Posted in Panama Stories, Prose, My Thoughts & Wonderings, Uncategorized

Nunca me Dieron Serenata

30 years in Panama and I never got a single serenade from my serenating husband. Maybe if I had things could have been different.

I didn’t think I could ask for one, it’s supposed to be a surprise isn’t it? All of a sudden you hear music under your window dedicated to you and you think, oh my god those guys are so drunk. Cuz that’s when they seranade. ( sorry I can’t seem to spell today)

It didn’t happen so frequently once we moved to the city but if I saw him leaving with guitar in hand it was suspicious, someone was getting a serenade, but not me.

Why not? I liked music and sentiment as much as anyone, why was I not favored?

Back in EL Real I heard of a few serenades for special occasions, for Mother’s day it was popular to offer a serenade, and my husband always complied, just not for me. Couldn’t he find anyone to sing with him for me? Just one thing missing of many during those years as I think back to how my life has changed so dramatically, where would we be now if I’d stayed. I’m kidding here, he was a good man and still is a good man. And now he has a wife that appreciates him, I hope he serenades her We just didn’t know how to be good together. We were not a “we” just a her and a he.

Happy Birthday Enrique!

Posted in Panama Stories

Life in the Rain Forest-Panama 1965-70

We flew into Panama City every few months on tiny airplanes,  (you know that if a plane falls over the jungle you will never be found, it just closes around you) my husband more frequently then I, He would bring back food and books magazines and chocolate.  It was a difficult time for me and he didn’t really understand that as he had his own devils to deal with.  When in the city we stayed in his mother’s home that was the pit stop for families in town or kids going to school.  His Mother was retired as director of a school and was the primary caregiver to two young granddaughters.

His sister lived there too and was employed by a US agency, she spoke perfect English but didn’t have much to say to me during those first difficult years.  She did us a kindness sending everything needed for a Thanksgiving dinner to El Real one year.    We were able to share it with some visiting scientists, a real Thanksgiving dinner, they were very surprised and certainly didn’t expect to have turkey on good china that  Thanksgiving!

We were married for 30 years, some were the best years of my life but there were times when I wanted to run home, I guess that happens in many marriages, especially when opposites marry and are unable to make allowances for each other.  The years in Darien were made more difficult by the cantinas.  My husband had a weakness and I didn’t know how to deal with it, It seemed there was nothing else for a man to do in El Real, drink and play dominoes. My saving grace was that another PCV gave me his peace corp library when he left Panama.  I read while he spent time at the cantina with other like-minded souls.  I had my children to keep me busy, his fathering skills were underdeveloped.  Part of his frustration was because his father didn’t allow him to use the skills he had learned in his studies at LSU so he was unable to implement new systems for the finca.  He was and is a good man and now is married to a woman he has   more in common with and I am very happy for him, we were married for 30 years before I left.


We are still in El Real at this point in my story.

This is a photo of the family home in El Real, my daughter has a watercolor painting of it and in it, it is a very elegant structure.  But by 1965 it is getting tired looking.  My daughter has the painting because she was born in this house.

My first two children were born in Panama city in a hospital,  I would live in the city for the last month of pregnancy just waiting to get this done so I could go back home to El Real with my new baby.

My second was born in the city as well but my last baby came a bit before expected and she was born at home with Carmen, a midwife from town. My brother-in-law Doctor was spending a few days during Easter and was there for delivery but doubted me when I told him the baby was ready to be born that day.    So I made preparations. Carmen and I did all the work. It went fine but for some reason tears flowed for hours after the birth, uncontrolled, just tears falling, not crying but the tears just kept rolling down, we told the kids that a big mosquito had stung me and that’s why mamá is crying. I was happy to see my Mother-in-law come to help me a few days later when there were flights after the Easter holiday.

