It’s Not All a Box of Chocolates

Some of our best blog posts come about because of the questions posed by friends and family. Often, these questions make us pause and discuss the things that we may be processing in a quiet way; at other times, the questions raise subjects that we have mulled over in our heads or in discussions between us and they give us a chance to be a little more transparent about things that arise during our travels.

The other day, a friend asked a question that invoked the problem we often debate about transparency. She asked: “Ok. What happens on the “challenging” days of your trip? Ups and downs, sickness, food too strange to eat, getting lost? I mean even Anthony Bourdain regaled us with some of the low points! Give it up!”

For those of you who have been following (some or all) our BootsandCoffee.com blog or FB posts since 2016, you will know that we have described some of the ups and downs along our travels. But in full transparency, we haven’t been as forthcoming about some of the trials as we have about the tribulations. Mainly, this is because we have had many debates and discussions between us about how to describe the challenges in a way that doesn’t portray the experiences, peoples or places in a negative light. Both of us are very easy going and cheerful, glass-half-full people by nature and we have a tendency to see life through that lens and so you see our experiences through that lens as well. Neither of us enjoy the divisiveness and negativity we see on Facebook groups, particularly the expat ones, that portray a place as undeveloped, corrupt, inefficient, or incompetent and so we try to stay away from anything that could have the potential for joining that scrum. But, we can see how our avoidance of some of these topics can paint a skewed view of our travels and things that have challenged us.

When we set out to blog about our travels, we did it primarily to pay it forward to folks, perhaps like us, who thought that they were too old, too inexperienced, too nervous or too whatever to do the kind of travels that we were setting out to do. So, in that vein, transparency is important and we will do our best to be as respectful of ourselves and our places as possible while discussing some of our travel challenges.

How do we deal with sickness?

Amazingly, over the combined 24 months of travel between the Pan Am and Asia trips, we have rarely been sick. Early into the Pan Am trip, Roque had the symptoms of a very bad cold that kept him in bed for days. By then, we were in Wolfie and had the luxury of a real bed (and not the cots in our original tent). In the end, the cold turned out, we think, to be a really bad case of seasonal allergies that we didn’t accurately diagnose because the heavy pollen came much earlier in the south than we were used to in DC. Once we figured this out, he started to take allergy meds and while the pollen counts through the southern states of the US were super high for a very prolonged time, he eventually got some relief as we left these areas.

We have both remarked on many occasions that we must have stomachs of steel. Generally, we try to be careful and avoid anything that seems risky, but we have often eaten at street stalls, roadside food stops, and more without many negative consequences. and mostly, we haven’t had any stomach problems. During our time in the Yucatán, Mexico, following our return from Cuba, Roque had intestinal issues that required us to call a doctor. We were lucky to be in Playa Del Carmen at that time, in a condo where we had friends and we were able to get a referral to a physician. The doctor made a house call, took samples from Roque and we learned he had a bacteriological and parasitic infection. Both were treated with easily obtained medication that was affordable. And because were were staying in the condo for 5 weeks, the time out of commission was, thankfully spent in a comfortable, air conditioned place.

Other than these instances, we have only an occasional day with any ailments. Once in a while, a headache or something minor will slow us down and we listen to our bodies and just stop for the moment, or the hour, or the day. One of the beauties of traveling with a very long time horizon is the ability to stop in place because we are not booked on an itinerary that keeps us moving.

It is possible that homesickness has been more of an issue than physical illness. On both trips, we experienced periods of missing people and places. During the Pan Am trip, the transition between worker to retirement to traveler was difficult as we tried to figure out who we were and having rid ourselves of nearly all of our earthly possessions, we didn’t even have our familiar surroundings to ground us.

Roque tells the story of when, in the days just before we left in late December 2016, the full import of being “homeless” struck him like a lightening bolt, shaking him to his core. Because he is ordinarily so unflappable and easy going, and untethered to “stuff,” Sharon thought he was joking until she realized that he was really having a bout of cold feet. Similarly, Sharon wept more than a few tears when she set about as a full time camper, grasping for some sort of purpose and meaning, in the months that followed retirement. We are lucky to have partners that always provide the yin to the other’s yang. It is just part of who we are – when one is weaker, the other turns even stronger. And we regain our balance.

It helps us that we have the ability to stay connected to our loved ones by electronic, nearly instantaneously, communications. We have friends and have met others who traveled in similar ways as we are but at times when there were no GPS devices, when internet was available only in expensive internet cafés (if at all), when there were no smart phones and inexpensive SIM cards at every turn and when hotels, airlines, tour operators, lodgings and more didn’t have online booking options. We are so lucky to have the electronic resources to remain connected to people and to make our travel arrangements on the fly. This has really grounded us and allowed us to overcome bouts of homesickness in so many ways.

Hanoi Airport

Have we encountered food too strange to eat?

Absolutely. We have looked at some foods and declined. But, generally speaking, we have never been presented with no choices or choices that do not include something recognizable and to us, palatable. Everywhere we have traveled, we see rice, or potatoes, or chicken. There is usually a fruit or a package of crackers or a Coke that we can identify. Often as not, we have seen Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s and Subways in many places where we have traveled. In fact, there have been moments when we eat fast food – not only because it is familiar and sometimes scratches the itch but also because we are endlessly fascinated by the local twists on the US branded fast food chains. (Spicy kaffir lime KFC chicken, anyone? Here, it is served on real plates with metal cutlery.)

Still, we have admittedly broad palates and we enjoy (relatively) spicy food. We eat fish, beef, chicken, goat, duck and lamb. We’ve eaten elk, and caribou, and bison, and water buffalo as well as rabbit, eel, alligator and likely others that we cannot remember. We’ve tried fried grasshoppers (Roque likes them; Sharon ticked that box and needs no more) but didn’t eat from the tables filled with various insects we saw in the markets of Thailand with water bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, ant larvae and more. We declined to add water buffalo bile to our Lao dishes during cooking class (which is sold by the bag in the markets) but we tried the Lao tripe. We sampled the Lao-Lao rice whiskey but didn’t bother trying the one with the snakes or scorpions submerged within (made mostly for the Chinese market, we were told).

If we approached our travel like Andrew Zimmern, we certainly could have made a few episodes of Bizarre Foods. Mostly, we stick to things we know and that we hope we will like.

More challenging is the fact that we have now eaten out for every meal within the past 3-4 months. There are a few ways that we are coping with this “problem.” One is that we will often sometimes eat just two meals a day. Another way is to eat lightly for one of our meals. We rarely, if ever, have 3 “sit down” meals a day. When we stay in hotels, we’ve opted, more often than not, to choose a “breakfast included” option. This allows us to 1) experiment with how the locals eat breakfast and 2) not to have to deal with finding a meal when we first arrive in a new city. For lunch and many dinners, we will eat at a market stand, or a street stall, a hawker or food court or counter of some sort, eating local food.

