Friday, November 19, 2010


Miracles come in strange and wonderful ways.

This morning, due to a schedule change, instead of my usual one AM hour of one-on-one Spanish, I had two. After a surprisingly rigorous week and a half and a pretty discouraging day yesterday, I was dreading another four hours in the classroom this afternoon. Dear Lord, I was thinking, how I'd love to get outdoors and enjoy some of this gorgeous, lush countryside! After all, I've been here nearly two weeks and haven't been more than a mile or so from downtown; besides, my mind is starting to feel pretty fried. I didn't hurry back to school after lunch—bad sign.

Dutifully, I dragged myself upstairs to meet my profesora, Janeth, and buckle down to work. "I've been thinking, Jeff." she said, "What would you think if we got in my car and went for a drive this afternoon?" I just about kissed her.

We drove north of town, up into the hills, to an area called Alto (Upper) Boquete where we stopped at a sort of tourist information center with a mirador, or observation deck, overlooking the valley and the village of Bajo (Lower) Boquete. The place also houses a modest museum of historical exhibits about the town's and the region's (Chiriquí's) origins and development. Janeth recalled how this place had fascinated her when she was a girl. She was transported by the beauty of the panoramas, but her most vivid memory is of a caged lion once kept here, and her subsequent dreams of encountering lions in the dense forests covering much of the area at that time. (Looking over the photos of the town's founding fathers and mothers, we found the one of Guillermo Bell Miranda, the very same Abuelo Guillermo who, at 95, is the patriarch of the home in which I'm staying.)

We swung by a little duro stand Janeth likes to see if they had her favorite flavor, coconut. (Duros are home-made frozen fruit ice "pops" made in simple plastic cups and often for sale at roadside stands or out of people's homes.) Alas, they were out of coconut, but she settled for a yogurt flavor, and I had one made from fresh strawberries. It was delicious!

We then drove to the other end of town, and up into an area called Los Naranjos, where we wound up and up into the hills, through coffee fincas, and destitute little settlements of indigenous Ngöbe-Bugle workers hired to work the fields and harvest the coffee granosIt seems impossible that families could function out of such hovels, many of the units no bigger than the smallest motel room you've ever seen, others made of just sticks and scavenged sheets of plastic or sheet metal. Nearly every one of the drab dwellings, though, wore a cheery garland of brightly colored clothes, hung out to dry.

We stopped to enjoy a beautiful waterfall and an amazing rock formation called los ladrillos (the bricks), for its resemblance to such building blocks. The igneous rock has somehow flowed and cracked into what appear to be distinct strands, which reach horizontally across the face of the cliff and then sweep elegantly outward so the viewer's looking at the ends of the strands.

In other places, towering cliffs and graceful waterfalls soared far above us, a breathtaking backdrop to patches of pine forest that reminded me of home in Minnesota.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I'd intended to include a link to Alouatta Lodge, in case you want to learn more or contact Michelle and Steven. Here it is: Alouatta Lodge

Also, I mentioned to Steven that my cousin Everett Janssen is doing similar work in Costa Rica. Working with Kids Saving the Rainforest, and other environmental and animal rescue groups, Everett is working to build a substantial new monkey rescue and rehabilitation center near Quepos.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Spanish School has been far harder than I'd imagined. So I was really glad to get away today (Sunday) for a little excursion. Ostensibly, these outings (and there's no shortage of them here in Boquete, a sort of hotspot of hiking, rafting, zip-lining and eco-you-name-it adventure) are integrated into the Spanish program as opportunities to practice the language in settings more relaxed and spontaneous than the classroom. But, with my heavy class schedule—not to mention producing content for two blogs—there just hasn't been any free time.

So, along with fellow students, Deborah and Glenda, our Habla Ya staff guide, Nodir, and our driver, we headed happily south toward the picturesque Chiriquí Gulf region of the country, specifically to an area called Chorcha. Our destination, Alouatta Lodge and Release Center.

Our first 30 or so kilometers in the small 4x4 were a piece of cake. It was the last two I'll remember. Once we turned off the paved road, we wound our way up something that looked like it might, at one time, have been a road. Today, though, it was a series of hub-deep mud holes and hub-high rocks. Our driver handled it with skill and patience.

Steven Walker with furry sidekick.
The owner of Alouatta Lodge, Steven Walker, a hale Australian in well-used work clothes and rubber boots, met us at the gate. Another few hundred yards and we stopped at the foot of a long, sloping lawn leading up to the main lodge building. As we hopped  out, his wife and co-owner, Michelle, was ambling down the grassy slope from the main building, carrying several oddly-shaped dark objects. And they were moving!
Michelle Walker, with an armful of monkeys.
Turns out the Walkers, with son Robert and daughter Becky, had left the rat race behind and bought their 15-hectare tract of high forest here just three years ago.

