Saturday 14th November - Locked down again in England, but art carries on at Westbury People's Gallery, Oxford
Since leaving quarantine at the end of August, I've been busy catching up on the work I had booked over the summer, mostly outdoor painting in and around Oxford. The weather is much colder than I'm used to in Panama but I've still been able to work outside. I'd usually be back in Isla Bastimentos sometime in October but have decided to stay in England at least until January before going back.
Tourism has opened up in Bocas del Toro and the beaches, restaurants and hostels are now open, with covid cases in decline. It seems that for now the strict lockdown over there has paid off. Lockdown is much more relaxed in England, with open schools and universities and many continuing to go to work so hopefully it'll be enough to bring down the spread.
I'm currently working at the Westbury People's Gallery which is situated in the front garden of a suburban house in Rose Hill, Oxford. Sculpture, paintings and prints of local artists are exhibited here, while the noticeboards facing the street display poems and posters. There is also a book and plant exchange which is popular and it will be a performance space in future as well.
My work here has involved building weatherproof display cases for the artwork and maintaining the structures around the gallery. I've really enjoyed working on the various projects here and can see the effect the artwork has had in raising the spirits of the local passers by. Much of the artwork is of a satirical nature, anti-Trump and anti-Brexit, and it really strikes a chord with people in these difficult, uncertain times. The social commentary with a dash of humour on display here seems much appreciated. I'm hoping to add some of my own artwork soon.
Visit the gallery online at www.facebook.com/Westbury-Community-Gallery-and-Performing-Arts-Space-112979206936951
I'm back in England now and have a week left to go of my 14 day quarantine. It's been a long time since my last blog post as my laptop had to be repaired and was gone for 6 weeks. We were out of lockdown by then thankfully, but it did make travel plans very difficult. I was waiting for US flights to open to non-US citizens so that I could use my return tickets but ended up having to book a humanitarian flight via Amsterdam.
However, I found out just a few days later that I would have been able to use my original returns! Very frustrating, however the journey back went very smoothly without any problems. I had to get a special travel document from the British Embassy to be allowed to travel across the regions of Panama to the city for the flight and arrange a boat to take me to the mainland, since normal passenger services are not running at the moment. I stayed for a few days at a hotel in Panama City in case a Covid 19 test was required as with some European flights, but this was not necessary to enter Holland. The city is still in lockdown with men and women allowed out at specific hours on alternate days, as it had been for the whole country many weeks ago.
There were few passengers at the airport with few flights leaving the country and on the flight each passenger was separated by an empty seat to maintain social distancing. I brought only hand luggage to allow for quick transfers which worked well. Quite a few passengers wore full body coverings as well as a mask and a face shield which made for a rather surreal journey. Only masks were actually required by the airlines though, and I was relieved to find that food and drink was served as normal.
After a week of rain the sun is finally out, and I've been getting ready to start painting again. So as not to put my family at risk, I'm quarantined in the studio above the garage and sleeping in my converted van just as I do when working at festivals. I've been missing the islands and the tropical temperatures but hopefully the good weather will hold out for a while now!
On Monday the lockdown ended, so we are now able to go out in the daytime between 5am and 7pm every day. Beaches are still off limits for swimming, but it's amazing to have more freedom at last. I've been making the most of it, taking some forest walks and going into town to get art materials. Many shops are now open, in Bocas including department stores.
Being able to get out of the house during the day has been amazing in the hot weather, thankfully some thunderstorms have topped up the water tanks too. There was a fantastic lightning show across the bay a few nights ago. A party vibe has been in the air all day, since it's the first Sunday people have all been allowed to be out at once.
I've been working on a wooden sign made of nispero, or 'iron wood' as it is often referred to here. It's a challenge to work with as it is extremely hard, but this is also one of it's good points. Although it takes a lot of time to sand, the beautiful grain is a orangey-red in colour. After planing and sanding, I have used a soldering iron to burn the design into the wood, a technique called pyrography. After the varnish dries I will add some colourful tints, then add a final coat of laquer. The piece is for some friends at Old Bank Tea Garden and Coffeehouse, which will also be a live music/spoken word performance venue.
Just as we came out of lockdown a few cases of coronavirus were found in Bocas Town. One of the barillos has been quarantined for 2 weeks and those who are ill are to be housed in rooms at the old hospital. Numbers are quite low at the moment, and none have yet been found in Isla Bastimentos. It's been an uncertain time, as we are not sure if lockdown will return or if it will continue to be lifted under these circumstances.
