Jul 1, 2014

A Very Busy First Day for President Varela


Today is a government holiday and all offices as well as the majority of business establishments and retail stores are closed to celebrate the inauguration of the new President and assumption of power by the new administration.  

I've been watching the special news coverage of President Varela's activities for his first day in office.  He was scheduled to sign a proclamation freezing food prices for Panama's Canasta Basica at 4:00 pm.  It finally happened at around 6:00 pm, when he listed the 22 items involved and the prices at which each item was frozen.  This was positive, as many supermarkets have been raising prices for a few weeks in what may have been the mistaken belief that the prices would be frozen at the price they were on the day the new President took office.  Instead,prices have been set and frozen. The prices won't go into effect until July 7, however, because additional time is needed to implement monitoring procedures.  President Varela did announce, that all supermarkets, small stores, corner markets and open air vendors are expected to maintain the established prices.  Below is the listing of prices. 

Rice, first quality: 40 cents
Medium eggs: 16 cents each, $1.87 dozen
White bread loaves: 92 cents
Yellow cheese: 10 cents a slice
Beef---Babilla: $2.87 lb
Beef---Jarrete: $2.30 lb
Potatoes, nationally grown: 60 cents lb
Beef sausage: $1.19 lb
Beef---Bistec de cinta: $2.45 lb
Powdered Milk: $3.76 can, 360g
Chicken breast: 65 cents lb
Pear tomatoes, nationally grown: $1.08 lb
Ground Beef: $2.00 lb
Lentils: 56 cents lb
Whole chickens, Panama: $1.18 por libra
Tuna: $1.02 can, 170 grams
Yellow onion: 60 cents lb
Macarroni: 59 cents lb
Red Beans: 96 cents lb
Yuca: 28 cents lb
Pork chops: $1.90 lb
Ñame: 35 cents lb

These prices are acclaimed to save the normal Panamanian household about $58 per month. 
Following the signing of the emergency food pricing decree, the new President flew to Colon.  Upon arrival he was transported by car to the town center where local leaders, government officials, and a large crowd awaited him.   It was actually quite frightening to watch, because the crowd engulfed the vehicle and people pushed, and shoved and insulted security forces in attempts to approach Mr. Varela.  I couldn't help but feel concern over security matters, because people were reaching inside the vehicle and the body guards on the outside were unable to fend them off.  The vehicle couldn't proceed more than a few inches at a time because of the surrounding populace, and my thoughts kept turning to how easy it would be for someone to pull out a gun and shoot, if they were so inclined.  I kept wondering why the route hadn't been cordoned off with police, as would have happened in the USA.  The television announcer also seemed somewhat concerned, as one could hear the nervousness in her voice.  She mentioned that additional security forces had been called up, but they weren't there at the time of the filming, when the car was still some ways from the podium.    If this weren't enough, President Varela  opened the car door when the vehicle was about 6 feet away,  and walked to the podium.  

Given the fact that Colon is a city known for violence and gangs, this struck me as less than safe.  I caught my breath and kept reminding myself we were in Panama, not the USA.  And effectively, everything was just fine. 


President Varela did take the opportunity to plead with the city's youth to give up their gang affiliations and turn over a new leaf in their lifestyles.  He pledged to give financial support to the city, to establish new employment opportunities, and to renovate some of the housing ruins, such as the Wilcox building which houses some 100 underprivileged families.  He promised to visit often and vowed not to   fall back on any promises.  He mentioned that in a city consisting of 16 streets and 30 youth gangs, he hoped to convert Colon into a city of 30 integrated families and 16 beautiful streets with renovated architecture reminiscent of New Orleans in the USA.  He expressed his desire to be different than all the other newly elected Presidents who promised to come to Colon's aide and somehow failed to do so. His speech seemed sincere, if not somewhat idealistic.  He hinted at the responsibility of the free zone to do more for the city, and perhaps he will levy some taxes on very wealthy merchants in the free zone to help with some of the renovation.  I personally would see no harm in this tactic.  The city of Colon, which houses the Canal free zone, receives a pittance from the lowly rents collected by the national government from the wealthy foreign merchants. 

After Colon, President Varela was headed back to Panama City, to the Cinta Costera, for additional festivities scheduled there.  His first day in office must have felt a lot like a busy day of campaigning...He has pledged transparency in all government activities and his first day has certainly been an inspiring one.  

Jun 28, 2014

Pretzels at Mort's Bakery


Stopped in for bagels at Mort's Bakery in San Francisco Plaza today.  Was pleasantly surprised to learn he's started baking pretzels, primarily at the behest of the German expats in Boquete.  Had to try one, so I had him pack a single pretzel in my bagel bag and headed home.  On the way, I reached in and bit into the pretzel.  That was the end of me.  I've eaten plenty of pretzels in my day, but this one, was bar none, the best ever!  I turned around and headed back for more.

They are a little on the small side for soft pretzels, but bursting with flavor and definitely addictive. They cost $1.50, which in my opinon is a little high for this area.  Mort explained to me that the cost is determined by the market. The current low demand plus freshness restraints prevent his producing them in quantity. Also, they require lime, which involves additional clothing and safety measures, augmenting the manpower hours for preparation.  He claims that increased demand will bring down the price, because it costs him the same to produce 20 as to produce 100 and the higher sales would make up for a decreased price.  I'd like to see the price drop to $1.00 per pretzel because I think that is a fairer purchase and I'd buy a lot more at that rate.   I also encouraged him to consider making more and freezing what didn't sell after day one.  I would have no problem eating a thawed pretzel that had been frozen the day of baking.  In fact, I'd even buy a frozen dozen and bring them out one at a time for personal use at home.  

Mort mulled that over and expressed that a few additional customers with my attitude could perhaps do the trick.   If you are out there, please stop in and try Mort's pretzels.   Then, if so inclined, tell him the same thing I did.

