January 2007 Archives

My comment about the lack of cheese in Thailand provoked some responses from my readers. I know, it is hard to understand. Even though I couldn't believe the amount of cheese that was on that chicken lasagne in Panama, and I didn't think I could eat it all, you better believe that I finished every bit of it, and loved it!

But of course we do have some cheese in Thailand. Nick was kind enough to pass along one of the newest promotions from my favorite Pizza Company in Thailand. I just might have to give it a try. But until then, allow me to introduce you all to the New Cheesy Max Pizza!


Nick received this ad in an email, and the text of the email explains the promotion (Note: English usage copied and pasted from the email)

Add 30% more cheese and delicious with 4 different kinds of cheese (cheese sauce, Gouda cheese, Mozzarella cheese and red sting cheese)

And now we suggest 4 new kinds Pizza - Smoky Chicken Bacon, Cheesy Sausage, Cheesy Aloha, Cheesy BBQ Chicken

Just 199 baht (for medium pan pizza),

Special 2 pizzas at 299 baht.

A medium pan Cheezy Sausage pizza for 199 baht (US$5.60) sounds pretty good to me. And even though I am not really sure what "red sting cheese" is, I think I'll be dialing 1112 soon to find out...

Living Vicariously Through Each Other


stuart_ava.jpgAs I sit here and hold day-old Ava Marie, I reflect on the whole amazing process. Since births happen all the time, I would think that we would get used to it. But no, it is still an awe-inspiring experience to share in the creation of another human life.

I was looking down at the sleeping baby in my arms, and my aunt asked me, "See? Isn't she beautiful?" I had to agree. "Doesn't it make you want to have one of your own?"

"Umm.... No. Absolutely not."

And I said it with a smile, because I really don't know why I missed out on the need-for-procreation gene. But having a baby of my own was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. And I am well past the age where that desire was supposed to kick in, so I guess that means that it's not going to happen.

It's funny how my sister's and I had the same childhood and share most of the same DNA, but our lives have taken wildly different paths the last few years. I have moved to the other side of the world and have done my best to put myself in as many different places as I can, as often as I can. She, on the other hand, found a wonderful husband, bought a house, and had her first child.

And we are both very happy with the outcomes and the paths ahead of us. So as she might marvel at the exotic places I go and things that I see (as she often comments on these pages), I too will marvel at her as she plays the premier role in shaping the life of another human being. It is a huge undertaking, and I have a lot of respect for her and the way she is going about it.

These paths that we have set ourselves upon are mutually exclusive. It would be impossible to do both, so we will just have to admire each other from afar. We will have to settle for living vicariously through each other as time goes on.

That's not such a bad thing after all...

My first time being an Uncle


At 5 AM on the day we were to leave Panama City, we got the phone call that we have been waiting for: my pregnant sister, her husband, and my mother were on the way to the hospital.

The flight back to the US was uneventful, but we were full of anticipation to hear the news from the hospital. As soon as we landed, we headed there to meet the newest addition to our family… a cute little girl named Ava Marie. Soon afterwards, I was able to hold the hours-old baby in my arms.

After spending some time with the baby and the new parents, my mother and father and I headed out for some dinner. They were both in a celebratory mood, as Ava Marie is their first grandchild. At the restaurant, we heard that some family friend’s had dropped by the hospital, and were now on their way to join us. And then we heard a big surprise that one of my aunts and her daughter had secretly driven all the way from Houston to see the baby, and that she was on the way to the restaurant as well.

It was a great party, once everyone arrived. The wine flowed freely and we made the kitchen stay open a little later than they perhaps wanted, as we kept ordering more food as new arrived.

All in all it was a great day. I look forward to sending little Ava Marie birthday presents every January from now on.

Today we made the long drive from Boquette to Panama City. We wanted to stop somewhere along the way to eat and possibly check out some of the beaches on the southern (Pacific) side of the country. One place that looked interesting, and not too far out of the way, was the tiny town of Aquadulce.

The town itself is about 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean, where, according to the Lonely Planet, man-made pools are available for swimming at low tide ("lovely in a funky way") and Johnny Tapia's restaurant ("a basic place named for its ebullent owner-waiter") serves great fresh seafood.

lowtide.jpgAnd, for once the Lonely Planet was right on. We arrived at low tide, which amazingly stretches out over one mile, making the water barely visible from the beach. And the pools were actually quite "funky" -- big above-ground cement holding tanks of various heights that fill with water when the tide comes in. The pools themselves are about 100 meters from the beach, and when we were there, were full of Panamanian kids having a great time while some of their parents were out in the tidal pools looking for clams.

And the restaurant was fantastic as well. Johnny was indeed "ebullient". And the food was out of this world. We used our limited Spanish to order a big fish, a big plate of jumbo shrimp, and cold beers. Johnny soon stopped by to welcome us and recommended we try the mussel ceviche, which we did and which was wonderful. His second recommendation was hot sauce for the jumbo shrimp, and was also a great choice.

