BREAKDOWN

Tom Petty knows what’s up. Although he may be singing about life and love, and not his experiment, he still knows a little something about the Breakdown.

Tomorrow I start breaking down my experiment, which is really really exciting. Sort of like opening a present on Christmas morning. It’s the same thing essentially, in a dorky only-scientists-will-understand sort of way. For 2 months I have been just watching and wondering what is going on with my experiment, and although I have a hunch as to what’s happening, it’s always nice to know for sure. So tomorrow is the beginning of the end. Breaking down my experiment will probably take about a solid 12-14 hrs a day, for 7 days straight to get all the info I need, but it won’t be as laboriously boring as the set-up was. Plus this time, I get to clean as I go, which has a very soothing quality to it. A sense of finality as well. So today has been spent loading music and podcasts into my ipod and getting everything ready so that tomorrow I have as little to do as possible, you know, besides processing 900 pieces of coral and 450 sponges. No biggie. Wish me luck!

 

I am thankful I didn’t die while hiking Volcán Barú

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Enjoy some turkey and pie for me, because, although we are having a Panamanian version of turkey day, we will be missing the bird, and also most of the traditional foods. But never fear, there will be plenty of wine and good company to go around. Anyway, the arrival of Thanksgiving made me think about what I am thankful for, and although I could probably write an entire blog post about things/people/opportunities that I am lucky to have in my life, nobody (except maybe my mom) wants to read that. So I figured I would write instead about my weekend getaway to Boquete. So obviously, as implied in the title, I decided to hike the tallest peak in Panama- Volcán Barú. Now before I get into the whole debacle, I should probably give a quick history of my idealist vision when it comes to hiking, especially long distances in Central America…

So once upon a time, I was traveling through Costa Rica, and I really really really wanted to hike through the rainforest, despite the fact that it was a guaranteed 4 day trip, while carrying all of the gear and food you need in 4 days on your back, PLUS it was going to be 90F the whole time. Piece of cake, right? So long story short this tragic hiking story begins with me passing out from dehydration just before entering the jungle. But never fear, I was fine, and insisted on continuing onward into the jungle. After the whole fainting in the forest thing, the rest of the day was fine, and then the next day we manage to hike 23 km, with only one or two incidents (me crying bc I thought we were lost, and also running from a hummingbird which I thought was a wild boar). Either way, I cannot move my legs at all the day after, and it is at this point, we decide that rather than torture ourselves any more we should probably just hitchhike our way out of the jungle by boat. Best. Decision. Ever. (SIDE NOTE: this story is way better when told in person, with a lot more drama and details, it’s a good one, but this is neither the time, nor the place).

Regardless, the Costa Rica Hiking Incident of 2008 merely demonstrates that I have this weird romantic idea about hiking, with a tendency to underestimate the pain and suckiness of a hike and overestimate my body’s ability. Now let’s fast forward almost 4 years. I have this grand idea that I want to hike the volcano in Panama (it’s extinct btw), why? Because it is the only place in the world where you can see the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans at once, from on top of a mountain…in the middle of a country. I think that pretty much explains everything. Nevermind that it’s 13.5 km  (that’s 8.4 miles) to the summit, which means 27 km roundtrip (16.8 miles). Nevermind that the elevation change is 1600m (although some maps say 1900m, but for conservative math reasons, we’ll go with 1600, which is a mile). This means that in 8.4 miles, it’s a 1 mile ascent, which if you do the math, sucks. Nevermind all of that, because this is my romantic version of hiking, where the only thing that matters is the end result, not the actual hike itself.

Volcan Baru and Boquete town from a distance. Funny. It doesn't look that impressive from a distance.

So here’s how the whole thing goes down: Before I even went to Boquete, I had searched for a few tours that led hikes up the volcano. I found one were you hike up in the afternoon, make a campsite, and sleep overnight near the top, wake up the next morning, marvel at the sunrise, and hike back down. PERFECT. I love all of those things! I find out that in order to sign up there has to be 3 people total, I am alone, so I ask when the next group signed up is going, they tell me when, I plan my trip around this day because I want to do the overnight camping thing. Fine. Now when I actually get to Boquete, I head to the tour office and they tell me that the other people cancelled and that instead of an overnight hike it will just be during the day with a guide. Me and a guide. Alone. During the day. No sunrise. So I politely tell them that is not at all what I wanted, I get my refund, and go (there was a little more to it than this, but it doesn’t matter now, the point is I got out of the hike). Instead I join an overnight hike with six other people from my hostel, which leaves at 11:30pm, so that you are starting your hike at midnight, because it’s the early morning hours that you have the best chance to see the oceans, plus who wouldn’t want to see the sunrise from almost 3500m.

Now of course, the hike is overnight, so I tried to take a nap beforehand, since I got up at 6am that day to take care of my experiment before catching the 6 hr bus to Boquete, but it was too loud and I couldn’t nap. Fine, whatever, I’ll just hike for 10 hours overnight after already being awake for almost 18 hours, no big deal, this is Amber’s romantic dream world of hiking, and so a lack of sleep is no problem.