Jun 25, 2014

Noriega's Family requesting House Arrest for Ex-Dictator

Photo courtesy of TVN 2 News Channel

Family and physicians for Manuel Noriega are requesting a reprieve from incarceration and a change to house arrest for the ex-strong man and military despot, citing failing health and mental depression.  Apparently Panamanian penal law allows a prisoner over the age of 70 to be detained under house arrest once health status is confirmed by a forensic physician.

The ex-dictator has served 2.5 years of a 20 year sentence in Panama for political crimes.  His family says 20 years incarceration for him  (aged 80 years) is the equivalent of a life sentence.  

Upon learning of this news, I experienced the strongest visceral reaction regarding any political issue since coming to Panama.  I still remember clearly the reports of the horrors done to Dr. Spadafora for speaking out against Noriega.  And to this day the disappearance of many Panamanians of that era remains a mystery. Their families never got closure.  Surely there are a lot of Panamanians who have more reason than I to want this monster to remain in jail. 

I possess a compassionate side which tries to reason that he is a depressed, old, feeble, wheelchair-bound man in declining health and incapable of doing harm to anyone.  News reports indicate he has already served 25 in prison abroad and suffered two cerebral vascular accidents (strokes).  Since coming to Panama he has been hospitalized various times.  But I immediately ask myself where Noriega's compassion was when he held the fates of his country and countrymen in his hands?  Where was his sense of democracy, dignity, and respect for human life?

Apparently the appeal for house arrest has been made before and denied. According to the current Director of the Prison System, no new supporting information has been provided.  There is speculation (and reports) that an appeal for Presidential pardon is in the works.  I hope the penal system and the exiting President strongly evaluate the message Noriega's release would send to those families and loved ones of his victims.  Some have spoken out publicly and professed a lack of rancor.  They still beg for answers to the whereabouts of their relatives, however.   They are better souls than I am. Without any personal ties to that period of history, I still haven't the capacity to forgive, and hope he remains in jail. 

Jun 24, 2014

Boquete Library Hosts Classical Guitar Virtuosos



Residents of Chiriqui had the good fortune of listening to two very accomplished classical guitarists visiting Panama for an International Concert two weeks ago.

John Marcel Williams, from the United States, and Oscar Somersalo, from Finland made a side tip to Boquete and gave spellbinding performances to a full house at the new library.

Acoustics were lacking, but the occasional sounds of buses passing on the road below or the one-time crowing of a wayward rooster didn't dampen spirits or lessen anyone's enjoyment.  The performers took it all in stride.    Following the performance Price Peterson took the microphone to thank the musicians for their visit and the audience for their participation.  As he commented,  "this certainly isn't New York".  Nevertheless we were all grateful for the opportunity to hear such marvelous talent.  Kudos to the library director, Elsa Castillo, who was able to coordinate the event on short notice and without any assurances the event would be well-attended. (Father's Day, the soccer World Cup, and a musical concert at the BCP were competing events.) 

It was definitely a success and a very inspiring one at that.

Jun 23, 2014

Update on Forensic Findings

According to the most recent announcement by the Ministerio Publico, the remains found in Alto Romero are confirmed as belonging to Lisanne Froon.   The investigation regarding Lisanne Froon has changed from one of possible kidnapping to one of possible homicide according to Betzaida Pitti.  She emphasized, however, that any attempt to determine the cause of death ---whether natural or traumatic---would be premature and needs to be left up to forensic experts.  She as well as others have reiterated that the trail from Boquete to Bocas del Toro, upon which the two women traveled, obligates the traveler to cross the Culubré river three separate times.  From videos provided by the national news service, these crossing are extremely treacherous. 

Ms. Pitti has assured that the process they've followed has been appropriate all along and that calm needs to prevail in order to carry out the best investigation into the circumstances that lead to Lisanne Froon's demise. 

The spokesperson for the Froon and Kremers families indicated the parents of both women will issue a joint communication from Holland.  

Jun 20, 2014

Probable Remains of Dutch Women Found

Shoes, human bones and other remains were found along the Rio Culubré near Bocas del Toro providence yesterday.  Forensic specialists were flown today to the site to extract DNA samples and run confirmatory tests.  Tennis shoes located at the scene are a brand sold exclusively in Holland.  Confirmation the remains belong to Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers is pending.  Local residents of the area where the remains were found surmise that the two women may have fallen into the river and been carried downstream by the forceful currents.  Large rocks in the riverbed, as well as snakes and poisonous spiders are some of the hazards they could have encountered.

Below is a link to the latest TV video regarding the missing women and the recent discovery. It also has relevant footage of Boquete, and introduces the recommendation for trail maintenance and international signage to accommodate increased ecotourism in the area.

http://www.tvn-2.com/Noticias/Paginas/Senderos-en-Boquete-no-tienen-senalizaciones.aspx


The families of the women have not yet made statements.


Jun 2, 2014

A Better Paso Canoas Experience


Everyone has been talking about Hostal La Morenita, the newest lodging option in Paso Canoas, so I decided to explore for myself this weekend.  I was more than pleasantly surprised.  Prices are in keeping with other options in town,  yet you get so much more for those same prices. 

The facility is clean, has comfortable, common outside space and social areas, modern, efficient air conditioning, comfortable beds, wi-fi, and even a small internet cafe with late model hardware and monitors.  Meals are prepared by the owners, Ricardo and Nilka, and I thoroughly enjoyed my favorite typical Panamanian plate---Corvina al ajillo, patacones, mixed green salad, and an ice cold cerveza Atlas. Although it's being called a hostal, La Morenita is much nicer than hostals I've visited in Panama City.  The rooms are in line with those of Cabinas Romy, in the center of Paso Canoas, however La Morenita's fixtures are much nicer and there is no comparison regarding atmosphere and service. La Morenita is heads above in that aspect as well.

