Phew! Another adventure.

I’m a nervous wreck, that’s all there is to it. A sweet neighbor who knows what’s about to happen, insisted she feed me a quick lunch. I haven’t eaten all day.

What’s happening this afternoon was never a dream. I just couldn’t imagine it ever happening.

About this time three years ago I was sitting in my little home office, trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to make my crazy scheme work. I had made a big fat, bold statement on Facebook that I was going to reinvent myself by enrolling in a month-long class in NY for the summer. Although I had made the deposit on my class, I had no idea how I’d pay the balance due, much less swing an apartment in New York City. Nor eat while there.

I was getting ready to make a real fool out of myself.

With the encouragement of many friends, online and at home, I made it to New York. The class was cancelled but the effort morphed into a 30-day walk across Manhattan. That blossomed into a 30-day walk across Paris, then New Orleans, a front page article in Huffington Post, a feature on Lee Woodruff’s blog . . . and a totally new career at age 58, just as I’d hoped.

And now, an invitation from Harpo Productions to be a Skyped-in guest on Oprah’s Life Class – hosted by Cindy Crawford.

I don’t remember being this nervous. I should know by now that everything will be just fine.

Click to view entire show.

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Bocas del Toro, Panama

Am just back in Panamá City after two days on Isla Colón, the largest of the nine islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. These islands are located on the extreme western side of Panamá, only 40 kilometers, or about 24 miles, from Costa Rica.

The first words out of my mouth when we stepped onto this island were “Key West!” Like most resorts that feed off the beautiful blue Caribbean waters, Bocas shares many characteristics of our south Florida resort. It crawls with plump, sunburned tourists and hops with hostels full of international kids who’ve not bathed for days. If you take a big whiff, you’ll catch a healthy waft of last night’s cocktail. Full of fruit, of course. Shark teeth and plastic woven wristbands are abundant in the souvenir shops, as are sarongs made in the Orient and jewelry purportedly handmade.

But if you look beyond the first impression you’ll find nature our children experience only through pixels. Our group of four stood mesmerized as a tree sloth, high in a tree, nursed her young. I carried with me a huge palm branch, enthralled with its intricately woven fibers. Starfish as big as a dinner plate, lay abundantly only feet from the shore line. And the frogs and birds of the rain forest . . . their sound almost symphonic.

I hope you’ll enjoy this visual tour of the area known as Bocas del Toro as much as I did. I begin with the moment we stepped off the bus and into our next means of transportation, a bright yellow water taxi. Hail Marys come in handy, whether you’re Catholic or not. The young driver, donning a bejeweled LA cap, instructed twenty-five of us (yes, I counted) to jump in and put on our life vests. This is where you surrender to the man in the tacky cap, and pray that you’ll see your kids “just one more time, dear God!”

I survived and was very happy to leave the island in an airplane.

Once on the main island of Isla Colón, we found lots of hostels teeming with kids from around the world.

It always amazes me how creative bar owners can be with their watering holes . . . surely designed while under the influence.

Then, of course, a slice of Atlanta . . . the hometown I share with Coca-Cola.

Our hotel, Gran Hotel Bahía, once the headquarters of the fruit company now known as Chiquita, has two large porches overlooking the water. As you peer down the hallway, you could almost imagine the workers running back and forth across the dark wide hallways, with clipboards in hand, barking out orders to the workers who load bananas on the dock outside.

