Shopping in Panama

People not familiar with Panama have expressed concern that we wouldn’t have everything we need here. So, I decided to take some pictures in a few of the stores near us. We have some very nice shopping options near us.

We live in David, the second largest city in Panama. There is a large expat community in Boquete and many of those people come down here to shop. We are also close to the Costa Rica border so many people from there come here to take advantage of lower prices. David itself is a fast growing city with construction and growth everywhere you look.

We live on the north side of the city not far from the Pan-American Highway and the El Terronal shopping area where these photos were taken. Stores don’t usually allow photos (not sure why) so I couldn’t pull out my camera everywhere I wanted to but at least you can get a little idea.

First, lets go visit Arrocha. The main floor has a good pharmacy, personal care items, lots of makeup and beauty items, and kitchen and housewares. The second floor has office and craft supplies, tons of toys and baby related things, some more housewares and bath related things, phone and electronic accessories, some luggage, DVD’s, and a place to get photos printed and get passport and other ID photos taken.

 

After Arrocha, we headed to another big store in the complex – Conway. The first floor has a lot of women’s clothes and accessories. The second floor has men’s and children’s clothes. The third floor has furniture, housewares, and a whole lot of kitchen things. There is also a little restaurant with a beautiful view of the hills beyond.

There are three large supermarkets within a block of each other in this shopping area. I visited two of them with my camera. The first one is Super 99. There is an older Super 99 on the south side of town, but this one here is very new and very large. We don’t go there very often because there is limited parking unless you go up to the parking garage above the store, and it’s a bit congested in the street you need to use to get there. We also established a bit of a routine before it was opened and rarely need to go there for something we can’t find elsewhere.

Next, we paid a visit to Super Baru. This is a smaller store with narrower aisles and no high ceilings, but it is one of our favorites. They tend to offer more unusual items and imported things that you can’t find in other stores. We generally don’t buy produce in supermarkets, preferring the road side vegetable stands, but if we do Baru has the best selection and price.

 

The third supermarket is El Rey (no photos, maybe next time). This is where we do most of our shopping since it’s on our side of the highway, has plenty of parking, and we know our way around it the best.

I suppose it’s like anywhere you live. You know this store has the best deals on chicken, but that one has that particular spice you need. You develop your favorite stores and pick one of them depending on what is on your list. You may not be able to find exactly the same item or brand here that you got used to in the US, but chances are you can find something similar or something new to suit your needs.

If there is something you really want to have on hand and you see it, buy a whole lot of it because it may not be there next time. We thought this was a joke but it is really true! Sometimes random things just disappear not to be seen again for a week, a few months, or ever and no one can explain why this is. We like Morton’s Nature’s Seasons seasoning blend. It disappeared  for well over a year. As soon as I brought a few bottles back from the US, it reappeared. Pricesmart was out of Joel’s favorite bacon for quite a while (it is back now and we have a lot in the freezer).

But, in general, I can’t say we lack for a thing. There is a lot of your familiar US brand food available here, and you can find whatever you need for your household. Maybe everything isn’t exactly like you are used to, but the Panamanians have been getting by for many generations so I figure we can too.

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Photos by Joel

Yesterday we decided to go out for a drive. Our destination was the Caldera hot springs which I hear are nothing remarkable, but since they are in our area I wanted to see them anyway. We fired up Google navigation and set out up Via Boquete and then down the Caldera road.

We proceeded through beautiful scenery, through the town of Caldera, and beyond. The road got worse. The ups and downs got steeper. We felt more and more like we were far from any civilization. There were no houses and no other cars on the road. Finally though, we came to the intersection where google told us to turn. That road looked quite a bit worse and google said we were still 6 miles from our destination. I was driving our little old Mazda 323, definitely not a back country, rough road kind of car.

I decided we should forget the hot springs and continue on. Eventually we had to end up somewhere, probably Gualaca and from there we could get back home on better roads. So we drove, and drove… no houses, no other cars, very steep ups and downs, hairpin turns, and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. We climbed and climbed, and the plants and trees were telling me we were at a higher elevation. Eventually we start seeing more houses, and then suddenly there is a good road with painted yellow line down the center. Yeah!! How encouraging.

