Nov 19, 2016

2nd Annual Art Expo and Mes de la Patria Celebration at Ricardo Perez in David

Last night friends and I attended the second annual art expo at Ricardo Perez which was held in commemoration of the Mes de la Patria en Panamá.  Some 33 local and international artists plus 11 photographers participated in the event.   Guests were treated to music performed by the Cuerpo de Bomberos de Chiriqui and folk dancers.  Over 100 paintings and photographs were displayed. 

I failed to check the battery reading on my camera before heading out, and it unfortunately died at the very beginning of the event.  I only captured a few photos, which are posted.   

The art works will remain displayed in the Richardo Perez showroom until the end of November, so be sure to stop in and browse before then.  You will be pleased you did. Credit should go out to Antonio Singh for his efforts in organizing the event. 


Sep 28, 2016

Boquete's Changing Faces

It's been several months since I've posted anything about Boquete.  I'm ashamed to admit US politics has captured more of my attention than merited.  But it's also depressed me so much that I'm returning to a local focus for therapy.  Boquete is growing and changing.  These photos were taken today from the pedestrian bridge over the new highway by the CEFATI bldg. One view is toward Bajo Boquete and the other is looking toward Alto Boquete. The new Alto Boquete Condos are seen center left in the second view.  For years the structures sat idle but lately a lot of progress is being seen.  The plan is for several buildings and a canyon condo community.   

Another new structure  (about a year old, I believe) is the downtown market.  There are still many unoccupied spaces, but the building was designed to house not only vegetable and fruit stands, but also artisan kiosks and service businesses.  Currently there is a beauty shop and a few clothing vendors housed there, but it hasn't yet approached it's full potential.  The Central Park Cafe, which used to be an unsightly hole in the wall adjacent the park has been overhauled and has a more pleasant, glassed-in aspect.  The new market is located in the same space as the old one, diagonal to Romero Supermarket and to the right of the municipal offices.  

The other major change Boquete is undergoing is the implementation of the new potable water and sewage treatment system approved by President Varela for $25 million. Ground has been broken in a significant way downtown as new pipes are being laid and land is being leveled.  

In my neighborhood, a lot on my street is being dug up and leveled for installation of a large water tank.   

And last but not least, the Mayor just announced that a new Panamonte Bridge will be constructed in the not too distant future.  The paperwork and bidding is in progress at this time.  

A Word About Snakes

It's forever being said by experts that one has a better chance of being struck by lightning  in Panama than by being bitten by a poisonous snake.  Perhaps this is true, but to date my "close encounters of the reptile kind"  have been more frequent than those of the lightning kind. Take this beautiful fellow featured above....

It was 10:15 am on a weekday and the sun was shining brightly.  My two cats were up and about---one in the outside entryway peering in the front screen door, and the other inside peering out the front screen door.  Both were poised and ready to pounce.  I smiled briefly at what I perceived to be a sisterly staring contest.  

I was expecting a friend any minute, so I opened the door to go out and unlock the yard gate. My doing so pushed the outside kitty away from the front entrance just as this large coral snake slithered underneath the door to the spot she had been occupying.  Although she headed after it, my screams frightened both cats and thankfully, they took off.  I seized my trusty camera---always nearby---and snapped this pic.  It was a good thing I did, because in the time it took to get a male neighbor's attention, the snake had disappeared. Two brave men with machetes responded to my calls. They peered into and around nearby plants. No sign of a snake.  I provided photographic proof of what I had seen, so the three of us persisted until the culprit was located behind a piece of patio furniture.  

I wish we could have left it alone to live another lifetime, but the neighborhood is full of cats and dogs and small children, and our houses aren't all that far apart.  The men killed it and buried in in the yard.  (Something about burying it is supposed to detract other snakes from coming old wives tale, I suppose.)   I felt a bit guilty, as it was a beautiful snake.  But I had learned my lesson from a previous experience.  

