Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Things to do in Panama -- my favorites.

I moved my Panama Video Blog CLICK HERE

Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Open Letter to Bill Gates: Why you are wrong and how Candy Crush Will Save the World

Like many, I have woken up and made sure that there were no rats in my Farmville crop before I thought about taking out the garbage in my own house.  I own a hostel and recently caught the handyman sitting in a dark shack where we keep our garbage, his face lit up by glowing virtual candy when he too, should have been taking out the garbage.  This can’t be a good thing.  Or can it?  In fact, candy crush can save the world.  Oh and Bill Gates, you are totally wrong.

I live in Panama, and although I have adapted well and generally do not overestimate potential dangers, I recently had a scare.  I’ve been gaining a couple of pounds but vow to lose it so I promised I will not buy clothes a size larger.  There was some irritation just below my navel and thought it was a mole irritated by my belt and bulging waistline.  A few days passed but the irritation did not so I decided to contemplate my spot.  It’s an ingrown hair I thought because of the little hair protruding from below the spot.  Wait, no, those aren’t hairs.  Those are legs.  Fricken legs!

Turns out this little critter attached to me and I panicked and ripped it out.  I had been warned as a kid about fatal diseases ticks can carry and thought they must be worse in the tropics.  I had a problem.  Perhaps that problem was paranoia but it was a problem nonetheless.

I went to the two local private hospitals in the small Panamanian city that has become home and I spoke with the doctors.  (In Spanish.  There’s an app for that, thank you Duolingo.com)  I tried to find a dermatologist but there were none. Thought about the university to find a biologist.  That wouldn’t work

So I took out my smart phone and took a photo.  I became a photographer.  Then I did a reverse image search on Google and came up with a shortlist of potential species and searched again with Google images.  I became an entomologist. Found the species and then got on WebMD.  I became a doctor.  I discovered the tick was a female Cayenne tick and they can carry the fatal Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  So then I searched Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Panama.  I became a researcher.  A doctor had published a rare case of the disease ten years ago and remarked on how it was rare because there had not been a reported case since the 60’s.  The disease was rare here.  I ceased to be a hypochondriac. 

(To write this article I typed bug specialist into Google to learn to spell entomologist.)
None of these tools, my smart phone camera, WebMD, Google were around years ago.  I can now problem solve on my own.  Cramming information into our brains is useless.  All the doctors I talked to in the hospital couldn’t tell me anything except that the dermatologist is on vacation.  My ex girlfriend, now a doctor, did her homework on WebMD.

What a waste of time it is to memorize something now at the tip of our fingers.  We need to become problem solvers not trivia experts.  

Experiments in Education

In the United States The Minerva Project is experimenting with this at the university level.  It’s a new university being set up by former Snapfish founder Ben Nelson. “Students who need introductory classes such as Economics 101 will be encouraged to find free online lectures. Anything that can be delivered in a lecture, we don't think it's particularly moral of us to charge money for," he said.
In developing countries some educators are catching on that student-led learning and collaboration problem solving yield better results.  In a violent poverty stricken village in Mexico, Sergio Ju├írez Correa introduced “the logic of the digital age to the classroom.  Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.”  Schools are now forming in the virtual cloud and the physical classroom nothing more than one room with a caretaker.  On the computer a problem is presented and the students self organize around it and take charge of solving it.  I dare you to read how Sergio led one of the most underprivileged girls in Mexico rise to the top of the math ranks in Mexico without shedding a tear. Read the Wired article HERE.

Bill You Are Wrong and Google is Right

Two thirds of the planet’s population have limited access to the internet and Google plans to change that with the crazy idea of WiFi balloons.  Bill, you said, “When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you.”  I’ll tell you Bill.  The lure of the internet will… what’s the word?  Squish?  No, crush, crush malaria.  Candy Crush will crush malaria.  

The French canal workers in my adopted country of Panama failed at problem solving.  They tried to build a sea level canal before the Americans succeeded.  Part of the reason the Americans triumphed was they solved the problem of malaria with knowledge.  They discovered that malaria was contracted by mosquito bites and refitted all their camps with screens.  Knowledge is power.
And to tell you the truth Bill, with all due respect, kids without malaria would much rather play Candy Crush than eradicate malaria.  What use are all these balloons in villages without electricity?  You do not know the power and allure those little virtual candies hold and the lengths people will go to charge their phones to get at them.  Maybe they will use the smokeless stoves being developed by THIS COMPANY raising money on Kickstarter, that charge cell phones.  Maybe they will download plans to build a windmill or they’ll burn calories on stationary bike that charges their phone.  I don’t know how but they will find a way to get at those little candies.

