Archive for February, 2011

3Ms — Panama’s good side

28 February 2011

In my last post, I excoriated Panama for being a dishonest place and I could have mentioned a few other things, but I wish to protect the guilty. But Panama was not all bad. There are three things that are better than just good; they are great: Molas, Maito and Mitch.

Molas

Kuna woman selling Molas in Casco Viejo (the old colonial town), Panama City

Molas are a fabric art form made by the Kuna women of north-eastern Panama, in an area formerly known as the San Blas Province but now officially referred to as the Kuna Yala. The Kuna are a First Nation people still living a more or less traditional lifestyle in the home area. They had a revolution against Panama in 1925 and defeated the Panamanians, so managed to keep their autonomy, political structures and culture intact.

Molas are made by stitching several layers of different coloured cloth and cutting out designs and then sewing the cut-outs to the lower layer. They are traditionally part of Kuna women’s clothing, but are now also made and sewn for sale, including large one with various designs of birds and wildlife.

Marilyn with Kuna woman in traditional dress, in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Marilyn totally fell in love with them (She is a textile art freak after all, went crazy in Guatemala and also has a trunk-full of antique Canadian quilts from the Maritimes). When we were in Panama last May, Marilyn bought a large one which is hanging in our hallway and a whole bunch of small ones which she framed or turned into pillows. This time she again bought many of the smaller ones. I have to keep on telling her: “You like it, buy it!” whenever her Puritan instincts start taking over.

Luigi talking to two Kuna men selling Molas in Boquete in May 2010. Marilyn bought $400 worth of Molas from them. I think they liked us.

Maito
Maito is an absolutely great restaurant in Panama City, one our best dining experiences on this trip, probably second after Izote restaurant in Mexico City. If you go to Panama City, go eat there. We had a fabulous meal and I wrote a review of it on Trip Advisor.

Mitch

Mitch doing the pizza thing, a familiar sight to many Yukoners. But this was in Panama. No, Yukoners, the drum is not a weird barrel stove, it is a Panamanian pizza oven. They don't need heat in Central America.

Actually, it should be Doug and Mitch, but Mitch fits better with the M theme of this entry. Whitehorse residents will be familiar with Mitch née Cormier now Dupont who founded the best pizzeria North of 60, Bocelli’s Pizza in Whitehorse. She sold Bocelli and opened a boutique hotel B&B in Chame Panama. They are also opening another resort B&B on Tagish Lake in the Yukon. So winter months in Panama, summer in the Yukon.

Anyway, the Panayukana hotel in Chame was absolutely wonderful as were Mitch and Doug and their daughter. If you go to Panama, you have to stay there. While I worked, Mitch took Marilyn to the beach in Santa Clara, we had great meals by the pool, and just a great good time. Their slogan “Come as a guest, leave as a friend” certainly applied to us; we had known Mitch through her restaurant but we were never close in Whitehorse. This all changed and we look forward to seeing them in Whitehorse and Tagish this summer. We were also planning to go to the San Blas islands in Kuna Yala together, but my disgust with Panamanians after getting tossed out of the country sort of put a kibosh on that plan. I am not sure I want to go back there again.

I should add that, last May, Mitch did offer to let me leave my truck and camper at their place, but the camper is too high to fit through the entrance. She’s great! If you go to Panama, you have to stay there! Remeber Pananyukana: the http://www.panayukana.com/

Actually, there are other cool things in Panama, like Boquete in the North and the Casco Viejo old colonial town in Panama City, which is now being restored. And there is the Panama canal, which is extremly impressive, even for someone like me who was taken to see the Saint-Lambert and the Côte Sainte-Catherine locks in operation many times on lazy Sundays while I was growing up, or Marilyn growing up not far from the Welland canal. Plus, I have to hand it to the Panamanians who are running the canal more efficiently than the Americans ever did, putting more ships through and earning more money. Panama will also be adding a third wider “lane” to the canal, which I have no doubt they will manage to do well.

But I still don’t like being lied to and bullshitted repeatedly.

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Pirates of the Caribbean … and of the Pacific.