Fueling up for the ride around the nine islands of the Bocas del Toro province of Panamá. (see below)

Walking through the rain forest to reach Isla Bastimentos’ Red Frog Beach, one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen . . . also one of the frog chirping-est! (see below)

Tents for rent at the Palmar Tent Lodge, ranging from $10 if you pitch your own, $70/per for a 4-person tent. Each comes with 5 gallons of water for showering and basin/pitcher for brushing your teeth. For the young, I’m afraid. (see below)

When you’re this deep in the rain forest there’s not much to do but drink, I guess. And be creative. Following are photos of the open-air bar and the creativity used in lining the path to it. Yes those are wine bottles. (see below):
The starfish!
The fibers of the palm tree:
Some of the sights on Isla Colon, the largest island and the only one allowing cars.
Here is the sanctuary of an open-air Catholic church in the town called Bocas.
Residents often have small shrines to the Virgin Mary in their gardens. Some quite beautiful as the one below. I remembers these as a child in El Salvador.
Everything here is a colorful piece of art here in Bocas del Toro. Even the signage.
Cerviche and a freshly-squeezed lime drink. A perfect way to end a day in Bocas.

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Quiet little Boquete, Panamá

I am so conflicted each evening when I sit down to write. There’s so much I want to share with you, so many details I want to remember for my own memories. I want to record each conversation – the one with the handsome young South African in Casco Viejo who left his thriving design business in England to open a shop in Panamá. Or the retired couple who came here eight years ago and bought property on the spot.

I want to find answers for all the questions I have, like why Panamá buys their paper money from US. I want to know more about Casco Viejo developer, K. C. Hardin, the New York lawyer who came here in 2003 and never left. And to calm the education passion in me, I want to know more about the Panamánian schools.

My sister and I have taken hundreds of photos which I’d love to upload. They paint such stories, all unique to those of us back home. I’m so afraid I’ll return home and get busy, leaving the images hidden in the computer.

I opted to let my sister to go alone on the zip line through the cloud forest, near the volcano. No, I was not as brave as she, but I chose to enjoy a bit of quiet and reflection in this cozy little hamlet called Boquete. I wanted to take it all in.

As I sit on the bright sunny porch of the Hotel Panamonde, looking out onto the mountains, I can hear only the noise of palms rustling in the cool breeze. There is a faint smell of something sweet. It’s actually a row of  rosemary that borders the fence next to me. The weather is 27 celsius or about 80 degrees fahrenheit. It couldn’t be a more perfect day.

My trance is interrupted by a workman nearby as he begins to load a wheelbarrow with firewood. The waiter brings me a cup of thick, rich coffee, the specialty of this region, plus the morning’s selections of fresh fruits. Pineapple, banana, melon, papaya, fresh oranges . . . certainly picked right down the road. With yogurt, honey and homemade orange marmalade on the side, how lucky can a girl get?

The bougainvillea and the hibiscus are everywhere you turn, framed perfectly by the bright colors of the stucco behind them. The marigolds bloom twice the size as those at home. And the greens, I swear, seems more brilliant under this bright sun.

Today is a nice respite from last night, our first night here. Thousands of people descended on this tiny hamlet for their yearly celebration, The Coffee and Flower Festival. We found the mass of humanity interesting. Scents of greasy fair food, sounds of laughter from the merry-go-round, sights of tired parents chasing their children here and yonder were not much different than I remember as a child in Mobile, Alabama. Except for the faces which were all new and interesting. Tired, we were both anxious to get settled, unpacked and oriented for this, our next stop.

As I enjoy my breakfast I reflect on last night’s conversation with an American couple here from Montana. We agreed that as you age you see how materials things can so easily become liabilities. The memories we gather from relationships and experiences like these are worth so much more.

I so agree.

The 2014 Coffee & Flower Festival in Boquete, Chiriquí in Panamá. Photo by MicheleStapleton.com

 

 

 

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  1. Panama, 5 decades later
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Thanks, Mom

When my father announced to my mother that he’d received orders for El Salvador, her first question was, “Where in the world is THAT?”

Just picture this: It’s 1958 and you’ve just been told you have to pack up your 2-year-old and 5-year-old daughters and take them to some God-forsaken country where they’ll have to live for three years. The natives don’t speak English. It is before internet or email. And even international phone calls are prohibitively expensive so calling family is not an option. Oh, and no trips back home.

Your eldest child would start her education in a third-world country. And your 2-year-old would surely contract some strange tropical disease because of her tender age.

