Who Killed Casco Viejo?

Who Killed Casco Viejo?

The Casco Killer

Lovers of Casco Viejo (Casco), I have troubling news. I’ve caught the killer of Casco.  Sure, this photo looks like an innocent steel survey platform. But, don’t be fooled. On the portable platform they are plotting to kill Casco. Digital devices stationed here will release data detailing a plan that wraps a 1950s-style superhighway around Panama’s historic peninsula of Casco. This will be the death of the Casco —  te lo jurro, aweboa! (I swear to you, a-Panamanian-word-that-I-have-no-idea-how-to-translate).

Some background: Casco is a UNESCO World Heritage site. So too are Stonehedge, Machu Picchu and Vatican City. There are approximately 1000 in the world, and Panama has 5. UNESCO is a prestigious international designation of Panamanian history and culture.

UNESCO has warned Panama’s politicians about the Cinta Costera 3.  In fact, they’ve officially sent a 54 page report that specifically mentions it (see page 6). UNESCO frequently interacts with double talk countries. They don’t have time for games.  If you renege on your commitment, they simply pull you from their internationally renowned list.  Casco will be no different.

UNESCO designation is important to Casco. It has spurred the colonial district’s revitalization. Prior to UNESCO’s arrival in 1997, Casco Viejo was Panama’s forgotten neighborhood. The majority of its buildings were deserted. Civil services had been neglected. Gang violence was rampant. As my local friends tell me, “Chuleta!  Antes no podias andar en el Casco!” (Pork Chop!  Before you couldn’t walk in the Casco). Casco’s soul was on life support.

Today, times have changed. UNESCO’s designation has reinvigorated Casco. Careful historic restoration throughout the neighborhood is on the move. Don’t take my word for it. Walk the calles of Casco. The progress is palpable, Papa.

This momentum has energized Casco. This once sometimes-shaddy neighborhood, is now Panama’s cultural heartbeat.  Come for Jazz Fest weekend or attend an Art Block crawl, you’ll be impressed. Better yet, treat yourself to a Cena Cine at Diablo Rosso, or check out Rolando De Sedas’ trademark ladies painted on the walls of Villa Agustina.  Casco has culture.    Like a local computer programmer friend who rents a desk at The Casco Station told me, “All the coolest things in Panamanian culture are happening in Casco.”

Villa AgustinaUNESCO has brought Casco back to life. It’s exciting to see. So, why kill it?

Technically speaking, building a Casco-killing highway is against the law. Both international accords  and local Panamanian law. Killing Casco Viejo is economically suicidal for two reasons:

First, it sends the wrong message about strict Casco’s historical guidelines. If the government itself breaks Casco laws, then why should anyone else follow them?   Expect to see builders adding extra floors and other non-historical elements to Casco’s buildings. Once the historical integrity is jeopardized, Casco’s authentic allure will be dead.

Without authenticity, the neighborhood will begin a downward spiral that will only accelerate. Its historical value will be gone. It will no longer attract artists, musicians, writers, or passionate community members committed to pumping Casco’s cause. Its culture will be gone. With no historical integrity or community contributors, the tourism money will go away. Casco will revert back to Panama’s forgotten neighborhood.  Que lastima! (What a damn shame!)

Secondly, breaking the law is bad for Panama’s international image. Currently, Panama is running ads declaring,  “We Are Open For Business”. The goal is to attract more foreign investment to the isthmus.

However, defying laws and public institutions and instilling investor confidence are mutually exclusive. It reinforces the perception held by two of the world’s most respected news organizations – The Economist and New York Times – that Panama is rapidly becoming corrupt to its core. This small country is turning into a kleptocracy.

If Panama wants to be, “Open For Business” it must have strong public institutions.  Laws need to be followed.  Otherwise, Panama cannot achieve its stated goal: to become the business hub of The Americas.

Let me give you an example. You are a foreign investor who is interested in investing in Panama. You believe Casco is a good investment.  It has UNESCO’s international prestige that will attract tourism for years to come. Plus, its historical integrity is protected by both national law and international accords.  You confidently open a business/invest capital in a country that enthusiastically courts foreign investment. You’ve picked Panama.

Suddenly, the government breaks its own laws and international commitments. It unilaterally forces an infrastructure project that removes the UNESCO designation. This has a negative impact on your investment. Your confidence is Panama’s legal system is gone.  Investors don’t like countries who presidents act like dictators. Just ask Venezuela.

Bottomline: Don’t kill Casco. It has been reborn. The progress has come too far and means too much to Panama’s history, culture, and general economy to be put to death.  Por favor, deja El Casco en PAZ! (Leave Casco in peace).

Joining Neighborhood Watch

Joining Casco’s Neighborhood Watch

I didn’t want to join Casco’s neighborhood watch team.  During the meeting it was being formed, I tried to sneak out.  I sat for an hour with fellow residents of Casco.  My mind intensely focused on decoding the high level Spanish spoken by civic leaders as they discussed the creation of an official Casco neighborhood watch.  This made me sleepy.  I had planned to quietly creep out and watch an episode of Mad Men.  As soon as I reached the exit door, someone called my name.

A friend: “Evan, you should join.”
Me: “Is there responsibility involved? I don’t like commitment.”
A friend: “Yes, but I’ll help you.  Just do it.”
Me: “…Dale.”

Five minutes later I raised la mano derecha and was sworn in.  I’m now a serving member of Casco’s neighborhood watch group.

Some backstory:  Casco is in turmoil.  The massive street and underground infrastructure project is suffocating the neighborhood.  Everyone in Casco has been adversely affected.  Even long established small business like Platea, Cafe Rene, and Forchetta, are on the verge of going under because they have been inaccessible.

The project began badly with widespread incompetency.   Merchants and residents were provided only a week notice prior to the commencement of the 18 month overhaul with no opportunity to provide ideas to minimize impact.  New traffic circulation routes were not adequately signaled.  Accessible parking has disappeared.  To make matters worse, the inferior bricks were initially laid and had to be replaced.  People are as mad as hell.

The situation has put SPI in charge.  SPI’s core function is to private security – protect Panama’s president.   Not community relations.  Yet, their commission is to perform damage control.

Approximately one month ago, a meeting was called (see photo above).  The people of Casco discussed their frustrations with civic leaders, the construction company, and SPI.  Typically, these townhall-style meetings accomplish little.  The meetings lack written agendas.  Individual rants too often derail constructive conversations.  The time spent was often times unproductive.

Evan Terry Forbes

But this time was different.  At the end of the meeting, a neighborhood watch group was formed.  These sworn in individuals would directly collaborate with SPI in order to improve the situation.  It’s believed that less cooks in the kitchens might yield better results.  So far, here is what we’ve been working on:

1. Police Reports:  Officially reporting a crime is ridiculously challenging.  Every government agency tells you to talk to someone else.  It’s easier to dance Passa Passa while twirling a hula hoop than to file a police report successfully.

Community’s proposed solution:  Create an online form.  This simple field allows Spanish and English speakers to communicate with SPI.  Proper police filings are still required.  However, this allows residents to access records and therefore keep authorities accountable.

2. Tranque (traffic):  Construction has eliminated the use of a significant number of streets.  Unfortunately, the traffic volume has not been reduced.  As a result, traffic gridlock is overwhelming.

Community’s proposed solution:  Step 1 –  Shuttle government officials to and from the Causeway/Cinta Costera into Casco.  This would eliminate their cars clogging the streets.  It would also release spaces in both parking garages, since government vehicles currently occupy the majority of available spaces.

Shuttling government employees was an idea from the government.  A rather good one.  Casco’s community just wants them to follow through with it.

Step 2 – Make Casco pedestrian only.  Many historic districts around the world have successfully implemented pedestrians restrictions (see Europe).  In order to preserve the nuevecito laid brick, Casco should be pedestrian only as well.

