Panama in the pandemic

It’s weird that we have spent most of our time in Panama in a pandemic. But, we’ve been extremely lucky to be safe, healthy and employed.   

The vaccine is slower to roll out here than in the U.S. but while we wait (me more impatiently then Jeff) I’m reflecting at how much different things are now vs. a year ago. 

Panama had one of the strictest quarantines in the world. The below chart (taken from a site called Our World in Data shows the level of restrictions compared to the US.

For a week there in November we were living life free and easy compared to the US.

At first it seemed like no big deal

It started out the same here as everywhere. We thought it would be over in two weeks.

Here we are learning the pool was closed (or auditioning for most overly dramatic expats ever). Imagine our faces if we had known it would be a bit longer than two weeks.

Alas, the pool has closed. We are tortured.
Not sure why I cared about the gym closing since I never used it.

When they started boarding up the stores we got a little nervous. Would there be looting? Riots? Toilet paper shortage?

There weren’t any riots, looting, or even toilet paper shortages.

And then came Women and Men days

When they divided the week up into women and men days we became concerned. When we found out you could only go out for two assigned hours on your day we freaked out.

Wait what?

Based on the last digit of my passport and being female, I had 8:30-10:30 M,W,F.  Jeff had 7:30-9:30 Tue and  Thur only. For once, being a woman came with some advantages. Men having less hours than women is probably whey they expected rioting.   

What happened if you were transgender or non binary? Sadly, you might be harassed or arrested. 

What happened if you were out at the wrong time or day? You could be fined or even arrested.

How did they know if you were out at the wrong time? There were police checking your documents to make sure it was the correct time. If you went to a grocery store at the wrong time they would not let you inside.

But if living in another country teaches you anything, it’s to be adaptable. We started having our food delivered online.

Remember when we washed all our food before it entered the house? Still never quite figured out how to wash a pineapple.

Since we were only allowed to go grocery shopping during our two hours on our day/times out I walked to the grocery store, the far away grocery store. 

We thought we’d get fit during the pandemic

In our spare time,  which was all the hours, we climbed up and down the fire escape. 

Then an email went out to the entire building saying no one was allowed out on the fire escape unless it was a declared emergency.    

No problem, we had long hallways. a parking garage and balcony .

Who wouldn’t want to workout in a parking garage in 90 degree heat? And it was only 38 times back and forth on the balcony to equal a mile.

I even bought a Door Gym. 

This worked great we used it every day and got super fit. hahahaha. Not. I tried it once, was afraid I’d break the door and poke an eye out.

We only went a little nutty

Soon we found that exercise was overrated. There is some research that shows that exercise helps to alliviate stress, but we seemed to be just fine.

What do you mean I shouldn’t turn my video on during a work zoom call?.
I did not throw this monitor at this tree, only because I didn’t have a computer monitor.
Do you think that bird on the balcony will be my friend?
This bug will be my new pet. I shall name him Clyde and cherish him forever.

Buying these highlighters were probaby the highlight of the pandemic for me (excuse the pun). I spent an entire day doing a photo shoot with them.

They’re so pretty.

Alcohol was completely banned

Worst than not beling allowed out of our apartment building? Alcohol sales were banned throughout the country.  Yes, banned!  Why? We think they wanted people to spend money on food not booze, and it would help keep people from getting drunk and breaking the quarantine laws.

Shoplifting never seemed so appealing.

After our wine and gin was depleted we had to go into stealth mode. The local mini mart still had a healthy stock of liquor.   Sure they had signs saying they couldn’t sell it. But Jeff is nice and good at Spanish. He talked them into selling us a secret bottle or two.  

In theory you were not even allowed to drink alcohol in your own home.

That was one law we had to break.

We had friends to break the alcohol law with

Lucky for us, the only friends we have in the entire country, happen to live in our building. We could hang out with them without breaking quarantine.

Rolf and Samuel were friends before the pandemic, but in the last year they have become like family.   We have spend countless evenings, holidays, and many bottles of illegally purchased alcohol together.   

Can you see all my teeth or should I smile more?
Their balcony is way windier than ours.

Not only are they great people they are fantastic cooks and hosts.

Dinner at their apartment includes champagne, beautiful table settings and professionally plated food.

Dinner at our apartment is a more informal affair.

Oh wait you need a fork? Yeah we don’t have any clean ones.

