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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 Not-So-Obvious Things I Love About Panama

I missed you guys. Really, I did. I’ve been thinking a lot about Panama For Real and wishing I had more time to dive back into the pool of milky white virtual paper and Verdana font. The truth is, I’ve been incredibly busy putting food on the table. I’ve said before that Panama isn’t an easy place to live if you need to earn a living. It’s super chill if you have a reliable, steady flow of income, but having to deal with the daily grind can be a menace. And that’s where I find myself now. PFR, being a 100% free website definitely doesn’t pay the bills, but that’s my burden, not yours. I promise to keep this going if you promise to hang in there whenever I’m plagued with random bouts of holy-cow-I’m-too-freakin’-busy-to-focus-on-a-Panama post. Deal?

That said, what better way to get back into motion than to talk about some of the completely random things I love about Panama? You’re probably groaning right now, thinking, “Come on, Chris. Everyone writes the 10 things you’ll love about Panama stuff.” True enough. Fair enough. But I promise to try and do this a little different from the pay-for-info sites. Let me break it down to show you what I mean. 

I love seeing Estefania and Victoria getting involved in their new country's celebrations

Everyone writes about the convenience of our time zone (no daylight savings time changes here), banking, the use of the U.S. dollar, the ability (kind of) to get by speaking very little Spanish, and of course the raw beauty you find in Panama. I've written about these things too. But what else is there to love about Panama?

1. Bananas – 

I freakin’ love bananas. And they’re incredibly cheap here. This is the banana capital of the world. At the supermarket closest to my house, bananas right now cost about $.30 a pound. 

I love bananas. Nico does too. 

I participated in a book-promotion interview recently and was asked to list some things people didn’t already know about me. Bananas. The fruit was on the list. I told the story about how, when I was in high school, our football coach insisted that everyone on the team join an alternate sport in the off-season. The idea was that none of us would get lazy. I, and my good buddy Brian, joined track. Brian was a 300-pound lineman and wanted to throw discus. I had no serious athletic ability. I was a pretty good football player, but I wasn’t great. I wasn’t fast that’s for sure. 

So what did I do on the track team? I ate bananas. Yep, I sat in the bleachers, with Brian, and munched on bananas out of a big plastic grocery bag the track coach brought to each track meet. When it was time to run my 100-yard dash, I’d get up, run the race, lose the race, and then sit back down. As I listened to people whisper jokes like, “Damn, that white boy’s shadow was faster than he was,” I’d eat more bananas while flippin’ them the bird. 

I love seeing unintentionally raunchy traffic signs 
(seriously, I took this photo in the El Doroado area)

I think I’ve told you guys this story already, but the funny thing about Panama, is even with the oversupply of bananas, it can be incredibly difficult getting a banana split sometimes. I used to go the Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors in Costa del Este, or what I like to call the 10 flavors over and over again. Every single time I tried to order a banana split, I was told they were out of bananas. I’m not kidding. They were out of bananas all the time. So one day, I kid you not, I took my own bananas. I put one in each of my front pockets and drove to Baskin Robins. I ordered a banana split.

Lo siento, Señor. No hay bananas.” I was told (Ok, that’s my crappy Spanish at work, but it went something like that).

“Ah,” I said as I acted like I had an amazing idea. “No hay problema.”

I pulled the two bananas out of my pockets and placed them on the counter. The girl looked shocked and then started laughing with her coworker. I’m sure I was the joke of the place for a while, but I got my banana split that’s for sure.

2. Boxing on regular TV – 

I remember living in the U.S. and wanting to see the big fight. If you didn’t have HBO or Showtime you’d have to find a buddy who did or you'd have to head to a local bar. Some of the big fights were on pay-per-view right? 

I love sitting behind video-game-loving truck drivers in traffic

You don’t have to worry about that here in Panama. The fights are always on basic cable. The Pacquiao VS Algieri fight the other night was playing on my father-in-law’s TV—free. The UFC fights used to play free on basic cable too, but I think that’s changed. I haven’t seen the fights live lately. I could be wrong about that though. Still, if you want to watch a UFC fight or a WWE event, you just find a website that allows you to either stream it live or watch post-premier, or like back home, just head out to Hooters or one of the sports bars in town.

I’d love to hear back from readers already living in Panama. What are some of the ways you watch live events that aren’t on basic cable?

3. Bootlegged stuff – 

I’ve seen the short videos that play at the beginning of the DVDs you rent out of the Redbox. Pirated videos are wrong because they support terrorism and don’t support the companies that charge $24.99 per DVD. Ok, I’m not saying that I don’t believe in the whole “pirating is stealing” idea. I get it. But I also remember going to a record store and spending an absurd amount of money on a CD that probably had one, maybe two songs I liked. The rest were filler songs. Likewise, I remember going into a popular DVD store, like um…what’s it called…FYE I think, and spending over $30 on a DVD. That’s close to robbery.

I love hanging out with baby Brad, the newest Kidpat in the family

So, I have to admit that I kind of like that you can buy cheap DVDs on the sidewalk in front of the supermarkets and that you can go to one of the shopping centers and pick up an R4 chip to stick in your kids’ Nintendo DS, pre-loaded with up to 100 games (rather than pay $50 per game).

I like that you can take a Playstation system to El Dorado and have it altered so it can play bootlegged games that cost $5 rather than the real games that cost $70. I like that you can honk your horn and buy crazy Latin music mixes for an upcoming party from the guy in the street median. I like that you can buy cheap wannabe Samsung cell phone chargers for your car and fake Oakley sunglasses for your face. Sorry, had to add the “for your face” ending to that sentence because it just flowed so smoothly (and it made me laugh). Realistically, the people who can afford it are still going to buy the name brands. A fake Rolex is a fake Rolex. It’s probably not going to keep time like the real thing, but it can look cool at a cocktail party. 

I love seeing my kids so happy with baby Brad around (family is everything here)

Is it wrong? I guess. I don’t know. I’m a writer and someone asked me the other day how I’d feel if he picked up my book for free online at one of the pirate sites. I said, “Dude, if you can find my book for free, I’d be honored if you stole it.” Shoot, I’ve given my books away so many times for free on Amazon and Smashwords that it doesn’t make much of a difference. Two of my novels are free right now on Wattpad. Publicity is publicity. If someone reads my book for free, likes it, and either tells someone about it or writes a review on Amazon, that’s helpful to me. So I’m cool with it. 

Plus, I’m not making many dimes writing. It’s not the reason I’m writing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to make a living on my books, but I write to entertain. It’s what I love to do. If I can hit Stephen King status at some point in my future, I’ll probably pass out from excitement, but in the meantime I’ll stick with being an underground, street writer. Does that even exist? Sounds like a new novel idea. The shoddy world of underground novel writing, ha! Where we sell our bodies for the chance at publication!

4. Fireworks – 

Yes, fireworks have been mentioned on other websites. Panamanians celebrate everything by shooting bright flowery rockets into the night sky. Don't believe me? Check out the video I shot from my brother-in-law's condo last Christmas Eve HERE

What I love about Panama is the fact that everyone can buy fireworks. In the U.S., it’s getting ridiculous. When I left, the only fireworks that were legal to buy were the freakin’ white popit things kids throw at the ground and sparklers. Oh and those little volcano shaped things that spew colorful sparks from their tops. Those are exciting.

