After a week in Panama City, I can tell you a little more about the nature and culture of the people living here. They’re a superstitious bunch; I was told in no uncertain terms that putting my purse on the floor would cause me to be unable to “move up in the world”, but my red wallet (or any red wallet for that matter), is lucky! Thank goodness that balances itself out, because I haven’t been able to shake the habit of putting my purse on the floor.
In Panama, people honour the age-old perception that people in Latino countries are, in general, are less concerned with time. When a store’s hours are listed as opening at 9:00am, odds are that the store will not actually open at 9:00am, but rather 9:00am..ish. Similarly, one of my coworkers, who has been gracious enough to drive me back and forth from work this last week as I adjust to the city, has not once arrived to pick me up at the time he’s said he’d pick me up at. I’m getting used to it, however I’m always ready at the agreed upon time in order to keep anyone else waiting. I had it drilled into me as a kid to be early for everything, and I don’t know if three months of exposure to the “Panamanian” perception of time will be enough to change my ways.
The people are nice here; on the streets, people (strangers!) will in fact mind each other’s business, saying hello (“buenas”) to each other with a polite nod and smile. Even in elevators strangers say hello as they come in a good day as they exit! Very strange. the taxi driver taking me to the farmer’s market was so concerned with me finding my way around the market, that he parked his taxi in the market, let me leave my shopping from the fish market in the car, and walked around with me, showing me the best stands where I could get the stuff on my list! He even bartered for me and managed to get 24 bananas for a dollar rather than just 12. When I was having trouble with getting my prepaid cellphone to update the minutes I had just bought, a woman in the supermarket stopped and helped me understand (in Spanish, for the most part) how exactly the process worked for Panamanian cell phones! I could get used to this whole … be kind to strangers thing.
Chivalry goes hand in hand with courtesy here, too! I have yet to open a building or car door for myself, and if ever I need help carrying groceries, there’s always someone offering! My first day leaving the office I was going down to the main floor with about 5 men, and when the doors opened on the ground floor. I stood waiting my turn to get out of the elevator and no one moved. No one! When I looked around they were all looking at me; finally one of them motioned to me and said “ladies first”…I was dumbfounded. But excited! The Marilyn Monroe quote comes to mind: “I don’t mind living in a man’s world, so long as I can be a woman in it.” I’m all for feminism, but hey, it’s nice to see that Chivalry isn’t dead!
In terms of the city landscape, it’s built on rolling hills and has lots of different…layers…(for a lack of a better word) in lots of places. Imagine the Gardiner/DVP/Lakeshore combined with Hogg’s Hollow in Toronto. The main streets (there are four) have all been cut down to one way for the most part because of the huge underground public transit project going on…which makes traffic even crazier than it already was before. The best part is, is that you should expect a traffic jam and any hour of the day Monday through to Friday; sometimes even Saturday. Toronto rush hour traffic doesn’t have anything on Panama City traffic. Taxis won’t even come downtown to our office building during ‘normal rush hour’ hours…it’s that bad.
Taxis also don’t have seatbelts, which is concerning because at least half of them don’t have bumpers or are banged up and dented up enough to make you think that they learned to drive in Quebec…no one uses the indicated lanes provided, signaling is completely optional, and cutting people off in traffic is just a friendly way to say “hola”!
Adding to this chaos of traffic is Panama City’s older bussing public bussing system…they use old school buses! Super painted up and graffiti all over, locals call them “diablos rojos” (direct translation = “red devils”) because the drivers are crazy and commonly kill people with their bad driving. It’s insane. These buses are being slowly phased out by a newer (and more expensive) metro bus system however, where the drivers have to take driving tests and pass tests for safety purposes. This is a slow process however, and many people are unhappy with the changes coming so slowly and the system being much more expensive.
This has so far been my experience in Panama in terms of the lay of the land, the culture, and the people. The way of life is very Americanized, but Panama is DEFINITELY not Americanized to a point where the culture is remotely similar to what you would find or feel in the USA…and I have to say that I am enjoying the ‘newness’ of it all.