B A R R Y L A N D .



a man, a woman, no plan.
verbal snapshots from our anniversary trip to panama.








things I did in 04.
how do you measure a year in the life

land of smiles.
tall tales from our thai honeymoon

made of this.
the level of every day's most quiet need

my silent film score: a radio interview

a photo essay

engagement pictures.
she said yes

anna k.
a few luminous passages that show you why it's a certified Great Book


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::

Catherine and I wanted to take a month or so to celebrate our first anniversary in a quiet town on the coast of Italy. A few days before we were to leave, though, we made a trip to the emergency room: Catherine's chronic condition was flaring up again, putting us off for several days. Then, as we were walking out the door to the airport, Catherine saw "MAR" where I had only seen "MAY" — my passport's expiration date. Being the intrepid folk we are, we regrouped, repacked, and then headed out the door to this beautiful country.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 F R I D A Y ,   A P R I L   1 5 . 

While you were feverishly doing your taxes, we were sitting around in airports, or sitting around in comfy plane seats. We arrived in Panama City at around 10 at night, and, as is the usual custom, began looking for a place to stay. No problema: an hour or so later, we had a decent, tidy room right between bustling downtown and the old historic part of the town, called Casco Antiguo. Catherine promptly wondered why on earth we were here, in this loud urban place, when we'd planned on quiet days in a small village on the Italian coast. Good point, we thought: why not blow this town and look for someplace better?


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 S A T U R D A Y ,   A P R I L   1 6 . 

We slept and slept, and then explored, sweating along the coastline, till we found a delightful 50s-ish eatery with the most heavenly tomato sandwich I've ever tasted. On to the Casco Antiquo, the ciudad viejo, the historic peninsula. Last evening and today, I'd been thinking that Panama City wasn't turning out to be as I'd pictured it: narrow streets, broad plazas, charming faded colonial architecture — Corinthian columns and pink plaster and all that. Well, it turns out that we were just in the wrong part of town. The old town exactly fit my mental picture of Panama. We walked along the tumbly streets, admired the official buildings and grand old cathedral — the second oldest in this hemisphere — and stopped by the old fortress.

Sitting on a ledge overlooking a small private beach, Catherine and I engaged in some people-watching. A loose group of teenagers awkwardly socialized on the sand, while some under-tens waded in from around the jutting wall. When they came ashore, a girl who was out in front of the rest turned back to them, pointed an arm straight at us, and shouted "Mira los gringos! Mira los gringos!" Upon which several of them started doing cartwheels for our benefit. The teens socialized and practiced some dance moves, ostensibly for some clubbing later this evening or this decade, the kids splashed in the waves, a couple of nuzzly couples roamed around, and Catherine and I enjoyed them all.

Stopping to rest in a lovely canopied walk along the southern tip of the peninsula, which was mostly ruins of government buildings that had been demolished in 1989 during the multivalently named Operation Just Cause (a name we all agree on!), we noticed that the metal cage that formed the skeleton on which the vines and flowers grew so lavishly was tilted. In places, the force of the growth had pushed the vertical bars past a forty-five degree angle, making a low parallelogram to walk through. As I saw a pure-blooded Kuna woman walk by in bright traditional dress, I wondered if that's how she felt about the history of her land: that the rigid industrial grid of foreignness that keeps asserting itself here will never prevail against the life force of her people. The story of how they have survived and thrived and kept their identity and insisted on their own governance and land and rights is an exemplary one, and certainly rare in this hemisphere.

Another hot stroll, and another meal, in which we spent roughly two and a half hours trying to get a waiter's attention.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 S U N D A Y ,   A P R I L   1 7 . 

Paul had recommended a luxurious hotel for us to lounge in. He'd been here many times, courtesy of the Air Force, in the 80s and 90s. Sure enough, it was perfect. After a delightful Chinese meal, Catherine vegged in the open-air lobby while I tramped around looking for the cigar store that Paul had recommended. I finally figured they were out of business, but easily found another one and invested in some promising Cubanos. Back at the hotel, Catherine and I sat around by the pool, admired the perfectly manicured lawn, tried not to swelter too much, had one of the cigars, and ate some pretty good tres leches.