But still, we drove on, and climbed higher and higher. I was way too busy to take photos so I enlisted Joel for that job. I should have thought of it before but as you will see, we caught the most beautiful parts of the day.

We were thankful for the better road, but we still didn’t seem to be getting closer to anywhere and I considered turning around. There is no internet connection up there and it’s hard to make sense of the little map on the phone. I thought we were headed in the general direction of Hornito which was OK, a town big enough to be on the map, and a place we could ask directions and get oriented, so I continued on.

Finally we started to see a few houses which was encouraging. We were still climbing though, and the views were amazing.

Suddenly we reached the end of the road, and saw that the road it intersected had a ton of traffic. Yeah! I felt like we should turn right but not having a good sense of direction, I pulled over to see if I could make any sense out of the map on the phone. We were headed towards Rambala? No, wrong direction. Thankfully there was a very nice man walking along the side of the road who set us straight. We were right in the first place and shouldn’t have turned around.

We were still high up though, and it took a while to get down to Gualaca. I intended to go straight down to the PanAmerican highway from there. But I took a wrong turn in Gualaca and ended up on a road with very little traffic, so I knew I was off course. The little phone map said we were generally headed towards David so I kept going, and eventually we realized we were either on the Caldera road or headed in that direction. This turned out to be a good thing because it was the most gorgeous scenery of the whole day.

I think altogether we drove about 2 1/2 – 3 hours. I’m glad we went out and saw some areas we weren’t familiar with, and if we go again we will have a much better idea of where we are. I found our route on a map and I think there is a much shorter side road to the hot springs a bit farther down the road. Maybe we will try again sometime, or I’ll just take the offer of other friends who have more suitable vehicles.

It was a great day but of course, it’s always nice to get home again too.

Home again. Can you spot the baby iguana in the tree?

Home again. Can you spot the baby iguana in the tree?

A special thank you to Joel for all the great photos!

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Going to the Movies

We have never gone out to the movies much, but sometimes there is something special I want to see. This time it was Hands of Stone, about the Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán. I really enjoyed the movie! It was very interesting to have a look at the life of a very famous boxer, and a lot of the movie was filmed in Panama with familiar sights and the familiar feel of life here. Here is the trailer of you are interested.

The movie cost us $4! With our retired people discount, admission was only $2 each. Including us, there were only 6 people in the theater so it felt like an almost private showing. The movie was in English with Spanish subtitles, but most of the parts filmed in Panama were in Spanish so I suppose if we had seen it in the US, we also would have had a lot of subtitles. Either way though, it wasn’t hard to follow.

Leaving the movie was funny. The theater is in the Chiriqui Mall. After the movie, you are ushered out the back door behind the mall and it took us a bit to figure out where we were.

The mall is undergoing a serious construction and expansion project, and it looks like it will double in size. It will be very interesting to see how this works out. Right now, the mall doesn’t have much going on. There is a supermarket, some shops, some empty spaces, and the offices for immigration and drivers licenses. Who is going to fill all the new space when the old spaces aren’t even filled? Maybe it will be something popular and the mall will take on a new life which would make sense. Many people from Costa Rica come here to shop for the lower prices, and the mall is right on their way into town. It’s also easy for locals to get to and has plenty of parking. It’s next to Pricesmart, another popular shopping destination.

I don’t seem to be able to stick to one subject, so here are a few other random photos I have accumulated in the last week.

I’ll leave you with a video on the making of Hands of Stone that I found very interesting. Just think, the real Roberto Durán is right here, retired and living in Panama.

 

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Growing Food, Plantains and Yuca

I love to grow things in the yard. If those things produce food so much the better. In this yard we have planted bananas, plantains, pineapple, yucca, and a few other interesting things. I even have a cacao plant which if the plant gods smile on us, might eventually produce fruit. Wouldn’t that be cool!

Food plants in the yard is a very common thing here. Besides fruit trees you often see guandu (pigeon peas, a Christmas holiday tradition), corn, plantains, squash, and peppers.