We begin the hike as a group, and after the first 5 minutes, we have already started to separate out into two groups: 4 in front (including me), and 3 in back. After 10 minutes of walking directly up hill, we are now 2 and 2 and the group of three is nowhere to be seen (or at least we cannot see their flashlight glow). After 20 minutes I am dying. Literally we have been walking up a gravel dirt road, directly uphill. My poor walking partner is French and super sweet, and has taken pity on me, and kept pace with me up until now but I can tell I am going to be holding him back. I insist that he should feel free to leave me behind at any time, he says no problem and stays with me. At 1am, we finally see the first distance marker sign: 2.5 km. I do the math, 2.5 km an hour, we’ll be at the top with plenty of time to spare before sunrise. Perfect. I am now soaking wet and disgusting. And I am steaming. Yes, it was COLD on the mountain, so I was steaming; at this point the temp was probably in the mid-50s, I could see my breath before I even started hiking, so it was colder than I have experienced in the last 7 months, but I am sweating like a mad-woman so I hardly notice the cold. As we approach the 3.5 km mark, the distance between me and my hiking partner grows, and eventually I can no longer see him, or his flashlight glow. And this is when the whole, ‘it’s more mental than physical’ thing kicks in. Have you ever hiked alone through the jungle, on a really strenuous trail, without getting any sleep, in the middle of the night with just a flashlight in a foreign country? Well let me tell you, all sorts of crazy things start going through your mind. All of the sudden, every twig snap, or weird sound makes you jump. And the fact that I was hiking 100 steps, and stopping to breathe was making me painfully aware that if there were any predators out there I would be by far the easiest thing to catch in the entire jungle (I later found out that there are mountain lions, so yeah, dodged a bullet there). The best part was that there were no distance markers between 4.5 km and 7.5km, which means that for an hour and a half (I was going a lot slower now) I saw nothing at all to give me encouragement.

It was around this time, marker 7.5 km, when I realized I was just over halfway done; I was miserable and sweaty and my legs hurt, and so I decided that maybe I should just turn around and go back down the trail and wait at the bottom. But knowing that it was almost 3am, and that if I just kept walking that in 2.5 hrs I would be at the top kept me going. Or maybe it was because I had passed a few sketchy looking dudes lurking on the trail and decided that it was best to keep moving rather than sit and wait for someone to machete me to death. Who knows, either way I kept walking, 50 steps at a time, then a rest. I think it was the slowest I have EVER walked in my life. Literally. It was around this time that my hip starting hurting. A lot. I have conveniently left out that I hurt my hip while running last week, I don’t really know what happened, I was running fine, then there was a shooting pain, and then I could no longer run. I was limping the whole next day. So I didn’t run the week before I left for Boquete, hoping it was just a pulled muscle and it would be fine. Well somewhere between 7.5km and 9km my hip started doing this weird popping thing. It HURT. I told myself that this was a good enough reason to head back down the mountain, and I could just hide in the bushes if sketchy dudes came and tried to machete me. But then, I decided that maybe I would just keep hiking until 9km, and see how I felt at that point. So I did, and miraculously at 9km the trail flattened out for the first time into a normal walkway, I daresay that it was pleasant. So I decided to keep going, the flat part ended about 200m after it began, but I discovered that if I stopped and sat on a rock for 5 min, my hip was ok enough to walk for a little while longer, so I did this for the next 4 km. It was a long 4 km, but at that point, I had convinced myself that turning around was not an option, and I had done the mental math and I knew that even at my molasses slow pace I would still make it to the top before the sunrise. Plus, if I knew that at the top, one of my hostel-mates had Aleve, so I figured I would persevere, despite the weird popping hip pain, and just take a bunch of Aleve for the walk down.

I FINALLY make it to the top….or what I think is the top, and see my fellow hostel hiker friends. They are all shaking with cold, literally, and I am still sweating like crazy with just my long sleeve shirt and undershirt on. I take 3 Aleve, and look around, noticing that this does not appear to be the top. They inform me that they were just waiting on me, and that we still have about a kilometer to go, so we start hiking, and it begins to get REALLY REALLY windy. Oh and it starts to rain. I should mention that the WHOLE hike the sky was completely clear, I could see every star in the sky including the milky way until about 4am, when it started to get cloudy. So by the time 530am rolled around, the entire summit was 100% socked in by clouds/fog. Awesome. I still held out hope that the sun would burn off the fog and we would get to see the oceans. Silly, silly me. Anyway, we hike up to the REAL summit, and wait for the sun to rise. It is now officially freezing. As in 32F at the top and WINDY. I put on a sweater over my gross sweaty clothes, and my raincoat, and was still cold. I put an extra pair on socks on my hands for gloves, and then huddled next to the radio station tower to block the wind. Oh yeah, funny thing- there were like 5 radio antennas, and a few giant buildings at the top, which made the whole thing kind of weird, since you just hiked up through 8.4 miles of jungle nothingness only to find all of this weird modern equipment at the top.

Some saint shrine thing at the summit. And no, that's not snow, its lichens.

This is the face of pure and absolute misery. I have never been so hideous in my life. Those bags under my eyes tell the tale of 28 hours of no sleep. I am at the summit and FREEZING. I took this picture to prove I was alive at the top. All I wanted to do was sleep and be warm. If I could have bought my way off the mountain at this point, I would have.

The Pacific Ocean. Or maybe the Atlantic. Doesn't matter, they all look the same when you are surrounded by clouds.

Pretty flower at the summit that distracted me from my pain.

I am now shaking, and cold, and miserable, and I cannot feel me hands or toes. The sun rises, and it slowly gets light out, but there is no ‘sunrise’ to see. And sadly, you could see nothing but fog/clouds in every direction, which means that I didn’t get to see the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But at least I made it to the top, so theoretically I could have seen them…waaaay better than just giving up mid-way. I took a few pictures of the summit, waited for my friends to finish taking their pictures, and we hiked down. The hike down was actually more physically painful than the hike up, this time on the knees, imagine walking down stairs for 8.4 miles, because that’s pretty much what we did, except on boulders and rocks and gravel. In fact, as I walked down the endless hill at a really uncomfortable angle, I wondered how I even made it up to begin with. Maybe that’s why they tell you to hike up during the night. Because if you can only see the small amount of light in front of you, you won’t look up and realize that the trail never gets easier and just keeps going up at an unforgiving steepness. At least the walk down was pretty, the fog had created a really eerie mist over the whole mountain and everything was very Sleepy Hollow-esque.

