Sunday, October 26, 2008

Stuff I Wish I'd Learned Earlier

I liced in Nashville, TN, for most of my life. I have lived in other states and even countries, including Colorado and Germany, but for the most part, I have lived in Nashville, TN.

State capital.
Major publishing center.
Major educational center.
Music City, U.S.A.

Altitude: about 900 feet aove sea level. (This is important. Remember this bit of trivia, OK?)

Now, as I mentioned, I have lived in Colorado. Colorado Springs, to be exact.

Altitude: about 6000 feet above sea level.

When I lived in Colorado Springs, I had to buy a new cookbook - one about baking at high altitude. The air is thinner at high altitude and things cook differently. Water even boils at lower temperatures. I knew all about high altitude cooking in Colorado Springs.

I also knew what that kind of altitude did to me - I slept about 14 hours a day for the first 3-4 months because I just couldn't get enough oxygen out of the air.

Now, I did my research before moving to Boquete. I knew that the altitude is about 3300 feet where our house is, but since I have had no problem with oxygen deprivation, I never thought about the fact that baking and general cooking just might be different here. Homemade sugar cookies certainly have not been a problem (other than keeping the cookie jar stocked!), but pound cakes came out looking more like pancakes. And I never could get vegetables cooked properly without having to do some major fiddling.

Last night was the last straw. I'd made mashed potatoes and green beans on the stove. And both tasted awful! Underdone beans, lumpy potatoes. I was devastated - and upset - and so relieved that I didn't have company over.

So I got on line and did some research. Did you know that 3000 feet seems to be the "breaking point" as far as not needing adjustments to recipes?

For that matter, did you know that water (which boils at 212 degrees F. at sea level) boils at 204 degrees F. in my kitchen?

Neither did I, until last night.

I'm so glad that I had not tried to make my "killer chocolate cake" before learning this! Now I just have to work on making adjustments to ALL my cooking.

And as Bob says, all the flavors are there in the pound cakes, and that is more important to him than looks. And the cookies are fine. Disappearing, but fine.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Cue the Cutesy Music...

...and let's all join in : "It's a small world after all..." You know that it really is a small world when you can sit in a French restaurant in Boquete, Panama, eating crepes (mine was Indian Curry, by the way) and listen to Patsy Cline's immortal "I Fall to Pieces" playing on the IPod. Kinda wierd.

We went out to lunch yesterday since our trip to David to go to driving school was cancelled. And we did enjoy crepes and country music. After lunch we wandered through a couple of "typical tourist" shops and then drove around for a bit. It was a really nice break from the house. And the weather cooperated: the rain did not start until late afternoon. Of course, it was a true gully washer when it did rain, but there was sunshine there for a while.

I stopped in at Cafe Ruiz where I'd planned to buy some Panamaria blend coffee, but they won't have any more until next week. So I decided to treat myself and bought a couple of varieties of organic coffee. The descriptions make them sound wonderful. I'll report soon...

I also now have a cell phone! I'd give you the number, but it would be an international call and the rates would be horrendous. It's a Samsung and way smarter than I am.

We got a lot done today! We put together a medicine chest for the hall bathroom. What an adventure that was! The directions were drawings only, and several of the drawings were not labeled correctly. We almost had a disaster, but thanks to Bob's casual disregard for directions, everything went together nicely. Well, adequately.

I also got the serger cabinet put together this afternoon. This is one part of the really nice sewing cabinet that I'd bought way back when and saved the putting together until we were all moved. I hope to get the rest of the cabinet put together over the weekend. Then I can get much of my sewing supplies organized. And then I can start sewing the curtains and valance and bedskirt and get that much more done in the house!

I am also going to put a dehumidifier in my sewing/craft room in the hope that it will cut down on the risk of more mildew damage. Having a sewing/craft room is like a dream to me. Just a half-dozen steps off the kitchen, it is a place where I can store my fabric and yarn stashes, make home decorator things for my home, make clothes for myself, and generally retreat to refresh my creativity. The room was originally the bedroom for the live-in maid, but since I was not overly impressed with the quality of her work, and I am confident of my ability to keep ahead of the dust bunnies, I appropriated it for myself.

