Wednesday, August 31, 2011

There and Back Again

So we've come to the end of our journey in Panama.  I hope you enjoyed the series of posts on the various themes over this past month. It was enjoyable for me to write on all these amazing things that I was able to witness in person.  As a teacher and my own student, I learn best by experiential learning.  No classroom can prepare you for the sights and sounds of a moment.  Of course, there is a lot more to write about in the garden and we'll take a break for a bit from the series and look into some helpful gardening ideas for your own home.  Plus I also have to do some record keeping from El Presidio for myself and also keep the homeowners up-to-date on what's going on around the property.  This last post was written in Gamboa where we began and ended our journey in Panama.  It's dated July 5th, 2011 on a Saturday night which was warm and tropical.  Night sounds abound from frogs, insects, and other nocturnal critters. I am in my bed reflecting on my personal journey and connecting with the people who are no longer with me. In the beginning, I had written about how personal Gamboa was for me.....well, here's the letter that I wrote.  Finally, I put one last video together for this series and I think it's my best one yet which highlights all the things we did in Panama.

"Dear Grandma and Grandpa Rohrer,

     My final days have arrived here in Panama.  This trip has been quite simply wonderful, but now it's time to end this journey.  As you know, we began our trek in Gamboa at a place called Ivans.  I didn't know why I wanted to end our trip here at first, but I think I've only now figured out why it was important for me to return. Everything about this place reminds me of you both and it makes me happy.  I'm a child again spending the weekends at your house.  The home even smells like your place and makes me wrap myself up even tighter into my blankets.  Walking around this ghost town was like playing in your magic garden in the far backyard near the creek The one that no longer exists.  The totem pole and grapevine covered trellis that invited us all into your garden is now gone....replaced with a concrete road.  When I go back to visit your home, it seems that almost all of my childhood and your green art have been erased from existance.  The apple tree.  The pear tree. The garden.  Only a stubborn patch of rhubarb still pops up to remind me where you both spent your days.
     The bing cherry ice cream is fresh here and melts just like it used to on our road trips to the Penguin during our many little adventures in that green car. Cones cost 50 cents here! You remember those trips, right? The ones where the waitress would rollerskate up to our car window and take our order. Do you remember Grandpa when I asked you what flavor I should try because there were too many to choose from?  What the heck was blue moon anyway? But you told me that I should try the bing cherry and it became one of my favorites.  I had bing cherry ice cream again in Panama and I remembered.
     Even this house has your touch wth the bird feeder, the home cooked meals, the wooden slated closets, and photos of plants and birds.  I walked the neighborhood tonight along the rain forest paths seeing the old old homes that were falling apart....remembering our walks together Grandma. Many of those homes in Manitowoc still look the same and need some fixing up.  I walked along the canal full of ships just like we did on Lake Michigan, but instead of seagulls, there were parakeets and toucans. It doesn't seem like a long time ago, but time has definitely passed.....and so have you both. Sometimes I wish I could rewind time for just a day to have one more more more scolding about fighting with my more lunch listening to WOMT radio at noon. As we eat lunch,  both of you are watching the bird feeder and getting angry at that damned squirrel.  Grandpa, you run outside and chase it off so you can see more finches. "Get out of here!!!  Get out of here!!!" I'd start laughing because you both looked so funny screaming at Mr. Squirrel.  Of course, when you weren't looking, he'd be back again.:)
     In fact, everything about Gamboa has reminded me of the simpler times.....the happy times......the best times. It's during this stay that I'm reminded how much I miss your presence in my life.  When I see potted geraniums, I think of your basement in winter where you protected your babies from the freezing temps. In summer, you would take a seemingly dead plant and bring it back to life. When I see cargo ships on the canal, I think of your work Grandpa at the Burger shipyards.  When I see the old Catholic church crumbling at the corner, I'm reminded of our Sunday mornings together......and the breakfasts afterward! Does your church even exist anymore like the one here on the corner? I walk through the bamboo groves along the Chagres river and it's like walking with you Grandma through those reeds by the little creek. That is gone as well. This city is trapped in the past.  Being here makes me think about what it was like growing up in the early 1900's for you both.  The canal was getting ready to open while you both grew up on gravel roads before cars became popular. Horses were still the main means of transportation. Malaria and yellow fever claimed many lives in Panama.  Back home it was Scarlet fever. How old were you Grandma when you lost both of your parents?  13? 14?  I can't imagine any of it.  But they were different times.  So much has changed in a century.
     As I watched the capybara playing in the fields today, I sipped my cool and sweaty glass of mojito.  I try to absorb as much as I can before I leave Panama and this magical town of Gamboa.  How many years has it been since my last stayover? 20? 30?  How is it that here in Gamboa I stumbled upon your presence?  Tonight my thoughts turn to you both as I get ready for some sleep. 