A flat part of the trail, with the creepy fog and mossy tree.

The view of the valley on the walk down the volcano.

We finally reached the ranger’s station after only 3.5 hrs of hiking downhill, called a cab and went back to the hostel. I showered, and at 11am, was in bed. I literally could not properly move my legs the whole next day, but I guess it was worth it? If nothing else, at least I can say that I hiked it, and didn’t give up. And I wasn’t eaten by mountain lions, or machete’d to death, so for that, I am thankful.

Waiting for the cab to take me to my bed, after 10 hours of hiking, I am not excited right now.

Lionfish: From Coral Reef to Coconut Crusted, a How To Guide.

So I had a really great suggestion from a friend to write a how-to blog on how to catch and prepare lionfish. Of course that is easier said than done. I thought it was a great idea and immediately went out on a lionfish-hunting safari. But alas, there were none to be found. A great hunter I am not. But this week, I had the opportunity to dive at a site that had a few lionfish (two to be exact), which means….lionfish how-to blog! So in case you are not aware- lionfish are invasive in the Caribbean, meaning they are not part of the natural fauna. They are native to the Pacific, and are part of a healthy ecosystem there. In the Caribbean though, they have no natural predators, and are really voracious hunters- so they pose a threat to Caribbean reefs which are already stressed by a variety of things. Many Caribbean island nations have started having lionfish round-ups and competitions to catch as many as possible to try and remove them from reefs. After all, humans are extremely proficient at overfishing, but this time we’re overfishing an invader, which will help the overall reef health, not hurt it.

Ok so, as requested, how to shoot, prepare and cook a lionfish:

Step 1: Spot your target. Lionfish are easy to see. They don’t move fast or far. This literally makes them the easiest fish in the entire ocean to spear. Once your target is acquired, load your gun. Place the gun as close as possible to the lionfish, aiming for the head. Shoot. Oh, yeah, don’t forget to take the safety off your gun at this point. NOW shoot.Step 2: You are probably a better shot than I am, so if you hit your target, skip to step 5, if not, retrieve your spear and reload. Hopefully the lionfish did not hide and you can still get a second try. The ability to have a second chance shot is unique to lionfish, any other fish would have been miles after a spear passed next to its head; the lionfish however, is a cocky little bastard that thinks that just because it’s covered in venomous spines it is invincible. Not so, my friend, not so. Take aim (again), preferably at the head this time, or maybe since you are a terrible shot, more toward the fattest part of the fish. Safety off. Pull the trigger.

Step 3: Yay! You shot him. And unless you had the perfect kill shot-right through the head, he is likely flinging himself around like a crazy fish, with his venomous spines fully erect, just daring you to try and get him off the spear. Which of course, you have to do. The next step is to bring the spear close to you (but not too close!), shake the lionfish down toward the middle of the spear, and using your dominant hand hold the spear at an angle to ensure the lionfish doesn’t slide anywhere near your hands.

and no, these are not my man hands. the next few pics are from January 2011's Jamaica trip, because I didn't get any good pics of me doing the following steps yesterday.

Using your other hand, unscrew the spear tip. Once the spear tip is off, open your collecting bag and take the spear with the lionfish still on it and place it in the bag. Begin to close the bag as you slide the spear off the lionfish. If done correctly you will now have the lionfish in the bag and your spear free to use again. However, if you are like me, at this point the lionfish has nearly been placed in the bag when it gets a burst of energy and starts wiggling. This makes you scream like a girl, and let go of the bag, which means that the lionfish works its way off the spear and swims off. Yes, SWIMS OFF, despite the hole in the side of it’s body. I should’ve warned you at the beginning- lionfish are the closest things to zombies that you will ever encounter (until the zombie apocalypse I guess).

Step 4: Follow zombie lionfish to the next hidey-hole that it heads to. Leave your bag and anything else behind, the main goal here is to kill the zombie, you can worry about the rest of it later. Reload your speargun. The lionfish is now savvy to your game, so putting the spear 2 inches from its head is no longer going to work. But by now you have had 2 practice shots, so you should be used to shooting at a stationary object, which is essentially what the zombie lionfish is. Now the zombie lionfish will probably swim from hiding spot to hiding spot, but it’s ok. Just keep him moving if you don’t have a clear shot. Zombies hate cardio, and zombie lionfish are no exception. ZL will eventually settle in a spot, and you can take aim (safety off) and shoot. Congrats, you have now successfully shot your lionfish for the second time.

Step 5: Often after being shot (even twice) lionfish are not dead. They are fighters, although they just sit there and let you shoot them, they never die. We are going to assume that Zombie Lionfish is not really dead, and we will envoke Rule number 2 in zombie killing- the double tap. You will need a dive knife of a suitable length, and you will need to use this knife to put the poor zombie lionfish out of it’s misery (the double tap) but stabbing it’s head, or through the gills. Do so with care, since it is now watching you and will see you coming at it with a knife and move it’s fins out to prevent you from killing it. This is why you need a long knife. Once the deed is done, you repeat step 3, only this time he does not swim off, but instead stays in the collecting bag. Remember- just because the fish is no longer alive does not mean that the venom in his spines has lost it’s potency. Hold the collecting bag far away from yourself and others. If there is any sort of current, it’s best to put a small weight at the bottom of your bag to keep it hanging down, and away from your legs.