About a year earlier, I was sitting with a guest in the living room when I noticed what I thought was an earthworm crawling along the baseboard.  I grabbed the broom and dustpan to sweep it up, but when I got closer it reared it's head and curled into strike position.  Realizing it was a snake, I abandoned the hand-held dustpan and swept it into a shovel.  My friend urged me to kill it, but it was so small I couldn't do it.  I took it outside to examine it closely before releasing it in the back lot.  After my friend left I did an internet search to find snakes that had markings resembling my infantile visitor.  The only snake that came close---actually it was a true match---was the Bushmaster.  Right down to the two-toned color of it's head.  Sometimes I still worry it may be living somewhere in that back lot...

It's hard to find precise information regarding snakes in Panama, but most sources will cite between 125 and 145 species of snakes in this country.  Of that number, only 25 species are considered venomous.  They fall into three family groupings; pit vipers, corals, and sea snakes.  

Sea snakes are rarely dangerous to humans unless caught and handled.  Their venom is a potent neurotoxin, but they reserve it for small fish and other prey.

Coral snakes are generally timid and inoffensive unless provoked.  They are burrowing snakes and usually don't grow longer than 30 inches.  Other snakes resemble the coral snake but are completely innocuous to humans.   Here is a wikipedia photo I found of a kingsnake [serpiente rey] that shares the same colors as a coral snake.  Their coloring is similar but the bands alternate as red, black, yellow or white, black, red.   A mnemonic used to distinguish between the two is "Red touches black, friend of Jack.  Red touches yellow can kill a fellow"

Unfortunately authorities always warn that this rhyme only applies to snakes native to North America and that coral snakes in Central and South America can have a variety of patterns and colors, including the red-touching-black pattern of the harmless North American kingsnake.  

Pit vipers are the snake family most responsible for bites to humans in Panama. Around 2000 cases of snakebite are reported annually.  The province that reports the most is Veraguas, which averages around 500 a year.  Vipers are aggressive, even after having eaten and while molting.  Several expats have reported sighting pit vipers in their homes, garages, or terraces.  

Probably the most prevalent venomous viper reported in Boquete and surrounding areas is the fer-de-lance.  (Bothrops asper)  Locals call it "Equis" or "Terciopelo" or "Barba amarilla".  It is responsible for about 95% of all snakebites in Panama.  It's toxin is hemolytic and causes symptoms of hypotension, nausea, vomiting, severe pain, local necrosis and renal compromise. I have never seen one, but know people who have.  One friend, living in a developed, upscale, gated community discovered a fer-de-lance coiled up in the corner of her sewing basket !

The other three vipers in Panama considered most dangerous to humans because of the potency of their venom are: 

The eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), locally known as "Bocaracá", the bushmaster 
(Lachesis stenophrys), locally known as "Verrugosa" or "Cascabel muda", and the hog-nosed viper (Porthidium nasutum) locally known as "Patoca".    

I will need to do additional research before commenting on their regional habitats, but all are found in humid, tropical forest areas, which include the provinces of Chiriqui, Veraguas, Cocle, and Panama Oeste.

May 1, 2016

Cuban Culmination?

Some of the 3,000 Cuban refugees that were stranded at the Paso Canoas border have been transferred to Gualaca, where they are being housed in local hostels and provided with medical attention as needed.  Those transferred included pregnant women and children and other persons in more frail conditions.  

Announcements have been made that the authorities are close to reaching some type of diplomatic arrangement for those 3,000 Cubans that are already in Panama.  At the same time, Panama has taken stronger measures to stop the influx of illegals into Panama without actually implementing a border closure.  President Varela announced on April 28th that new or additional refugees who enter Panama illegally will not be allowed to participate in the process currently being negotiated for the 3,000 refugees already housed near the border.  He stressed that Panama will implement a humanitarian effort to assist these detainees, but cannot continue functioning as a permanent logistical backup for illegal migration.  As of that date, Cubans attempting to enter Panama illegally will be detained and returned. The news of this measure has reached Cuba, I am certain, as I viewed an internet video broadcast in Cuba addressing the topic.  Since the announcement, it was calculated that only 100 additional Cubans have passed into Panama.  They are currently under the control of SENAFRONT and the National Migration Service.