I really need to educate myself on posting pictures so I can show you what's happening, don't I?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good

Between the fact that I've not posted much lately, and that yesterday's post was really not informative enough, I am doing some major backtracking to let you know what's been going on. So, with apologies to Clint Eastwood, here is the ugly, the bad, and the good:


In Tennessee, you could often hear people say "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." Having lived in low-humidity Colorado and felt neither as hot nor as cold as "natives", I thought I knew all about that statement. Here in Boquete, however, I have learned another aspect. The temperature here has been a pretty consistent 72-75 degrees all month. The humidity has also been a pretty consistent 80-100%. Laundry is still damp after 24+ hours on the line. Fabric upholstery feels "funny". And, just last week I discovered mildew growing on all my bamboo knitting needles and two of my favorite knitting bags!!! Talk about "Mama ain't happy"! I was able to wipe down the everything with alcohol, but things were pretty ugly there for a while.


Another thing that all the high humidity does is to lay a very light layer of water on pretty much every horizontal surface in the area. When wet shoes from actual rain and puddles meet that light layer of moisture inside, you wind up with tile floors that are as slick as ice skating rinks. I discovered this phenomenon a week ago at Todos a Dolar. This Panamanian Everything's a Dollar store in Boquete is on two levels with a nice broad staircase. Bob and I had stopped in there and he'd gone on ahead of me. Well, I was about halfway down the steps when the slippery surface caused my right foot to slide out from under me. My left foot did not. So there I was, hanging on to the railing with my right hand, sliding down the stairs with my right leg straight, my left leg bent back, and my left ankle bumping every single step. Of course, my dignity flew out the window.

I lay there on the steps, mentally assessing myself, and trying to make the Spanish-speaking (and awfully nice) people understand that I didn't understand them. Eventually I just hollered out to Bob "I've just fallen down the stairs. Please come help me." Which he did. Of course.

No breaks. No boken skin. But I do have several spectacular bruises, especially on my left ankle. And for a couple of days I could feel the muscles in my left leg when I went up and down the stairs here at home.


As I mentioned yesterday, we drove down to David with a couple from church. Our first errand was to go to the "fixer" who is going to help us obtain our Panamanian driver licences. Because I am under 70, my application process is much easier than Bob's. This may also result in my having an unrestricted license, which means I may have to drive to David or to Panama City. (I have sworn that I cannot drive in Panama City. Everyone there uses the horn like crazy, and they cut you off, and they seem to have a fundamental aversion to street signs, and a fundamental aversion to obeying traffic signs and signals. Scary, scary, scary.) Oh, well, we shall find out by Saturday.

After meeting with the fixer, we then went to Price Smart, which is the Costco-affiliated members-only "big box" store in David. It is just like a very small Sam's Club. But I found several treasures there.

I found instant onion soup mix! This is like finding diamonds because I make a pot roast that we both love. (Recipe for those interested in such things: 3-4 pound roast- brisket is great; 1 envelope onion soup mix; 2-3 tablespoons yellow mustard. Put roast in crock pot. Smear mustard over roast. Sprinkle onion soup mix over roast. Cover crock pot. Turn it on low. ((I used to do this on Saturday night and let it cook overnight and through church on Sunday.)) If you really like thick gravy, remove the meat from the crock pot, pour the juices into a small saucepan, mix about a tablespoon of cornstarch in a half cup of water, stir it into the juices, bring to a boil for about a minute. Serve. Enjoy. Slice any leftovers for hot roast sandwiches and freeze. Yum. Thank me later.)

