I knew it would happen. I was in charge of planning flights and lodgings. Many of you know that I am not very good at organizing, calendars, etc. We got to Costa Rica without any problems – jumped through all the right hoops like QR health codes, flight tickets out within 90 days, and vaccination papers.
82 days later, we flew into Panama without a hitch. The canal and old city tour was way cooler than expected and Dennis Roberts, our great guide, even allowed us to indulge our need for an ice cream break. Our private tour to a less touristy Embera village for an overnight stay was amazing. Garceth Cunampio (born and raised Embera, educated in Panama City and Oregon) has tons of knowledge about and connections with the Embera.
I’m positive, my family will never mention that I’m a bit of a nightmare right before traveling. From snappish the day before to wanting to get on the plane ASAP. I guess I feel that once we are on the plane, it’s out of my hands and I can let go. I hope this will change as the amount of travel is about to ratchet up considerably.
Of course, just as I was congratulating myself on a great trip to Panama, IT happened. I didn’t have QR health codes ready to get back to Costa Rica. Fortunately, our amazing guide, Dennis Roberts had offered to take us to the airport and strongly suggested that we be at least 2 hours early. Also, my family stepped up and Corbin, Gloria, and I were all entering in information as fast as we could. Asher would have helped “if only you guys got me a phone”. We made the flight with time to spare so everything was good, but I’m fully prepared for the family to chant “remember when daddy forgot to get the QR codes” every time we clear customs.
Just-cooked corn tortillas hot from the pan are exponentially more delicious than store-bought ones. Giselle is the cook at the local public high school, where she cooks a lunch from scratch for 80-100 students every day. Corbin says that the lunch is always delicious. If he has a free period, he sometimes goes to the kitchen to lend a hand. She’s also the cooking teacher at Intercultura, the language school where I took Spanish lessons, and she’s taught us several classic Tico dishes.
2 cups masa harina*
2 cups tap water
A pinch of salt
Mix masa harina with salt.
Add 1 ½ cups of water to start.
Mix with your hands. Add a bit more water if needed to make the dough soft and pliable, but not sticky.
Form dough into balls (2” diameter for small tortillas; 3” diameter for larger ones)
Flatten dough ball into a thin disk*
Cook in a dry pan over medium heat until speckled brown; turn and cook the other side.
Repeat with other dough balls.*
Serve hot with cheese, beans, avocado, pico de gallo or any other topping.
*Note on masa harina: this is a special type of corn flour used widely in Latin American cooking. It’s made with corn that has been soaked in limewater or other alkaline solution, which makes it easier to grind, increases its nutritional value and changes the flavor. In other words, you can’t substitute regular cornmeal or polenta.
*Note on hand-making tortillas: You don’t need a tortilla press or any fancy equipment! Just cut waxed paper or a plastic bag into circles (10-12” diameter – bigger than the size tortillas you wish to make. Put the dough ball in the center of the circle. Using one hand, pat down the dough with one hand while cupping the edge of the tortilla with the pinky-side edge of your other hand, to keep the edges from breaking apart. Pat the dough enough to progressively flatten the dough but lightly enough so the dough doesn’t stick to your hand, and in a way that also slightly turns the entire tortilla along with its waxed paper base. The tortilla will develop a slight lip around the edge; once the tortilla is the size and thickness you want, pat around that edge one last time to flatten it.
*Note on cooking: The raw dough disks can’t really be stacked, so most usually each tortilla is patted and cooked immediately. The next dough ball is being worked into a disk while the previous one is being cooked, and the cooked tortillas are served immediately. Otherwise, you would need multiple sheets of waxed paper for each dough ball.
Variation: add some grated cheese to the dough and cook as normal. Giselle uses a salty fresh white cheese made with cow’s milk (Turrialba), which is similar to an Indian paneer, but I think that a Monterey Jack cheese would also be equally delicious!
