I like Panama. I really do. Although I might not be willing to suffer Miami International Airport to get there again, I’m glad I went this one time. As you may know, this was one of our “Twelve Year Old Trips”. No, it’s not a trip we take every twelve years. It’s a trip we take when each of our grandchildren reach the age of twelve. It’s lost in history who came up with this idea, but it has been a really, really great one. Panama, at first glance, was not an ideal choice for such a trip, as it had little of the sizzle as some of it’s predecessor trips (Galapagos Islands, Paris, London). About all it had going for it was the Canal, one of Central America’s longest zip lines, and lots of birds. And the fact that I’d never been there.
Panama has a population of about 3.6 million about half of which live along the Canal corridor from Panama City to Colon, the first and second largest cities. The GDP of Panama is almost sixty billion dollars and in 2012 grew at a pretty amazing 10.6%. We were told that unemployment is effectively zero. That is, everyone who wants a job can get a job. Just looking around though, there seemed to be a fairly large number who either had a lot of days off or who didn’t want a job. The services part of the economy is the largest and most highly developed comprising almost 80% of the total. Banking is the largest segment of the services part of the economy, and there are literally, banks on every corner as well as financial institutions of all stripes populating many of the skyscrapers that have been built in the last ten years. I saw reports referring to Panama as a “tax haven”, but these same reports left the definition to one’s imagination. The high GDP growth rates of the last several years and the proliferation of services business have not led to equality in economic well being for its citizens. Indeed, the UN reports that Panama has the second most unequal income distribution in Latin America. As you might imagine, that is not a particularly good, sustainable model.
Panama is divided not only by the Canal, but by a ridge of mountains which makes up its own continental divide and stretches from the eastern border adjacent to Columbia to the western most border with Costa Rica. Yes, Panama runs east and west, and the Pacific ocean is to their south. It confused me too. One other divide is important, and that is the divide between the highlands and, well, I guess you would call it, the lowlands. Even thought Panama is about six hundred miles from the equator, it is climatologically, an equatorial country. That is to say that the temperatures in any one region are relatively constant throughout the year, and the highs and the lows do not have a very large spread. What this means to you and I is that Panama City is pretty much always hot and humid as are all the rest of the coastal and low lying areas of the country. The highlands, on the other hand are pretty much always more moderate with humidity and temperature about fifteen degrees lower. It rains a lot everywhere.
Seven days isn’t long enough to develop a very credible sense of a country and its people, but that won’t stop me from telling you what I think. We divided our time fairly equally between Panama City (including the Canal) and Boquete which is in the Chiriquiri highlands near the border to Costa Rica. There were the sharp differences one would expect between urban and rural, highland/lowland (sea level vs. 1500 meters), and big business vs. tourism/agriculture. I won’t dwell on the differences, but I would like to generalize about the similarities, both good and bad.
1. Basura. Trash. Garbage. Litter. What ever you want to call it. It was the first thing I noticed. It was every where. In the streets, in vacant lots, and even in the country side. It wasn’t as bad a India, but it pretty much disfigured what was otherwise a very pretty place. I can’t figure it out. I asked Ivan (our guide and tutor in all things Panamanian). He said that it was indicative of a far deeper problem. That got my interest. He said that Panamanians, in general, do not have a respect for those behaviors that are for the good of the community or society as a whole. They tend to separate those behaviors that are in their own personal interest and those that they judge to be good for others. To wit: they take care of their own space, but care little for public space or the space of others. Hmmm. The fellow traveler of indiscriminate littering, is graffiti. It’s every where. On old buildings, new buildings, bridges, fences, etc. I’m sure there must be some deep sociological scar tissue somewhere in their society, but I hope they get over it. They will never realize their potential until they do. Even the Chinese have figured this out.
