Tuesday, April 29, 2008

South Florida Drivers and Health Insurance....

There are two articles today in the Miami Herald that caught my attention: SoFla drivers and the cost of health insurance in the state. Amazingly, these topics have been on my mind for the last few days....how did they know? No mind readers, I'm sure, just people like me that feel things are really getting out of hand.....

Dave Barry, who is always funny but on the money, rambles along about driving in South Florida. He portraits perfectly, with real examples and deprecating humor the perils of going out in your car....he advices us that the best thing is to close your eyes and pray. He wants to be positive, though, and says that if we just take responsibility for our driving and show each other a little courtesy, all will be fine....but he is a realist and concludes that we are doomed!!!

Many times I have felt the same way. I go out of my way to avoid the expressways, especially I95; I take all the scenic routes and the out of the way roads. I don't mind getting late to where I'm going, or starting early to be on time. The less I see of SoFla drivers, the better. Courtesy is unheard of, everyone for himself is more like it. There is no respect for pedestrians, much less for other drivers. Some expressways become racing tracts at nights and accidents are the order of the day. I pity the people that have to commute here! No wonder AAA has named Miami Number One when it comes to road rage.... I know sometimes I am ready to kill someone.......

I have no idea why this happens, but I have my theory. I also know that many reading this will call me all sorts of names...but I think I am right. SoFla is a place of different cultures, people from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and other parts of the world live here with others from all over the US. Everyone has his/her own way of driving, different traffic rules, different traditions when it comes to road etiquette. We all bring these things to SoFla and we fail to learn the local rules. Yes, I include myself! Until we do......we are doomed.

The other article is about the cost of health insurance premiums in Florida. John Dorschner, who writes business related articles, points out several things I have been telling my husband for months!!! Premiums go up and up...and nobody seems worried that we are not going to be able to afford health insurance. Getting sick will soon be a luxury. Coming from Curaçao where we had National Health Care, and even private insurance coverage was reasonable, this is difficult to understand....that is a Third World country!!!

The article points out that premiums have gone up 29% in the last year alone. Salaries have not gone up as much...of course. This is not a Florida only problem, it is a national trend: up 10 times as fast as family income. Wonderful! All this would be nothing if the services provided were all covered; but NEE.... you still have a deductible and co-pays and who knows what else.

In a country with the most advanced medical developments, the latest in technology and research....millions cannot afford medical insurance or go bankrupt paying medical bills!!! I can only say that I have been charged for things I didn't need, procedures that were not done and given medications I didn't require. I have never got any satisfaction from my calls to our health insurance company. I was once told: "I don't make the rules, ma'm..." Still, every year on my husband's birthday our premium goes up. Insurance companies, in my opinion, have not a care in the world; and profit for their shareholders come first. Doctors think that if they studied medicine....their first duty is to get rich. WOW, that felt good!!!!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Back to Miami.....

Frankie gave me a trip to Boston for my birthday....I know this had ulterior motives........he got tickets to go see his beloved Red Sox!! Still, he's been abandoned often enough of late, with all my trips to see my mother, and needed a break. Besides, Boston is a city I love. It has so much connection to our lives: we met there, married there, our son was born there. It feels like a second home. So off we went to Beantown!!

The city has changed so much since our college days, and for the better! The weather cooperated and the days were mild and cool and sunny and just plain gorgeous!!! We had time to walk about in the city, getting to know it again, we had lunch at outdoor cafes, dinner in small, cozy restaurants, walked by the Charles and visited friends. Of course we watched every Red Sox game, cheered, despaired...and everything else that goes with being a true member of Red Sox Nation. Frankie attended two games. One with our son, Frank, and his friends; the other was on my birthday...we went with Susan and Mauricio. That was a treat...

Before the game we went to their lovely home and had time to enjoy their daughters. They are so cute!!! The afternoon was glorious and Vicki called to wished me Happy Birthday. We sat outdoors and had a glass of wine; later had dinner at a Japanese restaurant and went to the ball park. Nobody seemed to have gotten the memo about my special day....we lost!! Still, it was a great day. One of the best birthdays I have had...

Then it was time to get back to Miami. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to come back to my house, my bed and my routine. One week away can be too much sometimes, especially if you are not as young as you feel!!!! Anyway, we woke up early, had a nice brunch and went to the airport. Watched the Sox get clobbered again and took the plane home. Nice enough flight, I would say; even had a chance to sleep for a bit.

