Wednesday, December 21, 2011

up the Chuqunaque

Today's post is a guest post by my twelve-year-old daughter. On Monday, she went with her father to an Embera-Wounaan community to observe the closing meeting of a program that studied the effects of climate change in the region. This is her report:

My experience in Darien was pretty amazing. Other than a long,wet, and bumpy ride, I actually learned a lot and had fun. We started the trip by walking up at 5:30 in the morning  and then after driving about one hour and a half we stopped at a little rancho and had a delicious Panamanian breakfast. Then we stopped to buy some snacks, and after that we were off. We went to the comunity by piragua (canoe) on the Chucunaque river.
When we got there, we were greeted by one of the native ladies. My dad had told me to get painted with special ink made from berries they grow, so I decided, why not? and I got an Embera design on my arm (not on my face even though they offered). 

The meeting was kind of being delayed so they decided to serve the food, (it was delicious) I chose some barbecued  chicken with a side order of bollos torro, and bodochi.Then the meeting finally started.
I went to the meeting, and saw the UN representatives, and some of the people from different indigenous groups. They indigenous people’s leader told us how the change in climate was affecting their lives because of the increase of water to the river causing much flooding. This made me think of how terribly we were treating our planet, and kind of left me wanting to help. Some girls from the Embera Wounaan tribe did two dances that were very beautiful.
Ironically after this meeting the weather changed and it started raining, everyone ran to their piraguas, to go home.
The ride back was nice, but I fell asleep most of the ride. It is a very odd feeling being surrounded by nature, and then waking up to the city all lit up. Like this was my first time in Darien I left with a very good impression of the place, and people.

Friday, December 16, 2011

5 observations and cranberry carrot bread

  1. The bird watching in my backyard has been particularly good lately. The birds and bats helped themselves to a papaya and it's been fascinating to watch them.
  2. On Sunday night Noriega returned to Panama. I was out for a run, when suddenly (about the time he was arriving at the prison) there was an explosion of clanging pots. (People banged pots to show their opposition back when he was in power.) It gave me a strange shivery feeling, that clamour in the night. There were only four or five people banging, but the sound rang so plaintively through the night air... When I finished my long run I went home and read (until late) all about Noriega, and Oliver North and the 1989 invasion.
  3. Some books are just for fun. We are reading Attack of the Vampire Snowmen. It is ridiculous and so frothy after The Graveyard Book. I guess I'm teaching my kids to distinguish between high and low culture (or something).
  4. I hope it stops raining, mostly so I don't have to deal with wet, muddy running shoes every day. My daughter is in day camp. They play soccer and volley ball and go to the pool. It is excellent and she is having the best time. The only problem is her shoes. This morning found me trying to dry them in the oven. I don't mind the mud, but I'm a little worried about trench foot.
  5. Every year I look over the 'best of' lists and find something I'm not nearly cool enough to have discovered on my own. This year was no exception. I love this:

I might have bought the last bag of frozen cranberries in Panama yesterday (probably not, but possibly the last bag in my supermarket). I love cranberries; they are one of a number of gringo indulgences that I partake in this time of year.

cranberry carrot bread

4 tablespoons butter (room temperature), plus more for the pan
2 cups flour (I did a combination of 1½ cups all-purpose and ½ cup whole wheat)
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup milk
¼ cup orange juice
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 egg
1 cup grated carrots
1½ cups frozen cranberries

Heat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with butter.

Stir together the dry ingredients. With a mixer, add  the butter a tablespoon at a time. This works great with a stand mixer.

Mix together the milk, orange zest and juice and egg add the grated carrots. Pour into the dry ingredients, mixing just enough to moisten; do not beat and do not mix until the batter is smooth. Fold in the cranberries, then spoon the batter into the loaf pan.

Bake for about an hour, or until the bread is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes before removing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


blooming banana

What can I tell you? I am adjusting to vacation hours. My youngest is in day camp in the morning and my oldest is practicing lethargy and sloth (actually she doesn't need any practice, she's really good at it). And I need a project. I should do some baking, but nothing is inspiring me. Also, I forget to order the gas and now we are out. So I won't be doing any baking until the gas guys come. I should clean out a closet or something.

I will probably not clean out a closet. Although closet cleaning is a perfectly satisfying activity I'm itching for something bigger. It's raining again which is not helping my restless, dissatisfied mood. I will probably make some coffee and escape into a book. I should be grateful for this lull. I should be writing blogs and planning holiday menus and writing, just writing. But I'm stalled and stuck and I feel like doing nothing and everything. I need a project...