3. Break-ins:  The infrastructure project has increased the volume of people circulating through Casco.  An increase in petty crime was bound to happen.

SPI proposed solution:  Visit every building in Casco.  Propose a list of preventive security recommendations (fortified doors, cameras, etc).  In addition, record employee information of those buildings in case they need to be contacted.  Great idea.

4.Bien cuidados:  Very polarizing subject.  Some people see this as extortion.  Others see it as part of Panamanian culture.  Regardless, some level of organization must happen.  Charging $3-$5 to help park cars is thought to be outrageous.

Community’s proposed solution:  Register the bien cuidados.  Parking assistance is needed.  However, there should be some stipulations: Bien cuidados must register with the SPI.  They must be identifiable (badge, shirt, etc) and be over the age of 21.  Lastly, tipping is not an obligation.

*Note ”Proposed solution” from both SPI and Casco community are not official nor supported by every member.  Rather some popular ideas.

Lately, this administration has been accused of not listening to others.  That it acts more like a dictator than a president.  On the other hand, collaborating with the SPI has been the opposite.  They’re accessible and are trying to improve the situation. It has been a delightful experience.


The Search For Community In Panama

One of the most comprehensive studies on happiness ever done was recently released. Among its many conclusions, the most interesting deal with the causes of human happiness. The study found that material items such as nice cars, new clothes and luxury homes give off a chemical release in the brain. The release is short-lived and individuals adapt to their new possessions. After a short period of time they are no happier than they were before. Whereas, long-term, sustained, happiness is found in a sense of purpose, close friendships and a sense of community. People who developed a strong sense of community were significantly more happy throughout their life than those who had not.

Foreigners moving to Panama, often overlook the importance of a strong community. They’re drawn to Panama by postcards and Internet advertising claiming that you can “Live in Paradise for dollars a day!” (Highly misleading. “Dollars a day paradises” can be found only if your paradise includes cement walls, dirt floors and inconsistent running water.)

To this group of people, Panama is a pre-defined picture. It’s a search for a secluded bungalow on a white sand beach, a mountain villa with a picturesque view of Panama’s highlands, or a spotless midtown condominium minutes away from a fantastic nightlife. These people believe the sales brochures. Buy this and you buy paradise. The sales agents will not tell you that “paradise” is boring unless you have a connection to other people, unless you belong to a community.

My personal story is a testimate to the need for long term happiness.

My first years in Panama City were spent in a high-rise building.  It was located downtown. I had more than ample space and a great view of the city skyline. I was within walking distance to grocery stores, gyms and the nightlife. I had everything a bachelor could ever ask for.

Approximately 20 other families occupied my high-rise apartment building. Besides brief greetings in the elevator, I personally knew only a couple of them. Below my apartment building, there were many shops. However, I frequented few of them. Nearby my apartment building, I had many friends. Yet, I visited few of them. I thought I had found a perfect high-rise apartment.  But, after a year of living in it, I became bored.

The void in my Panama life was a lack of community. I had been a person who enjoyed social interaction.  Yet, in my bachelor pad, there was practically none amongst my immediate neighbors.

In search of a change, I relocated to Casco Viejo.  It was an up-n-coming neighborhood that was rough around its edges.  At the time, only a handful of my friends lived in the-sometimes-dodgy neighborhood.  Yet, the few that did, were passionate about living there. Intrigued, I decided to give it a shot.

My acclimation to Casco was quick. Within the first few weeks, I was friends with the rich and poor and the young and old around me. I made habit of spending my dollars at local small businesses and attending local meetings. I genuinely care about the welfare and prosperity of the community and its people. My people.

My apartment is a fraction of the size of my former apartment and without any views. I am not centrally located. The nearest gym or proper grocery store is a planned trip away. In spite of what many would consider a drop in my standard of living, I am happier.

Generally, the people who are the most satisfied with Panama have connected with their community.  The ones that leave after a year or two, haven’t.  Strong communities can be found in places that undertake initiative projects.  When people coordinate social events, culturally intermix, start small businesses, and strive to better their neighborhood, real communities and happy people are the result.

What follows is a quick rundown of the places I believe have the strongest/weakest sense of community in Panama:

Casco Viejo – Like previously mentioned.

Pedasi – A throwback to the front porch culture.  Everyone seems to rock in their chairs and say hello to neighbors and strangers alike.

Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro –  One of Panama’s only true beach towns.

Coronado –  Stale high rise apartment towers lining the beach.  Very little limited access to outsiders.

Lotted Communities like Altos Del Maria –  The biggest complaint from residences is “I feel alone living up there.”

New High-Rise Towers in Panama City  –  Most likely half the building is unoccupied.  The other half of the residence are more likely to sit alone by the rooftop pool than have dinner with their neighbor.

Boquete -  Most people would disagree and say that Boquete has a vibrant local and international community.  However, what turns me off to Boquete is the fact that most foreigners burrow themselves in the hills. They’re far away from the town center.  Cultural interaction with the locals is minimal as well.

Moving to Panama is not easy.  It’s a different language and a different pace of life.  If you feel like you are a part of the community, you’ll love Panama.  If you do not, your time here will not be long.

Dissecting Panama’s Poor Customer Service

Dissecting Panama’s Poor Customer Service.

Panama has a reputation for poor customer service.  Yet, discussing this topic is polarizing:  Grumpy Gringos broadly generalize that ALL customer service in Panama as awful. Not true.   I employe/work with Panamanians who give excellent customer service. I have received great customer service.  Great customer service in Panama does exist.

On the other hand,  SOME hyper sensitive Panamanians denounce any critique made by a foreigner with a “Go home Gringo!”.   This to is stupid.  Poor customer service adversely affects all consumers – Panamanians and Gringos. Everyone should get fired up.

Evan Terry Forbes

Let’s compare two similar businesses to illustrate my poor customer service point.  Recently, I visited Panama’s Price Smart and Seattle’s Costco.  The two retailers have nearly identical bussiness models:  A warehouse club that allows members household items in bulk.  Their store layouts and products are indistinguishable.   The only obvious differences are the company colors and the fact that Costco dishes out mucho mas yummi food samples. I’ve been a long time member at both.

Yet, the customer service experience is vastly different.   Let’s dissect it:


I arrive at Costco with two tasks to accomplish:  1) Help return my friend’s bike, and 2) Fill my fridge with food.

My friend bought a mountain bike months ago.  He had used it a couple times.  Now,  he wants to return it without a receipt.   To complicate matters,  he accidentally forgot the combination to his after-market bike lock.  It’ll be strapped on the bike forever.   Yet, even with these two complications, all goes well.

A 30 year old-ish customer service representative (Ms. Customer Rep): “Hello! How can I help you guys today?”
Me:  “He wants to return the bike. However, we’ve forgotten the combination to the lock and he has no receipt. Is that going to be a problem?”
Ms. Customer Rep: “No problem.  Let me pull up your record….  Yes, it appears you bought the bike three months ago.  I’ll take care of everything.  Would you like store credit or cash?”
My friend: “Store credit is fine.”
Ms. Customer Rep: “Great.  Here is your store credit.  I hope you have a wonderful day!”
Me: “Outstanding.”

Ms. Customer Rep acted upbeat and professional.  She solved our problem quickly and to our satisfaction.   In a matter of minutes,  we were spending more money in Costco.    Costco’s return policy and its people are so fantastic that shoppers will overpay for their merchandise.  That includes me.

We fill our cart with groceries and bellies with food samples.   Time to checkout.    The lines are long, but they’re moving briskly.  Again, each checkout operator looks to be over 30 years old, mature, and on the move.  In addition, there are floor helpers to assist shoppers – a couple managers floating too.  Any checkout disruptions are handled instantaneously.

Mr. Register: “Did you find everything okay today?”
Me: “Yes.  The muffin samples were particularly delicious.”

