Arriving in Panama City was a four-year travel Blog that was hacked, covering my travels in South and Central America and the United States. In a nanosecond, it disappeared off the internet having been invaded by malware.

This is one of the original blogs written on September 2013 that was recovered after the hacking, Many facts in this blog  are now outdated because Panama City, Panama, is a rapidly developing, world-class metropolis and  has not stood still. This was written during my first visit to Panama City. I was very excited and it shows in the writing. 

Arriving somewhat tired and disoriented at Tocuman Airport outside Panama City after an overnight flight from Los Angeles, I very soon sat up and began to take notice as the driver edged his way into the city. We negotiated the chaotic traffic, zig zagging in and out irrespective of road rules and being constantly orchestrated by the never ending sound of horns. I had read about Panama City and the enormous development, but the reality of seeing a building boom in live action was something else. The skyline was filled with skyscrapers: a jagged edge of different heights and architectural styles. More cranes than I could have imagined were silhouetted against the sky. The sights, the sounds and the motion were a shock to my nervous system.

This development started taking place beginning with the hand over of the Panama Canal from the United States to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999.  Many forecast that the Panamanians would not successfully operate the business that is generated by ships passing through the canal, but in fact, the opposite occurred: the return of the Panama Canal was the signal heralding the inflow of capital and the beginning of a non stop building boom never before seen in Central America.  This included huge condo developments, hotels, offices and Banks. Panama City is an International Banking Hub.  No one knows the exact number of banks: some say it as high as one hundred and fifty.  Many are recognized organizations with names such as we know from New York, Zürich or London, but there are also the “Mickey Mouse” banks that have been set up to launder money coming in from abroad, some of it drug money — though I do not have proof!!  Many of the Bank buildings are impressive, as if they  are competing against one another for the tallest building or the most outstanding architecture, announcing visually that they are not short of capital.

The Panama Canal is the locomotive that is driving this economy.  They are in a “Reverse Financial Crisis” mode, with money pouring into the economy.  The local currency is US Dollars and the revenue stream from the Panama Canal is five billion of them — but I have also heard it quoted as high as seven, and most if it goes back into the infrastructure.  When the Panama Canal expansion is completed it could double that figure — that’s right, a new canal is being excavated with deeper basins to handle the Panamax freighters which are much larger  and  will move more containers. In some instances this will triple the amount of cargo being carried.

When I was in Charleston, South Carolina about six years ago and was told the harbor was being excavated  to cope with the additional freight that would be transported to the East Coast from the Panama Canal, I wondered what they were — now I know !! This has had a favorable impact on the US  economy as well and will continue as further expansion takes place and we in the States  have to keep expanding our harbors, creating more employment to keep up with the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Depending on who you speak to, the country’s GDP is about 8.5 % and has been steady with a slight dip when the Real Estate market dipped in the States as many Americans who were invested in Panama tried to sell their Real Estate Investments or recoup their pre-construction deposits — but that was just a blip. The market has taken off again. I am told the number of Americans moving in is noticeable across the board, plus a number of Venezuelans who have managed to get their funds out of Venezuela. This in addition to the people who are arriving as international companies move in to take advantage of the economic climate.   Martinelli, the President, has introduced an incentive program to attract foreigners and it is now possible to get a residence visa within a couple of months with a Bank deposit of $5,000 plus another $2,000 and a clear police report from the USA.  Dare I say it, but I have spoken to a number of Americans who are jittery about what is going on in the States and are taking advantage of Martinelli’s incentive. His seven-year term comes to an end next year and there is no guarantee this Visa incentive will continue to be available if a new “regime” takes over. Add to this the existing incentives for retirees, such as discounts on travel, movies, shopping, medical services and many more and Panama becomes an attractive option.