Meanwhile, we'd figured out where we wanted to go: Boquete. After reading up on all the beaches and archipelagos and mountains and valleys, the choice was obvious. The guidebooks describe it as a quiet but peppy village perched high in the mountains, about 25 miles from Ciudad David. So we hung around the bus station and its accompanying mall (whose decorations included hot-air balloons in the rafters, which, to our astonishment, actually deflated at closing time), and then took the overnight bus to Ciudad David, and, after a 2-minute layover, the overcrowded repurposed schoolbus to the town of Boquete.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 M O N D A Y ,   A P R I L   1 8 . 

The bus let us out at a brightly flowered town square. We found a place to stay, dropped off our bags there, and spent a few hours strolling up and down the north-south main street that forms the backbone of Boquete. In the square we were accosted by a pink-shirted, dunlap-bellied, sunglassed American man who offers services and advice to travelers, accompanied by crass comments he excuses by categorizing them as "politically incorrect." He's the type of person who's inevitably called a "character": as colorful as he is knowledgeable and friendly. After a pleasant meandering conversation we agreed we should take him up on his offers of horseback riding and hiking tours.

Lift your head and, in any direction, you'll see verdant mountains with their heads in the clouds, mist weaving through like pipe smoke around a grandpa's beard. Boquete is sunk into a high valley among them. That's apparently where it gets its name, which means "opening" or "hole." Walk around in the mornings and you're whished by the bajareque, the local weather miracle in which mountain breezes carry a mist that's like a transparent cloud, kissing the skin with coolness. As we munched on our grocery-store breakfast, a perfect rainbow appeared before us in the square, then vanished.

Our window opens onto a tiled terrace that overlooks, several yards away, a gung-ho mountain stream, the Rio Caldera. Above it on the other bank is an Oz of flowers: the grounds of the local flower festival. We figure there are maybe thirty thousand? fifty thousand? flowers in direct view, a riot of colors arranged in formal symmetry. We recognize immediately that the air and sound and sight from this terrace — the rocky stream, the gardens, the treed cliffs with their shifting shades of green, the fog-machine clouds — will be food and drink to us these next days.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 W E D N E S D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 0 . 

About an hour's journey from Boquete (by comically crowded bus) is a natural hot springs. We got off the bus, walked a hot but stunningly beautiful 45 minutes past grazing white cattle, green fields, and mountain verdure. The springs are on a gently forested private property; a middle-aged lady was standing nearby to collect a dollar apiece from us and the few other travelers there.

Right there in the forested area was a six foot high circle of stones, about 6 feet in diameter, surrounding a quiet pool with a black floor. Looked a bit small, but several minutes of trekking through what looked like the set for an Alfonso Cuarón production of Siegfried yielded not another spring. We'd been told there were five of them. We were still feeling too hot to take a hot bath anyway, so we went down to the exuberant river and bathed in its soda-cold shallows, resting on the hottish rocks that were thickly strewn around. While down there, a German guy we'd befriended told us how to get to the largest and best spring — no more than 20 yards from the rock-walled one! How could we have missed it?

But there it was. It was the size of a baby pool, elongated, lined with rocks. A couple of people were lounging in it. We got in, and discovered it was the perfect temperature, just a little cooler than a hot-hot bath, smelling slightly of sulfur. Though it was a hot day, the bath felt remarkably wonderful. The water was clear, speckled with black flecks that settled down once we stopped moving. We sat and soaked and enjoyed the sounds of the forest, and thought about how much more therapeutic this was than some club's chloriney tub.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 T H U R S D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 1 . 

We went horseback riding today. As we were galloping along, full speed, slightly worried about losing our balance (awright, my balance), Catherine shouted back to me, "You will never have this experience in the States!" What she meant was that usually, in the States, the guide comes with you, and you trot at a very very slow pace. We were racing through an open field, with the natural glory of Panama all around us. Later, the guide came and found us, leading us at a slow trot through more natural glory. My muscles and I were semithankful for the change in pace.

Meals have been a nice experience here. There's a simple cafeteria that serves fantastic food for a buck-fifty a plate. A nicer place — obviously geared toward the expat retirees — is about seven or eight an entree, but the two of us can dine comfortably on a couple of appetizers. All along the main couple of roads are charming, inexpensive places for pizza, local cuisine, sandwiches, and old-fashioned Cokes, fifty cents for a shapely bottle. There's also a deli or two; our favorite serves fresh, flaky, buttery empanadas for a song.