Step 6: Bring your lionfish back in a bucket of water, or on ice, if it’s available.You will need the following items for cleaning/preparing your catch: sharp scissors, gloves (I use dive gloves, 5mm), sharp knife. Find a spot on the dock (or somewhere you can clean your fish). Holding the fish by the mouth, cut the side fins off as close to the body as possible. Now do the same for the top fins and bottom fins. The side fins, dorsal fin (the long top one) and part of the anal fin (the bottom fin near the tail) all have venomous spines that are packing quite the punch. And although the venom is denatured when exposed to temperatures above 105-110F (some people bring small torches on board when catching lots of lionfish and just quickly flame the fins to denature the proteins, rendering the spines harmless), it’s best to be thorough when preparing your fish so you don’t accidentally sting yourself. I cut off all of the fins except the tail. Make sure that you dispose of the fins safely, wrapping them in multiple layers of newspaper, throwing them back in the ocean, flaming them with a lighter, etc, because you do not want the poor unsuspecting trash collector to get jabbed with a lionfish spine, that would really ruin someone’s day. Now cut the head off, just behind the gills. Then pull out all of the guts and grossness inside the fish. And remember the rule: You catch it, you clean it. Or at least this was always my family’s rule, which means that I have been gutting fish from a young age; so don’t try and pass this part off to anyone. If you had the nerve to take this fish’s life, you better at least have the guts to tear it’s guts out.Step 7: Scale the fish: using your knife scrape the fish in the opposite direction of the way the scales lay. Once all of the scales are removed, you now have a fish that is ready to cook!Step 8: Cocina el pez leon. Cook the fish using your favorite recipe! Lionfish has a very mild taste, much like every other flakey white fish. I decided to make coconut crusted lionfish with a honey soy ginger glaze. Note that while cooking it is best to have a beer at all times; staying hydrated while cooking is key, especially in the tropics.My recipe, which is mostly just a throw-things-in-as-you-go sort of deal is below.

For le poisson (and yes that’s french, whatever it sounds more gourmet, plus it makes me think of The Little Mermaid when the chef is cooking le poisson and singing):

Coat lionfish in egg, then flour, then coconut flakes. Place in a med-hot saute pan with oil, cook on both sides until all meat is solid white. Some salt and pepper would probably be good too, although I forgot to put any on.

For le sauce: Mix honey, soy sauce, garlic, lime juice and ginger together (it should taste like teriyaki sauce with a bit more flavor, but you can add more or less of any of the ingredients to suit your tastes). Heat up in saucepan. Pour over cooked fish.

Buen Provecho!

***I should say that this is not the best recipe I’ve ever had for fish. But it was good enough, plus I literally have not cooked fish in 5 years?, since I just started eating fish again. I would’ve liked to have just done the coconut crust, then topped the fish with a mango salsa, but it’s not mango season here, so that was a no-go. But since there are plenty of (lion)fish in the (Caribbean) sea, I will try something different next time, although probably not until I get to Jamaica, since I will likely not be going on any more hunting safaris here.

Ugly Americans

I am in a fiesty sort of mood for some reason, and have been wanting to write this post for awhile, but it’s sort of more along the lines of a rant than a post, per se. So if you aren’t in the mood to read a rant, I suggest you just exit out of my blog now and maybe visit some other, less opinionated website. Also, this may be sort of long, but entertaining.

Let’s talk about Americans for a second. Specifically, Americans abroad. Somehow, somewhere, we got a bad reputation for being loud, obnoxious and generally unaccepting of any sort of cultural differences. Shocking, right? And the more I live and observe the happenings and goings on in Bocas, I am starting to agree more and more with the rest of the world’s opinion of American travelers. Because I am not sure why, but it seems that there is a large percentage of travelers who are just plain jerks and have no cultural sensitivity at all. Here are a few general stereotypes*** that I have observed from Americans here in Panama (and pretty much everywhere else I’ve ever traveled).

*** As with every stereotype, there are exceptions. But let’s face it, stereotypes don’t exist because a few people here and there fit the bill, they exist because there are enough people out there doing the same ridiculous thing that a stereotype is born. Sad but true. I’m just here to spit some hot fiery truth at you, and to hopefully make you more aware of the whole Americans-become-assholes-in-other-countries phenomenon so that if you yourself decide to travel abroad, you can maybe suppress that deep-rooted urge to become a jackass.