Friday, December 9, 2011

5 observations

  1. It was Mother's Day here in Panama yesterday. I had a nice relaxing day. I didn't cook anything and I finished my book. It was very nice.
  2. Bad service in a restaurant can ruin a perfectly nice meal. We went out for brunch yesterday. While we had bad, but not terrible service, the table beside us was a disaster. After bringing out food for only half the table, a different waiter came to placate them and spilled a drink down one woman's back. Honestly, it was painful to witness. I am pretty tolerant of bad service (people have bad days, are inexperienced) but this was total incompetence.
  3. My kids finished school on Wednesday. We are officially on vacation.
  4. I finished work this week and I am so glad. Traffic gets really crazy here in December and it becomes impossible to find a taxi. I will be staying close to home until this seasonal craziness subsides. 
  5. This is pretty good:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I guess I'm getting into it...

We went to Casco Viejo on Saturday night to take in the Carols by Candlelight concert. We wandered around until we saw the crowd forming. Then we waited a long time because it started late. My kids got a little impatient, and I when I saw parents with smaller kids dealing with full on tantrums, I was grateful for my whiny big kids. But when the singing finally started the mood lifted. It was a very sweet event and the crowd was full of goodwill.

There seems to be a real appetite for cultural events like this. It was nice to see so many people out. The singing was good to. There are a couple of carols in Spanish that my girls love and it was fun to see them performed and hear them sung in a big crowd like that.
I guess all those Christmas songs put me in the mood. We put up our Christmas tree on Sunday. It's always a big deal because we only do it once every three years (the other two years we spend Christmas in Canada or Argentina). The kids have their last day of school tomorrow. And then the real craziness of December begins!

Friday, December 2, 2011

5 observations and chocolate ice cream

  1. December 1st brought sunshine. It feels like December; the sun is out and the breeze is blowing. Glorious.
  2. Perfume sick is the worst sick. Teaching a corporate class in a small conference room, I was felled by one woman's perfume. Certain perfumes have always bothered me but I've usually been able to leave (like at the cosmetic counter in a department store). But where could I go, I was in the middle of my class with cold sweats and that awful constant yawning. It was horrible and the last fifteen minutes were torture (I was sure I would vomit at any moment). Somehow I made it home and spent the rest of the day in bed with a blinding, crashing migraine. What do you do? Do you tell someone their perfume is making you sick?
  3. My daughter came home from school soaked. Yesterday was the anual murga (the wikipedia page is in Spanish but check out the audio clip to get an idea of what it sounds like) for the graduating class. They bring in a little band and spray water and dance and run around. It's pretty cool, big kids and little kids and teachers. The murga traditionally comes from carnavales but is a part of many celebrations in Panama (I've seen them at weddings and birthday parties). My daughter went to school in wet shoes this morning, but I'd think she'd say it was worth it.
  4. My christmas stuff is out. The tree can't be far behind.
  5. This a great video of Panama from Nat Geo. The song is The XX covering and remixing the Florence + the Machine song, You've Got the Love:

My kids weren't thrilled with my banana ice cream last week. So we are working on some old school chocolate ice cream this week.

We are using this recipe:
Easy Cocoa Ice Cream

* My ice cream is  little behind (I lost a day to migraine this week). The mix is currently chilling. I will add a picture tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

beach days ahead

My kids finish school for the year next week. Here's hoping we get lots of nice beach days.

Monday, November 28, 2011

another November holiday (the last one)

The beach was cloudy and rainy. We didn't get a full day. But the sky was spectacular.

November is winding down. Today is the last patriotic holiday of the month of November. Today Panamanians celebrate their independence from Spain (1819). They also celebrate the formation of the first fire department. This morning while I was running, the cacophony of fire trucks parading down Via Brasil drowned out the music on my ipod. The sound of the sirens alarmed me for second, but then I remembered the date, and there was really no mistaking that noise as anything but joyful.

We had a late brunch and spent the afternoon studying and cleaning the turtle tank among other chores. Later we'll brave the crowds and go see a movie. Happy Feet 2 with one daughter and Breaking Dawn with the other. Although I'm not a huge fan of the Twilight franchise, I am grateful my husband is taking the dubbed penguin movie. It's been a perfect holiday Monday, leisurely but not entirely unproductive.

