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

602731_10200360877014153_1961031867_nWhen 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, 312298_10200360868213933_1954025488_na church, and a library544016_10200360868533941_360377730_n. And three cantinas.

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 mud.Scan 142me 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 hospital3818_10200360869173957_711626754_n

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!

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.Scan133 copy





Do you wonder if this is how a person with dementia might feel?  Or is it a blank slate with memories only to rise to the surface now and again often not enough to be a positive factor, but heartbreaking to friends and family that see a spark that doesn’t light up anything.

I was a hospice nurse for my last ten years of nursing and dementia was not a diagnosis we would see for hospice care unless the disease was the very late stage.



I suppose we have all seen the images of our elderly in nursing homes tied into wheelchairs looking out blankly nonverbal and sad.  Their fate is a huge question because many patients with dementia are in otherwise good health and can stay in these circumstances for many years.  One doesn’t usually die of dementia but of the complications of dementia.

Finally, some serious money is going into research on Alzheimer’s because we are all getting old, concerns of our aging population become the concerns of these aging scientists, doctors, and philanthropists.  Maybe an answer will be found beside good living, good diet, healthy relationships that we probably all know we should value and seek but continue on our way because that’s what we do.

I’m 75 and I would say a good 75.  One might think that I am not thinking logically or am not taking seriously the hazards of my plan to invest in a vehicle I can live in but the upside of the argument seems to be much greater than the downside… to me. I’ll discuss this in another post because so far no one but me sees the upside,  only the problems I  could encounter.

My sister thinks I haven’t thought it out clearly.

She may be right.



Driving Dilemas & Near Disasters & a Distraught Mom

gorgas hospitalA 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.

Only a touch of Despair….

I lose my train of thought


but I’m ready to be an old lady  (ready or not)

only a touch of despair appears on occasion when I am reminded

that I am anIMG_5575 old lady.

why is this ( being an old lady) a negative?

when I forget

when I misplace

when I lose my password  for google  ( yup)

especially when I can’t find my words

like now

not being noticed can be a huge positive.

  A nurse said to me during a visit “when I get old I won’t shave my legs”  then she said ‘I can’t believe I said that to you! Not a gracious thing to say to an old woman she is attending when she is much younger. No offense taken. So really……

Why should I have to shave my legs?  I look down at my hairy legs and feel like a rebel not bowing to convention and shaving them. At 75 no one cares if I shave my legs and now I don’t care either, though it took a little getting used to seeing them, so ingrained in our culture, we must have smooth hairless skin.  It’s these little annoyances that make me wonder if we have things right or if there are better ways to spend our lives.   And I’m usually in pants anyway, actually, if I wore more dresses I would probably shave them while feeling guilty at ..oh hell

Live out your fantasy,  be who you are, not who you are expected to be, surprise yourself.  I did!  I am an artist, a painter  I never thought to paint and now it is my perfect retired lady project. I’m very fortunate and have the almost perfect opportunity to follow my own advice. And what is my advice?  Just be there, pay attention to what makes you feel good and then find ways to do it.

Tomorrow is another day

until it’s not.

Practise what you teach!



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].

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.




Tell a Good Story and They will come….

I guess I’ve just realized that this is true and if I want visitors here I need to make it interesting.  Some people say that I’ve had an interesting life and one may like to read my stories.  I’ll try, but most of my ‘interesting’ life happened over 6 years many years ago, and my memory for detail is not good.  I’m hoping that as I think back I’ll remember more and more.



I was one of the first PeaceCorps Volunteers (PCV)  1964  to Panama, it seems like a different lifetime. I suppose it was.  I wasn’t a successful volunteer as I fell in love and at that time if you married a national you were out of the corps.  However, I did remain on my ‘site’ for 6 more years.

They were difficult years for me.

I have touched on life in Darien before but only the interesting and different aspects to amuse, not the lonely days that lasted forever with the sound of cantinas until midnight.

