Some time ago, my travel blog of four years was hacked and totally destroyed. Fortunately, one of my friends had saved all of the blogs on her computer. I had forgotten writing her this letter and it has been fascinating to re-read it now. All these forgotten memories have come flooding back and I am so thankful the letter was saved! It was written October 27, 2013, when I was living in El Cangrejo, Panama City, Panama.
On Sunday, October 27, 2013, 4:45 PM, Phyl On The Go wrote:
Most of my stay in Panama was spent at the Grand International Hotel in El Cangrejo, a supposedly middle to upper class neighborhood of Panama City — with uneven sidewalks, too many potholes for safety, missing drain covers and bags of garbage accumulating on the sidewalk. When I went to the School where I was to study Spanish, they showed me the accommodations that were available for my consideration as a student and they were awful! Maybe they were suitable for backpackers but not for an American “Princess” of mature years who likes fluffy towels and freshly ironed sheets on the bed!
The final place I considered was a four-story walk up, a communal kitchen, lousy air conditioning, a TV that was more “snow” than picture … and when I looked at the bed linen it was grey and rumpled, probably used and left on the bed from the previous resident. This was student accommodation. Enough!!
I was sufficiently depressed and ready to head for home, but, on the way out, I noticed the Grand International Hotel… a modern eight floor building encased in glass. A last resort went in to see what they had t offer. Luigi, the Venezuelan /American owner showed me the rooms.
The hotel was only a few months old which is a plus as there is not a long history of germ DNA in the rooms and the mattresses were firm. We negotiated a monthly price to be paid weekly in advance IN CASH — within twenty four hours I had moved in and was told that as a permanent guest, I was “family” and everyone that worked in the hotel was my “family”!
Instantly, I acquired a number of sepia Panamanian brothers and sisters who were quite delightful. None of them could speak English and whenever I appeared in the lobby, I was greeted warmly with “hola Miss Phyl, como estas, que tal?” and they were happy to run errands, install the phone card in my cell phone, advise me how much the taxi ride should cost and which side of the street to wait for the taxi to be sure I was headed in the right direction !!
I also learned as time went by that I should expect days when there was no hot water or the internet didn’t work. I would complain and was always assured it would work in an hour, perhaps a day, and sometimes this went on for a few days. Panamanians do not like to disappoint and will invent an answer to please – they are not lying, just being Panamanian. When asked about this habit, they give a shrug and say nonchalantly: “that’s Panama !!”
Dino’s Cafe, an American style diner, was located within the hotel and if I did not want to go out for meals, I could get a grilled chicken breast, fresh spinach and strawberry salad with homemade honey mustard dressing (or dorado), a delicious local fish grilled to my liking, for under ten dollars. Don’t ask me about the waiters or the service because it was TERRIBLE!! Except for the good restaurants and hotels, customer service is non existent.
The Cafe had tables inside and out and a colorful American style menu with glossy pictures. The tables outside on the sidewalk were preferable and if you could stand the traffic noise, it was a good place to sit and watch the passing show, or you could sit inside with two enormous TV screens tuned into different channels competing for attention with their sound turned up, plus a third screen of the latest musical hits also with the volume turned up – I could take my pick which of the two noise levels I could best tolerate.
Breakfast was included in the weekly rate and the hotel was immediately across the road from the school, which was quite convenient. With coffee in hand, I would cross the road, negotiate the potholes and be in class within five minutes of leaving my room!
At break, I could go across the road again to the Fruteria, which was a typical Panamanian mini market run by members of the Chinese community who sell the most delicious tropical fruits, cleaned, sliced and packaged into portions. No need to peel the pineapple and dig out all those prickly pieces — and the flavor of the pineapples and papaya was “perfecto”, sweet and fresh. My daughter Gabe who lives on fresh tropical fruits, would not believe the quality, the flavor or the giveaway price. Each package of fruit was less than $2.00 and I knew I was overpaying even then — could have gone to the street vendors for less and risked my health, but I preferred the “fruteria” and its trustworthiness.
Panama is at the crossroads of two oceans and two continents but, as I have said in one of my previous letters, Panama is still just a squiggle on the map. The total population is less than four million people. Even then, it is a stable economy with a fiscally responsible government (with good, affordable healthcare!!) that has been upgraded to Investment Grade by Moody’s, Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor — then upgraded again by Standard and Poor to BBB. Forbes once described it as Monaco with bananas which is funny but derisive. It’s also been compared to Singapore, Dubai and a young Miami — and I can see why.
The construction is ongoing. In 1997 there were estimated to be 1,400 hotel rooms in Panama City – today that can be multiplied by ten. In the last two years Trump Tower, Starwood, Waldorf Astoria, Westin and Had Rock have opened ( Hard Rock has 1,500 rooms and is fabulous). Loft and Aloft are building, Hilton is due to open and I saw a few other less “visible” hotel chains under construction. Plus, of course, the Yoo Panama that is the cherry on the top — it alone will bring in another sizable number of well heeled people. The 2008 world recession and”financial crisis” as it is known in the States hardly caused a blip in the radar as Panama continued its forward march.
There are estimated to be 7,000 Americans living in Panama, mostly retirees. They are spread out from Panama City throughout the country, especially in Boquette and Coronado, and those are the last places that would interest me as they are the Dell Webb crowd and I had enough of them where I previously lived in the desert in California.