We always carry instant coffee and creamer because in Asia, all the rooms come with an electric teapot and many lodgings offer instant Nescafé in the rooms. We often visit grocery stores to wander through the aisles and we will buy soft drinks, water, snacks and other items as needed. If we cannot locate a grocery store, most convenience stores sell the basics.

How do we deal with getting lost?

Shortly after we met in 2009, we visited Puerto Rico for a destination wedding of a colleague of Roque’s. We had reservations at a Sheraton hotel that was located an hour or so south of San Juan in Caguas. A taxi transported us there upon arrival and the next morning, we decided to rent a car so we took a bus to San Juan to arrange for the rental. We opted to rent the GPS device offered even though we had two Blackberry devices (with Google maps) with us.

When we left San Juan for our hotel, we made turn after turn, relying on all three GPS devices/applications, and we just could not find the hotel. We stopped and asked for directions but we could not find the hotel. We were into the third hour of being lost when we stopped again for directions and a man said that he would show us the way and asked us to follow him. With more than a little trepidation, we did. Shortly later, we arrived at the Sheraton, intact and safe, and grateful for his help.

During the three hours that it took us to find the hotel, we never once had a cross word for each other. We worked and worked and worked together, never losing our cools, and never raising our voices in frustration or anger.

In the intervening 10 years, we have been lost again and have been in pretty dangerous situations at least a couple of times but we have never really lost our cools. While pulling the trailer on our Pan Am trip, we ended up on a single lane, unpaved mountain road, while looking for a camping space, that barely allowed Roque to turn the rig around after we realized we were at the proverbial end of the line. But he made it. Once, near Mt. Rainer National Park, Roque executed a U Turn over a bundle of bramble that caused a tire to flatten in the middle of nowhere that required us to purchase new tires. There was the time when because of contaminated gasoline, our truck was misfiring and we got stuck on a sharp incline in Guatemala, unable to move farther up the hill (but we were resumed by a Guatemalan who helped tow us uphill). Trying to save a $4 camping fee, we found ourselves stuck in sand in Baja California, south of the town of Todas Santos, needing to dig out both truck and trailer with the incoming tide threatening us. And on an unimproved mountain road in Costa Rica where we had no business being, we had a blow out of a tire on the camper that revealed a large “rip” in the steel undercarriage of the camper and a bent axle that ultimately caused us to shorten our time in Costa Rica so that we could just make it to Panama safely. (We had been told by friends that the road would be ok for us but we later learned that they transposed the route numbers, making the road the one that they meant to advise against!).

We’ve also dodged political unrest in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jakarta.

Some of these experiences have been quite scary and a few, more than a little traumatic. Usually, we do not outwardly freak out during these experiences even though we have later confessed to a great deal of inner turmoil. We have the kind of problem-solving temperaments that allow for adrenaline to flow to all the right places — meaning, in our case, our brains. When we are in real emergencies, like the situations mentioned above, we usually get very determined and logical, and if one is doing a little flipping out, the other usually steps up to the plate. It is a dance we have experienced and that we rely on as the safety net that catches us when we feel like we may be falling.

In other situations, where the situation is problematic but not urgent, we have a pattern that involves 1) the freak out, 2) the throwing of everything up against the wall to see what sticks, 3) the time of contemplation and distance from the problem, which always results in 4) some sort of natural resolution that suits both of us perfectly.

What works for us is the time we take between identifying the problem and the finding of the solution and brainstorming as a team. Usually, we work best when we allow things to percolate a little and when they do, the best solution emerges.

And at the end, we always have a great story to tell and a lesson that we have learned. And this is what builds further resilience.

So, what has challenged you?

We feel so blessed by our ability to travel freely, safely and without hassle through the countries we’ve transited since 2016. And we are grateful that we, even though not rich, can afford to travel. We have enjoyed some places more than others but have yet to visit a country to which we would refuse to return.

Grateful as we are, not everything has been perfect along our way. Here are a few of the challenges we’ve encountered during our prolonged travels:

~It is hot here (as it was in many places during our Pan Am trip) and we cannot remember a day here in Asia when an outing did not result in sweat-soaked clothing and the feeling like we are soggy to the bones. The heat and humidity can also suck every last joule of energy from us. We have learned that because of the temperature and our ages, we just move slower and accomplish less in a travel day here than we might like to admit. Slowing down and pacing ourselves is a constant work in progress.

~Finding a place to lay low when you are just too tired or hot to go out. Not all hotels and lodgings are equal. Many rooms are small or smallish and do not have comfortable chairs, places to lounge and few allow you to do it with minimal clothes on. While we were traveling on the Alaska Highway, we traveled with a couple from Florida who periodically said that they were going to have a “home day.” This was their phrase for a day without sightseeing; a day to catch up on stuff like writing postcards, doing maintenance things, doing laundry, paying bills and the like. Whether you are in a camper, a motor home, a hotel or an AirBnB, sometimes we just needs a “home day” to just catch up on the stuff of life or just to do nothing. Having a home day is always better with a comfy place to sit.

~Not having access to ice.

~Changing beds and pillows every several days can be a pain in the butt. Literally. We are pretty good sleepers yet some of the mattresses have been super firm/hard for us and while hotels often are able to provide extra pillows, AirBnBs rarely have spares.

~Sometimes, the places where we are have bad smalls. Sometimes, the smells come from those sitting next to us at a restaurant. Or those serving us in those restaurants. Sometimes, the smells come from us.

~It can be exhausting being in places where pedestrians do not have the right of way. Here, pedestrians NEVER have the right of way. Four eyes are never enough to feel that we have accounted for the vehicles that come from every direction and rarely honor traffic lights or marked cross walks. Because of the thousands and thousands of motorbikes, many sidewalks are packed with parked motorbikes, requiring us to walk in the streets, dodging and weaving parked and moving vehicles of all sorts as well as pedestrians. Motorbikes rule the roads and the sidewalks here, cutting in front of you and backing out into you. If it weren’t so comical at times, it could drive you crazy.

~Sidewalks that are uneven and too narrow to allow for the many purposes to which they are put – here, sidewalks are for parking vehicles, for making and serving food, for the displaying and selling everything and more. But not for walking.

~Tourists stopping and taking pictures right in front of you so that you have to remain at least a dozen steps behind people in order not to run smack into them. And can you please give us the name of the person who invented the selfie stick and the speaker function of the cell phone?

~Another challenge has been learning that tourists of all nations can be ugly. Ugly and poor behavior knows no geographical boundaries.

~Another “low” of sorts is realizing that there are not many true handmade handicrafts anymore . . . Nearly everything is made by machine and nearly everything is rather cheaply made. There are places where we’ve stopped to buy something local and found that same item elsewhere (even everywhere) along our travels. This doesn’t mean that some things aren’t still beautiful – they just cannot be counted on to be handmade.

So, yes, there have been some challenges. We have not made a corresponding list of the “highs” because they are the stuff of all of our photos and Facebook posts – the sights and places and people and food and experiences that we have celebrated and enjoyed. So, while there are things that have gotten under our skin, the longer we are here, the more we find ways to laugh about or work around them.