President Varela emphasized that Panama will offer whatever emotional or psychological support measures it can to additional migrants illegally crossing the border, but that these persons will have to leave and need to consider which country they wish to return to.

Apr 16, 2016

Long overdue update

                                                                  Photo from Panama Canal Website's been nearly 2 months since my last post.  A lot has been going on in the world.  I've been so busy following the news that I haven't had the time to sit down and actually write about any of it.  

The USA presidential primaries have been akin to a reality show this year.  The Republicans have taken a no-holds-barred approach to political competition and no subject has been too personal to discuss during televised debates.  The rest of the world continues to enjoy lots of laughs and endless amazement at just how arrogant, prejudiced, and base we "Americans" are. The Democratic primaries are proceeding with a little more dignity, but there seems to be a lot of disillusionment with voter suppression issues and campaign rigging. Here in Panama the expat community seems just as divided as the folks back home. 

In Boquete there's definite evidence of the doomsday Christian immigratory wave. It can be perceived in the news pieces that are circulated on the local forums or via casual conversations overheard in public places.  Or, sometimes it shows up even in direct conversation intended for a different heading.  I recently learned many Boquete newbies believe that the general election in November will result in rioting and civil disorder sufficient for President Obama to declare martial law. The expectation is that subsequent to doing so, he will remain in office for an additional term "as he has desired all along" and that the US will become a dictatorship.  (I find this incredulous, but would certainly take an Obama dictatorship over a Trump presidency if those were the only options.)

I've received some orientation to digital currency, as well as a variety of conspiracy theories. 

The Cuban refugee situation is intensifying.  Costa Rica mobilized 8,000 Cuban refugees from their borders to the USA in the past year, at significant governmental cost.  The country claims it is unable to maintain this burden and has announced border closure.  Costa Rica, on April 15th,  identified enforcement measures it plans to apply regarding some 3000 Cuban migrants and 500 African / Asian migrants currently in Paso Canoas wanting to traverse their country. They will detain them in immigration centers and arrange for deportation.  The same morning, Costa Rica transferred about 200 people originating from Africa and Asia  back onto Panamanian soil after having been allowed to cross through Panama's border onto the Costa Rican side. Demonstrations along the Pan American highway resulted, and a strong police presence is being maintained in front of the immigration building there.  One Cuban man who was interviewed by the local TV channel stated, "Panama says it is helping us, and we are grateful for having a roof over our heads, but the accommodations are inhuman.  We are just as repressed here as we were in Cuba." Considering they have arrived en masse short on funds to maintain themselves and are being provided with food, water, and shelter, I take exception to the comment.  But then, I'm not living under the same conditions. A high level CARITAS worker in Panama interviewed by the local news station reported that Cubans who have reached Panama through Colombia are all reporting rough treatment from Colombian police and other officials who rob them of their cash.  They allegedly set out with money to care for themselves, but end up in Panama with nothing after their travels through Colombia.  Paso Canoas is a small town that can be completely traversed on foot in 20 minutes. It has few hotels. Pictures on the TV showed people living in tents under some type of large concrete structure with a tin roof.  The CARITAS worker also mentioned Puerto Obaldía, another small town where other Cubans have entered Panama.  She said the town consists of 600 people, but 800 Cubans have now arrived there.  There is one doctor to attend to the entire village, and the additional migrants as well as the nearby comarca, have overwhelmed the delivery of health care there.

Cubans have been migrating to the US and other countries via Ecuador for a number of years.  According to reports, Costa Rica has been passing 20,000 people a year through it's borders en route to "el norte". The current crisis began back in November of 2015 when Costa Rican police broke up an illegal coyote ring that moved these people.  Costa Rica arrested and incarcerated 12 individuals, which threw a huge wrench in the [illegal] system.  Then in December, Nicaragua closed it’s borders to the immigrants, and Costa Rica was stuck having to mobilize 8000 Cubans headed for the US.  Costa Rica struggled valiantly with the problem and resolved it, but the immigrants keep coming.  Seems the ball has finally landed in Panama’s court and the outcome should be interesting.  Panama’s vice-president, Isabel St. Malo,  has emphasized Panama is concerned with humanitarian issues and is implementing measures to provide these people with attention while trying to work out international agreements. 