Located about 3 km outside the downtown area, in a town called Canoas Arriba, La Morenita is located on the Panama side of a road that divides it from Costa Rica.  This proved a great advantage for me, because I was able to drive my car all the way to the hostal.  When staying previously in Costa Rican facilities, I couldn't take my car across.  I had to park somewhere on the Panama side and either hail a taxi or shoulder my heavy bags back and forth. In addition to less than pleasant downtown accommodations, I always worried about how safe my car was. This time it wasn't a concern.

Others have remarked on how pleasant and service-oriented the owner Ricardo and his wife are.  I can only agree with everything that has been said about them. Last night Ricardo introduced me to some locals who had stopped in. We all enjoyed good conversation and a pleasant visit outside on the terrace. Jokingly, I told Ricardo I wanted Corvina al ajillo and patacones for breakfast. After having two cups of delicious cafe con leche, this morning. I was served the following breakfast, which I inhaled almost as quickly as last night's dish.  


The only less than pleasant aspect of the entire visit was discovering I had a flat front tire in the morning.  I had noticed a slight vibration when I was driving into David, but after stopping at a gas station and putting air in all tires, the guy there assured me all was well.  Apparently I had ran over something, though.  Even this was easily handled by Ricardo, who possessed an air compressor and inflated the tire so I could drive to a tire store.

I am thrilled to have "found" this place,  recommended by expats who've been here before me.  I selfishly hesitated a bit regarding publishing this post, because I know that the quality of the accommodations coupled with the pleasant atmosphere and excellent cooking will make La Morenita highly sought by those who frequent Paso Canoas for shopping or visa runs.  I discussed with Ricardo my fears that his creation, open for business for only six months, will become so popular that demand will raise prices and bring about other changes.  He responded that he is hoping to be able to keep prices fair and maintain the service quality with full occupancy.  One can certainly hope that remains the case.  

If you are planning a trip to Paso Canoas in the near future, this would be my first recommendation, bar none.   Where in the past I absolutely dreaded going to Paso Canoas, this time I sort of wished I had more time to spend there. 







May 7, 2014

Proclamation of Juan Carlos Varela as President of Panama

Photo from Telemetro Noticias website

Just finished watching the official acknowledgement of Juan Carlos Varela as President and Isabel Saint Malo as Vice President of the republic of Panama.  It was an interesting event.  The procedure requires official documents from both individuals be submitted to the Tribunal Electoral. These documents are then approved and authenticated publicly, and the winning candidates are presented with certificates acknowledging their designation as President and Vice President elect of Panama.  

Prior to the official handing over of the certifications, the president of the Electoral Tribunal, Erasmo Pinilla, gave a lengthy speech in which he was scathingly subjective about the significance of the Varela win and his personal  impressions of the current administration.  I enjoyed it for its shock value as much as anything else.  

President Ricardo Martinelli chose not to be present for the event, and after hearing the speech delivered by Mr. Pinilla, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward him and happy he didn't attend what would have been a humiliating experience. The contrast between how this type of event would transpire in the US was eye-opening.  What most struck me from the onset was how no one acknowledged any of President Martinelli's accomplishments, and how he was publicly vilified.   I admit I have not been staunchly in favor of the current president or what has been publicized about his administration, however the man did accomplish a good deal in his five year term and, in my humble opinion, should be given credit for the positive things he accomplished for the country.  Not a positive word was uttered for him or his service to Panama.  Perhaps this will happen later, at the inauguration on July 1st.  I certainly hope so, because President Martinelli worked five years for Panama without taking any salary, and all the while bearing a good deal of criticism and bad press. In only five years the country has a light rail system, new hospitals and dialysis centers, improved roads, a four lane highway from David to Boquete, a public bus transportation system, an official taxi service system,  the Cinta Costera in it's three phases, an additional international airport in Rio Hato, and multiple other improvements. Perhaps he ran roughshod over governmental institutions to accomplish his goals, and perhaps he lacked political correctness in his dealings with government functionaries, but nevertheless his accomplishments stand for themselves and he deserves some credit and acknowledgment for them, in my humble opinion.  

Despite Mr. Varela's  declarations of commitment to public service and overt manifestations of humility, this President Elect shows little compassion for the man who chose him as a running mate five years ago and who handled  vice-presidential responsibilities as well when Mr. Varela dropped out 26 months into the term due to a falling out between the two men.  Mr. Varela continued to receive his salary as Vice President for the rest of the five-year term despite his absence from the position.  (In his defense, he dedicated the salary to an underprivileged school.) Details to what and why it happened are sparse, but each side has made allusions open to diverse speculation.  

As I've previously said, I'm glad I couldn't vote in the election.  I'm glad I am just an observer, and have the luxury of questioning everything.  I would have voted for Varela had I been able to do so, but as things begin to unfold, I'm seeing subtleties I previously didn't and am wondering what they mean and just how significant they could be.

Tonight Mr. Varela gave a great speech in which he promised governmental integrity, dedication to social inequality, a focus on improving the quality of life for all Panamanians, commitment to financial transparency and the strengthening of democracy in this country.  What was there not to like?   

He ended his speech with a not-so-subtle jab at President Martinelli's absence, remarking that in 2019 he, Juan Carlos Varela,  expected to be at the proclamation of the next President Elect, proud of his accomplishments, proud to show his face, and contentedly turning over a better, stronger democracy to his successor.  

Panama Has a New President


 

The above photos were copied from BBC News and TVN-2 Panama websites to show candiate Juan Carlos Varela, who won Panama's presidential election on May 4, 2014 with 39% of the popular vote.  He won over candidates Jose Domingo Arias (Cambio Democratico) and Juan Carlos Navarro  (PRD).  

Since the announcement of his victory, Mr. Varela has been quite strong in his comments on how the government he leads will differ from that of the current administration.  I liked what he said during his campaign, and still find most of his remarks palatable.  I was secretly hoping he would win the election.
  