Another treasure I found (emeralds, anyone?) is Krusteaz Buttermilk Pancake mix!!! This is the BEST pancake mix ever! I am looking forward to serving pancake breakfasts when company comes. You probably won't get bacon, because it is waaaaaay expensive here, but if you treat me very nicely, I'll grill some ham. No southern-style sausage patties or links here, however. Sorry. Not gonna happen.

I also found a whole sirloin in the meat department, which I am going to slice into steaks and freeze. And there were loads of various frozen vegetables, but I think I am going to start frequenting the municipal market in Boquete, where I am told the best, freshest, organic produce is available.

Oh! and I found Bounty (American style) paper towels! The local ones are quite small and do not hold together very well. I just have to ration myself.

After we got home, Bob took a nap while I got my dining room as completely "together" as I could. There is still a pile of rolled-up area rugs in one corner and a medium moving box in another, but for the most part it looks nice: polished wood, tidy china cabinets, and all that.

And I sorted through the medicine chest and got it on the pathway to organization.

Slowly. Things. Are. Coming. Together. Slowly.

So there you have it. The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good.

I love and miss all of you in the States. Know that Casa TARDIS is open, even if not completely "company ready". (If you can negotiate your way past the boxes outside the office, I can offer you hospitality.) Mi casa es su casa.

Monday, October 20, 2008

...Well, I've Been Busy

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I'm learning how to work without many of the "conveniences" I was so accustomed to in the US: inexpensive pasta sauce, consistent water pressure, etc. I'm still learning. And things just take longer.

For example, canned condensed soups are scarce and expensive, and I am having to figure out how to adjust many of my recipes. And stuffing mix! I went on line and found a recipe for "home made stuffing mix" over the weekend, and now I have a ZipLock bag with my own stuffing mix stashed away so I can make a chicken casserole.

My next culinary adventure will be creating my own chili powder. It seems that stores here do not carry McCormick chili powder. You have to make it yourself by blending cumin, oregano, garlic powder, and either paprika or "hot chili powder" (which I learned is Habanero peppers) in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. I'll take notes and let you know.

In other news, we have met several nice people at the church we are attending: Bethel Christian Fellowship. This is a congregation of ex-pats, most of whom are retirees, so I am close to being the baby of the group. There are no youth :..(

At any rate, we are going to David today with one of the couples (Bea and Gordon) on a sort of round-robin excursion. Bob and I will start the process of obtaining our Panama driver licenses. And it actually may turn out that I will be the one with an unrestricted license! Apparently Bob may be "too old" to qualify for one.

We are also going to go to the Costco-affiliated American-style store (Pri ce Smart??) in David on a scouting mission. Bea and Gordon are members and have invited us to shop there on their membership today. I may get a membership myself, but I don't know. We're meeting them in an hour.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remember The X-Files?

It was a great show about skeptical Scully and gullible Mullible - I mean, Mulder - who sleuthed ceaslessly for psychic sightings. (I'm having too much fun with my alliteration!) At any rate, one thing I remember is that, at the VERY end of the show, after the credits, there was a little "home movie" type clip and a child's voice saying "I made this".

This mountain village, Boquete, is famous not only for its coffee (judged best in the world at more than one international cupping) but for its other agricultural products. We have onions, potatoes, tomatoes, yucca, name (should have a tilde over the "n" and is pronounced Nyah-may), bananas and oranges. The mountain slopes hide a treasure of natural foods.

We have fresh-squeezed orange juice in one of my favorite pitchers sitting in the fridge. When I can buy ripe oranges for less than 4 cents each (I bought 50 oranges for $1.75 the other day AND got a couple of local bananas as a freebie) and juice them with my KitchenAid mixer attachment, it only makes sense to do so. I had to look on line to be sure the bright green orbs I bought were ripe and ready for juicing. Did you know that oranges only turn orange if they get cold enough to kill the chlorophyll or they get exposed to ethylene gas? You could buy processed orange juice if you wanted to, but why bother? And there is no frozen concentrate that I have found. Again, why bother?