The Orchid Feria, the Jazz Festival, and Boquete's 105th anniversary have come and gone since my last post.  The Orchid Festival was the same as usual. The Jazz Festival was very expensive with shorter musical performances. In comparison to the Panama City Jazz Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of attendees, at an average cost of $10 per ticket and integrates the local community, Boquete's Jazz Festival cost $70 a ticket, took place in Valle Escondido, and may have included a handful of wealthy token Panamanians. The event I attended was full of non-local, non-resident groupies. There was a pervasive commerciality to the ambiance, and some gringo organizer kept bragging to me about the custom-made silver jewelry he was wearing. What a contrast to the rest of life down here. 

The Boquete Anniversary celebrations lasted a few days and included a cabalgata, typical and modern music in central park, school gatherings, a contest to elect a festivities queen, and civic and traditional performances.  I only marginally participated this year, but enjoyed the atmosphere and horse parade.  

The Panama Papers scandal has changed things here in not so good a way. Panamanians are feeling any combination of embarrassed, ashamed, indignant, persecuted, defiant and/or perplexed. They are an exceedingly patriotic people who take any criticism of their country personally and are very anxious that the scandal not be a label for the country.  A lot of things are going on internally, and the international press is also saturated with information about the matter, so I have little motivation to write more at this time.  Perhaps in a later post.  Suffice it to say that Panama is feeling the international pressure to comply with the automatic data interchange system established by the OCDE.  Though highly resistant, someone recently sent me an article out  of France indicating Panama has relented.  I haven't seen the same announcement locally, however.  

Lastly, the Canal Expansion is close to being opened.  The canal is currently in a testing and final touch phase, but the end is very near!  

Feb 21, 2016

A Paso Canoas Lodging Alternative

Most people would agree that Paso Canoas isn't exactly a vacation hot spot.  But many expats still go there for a variety of reasons.  After playing the tourist game for more years than I care to admit, I'm no longer obligated to make these trips, but they've sort of become a quarterly routine for me and I still like to regularly shop there.   I headed out two days ago and made my first stop at La Morenita as usual to drop off the car and check in.   Vilka greeted me warmly and then with a chagrinned expression said she had hoped I wouldn't be showing up this month. Apparently the hostal was full and there wasn't even a spare sofa to offer me.  She explained that the stranded Cubans had filled up the place and she was under government contract to give them priority lodging.  She expected things to lighten up in March.  In her usual, attentive fashion though, she called a friend who was able to put me up at their hotel. She said the name of the place was Las Canarias, and it was in the town center.  

Having a good idea of what central Paso Canoas hotels were like, I was less than enthusiastic about staying anywhere in town.   But Vilka assured me the place was decent. When I got there I was pleasantly surprised.  It's located about 300 meters south of the Panamanian immigration building on the road heading toward Puerto Armuellas.  If you follow that road, you will pass a Pio Pio place, a Melo store, a Banco Nacional branch, and then reach a strip mall across from a gas station and automotive repair / tire place.  

The hotel residencial Las Canarias is actually two facilities, one on the Panamanian side and one on the Costa Rican side of the border.  The hotel on the Panamanian side,  which is the one on the Puerto Armuellas road and is shown in the photo above, is the more expensive of the two. But the price differences are minimal ---around a $10 per room (and you get a lot more space for that $10).  

I was warmly greeted by name at the reception desk when I walked in.  The attendant spoke flawless English and I learned his father is Panamanian and his mother British, so he grew up with both languages.  He considers himself Panamanian.  My room charge was $50.   There are available parking spots off the road in front of the hotel, and I was assured there is a watchman at night.  The hotel itself is upstairs over the strip mall. Downstairs, next to the hotel entrance, is a small coffee shop.   

I asked about nearby restaurants for a more substantial meal and learned that their  Costa Rican facility, located 1.5 blocks away, offered home-cooked typical dishes, and so I decided to head there for dinner after some shopping.  