When we arrived in Asia at the end of April, we had a difficult time dealing with some of the differences, with pacing ourselves and slowing down. Now we are faced with the other dilemma – having enough time in places in which we would like to linger. And just about the time when we start getting the hang of it, it will be time to leave.

It seems to us that our learning curve during this trip is less steep than the last trip and so the lows are all worth it. They make us wiser and more patient and better able to manage the future challenges. This is the joy of travel. Because to us, travel is nothing if our learning is only about others and not about ourselves.

Halong Bay, Treasure Junk deck, at night
Vientiane, Laos – Patuxay Park
Cooking School – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Imperial Palace, The Citadel, Hûe, Vietnam
Trâng An, Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Finding Our Wow

Two months ago, we left Washington, DC on the first leg of our 24+ hour travel to Bangkok. Based on advice from many sources, we keep our first stay in Bangkok to 3 days – long enough to decompress from our travel, catch up on our sleep and begin to marvel at the strangeness of our new surroundings. We knew we would travel back though Bangkok again and so we keep our touring to a minimum and spent most of the 3 days just trying to acclimate.

Now that we are a third of the way into our time here in Southeast Asia, it is time to share some reflections and thoughts with you about our time here and the style of travel we’ve embraced along this trip. So, in no particular order or rhyme or reason, here goes —

Status Update

Since leaving Panama, we have been traveling for 73 days, visited 20 places and traveled 17,368 miles. As the map shows, we traveled from Panama to the US and then to Bangkok (via Atlanta and Amsterdam). From Bangkok, we flew to Bali where we split our time between Ubud and Seminyak before flying to Surabaya on the Indonesian island of Java. From Surabaya, we traveled by train across Java, spending time in Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta after which we flew to Singapore, followed by Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia. We then returned to Thailand, visiting Phuket and Bangkok and are currently in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

We left on this trip with an outline of places we wanted to visit based on our research and as we did when traveling with Wolfie through the US into Central America, we collect advice and recommendations along the way. Because we not driving ourselves and are at the mercy of public forms of transportation, we’ve had to modify travel from time to time because one mode or another proves difficult or cumbersome. So far, we have traveled by plane and train. Soon, we will add bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Thailand and we will splurge on a river cruise by slow boat on the Mekong from the border of Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. Within towns and cities, we have used local taxis, Grab cars and taxis (the local version of Uber), tourist tour boats, Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tours, tuk tuks, moto-rickshaw type vehicles and minivans and motorbikes.

Plane travel within the various towns and cities of Southeast Asia is extremely easy and inexpensive. We have booked flights as few as 2 days in advance, flown hops between 1 and 4 1/2 hours and spent no more than $120 a flight per person (Bangkok to Bali) and have spent as little as $20 on flights such as those Kuala Lumpur to Penang. We even flew on a Thai Air 747 from Phuket to Bangkok where our fare of $44 per person bought the flight, checked bags, seats and a meal. (The same trip by train, which necessitated at least one taxi and ferry in addition to the train, would have cost more). Not only is air travel affordable here, we have never spent more than 20 minutes from door to gate at any airport, including all bag claim, immigration, customs and security clearance processes (except for one 30 minute queue leaving Penang, Malaysia for Phuket when we were waiting to drop our bags). Even more astonishing is the on-time record of our flights: we have actually departed and arrived early on at least 3 occasions using a small, budget, no frills airline called Air Asia.

Our accommodations have been varied and universally good. We have stayed in 9 different hotels (several within the Hilton and Marriott brands and several independents), two separate private pool villa hotels on Bali and have had long stays in two AirBnB condos. We have used online booking tools such as booking.com, Agoda.com, Traveloka.com, AirBnB.com, Hopper, Kayak, Skyscanner and Skiplagged.com. We rely on a variety of internet and book resources for travel and touring information including Fodors, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, TripAdvisor, Culture Trip, and Triposo. And of course, we just ask people about their recommendations.

After our time here in northern Thailand, we will cross into Laos and ultimately into Vietnam, Cambodia and travel to Hong Kong and then see where we are. After we visit the “must see” places on our list, we will then revisit countries and travel to places where we haven’t been or those where we may want to return. We figure we have plenty of time remaining for all that is on our list and if we end up spending more time on various beaches before we leave Asia, well, we know worse ways to spend our time.

So, How’s It Been?

Here are some of your FAQs and some of our answers —

The Language Obstacle

In short, there has been no language obstacle whatsoever. English is clearly the universal language in this part of the world and nearly everything is signed in English as well as the local language. Many people speak at least some English and it is widely spoken or written where it matters the most: airports, train stations, SIM card kiosks, restaurants and the like. Grab, the local ride-hailing app (like Uber) has been incredibly easy, useful and inexpensive. It links to Google maps and allows for instant translation when drivers and riders text each other, extremely helpful when we have tried to explain where we are waiting for the car. English is used not only by locals but also by travelers as the universal language. In airplanes, the safety instructions are spoken in the local language and again in English. The same is true to road signs, menus, airport pick up zones and more.

On the rare occasion when our spoken language and hand gesturing doesn’t work, we pull out Google translate, share our translation with a local, have them type his or her answer and it is usually good enough to muddle through.

Eating Out Morning, Noon and Night

Does it get old? Well, we will let you know when it does.

When we drove from the US to Panama and crossed into Mexico, it became clear that it would be as inexpensive to eat lunch and dinner “out” as it would be to buy food to make our own meals. Since we had cooking facilities, we regularly prepared breakfast in Wolfie but enjoyed the fresh, delicious and inexpensive food of Latin America for other meals. We enjoyed it and returned to our cooking life once we got settled in Panama.

Here, we are enjoying the local cuisine options and find that it is easier and often less expensive to eat out than to cook in. Even when we have some kitchen facilities, the kitchen are usually not well provisioned with decent knives and cookware to say nothing of soap, sponges and towels (or spices). So while we could make a pretty basic egg-and-bacon-and-bread breakfast of some sort, even relying primarily on a microwave oven, cleaning up after requires an investment into products that we would rather spend on food. Or liquor. Or tours.

Meals in Asia for us are often very simple affairs such as a bowl of noodles or a papaya salad. Most local food is tasty and flavorful but is not protein heavy. Servings are adequate but not monstrous and costs are extremely affordable.

And when we’ve really just wanted to eat in and be super lazy, Grab has a food delivery service.

Above: Lunch. $7; below: lunch by Cordon Bleu trained chef. $16
Amazing lunch at Dash, owned by a Cordon Bleu trained chef. $16

It’s Just Another HooDoo

Followers of this blog may remember a post from 2017 when we traveled to the national parks that line the southern border of Utah and into Colorado. During that time, we described the phenomenon of becoming immune to some of the natural beauties surrounding us because we had seen so many of them. Once, when we closed in on something we’d seen from a distance, we saw that it was just another hoodoo, the stone formations for which Bryce Canyon National Park is renowned. The saying has become our catch phrase for things that become old after you’ve seen them over and over again.

