Friday, January 2, 2015

Top 17 Things I Didn't Like About Panama

Moving to Panama was my husband's idea, not mine. I was extremely anxious and worried about moving to a foreign country where we didn't know the language and didn't know anyone. Adventures like this are for adventurous people -- not people like me riddled with anxiety attacks and are homebodies. So please take this post as nothing negative about the country itself, it is only my response to an uncomfortable situation where I was out of my element. Like many people say, living abroad is not for everyone. I came here with my own biases and prejudices and did the best I could with them. It was my husband's dream to try something like this out, and I was nervous about it the whole time. But I wanted to help him accomplish his dream. So these are MY issues.

I am the one who gets anxiety attacks when thinking about picking up and moving, and unless we have every step of the way planned out, I freak out. I have COMT/MAO homozygous genetic mutations which are the reason for my anxiety. I am aware of that and addressing the issue, and considering it all, I think I did fairly well. (Here is a good article explaining about these genetics).

Now that we are going to be moving back to the United States (for a myriad of reasons including health, family and work), I can honestly say that I am ecstatic. My husband, not so much. We spent the first 10 months at the beach, and the last 8 months in the mountains. The beach was too hot, too muggy, too many bugs and too many power outages (which meant no water as we were on a well). The mountains were beautiful but not a lot of options for basic shopping, and we had to go all the way down to the beaches to get many items we needed. The drive up and down the mountain gets old fairly fast.

(PLEASE NOTE: If we had lived in the city -- which we didn't want to do -- then our experience probably wouldn't have been the same. There are a lot of positives to living in the city, mainly access to everything, but we are not city folk and were not interested at all in living there. We rented a house in both the beach and the mountains.. had we rented a condo we may not have had all these issues, and we are aware of that. We could probably have even had a dishwasher, clothes dryer and hot water in our kitchen if we rented a condo or a more upscale beach house. Maybe even a bathtub! We have a large dog and a cat and felt most comfortable in a house with a yard instead of a condo where we'd have to "hide" our pets).

Nonetheless, the country is beautiful - maybe one of the most beautiful places in the world, and most of its people are wonderful. And things are still inexpensive here, rentals are affordable, property is affordable, and you can live on a tight budget if you need to.

It was great being able to claim the foreign earned income tax credit, and as a result, we were able to save more than we spent.

And, Panama is a fairly safe place. The violent crime is almost non-existent, and while petty crime is rampant, they don't want to hurt you, only take your wallet or money. (So just give them what money you have on you, and then they will go away).

But... all that being said, there are some things that I didn't like, or really missed since I have lived here.

1. NO BATHTUBS. There are not many bathtubs here in Panama. I REALLY miss taking bubble baths with epsom salts and essential oils. Especially with my chronic pain! The few times I have flown back to the states on business I soaked in the tiny hotel tubs. Yes, so embarrassing!

2. HUMIDITY. This is a killer for more than just that it feels so oppressive you can barely breathe....
    a. mold - everywhere. Your clothes, shoes, towels, purses, luggage. Everything smells musty. You will have mold on your clothes. Trust me. Or you can choose to use your AC every day and pay huge electricity bills.
    b. elastic - forget elastic bands on your clothing. After a few months it completely stretches out and loses all its elasticity. I have bought my husband packs and packs of brand new underwear each time I go back to the states.Many of my blouses have been ruined, too.
    c. electronics - humidity and electronics don't go well together. The shelf life of electronics is extremely short lived. Consider something that should have a life of 3 years and give it 18 months before it stops working.
    d. hanging clothes to dry. Good luck on this one. We have had clothes still damp 4 days after washing them. Towels smell musty, clothing smells musty, nothing ever feels dry. The key is to find a place with a dryer! And go for thin towels. Fluffy towels are a thing of the past as they don't ever seem to fully dry before they get musty.

3. PESTICIDES. They LOVE chemicals here. Bugs? Let's spray the whole neighborhood. Termites? Let's spray ALL your house - even the areas that don't have termites. And gardens? Sure, let's kill those bugs with this pesticide. I don't have to measure it, I will just spray and spray and spray until they are dead!

4. POOR INTERNET.  Out of all the "Developing Countries" that we have visited, Panama has the most reliable internet, which is why we decided to move here. However, where we live we cannot get upload speeds higher than 1 mbps and that really affects our work and all the VoIP calls and video calls we make with colleagues, our bosses, or clients. And, our internet seems to blip about every 10 minutes... just randomly drops and then comes right back. But when you are on a call that makes it hard, as you get dropped all the time.

And, when we complain about the service dropping all the time, they do absolutely nothing. They don't switch out our modem, or look at past history or anything. Comcast may get a lot of customer complaints about them, but they are looking pretty good right now!! We never had to worry about calls dropping with them.

5. NO SIDEWALKS. Ok, so maybe there are a few places with sidewalks. BUT NO ONE USES THEM. They still choose to walk in the middle of the road, even when 10 feet away there is a brand new sidewalk that was just put in. This gives me flashbacks of Grand Theft Auto when you get extra points for running down a pedestrian (JUST KIDDING). We don't run people over here in Panama, in fact it is probably safer to walk in the street here than it is walking on a sidewalk in the US (again, I am just joking, but only mildly).

