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Friday, September 12, 2014

15 Tips to Mentally Prepare You for Life in Panama

I've been asked a few times recently about satisfaction among expats in Panama and what seems to drive people to pack up and leave. That's a tough question to answer because each person has his or her own story. It might be the constant humidity, the slower pace of life, traffic (if they live in Panama City), missing family and friends back home, boredom, or a number of other things that bothers someone enough to cause them to call it quits. 

You're probably thinking, "Boredom? Wait, what, Chris? How could someone be bored? They've waited all their life to retire, lie on a hammock, and sip wine while rereading the entire Nichols Sparks collection." Very true. George R. R. Martin is more my style, but whatever the reading material, yes, believe it or not, life can get dull when you've got the entire day free. 

Yes, even this can get boring

I won't get into that too much, but let's just say that it might take some getting used to. And other things about Panama might take some time to adjust to. That's what this article is all about. This is about the things you can do in the U.S. or in Canada or wherever you're living now to get a head start on mental preparation for this wild adventure you're waiting to begin. Doing some of these things now might help ease your mind a little bit when you finally settle down in Panama for the long haul. Now, I may have mentioned some of these things in other posts, but maybe not...I've written a lot, lol, I don't remember. 

Oh and one other thing. None of this is meant to be negative. It's just me joking around. So don't get sensitive on me. 

1. Rooster Alarm - The Corn Flakes commercial is a liar. I found out quickly the first time I visited the interior of this country that roosters don't quietly meander up to the fence post, take a look around, inhale a deep breath, and let out one long rooster crow before feeling satisfied and retiring back to the coop. 

This rooster in Penonome might be your new alarm clock

At least not in Panama. So, if you plan to move here, a good thing to do to practice and prepare yourself for life in the interior of this country, is to download the rooster alarm tone for your phone. Make sure you set it for "loud" and make sure you set it for 4:30am. Then, when it goes off at 4:30, make sure you have the snooze set to go off every two minutes, and let it do this all day. 

In towns like Rio Hato or Penonome or maybe even Aguadulce, plus some neighborhoods in larger cities, roosters may be as common as dogs, so prepare yourself in advance so you don't go nuts later. 

2. Start throwing yourself into traffic - You can't talk about real life in Panama City without touching on the subject of traffic. I sat in traffic about three hours yesterday trying to pick Mar up from work. This isn't so different from many other major cities though. What is different, is the need to throw yourself in front of other cars. 

You may have heard of the "juega vivo" attitude in Panama. It's basically the game of life and means players win by staying ahead of everyone else, so "me first." Nowhere is this more obvious than on the road. It's very, almost extremely, rare that anyone will let you pull out in front of them in traffic. No one is going to invite you into their lane. You literally have to step on the gas and put yourself in front of someone. It's risky, but it's how things are done here.

You'll have to force yourself into this

So, to prepare for this, just start pulling out in front of oncoming traffic (okay please be safe when you do this). If you want to get used to Panama City traffic, drive it like you stole it. Turn every day life into Grand Theft Auto (please don't really go steal cars or yank people out of the driver's side door and smack 'em around). 

3. Hire people to do stuff for you - One thing people look forward to when they think of moving to Panama is the option to have a maid clean your house (every day or a couple of days a week). You may even opt to have a live-in maid. Plus, other hands-on work you've always hated can be contracted out. Hire a gardener to make your home front look snazzy or just pay someone to mow the lawn. Get someone to clean your pool for you. Oftentimes they'll even come right to your door and offer their services. 

These guys are awesome!!!

These things sound great, right? Well, believe it or not, they may take some getting used to. My wife's family has had a maid working for them for about 15 years. She's like part of the family. They asked her to work for us when we first moved to Panama to make our adjustment easier. I have to say, I wasn't prepared for that. I grew up cleaning my own dishes and doing my own laundry so suddenly having someone around to do it was odd. I felt bad letting someone else clean my stuff. But it's her job and she's getting paid for it. It's like telling the bank teller you'll count your own cash or telling the barber you'll cut your own hair. You just don't do it. 

If you want to prepare for this, hire a complete stranger to walk back and forth in front of the TV while you watch the morning news. Have them clean stuff and move things around so that you can't find them later, lol. Seriously. That's what happens. Eventually you learn the person's ways and you come to really appreciate the help, but at first it's really weird having someone in your home, especially if they're a live-in maid. 

