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Friday, April 12, 2013

Life in Panama, the best things are the simplest things

Yesterday, on my way to pick up my daughters from school, I was reminded of how simple things can make such a difference. It’s these little things that keep me grounded and remind me of how great this country is.

It was hot yesterday, and my air conditioner in my car is messed up. I don’t recommend driving around Panama with no air conditioner. The great thing is entrepreneurs have realized that the days are smoldering and many people don't have the time to make a pit stop for an icy drink. So they've set up shop on the street medians. 

On the route to my daughters' school, I pass several of these vendors. I passed this one guy, at least five time, not sure I wanted to buy what he had to sell. He was selling fresh orange juice in lidded cups, with a straw and everything. He'd walk up and down the center of the two aisles of cars, with this carrying case that held six cups at a time. I don't know why, maybe it's that part of me, born and bred in the U.S., that makes me weary of unsealed containers. Finally, I broke down and bought a cup of juice. Cost? One dollar. I was hooked. 

This guy's fresh squeezed orange juice was the tastiest, most refreshing drink I'd ever had. And it was dirt cheap. I looked for him the next day, and he wasn't there. The day after that I was practically foaming at the mouth, and he was nowhere to be found.

"Where the hell is the orange juice guy?" I shouted from within my car. I needed a fix. 

Sadly, I guess I wasn't the only one who didn't jump at the chance to buy a cup of freshly squeezed OJ. He'd moved on to some other street and out of my life forever. 

I miss you OJ man

Every morning on my way home from dropping off my daughters, I pass a woman who sells styrofoam cups of fresh fruit salad out of a cooler. The lids are taped down. A girl I used to work with would come into the office sometimes with these cups of fruit salad. What a great, healthy breakfast idea? Are you going to go out of your way to pull into a McDonald's for greasy $5 breakfast, or holler at this lady from your rolled down car window for a $1 cup of fresh fruit salad? You don't see that in the United States. Or at least I didn't when I was there. I think people back home would be afraid to buy something like that. Things are just different here. 

On the road leading to my house, you'll see a guy with his car parked on the side of the road, a sign made out of the ripped off lid from a cardboard box. He sells bottles of fresh honey. This guy literally brings bottles of honey from the interior of the country and sells them on the side of the road. What does he use as a lid? A piece of wax paper rubber-banded to the top of the bottle. That's it. I would absolutely buy it too. I probably wouldn't have bought it in South Florida. But I'd buy it here. 

Cell phone covers and chargers for sale

It's the ability to pick up these random treats on the road that makes Panama such a cool place to be. I love it. I was stuck in my mom-in-law's car one day, with nothing to listen to but the horrible radio station channels, and her cds, which are always Panama tipico music, which isn't bad if I'm at a live concert with my wife and I've had several rum & cokes, but I'm not driving down the street blasting this accordion-filled music. Not by myself. So, as I'm sitting at a red light, playing drums on the steering wheel with my fingers, wishing I had something cool to listen to, a guy taps on my window and has a stack of cds. I'm not going to say he had America's Top 40, or Van Halen, or anything like that. But at least I could purchase a mix of more modern Salsa or Reggaeton. 

If you find yourself without a car charger for your cell phone, or you decide you'd like a new cover for your phone, or the sun's blinding you and you desperately need a pair of bootlegged Oakley sunglasses, you can find that stuff roadside too. Sellers walk up and down the lanes at every red light, calling out their wares. Some of them will stop at your window, especially when they see you're a gringo, and try to convince you to buy, but if you firmly say "no" a couple of times, the'll be on their way. 

Papaya, avocados, onions, and peppers for sale

I was sitting in my car the other night, after a long trip to Panama’s local Costco-style store, PriceSmart, when I realized that I'd forgotten the bread. With a wife and four kids at home, and school lunches that needed to be made, the bread was a must. So there I sat, contemplating whether I should make an extra stop at another supermarket, or give the kids money for lunch. A tapping on my windshield brought me back to reality. A man stood next to my car at the stoplight, holding about six fresh loaves of bread wrapped in plastic bags. For $1.50 I was able to bring home the bread.

