15 Quirky Things About Panama And Its People

Hey friends,

This is not meant to slam Panamanians, at all. I could list way more than 15 things that are odd about the U.S. and its people. Remember, my wife is Panamanian, so I have her to answer to if I get out of line. That said, I’ve noticed a lot of strange things since meeting Marlene and definitely since settling down in Panama full time. I can’t promise these are things you haven’t encountered wherever you’re living, because I probably know nothing about your hometown. I realized this after my last list, 10 Things You’ll Hate About Panama (which you can read by clicking here), when I received several comments from people about the motorcycles riding down the center lane subject. Apparently that happens all over the place, and is even legal in California. Who knew? I didn’t.

So, check out this list of things I find a little bit wacky, but you might think is entirely normal. Again, these are in no particular order. I’m not counting down to the quirkiest thing. These are 15 wacky things listed at random.

1. Jury Duty Kidnapping – I’ve never been summoned to jury duty, but I know in the U.S. you’re given a letter or some sort of advance notice before you’re required to show up for duty. In Panama, it’s nothing like that. How did I learn this? A couple of weeks ago, I got a somewhat frantic call from Marlene. She was at work. The call went something like this.

“Chris, I only have a minute. They’re taking me.”

“WTF? Who’s taking you? What do you mean?”

“I have jury duty. They said I have 10 minutes to gather my things, make my phone calls, and then they’re taking my phone and I won’t get it back until they’re finished with me.”

And that was pretty much the extent of the phone call. She hung up and I had no idea what was to happen next. Was she going to be picked for a short trial that would be finished early and she’d be home by the end of the day? Or was she about to embark on an O.J. Simpson-style, seemingly never-ending murder trial?

My mother-in-law, who’d also spoken with Marlene, called to break it down a little further. She explained how lucky Marlene was because she’s had friends and coworkers who were out walking down the street when they were grabbed for jury duty. They were just snatched right off the sidewalk (ok, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but still…). She also told me that if Marlene was stuck in a lengthy trial, we’d have to pack clothes so they could be taken to her.

It turned out the trial Marlene was involved with only lasted the day. She was home by about 11pm the same night. She told me she tried to get out of it by explaining that she had 4 kids she needed to take care of. The guy charged with finding my wife and bringing her in, the guy who basically kidnapped her for jury duty, simply looked at her and said, “Everyone has kids, and a spouse, and a grandmother…pack your stuff.”

Marlene was snatched up for jury duty, no notice, right at her office

That’s nuts, right? I’d love to see Dave Chapelle do a skit on this. The only thing worse would be having the guy show up, put a bag over your head, and yank you into his car. I’m surprised he didn’t use the Men In Black memory swiper gadget on her when it was over.

Imagine being a single parent and having this happen. What would you do? Can you imagine having your kids in school and having someone show up to tell you they were taking you away? What bout the kids? Marlene said you can get out of it, but you’ll have to pay a $50 fine and have a really good excuse.

The good news? You always get the next day off when you’re ordered to go in for jury duty. Also, I should add that this whole jury duty situation only applies to Panamanian citizens. So expats have nothing to worry about.

2. Wrinkling the nose – The story of how I met my wife is one worthy of its own blog post, so here in this post, I’ll just mention one quirky little thing that a lot of Panamanians do. It’s something that caused a little bit of confusion when I first started dating Marlene.

I call it the wrinkling of the nose. The first time I saw this, I was driving. Marlene was in the passenger seat. I asked her a question. Probably something like, “What do you want to eat?” She didn’t answer. Ok, a little strange, but maybe she didn’t hear me. So I repeated it, “So what would you like to eat?” No answer again. I started thinking to myself, “What’s wrong with this chick?” I asked the question again, looked over, and noticed she was wrinkling her nose up, kind of the way a bunny rabbit does when it’s sniffing.

Apparently that means “What” in Panamanian non-verbal Spanish. When someone asks a question, you can ask, “What?” by simply looking at them and wrinkling up your nose.

