I came to Panama a cultural greenhorn. This was my first time being abroad by myself for an extended period of time. Sure, I’ve vacationed in Mexico before, but traveling to Cabo to experience culture is like going to a strip club to experience good parenting. Because I have lived in Panama for just over 2 months, I have had the culture thrown at me whether I wanted it or not. But luckily, being a young, particularly open-minded college student yearning to learn and to observe, I was ready to take in Panama. Here are some of the cultural nuances that I have observed thus far. Some are funny, some are strange, and others are straight up annoying.
What does everyone do when they step off an international flight into a whole new world filled with exotic woman, spices and plants? They go to the nearest McDonalds to get a glimpse at the local cuisine. Fortunately, McDonalds is as prevalent here as it is back in the States. Unfortunately, the fast food here is about as fast as molasses going uphill in sub-zero weather. I figure that out the hard way. Here’s an account.
My first encounter with Mickey D’s was when I escaped to the mall for some much needed air conditioning. Initially, I had no trouble crossing the language barrier to order. All I had to do was point at the absurdly large picture of the Big Mac on the menu and the attendant got the point. She took my money, gave me a receipt and set me up to believe that I would be biting into juicy goodness within the minute. But no, I must have waited upwards of 15 minutes while the McDonalds workers openly chatted away not doing a thing and definitely not preparing my double-pattied, triple-bunned, savory-sauced masterpiece. By the time the food arrived as was very nearly biting into my arm for some sustenance. Slight exaggeration? Maybe. Slight exaggeration on the time? Definitely not. The fast food here is a misnomer. It’s about as fast as a normal restaurant back in the US.
But what Panamanian fast food lacks in expedience it makes up for in convenience. Who said food delivery was only for pizza and Chinese restaurants? Not Panama. I usually like to justify eating fast food by at least walking to the establishment or at the very least walking to my car to drive to the establishment. Here in Panama though, the most work you have to do to get KFC or McDonalds at your door is a little finger walking on the ole telephone. That’s right! Both KFC and McDonalds deliver. It must be quite popular service too. I see numerous KFC and McDonalds motorcycles each time I go out. BLAH
Continuing with the topic of food, I am curious to what the Panamanians eat before the invention of the fryer. I came into this summer with the romantic vision of eating freshly caught fish tacos from a street vendor just seconds away from our apartment. What I got was fried…everything. Be it chicken or fish, with a side of either fried plantains or fried potatoes, everything here is fried.
Traditional Panamanian food, in my opinion, is rather bland. Mostly everything is seasoned with the same set of spices and then thrown into the fryer. I am unimpressed. For fairness, there have been a few times where the fried chicken has been exceptional. But that’s to be expected, right? If you fry everything, sooner or later you are bound to get good at it. Maybe that’s harsh BLAH
With all the fried food and fast food on the menu, Panamanians have to burn it off some how. Well a large number of them do each night at a spectacle named La Cinta. At La Cinta you’ll find a combination of all the bad fitness crazes of the 90’s with more acceptable workout forms like jogging. Every night around 8 o’clock, it is packed with rollerskating housewives, schoolboy soccer players and juiced-up muscle men. You will see the latest Lulu Lemon outfit on a lady who’s running more up and down than forwards or young kids using the workout equipment like a jungle gym. You will also see sports being played ranging from soccer to ping-pong.
Quite obviously, soccer is a steadfast but, more shockingly; basketball has a huge fan base here aswell. The most surprising fact, I think, is that Basketball is more popular among the indigenous people of Panama, who also happen to be the shortest people in Panama. The native Kuna people are fiends for basketball. All of them, most flirting with five feet in height, scramble up and down the court in a very distinct style differing from the States. There is a court right outside our apartment, which serves as quite a hotspot for this particular style. There or no dunks, there are hardly lay ups, I would say the most common shot is a floating rainbow like shot that is hardly effective. It seems to work for them but it is still unlike anything I have seen before.
It is worth noting that when we went to the San Blas islands, a reservation for the indigenous Kuna people, they were having a island basketball tournament. So here we were in a completely isolated chain of islands populated only by short, indigenous people and their biggest form of activity is a basketball court. I just find it funny that the shortest people in Panama have the greatest affinity for a sport that usually requires height to be proficient at.
There are some cultural differences that I don’t find entertaining at all and that is the taxis and specifically their over usage of their horn. In America, I’ll go for most of my drives and never hear a horn the entire way. This couldn’t be farther from the case here in Panama. On a 2 minute ride to Casco, our driver will honk upwards of 10 times and that’s not counting the honks of the other cars around us. Or just walking near the street, nearly every other car will give us a honk. Maybe it’s because we are gringos and they like to give us a hard time but I think it is darn right excessive.
I expressed my dislike for the horn to a taxi driver we had in Boquete. He replied back in Spanish so I am not exactly sure what he said, but I did pick up the general gist and the word “estúpido.” Using my poor translation skills, I think he remarked that there are a lot of oblivious drivers and pedestrians out there so it is the other drivers duty to make sure they don’t swerve over and cause a collision. I don’t think this explanation does justice to the sheer amount of horns that are used though. Sure they might use it as warnings but they don’t need to warn drivers every two seconds. I think they have a hidden urge to be heard and the horn is their way of being king of the road. I will not be missing this when I head back.
Some other nuances include the lack of lawnmower usage here in Panama. Instead they seem to prefer weed-wacking entire fields in what look like post-apocalyptic suits of armor. Or the commonness of butt implants that often make the women look like oompa loompas. Another small observation is that they don’t say “de nada.” Instead they just say “ok.” At first I thought this was a little rude, but after several times I realized it’s just how they do things around here.
There are plenty more cultural aspects that I have not included but, in all, Panama has given me more new experiences than I could ask for. This place is rich with cultural diversity, rich heritage and fun-loving citizens. From their cuisine to their honking to their weird take on fitness, Panama has been a blast. It has only but sparked my thirst for travel and urge to rid myself of the “American ignorance” surrounding knowledge of other cultures. To the rest of the world, we have the image that we enclose ourselves in a small jar surrounded only by our pseudo-culture and egocentric oversights. I mean, National Geographic reported that 85% of young Americans don’t even know where Iraq is on a map. This is the sad truth, but I believe there is no better way to bring down this image than to immerse yourself in as many cultures as possible. To be observant; to be open-minded; to be a world citizen. I started with Panama and I can guarantee I won’t be stopping anytime soon.