Not pictured: sky opening up 5 minutes later and pouring rain for 2 hours

I can’t believe I’ve only been here a month and already I’ve fallen behind on getting any information posted. A lot has happened in the 20-ish days since I last wrote. Christine and I have gone on a few hikes, made some new people-friends, and one particularly special little furry friend.

First of all, we got a Pricesmart membership. This sounds boring as heck I’m sure, but one thing that now as a “month-long native” I can say – it’s damned expensive to live in the downtown bustling parts of Panama City. A lot of native Panamanians have been kind of priced-out of living here; groceries, restaurants, and housing are all quite pricey around here and get better the farther you get from the epicenter of the city…basically only a 15 minute walk south from our apartment is the coast with the fanciest apartments and pricey parts, and the farther you branch of north in all directions, the more affordable things are. So Pricesmart, a Costco-esque kind of store, was a godsend for us. 5 pounds of frozen Carolina ground turkey? Uh, yeah of course. We’ll totally be able to cut through that with a kitchen knife and be able to make separate 1lb recipes of spaghetti and not be stuck making a quintuple batch all at once and causing us to have a month’s worth of spaghetti sauce in the fridge and freezer. Because that totally didn’t end up happening. Sure.

Meat Mistakes Made

My father would either be proud or ashamed of me for such a ridiculously large Bulk Ground Turkey purchase

But they also have all kinds of housewares of course, just like Costco, and a hamburger/hotdog/pizza stand that is exempt from the 7% tax that EVERY other non-grocery business in Panama City is subject to (somehow they must have gotten the food categorized as groceries). Not much choice (if you want peanut butter and jelly, you better like massive containers of Jif and Smuckers, grape-only) but great prices for buying certain things in bulk. We’re going to make up the $35 annual membership fee easily on 1.75l jugs of alcohol alone – one of the few things that is actually quite cheap throughout Panama. A 1.75 of the local rum, Ron Abuelo (which, amusingly, I had no idea the Spanish word for rum is ron, leading me to think that the rum was named Grandpa Ron) is only $13. And the pizzas are so far, my favorite stuff in Panama. Unfortunately, that says a lot about the local pizza scene. Or about my taste in pizza.

*looks about furtively* Am I really doing this? Am I paying $17 for a giant body pillow in a Central American Costco?

Fridge now fully stocked, we could turn to making friends. We found a fun Whatsapp group (requiring me to join Whatsapp, something I think most Americans could say “What is that App, and who uses it?” the answer being “people not from the USA or China”) for Fast Friending with both locals and expats, and have gone out to dinner a few times with folks at some nice restaurants, and done a couple hikes around the area. The first was last-second just the two of us (our hiking buddies had to drop out the morning of) but we had fun looking at the various giant spiders, centipedes, and a troupe of tiny monkeys.

Up the first hill

Congratulations! She did it!

The Parque Metropolitano is only $4 for foreigners to enter ($1 for natives I think) and is pretty small, but has some nice informational signs and great views south over the city. I think it’d be possible to see all of its trails in only about 6-8 hours. Moments after we reached its summit and chatted with a half dozen young, fit German college students (one of them was even from Marktoberdorf, where I did my choir concert 7 years ago) and they took the picture at the top of the page, a light trickle began as we were heading down from the summit. The Germans jogged past us in rain slickers, hoods up, but Christine and I didn’t have rain jackets – only my umbrella. We stood for 15 minutes under the branches of a tall, rain-stopping tree, hoping it would stop, but no use. We sprinted down through the rivulets on the trail, finding by sheer luck a covered rest area with 3-4 beautiful golden orb spiders along the edges, each one with a legspread the size of my handspan. They kept to their edge area and we kept to our center, though (even though the wind and rain blew their massive webs crazily towards us, often as much as 3-4 feet closer. I pictured the rain suddenly snapping the webs as I photographed them and the hand-sized spider blowing onto my face. I believe I’d suddenly like spiders a lot less than I do now if that had happened).