We spend our time walking around the town, admiring the flowery yards, or sitting on our riverfront terrace reading or enjoying a Cubano, or lounging around on our bed. This is precisely the anniversary vacation we'd envisioned.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 F R I D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 2 . 

Every once in a while, a thin cloud will float in front of the sun in such a way that the entire world turns into El Dorado, a golden-hued opera set. Again and again, we marvel at our good fortune in finding this place to rest and celebrate.

Although we haven't experienced the bajareque (that wet mountain breeze) since the day we arrived, we've been able to read the Bajareque, the monthly local paper. We find, for instance, that if we'd been here a couple of weeks earlier, we would not only have been able to see the total solar eclipse from a prime spot, but we also could have taken part in the city's 19th annual orchid fair. Boquete is a world-renowned climate for orchids: we've seen hundreds around town.

Other news:

The Boquete police have the manpower and availability to respond to calls for assistance, but they have no car. So any call for immediate help outside the town has to wait until somehow transportation is found. In the past they have at times used the taxi system, but this is of no use at the time (middle of the night) when many serious calls are likely to occur (because the taxis don't run after about midnight).

* * * * *

There was somewhat less enthusiasm for the idea that all signs must be in Spanish (in addition to whatever other language(s) they may be in). Details were sparse on this point, but the Mayor said he was concerned that many non-English-speaking residents were not able to read the roadside signs.

This English-language paper is, of course, written by members of the huge and huger expat community here in Boquete, which has apparently been rated by lifestyle magazines as one of the top places in the world to retire. One glimpses in the paper disturbing trends brought on by this group, members of an older generation, who often don't have the sensitivity about localness that younger folks do: references to building up and commercializing the gorgeous, natural Rio Caldera, references to the rising real estate prices that are gradually pricing locals out of their beloved home. It wasn't surprising at all that a local man, far along in the bottle, followed us from restaurant to cafe the other night, shouting about Americans.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


  S A T U R D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 3 . 

We met some of those expats today. A short hike — or, if you wake up late, a short taxi ride — up the main road is a place called Cafe Ruiz. It's indeed a cafe, but the name is also a brand: Cafe Ruiz is an award-winning coffee, grown and roasted in Boquete. In touring the plant, we found out that the coffee "bean" is more like the seed of a red berry, which itself is supposedly quite delicious. If you came upon a coffee plant in the wild, you might eat the sweet berry and spit out the seed, none the wiser. I of course now wonder how on earth it ever occurred to anyone to roast that seed, grind it, and put it in boiling water.

After the tour, we sat in the open-air cafe, peoplewatching. Next to us, the cafe's proprietor was speaking in fluent, animated English with a couple of elderly intellectuals straight from central casting: casual clothing, sensible hair a bit blown, strong greying no-nonsense voices, change-the-world diction. Later, I noticed that — naturally — one lady was wearing a T-shirt that advertised the Seattle Opera production of Siegfried. We had a nice conversation with them, then turned our attention to a couple of gents at the other table, identically dressed in green polo shirts and jeans. They couldn't have been more different, though. My comment to Catherine, sotto voce, was "East coast, West coast." One guy was propped forward in his chair, arms on legs in football-watching position, speaking in the hokey-jokey manner of a New Jersey uncle. The other was leaning back, legs crossed á la Carson, no socks, tan but not weathered, punctuating his low words with a golden smile.

As we conversed with them, several others, all over 65, came in and sat down: gardener lady with dog, check; straw-hatted silent husband, check; fanny-pack-and-bermuda-shorts-guy, check. We'd stumbled into the local expat hangout. They were all warm and friendly, and were delightful company. We stayed till well after lunchtime before finally taking a hungry hungry hike back down to the town.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


  M O N D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 5 . 

The local supermercado is just one block away from our hotel. Amazingly, it has a huge variety of international fare, right beside all the local stuff. For instance, on the cracker shelf, we found Hobnobs, the addictive English wheat biscuits with a slap of chocolate on one side. Hobnobs! One of the reasons God allowed England to thrive. I bought a package, and, I confess, ate the entire thing in one sitting.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


  T H U R S D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 8 . 

