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Ship's Log: Updated March 20, 2010

Well once again it's been a while since the last update. But things are moving right along down here in the tropics! Lots of news to report, and lots of pictures!

Welcome Susan and Garry!

One big highlight since last update was a visit from Washington state friends Susan Gear and Garry Wood. Garry has been here many times, both to Cerro Velero in January and July 2009, and before that, when he was building his own house here, and Tracy helped him finish it.

But it was Susan's first trip with a passport, and her first visit to Panama. Garry gallantly agreed to help her make her way through the maze of travel from Moses Lake to Bocas del Toro.

Arriving in Bocas, the sun was shining, and stayed shining for almost the entire three weeks of her stay. What a great welcome!

Susan took a lot of pictures while she was here, and many of the photos in this log are from her cameras. Thanks, Susan!

First task: grocery shopping. Susan was probably a bit under whelmed at the selections at one local produce market, but since it was all new, it was all still an adventure! Notice she is letting Sharon do the selecting. While a lot of the produce was familiar, some of this stuff just does not appear in US vegetable racks.

Opening their suitcases at Cerro Velero was like Christmas for Sharon. And Garry enjoyed his day playing Santa!

They were both such a big help, too!

Turning the Loft into "The Aquarium"

Susan knows how to sew and offered to make the loft curtains as her project and contribution to Cerro Velero. Sharon had inherited her mother's sewing machine three years ago---and it had not been out of the shipping box in all those three years, so whether it would even work was a mystery. But Susan got it going, miraculously!

And then she started turning the "aquarium" fabric into curtains. Note the luxurious workspace and helpful assistant we provided? (An opposable thumb might have helped...)

And here's the first one, done but for the hem. Love 'em!

Keeping the Dogs Out---And In

While Susan and Sharon were working on curtains and other chores (like cleaning inside the bodega water tank), Garry was doing what he does best: working with wood! There was a long list of projects he hoped to accomplish, but we decided that the first priority was to deal with the dogs.

The neighbor's dogs had been coming over almost nightly and making their best efforts to "mark their territory" on the porch. Every night, Sharon would construct a Rube Goldberg-esque array of porch chairs and wood pieces and an electrified scat-mat to keep them at bay, but it was clunky and time consuming to build the fortress at the top of the porch stairs every night, and then tear it all down in the morning.

Meanwhile, whenever Sharon left the property during the day, our dogs immediately abandoned their guard duties and high-tailed it over to Carl and Mary's, to wait on their porch. And with a recent rash of burglaries in the area, keeping Gellie and Indy on our porch was another high priority. Garry's first project, then, was to build porch railings and a gate.

Here's the prototype first railing. Looks great!

We tried to help him, but he really works best on his own, he said. Well, if you insist!

And true enough, once he got his jigs made, he was a building machine! With his headphones on, we could hear him singing along to songs that only he could hear.

There! That should keep those bad dogs out! And looks great!

And that should keep our good dogs in, too!

Except that Gellie discovered that she can ooze herself out under the gate. Out comes the scat mat again! But not once since the gate went up have the bad dogs boarded the porch. Great!!

This trip Garry was determined to enjoy himself and relax, not just work. Here he is in his typical relaxation pose. His favorite rum and lime and coke ever-vigilant beside him, poured freely, and often!

And of course, no trip to Cerro Velero is complete without a Sunday afternoon pizza at Rana Azul, our local Austrian-run pizza joint, open only on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Susan enjoyed Colleen's company, learning about homeopathic remedies and her recent trip to a homeopathy conference in Trinidad,

while Garry was a bit more focused on the food. As you can see, it is a popular place for the local gringos!

Back at Cerro Velero, though, unfortunately, before Garry could get railings even halfway around the porch, family matters called him back home early to Washington. Dang! But not before we did ...

The Costa Rica Visa Dance

Since this was Susan's first trip to Central America, and Sharon had to renew her visa, a trip to Costa Rica for us all seemed like a good idea. We took a now-familiar route. Leave early from Cerro Velero to Almirante in Cricket, where we park the boat at Paulie's.

Then, normally we would take a bus to Changuinola, but Garry is not very fond of buses (to put it mildly--but who is?), so he offered to pay for a taxi. We called our reliable taxi driver/friend José, and while waiting for him to come get us, the three of us walked all over Almirante looking for something to eat. Unfortunately, small town restaurants that they are, we were too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, and the only available offerings looked inedible.

By the time José met us and we got up to Changuinola, it was long past time for breakfast and the whole crew was getting ravenous (and cranky). Thankfully, we were now on time for lunch! We stopped at the Chiquita Banana Restaurant and were all in much better spirits when we got back into the taxi!