While Mr. Register and I banter back and forth, a floater starts boxing our order.  The checkout is a smooth, synchronized process.

Mr. Register: “All set.  Your total was $XXX.  I hope you have a great day!”

As I leave the store I’m feeling satisfied and even more loyal to Costco.

Price Smart:

I need to accomplish three tasks:  1) Return a computer. 2) Get a record of a receipt. 3) Buy gift certificates.    Unlike Costco, my experience wasn’t pleasant.

A 21 year old customer service rep (Ms. Joven): “Buenos dias.  Como le puedo auydar?” (Good day.  How can I help you?)
Ms. Joven’s body language is different from Costco’s Mr. Customer Rep.  Ms. Joven looks uninterested. A smile has long left her face.

Me:  “I need to return this computer. It’s broken.”
Ms. Joven: “Solo hay 15 dias para devolver la mercancia. Y usted debe que tener la factura.” (There is only 15 days to return the merchandise.  And, you must have the reciept)
Me: “I know.  Yesterday I unsuccessfully tried to return the computer without la factura.  Lesson learned.” I hand her the receipt.
Ms. Joven: “Presenteme su identificación.” (Present me your ID)
Me:  “Do you see my photo on the membership card?  Anyways, here is an additional form of ID.”
Ms. Joven: “Cuál es su….” (What is…)

A series of questions ensue.  She further verifies my membership and carefully examines my factura.  I feel like she is suspiciously searching for a flaw.  Any reason NOT to take back my 7 day old broken computer.   This is a far different experience from Costco’s liberal (and friendly) return policy.   Ms. Joven is acting like an insurance adjuster trying to deny a claim.

Me: “Also, Ms. Joven, could you do me another favor.  Could you please print out a facutra from a past transaction.  I lost it. I need documentation of it for 2011 accounting purposes.  It would be registered under….”

Ms. Joven cuts me off.

Ms. Joven: “El gerente no está aquí.” (The manager is not here)
Me: “Ok.  When will he be back?”
Ms. Joven: “Mañana.”
Me: “No bueno.  I’m here today.  Mañana is pretty busy for me. Could you help me out?”
Ms. Joven: “Lo siento, pero NO ES posible.”  (Sorry, but it is not possible)
Me: “Wouldn’t looking up my membership record provide a list of my past transaction?”
Ms. Joven: “No se puede.” (No I can’t)
Me: “Maybe another manager is on duty?  They could help me out.”

I’m feeding Ms. Joven possible solutions.  She is not being creative or helpful.

Ms. Joven: “No…  Bueno, si.  Pero ella está ocupada.” (No…Well, yeah.  But she is busy)
Me: “You say “no” mucho.”

Now I’m just being a smart ass.

Sensing my attitude Ms. Joven says, “Bueno. Dejame ver si alguien me puede ayudar.” (Well, let me see if there is someone who can help you).

A couple minutes later, a manager comes down.

Me: “Hey Mr. Manager.  I’m Evan.  I have a business account with you.  Could you help me out?”
Mr. Manager: “Hmm…. realmente, no estoy trabajando. Y tengo que irme. Pero, este vez, voy a auydarte.” – He emphasis the fact that he is doing ME a favor.  (Actually, I’m not working and I have to leave.  But, THIS TIME, I can help you)
Me: “Chucha de tu madre!  Tell me “Con mucho gusto!” and find my receipt with a smile!  My company spends 10k/year at your store!”  is what I think.  I actually say, “Thank you sooooo much Mr. Manager. You’re toooo kind!”

I proceed to shop.  At checkout, the lines are long too.  It’s quincena (payday).  Quincenas in Panama are on par with the busiest shopping days in the USA – think Black Friday.

At the register, I give the register lady (Ms. Register) full disclosure.  My order will be complicated because A) business accounts takes several steps in order to comply with government regulations.  B) I’m ordering gift certificates – which seems simple, but Price Smart makes it super complicated.

Me: “We can do all of this?” I need reassurance.
Ms. Register:  “Con mucho gusto!” (With pleasure!)

I love when they say that.

Ms. Register is doing an excellent job.  Not only are we proceeding at a rapid pace, she is laughing at my jokes.  I’m feeling happy.  Ms. Joven and Mr. Manager had set my service expectations very low.

Yet, there is a small snag:  The gift certificate code is nowhere to be found.  Ms. Register presses the assistance button.  Nobody comes.  She scans the floor for a floater.  Nadie (nobody).   Management has imcompanitenly not scheduled additional help during the busiest day of the month.  Ms. Register is on her own.

Pressure is mounting.  We’ve been stalled for multiple minutes.  Shoppers waiting in line are tapping their toes impatiently. Ms. Register is forced to leave her post.  She seeks the certificate code sola.

She returns 5 minutes later.

Ms. Register: “Perdóneme, Señor.” (Please forgive me Sr.)
Me:  “It’s not your fault.  You are doing a great job. Management let you down.”

As I left Price Smart, my feeling about their customer service was one of frustration coupled with a slight onset of rage.

If I’m jefe of Price Smart tomorrow, I immediately do three things:

- Staff more.  High volume days (like quiencena) must have all hands on deck.  Ms. Register was providing great customer service.  However, she was under resourced.  Members were irritated by the slow check out process.

- Staff better.  A company should staff some of their best employees in places that interact with customers.  In the case of Coscto, their customer service staff consisted of mature and motivated 30 year olds.  On the other hand,  Price Smart placed mostly apathetic 20-somethings in this department.  The difference in the customer service experiences was dramatic.

- Surveys.  Price Smart should email out a quarterly/yearly member satisfaction surveys.  This would provide honest feedback from their current members about their Price Smart experience.  A simple and cheap way to improve operations.

Truth be told, frustration, rage, and hopelessness are reoccurring emotions for us Panama consumers.  Just ask anyone who has a Cable and Wireless or HSBC account, flown Air Panama/Aeropearlas, or interacted with an immigration officer at Tocumen International Airport.   Big companies and a bureaucratic government in Panama give awful customer service.

So, customer service in the USA is perfect, right?   No.   My recent return flight to Panama stopped at LAX.  Untied Airlines’ Mr. Counter Clerk was an asshole.  USA has poor customer service too.

Here is the difference:  After every flight United emails me a, “Let us know about your trip” survey.  I unloaded on the comment box.  I (the customer) have some recourse.   Something like a satisfaction survey shows that the airline giant United attempts to care about their customer’s experience.   In my 5 years as a consumer in Panama, very, very few times have I ever seen a medium or big sized company considering their customer experience.  I feel like few even know customer service exist.

My Casco Crossfit

My Casco Crossfit

Take a look below. You’ll see a young man on your far left confused and vulnerable at Panama’s Flash Mob in Multi Plaza. That was me.

Panama Flash Mob

Seeing that photo changed my life for two reasons: First, it dashed any dreams I might have had of becoming a professional dancer. Even though I think I possess better-than-average rhythm for a white boy, this photo proved otherwise. Secondly, I realized I had became uncomfortably chubby. Too many fried empanadas and patacones had transformed my normally athleticly built body into something that resembled soft chewed bubble gum. Changed was needed.

Evan Terry Forbes

So, I started Casco’s Crossfit (Top Level Gym). My early adopter friend Dan from OfertaSimple.com had been one of the first persons to sign up with Top Level Gym when they relocated to Casco. Dan convinced me to join. “Evan, don’t make excuses. Just do it.”… So, I did.

From the beginning, I liked Crossfit’s concept: Multi joint combination anaerobic and aerobic exercises for 15-20 minutes. The routines continuously vary in order to constantly surprise your muscles. I’m in and out, and on with my day in less than 25 minutes.