Friday, November 25, 2011

5 observations and banana almond swirl ice cream

  1. Clean water is such a gift. Yesterday morning it was announced that the water here in the city was finally safe to drink. In the afternoon, when I went to fill a pitcher for the fridge, the water that came out of the tap was basically mud. The water seems fine this morning, but yeah, we'll put in a filtration system when we do our kitchen reno. 
  2. The seasonal goodies are out in supermarket. Because of my Argentine husband, we love panettone and always start buying it at the end of November. If you don't know, it's a sweet bread with dried fruit (which doesn't sound that great, but trust me it is). Sweet baked stuff makes me feel yucky and is definitely a migraine trigger for me. But I'm having a very hard time resisting the panettone and I dread all the other yummy things that are coming. We'll see if I'm able to break my Christmas day migraine tradition!
  3. I learned something new in Spanish. I had heard the expression ni un real, which I would have translated as something like, "not one dime." But, I discovered yesterday that a real is a nickel! I always got that reales referred to small coins, but I never clued in to the fact that it was a specific coin.
  4. The last holiday in the month of November is on Monday. We should, and hopefully will, get to the beach this holiday weekend.
  5. This video makes me very happy:

My favourite running fuel is a banana smeared with almond butter and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. This does not upset my stomach and keeps me energized for a long run. The salt is because I sweat a disgusting amount and I love the crunch of sea salt on anything. When I learned that you can make decent ice cream out of frozen bananas I thought of my salty almond butter running treat.

You can make a pretty nice ice cream with just bananas. You slice three or four ripe bananas and freeze them for a couple of hours. Then you you process them in a food processor. The result is creamy and delicious. To this you can a bit of honey (but not at all necessary) and some vanilla. You don't even need an ice cream freezer for this. The consistency is very nice, seriously you'll be surprised.

So to this base of banana ice cream I added a swirl of salty almond butter. I folded a couple of pinches of sea salt into 1/4 of almond butter and swirled it into the bananas.
So simple and so good!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Water, water, every where...

Well we have water now. It's just not fit for consumption. The water coming out of the tap is brown, and yesterday the Ministry of health recommended boiling and straining it.

Panama went through a similar water crisis last year and at the time, the government made a big show of taking measures to solve the problem. Positions were created and a lot of money was thrown around. So it's frustrating to be in the same situation this year.

Because of the canal, Panama has a lot of money. The city's skyline is impressive and the president likes to tell foreign dignitaries that Panama is the Dubai of Latin America. But the ineptitude of the public officials in charge of critical services like health, education and water is astonishing.

I am a believer in tap water. I was so happy four years ago when we arrived in Panama, and I learned that the tap water was safe, and that bottled water wasn't even that common. I've argued with my husband about getting a home filtration system. My feeling has been that if everyone drinks tap water, the quality will have to be maintained. It is our civic duty to insist on quality water for everyone. But I am wavering. This latest crisis, and the fact that the government is looking to loosen regulation on groundwater contamination, have me less certain. I have misgivings, but maybe it is time we get a filtration system.

Monday, November 21, 2011

out of water

Luckily, we didn't have to resort to the water in the turtle tank.
On Saturday morning, enjoying my coffee in bed and (luckily) reading the local paper, I discovered that the water was being shut off for work on the metro. I dashed down to fill some buckets (the thought of unflushed toilets in tropical heat got me moving fairly quickly) and pots in the kitchen. The pressure was already low and it was so lucky that I realized when I did. Shortly after I filled the buckets, the water went off completely. The paper said 14-16 hours. I was not worried; I had filled enough containers. I even went for a run Saturday night expecting that the water would be back on by eleven.

The water was not back at eleven or twelve. I had a sponge bath and thought about how excellent my shower would be in the morning. There was no water in the morning. There was no water at noon. By about two there was a trickle of water downstairs. My buckets were empty, the bathrooms were stinky and everyone in my house was getting grumpy (showering and good humour are definitely connected in this climate). We refilled the buckets from the trickle and resigned ourselves to the situation.  Finally, there was enough water to shower at four. There are some areas that got water even later and the pressure is quite low even today. 

Because of these water problems the Education minister cancelled classes today. So my girls are home enjoying a unexpected day off (the most delicious kind). The water authority announced this morning that the continuing shortage was due to an increase in consumption as people filled their reserve tanks. This is not a very satisfactory explanation and the comments in the paper were good. Oh I see, it's our fault there's no water... what do you think we are stupid?! 

