Carnival in Panama

The first 5 days of February was Carnival - the most important holiday in Panama. Everybody knows the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but there are big festivities as well in other countries, including Panama. Every country has their own story and has had their own evolution, and carnival in Panama is like no other.

As I mentioned, it is the most important and most anticipated festivity in the country. Some people save money for a year just for the carnival. It last for 5 days (all work-free), all days following the same routine.

The roots of the carnival here lie in the history. The way the cities were built here (by the Spaniards) followed the same model: there was a center square with a cathedral, and a matrix of streets surrounding it. The rich people lived in the upper part of the city, the poorer people in the lower part. Nowadays the division is not as clear naturally, but the concept remains. The carnival is essentially a (friendly) competition between the two: upper street (calle arriba) and the lower street (calle abajo).

The centerpiece of the carnival are the Queens (las reynas). Both, calle arriba and calle abajo have their own queen. So the competition is who has the prettier queen, which street has fancier fireworks, which queen is accompanied by a better band of musicians, who has the better party.

Every city in Panama has their own carnival with their own queens. The queens are chosen by a special committee many years in advance and they undergo a rigorous training to be ready to be the queen of the carnival one day. The queens are usually between the ages of 18-22. It is a great honour for the family if the their daughter is the queen, and therefore no money is spared. Some families save years for the day and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the carnival: for the training, for the outrageously expensive outfits, the wagons/cars (don't know how to call them) used during the carnival that carry the queen and so on. The money that could be used to educate all of their children and grandchildren is spent on the carnival.

So what happens during the carnival is pretty much this:

People gather in the central square and surrounding streets with huge quantities of beer and types of liquor already in the morning. Around the noon time the queens with their parties of princesses (other pretty chicks who walk before the queen), supporters (family, friends, fans) and a band of musicians (15-20 guys with brass instruments) start making the rounds around the square and surrounding streets. Each party has their own songs made especially for this year, and it's mostly gossip about the other queen. People cheer and watch the queens and their party. A special tradition is something called culeco - getting everybody wet. In the old days the water was carried from the river, now they use huge container trucks with water hoses for that. People really like to get soaking wet. I must admit it is useful - it's quite hot in the middle of the day in this time of year.

The queens make 4 rounds and leave. People continue drinking, chatting and mingling. Food vendors are everywhere. Every now and then there are firecrackers here and there. At the night time (10pm or so) the queens return, with much fancies outfits, cars and everything. There are huge fireworks. The queens make 4 rounds with their parties, people are ecstatic. Everybody is drinking and eating. At the night time people continue to party either at the same place, or go to clubs.

And the same stuff 5 days in a row.

Carnival is different in size and customs in every city in Panama. In the Panama City its more like the carnival in Miami (more like a concert). I personally went to a small town of Pedasi. The party was not huge there as the city is small, and the queens and their outfits and stuff were not that fancy. The bigger the city, the more money is spent. The most famous carnival takes place in the city of Las Tablas, where we also went to for 1 night. Everything was much bigger and fancier over there. The downside for me was that the crowd was so huge that you barely had room to breathe. It was much more laid back in Pedasi.

Something worth mentioning is that we made a stop at the parents house of a Panamanian friend of ours, where we had dinner. They offered me some chicken. The meat was tough and it looked kind of different, so I thought is a bit old and dried chicken meat. Later they asked if I want to see the eggs of the chicken I just ate. The eggs looked like this:

Turns out I ate the meat of ... iguana. Yes, a lot like chicken. The eggs were edible too, very salty tho. They boil the eggs, and then let them dry in the sun. And this is what they look like after being dried.

I don't have the photos and videos from the carnival in Las Tablas, but I do have it for Pedasi (you saw some above). Enjoy!

P.S. Tomorrow is my 2 year anniversary with Sarah. We're off to a paradise island. Catch you later.

Panama Frustrations

Every country in the world has it's good things and bad things. I sure am enjoying the good stuff here. Two weeks ago I was again discovering the beauty of Panama, this time in the mountain regions. We stayed in the best hotel in David, Chiriqui (David is the capital of the province of Chiriqui), went to flower and coffee festival in a nearby city Boquete (which is a very popular retirement destination for Americans) and bought many beautiful flowers (orchids etc) and some tasty coffee which grows there plentifully. But - there are some frustrations I'm having as well and why not share it with the world. First of all time. It's polite to be late here. Even 30 minutes late is okay. One time at a business meeting a guy was 2 hours(!) late. He mumbled something about the traffic and everybody was fine with that. I can't imagine being late for something 2 hours in Europe. I am personally very punctual, so it is especially hard for me.

