516: Itchy Panama



It’s winter here in Panana,

Where the sultry breezes blow

Scorching hot, oven air

That makes the sweat drip so.


The hills are all on fire

With flame and smoke and soot

The char floats down into the pool

And all over you, to boot.


The mosquitos and the chitras

Bit hard and fast and strong

And only the itching lets you know

They’ve come, and bit, and gone.

436: Put in My Place


This past weekend, I went along for the ride, shopping with two lady friends. This is because one of them has a vehicle, and having a car in Panama means when I buy the giant, economy-sized, 25 pound bag of cat food, I don’t have to actually physically carry it home. Since I needed only the one thing, my sojourn through the MegaDepot (Sam’s Club-style store) was fairly short, and as I checked out and paid, I realized I might have quite a wait for my friends. There were no chairs or benches.  What there WAS available were three kiddie rides: a bird/airplane, a boat, and a horse.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to have people stare, I chose the boat because it had a longer bench seat, and I figured I could perch there semi-comfortably until my friends checked out.  About five minutes later, after a few speculative glances from departing shoppers, I saw a little girl who MIGHT have been all of two feet tall running madly, making a beeline for…..yep – the kiddie rides. And ME.

As she got close, her head snapped up and she spotted me sprawled in the boat bench. She skidded to a stop, with a WTF look of complete consternation on her face – YOU are not supposed to be there, lady! Then, as I watched, I clearly saw her expression change – the determination rolled over her like a wave, and I began schooching over on the bench, because it was immediately clear she was not letting my fat, old a** slow her down a single whit.

She clambered up next to me in the boat, parked her tiny bum, folded her hands in her lap, and looked up at me, like, “Whatcha gonna do about it?” I, of course, rooted around in my bag for a quarter to start the ride. When I found one, I handed it to her, and, obviously no stranger to the rides in this store, she inserted it into the proper slot…..nothing. I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head no, and said “No funciona.” (Not working).

She briefly paused, then she clambered out of the boat and over into the bird/airplane. When she was seated, she looked at me, and imperiously held out her hand for the quarter. I handed it over. She put it into the slot of ride number two….nothing. Undeterred, she climbed out of the bird/airplane, and ran around to try the horse. When she climbed up onto it, she again extended her hand for the quarter, and I forked it over. She put it into the slot on the last chance ride….nothing. No funciona.

By then, her mom? was done checking out, and was ready to leave, but no dice. It took dad? grandpa? hauling her bodily off the horse to be able to depart. I was still snickering. And she did not want the quarter – she wanted the RIDE!


427: Watermelons, Panamanian Style

I am from Georgia in the USA. We are an agricultural, rural state, if you can ignore those few square miles around Atlanta. Cordele, Georgia claims to be the watermelon capital of the world – and well do I recall getting forty-pound-plus melons for fifty cents.  Georgia claims some whopper, prize-winning hugemongous melons.

Here in Panama, things are a little different. In the first place, it is summer year-round, so watermelons grow here all the time. Secondly, most Panamanian are not wealthy. They do not have an American-sized refrigerator, necessary if your family buys a Georgia-grown watermelon at any time other than a birthday, a BBQ, a family reunion or a church social. At those functions, you’ll need several melons, and there won’t be any left over. Bring the salt.

Here in Panama, though, a family fridge is not a whole lot bigger than a college dorm model, and a Georgia melon is not going in there, unless that is ALL that is going in there. So, Panama adjusted. Not the fridge, the melon.

E-tee-niney watermelon slices, Panama style!

E-tee-niney watermelon slices, Panama style!

This is the size of the melons I usually see offered for sale here in Panama. It fits in the fridge, assuming there is actually any of it left over. When I get a Georgia craving for watermelon, it takes two of these tiny babies to do me.  By myself.  Heck, we would probably not even bother to pick those watermelons, and would leave those in the field! Still, they do taste good, even if they are small enough to hold one in one hand……..

418: Whipper-snipper and other local colloquiliaisms

download (5)

Today in Panama, outside my office window, I heard the unmistakable sound of a two-cycle internal combustion engine, commonly used to operate motor scooters and lawn trimming machines: weed whackers, weed eaters, whipper-snippers, and other imaginative names for a fairly functional device. Taking a peek out the window confirmed the sound – seven, count ém, SEVEN men, dressed like Muslim women in pants (completely hijabéd in fabric from any contact with grass – in 95 degree weather) were busily mowing, by hand, with these weed eaters, an area of ground I estimated conservatively at five ACRES.