The water pressure is low and it's even lower than it was this morning. There seems to be some problems at the water treatment plant. Last year the city had water shortages in December and January because of a problem at the treatment plant. I hope we are not headed back into a situation like that. I also hope that there's school tomorrow because I love my kids, but by tomorrow they will be bored and bickering. And that is possibly even worse than a smelly toilet.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

5 observations and pictures of my lovely girl (you probably don't need a recipe for soggy nachos)

  1. I was actually really excited to watch a program of folk dancing. The kids put on an amazing show on Thursday night. Any time I see a folklore presentation here I always think, wow, I need to learn more about this. The dancing and all the different devils, and la reina... it is a fantastic spectacle. And my girl looked great on the stage.
  2. I am slowing down. I had a very hard time keeping up to this week. I am dragging my feet because there are only three weeks of school left. The mad rush of December is just around the corner and I can't get out of bed.
  3. I enjoy playing office. I am teaching some corporate classes and I like putting on my slacks and writing grammar structures on the whiteboard in the conference room. But I'm also glad I'm not an accountant, because I would be terrible at that.
  4. Panama is looking a little yucky this week. I don't know what's going on with garbage collection other than that it's not happening. All the trash and the rain are pretty much making Panama's streets unwalkable these days.
  5. It has definitely been an Aimee Mann kind of week.

I have no recipe this week. In fact it's kind of a miracle that I have a blog post at all.
Here's hoping I'm a little less lame next week.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

the skirt

When we first moved to Panama I became aware of la pollera sitting in a photo studio with my family waiting to have our pictures taken for immigration documents. I thought it rather curious that teenage girls and newlyweds would have their portraits taken in traditional costumes. I said to my daughter, "it must be a thing here." I had no idea. A couple of weeks later, when I was looking at the list of school supplies, there between the crayons and rulers was pollera (for girls and straw hat for boys).

The Panamanian elementary curriculum includes a weekly folklore class. In the lower grades they learn the dances and in the higher grades they study the stories and costumes as well as dance. By now we've been through a couple of sizes of pollera and I've had the opportunity, in the last four years, to familiarize myself with the local traditions. But I am far from an expert, and when my daughter joined the folklore ensemble at school I was a little intimidated. And when I saw the list for her costume I was frankly terrified.

Tonight's the big, anual performance and we (miraculously) have everything on the list. We also have a friend from my husband's office coming to help me dress her (it's complicated--especially the hair). My daughter will be wearing la pollera montuna ocueña. And I'm pretty sure I couldn't be prouder.

For more information about Panama's traditional pollera check out this site:
The Pollera of Panama

Monday, November 14, 2011

feel better

So, a few months ago I changed my diet to manage my migraines. And it worked remarkably well and I've been running a lot and generally feeling better than I have in ages. I'd been migraine free since the middle of May (I'd been having them weekly before that). Like a fool, because I've been feeling so amazingly good, I started sliding off my wagon. A little cookie here, a piece of pizza there. I'd feel a bit yucky, but no migraine. Then last week I over did it completely starting with a bag of fancy Italian cookies and culminating in pizza and beer on Friday night. I didn't feel well when I woke up on Saturday but I chalked it up to dehydration and went for my run. Within a couple of hours I was in a full aura, roiling stomach, major migraine event. I spent the day in darkened-room misery listening to Andre Agassi's biography. It was very bad (not the book, it's pretty good actually) and I'm still feeling the migraine hangover today.

The weekend would have been a complete bust (of the mommy's got a headache variety) except Jane Goodall was in Panama.
I took my older daughter to see her last night. It was wonderful. What a lovely, inspiring human being. I am so grateful that we got to see her. She is a so full of optimism and energy. She was just back from spending a couple of days in an Indigenous community in the Darien. She mostly spoke about her Roots and Shoots program and the importance of children and youth doing community work. My daughter and I were both enchanted and inspired. My head still hurts but my heart is full.

Friday, November 11, 2011

5 observations and reese's pieces cookies

  1. Kids are amazing storytellers. The above picture is of the epic my daughter and her best friend are working on. It's Shakespeare. There are fart jokes, and references to characters from video games and there are characters from Hindu, Egyptian and Greek mythology. They are totally blowing my mind.
  2. I get a little too caught up in local politics and I drive my husband crazy by talking about it all the time. With all the corruption and intrigue it's like a novel. I am riveted and usually a little indignant.
  3. Our home is beginning to look to look a little like a farm (or zoo). The guy who cuts my grass offered to sell me a couple of ñeques (agoutis). Of course I told him no, as there really are enough animals in my house, and also I'm pretty sure it's illegal to have ñeques as pets.
  4. Look up. For the past couple of weeks the skies have been full of birds. The raptors are migrating South and it's been an awesome sight to see them.
  5. Not surprisingly, this is good:

Yesterday was a national holiday (Nov. 10 marks the date of the first cry of independence--from Spain) so we had a house full of girls. My two favourite eight-year-olds made these cookies:
They used this recipe:
Reese’s Pieces Chocolate Cookies

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

oh the beach

We went to the beach on Saturday and it was spectacular. The weather was amazing. We breakfasted on empanadas in Capira and ate them greasy and warm out of a brown paper bag. The tide was rising and the water was glittering and warm. A friend, entering the Pacific Ocean for the first time said, "It really is pacific isn't it?" We had sandwiches and cold beer. There were people all around us enjoying the day. Sometimes crowds at the beach can be annoying, but the people around us on Saturday were so joyful--they only added to the pleasure of the day. We stopped for pizza on our way home and we didn't get hung up in traffic (it was heavy but fluid).  Perfection.