4. Random honking - This is something else I've mentioned several times in the past. Panamanians honk their car horns all the time. They honk to let people know they're passing their driveway, they honk when they see a pretty girl (or a handsome guy), they honk to say, "Hey, up yours, pal!," and they honk to let you know it's okay to start driving again as soon as the light turns green. 

Taxi drivers are the worst

To prepare yourself for this, just start honking at everything. When you're sitting at the traffic light, keep your hand at the ready. Just wait for it. Then, as soon as it turns green, just lay your whole elbow against the horn. Let it rip. Make sure the people in front of you know you're in a hurry and they need to get the hell out of your way. 

Then, wait 'till you see an attractive person on the sidewalk and honk like a madman. Don't let people pull out of their driveways. Instead, speed up, and just as they're about to hit you, hold down your horn and laugh maniacally as you pass. Do it. Prepare yourself for Panama and enjoy the process, it's extremely liberating. 

5. Stop doing all your shopping at one place - No more Walmart, pal! Just give it up. Stop cold turkey. And no more Target either. Instead of buying a bunch of stuff that you kind of like from one store, start to appreciate the finer things in life. And when I say finer, I mean specialty items you can only get at one place (and I don't mean that special pumpkin puree you can only find at Whole Foods).

Stop buying your produce in supermarkets

In Panama, it's very common for people to go to their favorite bakery to get the bread they can't do without. Then, they'll stop by a business (that's actually in someone's home) that bakes the best cakes. Then, they'll go to a fresh produce market to pick up cheap fruits and vegetables. Then, they'll go to a supermarket to get their meats from their favorite butcher before heading over to the Mercado de Mariscos for all their seafood needs. Instead of buying bulk in one shop, start buying what you really like from different vendors. This is life in Panama. 

6. Embrace the cold shower - I swear only Anchorage, Alaska, and Chicago, Illinois rival Panama when it comes to freezing cold water (I've never been to Canada). Maybe it's because your body becomes so used to the hot humid atmosphere. Then, when water is lukewarm, it feels like it's minus 30. 

"But, Chris, I'll make sure I have a hot water heater," you might be thinking. Okay, fair enough. But will your friends and hotels and family members? Chances are, not everyone will have a hot water heater. I've stayed at hotels where my options were to take a freezing cold shower or trust the external water heater device that was plugged in above the mirror and had exposed wires. I went with the cold shower. 

So, to prepare for this, just go without hot water. Do what I do. Stand under the shower head. Hesitate for about five minutes. Remember that hot shower you had that one time at that one bed & breakfast. Think about the cold shower you took in that small community of Nancito in Chiriqui, Panama. Quietly cringe and debate how clean your body really needs to be today. Then, reach out, grab the cold water faucet and crank that sucker up as high as it will go. Next, scream, arch your back, and do that funky little, "Holy cow this is cold" dance. That's how it's done. 

Preparing for no water

And better yet. Fill a big jug full of cold water and take a slow shower under that little stream, just to prepare yourself for the frequent water outages that will occur. I woke up this morning to my daughters warning me the water was out. It happens quite frequently in my neighborhood as there's a lot of construction going on near our house. So, I went out to our emergency water tank we keep full outside, filled up some jugs, and the family showered, brushed teeth, and cooked using this water. 

7. Get used to Spanish subtitles - Whether you're watching TV in your home or out at the movie theater catching the newest flick, there's a good chance you'll be watching it with Spanish subtitles. At Panama movie theaters you have two options. You can either watch a movie that's dubbed in Spanish or watch it in original English format, but with Spanish subtitles. So if you're the type of person who refuses to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Pan's Labyrinth simply because you can't stand seeing a movie with subtitles at the bottom, you might want to rethink your move (or stick to watching your DVD collection).

Even Netflix here in Panama automatically assumes you want Spanish subtitles on every show and movie. Of course, you can turn them off, but each and every show starts with subtitles. This is great if you have Panamanian family or friends around wanting to watch with you, it just might take some getting used to on your part.

The Walking Dead on Netflix

So, going forward, from now until you arrive in Panama, put subtitles at the bottom of your movies and turn the captions on on your TV. You don't have to read them (although Spanish subtitles might help you learn Spanish) but seeing them in front of you for two hours at a time will help you prepare yourself for your new movie-watching experience. 

