458: Trucking On

I am a prisoner in this truck. I am not even a CDL (commercial driver license) driver, I am merely a passenger. I was trying to visit my husband, who IS a newly-certified, licensed, tested and inspected CDL driver. When his company-owned truck developed problems and he was stuck waiting for repairs over Christmas, I cashed in a previously-purchased American Airlines flight ticket I would otherwise have lost had I not used it for this purpose, and flew out to Omaha, Nebraska to see him, after I spent a couple of days visiting the rest of my family in Georgia.

I expected to ride with him on his drives for about a week, since he was supposed to be routed on deliveries to Atlanta to pick me up, and to drop me off, for this jaunt. That was December 28. This is January 7, and the next run is to some freaking place in MICHIGAN. That has absolutely nothing in common with ATLANTA, GEORGIA. The next delivery after that is scheduled for Missouri, which is also further north and west of where we are now, in West Virginia. Wrong direction, dispatch!

I got desperate enough to check the tickets to Atlanta on Greyhound buses, for Pete’s sake. The bus costs nearly as much as it would cost to freaking FLY. Bus tickets were supposed to be cheap enough for people who do not have enough money to buy airline tickets to buy them instead. At least, they USED to be cheaper! Buses are certainly less comfortable than the airplane, and there is no snack served, either, so the bus ticket should be considerably less expensive than flying. Not so!

Ah, well, as I write on the truck stop provided Internet while serving the mandatory 10 hour refresh down time to be able to drive again, I have discovered that my brother’s expected children have been born January 6th – twins: one girl and one boy. Graydon James and Elise Drew – making me a new auntie twice over. In addition, while visiting my family, my daughter announced that she and her husband are now expecting their first – making me a grandma-to-be later this year. It is quite clear that life does go on – even if I am stuck in a truck!

418: Whipper-snipper and other local colloquiliaisms

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Today in Panama, outside my office window, I heard the unmistakable sound of a two-cycle internal combustion engine, commonly used to operate motor scooters and lawn trimming machines: weed whackers, weed eaters, whipper-snippers, and other imaginative names for a fairly functional device. Taking a peek out the window confirmed the sound – seven, count ém, SEVEN men, dressed like Muslim women in pants (completely hijabéd in fabric from any contact with grass – in 95 degree weather) were busily mowing, by hand, with these weed eaters, an area of ground I estimated conservatively at five ACRES.

While this is a fairly common sight in Panama, it would be a very uncommon sight in America. In America, where the minimum wage for a laborer is over 7 bucks an hour and rising, there is the impetus to mow maximum grass in minimum time, and equipment is acquired which facilitates that aim. This is not a concept that has penetrated the Panamanian psyche. In fact, maximum work in minimum time is not a concept that has even introduced itself to the Panamanian psyche, much less cozied up to it and taken it to bed. Panamanian work psyche is still virgin territory, totally unpenetrated by anything approximating a work ethic – much less an ethic of efficiency.

It is perfectly reasonable, when you pay a worker twenty dollars a day (or LESS), to give him the cheapest piece of equipment you can find (I have seen men cutting grass on the roadside with machetes – I kid you not), expecting it to take him three or four days to mow what one Kubota triple-swath tractor could cut in two hours.

This attitude of it takes as long as it takes, using the cheapest equipment we can find, permeates this society. It is one reason I ride to and from work in a 20 year-old reconditioned BlueBird school bus, shipped down from America once it was retired from school service there, smartened up with a wild coat of paint (Jesus and a busty, suggestively posed bikini-clad girl jostling for the prime space on the back), tricked out with flashing neon lights and outfitted with a blasting turbo-charged horn, since that is what Panamanians drive with, anyway.

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Well. It does make life interesting, in a drop-your-jaw and stare sort of way…………






413: Barbados

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I adore Barbados. It is the Caribbean island that is located furthest east – or the closest one to Africa and Europe, even though it is closer to South America than either one of those. Being so far east, most hurricanes give it a pass.

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As a result of location (and its geography and climate, which made it ideal for growing sugar cane and making RUM), it spent quite some time as a British colony before peacefully earning its sovereignty as a nation. It’s a pretty small nation.  You can drive from one side of the island to the other in about a half hour, even with traffic. It is a longer island than it is wide, though – going end-to-end, long wise, would take, oh, maybe an hour and a half, with traffic.

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The interesting part of the history of Barbados, to me as an American, is that our first president, George Washington, took his only international trip there. While he was there, he got ill with smallpox, an often deadly disease during his day. He survived, of course, and therefore had immunity from smallpox during the American Revolution, especially during the winter encampment at Valley Forge. This meant the American military leadership suffered no disruptions when smallpox broke out – GW was immune.