I love clownin' around on Halloween (yep, that's me, the clown)

I’m sure out in the country somewhere, probably back where my dad’s living in the prairie lands, on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the fields are alive with the real deal fireworks, but in most places they’re illegal.

In Panama, every day of the year you’ll find fireworks stores, or little roadside stands, selling everything from bottle rockets to mortars. And if you happen to get lucky enough to move into a predominantly Chinese neighborhood here in Panama, you’re in for a treat—especially during the Chinese New Year. I lived in a neighborhood called Los Laureles, and my Chinese neighbors were fireworks fanatics. I think they shot off fireworks on their wedding anniversaries and their kids’ birthdays and maybe even each time their kids got a 5 (equal to an A here) on a school test. It was nuts. What did I, the gringo with no fireworks on hand, do to show my support? I banged pots and pans of course. That’s what we do! I clanged metal lids against aluminum pots and shouted, “Happy New Year, Happy Anniversary, and good job on that 5, kid!”

5. The 13th month and lots of holidays – 

I was off work the other day, and I don’t even know why. That’s awesome. Back home, I’d be lucky to get Veterans Day off and I’m a freakin’ veteran. Mother’s Day was no big deal in the U.S. Sure, you’d get your wife flowers and chocolates and jewelry and probably maker her dinner or breakfast in bed. Then both of you would head off to work while the kids went to school. Not in Panama. Mother’s Day is a national holiday here. The government shuts down, the kids are out of school…it’s a big deal.

I love my wife and the mother of my children! 

A free Disney musical was live on stage at the Cinta Costera and it was packed. My wife was invited to my kids' school Mother's Day celebration where gifts were raffled off and my kids did everything from singing to dancing to reading poetry with their classmates. At my school, the guys got together and bought lunch for the moms, gave roses to each mom, and put on crazy sketch show with singing, dancing, lip syncing, and even a comedy skit. 

I’m sure fireworks were going off somewhere in town that day. Father’s Day? A pretty big deal, but not nearly as big as Mother’s Day.

Independence Days are a big deal here too. And it seems like there are a hundred of ‘em. Ok, before I get the ridiculous comments and emails from Panamanians schooling me on exactly how many days there are and on what each one of them means…I know already. I’m just goofing around. However, there are several independence days here and each is taken quite seriously. 

So, as I told a reader recently who was considering coming down to Panama in November to take care of his immigration paperwork. Don’t plan anything during the month of November. Don’t do it! Just don’t. November is holiday month here. And when there are two or three holidays during the week, it’s customary to shut everything down for the whole week. So don’t set yourself up for that kind of frustration. Instead, enjoy the days off and have fun like everyone else. Head to Casco Viejo (Casco Antiguo as it’s now referred) and watch the desfiles (parades).

I loved seeing Vica (the only girl on drums) hang with the boys all day 
at the parade. She was a trooper.

Oh, and another great thing about working in Panama is the 13th month. Panamanian employees earn an extra 1/3rd of their salary in April, August, and December. It’s called the decimo. I love it because it’s kind of a way of making sure that Panamanians receive some sort of Christmas bonus. 

Let’s face it, many (not all) employers here are foreigners and cheapskate foreigners at that. People move to Panama and open businesses because they want to save some money. More often than not it’s at the expense of the Panamanian worker. I’ve seen people forced to work 6 (or 7) days a week, with no vacation, no holidays off, no decimo, and at pay far below minimum wage…it’s horrible. And this is really common when employers hire illegal immigrants (like Venezuelans trying to escape the situation in their home country). I’ve known many Venezuelan people, skilled workers, making sad amounts of money while working ridiculous hours.

I can’t tell you how to handle illegal immigrants working for you, but a fair shake would be really cool. When it comes to Panamanian workers, if you own a business here, or if you plan to, please abide by the rules. Don’t try to rip Panamanians off and force them to work on their holidays (without holiday overtime pay). Or for the bare minimum salary. And if you do, don’t complain later that the quality of work here is lousy. You get what you pay for. 

If someone were paying me $300 per month, I’d turn in shit work too. It’s just a fact of life. You can pay workers less than you would in the U.S. or in Canada or in the U.K., and still pay well over Panama's minimum wage.

6. Buying cheap stuff – 

Yes, I know the difference between cheap and affordable, but remember, I’m from Oklahoma and we use the two interchangeably for the most part. When I say cheap, I don’t mean it’s falling apart. I mean it’s not spendy. It’s not pricey. Rent in Panama isn’t cheap, at least not in Panama City. I’ve been over that before. Food can be if you buy local brands. But life in Panama can still be incredibly affordable in many aspects. Please, Chris, do explain. Sure I will.

Cheap Clothes: Ha, this can go both ways as in cheap (the ironed-on mighty Avengers patch in the front of your kids’ pajamas peels off the first time you wash it) and as in cheap (you won’t break your bank buying a pack of panties).

I’m a fan of the Silver Jack jeans. They’re like Silver Tab in my opinion. I can’t bring myself to spend $50 on a pair of blue jeans. Instead, I’ll head to Saks (not 5th avenue, but Juan Diaz or El Dorado, big difference) or Dorians and pick up a pair of Silver Jacks for $10-$15. I’ve gotten lucky and found a $7 sale going on once. As I’ve mentioned before, just check your pockets and make sure your hands fit in them. And do try them on before purchasing as the crotches on jeans can be tight (narrow? short? non-existent? How do you accurately describe minimal crotch space) and sewn-in, instant wedgies happen often. 

I love when my kids work together on school projects

Women can find nice looking shoes and high heels for like $3 a pop. Let’s be honest, ladies, most of you have a closet full of shoes and only wear each pair a couple of times. So why spend a fortune on a pair when you can pick up one for every occasion for crazy affordable prices? If you’re dainty, or skinny I should say, T-shirts can cost as low as $1.99. Chubby fellows like me, or broad-shouldered chaps aren’t going to slip into these threads. We need to find the American brands, but even those can be found for $5 to $7 a T-shirt at the same places I mentioned before.

Cheap beer: If you’re not able to fit into the $1.99 T-shirts it might be because you’ve already discovered the cheap beer. A can of local beer costs less than $.70. The price of a six pack hovers right around $4.00, usually less. Click HERE to check out this article I wrote awhile back about buying drinks in Panama for more info on the subject (be advised this was written about a year ago so prices have gone up a few cents). 

I love quick trips to the mountains, like this one to Altos del Maria

A word of advice, watch out for some of the bars on Calle Uruguay, the hot party spot in Panama’s downtown area. At one of the karaoke places, I went to the bar to buy a couple of bottles of Balboa beer (local brand that would cost about $.79 each in the supermarket) and was quoted $8. That’s EIGHT. As in 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…for two Panamanian beers. That’s ridiculous. That’s how much I paid for a Budweiser in Alaska. Now, if you go to a more down-to-earth, local bar here in Panama, you’ll pay a dollar (or less) for the same bottle of Balboa beer. So just watch out.

