If you have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am really really happy in Panama. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t hassles and problems. None of them are a big deal for me. But I know that many people read this blog because they are considering making the move, so a full and balanced picture is very helpful.
So, in the spirit of revealing the downsides, I will list as many hassles and problems as I can think of.
The people all speak Spanish. Yes, there are some who also speak English, maybe many depending on where you live. But, chances are good that you will have problems communicating somewhere. My Spanish is better now but it will never be perfect, and I will never understand everything. I still have to look up vocabulary for new situations and ask people to repeat things I don’t get.
If you like to shop on line, that may change here. Yes, you can still shop on line but now things must be shipped down here with the extra costs and time involved, and you have to go pick them up from whatever shipping business you use. There is no mail service to your house. Your water and electric bills are hand carried around the neighborhood and left in your front gate. Other things usually entail a trip to the business unless you have an automatic thing set up with your credit card. No mail is not such a bad thing unless you think you will really miss your junk mail.
Procedures for doing things are often different which can be confusing, and of course this is made worse with the language barrier. When you buy something sometimes you tell the sales person. Then you have to go to another person there to pay for it, then bring the receipt to yet another person who will find your item and inspect it for problems. Then you have to sign something and only then can you leave with your item. The process is similar to buy tires, and they will put them on the car also. But, if you want them balanced that’s separate and you have to go through another buying process in that other office over there, even though that work is done in the same place as putting on the tires. Often things need copies, which means going to a place that makes copies (hoping they aren’t closed for lunch) and then returning with your paperwork. Once you understand the procedure for something it’s a lot better but at first, it can be very confusing.
Sometimes you can’t find things. You go to the store who sold you the printer to get ink cartridges, and end up going to five more stores before you find what you need. You always buy your favorite food item, and one day it’s not there and doesn’t appear again for months, if ever. The fabric store doesn’t have thread or pins (but you find them in the supermarket). In the US, I could go out with a list of errands and get them all done in short order. Here, we do well to get one or two things done on a trip out. But, we are retired and have time, and people do their best to help us along the way.
The place is not orderly (at least by US standards). The weeds along the streets can get rather high before anyone cuts them. There are dogs running loose, and chickens, and children, and sometimes cows and horses. The dogs bark and the roosters crow, and nobody cares or keeps them quiet. Sometimes people aren’t good about throwing trash around (they are working on this but it’s going to take a while to change). There is little zoning so people can have a business in their house which may involve noise and more mess like car repair, a body shop, cutting and selling wood, making concrete sinks, or serving food, to name a few I’ve seen. I can always tell when my neighbor, the welder, has a new job because there will be lots of clanking and sawing in his carport as he makes long pieces of metal into new security doors, window coverings, and gates.
There are no street signs or addresses. I see this slowly changing in Panama City but here in David, not so much. Actual addresses read like – behind Romero’s supermarket in San Mateo (a neighborhood), next to the real estate office on the corner. Streets have names but without street signs it’s hard to figure out which one you are on. Add a language barrier while asking directions and it gets even more interesting. People will also give you directions with lots of confidence even when they don’t know and are telling you the wrong thing. Any answer is better than no answer!
The drivers are crazy, according to some expats who come here and have trouble adjusting to the driving style. Rules of the road are often only suggestions, and if there is an opportunity they are going to take it. Taxis tend to be the most aggressive. But, pretty much everyone has the same driving style so once you understand it, you know what to expect. There isn’t road rage and it is very unusual to hear a horn honked in anger. They will give you a short honk frequently though just to say “I’m here, in case you didn’t see me”, which is helpful. People are generally patient and understanding when someone needs to do some maneuver that temporarily blocks traffic.
Sometimes there is no water. This happens to everyone all over the country. Many people have water tanks to tide them over through these times. No one ever knows why there is no water. Sometimes there is a shortage so they just make the rounds turning it off in various neighborhoods for a while. Sometimes they are fixing something. Sometimes in our area the intake pipes from the river are clogged with debris after a heavy rain (we know because it comes back on muddy for a while). The country is working on this but the infrastructure is pretty funky in many areas. It’s common to see PVC pipe just lying on the ground. Thankfully in our neighborhood it has never been off for an entire 24 hour day. Other areas have not been so fortunate. For us, we keep bottles and gallons of water on hand so it’s only an inconvenience, but areas with long outages or households with kids it can find it more difficult. People grumble a bit but no one seems to get very upset, and often just go to the river if there is one nearby.
This is the tropics. It’s hot all the time. It’s hot in the rainy season (which starts in April) and hotter in the dry season (which comes in Dec.) If you want cooler weather you need to go to higher elevations, but up there you may have more wind, more rain, and lots of very moist foggy air that moves through and wets everything. It rains most of the year, sometimes dumping amazing amounts of water in a short time. But, mornings are almost always clear and the rain moves in later in the day so if you do any running around, laundry, or things that are better when it’s dry in the morning you will be fine. Humidity can be a problem. Your leather will mold, and so will your clothes if you don’t keep them aired out. You won’t need much skin cream or chapstick though. There is tropical wildlife also – bugs, birds, snakes, jungle forests, etc. If you don’t like bugs you may not like Panama. I have never seen such a large variety and abundance of bugs anywhere. Thankfully though, very few of them are a problem and I’ve been bitten or stung far less than anywhere I lived in the US. Here in David we don’t even have that many mosquitoes, which surprised me. You don’t want to be sticking your hand anywhere you can’t see though, because you never know what might be living in there.
There is armed security everywhere which isn’t a problem really, but can be disconcerting at first. There are guards in supermarket parking lots, one inside and another outside every bank or business that has money on hand. There are pairs of policemen that ride around on motorcycles, the passenger holding a large rifle and both dressed for battle. There are boats patrolling the waters full of army looking guys. I scared me when I first arrived and then I realized, pretty much nothing goes on here because there is so much security. We left our car at the supermarket for a few days when we were away, and when we returned the security guard rushed over. He had been so worried about us since the car was there so long! The motorcycle cops just patrol the city to be sure all is well, and the guys on boats are there mainly to keep drug runners from reaching our shores. The police and all the security people are usually very friendly, helpful, and nice to everyone. They really live the “protect and serve” that is printed on their vehicles. But, this doesn’t mean you will get away with anything. If you don’t have your car paperwork or license in order and they spot it, you’ll get your car towed and it will cost you.
In my little world here, these are the things that come to mind that might bother people. People in other areas having different experiences will probably have different things. I expect traffic will be very high on the list for people in Panama City, and I hear complaints about customer service. More rural areas may have expensive and unreliable internet. If any of you with experience in Panama want to add something else, please write it in the comments section.