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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fixing the background

Hey everybody,

You might have noticed I've changed my template and background a couple of times recently. I thought the blue one with the clouds was warmer and more welcoming, but I heard from a couple of people that it was a bit much. I think the blue was awfully bright and the yellowish green was hard on the eyes. So I'm trying this one out. I'm curious to hear what you guys think. You know how these blog things are. People are touchy. If they arrive at a site that's difficult to read, they'll just leave and never come back.

I've also made the font larger. With this new background I felt myself kind of squinting to read, so hopefully this works without looking ridiculous.

Let me know, in the comments section of this post, if this works for you, or if it bothers anyone.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday market at Rio Abajo

I just took a quick trip to the Saturday morning market in Rio Abajo here in Panama City. I've mentioned these markets several times in the past, but I thought it would be cool to post a few photos. This was an unplanned trip, so I didn't have my camera with me. The photos aren't the greatest since I had to use the camera on my phone.

My mom-in-law was in the process of making a big meal for a family member's party when she realized she didn't like the potatoes she was using. They weren't coming out right for whatever it was she was making (I think potato salad). She asked if I'd drive her over to the market real quick. I've seen these markets all over the place, but I'd never been to the one in Rio Abajo. It's so amazing how these things just pop up on the weekends and disappear by Monday.

It's these markets that help make Panama such an affordable place. It's kind of hard to see in the photo above, but the pieces of cardboard sticking up have the prices marked on them, so there's no need to haggle and hope you're being offered the true price instead of gringo inflated prices. Plus, scales were readily available at the Rio Abajo market, so you can check the prices yourself. You can bring your own reusable bag if you'd like, or you can take your purchases home in one of the vendor supplied plastic bags. 

If you can learn to pick up all of your fruits, vegetables, rice, and other items at these outdoor markets, you can save quite a bit of money. You can find all of this stuff at the supermarkets, but I'm telling you, if you buy your bananas at Riba Smith, you're not cutting costs, you're shopping for convenience. 

If you look at the photo above, you can see what my mom-in-law picked up for $8.50. I was surprised when she told me the price because that seems a bit costly to me, but I think potatoes are among the more expensive produce here. I've heard of people leaving these markets with huge bags full of tomatoes for very inexpensive. 

Sometimes, at least here in the city, you'll hear someone shouting through a megaphone and wonder what the hell is going on outside. It sounds like someone is announcing an air raid of some sort. Usually this is just another of Panama's entrepreneurs taking to the street to provide you with your necessities. Pickup trucks stuffed with pineapples, mangoes, melons, and a variety of vegetables often drive up and down the streets, bringing your dinner side dishes straight to your front door. Take advantage of these things. They're part of what makes Panama great.  

A street-side vendor in Coronado

So if you're planning a trip to Panama, or if you're already here, don't be afraid to check out these local markets. You moved (or are planning to move) to Panama for a reason. You want to have a different lifestyle. Get out and do things the way Panamanians do them. I know they have these markets all over the isthmus. I've seen them set up in Coronado, El Valle, David, Boquete, and practically everywhere else. Learn to buy what you can at these markets and remember that when you do, you're helping out the farmers, these locals who put so much time and effort into gathering these items to bring them to you. 

When you see the ladies sitting outside a mini-super selling bags of lentils or beans or cilantro, buy it from them. It's different here. I know you'd be a little bit weary of picking up a bag of vegetables from a dude sitting outside of a 7-11 back home, but it's just a way of life here, and for many Panamanians, especially in the interior, this is how they make their living. They're not supporting habits, they're supporting their families. 

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The crazy stuff you see on Panama buses

I wasn't planning to write a blog post today, but I pulled out into traffic this morning on Calle 50, one of the major throughways in Panama City, and looked up to see this gigantic bumper sticker on the back of one of the public transportation buses. Now, I don't want anyone to think I'm vulgar or dodge my blog because they don't like to see any racy content, so hopefully I won't offend anyone by posting the photo of the back of this bus. I just think it's crazy and mildly entertaining.

