Thursday, April 10, 2014

7. Go Cross Country Skiing under a Full Moon

One of my favorite things about the original year of 52 New Things was taking the opportunity to do things I'd done before in new ways.  The quintessential Vermont hike -- Camel's Hump -- became a New Thing when I did it, with various friends and family, in all four seasons.  A place I'd been to before, New York City, looked very different when it became the setting for 24 hours without sleeping there. So I was excited when Jon suggested the idea of doing something that had been on my original list - cross country skiing -- and add a new twist of doing it under a full moon.  Then friend and former student Michelle suggested that her current home would be a great spot.  It took a while for it to happen, but some things are so very worth the wait.

Jon and I on our first night-time cross country ski outing in Montpelier.

 The first chance to take advantage of some night-time cross country skiing (albeit not by the full moon) happened, ironically, because another New Thing we'd been planning got cancelled.  Jon and I and four friends -- Lynn, Ed, Sharon and Mark-- were signed up to learn how to cook with bugs.  Shockingly, though the six of us thought this would be a great way to spend an evening, our enthusiasm was not shared by the rest of Central Vermont and the bug cookout did not happen.  (We did manage to get a bug dinner in a few weeks later, though, and it is described here).

But since no bugs were in the offing, Lynn suggested we go to Plan B, a ski that took off from their backyard and went through nearby Hubbard Park.  Sharon and Mark bowed out, and our friend Kate joined in, but the real stars of the show were the two canine participants, Willow and Frank.  In fact, Frank was quite the hero, kindly swapping his awesome headlamp attached to his collar with the one with weak batteries I was wearing.  The swap occurred about 10 minutes into the ski, and suddenly things got a lot easier when I could actually see where I was going.
Kate, trying in vain to make Frank look at the camera for his spotlight moment.  Willow is rocking my all-time favorite dog fashion accessory -- her orange winter boots.

The family McNamara -- Willow, Ed and Lynn -- pause for a photo op.

A few weeks later, we got the chance to do the full-fledged full moon ski when Jon and I visited my friend and former student, Michelle, who now lives near the Sleepy Hollow Inn, Ski and Bike Center.  She had originally invited us out for the full moon on February 14, and when that hadn't worked out, I'd been worried whether there'd be good snow for the next one in March.  Of course, had I but realized that this was to be The (Almost) Neverending Winter, I'd have had no worries.  As it turned out, there was still plenty of snow when the next full moon came around on March 16.

Michelle had us over for a great chicken soup dinner, and an opportunity to ski straight out to a beautifully-groomed trail through the woods.  We skied the first half of it with our head lamps on, but then turned them off and navigated by the light of the moon.
Michelle and Jon about to hit the trail again, this time minus head lamp light.

Michelle and I first became friends when she was participated in a class trip to Tanzania that I co-led.  I am happy to see that the enthusiasm that endeared her to our Tanzanian hosts has only grown in the years since she graduated from Saint Mike's.

It was a pretty cold night, so we wore lots of layers, but it was amazing how fast you can warm up when skiing. I don't anticipate ever being a multimillionaire, but I definitely came to the conclusion that night that a personal, private cross country ski trail through the woods of Vermont wouldn't be such a bad thing.  Assuming that never happens, Michelle's invitation is probably as close as I'll get.  But it was awesome, and highlighted everything I love about my adopted state: the people who live here (and were skating beside me); the spectacular mountains and forests around us; the sparse population that allows for such unique experiences; and even the winter (though I don't often feel that in March and April), which blankets the state in a layer of snow that is both beautiful and fun to play in.  I think this year I've come to appreciate cross country skiing a lot more than I used to.  Compared to downhill it's much cheaper, can be done in many more places, and is more environmentally friendly.  But if you've never tried it under a full moon, do yourself a favor and put it on next winter's to-do list.  I promise, you won't regret it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

6. Try Nordic Skating

It seems like this winter has stretched on forever, which is my new official excuse for why it has taken me so long to write about the New Things I tackled during the winter of 2014.  But as the snow is rapidly disintegrating, so are my excuses, so here, with no further procrastination, is a report on something everyone needs to try -- Nordic skating.  I've spent most of the winter forcing all those who are close to me to hear, in minute detail, about my ever-so-incremental progress as a figure skater and ice dancer.  Lots of people have humored me, but they've been less enthusiastic about joining me, with a key issue being that it feels artificial: they want to skate outside. So my new answer to that one is Nordic skating.  Next year when I head up to Lake Morey everyone is coming with me. 