8. Spanish speaking announcers - If you have basic cable here (and not some sort of special black box), you need to know ahead of time that nearly every sporting event you watch will come with Spanish-speaking announcers. 

Yes, this means NFL, UFC, boxing events, and even WWE wrestling. What's super annoying is that you might hear the English speaking announcers there in the background, but they're being overpowered by the Spanish-speaking announcers. The English words you crave are so close...yet oh so far away. If you're lucky, you might find a channel or two that actually plays the event in full English, but be ready to watch with Spanish subtitles. On a side note, you might also miss out on the American commercials during the Super Bowl. This drove me nuts last year. Instead of the cool, hilarious commercials I was waiting for, I got to watch a boring Panamanian version of a Miller Light commercial and maybe three other boring commercials that played over and over again.

If you like wrestling, get ready to listen to these guys

So, to prepare yourself, hire a Spanish-speaking friend to sit next to you on the couch as you watch any sporting event. Then, try really hard to hear the English-announcers while your friend shouts out everything he sees on the screen in Spanish. This should prepare you :)

9. Click "Save" a lot - Internet is high speed (ish) in Panama and electricity is dependable (ish) in Panama. I've been here just over five years and for some reason it seems that in the last two years, I've noticed a lot more power outages than before. This might just mean a short dip or it might mean going without power all day long. I live in Panama City and experience this, and I know people who live in towns in the interior and have complained it.

To prepare yourself for this, start constantly saving any work you do on your computer. Click save every minute or so. You may develop a nervous twitch, haha, but at least your work will not get deleted. 

And if you really want to prepare for this, just tell your spouse or an older child, to randomly, maybe once a week (okay power outages don't happen that often here, but it'll make practice more interesting) turn off the circuit breaker. They shouldn't let you know when they'll do this. You could be watching the NBA finals, taking a hot shower, shaving your face...whenever. Have fun with it. 

10. Cook a little more than usual - Not more often, but more as in the amount of food you cook. Let me explain. When I first moved here, I'd prepare about two pounds of ground beef, two packs of spaghetti, with two jars of sauce. I have four kids so this worked out great. 

That was until family started showing up. Suddenly, as soon as the spaghetti was finished, I'd hear someone at the door. It never failed. Family members showed up when they were invited and even when they weren't. In Panama, family and friends are everything. So be prepared for visitors and cook a little more. Now, I typically make three pounds of beef, three packages of spaghetti, and three jars of sauce. 

To prepare for this, just pretend a family of three is going to ring your doorbell at any moment. And if you don't want your food to go to waste, give it to the homeless or actually invite family and friends over for dinner. 

11. Loud music is a part of life - I don't think it matters where you live in Panama, you better be prepared to hear a variety of music at any hour of the day. At one point, when I lived in Villa Lucre (a small neighborhood in Panama City), there was a night club (disco) right behind my house. I swear reggaeton (Latin reggae) would start at 7pm and would continue until about 9am. Then, the neighbors on my street would play their music as well. One house was the home of an older couple who loved tipico music. So hearing an accordion was very common in the afternoon and early evening. The other house was the home of a young college guy who'd play club, pop, salsa, merengue, and reggaeton late at night on the weekends. 

You should have been there when I was painting the house. It was a Saturday afternoon and reggaeton, salsa, and tipico filled the air. I had my stereo outside and I cranked up my country music. It was an awful, strange blend of music as Charlie Daniels tried to out sing Samy y Sandra Sandoval and Marc Anthony. 

This is the site of my music melting pot paint job

How do you prepare for this? Well, the fun way is to wait until your spouse is sleeping (he or she is moving to Panama with you, right?). Then, creep outside of the bedroom window, pop in a Spanish-language cd (just go with one of Marc Anthony's salsa tunes, you can find his stuff anywhere), turn it all the way up, and push play. Then sit back and laugh as your spouse rolls out of bed and curses you out for the next half hour. 

12. Go fry crazy - I don't say any of this to pick on Panamanians. I love my new people. It's all just fun and games. But honestly, y'all fry everything. Panamanians fry bread (hojaldres), they fry pastries (empanadas), they fry chicken, they fry, they fry tuna, and they fry lunch meat. 

If you don't cook it in your own home, there's a good chance you'll be buying it fried somewhere on a Panamanian street. Okay, don't get me wrong, Panamanians make delicious soup and they do roast and rotisserie chicken and meat sometimes, but the majority of Panama food is fried. 