Becky Walker

Apparently, they'd intended to refashion the place into a botanical garden and forest preserve, offering guests lodging and a chance to explore a network of trails winding through the preserve.

That was before they were adopted by the howler monkeys. Soon after they'd arrived, a neighbor gave them one they'd rescued, and the Walkers soon picked up another they found wandering, abandoned or lost, along the road. (They learned there were no fewer than ten howler troops residing in and around their land.)

Yahoo, one of the Walkers' resident mantled howler monkeys.
Like everyone and everything does in the tropical jungle, they went with the flow. Steven still carried out his trail clearing and landscaping. (He's a horticulturalist with design experience all over the world and Michelle's an accomplished gardener in her own right.) But he and the rest of the family also committed themselves to preserving and caring for these most spectacular of Panama's monkeys. Steven told me they are the first people in the world to have cared for these mantled howler monkeys and then successfully released them back into the wild.

As Steven power-washed the deck and Michelle and Becky worked on lunch, the rest of us took the "easy" Green Trail into the woods. It's still the rainy season here, and, though not especially hot, the air was like an over-saturated sponge, sopping us to the skin. We found many interesting
A serpentine vine slithers through the saturated air.
and exotic plants, several enchanting varieties of mushroom and fungus, some positively evil-looking, spiky caterpillars, a number of beautiful butterflies and a couple of busy hummingbirds. While we spotted only one monkey, the unearthly, guttural roar of the big male howlers echoed all around us. I suppose they knew we were there.

Back at the lodge, as the four or five tame, resident monkeys clambered to share our food and drinks with us, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the deck. Chicken breast, rice, and two salads—one of lettuce; the other of hearts of palm and cilantro. And even wine.

The Blue Morpho loped across the picnic tab
Suddenly, an arresting flash of neon blue. A Blue Morpho butterfly loped across the picnic table, circled us a few times and headed back into the undergrowth. (I think the Morpho has a unique way of flying; its floppy flight makes it appear even lighter and more ephemeral than other butterflies.)

Steven shows off one of his rarest halicones.
As we sat in the reluctant sun, a couple of the monkeys took a shine to Glenda and Deborah. For much of the next hour, both walked around wearing live-monkey stoles as Steven took us around the grounds and showed us the incredible array of plants and trees he'd established in what had been no more than a motley stand of palm trees.

Deborah and new friend

Gingers, bromeliads, heliconia, vanilla, torch plant, even lantana—a plant I've always associated with Australia, but which Steven says grows naturally here in Panama.

Glenda, about to lose a knuckle
Michelle introduced us to their resident tamarins, living in a substantial cage Steven says was donated to them by the BBC.

After three years of toil, the fond abduction of their hearts and surrender to a simpler, more sane lifestyle, the Walker family now faces a heartbreaking reality. Between a scattering of guests and a few partnerships with other local attractions, they simply can't make the enterprise pay for itself. Just today, they told us, they'd forked over $500 to the vet to treat a couple of sick monkeys. Nonetheless, they've designed a more spectacular, sprawling lodge, hoping, at least, to find a buyer who'd build it some day and commit to preserving both their monkey rescue-and-release efforts and their sustainable footprint on this wonderful place.
Alouatta Lodge overlooks the islands of the Chiriquí Gulf.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I'm not yet fluent in Spanish. You'll notice I said "yet."  That says a lot about my first four days of Spanish school here in Boquete. I always try not to have many expectations of trips like this. Even so, I'm surprised at how hard and what long hours I've been working. First off, I'd expected "classes" to entail at least a balance of classroom work with field trips and other real-world, "fun" experience. In other words, less time tightening my grammatical grasp on the language, and more on gaining confidence and applying the skills I already have. Not to mention being more active, socializing with some of my fellow students and getting to see some of this gorgeous countryside.

Still, even with all this work—five hours of that intensive one-on-one classroom instruction, plus about another five doing homework and keeping up with my writing—I don't think the experience could be much more rewarding.

I'm really looking forward to my first extra-curricular activity with other students tomorrow evening. Some of us are heading to a restaurant for what I hope will be just a time to relax and have fun with our Spanish. I'm also excited about the chance to imbibe just a bit, since, but for one or two beers all week, I've had to forego my accustomed before dinner cocktail(s).

