Today is my 5th day in Panama City. In quite many ways it has been surprising so far.

As there are quite a few impressions and I haven't blogged yet, I'll make this post a long one.

Some background information:

Panama is a rather small country (75,000 km2) with a population of ~3.3 million. Panama City, the capital, has about 1 million inhabitants. US dollar is used as currency here, although they call it Balboa here (named in honour of the Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa). They do have their own coinage, but use US coins as well. Panama is doing quite well, being 4th richest country in Latin America.

Impressions and stories from these first days:

Getting here and stuff
I flew to Panama through UK and Houston, TX. I had quite a few interesting things happen to me along the way, but I'll focus on Panama. Flight to Panama went well and from the airplane windows it was clear how narrow the country is - we could see Carribean sea and Pacific at the same time. Drive from the Pacific coast to Carribean coast takes just a little more than an hour. We landed, got our 30-day entry permits without problems. Then we were ambushed by the local airport mafia. We had to send our luggage through security check. As soon as our bags went through the x-ray machine, there was a dude that loaded our bags on a wheelbarrow. As we had many bags and they were heavy, we didn't protest. Then we mentioned we want a taxi and the guy took our bags to a taxi that belonged to the "mafia" and loaded our bags onto the taxi before we could say something. When we started to drive towards our hotel, the driver announced his price and said its not negotiable. As all of our bags were already in the car and we were in motion, we accepted the price. Luckily it wasn't too expensive, but for sure we got cheated.

The hotel where we had made reservation said they don't have our reservation. Luckily they had vacancies (later I understood why) and we got the room even with a considerably cheaper price than it was on the internet. The hotel smelled bad, the staff was unfriendly. It had really eerie lighting. Our room was tiny, smelled even worse. The bathroom door didn't close properly. We had to keep our hotel room door locked so it would stay shut. It was pretty much the worst hotel I've ever stayed in. After using some candles and getting some better smell in the room we could make it all right. We stayed there for 2 nights. Currently we are staying with an AIESEC alumnus here who is kind enough to let us use his spare bedroom. We are looking for an apartment to rent.

Weather, climate & nature
Its near perfect weather - just a bit too humid and hot. It has two main seasons - rain season (winter, May - December) and dry season (summer, January - May). So currently its rain season. What it means is that most of the days its cloudy and rains. Mostly drizzles a bit and you hardly notice it, but every day for some periods there are strong showers and lightning. The temperature doesn't change much throughout the year, its always between 27 and 33 degrees C. It gets dark quite early, between 6 and 7 (this doesn't change much during the year).

The country is covered with lush rain forests - amazingly beautiful. Majestic trees, bushes and flowers are everywhere, also inside the city. There are very many kinds of palm trees and countless number of trees I can't name. Some are so huge that other smaller plants grow on them. You can see exotic plants and flowers growing freely in gardens and parks that you would normally seek in exotic flower stores (orchids, helaconias, ficuses etc). After living in Dubai I am almost expecting to see irrigation somewhere as this kind of beauty cannot be real - but it is. How great.

Panama City is surrounded by mountains, all covered in rain forests. Quite an amazing view. A rain forest park is just 10 min drive from downtown (haven't been there yet).

There are a lot of cool birds everywhere. The word 'Panama' means in local indian language 'land of many birds'. I have seen a butterfly that was as big as the palm of my hand. All bugs seem to be bigger here. Today on the way to the supermarket we saw a tapir - a rodent that kind of looks like a pig.

Summary - its gorgeous here. Can't wait to visit the beaches, jungle, mountains and islands here, judging by the pictures they're the absolutely amazing. There are also tribes in Panama that still live like their ancestors hundreds of years ago. I will check them out for sure.

Traffic and getting around
The city is not very big in size, so it is quite walkable. We have walked around quite a bit. Public transportation exists and is cheap, but is somewhat scary and we haven't used it yet. The buses are the same as school buses in the US, but 30...50 years old. My theory is that US sells their old school buses that don't pass the emissions test to Central American countries and they use it here for another 20 years or so. They make such horrible and loud noise when driving by that I can't stand it. They drive also really fast so I am surprised I haven't seen any accidents yet.

