What are the People of Panama Really Like?

Letters from Panama

November 2020

By David Dell

Panamanian People:  What are They Really Like?

My wife and I have lived-in Panama since 2005. We have had our ups and downs here, everything from natural disasters to serial killers- all in a day’s work for a travel writer.

A question you might and should ask is, “what are the Panamanian people truly like?’ If I retired there, what would they be like to live with? I hate it when writers tease you at the top of an article. Then force you to you read the whole damn piece before you get the answer. I will give it to you straight - right here at the beginning - they are wonderful, warm and respectful people. After 15 years I can say in most of cases - I love them.

Well that could be it, you can pack up and move here right away but please read on and find out the reasons why I have come to this conclusion.


TURN THE CLOCK BACK.

One of the most endearing aspects of the Panamanian culture is they are really old fashioned. Remember the days when people in North America or Europe would greet you on the street or in a restaurant? Remember the times when gentlemen would tip their hat to a lady or open the door for her? Sadly for most of the western world those days have gone – but not in Panama.

If you pass someone on the street in Panama or when you enter a restaurant, it is the norm here to say a greeting. The formal greeting is “Buenos Dias” (assuming it is the morning) the less formal “Hola” is normally for people you know. If you plan to retire here and want a happy retirement, then I believe this is an essential. You will feel more relaxed, the Panamanian’s will love you and most importantly you will show them respect.


ARE THE PANAMANIANS FRIENDLY TO FOREIGNERS?

Yes. My wife and I recently had to make a deposit in a bank in David City Chiriqui. This meant going into the heart of Panama’s third biggest and busiest city and into a large national bank. I am 76 years old and I dare not say how old my dear wife is, save to say that her long, possibly greying hair, might give you some idea.

Outside the bank we stood there, slightly confused trying to debate which entrance to enter and what the Covid-19 protocols might be. The guard approached us and we explained in our best Spanglish what we wanted to do. He took us inside and after a quick discussion with a teller directed us to a clerk sitting at a small desk. The bank clerk, whose name we later found out was George Lohman (he has German ancestors) left his client who he was serving and took us around to a teller. He then quickly filled out the deposit slip for us. He apologized for his English. We in turn apologized for not learning better Spanish. With the deposit made, receipt obtained, we were on our way.


We currently live in Puerto Armuelles, a small fishing port on the Western edge of Panama on the Costa Rican border. There are several large supermarkets here but mostly we shop at our local “Chino”

Recently the SUPER CENTRO BARU Chino has opened a bakery where they bake fresh bread in house. "Oscar" the baker makes a wonderful loaf.

Now the term “Chino” is not a derogatory term for the many Chinese people that live in Panama, it is actually a term of endearment. In fact the president even used that term in a recent speech to the nation on the pandemic. The Chinese run just about every Supermarket and hardware store in Panama. So they call the big stores “chino’s” and the smaller stores are “chinito’s” (little Chinese). The Chinese have been a part of Panama’s growth and development since the days of the Panama railway. They are an important part of the commercial fabric of Panama- to be honest doesn’t everybody now and then enjoy a Chinese meal?

The Chinese are, by nature, a reserved people. They work all the hours God made in their businesses, frequently the entire family works the enterprise. Hardworking and industrious they are- lazy they are not. It took us about a year before we became accepted at our local chino supermarket. Now, as regular customers, the cashier smiles and greets us. In my local Chinese hardware store I am even greeted by name.

The other large group of foreign businesspeople are the Palestinians. In the Border town of PASO CANOAS Palestinians own most of the large department stores. They run a modern, clean and efficient operation. True to their Islamic faith, they will not sell alcohol or pork products.

When we lived-in the mountain town of Volcan I met and struck up a friendship with Mohamed. He was a Palestinian refugee ,originally from the west bank town of Ramallah.

He ran a small clothing store on the main street of Volcan. He told me how he left Ramallah in search of a better life in Panama. In 2008 we had a terrible flood here in Volcan. The rivers overflowed their banks and killed several people. The storm had its worst effect on Chiriqui’s indigenous people. The torrential floods washed many of their homes away.  I was writing for a newspaper in those days and went to the Catholic church in PASO ANCHO to report on it.

It was cold, miserable and wet and dozens of the Ngobe indigenous people huddled in the church pews. Their despair was etched on their faces.

They had lost everything they had. All they did have was the clothes on their backs. That was until - un-announced, a local Palestinian Muslim man arrived with a dozen or more plastic bags full of clothes for the people and toys for the children. From what I am told, he left quickly and quietly, just as he had arrived.  I later found out it was my Palestinian friend, Muhammad.

I would have included his picture with this article but I am sure in his own modest way, he would have declined.

I have written about my local Panamanian friend “Lallo” and his antiquated tractor. Lallo and his family live in basic accommodation.  Everytime I go to his house his wife comes out with a huge warm and genuine smile. My thoughts are always “How can you be so happy, with the little that you have.” There, if anyone can see it, is the secret of the success of Panamanian people. They are the happiest and most content of all the Latino nations that I have witnessed.

To the right: The Samudios.

Alexa, (top left) Enedina (Mother top right) Jose (bottom left) Paola (Bottom right)

The World Happiness Index, in 2014, even acknowledged that fact . They would still be at number one  I am sure, except the people who publish that report changed the criteria, they believe happiness comes more from income than well-being (what are these people thinking?)

Another major group in Panama are the ethnic black people. Generally they originate in the Caribbean and the ancestors most probably came to build or work on the Panama Canal. One of the outstanding people in the black ethnic community is someone I am proud to call my friend. He is the 85-year old, 6-foot three inch tall, former player with San Francisco Giants, Clarel Richards.

Clarel and I used to study the bible each week until the dreaded Covid-19 stopped that. Apart from his short but celebrated career in baseball he was the moving force behind setting up Panama’s day of “ETNIA NEGRA” or Black Ethnicity. Held annually on the 30th of May.

Clarel approached the then Panamanian president, Mireya Moscoso and helped start the movement in the year 2000. As he told me this is NOT a political movement in any way. It is simply a form of recognition and pride for the major contributions ethnic black people have made to Panama.

As you can see in this brief article Panama is a true multicultural/multireligous society. In the wider religious world Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths have hardly ever existed peacefully, side by side. Panama seems to be the one notable exception.

Pictured to the right was my best Panamanian friend, editor and writer IVAN FLORES. Sadly Ivan is no longer with us. He had kidney failure and over 12 years he battled the disease until it eventually claimed him.

Ivan embodied all that is good about these good people. Thank God he spoke perfect English which made my job of working, researching and exploring with him so much easier.

Try to make a friend of a Panamanian and you will find your love and appreciation for these people will improve immensely.

AVOID THE BIG CITIES.

I would strongly recommend not retiring in the big cities. Most retirees in Panama have found their own Shangri-Las in such places as Boquete and Volcan in the mountains of Chiriqui. Here the climate is close to being “Eternal Spring” all year.  If you want beach or oceanside  living then may I recommend Puerto Armuelles. It’s where my wife and I live at the moment. Some of the late, great, Hollywood stars seemed to think this “Key West of Panama” was  wonderful. They regularly came to visit and enjoy the world class fishing.

Yes, my dear Panamanian friends occasionally develop a small dose of the Mexican Manaña. But after a while you may get to realise that things don’t HAVE to be done that day and could easily  be done on another. Hopefully, the peace, happiness and contentment of these wonderful people may rub off on you. Then you will discover that you are living amongst some of the kindest, most considerate and respectful people on this planet.

David Dell

chiriquivillage@gmail.com