This is how it's done

So, to prepare for this, start frying everything. Fry breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I'll never forget when my mom-in-law visited the U.S. for the first time. She's an awesome cook. But I wasn't used to eating so much fried stuff. For breakfast she'd fry eggs, tortillas, hot dogs (salchichas), and even made french fries...for breakfast. My dad used to toss some potatoes in oil with a weekend dinner or something, but she made a pile of french fries with breakfast. It blew my mind. 

13. Be prepared for quirky road rules - Not only traffic congestion is an issue in Panama, but the addition of some strange road rules can make things confusing. Most of these come into play when Panamanian traffic police are doing all they can to ease that congestion. 

For example, on certain roads, at certain times of the morning or in the evening (rush hour periods), traffic patterns change. You have to be very careful making your way around the city and its suburbs at these times of the day. A road that usually goes in both directions, might suddenly change to a one-way, two-lane road between 6am and 8am. 

Look for signs like this

I've seen people pull onto these streets expecting it to be a regular road, like it usually is, only to come to a screeching halt just before smashing head first into an oncoming car. 

So, if you want to prepare for this, start going the wrong way on a one-way street. Just go for it. Drive straight at an oncoming car, then slam on your brakes at the last second. No, seriously, don't do that. Don't listen to me at all. It's safer that way. 

14. Be ready to hear new music - I don't mean new as in salsa and merengue and tipico and reggaeton. Sure, those styles of music may be completely foreign to you, and you can easily prepare yourself by purchasing a few cds you wouldn't normally listen to.

What I'm talking about is music in English you've probably never heard in your life. I don't know any of the radio stations off the top of my head (as I've stopped listening to most of them and have gone back to my cds and mp3 mixes), but I can tell you that the few times I've tried to find English music on the radio, I was shocked by what I found. 

It seemed that the only music I could find (in English) other than the newer pop and dance stuff that's mixed in with Spanish music, was 80s music. And I don't mean, "You can dance if you wanna..." or "Walk like an Egyptian..." I'm talking the strangest, oddest tunes I've ever heard. I was alive in the 80s and I happen to like 80s music, but I'd never heard 9 out of 10 of the songs played on the radio. I kept thinking, "Where did they get this crap?" It's like the DJs flew to Borat's country and asked what American or British music they listened to in the 80s. 

Maybe something from this soundtrack

So, to prepare for this, bring lots of music you enjoy with you and be ready to listen to a lot of music online. And if you really want to prepare for that strange 80s music you'll hear, maybe find a VCR, go to all your local pawn shops and pick up any 80s movie you've never heard of, and watch them just for the music. Good luck!

15. Religion returns to schools - Yes, Panama is doing it right, in my opinion (sorry if you disagree). Religion is a part of the school system here in Panama. If you go to a public school or a private school, there's probably a 99% chance your child will be taking a religion (and ethics and values) class. And, of course, if your kids go to a Catholic school, or a Jewish school, or a Muslim school, there's 100% chance they'll be learning religion. So, if you have school-age children, be mentally prepared for this. There's no escaping it. God isn't being taken out of the national anthem here and God isn't being taken out of the schools. I hope this doesn't turn off any fans/readers. We all have the right to our opinions and I respect yours whether I agree with or not. But religion in schools is a fact here. 

16. What happened to our fortunes? - Okay, one extra, and on a much lighter note. Well, not really since I love fortune cookies. 

Seriously, do it. 

No more fortune cookies. Seriously. It's sad, I know. I guess fortune cookies are a wacky gringo thing because Panama has a lot of Chinese residents, and quite a few Chinese restaurants, but I've yet to see a freakin' fortune cookie. And I'm sorry to say there really is no way to prepare for this. You just have to accept the heartbreak as it comes.

Well, that's it for my 15 Tips to Mentally Prepare You for Life in Panama. I hope you learned a few things and had some fun in the process. If you feel that some things are missing, such as preparing for green olives being in most of your food, check out my other articles, like 10 Things You Will Hate About Panama by clicking HERE or 15 Quirky Things About Panama And Its People by clicking HERE

Don't forget to head over to to check out all the other tips and tricks I've written about living here and to see the videos, something you're completely missing out on if you're only reading The Stay at Home Gringo. 

Thanks again for reading,