One last trip to the big city to return our rental car, check out with immigration and bus back to the marina in San Carlos. Bye-bye Panama!
As you read this, Cindy and I are sailing approximately 1,000 miles or 7 days to Galapagos. We have finally left Panama after a very long enjoyable stay here. There are a few things the Panamanians have taught us I wish the rest of the world would embrace.
When entering a building such as a doctor’s office, small store or getting on a bus, the person entering says, “Buenos”. This is short for good day. Everyone will respond with Buenos. I love this. This is not the first time we have run into this. Colombia, the ABCs, and Grenada all had a way of greeting strangers. However, Panama seems to have it perfected. It is actually considered rude not to do this.
I remember once getting on a bus in Aruba after returning a rental car at the airport as I was heading back to the marina. Catching the bus at the airport and needing to go to downtown Oranjestad, I was a little worried about getting on the correct bus complicated by the fact I neither speak Dutch or Papiamento. I forgot to say “Bon dia” when getting on the bus. I took a seat toward the back. At the next bus stop, a lady got on and greeted everyone. Everyone responded. And, every bus stop after when someone got on they did the same. I felt like a real heel with tourist stamped on my head for forgetting.
In the USA, people prefer not to say hello to strangers. I find this very sad. Getting on elevators I often blurted out a happy “good morning”. Perhaps one or two people might begrudgingly respond. The rest looked at me with a “stay away from the crazy man” glare. If I was feeling particularly spunky, I might ride the elevator with my back to the doors staring at the people refusing to give a polite response to my greeting. It’s actually pretty fascinating seeing how uncomfortable people get when you are polite and look at them. Try it some time. Panamanians don’t have to worry about me doing this, they will always say hello.
Another thing I have come to like about Panamanians is the soft handshake. This took some getting used to and often times I forget. Panamanians are really polite and won’t say anything if you squeeze their hand too tightly but it is considered a little rude. In my career, people have shaken my hand so firmly they’ve hurt me. I found this especially true when interviewing people for a job. What is the point of this? Who on earth told people a good way to get a job is to squeeze the hand of their potential boss so hard that it hurts and don’t let go?
When chatting with people, it is considered polite in Panama to end with a handshake. This is true even in places like a supermarket if you strike up a conversation with the cashier. We have had bag-boys carry our groceries out, practice their English with us during the walk to the car, and shake hands after we tipped them. If you are a germophobe, stay away from Panama. We recently checked into a Marriott in downtown and the front desk agent welcomed us with a handshake. Luckily fist-bumping has yet to catch on here.
There is no such thing in Panama as getting straight down to business. I don’t consider myself the politest person in the world but I do try to use “please” and “thank you” whenever I can. I used to be appalled by some of the rudeness in the USA. No, not everyone is rude. I didn’t say that. Let me give you and example of what I mean. Listen to people ordering food at a drive-through window. You will hear “Gimme a burger” or “Gimme a soda”. No may I haves or pleases and thank yous. This is not the case in Panama.
Just about every business transaction starts with “how are you doing today”. There is always small-talk before placing an order. Yes, I know some people might look at this as incredibly inefficient as it makes the line move a tad slower. We have both learned how importing it is here to start a polite conversation with our very poor Spanish (Cindy’s is much better than mine). Trying in Spanish first generates much better results than immediately asking if they speak English and telling them what it is you want.
Recently at a pharmacy, I watched a person get frustrated. He approached the pharmacist and asked if she spoke English. She did not. He tried to tell her what he wanted. She shrugged a few times. So, he talked louder, as if this makes a difference. Perhaps I missed the chapter in the travel book where it says, when people don’t understand your language just talked louder and then they’re bound to comprehend it when you scream. He left without buying anything. When it was my turn, I went through the Panamanian greeting procedures. I tried to ask in Spanish but she didn’t understand me. The pharmacist pulls out her smartphone and we converse using Google Translate. I got everything I needed including a smile and we parted with a soft handshake.
Eye contact is important in Panama. For some tourists not used to this, they get a little bit uncomfortable when people stare at them when speaking. I sort of like it. It helps me know I have the person’s attention and they care about the conversation. Panamanians are not close talkers. They are not loud people. They look a person in the eye and speak at a volume that requires you to pay attention. It’s a little hard to explain but, I feel like Panamanians are speaking to me and not at me.
This next part will crack you up. We noticed this when first eating in a Burger King. Yes, once and a while we stray from the incredibly fresh pineapples, locally grown vegetables, and fresh fish. We periodically need a fast food fix. Cindy noticed people handing unused ketchup packets back to the cashier before departing the restaurant. At first, she thought it was a fluke. Then at McDonald’s, yes we eat at all fine eateries in Panama, we saw it again. So, we tried doing it. And sure enough, when we hand in the unused condiments, the person said thank you and tossed them back in the box for another customer.
To add to this, Panamanians will hand back the unused ketchup but they do not clean their table or put the food packaging in the trash. They leave it on the table. Believe it or not, this works better than customers cleaning up after themselves. Why? Because this requires the fast-food establishment to have a person clearing the tables full-time. Meaning, they also wipe down the tables and really clean them. It is very rare to walk into a fast-food restaurant and see dirty or sticky tables in Panama. Also, it gives someone a job. We often hear Panamanians say how important it is to provide jobs for the people of Panama.
Family over money is a way of life here. Panamanians think nothing of a business being closed. One of our favorite local restaurants is a Mexican food place that is only open Wednesday through Sunday. We spoke to the owner, her English is excellent. She said they once opened a second location but decided it was too much work. She told us this when we ran into her in PriceSmart (just like Costco) and made a point of chatting with us for a few minutes. Personally, I was amazed she recognized us. But, she is Panamanian and that’s what Panamanian people do.
At our local supermarket, prior to Christmas, the bakery had a big sign up. Cindy translated it to mean they would not have fresh-baked bread for at least five days after Christmas. Sure enough, we happened to go into the store for milk just after the holiday and the bakery was dark. Christmas is a time of year when people should be with their families. If it means closing a part of the store, then that is no problem.
We are going to miss the people of Panama. For us, being here for almost 9 months has been a joy. Besides the awesomeness of the scenery and the little canal gig they have going, it is the people who make this country great. We became entrenched on the metropolitan side and have loved it.
Now that we are leaving the Americas, there is one last thing I’m going to miss. As a matter of fact, I’ll bet you a dollar that while you are reading this I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean somewhere having a craving. I’ll bet you that right now, this very second, I am craving for a McDonald’s ice cream cone. Since Aruba, then in Colombia, and now in Panama, we have regularly hit the little McDonald’s walk-up kiosks for ice-cream cones. In Colombia, oftentimes we found a McDonald’s ice cream in the oddest places like inside the grocery store. There is almost always a small line at these places. They sell a lot of ice cream. The kiosks are all over this country. The Panamanians love their ice cream. The cones are 99¢. But most days, there is some sort of special going on. In Panama, we rarely paid more than 75¢ for a cone. Sometimes as little as 50¢. It’s darn hot here and nothing is better than taking a few minutes in a shady spot with a soft-serve ice cream. It’s the Central American thing to do. Yep. I don’t think we’ll be seeing this while in Galapagos. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.