Scan 141

Baby was without a name for a week while we thought of a name for this beautiful baby.  I wanted a name my family could pronounce correctly as they had trouble with Marissa and Enrique.  I wanted to name her after my sisters and tried combinations of their names Sharon and Nancy but ended up just using Nancy.  I needed help giving her the first bath because I couldn’t stand up after delivery.  I think had a subluxation of my coccyx (displaced tailbone) that corrected itself after a couple days, so a cousin gave her the first bath. Odd, I never said anything about it to the Doctor or anyone, they probably thought I was just a lazy wimp.

Carmen pierced her ears a few days later.

Posted in Panama Stories, Uncategorized

Notes from a Friend

I can’t seem to add a comment that was made on my facebook page or sent to my email, seems they have to be added here under comments.  so I’m adding Janet’s comment here.

Comment: Living in El Real was the most amazing experience of my life – (with the exception of birthing and raising my children, of course)! As you mention above, Bob an I spent most of our time upriver, working with the Choco Indians. We had several projects in El Real, however, the most successful being an English class. One of the students went on to work with the Smithsonian Institute, at Barro Colorado Island, attributing his ability to get the job to his English-speaking ability. He is now retired. I have seen him three times through the years since leaving Panama, and he calls me every couple months.Time: January 13, 2018 at 9:51 am

Contact Form URL:
Thanks, Janet!  Got more stories?

Posted in Panama Stories

The Mail thief, Fruit Cake, Army Cot, & my Perico .

Getting and sending mail from El Real was an iffy proposition.  It happened that my outgoing letters to the family were held up by the person responsible for the mail. He kept the money I gave him for the stamps and was found out by my friend who to happened to see them in this person’s home. I got them all back. Things like that were not unusual for me, not everyone was kind.

I lived in a small room in the hospital and slept on an army cot, it was my only piece of furniture besides my black trunk. I’d brought from home a small tocadiscos phonograph and a couple albums to play,  living in the hospital meant I had electricity during the day with their generator, while the rest of the town only had it from 6pm until midnight. Between the Doctors quarters and my quarters and the hospital ward there was a small screened visiting room where I spent time with my  English speaking friend who helped me adjust to my new circumstances. The Doctors wife wasn’t able to be in the sun and spent her days with her son in their room, she didn’t speak English and you know my Spanish was non-existent at that time so we didn’t spend time together. I had a perico (small green bird) that stayed on my shoulder (clipped wings) as I walked around town until I sat on it.   He (?) was sitting on my cot, I didn’t see him. So Sad.

Somehow my grandmother was able to send me two huge dark fruitcakes for several years and it was a royal treat to share with friends. They were sent to the Panama City address and then sent on to El Real via the daily flights from Panama City to El Real. We were so happy to have and share them. ( I was even moved to bake fruitcake heavy on the rum myself for a few years.)

It’s funny that while I  look back on a memory, other related memories crowd in and  I have to make room for it. It’s the details that make a story spark,  I’m trying for the spark!

I admit to being guilty of not fulfilling my two-year obligation to the Peace Corps.  I mentioned this in an earlier post but as I said, I stayed in my ‘town’ for 6 years, leaving when my daughter was ready to start school.  She was thrilled to start school as a listener in her uniform with her two friends in El Real but it was time for us to go live in the big city. Love that photo!

oh yeah,

I married the English speaking friend.977820_10201361120219608_1552873028_o


Posted in Panama Stories

Baby Diapers & My Minnesota Parents in El Real

What can you write about babies diapers?  Plenty if you live in Panama, either in the city or in the jungle.  There was a particular way I was told to wash diapers

  • rinse them out with soapy water
  • lay them in the sun
  • wash them again
  • rinse them again
  • any spotted diapers go back in the sun
  • rinse again
  • hang to dry

repeat every day. Or give them to be washed in the river by AnaJulia?


I washed my babies diapers always, though I did have to take them on horseback to wash them in a clean river when the aqueduct was broken so no good water in the pipes that day.

