Maybe you didn’t know, but Panama is a great place to grow cashews.  This time of year, you can walk outside and pick them off the trees.

That’s right.  Like walnuts and almonds, cashews grow on trees, and appear hanging below the fruit of the tree (actually a pseudo-fruit called the cashew apple or marañon) instead of part of the root or inside of the fruit.

Native to northeastern Brazil, cashews can now be found in most tropical climates worldwide, and are cash crops in 32 countries from Brazil to Nigeria to Vietnam to India.  The trees can grow to a height of over 30 feet, and an adult tree will produce about 200 cashews per year.  A single cashew nut grows below each marañon.

There is a lot of debate about the edibility of raw cashew nuts, with some people saying they can make you very ill.  There are toxic characteristics to a liquid called cardol that exists between the shell and the cashew nut.  The truth is that the raw cashew is more nutritious than the cooked version, but like many other foods, some people have an allergy to this particular nut.  Cooking or processing seems to remove some of the allergic characteristics for some people, as well as a good way to remove cardol.  Those who are allergic to cashews may also tend to be allergic to other tree nuts and have severe reactions to poison ivy.  The cashew allergy can manifest itself as hives, or it may be respiratory or intestinal in nature.

But if you are one of the fortunate people who do not have allergies to this delicious nut, the variations are endless.  Thai, Chinese, and Indian cuisine routinely use the cashew in various ways in many dishes.  You can make cashew butter, cashew cheese, even a cashew wine.

The marañon is equally versatile, being edible by itself, or it can be prepared in syrup or candied.  It, too, can be made into a wine.  In India, the cashew apples are trampled by foot to make into a potent liquor called feni.  Unless it is processed or preserved in some manner, the cashew apple is very perishable, and this may be one reason you do not see marañon much outside of the growing countries.

In some countries, the marañon is more prized than the cashew nut, in others vice versa.  Depending on which country you are talking about, the part that is not used is typically discarded on the ground in favor of the other.

Cardol is toxic only if ingested.  It has been used in traditional medicine to treat skin infections, warts, and parasitic larvae beneath the skin.  Other traditional uses of the juice of the cashew apple and tree leaves include diuretics, anti-inflammatories, and astringents. 

Cardol is also known as Cashew Nut Shell Liquid (CNSL) and has industrial applications in brake fluid, adhesives, paints and varnishes.  Resins from the cashew tree wood and CNSL have been used in certain varnishes which prevent infestation by wood-destroying insects.

Although delicious and lower in fat than many other nuts, nutritionists recommend limiting your intake of cashews due to the high calorie content.


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army ants

What kind of paradise is this, anyway?  Scorpions, poison toads, coffee flies, snakes, caterpillars, and tarantulas!

But there are more.  Ants.  Fire ants, leaf cutter ants, carpenter ants, and now… Army Ants.  Or Soldier Ants, Maribunta, or more technically, of the family Formicidae.  Whatever you call them, it is an experience to remember.  I recall several years ago someone referring to them as “Cleaner Ants”.  Cleaner Ants sounds like such a much more docile creature than they really are, so I will stick to Army Ants.

Army Ants move in colonies up to a million strong, and exhibit “legionary behavior”, which is a nice way of saying that they move like an army, never constructing a permanent nest, constantly on the move for food – or whatever gets in their way.  Army Ants have been documented to kill small snakes, lizards, and other unfortunate creatures – they have even been said to kill pigs, goats, and chickens, but when it comes to people, horses and cows they stop at leaving a painful bite.  Having personally experienced it, I will volunteer to stand on a Fire Ant hill any day instead of standing in the path of the Army Ants.

When they do rest, they form “bivouacs” which means they hold onto each other with their legs and powerful mandibles, forming a cloak that can drape over a fallen tree.  This formation also allows for instant communication in the event of any disruption.

Ants are fascinating creatures, and I remember spending countless hours in front of my plastic Ant Farm when I was a kid.  A little research turned up the fact that if you took the weight of all of the ants of all species on the planet – they would weigh more than all the humans on the planet – hmmm.

My first encounter with my neighborhood Army Ants came when some friends were leaving one evening and we saw a parade of these critters about four inches wide fearlessly making their way across the front yard and disappearing down the hole of another ant colony’s nest.

Another time, my wife ran in the back door around dusk, gesticulating wildly that I needed to get out back – fast!  I got out in time to see the white back of my house quickly turning into a wall of brown, and fanning out quickly.  Having experienced Fire Ants, I quickly looked down to see what I may be standing on, and worked my way back into the yard from where they seemed to be coming.  Their path resembled a fallen tree, with the outstretched branches closest to the house, and the origin of the colony emanating from somewhere toward the back of the property line.

