In my eager pre-travel research on Panama, much of the information I found made Panama out to be very Americanized and very modern; unofficially, it was dubbed by many of the sources I was reading as “Little Miami”, because Miami and Panama were so much the same. Language, food, culture, even currency: it was all Americanized (“but the cost of living was cheaper!”) and easy for an American to navigate. I translated this to mean that it would be easy for a Canadian to navigate, too.
Upon my arrival, I only kind of agreed with the information I read. Seeing everything with my own eyes, I saw the similarities that I had read about: people using American currency, the KFCs and McDonalds and American Eagles in the more developed regions of the city, the business district’s skyscrapers climbing up the city’s horizon and the crazy cold air conditioning. For me though, that’s where the majority of the similarities ended.
As I’ve stayed longer, I’ve noticed more and more subtle nuances, in culture especially, that make Panama a completely different experience than the United States… and Canada for that matter.
For being considered so ‘Americanized’, they’re really not. Yes, they may use the American dollar as a currency equivalent to their national currency (the Balboa, which is no longer actually in print), but no one speaks English! The business district of Punta Pacifica, which is where I work and the most built up and expensive part of the entire country, is probably the most likely place you’ll find someone who can converse with you in English. However at the Supermarket or in a shopping center, unless it’s one of the big (American) ones in Punta Pacifica, you’re going to be stuck using make-shift sign language, and being okay with getting really strange looks from people unless you can navigate your way through a Spanish conversation.
My first shopping trip here alone was quite an experience, I tell you; the best part was when I tried to ask and get someone to help me put minutes on my prepaid cellphone. It would have definitely made in onto America’s Funniest Home Videos if someone had taped it… cross-cultural communication is a steep learning curve.
In terms of ambition, however, they might even have one up on the States. Panama is trying to recreate itself; it’s building, and changing laws and regulations, doing everything
I tried shopping here on a Sunday when I first got here… it was rather unsuccessful. Now don’t mistake me, it wasn’t due to my poor Spanish, but rather that I couldn’t get into the stores because everything was closed. Who would have thought: in the center of the business district, everything’s closed on Sundays! I was sad, but it gave me a good excuse to do a whole lot less on my Sunday afternoons 🙂