As things got better, parks opened up. I was able to walk out here on women’s day. I was also lucky that my assigned time was early in the morning before work started and before it got too hot outside.

Finally, after months of only being outside seperately, they lifted men and women days and we could venture out together.

Sheryl: Why are you standing so close to me?
Jeff: Really? Another selfie?

So yes, we came to Panama and then were in lockdown for a year. But, we’ve stayed healthy and employed, been able to Zoom with our family and friends, and have friends here.

You would think I wouldn’t complain now that the pool is open again and I can just sit here while I wait for the vaccine. But I do complain…a lot.

Restrictions have lifted but the vaccine is slow to rollout . Currently to be eligible you have to be sixty and above.

What’s next

We are venturing out slowly and safely. And to answer the question of what’s next? We really don’t know. Our #1 priority is to get vaccinated and see our families. After that we hope to return to Panama and do the trip we planned pre-pandemic. So we’ll see. In the meantime we continue to wait for the vaccine here in Panama City

Jeff: Look at this view. Enjoy it and be patient.

Sheryl: Hurry up with the damn vaccine already!!!!!!!

Mom, Dad, and the Panama Canal railroad.

It feels weird to be posting during a pandemic. But, blogging is keeping me from going crazy while stuck inside. I hope everyone is staying healthy both physically and mentally during this crazy time.

We were extremely lucky that my parents were able to visit in early March and get back home to Georgia before things got really bad. They were here from March 1 – March 7 so the things we did in this post are from a few weeks ago. It seems so long ago. Just a few weeks ago the world was a very different place.

In my last post, I talked about seeing the Panama Canal from the Pacific side.

After seeing the Miraflores locks we went out to happy hour and dinner. Immediately several things became abundantly clear:

  1. You can’t actually swim in Panama City’s highest pool bar. The pool is just ornamental. But the views and drink specials at Panaviera make up for it.
Shoot I was going to get really drunk then dive in. What could go wrong?

2. Two for one happy hour drink special takes the sting out of not swimming in a pool on the 66th floor.

Drinking is more fun that swimming any day.

3. Everything tastes better when your table glows green.

Do I look like a Lepracon?

4. Personal coat racks at your restaurant table are an amazing invention.

Who needs to hang up their cooling tie?

5. But most importantly, we needed more canal! The Pacific side was nice and all, but we needed to see the Caribbean side too.

We can’t rest until we see the ENTIRE canal.
map from Wikipedia

We found a guide and scheduled a tour for the following day. The only catch, we would start super early in the morning.

Dad: I can’t wait to see more canal.
Sheryl: We have to leave the hotel at 6:00 am.
Mom: Wait, what?

Getting picked up before the sun rose was difficult.

Jeff: Whose idea was this?
Mom: Don’t look at me.
Dad: Not mine
Sheryl: I had three cups of coffee! I’m going to swim the canal!

Our guide Estaban picked us up at the hotel, and drove us to the Panama Railway station. The train was built in 1855 which was even before the canal . It was first used to take people across Panama from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

Once the Americans took over building the canal they used it to move workers, equipment, and dirt across the isthmus.

Sheryl: This is the original train car.
Mom: I sure hope they updated the bathrooms since this was built in the 1800’s.
Dad: I hope they cleaned out the dirt.

At the station where we bought our tickets, I found this one bag of coffee on a lonely shelf all by itself.

I appreciate the marketing, but really? This coffee was grown 700 miles away, nowhere near the canal or the railroad.

The train only makes the trip once a day. It leaves Panama City at 7:15 am which is why we had to get there so early.

You couldn’t run this train a little later in the day?

The really cool car that was all windows was full. But the car we ended up in was still really nice and mostly empty.

We rule this train car!
Photo credit to my Tom Cutilletta (my dad)

We were still pretty tired even as the train got on its way.

If we smile Sheryl won’t notice that we’re sleeping..

The great thing about the train is that you have jungle on side , and the actual canal on the other.

This is nice and all, but it’s 7:25am I could go for some potato chips.

It was at this point in the train ride that even though I had snarfed down half a loaf of banana bread , I was hungry. Lucky for me, they passed out coffee and little snack boxes.

I knew I had a fever for the flavor of something.

Crackers, nuts,, raisins, a piece candy, and best of all Pringles! And it was all housed in a commemorative box with a really helpful map on the bottom. As soon as I saw the potato chips I knew what I had to do.