6. NO CONSISTENCY. Stores close at random times without warning. 2pm on a Tuesday. 4:30pm on a Thursday. Sometimes they are open on Saturdays, other times they aren't. Even when stores DO post their hours they don't follow them.

And, if you arrive 5 minutes before "closing" they will have already pulled down their barred door in front of the store, and won't even let you in to buy a quick item.

Another thing that falls into this category is sometimes people show up when they say they will, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they will show up a day later or 3 hours later, or just not show up at all. If you make an appointment (with a vet, a doctor, or whomever) you have a 50/50 chance of that appointment actually existing. And if it does, you have another 50/50 chance that it will be within 30 minutes of the appointed time.

This is a huge issue for those who don't have vehicles, and have to count on rides or taxis, or the bus system.

7. SPECIALTY FOODS. It is extremely hard to eat specific diets - like gluten free or processed food-free. "Heath food" is SO expensive. I am talking about $7.99 for a lb of gluten free pasta or a single loaf of Ezekiel bread. And with all the coconut trees around us you would think you could find coconut oil here in Panama. But no! It is rarely found, and when you do find it, it is $20 for a 12-oz jar imported from the states.

And cheese. I can get a 32-oz package of shredded cheese back in the states for $8.99 not on sale, and an 8-oz package here in Panama is about $5.00. And they have two varieties only.

only 4 oz of Salami for almost $6.00!
 You can buy seasonings here, but most of them have MSG in it. I know, I am complaining about my specialty dietary needs. I am sensitive to glutamates, and have celiac's so I have to read labels and watch what I eat. Panama is a horrible place to be when you have special dietary requirements. It is a great place if you like bread and processed foods. (The fresh veggies and fruits are good but you can not tell how much they have been sprayed as they don't have an organic designation on them and most people love to spray).

And the beef here? Don't bother with it. It is tough. And no one knows how to cook it so that it at least has a chance of being tender. The chicken is pretty good, but many times is served with bones. And even feathers sometimes. 

8. POOR CUSTOMER SERVICE.  Oh my goodness. This one irks me so badly. Let's say there are three checkouts open and one line. Two of the checkout clerks will be chatting with each other, showing pictures and texts from their phone and giggling, ignoring the long line building. They won't even make eye contact with those in line, waiting. It is the worst for me, first of all because I cannot stand very long without being in so much pain because of my hips. Second of all, I usually run my errands during my lunch break because I have to get back to work and I don't have all the time in the world like these people seem to!

9. LOCALS LOVE TO CUT IN LINE. Definitely watch out for this one. If you are at the grocery store and standing in line casually, they will have no problems pushing their cart in front of yours and won't even look up at you. They are very good at avoiding eye contact. Sometimes you have to tap them on the shoulder and say "excuse me" and cut back in front of them. Just plain rude. They don't do it to just the expats -- they do it to anyone they feel like.

And this applies to driving in the city, too. They will cut in front of you, come out of nowhere and next thing you know, the 2 feet of space you had between you and the car in front of you has now been taken up by a local mad driver.

10. LONG LINES. On par with them loving to cut in line, the locals LOVE to stand in line. There are lines for everything. There are lines to stand in just so you can find out what line you are supposed to be in. We have found it easier to just pay someone to stand in lines for us. (seriously!) You can waste an entire day just finding out you don't have the required paperwork to register your vehicle, so you have to go again the next day, and stand in line yet again. Oh, by the way, they LOVE paperwork here. For EVERYTHING.

When I was visiting my family in the US, a college aged Panamanian who I met through church out here in Panama, had come to a college near my family in the US, for school. I took him to look and buy a car, and to get it registered. Within 45 minutes we got his car registered and got insurance on it, without an appointment and only with 2 pieces of paperwork! He was shocked at how easy it was to do.

Some people back in the US may complain about how it took them 4 hours to renew their drivers license, or whatever it may be, but honestly it is SO easy compared to doing things here in Panama.

11. CHEAP ELECTRONICS. And I don't mean inexpensive, as it isn't any cheaper than the states, and many things are more expensive (like that "cheap" set of speakers that you can get at WalMart for $5 - they cost $20 here).

The HP printer that I got -- everything works except the touch screen display.That stopped working about a month after we got it. Since I don't speak the language and I don't want to drive 45 miles to go back to the mall where I bought it, we are stuck.

And we purchased a total of 5 fans over a period of 3 months: 2 box fans, 2 standing fans, and one table top fan. The only one still working is the table top fan.The standing fans lasted at least 6 months, but the box fans lasted less than 2 months.

The alarm clock we bought stopped working after one week.

We think that anything that doesn't pass quality control to go to the U.S. gets shipped here to be sold.

12. EVERYTHING IS SCENTED. Even the toilet paper. Which is already bleached with chemicals to make it white. Now they have fake fragrance in it as well. And it isn't labeled as "scented" as it is the default here. You have to be observant and actually look for the "unscented" variety.

I finally found some unscented toilet paper!