The news must have been horrifying, especially to a 28-year-old mother.

Today, as our taxi drove us through the “old neighborhood” of Balboa, I was overwhelmed by the visual memories that flooded in.

These 2,150 acres, once the US military base known as Fort Clayton, now house Knowledge City, a complex of schools and research institutions. Many of the old barracks and other structures still remain intact from 1958. This is where my father landed when flying into Panamá. It’s here that I remember coming to the doctor, and where my Mother came for the best shopping. Albeit 50 years later, it was great being back.

Yep, my mother didn’t think twice. She packed up our family and off we went on a new adventure. By example she taught me how to open my mind to new cultures and my heart to people different from myself. She instilled in me a curiosity and thirst for new experiences. It’s my mother who I blame for my wanderlust spirit!

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Today we spent the morning at the Canal Zone. Fifty years later, I still remember the first time I watched a big ship go through the locks. It was just as impressive today as it was then.

Boats go through the locks 24 hours a day. It takes 8-10 minutes to adjust the water levels and 8-10 hours for the boat to complete the entire 51-mile canal trip (water levels between the Pacific and the Atlantic can vary almost 16 feet in height). Entry fees must be paid 48 hours ahead of time. In cash. Read more fun facts about the Canal.

Afterwards we attended an outdoor event, part of  a yearlong celebration, on the lawn of the Canal’s Administration Building. They are commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the completion of the  Canal. Children helped paint a large banner, with 5,804 contributing in this piece of art. 

So, if you’ve ever wondered from whence you came, go back and visit it. As a child we hold only the good memories. And those memories should be revisited and cherished as often as possible.

 

 

 

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Art in Casco Viejo, Panama

I love art and Casco Viejo is certainly filled with lots of it. The whimsical little fish you see on the header were made by Kuna ladies, members of an indigenous community on San Blas Islands which are off the coast of Panama City. They are also the people who are famous for their colorful sewn handicraft called molas.

But graffiti is probably my favorite type of art. I hit the jackpot here.

As we rounded a corner in the center of Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City, I caught a sliver of graffiti painted inside a walled courtyard. Near the entrance were two young artsy-looking guys so I asked permission to come in and see the entire display.

Right off they sensed my love of this type of art, so they gave me directions to see more of it. Just a few blocks away was a hard top fútbol court adjacent to the YMCA where 4 or 5 little boys played soccer and rode their bikes (see below). Around all four sides of the court was painted some of the most wonderful pieces of art – a link is included, just click to watch.

w.

Click on the slide show to see the rest: Panama Graffiti

I can’t get over the friendliness of the people here in Panama. No, I really mean it. Yesterday morning, after asking our hotel clerk where to find a bus, she walked us down the block to the travel agent and negotiated with the woman until she felt we were satisfied! Also, while struggling with a map in a coffee shop, a young woman turned and asked if we needed any help. She has since emailed us and told us to call on her if we have any questions at all about her country. The waiters, people on the street, vendors – they’ve all gone out of their way to make us feel at home here. I so love this country!

 

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Casco Viejo, through a new lens

“Con usted…no queremos mujeres feas.”

Between Michele and I we had just enough knowledge of the Spanish language to figure out what it meant. “Nobody likes ugly women.”

That’s what started our magical mystery tour of the day. It began as my sister, Michele, and I started out by heading toward the fish market. We had read somewhere that we should arrive early before the smell took over. Only 4-5 blocks from our hotel, we left in plenty of time.

Along the way, we wove in and out of ramshackle market stalls propped up against the buildings. Men sold their wares, mostly machine parts, old mixers, new work boots, and even used life jackets. It was such a rudimentary way to make a living. We lily-white gringos stuck out like sore thumbs, most don’t mosey into their world, I’m sure. They were cordial and probably just as curious about us as we were about them.