I posted this picture on facebook and a couple of people looked at it and said, "I don't get it." I don't know what CHUFUKU means, but look closely at the small logo on the left hand side. It's basically a page of the kamasutra being acted out on the back of this bus. What if my kids had been sitting next to me in the car and asked, "Daddy, what's that?"

Right away this reminded me of the post I wrote about the butt naked piƱatas. If you haven't read that post, you can check it out here:

You have to be careful with your kids in this country. Not a whole lot is regulated here. For example, one night I was working late, probably on my book, and my wife had fallen asleep and left the TV on next to me. I wasn't really paying attention. I was working. Then lively music distracted me so I looked over to see the show "Wild on E." I'd seen the show before back in the States and they always show parties and stuff like that, but it's censored to some extent. Not here. The ladies on TV, and remember this "E" we're talking about, not HBO or Skinemax, were in g-string bottoms and completely naked from the waste up. They were jumping and dancing to reggaeton music or whatever kind of music was playing in the club. It was like Girls Gone Wild, but on regular cable TV. Granted, it was late at night, maybe 11 p.m. or midnight, but made me realize I have to really pay attention to what my kids may stumble upon on TV.

I was at my wife's aunt's house one night. My wife's grandparents were staying with her aunt for the weekend, so we stopped by to visit. My wife's grandfather was sitting in the living room watching TV so I joined him. The kids eventually meandered into the room and so there we sat, me and my four kids, watching TV with Grandpa while my wife was hanging out with the ladies in the family. I didn't understand much of what was said on TV, as it was all in Spanish, but Grandpa was watching La Cascara. I imagine Panamanians are already smacking their foreheads and laughing, knowing what I'm about to say. La Cascara, as it turns out, is a hip, crazy, sometimes controversial sketch comedy kind of show.

I don't watch much TV. I'm a movie fanatic, but I rarely watch live TV. So I didn't really know what was going to pop up on the screen. First it started out as some sort of runway show, but each woman came out onto the runway dressed skimpier than the previous one. I hope this doesn't label me as a horrible father, but I kind of wanted to see my sons' reactions to what they were seeing. I looked over and my twin four-year-olds were watching TV like they'd just found the holy grail. Their eyes were open wide and their mouthes were agape. A bikini contest isn't too bad. It's not much worse than what they'd see on any day trip to the beach.

Then the show turned to something outrageous. Some sort of carnaval-like town called Pleasureland or something like that was being featured. And one area of this adult Disneyworld found in some Latin American country was the designated kissing spot. So the show was highlighting people making out. It happened too fast for me to even react. My daughters watched on as two women started making out. Grandpa was loving it.

"Close your eyes!" I yelled.

"What?" my daughters asked, both trying to buy enough time to see what it was they weren't supposed to see.

"Close your!" I yelled again.

Too late.

"Daddy? Why are those girls kissing? And those girls?"

Grandpa still had his eyes glued to the screen as I shot my wife a glance like, "Hello? Do you see what's on TV?"

"They're just crazy!" my wife informed my daughters.

As I turned my kids away from the TV, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the show focus on some dude who'd had way too much to drink and had walked over to the grass alongside the main walkway and proceeded to pulls his pants down and take a crap right there, on screen, white butt mooning the camera. He then pulled his pants up and went for another beer.

This was like a Saturday evening, not late at night, maybe around 9 p.m. at the latest.

If you keep your eyes open to this kind of thing, what you'll find will surprise you. Many of the Diablo Rojos, the souped up, wildly painted school buses used for public transportation often have topless Conan the Barbarian like women on the sides of them.

Mannequins in the department stores here don't look like the mannequins from back home. You know what I'm talking about. The ones that are usually missing arms, have no real physical features, and are sometimes even bald? It's not like that here. The mannequins here have huge breasts, are dressed like hookers, and if they were ever bald they now are wearing a's amazing. I feel wrong even looking in the direction of one of these things, like my wife is gonna catch me checking out another woman.

Look at this trashy mannequin

I'll keep you posted as I remember other racy topics of interest. Stay tuned for an upcoming visit to one of Panama's discreet one-night-stand rendezvous spots, the "push button" where couples go to be intimate for a couple of hours (rather than pay full price for a night at a hotel) and lovers go to cheat on their spouses. If I can talk my wife into going, I'll be posting photos (of the establishment of course) soon.