Love you much,

Your grandson"

End of paper journal.  Check out the video from our Panama Adventures.  Until tomorrow friends....

Rafting The Changuinola River

This was another trip where I had to leave the camera at home and I'm glad I did.  Some of you following my blog from the beginning may have remembered that I like to raft on our adventures.  This rafting experience was amazing because the river was chaotic in some parts.  The Changuinola is not a river for beginners nor is it for people who can't swim.  We had some incredible rapids on this 3 hour trek down the river.  There were two rafts.  One was the raft of the "borrachos" or drunks and ours was the one who saved their sorry butts when their entire raft flipped over spilling everyone into the river.  Normally this wouldn't have been fun, but I loved the challenge as we put into place our emergency measures while still floating towards a major rapid.  I had pulled a member to safey onto our raft but for the first time in my life, I was thrown from the boat as we hit a rock. It went something like this.  Their raft flips.  People scattered all over the river screaming for help.  Our raft reaches out to assist while we enter dangerous waters ourselves.  I pull a person up onto the raft.  In slow motion, I look back and see the "rock" and prepare for my death.  I'm thrown into the waters while still in the rapids. It was a bit scary as the current caught my feet in several of the rocks but thankfully I didn't let go of our raft and two members were able to haul me up.  The Changuinola river is a several hour ride from the town of David or Boquete.  The rapids, depending on the time of year, can go from level 3-5.  Our journey measured at 3/4 which made it exciting and fun.  If you want some adventure, sit in the front of the raft for maximum water splash.  Rafting is a great and fun way to see a different part of the countryside while getting some exercise and laughs.  There are 3 rafting companies in Boquete that are all very good.  We paid around 80 bucks for the day.  If you don't have experience rafting or don't know how to swim, don't do this river. I have to admit that I was a bit scared going into this one when they started talking about rafts flipping over....and sure enough, one of them did.  We didn't want to go on the raft with the drunks because as we all know, drinking and driving aren't good things.  And because they didn't take things seriously nor pay attention, their raft flipped over.  Anyhow, I'd do it again because it was a blast. If you want a little spice for your trip, this makes for a great day trip.  One more post to go today at 2PM and our adventures in Panama will be over.  September is a really interesting month of writes from the garden, forest fires, gardening tips, some travel, and a bit of science.  We're back in Tucson starting tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Bus to Boquete

Exhausted and bitten up, we headed from David to the town of Boquete. For most of our stay in Panama, it had been very hot and humid until we reached this town in the clouds. I remember the day well as I walked off that school bus onto the center square.  It was actually cold and rainy! To top it all off, our hotel was just a couple footsteps away from the bus stop! In fact, there was a beautiful supermarket by the name of Romero, several banks, a language school, bars, ice cream shops, and a lot of other places that would make our stay in Boquete convenient.  Now if only the rain would cooperate every once in awhile.  Bring an umbrella!   