The fun part of Barbados is that, being British, they all drive on the other side of the road. Note that I did not say the WRONG side of the road, BUT – I did nearly meet my maker there when I looked in the incorrect direction to check for traffic before stepping off the curb, and a BUS whiffled by a few millimeters from my nose. I needed to change my pants, and I had campmeeting right there on the sidewalk. I might have even spoken in tongues.

Near-death experiences aside (!!!), our trip was offered on http://www.travelzoo.com, a fantastic Website that scours thousands of tour companies looking for what they think are the best 20 deals for the week , and they send a Wednesday e-mail to subscribers (it is free) listing the great deals on trips world-wide. Our Barbados deal came with round-trip airfare from the USA, six nights at a beach-front resort that included a full breakfast every morning (YUMMY, too!), with pool, AC, and a kitchenette in the room, PLUS a 100 dollar gift card good nearly everywhere on the island (bought lots of gifts for friends and family) and a fifty-dollar voucher for a seafood meal at the weekly weekend grill-seafood-party place where everybody meets to have fun and pig out. All of this was less than 600 USD a person, and they STILL run deals like that on travelzoo years later. I adore travelzoo, too!

I had grilled fish at the weekend party place, and it was then (and even now) the best fish I have ever eaten. Bar none. And Barbados has something else to gush over…Mount Gay rum. WOW. WOW. WOW. They have been making rum on Barbados for several centuries, and it SHOWS.

I had a fabulous time there – even the fact that they bury their dead standing up (!!!!) did not freak me out too badly. There is an interesting Barbados burial site story in this group of top ten: http://listverse.com/2012/10/04/top-10-creepiest-graves/

I plan to return, if God lets me live long enough!!

For more background on GW in Barbados: http://www.coedu.usf.edu/culture/Story/Story_Barbados_Washington.htm

326: Panama Paradise…sort of

Whales 023Nowadays, and for some years, Panama has been touted as the retirement paradise of Earth. Great weather, cheap prices, good infrastructure, conveniences, safety, security and great living.

Well. Sort of. When you read those glowing, first hand reports from people on the ground in Panama, pay particular attention to all the QUALIFIERS they add to the claims meant to entice you here. Pay particular attention to the few trouble spots they mention briefly, and then gloss over.  Not everyone writing about Panama gets full coverage by sites that are promoting Panama as THE place to retire.

Firstly, Panama MIGHT be inexpensive, compared to SOME places on Earth – but not compared to many of them. Especially near the capital city, where the infrastructure, services and amenities are plentiful and good, you will spend very much what you would pay in the USA: more for some/many things, and less for a few things.

Used cars, for example, are not cheap here. They hold their value very, very well. Good for sellers, not good for buyers. Groceries here, unless you are willing to purchase from street vendors, are outrageous, even by USA standards. Four medium tomatoes were priced at over three dollars recently, prompting me to plant seeds. SERIOUSLY.

Bus fares are cheap, but how many Americans want to ride the bus? I do. You will spend hours on the bus. Hours.

Security can be a problem. I’ve been robbed already, and I’ve been here less than three months. You have to be cautious, careful and suspicious of people, like most other places.

Apartments are not cheap. One thousand a month is a low-priced apartment here. That is not cheap compared to many places in the US. Getting a bank account is a time-consuming, aggravating, form-filled, expensive process. So is getting a Panamanian driver’s license. So is getting your visa to stay. The tourist visa is good 90 days, and then you have to get out of the country and re-enter to renew it.

The weather? Well – it rains a lot. When it isn’t raining, the humidity is high enough that your laundry will often sour on the line before it dries, meaning that you smell like a homeless person if you don’t machine dry them.

You can live cheap if you live and eat like a local. That means fans, not air conditioning, and foods you may not know how to prepare, or be accustomed to eating. However, that is part of the experience of living as an ex-patriot. There is good, and there is bad, and then there is just plain annoying. You get some of each. Paradise it isn’t. Liveable, it is.

320: Fez and the Flowers

Fez is my champagne and white kitty girl. She was born in the ancient UNESCO world heritage site of the medina in the imperial Moroccan city of Fez.  I brought her to live with me in  Panama, while I work my new job at a new school.

When you bring in an animal to Panama they undergo a quarantine period of 40 days where you promise to keep them inside and away from any other animals, in case they are carrying some sickness. YOU agree to this, the animal does not. Fez got out Saturday night onto the porch of the house, which I have screened the access door to, so that she can’t go there. She found a way.

Sunday morning I found her inside (how did she get back in?), in an unnatural sleeping position (not sleeping) on the other bed in another bedroom. I knew instantly that something was wrong. She was listless, groggy and groaned in protest when I picked her up. She also had cat pee on her fur – ????? Who peed on her, and why would she have LET them???  I thought she possibly might have eaten one of the half-dead cockroach bugs that I had found lying on their backs, feebly kicking on the floor. These were victims of some insecticide the landowner had used before my arrival – I am careful about poisons, since I have cats. I have lost some to this problem before.