Next year, everyone's going.  This year it was Lynn, me, Jon and Liz.  My sweetie Jon and friend Lynn have been extraordinary good sports in this round of 52 thus far. My friend Liz is one of my figure skating role models, though on our day at Lake Morey she wore hockey skates.

So what's the deal with Nordic skating?  It's kind of a cross between ice skating and cross country skiing.  The skater wears a cross country ski boot and attaches a Nordic skating blade to the top binding, where a cross country ski would attach.  The skating blade is longer than a regular skating one, and is free on the heel end.
In case anyone was wondering, this is what a Nordic skate looks like, up close and personal.

 It just so happens that the longest outdoor track for ice skating sits on Lake Morey in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. And the only shop selling Nordic skates in the US rents equipment there.  And the horrible cold that dragged on and on in Vermont this year froze Lake Morey good and solid so that there was no danger in using all of the track around the lake. So on the first Saturday in March all the stars aligned and it was time to try it out. 
Jon, Lynn and Liz getting ready to head out onto the ice.

The cool thing about Nordic skates is that they can handle imperfect ice.  I wouldn't say they glide right over everything, but they definitely handle some cracks and bumps pretty well, and it's not hard to work up a bit of speed, especially when you're on a 4.5 mile loop.  Of course, one thing about being on a lake that is very frozen in winter in Vermont is that there are others who want to take advantage of that as well, mainly people ice fishing.  So what is considering a skating track by Nordic skaters in considered a road by ice fishers in pickup trucks, and it's not too hard to figure out who common sense dictates has the right of way.
Lynn demonstrating the share-the-crowded-road concept with one of the friendly neighborhood trucks that were also using the lengthy loop we were skating.

Everyone we talked to said that this was the perfect year for outdoor ice skating -- lots of consistent cold weather meant that the ice on Lake Morey, and Lake Champlain for that matter, was more solidly frozen than it had been in years.  It may not be as strong next year, but if it's frozen again enough for the ice fishermen, I definitely want to go again, and everyone else should come along too!
Contrary to the dire predictions of many, there were no dramatic spills on the ice, so Jon thoughtfully volunteered to do a dramatic interpretation for the record.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

5. Try Curling

Although this entry is frightfully late - we actually did this one right before the Winter Olympics began -- it still feels vaguely appropriate to post about it now because we seem to be in the Winter Without End.  It's late March and still the snow and ice and sub-zero temps just keep coming.  So, if that's the way it's gonna be, then good.  Because I have a whole bunch of winter activities to write about, beginning with this one. 
Curling!  Here's Jon, showing off the all-important (and expensive $800+) curling stones under the watchful eye of our coach for the day.
So, curling.  That much-maligned, "is-it-REALLY-a-sport?" sport.  On the basis of my one brush with the skills and strategy of this game, I do not feel qualified to answer that burning question.  But I will say that, as with almost every new thing I've tried this year or in the 2010 New Things year, it's certainly harder than it looks.

