I just got back from the grocery store (with 4 kids I’m there daily), and while walking up and down the aisles, I realized there’s still a lot of supermarket taboos I haven’t clued you in on. So in this installment I’m going to talk about some things that don’t necessarily fit in with the other articles I wrote, which were specific to the types of items you might buy. This will be completely random as it’s hard to plan an article like this. So just bear with me.
Where you go to pay your bills
You can pay your bills at the supermarket:
Getting used to paying your bills here can be a real hassle. Back in the States, I had everything set up so that I could pay it online. You can do that here, but it might take you awhile to figure out how to set that up. Most of the banks have a system that allows you to do it online through them, but regardless, when you first move to Panama, you’ll probably struggle with this a little bit.
Paying your bills is actually simple. In fact, it’s so simple and old fashioned that it’s annoying. Most Panamanians, especially the old school ones, like my father-in-law, don’t trust the bank system or any system at all really. Dad-in-law would never go online to pay a bill. He will go directly to the source each and every time, which gets the bill paid, but is a big waste of time, especially with the horrible traffic getting to the branch, and the long lines you’ll stand in when you reach one.
An alternative to going to each utility department (water, electric, cable TV, etc.) is to go to one of the Multi-Pago desks in your local Rey supermarket. Super 99 and the other supermarkets usually have something similar. At these stations, you can pay your bills, send/receive money through Western Union, and a few other things. Having your actual bill with you helps a lot as your customer number, or what they call “NIC” is needed to ensure it’s put into the system correctly.
If you don’t have your bill with you, make sure you know what the NIC # is, so that you can fill out one of the forms, like the one in the photo below:
If you take a look at the photo, you’ll see that quite a bit of info is requested on this form. Here’s what all that means in English:
Cia a pagar = Company you are paying (like Ensa for electric, Cable Onda for cable, etc.)
Fecha = Today’s date.
No. De Cuenta a Pagar = The NIC or customer number.
Nombre del Cliente = Your name (or whoever’s name the account is under).
No. Cedula = The cedula is like the social security number in the United States. It’s a Panamanian’s ID number. If you don’t have a cedula you’ll use the number on your immigration card or your passport number.
Cheque/Effectivo = Put the amount down that you’re paying either with a check (cheque) or cash (effectivo).
Escriba en letras Total del Pago = Here you write out the total amount. I don’t speak/write Spanish yet (not very well anyways) so I usually leave this part blank and they fill it out for me. 😉
Banco/No. Cheque = If you’re using a check to pay, write the bank name and check number here.
No. Telefono = Your telephone number.
See, if you have your bill with you you won’t have to worry about all that. They’ll just stamp the bill and give it back to you as a receipt that you paid.
Cheap Napkins (I told you this was random):
If you’ve ever eaten at a Panamanian restaurant, or one of the small fondas here, you’ve probably noticed the thin, cheap napkins your utensils come wrapped up in. Or the ones you pull out of the napkin dispenser and shred like the toilet paper roll you just can’t seem to find the loose end on.
There’s a reason these are used all over the country. Look at the price. You can’t beat 40 cents, especially when your customer will be long gone before he realizes these things won’t clean a darned thing.
Health/Diet food aisle at Rey in Chanis
I mentioned this in one of the other articles, but I’ll say it again, Panama is finally catching on to sugar-free foods and other health specific items. Most supermarkets now dedicate about half of one side of an aisle (so like a quarter aisle?) to sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free, foods.
Check it out, we even have sugar-free Oreo’s.
Here’s the pet food aisle at the Rey supermarket near my house. Just thought you might like to know that your pet will be able to eat here in Panama. You’d be surprised some of the questions I’m asked, several having to do with the well-being of peoples’ pets.
On a side note, you’ll be shocked at what people feed their dogs here though. I was always taught that chicken bones were too soft for dogs and could cut their throats, but here, I see people feed chicken bones to dogs all the time. I was at a birthday party a couple of weeks ago where people were putting their leftover cake plates on the ground and letting the dog go nuts.
Almost $8 dollars for a 1/2 gallon
Get used to the local ice cream:
I’ve written a lot about the importance of getting used to local brands if you want to save money and actually live that affordable retirement lifestyle you planned for yourself. I know people are very particular about their ice cream. I love Bryers. That’s what I used to buy all the time back in the States. Not here though. Have you seen the price of a 1/2 gallon here? Look at the photo above. It’s almost $8. That’s crazy. I remember getting like 2 for $5 deals or something like that on Bryers ice cream in Ohio.
You’ll pay somewhere around $3 for the same size tub of ice cream if you give the local brands a try. They’re not bad. You won’t find them stuffed with American candy bars like the Bryers Reese’s peanut butter cup, or Twix, or Snickers ice cream, but you’ll find grape nut, pistachio, chocolate almond, rum raisin, etc.
Eggs aren’t refrigerated here
All about eggs:
Don’t be surprised when you search all over the refrigerated areas of your local supermarket, and you can’t find the eggs. You’re not losing your mind. Eggs aren’t refrigerated in Panama. Where you’ll find them depends on each particular store.
At the Rey in Chanis, they’re right above the frozen foods, next to the refrigerated milk section. At the Super 99 in Costa del Este, they’re in a totally different place, at the end of the meat counter on a wooden shelf. At the El Machetazo in San Miguelito they’re in a normal aisle, I think right above the beans. Let the egg hunt begin.
Another eggcelent (I’m such a dork) piece of information to have handy is the eggspiration (ha! I could go all day with this) date is on each individual egg, not on the outside of the carton. Notice that on Panamanian products, the day comes first, then the month, then the year. I’ll talk more about this and how it can cause confusion in a moment.