Most of these “transplants” live in gated communities, with like minded people — as if they were living in America except they shop at Reeba Smith supermarket which is a Panamanian supermarket chain that caters to their tastes and have a Panamanian housekeeper who costs them a lot less than they might payback in the states. Many do not bother to learn Spanish and maintain strong ties with the States. As I see it, there are two reasons for these people moving: one is that many are living on their Social Security check and it goes a lot further in Panama than it does in the States, and the other is that people are getting jittery about the States and are looking for a safe haven to put their money as well as a comfortable lifestyle.
It seems there are more East Coasters than West Coasters, and as the plane trip is only about three to four hours from Miami, they can still maintain close contact with family and grandchildren. There is also a segment, particularly in Panama City, of extremely wealthy residents, some of them investors, who live in high-rises in Costa del Este, Punta Paifica or Marbella. You can find a one-million dollar penthouse there that would have cost five or six million dollars in New York City! Not to mention a daily housekeeper to do the cooking, washing. housecleaning and run the errands for about $400 a month.
Immigration is encouraged and in 2012 President Maritnelli signed an order creating a new category for immigration whereby one can acquire a Resident Visa in under three months — and this has been quite the incentive as there is no guarantee how long this will be in effect. It is the” Friendly Nations Visa” and people from the USA are eligible.
There are many concessions to foreign immigrants, such as tax allowances and special allowances to bring in personal possessions duty free. Plus if you are a “Pensionado” (Pensioner) there are discounts on medical and pharmaceutical costs, hotel rates at certain times, lower airline ticket prices and discounts at the supermarket, restaurants and more things than I can remember. I tried it out and although I did not physically have the actual Pensioner’s card you’re supposed to have, I was allowed discounts at the pharmacy, doctor, and at the supermarket. Ask and you shall receive !!
It’s not just me. David Stubbs, who has been a British expat for over thirty years and is a global investor and keen observer of Panama has this to say:
These are some of the reasons why Panama is great:
It has a strong infrastructure and transportation.
It has banking galore (financial services) and the currency is the US Dollar.
A strong economy that in turn brings lower crime rates.
Job creation ( no disenfranchised youth).
Future Real Estate Value
Panamas GDPis $30 Billion dollars.
They have a clear stated policy to double those figures in the next ten years.
It is the second richest country in Latin America (after Chile).
The economy has grown every one of the last ten years, including 2008 and 2009.
Money is coming in from North America, Russia, China, Venzuela (which is having serious problems) Colombia and other South American Countries.
The Panama Canal is the cornerstone of all this business activity and it has had a ripple effect on the rest of the economy.
Large International Companies are taking advantage of Panamas open door policies and incentive programs including Maersk Line, Halliburton, 3M, Dell Caterpillar and plenty more.
Because in this time of global risk people with money are seeking safe haven, people are paying attention and recognizing Panama for the safe haven it is. Safe haven with upside.
Panama is by no means the perfect society, though. It has its struggles with crime and poverty, despite what Mr. Stubbs says, and there needs to be more change to keep up with the growth that has taken place in the last few years. There is still a big divide among the “haves” and the “have nots.”
It is also not a place to move to if you like culture, because the opera and ballet do not exist here – although you will be able to attend a concert by Mark Anthony and shop till you drop !!
Night life is fantastic and there is no shortage of bars and discos, if that’s your thing. The restaurants have improved a lot, especially those catering to the international tourist market, but this is not a culture built around the table and I for one did not enjoy the local, “tipico” food. If you are a vegetarian or fruiterian, there is a huge selection of top quality fruit and vegetables. Still, it is no longer a terribly inexpensive country and rents are comparable to any of the large American Cities — and all other prices are trending up.
It has been a wonderfully interesting experience and I would love to re-visit in the future and see how the country is progressing, as well as visit the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts and the Rain Forests. A number of my readers have asked if I am moving to Panama City and the answer is “no.” I have a fascination with the Central and South American Countries because they are moving ahead so fast and are not affected by the same problems that we have in North America. I would like to return to this part of the world and look at some of the other countries, though. If I were to move, I would certainly cast the net wider before jumping into another overseas move. I do not want to leave the United States permanently.
I am fortunate to live very well with high standards and have benefited from a country I moved to thirty years ago. And I know how many people would “sell their soul” to get an American Passport. We have high standards and live a good life. I would probably be satisfied to spend a few months a year out of the country to accommodate my gypsy tendencies. Besides, Trader Joe’s has not yet opened a branch in any of the Latin Countries !!
The last few weeks have been interesting, exciting, challenging and not always in my comfort zone. I have learned a lot about where I was traveling and a lot about myself and learned to accept the generosity, hospitality and friendship that was shown to me by people I encountered and who opened the doors to all this information and experience. It has taught me to be open minded and not critical of people who are different to “us”. Thank you for coming on this journey with me via email!
I will continue traveling until just before Thanksgiving when I will re-unite with my family to celebrate Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the Year.
When I left home and said I was going to Panama, I was greeted with a chorus of: “Why Panama ???!!” as if I had lost my mind. At that time, I did not really know the answer except that I wanted to know more. Having found “more” I have been able to share it in these letters, I have an answer now:
“Why NOT Panama !!”
P.S. I was told the missing drain covers are because they are stolen, melted down and sold to get money for drugs. They are not replaced because they would be stolen again.
P.P.S. Dress “code” for women of all ages: whether you jiggle or not, “pour” yourself into your jeans until they are so tight they show every crevice and buttock. If you jiggled before being poured into the jeans, you will not jiggle after and also you may not be able to get them off to go to the bathroom.