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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Saying goodbye to my friends, the Diablo Rojos

There seem to be mixed emotions over whether or not it's a good idea to banish the cultural mascots of Panama, the Diablo Rojo buses. When I say cultural mascots, that's exactly what they are. These old school buses that have been transformed into speedster taxis, are a standout symbol for Panama. Almost every tourist snaps pictures of these loud and flamboyant vehicles, often painted with Conan-style dungeon and dragon like scenery with half-naked ladies trying to slay flying fire breathers, while just over the Xena chick's shoulder is Winnie the Pooh or Tom and Jerry.

With fronts that look a lot like something out of Mad Max, where oftentimes the driver can only see out of a slit in the windshield that's surrounded by a red feather boa, and the destination painted up top rather than on a digital screen like their more modern brothers, these buses have a special place in my heart. When I first moved here, or I should say when I first began to work here (almost a year after moving here), I'd hop on one of these buses at 6:00 a.m. and head straight to work, packed in with all the other commuters like a tin of sardines. 

I'd garnish the strangest looks from the other passengers, like, "What is this gringo doing here? Shouldn't he have a car?" And I was never comfortable with shouting, "Parada!" like you're supposed to to announce your desire to exit the bus. Instead, I'd always fight my way to the front, and stand at the top step, facing the door. The driver always seemed to get the hint and stop at the next stop for me. My favorite part of my morning (and evening) commute? Hopping off at a slow jog as the driver never brought the bus to a complete stop. If you didn't keep pace, you'd likely fall on your face. I once heard an older passenger scream at the driver in Spanish, "Are you trying to kill me? Stop the bus completely!"

Me at the back of a Diablo Rojo

Yes, I happen to appreciate these old buses, but why? Let me explain. I've lived in many of the U.S.'s major cities, where bus transportation costs a pretty penny and most of the time the buses run late, leaving you desperate and stressing out as you try to get to work on time. I paid about $80 per month for a monthly bus pass in Chicago. Some mornings I had to wait at least twenty minutes for a bus to arrive, and then, if it wasn't time for the next route to start, I'd have to either stand out in the cold, or if the driver was nice enough to let me in early, I'd have to sit and wait another ten minutes or so before he'd start driving. 

It's not like that with the Diablo Rojos. These buses are privately owned buses and keep no schedule. However, on every route, there are so many of them operating that you know one will be swinging around the corner in five minutes or less. There's no racing out of your house half dressed because you can't afford to miss the 6:30 a.m. bus. There's no need to worry about it because if you miss the 6:30 a.m. bus, you'll be sure to find a 6:33 bus on its way. And there's no waiting for the bus to start its route. They just keep circling the city, nonstop. 

Out with the old, in with the new

What does it cost to ride a Diablo Rojo? Putting up with the blasting reggaeton music, ignoring the old wino who got there earlier than you and is sitting two seats back burping Ron Abuelo burps and belting out his favorite Ismael Rivera tune, and being squished in besides other sweaty commuters, is a small price to pay when you consider the cost of a one-way trip is only 25 cents. That's it. One quarter will take you where you want to go. And fast (when there's no traffic) as the drivers could rival Dale Earnheardt. They swear they're on a Nascar track, weaving in and out, dodging traffic. 

Sadly, the reign of the Diablo Rojo is coming to an end. I say "is coming to" because they were supposed to be off the road by March 15th. I've seen a few of them still on the road, but it's nothing like before. I've heard there are still a couple of routes where the old buses are allowed to keep going for the time being. 

The government of Panama, in its effort to modernize Panama, has paid $20,000 to the owners of these buses to get them off the road. Apparently, there has been a minor setback, as many of the owners don't have the proper paperwork to operate the bus in the first place. That's still being worked out. 

A Diablo Rojo with not so much pizazz

One major concern right now, is the lack of new, modern, air-conditioned buses that are out on the routes. Even with the Diablo Rojos operating side-by-side with the new buses, most buses were jam packed with commuters. Two weeks ago you'd see the Metro buses (the modern ones) so full that riders were sitting down, standing up, and squeezed in uncomfortably. Right behind the new bus you'd see an older one, also filled to the brim.  So, when the old buses were taken off the street on the 15th, what do you think happened? 