There are a lot of hoodoos in life – the sights of the sunset over your nearby body of water that you barely take notice, or the rainbows, sometimes doubles during the bajareque season or the view of the ocean or the mountains as you crest the same spot on the road you drive home from work every night.

We have them here and we have them at home. Everyone does. So, what we are trying to do is to maximize the specialness of each place we are visiting by not overdoing things. People have shared with us that have these rules they follow when they travel such as “one cathedral a day” or “one art museum a city.” We think these travel rules make sense. Along the Pan American highway drive, Overlanders talk about being “ruined out,” after visiting Aztec and Mayan civilization ruins in multiple places and everyone acknowledges the need to curate some of these experiences. Just 2 months into a 6 month trip, we’ve already been to the largest Buddhist temple in the world, the spectacular Borobudur, to Hindi temples on Bali that are over 1000 years old, seen multiple golden Buddhas (some sitting, some reclining), visited sacred monkey forests and temples, and toured the palaces of Kings and Sultans in multiple locations and multiple countries.

Do the memories of each lose their specialness because we are visiting so many special places in a condensed period of time? We don’t think they do – we remember with clarity the amazing places we loved in the more than 50 US National Parks we visited along our way to Panama and are still awed by the memories of the ruins at Teotihuacan and Palenque. We know from our conversations with friends and family that their memories of Notre Dame Cathedral, or the Galapagos, or Machu Pichu, or Angkor Wat or the Louvre, or their visit to the Grand Canyon or their view of the first whale they spotted off the coast of Alaska/Mexico/Antarctica, remain unique and wondrous even from decades past. Our hope, based on our own and others’ experiences, are that our memories of this place will be the same.

Home Sickness

We left for this trip just 9 months after arriving in Panama. People wondered why we decided to take such a prolonged absence from the place we’d only recently made our home and built community. Among the things we missed most when we were on our road trip was our sense of community — in Boquete, we quickly built meaningful community with a sizable group of diverse, interesting, and stimulating people. The “why now” question was a valid one.

There were a number of reasons why it made sense to take this trip at this time. The timing was good because we had settled our “affairs” in Panama, having obtained legal residency status, completed necessary paperwork for the importing of Gertie and Wolfie, obtained drivers’ licenses and similar sorts of things. We secured a multi-year lease on a really nice house in a safe community. We had tenants in our home in the States that extended their lease term for another year, allowing for us to leave the readying of the house for sale to next year. The window of opportunity seemed good.

We had always hoped to make our home in Panama and then to use it as a base for further travel. Because Southeast Asia is so far away from Panama (and the US), we thought that it made sense to try to visit here for one (or maybe two) longer trips to minimize the expensive, lengthy, exhausting flight half way around the world. And we figured that travel to SE Asia was likely to be among the more arduous trips on our bucket list and the longer we waited, the older we will get and the harder this kind of travel will be for us.

All of this pointed us in the direction of this trip at this time.

Six months is a very long time to be in travel status. Shortly after we arrived in Bangkok, after 2 weeks visiting with family and friends back in the US and preparing for this Asia trip, we wondered if we had made a massive error in judgment. We missed the cool weather of Boquete. We missed the quiet and peaceful routines we had in our home in Panama. We missed our new friends. We were in places that were so unfamiliar to us in so many ways that we could hardly embrace the excitement for all the strangeness. Everything felt unfamiliar – language, alphabets, time zones, driving patterns, currency, manners, demographics, foods, religious and national holiday celebrations and more.

There were more than a few times during the first couple of days — perhaps weeks — when we talked about the possibility of ending the trip early. Within the first two weeks of the trip, we traveled into two countries (Thailand and Indonesia) and 4-6 different locations, depending on how you count it. Because Indonesia is a country made up of 17,000 islands, many languages and varied religions and cultures, even the differences between the islands of Bali and Java were enormous. At moments, it felt like we were being constantly jolted and having to adapt to something new with a constancy that made us feel very unsettled.

At some point, we were reflecting on what gave us our “wow” moments along the road trip to Panama and largely, those wow moments were experienced in places of great natural beauty: mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, deserts and forests that became the most vivid memories of the road trip. But we also had many wow moments in the cities of Mexico, the towns and lakes of Guatemala, and the beaches of El Salvador and Costa Rica.

In Asia, we haven’t had the kind of daily natural beauty experiences we have had elsewhere (other than the verdant green of the rice fields through which we traveled in Indonesia). Similarly, we have not been wowed by the beauty of the cities or towns in which we’ve stayed or through which we have traveled. Undeniably, there are sites that have left us with amazement – the ancient temples, the enormous Buddhas, the intricate carvings of the temples, the splendor of the royal palaces and the extraordinary modern architecture.

Because we are not driving ourselves, as we have on most of our travels over the past 6+ years, it is more difficult to get off the beaten track, avoid the throngs of people, motorbikes, cars and trucks that clog the roads and streets everywhere we’ve been in Asia so far. So, we realized that we were going to have to find other ways to find the kind of centering and peace that restores us when we are surrounded by natural beauty.

We are still experimenting with this as of this writing. Our stay at resort-style hotels in Penang, Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand were very restorative. Taking some time to do nothing after weeks of touring was great and gave us the energy to move to the next touring location. Opting to stay in a couple of condos rather than hotels has given us some space that allows us to have a place for retreat to do some non-touristy things like laundry, writing and reading. Staying in touch with friends and family by email, telephone calls and messaging has been a lifeline and helps us feel connected and grounded. And slowing down our travel has also helped.

All of this has helped with restoring a little “normality” into our touring existences. Like our 20 month road trip, some of our time was spent being tourists and some of our time was tending to the details of life that keep the wheels spinning: paying bills, doing laundry, getting hair cuts and teeth cleaned, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays (here and elsewhere). The same applies here.

Like on our road trip, we are finding that our initial reactions to the strangeness and unnerving transitions of new places and new cultures begins to subside as we get our “sea legs.” No doubt, we will become unbalanced again, perhaps many times still. If so, we will find some air conditioning, a cold drink, and adapt again.

How We Roll – Part 2

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Today, we are traveling from Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, by train en route to Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Nearly everything here in SE Asia is different for us here: the language. The terrain. The foods. The manner of dress. Right hand driving cars driving on the “wrong” side of the road. The prevalent religion(s). The architecture. The currency. The time difference.

We have discovered that our initial reactions to a place often focus on the things that are different. And then, there is this natural evolution that allows us to focus on the things that are similar to our prior experiences. As this happens, anxiety turns into excitement and concern melts into enlightenment and enjoyment. It is a beautiful process to watch as it unfolds and it convinces is that we can handle this. we just need to breathe and put one foot in front of the next.

When we made the 20 month road trip from the US to Alaska to Panama, we learned quickly that it would be impossible for us to fully plan a fixed itinerary for a trip of that duration. We opted to create a very rough itinerary of planned stops and when necessary, to pace ourselves accordingly. When we reached one destination, we started looking forward to the next one or two stops and made arrangements for that stop on the fly. This worked pretty well, with few hiccups along the way.