However, I spent the evening watching the election results at the home of Panamanian friends who either supported Jose Domingo Arias outright, or who voted for him as the least of of three evils. All were very outspoken about Mr. Varela.   Several in the group of 14 individuals said they didn't trust him and considered him the worst choice of the three major candidates.  They believe they know something I don't.

I watched current President Ricardo Martinelli when he appeared at the Cambio Democratico headquarters following announcement of a Varela victory, and was reminded of a comment he once made about a year ago on the national TV channel that "Varela isn't what he appears to be."  I simply don't know enough to venture any guesses.  Had I been able to vote, Juan Carlos Varela would have received my vote.  I suppose the old adage,  time will tell,  works here.   

So far, the President Elect has stated that he will work for Panama, and that he is interested in putting party preferences aside and improving the quality of life for all Panamanians. He has said no one should fear a loss of their employment or business as a result of  political party affiliations, and he makes no demands that people consider changing their allegiances. He has promised that the first thing he will do, the same afternoon he takes office, is sign a document freezing the prices of 22 Panamanian food staples  (known as the Canasta Basica).  These price freezes will affect meat, dairy, vegetables, rice, legumes, and other staples. The freeze will allegedly save each family a cost of $58 per month for basic food items. It may not seem like much, but to many families who subsist on around $500 monthly income or less, this is a big deal. Economists and business leaders all say this is a dangerous move to make, and caution the public to consider the measure temporary---a short range plan while implementing more realistic long term measures to improve internal agricultural production.  They also maintain the prices will not decrease, but instead will simply stabilize for the time being. The President Elect has stated that his government will immediately change from a business-centered approach to a public service one and it's focus will be to serve the people of Panama and improve their lives.  He promised during his campaign to bring water to all homes and to implement bilingual education in all schools.  After securing the election one day ago, he called for the resignations of the current government comptroller, the attorney general, and  the public prosecutor, whose administrations have been questioned by diverse sectors. He went as far as to say "they shouldn't be in office on July 1st" when he assumes power.  He suggests opening a re-investigation of alleged corruption charges against the incumbent President.  

All of this sets fine with me, but then suddenly, I feel a bit  unsettled with Mr. Varela's position regarding Venezuela.  President Nicholas Maduro, apparently an old friend, was one of the first international leaders to congratulate Mr. Varela on his win, and the President Elect has invited the Venezuelan dictator to attend his inauguration in Panama on July 1st.  Apparently their friendly relationship developed while both served as Chancellors for their respective countries during prior administrations.  Mr. Varela claims he is able to speak directly and truthfully with President Maduro and will send an emissary to that country shortly to evaluate what is going on there.  He says he will maintain Panama's position regarding social peace, human rights and liberty of expression, but Mr. Varela does seek to restore diplomatic relationships with this country, following Maduro's severence of ties due to Panama's condemnation of human rights abuses that came to light in February of this year. Varela also expressed agreement earlier this year that Cuba possibly be allowed to participate in some continental forums, such as the Cumbre de las Americas.  

And so things are getting interesting.  The Cambio Democratico's candidate did not win office this term [in my opinion] due to popular concern that President Ricardo Martinelli was overstepping his boundaries and trying to maintain control over the country in direct defiance of Constitutional policies regarding successive presidential terms.  The fear was he could turn himself into a benevolent dictator and run the country through a puppet candidate and his wife in a Vice Presidential role.  People feared allowing the Cambio Democratico party to remain in power an additional term was dangerous to their democracy.  

Candidate Varela maintained a healthy silence regarding the political unrest in Venezuela. President Martinelli was the only Latin American president to condemn Maduro's actions regarding the political demonstrations in Venezuela.   It cost Panama diplomatic relations with Venezuela, but showed a strong stand in favor of human rights, which is quite admirable.    So now, in the course of three months, Venezuela's president may be coming to Panama to celebrate the inauguration of this country's newest president.  

Ricardo Martinelli is reported to have said in response to hearing the news of Varela's victory,  " I know the candidate, and really, may God help us!"   I was watching on TV when he said, that in light of Varela's success in the election, he would change his plans about enjoying life and instead dedicate himself to opposition work.  

As crazy as it sounds, I find this somewhat comforting. Perhaps it will provide a good set of checks and balances, as long as projects can be completed and things can still get done. I'm becoming intrigued.

May 2, 2014

Election Fever---2 days and Counting

Following the Panama Presidential election activities has been interesting and enlightening. Can't wait to find out who will be elected.  According to all polls and publications, the three major candidates are running neck and neck,  and this is promised to be the closest election in Panama's history.  

As an expat, I am not allowed to vote, and I'm also cautioned against campaigning for, or openly expressing support for any particular party or candidate.  Does this mean I can't have an opinion? Hardly!  But in my own self-interest, I've chosen not to elaborate further.  Truth be told, I'm actually relieved that I can't vote in the election, because choosing a candidate would be a stressful decision for me.  

The campaign, like most US campaigns, has been fraught with mud-slinging. Panamanians I've spoken with have expressed revulsion at the tone of this campaign, stating it has been the dirtiest in their history.  I wouldn't know, but it doesn't seem any worse than what we see in the good old USA each election term. 

Today was the closure of the CD (Cambio Democratico) campaign, and I watched candidate Jose Domingo Arias' speech.  I have to say he made me like him.  He has charisma.  I found myself sold on the causes and projects he touted, despite deep concerns about the way the CD party has conducted business these past 5 years.  I also have worries regarding the veracity of his promises, as I would with any politician's pre-election promises.   Despite the likeability factor, and the fact that Mr. Arias is an economist with a stateside college education,  I worry a good deal about what will develop with Panamanian democracy should he win the election. As I see it, things could go either way depending upon this candidate's personal character and the amount of influence he actually will have within his own democratic party.  

