November 18, 2016

Panama City: it's better than you think!

Until recently, Panama City often brought to mind the global shipping industry and the imprisoned cocaine-trafficking dictator Manuel Noriega. While for us it brought back memories of our 1996 stay in an unsafe city, just a few years post-US invasion. As well as the most terrifying taxi ride we’ve ever had to endure (no, we’re not paying you extra for getting hopelessly lost and taking us through a slum where the car was menaced by locals…)
An old colonial mansion in Casco Viejo which has yet to be developed
the ruins of an old convent now house a museum of religious art
 But the oceanside capital has re-emerged with a glittering new skyline to rival Miami’s, Casco Viejo, the colonial-era quarter where centuries-old ruins are being transformed into boutique hotels, art galleries and cafés, and one of the liveliest waterfronts we’ve had the good fortune to explore. In short: Panama City is incredibly cool.

Exploring the Calzada de Amador
No one is more surprised by this than us.

When our line handlers, Russ and Diane, told us they had settled in Panama City after exploring a huge range of expat communities, I was pretty sure they should look around a bit more. But then we set off for our first day of exploring.

Once considered too dangerous to visit, the old quarter has found a new life

a boutique hotel expanding into the adjacent building
Casco Viejo turned out to be that traveller’s fantasy of a neighbourhood just on the cusp of becoming the next hip thing. It’s also a photographer’s dream of impeccably renovated colonial mansions tucked between ruined buildings that are still adorned in wrought iron and faded pastel paints. The streets are populated by shaved ice vendors, musicians, and kids playing soccer. It’s picturesque and delightful without being overtly touristy--yet.
ceviche at the fish market
From the Old Quarter it’s a short walk to the seafood market. I loved the look of the traditional fishing boats with the glittering backdrop of a modern city and made a b-line there to photograph them—but it was the seafood restaurants that made us determined to return. A big serving of fresh (and oh, so yummy) ceviche and glass of sangria came to less than $5. The people watching was free.
a freaking adorable sloth who graciously opened his eyes for us
Each outing has been a treat. We read mediocre reviews of the Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra nature center—but looked like the best place for us to see sloths (and the island is across the street from the ‘dinghy dock’ where we go ashore). Happily the center was well worth the $5 entry fee. We spotted three sloths and the young volunteers were eager to show us the marine exhibits. Even though we somehow missed the signature frog exhibit—spotting sloths in the wild was enough to make me happy.
The Frank Gehry designed Bio Museo
 Every Panamanian we’ve spoken to is thrilled with how their city has evolved—and rightly so. We should all live in places that become not only more beautiful but safer, cleaner and more welcoming. Our stay here was extended by the uncooperative weather and Ev’s uncooperative heart and we’re happily making the best of it.

November 17, 2016

The Best Places in the World for a Heart Attack—a roundup of international healthcare

Okay, there really isn’t a good place for a heart attack, or any medical emergency. But with almost eight years of international travel under our keels, we’ve now experienced medical care in far-flung destinations that ranges from the biopsy and diagnosis of skin cancer, to treatment for ear infections, eye infections, pneumonia and whooping cough, to the ongoing management of Evan’s heart issues.

What we’re found is that in most places, basic health expenses were easy for us to cover out of pocket. But short of full travel insurance, having some sort of back-up plan; whether it’s evacuation insurance, catastrophic insurance or self-insurance (aka a credit card with a very high limit and the ability to pay it off)—is also pretty essential. What we’ve done has varied depending on where we are, but for the most part we’ve relied on self-insurance and paid expenses out of pocket.

Curious about the standard rate for an EKG and visit to a cardiologist? Read on:

Mexico is one of the countries that’s considered great for routine healthcare. Both La Paz and La Cruz are popular for check-ups and prescription updates. Typically treatment is excellent and modern—my skin cancer checks (I went for two, Ev had one) were accurate and affordable ($125 for a full screen and biopsy with Dr Alma Vargas in PV). Treatment for pneumonia was straightforward--two doctor visits ($30, $50), x-rays ($25), inhalers ($50).

During our 18 months we also visited local dentists every six months—basic cleanings were around $30, fillings another $30 and Evan needed a root canal which ended up in the $600 range. Keep in mind Mexican dentists rarely use x-rays and rely on physical signs of decay. So our rule of thumb is to visit the same dentist at the same time as another family. If too many cavities are found we know we’ve hit on someone who’s too enthusiastic with the drill and we all move on. (Note this was five years ago so prices have likely gone up some.)