With only one option left, and not enough of those buses on the road, people are now fighting over the buses. Literally. The traffic authorities have tried to establish single-file lines to help usher people onto the buses at some of the larger pick-up points, but keeping the peace all over the city is not an easy thing to do, not when people have been waiting several hours to get on a bus. And not when they're in jeopardy of losing their jobs for arriving to work late. 

Our nanny showed up several hours late last week and told us that she'd waited over two hours to get on a bus. People were pushing and shoving her as she finally boarded. So, now the government is trying to solve the commuter problem. I'm not sure, at this point, what they plan to do, but just saying that they're working on a solution isn't going to be good enough.

The new subway/el-train system being put up all over the city is sure to provide some relief, but that's not scheduled to be completed until 2014. Maybe they should have waited until then to take the Diablo Rojos off the road.

Metro buses lined up on both sides and the train tracks being built above

My concern is that the cost of providing these newer air-conditioned buses is going to be a hefty one and I can't imagine the price to board will stay at 25 cents. No way. Maybe for a little while to ease people's minds, but at some point, the cost will rise to 35 cents then to 50 cents then eventually reach a dollar. Just like the corridor. To go from one end of the Corridor Norte to the other costs almost $4. So what's to stop the government from raising the cost of the bus up to a dollar or more? With no more Diablo Rojos to provide competition, the Metro buses will have the monopoly. I hope I'm wrong, because the average Panamanian worker won't want to (or be able to) pay more than 25 cents each way. 

I know many people won't agree with me on this, but I'm a fan of the red devil buses and I'm sad to see them go. My wife, who just peeked over my shoulder and saw what I was writing, doesn't agree with me. She feels that the Diablo Rojos have been responsible for too many deaths and accidents, and that the drivers have never taken responsibility the way they should. So, I suppose there are good reasons for taking them off the street. Too bad the government couldn't find a happy medium and paint the new buses with Looney Tunes characters or something like that. 

The new Metro bus

Or, how about the old buses stay on their routes, and the cops or whoever is in charge of keeping the streets safe, simply enforce the laws and fine the buses that are caught running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, and participating in any other illegal or dangerous acts? I mean, think about it, if your kid is being bullied in school by a kid with blonde hair, you don't deal with the situation by taking all of the blond haired kids out of the school. 

However, as much as I miss some modern amenities from back home, seeing how rapidly Panama City is advancing makes me worry that soon this will be just another Miami. And I kinda like it the way it was when I got here.  :(

Thanks for reading,


Monday, March 18, 2013

Paying a parking ticket in Panama

A couple of posts ago I wrote about getting a driver's license in Panama, where I posted a ticket for my dysfunctional headlight at the bottom. Well, I've done it again. This time it's a parking ticket. Geez, I don't know what's going on. I never got tickets back in the States. I'll figure it out how to abide by the laws here, eventually.

In the meantime, let me just say this, parking in Panama City is ridiculous right now. The problem used to be that people parked wherever they wanted to, which meant cars were up on all the sidewalks and parked out on the street medians, but now, since the traffic cops have started cleaning up that problem and towing away vehicles, they've almost become like ticket Nazis. 

A few weeks ago, I showed up early at an appointment, just to make sure I was able to find a parking spot. The street where I usually park suddenly had signs all over the place with a picture of a car being towed away. So, not wanting my car to get towed, I found a back street, where cars were parked all along the side of the road, and no "no parking" signs were anywhere in site. Two hours later I returned to see that every car parked on the side of the road had a ticket stuck to its window. 

Mine was the one in the photo above. I found the traffic cop a block away and asked what was the problem. I explained that there were no signs posted and from what I could understand (in Spanish), he told me you can't park on the shoulder of a street that has only one lane going in each direction. This didn't make much sense considering in another neighborhood friends of mine got tickets for being up on the sidewalk (on the same kind of street) and the cop said the only reason I didn't get one was that my car was parked on the side of the street, not the sidewalk. 

This is the area where my appointment was located

I can't help but think I only got a ticket because this particular cop felt like giving out tickets on this particular street on that particular day. I've passed by that street many other times and cars are still parked there (with no tickets attached). 

