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How to Navigate Panama’s Cultural “System”

Article Summary:

One expects culture shock when visiting a new country, however visiting Panama can be a bit more of a challenge. That’s because there seems to be a universal “system” which no one is capable of explaining. Take for instance, how the nation lacks addresses. And since the lack of addresses means the chances of your lost luggage being delivered is nil, it’s best to become prepared and learn to navigate this complex, yet functioning “system.”

Photo Credit: ccbbirds

Original Article Text From Stowe Today:

Learning ‘the system’ down in Panama

Blank stares between my girlfriend and me. We both slowly turned back to the waiter and shook our heads. “No señor,” we said.

The waiter went on to explain in broken English that there was a fixed menu at this particular restaurant. The courses would be brought out one at a time. The dishes were all seafood.

My girlfriend, who gets nauseated at the mere thought of fish, asked if there was a vegetarian option. The waiter said there was. “You’re sure there’s no fish in that?” my girlfriend asked. “No, no, señorita,” he said with a smile. “No fish.” She ordered it with relief.

Halfway through a meal we both agreed was delicious, my girlfriend asked the waiter what the interesting seasoning was in the rice dish we’d just eaten.

The waiter searched for the words. “Is… um… how you say… squid ink.” He smiled again and walked away.

My girlfriend’s expression morphed from confusion to horror to revulsion. I tried to comfort her by saying that technically she didn’t eat any fish. “Great,” she hissed. “I ate fish pee instead!”

I stopped comforting and continued with my dinner. Clearly, we did not know the system.

This took place during our recent vacation in Panama. I knew exactly three things about Panama before going there: 1. They have a canal. 2. They have hats. 3. The song “Panama” by Van Halen, which was like my favorite high-school song of all time.

One thing I certainly did not know about Panama was “The System.”
For instance, there is a system of taxis in Panama. You would think hiring a taxi would mean calling a cab company from a phone book, then giving them a pick-up time and your address. A simple task, si?

But you run into several problems. First, there are no taxi companies. Instead, the hotel where you are staying will tap you into its complex network of “drivers.” These drivers include independent taxi owners, the hotel owner’s teenage daughter, coffee farmers in pick-up trucks and, apparently, a random guy named Mauricio in an unmarked van with blacked-out windows.

Eventually, you will find a driver willing to take you to your destination. Unless, of course, it is between the hours of 7 and 10 a.m., or 4 and 7 p.m. — the “high-traffic” hours in Panama City. As one driver put it, “No señor, nobody drives in the city then — there’s too much traffic.” Yogi Berra would be right at home in Panama.

You absolutely must not deviate from the drivers given to you by your hotel. Why? Because they may be the only ones who can find your hotel. I was a little shocked to learn from one hotel manager that most places in Panama do not have actual street addresses. When I asked how they received their mail, she looked at me like I’d grown a second head.

“Are you kidding?” she said with a chuckle. “There’s no mail in Panama!”
Whoa, I thought. That’s crazy… and somehow it makes perfect sense! Plus, it gave me the perfect excuse as to why I didn’t send anyone postcards. I was kinda liking this system.

The system in Panama includes other extremely important things. Like underwear. I discovered this when the airline lost my suitcase. Since the lack of addresses made the chances of having my suitcase delivered to me very slim, I decided I needed to at least buy some underwear.

But they had to be boxer-briefs, of course. I haven’t worn anything else since the tighty-whities I had in high school, the most embarrassing undergarment ever made.

However, the boxer-brief revolution has apparently not hit Panama yet. At the men’s section of the clothing store I visited, I found squillions of rows of… bikini briefs. Very colorful… very tiny… bikini briefs. The kinds of things that would make a Speedo-wearing Frenchman on the Riviera blush.
I asked the clerk if they had anything else. “Any boxer-briefs at all? Por favor?”

“No señor.”

“Umm… how about regular briefs?” The clerk gave me a blank stare. “You know… um…”

“Oh, how do you say… tighty-whities?”


“No señor.”

I sighed and bought the bikinis.

This completely ruined my image of men in Panama. Every time I’d see some swarthy Panamanian dude walking down the street I’d start laughing, because I knew what he was wearing under those jeans. Then I remembered, dammit, I’m wearing those too.

What else could I do? When in Panama, you do as “the system” tells you. Even if the system involves feeling drafts on body parts you’ve never felt drafts on before.

I guess I shouldn’t expect to learn Panama’s system in less than a week. The systems I’ve been dealing with my whole life are still a mystery. Everyone thinks they know the system, though. Yup, got it all figured out. My ultra-conservative family in Maine wouldn’t dream of voting for a Demon-crat. And my liberal friends in Boston would sooner shoot and gut a bull moose at a NASCAR event than vote Republican. They’re both so convinced they’re right, it doesn’t even cross their minds they could be wrong. Who am I to believe?

Other systems continue to elude me. Work? I spend half my day pretending I know what I’m doing. The other half I’m too busy to pretend — Tweeting to all my friends about how I can never seem to get any work done.
Health? I can’t even get a straight answer on whether coffee is good for me or not. How am I supposed to know whether to cut back from my 10 cups a day?

Love? I have a smokin’ hot, Canadian girlfriend who’s 12 years younger than I am and about 50 levels out of my league. How does that make sense? Is it my looks? My personality? My trust fund? My recently having declared her the sole beneficiary in my will? How should I know?

Coming home. In one day, I went from Panama City, where everyone speaks Spanish, to Miami, where everyone still speaks Spanish, to Montreal, where everyone can speak English but speaks French to Americans just to torture them. By the time I touched down in Montreal I was so confused I was saying “si” to the airport shuttle driver, much to the delight of the other passengers.

Finally, I pointed my car south and headed toward Stowe. Where the language is English, houses have actual addresses and the worst traffic you face is the nightly skier exodus off the mountain. I smiled as I rolled up the driveway to my house. It was good to be home.

Best of all was when I showered Panama off of me, dried off, and put on a nice clean pair of boxer-briefs. Not that I’ll ditch all of my bikinis. In fact, those will probably make the best souvenirs. I’ll pull a pair out of the bottom of my underwear drawer years from now and think, “Ahhhh, Panama!”

Just like I do now when I pull out a battered pair of tighty-whities and think about high school. Hey, guys never throw those out. That’s just our system.

Link to Original Article:

From Stowe Today

  • charlie

    cute but almost all of the info is incorrect. Tighty whities are available most everywhere, Not many restaurants have fixed meals and you can find most anything you want to eat. The taxi part is all wrong, you can get a taxi anywhere or call a taxi company to send you one. also it is recommended to NOT use an un labelled taxi. There are no addresses but delivery and taxi drivers can find any location anywhere in the country. and mail, yes there is a pretty efficient postal service. No home delivery but you can pick it up at the local PO. and if you need one there are PO Boxes available. Cheaper and as or more reliable than the USA PO is today.
    Yes keep telling this story, we do not need any more of the USA liberals here to ruin our country as you have your own, Try Costa Rica

  • charley

    Amen Charlie, tell it like it is! the poor guy does need to stay home because he will never make it in this part of the world. Letting a hotel get you transportation – Ha Ha. That only means you pay too much. However I do differ with you on one part – I live well outside the city by over a hundred miles but my home does have an address assigned by the PO – Calle 6, Final (street # and the last house on the street) + city and province and country – no zip code

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