This constipated look is my version of a bunny sniffing the air. Not exactly what I was going for!

I tried to get a picture of the nose wrinkling, but it doesn’t come out right in photos. I think I just look constipated, which is a totally different kind of non-verbal Spanish cue.

3. No one gets out of his or her seat on a bus – If you move to Panama and travel by public transportation, you’ll notice that people do not get out of their seats unless they’re getting off the bus. They won’t get up for anything. For a long time, when I first moved here, I rode the bus to work. I’d hop on the old Diablo Rojo for $.25 each way.

Talking about this kind of bus, a Diablo Rojo

I rarely stayed in a seat though, either because there were none available, or when I did have a seat I’d get up to give it to a woman, someone elderly, or a small child. That’s just me. I can’t sit comfortably knowing someone else is roughing it. I’d see an older woman get on the bus, with her hands full of grocery bags, and not a single man would give up his seat.

See what I mean?

Another great example is, if you happen to be seated next to the window, and you need to get off the bus, the person next to you, in the aisle seat, will never get up and move out of the way. Instead, the person will lean his or her knees to the left, as if that’s enough room to walk through. I always laugh because I’m a big boy and I know they’re going to be more uncomfortable than I will be when I have to force my way through their legs. “Alright, man, you want my butt in your face? You asked for it!”

4. No shame – Alright, I have plenty of friends in the U.S., with very little shame. And I’ve been to other countries where the people don’t seem to care at all what people think. But the men here have no shame. None at all. Guys in the U.S. might whistle or hiss at a girl, but most of the time that would come from construction workers. Men were craftier about their ogling eyes. They didn’t make it so obvious they were checking a girl out.

Here, it’s quite the opposite. I’m kind of a people watcher by nature. Maybe it’s my law enforcement/security background, but I tend to watch the things going on around me. So, one day while getting off the bus, a pretty girl was walking in front of me. I couldn’t believe how many men turned their heads and gawked at this girl as she passed. A security company was holding their morning roll call in a parking lot, and every single one of these guys, probably 20 of them, stopped and turned their heads to see her walk by.

This street performer stopped juggling to check out a passing woman

Women can be the same way. Of course I’m not talking about ALL Panamanian men or women, but I’ve encountered some gutsy women here too. At a Taco Bell drive-thru I had a girl say something about my blue eyes. Then she called over all of her coworkers to look at my eyes. I was embarrassed and just wanted to take my bean burrito and get out of there, lol. In one of the small towns here, right in front of my wife, a woman said, “If he were my husband, I would…”

No shame.

5. Ketchup on Everything – I’ve seen some people do some crazy things with condiments. Hell, I used to love dipping my fries into my Wendy’s frosty. But a large number of Panamanians love ketchup. They’ll put ketchup on anything. I don’t know why I’m so surprised, since I grew up putting ketchup on my fried eggs and potatoes and on beans (it’s a country thing I guess).

However, here in Panama, people put ketchup on roasted chicken. They even put ketchup on their arroz con pollo. Rice and chicken? With ketchup on it? I might have to try that now that I think about it!

6. You want me to do what with my toilet paper? – I guess because of plumbing issues, and sometimes just out of fear of past plumbing issues, some Panamanians will not flush toilet paper down the toilet.

In the U.S., it was common to see signs in restaurant bathrooms warning people not to throw paper towels into the toilet. Paper towels can clog it up, but toilet paper is meant for the toilet.

The first time I ran into this issue was in a store bathroom. A sign was posted there warning people not to flush anything, even toilet paper, down the toilet. So I was kind of stumped. Like, “What would you like me to do with it then?” Then, I glanced over at the little wastebasket next to the toilet and saw that there was toilet paper in there, with doo doo smeared on it. That’s so gross, I know, but I need to paint a clear picture for you, lol.

The sign looks kinda like this

I was thinking, “You want me to do what with the toilet paper?” Since then, I’ve seen this at several business restrooms and even in a couple of people’s homes. What’s perplexing is that the bathrooms never smelled bad. How is that possible? It must be terrific air freshener. Either that or my sinuses were acting up and I just couldn’t smell a thing.