The Army Ants are fascinating to watch.  They are 100% purpose-driven, communicating by scent, and moving and acting as a single unit when in fact they are many.  Imagine a 4-5 inch wide column of little insects marching along as far as you can see into your yard.  Then a column will branch off to the right, then one to the left to expand the coverage in front of them.  At some point the inaudible signal goes out to ‘stop,’ and they quickly disappear.  Can you imagine mobilizing one million humans to act in unison toward a common goal?

Colonies of Army Ants have a single wingless queen, and are well organized.  Only the queen and the males have eyes – all the workers rely on chemical trails.  And, they have voracious appetites – a colony may consume over 100,000 other insects each day.

With that in mind, I formed a different opinion of them.  While formidable to see coming at you, they really only want to eat all those other bugs that bother you and eat your plants and crawl up your leg and bite in unison (fire ants).  Also, there is really no way to stop a million of these creatures from going where they want to go.  Fortunately, they are not impolite houseguests and they will leave after ridding your house of spiders and scorpions that may be lurking about, not to mention the old bug carcasses that accumulate under the couch.

In preparing this report, I attempted to take some pictures of these incredible creatures in action.  But a single photo cannot possibly portray it – it reminded me of trying to capture the scope and awe of the Grand Canyon in a photo – it just can’t be done.

Back in the days of CB radios, I once heard someone postulate that people jabbered on the things in order to validate their existence in time and space. I got a chuckle out of that, but in perspective, it may also be why people blog.

In the blogosphere, we really don’t know whether anyone finishes the first sentence of what we write. But some of us enjoy writing, others have things to say, and others still need to release to whatever audience may listen things that well up inside, whether they be things beautiful or ugly, right or wrong, superficial or profound.

I write to comment on the world around me, and occasionally to release pressure that would otherwise cause me to bust a vein. I live in Panama, up in the mountains, and shouldn’t have much of a connection to the States or even world events in general, but living in a cyber-world, yahoo sticks some of the most absurd things I have ever seen in front of me on a daily basis. Perhaps I should just stay offline, or at least away from Or any of the rest of them.

But sometimes I just have a day that I need to regurgitate, like the days I go visit the indigenous on the comarcas, Panama’s style of Indian reservation. Or just have a special morning listening to and seeing some very different birds. Or try to explain to someone the awe of having a colony of a million Army Ants swarm your home and twenty minutes later be gone. Hmm, I haven’t written that one up yet.

I’d rather write mostly about the cool and beautiful stuff, but there is still something deep inside that makes me want to collectively shake a sick society – sorry, no correlation to Apple’s baby shaking apology – but that is part of it.

American society has become a collective of – apologists, tripping over themselves to be just a little sweeter than their neighbor. Of course this occurs in neighborhoods far from reality.

Realities like Myanmar/Burma, where girls of fifteen who haven’t been gang-raped by army regulars are a distinct rarity. Realities like young Burmese boys who survived the forced runs through the mine fields because they weighed five pounds less than their friends, hence didn’t weigh enough to trip the trigger on the mines – but their friends did.

Realities of Thai and Indian girls who are considered worthless and “used goods” – hence trash – if they are not virgins on their wedding night. Realities of men in some cultures who move the younger girlfriend in the master bed, moving the wife who bore his children down the hall to sleep with them while he plays with his new toy.

So sometimes I get fed up with whiners, even at this distance, and need to write. Sometimes, even though I should know better by now, I get infuriated with the politicians and power brokers who could make a change but don’t, just as I get pissed off at the whiny little princesses who have never had a hard day in their life but need uppers and downers to get through each day.

I guess I could just pull into my shell and do nothing, say nothing. Why blog?

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I lived there for about fourteen months, came back about a year ago. Met my wife there, learned a lot there. Thailand, for me, was as much like another planet as I could have imagined.

Rich, old culture along with poverty and the consequences. Ingenuity that springs from having to do without. 

But the language was overwhelming and communication difficult. And I am one who firmly believes on learning the language of the land where you live.

The Thais themselves looked at Westerners guardedly. They and their culture predate ours many times over, and they have seen what the influx of Western culture can do.

I feel sorry for the politics that the Thais endure. Perhaps a little more lack of patience could be used in Western politics, but the attention span in Thai politics is destructive to their country, particularly in this modern world with its global economy.

Thailand thrives on tourism, and tourists don’t like to walk out of their hotels into fiery red shirt protests or get stranded because the yellow shirts took over the airport.

The vast majority of Thais are simply embarrassed about their political system. Those who are activists of the two primary parties garner enough support to make governing impossible for the other, and provide enough manpower and distraction to keep things in a constant state of flux.

From time to time, the military steps in to keep things from going completely to hell, but the process just resets and continues on. Half of me misses being there, the other half is glad I’m not there. My wife is glad we are here in Panama, but worries about her family.