Saturday, January 26, 2013

Our Casa, Sloth and All

This was, perhaps, the clincher!

After nearly a week in the sticky, dirty heat of Panama City, we knew it was time to pack up and head for the hills! We debated between two different mountain towns, one that everyone raved about but inevitably said was overrun with expats, and the other, closer to the city, still beautiful, but less touristy. In the end we decided to rent a vehicle for a week, check out the closer town first, and if we liked it we could settle in and still have wheels with which to explore for a few days. If not we could continue our search and not be at the mercy of the bus system. I inquired about several rental properties and one by one was told they were all full. We were looking for a small home or apartment to rent for our remaining month in Panama and use as a base for exploring as well as a place to settle down and relax.

    There were two places I'd found online that were available, and I knew that once we were here there would be other options, probably at better prices. Arriving in the small, mountain town, we instantly appreciated the cooler air and refreshing breeze, as well as the quietness and lush vegetation all around. We went to look at the first apartment, which was on the third floor of a small hotel. Other than the fact that it opened onto a large terrace filled with hammocks, it was small and overpriced. The owner said all his other properties were rented and called another friend with rentals who reported the same thing. (This is summertime in Panama, the children are out of school, and so of course things are more booked.) We felt a little discouraged, but we'd only just arrived and planned to get a room for a few nights while we continued our search. There was one other place that had said they had availability so we thought we'd check it out, but I didn't think it would work as there was only one single and one queen bed.

    We entered the property through beautifully painted wooden gates and were immediately welcomed by the kind hostess. Erik got out to look while I stayed in the vehicle with the kids. After a few minutes he returned with a smile, nodded, and told me to go take a look. The grounds were beautiful, the apartment was simply furnished but tastefully decorated and clean, and the price was significantly less than the hotel apartment. Erik informed her that we had four kids and she wasn't at all put out, offering to bring an air mattress and extra bedding. The kids piled out and we all walked up to the open air terrace on the roof. Have I ever mentioned how much I love rooftops? They are such a nice place to hang out, and this one is particularly lovely, clean, and safe for small kids. The weather, which was breezy, had been dry, but as we walked up to the terrace we were met by misty rain. Looking out toward the mountains, we saw a vibrant rainbow and I knew we'd found our "home".

   Here's a little tour of our casa:

The welcoming gates!
This is our front door and the stairs leading up to the rooftop.
Artistic details throughout the property add to its charm.
There are banana trees and all sort of tropical vegetation. There's even a small stream running through the yard, and chickens running about.
This is the view through the front door into an airy entrance where the dining table is.

This is the living room, where we've spent lots and lots of time snuggling the sick little ones this week. Today I finally succumbed to the stomach bug they've had and have been parked in the recliner while Erik scurried around taking care of everyone. 
The kitchen is spacious. After cooking in my tiny RV kitchen for the last several months, it's nice to have all this room! Counter space! Four burners! A big oven! Oh, the things I can cook!

This is the bedroom... isn't it pretty? The two little ones are sleeping on floor beds with us, and there is a nice, sunny little alcove with a day bed, complete with "princess" netting for Poppy. Peregrine is on the air mattress.
The entry room opens onto a gorgeous courtyard. I like courtyards nearly as much as I do rooftops. I know not all places have abundant sunshine, but I still think comfy outdoor spaces are a great addition to any home.
This is the rooftop terrace, fully walled and with two bohios for shelter from sun, wind, and rain. I love it up here!

There are three hammocks for relaxing. Or swinging in wildly if you're part of the younger crowd.

From the rooftop you gaze out on the mountains. We're in an extinct crater, and as such the small valley is ringed with verdant, jungle covered peaks. It's a stunning setting.
These large fans are tucked into the ceiling of the bohio atop the roof. They are woven from a single palm leaf and I like to lay in the hammock looking up at them.
There are many citrus trees around. You can almost reach out and pick fruit from the rooftop!
If you've stuck around this long you deserve to see pictures of the sloth! 
She was orphaned as a baby when her mother  climbed into power lines and was electrocuted. Our hostess adopted her and she's now a beloved house pet! She's about a year old and only awake four hours a day. 

The kids love it when she's awake and they get to see her or help feed her. She's a lot faster than I imagined sloths to be and has to be watched and kept close. Isn't she adorable?

    We feel so blessed to have found this place, and were amazed that it was available, a reasonable price, and that we were welcome here! 

    A friend asked if I could try to include some tips to help other families learn to travel on a budget, and one of them is to avoid hotels as much as possible! We were spending between $60 and $100 a night in Panama City for one room, where we were all cramped together and ate most of our meals out. Our rent here is $800 for the month, and we have plenty of room to spread out, plus the rooftop and yard where the kids can play. Being able to cook most of our own meals also saves a lot of money. (There are definitely cheaper rentals around too!) A few sites that are useful for finding furnished, short term rentals are airbnbhomeawayflipkeyenrout, and wimdu. Even if we're just going to a city in the US for a few days, it's usually costs about the same for me to rent a one or two bedroom condo with a kitchen than it is for us to cram into a hotel room. 