We’ll get out of here someday…

That night, the Whatsapp friend group suddenly buzzed with a flurry of activity as I was reading a novel. Christine suddenly became very focused on the computer. Turns out a friend of ours from the group had found a little kitten in his building elevator. He sent a video to the group showing her meowing, batting at his feet, and rubbing against his legs. He told the group he couldn’t adopt her due to his father being allergic, and even though Christine and I can’t keep any cats long term in our building or in our lives (Po would probably die of a brain aneurysm if shown a second sibling to tolerate) she messaged the group that she could stay with us, until we could find her a Forever Home. Our friend posted a second video of the kitten on his lap, sleeping, as he drove (didn’t ask how he did that safely) with the words “We’re coming for you, Mama Christine!”

I said…huh? What’s going on? As Christine got up to do a late night store hunt for kitty litter and cat food. I went out into the night in my pajamas and found the SUV and was handed the cat, who cuddled into my hands and purred. I’d never seen such a tiny cat before. She was pretty clean, with no obvious fleas or matted fur, and she gazed up at me with lidded, almost mascara’d looking eyes and squeaked at me. I made a little home for her in the small “maid’s bathroom” off the kitchen with the Cinammon Toast Crunch box (from Pricesmart, judging by its large size!) that she’d been delivered in, and we waited for Mama Christine to return. She climbed up onto my shoulder and licked my ears, rubbing up against them and purring, and then fell asleep on my chest.

“Pay attention to me! I’m a tiny street cat!”

And that’s how little Arriba (named after the Spanish word for “Up” to commemorate her fateful elevator trip that night) came to be with us. I’ve never had a kitten before, or even an adult cat of my own. Despite being the son of a small-animal vet and the brother to a mixed-practice vet, I’ve never really had the time or interest in being a Cat Dad. But here in Panama, without a job to distract me and lots of time and love to give….it’s been a pretty nice past two weeks having her here with me while Christine’s at work.

Chest cat

The kitten has a schedule – being a playful nocturnal huntress, she likes nipping people’s feet at night. So she spends her nights (usually, unless she’s unusually quiet and sleepy) in her bathroom, then she and I have a schedule of playing to tire her out, her napping on top of me as I read or research or apply for remote work jobs, then when I get up and walk anywhere close to the kitchen, she awakens with a squeak and follows me, winding around my legs and purring to remind me that hello, I’m a tiny little kitten and the internet says that I should be fed as often as I want in order to build mass and strength. Then after being fed (wet food no less, thanks to $20 for 24 cans of Whiskas at Pricesmart) she hops about with deranged energy and excitement, hiding behind things and leaping at my legs out of nowhere or running after her new toys (little jingle balls or her best friend, Blue String (Christine’s robe tie) as I play with her. I know that just like with any child, if she plays more now, hopefully she’ll play more later when she’s a big fat contented housecat. I don’t want her to lose that playful kitten energy.

Riba loves her buddy Blue String

In just the past two weeks her eyes have turned from blue to yellow-grey and her little meat-tube body has grown another 2-3 inches. She barely fits into her cereal box (which she still likes to dive in and out of) and she’s become more and more confident racing around the apartment. There are big gaps all around the combo washer/dryer unit, the fridge, and the oven, so she greatly enjoys sprinting around them, hiding and watching, then pouncing. Sometimes, she’ll stare at me across the room, like a tiger across the stream from a tiny Indian child, creeping closer and closer without blinking, then suddenly sprint forward, leap with paws outstretch, and facehug onto me. I think we need to buy a little squirt gun for the little squirt.

Speaking of little squirts, it turns out that Riba has a case of giardia. Not uncommon for street cats and especially kittens who don’t know what’s safe to eat and what’s not, she’s spent the past 4 days with particularly smelly diarrhea (which unfortunately surfaced when we had 3 friends staying in our apartment with us this weekend, much to everyone’s dismay) and unpleasant and sad memories of poor Mr Sheraton the kitten surfaced in my memory. Yesterday though, we took her to a local veterinarian who told us within 10 minutes about the giardia parasite and had given her a shot, a nail trim, and 4 syringes of pink goo to give her every morning for the next few days. And it all only cost $45 – thankfully it seems like having a cat here won’t put us into the poor house. I only hope that neither of us have picked up the parasite, which can infect humans too, because she HAS been kissing us on the face whenever she’s in a particularly cuddly mood.