Boquete celebrated its hundreth birthday this year.  They moved one of the old railroad cars in front of the post office at the center square.  Boquete is a beautiful city that has an educated feel to it.  While it didn't take my breath away like Coiba or Gamboa, the weather and people made it very appealing.  In fact, we ended up staying a bit longer in this cool weather and it was here that we felt like we were on vacation since our trip had begun.  Plus all the conveniences that one takes for granted at home are all right at your doorstep.  We could cook our own meals.  We could walk everywhere.  We could walk around at night without getting killed. We could sleep with our windows open without sweating up a storm in our bedsheets.  There was warm water, delicious pastries, activity centers to plan day trips.....and coffee!!  It took very little effort to live here and because of it, we kinda lost track of time so be careful if you're on a schedule.  Boquete's convenience is alluring.
I'd go for walks along mountain slopes and there were times that I felt like I was in Europe. The Caldera river winds through this town and brings with it a cool breeze. Today this town is not only attractive to Panamanians but it has become home to retired Americans and Europeans as well. English is spoken all over.  You can drink the water from the sink. And Boquete seems like a good investment for all people interested in living here.  
It is cloudy much of the day and will rain forever.  For this desert dweller, I rather enjoyed this misty change of pace. Picture it.  Raining. Coffee.  My kindle.  So while my friends pressured me to go go go......I just wanted to stay stay stay by my open window and breath in the fresh air.  In fact, they thought I was funny because I didn't do much at all in Boquete.  Well to be honest, it's true.  I forced myself to move from my rocking chair overlooking the stormy woods to go and do some reports for this blog.  Well, the word "forced" sounds negative and it wasn't a negative experience at all.  Everything was fun, but I found myself needing to take a break from blogging.  I just wanted "to be" and left alone to read my George R.R. Martin series. Yes, I'm currently on the "Fire and Ice" books which I started about 2 years ago. Now I'm reading the 5th book, "A Dance With Dragons". These books are mammoths at around 1200 pages each!  LOVED MY KINDLE for this trip!!  They sent me my book over the whispernet.  No need for bookstores anymore which is kinda sad but that's for another discussion. Some of you who blog 24/7 understand what I mean.  Sometimes, you just gotta take a break.
This is also a great place to study Spanish.  I'd recommend visiting Boquete at the end of your Panama travels as it's the perfect place to relax and hang out with friends.
We enjoyed our time here and saw gardens, did some rafting, and had some coffee.  My friends took a scooter ride up into the hills.  You can do as much or as little as you want, it all depends on you. I met a lot of interesting travelers.  In fact, they sell a boxed wine for $2.50 cents.  I enjoyed my mojitos in the muggy tropics, but I also enjoyed my boxed wine with others during our numerous and delicious dinner conversations.  If you want to make this place a work out, there's always that midnight run to Volcan where you hike the entire night to see both the Caribbean and Pacific side of Panama from on top this super high volcano.....but seriously?  There's no way I was doing that again.  It's dark and uphill. At the end of our trip, we were exhausted and so glad Boquete was there to offer us some down time.  Until tomorrow.....

PS.  The architecture and design of this town is really interesting.  And breakfast is cheap and delicious.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Geisha Experience

Normally I wouldn't take a picture of this, but if I'm going to write about it, you should see the set up:)
Panama is home to one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Geisha was discovered quite accidentally growing in the fields of a Panamanian farmer in the early 2000's.  Today this slow growing bean has been a hit worldwide.  Tasting very much like a citrus flavored tea, this Geisha experience cost me 9 dollars. No need for sugar or cream because it wasn't like any coffee I've ever had.  This speciality coffee took the world by storm in 2003 and since then has won the prestigious Specialty Coffee Association of America in 2010.  
As you can imagine, most of the Geisha coffee is exported to other countries.  Very little stays within Panama as business abroad pays extremely well for a pound of this expensive bean which can range anywhere from 50 to 130 dollars.  Everyone in Boquete wants to grow this particular bean but it's trickier than the other Arabica coffee beans.  This one variety can take up to 5 years to develop beans and it is much more sensitive to disease.  The crop from this tree/bush is also smaller hence the hefty price tag.
We walked here and sat down for our Geisha experience
So after all is said and done, I enjoyed the experience but not the coffee.  It didn't taste like REAL coffee to me and I do like my French and Guatemalan roasts. But if you're in the area, give it a try.  Who knows?  Maybe you'll love it:) Until next time......

Coffee Talk!