When we visited the Panama Canal, we also learned some interesting and surprising things about the history of the Canal. After construction of the Panama Canal was finished, the land surrounding the Canal was known as the Canal Zone and was owned by America. It was fenced off and separate from the surrounding land of Panama. On the US side of the Canal Zone fence, there was plenty of food, comfortable housing, safety, and much more. Just across the fence was a poverty-stricken area. On January 9th, 1964, several Panamanian students climbed the fence into the US-owned Canal Zone to fly a Panamanian flag to protest the injustice of the Canal Zone. The students were protesting the fact that the Panama Canal was making so much profit, but all of it was going straight back to the US, rather than helping the suffering Panamanians. Conflict broke out, and more than 20 people were killed and 500 injured, mostly from American fire. January 9th is now an official holiday in Panama, known as Martyr’s Day. The next day, Panama broke off diplomatic relations with the US until the US agreed to begin negotiations on a new treaty. Negotiations began and a treaty was made in 1967, however, Panama didn’t ratify it.
After the military coup of 1968, Omar Torrijos was the new leader of Panama. He completely rejected the 1967 treaty. Negotiations with the new Nixon administration went nowhere, so in 1973, Torrijos held a United Nations Security Council session in Panama City, where the Canal Zone issues attracted international attention. After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, he made the Canal Treaty one of his highest priorities. Negotiations resumed in February of 1977 and were finished by August. On the day of the vote in Panama, 96% of eligible voters went to the polls. The treaty passed in Panama and on September 7th, 1977, Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty.
However, the Canal Treaty was gradual, meaning the full transfer wouldn’t be done until 1999. After the treaty was signed, the Canal Zone ceased to exist and most of the land within the Canal Zone was immediately transferred to Panama. The areas that weren’t immediately transferred were slowly transferred over the next 20 years. In the 20 years, the US workers taught the Panamanians how to operate and run the Canal. Much to my surprise, only around 20 years ago in 1999, Panama finally gained full control of the Panama Canal and the surrounding area. Even though the Canal Zone has been gone for a while, there is still a contrast between the land that was the Canal Zone and the other side of the road. The side that was the Canal Zone is fenced off and still looks much richer than the neighborhood just across the street. Both sides of the road were painted with murals remembering the martyrs and the riot, along with some anti-American sentiment. I was surprised that there is still a clear difference 20 years later. I hope that both sides look similar next time we visit.
Ever since we’ve started our world trip I’ve been writing in my journal almost everyday (as requested), days that I miss are caught up on in the future. Every time I write in my journal I do three gratitudes and a drawing. And now I want to share my favorite drawings and gratitude with you. My first drawing is a pineapple:
My family and I saw a Pineapple while we were walking on the beach in Garza, Costa Rica on the 22nd of July. I thought we should put it somewhere we could find it on the way back from our walk along the beach. So I buried it halfway in the sand and put a stick in the sand and said: “If there’s a stick there’s a pineapple.” And when we came back along the beach we found the pineapple and brought it back to the host family. Several days later our Costa Rican Host Mom cut it open and it was bad. 😦
My second drawing is by far my favorite… A PIG IN AN ICE CREAM CONE!!!!!
Honestly, I saw this picture on the web and drew it (by myself not with a tutorial). But it’s cute, no story behind it, I just drew it because I wanted to. This was drawn on the 19th of August in Samara, Costa Rica.
My third drawing is my Corb on a cob drawing:
I just mocked Corbin alright. I decided hey it works! And drew it. This was drawn on the 28th of August In Samara, Costa Rica.
My fourth drawing is named: The Great Turtle Race! My family and I went to Camaronal to help on a turtle refuge. While we were there we set baby turtles free four times. Each time we raced and named some turtles that we bet on to win. And I have good luck so every time I won. For the first race my brother Corbin, and my dad and I competed…. The turtle I named was Fredrica the 3rd, the turtle my dad named was James (yeah I know, LAME!!! Just name it after yourself, sure why not!). My brother’s named turtle was Corbin. Also LAME!. I won the bet and my turtle won the race. The second turtle race my dad and I competed, and I won again with Victoria the 75th. My dad had two turtles. He named one Shelly (2nd place), and the other was named Hardback (3rd place). For the third turtle race I competed in, only one turtle who was left behind in the hatchery was competing. I named said turtle Karina, and since Karina was the only turtle racing, she won. For the fourth turtle race, my dad and I competed, and we each named three turtles. I got 1st, 2nd, and 3rd! 1st place was Asmodeus, 2nd place was Liana, and third place was Akiko. Is it really worth naming the turtles my dad named, since he lost so badly? His turtles were named Mishelle, Shelldon, and Harden. It was really fun competing in the turtle races. Well, for me anyways!