  1. The ‘backpackers’ who think they are badass. This type of American is especially prevalent here in Bocas, which caters to a backpacker community. They are often found traveling in large groups of 3 or more. They assume that because their choice of luggage is a backpack and they stay in a hostel, they are automatically ‘backpackers.’ Yet they are only in the country for a week, they hang out with only other “backpackers,” probably also from the US (a weird herding mentality- stick with fellow Americans only), they drink themselves into oblivion every night, and then they head straight back to the US (by plane, of course), with little or no actual cultural experience of the country they traveled to. They then proceed to tell all of their friends/family back home that they ‘once backpacked through Panama.’ FYI- this is not backpacking. Backpacking is when you travel around a country on foot, hitchhiking, by bus, or in some other cheap overland manner for more than just a week or two. You see an entire country, experience the culture, and appreciate the difference in lifestyle. Yes, you stay in hostels, and often carry a backpack (hence the term backpacking) but it is so much more than that, it’s cultural immersion, not spring break.
  2. The gawkers. This group of travelers tend to be white, middle-class Americans, usually in their mid-40’s and upward. They are probably from the midwest or somewhere far from the coast, and this is most likely their first trip out of the good ol’ US of A. They, unlike the ‘backpackers’ will be completely and totally excited to see how the other 3/4 of the world lives and experience the culture of the natives; even if the only reason for doing so is so that they can take 1000s of pictures to bring back and show their friends how underprivileged and poor the locals are compared to them. They tend to be really intrigued by and photograph inappropriate things like: children playing barefoot in the trash heap, beggars asking for money, the shanty-town houses, the boats that are falling apart, etc. I had a ridiculous run-in with some Gawkers while I was biking back from town the other day;  2 older couples were standing in the middle of the road, cameras out, taking photos of one of the houses here that is literally about to fall down. Yes, this house is a sight to see, because it is leaning to one side, and looks like some giant came, put his hands on the side of the house and then shifted the whole thing slightly to the left. And I understand that sometimes photos like these can really capture the beauty and differences in cultures and lifestyles, but you have to at least be discreet when taking these types of photos. Gawkers, are not discreet, especially this group- the Panamanian family was home, you could see them in the window, which means that they could see the gawkers- and yet all 4 of them were TAKING PHOTOS of this poor Panamanian family’s house. I was appalled, how do they think that makes that family feel, to be a spectacle for some much wealthier Americans? It’s ridiculous, and people in the US need to be aware that photographing the less fortunate as though they are animals in a zoo is not cool.
  3. The expats who still live in an Americanized bubble. So Bocas has a pretty large expat community, not all American, but there seems to be a disproportionate amount of American expats here. I can see the appeal, cheap land, beautiful country, really nice people, the beach/jungle/island life etc. But most of the expats here confuse the hell out of me. I just don’t understand where in their decision-making they ever came up with the idea to move to Panama. Most of them seem like the type of people that would prefer to live below the Mason-Dixon Line somewhere in the Bible Belt, and have no desire to leave their county, much less own a passport and move to Central America.  It’s very peculiar. I assume that many of them came here because they are money-grubbing business-folk who spotted a piece of paradise, untouched and unexploited, filled with cheap labor. Many of the American expats here own businesses that fall into two categories: a) businesses that exploit the cheap labor/land etc. or b) businesses that cater to other expats, such as sports bars, restaurants etc. It’s weird to walk by a bar here and see the Texas flag hanging, American football and baseball on the flatscreen tvs, and only white people inside- but, these type of places exist, owned by expats of course. I have come to the conclusion that they are all either social miscreants who had no chance of a normal social life in the US, or are running from the law.  NOTE: this does not apply to expats from other countries, which for the most part, I have had nothing but good experiences with, and who generally seem to accept and enjoy the local culture.
  4. The snowbirds. Snowbirds here probably own a condo or some other non-committal piece of real estate that they can rent out when they are not using it. They only come down for a week or two, usually with friends. They come to enjoy the beach and laziness of life here on the islands. They also have very little cultural sensitivity, but they sometimes make an effort. They refer to the Spanish language as ‘Mexican’ and to English as ‘American’ (pronounced Amur-ick-can) and absolutely refuse to mingle with the locals. Now for story-time!!!! I live near the Smithsonian, not in Bocas town, but it’s nice because I can walk to and from work anytime day or night and not feel unsafe (Bocas is pretty safe anyway, but being a female and walking alone is sketchy no matter where you are). The apartment I am renting is next to a few other apartment buildings that are mostly owned/rented out by foreigners because they are a bit more expensive. I was walking home one night after dinner out with my friends, and overhead the following conversation between 4 Americans (southern accents) taking place on the balcony of the building next to mine:

American #1: ” Well I just don’t understand, I looked it up in the dictionary before we got in the cab, and that is exactly what I said, ‘Farmancia.'”   (NOTE: the person saying this was trying to pronounce the Spanish word for pharmacy- farmacia, but instead of saying it correctly: farm-a-seeya, she was saying far-manc-ia and adding in an ‘n’)

American #2: “I know, I know, I mean, he clearly understood what we meant, he didn’t need to correct you. He should’ve just taken us to the pharmacy, because he knew what we meant. It’s just so frustrating”

American #3: “They just like to give you a hard time, they should appreciate the fact that we are even trying to speak their language.”

American #1: “I know, right! I mean, I appreciate it when the Mexicans speak American to me back home, although they are in America, so they should be speaking American, I mean English.”

And this is the point where I walked into my apartment, glad to be away from the noise pollution that occurs when Americans discuss such things, especially when their words are tinged with disgust. I mean, really? If you were back in the US, and you had some foreigner ask where the ‘pharmancy‘ was, you’re telling me you wouldn’t say ‘oh you mean the pharmacy. It’s down the street.’??? Hypocrites.

5. The silly girls. And then there are the silly girls. Here for a girls’ week on the beach; they wear their swimsuits, and nothing else, while walking down the streets and then are annoyed when people stare/cat-call them. Now I have my own personal beef with the cat-calling, and ESPECIALLY the hissing- some guys here make this weird hissing sound like you are trying to call a cat (omg I just realized why it’s called cat-calling, hahahahaha, I’m an idiot). Literally when guys hiss at me, it makes me want to walk over and punch them in the face, it really really annoys me. Call me baby, or mami, or any sort of inappropriate names and I don’t care, but make that hissing noise at me, and it will surely make my blood boil with rage and invoke a need to physically hurt the offender and make sure they never hiss again. As I said- I have my own issues with the cat-calling, BUT I am also not dressed like a prostitute, like some of these girls who come here. I wear clothing when walking down the street. But these silly girls come here and wear nothing, and then are really offended when people stare. I saw this one girl wearing a bikini while riding her bike on the main road with her friends who were also in bikinis, and she looks at her friend and complains that Latin men are such perverts, because everyone was staring. ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME. There are no words to describe the ridiculousness of that whole scenario. Also- these silly girls end up getting super drunk on free ladies night drinks and inevitably puke in the bathroom with all of their scantily-clad friends gathered around helping them. And yes, perhaps I have been a silly girl at some point in my life (senior trip to Cancun….) but I am proud to be beyond that point in my life, so I am entitled to judge the silly girls with a holier-than-thou attitude about the whole thing.