You get into a taxi cab and you will see 12 or more air fresheners hanging on everything. And the taxi driver has doused himself with half a bottle of cologne. Sometimes I think the alternative (smelling sweat) would be better. Especially for someone that has multiple chemical sensitivities.

13. POOR QUALITY ROADS. Think dirt road plus rainy season. Yep. If you are lucky and you actually live on a paved road, you are going to most likely have huge potholes!  So if you were thinking of rollerblading anywhere, then you will have to re-think that game plan.

The first place we lived here was about 1/2 km on a dirt road which was bad enough to drive in the dry season, but in the wet season it was so horrid.

The Pan American highway is pretty decent, though. The road is kept in pretty good condition. But that is one of the only ones that is decent.Going anywhere outside of Panama City on a side road you may need 4WD and a lot of patience. And you may need new shocks or struts on your car after your trip.

14. GARBAGE EVERYWHERE. Not only do the locals just throw their trash out the window or on the street, the garbage contractors don't come very often to pick up your trash from the hopper. The hopper is a metal cage usually somewhat elevated (to keep the stray dogs out) that you put your trash bags in.

Even if you pay for weekly service, they may come only once a month, or even less. It is extremely frustrating, because on one hand you want to set a good example and teach the locals to not litter, and to take pride in their beautiful country, but on the other hand, you get frustrated because it will take a few generations to actually make this habit stick, and you need the local governments to participate too.

I don't see that happening here anytime soon.

And, they burn their trash a lot. Many locals choose to not pay for a service that never comes, so they just burn their garbage -- plastic and all. It is very toxic!

15. PRICE GOUGING. Let's say you go to a store and buy a product. Since they didn't have prices on it, they ring you up at the cashier and give you a price at that time. Then, the next week you buy the same product and expect it to the the same price, but it is 3x as expensive. Again, if we spoke the language well enough to ask them about it, then it probably wouldn't be so bad. But as we are learning the language, we don't understand it enough to have a conversation about wood planks in a hardware store. 

16. EXPIRATION DATES. Caveat Emptor, I know. We are all supposed to look at expiration dates before we purchase a product. But do people really do this? I look at expiration dates on milk but that is about it. Here in Panama they don't believe in buying anything to last more than a few days... probably because the power will go out and your refrigerator won't work (if you have one) and it will spoil anyway. So no need to have sour cream have at least 6 weeks until expiration like in the states. No need to have cereal products (yes, processed, box cereal) that will last until next year. Eat it TODAY or it will be stale TOMORROW. Yes, that is what it boils down to.

Stale is better than moldy. I have bought cheese (within the expiration date) and brought it home, opened it up and found it already moldy. Now, I know that cheese is made from mold, right? But that doesn't mean I want blackish mold growing on it when I want to eat it! And, soggy, too. Shredded cheese that is clumped together and soggy. In a SEALED package.

And one last thing I want to mention. The caps for the milk jugs are extremely hard to get open. It isn't just me being a goof, but everyone I talk to has the same problem.

17. LOUD MUSIC AND PARTIES. Yes, the Panamanians LOVE to play loud blasting music without any consideration of others. And they do this all night long. Finally around 6am it usually lets up. They also love to shoot off fireworks. Considering you can get enough fireworks to blow up a small country for less than $50, you can imagine how big these firework shows are. If you live in a high rise condo overlooking the ocean, you will be able to see many firework shows almost every weekend and definitely for every holiday.

But, for someone with a sleeping disorder, this is not the best place to be. Since I work at 7:30 in the morning M-F, and go to church early on Sunday, it is imperative that I TRY to get decent sleep. And so that means trying to block out the annoying beat of the music that sounds like it is outside my bedroom window. Yes, impossible. This is one of the most annoying things about my experience here. And while I hate over regulation of laws back in the states, there are some things I do appreciate, and one of those are the noise ordinances.

Although it would just be nice to not have to have laws, but have neighbors who respected each other. 

So...these were the realities of my life here in Panama for the past 18 months. I didn't even mention the bugs, or the gigantic spiders. I walked through the web of an orb spider on accident and about had a heart attack. Orb spiders are HUGE and make elaborate webs. They are very non-aggressive and non-poisonous and won't harm you. But just looking at one gives me the heebie jeebies.

Here is the spider whose web I walked into accidentally.

And getting attacked by bullet ants when I try to hang my clothes up outside in the sunshine (the 15 minutes a day when the sun is shining here in the rain forest). Apparently I have some type of histamine reaction to the bullet ants that take weeks to recover from. It is miserable! (read about them here).

And in public restrooms they ask you not to dispose of the toilet paper in the toilet. They want you to dispose of it in the trash can. That is, if they have toilet paper in their restrooms at all!

"Put toilet paper in the basket"

All in all, it was an adventure, for sure. But not one I want to experience again. I am looking forward to moving back to the states in 3 days. But I will miss the beautiful friends that I have made here. They sure do have some amazing expats in this country, from all walks of life!


  1. Replies
    1. Maybe about 5" across at the biggest. This wasn't the largest one here.... but it was still about 5" too big for me!