While this is a fairly common sight in Panama, it would be a very uncommon sight in America. In America, where the minimum wage for a laborer is over 7 bucks an hour and rising, there is the impetus to mow maximum grass in minimum time, and equipment is acquired which facilitates that aim. This is not a concept that has penetrated the Panamanian psyche. In fact, maximum work in minimum time is not a concept that has even introduced itself to the Panamanian psyche, much less cozied up to it and taken it to bed. Panamanian work psyche is still virgin territory, totally unpenetrated by anything approximating a work ethic – much less an ethic of efficiency.

It is perfectly reasonable, when you pay a worker twenty dollars a day (or LESS), to give him the cheapest piece of equipment you can find (I have seen men cutting grass on the roadside with machetes – I kid you not), expecting it to take him three or four days to mow what one Kubota triple-swath tractor could cut in two hours.

This attitude of it takes as long as it takes, using the cheapest equipment we can find, permeates this society. It is one reason I ride to and from work in a 20 year-old reconditioned BlueBird school bus, shipped down from America once it was retired from school service there, smartened up with a wild coat of paint (Jesus and a busty, suggestively posed bikini-clad girl jostling for the prime space on the back), tricked out with flashing neon lights and outfitted with a blasting turbo-charged horn, since that is what Panamanians drive with, anyway.

download (4)

Well. It does make life interesting, in a drop-your-jaw and stare sort of way…………






410: Moving On

Well – Panama is not going to be the retirement country. I will start filling out applications soon, in the fall, for a new school in another country. Perhaps Nicaragua, perhaps Ecuador, perhaps Bolivia or Brazil – who knows?

And why, some of you may be thinking, are you dissatisfied with Panama, the world’s top-touted haven for retiring Americans? I have discovered that wherever the world is beating a path, is very probably NOT the place that I am wanting to go. That has proven to be the case with Panama. I think the nicest thing I can say about Panamanians is that they have a very relaxed attitude towards customer service – which I would not have believed of a people who had such a close association with Americans for the last 150 years. The Panama idea of customer service is akin to that old joke about the bull servicing the cows – THAT kind of customer service. After a while, you just sort of expect to get screwed – NOT my idea of a good time. An author I am currently reading said that Panamanians have an “immature” work ethic. Fairly accurate, and kindly put.

Plus, all that crap you read about Panama being so cheap – WHERE do these people making these claims come from – freaking California, or New York City? Only those idiots could believe Panama is cheap, and you already know they are stupid for continuing to live in such expensive places to begin with (not to mention the hurricanes and the earthquakes, for crying out loud). Taking their word for inexpensive living is ridiculous to begin with, seeing that they have no basis in reality from the word go.

The only catch, and the ONE thing that might keep me here in Panama for another year, is the actual process of moving again. Moving is not a whole lot of fun and games in any location, and moving country is that whole ugly process, times ten to the nth power. Meh.

Still, that is what being an international worker is all about – seeing and “trying on for size” new places and new cultures. Besides, my Spanish is actually getting a little better. I am sure I sound funny, but I am generally understood – the whole point of communication in the first place. I am far better at Spanish than I EVER was at French (ugh) or Arabic (ditto).

I just need to find homes for two sweet cats – another whole issue.




402: Official “You’re an Idiot” Pass from Delta Airlines

I qualify. Believe me. I booked in March a flight on Delta from Panama City (Panama, not Florida) to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a conference for my school. Yesterday was our last day at school, and I might have been the last employee out of the building, I had so much to get done before I left. I had this much to do because the final three days were completely and totally taken up with fixing glitches with our end-of-year printed report cards, and I did not, therefore, get any of my closing-out-the-school-year chores accomplished. At least, not in a timely manner. I did finish in a sweat and lather that would make California Chrome proud.

Then, I came home and re-packed my bags. I pack exuberantly the first time, and I do this about a week in advance, usually. Then, I let it sit, and I repack again the night before I am to depart, and ruthlessly cull the initial selections down to a single backpack. I needed some recoup time before this three-week-long business trip, so that also took up part of the evening.

In all the rush and chores to mark off the list, I completely and totally forgot to CHECK IN ONLINE. I had printed my flight info back in March and knew my flight time, and I got up the morning of departure at 4 am and headed out to travel to the airport.

I don’t have a personal vehicle, and I rely on public transportation. This morning, it took an unusually long time to get to the airport, and I was starting to sweat when we got there at 7:15 for my 8:20 flight, but I was still an hour early – Oh, no, I wasn’t. The Delta rep informed me that Delta changed the flight times for those ONCE-a-day fights some months ago, and I was sent an e-mail informing me of this change – really???? The flight closed boarding a half hour earlier, now that it leaves at 7:50, not 8:20 anymore, like my flight information clearly showed.