We watched as one man sliced off a side of a coconut, poked a hole in it, then drank the water out of it, “The nectar of the gods,” he told us then he insisted on pouring some in our cupped hands so we could try it. Another man agreed to let us take his son’s photo when we made the connection between his son and a sticker on the side of his SUV parked nearby. “Angelito a Bordo,” translated to “Little Angel on Board.”

We walked street after street, up and down, through some slums, by several pool halls and bars, observing life of the poor, probably the majority of the people who live in this old part of town.

Then we happened upon Antonio. As we came closer to read his sign, Michele pointed to it and laughed, gesturing that she understood. He stood at the open window of his machine shop full of men and together we all shared a nice laugh.

He told us that his father had opened this nautical repair shop 48 years ago. He now owns it, and most of the six employees have been working here for 30-35 years. He is very proud of the fact that his shop is well-respected by the bigwigs in town. He rattled off several dignitaries whose boats he had repaired. Though I tried my best, I still could understand only about 50% of what he was telling me.

A big reformation began about 12 years ago, he estimated. He took us down the street so we could get a clear view of the large Trump Tower and the other skyscrapers that had sprung up along the skyline. He was very proud of his hometown.

He then invited us to follow him up a stairwell which led to rooms above his shop. We followed with much trepidation. Not quite sure where he was taking us, and for what reason, but we followed.

At the top of the stairs he disappeared into small, dark quarters then came out and waved us in. Michele and I walked into a room that held 9-10 people all crammed in a small room about 12 x 15 feet. He took us immediately to the small balcony that presented a stunning view of the skyline. He had seen that Michele was a photographer and wanted to make sure she got the best angle of the skyline possible.

Photo by MicheleStapleton.com

This dark room held a small couch and a single bed. A ladder led to a loft where the other beds were housed. On the couch sat four boys, all very polite and quiet. A young mother who looked no older than 15 or 16, nursed her newborn.

The mother and grandmothers, both leery about our intrusion in their home, sat on the single bed opposite their boys, watching over their flock like eagles. As we stumbled through our broken Spanish they warmed up to us, to the point of allowing Michele take photos.

Photo by MicheleStapleton.com

I’ve not seen this type of poverty in a long time. I hope the reformation that’s happening in this country not only draws tourism but also bolsters families such as this one.

Today changed my perspective of this town. Now that I don’t equate poverty with crime, I enjoyed my day much more. I started seeing more of the beauty in this place  and the people who live here – and less of the decay. It was a great day. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

 

* Since writing this post, I read in an American Airlines In Flight Magazine article that Panama’s economy is growing at a faster rate than China’s. I also read that this country’s literacy rate is now at 98%.

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Casco Viejo, the Old Town of Panama City

Tired as an old goat, I stumbled into the Atlanta airport this morning at 6am. I have a bad habit of obsessing the night before a trip. I get my packing done, finish work and household chores. Then I get this wild notion that I must change the oil in the car, wash all the linens in the house and polish the silver.  I make sure I’m totally exhausted by the time I start a vacation. Needless to say, I was sound asleep before the plane took off.

As the plane began its descent into the Tocumen Airport, here in Panama, I was stunned by my first view of this city of 1+ million people. Forty or fifty ships lined up, waiting their turn to get through the locks of the Canal. They sat frozen in the beautiful blue hues of the Gulf of Panama, on the Pacific side. The water, transitioning from aqua to deep indigo, contrasted beautifully against the lush green rolling mountains and valleys and the red clay tiled roofs, all lined neatly in rows. Lining the beach were skyscrapers – huge ones – one after the other, glistening in the early afternoon. Such a diverse visual.

A nice young woman met us at the airport and as she drove us to our hotel, she graciously pointed out various highlights of the city. Construction is going on everywhere. This city is on fire. Their new subway system opens in just a few months. A new wing is being added to the bustling airport. Even the graffiti-adorned buses, the famous Diablo Rojos, are being replaced with nice, new, “proper” buses. Couldn’t have been a more hospitable way to begin this trip.