Cuddly mood? Me? Sure, I guess.

Besides kitten-rearing, we’ve had time for a trip out to Santiago Veraguas, the second largest city of Panama, for a conference. Christine’s fellow English Language Fellow, Rachael, met us there with her British husband, David, and we had a great evening chatting and relaxing at a pub with a local Peace Corps representative, Courtney. The opposite in housing situations to what Christine and I have, Racheal and David have a large, 5 bedroom house all to themselves with gold painted statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph all over the place. Also, a possum living in their porch ceiling tiles.

Santiago Bus Depot don’t need none of your danged drainspouts

We had the opportunity to return their kindness of letting us stay at their place two weeks ago by having them come visit us last week for a TESOL conference, as well as another Peace Corps rep, Gabby. The kitten was on her best behavior (sudden onset diarrhea aside) and loved playing with (and getting tired out by) Auntie Gabby. The TESOL event that I was allowed to attend was the “meet and greet” on Thursday night, where everyone solemnly listened as a TESOL director introduced Christine, Rachael, Gabby and all the other Peace Corps reps that attended, and about a dozen other staff members. Christine tells me that businesses and academia stand big on formality here; after her presentation two days letter she told me that she and every other person were handed a formal Certificate of Achievement immediately after each individual presentation, with a small speech and applause. Nice!

Everyone gets welcomed and acknowledged tonight!

Certified Sassy

Christine models both her certificate and her new $2 “terrier with a top hat” shirt. No, she didn’t wear that while presenting. Probably not; I wasn’t there.

In between those two visits though, we had time for another hike with the Fast Friends, this time to the Gamboa Pipeline region to hike the Pipeline Road. We saw lots of howler monkeys, white faced monkeys, and a couple sloths – and countless leafcutter ants, marching in roads so worn and wide that 40 ants could fit abreast. A good 17km hike with some new folks we hadn’t met before, who gave us lots of tips on where to find bicycles (Goodwill up by Los Andes metro station, or Rally bicycle store – the latter also provides free rentals if you go out with them on their weekend rides) and some pub crawls.

And moldy figs. Lots of these, all over the ground.

At this rate, I wonder if this tree will still be alive the next time I’m in Gamboa

Tami, one of the American expats, knew all about the yellow jobo fruit, which you can only acquire by gathering what falls from the tree’s high-up branches

In my first striking out on my own activity, I joined some Europeans and Americans in El Chorillo, a former high crime zone (less now, but still highly impoverished) near the Old City region of this skyscraper-condo-clogged city, to teach the intercity youth some English skills. The two hours was a blur as I rapidly learned that these kids, aged 2 through 12, didn’t know much English at all – basically none – and also didn’t know how to read the Spanish/English Roman alphabet either. This would be tougher than I thought! Myself and the half dozen other volunteers had coloring sheets, number guides, and children’s books to help them with, and it seemed like all the kids were looking forward to the free snack of cereal, bananas, and juice halfway through. The older kids seemed pretty confident in the admittedly-rudimentary worksheets I was putting in front of them, so I stuck mostly with the youngest kids and made sure they didn’t eat any clay when I was telling them to “build a tree….un arbol!” and “now make an apple…una manzana!”. At the end of the two hours we all got in a shoulder and sang Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Christine will be joining me tomorrow for the next session; we’ll see if we can talk about getting some official-ish looking pieces of paper that state what each child is able to do. I felt like we spent way too much time herding kids through general unfocused fun-time instead of understanding what each kid was and was not capable of. Having nametags and attendance cards should help.

Time for some free-form ideas on what colors and names fruits and vegetables have

Well, that was a long, hopefully informative post. I’ve got some Goodwill hunting to do today. Riba is napping on my lap at this very moment; I’m sorry to have to disturb the sleeping kitten!

She’ll probably be balanced up here and staring intently at the wide world far below in a few minutes anyway