Thanks for reading,


Monday, January 21, 2013

What's new in Panama?

I’m always on the lookout for something new here. It’s exciting to see familiar businesses open up. In the U.S., a lot of restaurants seem to stick with certain regions of the country. For example, you’ll see my favorite donut spot, Tim Horton’s, in the Ohio area, but not down in South Florida.  Duffy’s, one of my favorite places to go for beer and hot wings, is a really cool bar & grill in South Florida, but I’ve never seen them anyplace else. Red Robin, which has my all-time favorite burger (The A-1 Pepperjack burger) was in Ohio, Florida, and even in Anchorage, Alaska, but they’re not everywhere. Jack in the Box has limited locations, mostly in California and Texas. 

Panama seems to be a melting pot, where businesses from any region can join together. Some of the restaurants you may be familiar with that you’ll find here are Tony Roma’s, Bennigan’s, Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Friday’s, Hooters, Benihana, and of course fast food hotspots like Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dominos, Pizza Hut, Subway, Quiznos, Dunkin Donuts, and Cinnabon. I’m sure I’m missing a few. 

Papa John’s pizza and Carl’s Jr. have recently joined the ranks. You can find Papa John's in Costa del Este, Punta Paitilla, and now in Brisas del Golf. If you’ve got a hankering for delicious chili cheese fries, you’ll find Carl’s Jr. on the third floor of Metro Mall, in between McDonalds and the movie theater. I read online that there’s a Carl’s Jr. in the Tocumen airport as well, but it’s been awhile since I’ve traveled outside of Panama, so I'm not sure about that. Johnny Rocket’s is a recent addition to the Albrook Mall food court. 

I took a walk through the new wing at Multiplaza Mall last week and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A Chuck E. Cheese is coming to Panama. I’ve been saying for a long time that there’s not enough for kids to do in Panama and how great it would be if a Chuck E. Cheese would open up here. Well the dream has come true. Now, let’s just hope that the prices stay the same as they were back in the U.S., or even lower. And let’s hope that the owners can keep the place clean and in working order. Many of the kid-friendly pizza chain’s locations back home were really rundown. At a couple of their locations I spent more time getting my coins returned (due to broken games stealing change) than I did actually playing with my kids.

Ruby Tuesday will be directly above Banana Republic in the new wing at Multiplaza Mall

Also coming to Multiplaza is a Ruby Tuesday, which I remember frequenting at the Palm Beach Gardens Mall in Florida. They had great bottomless fries. Bottomless fries could be a crowd pleaser here. Businesses change a lot when they open up overseas though, so the name might not mean that it’ll be the same. 

For example, I worked for Tiffany & Company years ago. It’s a great company. I walked into the branch in Multiplaza Mall, to get my watch fixed (a Tiffany Mark T-57), and they couldn’t fix it. I don’t think the salesman had ever even seen the watch before. So not everything is the same here. Some things are better in Panama. I think Domino’s Pizza here is much better than back in the states. Taco Bell tastes a little different, but I’ve gotten used to it. 

I thought this was a Buffalo Wild Wings (the logo is almost exactly alike) but I think it's a different chain. Plus, its location in the mall looks way too small to be a Buffalo Wild Wings. :(

Other stores in town, the non-restaurant type, are Zara, XOXO, Tiffany & Company, Kenneth Cole, Victoria’s Secrety, and many more. Claire’s is opening up in Metro Mall (which my kids are thrilled about). Their selection of affordable and cute earrings and jewelry always drives my girls crazy. A/X Armani Exchange is coming to Multiplaza Mall, as is Banana Republic. 

A few other places I’d love to see in Panama: 

Ikea - As much as I hate having to put their furniture together, I can spend hours going up and down the aisles of an Ikea. Am I that much of a nerd that I have such a great time seeing all the neat, random stuff I could spend hours putting together with an allen wrench? And being able to drop my kids off at the play area is an added bonus. Come on Ikea. Come to Panama. 