Another popular means of transportation is taxis - and we have used it a lot. Taxis are cheap. Going around inside the city costs between 1 and 3 dollars usually. They don't have meters, so each time negotiation is needed. We have already learned how much some distances cost usually and just hand that amount of money to the driver at the end of the trip and all is fine.

Traffic is very crazy here, Dubai is nothing compared to this. There are less traffic jams (but they do have them during rush hours), but driving is reckless. Crossing the street is very dangerous, doing it successfully is like winning a lottery. Drivers don't seem to give a damn about pedestrians.

People and language
Before coming here I did my research and almost every text about Panama says how friendly the people are. So far I have found that not to be true (with exceptions of course, our host is very helpful). Customer service sucks generally and I yet have to see a place where they treat customers like they really want to provide a great service. They usually stare at you with indifferent faces. Maybe there's a trick to open them up, haven't figured that out yet.

Everywhere we've went so far they expect you to speak Spanish. In every restaurant and business they start to talk to you in Spanish and even when its obvious you have hard time understanding, they keep going. Most people don't speak English. Even when I made phone calls to international real estate companies, they had to look for a person in their company that speaks English. I find that great - it really forces you to learn the language.

The thing that I don't get is that people are not positively surprised, happy or moved when we speak Spanish to them. One even frowned when I used incorrect grammar. I would imagine people are happy when foreigners try to speaks to them in their native language, but maybe its not the case when it comes to major languages like Spanish, English and so on. In Estonia everybody would cheer and applaud when a foreigner speaks Estonian.

I am studying Spanish every day and getting better daily. I am already able to speak some and I am proud of myself. I also understand now that just living among another language won't teach it to you. You really have to focus on studying and hanging out with locals, forcing yourself to speak. I have met a lot of foreigners that lived in Estonia for a year or more but didn't even learn to speak basic language. It's a serious effort. I lived in Dubai for almost 2 years and speak more Urdu than Arabic. I just didn't focus on studying the language, it makes a big difference.

For the first time I am really experiencing what its like not to be understood and not to understand what people say to me (I have traveled to countries where I don't speak the language before, but its different when you settle down in one). Its fun, challenging and stressful at the same time. I am observing my emotions around it with great interest.

We have also discovered that Panamanian Spanish has its own accent and is different from say Mexican Spanish. Its much harder to understand and they don't pronounce the words clearly and they keep eating the letter "s" from the end of the word (e.g. not gracias, but gracia). In order to really become fluent in Spanish we need to live in some other Spanish speaking country as well besides Panama. We have watched Mexican soap operas here and its so much easier to understand.

We were surprised to discover that Panama City is way more developed than we thought. It's full of skyscrapers and tens and tens are being built. In a way it reminds me of Dubai in that sense. There's a big real estate boom going on. Panama is quickly becoming the no.1 retirement hotspot in the world as its beautiful, safe and offers great benefits to retirees. This means there are quite a lot of foreigners around and sadly for us - the real estate prices are going up daily. Rent prices are shockingly high, most of the offers in the papers are between 1000$ and 2000$ per month. Finding a good deal seems to be harder than we expected, but we keep looking and are full of hope and got some leads. We're looking for a 2 bedroom apartment, so you guys can come over and stay with us.

Majority of the prices in the supermarkets are close to US prices, so its not that cheap to live here. We need to figure out ways how to live a cheaper life, like buying stuff from the market or something. We have bought some food from the street which has been a great deal and tasty too. Fruits and fresh juices are cheap, so thats at least good. Bananas are dirt cheap.

Hopefully we'll find a place within this week and next time I can show you pictures of where we live. I haven't taken many pictures yet, but here are some that I took while walking around in the city (and the suburb we are staying in right now):

1 comment:

rauno said...

heh, kui ma seal käisin, siis mind hoiatati ette selle Lennujaama maffia eest. Jalutasin suht resoluutselt neist mööda ja istusin oma kompsudega ühe selle Diablo Rojo peale. Hinnavahe on tuntav - $25 vs $0.25 ...
Ühistransport pole midagi väga hullu, väljast näevad põrgulikud välja, aga täitsa sõidetavad. Peaasi, et ise oled valves et oma peatust maha ei maga.

Võid lugeda mu reisikirja Panamast, olin seal eelmise aasta suvel nädala. Fotod