Now, who designed MIA? He must be a marathon runner! from our gate to the baggage claim area, took forever and a while!!! I do hope that if and when they finish the new additions....things are going to be more organized. If not, they are going to be in need of a lot more wheelchairs or small trolleys to transport the weary passengers..... But that was just the first part of my Welcome Home bit......

We got downstairs, got into a taxi. The driver thought we needed some music, so he raised the volume of the radio. We had to asked him to turned it down....the whole world was going to hear the music...the windows were open to the night air....charming! Of course, he was racing to our destination; we needed to tell him to slow down. Needless to say that he took the long way around to our house; maybe he thought we were tourists. Good impression! Never mind, I think taxi drivers are bad anywhere in the world; just seems that they are worse in Miami.

Can't complain, though...I'm home and back to my routine. This doesn't sound too enthusiastic, but it actually is. Amazingly enough....now I miss Miami, not only my home, when I travel! Could it be that now I see the city as others from my part of the world do?....it's in the States, sort of, AND is close to home!!! Such is life in the Tropics!!!

Monday, April 14, 2008

An Expat at Heart....

Seems like a natural progression now. From living in Curaçao, then coming to Miami and missing my expat lifestyle, to realizing that I rather live in a place that affords me exactly that! I must have been blind, I think, for not seeing this before.

Let's start from the beginning. I am sitting here, as everyday, working on my deadlines, answering emails, checking my blog. At the same time, I check different forums I belong to, try to keep in touch. Suddenly, a light goes on in my head: all this seems too advanced, works too well and makes me feel there are glitches in the rhythm of my life. There is nothing to wish for; everything can be found at your fingertips, anything you need can be bought at the supermarket, drugstore or department store. There is no need to make a list and try to fill it in various places, or buying something and freeze it until you need it....or going on a trip and bringing back things you can't find where you live.

There is no need to make friends with your neighbors, real friendships that would take the place of family. No need to learn to play bridge to make friends, get involved with women's groups, community service or in your children's school. No reason to use anything as an excuse for a social event, no using any occasion in your life as a reason to celebrate.

I am not a pioneer....far from it! You couldn't have dragged me across the country to establish myself in some remote outpost in the American West, or run to the Far East to find a husband like the women in the infamous Fishing Fleet that descended on India in the times of the Raj, looking for husbands....let's not go to extremes. On the other hand, I would have moved with my husband to faraway lands and a raised a family in exotic places...provided certain modern conveniences were to be had, of course!

I am sure I am not making any sense to most people reading this.....but there is a small group of my friends, a small group of women out there that completely understand what I am getting at: expat life is so much exciting than......life back in the States, for example!! Moving back, readjusting to life in one's home country is just not what some of us want. Some of us are just perfectly happy living abroad! What a revelation...or just a realization!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More changes...

A while ago, I wrote about the changes happening in my Curaçao bridge group. Some of us were moving abroad, other were working, traveling more. One was still fighting to stay healthy and active. Hilde had passed away, and things were a bit sad.

I am glad to report that Nicoline is doing great, finishing her treatment and full of plans. She looked wonderful last time I saw her. Kitty and Marja B are becoming grandmothers and Eva is adjusting wonderfully to her new home...even I have started to see some good things in Miami!!! Well, don't get too excited.....I still not at home here...but things are definitely looking up...

Regardless, change is something we cannot stop and our small group keeps changing. Vicki just told me the group is getting smaller, that it's harder every week to get even two tables together. The news filled me with sadness. We have been together for so long, we have been so close. Just take the recent emails from Eva about her grandson's health; and how we all kept in touch, sent our positive thoughts and were so glad when things worked out well. He is home with his parents and sister and we're all glad.

How can it be, then, that organizing two tables is a problem? We were always a busy group of mothers and wives that kept our Wednesdays bridge date, no matter what. When some of us were traveling, there was always someone to hold the fort and bridge continued. If one was sick or under the weather, we had time to visit and play! When our children had school holidays, we all took a holiday from bridge and couldn't wait to start again. Bridge was the rhythm of our lives.....at least I thought so because it kept us in touch, gave us an excuse to get together and talk about ourselves, our lives....We even took a cruise together a few years back, only the girls, to play and enjoy each other company and we had a ball!

When I moved to Miami, this was the group I missed most, in many ways still do. I enjoy the forwarded emails I receive from them, love to hear from their families and their lives, keep them posted on my developments too. What is happening in Curaçao? Is everyone too busy to put a day aside to see friends? have other things taken up their time? are they traveling more? have the grandchildren taken priority where children were worked into our bridge schedule? is retirement taken too seriously?