Given that, I also have concerns regarding the other two leading candidates---one for the alleged financial scandals that shadow him and fears about his integrity being any greater than those of prior candidates (its hard to discern fact from negative propaganda) and the other for his party's clouded political history.    I'm glad to say voting in this election is one decision I won't have to make.  

For those who can read and understand Spanish, I offer the following two links which I think provide interesting and introspective information on two current topics about Panama.  The first is a post made by Ruben Blades, Panamanian ex-presidential candidate, Panamanian ex-Minister of Tourism, and world-renown musician and songwriter.  He writes about the upcoming elections and discusses his concerns about politicians and politics in Panama.  

http://www.rubenblades.com/todos/2014/5/1/elecciones-panama-2014.html

The second is a video documentary about the controversial Cinta Costera III, and is designed to focus the viewer's attention on the ecological, emotional, social, and historical fallout to the areas affected by its construction.  I found myself sympathetic to the lament, but swayed as well by what could be seen as a clean -up and improvement to the way things have been.  The film created a lot of ambivalence for me.  

http://www.prensa.com/impreso/vivir/fabula-busca-reflexion/318315

I started this post two days prior to election, but now it's less than 48 hours away. It will be intriguing to see what the outcome is, and how Panama's history and democracy will be affected in the not-so-distant future. Will it revert to a benevolent dictatorship?  Will it become a democracy for the rich with an incapacity to handle the enormous debt that has been generated in the last 5 years?  Will it revert back to a third world state and mentality with renewed social programs but little progress? Or will there be an outcome unlike any of the above?    I could be completely off base in all my lay theories and thoughts, but the winning candidate in this election could be significantly more important than in some prior elections, and I could be making some personal decisions about my permanency in Panama based on the outcome.  

Apr 12, 2014

Mucha Actividad Esta Tarde

This has not been a typical Saturday in Boquete.  Truth be told, I have doubts if the typical days are ever going to be the same.   Too many events have brought notoriety to the pueblo, and I don't think you can turn back time. 

The morning started out with really loud helicopter noise. When it woke me, I looked out the window and saw the bottom of a military helicopter about 50 feet above my roof. The cats ran under the bed, and I thought of doing the same.  Instead,  I threw on some clothes and ran outside to investigate.  Seems the entire neighborhood joined me as we all tracked the ruckus down the street.   Not one, but TWO helicopters had landed in a vacant field two blocks away. Lots or speculations circulated, but nothing alarming surfaced, and I decided to return home to a morning brew.  Given the stepped up search efforts for the missing women, I surmised rescuers  were either being dropped off or picked up.  

As I write this at the end of the day, once again I hear helicopters, but further away this time. There are also a lot of popping, explosion kind of noises happening.  This sort of thing occurs from time to time when there are events happening downtown, and it's fun to run outside and watch the fireworks displays.  But the sun hasn't set yet, and I'm thinking it could be some kind of call to arms for the rescue forces, so I'm not leaving the house.  No stray bullets/blanks/flares, etc. for me... Seriously, though,  I have to say, it's reassuring to see the amount of effort that has gone into trying to locate these woman.  If it were my family I would want the same.  It's been reported 18 detectives from the various security forces in Panama, some with over 25 years of experience in this type of situation, are engaged in the search and rescue effort.  And a lot of individuals are providing resources and volunteer effort and skills as well.  It would be wonderful if a successful conclusion were reached. 

Late this afternoon, there was an art exhibition at the library displaying works from local artists in David.  The exhibit will stay until April 30th, but this was the opening reception  I liked some pieces much more than others, but in general enjoyed the cultural themes of most works.   I noted five English speakers and the rest of the crowd all spoke Spanish,  which gave me plenty of conversational experience. Below are some highlights. 











And then last, but not least, a quick trip into town to buy fertilizer found me right smack in the middle of a cabalgata.  Had my trusty camera handy and was able to snap these.  




 Waiting to see what tomorrow has in store!

Apr 11, 2014

Search for Missing Women to Continue Until Sunday night



The above link is to an article published today indicating the terrain search for Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers would continue at it's present level for 3 more days.  Authorities are stating they have no indication that the disappearance is related to a kidnapping, and choose not to speculate where there are no clues.  The only concrete evidence they have is sworn statements from people who declared they saw the women enter the Pianista trail.  They continue to treat the matter as one of search and rescue based upon evidence the women did enter the Pianista trail.  
The article also makes mention of a directive from President Martinelli that the search continue this additional time, and that the agencies not skimp on resources.  Apparently 150 people have been involved in rescue efforts to date.  The article indicates all the trails of the Volcan Baru National Park have been trekked.  At this point the plan is to to cover with air and ground forces the route from Bocas del Toro to Boquete to rule out any other point.
After this ongoing effort the decison will be made to pass the case on to the Public Ministry, and it will continue to be monitored, given that all possible hiking spots have been covered and investigated. They don't hesitate to mention that many of the volunteers who have participated in the search efforts also work as trail guides and will be continuing to walk the trails on a frequent basis and remain cognizant of the fact the women are still missing.   
Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers arrived in Boquete on March 29th and went missing on April 1, 2014.

Apr 9, 2014

Ongoing Search Efforts and an Unrelated Murder

Today seems to be the peak of search activities regarding Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers, the two Dutch co-eds who disappeared here on April 1st.   The neighborhood locals have finally heard the news, and three helicopters have been overflying the town all day.  If I didn't know what was going on, I'd fear some kind of militarization effort.  Never realized what I was missing until I heard helicopters again after a 7 year respite from air traffic noise.  I fear Boquete is changing for the worst, and my guess is these outside influences on the town's rural atmosphere will be more frequent and intrusive in times to come.  