First lesson of curling: ice is slippery.  Before you can do anything else, you have to learn to keep your balance doing sliding lunges, as Matthew and Christi are doing.
 And all my friends who yawned and politely declined cheated themselves out of an afternoon of humbling realizations about their own limitations with running, scrubbing and sliding on ice. And also, some great poutine. But luckily there were three takers, my perennially good-sport sweetie, Jon, and friends Matthew and Christi, who agreed to journey down from Montreal to meet us at the rink just over the border in Bedford, Quebec.
The four of us signed up for a learn to curl workshop put on by the Green Mountain Curling Club, and were paired with another newbie from Jericho, Vermont to form our four person+1 rotating team. The positions all have great names: lead, second, vice and skip (who, rather than the lead, is actually calling the shots).
 But of course, before we could play we had to learn the moves and the all-important vocabulary. Like bowlers, real curlers wouldn't be caught dead without their own curling shoes and stones, but since they're pricey we newbies got to borrow stones and use curling foot pads that we stepped on with our regular shoes as we learned to throw the stone.  Which, I repeat, was not as easy as it looked -- since it ends with the person throwing the stone lunging and sliding down the ice. And the stone has to make it to the hog line to even be considered in play.
The agony of the defeated stone thrower. All that effort and it didn't make it to the hog line.  But at least I didn't fall over.  Bonus on that one.

Once the stone is thrown, it's up to the scrubbers to help it down the ice and guide its path by running in front of it while scrubbing the ice in its path. 
Christi and Jon spring into action as scrubbers.

And there's the skip calling down from the opposite end of the rink telling everyone what to do (and if a skip doesn't realize that she just got promoted from vice skip to skip and it's her turn to pay attention and yell "scrub" down the ice really loudly it's possible she will get yelled at by her frustrated curling coach).
The skipper must also strategize about where the stone should be thrown to knock the opponent's stones out of position -- another task that in which I was less than stellar.

Despite offering several hours of our lives putting our best efforts in (and taking some embarrassing slides) to learn the fine art of curling, we lost our match, but we didn't care.  Our consolation prize was the best possible one a person travelling through rural Quebec can get -- poutine, of course.  Curling is definitely not going to replace ice skating in my book, but when it comes to junk food, it's Quebec for the win.
The all-important apres-curl.  Featuring Christi, Matthew, Jon and a couple of big plates of fries, cheese curds, and gravy -- junk food of the Gods.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

4. Eat Bugs

When we were both in our early twenties, my sister Katrinka had a college professor, Ben Parker, who she used to run around quoting.  Her favorite Ben Parker quote has become one of my favorites as well.  "Do we know what we like, or do we like what we know?" I thought about that quote a good bit in the last couple weeks leading up to this New Thing -- eating bugs. For me, the bug dinner was exactly why I decided to embark on a second year of new things; to make myself stretch a little, consider options I ordinarily wouldn't, and to think about why I automatically put some things in the "no" pile for no logical reason.  And now that I've eaten bugs -- crickets, mealworms and silkworm pupae, actually -- I'm more convinced than ever that the answer to Ben Parker's question is that we like what we know.  I also think that's kind of a limiting way to live life.

Jacquelyn from Nutty Steph's offering mealworm truffles to Mark and Kate

Bugs, after all, are just another form of animal protein.  You can grind them up and mix them in things the way you would flour, or leave them in a more whole form and roast or fry them.  As animal protein goes, they're very low fat, and can be produced in far more sustainable, ethical ways than larger animals.  Bugs raising and harvesting doesn't subject them to the evils of factory farming.  Bugs naturally live in very close proximity to each other, and go into a form of hibernation when it's cold, so they can be put to sleep as they naturally would be in the winter, but just don't wake up.  No terrors of confinement and slaughterhouses, no need for antibiotics or massive inputs of energy and water through grain-fattening. In fact, it's estimated that if humans switched most of their meat-eating to bug eating that alone would be a huge to cut our carbon emissions and water footprint.
We all agreed that the mealworm pot pie could use some gravy, but Jon soldiered on, and ate his without further complaint.

