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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Recent Panama City Improvements

I was driving through the neighborhood the other day, and it hit me how much things have changed in Panama City over the past few years. I remember visiting Panama back in 2001, when I first married my wife. It was my first time in this country. I remember thinking there's no way I could move to Panama. It was just too third world back then. In the past 12 years, I've seen this country grow by leaps and bounds. I'm living here full time now, and every day this place gets more modern and more user-friendly. 

I started thinking about this as I drove over the brand new road that leads through Panama Viejo, the ruins of old Panama. It used to be a broken street that led past the ruins and through a neighborhood where traffic was always lined up, moving at a turtle's pace. I hated driving through the area and opted to pay the $1.40 each way for the Corredor Sur toll highway. Now, I find it much faster to drive the new road (and much cheaper too). 

The new 4-lane road is a much easier route than the old 2-lane one

Not only is the road much more stress-free and a lot cleaner, it's also nice to see that the city has invested money in playgrounds for some of the neighborhoods along this road. I'm sure it has a lot to do with the government wanting the roadside scenery to look a little nicer, but who cares, as long as the kids benefit, it's great.

Something else that I was stunned and happy to see, was the inclusion of handicap markings on the sidewalks. I've seen a lot of questions, either in the expat blogs, or by direct email, about whether or not Panama City and the interior towns, are handicap accessible. Traditionally, Panama City has not been a good place to walk or ride a bike due to the horrible condition of the sidewalks, and using a wheelchair would almost be out of the question. Some towns, like Las Tablas for example, have ramps at some of the sidewalks and handicap signs spread out around town. It looks as if Panama City is realizing the need for these improvements and has begun working on the problem. 

And this isn't even the main part of Panama City

Another improvement is the addition of street signs in some parts of the city. When I first moved here, there were almost no signs anywhere. Everyone just seemed to know the streets. Tumba Muerto (dead tomb) is a major street here, and Transistmica, Calle 50, Via EspaƱa, and Via Porras. Streets like these were just well known, but it would be hard to find signage anywhere. Being a small city, finding your way around isn't difficult once you convince yourself to get out and just do it, but you're more likely to learn the streets by remembering which KFC is on it than you are by learning the street names. 

Again, things are changing. Where I'm currently living, an area called Chanis, cement, hand-painted street signs have begun to pop up all over the place. This is great. Especially for the poor delivery guys who have to zip up and down the neighborhood streets on motorbike. I had one stop in front of my house the other night when I was unloading groceries from my car. He asked me which street was 3rd street. I had no idea. I knew we were on 5th, but where the heck was 3rd? You'd think it'd be two streets away. Not in my neighborhood. Someone was getting a cold pizza that night that's for sure. 

Before this sign, I bet the people living on Calle Navarra 
didn't even know there was a Calle Navarra

So these street signs are sure to be very helpful. One more great addition is the neighborhood signs. Although most of them, at least in my area, look to be made of hard plastic, it's nice to see these signs up. 

Panama is strange in the way that it's such a small place, and neighborhoods change so quickly. For example, Wellington, Florida, is a fairly large town. Wellington has tons of small subdivisions, but it's all Wellington. Here, you can be in Obarrio, turn down a side street and not realize you're in Marbella, travel a few more streets away and you're in Bella Vista, and if you wrap back around you'll find yourself in El Cangrejo. It's almost like every street is its own neighborhood. 

Welcome to Reparto Nuevo, the neighborhood that's only about a block long

I just mentioned how Panama City has never really been a walking town. It's not. Not yet anyway. It's definitely not Chicago or New York City, where you get out and just hoof it, knowing you can get where you're going by foot, or worst case scenario, by taxi. In Panama City, things are much more spread out. It's unlikely that you'll set out on foot and just happen to bump into something to do. You need to know where you're going. 

One of my favorite things about Chicago was the fact that I could just get out and go. I didn't really have to have a plan. There was always something to do. If you just kept walking in one direction, especially down Michigan Avenue, you were bound to find some sort of entertainment. It's not like that here. 

Plus, the sidewalks are horrible. Most are cracked and overrun by trees that have grown beneath the cement. The city has done a great job of cleaning up the parking situation. It used to be that cars would park on the sidewalks too, causing pedestrians to have to dangerously make their way out onto the street to get around them. Now, the cops are ticketing people and having cars towed.

Another reason Panama City is not the greatest place for walking, is the insane amount of dog poop you find everywhere. 