A friend gave me a couple plantain pups, and one of them fruited recently. Plantains are eaten green as like a starchy vegetable, sliced or grated into soups and other dishes, but the most popular use is ffor patacones. Those are fried chunks smashed flat and fried again until they are something like yummy little saucer shaped french fries. Ripe plantains are also very good. They turn yellow, and often you see them for sale so ripe they are partly black. Inside the ripe fruit is like a banana but firmer and larger. They are usually sliced on the diagonal and fried for a sweet treat after a meal. Today I put one in a smoothie with other fruit and it was great. A friend gave me a drink once of ripe plantain, milk, vanilla, and I’m sure more sugar than I should have but it was SO good, like rich, delicious liquid vanilla ice cream.

I don’t use a lot of plantains, but we have had very good luck freezing bananas. I may use one or two plantains for soup, and I think I’ll let the rest get ripe, slice and freeze them, and use them for smoothies. I have been using some of the frozen bananas in my oatmeal pancakes so maybe I’ll try the next ripe plantain and see how that works. (My absolute favorite though is oatmeal pancakes with mangoes! Who would have thought?)

You can see some of my yuca in the photos above (It’s called cassava in a lot of the world if you want to look up info). It has green sort of star shaped leaves on knobby gray stalks. It was growing wild at the end of the street so I just cut some and stuck some 8-10 inch pieces of the thick stems in the ground with a bit showing above the ground. It took off an grew! (so much it tends to fall over or get in the way when it gets really tall and leggy) I dug some a while back and it was the best yuca I’ve had, white, tender, and delicious. It’s very much like a potato so you can boil it like potato slices, or if you want something really good take the boiled slices and fry them in oil like french fries. I have also put them in the food processor to make something like mashed potatoes, and that’s also excellent.

The other day I dug out one root for some soup I was making. Then, I went back the next day to dig up the rest of the plant and this is what I found under the ground! I knew it was really big and I should have dug it some time ago, but I still had yuca in the freezer from the last plant.

This yuca seems a little different than what I’ve bought in the store. It has the typical brown skin but under that there is another thick, purplish white skin which can easily be peeled off with your fingers, which makes preparing it a snap. Thank goodness the stuff freezes well! Besides putting it in the soup, we had mashed yuca for dinner two nights. There are three quarts more of mashed yuca in the freezer along with 2 gallon size bags of cooked, sliced yuca. And, I still have about half of the super big root yet to cook.

Hungry? Come to our house!  Our freezer is one of the most useful things we have. We bought it because we bought all that pork last year, but now it has bananas, yuca, tons of mangoes I picked up when they were in season, star fruit, various things we bought in quantity from Pricesmart, and who knows what all else.

Life in Panama – now that we have the time we can cook everything from scratch, use what is available around us, and we eat really really well.

 

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Sometimes Luck Smiles on You

Today has been a really good day in spite of some problems. Or, maybe I should say the problems were so much less because of some good things.

Yesterday we had plans to do laundry. But…. no water. The water was still out this morning but there was a heavy equipment trailer parked down the road. Word was that they were digging up pipes so they could repair something.

Yesterday it rained and gave us water for washing all the dishes, flushing toilets, filling empty gallons, and filling two 5 gallon buckets for later so we were feeling good. (We keep about 10 one gallon milk jugs and a half dozen 2 liter bottles of water on hand at all times for these water outages. They don’t happen as much as they used to when we first arrived, but I feel much better having a supply just in case)

This morning I set off on my bike towards Aquacatal and parts northwest. It was a spectacular day and I was anxious to be out, not having ridden since Saturday. The fields were green, the sky was blue with pretty puffy white clouds, and the scenery looked like something out of a travel magazine. I passed one green field with two guys on horseback. Then I passed another with three horses just running across the field for the fun of it.

The picture doesn't even begin to do the day justice, but I was having too much of a good time to stop for many photos.

The picture doesn’t even begin to do the day justice, but I was having too much of a good time to stop for a lot of photos.

I noticed some odd noises from the back wheel of my bike and thought seriously about stopping by the shop on my way home. Maybe something happened when I got the chain wedged by the axle on Saturday. I was feeling great though and the bike was still doing fine, so I pedaled on until… thunk… and then it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t see anything out of place, but as soon as I got back on the bike I realized the back wheel wasn’t stable and it wasn’t fit to even coast back to town.