The rooms are  clean, spacious, and nicely decorated.  A standard room comes with two queen beds, private bath, air conditioning, cable television, hot water with great water pressure, and a small seating area.  There is a spacious and comfortable lobby as well, with numerous magazines to peruse.  Compared to equally priced other downtown locations, this place has it hands down. 

After shopping, I headed over to the Costa Rican facility for dinner. When I walked in, there was an attractive lady sitting at one of the tables who greeted me and asked me if I was "la señora Charlotte." She told me the attendant at the other building had called to tell her I'd be coming.  She asked me what I'd like to eat and said she could offer me fish filet, pork chops, chicken, or beef with a salad and rice, beans, a "casado" or patacones.  I ordered fish with salad and patacones and ice cold Imperial, a Costa Rican beer that I like much more than any of the Panamanian brands.  The food was delicious, the service excellent, and $10 covered everything, including tax and tip. The next morning I chose to eat there again instead of in the downstairs coffee shop.  There is no menu.  You simply tell the cook what you want and she prepares it for you.  I had a ham, cheese and onion omelette with ripe plantains and natilla (a Costa Rican cultured cream) on the side, plus a huge cup of local coffee.  The meal was $ 8.50 including tax and tip. 

At the Costa Rican facility, parking is off road and enclosed and roofed.  I didn't ask to see a room there, however as I was leaving I looked into one being cleaned and found it acceptable, but much smaller and plainer than the one I stayed in on the Panama side. To my way of thinking, the extra $10 is worth it.   Here  are some photos of the Panamanian facility's entrance and lobby areas as well as a photo of my room. 

They also offer a deluxe suite that has a jacuzzi tub, king size bed, small refrigerator and sound system.  The charge for the suite is $ 100 per night. 

For additional photos or information, the link to their facebook page is below:

Below are photos of the location, entrance, and lobby / restaurant facilities at the Costa Rican Las  Canarias location.

It's not easy to find decent lodging in this small border town.  I've tried several.  Prices don't vary all that much.  For the same room rates, you could do much worse.  Even if you were to pay more, you won't find locations better than either La Morenita or Las Canarias. And nothing beats their customer service.   Here's hoping things don't change anytime soon. 

Jan 23, 2016

Wandering Spider: The Final Answer

Two years ago I blogged about a large wandering spider I found inside my Chiriqui home at 3:00 am when my cats created a ruckus and woke me.  I sprayed it with insecticide and after confirming its demise, took some photos. Then I initiated a cursory internet research to identify its species and particulars.  Each time I saw a photo of a beast that resembled my deceased spider, the caption identified it as a phoneutria (Brazilian Wandering Spider).    Somewhere I read about another species (Cupienius) that was oft confused with the phoneutria but lacked the same reputation for being “deadly”.  I spent hours on the internet comparing photos of the two arachnid groupings, attempting to diagnose my night visitor as either harmless or evil. I didn’t want to believe it, but my spider more closely resembled photos of the phoneutria than it did the the cupienius.  
I then decided to call on the experts, and wrote to three online spider websites.  Two of the site masters confirmed my spider was a phoneutria based upon the arrangement of its eight eyes, the black line running down the dorsal carapace, (cephalothorax) and a series of 6 dice-like dots on the dorsal abdomen. Wikipedia also described these features as characteristic of phoneutria.  The last contacted website expert responded saying the spider couldn’t be classified without “seeing it in person”.  I surmised this respondent was too weird for further communication :-)

Given two out of three “experts” had confirmed my fears that the spider was a phoneutria, I published two posts alerting other expats to utilize caution in dealing with such critters in the home. Since then I’ve received occasional emails about the posts and I reiterated to those contacts that my information came from the internet and I had no first hand training or experience in arachnology.  However, I continued to warn people not to be too cavalier in their dealings with large spiders in the home.