Cheap haircuts: I’ve had the same military-like do for a long time, and I cut my own hair. It all started when I lived in Boynton Beach, Florida, and the local barber shop charged me $17 for this haircut. I paid it a few times and it always bothered me knowing I was shelling out $20 (with the tip) for such a quick and easy job. That’s when I went to Walmart, picked up a $14 clipper, and started doing my own hair. Turns out I have an odd shaped head that makes it nearly impossible for me to mess up. 

I love $.35 bus and train rides

I said nearly because it just so happens that I did mess up, years ago on the day before my daughter’s birthday,  when I shaved the front of my hair clean off and ended up having to shave my whole head bald. Not fun. Funny, not fun.

In Panama, you won’t have to worry about that $17 do. I got my hair cut for $4. My wife can get hers cut for probably about $8. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you go to one of the fancy salons in Multiplaza Mall or in the San Francisco or Paitilla areas, you’ll pay top dollar, just like back home. But if you go to a Factory Fashion or a local salon, men and women can expect to pay much less. The trick, just like with any salon, is to find someone you trust and keep going back to them.

Cheap movies: I’ve mentioned this a few times, but I’m a movie fanatic, so it’s something I love about Panama. The last time I took my daughters to see a movie in the U.S. was in Chicago, Illinois. I paid $17 for parking at the theater, $10 for my ticket, $8 for each of my daughters' tickets, and by the time I paid for snacks, I’d spent about $60. 

Fast forward a couple of years to the first time I took them to see a movie at the Cinemark in Los Pueblos. It was a Wednesday night, which happens to be cheap movie day here in Panama. For the three of us I paid just over $6 total for tickets. Add $10 at the most for snacks and I spent about $16 at the movies.

I love buying fresh pipa (coconut water) from this guy under
the bridge in San Miguelito

The trick is to make sure you go on a Wednesday. I think right now Cinemark is still running their Thursday special where you can show your Pricesmart membership card (like Costco or Sam’s Club here) and get 2 for 1 movie tickets.

And if you happen to go to the movies any other day of the week, it’s usually only about $4 a person. 3D is a little bit more and VIP (the reclining leather seats) is somewhere around $10 each ticket.

Here are the websites for the two main theaters here if you want to check pricing and show times. Cinemark and Cinepolis. Or for a quick look at what's playing at all the Panama cinemas try Cinespanama. Just remember SUB or SUBITULADA means the movie is in English with Spanish subtitles. DOB or DOBLADA means the movie will be dubbed in Spanish.

7. Mini Supers, often referred to as Chinos – 

Before I’m pounced on, I’m not a fan of calling them chinos, but that’s what people know them as. In fact, I know the name of the Chinese owner of the store near my house, Erica, and I suggest you get to know the owners of your closest mini-super too. You might make a good friend.

I almost put this section up there with the cheap items list because what I love most about these mini-supers is the ability to buy exactly what you need, the actual amount you need, for affordable prices. If I need 2 eggs because I’m baking a cake, I can run to the store and purchase 2 eggs. I don’t have to buy a dozen like at a normal supermarket.

I love fishing mangos out of the tree in our front yard

If I need one trash bag for some reason, I can buy one trash bag. If my daughter has an art project for school and needs one pair of wobbly eyes for a sock puppet, I can buy one pair of eyes instead of an entire package. I love it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rushed to the mini-super in a pinch. I’ve gone to pick up oil, a banana, half a chicken, one stick of butter…you name it. The place closest to my house has stacks of eggs right at the cash register. So, if you need 1 Snickers bar, 1 box of matches, 1 razor for shaving, 3 pieces of gum, 1 razor blade, 3 trash bags, and 2 eggs, you’re in luck. I don’t know why you’d need all that stuff, in that denomination, unless you’re MacGyver, but you never know.

8. Ability to Negotiate – 

In the U.S., we’ve lost the ability to negotiate. Unless you’re at a used car dealership or trying to buy a house, negotiation has almost become a thing of the past. In Panama, if you know what you’re doing, and if you speak Spanish, it’s a handy tool. 

I love ceviche, one of my new favorite snacks

When I first moved to Panama, I needed to buy appliances. I’d left the house back home up for sale, and figured it would be best to leave the appliances in it, rather than trying to sell a gutted home. This meant I needed to buy a stove, a fridge, a washer, and a dryer. I made sure I took my mother-in-law with me. Gloria, my wife’s mother, is awesome. She’s a good friend, but also super handy to have around too. She knows how to negotiate and isn’t afraid to give people a piece of her mind when they’re full of it. I had no idea I could negotiate here, but when I went to buy a stove, she immediately started talking down the price.

I love street performers

This wasn’t at a garage sale or a Salvation Army or some mom and pop store. This was Rodelag, a major appliance store here. She asked the sales person for a discount. He went to ask his boss and we ended up paying less. I’m not sure how much, but less. At a Do-It-Center (kind of like a Home Depot here), I wanted to buy an exercise bike. I think the price was $150 or something like that. It was the only one available though and I know my wife hates buying the floor model. Plus, this one had a scratch on it. I negotiated with the sales person and he talked to his boss. I ended up getting it for like $20 less.

I’m not the kind of person who likes to talk his way into a sweeter deal. I just don’t like the hassle of it. I’m more likely to just pay the regular price than to try and negotiate every time I walk into a store, but if you’re able to, and you like that kind of thing, give it a try.

9. Barcelona vs. Madrid days – 

I love American football, but I’ve come to appreciate futbol (or soccer). I’ll never forget my first Barcelona vs. Madrid game. I was with my Finnish friend, Juha. We went to a local bar to drink beer, eat greasy appetizers, and see these two teams battle it out. I had no idea the importance of this rivalry. I’d seen the red jerseys worn by half the city’s population whenever the Panama team was set to play a game, but why would Panamanians care so much about two teams from Spain? I wouldn’t think it would be a big deal. Wrong.

I love push buttons. They're just so cool, cheap, and convenient, ha!

There are two types of people in Panama. Barcelona fans and Real Madrid fans. It’s almost like the Capulets and the Montagues. I’m not even sure if a Barcelona fan and a Madrid fan can marry. Their kids may be shunned by society.

This is a rivalry taken seriously. On our way to that bar to see my first ever Barcelona vs. Madrid game, the guy driving the car got pulled over. He was going the wrong way on a one-way street, just for a second, trying to find the bar. The cop knocked on his window, the guy rolled it down, and as soon as the cop peered in and saw he was wearing a Real Madrid jersey, he just smiled and said something like, “You’re lucky you’re wearing the right team’s jersey. If you’d been wearing a Barcelona shirt I, would’ve given you a ticket.” That was it. We were on our way. Not even a warning. Just a laugh and a “the bar’s thataway.” 

When I got our car, a used one, it had a Barcelona license plate on the front of it. I took it off. Not because I don’t like Barcelona. I don’t really have a preference between the two teams. I just didn’t want to get pulled over someday and happen to meet a cop who favors the opposing team.

10. Old fashioned lifestyle – 

Ok this one is rapidly changing, but I still feel like this place is kind of like the U.S. in the 50s. Ha, like Leave it to Beaver without the Beaver. More like Leave it to Manuel. 