Watch out for bargains:
Everyone loves a bargain, and nobody knows this better than the Panamanian supermarkets, so expect to see two items taped together for one price, or even a free pack of cookies if you buy a box of brownies. In the photo above you see Chips Ahoy cookies (the ones with Reese’s peanut butter cups) for $1.99. That’s an incredible deal. Those cookies usually cost between $4 and $5.
I’ve learned to be very careful picking up these bargains. A few weeks ago I picked up a deal on instant mashed potatoes. I was in the mood for some garlicy goodness and the store had two boxes taped together for $1.99. I didn’t even think to check the expiration date (and I known better). I went home, whipped up the quick craving fix, but it tasted nasty. It had a funky, old taste. When I checked the box, they’d expired about a month before.
That’s usually the case with these bargain bins. I think in the U.S. it’s illegal to sell expired items. Here, I’ve seen expired milk for sale, expired juice, cookies, macaroni & cheese, and all kinds of other stuff. Those great 2×1 deals most of the time are either about to expire, or are already expired. So check carefully.
Speaking of expiration dates, remember what I said above about the eggs? The date here is written differently. It’s day/month/year. Learning that is not so difficult. Where things get confusing is how the stores also sell imported items. Those will have the date the American way. And where it gets even more confusing is that some of the items you think are imported, aren’t. Panama has distributors of American brand name products.
Fruit Loops might be imported (it will usually say somewhere on the box), but they might not be. If you didn’t notice the box, you’ll definitely figure out when you take a bite. Some items taste better here and some taste worse, but either way, the taste is usually different. I was a huge Pepsi fan in the States. Pepsi here is too strong. It’s too acidy for me. I prefer Coke in Panama. Domino’s Pizza is better here.
When I said the expiration date can be confusing, look at the photo above. I picked up this package of saltine crackers and found a great example. The “best before” date is 8/9/13. If you’re shopping in the middle of August, what do you do? Ok, you could just say, “Screw the saltines.” But let’s imagine you’re just dying to eat this brand of cracker. Come on, play along.
If you’re going by the American way of writing the date, you’re screwed, they’re already expired. If it’s the Panama date, woohoo, you’ve got almost a month left. See what I mean?
This happened to me one time with a package of Chewy Chips Ahoy. I try not to eat a lot of sweets, but for some reason I had a real hankering for chewy chocolate chip cookies. I wound up not buying the cookies because I couldn’t figure out if they were expired or not. And if you think it doesn’t matter, I assure you it does. I’ve bought a box of Duncan Hines browny mix once without checking the expiration date and when I got home, I found the mix full of bugs. I grabbed a pack of Fig Newtons once that was covered in mold. So trust me, be careful.
I was at a conference once, for one of those “live and retire in a foreign country” companies I used to work for. One of the readers approached me and asked where he could find cough drops. I happened to be headed towards the pharmacy, so I told him he could tag along. We got to the store, and neither of us could find the cough drops. I’d never bought cough drops since moving to Panama, and I, like this guy, was looking for one of the big sacks of Hall’s cough drops.
My Spanish speaking ability was much worse then than it is now, and his was non-existent, so in the end, we didn’t find cough drops. A couple of days later, it hit me. I always see cough drops at the cash register. They’re sold here in packs, like gum. And they’re right there with the gum. In fact, cough drops in Panama are treated a lot like candy. Kids buy them for a nickel a piece, the little individually wrapped ones, at any of the mini-supers.
So if you’re every looking for Hall’s, you won’t find them in the medicine aisle like you might expect. You’ll find them with the candy.
The Deli Counter:
I won’t say much about the deli counter. Queso is cheese, and all of the other cheese related words are pretty much the same. You can point and read the package or the sign when you order.
Ham is jamon and turkey is pavo. What you will notice at the deli are the words ahumado, which means smoked, and cocido, which means cooked. Just get used to saying una libra, which is one pound, or media libra, which is half a pound.
Roots are used a lot here for cooking, especially in soups. This may be something new to you, or maybe not at all. In South Florida, I’m sure because of the huge Latin population there, it was common to see yucca, otoe, and sometimes even ñame. All of these taste awesome in soup. Most are sort of like potato, but usually a little chewier. I’m sure at some point I’ll throw a recipe onto this site and you’ll see some of the roots mentioned in it. Like san cocho, which is a delicious chicken soup that’s super popular here.
One of the coolest things about the produce area is the option to pick up pre-chopped vegetables. Usually you’ll see packs (like the ones on the far left in the photo above) of carrots, potatoes, corn, and some other items used for soup packaged together. It’s also common to see yucca or ñame packaged by itself. So if you don’t feel like putting in the hard work, and you just want to easily drop your soup additions into a pot of boiling water, pick up these packs and make it easy on yourself.
Cilantro is a staple in most Panamanian dishes. When I lived in the States, just the smell of cilantro would remind me of Panama. If you’ve never used it before, grind some up and sprinkle it practically anything you’re cooking. It’s one of those things you either love or you hate. Some people can’t stand even the smell of it. I love the stuff and welcome it to any dish. I’ve even added it to my spaghetti sauce.
Here are a few other Spanish terms for items in the produce department:
Ajo = garlic
Aji = peppers (like aji dulce are usually the little red, green, and yellow sweet peppers)
Maiz = corn
Cebolla = onion
Papa = potato
Zapayo = squash
Tomate = tomato
Pepino = cucumber
Lechuga = lettuce
Repollo = cabbage
The last thing I want to add to this completely random list of information is the pounds to kilogram conversion chart I saw this morning at Rey when I was picking up three pounds of pulpa negra. You can order things by the pound here, do it’s not something you really need to worry about, but it just gives you an idea of what the difference is.
Thanks again for reading and for keeping up with these supermarket tips. I think this will be the final installment (until next time I’m shopping and I think of something else to mention).
This article was originally written on 3/6/2013
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