Martinelli was educated in the States and as soon as his victory was confirmed, he implemented his economic plan and has forged ahead increasing the income stream. For example he is building a metro system to be integrated with a bus system that will be very inexpensive. It has to be completed before the end of his term next year — as he wants to “cut the ribbon.” And thus streets are being dug up all over the city in a race to get it finished in time,. That will be helpful in reducing the excess number of cars on the streets causing gridlock at peak times. Taxis are hailed from anywhere on the street and can be quite an unsettling experience. They are inexpensive, with most rides costing two to three US Dollars — and these are “shared” rides. If someone in the taxi lives in the barrio and they are next in line to be dropped off, the ride can be unexpectedly long and resemble a grand tour of the city: nothing you can do, except wait your turn and accept that this is the system!!

Then there is a maneuver called “the roll”, where the taxi driver comes from the back of the traffic and creeps up the side to nudge into first place before the traffic turns a corner — during this, too, you should sit tight because there is nothing you can do except pray. The taxis are small and the average North American male has to squeeze in and “compact” his/her body.

I have been told there is good internet service here, which is why many international companies are moving in — that is questionable.   My experience is intermittent internet since I arrived here. The unemployment figure is 4%, but the locals say it is less than this number. Customer Service is not strong and can be infuriating — possibly because if a person doesn’t like his job, he quits and can find another one without missing a beat. However, there is a strong shortage of qualified people, especially IT folk and programmers, since salaries are not high and way under the USA’s scale.

Noticing the number of McDonald’s, it could be said that McDonald’s is the national food !! But being serious, if the locals could see a grilled chicken form Costco or even Ralph’s, they would think they have died and gone to heaven. This could be a very successful franchise here if anyone is interested.

Many Americans who had retired to Panama have had a change of heart when they see such a niche. Close to where I live, there is a New York Bagel Store being run by an American who saw the “opening,” returned to the States for some time to “apprentice” and learn the business and has made a tremendous success here both among the gringos and the locals.

To try to  find your way around I suggest you take a taxi and learn a few words of Spanish.  As mentioned above, taxis are inexpensive and allow the driver to conduct the search for the intended address while you sit back and don’t interfere.  Addresses are not clearly marked and are found by identifying a nearby landmark.  For example, when I am out and want to return home I say to the driver: ” Via Argentina,” (the Street) “in El Cangrejo” (the neighborhood) near the “Einstein Statue y Subway Restaurant.”  Now I am making myself clear and saving a lot of time! Everyone knows the Statue of Albert Einstein and the adjacent Subway sandwich shop.  I sit back and relax while he negotiates the route.

It is an emerging country, but there are times when it is so far ahead of our curve that I am flabbergasted. Then there are times when I realize I am in an emerging country and should stop comparing it to the States, because in so many ways it does not stack up. For example, when I look at the sidewalks I am shocked. They are broken, cracked, uneven, neglected and full of potholes. You have to be sure-footed and eagle-eyed to survive, and I have neither of those qualities. It is important to step carefully and hope for the best. I am living in one of the most desirable neighborhoods and many of the buildings could do with a coat of paint and some serious maintenance — but the country is growing so fast that this is not high on the list of priorities or part of the culture.

I have seen and done a lot since arriving in Panama City and will add to this when and as time permits and if the internet is working!! My biggest nightmare is learning the language as I never made any effort to learn Spanish, never spoke to my housekeepers in their language and never visited Mexico. My wise friend Marjie suggested I should listen to tapes before leaving for Panama but I felt immersion was the best way: WRONG!! Marjie you were so right!! I was put into a beginners class of four to learn Spanish. Two of the girls have just finished High School in Dusseldorf, have done five years of High School Latin (which they speak), have another five languages under their belt and are learning Swedish — and Spanish. The other girl is from San Francisco and she is an Immigration and Human Rights Attorney who speaks fluent Italian: she needs Spanish because most of her clients are from Latin America. And then there’s me, cannot put the simplest sentence together and have had to demote myself from the beginners group to a one-on-one:  even then I am clueless.

Regards to all, I am not ready to come home yet — still too much to see and do. Panama City is definitely different to Palm Desert, California!!


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the road less traveled