This isn’t the first time these street vendors have saved my hide. I’ve forgotten tomatoes, onions, even garbage bags, all items on sale right at the intersection. 

The guandu (pigeon peas) often cooked in rice here can be found on most major streets. I’ve even picked up a bag of oranges, with the rinds already peeled off, to take home to the kids.

My kids love these oranges (just slice them in half and suck out the juice)

I used to think often about how much I missed going to one store, such as a Walmart or Target, to pick up everything I need. There are a few stores here that allow you to do that, but it’s not the same. El Machetazo is the closest thing we have to a Walmart-style store here in Panama. They’ve got a supermarket, but they also have an electronics department, toy store, and furniture area. It’s a great place to pick up exercise equipment. And sure, I'll go there every once in awhile just because it's easy. The one in Coronado is fantastic. However, I’ve realized that for every big thing I miss from the States, like Starbucks, there are a ton of little things that keep me grounded in Panama.

I was in a mini-supermarket the other day. I went in, specifically, for a bottle of fresh coconut juice, my new favorite drink. So while I’m buying the bottled stuff, I glance to my left and see a customer perusing the aisles carrying a coconut with a straw driven through it. She was drinking right from the fruit, while doing her shopping, and her coconut was provided by the shop keep. Where in the United States can you walk into a store and walk out sipping a fresh coconut? It just doesn’t happen.

Fresh coconut juice is awesome

Fruits and vegetables are everywhere here, and they’re not expensive like they are in most areas of the United States. I remember when my mother in law visited us in Anchorage, Alaska. She wanted to make a Panamanian style soup. She needed a vegetable called Ñame, which is a root similar to Yucca. Only one store in town had this root, and it was a small health food store. I paid US$11 for this one ñame root that couldn’t have weighed more than two pounds. Here in Panama it costs about $.80 per pound. That’s a huge difference. In the suburbs of Chicago, it was surprisingly hard to find plantains. In Panama, they’re everywhere.

Everywhere I’ve lived in the U.S., it would’ve cost a fortune to pack my kids’ school lunches with fresh fruit. Here it’s cheaper than anything else, and there’s so much variety. I’m still stumbling upon fruits I’ve never heard of.

Workers stop for affordable lunch in Costa del Este

Gas stations here still offer full service. It took me a little while to get used to this. I felt lazy letting someone else pump my gas. But here, it’s their job. If you don’t let them do it, they won’t get paid. I usually give them a tip, but even that isn’t mandatory. They’ll check your oil, check your tire pressure, wash your windows…in some ways living in Panama really is like living in the United States back in the 60’s.

Shopping for clothing here can be very affordable. I have broad shoulders, so most of the Panamanian-made men’s clothes won’t fit me, but if you’re a little bit smaller than I am, it’s very easy to find t-shirts for $2. Or blue jeans for $10. A pair of decent jeans in the States can run you $50. Women’s clothes are extremely affordable. I’m not going to say that the quality is equal to what you might pick up at Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, but we’re talking t-shirts here.

A $1 medical bill

Don’t get me started on medical expenses. My daughter, when she was an infant, was taken to an emergency room about five miles down the street after my wife called 911. That ambulance ride resulted in a bill of about $400. Just for the ambulance ride. Here, 911 is sort of a new concept, but if you call 911 and an ambulance takes you to the hospital, you don’t pay a penny. It’s covered by your taxes. 

My co-pay back in Columbus, Ohio, was $30, and that’s a low co-pay compared to a lot of others. Here in Panama, without insurance, I went to visit a doctor about my high blood pressure. The cost of this doctor visit was $4. I visited an orthopedic specialist for problems with my back, and I was charged $40 for the visit. This was one of the top doctors in all of Panama. In San Carlos, a small town near Coronado, I went into the emergency room one night, worried about my sugar levels being high, and I walked out with a $1 bill. One dollar. Find that unbelievable? Just look at the photo above. 

So while my mind wanders back to the United States from time to time, and how my life was before the recession, when I reel it back in and remind myself of the advantages here, I realize that this place makes sense for me right now…and offers a lot of promise for the future.