Anyway, these are just the major categories that Americans fall into here in Bocas. And I really think it’s sad when I have to hear, “Really? You’re American?” with such surprise from people (like my Spanish teacher, etc) who assumed that I was Canadian because I was nice, respectful, not unnecessarily loud and obnoxious, and was actually taking the time to learn Spanish while living in a Spanish speaking country. And this is not the first time I have been confused for a Canadian (Thailand, Morocco, Australia, Jamaica, pretty much everywhere I have traveled). Apparently our northern counterparts know how to be respectful of places they travel to.

So I urge you, my fellow Americans, to make a conscious effort when you travel to not be the Ugly American, but to try and experience how another culture lives without mocking it, photographing it rudely, or walking around naked in it. Be respectful and friendly and maybe one day, we can be rid of our horrible reputation as foreign travelers.

(Long) Island vs Isla (Colón)

So I am sure that most of you picture me on a beach drinking caipirinhas (delicious Brazilian cocktails- like a mojito minus the mint) everyday, with maybe a little work thrown in. And yes, this has been known to happen (well not at the same time, there is a severe lack of bars on the beaches here), but for the most part my life is pretty boring. Ok, haha, who are we kidding. My life here is awesome and quite the opposite of boring; and although I still have a routine that I do everyday, it’s sprinkled with the oddities that come from living in a foreign country. So let’s play a little game called Island vs. Isla in reference to Long Island vs. Isla Colón (where Bocas is), get excited. *note that the comparisons are tailored to the current season (fall) and are not always applicable year-round, especially the Long Island parts.

Waking Up:

  •  Long Island: Hit the alarm as many times as I can stand, get out of bed cranky because it’s cold and it’s warm underneath my covers. Throw on sweatpants, followed by morning routine.
  •  Isla Colón: wake up around 7 or 8, whenever my alarm goes off. Assess whether it is raining outside by listening to the sound of rain (or lack of) hitting my roof, get up make coffee, followed by morning routine.

Getting dressed:

  • Long Island: Check the radar/weather before making any decisions. Dress accordingly.
  • Isla Colón: Put on one of the 5 pairs of shorts that I have here, decide whether to wear a sports bra or bathing suit top, depending on which of the 10 work shirts I choose.  I ALWAYS bring a raincoat. And I always wear sandals, unless I am running.

Going to work:

  • Long Island: Get in car, stop at Dunkin’ Donuts/Starbucks for coffee or breakfast, drive 3 miles to Stony Brook (takes 15-20 min depending on lights/traffic/whether all of the annoying housewives are doing their Christmas shopping at the nearby mall); alternatively drive 54 miles to Southampton (takes 1 hr, less if the weather is good, and nobody gets in my way).
  • Isla Colón: Finish my coffee/breakfast. Pack my backpack (with raincoat) and walk down the street to work (5 minutes) while enjoying the occasional treats such as groups of cownose rays playing in the waves, howler monkeys whooping, and sloths on the fence of the Smithsonian.

Work:

  • Long Island: Stony Brook office, work in the morning, people start showing up around 10am, my productivity dwindles, have lunch with friends, go home around 2 or 3, or later, but hardly ever past 5. Only go to office Mon-Fri, although occasionally I work from home on weekends.
  • Isla Colón: 8am/9am check experiment, take general measurements pH, temp, salinity etc. Walk back up to lab, do some work, walk home at lunch and try and write. Go to work everyday, even when hungover to take measurements.

Exercise:

  • Long Island: Head to gym, run around track, treadmill, swim maybe (try not to think about the weird hairballs floating by), pretend to do abs with Melissa (but mostly just die) and Zumba! The nice thing is that I can go anytime of day or night (or at least when the gym is open).
  • Isla Colón: Between the hours of 430-530pm only, because otherwise it’s too hot/dark- Run to town or to the end of the road/beach. Choose town vs beach based on whether you have a friend with you, weather, and time of day. Running to town means that you can start your run a little later, and after dark it’s ok because there are people out, and although more people stare at you, it’s a much safer option if running solo. Running to the beach means that you get to see the water on one side, the jungle on the other the whole time, it’s a little longer of a run, and there are less people staring/cat-calling you, although you occasionally run across a group of teenagers who very much enjoy hissing at you. This option is less safe if you are running solo, especially once it gets closer to dusk, since there are less people around and it’s more secluded. Come home and do either legs/abs or arms/abs depending on the day, things like push-ups, squats, crunches, etc.