Then on to the border at Guabito. Check out of Panama. Walk across the bridge to Sixaola, Costa Rica.

Check into Costa Rica. Walk two blocks to the bus station and catch the Limon-Sixaola bus to Puerto Viejo.

It was refreshing to see the sights with Susan's new and enthusiastic eyes. Even the bus ride, completely boring to Garry (that would be him pretending to be sleeping) was exciting for Susan--at least, the first time!

First stop in Puerto Viejo? The grocery store! Hmmm...what are we here for?

Remember, there is a small refrigerator in the cabina...let's load up!

Then the final leg, walk to the Coco Loco Lodge

and our own little bungalow.

Our one full day in Puerto Viejo was quiet, and then it was up early to catch the bus back to the border. In Guabito, in the rain, we did not even try to persuade Garry to get on a bus. An hour taxi ride later, we were back in Almirante.

We shopped for groceries while Paulie took our empty propane tank to be exchanged for a full one.

Loaded up Cricket with our supplies and a couple of really heavy nisporo (or alemendro?) 4x4's that José found for us, that Garry needed for the porch gate. This wood is so hard that you have to drill the holes before you can get a nail or a screw into it!

Then we headed to the gas station and back to our hill.

Progress in Paradise?

While filling our gas tanks we got a good look at the huge concrete barge working at a new dock at the Port of Almirante.

A controversial new set of three concrete and black-fly-ash dams is being built by AES-Changuinola. AES is one of the world’s largest global energy businesses. The Changuinola dams project, together with a fourth dam to be built on the nearby Bonyic River, will ultimately provide 30% of Panama's energy needs.

But the Changuinola dams project, while expected to provide much needed "clean" electricity, is also sharply criticized for its negative effect on the environment, and on the native Ngöbe people. The Bonyic River dam is also controversial.

Seems there is always a price for progress.

Cricket Gets a Shelter

Back at Cerro Velero...

While curtains were being sewn and porch rails were being cut, down at the waterfront, Daniel Machado, a local Indian man, and his crew were busy for four weekends building a boat shed adjacent to the dock, to protect Cricket from sinking in our drenching rains. They were just getting started the first weekend after Garry and Susan arrived.

The poles are a local wood called membrillo(?). They got most of the poles planted the first weekend. (Daniel normally works full time for neighbor Jim Jackson during the week. Though, and this is very, very sad, Jim, a wonderful and kind man, full of curiosity, gentle strength, boundless energy and wit, died unexpectedly last weekend, so no one is sure right now what is going to happen with his workers and the property. But all hope his vision and his plans will continue.)

The next weekend, they did most of the framing for the roof. Notice that once again, there is a very willing, if not necessarily so able, local crew to help out. If only they had opposable thumbs!

The boards for the roof rafters are local alemendo (nisporo?). In any event, all the wood he used sinks in water, it's just so dense and heavy, and is highly resistant to rot (we hope!).

Looks like it is going to be plenty big enough to fit Cricket in!

The next weekend, on went the roof, and Yep! Looks good!

Finishing up on the last weekend, they added a platform out of the rain to offload supplies. Hey, add a chair and a hammock or two, and maybe do a little fishing!

We plan to add pulleys and ropes to lift the boat out of the water when not in use. We may also buy a larger, more seaworthy boat at some point, so Daniel made two rafters that slide, so they can be adjusted, along with the boat lift gear, to the length and balance of any boat we put under the roof.

Not worrying about Cricket sinking when it's pouring all night long makes for much more peaceful sleeping!

The Bohio Finally Gets a Roof!

Once Daniel finished with the dock, he got started on putting the roof on the little bohio at the top of the stairs leading up from the dock. Tracy built the landing well over a year ago, but the press of more important building projects pulled him away from the bohio project. We want to have a place to hunker down out of the rain, and a dock box to store gas jugs and other boat equipment that does not need to be hauled up to the house, but needs to be locked up in view of the house.

This is where we are so far.

Looks good! And he is constructing it so that we can add rain-catching gutters for an eventual water tank to service the dock.

And Over in Kandahar...and Orlando...and Cocoa Beach...

Hard to believe, but Tracy is fewer than 30 days out from being done with his year-long contract in Afghanistan! His replacement has already arrived in country and after some training is leading the classes on his own. The second assistant is already there, too, and Tracy has already trained him as well.

Tracy is having bittersweet feelings. He will miss the hands-on interactions with the troops he has been training, and he will miss some of his roommates, too. But, he must admit that he is looking forward to living in a less austere environment!

So...what next?