By some huge stroke of luck, just then a bus came along and it even had a roof rack! I removed my panniers, they put the bike up top, and we headed to the bus terminal (cost me a whole $1!). As more luck would have it the bike shop is only a block from the terminal, an easy walk, and it was only 11:30. I could easily make it before the shop closes for lunch. But… no… they were closed when I arrived at 11:43. But one of the bike shop guys was in the shop next door so he took my bike, and I was asked to come back after 2 when the repair guy would be back.

Joel, again, came to my rescue and picked me up from the bike shop. As we got to our neighborhood we passed a water truck. They had filled all the containers that we left in front of the house, and were making their way around the neighborhood helping others who needed a resupply of water. We barely got in the house and discovered the water was flowing again! We made a dash for a most welcome and heavenly shower, cleaned up the kitchen, and filled any empty drinking water containers.

Back to the bike shop… the rear axle was broken, and the rear wheel spokes don’t look so great either so he will change them also, all for $12.

Now that we had water again, I figured it was a good idea to finish making the fish soup I had started. I dug a good yucca root out of the front yard and headed back to the house to discover the water had slowed to barely a trickle *sigh*. OK, quick, wash the lunch dishes, wash the yucca, and double check that all toilets are flushed and all containers are full. No sooner had we finished all this, than the water pressure picked up again.

The water is at full pressure now so it looks like we are OK again. My bike is being fixed and though it had a problem, I made it back to town with no trouble. The fish soup might be my best yet. I started with the bones of a big pargo (red snapper) so there is quite a bit of meat. Then I added a grated plantain (home grown), a nice sliced yucca root (home grown) some onion, celery, carrot, and a little green pepper. Yum. And, in the midst of all this, Enrique came by. He is our produce guy who comes every Tuesday and brings us the freshest fruits and vegetables, and he is a heck of a nice guy too so I’m always glad to see him.

This has nothing to do with anything today. It was taken on the way to Boquete last Saturday, I found it in my phone and liked it, so here it is.

This has nothing to do with anything today. It was taken on the way to Boquete last Saturday, I found it in my phone and liked it, so here it is. That was another very gorgeous day in the Chiriqui mountains of Panama.

 

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Just Riding Around

I always have my camera with me so it doesn’t take long to accumulate a collection of pictures.

The other day I rode out towards Aguacatal, one of my favorite routes. Villa Patricia is a new housing development going in out there. They added another road recently, and suddenly there are four new houses there.

After you pass Villa Patricia on the left and a more established residential neighborhood on the right, you are in a rural area with beautiful green fields and mountains in the distance.

The next day I headed out on my other favorite route, the road to La Barqueta. I don’t go to the beach very often because it is far and hot, but the whole route out there is wonderful with green sugar cane fields, cow pastures, and a few little towns.

 

Here are a few more photos taken on the way back into town.

But like almost all my routes, it’s time to come back to town and make my way home.

Enjoying my area at 10 miles per hour….there is a lot to be said for that.

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The Beautiful of the Panamanian Mountains

Yesterday we drove to Boquete on a sunny late afternoon, ran into clouds and a bit of rain on the way, and arrived in the Boquete area just as the clouds were clearing. We couldn’t resist stopping at the Mirador to enjoy the beauty and take some photos.

I think the photos speak for themselves without captions. Every day I cannot believe our good fortune to live in this country surrounded by so much beauty.

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House for Rent

Sometimes people ask about housing in our area, and a house I know fairly well has become available in our neighborhood. I know it because a couple friends, other expats, lived there before family circumstances called them back to the US.

KenHouse

This is a great upper middle class neighborhood, quiet, very nice neighbors, on the north edge of David, but it’s just a few minutes from a major shopping area.

This house looks bigger on the inside than you would expect from the front. I believe it is three bedrooms and two baths, and the rooms are very spacious (by Panamanian standards). There is a comfortable open kitchen with a half wall so it isn’t isolated from the dining room and living room. The floors are cement, not tile. It’s the typical block construction with a metal roof. Behind the house are woods and then a river, so you can sit on the large back terrace and listen to the water. There are a number of fruit trees in the yard also.

The house is furnished and costs $650/month, with a discount for long term or a pensianado – retired people (furnished homes are more expensive than unfurnished but you could bring your suitcases and move in).