I’ve mentioned the opportunity here a lot. Especially in places like Pedasi, these small beach towns that are constantly growing. If you move to one of these small places like Aguadulce or the farming area (not the resort side) of Rio Hato or even Penonome, and you notice something is missing, just bring it to the town yourself.

Please, no more pizzerias in Coronado! Sorry, that had to be said.

What I mean is, if you move to the town and you realize it would be really cool to have a super chill café where local talent can strum the guitar on Friday evenings, just do it. What’s stopping you? If you notice there’s not a good sandwich shop in town, and you happen to be a deli master, what are you waiting for? Bring your culinary karate to that town.

I love butt naked piñatas. This photo cracks me up every time.

And it’s not just the opportunity that reminds me of the 50s (not that I was alive in the 50s, but I’ve seen Back to the Future and it looks awesome). It’s the freedom and the way of life.

You can still, at some gas stations, have your gas pumped for you and your windows washed and your oil and tire pressure checked. People still bag your groceries and carry them out to your car for you. Gardeners come to your house, stand outside, and call your name (or jefe or something like that) until you let them know whether you do or do not need their services. Shoe repair people ride around on bikes and solicit your business. A dude standing in the back of a pickup announces produce for sale through a megaphone as his team drives up and down the neighborhood streets. 

I love sweet deals like this gigantic bag of produce from Cerro Punta

And if you’d rather head to a farmer market yourself, do it. Go. Find your fresh and affordable veggies. Don’t even clean your house if you don’t want to. Hire someone to do it, just like the gardener and pool cleaners. These are hardworking Panamanians. Just pay them a fair wage and relax, enjoy the services they provide.

I love the uncorrupted freedom too. Let me explain as I’m sure someone just jumped off their computer chair, shook a fist in the air, and yelled, “WTF are you talking about, Chris, politicians are incredibly corrupt!” I don’t mean that. I mean the thought process in Panama isn’t corrupt. There’s still a naïve way about this place.

The people are just so much more laid back. Stupid things don’t bother them. For example, I’m working at a school right now. To show their appreciation, the 12th graders set up a really nice lunch for the teachers. It was a beautiful ceremony with a video showing each of the kids thanking their teachers. It was touching. After the video, the teachers were led to a buffet-style table and there was even sangria. Sangria is wine, people. Now, this was at the end of the school day, and teachers took only one cup of wine to toast with. The students didn’t drink a drop. But I thought that was really cool. This would never happen in the U.S. Why? Because at some point in time, a parent wrote in (this was probably long before email, and was probably the parent of a recently scorned child) and said they thought it was inappropriate for teachers to have wine in front of kids. Here it's not big deal.

For Teachers’ Day, which is also a big deal here in Panama, a lot of students bring gifts to the teachers. I received wonderful gifts: a Chinese teacup with candy, lots of chocolate and cookies, coffee cups, a really nice pen, and one student even brought me two gift-wrapped bottles of wine. Now, this wasn’t like slipping your teacher a bottle of Jack. This was honest appreciation. And I thought it was very sweet. And to any students or parents who happen to stumble upon this blog post, I want to say thank you. I really appreciate the gifts.

My point is that in Panama, I feel that life is still livable, not only at a slower pace, but with a little more freedom. Not everything is looked at under a magnifying glass. Casual Fridays still exist here. 

Living here, I’d buy fresh baked bread or diced fruit or jars of fresh honey from people in the street medians. Would I do that in the U.S.? Hell no, that would be weird. Somehow we’ve lost that sense of trust back home. Everything is scrutinized.

11. Sense of pride – 

As always, a little something extra. Panamanians have fought long and hard for their freedom and they’re well aware of it. We just went through the November month’s celebrations and I got to watch my daughters march in the desfiles (parades). Victoria was chosen to play the drums during one parade and both of my daughters danced in their polleras during another parade. These are events that go on for several days, all day long, and people love them.

As part of a school field trip, I got to go along with some of the classes to the movie theater to see the movie Historias del Canal. This was a Panama-made movie that focused on several stories, all having to do with the building of the Panama Canal and the history of the Canal Zone. Most of the movie was in English so I understood a good portion of it. Man, kind of like the old series Roots, this painted a horrible picture of how we treated Panamanians and everyone else involved in building the canal. It was tough to watch. I felt bad. And yes, for those who grew up in the Canal Zone, I know there are two sides to every story, but still, it’s an important story for not only Panamanians to understand, but for Americans living here. 

This is the movie I'm talking about

Following the movie, I assigned students an essay, where they needed to either write about their thoughts on the film, write about their trip to the Canal Museum, or write about how Panama would be today if it hadn’t experienced its past. Almost every student wrote something about Martyrs’ Day. 

Without going too heavy into the past, this is basically about a group of high school students who got fed up with the fact that Americans were not allowing Panamanians access to the Canal Zone area, and more importantly, the fact that the Panamanian flag was not allowed to fly alongside the American flag in this U.S. occupied area of Panama. So, the students protested, marched into the Canal Zone, and demanded their flag be raised next to the U.S. flag. Things got heated when the Panamanian flag was torn by Canal Zone police officers. In the end, it’s said that 21 Panamanians and 4 American soldiers sadly lost their lives. 

Of course, there’s much more to the story, but this is known as a major event that eventually helped lead to the Panamanians gaining possession of the Panama Canal from the U.S. and the U.S. military finally leaving Panamanian soil. 

I love Panamanian pride

Reading these kids’ thoughts on Martyrs Day was eye opening. It made me think about U.S. history and how similar it is to the Panamanians’. It made me think about our sense of pride and how far we’ve come as a nation.

You guys know me. You know I can get kind of preachy sometimes and I know you guys put me in my place when you don’t agree with me, but believe it or not, I think some of us here in Panama are forgetting where we come from. We might have some issues, ok some major issues in the U.S. right now, but we have to be careful about how we speak about our own country.

Never, never ever, have I heard a Panamanian bad mouth his or her country. Sure, they might agree that customer service needs some fixing and that traffic is a major problem, but it’s very rare to have someone flat out say they hate their country or can’t stand their country and that’s why they left. 

Now, go read some of the Facebook group threads or just listen when expats gather. Guys, we don’t hate our country. We don’t. At least I hope we don’t. Some of us may hate the current president, we may hate the way the IRS is able to dip its hands into our pockets, and we may hate the way our veterans are treated. Sure, some things definitely need fixing. But let’s be careful about how we speak about our country, especially in the presence of other foreigners. It just dumbs us down.

I worry that some people don’t really understand what it means to be an expat. Expat is short for expatriate and expatriate means a person temporarily or permanently living in a country that is not of the person’s upbringing. To many people, living abroad is just an extension of their American dream. They just want to retire somewhere exotic, someplace different. It has nothing to do with hatred or abandonment. It doesn't mean anti-patriot. At least not for most people.