Well, it turns out there is an opportunity for Tracy to keep supporting the troops while continuing to feed the cruising/Cerro Velero kitty. Happily, this opportunity is a lot closer to home: in Orlando, Florida! It's an enticing position for Tracy, and a good opportunity. While he absolutely loves the hands-on work with the troops, he knows he can have a bigger impact from Orlando as Raytheon's Operations Manager, Afghanistan.

So...we just closed on a Banana River waterfront three-bedroom, two-bath condo, in Cocoa Beach! Sight unseen except for the real estate listing photos, a virtual tour on the listing site, a realtor walk-through, and a bird's eye view from Google maps and satellite. Well, and a professional appraisal, too. We are not completely nuts! But with housing prices in Florida as low as they are right now, it just makes no financial sense to rent. And who wouldn't want to own a waterfront place just a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean beaches and the Ron Jon Surf Shop flagship store? Beach town living, and a reasonable commute from Orlando. Heck, we may even learn to surf!

These listing photos helped attract us, promising sunsets over the Banana River...


from our west-facing, ground floor, end unit back porch.

We can swim laps and cool off in the pool,

and fish and kayak from the day dock.

We have already advised our friend Michael Haskins in Key West, who has been storing our kayaks for us, that we will be retrieving them. To our surprise, he's just as content to have them gone, since he hasn't quite gotten around to using them anyway. Too busy writing his popular Mad Mick books!

And our new condo comes furnished, so that headache is resolved before we even get there! It looks just fine in the pictures. Like a timeshare that we don't have to share!

But if it turns out that we don't like the previous owner's taste, we can replace at our leisure. Meanwhile, we can just show up with a toothbrush, buy some groceries, and Tracy can hit the ground is his style!

As you can imagine, it was no easy feat to actually close the deal, with Tracy in Afghanistan and Sharon in Panama. But with the resourcefulness born of necessity (well, and maybe laziness, too---Sharon really didn't want to travel to Florida just to sign legal documents!) we were able to use scans and emails, Powers of Attorney and Panamanian notaries, FedExs and Skype calls, and a helpful Panama City taxi driver. And it all came together, on time! Amazing!

Thanks to all who helped, including Rese, the wonderfully competent Central Coast Title lady in Cocoa Beach, and Tina, the ultra professional mortgage processor at USAA Mortgage, both of whom understood the geographic complexities and worked with them to make it all happen.

Oh...and, um...did we mention the new Harleys? Well, there is this great Harley-Davidson purchasing program in Afghanistan.. and since Tracy will now be stateside for a while...and hoping Sharon will join him for large blocks of time...

We'll have our own pictures of the new condo, and of Tracy's new Electra Glide and Sharon's new Sportster 1200L, in the next update!

But all this means we need house sitters to keep an eye on Cerro Velero and the dogs and birds and....

House Sitting in Paradise, Anyone?

We are hoping to find some adventuresome, self-reliant, boat-savvy, jungle-friendly, off-the-grid-familiar folks to take care of Cerro Velero and the dogs and the birds for a few weeks or a few months in the coming year, so that Sharon and Tracy can spend some long-awaited time together.

If you or anyone you know might fit the bill and be interested, let us know! We need someone starting in late April and lasting until mid-July if possible, and then we'll need someone again in the fall...and then someone again, and again, for as long as Tracy is still working in Orlando...

But, bear in mind that while it is paradise in many ways, it is definitely not a resort! You can't go out at night because it's not safe to take the boat out where there are no lights or aids to navigation. (There's nowhere nearby to go, anyway.) There is no television unless you set up a Slingbox in the states to watch over the internet. Yes, at least there is internet!The nights are long, dark and quiet, and there are bugs.

There is no grocery store around the corner, and no car in Bocas. Everything has to be schlepped around Bocas on foot (or taxi), stowed in Cricket, and then schlepped up the hill. Unless you want to lug it all yourself, you have to get back before our worker goes home for the day. Most folks go into town no more than once a week. If you forget something, you just have to do without until the next time to go to town.

And, it rains a lot. Like, oh, close to 150 inches a year.

But if that doesn't put you really is magically beautiful down here!

Zumi Zooms! And Weaves!

The young oropendola who was hanging around has become a daily fixture, much to Sharon's delight. Turns out she is a female, a young Montezuma Oropendola, now named Zumi. She is free flying, and only comes to visit in the mornings, to get her snacks, work on her nest weaving, take a bath, and get her head rubs and cuddles. This is how her nest-weaving started. Sharon got out one of Jasmine's old cages and put it up in the rafters, to give Zumi a place of her own.