Anyway, the last time I got a ticket, the one for the headlight, my father-in-law, who is a lawyer, paid it for me. I gave him the money, of course, but I didn't have to actually pay it myself. This time, with the parking ticket, I had to figure out how to do it myself, and just on time as they only give you 30 days to pay it. The fine increases if you pay late, and the penalty gets worse from there. I'd put off paying it until right around the 28th day of my allotted 30. I just didn't feel like dealing with what I was sure would be a painful process. In the end, I was shocked at how easy it was to pay the ticket or boleta

If you read my "how to get a driver's license" post, you'll remember that I mentioned SERTRACEN as the final destination in your steps to getting that coveted license. SERTRACEN is the license issuing agency. I went to the one in Albrook to get my license and stopped by there early this morning to pay my ticket. I took my passport, my driver's license, my immigration card, and the ticket. I wanted to make sure I had everything they might possibly ask for. 

The Albrook SERTRACEN office

I expected to go through a lengthy process, like the one for getting my license. I stood in line at the information counter and when I reached the front of the line, all I did was flash the lady my ticket, and she pointed at the caja (cashier) line. There I found a line of 16 people. This was at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. It only took about twenty minutes to get through the line.

When I finally reached the cashier window, I slid my ticket to the lady and that was it. She never asked for my passport or anything else. The ticket had the vehicle tag number, or placa as it's called here, written on it already (if for some reason your ticket doesn't have the placa number written on it, you want to make sure you have that handy). She punched a few numbers into her keyboard and told me it would be $10. I paid in cash and that was it. Ordering an Oreo Blizzard at Dairy Queen is more difficult. 

I've been told it's always smart to hold onto the receipt they give you. Keep it in the glove compartment of your car incase you get pulled over sometime and find that your payment didn't register in the system for some reason. That receipt could keep you out of jail. 

If you want to find the SERTRACEN office nearest you, go to

To see a list of fines for other tickets you might receive here in Panama, go to

So, that's it for paying a ticket here in Panama. As always, thanks for reading.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Supermarket Tips for Shopping in Panama Part 5 (Extra random info)

Hey everybody,

I just got back from the grocery store (with 4 kids I'm there daily), and while walking up and down the aisles, I realized there's still a lot of supermarket taboos I haven't clued you in on. So in this installment I'm going to talk about some things that don't necessarily fit in with the other articles I wrote, which were specific to the types of items you might buy. This will be completely random as it's hard to plan an article like this. So just bear with me. 

Where you go to pay your bills

You can pay your bills at the supermarket:

Getting used to paying your bills here can be a real hassle. Back in the States, I had everything set up so that I could pay it online. You can do that here, but it might take you awhile to figure out how to set that up. Most of the banks have a system that allows you to do it online through them, but regardless, when you first move to Panama, you'll probably struggle with this a little bit. 

Paying your bills is actually simple. In fact, it's so simple and old fashioned that it's annoying. Most Panamanians, especially the old school ones, like my father-in-law, don't trust the bank system or any system at all really. Dad-in-law would never go online to pay a bill. He will go directly to the source each and every time, which gets the bill paid, but is a big waste of time, especially with the horrible traffic getting to the branch, and the long lines you'll stand in when you reach one.

An alternative to going to each utility department (water, electric, cable TV, etc.) is to go to one of the Multi-Pago desks in your local Rey supermarket. Super 99 and the other supermarkets usually have something similar. At these stations, you can pay your bills, send/receive money through Western Union, and a few other things. Having your actual bill with you helps a lot as your customer number, or what they call "NIC" is needed to ensure it's put into the system correctly. 

If you don't have your bill with you, make sure you know what the NIC # is, so that you can fill out one of the forms, like the one in the photo below: 

If you take a look at the photo, you'll see that quite a bit of info is requested on this form. Here's what all that means 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. 

Cheap Napkins (I told you this was random): 

If you've ever eaten at a Panamanian restaurant, or one of the small fondas here, you've probably noticed the thin, cheap napkins your utensils come wrapped up in. Or the ones you pull out of the napkin dispenser and shred like the toilet paper roll you just can't seem to find the loose end on. 

There's a reason these are used all over the country. Look at the price. You can't beat 40 cents, especially when your customer will be long gone before he realizes these things won't clean a darned thing. 