This is just one example of what is available in our area. There are other houses that are cheaper but they may be in less desirable areas, and/or be a lot smaller. It is hard to find furnished rentals in David since we tend to have a more stable population of locals who don’t move around much. There are also other houses that are a lot more expensive, especially if they are furnished, larger, and/or up in Boquete where there are lots of expats and a lot of demand. Even here, people constructed three very attractive houses (furnished) on a lot down the road, and I was told the rent is $1050 each! I see people are living in those houses now, but I’m not sure if they bargained for a more reasonable rent.

If you are seriously looking for a place and think this might work for you, contact the agent and my good friend Eduardo Horna at riochiriqui@gmail.com

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Walmart Cometh

Some time ago, I saw a sign for a Walmart. Some people were not happy, but others said it was only a joke. Unfortunately current evidence makes it look quite real. Does Panama really need a Walmart? I don’t know, but it’s not up to me anyway.

I went biking today and saw that they have now built a fence around the site. I asked the guy working there if a Walmart is coming and he said yes, it is. For you local readers, the location – There is an intersection on the PanAmerican highway just past Cochez, just west of the Franklin Jorado parking lot. Take that road northwest towards Aguacatal. The Walmart site is on the left maybe a half mile down the road.

If you are from the US you will see a lot of familiar things here – McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, TGI Fridays, Subway, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, and Dairy Queen, just to name a few. I’m not sure this is a good thing, especially the food which isn’t good for people’s health. But, it is well liked here. KFC delivery motorcycles can be seen all over town and the parking lot is overflowing in the evenings.

WalMart though? They are known for beating down the prices they pay suppliers, and for giving employees low pay and less than full time work so they can’t get benefits. Are they going to do the same here? Panama has very strict laws that give workers many benefits and protections so it will be harder to mistreat employees, but of course not impossible for a creative and determined employer. Many here are more concerned with price than quality, so maybe the products will be popular. I don’t know, and all I can do is observe and listen.

916WalMart3

“Private Property – Walmart”, in English. I know it’s a small thing but they speak Spanish here, so have some respect and make a sign in their language.

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Getting Things Done – License Plates and the Long Saga of the Microwave

Sometimes getting things done in Panama can be … ahem … interesting. Do not ever count on anything being fast or easy. Sometimes it is, but now always.

Fast and easy was my car that needed new license plates. I went to the insurance office, waited while they pulled up my records and printed me the necessary documents, I wrote them a check, and done. Same for the inspection. Walked in, no waiting, done in no time. The next day I went downtown for the plate. Again, no waiting, paid, took the paper to the next window, they found my plate, I signed the book, and done.

Speaking of license plates, you get a new one every year, no stickers like in the US. The insurance is similar to the US except your insurance comes with a towing benefit, very nice. The inspection is quite funny. You park your car in the designated spot, they come out with a camera and take a few photos, and give you your “revisado” document. This year they didn’t even check the lights and blinkers. But, you need your insurance and title to get your revisado, and your revisado to get your plate so just go with it. Plates expire at the end of the month so don’t wait until the last minute, or you might wait in line with all the others who also waited until the last minute.

The not so fast and easy…  there is the saga of the microwave (get a cup of coffee and a comfortable chair). Joel bought one from the DoIt Center at the end of April, and it died recently. The Sunday before last I went to talk with my friends in the appliance department. Yes, it has a one year guarantee but you need the receipt (which we can’t find). But since we are on the frequent shopper program the guy at customer service can look it up and print a new one.

816DoIt1

We are standing at the customer service desk at the front of the store, watching the people come and go.

We go to customer service and wait, and wait for the guy who said he would be right back. A woman tries to help but can’t find our records. Another guy comes by but says he doesn’t know how to do that, so we continue waiting. Finally another woman comes by and informs us that the guy we need is at lunch. By now it is around 2PM and we decide to come back the next day.

The next day (Monday), the guy we need is at the customer service desk and prints our receipt. On it is a phone number and I am told this is the call center and I need to talk with them. I call, make it through two menus, reach a real person and explain what I want, get an answer I can’t understand, get put on hold, and then cut off. My friend Tomás at customer service bales me out and makes the call for me. I am told I need to take the microwave to Taller Acosta to be fixed. Tomás wasn’t given the phone number for the shop though, and the next 15 minutes are spent with him and others running around DoIt Center trying to find someone who knows where this shop is located. The customer service guy comes to the rescue and draws us a map and explains how to get there – in English! (who knew after all this that he speaks excellent English)

816DoIt2

Behind the customer service desk is the gardening department. They had a large selection of hoses!