Very recently, I received another email, only this time the author was not someone to be placated with generalities.  She wanted to know who I had contacted, why I reached my conclusion, and how dangerous the spider venom actually was.  She reported having found several similar spiders in her home nearby.  I gave her what information I had, but it wasn’t detailed enough and she was determined to get to the bottom of the matter.  I’d love to give her credit here for pursuing the issue, but don’t have permission to use her name.  Suffice it to say her initials are P.C. and I’m grateful for her energy and persistence.  She wrote to the Smithsonian in Panama City, and was directed to someone in Germany who subsequently directed her to another person in Brazil who then forwarded the information to the final expert.

Through photos P.C. sent of one of the spiders she sacrificed, the expert determined the spider was NOT a phoneutria but instead a Ctenus sinuatipes.  The Ctenus species are also wandering spiders, found frequently in Central America, but have not been declared to have “medically significant” venom.  This Brazilian expert recognized the distinctive features of the spider’s back legs (sinew-like) and mentioned this is what gave the species its name. 
I was interested in this information, but had doubts about the classification of my particular spider because it differed from the photos of P.C.’s spider.   I spent several more hours on the internet, trying to teach myself spider anatomy & physiology and blowing up photos of hairy arachnids to better examine magnified eyes and hair follicles.  It got to the point where if a breeze blew past the back of my neck, I jumped three feet.  I finally admitted I was in over my head and decided with P.C.'s blessing to contact this expert myself with photos of my spider. I digress here to mention that the expert is an arachnologist with a PhD, is affiliated with the California Academy of Sciences, has written numerous scientific papers, including a few dealing with the reclassification of tropical spiders, and is female, attractive, young, personable and, at minimum, bilingual.  She has been more than accommodating and helpful regarding our inquiries about the spiders.  I am very confident of and impressed by her knowledge.

This evening I received her response that the spider I’ve been calling a phoneutria for 2 years also happens to be a male Ctenus sinuatipes.  So what does that mean?  Essentially it means it is not considered "dangerous".  Male Ctenus sinuatipes generally live for about 1.5 years and die shortly after mating.  They are known to travel great distances to mate.  Females can live up to 10 years.  A bite from this spider would be painful, and there is always the risk of a anaphylactic allergic reaction that could be serious and/or lethal, however absent a significant allergy to the venom, a person is unlikely to die from a bite.  

Dr. Daniele Polotow elaborates to say that even phoneutria bites are rarely fatal. Having worked more than 10 years for the research institute in Brazil that produces all the spider and snake antivenoms and vaccines for Brazilian hospitals, she reports that the majority of people bitten by these spiders don't receive antivenom.  The treatment standard is observation and palliative care. This includes treatment even for the scientists who work directly with the live spiders collecting venom.  She reports the bite is extremely painful and may cause confusion and other symptoms of neurotoxicity, but is rarely fatal and easily treated.   She then goes on to caution that, despite ongoing research into Central American spiders, a lot remains unknown regarding the effects, toxicity, and symptoms their venoms cause. Better to be safe than sorry.   If one finds it necessary to erradicate a questionable spider, doing so won't endanger the species. Logging, mining, and real estate expansion are the real dangers to species extinctions.

An internet search I conducted in Spanish regarding Ctenus sinuatipes bites turned up a report by the Organization for Tropical Studies data base in Costa Rica of an individual bitten in 1981.  (The spider was captured and later identified as a female Ctenus sinuatipes.  The specimen is registered at the Museum of Zoology in Costa Rica.) The report indicates a 25 yr old woman was gathering laundry on her patio in San Rafael de Coronado when she received a spider bite on her left thumb.   The victim immediately felt intense pain at the bite site, a generalized sensation of fever and diaphoresis, edema, moderate cyanosis and numbness of the hand where a bloody puncture wound was seen at the innoculation point. An hour later she experienced dizziness and fainting, coldness of the hand and tightness in the elbow joint.  Later, she had a headache.  The following day she experienced persistent numbness of the hand.  The third day she had pain that radiated to the elbow upon applying pressure to the bite wound.  On the fifth day she was asymptomatic.  Treatment consisted of intramuscular antihistamines, intramuscular penicillin, and oral analgesics and anti inflammatory medication. 
Internet photo of  Ctenus sinuatipes found in Costa Rica.  Note the sinuous final segments of the hind legs.