My first week was rough. Muscles that I never knew existed were sore. But, by weeks two and three I began to see improvements. Most exciting to witness was that body flab started to turn firm again! In four weeks, I was in some of the best shape of my life.

In 15 minutes of Crossfit, I burn more calories than in 1 hour and 15 minutes of running. In 15 minutes of Crossfit, I’d gotten a more well rounded exercise than in an 1 hour and 15 minutes in the PowerClub.  Too many distracting fake boobs bouncing on the treadmills. Crossfit is short and works your ass out!

Casco Crossfit is not for everyone. I don’t even try to recruit my friends who are the “I’ll start working out mañana” types. Half ass commitments don’t cut it. Procrastination doesn’t let your body acclimate to the routine. Pretending to exercise by riding the elliptical machine for 27 minutes at the Powerclub or “running” once a week in Parque Omar is best for them. Crossfit doesn’t want them anyways.

See La Mama and I’s Casco Crossfit photos here.

Panama’s Divided Dinner Party

Panama’s Divided Dinner Party

I’m sitting at the middle of a dinner table.  It’s my friend’s birthday party.  She has invited about 20 people.  Both Spanish and English speakers.  We’re having a good time.

To my right are Gringos.  These are not solely Caucasian North Americans.  This group of “Gringos” also includes people of Latino heritage that grew up in North America.  They’re culturally Gringo.  Everyone on this side of the table speaks an intermediate level of Spanish or better.  Yet, they feel most comfortable while conversing in English.

Evan Terry Forbes

To my left, are white collar Panamanians.  They all speak English well.  They all are familiar with American culture from music, movies, and/or briefly living/traveling to the US.  However, they feel most comfortable conversing en Español.  Claro.

Throughout the 2-hour dinner party there is little cross conversation happening between the two groups.  Sure, everyone exchanges pleasantries.  And, there even are genuine attempts at small talk: “What  do you do? – “How long have you been in Panama?  - “Como se dice eso?”  etc.  Yet, the small talk last no more than 10 to 20 minutes. Nothing deep or substantial.    The natural conversation happens within the groups with storytelling, gossip, and inside jokes.  The dinner party is divided.

I’m gravitating towards the Gringo right where conversation is obviously easier.  But, since I strive to someday smoothly transition between both Gringo and Latino worlds, I’m making concentrated attempts to initiate conversation with the Latino left.  Small talk is fine. Storytelling seems to be my problem.

Divided dinner parties like these are common.  People have a natural tendency to organize themselves into social circles where they are comfortable.   In a 2-hour seated dinner party, when you’re locked into conversation, it is most comfortable to communicate in your first language.   A little alcohol helps loosen the tongue as well.

Few people can smoothly crossover between both Latino and Gringo worlds.  These typically include people who are in intercultural dating relationships.  Each partner’s different cultural background gives extensive experience in multicultural settings.

Language proficiency is not as important as you think.   100% bilingual people sometimes sit silent or participate more in a particular group/language.   On the other hand,  I’ve seen many people butcher Spanish or English, yet they carry on conversations for hours.

In my early days of Spanish, I sat at the bar shoulder to shoulder with Guatemalan farmers.  I didn’t understand 70% of what they were telling me.  Yet, we talked for hours, laughed together,  and even hugged when we parted. It was a miracle. Cultural curiosity was the connection.

Next time you are at a dinner party, do me a favor:  Look to your right.  Look to your left.  What do YOU see?

Problems Being El Patrón

Problems being El Patrón

El Patrón: Directly translates to “the landlord”. But, it is more commonly referred to as a Boss/King/Ruler of a particular universe.

A Panamanian friend, “Evan, you are too nice.”
Me, “I know. I’m sorry.”
A Panamanian friend, “You can NOT be nice to people who work for you.”
Me, “I understand. I’ll try to be meaner.”

I’m having problems running a business in Panama. Some employees take advantage of my kindness. Contractors are vivo (shady) with my easy going nature. If I give an inch, people take miles. In order to be successful, apparently you have to be a hardass.

To be honest, I don’t feel comfortable being a hardass. I don’t mind if you come in 15 minutes late. I don’t think I’ve earned enough stripes in life to talk down an elder just because I have a superior job title. I am not a drill sergeant. Fear and intimidation are not my tactics. Being a hardass is just not congruent with my personality.

Evan Terry Forbes

I prefer to lead a team of equals. I ask people to address me with the informal “tu” form of Spanish. I enjoy building relationship report. I frequently delegate decision making to people on the ground level. I like to give freedom and flexibility to people as long as the job gets done. Energy and excitement are the motivation tactics.

Yet, both foreigners and locals have repeatedly told me that I’m being naïve. Panama requires a stone cold approach in order to, “get shit done!”:

An interior designer once told me, “In Canada, I enjoyed chumming up with the construction workers. I can’t do that in Panama. I have to be strict, almost mean. Otherwise, my delivery deadlines don’t get met.”.

Another friend running a fairly large company explained to me, “Delegating decision making is the way American companies operate. This does not work in Panama. In Panama, if you are the head of the company, you’re considered ‘El Patrón‘. You’ll have low level employees bypassing their mid-level managers to talk to you.

For example, I have had maintenance men come to my office just to tell me they have a doctor’s appointment. I repeatedly tell them, “Hey, you don’t need to tell ME. Tell your SUPERVISOR, por favor. Nearly everything requires my approval. Even trivial stuff. ”

There are various levels of “El Patrón”. Patrónes are the heads of wealthy households with a couple helping hands (maid, gardener, driver, etc). Patrónes are the managers and owners of large and small businesses. They can also be publicly elected officials. There are both big and small Patrónes.

Popular mainstream culture showcase Patrónes: El Chance, US NAVY, Los Ricos Tambien Roban, and Sueños de Verano are all very popular in Panama. All have a Patrón(a) character. It should be no surprise that this ruler-of-the-fiefdom attitude permeates Panama’s business culture too.

The negative aspect of Patrón-ism is that it condescendingly commands people. Patrónes constantly assert their control over others. Paranoia of being overtaken/screwed over is rampant. This conventional wisdom believes that acts like kindness, compassion, or even investing in human capital are signs of weakness.  There is an adversarial relationship between a Patrón and the people he/she oversees.

Yet, Patrón-ism is not all bad. It has taught me some useful things: Always double check. Don’t be afraid to assert your authority. Document everything in writing. You can never get complacent. Indeed, these tips have been useful.

That being said, I fundamentally don’t agree with Patrón-ism. I see two major flaws:

#1: Business. Patrón-ism centralizes decision making. Leaders dictate the “plan”. This is not the way to build a great company. In the book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t“, Jim Collins argues that great companies let ground level ideas percolate up. Patrón-ism doesn’t encourage this environment.

Furthermore, a Patrón-ism environment distracts attention. Menial daily decision making (sick days, seeking approval on everything, etc) is overwhelming and exhausting for leaders of companies. Babysitting is a waste of time.

#2: Karma. Patrón-ism is bad Karma. The “Great Law Of Karma” is most commonly expressed as “what goes around comes around”.  Patrón-ism’s abrasive and condescending behavior with employees inherently produces negative energy. Karma tells us that this negative energy will return itself to these Patrónes.

So, my choice is clear: a) adapt to Panama’s Patrón business culture in order to be successful. Or, b) sleep well at night knowing that I’m not an asshole.  Hopefully there’s a middle ground.  I just haven’t found it, yet.

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King Of Panama For A Day

King Of Panama For A Day.

If Panama were to make me King for a day, it would be glorious.  The night prior to my reign, we would all have a giant fiesta.  Everyone would sip on pintas (beers) and enjoy free papas fritas (french fries).  Ohh, how glorious it would be!

But, seriously, after the hangovers wore off, there would be work to be done.  My royal efforts would need to be focused.  Panama (like everywhere) has many pressing issues.  It would be overwhelming to tackle all its issues in one day.  So, I would only concentrate on implementing solutions to two problems:  Public Education and Traffic.

