When we first came to Panama to check it out and see if it remained on the list of countries we were considering, we arrived at Tocumen International Airport around 8:30 pm. Tocumen ten years ago was a far cry from what it is today! You knew you had just landed in a “third world” country. Since we had started in California, and by California time it was only 5:30 pm, I stupidly decided we would start driving to Boquete and find a place to stay along the way. There were as I recall only one or two car rental companies and they brought the car around to the front of the airport to check it out. We stuck our luggage in the back and hopped in. Now I had reserved the cheapest car … a stick shift without air conditioning. And not having driven a stick in 20 years, we kind of lurched our way away from the airport. I knew from the guidebooks that there were areas in Panama City that you wanted to avoid. Of course it was dark and in those days there were absolutely no directional signs, stop signs or one way signs anywhere, so of course we got lost in the worst possible area of Panama City. I was headed down a street into what in the US we would definitely describe as a “ghetto” looking for the road to get onto the Bridge of the Americas and out of Panama City. Of course the street was unmarked, but was a one-way street and I was headed in the wrong direction, which hordes of young men hanging out on the street pointed out waving and shouting in Spanish. So I turned into what turned out to be a dead-end street in an even worse section of town. When I was turning around trying to extricate myself a group of young guys with wife-beater T-shirts and low-slung pants with their dirty underwear sticking out came over to the car and I thought, “This is it! Welcome to Panama! It’s been a good life!”
Clearly the Alpha-male of the group swaggered over, leaned down to the window and said, “You look lost man!” in perfect English. He proceeded to tell me the obvious, that I was in the wrong section of town, and carefully gave me directions to get back on the approach to the Bridge of The Americas.
After 10 years …
Pretty much that incident describes our experience the ten years we’ve lived in Panama.
Sure there are bad guys in Panama just like anywhere else, but … well, aside from a few seemingly nice folks who turned out to be crooks … we haven’t met them. Most Panamanians are gracious, gentle and nice folks. If you don’t judge people just because they look or dress differently you meet some cool people.
Sure, we’ve been had … but never physically hurt. We’ve been robbed which I’ll tell you about but never assaulted. We use common sense, the stupidity of renting the cheapest car not withstanding, and we have what for us has been a very adequate security system, some aspects of which I’ll reveal to you. I spent the first six years of my ministry in the worst area of the South Bronx at a time during the 60s when things really hit rock bottom. I know how not to show fear, to use street smarts and how not to be a chump.
Where we live in Boquete I feel perfectly safe. You can walk anywhere in Boquete at night without fear. David, with a few exceptions where it’s best to go with a Panamanian, is safe. You can drive at night in Panama without fear of being attacked … the fear factor coming only from the other drivers on the road, wandering cattle, and worrying about hitting folks walking along the edge of a narrow road in dark clothing.
Our defense systems …
At least the “non-classified” ones … dogs do help. We’ve had lots of visitors to our home. Once the dogs sense that you are welcomed as a friend by Nikki or I, they are very affectionate, maybe too affectionate. But if you haven’t passed our “welcome” muster … not only is a pissed-off Rottweiler to be seriously avoided, but Dalmatians, as cute as they may be in Disney movies, were originally used as war dogs by the Romans. When Spot gives up her silly Dalmatian “smile”, snarls and bares her teeth … it’s scary!
We’ve used common sense. Our home is not on or near any main road, providing easy bus service escape to David or elsewhere. Unlike some gringo homes which seemed positioned to advertise, maybe even flaunt, their success and wealth to poorer local neighbors, our home sets back. Our approach with our neighbors, and with the Embera Indians who from the Chagres jungle who have visited and stayed with us, is very upfront: “The way we live is different, not better.” My Embera friend Erito has a whole lot less maintenance and issues with his house made of palm leaves than I do with mine!
Our neighbors, both Latino and Indigenous, are our biggest security. We know them, respect them, and many have worked with us on our farm. Over the years we’ve helped them truck building materials and even taken the bodies of their loved ones in the back of our truck down the road to our little cemetery.
We care about them, and they care about us. My Gnobe worker who lives and works on our farm once explained to me that Gnobe have different values. “Unlike gringos, things aren’t important to us. What is important is our connection to nature, the earth and God.” That just might explain why Gnobe are so hard on equipment! It helps that he leads a house church that meets regularly on our farm and involves a lot of our neighbors. Many of these folks are also the folks who help us out by picking our coffee.