A great man (his name slips my memory) once said, “I believe if you show people the problems, and you show them the solutions, they will act.” I believe if you show people the problems, and you show them the tools to solve the problems, they will solve them on their own.  And in the process they will educate themselves.  Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world and now it is hiding just beneath a game of Candy Crush. (And more people will read this letter to you because it will climb high in Google rankings because of the number of times it contains the words candy and crush.)

The handyman I caught playing Candy Crush has now dropped it.  Sometimes I catch him on Duolingo, a colorful free app with a cute bird that masquerades as a game but is also a tool to learn any language in the world.  He gets a $25 bonus with each level he achieves.  The handyman is now a manager and runs tours at my hostel.  The more English he learns, the better his tours are and the more I charge.  I don’t mind that he is playing on his cell phone.

In one day, trying to solve my tick bite paranoia I was a Spanish student, photographer, entomologist doctor and researcher.  But the proudest thing I have become is a teacher.  One third of the world covered by the internet is not enough.  Candy Crush and Google will change that.  So Bill, take that and stick it in your Windows 8.  (Seriously dude, put a cool game there, maybe people will think about using it.)

Monday, February 17, 2014

My favorite places in Panama

Top things to do in The Republic of Panama

San Blas
As shown in the video there are several ways to experience San Blas.  1) Rustic hostel like bungalows/camping 2) As part of an adventure tour with a charter cruise of the islands and 3) As part of sailing adventure on a boat to Colombia.
For all of these options your best bet is to stop by Luna’s Castle and/or Hostel Mamallena, even if you are not a backpacker.  The reason being is, whichever San Blas island you chose, or whatever boat to Colombia you pick, your experience will depend on who is going to share your island or boat.  These two hostels in Panama City are the top places for booking so even if you are not staying there you will want to drop by.  Hostel Mamallena has its own tour agency,  Panama Travel Unlimited and is a reputable company.  I lifted the following from their website and it has the most accurate information about San Blas as you can find:
The San Blas islands, or Kuna Yala, comprise of 365(one for everyday of the year they say) islands located along the Caribbean coats of Panama.  Granted semi independence in 1925, the Kuna Yala is run by an elected Congresso.  Some 40 islands are inhabited and run by a chief who is a representative to the Congresso.  The Kunas have managed to fiercely retain their culture for over 500 years, despite repression by first the colonial Spanish and then Panamanian governments.  Life in the islands is still very traditional, many live as their families have done for generations.  The Kunas guard their San Blas islands by only allowing Kunas to own property within their areas.  Foreign, or Panamanian , owned businesses are not allowed.  Only some communities have running water and cooking is still often done over open fires.  Most people still sleep in hammocks in communal areas inside their huts.  The women still wear brightly coloured clothing, wide skirts and multi-coloured beaded bracelets wrapped the whole length of their lower legs and arms.  It`s not uncommon to see Kuna women dressed like this in all parts of Panama.
Franklin’s: Well known over the last few years by the hostel and backpacking crowd in Panama, Franklins has become one of the places we send backpackers to the most and rarely get complaints. They have a number of cabins and a beach on their half off the island. The island is small but split into 2, although it is hard to distinguish any divide and it seems to be no problem to wander around the islands fringes in the shallow surf. They charge $26.00 per person per night for dorms with 3-5 sharing or $60 for private rooms for two, this includes three simple meals a day, snacks and water you have to either bring it or buy over there. You can organize tours to other islands from $3-$10 per person, just ask Franklin. The boat to and from the island is $10 each way. The island is generally one of the cleanest. There is some very good snorkelling in and around the shore. With plenty of Star fish, Sting rays and more….
Robinson’s: One of the original places in San Blas for backpackers and the hostel crowd, although the location is different to the old Robinsons as they moved to a larger island near the original. This island is larger than Franklins but still relatively small. There are three to four groups of Cabanas and about six Kuna families living on the island. They charge $20.00 per person per night for dorms, or $50 for private cabins for two, including three meals a day, snacks and water you have to either bring it or buy over there, there is a tour to the local Community included in your stay, and others can be organised for a cost. The boat to and from the island is $10 each way. This island was, and still is, popular with backpackers but Robinson seems to have very bad phone reception so don’t be surprised if we have trouble trying to contact him.
