Eight Days in Panama
Installment Nine

Part 9, People and conclusion, 8 day fact finding exploration of
Panama City

The people are what makes a country rich in quality. The people are the ones that welcome you as friends or shun you as enemies. Rich, middle class or poor the city is rich in its people. 

We did not see overweight people in Panama. No super fatties pushing 300lbs to 400lbs, now so common back home waddling about. Most are all slim, most likely because they walk a lot and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, meat that is not hormoned up. Panama City is racially diverse. What I did not see are all the white skinned blue eyed blonde's like you would see in Southern California, real or artificially made up. Only saw one smoker which surprised me, maybe there are more? Many Latins seem to like to smoke, but apparently not in Panama City. Restaurants had no smoking signs. Panamanians seem to be very health conscious. Tattoos only on Gringos, go figure. Only saw one young girl out on Taboga with a few body piercings. Never saw one person with purple, blue or green hair.

It would be difficult to describe each and every person we came in contact with. It would be foolish to generalize and refer to "ALL Panamanians are................" I will give 2 examples of the local people we met during our short stay. These people were typical of others we dealt with during our trip.

My wife and I were in the Multi Plaza Pacific Mall. One day in passing, she had seen a grocery store attached to the mall. We went looking for it several says later. This mall is a large place. With no luck on our own, we went outside to look around. Outside it was hot and humid. I did not feel much like looking any more. We came across several security guards. We asked them if they spoke English? No, they said. We tried asking them if they knew where the grocery store was? Back and forth we tried to speak. After a while we all understood what it was we were looking for. Now this is a moment I have lived in Mexico or London. You might be able to ask the question, but the spoken answer is something you will never understand. So the happy smiling guard motions us to follow. Off we go. In the mall, up the escalators, through the mall past all the shops to the opposite side of the mall. Out the doors and here he opens the automatic doors of the grocery store and smiles as he escorted us into the store!

I had negotiated a deal with Nora, our guide, to pick us up at the airport on arrival and take us to our hotel. We had agreed that the next day she was to take us on a guided tour of the city. That was all, with no return to the airport. We had never met or spoken on the phone, only communicated via the internet. As my wife and I got off the airplane and to my horror I realized I had never asked Nora where to meet at the airport? How will we know her? My wife gave me that "boy you did it now" glare! We followed through the immigration, luggage claims area, through customs and outside where a smiling, happy lady was waiting with our name on a sign. I recognized Nora from her web site photo. For you big time travelers who like the adventure of traveling in confusion, this was no big deal. But for us it was comfort. Nora took us right to our hotel. She had confirmed our hotel reservations before our arrival. She agreed to pick us up at 9am outside the hotel the next morning. Next morning there she was at 9am sharp! After our tour we paid her the pre agreed price. I asked her if she could and we agreed that she would take us to the airport for departure. I had figured that it would be the typical $25 extra fee that I would have to pay a taxi or her. Nora called our hotel the day before our departure to confirm our arrangements and pickup time. As we were just about to leave the room to depart to airport, Nora called via cell phone, there was an accident and the incoming road was blocked. She would be a little late. We always build in a safety net of time, so this delay was not a problem. Her courtesy was more than appreciated by not letting us set and wait and worry about the delay. We get to the
airport and I hand her $25. She hands back $20, she says that settles the account since what we had already paid plus the $5 was her total package price including return to the airport. She could have just as easy taken the money and thanked us for the tip, but no. Like the cabby that shouted to us to take back the 50 cents we had overpaid. Unlike the time I had given a cabby in Mexico paso's totaling $50 instead of $5, who smiled and took off like a rocket and never did say thanks! Nora gave us back the extra money, hugged my wife, shook my hand and thanked us!

Is this typical of all the people in Panama? I doubt it. But it was typical of most of the people we ran into. Would I trust ALL people in Panama on their word alone?, NO! But I would spend less time worrying about getting "had" for small amounts of money. Like USA, the more you spend (bigger ticket items, IE deposits on condos) the more care you must practice. I would trust Nora. When we needed help, locals went out of their way to help us. Never asking anything in return. Were all the people happy and professional? No, several at the malls that you might say were rude. One should expect some jerks along the way, they were the exception. We did not find the sellers shouting, grabbing and demanding we come in and look around as in Mexico, Jamaica and Egypt. We did not get attacked by street vendors hawking junk or drugs.

Gringos in Panama
We were having a delightful breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Coffee steaming hot, freshly brewed and was outstanding, juice was sweet and tasty. Probably not fresh squeezed. Behind us sat an older gringo couple. The lady ordered coffee, the man ordered juice. Staff in the restaurant did not speak much English, which did not at all surprise me. Coffee was served in a carafe and the server poured it into the ladies cup. As the server poured the coffee the lady barked "this coffee better be hot!". The server did not reply and walked away from their table. I figured the server did not understand the lady's English. A moment latter the man jumps up and quickly goes after the server demanding that the coffee be replaced at once as it was not hot enough! The man sets down and the lady is fuming. Then the server returns with the mans juice. He takes a sip and shouts "THIS IS NOT FRESH JUICE!" take it away, as if his entire day has been ruined. It just confirmed that some people are justly called ugly Americans. Later that day I ran into this man in the elevator. I usually try not to talk with gringos, they often offend and embarrass me. But this man had my anger up. I asked him how long he was in Panama, thinking they must have just arrived. He said he was ending up his stay after purchasing land to build his church on! You see he was some sort of minister coming on down to convert the heathens! God help the locals!