Evan Terry Forbes

Problem #1: Public Education.

Panama has a public education crisis.  It ranks 128th out of 138 countries surveyed in the world.  Public school children often “graduate” without the ability to creatively think and problem solve. This has been well publicized, including in La Presna and The Economist.    Inadequate public schools are simply not acceptable.

As King, I see an awful public education system as both an economic and moral issue.

Economically, a poor education system poses a threat.  It’s impossible to sustain economic growth without an educated workforce.  A large educated population is the cornerstone to a well compensated, employable workforce.  Panama’s workforce is neither.  Most workers are underpaid and companies complain about their difficulty in finding skilled labor.

Inadequate public education is a moral issue too.  An innocent child should not be punished with a bad education just because they happened to be born into a poor family.  In a just society, every child, regardless of race, creed, or economic standing should be given an opportunity to succeed.  Success starts with access to good public education.

Good public education empowers people.  It allows a country’s ambitious to percolate up through the social classes.   This is necessary for a productive society.

Solution:  All politicians must enroll their children in public schools.

This is a bold proposal that will certainly be meet with controversy.  Luckily, I’m King! This one law could affect so many areas of Panamanian society:

Priority. Publicly elected officials in Panama often enroll their children in Panama’s best private schools.  This insulates their families from poor performing schools.  As a result, politicians don’t highly prioritize public education because it doesn’t touch their personal lives.  By enrolling politician’s children and grandchildren, in a public school, education would INSTANTLY become a priority.  Trust me.

Corruption.  Sometimes the quickest path to obtaining wealth and power is via politics (Panama has a saying, “Entran limpios, salen millonarios.” They (politicians) enter clean and leave millionaires).  Certain people pursue politics as a means of getting rich rather than to positively impact their communities.      However, compulsory public education might deter some shady politicians.

Segregation.  Rich kids and poor kids rarely play together on Panamanian playgrounds.  Psychology teaches us that this is bad for childhood development because it breeds discrimination and social awkwardness.  Yet, politicians are typically wealthy and people attending public school are primarily poor.  Overnight, Panama would have a less segregated society.

Problem #2: Traffic.

Panama City’s crippling traffic will break your heart.  From 2pm-7pm PTY is practically shutdown in gridlock.  This negatively affects city commerce and robs people of precious personal time at home.

Besides having too many cars, Panama City lacks the manpower to enforce traffic laws.  Aggressively selfish drivers rule the road.  Que Vivo! (A Panamanian expression often uttered at slimy drivers).

Solution:  Traffic Enforcement Cameras.

Speeding, road rules, and red light cameras are needed throughout Panama City.

Here’s an example; impatient drivers disrupt the flow of traffic by blocking intersections.    Thus, traffic is slowed for everyone by the fault of one individual.

In my kingdom this will change.  Red light cameras will be installed.  These will automatically send a $100 traffic citation to that same driver.  Repeat offenders would suffer increased fines.  The revenues raised would be re-invested in public transportation.

My kingdom’s message to unlawful drivers would be simple:  If you drive like a CHUCHA MADRE,  tienes que pagar, papa! (If you drive like an asshole, you have to pay!)

Those would be my solutions if I were King of Panama for a day.  What about you?  If you were King (or Queen) of Panama for a day, what one or two things would you do?

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American Badass

Setting: A yuppie nightclub in Seattle.

“Watch out, faggot!” some random guy says to me.

Apparently, I had bumped him while maneuvering to the bar on my way to order a couple whiskeys.

Caught off guard, I replied, “Was the ‘faggot’ part really necessary?”.   It seemed to me that the guy was overreacting.    I did not intentionally nudge him. Hell, the place was packed!

“Yeah, you heard me, F-A-G-G-O-T!”

Wow…  Well, this left me with two options:  1) I could escalate the situation further calling him a faggot too, or even take it one step further and get physical.   2) I’d have to defuse the situation by apologizing.

“My bad, buddy.”.   I choose the latter.

Choosing to defuse was easy.   First off, numbers were on his side.  He was surrounded by 6 buddies.  On the other hand, we were just three — one of “us” was my friend’s 110lb girlfriend.  We had no chance.

Most importantly, being combative is immature.   Resorting to physical violence demonstrates an inability to resolve conflict with communication.  It also shows you’re incapable of acting your age, which was probably close to 30 for this guy.

This aggressive nightlife male behavior is all too frequent in America.   Much more than in other places in the world.  Bars and clubs in the US are filled with testosterone.  These guys believe that acting like a Badass is somehow cool.

You don’t find the same level of aggressive, high testosterone, male nightlife behavior in most parts of the world.   For example, I have EXTENSIVELY researched the bar scene in Latin America.  I’ve found that guys (Latinos and Gringos) don’t get aggressive with accidental nudges or prolonged eye contact.  Fighting is rare.

I recently returned for a short visit to the States.  I saw two bar fights in two weeks! These altercations did not happen in doggy parts of town tampoco (either).  Both fights occurred in the “yuppie” neighborhoods of Fremont, Seattle and North Beach, San Francisco.  Hardly the wrong side of the tracks.

On the other hand, I’ve only witnessed 2 fights in 4 YEARS in Latin America.  Solomente DOS (only two)!

The first one occurred in Medellin, Colombia.  A drunk muchacho was running his mouth.  A group of older guys punched him in the face and literally threw el muchacho out of the bar.  My friend and I were convinced the incident had to be drug cartel related — kinda exciting.

The other fight took place in the nightlife district Zona Viva of Panama City.  Slightly buzzed, I was scarfing down a delicious arepa, and saw some scrawny guy try to sucker punch someone.    The fight was broken up immediately.

In 4 years, that’s it!   Latin America bars are more tranquilo.  No big time bar room brawls.  There is just a lesser level of hostility amongst dudes.  Unlike America, there are few Badasses.

I have a couple theories (100% unproven by science) as to why American bars are filled with Badasses:

Muscle Mania.  American gym culture is centered on building a bodybuilder physique.  Big muscles are generally more important than well rounded physical fitness.  In order to put on muscle mass, young and middle age men lift heavy weights. Lifting heavy weights increases a person’s testosterone.  Also, they consume large amounts of protein, creatine, and other (sometimes illegal) hormone boosting supplements.

Once upon a time, this muscle mania consumed me too.   Physically, lifting heavy weights and muscle building supplements increased my testosterone levels.  This made my behavior more aggressive.  Psychologically,  my swollen “guns” gave me more confidence in my fighting capabilities.  I was that Badass at the bar.

To illustrate my point of Muscle Mania, consider this:  In any given Latin American bar, I have one of the highest bench presses.  In America, I have one of the lowest.

Frat Pack.  My alma mater WSU had a large Greek community (think the movie Old School).  For a brief time, I was in it.

A sizable portion of fraternity guys share a commonality:  predominately raised in white collar households, physically undersized, and a bit of a nerd in high school.

Joining a fraternity gives them a confidence boost.  Suddenly, you have an entire house of 50 “brothers” who have pledged to protect one another.  You have back up.

Having back up has an effect: the once intimidated, slightly picked on in high school, 150lb guy who has a chip on his shoulder, now feels confident enough to start altercations.   He has “brothers” to back him up and prove his toughness.

These college days spill over into real life.  You’ll find these guys acting like Badasses at the bar, even when they are 30 years old.

Let me clarify, Muscle Mania and Frat Pack are different complexes.  Muscle Mania is primarily physical due to increased levels of testosterone. While, Frat Pack is principally psychological caused by the Back-Up effect.  Both contribute to create the American Badass.

On a different note, I’m frequently asked by friends back in the US, “Hey, is it dangerous in Panama?”.  I respond by saying, “The most dangerous place I’ve been is America’s nightlife scene.”.  I feel more comfortable strolling through the slums of Latin America than hanging around an American bar or club at closing time.