Let's begin our coffee tour....
Today I journey to a small coffee plantation up in the cloudy hills of Boquete. The place is called Finca Milagrosa run by Don Tito.  Our energetic guide, Jason, would take us on a lovely tour on this 5 hectar plantation. It all began with car parts and some creative thinking to create Finca La Milagrosa or "the great miracle".
Unripe coffee berries(cerezas)
Only the Arabica species is grown here at the plantation and in Panama.  However several varieties of the Arabica were found on the grounds.....Katuay, Typica, Geysha(Geisha), and Liberica. Panama wasn't really known for their coffee until the discovery of the Geysha bean. Today Panama has increased their export of coffees and their name is now on the world map.
We began our tour with these coffee bushes above.  Most are easy to pick from because they are maintained for human height.  However, if they get too tall......
This hooked stick(gancho) helps bend the tree to reach the coffee berries.  It takes 5 years to begin producing a great amount of coffee.  At 15 years, the tree will have its best crop.  While coffee can be grown in Panama, it can be difficult at times.  It was explained that farmers cannot really call their coffee organic because they have to spray to keep a fungus or mushroom off the leaves of the plant. This fungicide is extremely important and without it, coffee plantations could not exist here. 
Once the berries are picked, they are set out to dry for 15 to 25 days.
The dried beans are later separated by hand and machine. 
A chicken home is placed on the plantation. Here are two things that they do to naturally fertilize their crops.....
The Castor plant acts as a natural fertilizer when the beans drop from the plant.  In the background, you see the purple foliage dispersed among the coffee trees. For me, this was new information and really cool to find out.  I asked if they had issues with volunteer plants popping up, but they said it wasn't a problem at all.  If there was a sprout, it was pulled from the ground.
And of course, chicken manure is added around the base of the coffee tree.  Honestly, taking a pic of manure was not my thing but it helps narrate the tour:)
Once the coffee tree has finished producing its major crop after 15 years, the plant is cut back so that it will grow new limbs and create more berries.
All around the property, there are old car parts that were created to process coffee. Water will separate the coffee beans and create 3 categories....fine coffee, medium coffee, and low coffee.  The good stuff floats to the top while the lower sinks....and that is how Folgers can sell their coffee so cheap.:) Every coffee has its purpose. My parents love it.
Here are the 3 coffee roasts.....the dark beans(or Italian Roast), the middle beans are considered to fit into the category of French coffee, and the light beans(bottom) fall under American roast. 
This picture above is important and may be something that you don't know.  Well, I didn't. The lighter beans have more caffeine while the darkest beans have less. Once dried and separated, the coffee beans will undergo the roasting process at 250 C for 20 to 25 minutes.
Roasting the smells so good.
Tito, the owner, is standing to the right while Jason, our super friendly guide, is in front.
Creating coffee is a lot of work. Someone asked Don Tito if he was planning to expand his operation.  His reponse? "Why? More land equals more work:)"  If you are looking to take a break from mosquitos and sand flies, this is the perfect morning or afternoon day trip to get you out of your bed but not all muddied up. Boquete is really a lovely city, but more importantly, a good place to recharge after major hiking treks.  The larger plantations will charge more for a tour while the smaller ones will give you the same presentation at a smaller rate.  At the end, we purchased some coffee for friends back home. This tour had two scheduled times.  One at 8 AM and another at 2 PM.  The tour lasted around 3 hours and cost 20 dollars. Tours are offered in Spanish and in English.  Phone 6632-8645. Email:
At the end of the tour, we were treated to some delicious coffee. Until tomrrow....

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mi Jardín Es Su Jardín

While we were in Boquete, I had the opportunity to visit an artsy garden.  There are several in the area, but this one looked like a lot of fun.  So we dropped by and enjoyed all the unique statues.  It was a nice cool morning stroll around the property.  And how about this?  The entrance fee is free!! 
Plants, shrubs and people love Boquete's lovely climate. Flower cultivation is a local industry.
Spread over 12 acres, Mi Jardín Es Su Jardín is a riot of color and scents. It's a private garden open to the public.
People who admire ferns, azaleas, impatiens, hibiscus, roses and geraniums will love this garden as it is set in a semi-formal fashion.
Strange looking flamingos, cows, and cut-out human figurines are among the eclectic oddities.
If you love birds, keep your eyes open for a number of hummingbirds.  This garden will not disappoint.  Until tomorrow......

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Soropta Canal

In the beginning, I didn't think that this Soropta Canal would be of any importance nor would this write, but it turned out to be something very interesting. Neglected and ignored, this manmade canal has been taken over by water hyacinth and dead trees. On our way to the turtle program in the Humedales de San San Pond Sak and Caribbean shores(a wetland area of 160 km), we had to ride on this overgrown route to get to our destination. 