So, before 6:30 am, I am on my way by foot and bus to the center of Panama City to a vet. The first bus said no as I was climbing aboard with the cat carrier, but the second bus agreed to transport her and me. I texted a friend who I knew lived where there was a vet, and she got me directions and a phone number. The vet said, once I got there (took my very last five dollars for the taxi), that she appeared to be OK, and most probably would not die (thanks, doc), 35 dollars, please.

My credit card declined. Fortunately, my friend arrived with cash, and she let me borrow 40 bucks till payday. Fez, the cause of this trauma, slept all the way home, letting out an ear-splitting yowl occasionally, to be sure all of us on the bus were awake. Such fun. It was not until I got home after 1 pm that I found the evidence of what happened.

On the front porch, I had a five gallon bucket of ornamental flower cuttings that I wanted to root. The flower shrubs in the planter bed were skimpy looking, so pruning them made them appear thicker, and if I could root them, I could fill in the thin spots.  Half the cuttings were scattered around the porch, and the leaves were eaten off of them. And the clincher? There were puddles of cat pee everywhere.

Fez, my sober, dignified, staid, elegant cat lady, had really tied one on with the flower leaves. Three days later,

Fez is under the chair

Fez is under the chair

she is still a little hung over. I am just glad it has not killed her – so far…….

Flowers have to GO.

117: Damn Cat

“Damn cat! Gerrout!” A resounding, meaty thunk resonated sickeningly as a heavy, booted foot connected with a small, furry body. A feline screech and a mad scrabble of paws and claws followed as the abused animal scrambled for cover. I listened unwillingly.

            “Get OUT, I told you!” shouted the irate male voice, clearly audible and only slightly muffled by the thin layer of concrete floor between his upstairs apartment and my downstairs one.  Another cat screech and a slamming door announced that upstairs kitty had been evicted yet again. Opening my hallway door a discreet sliver, I saw upstairs kitty, sleek black and white fur rumpled, ears flattened, tail a-fluff, making a bee-line for the front door of the apartment building. I shook my head sadly – poor thing.

This was not the way things had been before. Upstairs kitty used to have a kind human. He used to be a genial man, speaking politely to me, and I to him, whenever we met in the hallway of the apartment building after work as he was on his way upstairs to his apartment, one floor up and directly above my own. We did not speak more than that, since he was still a young man, and I am a grey-haired, fat, used up, wrinkled, old woman. Before, I never used to hear upstairs kitty screech, but it was becoming much more frequent since upstairs man lost his job a few months ago.

At first, after he lost his job, upstairs man dressed neatly in a suit, and went job hunting every day. During this time, upstairs kitty was quiet, except for the welcome meowing whenever his human came home, just like always. Gradually, though, as the days turned into weeks, and then into months, upstairs man went out job hunting less and less frequently, and upstairs kitty began to let me know that upstairs man was taking out his woes on the little cat. It really escalated when upstairs man’s unemployment benefit money ran out. He just seemed to give up when that happened, and he often came home carrying whiskey bottle-shaped brown bags. He stopped speaking to me in the hallway, and sort of roughly shouldered anyone in his way aside, me included. Kitty’s screeches began to come not just once or twice a day after that, but sometimes, more times that I could count.  Poor thing.

Yesterday, when all this happened, was the first time I saw the upstairs man actually kick upstairs kitty. I had hobbled down to the corner drugstore to refill a prescription, because their usual delivery boy was sick, and they could not bring it to me – I had to go and get it. On the way there, I saw my neighbor weaving his way back to the apartment building. He was obviously intoxicated: head down, watching his feet carefully, but wobbling a crooked path nonetheless. As I watched, upstairs kitty appeared from a side alley, and recognized his human. He joyfully approached his person, meowing welcomes even I could hear across the street. As I watched, thinking how sweet it was that upstairs kitty was so glad to see his master, when I had no one at home who was glad to see me, the drunk man drew back his foot and launched at upstairs kitty a wicked kick. Kitty dodged, but was not quite quick enough. I watched as kitty thudded up against the wall of the store, and dazed, paused.

“Run!” I thought, “run! He’ll kick you again!” But my neighbor, unbalanced by the mighty effort of kicking the cat, turned and lurched into the street. Right in front of the city bus. I realized my hand was upraised, as if I was going to stop him from where I was, way across the street. The frantic cry of “watch out! Watch out! Watch out!” that formed inside my head, for some reason, never left my lips.

When the bus screeched to a halt, I watched as frantic people rushed to help my neighbor. No one noticed the cat, who had disappeared. As the ambulance appeared in due time to take away the broken man, I hobbled on down to the corner store for my prescription. As I waited for my prescription to be bottled for me, I added to my purchase two cans and a box of cat food.