All posts by Karen Happiness Engineer, mom, wife.

Nine things I learned in Panama

My family and I just came back from 5 weeks in Panama. We’d been dreaming about this trip for a long long time and were finally financially able to do it. I have a flexible job with the freedom to work from anywhere so we up and finally did it. l should mention, we’re no strangers to travel as we frequently go on the road, but this is the longest we’ve been gone and we learned a lot.

Here are a few of my favorite lessons learned while on the road.

1. It’s possible to live on a lot less clothes than you think

We took about 5 sets of clothing per person. That works out to about 5 shirts, 3 shorts, 1 pair of pants, socks and what not. We usually had access to laundry facilities, but had we not, I would have washed clothes in the sink and purchased a rack to hang them for drying. The only trick was reminding people to not throw their pj’s in the laundry pile every day.  Seriously.

We didn’t stop at clothing. We had very little stuff in general. We had the basics of food, entertainment, cooking utensils, school books, and so on. And we survived. In fact, it was quite liberating. Liberating in the sense that we had more time on our hands since we weren’t bogged down with taking care of our stuff.

2. My husband is a fantastic driver

We decided to rent a car amidst warnings that driving in Panama can be dangerous. We spent the first week at a friend’s house so, by the time we were on our own, Al had a good feel for the lay of the land and the rules of the road. I will admit I was a tad nervous. If you’ve only ever driven in the US, you just cannot comprehend the insanity. Essentially, there are some basic rules, but you have to quickly alternate between offensive and defensive driving that it positively boggles the mind. That we made it through with out a scratch on the car is a miracle. Well, there was a scratch. Probably from one of the super tight parking lots, but not a big deal.

3. Panama has the most amazing flowers

We had the very good fortune of staying on a flower farm. The word farm is misleading. Basically this place was a tropical paradise. There was a main house for the owners and our 2 bedroom apartment surrounded by lush rain forest and beautiful tropical flowers. In the morning the birds were always in full song, occasionally a monkey could be seen hopping through the trees, the night skies were amazing, and as if that weren’t enough, we had access to a beautiful pool. Oh, and did I mention the natural pool and waterfall? But I digress. The flowers, these are not your garden variety roses and daisies. A picture is worth a thousand yada yada, you know the drill.

4. Stay home during Carnaval, unless you want to sit in hours of traffic.

Carnaval in Panama is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I’ve never been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but I’ve seen it in movies, does that count? Carnaval in Panama is pretty nuts, though. Just in terms of movement, people leave the city in droves to go out to the beaches and the Interior (the outer provinces to the West) for the long weekend. There is only one highway to get from Panama City to the Western provinces and the traffic quickly turns insane. As of Friday at lunch, the drive that normally took us one hour took 3-5 hours depending (yeah, we made the mistake of doing it twice, listen, don’t judge, we had stuff to do). Basically, you either leave early and bring entertainment for the drive or you don’t leave your house. We made the mistake of leaving our house, not quite grasping the insanity and had to put up with stop and go parking lot style driving. Thank goodness for i Pads and other devices.

5. Fruit is cheap and tuna is not

Ever paid 1 dollar for a pineapple? Glorious. Nuff said. Also, this:

Pineapple truck

Now, let’s talk tuna. We eat a lot of tuna. I have a lot of mouths to feed and canned tuna is cheap. At least, it is in New Mexico where we can get it for well under a dollar. I about fell over when the cheapest can of junk tuna was about a dollar fifty.

6. Hot dogs are wrapped in plastic

You know? Like sausages? Only hot dogs. Not a big deal, but it makes it a bit harder to fry up a quick pan of hot dogs when you have to unnwrap every dog.

7. Patacones are easier to make than you think

Over the years, I’ve taught myself to make tamales and numerous other Panamanian dishes, but for some reason never tackled Patacones. Iris, the wife of my friend, Ariel, taught me to make them and if I do say so myself, l now make a mean patacon. Thank you, Iris! I especially learned to not be afraid of deep frying them and to not overestimate the maturity of the plantain. Hint: be sure to use really really green ones, this is not supposed to be a sweet treat. It’s crispy, salty, and so yum.

8. It can be fun to take risks
Ok, maybe not fun. But interesting for sure. For example, we went to this beautiful spot called Isla Colon, in the province of Bocas del Toro. We weren’t able to get a hotel in advance, but we went anyway figuring it’d be no trouble. It was a bit stressful and involved an hour walking around town with our bags looking for reasonable lodging. And we ended up with barely reasonable lodging, but it was a room, with a bed for each of us. In a hostel. With some pot smoke in the air. And a shared unisex bathroom. But it WAS interesting. And certainly not an experience we’ll soon forget. And it had a great view!

9. Sometimes it’s good to be unplugged
We stayed an hour out of Panama City for four of the five weeks on this flower farm I mentioned. Not only was it far from town, it was 20 minutes off the main highway. Needless to say, wifi was sketchy. l made arrangements to do my work from friend’s offices and coffee shops, but non-work wifi was limited. I know how much we are connected to wifi, but I was admittedly astonished and pleased actually with the time that was freed up as a result. I particularly enjoyed the time to just BE. And in these surrounding who could resist?

The crew

Voices of Angels

I know it’s not Christmas and Christmas is when people think of Handel’s Messiah. I like to be different, I guess. I was just recalling going to hear Handel’s Messiah in December for the first time in I can’t remember how long, but possibly 20 years. I guess time flies when you’re having fun.