Train Attendant: I am going to pretend I don’t see that.
Mom: Oh, that was cute.
Dad: Are you sure she’s our kid?

After about an hour, the train pulled up to the station in the town of Colon.

Sheryl: There already? I didn’t even have time to take fifty selfies.
photo credit: Tom Cutilletta (my Dad)

It was a small station with many tour guides waiting to do tours. We looked through the crowd and found our guide, Estaban. While we were eating snacks on the train, he was driving to the other side of Panama to meet us at the station.

Hope you relaxed while I raced over to meet you.

From the train, Estaban drove us to the Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side of Panama. I’ll talk about them in my next post.

Parents in Panama: The Canal Part 1

Panama Canal – Miraflores Locks

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Wait, THAT’S the Panama Canal? It looks like the Ballard Locks in Seattle.

My parents came to Panama City this last week for a visit. I’m pretty sure they came to see the Panama Canal, but we just happened to be here too.

Toucamen airport - Panama City
Sheryl: Don’t look, but the guy behind you is doing the YMCA dance. He’s on the letter C.

Our building has both apartments and a hotel. Since our bathroom doesn’t’ have walls, and sometimes smells weird, they stayed on the hotel side. We did have them up to our balcony for appetizers and to see the boats waiting to enter the Panama Canal.

Boats waiting to transit the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal version of the cell phone waiting lot at the airport.

Mom: If I knew about the bathroom, I wouldn’t have drunk all this water?
Dad: Maybe there is a gas station nearby.

On the first day of their visit, we went to Casco Viejo which is the old part of town with lots of doors.

Iglesia de Merdec
Mom: Why do we have to stand here?
Jeff in the background: Just ignore Sheryl, she’ll make you stand there all day to take photos.

Since I didn’t read the guidebook first, every church we went into I thought was the cathedral. This statue was particularly interesting.

Statue of St. Hedwig
From the sign in front of the statue: “St. Hedwig founded monasteries along with her husband. On his death, Hedwig became a nun and continued to serve the poor and sick. Panamanian devotees come to her to request the grace of a home; for this, they offer houses at her feet.

After walking around town, two things happened.

  1. My hair became extremely crazy.
  2. I became a cooling tie user
Maybe the tangled hair on top of my hair will distract from this jaunty little scarf I’m wearing.

The cooling tie is a product (I bought mine from REI) that you soak in cold water and wear around your neck. It stays cool for hours, and so do you. At least this is what our friend Brian and my parents have told us. I have mocked them for years for their cooling tie usage. But when it’s 101 heat index, it was time to don the cooling tie. And I have to say, it really did work. Jeff still had some dignity and refused to wear his.

It was around this time, that Jeff may have become nervous about the upcoming week.

Are they going to laugh like this for seven days straight.? Also, should I lend them a comb?

The next day we got up early and took an Uber to the Miraflores locks. This is the locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Bet those people are hot without cooling ties.

The viewing platform was crowded but we found a spot to watch a ship filled with windmill blades transit the Miraflores Lock.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Here we are, ready to be amazed at the Panama Canal.

Ships take a LONG time to get through the locks.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Can’t they speed this up?

Like a really long time.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Don’t tell Dad, but I’m only watching this for his sake.
Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Don’t tell my parents but we’re only watching this for their sake.
Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Don’t tell Mom but I’m only watching this for her sake.

The boat was still in the locks when we realized we would all have heat stroke if we had to watch it go through completely. Inside the visitor center, they had a great museum that explained the history and workings of the canal.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Mom: I’m about to pass out from heatstroke.
Dad: I’m so hot, I’m taking a short nap standing up.

But the best part was where we could pretend to actually drive a ship through the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
I can’t believe how good I am at this. This is going to be my new profession.
Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Sheryl: Go left go left! I better give him more instructions on this walkie talkie.
Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Hello, welcome to the Panama Canal. Press one if you would like to transit.
Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks
Listen, buddy, this is 2020, you answer your own damn phones.
I really like what you’ve done with your hair.

This is what this guy’s hair looked like six years ago when Jeff and I visited.

Next, we went to the IMAX theater for a really good movie about the canal that was in 3D. Morgan Freeman was the narrator. Between his soothing voice, heatstroke and comfy chairs it was hard to stay awake.