26 February 2011

We are currently in Costa Rica, in Liberia to be precise where the party (the annual fiesta) is starting. I just finished a couple of work reports so can now resume the blog without guilt. We stayed in Panama about a month ago at the end of January and the beginning of February and have been in Costa Rica since February 3.

Panama city skyline. Where does the money for all these skyscrapers come from?


I have a serious problem with Panama. I rarely I find myself disliking people or a country. I like to assume the best of people and I am not often disappointed. However, in less than a week in Panama we had four experiences with dishonesty, which seem to be rife in the country.

We’re not talking about crime here, which is everywhere in the world. Or about petty corruption of officials, which is endemic in poor countries where civil servants have low pay. Or the high level corruption even our Canadian governments are guilty of, whether it’s the Tories under Mulroney and Harper or the Liberals under Chrétien and Charest. We are talking here about a more fundamental dishonesty, lying for the sake of lying, even in petty things. It reminds one of the old joke, this time applied to Panamanians: “How can you tell a Panamanian is lying?” “His lips are moving.”

Our first experience of dishonesty was at the car rental place at the airport. We had a reservation from Dollar rent a car for a car at $20 per day, unlimited mileage, etc, through Expedia.ca. But at the counter, we were told there would be a charge of $US18 per day for insurance. And that was only for third party liability as I declined the other insurance. This almost doubled the cost of the rental. This was particularly galling as the next day I got third party liability insurance from an Italian insurance company for my truck for $US116 for a whole year! I felt pretty ripped off, but I figured what the hell, bad apple and all that. But it turns out the barrel is rotten.

Doug & Mitch & Luigi in the kitchen at Panayukana in Chame.

Our next experience was a petty one in Chame. Doug Dupont and I had a few beers with a couple of Panamanians while my truck was getting washed. Mitch and Doug are wonderful people and run an absolutely first class boutique hotel in Chame (Panayukana, more on a later post when I talk about the good sides of Panama).

One of the guys asked us to give him a ride home which he said was in the next village over & — Bejuco. Well it turned out that he lived two villages away in Santa Cruz. Like who cares, why don’t you tell us you live six kilometres away instead of three? Like what’s the big deal? Why do you feel the need to lie?

Number three was one we witnessed. Someone has a firm price contract where they have to pay half the cost up front. No problem. Half of the contract price is counted out in front of one of the contractors and he signs a receipt. The next day, the guy claims that he was $1,000 short when he went to deposit the money at the bank. The problem, though, is that you can’t afford to piss them off because they can take revenge. We were told a story of some expats who pissed off their contractor, so they raped the wife and wounded the husband. Not even drug dealers operate that way: a deal is a deal.

The fourth was with Panamanian customs (motto: purportedly “Servicio y honestad” but in reality “Incompetencia y corrupción“). The day after I arrived, I went to the customs office in Panama City to find out what I should do about my truck as the temporary importation permit had expired. The customs officer I spoke to told me that there would be a $250 fine and I had to get the truck out of the country ASAP and then come back after 72 hours. When I asked her if I could make the arrangements right there in Panama City, she told me no and that I had to go to the Paso Canoas border post where I had entered the country. OK so far. So after spending a great weekend at Mitch and Doug’s place, we head out north to the Costa Rican border.

About a third of the way – at a small dorp1 not on the map call Divisa – we are stopped at a road block by the police and a customs officer who asks for the truck papers. Well, they keep us waiting for four hours, charge us $411 instead of the $250 as the customs administrator claims the law allows him to charge up to $500 dollars or even to seize the vehicle, so I should count myself lucky. All with strong hints that we can get out of it with a bribe. Well, he got his kicks by keeping us waiting and by insisting that a customs officer escort us to the border, like the nasty criminals were. I almost kissed the ground when I entered Costa Rica and had the usual helpful and pleasant interchanges with the Costa Rican customs officials. A tour guide I met in Costa Rica told me that he routinely gives the Panamanian customs guards $20 just so they won’t give him a hard time.