When my parents were visiting the aqueduct again was broken, my Mom and I took them to the river on foot this time.  Not sure what my Mom thought of all this, but she was a good sport and had a story to tell back home.

I believe those are my husband’s clothes there. ***Scan66 copy

When my parents came to visit the first time, they came to El Real on the tiny airplanes and were really good sports about everything because as luck would have it nothing worked while they were there.  The aqueduct was broken so the water in the shower and bathrooms didn’t work and we had to bring up water to the 2nd floor for showers in tubs with totumas (gourds) to splash over ourselves to bathe.  I always bathed in the afternoon when the water was warm. My father-in-law was in residence and he had men bring water up into another tank so it would flow from the shower head for them.  We had a rodeo of sorts where my Dad helped emasculate cows and inject medicine into them while we watched sipping fresh coconut milk from a palm climbed by kids and opened by machete, everyone carries one no? Dad loved it    74540_10200360875214108_1190582922_n

We made tamales while my parents were there and my mother-in-law directed the activity.  It meant we needed chickens and pork cooked, corn ground and cooked for the masa,   2 types of leaves for them to be wrapped in, inner and outer layers, no corn husks here, .pickles, onions,  and   tamales were  made with each  person’s favorite bit of meat or part of chicken, and marked  with a string or colored bit of cloth to tell whose is whose.  They are the best tamales I’ve ever tasted, have not tasted one better, but this production is not for the weak of heart, it takes all day to make and you need a team!   It was a New Years event much anticipated by those lucky enough to get one.


*****Many of my Darien photos are here though the generosity of my friend Janet Fish.

Posted in Panama Stories

The Town of El Real de la Santa Maria, Darién Panamá 1965

Hello!   I invite friends and family to add your memories of El Real here on the contacts form at the end of this post.  I’m sure they will be of interest to many readers.  Thanks


When I lived in El Real the town had two communities on either side of the town, Pueblo Nuevo and the school on one side and the town proper with the three streets on the other side.  The Guardia had their office and jail on this side. There were 3 stores owned by Chinese residents, a church, and a library. And three cantinas.

Scan 142

No paved roads, there was nowhere to go anyway. During the dry season, a truck could get to the farm.  During the wet season, even the horses had a difficult time getting through the on a horse and a cowboy.

The Library only had political books, no light reading! I regret not having used some influence in getting books for the library, it would have been a good PCV project or even as a resident a project I could have gotten started.  But I was young and a little overwhelmed and intimidated.

The hospital had an operating room for when the MD was there, a postpartum room but most women gave birth at home.  There was a larger sala for patients but if someone was really ill or injured they were flown to Panama City for care. Employees at the hospital lived in the hospital as I did.


Here are ladies hanging out on the steps of the hospital

I remember an incident, while The doctor and the nurses were busy with a difficult delivery and I was hanging around the sala when a man yelled and started blowing into the ear of a woman in bed, to do CPR I guessed, I took over and so I am the godmother of a child as a result.  I’m not sure what was going on there but they seemed to think I had saved her life and so as godmother to her child, I was expected to gift the child with earrings, so I did..

The residents of El Real were a mix of transient Colombian, Chinese, Panamanian and a few from the interior areas north of Panama City, commonly called ‘the interior’.  Those from ‘the interior were more likely to work in agriculture and have small farms. I definitely stood out in a crowd.  My husband had family in El Real that I sometimes visited with but my Spanish was truly terrible limiting our conversations and the support I could have gotten from them.

I’m not one to judge anyone’s morality but life was hard for many and one did what one did to survive if not thrive. There were few jobs for the residents and many government jobs were filled with people from outside the community. I didn’t get a sense of community in El Real but that may be just who I was in those circumstances.  I’ve seen photos of the current El Real and many changes have been made and I think I would feel welcome now, but of course, I am not the same person now….and now my Spanish is better!