7. No trust for lunchmeat – I love sandwiches. I love sandwiches of all types. Sometimes I like a hot sandwich and sometimes I’m in the mood for cold cuts. And by cold cuts I mean cold…cuts.

I’m not sure if this is something that only my wife’s family does, or if this is Panama-wide, but it’s very rare, and I mean very very rare, that my wife or anyone in her family will eat ham, turkey, or any other kind of lunch meat straight from the deli or right out of the package. They fry it all. And I don’t mean they fry it with oil. They just toss it around a little bit in a hot pan to kill any bacteria.

Marlene won’t touch this stuff until it’s been heated in a pan first

It drives me nuts because Brown Sugar Ham and Honeyed Turkey has a flavor that I like, and I like it right out of the package like that. When you cook it, it changes flavor. It’s not bad, it’s just different and sometimes I want that cold cuts taste. It took forever for me to get my wife to try Subway. She just didn’t trust the cold meats. Yet there are Subways all over Panama, so maybe it is just my wife’s family. Please, Panamanian friends, comment below to let me know how you feel about this.

8. The creation of traffic lanes – This is something I love and loathe about driving in Panama. During times of high-traffic, Panamanians will create new lanes, usually on the shoulder of the road. I love this because it’s not something we’d do back home, and it does help free up the traffic congestion a little bit. I loathe it because I’m too chicken to follow suit. I’ve done it a few times, but usually I’ll stick with the designated lanes, because cheating never seems to work out for me.

This lane on the shoulder is only used during rush hour (sorry for the crappy picture, I was in a moving vehicle)

One time, when I was late picking my kids up for school and was stuck in really bad traffic, I gave it a try. And when all the Panamanians were smart enough to merge back into the regular lane, I wasn’t, and I got trapped in that created lane, all the way until I was face to face with a traffic cop who harassed the hell out of me for about 15-minutes before finally letting me go (only after I pointed out everyone else who was doing the same thing).

9. Green olives – If you love green olives, you’ll be very happy here in Panama. I detest the things. I don’t mind black olives, but I can’t get used to the strange taste of green olives. I like olive oil though. What’s that all about?

Anyway, you’ll find that green olives show up in all kinds of dishes here. Most people put them in arroz con pollo. I have to pick them out whenever I’m at a birthday party and I’m served arroz con pollo with olives. You’ll even find them on pizza here. In the U.S., a veggie pizza seemed to consist of green peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and maybe black olives. I never saw green olives on a pizza, except maybe at a gourmet pizza place.

Eww, green olives in arroz con pollo

Here, if you order a veggie pizza, there’s a pretty good chance it will come with green olives. I had to ask for them to be excluded from my Papa John’s pizza the other night. So, ask if your pizza has aceituna verde if you’re like me and don’t like green olives.

10. Prepare to get frisked – If you’re used to waltzing right into your local bank and making a deposit, get ready for things to change a bit. Outside of the banks, you’ll find a security guard waiting for you with a wand. Men will have the wand waved over their bodies, to make sure they aren’t trying to carry a weapon into the bank. Women aren’t usually wanded down like that, but they are required to open up their purse and let the security guard glance inside. He won’t put his hand in there or take anything out, but he will peek in. This goes for anyone with bags. Be prepared for the security guard to check out your shopping bags, backpack, etc.

These guys are just waiting to wand you down

This also happens at the casinos. During the day you might be able to just walk right in, but during high-traffic hours, and at night, men will be wanded and women will have their purses checked.

11. No shorts in government buildings – For being such a laid back, tropical lifestyle, Panama takes its dress code very seriously. You might get away with shorts and flip flops at the resorts and in the hotels, but don’t try to wear them into government buildings.

