are two silver ornaments inside.  But to our horror, there’s a plastic bag with what looks like a bunch of cocaine in it…the cardboard topper says, ‘Just Like Snow’.  Jackie and my eyes widened, mouths agape and blood pressure rose. I think we both saw ourselves in some Panamanian jailhouse within the hour.  Linda is still laughing away and the guy didn’t even LOOK at the bag.  Or rather, he didn’t inspect it.  We just wanted to bolt out of there before anything else could happen.  He miraculously handed over the stuff to Linda and we left immediately!

When we got outside, we breathed a sigh of relief, wondering what the big production was all about.  We figured they’d be looking for drugs at the very least since Panama does not take that stuff lightly.  It could not have been more obvious, even though it wasn’t even drugs!  We went down the street to the beautiful mansion of a restaurant and celebrated our ‘freedom’ and the ability to enjoy a first class meal instead of sitting in a hot holding cell for the next few years!

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Frank Gehry Bio Museo & Casco Viejo

 

Frank Gehry Bio Museo
Frank Gehry Bio Museo

My last two days were spent with Jackie in the city and we were some of the fortunate people to be able to visit the Gehry Bio Museum before it officially opened.  This is a funky building with Gehry being known for his architectural style.  It is located at the P1050452 end of the causeway facing the Pacific and the opening to the Panama Canal. They are accepting groups with a reservation.  The cost for a non-resident was $35, resident $25 and jubilado (over 65) $13.  I got in as a resident luckily.  They still had about 3 exhibits to open but we saw 5 of them.  It was bright and colorful, overlooking the bay and had a VERY cool surround movie that you stand up to watch.  That was my favorite part of the whole tour.  Considering the size of the place, the exhibits weren’t all that big, so I hope the other three they do will make it feel like you actually get something for the money. P1050487

The area where the movie was consisted of 8 large screens with images on the floor beneath you.  It was a combination of the ocean, trees, animals and weather.  You were basically engulfed with images all around

Screens on the ceiling
Screens on the ceiling

you and felt like you were right there in the middle of the scene.  It probably lasted about 5 minutes or so, but I could have stayed for 30 watching it again and again.

P1050455Another room had life size replicas of animals and the interesting thing was how they positioned them.  The previous exhibit talked about the Isthmus of Panama and how when the land bridge was created, the animals used it to cross into and out of the Americas.  So they had the animals heading south or north depending on where they were coming from.   I also liked that I would see a different animal each time I turned the corner that I hadn’t noticed before.

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Giant sloth skull with the Bay of Panama in the reflection
Giant sloth skull with the Bay of Panama in the reflection

Finally, they had an outdoor area explaining the history of Panama which will be free to the public.  They are working on landscaping the grounds which they hope people will use for playing music, creating art or simply coming to have a picnic.

I’m really glad I was able to see the place as it’s Gehry’s only work in all of Central America.  They are way behind on the opening date, now saying the soft opening will be sometime in June.

Panama's Metro
Panama’s Metro

The next day we headed out on the new Metro!  We also found out it was free (after buying the $2 card) for the first month.  The rail only went to Albrook mall with about 5 stops along the way.  There will be more stops in the future.   It was amazing to me just how quiet people were on the train.  It was standing room only although not super crowded.  We got to the mall, not realizing it didn’t open until 11 on Sunday.  We had coffee (the BEST) at Tryp then took a taxi ($5) to Casco Viejo…the old town section.

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I really loved this area and could have easily spent another couple of hours walking around.  There was a mixture of new and old buildings with cafes, shops, parks, vendors and artists.  There were a lot of Kuna women selling their Mola’s for pretty decent prices.  The Kuna’s are some of the smallest people on the planet, next to the Pygmy’s.  I felt super tall around them!  We also got to stand in front of the Presidential Palace for a while.  There was a live heron inside on the fountain!

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Presidential Palace

 

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We ate lunch at a nice restaurant called Diablicos and had ceviche.  Not crazy about the $7.50 price tag on it, but it was air conditioned inside and filled us up.  I bought a couple of drawings in the park this man had and was happy I did…they were very beautiful (and he gave me a good price!).   We ran across a woman in a traditional Panamanian dress who was there for a photo shoot.  She was actually living in the U.S., but was born in Panama and felt privileged to be doing it.

 

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We headed back to the mall to catch the train again and it was a madhouse!  Being the week of Santa Semana and also being free, I was having my doubts that we’d even get on it.  We made it somehow.  I suppose they have enough trains going back and forth to quickly pick up and unload people.  We stood by the door again which was the only breathing room available.  It was a quick 10 minute trip or so. P1050648

We hit Jimmy’s for dinner and it was outstanding!  It was going to be the last of the gigantic shrimp for me in Panama, so I splurged and got them fried.   Jackie had them with garlic and that was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted in my LIFE! We also got some garlic pita bread and dinner came with salad and twice baked potato.  We wanted to collapse after eating.  It was painful, but so good.  The bill with two glasses of wine came to $53 before tip.  Not bad!