Crossing the South Pacific we carried DAN evacuation insurance which has evolved into DAN Boater. This insurance can evacuate us to a place we can be treated—but it doesn’t cover treatment costs once you’re there—so having a plan about where to go is vital. We did get some prescription drugs—anti-malarials in Vanuatu ($20), cream for a skin infection in French Poly ($30) and free vaccinations in the Marquesas.

In Australia we were required by Ev’s work visa to buy basic insurance (from $150/per month per family). Dental was out of pocket—Ev and I went to the local dental school and had checkups ($60 each), Maia went to a local dentist and her check-up and cleaning ($200 and a filling was $210). But before our insurance went into effect we paid out of pocket. I had a ‘well-woman’ check-up ($110) and a skin check ($185). Evan saw a Dr. for sore knees ($75 plus $133 for x-rays).

We left Australia with updated vaccines including jabs for rabies. These were all out of pocket and the total cost was about $1000. We also updated our First Aid kit with new antibiotics.

Our first medical experience in Malaysia was when Evan began having heart problems. He saw a private cardiologist in Penang ($80), then a short while later ended up in the emergency room at the public hospital in Lankawi for blood work, and an EKG ($20).

Crossing the Indian Ocean we opted for insurance with Skymed, which evacuates you to the country of your choice, a detail that made it preferable to DAN. Some sort of evacuation insurance was also a requirement for visiting Chagos (and later St Helena and Ascension Islands).

In South Africa we looked into visiting both a cardiologist (Ev) and a skin doctor (me) both had long wait lists and high fees ($400 for the cardiologist) as well as questionable records (one friend paid to see a well-regarded skin doctor then returned to Australia for surgery, only to learn the skin check had missed a melanoma). Evan did see a doctor to get prescriptions (about $50) and Maia saw an optometrist for new glasses ($50).

In St Helena, Maia developed an eye infection and visited the hospital—where her care was free because of her age. In Suriname I had an ear infection treated (two appts at $45 each + prescriptions) and Evan had his suspected heart attack: three days in Cardiac Care Unit an angiogram and other tests: $2800.

Since the episode in Suriname Ev has required ongoing cardiac care. Luckily both Curacao (Bloodwork $70, EKG and Cardiologist visit $70) and Panama (EKG and Cardiologist visit $125) have well-trained, English-speaking cardiologists who he was able to get next-day appointments with.

So all this said—there really is no one medical insurance answer. It varies according to how long you are away from your home country and where you spend your time while away. Our basic plan has been to stay up to date on all preventative healthcare—we vaccinate for whatever the locals are vaxing against (assuming we may be even more susceptible), we get check-ups, we don’t let things linger (too long…) and we buy insurance when we're in more expensive countries.

What we’ve learned though is in countries of mid-level affluence, healthcare options are usually often both excellent and affordable.
* all amounts USD

November 8, 2016

We’re in the Pacific, Man: Panama Canal Transit

The lock gates close on the Caribbean
Transiting the canal is a highlight for most yachts and we’ve been fortunate enough to do it twice, in two different boats. Both times were mostly drama-free (we’ll get to the minor moments of excitement) and for far less effort than going around Cape Horn—after two days in the Canal we’re again back in the Pacific.

Unlike traveling by cruise ship or tourist boat, on a yacht it’s all hands on deck. Transiting can be a fairly busy experience. To transit we’re required to have a skipper (me), four line handlers (Evan and Maia + two volunteers, Russ and Diane) and our advisor.

The first time we transited advisors were still pilots—the same guys who take the big ships through. But with pilot wages reaching up to 1k per day, yachts were costing the canal money. So ten years ago a new system was put in place and canal employees who were interested could apply to train as advisors. 400 people applied for the gig and 60 were selected and trained. Both of our advisors do the transits on their days off and both call it the best job in the world. Their expertise and enthusiasm made our transit a joy. They really understand that yachtees are not just moving a boat—but transporting their hopes and dreams.

Russ and Diane adjust the lines as the lock fills
For boats that travel under eight knots a Canal transit takes two days. You transit the first three locks up to the lake, anchor in the lake over night and then transit the next three locks back down to sea level.

On the first day of our transit we were told our advisor would join us at 2:30pm for a 4:10pm lock time at the first of the three Gatun locks. So we arranged to pick up Diane and Russ—who were joining us for their 10th yacht trip through the Canal. We were super fortunate to get Diane and Russ (who run the Mad About Panama website), not only only are they self-confessed Canal geeks, but they were great company.