I have looked in the Supermercado for jars of spaghetti sauce - I've found Ragu, but it is terribly expensive (like $4 a jar), and tomatoes are really cheap. So I made fresh tomato pasta sauce the other night. It took some time, but both of us really enjoyed it. (Thank you, Julia Child.) Next time, I'm going to quadruple (or more) the recipe and package it for freezing. Despite the fact that it takes longer than opening a jar, it's worth the little bit of extra effort every couple of months, I think. And I can make "Mama Brandy's Frozen Dinners".

I went to a lecture/demonstration Tuesday morning on cooking with native plants. The lecture concentrated on root vegetables: yucca, name, and taro root (which has a Spanish name that I forget). I am looking forward to incorporating them in my cooking - the suggestion is to use them in crockpot stews in place of potatoes or carrots. There is also a way to prepare yucca that sounds really neat for lunch: boil the peeled root for about 15 minutes, mash it with a little salt, let it cool, then pat a couple tablespoons into a sort of oval, place cooked meat (hamburger, roast chicken, etc) or cheese in the middle, form it into a little cigar shape and brown it in a little oil. (Or deep fry it and drain WELL.)

I can see myself, more and more often, reaching the end of the day putting my feet up and saying "I made this!"

Speaking of same, there are a ton of tomatoes in the kitchen right now, calling my name...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Liberty But No Boats

Before we left Nashville I had a bunch of cards printed with my name, email address and my phone number. I promised everyone that "thanks to the miracle of the internet, my Nashville phone number will be valid in Panama! You can just call me like a local call - once we have internet access at the house - and we can talk with no long distance fees."

And that is true. Except for one teeny-tiny little glitch: we cannot locate the phone gizmo that sets up the internet phone connection! We know we disconnected it in Nashville. And we are pretty sure we packed it in one of our suitcases. But darned if we have found it.

So, yes, you should be able to call us as if we were in Nashville. But don't try just yet. And don't throw away those cards with my phone number. Because by hook or by crook, we'll get everything connected. And then we'll talk.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"We're Not in Kansas Any More, Toto"

As wonderful as this place is, it ain't Tennessee (or Kansas, for that matter). Life is flat-dab different here.

The municipal water supply apparently does not get turned on out here until about 8:30AM. Which means that getting up early, showering, and getting ready for the day just doesn't go quite as planned. Oh, and don't bother suggesting a shower just before bed - they turn the water off about 6:30PM.

And this house was built without any hot water system. The showers have these ingenious (but still kinda intimidating to me) electric heaters in the shower heads! Not a problem getting a hot shower, as long as you
a) don't try for a whole lot of water pressure (too much water pressure = cold shower)
and b) do not touch the shower head - ever - while the heater is turned on.

But there is no hot water for the washing machine (actually not much of a problem as washing things in cold water is probably better for the fibers) or for washing dishes. (Dishwasher, you ask? Oh, yes, a very good one: she's typing this blog even as we speak.) So I fill my two stockpots with water, put them on the back burners, light the burners with a match, and heat my water for dishes.

There is no electrical hookup for the dryer we brought down here (and for that matter, no room on the laundry porch either) so for the present I am doing teeny-tiny loads of laundry every day and hanging them to dry. The loads have to be small as there is only about 20 feet of clothesline available for hanging. The line is right next to the back wall of the house, under the approximately 4 foot roof overhang. It is located where it is because that is the only place that affords any protection from the rains. On sunny days the laundry actually dries in 2-3 hours - except for jeans - they take 24 hours, no matter what. And bath towels take 12-18, depending on how much rain there is.

After I take the clothes off the line, I iron all the woven clothes to get the wrinkles out. Knit items, such as T-shirts and underwear I only iron if they still feel damp. I do not iron bath towels or dish cloths. (My OCD is under better control than that!)

I am scheduling my life around running water. Who'd a thunk it?