Health/Diet food aisle at Rey in Chanis

Health/Diet Foods: 

I mentioned this in one of the other articles, but I'll say it again, Panama is finally catching on to sugar-free foods and other health specific items. Most supermarkets now dedicate about half of one side of an aisle (so like a quarter aisle?) to sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free, foods. 

Check it out, we even have sugar-free Oreo's. 

Pet Food: 

Here's the pet food aisle at the Rey supermarket near my house. Just thought you might like to know that your pet will be able to eat here in Panama. You'd be surprised some of the questions I'm asked, several having to do with the well-being of peoples' pets. 

On a side note, you'll be shocked at what people feed their dogs here though. I was always taught that chicken bones were too soft for dogs and could cut their throats, but here, I see people feed chicken bones to dogs all the time. I was at a birthday party a couple of weeks ago where people were putting their leftover cake plates on the ground and letting the dog go nuts. 

Almost $8 dollars for a 1/2 gallon

Get used to the local ice cream:

I've written a lot about the importance of getting used to local brands if you want to save money and actually live that affordable retirement lifestyle you planned for yourself. I know people are very particular about their ice cream. I love Bryers. That's what I used to buy all the time back in the States. Not here though. Have you seen the price of a 1/2 gallon here? Look at the photo above. It's almost $8. That's crazy. I remember getting like 2 for $5 deals or something like that on Bryers ice cream in Ohio. 

You'll pay somewhere around $3 for the same size tub of ice cream if you give the local brands a try. They're not bad. You won't find them stuffed with American candy bars like the Bryers Reese's peanut butter cup, or Twix, or Snickers ice cream, but you'll find grape nut, pistachio, chocolate almond, rum raisin, etc.

Eggs aren't refrigerated here

All about eggs: 

Don't be surprised when you search all over the refrigerated areas of your local supermarket, and you can't find the eggs. You're not losing your mind. Eggs aren't refrigerated in Panama. Where you'll find them depends on each particular store. 

At the Rey in Chanis, they're right above the frozen foods, next to the refrigerated milk section. At the Super 99 in Costa del Este, they're in a totally different place, at the end of the meat counter on a wooden shelf. At the El Machetazo in San Miguelito they're in a normal aisle, I think right above the beans. Let the egg hunt begin. 

Another eggcelent (I'm such a dork) piece of information to have handy is the eggspiration (ha! I could go all day with this) date is on each individual egg, not on the outside of the carton. Notice that on Panamanian products, the day comes first, then the month, then the year. I'll talk more about this and how it can cause confusion in a moment. 

Watch out for bargains: 

Everyone loves a bargain, and nobody knows this better than the Panamanian supermarkets, so expect to see two items taped together for one price, or even a free pack of cookies if you buy a box of brownies. In the photo above you see Chips Ahoy cookies (the ones with Reese's peanut butter cups) for $1.99. That's an incredible deal. Those cookies usually cost between $4 and $5. 

I've learned to be very careful picking up these bargains. A few weeks ago I picked up a deal on instant mashed potatoes. I was in the mood for some garlicy goodness and the store had two boxes taped together for $1.99. I didn't even think to check the expiration date (and I known better). I went home, whipped up the quick craving fix, but it tasted nasty. It had a funky, old taste. When I checked the box, they'd expired about a month before. 

That's usually the case with these bargain bins. I think in the U.S. it's illegal to sell expired items. Here, I've seen expired milk for sale, expired juice, cookies, macaroni & cheese, and all kinds of other stuff. Those great 2x1 deals most of the time are either about to expire, or are already expired. So check carefully.

Expiration dates: 

Speaking of expiration dates, remember what I said above about the eggs? The date here is written differently. It's day/month/year. Learning that is not so difficult. Where things get confusing is how the stores also sell imported items. Those will have the date the American way. And where it gets even more confusing is that some of the items you think are imported, aren't. Panama has distributors of American brand name products. 

Fruit Loops might be imported (it will usually say somewhere on the box), but they might not be. If you didn't notice the box, you'll definitely figure out when you take a bite. Some items taste better here and some taste worse, but either way, the taste is usually different. I was a huge Pepsi fan in the States. Pepsi here is too strong. It's too acidy for me. I prefer Coke in Panama. Domino's Pizza is better here. 