The past few days have been nonstop rest and reading. We've gone through 5 New Yorkers and 3 paperbacks of the raised-metallic-lettering sort. I'm finally reading the Hitchhiker series, which Catherine gave up on as just a heap of cleverness. We've both enjoyed/hated Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, the precursor to The Da Vinci Code and a book that is entirely too full of shock! I'm shocked, SHOCKED I say, to find out that the Catholic church has millions of dollars! Shocked! But even more shocking is that they have..... SECRETS! My world is crumbling! The book is full of exchanges like, " 'We must find the piazza, said Langdon to his native Italian companion. 'The plaza?' she said. 'Yes,' he said, 'you know, the public square.' " Nonetheless, it's a nice page-turner. Many's the afternoon or evening or late night we've spent sitting out on our wonderful terrace reading. Catherine hasn't been feeling too well afternoons, but we've gone on little walks, and the evening air is perfect for dinner and a stroll.

There's a small cafeteria where you can get a fantastic roast beef and rice and vegetable plate for a buck seventy-five. We've eaten there several times. There's also a delightful cafe, richly painted and funkily decorated with original art, that serves wonderful local-style pizzas and burguesas, and which has been our favorite lunch hangout. The youngest waitress — age 4 — enjoys our company but is very shy.

A bit up the main street is a place called Bistro Boquete, a nicely done restaurant that caters to expats with organic, locally grown dishes that would make Alice Waters proud: freshly caught mountain trout that even had Catherine, a fish-hater, raving; perfectly modulated poblano quesadillas; a heavenly tomato bisque. The chef/owner, a genial, ruddy-faced doll named Loretta, came over and talked to us this evening. I told her that the biggest deficit here is that there's no piano — not a single dang piano in all of Boquete, at least not in public. She said that if she could get a good keyboard and a sound system here tomorrow night, I'd be welcome to put on a show. Not having touched ivory (or plastic) for a solid two weeks now, I agreed.

After that, very very very early in the morning actually, if all goes well, we'll four-wheel up the volcano to its 11,500 foot peak. We'd thought we would hike up there, but that's just too much for Catherine right now — a shame, because of the two of us she's the real hiker. We just couldn't in good conscience pass up the chance, though, to get up to this, the highest peak in Panama. The view is reputedly splendid. So our friend the salty but lovable Richard, who has been more and more helpful and friendly to us as the days go by, got his friend to drive us up. The other day, Richard brought by a package of coffee from his farm, and a coffeemaker to brew it with! Delicious! He dropped by just this morning — at 8, for which we'll forgive him — and held up a big trash bag, inside of which were two sets of heavy coats, hats, and gloves. "For tomorrow," he said. Thanks: that volcano is going to be muy frio.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 F R I D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 9 . 

Didn't gig tonight. After running around for a few hours trying to track down a keyboard and sound system, all we could find was a toy — one of those Casios that 12-year-olds have, with no touch sensitivity and no pedal. Sheesh. These folks need to get a piano in their town. We did have a marvelous dinner at the restaurant again, and Catherine and I, having prepared for her to be a jazz widow for the night, enjoyed an unexpected evening of togetherness.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


 S A T U R D A Y ,   A P R I L   3 0 . 

What a day! We woke up at quarter to four, got dressed in our borrowed sweaters, and met our driver, Fernando. He put us in his extremely bumpy jeep and carried us on a three-hour drive up Volcan Barú, the nearby extinct volcano that is the highest peak in Panama. Catherine's comment was, "This is the wussiest four by four I've ever seen." True, we did travel over huge boulders and incredibly rough proto-roads to get there, but much of the journey was similar to those hill-country roads that your brother's truck considers no big deal. Not that we complained, though: the only other way to get there is to take a 6-hour hike that would be a little taxing for out-of-shape me, and impossible for slightly-ill Catherine. So we enjoyed the bumps.

Then we arrived. Fernando dumped us out on a plateau that seated several television and radio and cell towers. We then climbed up to the very highest peak. On the way, we saw graffiti scrawled on the side of one of the cliffs; trying to imagine the people actually doing it made us dizzy.