The Bell Miranda family continue to humble me with their generosity and concern for my happiness. Yesterday I returned home from school to find my room completely re-arranged, the two single beds now stacked and, in the additional space, a small table and chair for my laptop. All my clothes had been nicely arranged and all my toiletries and other small stuff neatly stashed in a closet. They're even getting WiFi installed next week, so I won't have to work so hard at school each morning before classes begin.

This weekend, Guillermo has promised to show me around the area by car, including a visit to his finca, or coffee farm, up behind the house. I can't wait for the chance to see everything and take some better photos than the shots I've been able to get walking to and from el centro every day.

Tonight I wrapped all the small gifts I'd brought for the family, and made the presentations at the dining room table. Stuff from Minnesota—a ceramic moose figurine, an ice-skating black bear Christmas tree ornament, a Twins cap, a picture frame for the family portrait I promised to take, some nice soaps for the ladies, and a few Pearson's Nut Goodies and Salted Nut Rolls. I think they were all a big hit.

That's it for now. Here are a few photos:

View from the second floor window of the school
My incredible maestra, Minerva
The school occupies part of this handsome complex.
A view of Boquete's main street
The Bell Miranda family home

Habla Ya's academic office and student "cafeteria"
My morning maestra, Monica
Guillermo in the kitchen

My bedroom, before the makeover
Guillermo and family with their regalitos from Minnesota.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010



It looked like a long ways on the map, but all the hours in transit have really made the point. Seven in airplanes, seven on a bus, another two in taxis and by car. But here I am, at last, in Boquete, Panama, a sweet little town of about 15,000 in the misty mountains of western Panama. Exhausted, I arrived at the home of my host family last night.

My wonderful hosts, Nivia and Guillermo Bell Miranda
Señor Guillermo Bell Miranda is a coffee farmer. Every day, he works his land on top of the steep cerro just behind the house. His wife, Nivia, is a secretary in the local high school. Guillermo's parents live with them, 83-year-old Abuela Tomasa spending much of her time caring for her husband Guillermo senior, 95, who's no longer able to get out of bed. Guillermo and Nivia's two handsome sons, Tomás, 23, and Antonio, 17, (he only uses that name to help stem the confusion of being the third Guillermo in the household) also live with them, as does their very sweet daughter Stephanie, 21.

Nivia with son Antonio and daughter Stephanie
Tomás and Stephanie attend university in David, about an hour down the road. He's studying marketing, with an emphasis on graphic design, and she wants to become a teacher. Antonio is still in high school and loves motorsports. Stephanie comes home at night, but we don't see much of Tomás. Rounding out the household are four dogs, one of which bites and is expecting puppies, and two of which I haven't yet seen. The fourth, Fergie, is a sweet little dirty-white poodle who has the run of the house and has taken a liking to me—since my well-known dog whispering is now bilingual.

I'm sure the kids speak some English, as at least the basics are now mandatory in Panama's public schools. But everyone's going along with the program, which is to help me with my Spanish. The parents and grandparents speak almost no English.

The Bell Miranda house is spacious and comfortable compared with many I've stayed in in Latin America. I'd say they're considered fairly well off by local standards, though there are still obvious differences between their lifestyle and that we enjoy back home. Internet, yes, but still the sluggish dial-up kind (though they're getting WiFi soon); TV—in fact, two—but no big flat screens or hi-defs; no dishwasher; nice furnishings; and, of course, the apparent emblem of all Latin American middle-class homes: the single bare light bulb dimly illuminating each room.

Everyone's been very nice to me. They've included me in many of their normal family activities which, at least so far, have consisted of sitting around and chatting with relatives and friends who occasionally show up, watching TV and eating. Tomorrow's Monday, so I suppose the daily routine will be quite different. This morning, Guillermo and I drove downtown to pick up some groceries. I tried to buy a cheap ($21) cell phone and calling card, but the store proprietor couldn't make the thing work, so I passed for now. I'd still like to have one, since my regular cell phone won't work with Panama's cellular infrastructure.

Tomorrow morning I'll walk into town—about a mile and a half away—to my first classes at Habla Ya Spanish School. There I'll meet my teachers and compañeros, my classmates of the same level of skill. I don't expect there to be more than two or three at the most. Each weekday, I'll have four hours of group classes and one hour of individual instruction. The website promises the instruction won't be confined to the classroom; there are supposed to be many outings to mix with the locals and learn about the area. That sounds good to me, and I'm excited to get started!

I'll have to spend a couple of hours each afternoon tending to my two blogs—this one and my other, more philosophical one, Even though the Bell Mirandas have Internet, it won't work for my laptop without my first installing a huge software program. Since I can't risk that, I'll have to get my connection at school, at least for now.

From Boquete, ¡buenas noches!