Saturday, June 30, 2012


We had a "field trip" to the Panama Canal one Saturday.  I went a little early to go to the Albrook Mall near our meeting place at the bus station.  This is one of the biggest malls I have ever seen.  It has five food courts.  The other volunteers  met me at the bus station on time but had not eaten, so by the time they ate and we were waiting for the next bus in the sun for awhile, two more hours had passed.  I was feeling a little dizzy so opted out of the Panama Canal viewing.  It would be a shame to be here for three weeks and never see it, though.

Chess tournament at Albrook Mall
We had a second field trip to the Parque Natural Metropolitano just north of the City.  It is over 650 acres of jungle like terrain, with multiple trails going through the jungle and up to viewpoints.  I could not make it up the steep one because of continued weakness in my knee so I went off my myself.  It was a little creepy walking through that jungle alone, and hearing things crashing through the bush.  I didn't see any animals, but we had seen sloths and guinea pigs nearby.  There were lots of turtles in the pond.  I entertained myself by throwing bits of carrot cake into the pond and watching about a hundred turtles dash for the crumbs.  This huge park is called "the lungs of Panama City" and was formerly part of the US Army base and used for jungle exercises.  It is partnered with the Cleveland Municipal Park system, another canal city (Erie).

Dozens of turtles

I took a day off from school the last week and walked to Casco Antiguo.  It was extremely hot walking along the jogging trail.  I had my water bottle with me but had forgotten to fill it.  I was feeling terrible.  I stopped by some stores but they were closed.  So I trudged on to the Panama Canal Museum.  I bought my ticket after they said they had water on the second floor.  I trudged up the steps, feeling like I was going to faint any minute.  My mistake was that I was only on the first floor, since Panama is like Europe in counting the ground floor as "zero."  I was able to go into the bathroom and wash my face, which was beet red,  in cold water.  I then took an elevator up to the real second floor.  I expected a restaurant selling bottled water, but there was only a 5 gallon water cooler.  I filled my 1/2 liter water bottle up 3 times and drank it all while sitting on a bench reading my kindle.  I sat there for about half an hour till finally getting up and looking around the museum.

The second (third?) floor of the museum was mostly about the US presence in Panama.  The exhibits were all in Spanish.  I had rented the English tape but there was hardly anything on it compared to what was in the exhibits.  A lot of the signs were (justifiably?) very detrimental to the US.  When we signed the contract to build the canal in 1903 there were clauses in it about being able to protect our interests there.  We apparently took that and ran with it.  The plus side was that so many of the workers were dying of malaria that the US Canal administration pretty much wiped out malaria in the country.  The engineers did an amazing job finishing the canal that was started by the French years before.  During that time, they brought in telephones, underwater cables, radio, electricity, and many more technological advancements.  The canal brought a lot of commerce to the country.  On the minus side, we pretty much took over the country in the name of "protecting our interests."  When the Panamanians complained, they were given a little more money. and we built more bases.  By WWII we had forts in every province and Panamanians did not have free access to the Canal Zone. There were demonstrations in the 1960's when students were not allowed to raise the national flag in schools, resulting in many deaths and injuries when the US retaliated.  Finally, the US relinquished the canal to the Panamanians in 1999.

After the museum, I went to visit the National Theater, built in 1905.  It has many tiers of balconies and reminded me of the Ballet Folklorico theater in Mexico City. It, and a lot of the buildings in this area, are in the French style with a lot of wrought iron balconies, gates, etc.   I had lunch at the outdoor restaurant Casa Blanca at Plaza Bolivar.  Just as I finished, it started to rain.  Soon it was pouring, and I grabbed a bus to Metrocenter before walking the rest of the way to the hostel.  Luckily, I was carrying my umbrella.  I still got soaking wet in the heavy rain, a marked juxtaposition from nearly getting heat stroke earlier in the day.
National Theater

We had a farewell dinner Friday night.  Kari had picked a restaurant in another section of town.  Due to rain, we were unable to get taxis, so ended up eating at the local sushi restaurant without her.

Michaela ready for rain at UTP

I finally did get to see the Panama Canal.  We went over it on a bridge on the way out of town.

Friday, June 22, 2012


We continued classes in Teaching English.  Two of the volunteers have education degrees and I am a trained teacher, but the other four are mostly new college graduates.  Two people from the Peace Corps in Panama came to talk to us about their education programs.  The Panamanian government wants American teachers to teach alongside Panamanian teachers and show them different ways to teach besides just copying and memorizing.  I don't think this will go over well if they are putting American new grads in with longstanding teachers.  At least the Peace Corps volunteers get six months of training first.

We are meeting every day at the Universidad Technologica, which is a 1 1/2 to 2 hour bus ride from the Multicentro mall, depending on time of day.  There are three former WorldTeach volunteers who are still living and working in Panama City.   One of them, Jenny, offered to give us a lift to school every morning.  It is about 45 minutes by car, so it is great for us.  She was a lawyer in the United States and decided to give up her house and job and come to Panama and help by volunteering to teach English and whatever.  I really have to admire her guts in driving in this city!.  There are hardly any street signs so I rarely know where I am or where I am going.  I learned one bus route (there is no written schedule) and how to get to the two malls and Casco Viejo by foot.  Otherwise I have not seen much.