I do not hate my country. Not at all. In fact, whenever Toby Keith’s “Angry American” plays or Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” plays, I get a little bit teary eyed. When that kid, Quintavious Johnson (age 12), sang the national anthem during the Lions game, I got chills and had to look it up on Youtube to show my kids. If you haven’t seen this kid sing, you need to check out this video. It’s amazing:

Things have taken a bad turn in the States, but every time I hear someone say that the U.S. is no longer a feared and powerful country, I'd love to smack 'em upside the head. We've still got the most badass country around. We've just got a few scrapes and bruises. As Coach used to say, "Get up and put some ice on it." 

We can love America while living in Panama, we can go after that American dream while living in Panama, and we can be proud of our country while living in Panama—just like the Panamanians who are proud of their country.

On that note, I'd just like to once again apologize for taking such a long break and thank you for hanging in there. Thanks for sticking around and as always, thanks for reading. 


Oh and for any new readers who've just found this blog, please don't forget to head over to my main website at where you'll find a lot more info about living in Panama. Thanks again!

Friday, September 12, 2014

15 Tips to Mentally Prepare You for Life in Panama

I've been asked a few times recently about satisfaction among expats in Panama and what seems to drive people to pack up and leave. That's a tough question to answer because each person has his or her own story. It might be the constant humidity, the slower pace of life, traffic (if they live in Panama City), missing family and friends back home, boredom, or a number of other things that bothers someone enough to cause them to call it quits. 

You're probably thinking, "Boredom? Wait, what, Chris? How could someone be bored? They've waited all their life to retire, lie on a hammock, and sip wine while rereading the entire Nichols Sparks collection." Very true. George R. R. Martin is more my style, but whatever the reading material, yes, believe it or not, life can get dull when you've got the entire day free. 

Yes, even this can get boring

I won't get into that too much, but let's just say that it might take some getting used to. And other things about Panama might take some time to adjust to. That's what this article is all about. This is about the things you can do in the U.S. or in Canada or wherever you're living now to get a head start on mental preparation for this wild adventure you're waiting to begin. Doing some of these things now might help ease your mind a little bit when you finally settle down in Panama for the long haul. Now, I may have mentioned some of these things in other posts, but maybe not...I've written a lot, lol, I don't remember. 

Oh and one other thing. None of this is meant to be negative. It's just me joking around. So don't get sensitive on me. 

1. Rooster Alarm - The Corn Flakes commercial is a liar. I found out quickly the first time I visited the interior of this country that roosters don't quietly meander up to the fence post, take a look around, inhale a deep breath, and let out one long rooster crow before feeling satisfied and retiring back to the coop. 

This rooster in Penonome might be your new alarm clock

At least not in Panama. So, if you plan to move here, a good thing to do to practice and prepare yourself for life in the interior of this country, is to download the rooster alarm tone for your phone. Make sure you set it for "loud" and make sure you set it for 4:30am. Then, when it goes off at 4:30, make sure you have the snooze set to go off every two minutes, and let it do this all day. 

In towns like Rio Hato or Penonome or maybe even Aguadulce, plus some neighborhoods in larger cities, roosters may be as common as dogs, so prepare yourself in advance so you don't go nuts later. 

2. Start throwing yourself into traffic - You can't talk about real life in Panama City without touching on the subject of traffic. I sat in traffic about three hours yesterday trying to pick Mar up from work. This isn't so different from many other major cities though. What is different, is the need to throw yourself in front of other cars. 

You may have heard of the "juega vivo" attitude in Panama. It's basically the game of life and means players win by staying ahead of everyone else, so "me first." Nowhere is this more obvious than on the road. It's very, almost extremely, rare that anyone will let you pull out in front of them in traffic. No one is going to invite you into their lane. You literally have to step on the gas and put yourself in front of someone. It's risky, but it's how things are done here.

You'll have to force yourself into this

So, to prepare for this, just start pulling out in front of oncoming traffic (okay please be safe when you do this). If you want to get used to Panama City traffic, drive it like you stole it. Turn every day life into Grand Theft Auto (please don't really go steal cars or yank people out of the driver's side door and smack 'em around). 

3. Hire people to do stuff for you - One thing people look forward to when they think of moving to Panama is the option to have a maid clean your house (every day or a couple of days a week). You may even opt to have a live-in maid. Plus, other hands-on work you've always hated can be contracted out. Hire a gardener to make your home front look snazzy or just pay someone to mow the lawn. Get someone to clean your pool for you. Oftentimes they'll even come right to your door and offer their services. 

These guys are awesome!!!

These things sound great, right? Well, believe it or not, they may take some getting used to. My wife's family has had a maid working for them for about 15 years. She's like part of the family. They asked her to work for us when we first moved to Panama to make our adjustment easier. I have to say, I wasn't prepared for that. I grew up cleaning my own dishes and doing my own laundry so suddenly having someone around to do it was odd. I felt bad letting someone else clean my stuff. But it's her job and she's getting paid for it. It's like telling the bank teller you'll count your own cash or telling the barber you'll cut your own hair. You just don't do it. 

If you want to prepare for this, hire a complete stranger to walk back and forth in front of the TV while you watch the morning news. Have them clean stuff and move things around so that you can't find them later, lol. Seriously. That's what happens. Eventually you learn the person's ways and you come to really appreciate the help, but at first it's really weird having someone in your home, especially if they're a live-in maid. 

4. Random honking - This is something else I've mentioned several times in the past. Panamanians honk their car horns all the time. They honk to let people know they're passing their driveway, they honk when they see a pretty girl (or a handsome guy), they honk to say, "Hey, up yours, pal!," and they honk to let you know it's okay to start driving again as soon as the light turns green. 

Taxi drivers are the worst

To prepare yourself for this, just start honking at everything. When you're sitting at the traffic light, keep your hand at the ready. Just wait for it. Then, as soon as it turns green, just lay your whole elbow against the horn. Let it rip. Make sure the people in front of you know you're in a hurry and they need to get the hell out of your way. 

Then, wait 'till you see an attractive person on the sidewalk and honk like a madman. Don't let people pull out of their driveways. Instead, speed up, and just as they're about to hit you, hold down your horn and laugh maniacally as you pass. Do it. Prepare yourself for Panama and enjoy the process, it's extremely liberating. 

5. Stop doing all your shopping at one place - No more Walmart, pal! Just give it up. Stop cold turkey. And no more Target either. Instead of buying a bunch of stuff that you kind of like from one store, start to appreciate the finer things in life. And when I say finer, I mean specialty items you can only get at one place (and I don't mean that special pumpkin puree you can only find at Whole Foods).

Stop buying your produce in supermarkets

In Panama, it's very common for people to go to their favorite bakery to get the bread they can't do without. Then, they'll stop by a business (that's actually in someone's home) that bakes the best cakes. Then, they'll go to a fresh produce market to pick up cheap fruits and vegetables. Then, they'll go to a supermarket to get their meats from their favorite butcher before heading over to the Mercado de Mariscos for all their seafood needs. Instead of buying bulk in one shop, start buying what you really like from different vendors. This is life in Panama. 

6. Embrace the cold shower - I swear only Anchorage, Alaska, and Chicago, Illinois rival Panama when it comes to freezing cold water (I've never been to Canada). Maybe it's because your body becomes so used to the hot humid atmosphere. Then, when water is lukewarm, it feels like it's minus 30. 