As it is today, though, I am reassured by the intense efforts that are going into trying to find these unfortunate women.  It's been published the parents are in town and a dog team is being dispatched on all the local trails in hopes of catching some clue regarding their whereabouts. The news yesterday on the local expat forum was that the Dutch canine SAR unit was available and just awaiting invitation from Panamanian authorities to come to Boquete and provide services.  Perhaps that's what's happening now, as my neighbors are telling me that the local news channel mentioned numerous dogs being released to search for the women.  

On an even sadder note, it's been reported a 22 year old man who worked odd jobs for an expat woman was found dead here 5 days ago along the riverbank.  He was nude, and had been beaten to death with rocks, as well as tortured.  His funeral was yesterday.  Four gang members are in police custody, but for how long is anyone's guess.  (No one seems to stay in prison for long here no matter how horrible the crime.) Boquete used to be free from much of this activity.

I guess it really is impossible to find paradise.  Hoping at least the families of the missing women are able to get some answers--- or better still, locate their children.  The entire community feels their anxiety and concern. 

Apr 7, 2014

Search for Missing Dutch Women Continues

According to most recent reports, mountain search efforts yesterday were unsuccessful. Spokesmen for SINAPROC, Panama's agency for civil protection report international search and rescue standards are being applied, and they are asking for anyone with information to come forward.  Two helicopters and 35 police units had been dispatched in search efforts.  Apparently the police have upgraded the search to a criminal investigation at this time.  Rumor has it the women were seen returning from a short hike on April 1st around 3:00-3:30 pm, and were waiting for a bus or taxi back into the downtown area.  Other information suggests they may have been hitchhiking.  A $2500 reward is being offered by the Spanish language school where the women were enrolled for information leading to their whereabouts. Six days have now passed since their disappearance. Independent search efforts reportedly continue. 

First Central American Light Rail System Opened in Panama City April 5th.


 


Panama City's light rail system was officially opened on April 5th, and President Martinelli took a ride on Line 1 yesterday, Sunday April 6th at noon. (Above photos courtesy of Telemetro and TVN-2).  Since then, thousands have boarded the trains and report great satisfaction with the speed and convenience over the typical traffic gridlocks that have plagued Panama City for nearly a decade.  The current line will operate from 5 am until 10 pm each day, and today was the first business day the line has been in use. 

According to the Metro publicity releases, there will be 19 trains in all, with three wagons each, that will move some 15,000 people during peak hours beginning on April 18th when the full operation is scheduled to be in effect.  There is still some public confusion regarding the procurement and use of fare tickets, etc. but it's announced there are people assigned to the various stations to assist with these issues.   Currently there are no fees for the use of the Metro, but reports keep mentioning that fares will run less than $1.00 per person.  At the present time no charges have been levied to ride the Metro, and this allegedly will remain in effect until the end of President Martinelli's term in office, which is June 30th.  

Current polls show the President's party, Cambio Democratico, is the leading party with Jose Domingo Arias as it's Presidential candidate.  Martha Linares de Martinelli, the current First Lady, is his running mate. 

Apr 5, 2014

Two Dutch Women Visiting Boquete Missing x 4 days.

See link below for descriptions of the missing women.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lisanne-Froon-and-Kris-Kremers/1388075314805262

Rescue efforts continue, but the latest information reveals the two women, ages 21 and 22,  were last seen around 1:30 pm on April 1st at the trail head in the Il Pianista area .  There is extensive coverage of their disappearance on the usual blogs and websites, so won't go into detail here.  Just want to assist in disseminating the information.  Jungle search and rescue experts are departing around 7:30 am tomorrow (Sunday, 4/6/1) on another search effort.

Mar 29, 2014

Peligro Jazz Festival Exceeds Expectations







As the blurred photos will attest, last night's first annual Peligro Jazz Fest was fun and definitely a success. Good turnout, great music, pleasant venue and jovial, friendly crowd. One of the highlights of  this year's social scene in Chiriqui.  The organizers can most certainly depend upon my support for next year's event. But it's not over yet. 

Tonight there is wine tasting, tapas, and more music with Zuwira Jazz Trio at Restaurant Cuatro, and   tomorrow a free concert in Bolivar Park, Barrio El Peligro, from 11 am to 4 pm. Try to get there if you can.  All the bands are playing,  and you will thoroughly enjoy yourselves!

Mar 22, 2014

Peligro Jazz Festival


Next week and weekend, from  March 27th through March 30, the city of David will hold it's first annual Jazz Festival,  called the Peligro Jazz Festival in honor of the oldest and most historic barrio of David.  The area is undergoing renovation and being developed to be a cultural and historic focus for the city.  The principal intent behind organization of the event is to recognize, celebrate, and provide a music platform for exceptional national and local jazz musicians from Chiriqui. 

Unlike the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival, which draws international jazz bands and spectators to serve the tastes of the town's expat community, the David festival is dedicated to developing and showcasing local Panamanian talent,  raising funds for music education programs in underserved rural schools, and promoting interest and awareness of this music genre among the general Panamanian public.  

The festival starts off with a free photographic exhibit titled "Music" on Thursday at Restaurant Cuatro.  On Friday the main concert will take place at Club David with Sin Esemble Jazz Quartet, who are being accompanied by Maestro Carlos Garnett.  I've listened to them on prior occasions and am anxious to enjoy them again.   They are very good.   Also appearing is a Swedish group, called Nacka Forum, which features Jonas Kullhammar, one of Sweden's best saxophonists and winner of various European music awards.  Following the concert there is an after-party with Element Jazz Trio in the pool area of the Club.  

On Saturday there is Wine tasting, tapas,  and music by Zuwira Jazz Trio at Restaurant Cuatro followed by more Latin Jazz and jamming at the Pool House from 10:00 pm onward.  The event winds down with a free concert on Sunday, March 30th,  from 11 am to 4 pm at the Bolivar Park in the El Peligro Barrio.  