I’ll sleep through the beginning, Mom, you sleep during the middle and Dad, you sleep during the end.

And then we were all canaled out and headed back to Panama City via Uber and went out to dinner.

Let’s get up even earlier tomorrow and see the Atlantic side.

Other interesting things:

There is a really fun website that shows the boats going through the canal, and ports around the world.

Here’s a webcam to watch boats go through the Panama Canal in realtime.

This book is excellent. My Dad and I both read it and learned a ton about the history of the canal.

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough

If you are going to visit the locks this site has all the info you need:

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I am recommending cooling ties. This is the one I bought and really liked.

Limited water – Maximum freakout

Water Shortage Panama City

Carnival is a big four-day weekend/party in Panama and in a lot of Central and South America. But, in Panama, the biggest festivals occur outside the city. As the last long weekend before school starts again (it’s summer break here right now) many people take advantage of the long four day weekend and head out of town.

Oh darn, all these cars are leaving the city?

We decided to stay in town, hang out and enjoy crossing the streets without fear of getting hit.

There are no cars anywhere. I’m using this crosswalk ironically.

Saturday started off well enough. We got an email from our landlord, but it was in Spanish. Who wants to translate something that long on a Saturday?

And then I tried to wash dishes and no water came out of the faucet. It seemed like a good time to read that email.

Our first translation was that the water was being turned off during the above times. I was appalled, how could they do that? They were going to turn the water off for three, two hour periods a day? No water for 6 hours every day for three days?

And then, we put it through google translate. Turns out for three days the water would be turned off EXCEPT during the above time. Seemed like they were taking advantage of people being away from the city to fix the water system.

Obviously, there was only one thing to do….panic! And go out to lunch. The restaurant didn’t have any water either, but they did have wine and free bottled water.

Jeff: Calm down. This is fun.

How can I fit about 80 of these in my purse?

Next, we went out and bought three gallons of bottled water and a bucket. When the water went back on I filled up everything I could.

You can’t have enough random classes of water sitting around.
Jeff: You are overdoing it.
Sheryl: You will thank me when the water never goes back on, and you have to shower with the coffee pot!
In case we have to flush the toilet!

I understood in theory that this is still more water than much of the world had. In many places, there is no clean water, and/or no running water. I knew that…in theory. But it didn’t stop me from freaking out.

Sheryl: Day one of the water shortage – I’m so thirsty.
Jeff: Drink the water you put in the fridge or the bottled water.
Sheryl: No, I’m saving it.

On day 2 I started OK. There was water in the morning and some in the early afternoon, but, when it went off again, I started to freak out. Jeff knew there was only one thing to calm me down, a chance to take photos of doors.

look, pretty blue ones.

We headed out to Casco Viejo, a beautiful historic part of the city that dates back to the 1,600’s. The colonial architecture is amazing, there are cool restaurants and rooftop bars, and most importantly, lots of doors.

Let me just take thirty photos of each door.
oh look,, a purple one.
Here’s Jeff casually walking by for an Instagram photo.

We also looked around some ruins.

This was a convent in the 1600s.
Instagram version: We love historical things.
Reality: I think people have been peeing in here since the 1600s.
Just going to practice a little river dancing here.

Once the sun went down we realized we needed some water, and maybe a cocktail, so we headed over to a rooftop bar where we tried to look cool even though we were decades older than everyone else in the bar.

Look at how cool and unconcerned I am that THERE IS NO WATER IN THE ENTIRE CITY!

Then I decided to take a cool photo against this plant wall. These walls are all over Panama City. They look super cool and Instagrammable.

Turns out this one was fake plastic plants that were scratchy when you leaned against them.

When we got home the water was back on and stayed on for the rest of the week.

Ahhh, everything is back to normal. I’ve grown as a person and learned how to cope with inconveniences. I’ll never freak out again.

And then this morning we saw that the water will be shut off again at midnight and be out for possibly 48 hours.

Quick, fill up every container, go to the store, get more water, I’m going to need two buckets and a personal water tank. Start digging a well!

Making chocolate, sort of, not really

When I realized that Valentine’s day was fast approaching, I decided to make Jeff chocolate from scratch. He loves chocolate and it seemed like the perfect gift.


Just kidding. I am not a big Valentine’s day person. I am, however, a big fan of squash. So when I saw this in the gourd section of the grocery store, I got excited.