Ina’s: Ina is the Nephew of Robinson, although at times you wouldn’t think it….., it boasts the usual shacks with sand floors. It is located just up the beach from Robinsons. Some cabins are shared, some are private. They cost $22pp for dorms and $50 for private rooms for 2 people, including the usual three meals a day, snacks and water you have to either bring it or buy over there.  Ina can arrange many tours to Islands like Dog or Estrella so just ask him and arrange a price when you are there. The boat to and from the island is $10 each way. This island is more built up than Franklins but is much bigger and has decent beaches. At the moment Ina is one of our top picks as the reviews coming back about the family and the food have been very positive, but things in San Blas are never consistent and this could change at any time. 
Eulogio’s Place: One of the original homestays on one of the main Carti Islands. They’ve recently built an upstairs part to their house which has good airflow, but is still very basic. This is the best way to experience Kuna culture if that is what you prefer instead of lazing on a beach, but do not expect to be there alone, it’s like a hostel. He charges $30 per person per night, and includes the usual three basic meals per day. The main town has a number of small stores where you can buy snacks, drinks and so on. Food is basic and toilets are placed over the sea. Includes daily tours to the local beach islands where you can spend the day swimming, snorkelling and lazing on the beach. Some of these islands have nothing but a local family, a couple of cabins and palm trees. In the afternoon you’ll return to Carti for the night. Eulogio and his brother Germain are great guys but just watch that they don’t try to overcharge you! They are pretty well known for it
Eulogio also arranges accommodations on the stunning Hook Island for $45 per person per night in simple private cabins for two with decent toilets and bucket showers. Hook Island is one of the more untouched islands, very clean and great snorkelling, you will often see fisherman pulling in a catch on the reef around the island. It is less developed and very quiet compared to the other islands and recommended for couples mainly.
Charter Boats and Boats to Colombia
Recently the Kuna Indians banned foreigners without permits from operating in the San Blas islands.  Ship captains change and information is updated continuously.  For that reason you should contact Panama Travel Unlimited and it wouldn’t hurt to drop by or email Luna’s Castle to ask the names of boat captains… then google the hell out of them.  Then ask, at both locations, if they have booked people.  Sometimes captains wait for a full boat and the passengers that are waiting are hanging out at one of these hostels in Panama City.  Drop by and try to meet them to see if you can spend five days on a small boat with them.
The Lost and Found
My favorite hostel and top hostel from The Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.  Not so much a hostel as a location in itself where you can do a lot of the tours you can do in Boquete but at a fraction of the price.  Their coffee tour is much more authentic and less touristy than ones you will find in Boquete.  It can be used as a base in lieu of Boquete to explore the Caldera hot springs and the Gualaca river canyons and for much cheaper.  It is nicely situated as well, breaking up the long trip from Panama City to Bocas.  There is also nothing like the free treasure hunt that makes hiking and animal watching an adventure even for those who don’t like hiking.  Have a look at their top ten video on their website. (It’s stung together with mostly footage from me.)
Often referred to as “Panama’s Galapagos”, Parque Nacional Coiba was established by the Panamanian government in 1991 which protected both Isla Coiba and its surrounding waters as a national park. The legislation also allowed for the penal colony on Isla Coiba to continue operating since its presence was considered a deterrent from development. The penal colony has since closed and the park was expanded in 2004. July of 2005, Coiba was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Biological Research Station has been constructed and the park now charges an entrance fee to visitors to help fund park protection and maintenance. ANAM, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente or National Authority of the Environment, helps monitor and protect the area.

Bocas is hardly off the beaten path so I have few secrets to share.  There’s no end to information on Bocas if you google it.  It is filled with backpacker hot spots and cheap hostels and there are a lot of things to do in Bocas.  The spots you see in the video are Mondu Taitu hostel and Aqua Lounge, both in the top five places to party.  A great spot to learn to surf without being self conscious of gawkers is Chica Surf Adventures.  But there’s a catch.. women only.

Thursday, February 13, 2014