A useful characteristic to have in Panama is patience. Things can take a long, long, looooooong time. And they think that's fine. I though Dubai had prepared me well to take it easy and go with the flow. Wrong! Still a way to go...

Promises. When somebody promises something by some time, it doesn't mean much. If somebody tells you "I have this thing ready for you, come pick it up", my first thought would be "aah, it's ready, I can go pick it up NOW". Here it doesn't mean anything like that. It means the guy has the intention of getting it ready. And it's not just me who doesn't understand this stuff, Panamanians get fooled too, and they're not happy about it. So if they're not happy about it either, why not start being punctual and keeping promises? Of course, there are exceptions and it doesn't apply to everybody.

The way things are organized. Panama is full of bureaucracy, stupid rules that don't make any sense but people follow them to the point. For instance in the government side: I recently renewed my visa and had to experience a very ineffective system. You stand in (a huge) line, go to counter A, get forms, fill them in, stand in line, make copies of the form, go back to the line to counter A, give them the filled form - but they don't look at the form, but interview you instead asking the questions on the form (which you have now 2 copies of). You pass the test, are given an invoice, go stand in the line for counter B, pay some money, go stand in line C and make copies, go back to the line to counter A. And I missed some steps. All of this took 3 hours. Could have taken 10 minutes, if only 1 person would have done all of that stuff.

Another place to see idiotism in action in any mall. First of all you cannot enter most of the shops while carrying any bags. You have to stand in line to put your bag away to a place where they keep bags (don't know how to call it) before they'll let you in. Everything you buy, you get a receipt for and when leaving the store you have to show everything to the security guard along with the receipt and then the guard takes out a marker does a check on the receipt. Why oh why? Just today we bought a small table. I mean we told a guy in the shop we want this table. He went to the backroom, got one in a package (not assembled yet). He cut the package open, took out all the parts and put the package together again. Additional 20 minutes gone. I understand that the goal is to make sure all the pieces are there, but if the package is closed since the factory, what are the odds its not okay? The he filled out 3 forms and we needed to sign 3 different documents. All for a small cheap ass table. On your way out of course the security guard hassles you and makes a big deal out you not finding your receipt immediately.

And naturally every item you buy is put into a separate plastic bag. So every time you shop you will leave with 35554 new bags. Yay for the environment. They will also tie the handles into a knot or staple the bag and the handle together so its really inconvenient to carry it around.

It is also very okay in restaurants to be waiting for your food for 1 hour, getting something you didn't order and then they just say 'aah, oops'. No apology, no money back, no free meal. Customer service is notoriously bad in the country. And another things really bad is the selection of goods availabale at the stores. Things for kitchen, livingroom, whatever are all very much overpriced and very low quality. Panamanians have a taste for low quality crap. It seems to me that all the crap from all over the world is sent here and is sold off for a high price. It's like this exporter's dream. The wine selection is great, but at least half of it is undrinkable throat-burning liquid. Panamanians drink it happily and make sophisticated faces and gestures while drinking it. In a fancy restaurant a waiter offer you to sample a $2 wine like it's the greatest stuff ever.

Shops are full of fake stuff. You can buy fake books (plastic or tin things that just look like books that you can put on your shelf to look smart), fake-wood vases and whatever. People decorate the front yards of their houses with fake stones (made from plastic, just looks like stone). A neighbour of ours, an amazing jewelry maker told us that any middle class American has better art at home than rich Panamanians). He has seen people throwing away vintage very expensive French kitchen set just because it was old. And you can buy some expensive fake plates and cups instead.

And - this country badly needs an emissions standard. Any car that can move, can drive around. Every 5th car on the street has so much black smoke coming out of them that it blocks the sunlight. I am surprised how half of the cars on the street even move. The public transportation buses (US school buses from the early 17th century, or at least they look that way) make so horrible sound that it's like the end of the world is coming. They are called 'red devils' by the locals cause not only are the big, ugly and noisy, but also very dangerous in the traffic as they are huge and drivers visibility is limited.

And the general loud noise everywhere bothers me. The too loud music, the non-stop honking in the traffic and people yelling real loud.

The funny thing is that once I will leave Panama one day, I will miss all of these things.