In walked a gringo. Sat down alone at the table across the dinning room. He had a long shaggy greying beard looked to be in his mid 40's. Bright red tee shirt had the selves cut off. cigarette's in his shirt pocket. Around his neck was a shark tooth beaded necklace. Short pants and thongs on his feet. He had some sort of beaded bracelet. Had a pierced ear and a large golden ear ring in that ear. On his head was a bandana formed to cover his head like a hat with the ends tied. The only thing missing was an eye patch. Over all he looked like a pirate or a jerk. Now since it was our first day in panama, I worried that perhaps this was the "blend in and look like the locals, high fashion?" To my relief it was only "Pirate Pete's".

What happens to Americans that go to foreign countries? Do they lose their minds? Do they lose what manners they might have had? I always consider myself a guest in a foreign country. My actions and behaviors are judged by the locals. Arrogant rude behavior is totally unacceptable. Wonder why our national image is in decline? For you folks that have a "better than thou" attitude, please leave it at home or you stay at home. Give the future American tourists a chance. Stop and learn from the locals, be patient, kind and courteous at all times. And do not think you have to look like a pirate or a jerk to blend in, at least not in Panama.

A few final observations:

Our hotel had cable tv. Perhaps 30 or 40 stations. I was delighted since back home I use rabbit ears and get only 9 local stations. It seemed that at anytime about ½ of the stations were in English or movies in English with Spanish subtitles. For you TV shoppers, there are infomercials. For couch potatoes and TV addicts, you should be moderately satisfied. There was always CNN, FOX. I could watch the stock reports live.

Handicapped. I have a minor walking disability. I do not use a wheel chair. I was surprised at all the parking for the handicapped! Not all but many street corners with ramps. Even courtesy wheel chairs in stores and I think I saw a courtesy electric cart in one of the grocery stores, too! The sidewalks were not as good as back home. But they are not dangerous like Mexico and Russia. Street lights in Patillia.

I want to set the record straight! I saw ONE mosquito flying against our hotel window just about sunset, as the bats came out to feed. 'We did not take or feel the need to use mosquito repellents. Back home I get eaten alive with misquotes both in Arizona and Southern California where we have to worry about west Nile virus.

Less than a year ago I knew all about Panama. I knew it was a mosquito infested swamp land, backwards 3rd world county. The country where "Chichita Banana" lives. Rampant with disorder and disease . An ungrateful nation that hated USA for its nearly 100 years of occupation of the canal zone. "Gringos go home" graffiti painted on all the walls. Unless you had an armed guard escort you it would not be safe to walk about. A international short cut through a canal for ships that cut the country into. Not sure exactly where I learned all this? Probably from some liberal newspaper articles over the years distorting fact from reality.

A friend talked to me about real advantages of retiring to Panama. I wondered could I be wrong? How can this be? I am an
educated, successful American baby boomer. I spent most of last summer looking up information about Panama. The internet is such a marvel!! Looking at pictures, reading postings. Looking up real estate. Reading the online newspaper,
using an online translator. There was the overwhelming theme that Panama was affordable beyond belief. Cheap food, entertainment, cheap housing. The red carpet was put out for baby boomers. Panama glittered like a new found golden nugget. I am old enough to know that all that glitters is not gold. So my wife and I planned our expedition to see first hand and determine for ourselves what is fact or fiction? We were willing to let the locals have their way with us.

