The great Central American divide


Another two new countries and more lessons to learn, or should I say master because communication is key, even at the local Costa Rican Chinese restaurant where everyone speaks fluent SpanChese.

So to my surprise Chow Mein Hong Kong-style was a real find after being pizza’d out for the past week in Panama.

It took about an hour to fly from Panama City to San Jose and the two cities couldn’t be more different. Panama is a hot and sweaty thriving metropolis under continual construction. Yellow taxis whirl by beeping potential customers. There’s one price for you and then add $1. It is their way of finding out whether you’ve just got off the boat.

It is cooler in Costa Rica and the red taxis in San Jose appear on first take to have fewer banged up bumpers. Only a million or so people live in the capital compared with Panama’s thriving three million.

Both cities have a lot to offer. There’s no denying Panama is beautiful, if you know where to look. It has its dangerous [peligroso] communities gringoes need to avoid at all cost, or is it just to benefit the taxi drivers who say they have to circumnavigate the area [at an extra cost to you]!

DSC05064But in a cute B&B [] at the base of Ancon Hill, inside a gated community that once housed American officers working on the Panama Canal, that’s all forgotten. You’re surrounded by rainforest where sloths hang out high up in the trees, monkeys race up and down vines to pinch fruit as native birds push them off their perch and tiny near-transparent gekkos fly through the air. If they land on you accidentally they let you know via a sting in the tail.

It is exotic. And that is just in the built-up areas. Go up to Gamboa Rainforest Resort (pictured), even higher above islands where mountains once stood before the flood gates opened in the form of the famous canal and the view, as well as the diversity of plant and animal life, are breathtaking.

Locals say Panama will be thriving for another 10 years. It’s population of three million are split into three groups. Those that speak English [the city’s entrepreneurs] and have excellent paying jobs, those who speak Spanish and have good paying jobs, and the rest who don’t … have jobs.

DSC04920But it is the jobless who squat in some of the best real estate in town. If you want to buy in, you need to relocate them. Prices have tripled in 10 years but to foreigners it seems reasonable, especially for renovated flats. Less than a few hundred thousand for a decent apartment with water views, less than three hundred thousand for only water glimpses or no glimpse at all. Buying into homes away from the historical sector seems better priced at a couple of hundred thousand.

And working in Panama is easy I’m told if you have a job in mind. Panamanians prefer you apply for a visa for a chosen profession. Otherwise line up and wait, wait, wait for that general working visa. If you can prove you’ve got ongoing income and a lazy $100,000 to invest, you’ll go to the top of the immigration queue.

Do you know the way to San Jose?

I’ve only arrived in San Jose. The area where I’m staying is industrial [de la Iglesia Sagrado Corazon de Jesus] yet surrounded by shrines to Catholics. It is Sunday and the bells haven’t stopped ringing in tandem with the blare of car and train horns.

Guesthouse Hotel

Guesthouse Hotel

The guesthouse [] I’m in couldn’t be more different to La Estancia B&B. The room is stark in comparison. You get the sense it may have been a nun’s quarter in its recent past, until you turn the corner into communal areas to discover tiny enclaves of open green courtyards and lounging areas where facing couches with colourful cushions back onto plain walls painted with murals and carvings that pop!

I’m only here for two days before joining a host family for the next five weeks while I volunteer teaching ESL at Escuela Nueva Laboratoria. Orientation starts tomorrow and I can’t wait to begin helping co-teacher Silvia with grades 1-6. Apparently the kids are excited I’m coming all the way from Australia to help out. Of course, they hope I brought a Kangaroo or two with me. I can’t promise a live one, but I don’t think all 30 of them will be disappointed when we meet because I brought a Koala along too!

And of course if I get any spare time, I plan to check this city out. I’ve been here before but only for a few days in 2008. I never got to the Peace Museum, or the National Museum, nor the Interactive Museum, or the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design and did I mention the famous Museo de Jade? I’ll try to fit in the butterfly garden if the Children’s Museum is closed. If I’m here to help educate, I get a feeling I’m the one who’ll walk away with the education!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer-turned web and app producer who is currently writing a children’s ebook while teaching and blogging her way through Central and South America.

The hidden cost of social media clicks


Life in the fast lane…

New country, new world to navigate is a slogan that rang ever so true the other day when an innocent click on a FREE offer sent my email inbox into overload and my friends phone ringing off the hook!

