Estoy en Panama
I hope that means, “I am in Panama.”
Our plane wheels scraped the Panama runway at 3:10 yesterday. Bundled up from the 40 degree weather we left behind, we stepped into a moist blanket of 85 degree heat.
I’ve been to Panama once before. Still, five things caught me by surprise.
#1 Demeanor of airport officials
We speak muy mal espanol, yet the airport officials in La Aduana (customs) grinned at us and made jokes as they thrust forms into our hands. The slightest effort at speaking Spanish resulted in wide grins and shouts of, “Muy buen Espanol!”
I could only inwardly roll my eyes and smile. I don’t know what my Spanish sounds like, but I imagine it’s something like this:
” Luggage, to pick, up….I need? To help, to go….” (I haven’t studied Spanish grammar, and I only know the infinitives of verbs: to go, to run, to drink, etc.
#2 Excellent internet in our hotel
On our flight, the guy next to me said Panama internet is slow. I’m glad he said that. He set my expectations very low.
So I was pleasantly astounded when, after checking in to our hotel, I was immediately able to access the Internet. Videos occasionally buffer, but that happens in the States too.
#3 Astounding driving
Our driver didn’t drive. He careened, driving us to our hotel as if he had a pregnant woman in the car he needed to get to the hospital. (Incidentally, his car was missing the mirror above the dashboard, and he didn’t check his blind spots. Oh well. No accidents! That’s all that counts.)
At one point, he made a left turn that forced a white SUV to break quickly, before they could hit us. When my family and I involuntarily gasped, he shrugged and said casually, “You have to do that sometimes.”
He drove with a lot of trust in his fellow drivers, it seemed.
#4 Above and beyond “helpful”
I used to be a barista; a lot of customer service and working with people. I always tried to welcome customers enthusiastically, smile, and make their lattes as fast as possible so they wouldn’t have to wait. I aimed for excellent customer service, and I thought I was good at it.
But Panamanians take customer service to a Whole New Level.
My dad needed a chip for his cell phone. He mentioned this to the young Panamanian employee at our hotel. This was her response:
- She mentioned a nearby store that was closing soon
- She left her desk to lead us to the store (through encroaching darkness)
- Helped find the right chip
- Spent the next 30 minutes in the dark, trying to pry off the back of the cell phone. (Dad held a flashlight on us while the girl and I took turns prying at the cell phone.
Also, she understands no English. To communicate, she spoke Spanish into her phone and used it to translate. I imagine it must have been a frustrating experience for her, but you’d never know it by her bright grin.
#5 Insinuations about marrying Panamanians.
We’ve been here less than 24 hours and already had two insinuations that, “Who knows, maybe you will marry a Panamanian?”
I was under the impression that many Panamanians want to keep “gringos” out of Panama, so I was not expecting that at all. I have seen several couples in which one looks Panamanian, and the other is clearly not. So it isn’t that rare.
#6 The juxtaposition of poverty and affluence
In the U.S., there is a distinct separation between affluent areas and poorer areas. You could drive through neighborhoods of large houses with manicured lawns, then miles away would be neighborhoods of small, run-down houses.
In Panama, it feels different.
There are skyscrapers beside shacks. Beggars beside well-dressed businessmen. Crumbling and windowless apartments built beside fancy high-rises. Sleek Chevys drive over pothole ridden roads. The contrast is sharp.
So yes, culture shock
I’m guessing as the days pass we will discover many more ways the U.S. differs from Panama. Here are six. In a few months I’ll likely have a post called 36 Surprising Things About Panama;)