Oh, well. There are boxes calling my name, wanting to be unpacked. I'd best go placate them. Wonder what I will do to occupy myself once everything is unpacked?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hand Soap and CDs

I am continually amazed by the memories and emotions that things can evoke. The smell of Crayola crayons consistently transports me to Mrs. Smith's first-grade classroom at Burton Elementary School. Doesn't matter where I am. And it has to be Crayolas. Other crayons just don't have that power.

One of the first things I discovered in my unpacking was three pump bottles of Bath & Body Works Kitchen Lemon AntiBacterial Hand Soap. Instantly, I was back at the bridal shower for Sarah. We were at Tricia's house having a lovely time. The running game during the shower was to: a) avoid speaking the groom's name and b) catch other ladies who did slip up. I was careful (and lucky) enough to win that game, and the prize was the hand soap. I tried to bless Sarah with the soap, but she insisted that I'd won, and should keep my prize.

How very glad I am that I did not give up my prize! Now, whenever I see the soap bottle, or wash my hands in the kitchen, I find myself laughing and talking among loving friends who are - in reality - a thousand miles away.

Later on, in my unpacking, I found a box with a boatload of CDs. Several are my Beegie Adair piano jazz collection, and I have enjoyed them greatly. This morning, however, I found my No Other Name CDs. Sam and Laura are friends from church, and Laura and I have been in a couple of Bible Studies together. As I listened - and worshipped - to their music I was again transported - this time to several places: church, Erin's house for Bible study, even the Tennessee Baptist Convention in Brentwood where the Inglewood Baptist Church choir and No Other Name led in worship. When the little tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you listen to "Washed in the Blood", you know that you are in the Presence - even when you are sweeping floors and unwrapping "stuff".

We have two more months of rainy season. The average rainfall here is somewhere around 140 inches, although last year it was over 180. Every afternoon. Sometimes every morning AND afternoon. Sometimes every morning AND afternoon AND evening. I can sit in the "sun"room and watch the clouds roll down over the mountains. It really is interesting. Wet. But interesting. Sometimes the clouds conceal almost everything except my yard and then it is almost spooky. You cannot see anything but grey mist.

I was awakened early-early this morning by a very near-by woodpecker (or close relative to a woodpecker), and I have worked hard: Washed 2 loads of laundry and hung them out to dry, moved furniture in the living room, gone to David with Bob to do some errands, heated enough water to wash dishes, checked my email, and now posted. I am tired. I am going to read for a little bit and then go to sleep.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Buried Alive

Under a mountain of boxes and paper and shrinkwrap and Goodwill reject blankets (which we used for furniture pads). Those of you who saw the mountain of cardboard boxes on the front porch of the house in Nashville should be aware that the mountain down here in Boquete is actually bigger in diameter and almost as tall. Bob would like to find someone to give them to, and truth be told, so would I. But my "let's wait and see if someone will turn up who wants them" timeframe is not as long as his. And anyway, there is another mountain of boxes inside the house - well, maybe a hill - that still needs attention.

I went to the grocery store in David today. I chose Supermercado Rey in David because it is the closest thing to a Norte Americano supermarket. I found almost everything on my list - even considering that 95% of the labels were only in Spanish. But it took forever. There are a lot of differences in inventory. For example, the frozen food department was less than half the size of those in Tennessee. No TV dinners. No microwave snacks. No Mrs. Smith's Pies (sob!!). No frozen pizza.

Potato chips are about twice as expensive down here. And there is not much choice in cookies - or peanut butter.

And mayonnaise and mustard - and tomato sauce - come in squeeze pouches! Actually pretty clever packaging, don't you think?

The biggest shock to me, however, was seeing Reynolds Wrap 200 sq.ft rolls for almost 10 DOLLARS! I nearly had a heart attack!

Next trip I'm going to make my grocery list and then translate each item into Spanish BEFORE I go.

I still wonder why people would need to buy vanilla extract by the gallon...

Maybe I will now be able to cook a meal. I think I'd like that...