APRIL 2005: “Running on Empty!”

April was notable, mostly, for one main reason: we finally got a bank account. It was a hassle, but like most expats will discover for themselves, not an uncommon one. Needless to say, we now act on everything Gustavo tells us. But, before we obtained that wisdom, we made the mistake of going to one of the plethora of Panamanian banks in the city. I'd mention it, but they all seem to have the same lag time between application and withdrawal, well, except for Gustavo's recommended, HSBC, which according to Gustavo stands for The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited—.

So, anyhow, with checks and a account to draw-on we were able to pay Eleuterio, our builder, to start construction of Casa Ingaso. It's not as if things weren't happening—pine trees hewn, view revealed!, lot cleared, house pad and driveway graded, septic tank hole dug—but the main house construction couldn't start until he had, in-hand, our first payment. Now, every Wednesday he drops by Lamelot and gives us the latest worksheet invoice. The worksheet lists everything that will be done, and each week he marks off what has been done, along with the charges for doing same. It provides a handy yardstick to measure progress, a way to tick-off jobs and get an idea of what still needs to be done.
Once construction was under way, our next chore was to get rid of our rinky-dink rental car, a Ford Eco-Sport that hated the hills of Altos, plus lacked the room we needed for hauling our rather large purchases when we went to the city—you wanna make them soirees count, doncha know? So, our trips to town now included looking at automobiles. We started with used ones, but it was very depressing: cars that looked used, really used. Everyone we talked to had told us not to buy used in Panama; the inexpert drivers, the city, and the country roads were too hard on vehicles, and you don't want to buy someone else's problems. What it all finally led us to were new car dealers.
Hyundai. They had a good reputation, plus there were lots of them running around Panama, so it seemed like a good place to start. The base sticker price was twice what we had wanted to spend on a vehicle, but it was also the lowest for a new car that met our needs: 4x4, stick-shift, diesel. I hate all of those features in a car, but everyone we talked to also said that, if we're going to be living in Altos during the rainy season, which we are, then you have to have those adjuncts. Swell. The Hyundai Teracan had all of them, plus it was big enough for putting our booty in, purchases as well as pulchritude. No matter, we didn't like it, didn't like the way it looked. An inane reason, really, for not buying anything, but what can I say: I'm the product of Madison Avenue, television, and good old U.S. consumerism: style over function.
Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, however, we talked Gustavo into taking us around to several new and used car dealers for his "expert" input. He showed us our first Kia Sorento, and we liked the way it looked. Forget the fact it road like a truck, sounded like a semi, and cost even more than the Teracan, we liked its style. God help us, before you knew it, and with Gustavo's bargaining help, we made an offer, had it accepted, drove a check to the bank to be "certified", and signed a contract—a Sorento fitting our bill would be delivered in a few days through customs via the Kia warehouse in Colon. Almost without being able to tell you why, we bought a silver Sorento diesel, stick-shift, 4x4. Ain't life strange?
No matter, because it was wonderful to get rid of the sorry little Eco-Sport. It wasn't a bad car, just small, underpowered, and ill-equipped for the rigors of Altos. Plus, it didn't help that we abused the poor thing at every turn. Like the time we scared the bejeebers out of a Picacho indian who made the mistake of accepting a lift from Harold and Maude. We knew there was a short cut from our lot's side of Altos to the Lamelot side, but we also knew it was treacherous, especially after a rain. Everyone said, "Forgeddaboutit!" That didn't make any difference when the time came, however, because I wanted to go off-roadin'!
On the day in question, we were sightseeing on the other side of the valley, driving up and down roads too steep to be approved in the States, when we offered a ride to a lone indian. The local indians think nothing of walking the steep roads of Altos for miles to go to the little town of Sorá, about three kilometers down the mountain from Altos' gate...and back! We came across the man on his way back to the small village of Picacho. TC asked him where he was going and, when he said the village, we realized that he, along with most of the other locals, must use this shortcut to get in and out of the area. We thought, hey, let's take him the way he's used to! And he was more than happy to show us to the river crossing, for that's what it was or, actually, a ford would be more accurate.
As we reached the end of the paved road, he said we could let him out there. Too late he realized he was in the hands of some loco gringos who were bound to put him at risk before they let him loose.
"No, that's okay," I said, shifting into low on the automatic drive, "we'll take you all the way!"