"But, Chris, I'll make sure I have a hot water heater," you might be thinking. Okay, fair enough. But will your friends and hotels and family members? Chances are, not everyone will have a hot water heater. I've stayed at hotels where my options were to take a freezing cold shower or trust the external water heater device that was plugged in above the mirror and had exposed wires. I went with the cold shower. 

So, to prepare for this, just go without hot water. Do what I do. Stand under the shower head. Hesitate for about five minutes. Remember that hot shower you had that one time at that one bed & breakfast. Think about the cold shower you took in that small community of Nancito in Chiriqui, Panama. Quietly cringe and debate how clean your body really needs to be today. Then, reach out, grab the cold water faucet and crank that sucker up as high as it will go. Next, scream, arch your back, and do that funky little, "Holy cow this is cold" dance. That's how it's done. 

Preparing for no water

And better yet. Fill a big jug full of cold water and take a slow shower under that little stream, just to prepare yourself for the frequent water outages that will occur. I woke up this morning to my daughters warning me the water was out. It happens quite frequently in my neighborhood as there's a lot of construction going on near our house. So, I went out to our emergency water tank we keep full outside, filled up some jugs, and the family showered, brushed teeth, and cooked using this water. 

7. Get used to Spanish subtitles - Whether you're watching TV in your home or out at the movie theater catching the newest flick, there's a good chance you'll be watching it with Spanish subtitles. At Panama movie theaters you have two options. You can either watch a movie that's dubbed in Spanish or watch it in original English format, but with Spanish subtitles. So if you're the type of person who refuses to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Pan's Labyrinth simply because you can't stand seeing a movie with subtitles at the bottom, you might want to rethink your move (or stick to watching your DVD collection).

Even Netflix here in Panama automatically assumes you want Spanish subtitles on every show and movie. Of course, you can turn them off, but each and every show starts with subtitles. This is great if you have Panamanian family or friends around wanting to watch with you, it just might take some getting used to on your part.

The Walking Dead on Netflix

So, going forward, from now until you arrive in Panama, put subtitles at the bottom of your movies and turn the captions on on your TV. You don't have to read them (although Spanish subtitles might help you learn Spanish) but seeing them in front of you for two hours at a time will help you prepare yourself for your new movie-watching experience. 

8. Spanish speaking announcers - If you have basic cable here (and not some sort of special black box), you need to know ahead of time that nearly every sporting event you watch will come with Spanish-speaking announcers. 

Yes, this means NFL, UFC, boxing events, and even WWE wrestling. What's super annoying is that you might hear the English speaking announcers there in the background, but they're being overpowered by the Spanish-speaking announcers. The English words you crave are so close...yet oh so far away. If you're lucky, you might find a channel or two that actually plays the event in full English, but be ready to watch with Spanish subtitles. On a side note, you might also miss out on the American commercials during the Super Bowl. This drove me nuts last year. Instead of the cool, hilarious commercials I was waiting for, I got to watch a boring Panamanian version of a Miller Light commercial and maybe three other boring commercials that played over and over again.

If you like wrestling, get ready to listen to these guys

So, to prepare yourself, hire a Spanish-speaking friend to sit next to you on the couch as you watch any sporting event. Then, try really hard to hear the English-announcers while your friend shouts out everything he sees on the screen in Spanish. This should prepare you :)

9. Click "Save" a lot - Internet is high speed (ish) in Panama and electricity is dependable (ish) in Panama. I've been here just over five years and for some reason it seems that in the last two years, I've noticed a lot more power outages than before. This might just mean a short dip or it might mean going without power all day long. I live in Panama City and experience this, and I know people who live in towns in the interior and have complained it.

To prepare yourself for this, start constantly saving any work you do on your computer. Click save every minute or so. You may develop a nervous twitch, haha, but at least your work will not get deleted. 

And if you really want to prepare for this, just tell your spouse or an older child, to randomly, maybe once a week (okay power outages don't happen that often here, but it'll make practice more interesting) turn off the circuit breaker. They shouldn't let you know when they'll do this. You could be watching the NBA finals, taking a hot shower, shaving your face...whenever. Have fun with it. 

10. Cook a little more than usual - Not more often, but more as in the amount of food you cook. Let me explain. When I first moved here, I'd prepare about two pounds of ground beef, two packs of spaghetti, with two jars of sauce. I have four kids so this worked out great. 

That was until family started showing up. Suddenly, as soon as the spaghetti was finished, I'd hear someone at the door. It never failed. Family members showed up when they were invited and even when they weren't. In Panama, family and friends are everything. So be prepared for visitors and cook a little more. Now, I typically make three pounds of beef, three packages of spaghetti, and three jars of sauce. 

To prepare for this, just pretend a family of three is going to ring your doorbell at any moment. And if you don't want your food to go to waste, give it to the homeless or actually invite family and friends over for dinner. 

11. Loud music is a part of life - I don't think it matters where you live in Panama, you better be prepared to hear a variety of music at any hour of the day. At one point, when I lived in Villa Lucre (a small neighborhood in Panama City), there was a night club (disco) right behind my house. I swear reggaeton (Latin reggae) would start at 7pm and would continue until about 9am. Then, the neighbors on my street would play their music as well. One house was the home of an older couple who loved tipico music. So hearing an accordion was very common in the afternoon and early evening. The other house was the home of a young college guy who'd play club, pop, salsa, merengue, and reggaeton late at night on the weekends. 

You should have been there when I was painting the house. It was a Saturday afternoon and reggaeton, salsa, and tipico filled the air. I had my stereo outside and I cranked up my country music. It was an awful, strange blend of music as Charlie Daniels tried to out sing Samy y Sandra Sandoval and Marc Anthony. 

This is the site of my music melting pot paint job

How do you prepare for this? Well, the fun way is to wait until your spouse is sleeping (he or she is moving to Panama with you, right?). Then, creep outside of the bedroom window, pop in a Spanish-language cd (just go with one of Marc Anthony's salsa tunes, you can find his stuff anywhere), turn it all the way up, and push play. Then sit back and laugh as your spouse rolls out of bed and curses you out for the next half hour. 

12. Go fry crazy - I don't say any of this to pick on Panamanians. I love my new people. It's all just fun and games. But honestly, y'all fry everything. Panamanians fry bread (hojaldres), they fry pastries (empanadas), they fry chicken, they fry, they fry tuna, and they fry lunch meat. 

If you don't cook it in your own home, there's a good chance you'll be buying it fried somewhere on a Panamanian street. Okay, don't get me wrong, Panamanians make delicious soup and they do roast and rotisserie chicken and meat sometimes, but the majority of Panama food is fried. 

This is how it's done

So, to prepare for this, start frying everything. Fry breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I'll never forget when my mom-in-law visited the U.S. for the first time. She's an awesome cook. But I wasn't used to eating so much fried stuff. For breakfast she'd fry eggs, tortillas, hot dogs (salchichas), and even made french fries...for breakfast. My dad used to toss some potatoes in oil with a weekend dinner or something, but she made a pile of french fries with breakfast. It blew my mind. 