Former WorldTeach volunteers were home in the US a few weeks before deciding to come back to Panama and get jobs

Current voluneers teach a class

Waiting for the bus at Albrook station

We have been observing classes of high school and college English and have team taught some classes when teachers are absent.  The classes are three hours long, so I don't know how the students stand it.  We try to keep things interesting by doing lots of educational games and getting the kids out of their seats at times.  The high school kids all wear uniforms with white shirts and blue skirts/pants and ties.  The college kids dress really grungy all the way to perfect suits, hair, and nails.  The teachers are required to wear professional dress, including closed toe shoes.  Not the easiest thing to do in a tropical climate.  Africa was very pleasant compared to this.  I stopped wearing face cream because I didn't like putting it on when my face was already wet with sweat.  Most everything in Panama City is air conditioned, including the buses, but you can't avoid being outside sometimes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Panama City

Early in the morning of June 11, I caught the red eye to Panama City, a six hour flight from LAX.  They would not let me on the plane with a one way ticket.  Panama apparently might not let me stay if I didn't have a way back.  So I had to go to the United Airlines counter in the next terminal to buy a return ticket on their partner airline, Copa, which is based in Colombia.  

I arrived at the airport at around 10:30 a.m.  I waited around for the WorldTeach field director, Kari, who had told me she would be there by 11.  She didn't show, so I took a taxi to the hostel.  Luckily she had given me directions.  So I was already out almost $500 I had not counted on spending.

The rest of the volunteers were supposed to get in on a flight from Miami around 1:30 p.m.  They were late, but still Kari did not show up at the airport until they were already at the hostel.  I took them across the street to Super 99, which is like a Wal Mart and is a chain owned by the current president of Panama.  We seem to go there at least once a day.  They had not eaten all day so were happy to get some snacks.  When Kari finally arrived at the hostel, we walked to a nearby mall, Multiplaza, for dinner.  She said our food allowance for dinner was $5.  We went to the food court at the mall, which had a lot of American chains like Wendy's, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC, Subway, etc.  It was hard to find something under $5, unless you just got rice and beans.  The mall was shocking.  I thought I was coming to a third world country, but the mall stores must have included every brand you would see in Vogue magazine ads.  Cartier, Tommy Hilfiger, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, etc.  Panama is apparently the big drug money laundering center of the West.  One of the teachers at the University here said they start up dummy companies here just for that purpose.

Multiplaza mall

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo street
View from Casco Viejo

We are staying at Casa Areka, a hostel in Paitilla, near Punta Pacifica.  This is apparently a very nice area of the city, full of skyscrapers.  The six women are in a room with three bunk beds, which is a little crowded since we all brought luggage for six months.  The sole guy, Matthew, has his own room.  We do have air conditioning, but the bathroom is down the hall and has cold water only.  There is a kitchen we can use to cook in, which will help with our $11 a day food allowance.

Oswaldo, owner of Casa Areka hostel
Michaela and Halima at Casa Areka

The first full day here, Kari met us and we walked to the Multicentro mall, which is the opposite direction of Multiplaza but about the same distance, maybe a mile.  This is where we will catch the bus to the University every day for orientation classes.  Today we are just walking to Casco Viejo, an old part of the city with old churches, cobblestone streets, the presidential palace, etc.  There is a nice walkway and bikeway along the waterfront most of the way there.  Unfortunately, it started raining soon after we started out, so everyone got soaked.  I was the only one with an umbrella, but I still got soaked from the waist down.  We ate lunch at a typical Panamanian hole in the wall restaurant, run by a Chinese man.  Lunch was under $3.  We walked around a little before heading back.  We caught a Diablo Rojo (Red Devil) bus, which are independent, wildly colored, and go where they want to go.  For 40 cents each he took us to Multiplaza mall and we walked back to the hostel from there.

Near Mulicentro mall

Saturday, June 9, 2012


My time in the USA was running out, so I flew to North Carolina to see my doctor for an annual physical, check on my condo, and renew old friendships.  Despite my fears, my lab tests came back the best they have been in years.  Cholesterol down to 174!  

Deborah and friends

In Asheville I stayed with my friend and next door neighbor, Deborah, who finally was able to get a job there and move down from New York about a month ago.  Her two dogs, Brigitte and Chester, are well behaved but shedding a lot!  She joined me for lunch with friends at Pack Tavern and for a tour of the Nature Center, where my friend Toni is a volunteer.  Eleanor, Jane, and I also went to see "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which was a very funny movie about British retirees in India.
Me, Toni, Kathy, Flor, Eleanor, Deb, and Doris at Pack Tavern

Nature Center

Toni, Linda, Deborah, Eleanor, Judy, and me at the Nature Center
Today my son Matt came to take me to breakfast, so we had a nice walk and talk.  He is flying to New York tonight so he can be in the Tony awards show tomorrow.  I am finishing packing to leave for Panama tomorrow night.