Very rich. Very poor.
Panamanian homes (as opposed to expat homes), are tiny, lack hot water, and are basic and primitive. Shirts hang on clotheslines, plastic buckets collect water, houses are cobbled together with tin.
Many expats live in Panama, but there is a sharp contrast between the lifestyle of expats and the lifestyle of Panamanians. Expats generally live in beautiful, spacious, colorful homes with running water, electricity and WiFi.
*Note: I’m NOT saying either party is bad – just depicting the sharp contrast between poverty and affluence in Panama.
How Panamanians treat us
When we arrived at our hotel in Panama, the staff treated us like royalty.
Seriously, like royalty.
The first morning as we came down to eat breakfast, the staff was very…cautious. Our waiter, Juan, a quiet Panamanian man, actually owned the hotel. He served us quietly (and spoke very little English.) He did not smile once, and almost seemed….I don’t know, not afraid of us, but watchful. (I was super uncomfortable, by the way, and don’t like being served. I wanted to hop up and be the waitress instead.)
It was disconcerting to have such an affect on our hotel management, yet it corroborated what I’d heard. Before coming to Panama, I’d read that the economic differences in Panama are so sharp that Panamanians will not accept gringos. The prevailing opinion online was that Panamanians see gringos only as wealthy people to be waited on, tourists to be served.
Friends with Panamanians?
So I wondered, Could we ever be friends with the Panamanians? Or was the blanket statement, “Panamanians won’t accept you – they just see you as a tourist with money,” actually true?
We (my family and I) worked on being friendly. We learned basic greetings in Spanish, said, “Muy delicioso!” as we ate breakfasts, and even though my brain was bursting with Spanish, and I felt like a kindergartner, I forced myself to go chat with them in broken Spanish whenever possible. When they sat in lounge chairs in the afternoon, I joined them (feeling highly uncomfortable with my level of Spanish), and stumbled through conversations about sons and daughters, family relations, food, Panama, etc.
They still treated us like royalty, super polite, cautious. It took days, literally days, of trying to be approachable, for me to see a difference.
The day things changed
Three days ago my sister and I hopped down to the ground floor of the hotel to talk to Maria, our Colombian waitress. She’s around twenty-five, tall, black hair, and bilingual in Spanish and English. Juan cautiously edged over, wanting to learn English. We were all pretty nervous and I felt pretty darn stupid, saying basic stuff in a foreign language, guessing at pronunciation.
Juan said a word I didn’t understand.
I asked him to repeat it.
“Mootie.” he said, again and again.
“He’s saying ‘smoothie.'” Maria translated.
My sister burst out laughing and wouldn’t stop. “Smoothie.” she chuckled. I was horrified. “Stop it!” I whispered. “You’re embarrassing him!” But when I looked at Juan, it was the first time I’d seen him smile. Gone as quick as it came, but a genuine sonrisa.
After the Spanish/English lesson, Juan, Maria, and the rest of the hotel staff seemed more at ease.
Yesterday I was sitting in a lounge chair with another waitress, Nina, trying to chat in Spanish. Juan came out, carrying a plate with one piece of pie. He set it on the table and gave me a spoon.
“Gracias, muy delicioso,” I said, tasting it. It tasted like apricots, with lemon and apple.(In the States I always used to ask, “What’s in this food?” before I’d eat anything, but I’m realizing that’s incredibly bad manners.)
Then Juan took a bite, Nina took a bite, and I took another one.
Something inside me cringed at sharing pie with other people. I don’t even share food with my family. Growing up, we were a germaphobic family. But something else in me was thrilled to be accepted, to be friends with Juan and Nina. It felt like more than pie – it felt like acceptance.
Be a good expat
There’s lots of blogs about Panama with advice like, Please learn Spanish. Don’t expect Panamanians to learn English. You’re in their country.
It’s true. It’s important to be sensitive to other cultures, to make an effort, and to be a good “ambassador” for your country. Because like it or not, Panamanians are developing an impression of the United States by people like us.