We told Johnny that we were here because of our book, and we quickly realized that his English vocabulary didn't go much further than the two words "lonely" and "planet".

hotsauce.jpgNow, my father is a hot sauce connoisseur. Just a week before he had visited a Hot Sauce Musuem outide of St. Louis and was raving about the experience. And let's just say that Johnny's Hot Sauce got a Five Star rating from my father. He wanted to take some home to the US, but unfortunately, Johnny didn't sell it by the bottle.

But five minutes later, Johnny appeared from the kitchen with a used tabasco bottle full of the secret orange nectar. My father actually let out a big "Whoop!" and jumped up to give Johnny a hug. There were smiles all around... and I can only wonder what the locals thought about the crazy gringos who appeared in Aquadulce that day.

Boquete and the Coffee Farm Tour

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One thing about Panama is that it is very obvious that they have not invested much in the tourism industry here (as opposed to their more well-marketed neighbor Costa Rica). The road to Boquete was, in places, terrible. But at the same time it looked like improvements were being made, albeit very slowly.

Before we left El Valle, though, we spent some time wandering through the local market. The native "Indian" population (like the Thai hilltribes) gathers here to sell handicrafts and produce. We bought a few wall hangings for the soon-to-be-delievered baby's nursery, and some unique jewelry made from seeds. And then it was time to hit the rough road for Boquete.

After making our way down the rough highway, Boquete turned out to be a wonderful small mountain town. The air was cool and clean, and the surrounding mountains were beautiful. The extinct volcano, called Volcan Baru, that dominates the area around Boquete is actually Panama's highest peak at 3478 meters above sea level. The town itself is in the valley, but still at an elevation of 1060 meters.

The highlight of our time here was a tour of the Cafe Ruiz coffee plantation. A very knowledgeable guide named Carlos showed us around both the farm and the processing plant. Did you know that there are 16 steps from coffee tree to coffee bag? We certainly didn't. I can't remember them all, but it was something along the lines of pick, sort, wash, peel, ferment, peel two more layers, pre-dry, dry, sort again, bag, and ship. That's only 11 steps, so I am leaving out a few. It was very interesting to watch the whole process.

We also learned a lot about coffee farming in general. According to Carlos, Panamanian coffee is very highly regarded by coffee experts, but it is not marketed as much as say, Columbian or Hawaiian coffee. (Just another example where Panama has yet to market itself to the world.)

It was fun to talk to Carlos about his life as well. He is a member of one of Panama's indigenous tribes, who mostly live in small villages in the mountains east of Boquete. He told us that he started working in the coffee fields at the age of 10, then he worked in the factory for a few years, and now he specializes in giving tours. I guessed (and he agreed) that giving tours was definitely the best job of the three.

He told us a bit about his tribe. Apparently they are fiercly independent and have no real desire to join the modern world. They come to the area around Boquette to harvest the coffee beans for 6 months a year, and then they go back to their villages where they live the rest of the time. They still wear traditional clothing and seem to be perfectly happy to stay in their villages where they speak their own language and live a relaxed lifestyle.

Speaking of relaxing, we have had a very relaxing time in Boquete. But unfortunately our time in Panama is drawing to a close, and tomorrow we will tackle the bad roads back to Panama City. Hopefully we will also have time for a few stops along the way.

A Drive to El Valle and the Waterfalls

This morning Dad and I rented a car from Avis and hit the road. Not just any road, mind you, but the Intercontinental highway, which stretches from Alaska to Chile. We headed west towards Costa Rica, with plans to stay in a small town called El Valle one night and then head to Panama’s highest mountain, where we would stay for two nights.

This time, the trip went as planned. El Valle is a cute little village that is in floor of a huge volcanic crater that exploded millions of years ago. We went to one waterfall called Macho, but it was a bit disappointing because we had to pay $2.50 to see it and were guided the whole way by a local, with no chance of exploring on our own. But then we went to check out another nearby waterfall, which was free and had no restrictions.

Another attraction at this waterfall is some indecipherable petroglyphs that were supposedly carved into the rocks hundreds of years ago. Local kids crowded our car as we parked offering their tour services of the waterfall and the carvings (for a tip of course). They were very persistent, but didn’t seem to speak much English, so my response to them was vamos solo which may (or may not!) mean “We go alone”

It appeared that the trail to the waterfall goes on up past the petroglyphs and the cascades to the top of the ancient volcanic crater. Unfortunately it was getting dark when we arrived at the waterfall, so we headed back shortly after the obligatory photos.

We had a good "Panamanian" dinner at the local restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel. Tomorrow we will get back on the Intercontinental and head to Boquette.

Today's road trip didn't turn out quite as we had planned, but it was an absolutely incredible day. The three of us (Dad, Edrin, and myself) planned to visit the Miraflores canal locks and to go to Fort San Lorenzo near the Gatun Locks, and then head over to Portobelo to visit some other old Spanish forts. We never made it to Portobelo, however.