13. Be prepared for quirky road rules - Not only traffic congestion is an issue in Panama, but the addition of some strange road rules can make things confusing. Most of these come into play when Panamanian traffic police are doing all they can to ease that congestion. 

For example, on certain roads, at certain times of the morning or in the evening (rush hour periods), traffic patterns change. You have to be very careful making your way around the city and its suburbs at these times of the day. A road that usually goes in both directions, might suddenly change to a one-way, two-lane road between 6am and 8am. 

Look for signs like this

I've seen people pull onto these streets expecting it to be a regular road, like it usually is, only to come to a screeching halt just before smashing head first into an oncoming car. 

So, if you want to prepare for this, start going the wrong way on a one-way street. Just go for it. Drive straight at an oncoming car, then slam on your brakes at the last second. No, seriously, don't do that. Don't listen to me at all. It's safer that way. 

14. Be ready to hear new music - I don't mean new as in salsa and merengue and tipico and reggaeton. Sure, those styles of music may be completely foreign to you, and you can easily prepare yourself by purchasing a few cds you wouldn't normally listen to.

What I'm talking about is music in English you've probably never heard in your life. I don't know any of the radio stations off the top of my head (as I've stopped listening to most of them and have gone back to my cds and mp3 mixes), but I can tell you that the few times I've tried to find English music on the radio, I was shocked by what I found. 

It seemed that the only music I could find (in English) other than the newer pop and dance stuff that's mixed in with Spanish music, was 80s music. And I don't mean, "You can dance if you wanna..." or "Walk like an Egyptian..." I'm talking the strangest, oddest tunes I've ever heard. I was alive in the 80s and I happen to like 80s music, but I'd never heard 9 out of 10 of the songs played on the radio. I kept thinking, "Where did they get this crap?" It's like the DJs flew to Borat's country and asked what American or British music they listened to in the 80s. 

Maybe something from this soundtrack

So, to prepare for this, bring lots of music you enjoy with you and be ready to listen to a lot of music online. And if you really want to prepare for that strange 80s music you'll hear, maybe find a VCR, go to all your local pawn shops and pick up any 80s movie you've never heard of, and watch them just for the music. Good luck!

15. Religion returns to schools - Yes, Panama is doing it right, in my opinion (sorry if you disagree). Religion is a part of the school system here in Panama. If you go to a public school or a private school, there's probably a 99% chance your child will be taking a religion (and ethics and values) class. And, of course, if your kids go to a Catholic school, or a Jewish school, or a Muslim school, there's 100% chance they'll be learning religion. So, if you have school-age children, be mentally prepared for this. There's no escaping it. God isn't being taken out of the national anthem here and God isn't being taken out of the schools. I hope this doesn't turn off any fans/readers. We all have the right to our opinions and I respect yours whether I agree with or not. But religion in schools is a fact here. 

16. What happened to our fortunes? - Okay, one extra, and on a much lighter note. Well, not really since I love fortune cookies. 

Seriously, do it. 

No more fortune cookies. Seriously. It's sad, I know. I guess fortune cookies are a wacky gringo thing because Panama has a lot of Chinese residents, and quite a few Chinese restaurants, but I've yet to see a freakin' fortune cookie. And I'm sorry to say there really is no way to prepare for this. You just have to accept the heartbreak as it comes.

Well, that's it for my 15 Tips to Mentally Prepare You for Life in Panama. I hope you learned a few things and had some fun in the process. If you feel that some things are missing, such as preparing for green olives being in most of your food, check out my other articles, like 10 Things You Will Hate About Panama by clicking HERE or 15 Quirky Things About Panama And Its People by clicking HERE

Don't forget to head over to to check out all the other tips and tricks I've written about living here and to see the videos, something you're completely missing out on if you're only reading The Stay at Home Gringo. 

Thanks again for reading,


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Real Deal on Paying Your Bills In Panama

When you first move to Panama, you'll no doubt feel a little lost. Things are going to be a bit different here. Setting up your utilities and cable TV and Internet...all that stuff might be somewhat of a challenge, especially when dealing with the language barrier. Then, once you have everything set up, there's still that pesky task of  paying your bills. That is, unless you're one of those rich expats who move here and pay an assistant to take care of everything for you. Now that would be nice, but for most of us, it's not reality. Paying bills sucks no matter where you're located, so let's talk about how it differs here in Panama from what you may be used to.

I've been here so long now that when I started out writing this, I realized that I'd forgotten how strange life was when I first moved to Panama. Most differences are no big deal, but even the smallest oddities can make you feel so out of place. First, you have to realize there's no normal mail service here. You won't see a mailman in his short blue shorts and high socks marching from door to door. It's so different here in that aspect. In Panama, the companies send out their own errand boys/people to drop off your bill. You might be sitting in your living room and hear someone yell out, "Agua!" That actually happened yesterday at my house. I was sitting on the couch, working on my next book, when someone walked by and shouted "water" through my open window.

I guess I'm not usually home when the water bill is dropped off because it kind of took me by surprise. What do you yell back when someone shouts water? At least if it had been, "Marco!" I could have replied with, "Polo!." But agua? I felt all my cool points dissipate as I struggled to produce a witty comeback. The guy outside, unlike the ones who ride by and sell fresh produce, pick up appliances, fix your shoes, shout out political taunts, and provide all other sorts of door-to-door services, wasn't simply selling water like one might think. Turns out, he was just warning us that he was dropping off the bill. 

This is how your bills will show up

I looked outside and there it was, tucked safely in the door handle (sometimes you'll find your bill stuffed into the metal bars on your window). Most people in Panama don't have a mailbox.

So, once you get your hands on a bill, what now? You don't just rip off the bottom portion, sign a check, lick an envelope, toss it back into the box, and raise the red flag. Those days are long gone my friends. I've been out of the U.S. for over five years now, so that may not even be the way it's handled there now. I know I used to pay all my bills online. 

I got the idea for this short article (short because it's pretty easy and doesn't need a lot of detail, but you know me, I'm always long winded and will probably stretch this out with a story or two) when a reader sent me an email asking about paying bills in Panama. Apparently, he'd spent some time chatting with an elderly Panamanian man who'd explained to him that paying bills in Panama always requires that you actually visit the company you need to pay.

You can go directly to the source in Chitre and pay your water bill here

Hearing that didn't surprise me. It seems to be that Panamanians over the age of maybe 50, either don't trust the other systems in place, don't have the technical know how, or just have no idea other avenues exist. When I first moved to Panama and was a lot less knowledgeable than I am now, I listened to my father-in-law when it came time to pay the electric bill. Remember, Mar left Panama when she was 18 and married me shortly after, so she didn't know the ways of the bill-paying-Panamanian world either. With our feet planted firmly on foreign soil, we were both learning the ways of our new world, and unfortunately under the direction of someone with this old school train of thought.  

Dad-in-law insisted that I needed to go to the actual electric company to pay the bill. So I did. I wasn't gonna argue. I didn't know there were alternatives, so what was there to argue. So there I stood, in line, without about 20 other people lined up along the sidewalk, waiting to get into the office to pay the bill. Every time someone exited the building, someone else would be allowed entry. Finally, I made it to the front of the line, where the security guard allowed me to enter, just to find that the line kept going, snaking back and forth all the way to the counter. At least the inside was air conditioned. When I finally paid, the girl behind the counter stamped the bill with the date, the amount paid, and all that other good stuff, and I was on my way.