Incase you forgot what dog poop looks like

It seems that Panama City is well aware of this issue too and has begun to do what they can to clean it up. I was shocked when I saw the following signs going up around town: 

Too bad the dude in the picture doesn't have a bag in his hand

Is Panama third world? Not really. Not anymore. Sure, some towns out in the interior definitely qualify as third world, but Panama City is probably a lot more advanced than many towns in the great ol' U.S. of A. And it's getting better every day. 

In Aguadulce, a little sweet water town right off the Pan-American Highway, you can sit at the town center, right in front of the church, under the shade of a cozy little gazebo and use WIFI. The town is wired up. How's that for third world? 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Panama's Front Door Service Opportunities

Yesterday afternoon, while working on my new website, I heard someone calling out, "Buenas!" It was coming from outside my front door. My first thought was, "Shoot, it's the Buenas People. Hide." 

If I've never mentioned it before, I call the traveling church visitors the "Buenas People." I don't mean it to be rude. It's just that at least once per week people will stop by the house, stand outside, and keep saying "Buenas!" (which is short for buenas tardes/noches and means good day). They'll stay out there for a little while too, calling out "Buenas!" until either they get bored and walk away, or you answer the door.

The first few times, I answered the door, and I always had a hard time explaining that I don't speak Spanish. Even if I did speak Spanish, I wouldn't want to stand at the door and discuss religion. Don't get me wrong, I'm a Christian and a firm believer in Jesus and God. I just don't want to stand outside my front door and carry on a conversation. I'd rather go to church and pray. You don't need to sell me on something I'm already sold on. 

I do, however, have a strong respect for these people because I understand what they're doing and I know that it takes thick skin to do that every week. 

So, yesterday, I approached the front door like a ninja, crouched down, in stealth mode, waddled over to the window, and peeked through the slots in the glass, to see that it was just a guy on a bicycle. He had a weed wacker slung over the handlebars. I opened the door and said hello. He asked if we needed someone to cut the grass at the front of the house. Usually, I'd be more than happy to let the guy fix up the lawn, but I didn't have any cash on me at the time, and these guys don't take Clave (the debit card here in Panama). 

This guy goes door to door offering to fix peoples' shoes

It got me thinking though, about how convenient it is that people will come to your house and offer their services. A few weeks ago, a guy came to the house and offered to repair my mom-in-law's shoes. This guy was on a bicycle too. He'd worked on her shoes in the past, so she brought out a plastic bag full of sandals and high-heels. My wife threw a pair into the bag too. How much did it cost to get this bag full of shoes repaired? Ten dollars. And the guy called the house before bringing them back, to make sure we'd be at the house, and to make sure we had his money.

He's showing me the label that says his bike 
was donated to him by President Martinelli's wife

My wife had a hairdresser come to the house once. With four kids, that's quite handy. She had all her equipment with her and I think she charged about $5 per person. We used to pay a guy $10 to clean the entire backyard. He'd climb the tree with a machete, chop down all of the unnecessary branches (too many branches bring bugs and animals), tie everything up in bags, and haul it all out to the front of the house for garbage collection. 

Even the school buses here offer front door service. Now, I'm not a big fan of how the school bus system is handled here (basically there is no system), and I'll talk more about that later in a school-specific post, but at least they bring your kids right to your house. That's amazing. When I was a kid, I'd have to walk several blocks and hang out at a central bus stop (dodging bullies was always fun). Here, the driver brings your kid straight to your house.

School buses here are owned by each individual driver, not the school,
which can sometimes lead to payment and/or overcrowding issues

Each day a palatero comes to our house. A palatero is like the ice cream man back in the States, only these guys don't drive around in trucks. Instead, they walk through every neighborhood, pushing a refrigerated cart full of ice cream and popsicles. So whenever my kids hear the ringing of the bell, they haul ass to the front door and start screaming, "Paletas! Paletas!"

The popsicle flavors offered here are much better than you'll find in the States. Passion fruit, banana, strawberry, cherry, mango, and many others are available for about 40 cents each. If you want to splurge and go for the chocolate you can expect to pay a whopping 60 cents. 

Many Panamanians have auto mechanics that come to their house. My father-in-law does this. Here, it's all about who you know, and he always knows somebody who knows somebody. A couple of weeks ago he payed a guy to clean and wax the outside of his wife's car, and wipe down the motor and everything else under the hood. It's amazing what you can have done right at your home here in Panama. It's true front-door service. 

Thanks for reading,