All this rambling most seem positively an exaggeration to anyone that doesn't understand this bridge culture I came to know on the island. When I moved there, playing bridge was part of your social life. There were groups of all ages involved and on special occasions, like someone's big birthday or farewell, they all got together.... older ladies and younger ones. It was a sort of tradition and we all enjoyed these playing dates.

Mothers and daughters played in different groups, expats had theirs, very good players would gravitate to one another..... Wednesday mornings, Tuesdays at the club or Monday nights, everyone had her favorite. To think that this is no longer the case, makes me sad. That was one thing I held on to all these years I have been away: Wednesday mornings my friends would all be together at someone's home playing bridge...that was a constant. When I traveled to Curaçao, for whatever reason, I could let them know in advance and got to see everyone on a given Wednesday. Next, they will tell me that the tradition will die out because the younger group of women is not learning to play!!! We must trump that.....

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Living in Panama.....part Two

Small towns, all over the world, have a charm all their own. Life in any of them offers alternatives to big city living that many people find just right. From best selling books like Under the Tuscan Sun, A Year in Provence, and others in a similar vein, we have been fascinated with small town living. True, we have not have a small town in Latin America made it to the world stage as an ideal retirement spot, but who knows? Panama can offer us the first one!!!

The town does come alive at different times of the year: New Year's celebrations, when Carnival really starts; then for Carnival itself, days of revelry that rival anything in Rio or New Orleans. After that Lent comes to town and things get very slow; but this is the time to enjoy the North wind that gives the town a freshness that is delightful. Sunsets are magnificent and there is no rain!

This is the time for day trips to rivers and streams, running clear and cool throughout the countryside. The days are still hot, but bearable; the nights are breezy and cool. More than once I have sat out in the veranda wrapped in a light shawl, even a pashmina...I know this sounds an exaggeration, but it's true!!! And it is such a welcome change.

On the other hand, this is no time to go to the beach....even if it is the dry season. The ocean is cooled by the Humboldt Current, strong and traveling all the way from Antarctica to Alaska... In Panama, the Pacific roars and churns, with high tides that can take so much off the beaches, high waves that bring water full of sand. The water is murky and you can't see the bottom. Not something I enjoy, anytime. I want to see my toes through the clear blue water and the small fish swimming around my legs. Never mind that, I have the Caribbean for all that....right?

Regardless, this year while I was visiting, I woke up early and went to the beach house my family has overlooking the Pacific. I would walk for an hour along the shore, picking up small shells, breathing in the salty air, hearing the crashing of the waves. Afterwards, a cool shower with well water and I was ready to face the day, the heat and everything else!

In the rhythm of life, Holy Week comes next. Inexplicably, the wind dies down and the heat becomes unbearable. This was when I arrived this year...... so the more than week long celebration was one succession of very hot days, breezy and slightly cooler nights, visits to the hospital, to the bank, to the construction site.....did I mentioned our new house was not finished when I got there? Yes, of course.....and I have gone there to move my mother....

The town comes to life, especially on Good Friday. The procession comes out from church as soon as it gets dark and winds around town through dark streets. It is very solemn...something like Seville in the Tropics. My sister and I walked the length of the procession this year.

After these celebrations are over, others come along: patron saint celebration, Independence Day, other religious and political holidays. Time passes slowly, and people that stay in town all year around, settle into a routine. If you like excitement...don't come! same if you think you cannot live without movie theaters, classy restaurants or other such entertainment!

Another thing that I have rediscovered, people in Panama do not know how to live in the Tropics...and I thought in Curaçao they hadn't a clue!! Everyone here walks around complaining about the heat, women carry fans everywhere, water is always served ice cold....with ice in the jugs!! Showers are taken at all hours, windows are thrown open as soon a people wake up, disregarding the fact that light from the sun....brings more heat! Once again: Europeans have not adapted well to the climate.

Still, all this can be worked out. Expats can adapt to anything and I know for a fact that I can too. Slowly, I started to keep the windows closed to trap the coolness of the night inside; opening them only after dark. I took showers early in the morning or late at night, drank water kept in a cool place...I remembered there used to be earthen containers holding well water and they were covered all day...the water tasted so sweet and cool. Progress is not always good!

Living in Panama...part One

After the factual part, the part where I looked at the place as a possible retirement home, I tried to see the everyday life. This was, in part more difficult since I had no chance to spend time in Panama City. The day I arrived, my mother's sister had a stroke, or something similar. As soon as I got out of customs, my cousin and his wife were there to pick me up with the news. I was planning to stay in the city for the weekend; but this changed everything.