This Canal was initially known as the Snyder Canal and used as a shortcut by Snyder Banana Co. to get their product ready for export on the Caribbean shores. It cut through, then, an area of rain forest between the banana town of Changuinola and Bocas Del Toro. The Canal was completed in 1903 but was later abandoned by the construction of a railroad. However, by that time, the damage was already done.  This Canal allowed for people to move into the area and cut down the exposed rain forest.  Today it is a nature haven overgrown with hyacinth!  Some people still live on both sides at the entrance of the Canal in wood made homes.  
the water hyacinth
The funny part to all of this is that the Canal is in TERRIBLE shape for humans but WONDERFUL for so many birds and mammals.  There are river otters, which I did see, and manatees, which I didn't see.  There was waterfowl everywhere because the water hyacinth has taken over the entire waterway allowing birds to walk on this emerald green carpet of vegetation.  Boaters waste loads of gas zooming down this neglected area avoiding massive amounts of dead trees that have fallen into the Canal but then later getting stuck in extremely thick patches of hyacinth. During some parts, I wondered if we were ever going to get out!  However, I used the opportunity for photography to keep my mind busy.  Thinking about even entering that dark water freaked me out....

Some places, like the above pic, had open waterways, but there were many places where the vegetation connected both sides of the Canal. I saw plenty of Jacanas and other kinds of birds. This place is also commonly known as the Changuinola Canal as it connects to the town. At one point, we were stuck for a good 40 minutes using paddles to push ourselves out as we tried to reach the pier near Changuinola. It wasn't looking good for awhile, but it was beautiful....from the boat. 

Some parts of the Canal still have rustic homes on it.  I'm not sure how they get around as they are surrounded by ocean, beach and Canal.  Here a strange image of a horse stands in what seems like water. If you keep your eyes open, you'll find freshwater turtles and caimans sunning themselves on logs if you are going slowly down the Canal.  However if you blast through some of the area, you'll see a plunk here and there.  Like most places in a forest or natural area, early morning or late afternoon are your best viewing chances for animals like the manatees. However if you are on this Canal during the late afternoon, how in the world did you get there? And good luck arriving to your destination before dark.  I shudder to think of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.

The first part of the Canal is open and clear of vegetation.  As you boat awhile into the interior, it will start to close in around you.  Eventually it gives way to forest and pure wetland. No homes will be spotted at all until you reach a little village outside of Changuinola.  The village park was covered with dark trees full of bromeliads and it was rather creepy.  We arrived at the pier counting our blessings. The local people in the park looked at us as if we were hostile aliens. My instinct told me that if we hadn't been there with the ANAM crew, we would have had things stolen from us.  We left our turtle project and the Changuinola area with pleasure. It was a learning experience and the place definitely had a different vibe than the Bocas Del Toro area. The Chiquita Banana company still operates in this town.  They've taken over everything...and talk about a timewarp!!!  Old signs were clinging to falling apart buildings from the early 1900's.  Let me put it this way.  This town would not exist if it weren't for Chiquita and bananas.  It's stuck between the pristine forests of the Costa Rican border and the protected wetlands of the between, it's nothing but bananas.  The Soropta Canal was cool, and I'm glad we escaped the web of vegetation and evil sand flies. Birders, this is a TRUE bird haven and I highly recommend!  I wasn't a birder at the time but it was impressive!  Until tomorrow....

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Taste of Chocolate

Did you ever wonder where chocolate came from? The above fruit is from the cacao tree which is where everyone's favorite treat is hidden.  And just like coffee, creating chocolate is quite the process.
The fruit is large and grows on the trunk or strong branches. Cacao has had a difficult time in Panama.  It used to grow all over the country until a fungus invaded years ago and killed many of the trees.  Today they've discovered some ways to combat this disease and the cacao plant is making a slow return.  If left unmonitored, the cacao plant will succumb to the disease.
You open this melon looking thing up and there is a delicious tangy white fruit around a bunch of seeds. The cacao beans are what actually makes the chocolate.  Suck the fruit off and keep the beans.
It's really delicious and a favorite for locals.....and a certain Arizonan. The beans are taken out and left to ferment and dry out. This creates that wonderful chocolate flavor. Once all that happens over the course of 2 to 7 days(depending on the variety), the beans are roasted and given a shake down. Again this is all similiar to how coffee is made.
 In its pure form, chocolate is bitter.  So chocolate is ground up with sugar and other items mixed in that will sweeten up the final product.  The amount of chocolate bean used will also determine the percentage a bar of chocolate receives.  The higher percentage of cocoa/chocolate used; the higher the quality of the chocolate bar. The chocolate created here was rated at 80 percent.
As you can see, once the chocolate is ground up, it's ready to use for baking or eating:) Of course, it all depends on what you've mixed in with the beans:) Until tomorrow....