Friday, November 4, 2011

5 observations and mummy meatloaf

  1. Rabbits don't seem to mind the rain as much as I thought they would. There's really nothing more pathetically cute than a wet bunny.
  2. The city is empty which is always nice. I wish we were at the beach (although the weather hasn't been great). But an empty city has its own rewards. 
  3. I am regretting my decision to have a second cup of coffee this morning. The heartburn and coffee jitters are making me feel horrible. I love coffee but I'm such a lightweight.
  4. It's November. What happened to this year? The Christmas merchandise is out in full force at the stores. People here really love Christmas and in a week or two some people will even be putting up their Christmas trees. The thought fills me with dread--I haven't finished everything on my 2011 to-do list.
  5. This song is playing in my house right now. I am fond of '80s-era Bowie.

I made a mummy meatloaf for kids on Monday. I used this recipe: Halloween Mummy Meatloaf. It tasted fine but I didn't fuss with the noodles very much (I tried but I don't have tons of patience for that kind of thing). Mine looked more like a meatloaf monster:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fiestas Patrias

The patriotic holidays start today here in Panama. My girls are home from school until next Monday. Tomorrow we will go to the school bright and early to salute the flag. My daughter will dress in the typical costume and sing patriotic songs with her classmates on the stage. This kind of patriotism is very foreign to me. I love my country (Canada) but I did not grow up with obligatory public acts of patriotism. I find these ceremonies moving and fascinating.

On November 3rd Panamanians celebrate their independence from Colombia and on November 28th their independence from Spain. The whole month of November is designated as patriotic (mes de la patria). People attach flags to their cars and decorate their houses. There are five days off in the month of November. Many people take advantage of all these holidays and go to the beach. I'm hoping we'll get out to the beach ourselves this long weekend.

Happy Birthday Panama!

Monday, October 31, 2011

a rainy Halloween

Halloween isn't officially celebrated here in Panama. In fact there is a politician trying to get a law passed preventing Halloween from being celebrated in the schools (I don't know which schools celebrate Halloween-it is certainly not that common). He claims it is unchristian and un-Panamanian--whatever, this is just political dissembling with some patriotic pretension. We, like many Panamanians, go to a private party.

We have friends that live in a gated community that invite us to their Halloween celebration every year. There are costume contests, games and all kinds of treats. My kids love it and look forward to it. Unfortunately, the rain never let up enough for much trick or treating but we had fun anyway.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

5 observations and last minute brownies

  1. Watching groups of kids dance elaborate, and impressively costumed routines will make you happy. There's nothing like seeing the usually shy kid, or even better the sullen kid, totally and joyfully get down with the group. The comparsa is a long-standing tradition at schools here in Panama. In my kids' school grades six to twelve participate in comparsas. Each grade prepares a dance routine for a competition. It's usually a mix of hip hop and latin. The parents for each grade all wear the same colour (they're called the 'barra') and try to cheer the loudest (including whistles and air horns) for their group. It's really fun and you can see how comfortable the kids get with the dancing by twelfth grade.
  2. I'm not much for make-up, but I do enjoy a pretty manicure. If we ever get invited anywhere remotely fancy I get a manicure. It might be incongruous with my bare face and messy hair, but I am a sucker for a pretty nail colour.
  3. Teaching can be kind of political. A student asked my why I was teaching firefighter instead of fireman. I said, because a firefighter could be woman. He looked at me knowingly and said, ah you're a feminist. I actually teach it this way to introduce the verb "to fight," but whatever.
  4. Running has been so good since the half marathon. I've been maintaining 30 km a week and it's just been fun and easy. I think I'm finally feeling the benefits of months of training.
  5. I love this video. It's not my favourite song on the album (I have way too big of a rock and roll crush on Carrie Brownstein for that). Spazzing out in outfield--I can totally relate to that (except I'd never catch the ball).

I have somehow given my daughter the impression that home baking is effortless. And thus, I found myself at 11:00 pm, scrounging through my fridge and cupboards for ingredients. She wanted brownies (well actually she wanted cupcakes but settled for brownies). I had enough flour, butter and eggs but no sugar, only powdered sugar and an odd assortment of chocolate (semi-sweet, unsweetened and a couple of tablespoons of cocoa).  I also found a bag of marshmallows. I figured I could add some marshmallows to sweeten things up--you're supposed to double the amount of powdered sugar when you use it in place of regular sugar.
Here's the original recipe:

These are cakey rather than fudgy. In my experience, kids prefer them like this.