2. No one is in a hurry. I suspect this is both a good and a bad thing. If you’re trying to have lunch in less than an hour and a half, it’s a bad thing. If you want to smell the roses, so to speak, it’s good. We had lunch at a charming small restaurant at Finca Lerida coffee plantation. Their were five of us and only one other table was occupied. We ordered the standard stuff, nothing fancy and forty-five minutes later, after I had gone back to the kitchen twice, our food started to dribble out…one dish at a time. This scenario repeated itself, more or less, every place we ate. Our trips to Mexico have acquainted us with the mañana houses. You know, the houses that they start to build but never finish. When asked when it will be done, it’s always, “mañana”. In Panama they have mañana meals.
3. Everything costs less. Houses, food, hotel rooms, clothing, taxes, and most importantly, beverages. By beverages, you surely know by now of my Gin and Tonic Index. I have measured virtually every country in the civilized world, and some not so civilized, on this index and found that the higher the price for a standard G & T the less I like a given place. For example: S. and I were whiling away an afternoon on the terrace of a lovely spot in Venice, and I thought to indulge in a cool beverage while watching the gondolas float by. I placed my order, and after in inordinate wait, was presented with a glass with two small ice cubes, a tiny tankard of gin (of unknown origin) and a miniature bottle of Schweppes finest tonic water. The tab (converted to American dollars) came to roughly $32.00. Twenty buck for the gin, ten for the tonic, and I dunno, maybe the other two bucks was for the ice. I swore at that moment, that Venice would never have the pleasure of my company again. So you see how the index works. For reasons that will become apparent, Panama now ranks number one on my list of top, low cost gin and tonic places. Up in the highlands, in a very charming bar at the best hotel in a small village, my libation of choice set me back only $4.34. Don’t ask me about the $.34. At the best hotel bar in the best hotel in Panama City it was $5.49. And this for a man sized pour.
4. The people are really nice to Americans. Maybe because they had to fiddle so long with Americans related to the Canal, they are more tolerant of our idiosyncrasies. Surprisingly, only fifteen percent, or so, speak english, but they’ve all studied it in school. They are proud of their culture and proud of their history, much of which includes gringos of all sorts, including Americans. I suspect that they also like it that a lot of us Norte Americanos park our money in their banks. I would say it definitely is an American friendly place.
5. It’s growing. The economy is good. GDP growth in 2012 was over twelve percent and has been consistently in the high single digits. Their infrastructure still needs work, but it looks like they will have the money to invest. The Canal is a strategic asset and they are using it to good effect and making necessary improvements to remain competitive. They have a growing wealth gap that they must address, but we are facing the same situation as well. The skyline of Panama City looks like Singapore or Dubai, so they have the look of success. The danger is that without further growth and investment, it could become little more than a Potemkin village. A facade for wealth and a healthy economy that may not be sustainable.
6. The food is good. Anyone who travels very much or very far, knows how important this is. We all know about the Ugly American (actually there are several versions) who, upon arriving in Korea complains about the garlic and wants to know why his Quarter Pounder doesn’t taste the same as it does back home. My theory has always been to try it. Spit it out if you can’t get it down or hide it under a lettuce leaf. In Panama, that’s not necessary. Their’s is a unique cuisine among latin countries. Their main dish is rice not corn or corn based foods. I’ve heard lots of theories why, but none of them make much sense. It’s just one of those things. Beef is not a big thing in their diet, although it seemed to be on every menu. I ordered it twice, and both times, the waiter told me, “we are out of it today”. Fish and other forms of seafood abound, and it’s really good. I had cerviche with every meal. Well, not with breakfast, but every other meal. I guess one of the reasons why I liked their food so much is that it has incorporated something from all of the cultures that have been a part of Panama’s history. West Indian, African, Spanish, Asian, and American. It doesn’t get much better than that.
On the whole, I see Panama as one of the good guys in the family of countries. It’s a little like the teenage boy who’s growing six inches in a year and still has a few zits popping out when he least wants them. Ivan, our guide, kept stressing that Panama is not yet a developed country, but it is developing fast. I may not have the time or energy to revisit Panama in the future, but if you haven’t been there, put it on your bucket list. It’s worth the effort.