Errands:

  • Long Island: Errands require a car and a lot of patience, especially around my apartment since Middle Country Rd gets traffic at certain times of day. Running errands can be a quick, just down the block trip, or a lengthy drive around for hours kind of deal. And when it’s near Christmastime, forget it. Just accept that the mall a mile away will cause traffic near your house and try to take backroads, or better yet, don’t do any errands on the weekends or after normal people’s working hours. Grocery shopping is easy- one stop shop and plenty of fresh food, all clean and pretty, very little local produce but you can get any fruit or veggies year-round, meat is packaged nicely so that you don’t have to see/touch anything gross, milk is refrigerated and not sold in a box.
  • Isla Colón: Three options: Walk (30 min), bike (10-15 min) or taxi (5 min,$0.60)  to town, all of which depend on weather, mood, availability of bike or taxi. Town has everything within close range, so all pharmacy, grocery, souvenir etc shopping can happen at once. Grocery shopping may require going to multiple stores; fruits and veggies at outdoor stand, everything else at the chinitas, sometimes you have to visit multiple chinitas to get what you need. Milk is sold in a box, eggs are unrefrigerated, fruits and veggie options are limited compared to the states but are mostly all local, meat counter is never visited because it’s more like a butcher and I don’t know how to ask for anything, also the meat looks like it has been sitting there all week. The freedom of flies to roam around also deters me from purchasing any meat, it’s bad enough the fruit and veggies come with fruit flies… I only eat meat at restaurants here.

Going out at night:

  • Long Island: Darts usually, or a laid back Irish-pub type bar. Hang out with friends, chat, drink overpriced (but delicious) beers. Beer prices $4-7/pint, cocktails $5ish. Night out in Long Island averages about $40ish.
  • Isla Colón: Two options: go to dinner/have a relaxed night with friends at home. Go to any bar (after 10 or 11pm), there will be very little talking because the music will be too loud, dancing is a must, and you will likely be forced to take shots with the bartenders every time you order a drink, including water. Beer prices: $0.50-1.50, cocktails $1-3 at a bar, more if at a restaurant. But if you are female here, literally there is a ladies night every night, you just have to choose your bar based on that, and you can drink for free. Cost of a night out: less than $20, usually less than $10, including the $1 cab ride home. If you spend any more than that you will probably be dead on the side of the road from alcohol poisoning.

All in all, I think Isla Colón wins out, but there are certainly some things that I miss about Long Island as well. That’s right, you just read that. The tropical life isn’t all glamorous, it’s also filled with moldy walls (because the humidity is so high) and fruit flies. Whoever said you catch more flies with honey than vinegar has obviously never lived in a place where fruit flies abound. I have made a few vinegar + dish soap fly traps and have caught close to 40 fruit flies just this week. Gross, right? I guess there is a downside to getting fresh fruit every day from an outdoor market (although I think the pros certainly outweigh the cons, and that sentiment pretty much goes for everything here).

So much to do, so little time!

So lately I have been using this program called Antisocial, it’s a program that will block any social networking site for a specified amount of time- email, facebook, twitter (not that I use it), blogs, and any other specific websites that you frequent when you are procrastinating (nytimes.com, npr.org and wunderground.com are my weaknesses). And yes, it is rather sad that I do not have the willpower to avoid these sites on my own, but it’s really hard to not check email during a 3 hour period of sitting at the computer. Especially since the internet is now my only means of communication to everyone I know and love. But I REALLY REALLY REALLY need to get a lot of writing and other stuff done before I leave Panama, so it is necessary for me to use this program. (I have only been using the free trial btw, which gives you 5 free block-out times, because I refuse to pay $15/yr to not have to exercise willpower. So when my free trial is done, I plan on switching to a program called Freedom that does the same thing and using all of it’s free trials. That’s right, I’m workin’ the system).

Anyway, the amount of work that I need to do also got me thinking of the little amount of time I have left here. (34 days, but only 22 or so until I start to break down my experiment). And that’s when I started freaking out. I do this occasionally. It’s the Virgo in me. For some reason I can be totally relaxed and go-with-the-flow, and then all of the sudden it will don on me that I am now entering serious crunch time and I will FREAK out (internally of course, I don’t really act like a total spaz). So I’m sort of at that point. I made a list of things I need to get done for work stuff and it is overwhelming. And then you add on the stuff that I want to do for fun before I leave, because let’s face it, I can do work (like writing) anywhere, but I am only going to be in Bocas for 4 more weeks. I am not going to bore you with my list of work stuff to do- just know that there are 6 proposals I plan on writing, one of which is my proposal for getting my doctorate, so it’s not just an easy 2-4 pager. All in all, I’m probably looking at 50-60 pages of science in the next 34 days. HAHAHAHA. That’s not going to happen. But I will try.

More important to my health and well-being is my list of fun things I want to do before I leave. I will bore you with this list below:

  1. Go to Boquete (a cute mountain town that’s a 5 hour bus ride away…this is next week’s plan).
  2. Visit a coffee and cacao farm (although the coffee farm is more important).
  3. Go to Isla Caranero and have dinner at Bibi’s at sunset.
  4. Go back to Bluff beach, maybe Wizard beach as well.
  5. Boat to La Piscina and dive and/or snorkel (La piscina is a natural ‘pool’ on the coast, it’s supposed to be one of those untouched places where everything is beautiful).

    La piscina is in the upper right corner, for scale this is the whole island Isla Colon, and I live at the very southern end.

  6. Spear a lionfish (which will first require finding a lionfish, and so far I have been woefully unsuccessful at that).
  7. Eat at Chitre, Ultimo Refugio, Om and maybe Guari Guari (these are seriously the most delicious places to eat here, rivaling most fancy restaurants in NY any day).
  8. Go Christmas shopping for everyone because I refuse to shop in NY the week before Christmas, it’s just not happening. Sorry.
  9. Check out the coffee shop on the hill on Isla Bastimentos.
  10. I can’t actually think of a 10th thing that I want to do before I leave, but a list of only 9 things seemed incomplete.