I learned all these facts and more from our host for the evening, Rachael Young, who owns Eat Yummy Bugs. She often puts on dinners like this one to introduce Vermonters to the idea of eating bugs.  The whole thing was made doubly attractive because of its setting and dessert menu.  The dinner was held at ArtsRiot, one of those local institutions that epitomize why I love Vermont so much.  It's a space that hosts daily and nightly events and dinners -- Cajun, Ethiopian and Mad Dash (a stationary bike spinning contest) are a sprinkling of recent options.  And dessert came courtesy of Nutty Steph's, a one-of-a-kind chocolate shop and sometimes piano bar in tiny Middlesex, Vermont.

So, on to the question that anyone who has actually made it this far in the post is probably waiting for: what did we actually eat? It was a five course meal consisting of:

 I Salad (with creamy silkworm pupae dressing and cricket crouton)
II Bumpkin Soup (pumpkin soup with corn and roasted silkworms)

The soup was tasty, but silkworms have a kind of chalky texture a little like lima beans

III Crickets and Grits (crickets on fried mealworm gritcakes with avocado drizzle)

My favorite savory dish of the evening -- crickets and grits

IV Bug Pot Pie (potato, cabbage and mealworm filling in a pot pie with a cricket flour crust)

We were starting to get a little full at this point, but we somehow managed -- here's the bug pot pie.

V Dessert (mealworm truffles and chocolate mealworm flour cookies)

My favorite courses were the crickets and grits and the truffles.  Except for the roasted silkworms, which had a slightly chalky consistency and "popped" a little when you bit into them, it was all pretty easy to get used to. The whole thing made me realize that we eat what we eat in large part because of habit and convenience.  Things that seem gross are ones with textures, tastes or origins that are less familiar, but there's nothing that inherently requires that we strain to the familiar. Eating is one of the most ordinary things we all do, every day.  But the simple act of putting the bodies of worms and crickets into my mouth instead of, say, the corpses of shrimp or chunks of cow, was the most revolutionary thing I've done in weeks.  Which maybe says something about just how hard it is for we humans to honestly explore the question of whether we know what we like or merely like what we know.
The bug-eating crew: Amanda, Bryn, Jon, Mark, Kate and James

Coming Attractions
Curling: This is actually something I already did, and still need to write about.  But since it involves about a million special terms and rules, it'll take a little while for me to get it together for the next post.

Nordic Skating: At long last, it looks like I'm getting my chance to try Nordic skating this weekend  (Saturday, March 1) at Lake Morey.  If anyone else wants to give it a go, there's still time to join the group.

March Fitness Madness: It's easy to tell that my cousin, Jensen Siplon-Curry, and I share the same gene pool because we share some funny similarities, including a love for figuring out new challenges and roping others into doing them with us.  She came up with the challenge for March -- 100 miles (or its time-equivalent, in sweaty 30-minute increments) of exercise for the month. I'm signed on, as has my sister, Katrinka and friends, Lynn and Kate.  Still room for others to join in -- shoot me an email if you're interested.


Friday, February 14, 2014

3. Visit a Finca and Learn How Coffee Makes It to the Cup

Ever had something that you resolve to do every day, and then every day you go to bed realizing that you let it slide again?  Right now, the name of my procrastination is “blogging”,  I'm not quite sure why, but what I do know that I really like having the record from my first year of 52 to look back and reflect on, and I’m bound and determined to get back on track and record this one in the same way.  I’ve got two new things to write about since last I posted, one from the trip to Panama and one from last weekend.  So here we go, with the first of the two: visit a finca and learn about coffee.

Finca dos Jefes is a small farm that produces organic coffee (usually), much of which is going to Eastern European specialty coffee shops right now