On the peak was planted a single large cross. We stood there and looked all around us. It was like being present at the creation of the world — fold upon fold of mountains, with mist and fog and clouds rolling through them, stretching out into flatter lands, and then, catching the breath, the oceans. Both of them. We looked one way and saw the gleaming Atlantic, and then looked the other way and saw the dark Pacific. In the two mile high ether, clouds and sea and horizon become almost indistinguishable, and only after one "cloud" didn't move for several minutes were we entirely convinced that it was actually a promontory and the pacific blue behind it was actually the Pacific.

What a feeling, standing on top of the world! I really did nearly lose my balance several times. My first thoughts were what an amazingly beautiful creation this was. We spent nearly an hour just gaping and exclaiming. But I do confess, knowing well what this says about my warped mind, that at some point up there I actually said to myself, "Man, now I really have to read Chapman's Homer!"

On the way down, Fernando stopped near a sheep farm. He and I got out, leaving Catherine to rest in the suddenly still jeep, and walked through a perfect MGM forest — tall trees, green light, flat ground — to where the sheep were grazing on a perfect MGM meadow. Standing at its edge, I looked out and saw a floor of clouds floating below me.

When we got back to the hotel, we ate a nice little lunch, and took a nice little nap. That night, history was made, as Catherine actually ordered a fish dish for the first time. She simply can't abide fish, for the unassailable reason that they are "fishy." But the other day I had been eating a fresh grilled mountain trout — ah, this place! — and she took a bite and really enjoyed it. I was so proud when, a year or so ago, I fixed fish for her and she found it "not bad," but this was real progress: she took an active liking to the trout. So tonight she ordered one for herself, and melted in pleasure with every bite.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


  S U N D A Y ,   M A Y   1 . 

The other thing Catherine doesn't traditionally like is coffee. Here, though, in the place where some of the world's best coffee is grown, she's tried a sip here and there that she enjoyed. This morning, out at Cafe Ruiz for one last visit, she again made history and ordered her first cup of coffee. Their Arabica beans are smooth and gentle, slightly acidic, with not a touch of bitterness, and they brew it slightly weak (to my taste). It's perfect to Catherine's taste, though.

Interestingly, though, she does enjoy a strong cigar. Usually folks who like deep dark coffee gravitate toward deep dark cigars, and those who like mild tastes do just the opposite. Not so with her. Richard brought by some promising cigars early this morning when he picked up his sweaters and coats. They're Panamanian treasures, lovingly wrapped by an elderly lady in one of these neighboring mountain towns. Can't wait to taste one. He also offered us some navel oranges from his farm to eat on the bus. Thanks, Richard! He turned out to be an invaluable resource for us in Boquete, and a good friend.

We spent the rest of the day, our last day in Boquete, making one last visit to some of our favorite spots, including of course a long spell of reading out on our riverside terrace. As we walked back to get our luggage and board the bus, the bajareque arrived again to bid us farewell, and formed a perfect, complete rainbow for us, right over the river and mountain.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


  M O N D A Y ,   M A Y   2 . 

After a long and cold night on the overnight bus, we settled in to our hotel in Panama City and took a rest. Catherine's not feeling incredible today, but on the other hand we hadn't really planned on doing much here anyway. After a delicious lunch of local food, Catherine sacked out at the hotel while I visited the Panama Canal.

It's as fascinating as they say it is. I watched as huge ships got raised and lowered, all using nothing but the power of gravity to change the water flow from lock to lock. What an amazing achievement! Expensive too, at about thirty thousand dollars a pop for the average ship. It's all based on weight, though, so the heaviest ship that set the record a few years ago paid about a quarter million, while the smallest fee in history was --yep — thirty-nine cents, paid by none other than Richard Halliburton, one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century, and one of my personal heroes. He swam the entire length in 1929.


::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::   ::


What a wonderful journey. Even the trip back was smooth. We've already begun propagandizing our families on the subject of all going back next year and overtaking one of the delightful hotels in Boquete. Thanks to all the folks who made it possible, including those of us who sometimes overlook tiny details like passport expiration dates, and those who are flexible enough to make the best of such situations and stride right off into unexpected joys.