Scan133 copy

I did form some lasting relationships especially with the mother of my daughter’s friends, a  popular school teacher, and respected leader of the community. New PCV’s sent to this area were not sent there alone anymore, just couples  The most successful couple, the Fish’s were the most active PCV’s, he was a biologist and was in jungle heaven, their projects involved the Choco Indians and they spent less time in town more time up the river.  I know that Janet still communicates with friends she made there and I am blessed to be a good friend of hers today. Thanks to Janet for this and other photos.

Posted in Panama Stories

Driving Dilemas & Near Disasters & a Distraught Mom

gorgas hospital

A nice red Volkswagon; sold to me by a Doctor I worked with was my first real possession in Panama.  We were living in the city still in my mother-in-law’s home and I’d started to work at the Gorgas Community hospital, ( photo) my baby was 4 months old when I got the job as LPN working in a clinic.  Every day I had to find a way to get to and from and I was tired of taxis and buses so when she had a car for sale I jumped for it without telling my husband who was still in Darien.  (and he was not happy about this gringa who does her own thing, machismo in action.)

Anyway, I had not driven a stick shift and she was happy to teach me.  Kids in the car and off we went.  unfortunately,  where we went was to Panama Viejo ruins and there was a Guardia stop which I failed to make and so was whistled to stop. All he wanted was for me to back up and make the stop.  I didn’t know how to back up, had not had that lesson yet.  He had me get out of the car and into the office and asked me where my husband was. ( of course) I told him he was in Darien and couldn’t come to the office.  I shed a tear or two hoping that would help my cause and finally a ticket was made out… to the Doctor and we were free to go.  She even paid the ticket!  What a good friend but I must say that we were taking chances having the kids in the car and me such a novice driving.

I had not driven when I lived in MN.    I learned to drive a landrover in Darien, one of our guys taught me but with only 3 streets to learn on I guess I never had to back up.

Scan 185

 We/ I had that car for quite awhile and it is remembered for another incident that happened.  My husband had a new car now, my red Volkswagen was not his style, and I still used the volks, it was my son’s birthday and we went out to do something and my daughter was in the front seat unhooked without safety belt (no one used them in Panama  at that time) The door swung open going around a curb and she fell out the door!  My heart stopped, I stopped and an oncoming car stopped to block traffic while I jumped out an grabbed her swept her up and off we went to the hospital.  Whew! It was so scary.  She was seen immediately in the ER and X-rays were taken of her neck which seemed to be all that bothered her, she stayed in the hospital overnight with me beside her.  Guilt! Terrible mother letting her child fall out of a moving car. But you know what, that door had been giving me problems and I’d told my husband about it with no response on his part, of course, that does not take the blame from me.

Posted in Panama Stories

Aftosa Quarantine

The highlighted area of the article below is of interest to the Othon family and other ranchers in Darien because their cattle ranch lies in the area that is under quarantine to halt the contamination of aftosa (hoof & mouth disease in hoofed animals)before it gets to Central  America, Canada, and the USA,.    When this disease found anywhere in the world all the animals are sacrificed to prevent the spread of this disease.   Because of the quarantine ranchers ability to sell their cattle is limited because of these economic health-related issues.  However, they can and did export the animals south and import animals from the north.

I remember two occasions of import, export while I lived there.  A huge Brahman bull imported from the US to improve the stock, and a sale of I don’t remember how many, sold to somewhere south.  Both were big events in town and all turned out to watch this bull being transferred from the boat to the land.   Exciting days!

It’s been many years that I have had first-hand information of all this activity. The principles involved have gotten old or passed away and times have changed so the outcome for the farm is in other hands but if the ranch is not attended for it will return to the jungle it was.


This is an article about the proposed highway going thru the gap that I’ve  added here about the Choco Indians and the effect it will have on the rainforest and the Choco.