We went back to their home and got ready to drive the almost four hours to the small city where our mothers live. It was not an easy trip, I can tell you. I was exhausted and they were nervous. We arrived at the hospital to very sad news. My aunt was in intensive care and not expected to make it. The next two weeks were an up and down ride that made everything else more difficult. That is why I only got a real feel for small town living. The kind you would enjoy must of the time, but cannot tell if you could take for long periods of time.

The town where my mother lives, Las Tablas, is located in an area very popular with foreigners. They have been buying property for years. There are luxury hotels, mansions by the sea, chartered planes delivering celebrities to their hideaways. From the French architect Gilles St Gilles, to Prince Max of Liechtenstein, who is married to a Panamanian, to Toby McGuire of Spiderman fame, the area has become very popular with the rich and famous. Fortunately, it is a large area, and there is something for everyone.....including retirees on a budget!

Pedasi, the town closer to the rich and famous, is beautiful, with charming cafes and restaurants and an air of prosperity that is refreshing. It is only forty minutes away. The beaches, at the end of the inverted U that is the Gulf of Panama, are beautiful. The roaring and churning found up the coast gives way to clear waters, white sands and breathtaking views. By now, prices around here are out of the range of most people! Still, it's worth the visit.

The heat of the Tropics is felt here more than in other places. It gets so hot, I could only run errands in the mornings. Everyone should get time for a siesta, but it is not a way of life there. Everyone goes home for an hour or so, to have a heavy meal with tons of iced water! Then rush back to work and things resume in the heat of the afternoon. Can't understand that! Everyone seems tired and slow and somnolent. I have never been one for lying down in the middle of the day....but I did!!! Even without air conditioning, those few minutes made a difference. Another thing, I learned about life in the Tropics!

Life really starts at sunset; it used to be that early evening was the time to visit, hear family stories, sit in the cool verandas and converse. People went abroad and walked about, passing other people's homes and greeting everyone. Children played in the streets and in the parks and the evening was full of life. I remember this from my visits to my maternal grandmother during school breaks when I was a child.

Nowadays, novelas or soap operas have taken over and there is little social interaction anymore. This is especially true in smaller towns. Everyone is inside, watching television in the homes that have taken the heat of the day and stored it like an oven. This is because the cool houses of the past, made of mud and straw walls with tiled roofs, are disappearing. New ones are made of cement blocks, nobody bother anymore with trying to position the houses to catch the wind. If there are visitors, everyone sits in front of the TV and watches, commenting and arguing, taking these televisions productions as serious parts of their lives. How sad!

The average expat, I'm sure, will not conform with this pattern. On the other hand, this way of life can deprive you of much needed contact with the locals. I know it did me! A couple of my cousins showed up in the evening for a drink, something to eat, a dessert treat and lively conversation...others stayed home watching the ubiquitous novelas!!! Maybe it is not that way in the city, there are so many things to do and see there.....but I am not sure I want to live there. Big dilemma!

I am sure Frankie and I will refuse to get into this small town pattern! I observed that there are expats living all over the place, average people who look tanned and healthy and happy to be in the area. They patronize the supermarkets, drugstores, walked through the town at all hours. I didn't approach any of them, but I am sure they have their expat groups, their activities, their new lives to enjoy. It would be worth exploring these alternatives. After all, I am an expat at heart and would be happier continuing to live like one, even in retirement, even in the country of my birth!!!!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why and Why not

Back from Panama and full of informations to be discussed, explained, weighted and digested. No decision should be taken without every consideration. In the mist of all the activity, the running to the hospital (more about this later!!), the bank, the construction site, visiting friends and Holy Week celebrations, I took notes, made small lists and took pictures of this new and exciting place Panama had become.

So here are the major issues I could come up with. The country is beautiful, lush and unspoiled....so far! There are flowering trees and bushes everywhere. I hardly can name more than a dozen flowers anymore. Years abroad, where I learned different names for the same flowers, others I never learned to begin with and the sheer numbers, make me wonder if I ever will!!! It is beautiful and it's what catches your attention first.

The coastlines run a gamut of sizes, water color, sand quality, waves, marine life and more: from the Caribbean like beaches in the Atlantic coast in Bocas del Toro, to the churning, roaring waters in the Gulf of Panama. There are unexpected clear blue coves everywhere and the islands are breathtaking: from San Blas to Contadora to Coiba. Absolutely not to be missed!!