On this one I should start with a confession: I’m not actually a coffee drinker, so this is actually a new thing in more ways than one.  Not that I’ve never drunk coffee – when I was a grad student it helped fuel some late-night writing spells and I like a super-sweet milk-saturated iced coffee in the summer just fine.  But in the last few decades, I have rarely if ever had a full cup of basic brewed coffee, and  going out of my way to taste and discern differences? That is new stuff for this palate for sure. At least we went to the right place.  Unbeknownst to me, the non-coffee drinker, the Boquete region of Panama, where we spent the bulk of our trip is home to Gesha coffee, a "designer" strain that earned a perfect 100 at a "cupping" competition, thereby unleashing a frenzied re-discovery of Gesha coffee.  Some places realized that they already had Gesha growing, others immediately planted some.  In actuality, as we learned on our finca tour, coffee is actually like wine, and its flavor is very dependent on the conditions in which it is grown -- soil types, rainfall, temperatures, all that good stuff.  But for an uninformed public, one Geisha is as good as another, and in Boquete they are happily growing Gesha to scratch the new itch that coffee connoisseurs have now developed.

Jon and I took our cupping lesson very seriously, but alas, neither of us will ever be world-class (or even good) cuppers.

So what is there to know about growing, processing and roasting coffee?  A good bit, actually, and we got our lesson at Finca dos Jefes (Two-Boss Coffee Farm), chosen by Jon and I because they had been advertised as the only organic finca offering tours in the area. Sadly, we quickly learned that Finca dos Jefes has had to temporarily give up its organic designation because of an infestation of rust that has decimated the coffee crop of the area. In an effort to control the rust the finca has resorted to spraying with some non-organic compounds in the hopes that once the infestation has been controlled it can go back to its organic methods and in a few years regain its status.  In the meantime, they struggle on, producing coffee and conducting tours like the one we did.

Obviously, the first thing to see is what coffee actually looks like on the bush.  I had seen coffee growing once before, at the home of the parents of my Tanzanian friend African, in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.  There, the bushes could barely be called that, and were interspersed among other plants so that at first I had difficulty even picking them out.  Here, however, they were planted in rows, although again they had been deliberately inter planted with other bushes and trees, including fruit trees.  We visited in early January, which is part of the harvesting season, so we were able to see the coffee on the bush, being picked by local members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe, which constitutes most of the picking labor force in the area.    Finca dos Jefes pays above the national coffee picking minimum wage, works with the same group of pickers every year, and generally appeared to ensure reasonable work conditions -- though we heard stories of worse wages and conditions prevailing at some other area farms.

The coffee berries actually have a thin, sweet skin and pulp that must either be dried and pounded off (as Finca dos Jefes does) or soaked and worked off under water.  We learned that the former method is more expensive and takes longer, but the latter, which is usually employed, results in highly alkaline water being dumped in the nearby rivers and harming the plants and animals that rely on this water.
And there they are: coffee berries in all their glory.
The pulpy outside of the bean is surprisingly sweet.
Gary, the finca manager conducted our tour.  Here he's showing Jon the coffee on the drying tables.
Jon checking out the big mortar and pestle used to take the skins off instead of soaking the beans.

The dried, skinned beans are bagged and stored until it's time for roasting, which Finca dos Jefes does in small batches at high (400+ degrees F) temperatures. The roasted coffee can then be ground up and drunk -- either by "regular" consumers like us, or by "cuppers" who evaluate the taste, much like wine, detecting all kinds of flavors and undertones ranging from the pleasant (caramel) to the strange (tobacco anyone?) to the just plain yucky (mildew).  We tried our hands at cupping and learned that we should definitely not give up our day jobs when we guessed wrong even on the level of roast of the beans.  Still, for two individuals who are not big coffee drinkers it was great fun to learn new things about this commodity.  It's always good to learn about the things we consume, both to appreciate them better, and to become more discerning consumers who choose our products based on how ethically and sustainably they were produced.  Given that coffee is grown in dozens of countries around the world (though -- fun factoid -- Brazil is heads and shoulders the biggest producer), there are lots of opportunities when travelling internationally to visit a finca.  I'd recommend it for sure.