Heck, America is the only place I’ve ever been assaulted.  I was blindsided by a 5’6 Asian guy while trying to break up a fight outside a bar.  The little man choked me out on the pavement with a UFC style strangle hold…..  It is a story that I would rather not tell you about.

What do you think?  Are American bars more testosterone filled than bars in Latin America?

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Building The Concrete Jungle Of Yesterday

Building The Concrete Jungle Of Yesterday

Why would you spend hundred of millions of dollars on building the city of yesterday? Good question. Yet, Panama City is currently contemplating doing just that. The government is pushing plans to build a 4 lane highway around its city’s historic colonial district. It’s a terrible idea. Panama is building the future “Hub of the Americas” for the 21st Century in the outdated concrete jungle style of the 1950’s.

Evan Terry Forbes

Worldwide the urban planning movement is to make the city more livable. Pedestrian areas, walkable waterfronts, and preservation of its heritage and historical sites are cornerstones of today’s city environment. These urban amenities make the city a more productive and more attractive place to live.

Some US cities are spending billions of dollars in order to tear down their waterfront highways. For example, The Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Highway were built in the 1950’s. This was at the height of the urban highway-building age.

Today, Seattle and San Francisco view these highways as eyesores. They’ve discovered more efficient ways to address their transportation needs. It’s widely agreed upon that waterfront is too valuable of a city amenity to be occupied by an ugly highway.

Panama’s neighbors, Costa Rica and Colombia, are limiting the access of cars and trucks to their cities. These pico y placa‘ (rush hour & license plate) discourage driving during peak hours. Costa Rica and Colombia have decided that building more urban highways is not the way to handle the transportation needs of a developing city.

European cities are taking the protect-urban-amenities philosophy one step further: They are promoting pedestrians while discouraging cars. In fact, many downtown and historic districts are exclusively for pedestrians. Cars are heavily taxed or prohibited from entering into the city. European cities are giving priority to pedestrians because they have learned that too many cars strangle the life of their cities.

The most compelling urban planning philosophy for Panama to follow is that of Singapore. Panama’s president has publicly stated he wants to emulate Singapore’s model as Asia’s central hub.

To maintain their status, Singapore is pursuing an aggressive 10 year “green road map”. They did not choose this course of action out of some new commitment to the environment. Instead, Singapore sees the green road map as the best way to stay globally competitive. They have recognized that to become even more competitive and productive they have to make their city more friendly to the people who live there. Singapore realizes that a city is not just a place to work. It has to be a place where people want to work, where they want to live, where the want to play, and where they want to raise their children.

Singapore sees itself as more than sweatshops on a citywide scale. In order to attract the world’s best companies and best workforce, it has recognized that you need to improve and enhance the quality of life for these individuals. This requires protecting and developing urban amenities to make the city a more attractive place to live.

Yet, Panama is not following Singapore’s enlightened urban planning philosophy. As we speak, the government is pursuing plans for a waterfront highway that would encircle its historic district, Casco Viejo (aka Relleno de la Cinta Costera 3 - Landfill). It would negatively affect one of Panama City’s most valuable urban amenities. It’s the complete opposite approach that Singapore would take.

Casco Viejo

To those who don’t know, Casco Viejo is one of Panama City’s true public treats. Its narrow cobblestone streets and historic architecture are a pleasure to walk around. Its peaceful waterfront offers terrific views of the Panama City skyline.

Panama should NOT be attempting to ruin one of it’s few urban attractions. Panama should be like Singapore (and other globally competitive cities) and try to protect and even develop more urban attractions for its people.

In fact, there is a better option to the landfill.  El Visitante refers to it as the obvious solution.   It expands existing roadways to handle the growth of Panama City. It increases the amount of waterfront pedestrian areas in low incomes areas. Most importantly, it would preserve Casco Viejo as a UNESCO World Hertiage site (not to mention it would save about $200 million dollars).

The Obvious Solution

If this highway is built, it will one day be remembered as a tragedy. It would be a missed opportunity to save a valuable urban amenity that enhances life in Panama City. So, why not build the city right one time? Build it right the first time.

Action:  Like “No a La Construcción De La Cinta Costera Alrededor De Casco Viejo” on Facebook.

Where To Live? Question From A Reader

Question from a reader.

Hey Guys, My names Alex I’m a 25 year old dude from Colorado in the states. I’m moving down to Panama tomorrow to work as an English teacher. I’ve got some interviews in the City of Knowledge next week, but I was wondering if you could give me advice on where to live in Panama CIty. I don’t speak much Spanish yet but eager to learn! Where’s a good, cheap area and whats the best way to find a place to live? Thanks so much for any info you can give me, by reading your blog you seem like similar dudes so maybe we could grab a cerveza or something down there sometime? Thanks again!
Hola Alex,

A couple cervezas bien frias will definitely be in order when you come down.

Where to live? My advice is to spend a little more on rent in order to be centrally located. Living in Clayton (City of Knowledge) is great for 40 years olds, but it will be a little uneventful for a 25 year old. Furthermore, taxi fares to Clayton are expensive and cabs hate to drive out that way at night.

Instead, I would recommend living Casco Viejo, El Cangrejo, and maybe even Bella Vista. This will put you close to the action. These neighborhoods have cool, unique Panama vibes too. Casco Viejo is expensive unless you live near the ghetto. For good deals in Casco (Viejo), stay at Hospedaje Casco Viejo and talk with Ricardo. El Cangrejo is becoming more expensive, but renting inexpensive rooms is still possible in older apartment buildings. Check La Prensa.

If you have a budget under $400/month, it is practically useless contacting people on the internet. First, people at this price point rarely advertise on the internet.  Second, landlords or people renting rooms want CASH on the spot, not someone emailing them saying, “Hey, I’ll be in Panama in a month or so.”.  This is a waste of their time.

Places not to live: Paitilla (yuck), Albrook (too quiet), El Dorado (too far away), and San Francisco (lame). Don’t even think about living in Costa Del Este!

Can anyone else offer Alex advice?

Saludos y suerte amigo,

If you have a question about Panama, feel free to ask here.

Dancing Salsa – It’s About Damn Time!

Dancing Salsa – It’s About Damn Time!

Successful Gringo –  Learning to dance Salsa.

I’ve been in Latin America way too long not to dance Salsa.  My I-can’t-dance-to-Latin-music-because-I’m-a-Gringo excuse is on the verge of expiring.  Sure, I have learned the general jist of Salsa. I even have a couple turns and seem to dance better after drinking a couple beers.  Yet, my movements are far from fluent.  I’m not comfortable. I definitely do not feel sexy while dancing to Salsa music.

Learning to dance Salsa is my second most important goal while living in Latin America.  Only learning to speak Spanish is more important.    It is important to me because it’s a central aspect to Latino culture.   Latin music is played at all social events (even events that are not designed to be social become instantly more social as soon as Salsa music begins).  It is safe to say that Latinos LOVE to dance.

***Latin Music includes Salsa, Merenge, and other regional forms of music such as Bachata and Tipico.  Salsa is the most popular and widespread style of Latin music, and in my opinion, the best.

Furthermore, Salsa is a refreshing change from my native musical culture.  Salsa lyrics are romantic and the movements spicey.  In contrast, hip hop music is the most popular among my social group.  Hip hop’s lyrics are typically degrading to women and the movements are raunchy.     My days of booty grinding on the dance floor are probably numbered.   I would feel 100% comfortable dancing Salsa with an older woman while “dropping it like it’s hot” with her would not be appropriate at all.