The Hallelujah Chorus is the one that gets the most the attention, and this choir we heard really nailed it, but I have a few bits that I enjoy more. For example, if I was a tenor, comfort Ye My People is bit I would want to sing. In fact, truth be told, when we play the CD in the house, I sort of belt this one out really loudly, don’t tell anyone.


If I Had a Bucket List, This Would Have Been on It

This weekend I got a Kuna beaded anklet, a long string of beads that when tied on just right a pattern emerges. The Kuna women wear them on their calves and arms. I’ve always wanted one, and for one reason or another, never got one. I suppose I bugged my mom about it when I was a teenager, but we never spent our money that way. You know, frivolous or something. Which it totally is, but I wanted one and now I have one :)

This weekend we were in El Valle being touristy, shopping for knick knacks at the local market and I saw the most lovely anklets so I took the opportunity.

Here’s a video in case you’re curious about the process. What I find hilarious is that I was thinking exactly the same things the women in the video are saying. While the woman was tying it on my ankle, I was totally trying to figure out how to make one myself at home :)


We finally got a Panamanian tamale. A friend of mine chastised me for not having had one yet, so I fixed that.

I got this delectable morsel at the Piedra Pintada trailhead. Lovely roadside stand had Arroz con Coco and Salchicha too, but sadly we had just eaten so we were all stuffed. We opted for this tamale to go so we could eat it later.



Horses on the Streets of David

Upon checking into our hotel in David, Chiriquí, Panama, we heard a loud noise coming down the street. I thought it was likely a political hoopla, national elections are quickly approaching. There didn’t appear to be a slogan or anything pointing to a candidate, just a truck flying a flag of the province of Chiriquí with a brass bad in the bed of the truck blaring as loud as can be. And more horses than I have ever seen.  The parade was six horses wide on the street and  parade went on for a good 10 minutes.

Oh, and beer, many of the riders were carrying plastic cups of beer.

Panamanian Buses

One of the recognizable touristy things in Panama are the colorful buses. They aren’t as common in Panama City as they used to be, but are still all over the Colon side of the country. I saw this one yesterday in a town called Puerto Pino.


Under the beautiful painting of animals is written “The planet is a gift from God, don’t destroy it”.

Expanding Your Horizons Conference

A few months ago some local tech friends, Jamii Corley, Alice  Shriver, Anna Doo, and I got this idea to participate in  the Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) Conferences. EYH is a conference for young girls in middle school and high school that offers, according to their website, “opportunities to explore their career options through small hands-on technical career workshops led by female professionals from their local community.”

At the Digital Family Summit in October, my kids went to a game workshop where they learned about Scratch, some really nifty story, animation and game creation software. If you’ve never heard of it, check it out, it’s fun for kids of all ages. It was a huge hit with my kiddos and we decided to give it a go with the girls at EYH.

The presentation was a resounding success, the girls were really into it. Jamii did a fantastic job presenting the ideas to the girls, starting them off with a quick tutorial and then we split into small groups where we all helped the girls create new projects, add sprites and new costumes, sounds, backgrounds, and anything they wanted to add. 

We even had a few girls who had used Scratch at their schools and we were able to let them take the lead in some of the small groups.

Here are some pics:

Oyster clump

Muddy Oysters

I recently visited South Carolina and learned that people eat oysters that grow in mud. It’s possible it was a tourist trick, but other people were eating them too, I swear.

This is how it goes: they get the oysters out of the mud, they steam them, they serve them, people pry the shells open with this crazy little knife, people eat the little oyster bit. I can’t imagine at some point they don’t wash them, but no one specifically mentioned washing and there was a fair share of dirt in the bucket so… Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of many foods. Except octopus, but that’s a story for a different day. But, bless their hearts, these particular treats pushed me over the edge.

Get those delectable, nice, clean, adorable oysters on the half shell out of your mind. These babies look like barnacles, they grow all clumped together and to eat them you grab a clump, hold it in one hand and pry open the shells with your knife in the other hand. After a few attempts my hands were dirty. Not messy as in food mess, but dirty as in DIRT. And there was sludge at the bottom of the bucket.

You think I am making this up right? Nope. Not. Check out the bottom of the bucket in this picture. That’s not water or broth, that’s silt.

Oyster bucket


New Kids on the Blog

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blogging class for kids for a while. I homeschool my kids and for some reason it is so hard for me to get my kids blogging. I suppose it’s the old shoemakers kids scenario. Finally, I decided the best way to get them blogging would be to offer a class to my homeschool group. Committing to working with the children of my friends would mean my kids could ride along.

After talking about it and talking about it, we finally did it. Last week, I had six kiddos in my house, sitting around the dining room table: taxing my wifi, setting up blogs and publishing their first post and second and third in some cases). In case anyone is interested in replicating this experiment, here’s how it goes:


  • laptop or device per child
  • accounts for each child – we set these up at the beginning of the class, parents should stick around till this is done
  • COPPA form per child under 13 for parental signature


  • What’s a blog?
  • What kinds of things can you blog about?
  • What should we call the group?

Once everyone got a blog set up, we went through a super quick tutorial to get the kids up to speed with publishing a post. I didn’t want to spend too long on it since these kids are spending a lot of time online, and are generally familiar with how to manipulate a website.

Once they had the basics they were set and I let them ask me questions as they came up. Some of the kids discovered how to search and insert YouTube videos, some stuck with uploading pictures and others dug right into checking out themes and customizing theme options.

I’m reasonably sure the kids had fun, the moms were pleased, and we decided to get together once a month. If anyone has any questions I’m happy to give more details, just let me know!