This was drawn on the 18th of September in Camaronal, Costa Rica.
My fifth drawing was a potted plant. I don’t know why I drew it. Honestly probably just because I felt like it and couldn’t think of anything else to draw.
This was drawn on the 8th of October in Samara, Costa Rica.
I drew the sixth drawing in art class at Liceo Samara. Let me explain. When we moved to Samara from Garza, my parents said, “Hey you’re gonna go to the local high school to learn more spanish and understand local culture!” So they threw me into school. Even though when I agreed to go on the world trip I agreed that meant I had no school except the first 2 weeks of Spanish school in Costa Rica, which turned into 4 weeks, so I was a little mad about that. So yeah, I have classes now so I drew this in art class.
This was drawn on the 6th of October in Torito, Costa Rica (about 4 kilometers from Samara, Costa Rica).
And my 7th and currently final drawing that I’m going to show you was also drawn in class for fun. (not in art class but in music class. Some days, school is just more like babysitting. The teacher comes into the classroom and people sit in their seats and do their own stuff or talk to friends or the teacher. This was one of those cases.)
This was drawn on the 20th of October in Torito, Costa Rica.
*Hope you liked the drawings and stories behind them!*
Last week, we had to leave Costa Rica so we wouldn’t overstay the 90 days of our visa. We visited Panama for a couple days. Of course, everyone has heard of the Panama Canal and it is probably what Panama is most famous for.
The canal was finished in 1914 and has operated non-stop (24/7, 365) for all 107 years since being completed. It even kept running during World War I and World War II. When America was looking to build a canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic, they originally considered Panama to be the worst possible location. Panama is covered in dense jungle and has a mountain range in between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. France tried to build the Panama Canal first, and they worked with the designer of the Suez Canal, which had been completed a few years prior in 1869. He proposed a sea-level canal that would cut through the lowest part of the mountain range (110 meters above sea level). However, that still required quite a bit of excavation of the tough volcanic rock which the mountains were made of.
Progress was slow and diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever resulted in many deaths, slowing construction even more. Eventually, engineers decided that a sea-level canal was too difficult, and an elevated canal with locks was a better solution. By then, America had started considering construction in Nicaragua, because of the large Lake Cocibolca that makes the land distance between the Pacific and Atlantic in Nicaragua much shorter. However, they were dissuaded by the large amounts of volcanoes in Nicaragua which could cause problems if a canal was built there. France sold the canal project in Panama to the US for 40 million dollars in 1902.
Back then, what is now Panama was part of Colombia. Colombia was not happy with the US taking over construction as the US was not planning to share much of the Canal’s profits. However, the US heard rumors of revolution by the Panamanians to separate from Colombia. Through secret talks, the US decided to help Panama become its own country on one condition, getting ownership of the canal. Panama became its own country in 1903. America completed the 3 sets of locks, Miraflores Locks, Gatun Locks, and Pedro Miguel Locks, in 1913. The first official transit of the Panama Canal was made on August 15th, 1914. Nowadays, to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or vice versa, the entire transit takes around 8 hours.
Since its completion, new locks have been added in order to accommodate larger ships. The original locks are still being used and the giant lock doors are the original unchanged lock doors from 1914. The locks use fresh water from the artificial lakes made by dams. The water is moved from lock to lock only through gravity.
On the day we visited, the ships were moving from Atlantic to Pacific, so the ships moved through the far right portion of the lock until the door. The water flows down from the far right portion into the far left portion, balancing the height of the water. As the water lowers on the right, the ship gets lowered as well (like a large wet elevator). The gates open, allowing the ship to move to the left portion. The gates close and the water (and ship) of the left portion lowers to the level of the Pacific, and the gate (not in the picture) opens. The ship is free from the canal. At the same time, water from the lake on the right (not in the picture) flows into the right portion, so it is the same height as the lake, letting ships move from the lake to the right portion.
Before we visited the Canal, I wasn’t expecting the locks to be that exciting. But seeing them up close, with giant ships effortlessly moving through them was quite amazing. We were able to see the water drain from one lock into the lower lock in real-time, and seeing the huge lock doors slowly close was very cool too. It really amazed me how this piece of engineering could run 24/7 without stopping, and still be using the same lock doors and water system from 1913.