Friday, January 24, 2014

2. Go Rock Climbing Outside in a Foreign Country

Occasionally, a new thing makes the list as a way to fix a deficiency that's been bugging me, and that is the case with this one.  I've climbed outside before, and I've climbed in climbing gyms in foreign countries before (in Nepal and in Jordan).  But it's more than a little ridiculous that I've never been outside to rock climb, particularly during the almost-year I spent in Jordan.  So, when Jon and I decided to go to Panama as our new country choice to kick off the year, it was selected in part because it has outdoor rock climbing (and at least according to the all-knowing Internet world, Nicaragua does not).
Jon and me posing at the end of the day in front of one of many carvings done by a local artists (and in front of the cliff we'd been hanging off of for the last few hours).

There's a bunch of other climbing-related New Things on the list, but most of those will require actual work to progress from where I'm currently at.  This one was just fun.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Jon and I both thought that Boquete was our favorite of the places we visited in Panama and the fact that they had not only rock climbing, but climbing on really memorably-shaped rock, helped seal the deal on its "favorite status."
Me coming down off the "memorably shaped" basalt that made the day's climbing so interesting.

Lots of times I've found that the quality of a new experience (or even a not-new one) is determined as much by who else is participating as by what we are doing.  Our fellow climbers, two father-and-son sets (one son celebrating his college graduation, the other barely started in elementary school) and a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, varied widely in their skill level but shared a common sense of fun and appreciation for what we were doing. 
Favia was one-half of the newlywed couple (Brian was on the ground below).  She was the only one of us who did lead climbing that day -- here she is, making it look a lot easier than it is.

We were all also tremendously lucky to have the founder of rock climbing in Panama leading our experience.  Cesar is not only the best climber in the country, he's the person who started the sport there, and set all the routes.  Although his demeanor is very low-key and modest, at the end of the day, when he cleaned the routes at the end of the day by free-climbing them in a very rapid succession, it was like watching a professional acrobat at work.
When Cesar took down the ropes for the day he did by free-climbing (attached to nothing).  It was a little nerve-wracking to watch, though he never seemed to skip a beat.

I still have lots of limitations as a climber, which dictated that we climbed in the easiest area, called Gunko.  But the rock, which had a strange shape -- kind of as if square and rectangle blocks had been stacked with the corners sticking out -- made the whole experience novel and fun.  As did the knowledge that we were climbing on the first-of-their-kind routes for the country. 

In Boquete, some people talk about the fear that too many foreigners may find out about what a great place it is, and overwhelm it.  But I kind of hope that at least a small stream of rock climbers will hear about the climbing and come check it out. Given the natural beauty of the setting, the uniqueness of the basalt rock, and the enthusiasm of the tiny climbing community and its leader, Cesar, my bet is that they wouldn't regret the decision (and to learn more about him. his climbing, and how he got things started in Panama, check out this video.  For me, it was a great way to crack open the sport activity side of the 2014 list of 52 more new things.
One last shot -- this one of Jon, doing some tricky moves with his feet on that stack-of-blocks basalt rock.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

1. New Country for a New List for a New Year: Visit Panama

Back in 2010 when I embarked on the original year of new things I did it by travelling to a new country, Nepal, to visit my old friend, Cliff, and his family.  It was a great adventure to start the year, and I’m happy that I am also able to begin the 2014 year of MORE new things by also visiting a new country.  This time, though, I didn’t travel solo and I didn’t go halfway around the world.  Jon has (mostly enthusiastically) agreed to do lots of the things on my list with me, beginning with this visit to a country in our own hemisphere that is new to both of us, Panama.

Though we didn’t plan it that way, we actually managed to miss a truly frigid cold snap (even for Vermont) while we’ve been away, and spent the last eight days enjoying the warmth and rain forests of Panama.  Panama isn’t a big country, with a population around 4 million people, but it sits at a terrific intersection of things that Jon and I can talk about for hours – politics (me), the natural world (Jon) and geography (both of us).  Panama features a super-narrow natural “waistline” that became the Panama Canal to form a water shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; a huge diversity of animal and plant life and micro climates; a large population of indigenous people asserting their cultural and political autonomy; and a history of a small nation struggling to carve its own destiny under the weight of the larger and more powerful nations of first Spain, then Columbia and the United States.  Dipping into this fascinating mix of people, animals and history for such a short period, we concentrated our time in steaming Panama City and the cooler highland rain forest of Boquete – with an obligatory beach day to allow us to get the requisite Gringo sunburn to bring back to Vermont.