Our advisor Moises joined us once we moved to the Flats anchorage. He arrived tight on time--a shock to everyone (Canal transits are all about hurry up and wait). He asked us if we’d transited the canal before and we told him it would be our second time. “That’s great!” He told us, “This is my third time.”

near the top of the lock after rising 30 feet--you can see the current in the water
In truth—he stopped counting at 500 transits. So between him and Diane and Russ we were in good hands. Because this is low season, not many yachts are transiting and we went centre chamber behind a small freighter (yachts are often rafted together and side tied or put centre chamber as a group).

To get secured in the centre of a lock I first drove us to one side of the lock—where men threw down two messenger lines which were attached to our heavy mooring lines. Then I drove to the other side of the lock and got the other two messenger lines. After we had the messenger lines I drove into position at walking speed—because the guys who threw us the lines also walk our lines into position.

Maia watches her line and adjusts it to keep us straight
Once we were in place the men at the top of the lock walls pulled up our heavy lines and secured them in place. As water floods into the chamber (we were lifted about 30 feet in each lock) the line handlers pulled in the slack.

In many ways while going in the centre chamber alone is more work it’s the safest for a yacht. Especially when you’re going up. There are a lot of currents in the locks and boats get pushed around. Having a line handler on each corner helps to keep the boat straight and centered.

Even still—the mixing of the salt and fresh water in the first lock combined with the prop wash from the boat ahead of us meant that when our lines were released and we first got underway we skewed sideways and were headed directly at the lock wall. We had rented eight tire fenders for our transit—so were fairly well cushioned, but the bigger risk of getting turned around in the lock is needing assistance to get out and slowing down the locking process—something yachts can be charged for. Luckily we missed hitting the wall and I straightened us out.

The next two locks were drama-free. Russ and Diane were expert line handlers and we felt really fortunate to have them aboard. They’ve seen all the things that could go wrong and offered tips as we went.

After exiting into the lake we anchored for the night. Moises went home and we shared a nice dinner with Russ and Diane. The next day dawned with a bunch of work boat wakes as the Canal sprang back to life. Roy, our new adviser for the day, arrived. The day also dawned with heavy cloud and by the time we were underway at 9am, the rains had started.

I haven't worn these foulies since Vancouver
By 9:30am, it was clear the rains were unusual. Roy was advising me on how to make my way through the lake. We were traveling from buoy to buoy—which are fairly closely spaced, but the rain was so heavy we often couldn’t see the buoys. We also couldn’t see the ships, and they couldn’t see us.

Q&A session with tourists
In low visibility conditions (fog) all shipping in the Canal stops and when one big freighter was caught broadside by a squall and skewed sideways across the channel (requiring a tug to straighten him—and driving us well out of the channel to avoid him) the command went out to stop all the big boats.

It was strange to drive though the lake alone. Occasionally we’d catch sight of an anchored freighter—but for the most part the rain was so heavy we only caught the odd glimpse of shoreline.

Our advisor assured us he wouldn't crush us, but if he did, we'd be compensated
Roy let us know we’d likely be three or four hours behind schedule once shipping started again. The rain had been so heavy—they needed to spill excess water from the lake to lower it. In the end, when we reached the lock at Pedro Miguel, we were able to enter the lock almost immediately and were side-tied to a tourist boat. We waited about a half hour (and were subject to an extensive Q&A with the tourist boat passengers) and then a big Ro-Ro (car carrier) showed up behind us. Meanwhile the lock started to buzz with excitement when a bunch of US military boats arrived and a submarine pulled into the chamber beside us.

an unexpected lock mate
Down locking was almost anti-climatic—but when those big Canal doors opened on the Pacific I had to wipe away a few salty raindrops.
The Pacific!

November 5, 2016

Favourite Souvenirs: Guna Yala Molas

In our years of travel we’ve never been big souvenir collectors. Mostly we’ve limited ourselves to consumables (food makes a great souvenir), a mask collection, some textiles and a few sparkly things (these have been more for Maia & I than Evan.)

Living in a small space on a small budget is part of the reason for our lack of consumerism. The other element is that unless we buy directly from the artist it’s hard to know if our purchase is actually beneficial to a community. Often we see the same mass-produced items (though with a different city or country stamped on it) in every gift shop and market we visit. Nestled between the ubiquitous trinkets are often ‘handcrafted’ products of questionable origin.