Anyway- I have already planned out a few of these things, like visiting Isla Caranero and Boquete (sometime next week). But the rest, not so much. They are easy enough to do in my free time, it just seems like my free time is rapidly closing in on me. Also, it looks like I will be leaving Bocas early, probably 5 days early so that I can go to Panama City and use some fancy equipment (an SEM for all my science peeps out there…and it’s only $15/hour!!!). And honestly, Panama City is nice, but it’s got nothing on Bocas. The countdown has officially begun, and it makes me sad. I have been a little homesick now and then (mostly for people and beer, not NY) but overall, I really like living here. It’s such a nice feeling to be part of a community this small and friendly, the cab drivers all know me, so do some of the store owners, like Katia, the woman at the gourmet grocery story who had never had a kiwi, so I gave her one I had just bought-we are now friends, and a few of the street crazies even say, ‘hola peliroja’ (redhead) to me every time I walk by.  After my Spanish class yesterday I was walking on main street and bought my sister her Christmas present, and one of the first people I met here, Alonso (a bartender at Toro Loco where I was watching the US Open my first week) saw me, said hello and gave me a kiss on the cheek (which was weird, because he had a small monkey on his shoulder so essentially our cheek kiss placed my face directly in the monkey’s face- it’s like the monkey from Friends, Marcell, I don’t know what kind it is. But monkey in your face is always a little startling). I am starting to miss this place already.

Tengo goma

Well, all of my suspicions were confirmed on Sunday: I am a lazy Spanish speaker.

It’s true. I have gotten lazy/forgotten a lot of what I learned since my 3 years of Spanish in high school and the haphazard Spanish class to fulfill some requirements in college. I was always sort of impressed that I retained as much as I have, since I find that my memory is getting worse and worse already. I have taken a few trips that required me to speak Spanish in order to get around, most notably a month in Costa Rica and also a Spain/Morocco trip where I actually used more Spanish in Morocco than in Spain. In fact, I successfully rented a car over some dude’s cell phone at the Tangier airport at nearly midnight when the rental car agent wasn’t there, all in Spanish.

But now that I am living in Bocas and am surrounded by Spanish speakers, you’d think that I would instantly become fluent, right? Me too! But no. That’s apparently not how it works. Who knew? So I decided to take a week of private clases de espanol because I have pretty much progressed as much as I can on my own and need some formal explanation to get better. Which makes sense I guess since the only time I absolutely HAVE to speak Spanish and can’t resort to English is when I tell the taxi driver where I live (Voy a la bomba, por favor) and when I need to talk to Arcadio, one of the guys working at the Smithsonian who only speaks Spanish (…and Russian and Dulegaya, the Kuna language, but no English). Arcadio is really patient with me, so that’s good, but for the most part, we keep our conversations simple and to the point. We have a sort of routine that goes something like this:

Arcadio: Buenos dias, Doctora (he calls me doctora, since I will eventually have a doctorate, it’s cute).

me: Hola Arcadio, como estas?  

Arcadio: Bien bien, gracias. Estas trabajando mucho hoy? 

me: Por supuesto, tengo mucho trabajo todos los dias.   

Arcadio: Sabias ir a bailar este fin de semana?       

me: Si! Fue muy divertido. Pero necesito ir a laboratorio de acuarios, hasta luego.

Arcadio: Hasta luego doctora!

And that literally happens almost every day, with some, but not a lot of variation. Usually there is a lot of me saying, ‘Que?’ in between everything he says because I sometimes have a hard time understanding him. And for those of you who are not as skilled in Spanish, it’s basically: Good morning, Hi how are you, good thanks, are you working a lot today? Of course, I always have lots of work. Did you go dancing this weekend? Yes! It was lots of fun, but I need to go to the wet lab now, talk to you later. Later!

Maybe you can see why I am not actually getting better at Spanish. So I went and checked out the Spanish by the Sea school this weekend and took my placement test, which was only speaking Spanish (I am waaaaaay better at writing/reading) and as it turns out I am somewhere between beginner and intermediate. Mostly because I am a lazy Spanish speaker, which means that I don’t put articulos in my sentences most of the time like- of, with, without, to, etc. And I only know how to speak in the present tense, so when speaking to me in Spanish, I can tell you absolutely nothing about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. The past and future don’t exist to me. There may be a philosophical lesson in that, Seize the Day, live today like there is no tomorrow, and all that, but I am sure it’s just really annoying for anyone talking to me. Can you imagine speaking to someone and them only talking about things as though they are happening right now? What do you want to do tomorrow. Tomorrow, I like to go to the beach and eat dinner in town. Have you been to Panama before? Last year I am here for 3 weeks in July and August. How long have you been in Panama? I am here 2 months, and have one more month. I go to New York in December. It’s weird right? Well this is literally how I speak to people in Spanish.

So now I am taking private classes 2 hours a day for a week, it’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing, and hopefully I can use the rest of my time to practice. I had my first class today and I totally love it. I was a little nervous but it was really good, and my teacher Adrian is really nice. He laughs at me, because I randomly pull out these really complex words (like today he had me explain my research to him in Spanish) and yet I get confused by simple things, like por and para and when to use them. So we’re going to work on expanding my vocabulary and fixing simple mistakes that I make and also I am going to learn the future and past tenses (there are like 14 or 15 different tenses, so it gets way more complicated than just past, present and future) but hopefully by the end of the week I will sound less like a 3 year old child and more like a 5 or 6 year old. Although I will be a 5 or 6 year old child who can say I have a hangover, which is one of the things I learned today. Tengo goma.