The lockdown hours are still in place but little by little the rules are relaxing. Surfing is now permitted so hopefully before too long we'll also be able to swim and snorkel. I can see why the process is slow here, if the beaches of Bocas were to suddenly open this could trigger a rush to the area from other parts of the country spreading the virus to the islands from the cities, just as has happened with beaches in England. People would post their beach photos on social media and some would certainly be tempted to find a way to reach the archipelago, which is still thankfully without any cases of the dreaded Covid 19.
When I took my trip to town to buy veggies last week, there were certainly a few more shops open, but no hardware stores, though I hear some opened yesterday. It'll be great to buy the materials I need to paint and make some necessary repairs to the house. I'm planning to take a trip over there tomorrow.
My friend Michelle dropped off a big bag of chaya leaves from her garden, a plant which tastes very much like spinach and is full of iron. It's the first time I've tried it, it needs to be simmered for 15-20 minutes and chopped before you can eat it but it's so worthwhile, it's been ages since I had spinach and it's going into almost everything I eat!
Many nutritious fruit and veg, such as plantain, banana, coconut and papaya grow well here as well as medicinal herbs. One that I have used is bitter melon or Sorosi, a yellow flowering climbing plant , which can be used to bring down fever and cure many ailments. It grows plentifully here and quite often the vines grow into my house. Noni is also common here, an unusual tasting fruit which boosts the immune system as well as soursop or guanabana which is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. It's juice and tea made from it's leaves is delicious.
I've been making ginger beer during quarantine, which I tried to make before but have not had the time to really concentrate and work out how to make it fizzy. The process starts with fermenting the ginger and sugar over 5 days to create the starter, though it is possible to skip this step and use instant yeast. The next step is to mix some of the starter with more sugar and ginger in an airtight container. In this climate it takes only 2 days. After that it needs to go into the fridge in a very airtight container to keep it carbonated. It's non-alcoholic but makes a great mixer for rum, to make a Jamaican Mule or a Dark n Stormy.
Cloudy skies this afternoon after a few really hot and humid days, feeling like thunderstorms may be approaching, which will be a relief, as well as some showers to top up my rain catch hopefully. It's now day 52 of lockdown here in Panama and while some measures have been relaxed, we are still confined to our houses most of the time.
A few of the restrictions have begun to lift, such as the 'dry law' or alcohol ban which has been in place since late March. We were all pleased to hear that, though the region's mayors overturned the ruling and it was briefly re-instated! Local stores now seemed to have decided to make up their own minds whether to sell it or not. From tomorrow, we are also allowed to exercise during our shopping hours, though as beaches are still closed, swimming is banned.
My 'time slot' to go out is between 5.30pm and 7.30pm on women's days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This makes a trip across to Bocas Town rather difficult as at the moment, boats do not run after 6pm. If I need to get across to town for anything, I have to pay a boat to wait for me, or risk being stranded there. There are a few tiny shops here in Bastimentos where I buy most of my food, though the choice of fresh produce is rather limited.
I had an unusual visitor to my house one evening which gave me a shock. It was a female elephant beetle, according to my friend John who is an Entomologist. As you can see, the beetle is almost the same size as my hand, and when it flew towards my face it sounded like a helicopter. They tend to bounce around noisily inside a house crashing off the walls, so I caught her in a large bowl and released her onto the balcony.
In the last few days, I've been keeping busy doing some website work, adding a new page for my decorating services. Though my festival work in England is cancelled this summer, I'm grateful to still have some exterior house painting work scheduled.
On Friday an extension was announced to Panama's international travel ban. There will be no flights leaving or coming to the country until 22nd June, apart from repatriation flights, though this may be extended again, as it has before. I've decided to wait for commercial flights to restart and I can re-schedule my return tickets before I risk travel, and the possibility of getting stuck somewhere I would not choose to be. For sure, the islands of Bocas del Toro are the safest place for now.
There's a festive atmosphere this Sunday in town, with lots of people playing loud music from this morning onwards. Some of my neighbours have sound systems louder than the bar across the street. Sunday is the traditional party day here and it seems increasingly like we are on the road back to some kind of normality, though most would agree here, it'll likely be some time before the tourists return.