Emboldened with those experiences, we decided to follow a similar method of travel and planning for our time in Southeast Asia. In advance of our departure, we read about the region generally, focused a little on a general outline of places (mostly c) where we knew we wanted to visit, roughed out an itinerary along a general time line and began from there. We left the US with round trip tickets from Washington, DC to Bangkok, spaced 6 months apart, a reservation at a hotel in Bangkok and two accommodations on Bali, where we traveled first, choosing Bali as the place where we would celebrate our wedding anniversary. Knowing that we had 30 days to stay in Indonesia, we began to sketch out a plan for Indonesia that included the islands of Bali, Java and Sumatra as our primary focus.

On this trip to Southeast Asia, we decided to travel independently without our beloved Gertie and Wolfie or their local surrogates. While it is possible to overland in Asia, we wanted to try a different travel style and opted to travel using public forms of transportation, including planes, trains, cars and boats. (Due to motion sickness issues, buses are largely not an option for us). As of this writing, we have been able to make all of our travel reservations on our own, except for the train tickets from Surabaya to Yogyakarta where we relied upon help from hotel staff.

We believe that advance planning for a trip of this duration, like our earlier road trip, is difficult if not impossible. So, once we have landed in a place, we turn to many different resources to fine tune our experience there. We rely on traditional travel guides such as Lonely Planet, Fodors, Frommers, and Rough Guides. We use various travel apps and websites, travel blogs, hotel personnel, personal recommendations, travel magazines and more. We watch travel videos on YouTube and Travel Channel. We watch Anthony Bourdain. We always rely on professional tour guides when visiting places that benefit from detailed explanations, insights and decent English interpretations. We speak with taxi drivers, waiters and tour guides for recommendations. We try, when it is possible, to take people up on their offers of an introduction to their “sister’s-cousin’s-ex-stepfather-by-marriage who lives in (fill in the place).” We try to absorb it all and we try to know and honor our limits and our interests — just because a 28 (or 35 or 50) year old recommends a cave tubing trip or a wooden cable car over the ocean (Timang Beach Gondola) or a 6 hour driving tour to a volcanic crater to watch the sunrise doesn’t mean that we must do this as well. After all, we are 61 and 65. We live by a rule that it makes no sense to take on unnecessary risk, adversity, danger or physical rigor if it will jeopardize our trip, our health or our marriage.

Often, we have found that insights into a local culture come from unexpected things and places. Wandering a local shopping mall allows one to see how people dress, treat their children, respect their elders, and spend their shopping dollars. Eating in that mall’s version of a food court allows you to see how even US branded fast food restaurants are infused with local flavor. Going to the movies exposes you to movie trailers, commercials and public service announcements the likes of which you would never see in your home country and which shed light on local traditions. Riding on a local touring shuttle introduces you to local people who may exchange information in a more intimate and revealing way than you will ever get from a book or a tour operator.

We haven’t devised a term that really captures this way of travel — one of us refuses to call ourselves backpackers because we really aren’t traveling in the style that is often connoted by that term. Instead of hostels, we choose to stay in hotels and serviced apartments and villas. Our “budget” is lavish compared to traditional backpackers and yet we are cost conscious and try to stay within an amount less than what many on packaged tours would spend on a daily basis. While we like to eat locally, we haven’t eaten yet from a street cart, although that is certainly in our future. And while we have eaten burgers and one memorable special “high end” meal at Room4Dessert in Ubud, we have primarily eaten the cuisine of our host country. When we read blogs of travelers who have written of their time in (or about) Southeast Asia, nearly all of them are budget backpackers or high end tour and travel companies (and the magazine writers who travel with them). We fall somewhere in between.

Regardless of what name you give us, we can share that we love this way of travel. We also realize that we are among a small group of people who have the time, the resources and the inclination to travel as we do, meandering, absorbing, and taking home more memories than things.

It has been jarring and strange and a little scary at moments. In this part of the world, we are in the minority in many respects. When we hear English being spoken, more often than not, the voice is from Australia or India. We cannot rely on American sensibilities such as the rights of pedestrians, rights of way, or the right to free speech. Instead of being awakened by the crowing of roosters, the first sounds we hear in the morning, like the last sounds we hear at night, are the prayers from the local mosques during this month of Ramadan. Without Wolfie and Gertie with us, we do not have the respite afforded by being in our own space, where everything is familiar within even when everything outside is not. Here, we need to find our own space and the peace that restores us in different ways.

In the words of the Muslim scholar and explorer, Idn Battuta, “Traveling – it makes you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” When we realized that our stories were becoming stale, we knew it was time for an infusion of new ones to share and to cherish. So, off we went to travel again.

We look forward to sharing more stories here with you.

Tiles – House of Sampoerna, Surabaya
Even in Indonesia, we are reminded of Panama
Heroes Monument, Surabaya
Seminyak Beach, Bali
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali

Golden Buddha Temple, Bangkok

Golden Buddha, Bangkok

Lumphini Park, Bangkok

Making the Days Count

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More than a month ago, we started a draft of this post during a time when we were entertaining friends at our home for dinner parties and happy hours as well as hosting guests from Canada, New York and Austria.  In between then and now, we have had many lunch, happy hour and dinner outings, enjoyed the Boquete Jazz Festival Garden Party, visited a local orchid finca (twice), played Team Trivia and bridge card games with friends, traveled to Panama City and camped in Wolfie both to and from,  celebrated a birthday, taken thrice weekly yoga classes, continued our Spanish language studies and more.  While we are beyond the time of the year when Panama celebrates its independence, when the roads are filled with the traffic of visitors who come to see the parades and the Boquete Flower and Coffee festival and more, there are the usual special events as well as the weekly events that make life in Boquete as rich and busy as one cares to makes his or her life.

As we have noted before, life here in Boquete is easy for us.  The climate is incredible, the roads are good, the infrastructure works reasonably well and the cost of living is affordable.  The scenery is breathtaking, even during the dry season, the flora and fauna is diverse.  Food selection is broad and many foods are grown and sold locally.  People, locals and expats alike, are friendly and helpful. There have been moments that have challenged us — and there have been tasks that have nearly brought us to our knees.  But, our time here in Boquete has definitely allowed us to return to a state of plenty that was not usually possible on the road.  What we felt we lacked the most on the road was a sense of community; here in Boquete, the sense of community is strong and vibrant.

We have settled so well and so completely into our expat lives in Panama that we sometimes have a difficult time remembering “those people” who took that epic 20 month, 60,000 mile journey through 10 countries before landing here.  It is impossible for us to see if the trip changed us in any sustaining way.   But we do believe that with every mile driven and with every waterfall, shoreline or glacier viewed, we found the inner parts of us becoming untethered from the roles of our earlier lives.  