In Cartagena we encountered a particularly cheeky version of the ‘handmade’ scam. While we were enjoying an evening mojito in the old town, an artist called Roberto stopped by our table to show us his sketchbook. As he talked about his work I noticed the man at the table beside us seemed particularly interested. Our fellow tourist encouraged Roberto to show him everything in the book—and when Roberto came to a particular picture the tourist started to laugh and unrolled an identical ‘original’ which had been drawn and signed by a different ‘Roberto’.

Unoriginal originals aside, we’ve seen enough mass produced knickknacks catching dust in shops around the world that we’re not in a rush to have them catch dust on our boat. So with that in mind we set out with the goal that any memento we acquired should fit into our mask collection (no more than one per country) and be ethically produced, or it should be somewhat useful and when possible purchased either from the artist or from an artist’s co-op.


Learning about molas from Venancio in Guna Yala-each top and bottom panel makes up the front and back panel of two separate blouses
Luckily one of my favourite souvenirs from our first trip meets our criteria. Originally Guna women used plant-based dyes to draw complex designs on their torsos. At some point after contact, the designs were transferred to fabric. The oldest molas (mola literally translates to clothes of the people) found in museums are from around 1900. But women were likely wearing the gorgeous blouses for the hundred years prior.

Nineteen years ago I fell in love with the handcrafted Guna Yala molas. We were lucky then to spend time with master mola maker Lisa who explained how molas are made (mola makers are often described as women, but a few of the most skilled makers are men or transgender people, like Lisa). Lisa showed us the difference between traditional designs; intricate geometric patterns which often contain stylized symbols that either have a specific meaning, or represent something from the maker’s life, and tourist molas; colourful tropical images that are appliquéd onto a fabric background.

our friend Alma shows us her molas which are made in the tourist style
Because of the region’s then isolation (before mobile phones and regular cruise ship visits) there were also a fair number of unexpected molas (which in retrospect I wish I had bought an example of). Back then mola makers would often get images ideas from second-hand magazines, so some of quirkiest molas we came across contained random images of Smurfs, obscure actors, fire trucks and cityscapes.

Choosing a mola is really about taste—if you like one, buy it. There are specific things to look for though. This visit we got to spend time learning from another master mola maker named Venancio Restrepo. He explained many of his designs come from a book that was assembled by his grandmother.
Maia's mola--this one is three layers and has a simple design and visible stitches--it cost $20 in the outer islands
Traditional molas often have a black, red or orange backgrounds and the best are three or more layers thick. They use reverse appliqué and tiny, near-invisible stitches. The smaller more even the stitching the better the quality. Molas are made in panels of two—for the front and back of the blouse. The panels will be near identical but will have subtle differences. You don’t need to buy both panels—but some people prefer them for matching pillows and the like.
Venancio points out the detailed decorative stitching on an elaborate five-layer mola
a detail from a mid-priced four-layer mola--the orange scallops are particularly complex, they are hand cut, folded under and sewed with near-invisible stitches.
Once you’ve looked for quality you also need to look at complexity. Parallel rows should be narrow and evenly spaced, cut-outs should be the same size and shape, and images should be clearly identifiable. The image should also be balanced within the panel—if the illustration is mirrored it shouldn’t be identical, but it should be similar.

The more complex the work, the more a mola will cost. Some of Venancio’s molas, which are six and seven layers thick, include multiple parallel rows of curved and zigzag design and intricate embroidered stitches took over a month to complete. These can cost well over $100. His work is exceptional—but we did pay a bit of a premium. The molas he charged $50-60 for were not dramatically better than ones that women in the outer islands charged $30-40 for.

This said, an hour with Venancio, or Lisa, can deepen your appreciation for the art form. Venancio carried a half-finished mola with him, which he works on during lulls, and used it to show us how he makes a piece. He was also able to tell us about some of the meaning behind the patterns and symbols.
A $30 four-layer mola from the outer islands--the flags are various Guna medicine symbols. The backward looking swastika is said to represent the octopus that created the world.
 The outcome may be that we paid a little more for a couple of our molas than we might have—but we have great memories of time we spent with Venancio. Every time I look at any of the panels we bought I’ll recall our time in Guna Yala, our interactions with the locals and the story behind our souvenirs—which is really the whole point.
The hardest part was choosing