When I said the expiration date can be confusing, look at the photo above. I picked up this package of saltine crackers and found a great example. The "best before" date is 8/9/13. If you're shopping in the middle of August, what do you do? Ok, you could just say, "Screw the saltines." But let's imagine you're just dying to eat this brand of cracker. Come on, play along. 

If you're going by the American way of writing the date, you're screwed, they're already expired. If it's the Panama date, woohoo, you've got almost a month left. See what I mean? 

This happened to me one time with a package of Chewy Chips Ahoy. I try not to eat a lot of sweets, but for some reason I had a real hankering for chewy chocolate chip cookies. I wound up not buying the cookies because I couldn't figure out if they were expired or not. And if you think it doesn't matter, I assure you it does. I've bought a box of Duncan Hines browny mix once without checking the expiration date and when I got home, I found the mix full of bugs. I grabbed a pack of Fig Newtons once that was covered in mold. So trust me, be careful. 

Cough drops: 

I was at a conference once, for one of those "live and retire in a foreign country" companies I used to work for. One of the readers approached me and asked where he could find cough drops. I happened to be headed towards the pharmacy, so I told him he could tag along. We got to the store, and neither of us could find the cough drops. I'd never bought cough drops since moving to Panama, and I, like this guy, was looking for one of the big sacks of Hall's cough drops. 

My Spanish speaking ability was much worse then than it is now, and his was non-existent, so in the end, we didn't find cough drops. A couple of days later, it hit me. I always see cough drops at the cash register. They're sold here in packs, like gum. And they're right there with the gum. In fact, cough drops in Panama are treated a lot like candy. Kids buy them for a nickel a piece, the little individually wrapped ones, at any of the mini-supers. 

So if you're every looking for Hall's, you won't find them in the medicine aisle like you might expect. You'll find them with the candy. 

The Deli Counter:

I won't say much about the deli counter. Queso is cheese, and all of the other cheese related words are pretty much the same. You can point and read the package or the sign when you order. 

Ham is jamon and turkey is pavo. What you will notice at the deli are the words ahumado, which means smoked, and cocido, which means cooked. Just get used to saying una libra, which is one pound, or media libra, which is half a pound. 

Panama Produce: 

Roots are used a lot here for cooking, especially in soups. This may be something new to you, or maybe not at all. In South Florida, I'm sure because of the huge Latin population there, it was common to see yuca, otoe, and sometimes even ñame. All of these taste awesome in soup. Most are sort of like potato, but usually a little chewier. I'm sure at some point I'll throw a recipe onto this site and you'll see some of the roots mentioned in it. Like Sancocho, which is a delicious chicken soup that's super popular here.

One of the coolest things about the produce area is the option to pick up pre-chopped vegetables. Usually you'll see packs (like the ones on the far left in the photo above) of carrots, potatoes, corn, and some other items used for soup packaged together. It's also common to see yuca or ñame packaged by itself. So if you don't feel like putting in the hard work, and you just want to easily drop your soup additions into a pot of boiling water, pick up these packs and make it easy on yourself. 

Cilantro is a staple in most Panamanian dishes. When I lived in the States, just the smell of cilantro would remind me of Panama. If you've never used it before, grind some up and sprinkle it practically anything you're cooking. It's one of those things you either love or you hate. Some people can't stand even the smell of it. I love the stuff and welcome it to any dish. I've even added it to my spaghetti sauce. 

Here are a few other Spanish terms for items in the produce department:

Ajo = garlic
Aji = peppers (like aji dulce are usually the little red, green, and yellow sweet peppers)
Maiz = corn
Cebolla = onion
Papa = potato
Zapayo = squash 
Tomate = tomato 
Pepino = cucumber
Lechuga = lettuce
Repollo = cabbage

The last thing I want to add to this completely random list of information is the pounds to kilogram conversion chart I saw this morning at Rey when I was picking up three pounds of pulpa negra. You can order things by the pound here, do it's not something you really need to worry about, but it just gives you an idea of what the difference is. 

Thanks again for reading and for keeping up with these supermarket tips. I think this will be the final installment (until next time I'm shopping and I think of something else to mention).