For us, the journey in and through different places becomes more than the observation of new vistas since it importantly allows for views inside us as much as outside.  Perhaps this is the essence of the feeling of wanderlust.  Our yearning for discovery – inside and out – pulls us in the direction of the road again and so we are leaving our easy life in Boquete for a trip to Southeast Asia for the next several months.  Now that we have established our residency here in Panama, long-term house rental in hand, and vehicles imported, we have our home base from which we can resume our travels.  At moments, it does seem a bit soon to leave the comfort of our home and community here in Boquete, but we vowed when we retired to continue our travels while we had the stamina, patience, health and excitement to do so.  And so, we are off again – first to the US to visit with friends and family and then from there to Thailand, where we will launch our SE Asia travels.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”  And so, we return to our nomadic lifestyle again, in search of new stories, new views of the world that humble and inform us, and to allow the experiences to make their marks upon our memories, and our bodies and our hearts.

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Reflections on Two Months Standing Still

We arrived in Panama on July 21, drove to the town of Boquete, parked Wolfie at Malu, a beautiful full service campground downtown, and nearly immediately located a house to rent as of September 1. When we took possession of our rental house at the end of August in Hacienda Los Molinos, just to the south of Boquete, we began what is our longest time in one spot since we left the US in 2016. As we approach the 2 month mark in our house, we are sharing here some of our reflections on how it feels to be still in one spot.

First, let’s put Panama in some perspective —

With a land mass of about 29,000 square miles, this country is roughly the size of the state of South Carolina. With a total population of approximately 4 million people, it contains as many people as Oklahoma or Connecticut. The vast majority of Panama’s population lives in Panama City. Panama is the only country in the world where you can see the sunrise over the Atlantic and see it set over the Pacific from the same spot and it is the only country in the world where the capital city contains a rain forest within it. The country boasts of 1500 miles of beach on both Pacific and Caribbean sides and the town where we are living — Boquete — sits at an elevation high enough to allow for spring-like temperatures year round (60-80F daily) and has access to either coast within a 2 hour drive in either direction.

Boquete to Boca Chica

Panama is a country of huge population diversity with 67% of its population being mestizó (mixed indigenous and European) and 16% being Afro-Panamanian or mixed Afro-Euro. It is the only country outside of Israel that has elected 2 Jewish Presidents in the 20th century and boasts of a sizable Jewish population, mostly located in Panama City (where there are two large kosher grocery stores). Its population diversity is immediately apparent when you enter the country and is unlike what we observed elsewhere in the portions of Latin America in which we traveled. These were some of the reasons why we were attracted originally to Panama since we wanted racial, ethnic and religious diversity and acceptance.

This backdrop is important to the story of our journey because it shares some of the characteristics of the country that drew us here and against which we evaluate our choices. We have friends or know people who have expatriated from the US or left their homes upon retirement that chose to live elsewhere within the US or outside the country and they, like us, have made their lists and checked off those factors and characteristics that are the most important to them. When we met up with them along our travels, we always asked them about their choices and what drew them to their place. Through this, we saw the obvious: there’s a seat for everyone’s tush and beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.

It is clear from the the conversations we’ve had, the blogs we’ve read, and the stories we’ve heard that the decision to expatriate is often very difficult and becoming acclimated to one’s new home can be challenging. It is not uncommon for people to re-patriate to the US for numerous reasons. Still others, having once left the US to live abroad, expatriate from their first new home country and move on to another. Among those expats from the US, many places rise to the top of the popular expat location list: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Medellin, Columbia; Quito and Cuenco, Ecuador; and San Jose, Costa Rica to name a few. The conventional wisdom of expats we’ve met believe that if you pass the 5 year mark in one location, there is a good chance you will stay.

So, our 2-3 month mark shows that we are in the infancy of our expatriation process and we are sure that our preliminary reactions will change over time. However preliminary, we wanted to share some with those of you who have followed our journey because, if for no other reason, we will enjoy reading this post in the future to see how far we’ve come. In no particular order:

Panama is an Easy Place to Live

Whether because of the influence of the US during the Panama Canal years, whether because of its prosperity relative to other Latin American countries, Prosperity Index, whether because of the economic interests outside of Panama in maintaining safe transit through the Canal or other factors, life in Panama resembles life in the US in many favorable ways.

Most of Panama’s major roads are good, modern and free and are well patrolled by traffic-rule enforcing police. Panama’s electricity, water and communications infrastructure is also (mostly) modern and similar in quality to that of the US. (Fussier expats might object to this description for various reasons but in our travels throughout the US, we learned that US infrastructure differs significantly depending on where you are.) We’ve been told that because of the expense of building a telecommunications infrastructure that involved installing land lines for telephones throughout the country, Panama (likely like other developing countries) largely skipped over this process and migrated more toward spending its money on erecting cell towers and creating wireless communication networks. Consequently, free wifi is often available in town centers and other open space areas within Panama and the costs of phone and data is much lower than in the US. We are now using Panamanian SIM cards in our iPhones and are paying half the cost of our former US plan for the same service (unlimited data, texts and phone calls) and friends here who arrived several years ago are paying even less than us. Credit cards are widely available here and can be used nearly everywhere and most household bills can be paid online (at least for those who live in Panama City according to my immigration attorney).

For such a small land mass, Panama boasts of enormous and ecologically important biodiversity as well as geographical and temperature diversity. It has mountains, rain forests, cloud forests, beaches, cities, island archipelagos and vast tracts of undeveloped land. It is a beautiful country with views that often change from one minute to the next, where hummingbirds can be seen at our feeder as well as in our lime trees and our heliconias.

While Spanish is the official language, many Panamanians speak English and while we believe that learning the local language is important, many might not think it terribly essential. Health care is reputed to be good. Many streets and major roads are lighted at night and major brands with which we are familiar are widely available, as are mail and shipments from the US, organic food products, some of the world’s best coffee and beautiful, lush gardens.

City versus Country

Panama City (simply “Panama” to locals) is a major metropolis that buzzes with energy and activity at all hours of the day and night. Its breathtaking skyline is remarkable for a city of its size, with more skyscrapers than a city of equivalent populations in the US, a broad and actively used waterfront walking/biking/skating/running path called the Cinta Costera, a charming old town (Casco Viejo) with hip bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs, a huge banking center, many malls and shopping centers, a modern (and expanding) subway system as well as many traffic jams. Panama is filled with residential areas mixed with retail and commercial businesses, with huge and stately single family homes and towering condo and apartment buildings.

Once outside Panama, the country becomes a string of smaller towns that mostly lie along or near the Pan-American Highway or, as it is known locally, Ruta 1 or the Interamericana. Developed or developing beach communities such as Nuevo Gorgona, Coronado, Santa Clara and Rio Hato lie along the Pacific Ocean and are an easy driving distance from the city (an hour and a half or so in non-rush hour traffic) and many expats are drawn to these communities for their proximity to the city. Costs of living in the city can be fairly high, not only relative to the rest of the country but compared to many areas within the US. Costs in the interior and western areas of the country are less and draw expats who are looking for affordability and more quiet than the city affords.