Yet, procrastination has delayed me following through on learning Salsa.  In Guatemala, I enrolled in private lessons, but quit as soon as I continued traveling.   Later, in Cali, Colombia, I basically forced my Caleña (girl from Cali) ex-girlfriend to practice with me until we became a cohesive unit.  Our dancing partnership was finished with the end of the relationship.   Finally, on a month long trip to Cuba, I would sit and watch people dance Salsa in main plaza square for hours on end.  But, my sense of Salsa inspiration faded once I returned to Electro/Reggaeton capital of Panama City.  I was inconsistent with dancing Salsa.  Focused energy was needed.

However, 2011 will be different.  It is the year of the Salsa dance.  My goal is to finally become a badass Salsa dancer, period.

My definition of a badass Salsa dancer is pretty simple: be able to dance Salsa with any female, anywhere.  It doesn’t matter if the person is my long time dancing partner or a complete stranger.  It doesn’t matter if she has rhythm or not.  It doesn’t matter if she is young or old.  At a Salsa bar or somewhere spontaneous like in the middle of the street, I want to be a badass Salsa dancer.
But the road to becoming a badass salsa dancer will not be easy.  Here are a few challenges that myself and other Successful Gringos in Panama will face:

1 – No es facil! (it’s not easy) Salsa is very challenging for guys.  Guys have all the responsibility.   You have to lead the upbeat 8-step rhythm with your lower body at the same time you must gracefully guide the women through a series of spins and turn combination with your upper body.    Guys must have an excellent sense of rhythm and the ability to simultaneously control two different parts of your body.  Salsa is probably a man’s most daunting dance.

2 – Lets get realistic. Latina girls will often overestimate their ability to dance Salsa.   Some think just because of their Latina heritage that they inherently Salsa.

Beware because this is usually bullshit.   If she tells you,  “I just need a strong male lead” this basically means that she can’t execute a simple left turn or fundamental cross body lead.   If the dancing is awkward or becomes boring,  you will be blamed.

3 – Class to club. Trying to translate the moves you’ve learned in class to the club is difficult.  I’ve learned this the hard way.   When dancing with complete strangers in clubs, it is best just to stick to the basic moves until you establish some rapport with your dancing partner.

4 – Limited Salsa in PTY. Like a growing number of places in Latin America, Electro and Reaggeton have become more popular than Salsa and other forms of Latin music. To illustrate my point, Panama’s most popular districts Calle Uruguay and Zona Viva don’t have one single exclusively Salsa music venue.  Nothing.  Absolutely NADA!

Casco Viejo has a couple Salsa venues.  But, they are either too packed to dance (Platea) or overpriced entrance cover (Havana Panama).   The average person in Panama is more likely to spend a night at a European style Electro party than dancing to Latin music in a Latin American country.  Sad but true.
Bottomline is that these are all excuses.  I subscribe to the philosophy, “Losers make excuses and winners make it happen” (Bubba Sparxxx) and you should too.  Make Salsa happen!  I’m dedicating myself to Salsa.   No more excuses.  It’s about damn time!

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Parking Tickets – Culture – Successful Gringo Part 3

Here are some behavioral contrast between an unsuccessful and successful Gringos.  By no means are these occurrences daily in Panama, however most cultural high transparent people have experienced a few of these situations while living in a low transparent society.

White collar corruption:   Government officials and other people of power will utilize their position to extort a bribe.  They’ll delay the processing of paperwork.  Applications are delayed without excuse until a under-the-table-payment is received.

This blatant white collar corruption in low transparent countries is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to culturally high transparent people.   High transparent societies are more accustomed to making campaign contributions to influence government officials.

Unsuccessful Gringos will get frazzled when government and/or business professionals insist on a illegal cash payment.  As a result,  they will be too uncomfortable and abandon the project completely or grossly overpay the bribe.

Successful Gringos don’t get overwhelmed by frustration.   Successful Gringos I have met get creative.   Most will send locals to do their dirty work.  They understand that the sight of a Gringo automatically increases the price.  They’ll circumnavigate the head guy by discovering the lower level employee that is responsible for pushing the paperwork.   Not only will the bribe amount be much smaller, their paperwork will be processed much more quickly.

Another technique successful Gringos may utilize is to visit that particular office EVERYDAY.   Their demeanor will be charming, yet persistent.  For extra persuasion, they will bring freshly baked goods.   Preferably anything from the local bakery, like the Orejas or Canones.

Random checkpoints:  In most high transparent societies,  random checkpoints are strictly illegal.  It’s considered an infringement on civil liberties.

In Panama, police at these check points will often ask for very detailed documentation.  The police know that 90% of unsuspecting foreigners either don’t have all the fine detailed documents or their limited Spanish they will not comprehend what papers the police are asking for.  When the proper documents are not produced, the police will threaten to impound your vehicle immediately.   This is a scare tactic.

Unsuccessful Gringos will get angry.  They’ll frantically shuffle for papers while cursing the police officer under their breath.  In the end, they’ll pay a hefty bribe of $60 or more (3 times most police officer’s daily salary) because the cops thinks that they are assholes.

Successful Gringos act calm.   They slowly search for the random documents.  In the meantime, they’ll offer the police officer a cold soda or Gatorade.   Since the Gringo was friendly and quiet time consuming, the police officer usually gives up.

If the police officer persist, successful Gringos will call a well connected lawyer friend to talk to the police officer.  This basically tells the police officer “Oye amigo, don’t screw with me because I know people!”. Typically they’ll be free to go or the bribe will be reduced to $10-$20.

Social function and their hierarchy:  Inviting people from a perceived lower social class to an elite social event is strictly a faux pas.  Low transparency country’s rigid social class system makes it a bit awkward for everyone.    Eventually, your elite friends will just stop inviting you to these events.

Both successful and unsuccessful Gringos should not conform to this social norm.  Be friends with everyone.  Regardless of perceived social class.  It will make you a better human being.    The few that look down upon you…. well, they are not worth being friends with in the first place.

In addition to culturally high transparent people, the majority of locals dislike a low transparent society.   Panama has a campaign slogan “Entran limpios, salen millonarios” (Enter clean, leave millionaires).  This directly confronts white collar corruption.  Social hierarchy is negativly depicted in Panama’s major movie Chance. Small business owners in Casco Viejo are beginning to organize in order to protect against unwarranted harassment from the few crooked government officials.  Low transparency and its effects on culture are unwanted and eroding in Panama.

Gringos can help with this process by convincing their local friends that there is a better way, a better future.

In the meantime successful Gringos have to understand the present. If you have to pay a bribe, pay the smallest bribe possible. If you have to pay a bribe, pay it to the least powerful person who can get you what you want. Most likely they are grossly underpaid and could use the few extra bucks.  If the people at the top don’t get the money, sooner or later they will make sure that the little guy does not get it either.

In conclusion, it’s important to understand the complexities of different cultures.  Moving from a high transparency society to one that is lower one requires adjustment.    These cultural considerations are often overlooked when Gringos contemplate moving to Panama.   It is important to be willing to adapt to your new environment.  Stay positive and be creative,  and you’ll be a successful Gringo in Panama, oiste!

Parking Tickets – Culture – Successful Gringo Part 2

Over the past few years, Panama has seen a surge in immigrants from high transparent societies.   These culturally high transparent individuals include working business professionals, entrepreneurs, international retirees, and young travelers from all across North America and Europe.  The majority of these new arrivals are generally categorized as Gringos.  Most come from higher transparent countries like;   US, Canada, Holland, England and Germany.  As my locals friends constantly tell me, “Ahora, Panama tiene bukos Gringos.” (Now, Panama has A LOT of Gringos).

However, Panama is a relatively low transparent society.  In 2010, the International Transparency Index rated Panama 3.6 on a scale to 10.   It ranked 73 out of 178 countries.   A large portion of Panama’s corruption is tied to cocaine trafficking.  However, corruption still permeates many other parts of society.