It was an offer for credit cards. Given the two of us are in the middle of setting up an app and website it seemed prudent to check out what credit cards one might use for all those millions of people who are sure to buy merchandise via our website.

It was a fact-finding mission that got companies from every major city across the United States calling to find out how much credit I needed. And, given the credit rating was linked to my co-founder’s mobile [cell] phone account, I could have asked for anything. They were ready to talk “how much”.

That was until we drilled down to the fact I was here on a B1-B2 visa and not eligible to set up a bank account. But it got me thinking that social media sites can be dangerous places to peruse. An accidental click here and there can set off such a serious chain of events.

Of course I had to supply details such as my email and phone number on the form, which was about “providing information” and not some unleashed and unwanted hounding selling credit via email and cell.

But this also go me thinking about the credit excess that brought down people and companies around the world thanks to the willingness of financial agencies in the US to offer anyone credit, albeit in the form of low-doc loans.

And the credit card offer was linked to new start-ups. Luckily, as yet, no bank has come forth offering me a low-doc start-up loan, though a Bank of America representative gave some great advice on credit cards, hence me going out on this fact-finding mission. You have to have a credit card in the business’s name to gain a credit rating in the US. Without a rating you can’t provide a service or sell goods. So we better organise that business number quick-smart so we can up our ratings!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance journalist currently blogging her way across the US while finalising work on an app and website to be launched in July. Watch this space to be the first to find out just what the app is about!

Get more bang(s) for your buck

A case for and against for keeping it short!

A case for and against for keeping it short!

Trending in the US is speculation Michelle Obama is tiring of her bangs [fringe]. A photo of daughter Malia trying to flatten them down this week gave rise to reports the First Lady’s bangs are on the way out.

Even hairdresser to the stars, Ted Gibson, has coined an interesting term “bang regret” to explain what happens when the fascination with the fringe wanes!

It seems Americans want more easy maintenance bangs for their buck or no bangs at all, so an enterprising hair salon came up with a solution while growing them out or keeping them in check – the bang piece.

Given bangs are hot, hot, hot right now… if New Yorkers don’t have them, but want the ever so sexy look, they can get “guilt-free bangs without the commitment” at the Butterfly Studio Bang Bar on Fifth Avenue.

Founder Kattia Solano says she wanted to take the “fear” out of cutting bangs and introduced the bang piece so that women could experience different looks ahead of going under the scissors.

Even New York magazine has got behind the bang in its “coif finder” article naming salon hairstylists “Bang Experts” and awarding the studio “Best of NY 2013”.

It is destined to be the must-have accessory this northern Spring if interest in ABC News’ Good Morning America report ( is anything to go by. But it comes at a cost. Bang Bar’s HairDo faux fringe cost $US30 take-home or $US68 if styled and blowdried at the salon.

Fellow Australians can get in early this season to start their bang collection, or perhaps just take advantage this Autumn through to Winter to fashion their own.

Either way it looks like the bangs are here to stay despite Michelle Obama now finding them somewhat “irritating”.

If you need some tips on whether to bang or not to bang, the salon provides some expert tips. Go to for a guide to taming the mane.

Judy Wilkinson finally made it to Los Angeles and is currently blogging her way across the US, Central and South America bringing stories on the ground that count locally.

Must be April tomFOOLery

Some things seem to take a long time to get off the ground. Six months ago I had huge plans, then things got in the way of those plans, then more things… so many things I felt I was standing at the precipice of a new venture that promised great things only to find myself on the verge of pulling out because things weren’t going to plan!

It was scary. Like looking into a black hole. Thoughts raced around my head: abandon, continue or go ahead regardless?

Surely she who dares wins would [or could] be the glass half-full theory to carry me on … and it did.

But now I’m grounded once more, at the airport. My getaway is delayed 7 hours and counting. It is April 1 in the US where I’m headed, so I can only think that it is some cruel April’s Fool joke that the reliable Qantas ship is being denied release from maintenance.

Really, such an excuse doesn’t give one much faith in even getting on the plane should it manage to take off. It was meant to leave at 2pm, then 4pm, then 5pm to accommodate a cancelled United flight. Now it is 9pm.

So here I sit, six months and nearly 7 hours later still waiting for the adventure to start. Wish me luck, a safe flight and journey ahead 🙂

Freelance journalist Judy Wilkinson promises if she gets out of Sydney and makes it to LA she will spend the next 12 months travelling the depth and breadth of Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America.