1-½ cups flour
½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoons salt
⅔ cups butter
1-½ cup sugar
4 Tablespoons milk
2 packages semi-sweet chocolate chips (12 Ounce Packages)
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 325F.
Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl and mix to combine. In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the sugar and water. Bring just to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in one package of the chocolate chips and the vanilla extract. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Slowly blend in the flour mixture, and then add the remaining package of chocolate chips.
Pour into a greased 9×13 pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

So, I made this with 12 ounces of chocolate (four ounces were semisweet, the rest was unsweetened and cocoa) and two cups of powdered sugar. I folded in two cups of cut up marshmallows. They turned out great.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

beauty parlour

I got a haircut yesterday. I just walked into a salon a few blocks from my house. There was a woman getting a manicure, another women having her hair blow-dried (a blower they call it-- one of my favourite Anglicisms) and a local morning show was on the TV in the corner. It was noisy and gossipy and it made me (awkward and unkempt) as uncomfortable as it usually does. The woman who cut my hair did a great job. I left relieved and thinking about beauty.

When I was nineteen I had a beauty epiphany. I was treeplanting at the time. This means I was living in a tent, in a camp, in the remote wilds of Canada. Showers, when they were working, were makeshift and neither private, nor hot. The only mirror I saw was on the truck. There was no place for a beauty regime in this setting. Yet the women were beautiful, really beautiful. This of course is obvious to me now, we were twenty and fit and tan--it's kind of what beauty is in our society. But at the time I was so surprised.

I started wearing make-up as a teenager and had just assumed it was necessary to look good. I really didn't think I could go out in public without make-up. I remember one morning when I was in high school, I had slept in, and had to go to school without make-up. I was so uncomfortable and embarrassed all day. That's why seeing beauty without make-up in a treeplanting camp was an epiphany. It changed my life: I stopped wearing make-up. I still don't wear much make-up (if any). That is not to say I don't care about my appearance, I just don't see the need to spend a lot of time on it. I am also not a frequent visitor to the beauty salon. Actually I'm the opposite.

I get a hair cut a couple of times a year. Sometimes I cut it myself. In Panama there are beauty salons every couple of blocks. It is not uncommon for a Panamanian woman to have regular weekly visit to the salon. Salons here are busy places, full of women getting their regular manicure or straightening. While I am pretty secure about my appearance, this aspect of Panamanian culture unnerves me. I speak Spanish passably well, but I don't speak beauty parlour at all. It's a good thing that the women who work in salons here are so gracious and unflappable, or I would never be brave enough to get my hair cut.

I admire Panamanian women. They are so often impeccable, matching everything, jewelry and heels. It honestly impresses me. But it is also very foreign to me. My daughter skinned her knee at school the other day and the teacher told me it would fine and that she would stil be able to be Miss Universe. Weird right? and weirder, it's not the first time someone said that to me. Last year when she cut her leg someone said the same thing. A Miss Universe title is about the last thing I would want for my daughters. But beauty is valued here in a way I'm not used to (and that totally baffles me) and this is why I'm so uncomfortable in the beauty salon. It is unknown territory.

I'm probably going to have to learn to speak beauty parlour.

Friday, October 21, 2011

5 observations and a recommendation rather than a recipe

representing Canada and looking a little dishevelled (what exactly was going on backstage)

  1. I'm pretty good at managing things on my own. My husband has been away on business all week and it's been fine. Well, until this morning when I couldn't find my keys. Houses here have security gates so you're not just locked out, you're also locked in. I wish I could say I kept my cool but, oh my god what if there's a fire! We found the keys of course, but not before I had worked up a good anxiety sweat.
  2. I invented a national costume for Canada. My kids' school celebrates United Nations Day and has a parade showcasing national costumes. So my kids were tapped to represent Canada. I told the organizers that there wasn't really a national costume. They didn't believe me so I invented one. I don't feel bad about this; the little girl representing England dresses up as the queen, and I saw a kid going into the school in a toga and laurel crown (Greece?).
  3. My youngest daughter does not feel particularly Canadian. She doesn't like International Day. She was born in Costa Rica and has never lived in Canada, so it's weird for her. She doesn't like it when people ask her where she's from. She used to say Costa Rica because she was born there. But she can't remember living in Costa Rica so that doesn't feel right to her either. She really would have preferred to wear a Panamanian costume like the rest of her classmates today. 
  4. The Graveyard Book is fantastic. We are loving this book so much. It is just the right amount of scary according to my eight-year-old. She is fascinated by the graveyard universe in this book and frankly, so am I. I'm glad we are reading it before the inevitable Hollywood adaptation.
  5. This is good. Feist sings "Undiscovered First" in the back of a London cab:

Instead of a recipe I have a recommendation. Make chocolate chip cookies on a rainy weeknight and eat them warm out of the oven with your silly, giggling children. Just use the recipe on the back of the bag of chocolate chips. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I have two daughters. There is four years between them, but they are close. I'm pretty sure that they are closer than they would have been had they grown up in Canada. As an expat family we are all close. We don't have extended family or even a tight circle of friends. I was registering the girls for next-year's school year, and I had to think for a minute for an emergency contact. It's mostly just us.

They sleep in the same room even though they have their own rooms. They have their own short-hand and sister language that is connected to English, and is related to the books and movies we read and watch. These are books and movies that their friends don't read or watch. It's like our family has it's own culture, with its own references and language.

Their connection seems deeper than just sisters, I feel like they face the world together. They bicker and tease of course. There is no shortage of door slamming if they are fighting. But still, there is a closeness between them that is beyond sisterly love. They look out for each other; they explain the worlds to each other. There is the world outside our door where we are foreigners, and there is the world that is our family.

It is an unexpected consequence of expat life, this closeness. And I am grateful for it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

rainy day contemplation

It's rainy and damp and first thing in the morning it feels as cool as it ever gets here in Panama City. We didn't even get to the park on the weekend because it was just too wet. It is contemplative, taking stock kind of weather.
I've been cleaning out closets and cupboards.  The musty mouldiness is not kind to clothes and papers and I need to go through and cull stuff regularly. In this climate there is no point in keeping anything you don't need. I like this about the tropics, it forces you to keep the junk at a minimum (which I could be better at--I don't think I dislike anyone enough to give them a Christmas gift in a mouldy gift bag from last year).
I hate throwing things out. The best solution would probably to bring less stuff in. I think about it when I am buying things. Do I really need this? Will I ever actually wear this? But I need to do better judging from the amount of stuff I got rid of this weekend.

Friday, October 14, 2011

5 observations and vanilla cupcakes


  1. The hem of my jeans is always wet these days. The streets of Panama do not favour walkers at the best of times and when it's wet like this, it's pain to have to walk anywhere.
  2. Clearly our rabbits are male and female (we couldn't tell before). So far I haven't found a vet who will fix them. This means we will have to get another cage and separate them and this makes me sad because they are pals.
  3. This last season of Breaking Bad was good. I just watched the finale and thought it was one of the best episodes of the season. I really appreciate the careful plotting of this show. The acting is good, but it's the writing that really impresses me.
  4. Hot black coffee with something sweet is one of the great pleasures in life. I fell in love with coffee all over again while enjoying a cupcake the other day. I don't eat many sweets and I've cut back on coffee and it was amazing how much pleasure this little indulgence gave me. I don't really miss sweets and coffee (I really feel better without them). But this particular cupcake and cup of coffee were heavenly.
  5. I like this song.  I didn't so much at first, but it has grown on me:

The most impressive thing I did in the kitchen this week was the birthday cupcakes. I really liked this recipe and the one bowl technique. I can't get cake flour here, so I just used the whitest all-purpose I could find an the texture was very nice. The recipe comes from Martha Stewart. Make sure you watch the video and see a fellow who is very enthusiastic about cupcakes!

Billy's Vanilla Cupcakes

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Twelve years old (how did that happen?)

My older daughter turned twelve yesterday. It was a good day.  I made many vanilla cupcakes to take to school. The tradition at our school is for the parents to dash in with a cake at lunch recess (it's only twenty minutes) and sing happy birthday with the kid's class. It's a nice tradition for middle of the week birthdays. After school she had quite a bit of homework, but she did it without complaining (I cannot say the same for her sister who complained quite a lot about her own homework). Then we went out for sushi. Even though it seemed kind of uneventful, she said it was her best birthday yet. I adore that child.

The books and stuff I ordered for her just arrived today.  So when she gets home I get to give her Jacob Have I Loved, which was my favourite book as a girl, and season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I'm not sure who will be more pleased (it might well be her silly mother).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Kiwanis park on Sunday

We had a rather rainy weekend in Panama City but we did mange to get out for some biking/running/walking in Kiwanis Park in Clayton.  I'm encouraging the girls to get stronger and faster on their bikes so we can all go for a long ride once the dry season starts.  They don't get tons of opportunity to ride but, they are both getting stronger.