Jon and me exploring the town of Boquete, which also happens to have some spectacular gardens.
We started and ended the trip in Panama City, spending a couple days in the city and the adjacent Canal Zone on each end, and the middle was spent in Boquete.  Getting to Boquete requires a 7-8 hour bus trip (we took a night bus the first time, a day bus the second) from Panama City to David, Panama’s second largest city.  From David, it’s a one-ish hour bus ride to Boquete.

The Purple House Hostel in David took its title very literally.  The walls, linens, plates, everything --purple.  Here we preparing for our beach day where, because of my poor tanning application skills, I broke the color code and created some big blotches of red all over my shoulders.
The feature that dominates Panama City and the zone around it is overwhelmingly the Panama Canal.  Built between 1904– and 1914 by the United States, which laid claim to the land through the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, after a failed construction attempt by the French, it was ceded back to Panama in the 1970s and actually reverted to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999.    There are plans, overwhelmingly supported by the citizens in a national referendum, to expand the Canal, and Panama views it as a key to its economic future.  The three sets of locks through which boats must pass in their 80 kilometer journey are impressive engineering-wise, but not much to look at.  When tourists are done watching the water move big boats up and down, their best bet is to do what we did, and retreat to the Casco Viejo, the section of the city that is full of old Spanish colonial architecture and is coming back as an artist-tourist district after crumbling into disrepair.
Although they're not exactly pretty, it's hard not to be impressed by the operations at the Miraflores Locks.  The ships are pulled by overland caterpillar type "tugs" with super-strong cables  and they have only TWO FEET of clearance on each side of the canal.  You can sit in stadium-style seating and watch the ships get pulled through as the Locks raise and lower.

Inside the National Theater in Casco Viejo.  Breathtakingly ornate, it feels like stepping into a bygone era of opulence.
Inside the Iglesia de San Jose, where the priests outwitted the infamous Captain Morgan when he came a-plundering.  While he was busy pulling all the riches out of the other cathedrals, the priests painted the altar black -- he thought the golden alter had already been stolen, and so he didn't take it, and a reproduction remains in the church to this day (the real one is in a museum).

Our other strong recommendation is to head to Boquete, as we did. Though a country with coasts, in addition to tropical islands, on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans might seem to be just begging for a beach vacation, anyone with an interest in wildlife, rain forests and hiking should seriously consider Boquete.  We were there for four days, stayed at one of the best hostels I’ve ever visited, and got the chance to go rock climbing, see a coffee plantation (finca), learn about the indigenous people of the area (the Ngobe-Bugle), and did some hiking with a local naturalist. Since the first two of these activities – rock climbing outdoors in a foreign country and learning about coffee in a finca, constituted new things, they will get their very own later posts. 
Jon gets the scoop on some local birds from Hans, our guide, who took us for a hike on a trail that is frequently used by the local Ngobe-Bugle Indians.

The takeaway message for travel enthusiasts is that Panama is a great destination.  In addition to the basic craven desire to escape the ridiculously cold weather being endured by our fellow Vermonters, we got a chance to see some beautiful rain forests, a bit of beach time, a marvel of the modern world, and a fascinating living lesson on the forces of globalization, and how they affect global sea trade, indigenous peoples and post-colonial states.  A great way to start a new year, and a new list.

My favorite "what is that" picture from the trip.  It's a giant fiddlehead from a tree fern.  There were lots of them in the rain forest we visited.

The hostel where we stayed in Boquete -- the Refugio del Rio was pretty great. It sat next to a river, had porches behind every room, lots of great common areas, and the most active kitchen I've ever seen in a hostel.  If you go to Boquete -- and you should -- consider staying there!