Six Legs on the Ground in Panama: First Impressions
The current temperature is in the low 70’s, with a light breeze rustling the tree branches. There is the sound of birds and a dog barking in the distance. I can hear Simon preparing the barbecue pit for the chicken he will grill for tonight’s dinner. I’m sitting on a porch in a rattan chair with my computer in my lap and Otto comfortably settled next to me, waiting for one of my hands to wander from the keyboard and scratch him behind those buttery ears. Life in Panama is good!
What began as a two-day trip from our home in New Bern, has turned into a month-long vacation in one of the most beautiful and friendly locations in the world. From the kind, helpful and efficient officials that worked with us at the airport in Panama City in dealing with Otto’s paperwork, to the dentist who is working on Simon’s teeth, to the cab drivers in their beat-up vehicles, the people of Panama are as warm and friendly as the breeze on a Boquete morning.
Simon, Otto and I are comfortably situated in a small apartment in the hills above Boquete (pronounced Bo-keh-tay).
Marni Craig, our landlady, is in California, and will be returning on Monday. Her apartment is right behind ours, so she will soon be our neighbor, too.
The apartments are actually a single-story building divided into three living areas. There is no heat or AC, but there is no need for any. Our windows are open 24-7, and we are never too hot or too cold. The one drawback is the dust. it gets into everything, and we are constantly cleaning it off our computers, as well as other things. It’s a good thing that I gave us both keyboard protectors for Christmas.
Oswaldo and Yilka, a married couple, are the caretakers, and a more delightful couple would be hard to find. Today, while I was in my usual writing spot on the porch , Yilka brought me an orange she had picked fresh from one of the many citrus trees on the property. She had peeled it, and cut a piece off the top. She showed me how to squeeze the juice until it comes to the top for drinking.
Our neighbor is Jay, a retired energy consultant from Houston, TX. We’ve shared meals, cocktails and trips into Boquete, along with a lot of laughs.
The weather is warn, dry and sunny. We’ve seen some clouds, and it has felt as though it might rain, with short periods of tiny droplets landing on us, but it hasn’t rained.
It is summer in Panama, and very dry. Temperatures in Boquete range from the mid 60’s to the low 80’s, with lots of wind.
The wind in the trees can sound like rushing water, or a train coming through. Last night, it even howled. The interesting thing, though is that, even when it’s blowing hard in your face, the wind isn’t at all cold.
Every morning I say the same thing, “What a beautiful day!” I may vary the adjective, using words like “glorious” and spectacular”, but the sentiment is the same.
We have been here just over a week, and I feel comfortable in sharing my early impressions of our region of Panama.
- Panama is friendly in the extreme. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems as if everyone, from expats to the town drunk, is eager to engage in conversation and be helpful. All I had to do was drop a water bottle, and it was placed back in my hand before I had the chance to try to figure out where it had rolled. The coffee stop in Boquete became a group discussion among Simon, me and several expats. We now know more about the family history of some cab drivers than we know about our own. Even when we are being told that we can’t bring Otto into a restaurant or food store (a post for another time), the people speak to us with kindness and sincere regret.
- If Panama was a person, it would be smiling. You know how in the movies or on TV, when a scene opens in a particular country, there’s music that identifies that place. For example, a scene taking place on a Caribbean island might open with the sound of a steel band, or a shot of a street in Delhi might be accompanied by sitar music. Well, music can be heard pouring out of speakers on busses, bars, restaurants and even at political rallies: and it all sounds happy. The rhythms have a traditional Latin flavor, the instruments sound upbeat and the vocalists sound like they’re smiling. No doubt there are songs of lost love and bad luck to be found, but most of the time, the music makes me feel like I’m in the middle of a scene from a movie with a happy ending.
- People here move at a slow, relaxed pace, until they get into their vehicles. Walking down a street in Boquete or David (pronounced dah-veed) is unusual in that, although the streets are crowded, people don’t seem to be in any great hurry to get where they’re going. But the roads are a different story. Once behind the wheel, these same easy-going folks immediately morph into NASCAR driver wannabes. Suddenly there’s no room for compromise, and “chicken” is played everywhere you go. For drivers, the car horn is something to be used at every opportunity. Once, when a kind-hearted driver stopped to let us cross the road, honking began immediately, and kept going as far back as we could hear, until the driver began to move. There is probably an explanation for this phenomenon, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.
- Consistency is nearly non-existent. You can ask the same person the same question three different times, and receive three different answers. This is even more of a problem when you’re trying to get directions, because you are asking different people the same question, so there’s little opportunity for clarification. We got hopelessly lost in Boquete while trying to find a place that was recommended to us for getting SIM cards for our phones. When we first arrived in Boquete we asked Yilka about her cleaning rates, she quoted us $16.00 for the entire job, including washing sheets and towels. The day she cleaned, she charged us at the rate of $2.00 per hour, which came to a grand total of $12.00. One day the bus ride into David was $3.00 for Simon and me. The next day it was $2.90. A cab from Boquete to where are living can range from $2.00 to $5.00. And so it goes on. Your only defense is to chill out and just deal with it. It’s really not that bad once you get used to the fact that this is the way it is.
- There are busses, but the rule of inconsistency applies. Where ever you want to go, there’s a bus to get you there, but they are run by a number of independent contractors, and you never know when one will come along. Your best bet is to go to the central bus station, and get on a bus. It will go when it’s full. Don’t even bother asking for a schedule! The good news is that there are a lot of busses, and we’ve never had to wait too long for one.
- Unlike many areas in the U.S., there are lots of sidewalks. Yes, for someone who had to receive special training with her guide dogs to work without sidewalks, you would think that Panama would be like dying and going to heaven. The two-and-a-half mile walk into Bouquete has sidewalks almost all the way. The problem is that they are in terrible shape in some places. I’ve learned that I really shouldn’t walk anywhere without my sturdy sneakers and ankle socks. There are even some places where the sidewalk is washed out entirely, and we have to step into the road until we get past the mess (Remember what I said about the drivers?), which can make for a less-than-pleasant walk. The good news is that after negotiating the route to Boquete a few times, both Otto and I now know what to expect, and the walk has become far more pleasant.
- Clean clothes can come at a premium. It’s a good thing that I’ve done a good bit of hand-washing of items of clothing during my travels, because, unless you have access to a washing machine, you might want to get really good at it before coming to Panama. We went into Boquete to a laundry that was recommended by Yilka, where they charge you by the pound for washing, drying and folding. The bill for a week’s worth of Simon’s and my laundry came to $18.00. We have a clothesline we can use, and a nice, big vessel sink in the bathroom. We have clothespins available to us, and we bought a small box of washing powder. If we brave the Boquete laundry again, it will be with far less poundage!
Although life moves at a slow pace here, the time definitely does not. We have done quite a lot since we arrived in Panama, but there is still much we want to do. One thing is certain: we will savor every minute we are in this country.