For me, one of the luxuries of this time is the opportunity to learn Spanish. I’ve now taken 6 weeks of intensive Spanish (4 hours per day), supplemented with apps, videos and podcasts. And I’ve tried to use my limited but slowly growing vocabulary with any ticos (local Costa Ricans) I meet. (This is actually harder than you would expect, because many of them speak decent English, and they want to be helpful so they switch to English as soon as it’s obvious how poor my Spanish is.)
Little by little, it’s working! Before we arrived, my Spanish language proficiency was limited to ordering at taco trucks. (“Dos tacos al pastor, por favor!”) Now, I can carry on a basic conversation. When others are talking, I can usually understand a lot of what they are saying. When emailing or sending a WhatsApp to local folks, I always write it in Spanish, although it takes about ten times longer for me to work out the verb conjugations, look up new vocabulary, and then double check everything. (Thanks, Google Translate!)
Learning Spanish has also reminded me how grateful I am to Mrs. Petty, my 11th grade English teacher at Arlington High School in upstate New York, who was such a stickler for English grammar and had us diagram many sentences, and having that background has helped me learn Spanish grammar. Gracias la señora Petty!
I get this question a lot from other parents of teens.
To be honest, we didn’t really give them much of a choice.
We are also lucky. Asher had just wrapped up 8th grade at Yu Ming Charter School, and his classmates were going to a dozen different high schools anyway, so he was at a natural social transition point. Corbin would have been a junior at Stanford Online High School, an excellent academic experience that happens to create weaker ties to a specific cohort of students (“the Class of 2024”) since most classes and activities are organized by mastery or interest, not age. Neither of our boys is involved in organized sports. And they are both introverted and fortunately still seem to enjoy and/or tolerate our company most of the time.
Of course we made our case, for how much there is to see in the world and how important it is to broaden one’s perspective.
And here is what they say about why they went along with our plan:
Corbin: “I went along with this family travel year because I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more and experience different aspects of the world.”
Asher: “I went along with this because I thought it would be a good experience. I also thought it would teach me in a new interesting way rather than just sitting in a classroom staring at the teacher and/or whiteboard. Another reason was because I thought it sounded interesting and exciting. (Also… No school for a year!!!! Or so I thought….)”
And now, we are helped by the many people we meet who, upon hearing our plans, say to our children, “Wow, you are so lucky that you have parents who are willing to do this!”
Over the past 20 years, during our dreamy “what-if?” conversations, James and I have often talked about living outside the U.S. and travelling internationally. We wanted our kids to develop a broader perspective by experiencing life outside our privileged Bay Area bubble, and we wanted to show them some of the amazing things in the world that we were lucky enough to see when we travelled before we had kids. And of course, selfishly, we ourselves wanted to see more of the world.
But we never got serious about it. It was never “the right time.” When the kids were toddlers, everything was a blur; we were just keeping our heads above water. Then the kids were enrolled in a great K-8 school. Through it all, I was (and still am) passionate about the work I was doing to improve public schools and teach social entrepreneurship. We had momentum, or maybe inertia, living our lives according to more-or-less the typical go-to-work+be-a-parent patterns.
To be honest, now isn’t necessarily a great time either. COVID surges will probably mean we may not be able to see everything we want to. For an education entrepreneur, stepping away from work right now is really hard: the disruption to public education created by COVID also has created once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to build new, more equitable, more effective education systems. But last year, I watched my mom slide further into dementia, and had surgery to remove non-invasive breast cancer – in addition to experiencing the global pandemic. All were potent reminders: every moment is precious. And so we decided, let’s do it now, while we still can, physically and mentally. So here we are…!
When I suggested that we start a family blog about our family “gap year,” the kids mocked me: “A blog?! Who even reads blogs anymore?” Apparently, people who are not teenagers…since it’s been my friends and acquaintances who have asked about one. Besides keeping our friends and family up-to-date on our escapades, I hope it will help prompt us to reflect on our experiences and help keep this precious year from becoming just one big blur. Maybe it can also be a resource for other people planning a similar adventure. Plus, maybe it will help me reach my long-standing dream of becoming an international social media influencer?! 😉