    My friend Jen, a traveling mama with four kids, recently wrote about how they go about finding rentals, so if it's something you're interested in go take a look. She shares a lot of good info, questions to ask, etc. And check out their blog in general; they're in their fifth year of traveling with four kids and are full of inspiration!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, California

     On our way back home from Baja, we spent a couple nights visiting with good friends who'd recently moved from Oregon to California. It was special to get to visit them in their new home, let the kids run wild, cook together, and catch up. Joshua Tree National Park was practically in their back yard, so she suggested we make a day trip of it. Having lived in California's high desert for four years when I was a teenager, I was pretty certain that it would take more than a few Joshua Trees to impress me, but I was happy to go and check it out. I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the area, its wild rock formations, the brilliant blue skies, and yes, even the Joshua Trees. (There's a nice, online, kids' storybook about a Joshua Tree here. We read it on our way up to the park and it helped me appreciate what I was seeing.)

    (This post is way out of order chronologically, but I wanted to try to keep things more current while we're in Panama. We are settled into a nice little apartment in a lovely mountain town, which we plan to use as a base for exploring during the rest of our time in the country. One of the kids has had a fever the last few days and another has been throwing up, so we're laying low at the moment. I'm enjoying having a kitchen again, and the kids are having fun exploring the garden and making friends with the resident sloth.) 

Amazing rock formations abound in the park. I know there's a scientific explanation for how they were formed, but even after reading it, I had to marvel that this could happen!
The kids gathered around a park ranger who shared his knowledge of local history as well as the flora and fauna of the area. Here he was showing the kids how rope could be made from plant fibers. We also got to sample the pine nuts that grow on the piñon trees. School in the desert!
This area was called The Hidden Valley, and was once used by cattle rustlers. It has it's own micro-climate and holds far more moisture than surrounding areas. As such, more vegetation grows here.
The day felt extremely cold to us, even though it was above freezing. We'd just spent six weeks in the warmth of the Mexican sun and needless to say, it was cold outside! It was also really windy, so felt even more so.
More rocks, piles and piles of them. I guess this is why it's famous for climbing!
The clouds cast shadows, making the landscape look even more dramatic. 
Here's an interesting little tidbit from Wikipedia:
"The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree's unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer."

It was a wonderful day, not only because of the amazing scenery, but because we shared it with friends. You know who you are. Thanks again for having us. (See you in Yellowstone!) We love you! 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Panama City: Street Food

On the grill...
    One of the things I enjoy about traveling is the wide variety of foods we get to try. I knew absolutely nothing about Panamanian food, so each meal has been a learning experience. Sometimes we just order something, having no idea what it's going to be; other times we're misunderstood and end up with something altogether different then what we expected.  Most of the inexpensive restaurants here seem to by cafeteria style, with large containers of rice, lentils, chicken, maybe a beef stew, greasy spaghetti, cassava, and some fried foods. There are many other things as well, but these seem to be the common ones. There is also a delicious chicken soup called sancocho, which is mild and slightly thick from chunks of cassava. (You can try it at home using this recipe, substituting potatoes if you can't find yuca or cassava!) It's apparently the national dish of Panama. Sandwiches can also be ordered at many of these little eateries. The food here is not at all spicy, but the meat dishes are flavorful. Many vegetables don't grow well here so they don't feature prominently in the diet, but fresh, tropical fruits are abundant. 

    One things I haven't seen a lot of is street food. In Mexico, it seems there are always little carts selling tacos, tamales, churros, and more, and I thought I'd find more of that here. Today we went on a walk to Avenida Central, a main shopping area nearby. It's an interesting area, one we've been told to avoid after dark. An earnest old woman came up and communicated to us sternly that we must keep our eyes on our bags and our children, and that it's okay during the day but not at night. Most of the street is closed to traffic and filled with people. Shops of all kinds line both sides of the street, and outside people sell their wares on tables and blankets. It seemed like you could find just about anything you might want there, and it was most definitely off the beaten tourist track. It was here that we found our street food: old men pushing carts, young men grilling skewers of meat, hot dog and hamburger stands, carts with a large block of ice being shaved for raspados, ice cream, fruit juices and more. We ate lunch as we walked along the street, sampling different things as we went along.

Always thirsty, we enjoyed fresh coconut water, or agua de pipa. You can tell who's selling it because they have coconuts stuck on their cart! Cold and delicious, we were asked if we wanted the coconut meat as well. Yes, please! I particularly enjoyed this drink because it was so light and refreshing, and I don't think it was sweetened at all. Large cups were seventy-five cents each.