Our hotel is really quite delightful, set in Casco Viejo, the historical part of town (settled in 1683). Old and quaint, full of tiled floors and cool nooks and crannies, it is very Spanish. It’s not quite as pretty as the pictures online, BUT, it works quite well – has a huge tiled shower and the air conditioner works phenomenally in this humid 90-degree heat. On the roof is a terrace with the most spectacular view of the sea and the city in the background. That’s on one side. If you pivot you see only remnants of what this community used to be. Quite sad, really.

The tour books describe this city of half New Orleans and half Havana. Sounds about right, although I’ve never seen Havana.

As soon as my sister and I unpacked our things, we stepped outside for a walk. Beautifully restored buildings butted up against hollowed out caverns of decaying stucco structures. Rusted handrails and looped barbed wire atop walls. Cats wandering through the streets. Police everywhere, most yielding guns. Neither of us said a word but it was quite clear we were both doubting our choice of areas to call home. We kept walking.

We came upon the old town square where older men milled around, enjoying each others’ company. A young mother stood nearby as her children drew pictures in the sand that covered the bricks. A young flutist in the center of the square played a delightful tune for any donation he could get. All this activity came to an abrupt halt when guards approached the square. They marched up to the flagpole. Michele and I walked nearer to see what was happening. Two of the older gentlemen gave us the eye. We got it. They had all stopped and stood still as their flag came down. This honor of their flag and country was actually quite moving to me.

As we walked we again found great contrast. Open doors here and there allowed us views into  the life of this old part of town. Through one I could see a tiny, dark living space, quite barren, active with children and Grandpa watching a tiny TV set. Directly next door was a spanking new, New-York quality restaurant, serving dishes ranging from $20-up. We walked on and got lured in by a restauranteur who insisted we stop and have his famous frozen pineapple drink.

After finishing a so-so meal outside in the balmy night of 85-degrees, we retraced our steps back to the hotel. We were stunned by the transition we saw in the streets we had walked just hours earlier. They had totally transformed! Waiters had brought tables out into the town square and covered them with starched white linen tablecloths. The place was buzzing with nicely-dressed young professionals, 20-somethings drinking wine and mojitos. Valet parkers maneuvered brand new BMWs and Audis into parking spaces along the little streets. Music flew out of windows, filling the air with jazz as tiny white lights glistened from the trees. I swear it was a different place.

Maybe the dark covered up the bruises, but it certainly brought out the city’s most vibrant and brought this area alive. This place is happening. There is a beautiful gem unfolding here in Casco Viejo. (read about it in the New York Times)

So off to bed I go. I can hear a parrot downstairs, squawking about something. He’s not going to keep me awake. I am bone tired.

Goodnight.

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Panama, 5 decades later

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the seat directly behind my Dad on the left side of the plane, the engines roaring so loud I could barely hear what he was saying to me. He was piloting a C-124 from El Salvador to Panama City. In my hand was a small paper bag. I often got sick while flying and on this day I was particularly nauseous.

It was 1959 or 60 and our family lived in San Salvador, the capital of the smallest country in Central America. My Dad was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, sent there to bolster diplomatic relations with our neighboring countries. Fidel Castro was in power in Cuba and his close ties with the Soviet Union worried American leaders. The Soviets had nuclear weapons. Cuba was geographically very close to the US…clearly a threat.

According to my childhood memories, my father and I went to Panama often. My hands and feet were raw with eczema so he took me there for cortisone shots. Because of the canal, Panama was the ‘big city’ and they had the biggest American base with good medical care and shopping.

Returning to Central America and reliving my childhood memories has always been high on my bucket list. That dream is finally coming true, over five decades later. To piece together my memories, I have sorted through old photos, yearbooks, and letters plus my mother has filled in a lot of the blanks. I’ve got so much to share!

My sister and I leave Wednesday and will spend ten days in three major regions of the country. I will post photos daily on Facebook.  If you’d like to follow along, click the LIKE button at the top of the Facebook page and sign up for email reminders.