After a short 8 days, we returned with many feelings about Panama City. Was I so wrong about Panama! The only honest thing I really knew was there is a canal! No we did not put our house up for sale. We did not start packing for our immediate return and future life in Panama City. We did not find our exact definition of paradise. We did find a wonderful city. We found a modern city growing in all directions. Exotic yet close to back home. I have lived along the Southern and Central coast of California most of my life. I have maintained second homes that included Arizona for the winters and a high forested mountain cabin near a beautiful lake, for summers. I have always lived as close to the ocean as possible for my primary residence. I have traveled through 35 states and except for Hawaii always felt good to be back to home. I know that each region has its good and bad days. Its seasons of the year. For short times I have lived in Egypt, Russia and have visited another 20 or so countries. Until now, I have found that for the most part, other countries have too little to offer compared to my life in California. Sure you can find cheaper places to live. But in Mexico and Egypt you can not drink the water. It is highly recommended that you soak your food in bleach to kill the parasites and bacteria the produce has due to extremely unsanitary growing conditions. Russia, except for Sochi, is frozen cold in the winter which can last up to 9 months. There are problems in most countries, health and medical concerns, food and water quality, housing quality, access to consumer products, political and religious problems, language barriers, personal safety issues, weather problems like hurricanes. Insects problems like misquotes. Access problems via international airports. Just an on going set of difficulties. I am not ready to settle for a primitive life style. If I wanted to live a peaceful life in some remote area like a hermit, there are many such cheap areas in the world. 5 years ago I was in the Copper Canyon of northern Mexico. We had the most cherished visit to a local tarahumara Indians home. He and his extended family live in a CAVE along with his goats and sheep!!!! On occasion I want to go to a reasonable restaurant without worrying about getting sick with hepatitis or some brain eating parasite like the ones infecting people in Mexico. I would like to have a connection for my computer. Watch TV in a language I can understand. I want to take the time and see live stage performances go to a museum or just set under a tree in a park. I want to go to the local stores and get what I need without ordering it and waiting until the next plane or ferry can deliver it. I do not want to spend my last dollar on over priced medications or medical care. I would like to live in a home that I can feel comfortable in when I turn on the electric light switch, not when I light the candles or crank up the generator. My ancestors worked hard to have running water and indoor toilets. I do not want to head to the stinking outhouse in the middle of the night during a snow storm or go to the corner and fill up a pale with water and carry it back to the house for the day, as I did in one of the countries I visited. I do not want to live on beans and rice every day and on Sunday get a sliver of meat, so we could live on $500 a month in a cockroach infested low rent high crime area. I do not want to worry about neighbors taking off my things when I go to the store and have to put up a chain link fence with barbed wire topper. Or put up security grates on all my windows and doors.

USA is a unique country. No other country I have visited is like it. I guess that is why each time I go off and look for that
better special place to retire too, I come back to Southern California convinced back home can not be replaced. I am happy to pay my tax's for the quality of life I live. Certainly USA is not perfect, but is for now, about as good as it gets. Until Panama. In Panama City, we could feel at home because of the kindness of the locals. We could drink the water and eat the food. We would not worry so much about eating out. We found modern stores that carry everything we might need. We can watch back home TV and hook up our computer. There are theaters, museums and parks. There is a proud local population in love with their country. Most important in Panama City they have indoor plumbing. At this point we are not sure if it would be permanent high rise condo residents or just have a place to get away to in the winter. Not sure if we would buy or rent. We would mostly only consider the city as home base. I am sure we would need one car. Panama City has everything one would need to be very comfortable and relatively safe. I am not convinced that living there would be any cheaper than back home. What you might get is a much better quality of life for about the same cost that a middle class life style gets you back home. What might be the best bargain is the affordable ocean view one would get from a water front high rise. A spectacular view of a beautiful city, bay and islands, with passing ships. One possible advantage might be that one could afford a maid to cook and clean at least a couple a days each week. Eating out would be cheaper and most likely safer, but dinning out often would eat up your budget. What would really add up would be regular travel costs back to USA.

We are not happy about the heat and humidity. Perhaps we could adjust to it?. At least there is air-conditioning. The biggest
disappointment is that the bay around Panama City is far to polluted at this time to swim in for my wife. We could go out for the day for a fun day on Taboga island for that. It appears that health insurance might be a problem? I am getting up towards the cutoff age for self insurance. I worry that if you can not pay up front, emergency care may not be available? A wise man once told me that nothing in life is perfect. If you like more than you dislike, you just have to take the bad with the good. The bad is not much when considering all the good things we found in Panama. Panama is not like USA, it is like Panama. First thing we would do is go back to school and improve our Spanish skills. I am sure there would be a great attitude adjustment one would have to undergo if living there full time. For me it would be slowing down to a slower pace. Setting in my favorite lounge chair, on a 15 story balcony, over looking the bay and city, sipping my iced Seco Herrerano with passion fruit juice and a slice of fresh sweet pineapple, under my ceiling fan cooling me off, as the sun sets slowly behind brilliant red clouds. With all this floating around in our minds, we will plan our return trip to Panama City for a months stay. Next stay will be in a furnished apartment. Living like the locals. We will tour the high rise condos. Look at all housing options. Proposed projects, newly built and preexisting units. Maybe even score on one of those brand new never lived in drug dealer closeout condo deals at 10 cents to 20 cents on the dollar I have just read about on current postings? Just hope they take all their dirty money and drugs out before we close escrow! Perhaps we can spend more time exploring outside of the city? Would really like to see the monkeys. Maybe learn how to get those $1.50 cab rides and $2.00 lunches? I just remembered we did not get to Colon or Portobelo! Oh gosh, we did not go Salsa Dancing! Wife email Nora!!!!!!!!!!!! We gotta go back, so much we did not do or see.

My advice to those of you interested in Panama. GO CHECK IT OUT IN PERSON!!!!!!! If you can not afford to do this, you most likely could never afford to move and live there anyway. If nothing else comes of your visit, you will at least have a wonderful vacation to a most remarkable place.

Installment One Installment Two Installment Three Installment Four Installment Five
Installment Six Installment Seven Installment Eight Installment Nine

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