I remember the first time I went to the Immigration building here. I just needed to pay for something at the cashier desk. I had on shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. The security guard wouldn’t let me in the door. Even when I pointed at a woman wearing capris walking in right in front of me. My options were to go all the way home and change clothes, which would have required sitting through traffic again and searching for a parking spot, or go shopping. I walked to a department store, a block away, and bought the cheapest jeans I could find, for like $10, just to go into Immigration. The instant wedgie, and the strange discomfort of the material rubbing against my thighs, was worth getting in and out of the Immigration building quickly.

I can’t even wear shorts into my kids’ school. I’ve gotten used to wearing jeans everywhere I go, but one day I just happened to have on a pair of shorts, and the security guard wouldn’t let me enter to pick up my kids. Instead, they sent my kids out with someone.

12. Buses don’t always come to a complete stop – Let me quickly point out that, again, I’m talking about the old Diablo Rojo buses, some of which are still on the road. Back when I was riding the bus to work every day, I got used to the bus not coming to a complete stop for passengers to exit. Oftentimes, if only one or two people were getting off, the driver would step on the brakes just enough to bring the bus to a slow roll. Then the each person hops off at a slight jog so he doesn’t break his neck.

I think that guy just hopped off the bus

I watched one time as an older woman flipped out on the bus driver, yelling at him to stop the bus completely so she could exit safely. I thought the woman was going to hit him with her purse she was so mad.

Also, it’s common for buses to stop in the middle of traffic, not even at a designated bus stop, to let people on and off the bus. So if you ever get off the bus in one of these areas, make sure you watch for passing traffic. Just because the driver opens the door and lets you out, doesn’t mean he’s concerned for your safety.

13. Liquor Testers – This should be on a “greatest things about Panama” list. Almost every weekend, at my local Rey supermarket, a girl is set up in the liquor aisle serving some brand of rum. Free testers in the supermarket! That’s a hell of a way to shop, cruising up and down the aisles while sipping a rum and coke.

At PriceSmart, you might see several of these stands set up. Each one is almost like having a free shot. I’ve had a test cup of Bailey’s Irish Cream, walked a few steps and had a Vodka with cranberry, then a little Amaretto, then I threw up…kidding about the last part. It’s awesome though. Too bad I’m not really a hard liquor drinker. They should give out cups of beer. Come on Atlas, Balboa, Panama, Soberana…bring beer testing into the supermarkets.

14. The Ficha is everything – At my first job in Panama, at one of the call centers, there was a guy going through training with me, who was nuts about the ficha. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He kept asking the trainer, “When are we going to get our fichas?” Every day. “So when are we gonna get our fichas?” He was ficha crazy.

Finally, I asked, “What the hell is a ficha?” His reply? “It’s like gold, man. I need it so I can get a loan.”

Apparently, the ficha, which is just a piece of paper that proves you’ve been working, that you’re paying social security, and shows how much money you’re making, is given out monthly to anyone employed in Panama. That paper is quite useful when going to the free medical clinics, applying for a loan, or trying to rent an apartment. This guy from my training class wanted to buy a TV from one of the stores in town, or something like that, and needed his ficha to prove he was actually employed, so the store would extend him a line of credit.

It’s also something important to hold onto, to prove how much you’ve paid into social security, in case the records are wrong when you decided to retire.

So, if you ever work in Panama, don’t throw away your ficha!

15. Los Bien Cuidados – These are the guys who jump out in front of your car when you’re about to park at a store or restaurant or anywhere else really. They hop in front of you (or behind you if you’re leaving) and start waving their hands around, directing you into your spot (you might already be in the spot) as if they’re a certified air traffic controller.

They take this job very seriously too. They really think it’s their job. And they’re very territorial. Once they claim a store or a spot, you won’t see anyone else try to take it. And the funny thing is, they’re always on time and stick around for a full shift, as if they’re punching the clock. You’d think they were actually hired by the Super 99 supermarket you’re pulling up to. And it’s a good idea to give them some change, if you don’t want to get cursed out, or have trouble the next time you come to the area.