So, yeah, I’m sprucing up my dancing shoes and embarking on another of my wild dances. Come on, go with me!

 

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Ok, Michele, I lied.

Last thing I texted my sister before I took off on Sunday was, “I am 15 pounds overweight right now. I am going to walk and eat lettuce all week!”

I’ve eaten everything BUT lettuce.

My first two days in the city were spent inside, doing work. I know, I know. It’s okay – I expected it would be. I really like the work I’m doing, and doing it in this crazy city, next to a big open, sunny window, listening to car tires skip over the cobblestone streets outside – not a bad thing.

Last night about 6, I finished my last phone call, closed the laptop and headed outside. My one mission was to go into a restaurant and eat. Sounds easy, but eating alone is not comfortable for me, not easy at all.

For three miles I zigzagged up and down the streets of the Village. The longer I walked, the harder it got. All my mind could see was a big elephant in the restaurant – me among romantic couples sitting together, groups of friends laughing, enjoying each other’s company. Oh, I could squint and pretend to read Facebook and twitter on my phone. But in a dark restaurant, we all know that’s a joke. I can hardly read the damn menu at my age.

The alter ego, the slave driver, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I had to pick a place, any place, and do it soon.

I stopped at a little Italian place called Ristorante Mappamondo. The sandwich board outside announced a special of “Black Tagliolini with Calamari in Spicy Tomato Sauce.” No idea what it was, but I have a history of being adventuresome with food. The most appealing part of this restaurant was that it was safe. Other than the couple consumed with their toddler, it was dead empty. Just me and them. A bit of a cowardly choice, but it was ok for my first step. At least I did it.

When the waitress came to the table I made a quick, nervous – and inane – comment about how lovely the weather was. She shrugged and answered, ‘Not for me! I miss my California weather.’ We promptly got into a conversation about how much she missed her hometown. She’d been in NY much longer than expected, she said, as she leaned halfway into the booth across from me. She went on to say that she was planning to move next year. We had the most delightful conversation about life in New York, California and how much family meant to us. I totally forgot I was the elephant.

I sat at the table in the window, enjoying a glass of Merlot,  watching all the folks as they scurried by. I took her advice and tried the black tagliolini – loved every bite of it.

On my way home I stopped by a little market and treated myself to some flowers. I had conquered a fear, and by doing so, I had been rewarded with such a pleasurable evening. Why not celebrate with flowers!

Yeah, I don’t know what it is about this place. For some it’s the beach. For others it’s the mountains. For me, this city is my special place.

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Back in New York, 2 years later

It’s barely 8:00pm and I am already in my pjs. I’ve had dinner, the lights are out, my front windows are cracked open, letting in a cool breeze. I’m exhausted. It’s been a long, tough 4-1/2 months leading up to this trip.

 

All week I’ve worried that this time in New York will be a let-down, a disappointment. The 30 days I spent walking this city in July of 2011 were simply magical, life-changing. How could I possibly repeat that heartbeat every morning?

 

The newness has certainly worn off. As the plane descended onto the city, I didn’t feel quite the same awe I did two summers ago. I looked down from the window and could identify the neighborhoods. I could name the bridges that span the East River. I knew exactly what route the cab driver would take to reach my apartment.

 

“What next?,” I asked myself. After all, I had reached my dream in so many ways.

 

Seema greeted me at the door with an European kiss on each cheek, just as she did that first summer. Not much had changed in the apartment but, God, I immediately felt so at home. A big ol’ smile just washed my face. I’ve missed this place. I really have.

 

The kids at the bar next door are going strong. I can hear a faint hint of laughter wafting through my open window. A small yappy dog is barking now and then, and the muted roar of cars and planes fills the rest of my background.

 

I’m so happy to be back.

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I’d love to have you come along with me as I re-discover this fabulous city. Just click the LIKE button on the top of my Facebook page and come on!

I did manage to find some cool graffiti on my way in. Enjoy:

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