Zumi found some string tied to the porch from old measurements, untied them and got a few lengths tied into the cage. Once Sharon saw how engrossed Zumi was in her weaving, she got out the spools and scissors...

Working on it seems to make Zumi happy and it keeps her busy and quiet for a while. Sharon has had to buy a couple of new spools of string!

Zumi adds to her "nest" every day.

It is really looking quite elaborate!

And she adds found string-things all the time. Who would have thought tea bag strings would ever become nest material?

In the wild, as this photo from Bill of the Birds photo shows, Oropendolas make elaborate hanging nests up to 6 feet long. Though not nearly as colorful as Zumi's!

Only the females make the nests, which is why, along with her more diminutive size, she is identified as a female.

She also comes by to take her baths.

when the dogs aren't around...

Maybe catch some bugs...

Then she flies off to visit the village and other neighbors.

Unfortunately, not always to her benefit. About six weeks ago she came back frantic and starving after being gone for two worrisome days. Her last two remaining yellow tail feathers were broken and she was trailing a blue plastic rope, tied to her leg. Good thing she is so good with knots, as that's how she must gotten herself free from the neighbors' tether! (According to our worker, we can be pretty sure it was the neighbors. NOT Carl and Mary!)

Another time, about a month ago, missing for another two days, she was spotted in the village, lost and crying piteously high up in a tree, surrounded by kids and dogs. Sharon heard about her plight from Vicente's wife and immediately got in Cricket and drove over to the village. Parking Cricket at the village dock, she and Vicente followed Hermalinda, his wife, up the muddy trails for ten minutes to get to Zumi. Sharon scattered the trailing kids and dogs, then called to Zumi, who finally worked up her courage and flew over, exhausted and starving and terrified. Again.

Sharon drove back with one hand steering Cricket and one hand cradling a relieved Zumi. Her right wing has never been the same since. It droops.

More recently, Zumi came back with the tips of her right wing feathers cut off. And the next day, her one lone remaining intact tail feather was snipped off at the end. It's a wonder she can still fly.

It may be a jungle out there, but that's not her problem, it's the darn people! Wish she would just decide to stay here... it is heart-breaking to think that she was stolen from the wild as a baby, raised with people, and then abandoned. So now, despite best efforts, she is still being harassed and tormented, and she still has no permanent home. It is tempting to clip her wings and cage her, just to keep her safe! But...

There is a large Oropendola colony of nests behind our property, and we are hoping that as she gets stronger and older, she will integrate with that flock. Could be hard though, if the locals keep trapping her and cutting her feathers!

Eating Crow---Or Egrets?

Thank you to my birder friends who questioned whether the flock of white birds shown in the last update were really herons. On closer look, let's call them Egrets. Ok, ok, probably the commonest of common birds, Cattle Egrets! Well, they are still gorgeous, roosting there!

Cerro Velero Critters

This regal looking dead-leaf-imitating bug appeared in the bodega one day. What a curiosity! It sways back and forth just like a leaf in a gentle breeze. Google research suggests it is of the

Order Phasmida, Stick-insects and leaf-insects: 2000 species. The bodies of these predominantly tropical insects are either thin and twig-like, or flattened like leaves. They remain motionless by day, disguised by their resemblance to plants, and feed and move at night. Their eggs, which are large and hard-shelled, resemble seeds.

But what looks like a head in the picture above also flips open like a cell phone. Curiouser and curiouser!

And then there was this gorgeous bug Sharon found on Carl and Mary's bush...thanks for the beautiful photo, Mary! Carl quickly identified it as Heteropteran, specifically Diactor bilineatus, also know as...Leaf-legged bug! According to a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute staff scientist,

You will find them associated with plants of the genus Passiflora (family Passifloraceae) both the cultivated species (maracuyá) as well as the various wild species. They also are found on Turnera spp. (family Turneraceae)...The green parts of both groups of plants are poisonous if eaten, and the insects that eat them appear to be protected from predators by the chemicals they obtain from the plants. Thus, insects that eat Passiflora and Turnera are brightly colored to warn predators of their toxicity, and because they have no fear they are easily approached and photographed.

There were at least ten on this bush and not a one seemed very worried about us hovering over them and taking their pictures, so we'd have to agree.


According to Sue and George's water gauge we had 11.4 inches of rain in January, and about the same amount in February. But, to our visitors' delight, we had only 2.3 inches of rain in February...until the 24th! Then with them safely home in Washington and all the local water tanks precariously low, the skies opened up for the last four days of the month and we ended up with a total of 11.6 inches, or over 9 inches of rain in just four days. You know what they say:

Stay tuned...

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