None of the kids were too fond of the young coconut meat, which was still tender. They all tried it though, and I didn't mind that they didn't like it because I got to eat the rest!
We sampled two different kinds of skewered, grilled meat, one that also had peppers and onions. The meat was basted as it was cooked and, although a bit tough, it was delicious. (We skipped the spiral cut hot dogs!) We also had a small plate with a thin, flat piece of grilled meat served over slices of starchy cassava. Total cost, three dollars. (Side note: although the money here is called a balboa, not a dollar, US dollars are used. Coins are of the same size and denominations, only they also have fifty cent and one balboa coins. Change given is often a mix of US and Panamanian coins.) 
Next up, fried plantain chips. The man has a special slicer in one hand and as he rubs the unripe plantain rapidly back and forth, the thinly sliced pieces drop into the bubbling oil. The finished product is a thin, crispy plantain chip! They were yummy, although a little greasy. The other bowl was chicharrones, fried pork rinds. We didn't get any today, although my kids love them. The plantains tasted slightly like lard, which may have been because they were fried in the same oil, or maybe they're actually fried in lard. I don't know. Total cost: one dollar for two bags.
The kids all enjoyed the fried plantain. Another day we tried patacones, which are another preparation of green plantain. They are sliced into rounds, smashed, and deep fried. They have a very starchy texture when made like this, almost like a french fry, and they're served as a savory side dish. Apparently they also roast ripe plantains and serve them sweet, but I have yet to see them.
Our last taste of the day was mango, which is also cut up green and sold in little baggies. Doused with vinegar and sprinkled with salt, it's almost crunchy and makes a refreshing snack. Once I got over thinking it should be soft and sweet I rather enjoyed it. As an aside, mangoes are one of my favorite fruits, particularly the paisley shaped variety sometimes known as champagne or atualfo, which is the kind I saw being used here. I'm always surprised when they're served green and savory instead of juicy and sweet, but it seems to be very common in the countries where they're grown. In Mexico we've had them with lime and chill. Cost for a baggie of mangoes: fifty cents.
Pearl was the only one of the kids who enjoyed the mango. She gnawed for quite a while on the pit, getting off every last morsel of flesh.
This isn't quite street food, but yesterday we visited the fish market and ate ceviche. Most commonly made of sea bass, it's "cooked" in lime juice and mixed with onion. Here Peregrine proudly showed off some octopus that was in our cup of mixed ceviche. All of the kids ate a little of this, but it wasn't a favorite. I like how it's served on tostada shells in Mexico, but I have a hard time eating much of it on it's own. 
We also visited the Mercado Publico, a huge indoor market full of stalls selling just about everything. We arrived after 2 and it was toward the end of market day, but we were able to sit down and get some food in the "food court". Erik gave Peregrine $1.50 and let him go pick something. What a great way for him to practice his Spanish! He ended up buying four large shrimp (for about twenty-five cents) and half a fried fish. I think he didn't have enough for the whole fish so he managed to communicate that he'd like whatever his money could buy. 
He was so excited with his purchases! The fish looked absolutely unappetizing to me, but he, Raphael, and Pearl ate it up. It came with a slice of a citrus fruit that was green on the outside, orange on the inside and very, very sour! 

He very kindly gave Pearl the head. That was after he hand-fed her the eyeball. She munched happily on the head for quite a while. I'm glad my kids are developing such adventurous pallets.

We shared several cups of jugos, or juices. They all seem to be  freshly juiced, but then mixed with water and sweetened. We tried piña, a fruit and veggie blend that included carrots and beets, and my favorite, naranja con raspadura. I know that naranjas are oranges, but the juice is a dark color and tastes much like honey and I wondered what raspaduras are. I looked it up last night and learned that it is unrefined cane sugar, full of all the natural minerals that get stripped out when they make it into white sugar. Here is a fascinating post about how raspadura is traditionally made here in Panama. Cost per cup- about sixty cents.
Another refreshing treat on the street is batidos, fresh fruit milkshakes. They are blended with fruit, ice,  milk, vanilla, and sugar. They are about $1.50 each.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Panama Canal: Miraflores Locks

A cargo ship passing through the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal.
    Yesterday we took a taxi to the one of three sets of  locks on the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks have a beautiful visitor's center, very family and kid friendly, and it was a great place to spend a hot afternoon. (Have I mentioned that it's hot in Panama?) Only about twenty minutes outside of Panama City, this is the first set of locks ships transit if they enter the canal from the Pacific. The more I see of the world, the more I realize how very little I know. I knew the Panama Canal joined the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and saved ships a long trip around the horn of South America, but that was about it. As we were watching a ship pass through the locks I joked with the kids that it would be so much more fun to be sitting in a classroom reading a book about it. I love days like this, when history comes to life, when science is hands on, and when learning takes place so naturally. In educating my kids I feel that I've gone back to school as well and I'm loving it! We learned so much yesterday and had a great time doing it.