I’ve had a lot of fun in Panama, especially in the city.  I sort of hate to leave, but know I can always come back and hang out with my partner in crime.  Jackie was a life saver for me, getting me out of the house and town quite often and showing me around.   I’m glad she loves the beach as much as I do and took those road trips with me.  Thanks so much, Jackie!  You haven’t seen the last of me!

I hated leaving right when the mangoes were coming into season and also right before the rains came.  I will remember Panama as being dry, hot and dusty.   I wish I could have seen it get green.  However, one thing I won’t miss is the amount of trash everywhere and do hope one day they get on the ‘No Litter’ campaign for their sake.   The frustration with people, service and traffic may take longer to alleviate but then again, no country can be perfect.   So it’s time to take a break and go back to the States for a few months but I have a feeling I’ll want to come back down South again or maybe head over to Europe for the summer.  The journey continues….

Bridge of the America's
Bridge of the Americas

Wrapping It Up In Panama

My morpho!!
My morpho!!

Well, my time has come to a close here and I’ve spent the past few weeks seeing as much as I can.  My one accomplishment was being able to see my morphos I’ve raised from eggs to the butterfly stage.  The first one hatched from its pupae on April 3rd, but I wasn’t there to see it.  The next day, another emerged and I felt the desire to set it free, so I did.  There are a lot more on the way!  I’ve counted around 100 that have either already pupated, emerged or are still in the caterpillar stage from my first batch.

My morpho pupae
My morpho pupae

Oh, I forgot to share this photo of some brand new bananas forming in the yard.  If you’ve ever wondered why the bottom of a banana has that black part on it, it’s because that’s where the flower was!

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One weekend, Jackie, Linda and I went into the city to visit the Smithsonian’s research station on Barro Colorado Island.

P1050242 I got to ride on the Panama Canal and see those huge container ships right next to us!  The island itself was underwhelming and I was a bit disappointed with what little we saw.  There were a few troops of monkeys, a few birds, a poison dart frog and lots of ants.  We did come across some huge trees.

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We also HEARD the red capped manakin.  If only we could have seen the mating ritual.  This is that bird that moonwalks like Michael Jackson.  The footage was even taken at this research station.  We were told that the clicking sounds it made weren’t coming from its mouth, but from its wings!  They were able to slow down the footage enough to see that the wings moved so quickly together, they made that noise.

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Panama City

We spent the night in the city and ate a great dinner at the Spaghetteria called Pomodoro’s downtown which was awesome.  We hung out in the hot tub after that to soothe our sore bodies from the hike earlier and got in some shopping.  On the way back we stopped at this place that had a smoking pit going.  I had some pork and a thick corn tortilla made into a quesadilla. P1050270

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A few days later, I hiked India Dormida here in town.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for when Carlitos said, ‘This is the most demanding hike in El Valle.”  Well, NOW I KNOW!  Had I known what it was like before hand, I probably wouldn’t have gone.  Although, I’m glad I did.  India Dormida is called the Sleeping Girl because the mountains look like a woman lying down.

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On top of India Dormida overlooking El Valle

 

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If you recall, this is the top of the crater that comprises the only inhabited extinct volcano in the world.   It was pretty neat looking down on the town in which I’ve been living and overwhelming to me that I even hiked up that far!  It was a rough path with rocks and dirt.  We came back down into the park where I had been to before which has the petroglyphs.  This particular area we hiked was in the same section of mountain ranges that made up the Isthmus of Panama.  That’s some really interesting reading.  In a nutshell, when the continents of North and South America came together to form the land bridge, it changed the world as we know it.  It closed off the Atlantic from the Pacific (they used to flow freely together) and it created the gulf stream which in turn caused an ice age.  It was just a small section of land that caused all of this to happen.  It made the Atlantic saltier than the Pacific and it changed weather patterns all over the world.  In the big scheme of things it also influenced animals and how they adapted to the weather which means it’s also why humans are here today!  It made me feel so insignificant, yet amazed at how one little thing like closing off a section of ocean was responsible for me standing on this volcano!  Wow.

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I’ve also managed to get in a few good BBQ’s.  Jackie and I are a dangerous pair when it comes to food.  She’s a great cook!   I coaxed her into bringing over the two frozen steaks she had brought back from Florida.  She also made up a beautiful shrimp cocktail with homemade sauce.  She said, “I have real live horseradish at home!”  Boy…that stuff cleared our sinuses quickly!  AND she even made a key lime pie.  Wow.  I was super spoiled.  The next week, she bought a tenderloin at PriceSmart for all of $13 and I made a peach cobbler for dessert.  She sort of can’t wait for me to leave so she can lose some weight.

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We also threw a couple of parties at Candis’ place.  She’s a good ol Texas Girl too so we got along great!  She’s an Austinite as you may be able to tell and she’s keepin’ it weird which we all love about her.  She’s got a dog named Lila who gets her hair colored as well.  I absolutely love the photo over the fireplace!

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A trip into Penonome the other day had me laughing more than usual.  I was waiting in the car outside of the fire station for Jackie and I was watching these guys unload some cartons of milk out of this big truck.  I look on the side of the truck and a street name caught my eye.  I thought, ‘That’s a road in Virginia!?” and sure enough, the truck was from Woodbridge.  Had to take a picture or nobody would’ve believed me.  Truth is stranger than fiction.

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