Is it mountains and valleys what make you sigh? well, Panama has those too in abundance from El Valle, close to Panama City to Boquete and Volcan close to the border with Costa Rica. There are small valleys and cool rivers and streams all ever the place. And if you are looking for the lushness of the rainforest....you will not be disappointed. Starting with the natural reserves around the Canal, with its wealth of birds, monkeys, flowers and reptiles, to the jungles close to the Colombia border and National Parks in every part of the country, you'll think you have died and gone to Heaven.

People from all over the world have come and most have bought property already. Still, there is enough land out there to be had at reasonable prices. A cottage industry has sprung in every part of the country to help you find, buy and settle in the home of your dreams. The laws are very favorable to foreign investors and everyone will go out of their way to help. Which takes me to another wonder: here service is a matter of pride. Banks work like clockwork, no difference with any banking institution in the US or Europe. Everyone from waiters to maids, to vendors to salespersons are there to help. Have you ever heard of people stationed in supermarket alleys just in case you have a question? Well, here that's standard. Everyone is so friendly!

Health care is excellent, world class and cheap. The latest treatments are available and doctors are up to date in the latest trends. Dentists can provide the best service and have the best equipment. You'll be in the best hands, in any part of the country, not only in Panama City. I should know, my mother suffered a stroke and was treated successfully in a small regional hospital, about three and a half hours away. Even her physical therapist did a fantastic job. Right now, she is been cared for by round the clock nurses at a ridiculously low cost.

Which takes me to another good point: cost of living is very reasonable. No, it is amazing! and you can find anything from anywhere and will not miss much from your home country. Household help, a most in the Tropics..... trust me!! is cheap and very good. A maid will become like a part of the family, stay in the house if you travel; it is possible to get a gardener, a woman to wash and iron your clothes, a nanny for your children, a chauffeur. Life will indeed be a lot easier and you'll be helping the local economy!!! So, yes, Panama can be a wonderful alternative for retirement.

BUT, and you knew this was coming, right? There are disadvantages to this paradise. First and foremost: the climate. No matter how much fun I was having imagining all these delights, the heat always brought me back to Earth. There is no escaping it; it is like a woolen blanket that covers you from about eleven in the morning to around five in the afternoon. This would be the perfect time for a siesta. Unfortunately, in Panama, people are not used to this very Latin custom. I can't imagine why......you absolutely need it. During the dry season, from December to May, the afternoons are breezy and much cooler. The evening can be lovely, with the Northern wind blowing sometimes really strongly. Perfect for entertaining outside and socializing with friends.

During the rainy season....you have read about my experiences during this time. I have dreaded many times that I would grow gills or feathers!! Mold becomes your constant companion and you have to air out everything or have a central air conditioning unit install. You might say, that I love Curaçao, which is also in the Tropics. Indeed I do, but there the heat is dry, desert-like. Big difference!!!

Next, there is the traffic.....believe me it is madness! especially in Panama City. Not many roads have been constructed since I left, but the city is much, much bigger. Congestion, long commutes, aggressive drivers and old buses and taxis can make for a disagreeable drive. If it is raining, you don't want to be out! And it rains a lot in this part of the world. The construction boom has turned large sections of the city into no-man's land. The streets run with mud at times, or the cement dust hangs in the air when it's dry. High rises are taking over the city and views are being obstructed by huge blocks of concrete. If possible, go to the smaller cities and towns!!! Now, you'll miss in entertainment, restaurants, movies, etc. but life can be very pleasant.

There is one highway that goes from East to West and that's it. Small rural roads make up for the rest, so the go can be slow when you travel the country. Accidents are as common as in any other Latin country, so not to worry. There is a relatively good transportation system to the interior of the country and it is reliable and cheap.

Lastly.....utilities. Tell me about them. While visiting this time, we had on and off water service in the small city my mother lives in. At one point we were without water for two and a half days!! Getting a trickle in the evenings, rushing to fill containers for cooking, drinking and basic hygiene for the next day; taking a shower before bed. The good news is that water is abundant and safe to drink....no Montezuma's revenge here. Electricity is just as unpredictable at times, but it is also abundant since the rivers can provide massive hydroelectric power. Telephone service is good and getting better now that the government has opened the market to competition: Cable & Wireless from the UK, Radio Holland from the Netherlands, the Slim group from Mexico, among others, are already there. Still there are areas where there a no land lines or where mobile phone signals are very weak or non existent.....Such is Life in the Tropics!!!

So are we moving or not. Have we decided we can go back to my roots instead of Frankie's? Too early to tell. We need more fact finding trips, Frankie needs to spend time there; we need to find a place we like to settle down in for the long run. We need to find our beach!!!!