The other night, I went shopping for school lunch stuff with Marlene. We pulled into the parking lot, not a soul in sight. We got what we needed and left. On the way to our car, this guy starts talking to me, in English, about how he grew up in New York. He was friendly, but it was awkward because he followed us all the way to our car and I knew what he was doing. He was going to try to direct us out of our spot. I was in a bad mood that night too, so when I got to the car, I just backed up and left. He wasn’t even there when I arrived, it was about 10pm and I’m fully capable of backing out of a half-empty parking lot, without assistance, so I wasn’t going to pay this guy just for being around. Hopefully my car won’t get keyed the next time I park there, lol.

This happens a lot in the nightclub/casino areas too. I parked on a street that was a couple of blocks away from a casino one night and this guy ran up to me and told me I needed to pay him $2 to park there. It was on a public street. I said, “When I come back.” He insisted that I pay him right then, which I wasn’t going to do, since I was sure he’d be gone and someone else would be there when I got back, wanting his $2. I decided to just use the casino valet, where I knew I could pay $1 and not be bothered.

So that was 15 things you might find a little bit wacky about Panama and its people. This wasn’t meant to be rude or degrading to anyone. It was just for fun, so please, no crazy rants and raves about how I should go back to my own country if I don’t appreciate this one. I love Panama and its people…and its somewhat quirky ways.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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12 Responsesso far.

  1. pete says:

    nice list. i’d like to add a few things too (i’ve lived here for 6 years and love living here too so i have freeness of speech)

    – spending time in chiriqui, panama, darien, bocas, la comarca ngobe and colon, my wife and i find panamanian love for deep fried food interesting. we’ve seen them deep fry anything and everything – especially for breakfast. deep fried cold cuts, deep fried hot dog, deep fried canned tuna – in addition to the usual deep fried things like hojaldras, fish and chicken.

    – we’ve been living in our current apartment for a year now and we call everyone living around us by their first names, and they still call us “neighbor” when they address me. i could be in the middle of a deep hour long conversation with them and they will still call me “neighbor” instead of my name.

    – they display patience and compassion in many areas of their life, but that is all tossed aside when they get behind the wheel of a car or when they get in a bus, or in line. it is like they transform into different people once they do this. line etiquette of any sort does not exist.

    – racial profiling, discrimination, and sexism, are all out in the open and tolerated. granted, it happens a little less in the panama and colon, but just get used to it, as frustrating as it may be. granted, it still exists in the US too, but at least people generally have a fear of doing it to customers and colleagues because they can lose their job if accusations are made. no fear and no shame here in panama

    – in many countries there are sayings along the lines of “the customer is always right” when it comes to shopping and customer service. in panama it is as if the saying should be “the customer is always wrong”. just get used to it. plan for it. if you as a customer play the part of being the unsatisfied customer, the person speaking with you will just dig their heals in and make it harder for you. i let my wife to all the customer service interactions. she plays the part of the helpless female. i know even that sounds sexist for an american to do or say. but at the end of the day, in Panama, it gets results. and when they wont take your faulty purchase back and you will be out a few hundred dollars, or when you have been waiting 2 weeks for them to repair the internet line, you get to the point where you will just do what it takes. they respond to the helpless woman more than they would respond to the unsatisfied customer.

    anyway, i hope i didnt offend anyone. but these are all things that are pretty quirky from an american perspective. i dont think any american who has lived in panama can honestly say they dont notice these things – and the 15 things you mentioned above.

  2. Patti says:

    Regarding jury kidnapping – used to happen in Houston (don’t know if it still does). If enough folks don’t show up for jury duty, the deputies will go outside and “kidnap” you. I used to work near the courts and we were always careful not to get too close early in the morning or at lunch!

