Quirky Panamanians – I wrote the following post with the goal of giving you all back home a little insight into the daily life of the average Panamanian. We all know that Americans have their quirks too and I’m certainly always making a fool of myself here. (Just give me a piece of tough beef and a spoon, the Panamanian utensil of choice no matter what is served, and you’ll be laughing in no time). But here are the quirks I’ve discovered so far, with hopefully more to come.
Stating the Obvious
Panamanians love to state the obvious when greeting each other. Often, instead of saying, “How are you?” when they see you, they simple state the obvious in the form of a question. For example: Let’s say you’re walking along a street and you meet a Panamanian. He will mostly like greet you with, “Walking?” If you happen to be sweating due to the intense heat while walking, he will greet you with, “Sweating?” If you happen to be walking up a hill, he will great you with, “Subiendo (going up)?” Or if down a hill, “Bajando (going down)?” If you are just arriving somewhere, he will great you with, “Arriving?” You get the picture. The best part of adapting to this cultural norm is I no longer have to think of what to say to someone on the street when I see them. No more remembering what kind of job they have or what their daughter’s name is, all I have to do is state the obvious and we both continue on our way.
First comes the electricity poles then comes the flat screen TV and sound system?
Panama is an odd country when it comes to its level of development. A friend and I were chatting the other day about how this country missed a few key steps in the development process. There are American style suburbs being built near Chorrera yet the water is always going out because they never built the proper infrastructure to support it. You drive by a house with three televisions and a latrine outside because there is no sewage system. The postal system is an overwhelmed disaster because roads don’t have names thus nobody actually has an address. If someone does have an “address,” it is often, “across from the cantina.” The kids here don’t even know how to write a letter, how could they when they never receive any. I was writing a letter to my mother the other day, and my host sister sat there and asked question after question about what I was writing on the envelope, how it would get to her etc. Yet she knows how to use Microsoft Office. The main public transportation system throughout the country is composed of old American school buses painted tacky colors and neon lights that race along the main roads which are barely big enough for more than car. Or they are pick up trucks with the bed converted into seating for passengers. In parts of my community, there is still no electricity. Yet, families have already bought their televisions in anticipation (albeit they are from the 1980s). Panama remained rather undeveloped for so long that now it is racing to catch up by expanding and bringing modern technology to all parts of the country even when those areas aren’t quite ready for it. It’s an odd sight to see a man dressed in typical clothing, riding his horse, which is also loaded with the rice he just harvested, sharing a road with a Toyota SUV. Or to see a wood house with a palm tree roof next to a house with a satellite dish and a massive metal fence surrounding it. Some serious work is needed to fill the gap.
I’m having the hardest time remembering all the names of the people I meet in my community. I thought it was just me or the fact that I’ve met so many new people in the last few weeks but then I came to a realization. Remember back to Spanish class when we had worksheets with names like Maria, Jose and Juan? Well those are nothing close to Panamanian names. Here are a few examples for your enjoyment: Gumercindo, Euribiades, Yarineth, Gricel, Vianka, Dianey, Benson, Deyka, Amadiz, Naidelyn, Mayuri, Yoideth, Yuliser, Geidy, Rubiela, Zulymary, Diodimir, Daneris, Mileyka, Melexis and Zehidi. No, I did not just hit keys at random. Those are the style of names here. Along with a few kids named Elvis or Carlos. Every time I take attendance, the kids spend the whole time laughing at me as I struggle to get something out that even remotely sounds like it’s supposed to. But then I get to laugh when I tell them my last name and they just give me blank stares. If I ever end up having a kid, I’m naming it Panamanian style.
Many Panamanian men remind me of college frat boys despite the fact they are grown and have families. Wait, I take that back. They are so much worse than college frat boys. Sundays here in this country are a free day to get completely obliterated. The men drink till they can no longer stand on two feet or remember where they are or what their name is. (Granted, I couldn’t find my way home through the jungle or remember my Panamanian name even if I was completely sober.) There is such a bad stigma towards drinking here, particularly towards women who drink, because Panamanians do not know how to control their alcoholic intake. It’s embarrassing to watch the men make fools of themselves in front of their families. And it’s a bit awkward to wake up to the sounds of the dad next door puking all over the front yard. I’ve been lucky in that none of the men in my host families have acted in this way but I feel so bad for the women and children who deal with husbands and fathers like that because it is such a prevalent problem here. It’s an unhealthy part of life in the country that continues the cycle of poverty I see my students having to live with every day. Some days I wish I could start an AA group here as a secondary project and teach the Panamanians that you can have a drink or two and not turn yourself into a useless and potentially dangerous idiot roaming the streets and wasting your family’s money. It’s time to get your act together men; I’m tired of your drunken debauchery!
Panamanians love everything sweet, everything salty, and everything fried. (For a combination of all three at the same time, try alholdras, yuuum). Unfortunately, their waist lines and teeth are suffering from their less than healthy habits. At school, the kids are always full of smiles. They lean their heads all the way back, grinning as wide as they can, so that the super tall teacher (aka me) can get the best view possible of their smiling faces. Yet, every time they open up those mouths, all I see are black, cavity filled teeth. Well, that is if they still have teeth left to show off. No wonder considering every moment they aren’t in class, those mouths are filled with candy of some kind. The kids aren’t the only ones suffering from the recent inundation of sweets. About every other adult in the community seems to be missing their front two teeth. It’s so common that I often find myself shocked to see someone with a full set. Panamanians are so addicted to candy that they eat anything that even slightly resembles it. Take, for example, Halls cough drops. In the stores in town, kids and adults buy individual wrapped Halls and pop them like they are just a regular piece of hard candy. The Halls come in every flavor and the ground is littered with their wrappers. I’ll admit the sweet and minty combination is delicious but that can’t be good right? Who knows, the Panamanians seem to possess an array of random tips on life. Including the fact that on Good Friday, if you climb a tree, you will turn into a monkey, or if you take a dip in the river, you will turn into a fish. I’ll take their word for it.