But the rest of the trip was fantastic. The locks were a cool sight -- we actually watched a huge cargo ship being raised through them -- and the adjoining museum was quite good also. We then drove to the city of Colon at the other end of the Canal. Colon supposedly was a happening city many decades ago, but now it is perhaps the most crime-ridden city in Panama. Needless to say, we didn't get out of the car, but we still enjoyed the view of the decaying, yet once grand, city.

Our next stop was Fuerte San Lorenzo. We had vague directions on how to get there, and even vaguer maps, and absolutely no road signs on the way, but amazingly we made 8 correct turn decisions in a row and found ourselves at the fort. It is perched on a tall cliff overlooking the mouth of the Rio Charges, which feeds the Canal with water. The three of us spent over an hour climbing over the ruins and taking a lot of great pictures of the fort and the scenery. On the way back to the car, we saw a flock of brightly colored toucans frolicking in the trees.

Back in Panama City, we finished the day with the most amazing dinner at a Swiss restaurant called Rincon Suize. Between the three of us, we finished off 3 appetizers, 3 dinners, 3 deserts, one bottle of wine and 3 glasses of port. Everything was perfect, except for the bill. I had no idea one could spend so much in a country like Panama. But it was well worth it... fine dinning at its best and a rewarding end to our day of adventure.

Our first two full days in Panama have been spent checking out the historical sites in the capital city. Yesterday we visited Panama Viejo, the orginial site of Panama City that was founded in 1519 and destroyed in 1671 by the English pirate Henry Morgan. And today we visited more recently built Casco Viejo, which was started after the destruction of the old city.

The ruins at Panama Viejo have been turned into a very nice park, reminiscent to me of Thailand's Ayuthaya and Sukhothai parks. The building material was very different (bricks in Thailand and coral blocks in Panama) as was the religion of course (Buddhist vs Catholic), but the result for today's tourist is much the same. As I walked around the ruins I kept expecting to see a Buddha head here or there. (I didn't find any.)

Casco Viejo, on the other hand, is still in use, although it is in much needed repair. The old cathedral on the main square (started in 1688, but taking more than 100 years to complete), is still impressive, as is the President of Panama's residence on the water. Many people had warned us that this was not a very safe part of town, especially at night, and I could see why. Most of the people who live in this area are very poor, and seem to resent the camera-toting tourists who wander through. But the area is slowly gentrifying, so hopefully in the future it will be an even nicer place to visit. (And hopefully the government will find some way to give the people living here a better life.)

After getting back to the hotel, I met up with a friend of a friend and he joined Dad and I for an Italian dinner on the Causeway near the Panama Canal. The five kilometer causeway links what used to be three small islands and was built with rocks dug up from the Canal construction. Now there are a few good restaurants and a very popular exercise trail that allows the residents of Panama City a chance to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant that our new friend Edrin recommended. It was indeed a good choice, with tasty food and a nice view of the lights of downtown Panama City across the bay. Edrin is training to be in a Merchant Marine, and so we enjoyed getting an insider's view of what it's like to work on the ships going through the Canal.

Speaking of the Canal, tomorrow Edrin will join us for a tour of the locks and a trip up to Portobelo to see some old Spanish forts. But until then, I will leave you with the funniest quote of the day, from Edrin. As I worked on my extremely cheesy chicken lasagna, I was explaining to him that I never eat cheese in Thailand, because it's just not a common ingredient in Thai food. His reaction was to incredulously let us in on the wise maxim "A country without cheese? That's like a country without water!"


Our First Day in Panama City


So when I said that I wouldn´t be travelling much in 2007, I was lying a little bit. At least the first part of the year is travel-filled -- with my Dad and I just today arriving in the Central American country of Panama for a week-long vacation.

So why Panama? And why did Dad come along with me this time? Well, I am waiting for my sister to have her first baby, making me an Uncle for the first time, and I thought I would travel around somewhere in Central or South America in the meantime. I am very curious to see how the tropical American countries compare to those in South East Asia. And when I told my Dad about my idea, he immediately signed up to go along with me. He had spent a lot of time in Panama in the 1980 and 90s, so next thing I knew we had air tickets to Panama City.

And sure enough, after flying into Panama City today and walking around downtown a bit, I feel at home. Un-airconditioned, smoke-belching busses run up and down the streets, the uneven sidewalks try to trip you at every opportunity, fresh fruit can be bought on the street from small carts, and everyone is speaking a language I don´t understand! Just like Thailand...

Actually, as far as the Spanish language goes, I didn`t realize I knew as much as I do. I have learned (or been reminded) of a lot of words in the first few hours already. I am having trouble remembering them when I need to speak, but my dad and I have been able to read a lot of the signs along the road. And it´s easy to look up new words in a dictionary, as opposed to Thai and its crazy Sanskrit-inspired script.

So, we will be here a week... visiting the canal, checking out some colonial forts, and eating as much food as possible. Sounds like a great time to me!

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2006 is the previous archive.

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