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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Living local in Panama

Hey everybody,

I was driving home today when a sight caught my eye that catches it every time I enter the neighborhood. I live in an area of Panama City (or the outskirts of) called Villa Lucre. Directly behind my house, and I mean right behind it, is an area called Samaria, that is known for being kind of a not-so-desirable place to live. Some parts of Villa Lucre are amazing, with homes that cost half a million dollars. I live in the more local part of town. Driving into my part of the neighborhood, you head down a hill, and out in front of you is the picture below. Remember, that's not my neighborhood...that's "beyond the wall."

Every time I see this, I instantly think of Kung Fu Panda, and Po struggling to make it all the way to the  top of the steps. Can you imagine being a kid in that neighborhood? You'd be dodging any elderly person around, knowing that at some point, someone would say, "Would you mind helping me carry this 20 pound bag of rice up to my front porch at the top of the stairs?"

I thought the priest from the Exorcist movie had a long fall down the steps. Imagine if that split pea soup spitting possessed girl lived at the top of these steps.

So...that's the neighborhood behind my house. Also, directly behind mi casa, is some sort of disco/nightclub. I've gotten used to hearing the blasting reggaeton (latin reggae), salsa, tipico, and bachata that wafts through my sealed shut windows until the wee hours of the morning. Seriously, I don't know who's still dancing at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, but someone needs to put that poor thing out of its misery. I imagine cowboys with six shooters firing at somebody's feet and hollering, "I don't care if it's 9 p.m. or 9 a.m., you gonna dance boy!" Really...9 a.m.?

It's hard not to wiggle your toes along to the music when you're trying to force yourself to sleep...especially when the sheep you're counting are swaying their hips and spinning each other around to salsa's greatest hits.

I'm not trying to scare you. That's just my neighborhood. On the bright side, I think it's really cool how the people in my neighborhood get along with each other. I'm not involved in that, but that's just because I don't speak Spanish well enough (I know...I need to learn). Many of the adults in my neighborhood get together at the center of the street, drag tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk, and gossip while drinking beer and sangria. The kids play in the street all around them. Many of the boys play soccer or futbol in the street, quickly moving out of the way for each passing car.

If you're not living in an all American community, or mostly expat retirement hot spot, and you find yourself in a more local neighborhood, like I'm in, here are a few more things for you to know.

1.  Garbage collection. Take a look at the picture below. Trash is usually placed in these metal baskets, which fill up quickly, meaning you're forced to put your trash bags on the sidewalk or grass below them. That means the stray animals are going to rip through it. No matter how clean I try to keep the front of my house, something always tears through my garbage bag and pulls my trash out onto the street.

2.  Something else you'll see in a lot of the local Panama City neighborhoods are "for rent" or "se alquila" signs. However, look closely, because most of these have nothing to do with real estate. I found this out when I drove up and down every single street in San Antonio, Brisas del Golf, Cerro Viento, and Villa Lucre, the four realistic living options that aren't too dangerous. Rent in these areas can usually be found for around $800 per month, give or take a hundred bucks. Some will argue with me that a couple of these areas aren't great to live in, but that's truth if you're comparing them to the high-rent district of Marbella or live in the old town of Casco Viejo. 

If you're on a tight budget, don't care about life on the beach, and want to live like Panamanians, these are the 4 places real estate experts in the city will send you towards. Especially if you can't afford more than $1,000 per month...and you want to live in a single-family home. 

Anyway, I'm rambling, so I drove up and down every street in these four neighborhoods, trying to find "for rent" signs. I found very few. Most rentals in town are found through word of mouth. These "for rent" signs, like the one in the photo below, are for chairs and tables. I've mentioned that Panamanians love to party, right? They do. That's one of the great things about living here. Panamanians are laid back and love to unwind. So many Panamanian entrepreneurs have started renting out cheap plastic chairs and tables. They'll drop them off the day of the party and pick them up the morning after. So get used to seeing these signs around.

Mariachi bands for hire and d.j.'s for hire are a couple of other signs you'll see around most small neighborhoods. 

3.  Bars on the windows. Don't be frightened when you visit Panama and see many of the homes with bars on their front windows or around the properties. Some homes even have crushed beer bottles glued to the tops of the walls that surround their home. Seeing this isn't a sure sign of a bad neighborhood. It's just an old-school security system. Most people can't afford to have a high-tech security company monitor their home's alarm system, so instead, they put up these bars, or crushed glass, or even razor wire. 

I like to think of it as extra protection against a zombie attack. The bars would be great in that situation. Unless the zombie was inside...then that would suck. 

Something to think about, if you find yourself in one of these homes. Many times the front door is barred up as well, and you'll have a key to get in and out of it. It might sound like common sense, but trust me, sometimes you're in a rush, and it might slip your mind. Make sure anyone staying home has a key. I've rushed out of the house before and found out that my mom-in-law had my wife's key for some reason. So if there had been a fire or something, she would have been stuck in the house. Imagine bars on all the windows, and you can't get out the front or back doors. Not a good scenario.

4.  Learn your area's emergency contact numbers. 911 does exist here...kind of. It's the number for an ambulance service. The cops have their own numbers. 104 is the general number that will connect you to the police, no matter where you are in the city. However, if you want a rapid response, it's a good idea to know the number for your neighborhood. I saw the sign in the photo below posted at the Rey supermarket in Villa Lucre. As you can see, the bomberos or fire department can be reached by dialing 103. 104 is the police. SINAPROC is the national civil service department, which I believe handles natural disasters and things of that nature. The other numbers are pretty self explanatory. So...looking at the photo below would give you the contact numbers you may need, but again, find out the number to your local police station. They'll have a direct number and it's a good idea to know it. You never know when your wife/husband might find a tiny snake in the bathroom that she/he claims is humongous.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm sure I'll come up with some other neighborhood tips for a later post. Have a good Wednesday!