Memorable moments …
Nikki has two very memorable moments … once when the electric was out for several days, and knowing everything we had stored in our freezer would perish, Nikki took it all and gave it to our neighbors. That evening she was surprised by a group of local Gnobe women marching up the driveway with pots of food, obviously so the gringa woman who couldn’t possibly survive without electricity would have warm food.
Another time was the only time when our house was robbed. Nikki didn’t know it at first, but Nikki noticed a window in the bathroom left open and the curtain hanging weirdly … then she noticed dirty small hand prints on the bathroom wall by the window. She started looking around and found a number of things missing … her binoculars, Kindle, and a little bag of mostly costume jewelry. I was at sea and Nikki mentioned this to our farm worker. . The Gnobe have a very efficient “coconut telephone” system where everyone knows everything almost immediately. Suddenly the antennae of a few mothers went up … and they began talking with one another and looking through their kids’ stuff. The result was a community meeting held in the coffee drying shed on our farm with about 40 parents in a circle and 6 guilty pre adolescents in the center. The guilty boys received a general tongue lashing and were made to apologize to Nikki and return her stuff. We got everything back except the bag with the jewelry which Nikki eventually found in the place she had forgotten that she had hidden it. The parents decided as punishment the kids would lose a lot of privileges and work for Nikki on our farm for a 40 hour week with no pay. Sabino, our Indian worker, made the kids repair fences down in the valley. Nikki said every night the kids would come up hot, dirty, exhausted, with callous forming on their hands. Usually we give folks working for us Coke breaks (at 75 cents a can, Coke is not in the budget of most local Indigenous families, so is a real treat). No Coke breaks for these kids. Probably more than any other event, our “robbery” cemented our relationship and acceptance in the community. We still see the kids we still call amongst ourselves the “little robbers.” They are now big, strapping teenagers who help us picking coffee and a couple still drop by to ask for help with school assignments.
Cultural “robbery” …
We’ve learned the hard way that different cultures have different values. If someone asks to borrow something … money, tools, whatever … in many cases it is considered a gift. Don’t expect to see it back. We no longer lend money, except to a few folks who regularly do work for us, and in those cases they sign for the loan understanding they will pay it back, even if just a little at a time. One teenager had borrowed money from Nikki for his sister who needed money for a doctor in David. When Nikki asked the mother how her daughter in the hospital was doing … ooops, no hospital. Her daughter was fine. The kid got a thrashing for his attempted con and was made to pay Nikki back. We still see this guy, now in his late teens. He has developed a special affection to Nikki and frequently will go out of his way just to drop by and say hello to Nikki.
Two issues that didn’t go so well … Panamanians have something that loosely translates as “the game of life” in which whoever “gets over” on others eventually wins. So you con a few folks here and there, and they con you, and we’ll see who “wins.” When we first started developing the coffee farm Nikki picked up a neighbor guy who knew a lot about growing coffee and had his own small farm. We hired him as a consultant. We liked the guy and trusted him. When we bought a car from a neighbor who was leaving, suddenly we had an extra car which we eventually planned to sell when we got a truck. We found the truck we wanted. The neighbor guy’s car was out of commission so we let him borrow our car. Then he wanted to buy it so we agreed on a price, he gave us $2,000 cash and signed a note agreeing to pay the additional $8,500. [At this point expats who’ve lived in Panama a while are rolling on the floor with laughter knowing the rest of this story!] We got about $500 of the $8,000 … forget about trying to collect the rest. He owned nothing. His farm was actually the property of his mother who worked for the DIJ [the police investigative department, something like the FBI] and his sister who was the local corrigadora [like the justice of the peace or a small claims judge]. When we went with him to meet with our lawyer his response was, “So sue me!” Our lawyer said it would take years and lots of money and in the end we would probably lose anyway. The mother was very stressed about this and claimed she had prayed about it and God told her that she should pay us back. She promised to do so when they harvested their coffee … then I guess God forgot because we never saw any money. So we learned. Compared to most expats experience with these things, at $8,000 we got off cheaply.
The other was with a West Indian woodworker named Ziggy. Ziggy was good with wood. So good that I thought he should have some tools to work with so I loaned him some … never to be seen again. Ziggy had a lead on a pile of really good, aged teak, which we bought, or so we thought. When I wanted to pick up the wood to have it planed down … you got it! No wood. Pay $1,000, do not pass go!
So we’ve learned … or ARE learning!
“But is it safe?”
When folks find out I live in Panama, generally the second or third question is, “But is it safe?” And the answer for us is, “Yes! While there are no guarantees in life, we feel safer in Panama than we often did in the US.”