  • The Choco Indians of Panama live simply, finding food and shelter in the jungles that surround them. Hunting, gathering, farming, and trading are their means of survival. The climate is hot and humid. They wear little clothing. Their huts, open­ sided and thatch-roofed, blend into the forest. Their home is Darien, a province of Panama covering much of the country east of the Canal Zone. Like other “primitive” peoples, they seem doomed to cultural extinction The impact of the highway, and the ensuing exploitation of Darien’s na­ natural resources is enormous. Constrution­   will introduce air and noise pollution to a previously quiet and pollution-free environment. Defores­tation of the hills and valleys by lum­ber companies will cause extreme soil erosion. Habitat for animals and rare plants dependent on the forests will be destroyed. Aftosa, a hoof-and-mouth disease of livestock, now largely re­ restricted to South America, has ravaged cattle and wildlife populations in past outbreaks. Completion of the Darien Gap Highway will greatly increase the chances of aftosa spreading north­ ward into Mexico and the Southwestern United States.  
    You can read the complete article here 
    DECISION AT DARIEN GAP (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Jan 06 2018].
Posted in Panama Stories

Transitioning to Central America

I invite family and friends to add a note or a memory of El Real here and if you have photos let me know or email or add them on facebook and I’ll download them and add them here.  The place to add your memories and photos is at the end of this post.  This message can be translated  on the side bar.253799_10200360868173932_400333435_nSo far I’ve  written about training in Puerto Rico, arrival to Panama and now to my townsite.  I’d  fallen madly in love with the man who spoke English. I could not stay in the Peace Corps married to a National, a rule at that time, since changed I believe. I had to go home to MN to think about all this, stayed there for several months working to earn my fare back to Panama. And then  I  returned.

First things first, we got married in Panama by a judge with two of his friends as witnesses the day after I arrived. The judge had apparently had a liquid lunch but no matter so did the groom and the witnesses. The judge noted in English that we should all intermarry to solve world problems or something like that.

It wasn’t much of a ceremony.  I found out later that my father-in-law had planned to have us marry at the small church in El Real and he had asked the ambassador to give me away.  Would have been nice, I’d have better memories of that time. Husband said no and I was never consulted. So starting out with some concerns I should have taken note of, no wedding,  too much alcohol,     I had no complaints, I was in love. Most of my husbands family didn’t speak much English and my Spanish was primitive.

We lived in El real for 6 years.602731_10200360877014153_1961031867_n Sorry, I don’t have better photos of that time I didn’t have a camera.  Can you imagine anyone not having photos of all this today? We arrived in El Real via a very tiny airplane after making a few swoops to get the cattle off the landing site.

El Real is a small town up the river from Yaviza another larger town and in-between was a wood mill, la donceya not sure about the spelling, a woman who sometimes lived there because her husband owned the mill,  taught me to crochet.  It took about an hour to get to either place depending on the tide..via piragua on the river,196859_10200360875734121_968003015_n (yes there were tides)

There were some missionaries that lived close to Yaviza, several families that were translating the Bible into a native language for the Indians.  We saw them now and again.  The missionaries in the area, the Doctor and his family and other professional people working in government jobs in town, teachers, family, and Peace Corps volunteers were my sources of community. Never all at the same time.  

Doctors and Scientists working for the Smithson Institute had a yellow house, in town, everyone called it the yellow house, in El Real to do studies deeper in the rain forest.  There is a bug named after Don Pablo Othon (my father-in-law.) called the othoni something, I don’t remember the name or the kind of bug now.

We also had some interesting visitors because ours was the only place for visitors to stay with plumbing.  I wish I had my visitors book where I asked them to sign for me. People from all over the world. Unfortunately for me all that was left behind.

In years past life was good for the Othon’s, I saw signs of fine living, rooms painted in murals that must have been beautiful but most was gone when I lived there.  The river is taking the land in front of the house and the last picture of the house showed earthquake damage.  Now no one of the family lives there l,  though there may be relativesmonkey in town still there.  Most recent photos of El Real show a lot has changed over the years but there is still no road to get from El Real to Panama City.

Its called the Darien gap but I’ll cover that in another post.