It wasn't a complicated process, but man, it was a lengthy and tedious one. It turned out to be an embarrassing one too as I was still struggling with the difference between "hale" and "empuje," or in English, the dreaded "pull" and "push" stickers you see on glass doors. I've never had luck with the push/pull conundrum. Even in English, there's a 99% chance I'll make the 50% choice wrong and end up running into the door. Well, that's exactly what happened at the electric company, packed with Panamanians waiting in line, when I went to exit and I empujed (think I just created a word) rather than haled and smacked right into the glass door. A buddy of mine who was behind me in line came out a minute later to rub in how hard everyone was laughing after I'd left. Good times. I love being a gringo rodeo clown.
Looks something like this

So, after this ridiculous, time-wasting experience, I kept thinking, "Man, there has got to be an easier way to pay bills." Turns out there was. And there still is. Here are the ways you can pay your bills here in Panama. Of course, if I miss any, I invite readers to write in the comments section to keep us all in the loop.

Go Directly to the Source: 

As I just mentioned, this is the only way many older Panamanians will pay their bills. Even after I'd discovered other ways to do it, my father-in-law insisted I go directly to Ensa (the electric company) or Idaan (the water company), etc.

"But why?" I asked.

"Because you have to. You have to make sure it goes through immediately," Dad-in-law explained.

And that was that. It's kind of like insisting that you have to go to Blockbuster to rent a video because you don't trust Redbox or Netflix. 

There's no doubt that handing over cash and getting a stamped "paid in full" receipt in return is the safest route, but it's definitely not the most convenient. So what other ways are there to pay bills? 

Multi Pagos (and the other small pay stations)

It wasn't until I'd been here awhile that I noticed all the people standing in line at these little pay boxes in the Super 99 grocery stores. Then I noticed something similar in the Rey supermarkets. I realized I didn't have to go straight to the source to pay the bills. I could just take care of it at the supermarket. That wasn't as easy as paying online, but it was a heck of a lot easier than going to three to four different buildings to pay the bills.

Pay your bills, use Western Union, and other stuff at these Multi Pagos
These multi pay stations have a database with most companies you'd need to pay. The easiest way to pay is to bring your actual bill with you. And trust me, it's best to bring the most recent bill. Some of them won't let you pay with an old bill even though it has your account number on it. I found this out one time when I was a little bit behind on my electric bill. I hadn't received the newest bill, but I was late on the old one, so I took it in and tried to pay. They wouldn't take it. I had to wait until my next bill came out, then take it in and pay with the updated bill.

The funny thing is, even if you don't have your bill on you, you can usually fill out a form like the one you see in the following picture. If you don't have your bill with you, make sure you know what the NIC # is, pronounced like NICK, as you won't be able to pay your bill without this valuable piece of info:  

Just a simple form, requesting loads of info

If you take a look at the photo, you'll see that quite a bit of info is requested on this form. You may also recognize this info, as I've used it before in one of my supermarket tips articles. It goes great with this article too, so I'm sharing it again. Here's what all those questions on the form mean in English: 

Cia a pagar = Company you are paying (like Ensa for electric, Cable Onda for cable, etc.)

Fecha = Today's date.

No. De Cuenta a Pagar = The NIC or customer number.

Nombre del Cliente = Your name (or whoever's name the account is under).

No. Cedula = The cedula is like the social security number in the United States. It's a Panamanian's ID number. If you don't have a cedula you'll use the number on your immigration card or your passport number. 

Cheque/Efectivo = Put the amount down that you're paying either with a check (cheque) or cash (efectivo). 

Escriba en letras Total del Pago = Here you write out the total amount. I don't speak/write Spanish yet (not very well anyways) so I usually leave this part blank and they fill it out for me. ;)

Banco/No. Cheque = If you're using a check to pay, write the bank name and check number here. 

No. Telefono = Your telephone number.

See, if you have your bill with you you won't have to worry about all that. They'll just stamp the bill and give it back to you as a receipt that you paid.

My only complaint about using these multi pago stations, and it's going to be the same with any form of payment where your physical presence is required, is the amount of people you'll find in line, especially at rush hour. Early mornings, lunch breaks, and right after work (especially on or around the quincena, or payday, you'll find a lot of people lined up to pay bills, send/receive money through Western Union, or to engage in one of the other many services these multi pagos provide. Your best bet is to go in sometime around 10am or maybe 2pm.   


Similar to these multi pay stations you find around town, are the Epagos, like you see in the photo below.  

This is the ePago in Penonome

These Epago buildings can be found in just about every town in Panama. I even saw one in Las Tablas, which is what I'd consider one of the smallest, most third-world towns in Panama. These are run pretty much the same way as the multi pay stations. You can go into this one building and pay just about anything you'd need to pay.

The Western Union at Los Pueblos

In addition to these, you can also go into some other places like Western Union and pay your bills. The photo above is the Western Union at the Los Pueblos shopping center in Panama City (technically the Juan Diaz area I guess).

This pay station was inside of a small supermarket off of Via Brasil in Panama City

Western Union isn't the same as ePago, so these smaller substations aren't necessarily part of ePago, but they're other convenient places to pay your bills. You just have to find the place closest to you. If you want to see what services can be paid at the actual ePago locations, check out this list:

Bank Online

Perhaps the easiest way to pay your bills, and the method I definitely prefer, is to pay your bills through your bank's online system. Not all banks will have this available, but when they do, it makes life so much easier. We bank with Banco General and pay all of our bills online through their system. 

I prefer the bank's online pay system

You just look up the company you want to pay, put in your account number to register, then remember to go back each month and pay your bills. Once you've set it up once, the account numbers and companies you need to pay should remain in the system, making it easier the next month as you'll only need to put in the amount you'd like to pay.

And if you need a quick refresher on what it takes to open a bank account in Panama, check out the video I put together, The Real Deal Report on Banking in Panama by clicking HERE.  

Now, while my father-in-law loves to have that sheet of paper in hand with the stamped "paid and received" notice right there on the slip, I'm fine with having it recorded in my bank's system. I think it's easier that way. I can lose a sheet of paper. It's much easier for me to check my account history online.

***UPDATE on 8/28/14*** After publishing this article, readers and friends, Todd B. and Emma V. both wrote to tell me about a service I hadn't heard about. It's called Multientrega. Apparently, these people will come to your house, take your cash and bill, give you correct change, then go pay your bill and bring the receipt back to you. And the cost is not bad at all. Todd says he pays less than $10 (which when you consider the cost of gas or taxi and the time it takes to stand in line to pay your bills is not bad at all). I haven't personally used the service, but Todd and Emma are serious people, so it sounds like a good alternative to the madness that can come with paying your bills in Panama. Here's the Facebook page for Multientrega:

I know this post was shorter than usual, but it's fairly simple and I just wanted to clear it up a little for anyone thinking it was difficult to pay bills in Panama. 

Hope this helps guys.

Thanks for reading, 


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