Boquete has become popular with expats for many reasons – many are drawn because of the abundance of outdoor activities and its natural beauty. Expats who love to garden find Boquete to be a gardening nirvana; those who hike and bird can fill every hour of the day with only these activities. There are more clubs and organizations here than you can count and one can play golf, or bridge, or pickle ball, or learn to knit, participate in animal-rights related organizations, help teach local children English, spend time with the local photography club, or local playhouse, join an drum circle and more. There are coffee plantations and honey bee farms to tour, a weekly farmer’s market to visit, and cinema clubs to try. It is a town of roughly 30,000 residents spread out through a mountainous area that includes something like 18 micro-climates over a number of communities where most of the homes sit perched on one of the incalculable breathtaking vistas for which the Boquete area is known, many accessible only on nominally improved, impossibly steep, winding mountain roads.

One friend describes this area this way: where can you live in the quiet mountains with incredible vistas of mountains, rivers, tropical foliage and fruit trees and be a 10 minute drive from a store with caviar and champagne? Another US expat friend exclaims that this area allows for a sense of community for a person with any interest imaginable, where you can build a beautiful home with a modest sum of money and thereafter live on just one’s social security benefits. To be clear, there are communities here that are host to homes costing $750,000 and more and we’ve seen more than a few properties for sale that exceed $1.5 million, many with guest homes, swimming pools and more. At the other end of the spectrum, there are apartments here to rent that could house a couple comfortably, even if modestly, at monthly rentals below $500. Most expats here fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

What you cannot find in Boquete can likely be located in nearby David, the capital of Chiriqui Province, with an urban feel and a population of about 150,000. But to experience a major city, one must travel about 6 – 7 hours by car (or the local plane shuttle from David to Panama).

It’s hard to beat the climate in Boquete. And where in the world can you find spring-like temperatures all year round, micro-climates that allow for homes to be surrounded by coffee plants, hummingbirds, heliconias and lime trees within a 2 hour drive of tropical beaches on either the Caribbean OR the Pacific? But, if you are a city person, or if you are the kind of retiree who longs for hours of access to lifetime learning opportunities at a local college or university, Boquete will not likely be the place for you.

It seems to us that life in Boquete will largely be what we make of it. This doesn’t mean that we need to create things from whole cloth but it does mean trying things on for size, joining clubs or activities or groups that are engaged in things that appeal to us and searching out people or things that call to us. And all of this requires time, and patience and sitting still for a long enough time to listen to our inner voices.

When we were on the road, every day allowed for endless stimulation. Even the sameness of the road yielded to differences in views, cuisines, climates and populations. While on the road, it was far more frequent that we would have to admonish ourselves to slow down and to spread out the experiences we wanted to have so we wouldn’t burn ourselves out. Now that we are in a home, we have to begin the task of slowing down in a different way. We need to commit to learning more about this new place in the way of a resident rather than a tourist and to take stock of the way we may want to live as expat retirees.

The busyness of the 19+ months on the road did what we wanted it to do when we began our retirement: it allowed us to go from the fast lane of our career and working lives into the slow lanes of retirement without a jarring, screeching stop and to transition into a new budget and lifestyle change in a gradual sort of way. Upon arriving in Panama, the need to start the immigration and importation processes (tourist visas for people and vehicles are of limited duration) caused a mini-frenzy that involved trips back and forth to the city but resulted in progress on both fronts. Now, we can begin the task of settling in finding routines that work, rejecting those that do not and discovering ourselves in our new home in a way that will help guide us here and elsewhere.

Panama City skyline by night
Wonder where these hostages are being taken?
The coolest coffee truck yet!
Views from dinner at Sabores Del Chorrillo
Holly’s heliconias and more
More of Holly’s heliconias
Our visit to Cascada Jawatka
Exploring near the Caldera hot springs
A sunny morning view from our house
Los Cajones de Chame

Perfect Enough

Eternal Spring

Hola from Panama City, Panama —

We arrived in Panama 2 weeks ago and it’s been a busy time for us.  Having established a plan to try various locations in Panama before we figure out where we might ultimately want to settle, and since we entered Panama from its western boundary, it made sense for us to start our residency in Panama in the area of Boquete in Chiriqui Province.  Boquete makes sense for many reasons aside from the proximity — for starters, it is beautiful.  Set in the mountains of western Panama, the Boquete area is very popular with expats (mostly from the US and Canada) because it IS so beautiful and because the weather is described as “eternal spring,” with temperatures between 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit daily, year round.  It is a place of many micro climates and Boquete is where the country’s coffee is grown as well as where a large variety of fruit and vegetables thrive. Boquete also appeals to expats because it is a smaller town where people can develop a sense of community.  It appeals to us for those reasons and more, not the least of which is the friends we made there 4 years ago when visiting who have been invaluable in terms of their support, their encouragement and the giving of their time and familiarity with the area.  We might have survived without Holly and Scott (and Luana and Bond) but it would not have been as rich an experience.

Once we arrived in Boquete and rented a storage facility to use for the goods that had been piled in truck and trailer for the 60k miles of the journey here, we set about to lighten our load, repair things on the truck and in Wolfie, and to start to establish our first 6 months in Panama.  We traveled to the nearby city of David to join the local warehouse club called Price Smart, traded in our “Central American” SIM card purchased from Claro in Guatemala for a Panamanian phone SIM card from the same company, purchased auto parts needed for brake work on Gertie, scouted out major grocery stores to get a lay of the land, took a road tour (led by Scott and Holly) of the various Boquete-area micro climates, celebrated Roque’s birthday, responded to real estate advertisements and after visiting several possible rentals, committed to a lovely single-story home in the community of Los Molinos in Alto Boquete for 6 months, had meals out in Boquete in restaurants and at friends’ homes, got the bikes repaired and more.

At the end of the first week, we had a 6 month lease in hand starting on September 1 which gave us several weeks to start the legal processes necessary to make Sharon, Gertie and Wolfie permanent residents and so, we headed to the capital city. We learned quickly what we intuitively believed before we got to Panama City:  things take longer than we might have hoped and we needed to take things one little step at a time.