Tickets are on sale at Casa Cultural La Guaricha (Tel: 730-7480) and Culturama (Tel: 730-4010), located in David’s Old Quarter.   In Boquete, they can be purchased at Mailboxes, etc.  or from Kevin Reilley at the BCP.  

For more information, write peligrojazzfestival@gmail.com or visit their facebook page at  facebook.com/PeligroJazzFestival.

The above photo was downloaded from The Visitor/El Visitante, a local tourism newspaper in Panama.  Link pasted below:      https://www.thevisitorpanama.com/2014/03/peligro-jazz-festival-comes-to-chiriqui/


Mar 6, 2014

Venezuela breaks ties with Panama



Of all the Latin American countries, Panama is the only one to speak out against the present day politics of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolutionist movement.   Panama's ambassador requested a meeting with the leader and the Organization of American States to dialogue over the political unrest there, hoping to dialogue and reach recommendations for resolution to the social and political unrest that started on Feb. 12th in Venezuela.   Because of Panama's actions, Nicholas Maduro has announced a break in "political, business, and social" relations with Panama.  Four members of the Panamanian embassy have been declared "persona non grata" and given 48 hours to leave the country. According to info sent me, Venezuela has a financial debt with Panama of 1.2 billion dollars.


Feb 28, 2014

Agreement Reached on Panama Canal Extension

After weeks of discussions, arguments,  and threatened work cessation, it appears the construction of the third set of locks for the canal will resume according to contract.  Apparently the contract price has been maintained and additional claims payments won't be carried out.  Each member of the GUPC consortium will inject $100 million to create a $400 million performance bond which will be maintained in Zurich, and amounts released only to allow financing of work progression.  A payment moratorium may be extended until 2018, if needed, subject to the completion of performance benchmarks and contractual conditions. 


The administrator of the Panama Canal Authority,  Jorge Luis Quijano, reiterated that the third set of locks will be completed within the terms of the original contract, as demanded from day one.  Notification of this same info is reported in as soon as it occurs, according to the ACP's committment to transparency in Panama.  It appears there have been no modifications to the original contract price and additional claims for payments must be addressed according to contractual resolution mechanisms.
  
The current 12 canal gates that are in Italy must be delived to Panama by December 2014, and will be delivered in staggered shipments.  Completion deadline for the canal expansion is December 2015.

Feb 18, 2014

What's Going On in Venezuela?


There's plenty of information in both English and Spanish regarding the recent protests and current demonstration by opposition to Nicolas Maduro, the highly contested successor to Hugo Chavez,  who has been ruling Venezuela for a little under a year.  On Feb 12th three deaths and 25 injuries were attributed to clashes with govenment national guardsmen and police in Caracas.  According to internet videos, the three deceased students received bullet wounds to the head.   The protests are being spearheaded by Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of a section of Caracas and an allegedly US educated politician.  Today, another demonstration which was emphasized to be peaceful, received massive public support.  Following the demonstration Lopez, who has been sought out by police and was in hiding for four days, turned himself over to authorities stating he committed no crime and had nothing to fear.  He was immediately arrested by the Venezuelan national guard and taken to an undisclosed location expected to be the headquarters of the SEBIN, Venezuela's national intelligence agency.  Hopefully he will be handled in a manner that respects human rights.  Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's current president, has stated Lopez will be persecuted to the full extent of the law.  President Maduro has also accused the US of interference in the politics of Venezuela and called for the removal of three US consular officials working in the universities there whose official functions have to do with the issuance of US visas.   They are reported to be supporting the student opposition, and allegedly have been seen meeting with its leaders. It will be interesting to see how things play out, and what eventually happens to Mr. Lopez.  His arrest was very public and very well documented, so hopefully international attention will remain focused upon Venezuela's treatment of  free speech rights and governmental opposition.



The Venezuelan national television channel,  NVN 24 in Caracas, has been taken off the air, as well as has Twitter services, so Venezuelan's are hampered from communicating with each other and with the outside world.

The government supporters and President Maduro are stating that the opposition leaders and supporters are "fascist" and will not be tolerated.  Apparently there was another demonstration today as well, in support of the government.  It was lead by "chavistas" and their participants, reportedly, received much more favorable treatment from the national guard and the police.

There are several student videos circulating on the internet which declare that the student and opposition demonstrations were peaceful.  Other videos, however, showed students throwing rocks at police in riot gear, showed cars being shaken and vandalized with people inside them, and the governor's home was reportedly attacked by persons throwing rocks and other objects into it.   There are videos of the police and national guard kicking and brutalizing protesters who aren't fighting back, as well.

Venezuela's economy, with a 56% inflation rate, and scarcity of everyday household staples have contributed to the social unrest and opposition to the current government's economic policies.  

Photos from this post were taken from photos circulated on facebook.  I don't have sources to credit.  The one below was just posted on facebook by a supporter of the Panameñista Party.  It makes an impactful political statement.  (In 1989, the Cambio Democratico party didn't exist, and the PRD party was credited with supporting Manuel Noriega.) 


Feb 11, 2014

Arias will announce Marta Linares de Martinelli as his VP running mate

Per a television interview Feb 10th on TVN-2, Panama's nation TV station,  Jose Domingo Arias stated that this Friday  at 11 am,  he will formalize his candidacy for president with  incumbent President Ricardo Martinelli's wife, Marta Linares de Martinelli as his vice presidential running mate.  He applauded her involvement in national affairs during her service as Panama's first lady, and made several comments intended to promote his image as a staunch supporter of women in politics and national affairs.

Can't say I didn't see that coming....I'd like to see her interviewed on national television to get a better feel for who she is and what she believes.  Hopefully that will happen soon.

Feb 9, 2014

All of Panama Declared a Dengue Epidemic Zone

The following was cut and pasted from an announcement that went out to US Expats in Boquete News...In general, Dengue Fever is more prevalent in urban environments, but it doesn't hurt to be informed and take all necessary precautions.  Especially given the entire country is now included in the declaration.  