This is very different from the attempted shake downs by police in Honduras and Mexico State, where eventually they gave up after trying it on and we parted with smiles when it became clear that I was not going to give them a bribe.

My theory is that this dishonesty is rooted in the country’s history. It started with collaboration with English pirates – like “Sir” Francis Drake and William Morgan – in the 16th century. Panama was then used as a land route where the Spanish loot from Peru was brought from the Pacific to waiting ships in the Caribbean. Before that there was Balboa who supposedly “discovered” this part of the world, and ended up beheaded after a lot of chicanery among the Spanish conquistadores.

The Peruvian loot was used to fund the Spanish takeover of Italy, the Netherlands and the German Holy Roman Empire. The English buccaneers and French flibustiers stole some of the loot while their monarchs successfully resisted and eventually defeated Spanish hegemony in Europe. We would be speaking Spanish today instead of English and French if had not been for the success of these pirates. But, I digress.

The creation of Panama was another less than honest act. Panama was part of Colombia, but the US did not like the terms the Colombians were imposing on eventual canal builders. So Teddy Roosevelt and co. used gunboats and a few locals to orchestrate the independence of the isthmus and massively bribed the Panamanian ambassador (who wasn’t even Panamanian) to the US to give them the Canal Zone.

There are other contemporary political aspects to that dishonesty. Panama invented the idea of “flag of convenience” for ship owners who want to avoid all forms of regulations, whether it be safety, seaworthiness, or labour and environmental standards. Quoting the unimpeachable wikipedia:

Flag-of-convenience registries are often criticized. As of 2009, thirteen flag states have been found by international shipping organizations to have substandard regulations. A basis for many criticisms is that the flag-of-convenience system allows shipowners to be legally anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions. Ships with flags of convenience have been found engaging in crime and terrorism, frequently offer substandard working conditions, and negatively impact the environment, primarily through illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Panama also supports criminals and terrorists through its banking secrecy laws that rival those of the Cayman Islands, and are certainly more liberal than that European den of tax evasion and criminal refugees known as Switzerland. If you want to launder your ill-gotten gains, Panama seems to be the place to go.

view from our hotel room

What I found particularly strange is the large number of high rises under construction in Panama City. One wonders where the financing for all that real estate comes from. And much of it seems to be empty, including the wonderful hotel we stayed in called “Esplendor Panama”, where a high-end one-bedroom suite only cost us $100 a night.

1 Dorp is Marilyn’s term for a really small place, originally applied to places like Upper or Lower or Middle Hainesville, New Brunswick.

The dangers of Mexico

9 February 2011

We are now in north-eastern Costa Rica, in the Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiquí region. But I continue the story with more on Mexico City.

Mexico City proved extremely dangerous, especially for me. And not because of drug dealers, or pickpockets, or street crime. The real danger is the food. And not because of the “turista” or “Montezuma’s revenge”; food preparation is actually very hygienic. Mexicans seem to be constantly washing their hands, the supermarkets sell all kinds of disinfectants for the same Mexican vegetables and fruits we import and eat with impunity in Canada.

The real dangers in Mexico City are tacos and quesadillas and chiles rellenos and salsas and tortillas and tamales and churros and manteca and mantequilla and all manners of other local foods. Particularly dangerous are the high-end restaurants, the humble hole in the wall taquerías, the street food sellers, and all other establishments preparing and selling food. It should come as no surprise that Mexicans are even fatter than Americans. (Or should I be polite and say they have a higher rate of obesity?) Not that Canadians are much better; our fat behinds are not that far behind. North America is unquestionably the fattest continent on Earth.

Let’s not forget that the conquest of Mexico resulted in a dietary revolution in most of the world: corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, turkey, vanilla, and chocolate all originated in Mexico, as did chewing gum (chicle).

The Mexicans seem to be as fanatic about their food as Italians. They all think the best food in the world is their mother’s, then their city’s or region’s, then the food from other Mexican regions. They will only grudgingly admit that other countries might have some good dishes, especially Italy.