Patience is a Virtue

Here’s an example of one day in which we accomplished one tiny bureaucratic step toward permanent residence.  To get the pensionado visa that Sharon hopes of have, she needs a FBI background check newer than 18 months old.  Because of the 18 month requirement, we knew we could not bring an FBI background check along on the trip since it was likely to be “expired” by the time we arrived in Panama.  Step 1 to obtaining the background check is to obtain fingerprints to send to the FBI (again, no older than 18 months).  The good news is that we can get fingerprints done in Panama without returning to the US and we set out to do that on Tuesday but the long line at the DIJ (the local equivalent of the FBI) dissuaded us and we decided to return later. We couldn’t return on Wednesday and so we got up early on Thursday so we could arrive at DIJ before its 7 am opening time, at which point we were told to return at 8 when the fingerprinting office opened (the long lines being for other things that didn’t apply to us).  When we returned and were escorted to meet the fingerprint tech, she asked if we brought the fingerprinting form we needed. Of course we didn’t have the form! (Later, it clearly made sense that we would have to bring our own form – how first world of us to thing that Panama would have the FBI Form FD-258 on hand).  So, back to the hotel during rush hour we went – first to print the form and then to make sure that the form on plain paper — rather than the standard blue cardstock — was acceptable.  We printed the form, traveled back to DIJ and were finished with the fingerprinting part of the exercise by 11:30.  All good. Well, except that we cannot pick up the form until the Police Chief signs it and that will take at least 3 business days, taking us to Tuesday, at the earliest.  Once the fingerprint card is ready for pick up, we must bring it to the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs who can authenticate the signatures. Once this is done, we can then forward the card to the FBI and the process will continue from there.  Thus, one set of fingerprints will take us about a week to accomplish.

This is not anyone’s “fault.”  Had we known what we know now, we could have taken care of this on the first day we arrived in Panama City and likely, we would have accomplished this task by the time we were originally scheduled to leave.  But, as many wise people have said before me, sometimes you don’t even know the questions to ask let alone how to get the answers that you need. Our story of the fingerprinting is like tons of stories that we’ve heard from people we’ve met along our travels such as people from outside the US who cannot get a “transit visa” to travel from Mexico City to Australia via LAX requiring rerouting around the world, literally, to get where they needed to go (a transit visa is a special visa required simply to enter an airport in the United States which, in this case, was denied to a Nicaraguan youth who was traveling to Australia to attend school); Europeans whose US visas would expire before they could drive from the lower 48 to Alaska and back (the visas continue to run while they are in Canada which makes travel to Alaska virtually impossible); a German couple whose German-prescribed medicine sat in Canadian customs for so long that the cost to obtain the prescription medicine (banned in Canada but legally prescribed in Germany) was greater than a trip back home to get more; a Dutch couple who had US permanent residency cards that they could NOT give back no matter how many US officials and offices they tried.  Bureaucracies exist everywhere and we are pretty certain that all can be excruciatingly difficult and tedious.

Tiny but Mighty

Notwithstanding the small bureaucratic headaches that have been a part of our first couple of weeks in Panama, our time here has been wonderful.  For such a tiny country, Panama has amazing diversity – of races, of religions, of cultures, of geography and biodiversity. There are many things here that are new to us (or new again) and that we like:  cafeterias that serve a lovely and wide variety of Panamanian dishes at inexpensive prices; this delicious Panamanian fried bread called hojaldras; inexpensive bottles of wine; good (and free) highways; Aleve; Kosher grocery stores with speciality food items, potable water in many locations, really nice grocery stores with huge selections of local and international products; the best and fastest cell and data service that we’ve had on this trip; inexpensive cell data plans, places where you can literally see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean at the same time; the best bagels we have had outside select locations in the US; restrooms with both toilet seats and toilet paper, no headaches converting currency and discounts for jubilados (retirees) at museums, restaurants and more.

In Panama City, we have eaten Popeye’s fried chicken and Vietnamese pho and Japanese sushi and we just missed dim sum today by a half an hour.  We’ve also had sancocho, and arroz con pollo, and ropa vieja and patacóns (the Panamanian version of tostones). And we enjoyed some of the most innovative cuisine of the whole trip at lunch on Wednesday at Fonda Lo Que Hay in Casco Viejo – a restaurant offshoot of Dónde Jose (where we dined 4 years ago) which is a funky casual restaurant where former local gang members are taught to cook and run a restaurant.  Oh, and of course we’ve had great coffee.

We have seen many changes in Panama City in the 4 years since we last visited and have enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods of El Cangrejo, Avenida Balboa, Casco Viejo, Paitilla, Amador, Albrook and Costa del Este.  We visited Roque’s home in Las Cumbres and the spot (now vacant) where his primary school was located and the Rio Abajo neighborhood that was home to family members when he was a youth here. We’ve walked the Cinta Costera for miles and enjoyed the incredible vibrancy of Panama City’s “malecón,” with soccer courts, weight lifting stations, bike paths and playgrounds – a sort of Venice, California meets GW Bike Trail meets Washington Square Park kind of place with huge sweeping vistas of the city from pedestrian walkways that cross from Avenida Balboa to the Cinta Costera.

We learned, at the Biodiversity Museum – a gorgeous Frank Gehry designed museum – that there is more arboreal diversity in 1 hectare of land in Panama than in all of North America combined and that the isthmus that is current day Panama was a literal land bridge that formed millions of years ago, closing the gaps that existed between the continents of current day North and South Americas, allowing flora and fauna to move north to south and south to north in ways that are unique on the planet. We also learned that Panama, in addition to being nearly hurricane proof is also nearly earthquake proof because of the way that the tectonic plates have formed around Panama.

From our friends who have expatriated to countries outside the United States, we have oft heard the mantra that there is no perfect place and we this has echoed in our heads as we have wandered along the 60,000 miles of this journey.  In our earlier blog posts, we described why we decided to expatriate to Panama and what we hoped we would find there.  Along the road, we evaluated spots in the US outside our last home in Washington, DC to see if there were places where we might enjoy if we decide to return to the US.  Through Canada, Mexico and Central America, our antennae were tuned to signals that called out to us in a “pick me, pick me” voice.  While our list of “must haves” was, in many respects, rather generic (safety, proximity to loved ones, stability of governance and economy, etc) we also had specific requirements that were more challenging to meet.  Our comfort as an inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious couple who have retired from the work force is, we realize now, a profoundly more difficult thing than we might have thought when we set out 19+ months ago.  For those of you who have ever watched the HGTV show called House Hunters, you know that when a family has 4 “must haves” on the list, it is inevitable that the family will find 3 but rarely all 4 of its essentials.   Maybe that’s another way to describe the fact that there is no perfect place.  A wise person once told us that one’s life is like a table and that the legs of a table represent various aspects of one’s life: one leg might represent career, and another might represent family with the other 2 representing social and health. A table is most stable with 4 legs but can stand solidly with 3.  Fewer than that, the table topples.  Maybe we can only ever get 3 out of 4 legs on solid ground but fewer than that, we know we gotta keep moving.  The criteria are rarely literally limited to 4 and it is a more intuitive than analytical process oftentimes.  But you know it when it’s there, when it’s solid enough, or when it’s not.  And perhaps that will be our definition of “perfect enough.”

Stay tuned as we discover more about our new home and whether it will be our “perfect enough.”

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Ah, the flowers  (courtesy of Holly and Scott)
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Driving to Panama City – scenery and great roads
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Pedestian Walkway to the Cinta Costera
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Our first Panama Rainbow
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Skyline from the Cinta Costera
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Skyline from Casco Viejo
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More skyline views 
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Skyline over the marina in Amador

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Tennis along the Cinta Costera
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Fonda Lo Que Hay
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How can you not smile at this?