Snapshots from Panama

Panama is a paradise. It has everything: the prettiest beaches you can imagine, pristine rain forests, mountains and hills, rivers and lakes, even 2 oceans. Everything grows here really fast. The temperature is near perfect (can get too hot and humid in some months). Sometimes when working indoors its easy to forget what a paradise I live in. But I do am grateful for being here.

Some snapshots from my life in Panama:

  • Taxis.
    Taxi system is very different here from what I've seen anywhere else. Firstly I have to say that taxis a very cheap (government subsidied) and everybody uses them all the time. It's like the most popular public transportation system. The city has been divided into different zones (like 3 or 4 zones for the whole city) and driving around in 1 zone costs only $1.25 for 1 person, no matter how far you want to go or how much time it will take. 95% of the time we pay that much here. When you cross to another zone, you've got to pay a bit more, but still ridiculously low amount. It's quite common for us here to tip taxi drivers as sometimes we feel it would be too low otherwise. Every additional person in the taxi cost 25 more cents. So if I'd drive alone it'd cost $1.25, then for 2 people its $1.50. When you take the taxi from point A and drive to point B to pick up a friend of yours to drive together to point C, your friend has to pay the full amount for himself. So kind of picking up friends with taxis doesn't work here. Another thing is that you cannot get the taxi just for yourself. Taxis will pick up people until they're full, as long as all the people are going to the same direction. I think that's pretty cool, gas-efficient way.

    There are taxis everywhere and getting one on the street is fairly easy. When you hail a taxi to stop first you have to tell the driver where you want to go and then he will decide whether he would like to drive there or not: based on the distance and traffic. It is very common for drivers to refuse to take you.

  • Loud music
    Panamanians love their music. Mostly it's salsa. And they love it loud. Nearly every car, no matter how old, has a fancy stereo system with good speakers - and they use it. Every weekend it's loud music all day long. Our neighbours set the volume so loud that the whole neighbourhood can hear it - too well. In my culture it's when you call the cops. Here they're almost like being generous by turning the volume up as everybody loves loud music.
  • Boom
    Panama is booming like crazy. In many ways it reminds me of Dubai with its love for tall glass buildings. And they're building their record-building towers here too. The tallest residential tower in the world is under construction here. I've even heard rumors of plans for building fake islands like Dubai. I hope that's not true. In business you learn that you need to be in the right place at the right time. Panama is the right place at the right time for so many ventures. Business opportunities everywhere, a shortage of talent everywhere. Bilingual (spanish+english) people can get jobs really easy. The only thing is that they can't or don't want to pay for that talent yet. Average salaries are still pretty low. Minimum salary is ~$350 on the paper, but a very large amount of people (e.g. fishermen) are not formally employed anywhere. Anyways, you can see the Panama boom just about anywhere you go. Panamanians are proud of that: I've heard in many conversations how they're one of the best and most developed countries in the region.
  • Cheap fruits and vegetables
    As I mentioned everything grows really well here. We took the tip of a pineapple, stuck it in the dirt and in 1 month it developed a really good root system. We go to the fruit and vegetable market once a week and buy huge quantities of produce. Really good, fresh and cheap. Bananas are almost for free. You can get a bag of 100 oranges for 3 dollars. Eating healthy and drinking natural juices on daily basis here is a really good deal.
  • Panamanian pride
    Panamanians are proud people. They can't go back on their words. For instance if a taxi driver thinks you're a stupid tourist and asks more money for the trip, and you confront him that the real price is this and this and thats how much you're willing to pay, he will rather not drive you at all than to ask a lower amount. Another example: you try to enter a building, but it has a security guard that wants to see your ID. If you don't have one with you, he will not let you in: just because he asked you for it and that means letting you in anyway means he was wrong. At the same time you see a ton of people entering the building and they're IDs are not checked. It's actually not important. They just have to save face.
  • Humility
    At the same time Panamanians are very humble. It is considered rude to brag. You're not supposed to say what all great achievements you have, what a fancy camera or car you have and so on. We met this guy at a social event that is from one of the best families in Panama, rich as well and with an amazing family history - from the highest social group in Panama - and the way he introduced himself and what he said was all very humble and played down. Even rich and famous Panamanians are not arrogant snobs. Sometimes it's hard to understand when you cross the line between telling about yourself and bragging.
  • My neighbours
    We live in a very colorful neighbourhood and some distinctive characters stand out. In a house next to ours lives a girl called Monica. We don't know her, even wouldn't recognize here. But almost every day a friend of hers comes and stand in front of her house and yells from the top of her lungs "Monicaaaaaa! Monicaaaaaa!". Then we have a guy, a street vendor, that sells tamales (traditional local food consisting of steam-cooked corn meal dough with or without a filling). He has a voice of an opera singer. Everybody in my part of town know him. He walked around, carries a big basket on his shoulder and yells "Tamale! Tamale!". His voice is really good. He's gonna be famous one day. Then we have a crazy guy that gets a kick out of pretending to be a traffic officer. He stands on an intersection and directs the traffic. The area has a lot of tourist and a lot of people follow his orders.
  • Chinitos
    Panama has a relatively high number of Chinese immigrants (who have lived here already a few generations). Most of them are very entrepreneurial and run little shops. Actually nearly all of the little shops in Panama are run by the Chinese. Hence they've coined a term "chinito" which means "the chinese shop". The shops are very important in local neighborhoods and people visit them all the time. Still - instead of calling the people in the shop by their names - they call them "chino" (means Chinese). That's kind of weird to me. Sometimes I wonder whether it is racist or not and how do the Chinese feel about it. I personally shop at chinitos too, at least 1-2 times a week.
  • Spanish
    As I've pointed out here most of the Panamanians don't speak English. Even in restaurants meant for tourists they don't. Apparently the public school system is really poor at teaching English and people that want to learn languages need to go to private schools. Anyways that is good news for me - it really forces you to learn Spanish. My Spanish is progressing quite well - I can speak conversational language fairly well (a way to go to fluency of course) already, but need to work more to develop vocabulary and learn the grammar. I started a 2-month long Spanish course here just for that - it's hard to pick up grammar on the street, so a formal course is helping me with that.
  • Religion. Panama is a catholic country and I think people here are pretty religious. Every time I drive with somebody (e.g. taxi driver) past a church, they make the cross sign with their hand.
This weekend I'm going to the mountain area of Panama, so I'll post about my experiences there.