Boston Market - Panamanians love chicken. It’s not a stereotype, it’s a fact. KFCs are everywhere and even the fast food joints like McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s sell fried chicken combos. Grilled and roasted chicken is usually handled by local places though. I really miss good ol’ American comfort food, so being able to get my hands on a moist rotisserie chicken, a few slices of meatloaf, or a chicken pot pie would be awesome. And corn bread with macaroni & cheese. If not a Boston Market, even an Old Country Buffet would be great. 

Starbucks - There have been rumors of Starbucks coming to Panama. There’s a special place for Starbucks in my heart as I spent countless hours typing out screenplays at the Starbucks off Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Something about the relaxed atmosphere, the chill laid back music, combined with an apple fritter and iced coffee not only added on pounds (damn apple fritters), but helped me write...a lot. This blog would probably have a thousand posts by now if I had a Starbucks to hang out in.

Arby’s - Would an Arby’s do well in Panama? I’m not sure. I think Panamanians are more open to trying new things now. I heard Taco Bell failed years ago, but they’ve since opened several branches and seem to be doing well. Having a fast food option other than burgers, pizza, and fried chicken would be great. I could go for a roast beef with melted cheddar all over it right about now. And the curly fries...mmmm.

Cold Stone Creamery - Panama has a few of its own ice cream chains. Plus Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins are in town. They’re all old news though. I think something cool like a Cold Stone with its variety of unique flavors would be a hit here. And the kids always get a kick out of hearing the staff sing "Hi ho, hi ho, we thank you for your dough" every time you tip them. 

Build-A-Bear - Build-A-Bear isn’t cheap. So I don’t know how many locals would want to spend that kind of money on a bear, but it’s something new that you don’t see here. And kids love building their own little animals (at least mine do...the little Frankensteins that they you kids!!!). If placed somewhere in Costa del Este or in Multiplaza Mall, where the higher end stores are located, I think Build-A-Bear would be a nice addition here. Plus, aside from the larger department stores, there aren’t any real toy stores here, except for Felix Juguetes in Los Pueblos. 

A Roller Skating Rink - I heard there was a roller skating rink here in Albrook Mall at some point in time. I’d love to take the kids to a roller skating rink. Or an ice skating rink might be even better. Not sure how well the rinks would do here, but it would be cool to have one. 

A Waterpark - For cryin’ out loud, this is the tropics, why don’t we have a water park? And I’m sorry, but Avalon doesn’t count! I’ve been to Avalon (see my post about taking my kids) and it is technically a water park, but it almost seems as if it has been abandoned. There is water...and it is a park. I guess it’s owned by Avalon Resorts so I don’t know how likely they’d be to sell, but geez, if somebody would just take over the place, slap some paint on it, fix the slides, clean it up, add a few fun twists, it would be so much me at least. 

Like the song goes, “These are a few of my favorite things.” At least we’ve got Chuck E. Cheese and Ruby Tuesday coming in the meantime. 

I’d love to hear from anyone else living in Panama. What would you like to see arrive in Panama? Answer in the comments section below and who knows, maybe someone reading is looking for a business opportunity, and you might be the person to clue them in.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, January 17, 2013

A customer service challenge for expats in Panama

It's no surprise and no late breaking news that Panama suffers from a lack of good customer service. Some of this blog post may sound familiar if you've read any of my replies to reader comments regarding customer service here in the pages of my blog. Also, you'll notice some very random photos in this post, just to break up the monotony of all the black and white text. Can't think of any good customer service related photos. So here's the first. The Panama Canal taken from the Amador Causeway last week.

Anyone who has spent any time in Panama has definitely stood in line at one of the department stores, such as La Onda, Stevens, or El Costo, in a line that has no less than fifteen people, and watched the one cashier do her job while behind her a swat team of employees mills about in the background. You should count yourself lucky if any of the employees even say "hello" or "I'll be right with you."

The point of this post isn't to inform you about the poor customer service, but instead to highlight good customer service. I was a trainer at one of the large call centers here. It was my job to train people on every aspect of their job, from sales to using the computer system to customer service. I went nuts whenever it came to the customer service portion of training. I just get passionate about it. I wanted to really dig into the class and help them understand the importance of customer service and how it can affect them as employees. Most of my negative experiences here have come from dining out. So our conversation turned to the restaurant industry and the poor customer service provided by waiters and waitresses.