I pointed the little wagon down the steep, gravely, horribly narrow and nerve-racking hint of a road, and away we went...literally! The Eco-Sport fought valiantly to maintain traction, but would have lost it completely had the way been any longer. It came to stop in the middle of the stream (there hadn't been any rain, lately, thank the powers that be!, so what could've been a torrent was a gentle flow). But, what lay before us was worse than what lay under or behind, so thoughts of backing out of there ran through my fast-panicking brain. Nah, the hell with that, I thought, forgetting the wisdom of Bilbo Baggins, this is an adventure. Onward and upward!
The man in the back seat was looking a little pale as I revved up for my first run at the hill, as well he should be, considering the lack of power, traction, flat roadway for picking up speed, and lack of sanity behind the wheel. I hit the pedal and we hit the hill. It hit back. I also failed to mention that the Eco-Sport had front-wheel drive—you know: it's easier to push than to pull? So, when the tires began spinning and screaming wildly, they spewed enough rock and gravel and dirt and sand to make our cement floors all over again. As the car lost traction there was no way for me to keep it headed up the hill, and our path began to look like a drunken indian, excuse the stereotyping; and I'm sure an altered state was on his mind as he clamped onto the seat, no belt holding him in, rocks careening off the side of the roadway and coming back at his window. The poor guy probably didn't think it was a good day to die...
Unfortunately, there was only one side to the roadway. The other was a steep plummet back into the creek, and that was where my fishtailing path was taken us, until I gave up and allowed the car to roll back into the water; dust, burnt rubber, and overheated engine smells permeating the air. When I looked around at TC and then the indian, the sheer dumb weight of my decision and our situation hit home. I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were thinking the same thing the crazy Irishman in "Braveheart" told Mel Gibson, right before a hopeless battle: "You're fooked."
So, what to do? Not one for rational thought, I just backed up the little car as far as I could to the far side of the river bed, dropped the trans into low again, gritted my teeth, said, "Hold on!", and gunned it. We banged over the rocks and water, picking up a modicum of speed, then hit the road with a limp-wristed vengeance. Again, rocks and dirt and sand and gravel and hopes went flying. Tires wailed in complaint. The engine whined like a brat getting spanked. And gouges were dug into upholstery by white-knuckled grips. The fishtailing started again, but this time we had more momentum; our forward motion greater than the sideways drift. Steering was next to useless. The car had a mind of its own, and that mind was all for taking the easy way out: over the cliff
I could see the top of the hill, the spot we'd have to reach to make it. Little by little, it drew agonizingly closer. My foot jammed against the firewall. My hands had a death grip on the wheel. My eyes were probably as big as they had ever been in my life. And my bowels were turning to liquid as I watched the nose of the car veer from side to side.
Would we make it?
Sure, no sweat, are you kidding me? The Eco-Sport broke over the lip of the grade with a jolting buck and we were free. Laughter, screams of victory, hoots and Hail Mary's filled the car as we all celebrated.
"Holy moley!"
At least TC and I were vocalizing. The indian, I think, was desperately looking for a way out of the car and away from the crazy Americans. When I caught his eyes in the rear view, I didn't remember them being quite so large or nearly as bright. Poor guy. He got out of the car where the path cuts through to the village, not far from where we breached, and made for the safety of his home, no doubt thanking whoever he prays to for sparing him.
Oh well, we had our adventure, as well as a new story to tell, but the car had a strange noise and wobble that plagued it, until we returned it to the unsuspecting Avis dealer in Panamá City. What they didn't know wouldn't bother them, but it taught us a lesson about why rental cars don't work so well...
As we frittered away our days in such mindless pursuits, living yet another life in a state of limbo—although I must admit a much nicer state than the last one in Ventura—things were progressing over at Casa Ingaso. Up to a point.
After much eyeballing, measuring, stretching of string, and reading of tea leaves it was determined that our house was too wide for the lot. It would fit, barely, but only if a retaining wall was built to hold up the hillside, a retaining wall or stem wall on each end. Oh, did I fail to mention that the wall would be over thirty feet tall on the east end? Yikes! So, we came up with Plan B, and for the next four days an earth mover scalped nearly two meters off the height of our pad. Between the drop and the spreading of all that soil, our stem walls would be much smaller, twenty feet rather than thirty...

I made a short slide show for my grandsons from images of the earth mover scalping our lot, and called it:

"The Boy Biter!"
(click the name to see it)

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