We set off to find the shop which involved going through the most congested part of downtown, and finally find what we think is the shop to find it closed. It is lunch hour. We call it a day and go home.

The next day (Tuesday) we head out to the shop to find it closed again. I ask at the convenience store and am told that is not the shop. We need to go a few more blocks down the street. We find the shop which says nothing about Acosta except for a URL on the window that is something like serviacosta.com. I explain what I need, Joel fetches the microwave and brings it in. Oh NO, we don’t work with that brand. You need to go to the shop next door. OK, fine, so we go next door and wait. They get done with whatever they were doing in the back, come out and take one look at the microwave – oh no, we don’t repair that brand. You need to take it back to DoIt Center for a replacement.

(I told you that you would need coffee and a comfortable chair for this story. There is still quite a bit more)

We go back to DoIt Center to see the customer service guy. He can’t just take it back without proper documentation and authorization. He calls the call center and nothing is resolved. They need to contact the shop to find out why they wouldn’t repair the microwave. He is told they will investigate and he can call back after 3PM for their answer. He will call me to let me know what he finds out. I never got a call.

816DoIt3

The light bulb department, ceiling fans, all all other things for lights and electricity. They always have a small display of plants also to temp you as you walk by.

Wednesday, we bike down to the DoIt Center. The guy at the service desk is off today. I didn’t even ask the others if they knew anything about our case. I’ll just go back tomorrow. Thank goodness we live as close as we do.

Thursday, they guy was in but hadn’t heard anything. He says they are still investigating and he will call if there is any news.

Friday, wrong time. He was at lunch again. We have learned to use other methods of heating foods, and have realized how often we use the microwave without even thinking about it.

It is now Saturday. Should I publish the story so far, or wait for the resolution? Monday I plan to ask him if we can have our money back, or at the very least, would he please call again and try to speed things up?

Get another cup of coffee and go back to your comfortable chair.

I wasn’t out and about on Monday, but on Tuesday I stopped by and our guy was at the service desk. He hadn’t heard anything so he got on the phone. We wandered about, said hi to my friends, wandered back and he was still on the phone. After much conversation and me explaining how to find my house, the word is that someone will be at our house tomorrow to fix the thing. If they don’t show up I am to call the call center again.

Wednesday – they didn’t show up.

Thursday (today) we go back to the DoIt Center. The guy we have been working with no longer works there. We explain our story to various people who try to help, and finally a manager comes to the desk. She says we should have gotten a change order from the shop when they couldn’t fix the microwave. We refuse to make another trip to the shop. She insists there is nothing we can do without the change order.  Can she get the guy who didn’t show up to fix the unit in their store because we aren’t taking it home again. She calls the call center, then calls the shop buy by this time they are closed for lunch. I offer to do our errands and return in a while when the shop should be open again. No she says, we need to go to the shop and get the change order. By now Joel is totally over it. We tell them the microwave is now their problem, and we walk away.

We have been without a microwave for about two weeks now and have decided not to replace it. We don’t need it to defrost things if we plan ahead better. We can reheat things on the stove or in the toaster oven. We used to cook veggies in the microwave but find we like them better steamed on the stove. Now we have one less thing taking up space in the kitchen.

I can end with a fast and easy story though… more or less. We went to Dolega to get plates for Joel’s car (you have to go to where the car is registered). We wait for our turn, hand the revisado with a copy and $35.10 to the lady, go back to wait, and are called to pick up a document confirming our registration. Joel was late and they didn’t have any more July plates, so we’ll have to go back later to see if they have some in.

There is no place where you can live without hitting some bumps along the way, and Panama is no exception. I have been told that Novey is much better about returns so if we change our mind about getting a microwave, we’ll go there.

I am thankful that we live close to DoIt (after these multiple trips) and I am very thankful I know enough Spanish to communicate because except for the Customer Service guy, no one spoke any English. Patience is a good thing to have. It’s a great life here in Panama and sometimes you even get an advanced class in patience. Without opportunities to practice your patience how would you ever improve? I’m thankful for all the opportunities over the years because I fail a lot fewer classes than I did years ago.

 

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