She then informed me that she could re-book me on a flight the next morning, for this ONCE-a-day flight, for a penalty of 200 bucks and change. I don’t HAVE an extra 200 bucks, and I told her that. She sighed, and gave me a number for the Delta help desk people, and told me I could ask for a one-time (in my lifetime??) waiver of the penalty fee for being an idiot and not checking in online first. I called, and the Delta rep on the phone, obviously used to dealing with Southerners, was gracious enough to give me the “Idiot Pass,” and I am now booked in the morning. Still have to adjust the rental car reservation and the hotel reservation, and now I will be getting off the flight and going directly to the conference, instead of being able to settle into the hotel and figure my way around. Thanks, Delta.

It could be worse. It could ALWAYS be worse.

397: Panama versus Morocco

As an international teacher (at least since I sold out and left the USA) I have lived and worked in two lovely countries in different parts of the world: Morocco and Panama. While each country is unique, worth seeing and visiting for its own special reasons, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two as I move through the routine of daily living and working.

Living and working breaks down into several distinct categories for comparison. Housing, transportation, utilities, food/shopping entertainment and income are all important to living, and are different experiences in each country. So, which is “better?” Your answer and my answer might not be the same, depending on a lot of things. Our situations are not the same, nor are our resources. If you are Bill Gates, you are pretty much going to have a darned good time, no matter what country you are in. I am not Bill Gates, so my experience of each country varies significantly, partly in relation to my resources – which vary according to the country and the work I find there, and partly because the countries are just plain different.

Plus, your experience of each country will be affected by what you want and are willing to accept. If you live more like a native to the country, your expenses will plummet. If you live like an American in either country, your expenses will rise considerably. Central heat and air don’t come cheap anywhere – but usually, the natives have figured out how to live comfortably using fewer costly resources. And I like the smell of line-dried laundry, anyway, compared to tumble-dried.

HOUSING: My apartment in Morocco had two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a ginormous family room, a den, a kitchen, a balcony AND a rooftop terrace, for 176 USD a month. My four BR, 2 bath Panama house with a tiny living room and an eat-in kitchen (galley style) with a front porch costs 800 USD a month. Approximately the same size apartments in square feet. Yes, the complex in Panama has a pool, an exercise room (sort of) and it is located on a polluted beach, and the apartment in Morocco adjoined a mosque, so we got the call to prayer five times a day, starting at 4:30 am. In Morocco, I was robbed three times in three years by maids my husband hired, and in Panama I have been robbed twice (once in the house and once on the street) in the first year. Points to Morocco.

TRANSPORTATION: In Morocco, you can travel in a taxi 80 kilometers for about five bucks. In Panama, you can travel in a taxi about five kilometers for five bucks. The bus in Panama is cheaper – and safer. Morocco has trains that are pretty cheap, Panama does not have trains. Both countries have cheap buses. Both countries have good airport services – about the same.

UTILITIES: Moroccan veterinarians are FAR less expensive than Panama ones – and doctors and dentists compare about the same: Panama costs FAR more. Morocco wins HANDS DOWN for cost and quality of medical and dental care. Total utilities in Morocco are also far cheaper than Panama, and they work better, too, with fewer outages in services. The one thing you need in Morocco that you don’t need in Panama is firewood during the winter, which Panama does not have. Points to Panama on that one. Water quality in either place is good, but Morocco water tastes better – at least in the mountains. Overall – Morocco wins.

FOOD/SHOPPING: In Morocco, produce and limited meat for two people for a week costs about 12.50 USD – 20 bucks if you want imported things, or fancy meats. There is no way in the hot place you can buy food in Panama, anywhere, for that kind of money. Food in Panama is three to five times as expensive as Morocco. Restaurants are similar. I could eat at a local restaurant in Morocco for three dollars or less. Only at a street stall (quality and sanitation iffy) can you do that in Panama. Points to Morocco. Shopping is pretty amazing in either country, but then, I am female…….

ENTERTAINMENT: Where we were in Morocco, there was little entertainment you didn’t make yourself, or that was not sponsored by the local University. In Panama City, where this school is located, entertainment abounds – if you can pay for it. I still end up watching movies online, mostly, and popping my own popcorn. It’s a wash.

INCOME: Morocco paid less on paper, but I had more money. Panama pays more, but the costs of living are correspondingly more, so I have less available cash, even with greater income. It is a wash, pretty much.

Final judgement? I don’t like Panama nearly as much as I liked Morocco. I will finish my contract here in Panama, and start looking for another place to go and see. That is why I became an international teacher – to see some of the world!