When I arrived via avioneta (tiny airplane) at my townsite, El Real, Darien Panama  I lived in the hospital with intent to assist there. Honestly, the nurses that ran the hospital didn’t need any help from me.  The MD was there periodically but the nurses managed the hospital.  My Spanish was negligible  I was so bad that when our PCV group arrived in Panama and we went around to introduce ourselves I said ‘soy enferma’ instead of enfermera.  I’m sick instead of I am a nurse!

So I walked around town with kids following behind me every day stopping here and there and trying to talk with the residents sitting on doorsteps hanging out at the Chinese stores trying to communicate, teaching English to a band of kids.

One Peace Corps suggestion to get to know the people in your town, was to do a census.  That was the worse idea and I never even tried to do it. Can you imagine?  We were already suspected by some to be CIA operatives rather than volunteers, just the stupidest idea! Can you imagine answering census type questions to total strangers coming to your door!, Ugly American stuff! Unbelievable  I hope no volunteers did census taking.

I had just arrived in November before Thanksgiving, when we heard on the radio, Voice of America,  the death of President Kennedy.  My friend (future husband) had a shortwave radio so I heard about it when everyone else did.  There were some grievances between Panama and the US that caused some problems for some PCV’s but  I just was advised to remain in the hospital just in case but I never felt threatened.  There was always something political going on in Panama and my husband’s family was political. By that, I mean that my husband’s father had been the diputado for the province for many years (congressman) He lost his last election and some said he lost it because of his son marrying a gringa. (that’s me)

Before I got to Panama….

1390690_10153387860780401_1544852205_nOur group went to Puerto Rico before going to Panama for basic training.  I met so many really fine people in this experience,  I wish I had kept in touch with many of them.

We did physical stuff in PR. We repelled off a dam, I really liked doing that, it was so much easier than rock climbing where my hips and legs were black and blue from falling. Going We did drown-proofing and I jumped from a really really high diving board.  I am still a nonswimmer and though they nearly had to push me off I finally jumped.  A hike during which I nearly got heat exhaustion.  I had gone from Minnesota weather to Puerto Rico weather with a short break in New York (where we grouped)  and my body had trouble keeping up. We also did an obstacle course!  I loved this time in PR even when we had to get up early for exercises, no sleeping in!. After Puerto Rico, we had some classes, Spanish of course, the culture of Panama,   diet and music and dress, in Missouri, during which I was hospitalized with back pain and fever, thought to be dengue, endemic in PR. while everyone else went for a fun special event.

A quick trip home to MN to pack up and find out who passed, I did, and on to Panama.  Did I ever use those skills learned? Nope, but it did test our strengths and weakness and not all of our group was forwarded to Panama.

It was pouring rain when we arrived,  not an unusual event, dignitaries awaited us in the airport.  We ran.  This is when in a roundtable of identifying ourselves to the dignitaries, that   I introduced myself in Spanish saying I was sick instead of I am a nurse and only realized it when I saw smiles and questionable looks from everyone. From there we were housed in a hotel, very nice and met our leaders.  I bet that they had never seen a sheet hanging from the balcony.  I had a pretty severe case of Montezuma revenge. too much information?   We were assigned our ‘towns;  I said I would like to work with the Indians and was assigned El Real of the Darién province.   And that is beginning of my story.

The Darién Gap in Panama

This article is lengthy but gives a very provocative reason for the gap to remain a gap with some photos.
 The Darién Gap is a lawless wilderness on the border of Colombia and Panama, teeming with everything from deadly snakes to anti-government guerrillas. The region also sees a flow of migrants from Cuba, Africa, and Asia, whose desperation sends them on perilous journeys to the U.S.

 For centuries the lure of the unknown has attracted explorers, scientists, criminals, and other dubious characters to the Gap, a 10,000-square-mile rectangle of swamp, mountains, and rainforest that spans both sides of the border between Colombia and Panama. Plenty of things here can kill you, from venomous snakes to murderous outlaws who want your money and equipment. We’ve come to find the most improbable travelers imaginable: migrants who, by choice, are passing through the Darién region from all over the world, in a round-about bid to reach the United States and secure refugee status.