Doesn’t this make you think of chocolate?

I knew immediately, mostly, because of the sign, that these were cacao pods, which are used to make chocolate. I had been on Theo’s chocolate tour in Seattle where they passed around photos of these pods. I think I may have spaced out though on the tour when they explained everything that came between pod and chocolate bar.

The pod was less than a dollar, but when the grocery store bagger stared at it and held it up to look closer, I realized making chocolate from scratch was not a common thing, even in Panama.

When I looked up how to make chocolate on the internet, I realized I may have wasted my seventy-eight cents.

It sat on our counter for a week until I built up the nerve to “make chocolate.” It also took that long to convince Jeff to help me. In our over 25 year marriage, Jeff has had to rescue me when I decided to “make” soap, cheese, soy lattes, hummus, roasted pumpkin seeds, and guacamole.

Maybe I can just make a squash smoothie instead.

But then I got up the nerve and the strength to cut the pod open.

Cutting it open was super hard. Jeff stood by to dial 911 in case I cut my finger off.

Just going to close my eyes and take a little nap while I cut this.

Wouldn’t you think when you cut open a cacao pod, M&M’s would fall out? At least you would think it would smell a tiny bit like chocolate.

Nope, didn’t smell like much actually.

Ick, why are there mini aliens pods in this thing?

The inside was similar to acorn squash, lots of weird seeds, slimy, and gross looking. The seed things had a membrane that tasted sort of fruity. Sort of like a sour green grape.

This tastes nothing at all like chocolate. But this Instagram filter makes me look younger.

I planned to cook the squash but no, people don’t eat them. They don’t have much taste.

There’s a reason there is no such thing as cacao pod soup or ravioli.

According to the internet, you have to ferment the pods to get them to taste like chocolate. They need to sit out in hot weather which there is a lot of here in Panama City.

Good thing we ate an entire jar of peanut butter in a week so I had a glass jar to use.

The internet said it would take two to seven days. I put a lid on the jar and put it on the balcony.

In the meantime, I was on a kick to try new local fruits. They have a fruit bowl in our gym with mostly apples. One day they had these little yellow things that looked like pears. I asked the guy what they were in Spanish.

I said, “Como este?”

I was pretty sure that meant, Look how interested I am in your culture. Please tell me what this strange exotic fruit is? I actually said, “like this?” which doesn’t’ mean a whole lot in this context.

I thought he answered, “bara” which I took to be some very exotic Panamanian fruit. I presented it to Jeff to try.

Sheryl: Here is a ‘bara’ I hope you like it.
Jeff: This is a pear.

Turns out the gym guy said “pera” which mean, pear in Spanish. I might not recognize a pear when I see one, but I do know a jar of rotting, I mean fermenting cacao seeds.

Day 1 – They still look gross.
Day 2-4 They smell gross.
Day 5-6 What is that goo?
Day 7 They still look and smell terrible, guess I’ll make them into chocolate.

The next step in the process according to the internet was baking the seeds.

This is Theo’s Chocolate’s fault. Sure which I had never gone on that tour.

Baking the seeds went well. Peeling them was as tedious as you would imagine.

My nails and hands look at cracked and dry as the seeds.
Who wouldn’t want this for Valentine’s Day?

After the cooking and peeling of the seeds, I feared they would never become chocolate. But then, I thought about the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016 and knew anything was possible.

Actually, my hair was a mess and I didn’t want to straighten it.

The blending took forever. I think it took at least an hour. Jeff says only five minutes.

Finally, cocoa powder.

While it looked pretty, it didn’t taste like chocolate. Jeff mixed it with peanut butter.

This looks like a fork of peanut butter photoshopped into a picture of Jeff. but it’s not. He really did try this.

It tasted like mashed up crayons with a very faint taste of chocolate.

So then I decided to “make fudge.” I added a ton of sugar, butter, and milk.

Action shot of the spoon mixing the boiling “chocolate.”

Jeff was once again ready to call 911 in case the boiling “chocolate” shot up and burned me.

But then after we refrigerated it overnight, we finally had “chocolate.”

Next time I’m just buying a chocolate bar.

It pretty much just tasted like sugary goo which is still very delicious. The next time you see a fancy chocolate bar at the store and wonder why it’s so expensive, this is why. The cacao pods might be cheap, but the process is not easy.

Hanging out in Panama