    • Chris says:

      Ha, that’s a hoot, Patti. I imagine you guys taking the really long way around just to make sure you avoid the courthouse. That’s funny. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

      Chris

  3. Frank Siclari says:

    Hi Chris. My wife and I are planning to retire in Panama over the next couple of years and your experiences and tips have been very helpful. We love your site, especially your 15 quirky things about Panama and it’s people. My wife is originally from El Salvador. I’m American, born and raised here in the US. Incidentally, they do the same bus thing there. (I almost broke my ankle getting off a bus there twenty years ago. lol) We’ve contemplated retiring in El Salvador, but have decided against it. After a protracted civil war in the 80’s, then years of rampant gang violence and gang dominance, we feel it is still very unsafe and unstable. After much research we have determined that Panama is one of the safest, most affordable and most attractive countries in Latin America. At this stage, we are just trying to find the right place to purchase a home. Without having friends or family there it makes our search it a little more difficult. We are kind of favoring David and think it could be the right fit. We plan to visit next year. Do you plan on doing a video on David? It would be very helpful. We appreciate your insight and all of your great info. Keep up the good work! Y aprovecha tener a una esposa hispana. La esposa puede ser la mejor maestra de espanol! 🙂

    Frank and Miriam
    NYC

    • Chris says:

      Hi Frank,

      Ha, so the same thing goes on the buses in El Salvador? I like David a lot and will definitely do a video on the area. What I can tell you right now is that David, in my opinion, isn’t a super beautiful city. It is a very functional city with beautiful areas all around. I’m telling you this because I recently had someone write me telling me that he was so hyped up to move to David, then after visiting decided he didn’t want anything to do with Panama. David is a great place, super chill compared with Panama City, and it has schools, restaurants and fast food chains you’d be familiar with, plus banks, a large hospital, several big supermarkets…it’s a great alternative to Panama City, but if you’re looking for fields covered in pink flowers and gorgeous mountain views, you might want to try Boquete or Volcan. I hope that all makes sense and doesn’t paint a bad picture of David. In fact, David is one of the places I’d consider moving. I can’t wait to do a video on David and expect that I’ll have one probably within the next few months.

      Thanks for writing, Frank, and for checking out our website!

      Chris

      • Veronica says:

        You also might consider Puerto Armuelles. I love this town! Totally undiscovered, and growing g but still a real bargain. Right on the ocean, with beautiful jungle close by. Great people, a hospital & close to David & the trade free zone at the “Fronterra”.

        • Chris says:

          Hi Veronica,

          A lot of people have been mentioning Puerto Armuelles lately. I definitely need to check it out and see what all the hype is about. It sounds great. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

          Chris

  4. jim says:

    Good articles

    Interesting stories

    You’re very honest about everything
    Regarding Panama

    Wonderful place, but not for everyone

    Please email me when u have a chance

  5. nelva leavitt says:

    Enjoying your reports as always. I’m sad to learn that the custom of giving someone with greater need a bus seat is no longer the norm. When growing up in Panama,it was common to offer one’s seat to seniors, priests, nuns, and anyone who was encumbered by packages. Men often ceded their seat to women, young and older.
    As elementary and secondary school students we all did this on the packed buses that took us to and from school.If a male student gave me his seat, then I would carry his books while he traveled standing. I take it, it was a gentler Panama then.
    About the Ketchup, what a way of insulting someone’s hard work and good seasoning of their arroz con pollo. You know it’s the same dish across the country, but every cook develops his/her own special seasonings and proportions to create their own “arroz con pollo”. In the household where I grew up we never bought and or used ketchup. Not I nor one of my 5 siblings would have thought of echar a perder un buen arroz con pollo o cualquiera otra comida con Ketchup. Pero si se comia papitas fritas con ketchup.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Nelva. I wouldn’t say that chivalry (on the bus) is completely dead. I was on the new Metro train recently. I’d already given up my seat to a young lady and the train was starting to get packed. A group of school kids was seated. When an older lady got on the train, the kids started whispering back and forth until one of them finally gave up his seat to the lady (maybe he drew the short straw, haha). The good thing is someone did give up and offer his seat. So it’s definitely not everyone. It seems these school kids had been taught the correct way to handle things (they just had to decide which of them would be uncomfortable for the rest of the ride). And it’s funny you mention the ketchup thing. My grandmother was very serious about our table manners growing up and would get upset if we added salt, pepper, ketchup or anything else, so I totally get what you’re talking about. Thanks for your comment!

      Chris

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