Where the ocean turns into a river

The argument came up that Panamanian workers do not provide good customer service because in general, Panamanians are not good tippers. So they feel that they will bust their butts and won't get paid in return. I argued that I could understand how that was the case at some point in time, but now, that's a lousy excuse, because it's not only Panamanians dining out anymore. Now you've got Americans, Canadians, and foreigners from everywhere else on the globe.

I used the example that I was at a popular bar & grill one night with a group of no less than 10 guys watching one of the big UFC fights on TV. We just wanted beer and chicken wings while we watched the battles. It was a Saturday night, but in between paydays (everything in Panama revolves around the paycheck on the 15th or 30th of the month) so the place was seriously empty. I think there may have been three tables with customers. We finally flagged down the waiter and ordered. He brought over two buckets of beer (enough for us all to have one beer). We never saw him again. Not once. Not until I found him hanging out at the bar with the other waiters. Just hanging out. During a three-hour fight, we had two beers each. Needless to say the guy got a horrible tip.

Think about that. 10 guys, all with jobs, hanging out. If the waiter had done his job, we would have each thrown in at least one dollar per person. He would've gotten a $10 tip at the minimum. Why would any person, especially someone who is paid mostly in tips, go to work for 8 hours and not try to make as much money as possible during their shift?

Anyways, the class seemed to catch on as I broke it down that way.

Driving into Panama City on the Corredor Sur

The other day I was out getting gas. I stopped by the Delta gas station in Villa Lucre to fill up my car. The attendant walked over (many of the gas stations still have full service here), said something in Spanish (I didn't really hear what he said, plus my Spanish sucks), but I assumed he was asking what kind of gas I wanted and how much. So I gave him $20 and told him what kind of gas. He started laughing, took the money, but then kept his hand out for me to shake. This time I listened and understood that he was saying something along the lines of, "Geez, I was just introducing myself and you gave me money." We both laughed. As he filled up my car we spoke a little (as much as my limited vocabulary would allow). He asked my name, shook my hand, talked about how hot it is outside, and asked where I was from.

And I'd just been expecting to pay the guy and get my gas. This guy's name is Ariel and he reminded me that it's just as important for the customers to pass a smile and be polite as it is for the employees/workers to show good customer service skills. For a gas station attendant, this guy seemed to really get it. He was going to make the best of each day.

Right then and there I told him how appreciative I was for his attitude and his all around great customer service. I made sure that he understood that the tip I was giving him was because of those two things.

So I was thinking, we expats/foreigners, can make a difference. It might take a long time, but I think that we can help change the way Panamanians view customer service. Next time you're in a place of business and someone goes out of his or her way to assist you, or to strike up conversation, or anything that would be considered great customer service, don't just tip them, but make sure you tell them why you are tipping them. Do your best to explain that it's because you appreciate all that they do each day. I guarantee if we all did this more often, they would tell their coworkers how they just got a large tip because they had a fantastic attitude. Those coworkers might need to see it a few times before they believe it and apply it, but eventually it'll catch on.

Panama is ready to hit a tourism boom (I think it kind of is experiencing one already) but if the customer service levels stay where they are now, tourists will come, check the place out, have a bad experience, and leave with no intention of returning. Let's help turn that around.

Ariel Arauz at Delta in Villa Lucre

What I'd like to do is post a page on this blog dedicated to the customer service challenge. If you're out and about, and you come across somebody worth mentioning, tell them they did an outstanding job, then ask if you can snap a photo with your camera phone. Send me your story, their name, where they work, and their photo, and I'll put it up on the blog. Maybe they'll get a kick out of seeing their photo on some ol' average joe's website. Maybe it will even help them get a raise or something if the boss finds out. In the meantime, posted above, is a photo of Ariel at Delta gas station. The fellow next to him didn't seem too thrilled to have his name mentioned so I won't put it on here. Ariel is the guy on the left. I'll also post his short story and photo on my customer service challenge page.

Thanks for reading.