WE DON'T know about you, dear reader, but we are so fed up with expats who tell each other on expats blogs and forums and advertising rags constantly how great ("awesome!") Panama is. It is as if they don't really believe it, and they have to reaffirm their choice for their new homeland by incessantly babbling at each other about paradise, crystal clear water, lush vegetation and rolling hills, the cosmopolitan capital and how English is widely spoken and oh, those great real estate deals! And then they go on about how Panama City is just like Dubai, and the Azuero is just like Tuscany, and the Caribbean coast is just like the Caribbean and Bocas is just like Key West while Casco Viejo is really just like old Havana - it all has to be just like something else. It can't stand on its own.
Of course there is nothing wrong with liking Panama, but these expats and the expat promoters like it for made-up reasons, turn it into a fantasy land, a place that doesn't exist other than in their tortured minds and in the endless brochures and websites that all copy each other.
So, let's burst that stupid bubble and offer you some real things we like about Panama:
- Calidonia and Santa Ana. Forget Casco Viejo. It's overrun by yuppies, snobs, yeye types, real estate hustlers and tourists. It's full of fake classy restaurants, bars and clubs that charge too much. Instead, we like the Avenida Central, the pedestrian area. Here you meet normal people, mostly Panamanians, some of the buildings are really cool in terms of architecture and the Plaza de los Aburridos is a diamond in the rough. The side streets when you walk towards 5 de Mayo are full of obscure bars. Once at 5 de Mayo, with a bit of luck you run into one or the other demonstration in front of the National Assembly so you can get an idea of what really bothers Panamanians - or they will happily explain it to you. When you continue into Calidonia, there is a street market where they sell everything from fruits and vegetables to fake designer sunglasses and contraband cigarettes. Pirate taxis and minivans compete for passengers to be brought to Arraijan and La Chorrera. It's one of the few areas in Panama City where real life goes on instead of a tourist brochure or gentrified version of it, and where the city doesn't try to be "cosmopolitan" or anything else it isn't.
- Panamanians are anarchists. Yes, the culture is one of complacency with whatever abuse those in power dictate, but a lot of that is just appearance. They will do their own thing anyway. Whenever some new law is implemented, foreigners will worry about the implications; Panamanians will be busy finding a way to ignore or sabotage it long enough for it to be forgotten about. Then they'll make up their own rules. For example, they sign a trade deal with the gringos which includes excessive protection of copyrights, yet pirate movies are sold everywhere and you can freely go to any torrent site you like to download music, software etc. Try that in the "developed world". Similarly, if the authorities forget to build a road or a highway exit in a place where Panamanians believe they need one, they will simply make it themselves. Last but not least, another example comes from the island where your reporter lives. When the mayor issued new rules about dogs having to be on their leashes all the time and owners having to collect dog shit or face hefty fines, the only thing that has really been respected about those rules were the signs that were put up. Other than that nobody cares. New rules about garbage collection caused panic among expats, but the locals didn't raise an eyebrow, knowing that everything would be back to normal in a matter of just weeks if they just ignored it. Which indeed it did.
- Driving is fun and efficiently self-organized. You can legally decorate your car with as much neon and flashing lights and other automotive bling-bling as you like, and many Panamanians prefer this over spending money on boring things like maintenance. This is possible because in Panama there are no rules for emissions for cars, and in fact as long as it runs and lights and brakes a sort of work you're considered perfectly roadworthy. Maximum speeds are only rarely enforced by the police, because leaving the roads in a state of disrepair is a much more effective deterrent for excessive speeding. Speed cameras and other such evils from the developed world don't make much sense in Panama because the registration system is a mess and cars often have no license plate at all. The result is freedom. Especially in the cities it's a constant game of chicken between drivers; who gets to put his car in front at traffic lights or cross intersections first. A constant real life video game.
- La burla. The Spanish burlarse means "making fun of", and Panamanians are champions at that. Every politician has an often less-than-flattering nickname, and Panamanians will mercilessly mock those who screw up in public life or the media. The gossip columns - daily exercises in sarcasm - in the papers are invariably what people read most, and they are not about celebrities and their love troubles but usually about the capers of our political class and its rabiblanco supporters.
- Poor but happy. Panamanians, as in most Latin cultures, have an unsurpassed ability to be happy or party without having money, plans for the future or job security. Expats, notably gringos who are after all from a culture that encourages hard work and competition, often see that as a handicap instead of an asset. They think that progress means that Panama follows the same path as they have, and they should stop being so lazy and work and compete and start businesses and do stuff all the time. Panamanians don't see it like that at all. They live in the here and now and tomorrow is another day. This has made them, much to the surprise or even dismay of expat gringos, the happiest bunch in the world.
- Outside the capital, people are really friendly. Panama City is mostly a town for hustlers where juega vivo reigns. Go to the interior and things calm down and become friendly. People invite you into their homes. They're happy to show you around. Your reporter has traveled all over the country, from the Darién to Bocas del Toro, and been offered places to sleep, meals, a beer and even a horse to use for transportation by people who wanted nothing more than to share and be helpful.
- Ethnic diversity. No other country in the region has so many prominent different ethnic groups, cultures and languages in such a small area. There is no such thing as one unified Panamanian culture, and we think that is great. This diversity may also be the reason that Panamanian Spanish is really something else, with lots of invented words or Panamized foreign terms.
- Beautiful countryside. Forget all the bull about "rolling hills" and "crystal waters" and how it is just like Tuscany or Key West. Panama is just Panama and it is a beautiful country. The towns are not. Forget about picturesque colonial villages and small towns in the interior like you have in Colombia - most Panamanian towns are ugly collections of strip malls and prison-like residential developments. But once you get away from that - and most of the tourist areas - there is a lot of beautiful places to enjoy.
- Things happen here that you can't explain back home. Sometimes Panama seems a weird experiment in absurdist theater. Like just this week, when we saw an accused terrorist act as prosecutor of a disgraced corrupt Supreme Court judge who had been on the run for a couple of days. Former presidents who survive murder attempts. The whole country up in arms about sex education in public schools. Naked carnival dance girls cause national scandal. You know, the stories that when you tell them anywhere else will be met with disbelief. It can't be true, people think. But in Panama, it is.
So there. Have anything to add to this list? Leave it in the comments!