As an aside, Italian and Italy are sexy in Mexico. The city and the country are rife with misspelled Italian words: the favourite seems to double up consonants to make the works look more “Italian” as Spanish does not have double consonants: I have seen Italianno, Insalatta capresse, Toscanna, etc.

Mexico City seems to cater to all Mexican prejudices about food. The only mediocre meal we had in Mexico City was in we what later found out to be a tourist restaurant. But they still had excellent artisanal beers and great guacamole.

I had one of the best meals in my life at the Izote de Patricia Quintana restaurant. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of it on the Trip Advisor Web site. I did forget to mention that we started with tortilla chips and four kinds of salsa when we began the meal.

All is not perfect, however. The Mexicans still need to learn how to roast and make good coffee; despite the fact that they grow the beans. It is a sad state of affairs when one has to go to Starbucks to get a quarter-decent (not quite half-decent) cup of coffee.

¡Viva Mexico!

7 February 2011

On our way to retrieving our truck in Panama, we spent five days in Mexico City. This is after four days in Vancouver, where we needed to get new passports as ours were about to expire in March.

Mexico City was surprisingly not intimidating despite being one of the largest cities in the world – a title it disputes with New York, Tokyo and Shanghai depending on which suburbs are included in the metropolitan area. We are talking well over 20 million people in the same conurbation. That is a thousand times more people than Whitehorse, 10 times bigger than Vancouver, six times bigger than Montreal and four times the size of T.O.

Despite its size, people were all friendly (like all Mexicans, it seems) and drivers are relatively civil despite the permanent traffic jam, certainly more civilized than in Montreal or New York, not to speak of Paris or Rome. Fifteen years of social-democratic mayors who exercised the usual socialist genius for municipal administration transformed a crime-ridden massively polluted megalopolis into a quite liveable city. Restrictions on driving and improved affordable public transit eliminated most of the smog. A socialist police chief (Marcelo Ebrard, the current mayor) turned a corrupt and inefficient municipal police force into an honest and competent one. Criminals have seen their house bulldozed. The drug cartels are absent from the city. Mexico would probably be a better place if the two of the last few mayors, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and López Obrador had won the presidency instead of losing it fraudulently to the right-wing candidates.

View from the hotel room: Chapultepec park with the Museum of Anthropology in the background right

The city has some incredible museums. We stayed in a hotel room overlooking Chapultepec Park and visited the museum of Anthropology. We could have easily spent a few days there instead of a few hours; it is one of the world’s great museums. I even explained to some Mexican kids that we lived in what was Beringia and about caribou hunting by northern First Nations. One kid asked me if it was true that we did not lock our cars in Canada. I dissuaded him from that notion, but it’s nice to know that our country has that good a reputation.

We did have one mishap. I left my Swiss Army knife at the entrance, and it was nowhere to be found when we were leaving. The knife was one of the most complicated ones: I had paid about $40 for it. That is an enormous sum to a Mexican museum guard, so they offered us complimentary tickets to a folkloric ballet show happening that night. I wasn’t too keen on it as I am not much for dance performances. But it was absolutely spectacular, unquestionably worth more than the knife. We’re talking the national folkloric dance ensemble here. So things worked out happily for everyone.

View from the tour bus

We also took a tour bus on the Monday when all the museums were closed. This was double-decker, with the upper deck completely open. For ten dollars, you got a guided tour of the city and could get off and on as many times as you wanted. Occasionally I had to duck tree branches or the earphones which previous passengers liked to drape over the overhead wires that were within reach. Well worth doing to get a sense of the main attractions of the city including Chapultepec Park, the Paseo de la Reforma, the cathedral and Zocalo as well as a number of neat neighbourhoods. The tour highlighted much the architecture that went from the colonial Baroque to ultra modern, going through art nouveau of the turn of the last century and art deco. Not to speak of wonderful murals in most public buildings, not only by Diego Rivera (who was my size) but by a large number of other muralists.

Even though I like living in Whitehorse with its proximity to nature and relaxed lifestyle, I don’t think I would mind living in Mexico City, especially since the year-round weather is like a Yukon summer: sunny dry warm days (20-25°C) and cool nights (5-15°C).