A month in the US

I am back in Panama. A month in the States went by so quickly. Something that I always wonder about is how going from one country to another is kind of like going to another dimension at the same time - especially if the countries are far apart, with quite different everyday realities.

Life in Panama is unique and the everyday rhythm is different here. So is the US, Estonia and Dubai. Whenever I am in one of those places I feel like the other countries are so far away, like a distant dream. It would have been easy to forget all about Panama had I stayed in the US for a longer time. Now being back here Panama seems so cool and real, and the US seems to be in another dimension, with its people and reality.

The highlights of my trip were spending time with the people there and observing the holidays over there. I've written about Thanksgiving and I want to say something about Christmas too.

I find it quite fascinating how Christmas traditions are different in different countries. In some countries its the Christmas Eve (24th) that is the most important day, for some the Christmas Day (25th). In the US Santa Claus comes while the children are sleeping through the chimney and leaves presents in the stocking or under the Christmas tree. In Czech Republic is the Baby Jesus (Jezisek) who delivers the presents:

"Small children are not allowed in the room where the Christmas tree is being decorated. So, the parents decorate the Christmas tree, prepare all the presents and light the candles. The children are told that during the evening when no one is watching, the little baby Jesus, Jezisek, comes and brings the presents and the children don't really have any real idea about what Jezisek looks like. Then the grown ups ring a bell, slip out of the room, the children enter and there it is- in the darkness the tree is all lit up and the Christmas presents are under the tree."

In Estonia the presents are delivered by Santa Claus himself - directly to the children. Santa Claus comes by during the evening of the Christmas Eve, walks in the door and has a big bag full of presents. Everybody, children and adults equally, have to recite a poem, sing or dance to redeem their presents from the Santa. Preparing for Santa's coming is an important part of December as children are memorizing poems and songs. Nobody gets a present without doing something first - you have to work for your present.

Here is a difference I saw between the US and Estonian Christmas: in the US you don't have to do anything to get presents, thus the appreciation for the presents is lower. If you don't immediately like what you got, you throw it aside and run to open the next one. In Estonia the children appreciate the presents more because you had to work for them. At the very least, you pay more attention to it and try to figure out what you got and how it works. I might be biased, but I feel the Estonian version is better in that sense.

I see a parallel with money. You spend easily money that was given to you for nothing, and are frugal with hard-earned income.

Other than that Christmas was fun, warm and full of love and good food like I guess it is everywhere.

It was kind of hard to leave the US and the people there - it's always hard to leave I think - but it is so very nice to be back in sunny, happy and warm Panama.