The park was lovely, and green and not too hot, and their were millions of fireflies in the grass when it got dark.

Friday, October 7, 2011

5 observations and chocolate muffins

the road ahead

  1. I love reading to my kids.  Sometimes I'm lazy and slow to get there but it's the best.  We are finishing The BFG and are going to start the The Graveyard Book next.  We started The Graveyard Book once before but the opening scene is so scary we stopped.  My younger daughter loves stories about ghosts so we're planning to try again (maybe we'll skip/skim the murder scene).
  2. This is probably the last time I'll have to drill the multiplication tables.  My youngest is on the threes this week (why is 3x9 so particularly hard?).  I don't really enjoy math flash cards, but this is it so I should enjoy it (or something).
  3. My almost twelve year old cannot seem to get enough sleep.  It's freaky how tired she is (I keep getting paranoid that she's sick).  I read somewhere once that adolescents actually need more sleep (contrary to their love of staying up late) because of growth and hormones and I can totally see that.
  4. My cats do love me after all.  I was lamenting the other day how little my cats like to be held and snoodled, but then I noticed that they're always around.  They seem to like to like to  hang around me (laundry, bathroom, kitchen, wherever), they just don't like to be touched very much.
  5. Laura Marling is totally impressive (can you believe that she is just 21?).  I like her new album and have really enjoyed hearing her interviewed lately.  But this song from her last album is still my favourite:

This week's recipe is for chocolate muffins.  This is what my kids request when they want something fresh-baked.  I oblige them because this is so simple and fast and I usually have all the ingredients on hand.  I sometimes do half quinoa flour to improve it nutritionally.  My kids could do this recipe on their own and next time I'll likely let them.  Also, even though it's not a huge recipe, there's always left-overs for the lunch boxes.

Chocolate Muffins
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (save 1/4 cup for sprinkling)
1 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Line 12 muffin cups with papers.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa, sugar (sift, if your kitchen is as humid as mine), and 3/4 cup of the chocolate chips into a large bowl. Mix all the liquid ingredients into another bowl. Mix the dry and wet ingredients together.  Don't overmix. Spoon into the prepared muffin pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup chocolate chips on top and then bake for 20 minutes or until the muffins are springy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


origami mobile

I've been busy with some of my teacher responsibilities this week. There have been grades to hand in and also recommendation letters. I don't get asked too often to write recommendations, so it's really a pleasure rather than a burden.  I've had the privilege to teach some really smart kids and I like to have the opportunity to tell the world how great they are.

Last year a student asked me for a letter for some activity he was hoping to participate in. This was a smart kid, and not just test smart, but an actual deep thinker. Also quiet. Some teachers complained he didn't participate enough in class, which I never minded (I always knew I could count on him for an answer when his classmates were faltering). Quiet people are punished sometimes and I think there's actually a shortage of quiet observers in this world (and way too many people running off at the mouth, and way too much value given to said verbosity). Anyway, I was happy to write a letter for him. Once I had the letter, I wasn't sure of the protocol for getting school letterhead etc.. and I went to my department head. She told me what I needed to do, and told me to make sure I sealed the envelope before I gave it to the student. I did this and have regretted it ever since. He deserved to see the letter! He's a brilliant kid totally deserving of my praise. I decided after to give him a copy of the letter, but I didn't get the chance. It seems so stingy and it still bugs me.

This time I'll make sure the kids get to read my recommendations.  And I really can't imagine why they shouldn't.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Gamboa 21k

Heading down to the start in the rain
So I finally ran my much anticipated 21k on Sunday.  It rained the entire race.  Which seemed bad at first when I got out of the car, and seemed worse as I stood in line for the portable toilet, and dreadful as we all stood milling around, soaked to the skin, waiting for the race to start (6:30 start time was delayed to 7:00 because of the rain).  But it was totally fine. In fact it was great--I don't think I've ever enjoyed running more.
It was so cool, and green, and beautiful.  The rain was not torrential, but steady and the scenery on the course was spectacular. The jungle along the canal is gorgeous and the rainy misty weather only made the greens more intense.  The rain also kept the temperature down and I found that I felt much better than I had during any of the past sunny races.  Between the verdant gorgeousness that surrounded me and the refreshing rain, I enjoyed the run immensely.
My final time was 2:20.  Maybe not as fast as I would like, but probably not so bad for my first time.
finish line
So now I can cross half marathon off my 2011 to-do list and move on to the next thing.  A Panamanian driver's licence.  This will probably be harder for me than the half marathon.  I am afraid of driving and I haven't driven in the last fifteen years.  Panama is a driving city and my life will be better if I drive... but I dread it.