February 8, 2014

By: David Arias
It’s official, all of Panama has been declared a dengue epidemic zone. On February 5, 2014, the Panamanian Ministry of Health made the following declaration, “the Ministry of Health considers it urgent and imperative to declare the country as an Epidemic area”. This after the prevelance of dengue in the country, which has killed 13 people over the past 2 months.  According to the Ministry of Health there were 1,703 dengue cases in Panama, as of Monday February 3, 2014, 6 of which resulted in deaths.

The Ministry of Health has ordered the population, including public institutions and private companies of the country, to “implement strict compliance of the Contingency Plan against dengue”, which requires the general population, to “immediately remove all mosquito breeding sites which exist, or may exist in the interior of their homes/properties or establishments, and their land.”

In addition, to counter the recent backlog in garbage collection in Panama, the Ministry has ordered the Autoridad de Aseo, the government institution responsible for waste management in the country, other companies in charge of collecting waste, and all municipalities, “to take all additional measures necessary to eliminate any accumulation of trash, and maintain the areas in communities and commercial sectors free of such waste.” According to the Ministry of Health, waste sites provide ideal conditions for mosquito breeding.

The Ministry has also ordered all news media, and social media outlets in the country to “join in the fight against dengue” by communicating “all preventive measures to minimize the risk of transmission”, at no cost to the state.
The decree was put into force on February 5, 2014.

Per medicine net, the following information is provided:

Dengue infection is a leading cause of death and sickness in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Dengue is caused by one of four viruses that are transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. Dengue hemorrhagic fever is a more serious form of dengue infection.
Primary symptoms of dengue appear three to 15 days after the mosquito bite and include high fever and severe headache, with severe pain behind the eyes that is apparent when trying to move the eyes. Other associated symptoms are joint pain, muscle and bone pain, rash, and mild bleeding. Many affected people complain of low back pain. The lymph nodes of the neck and groin may be swollen. Young children and people infected for the first time typically have milder symptoms than older children and adults.
Dengue hemorrhagic fever starts with the typical signs and symptoms of dengue as described above. The fever lasts from two to seven days. After the fever begins to abate, symptoms occur that are related to increased permeability of the capillary blood vessels. These symptoms can include severe abdominal pain, prolongedvomiting, and breathing problems. Bleeding tendencies, including easy bruising,nosebleedsbleeding gums, skin hemorrhages, and even internal bleeding may occur. The disease may progress to failure of the circulatory system, leading to shock and death.

Feb 8, 2014

Update on Wandering Spiders

Recently spoke with a friend and learned that she, like other "experienced" expats, believe that spiders such as the one I found & photographed about 6 weeks ago are harmless.  They believe them to be wolf spiders or huntsman spiders.

I hate to be an alarmist, but phoneutria boliviensis and phoneutria fera spiders are common in Panama. These spiders aren't harmless.  Perhaps they aren't as dangerous as portrayed on some you tube videos, but they aren't innocuous either.  Another expert has just confirmed that my Christmas nighttime visitor was indeed a phoneutria.  Phoneutria spider bites are extremely painful, and the venom causes systemic symptoms ranging from initial nausea and vomiting to sweating, agitation, hypertension, tachycardia, pulmonary edema, muscle paralysis and possibly even death.  Online experts are quick to point out that death is an extreme consequence, encountered mainly in children and the elderly, and not all that common.  Moderate symptoms, however, are prevalent,  and use of antivenom is frequently indicated.  Phoneutria venom is reported to be about 18 times stronger than that of a black widow spider.  Hospitalization is often required.  The encouraging news is that phoneutria sometimes deliver "dry bites" chosing not to waste their venom on something too big to eat.  Nevertheless, this species of spider is considered the world's # 1 most venomous spider and is not to be reckoned with.

Below is a photo taken from Spiderzrule, a website dedicated to all types of spiders.  It's a photo of a confirmed phoneutria nigriventer female.  My own specimen, below it,  has been added to the website as well.  Note the black line down the middle of the thorax and six spots on the abdomen. These are characteristic of the phoneutria. 

 phoneutria nigriventer


Phoneutria photo from website below
http://www.discoverlife.org/ap/copyright.html



my own unclassified phoneutria 



phoneutria fera photo result from internet search
 

Wolf spiders and hunstman spiders (heteropoda venatoria)  also exist in Panama, and they do resemble the phoneutria from a distance.  But they have distinguishing features which anyone with an interest can investigate online.  Their differences are easily recognized.  Below is a photo I copied from the internet.  It's a huntsman spider, taken from information provided by R. Vetter at UC Riverside in an online article.  The legs of huntsman spiders are splayed laterally, in a crab-like fashion.  The thorax and abdomens are different as well. 


I have no idea how a spider 6 inches in diameter made it into my home sight unseen.  Had it not been for my cats, though, it might still be a stowaway.   

Around 3 years ago, another spider that suspiciously resembled this recent one, fell out of the sleeve of a bathrobe that I keep hanging on my bathroom door.   Luckily it was dead when I slipped into the bathrobe following my shower.  I never got up close and personal with it, so I have no knowledge of that one's classification.  

The point to be taken away from all this is that precaution is indicated when handling bananas and fresh fruit---be it from your garden or from vegetable vendors.  And just use precaution in general. Don't be afraid to act decisively if you see one.  These spiders don't spin webs.  They wander the "jungle" floor at night hunting prey.   I try to be cautious getting up at night, or when putting on clothes hanging in the closet.  My neighbor was recently stung in the hip by a scorpion as he slipped on a pair of clean pants from his closet. And a girlfriend was stung on the arm when she put on a comfortable sweater previously draped over her chair.  The dry weather and fierce winds draw insects indoors at this time of year.  Be on the lookout and exercise caution, folks.