The second floor of the museum is dedicated to showcasing some of the flora and fauna of the canal zone. Large metal and glass sculptures represent the trees of the rainforest.
Raphael and Pearl were delighted to spot a turtle and an iguana in an enclosed animal habitat. There were also some aquariums showing different fish, as well as specimens of butterflies and insects. There are some really big bugs around here!  
The world comes through Panama, and we feel very blessed to be here.

The third floor of the museum includes some fun, hands on exhibits for kids of all ages. This one shows how the immense gates open and close in the locks. On one side is a hand crank and you can watch the gears turn to open and close the gate, just the way they originally worked. On the other side, the gate opens using hydraulics. Raphael, who loves all things mechanical, was enthralled with this and begged to go back a second time. Of course we did!
Here it looks like the kids are about to enter one of the huge culverts that run under the canal.  Sensors and lights from above made it look like they were actually tramping along in the water.
Here's Peregrine at the command center, telling ships when they can pass through! Each day close to 40 ships can transit the canal. Only 28 slots are available for booking, and ships pay a 10% premium for the privilege of knowing they will get through on a certain day. Everyone else gets to "take a number" and go through when they are called. That explains the large number of ships we see waiting out in the bay at any given time. I imagine computers have made the logistics of running the canal simpler in many ways. I also like to imagine who the original builders of the canal would react to all of today's technology!
This was Peregrine's favorite: the navigation simulator. With a 3D film showing on three sides, and the sound and feel of engines vibrating beneath us, it really felt like we were making our way through the locks. All the kids had fun taking turns at the controls and watching as we passed through. 

We had to go through the locks in the "sim" a second time. 
On the fourth floor observation deck we were excited to get to watch a cargo ship pass through the locks.  Ships can carry over 4,000 containers and pay over $300,000 to transit the canal. The price is based on weight, size, and what they are carrying. (Interesting bit of trivia: the lowest fare ever payed was by Richard Halliburton, who, in 1928,  payed  thirty-six cents to swim the canal!) Specially trained Panama Canal pilots take over for the ship's captain to navigate through the canal. This ship is entering the locks from Miraflores Lake, which is at 56 feet above sea level. After crossing the small lake, they will be lifted an additional 31 feet. When the French attempted to build the Panama Canal in the late 1800s, one of the reasons they failed was because they tried to build at sea level like they'd done with the Suez Canal in Egypt. Hilly, tropical jungles proved much different then building across a flat desert, and after many years, the loss of thousands of lives and many fortunes, they gave up in defeat.
Notice in the above picture that the water in both sides of the locks is at the same level.
Water is drained using gravity and once the water in all the locks is level, the massive gates are opened to let the ship through. Just to give you an idea of the size of these, they are 65 feet wide and 7 feet thick!
Where does all the water come from? A large river was dammed to create Gatun Lake. The Canal is about 50 miles long, and over 30 miles of the waterway is across the manmade lake. It takes over 53,000,000 gallons of water for each ship that transits the canal, and this water comes from Gatun Lake.
Special electric locomotive engines pull the ships through the canal, keeping it centered.  The lock chambers are 110 feet wide by 1,050 feet long, and ships built the maximum size to go through the locks are called Panamax ships. Theses ships have only 24 inches of clearance on each side as they are pulled through! There can be up to 8 engines attached to the larger ships. These guys are good at what they do!
These ships are enormous! The crew look like miniature men from the observation deck high above.
You can just see the back of the ship as it passed by, piled high with containers, while another enters the locks on the other side. It takes an average of 8-10 hours for a ship to transit the canal.
The first two lock chambers are being filled once again, while the final chamber drains to lower the ship back down to sea level.  We learned a lot about what a challenge it was to build, and now, nearly 100 years later, work is being done to expand the locks so that larger ships can transit. Ships will be able to carry nearly three times as many containers once the expansion project is complete, which is scheduled to be around 2014. 
Poppy and I watched as another ships entered the locks. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Miraflores Locks. In addition to the museum, there was a short 3D movie that included a little history as well as information about the transfer of the canal from the United States to Panama. The kids loved the movie as well as the museum. All in all, it was a wonderful day, one we will remember for a long time. 

    You can take a virtual tour of the locks here and learn more about how they work here. There is also a great FAQ section here if you want to learn more! If you're ever in Panama, plan to spend a day exploring the visitor's center and watching the ships pass through. Admission for our family of six was less than twenty dollars and worth every penny.