Panama was ranked amongst these other Latin American countries:

- Cuba (3.7)
- El Salvador (3.6)
- Colombia (3.5)
- Guatemala (3.2)

Yet, Panama is different from these other Latin American countries.   It has had a surge of Gringos pouring into it.  Proportional to it’s population, it has one of the largest populations of high transparent immigrants in all of Latin America.

Panama City is Central America’s most cosmopolitan city.  The once small pueblos of Boquete, Bocas Del Toro, and Pedasi are being flooded with Gringos.   So much so that I have a favorite joke of mine among my Latinos friends.  When we enter into a Gringo dominated place or event, I’ll lean over an say, “Bienvenidos a GringoLandia :)” (Welcome to Gringo Land).

A major force advocating for further cultural integration is the Panamanian government.  As part of their economic growth strategy, it is energetically trying to attract international business and people.  A high percentage of these business and people hail from culturally high transparent places.

First, multinational companies are offered generous tax incentives to relocate their operations to Panama.  The likes of Dell, VF, and other multinationals are moving parts of their operations to Panama.  These companies import personnel who are generally culturally high transparent.

Secondly, Panama advertise itself to retirees from high transparent countries as a low cost of living place to live.  It wants retirees to bring their fixed pension and social security incomes to Panama.   Panama even offers them incentives by not taxing their foreign income as well as provides them with a residence card.   This card basically acts as one of the world’s most generous discount cards to an already very affordable country.

Thirdly, developing international tourism is a major focus of the economy.  Tourism promotion is generally directed at high transparent countries because they have larger amounts of disposable income.   This helps encourage more high transparent backpackers and vacationers visit to Panama.

Furthermore, to service this wave of high transparent immigrants and visitors arriving in Panama, entrepreneurs from high transparent countries have migrated here.  They’re seeking opportunity in Panama’s growing economy by setting up their own small business.

All of these factors combine to bring more high transparent citizens to a lower transparent country.  Simply said, Panama has a lot of Gringos!
These Gringos (including myself) are experiencing a new cultural phenomenon, low transparency.  Just like the foreign diplomats in New York City, Gringos also maintain our inherited cultural behaviors.   We don’t acclimate easily to a low transparent society and its particular cultural norms.  We are accustomed to playing by one set of rules and are resistant to changing those rules.

Altering a person’s behavior is a process.  It takes time.   It’s often a Gringo’s inability or unwillingness to alter/adapt to a low transparent culture that produces unsuccessful, grumpy Gringos.   These unsuccessful Gringos are culturally centric.  They expect Panama to conform to their high transparent norms.  When it doesn’t, they get grumpy.

On the other hand, successful Gringos adapt to Panama’s low transparency.  Sure, they occasionally get frustrated.  Locals do too.   Yet they are socially intelligent enough to efficiently navigate themselves through the nuances of a low transparent society.  I term them “successful” because they are both effective and upbeat about living in Panama.

You’ll find that successful Gringos share similar personality traits.  They recognize that all countries and cultures are different.  There is personal time devoted to better understanding the history and culture of their new country.   They’re patient, yet persistent.  They are optimistic. They form friendships and bonds with well connected locals.

When failure comes their way, they blame themselves first.  Not the culture, country, or its people.   These people are successful Gringos in Panama (and anywhere else in life for that matter).

Let me clarify… Part 3

Return to Part 1

Parking Tickets – Culture – Successful Gringo

How-to-be-a-successful-Gringo-in-Panama lessons continue.

The successful Gringo-in-Panama must approach living in Panama with both open eyes and an open mind. Open eyes in order to recognize the differences between Panama and our home country. An open mind in order to craft solutions to problems we did not have to deal with at home.  If not, you’ll become just another “grumpy Gringo”.

In 2002, Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel published an interesting study, “Cultures of Corruption”.  The experiment investigated the number of parking tickets that were issued to the various foreign diplomats stationed in New York City.  Their diplomatic immunity means that things like parking tickets cannot be enforced.

One of the studies main findings was that there was a strong persistence in corruption norms. Diplomats from high corruption countries; Sudan, Paraguay, Libya had significantly more parking violations.  While diplomats from low corruption countries; Finland, Canada, Chile, accumulated few, if any, parking tickets.

The International Transparency Index is considered an accurate barometer for measuring a country’s level of corruption. The index scores countries on their level of transparency.  1 being the lowest transparent and 10 being the highest.

Highly corrupt countries are directly correlated with low transparent societies.  In low transparent societies, public organizations and private companies are unlikely to be held accountable.  Trust among the general pubic in these institutions is low.   This is because high transparency makes disguising corruption much more difficult.

In addition, high corruption and low transparency help produce rigid, socially hierarchic societies.  A few rich and well connected people populate the top, and the vast majority of the population live on the lower end.   Professions like elected political officials, business leaders, foreign diplomats, etc populate the tops of these social classes.   Their elite status in a low transparency society allows them to easily bend and break laws.   Minor infractions, such as parking tickets, will be cleared up with a quick phone call.  They are basically untouchable.

Conversely, high transparency in a culture makes skirting laws much more difficult.  Regardless of status, high transparency social norms do not permit the powerful elite to bypass the law.  As a result, high social status individuals are less likely to posses the I’ll-do-as-I-please mentality.

The results from this study are very interesting.  It suggests that people maintain their inherent socialized behavior, even while living in a country that has different cultural norms.  Foreign diplomats from low transparent societies continued to behave as if they were still in their home country.   Acclimation did not occur.  The study infers that indeed a person’s native cultural norms constantly affect their behavior.

*** A great book on this topic is The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

What does this have to do with Panama?…. Part 2

Part 3

Why Foreigners Think Panamanians Are Lazy

“Panamanians are lazy.”.   All foreigners say it.   Americans will rant to agreeing Argentinians.  Colombians will bitch to Germans.  Complaining about Panamanian laziness is a way to vent frustrations and to find common ground in a conversation.   Foreigners all do it. Gringos and even other Latinos.  In English and Spanish.  Believe me.

I do not intend to discuss the merits of the assertion that Panamanians are lazy. This assertion is broad brushed. It is highly racially charged. It is offensive. Instead, I want to explore, in a series of essays, what sociological and psychological factors influence that particular attitude.

Contributing Factor #1 –  Stereotyping Panamanians.

Cognitive Miserthis concept refers to how people cannot possibly assimilate all the information they are bombarded with by the world. The mind will process the most relevant information needed to make a decision.  It will disregard the rest.

A real life example would be when we cross the street.  Analyzing every detail –  how many lines are painted on the road,  the exact distance of every single car, etc – would be too taxing.  We would be mentally paralyzed and never cross the street.

Stereotypes are an example of cognitive miserliness.  People interpret certain characteristics in others in order to more easily categorize them.

A good example is how women date.   Women are experts at looking for specific characteristics that indicate a suitable male partner; well groomed, ambitious, treats other females with respect, etc.  Pinpointing particular characteristics allow women to form a stereotype of a good guy.  By stereotyping men,  women are able to sort through the endless male partner candidates.  The decision becomes easier.   Stereotyping is a mental function that is necessary and inescapable.

One of the main factors contributing to the Panamanian-are-lazy stereotype is the frequent conversation topic of  “Panamanians are lazy”.   It’s used to vent frustrations with friends and to break-the-ice when striking up a new conversation.   Newly arrived foreigners overhear these conversations.   In due time, they believe the stereotype as truth.

Let’s say a Canadian immigrates to Panama.  One day while at a BBQ in Clayton,  he’ll overhear other Canadians and Americans ranting while they recite a story involving a lazy Panamanian.   That same night while partying on Calle Uruguay (a popular nightlife district), he’ll be conversing with a mixed group of Italians and Venezuelans. The Panamanians-are-lazy topic will be used to break-the-ice.  At this point, the newly arrived Canadian (being a cognitive miser) will say to himself “Hmmm, it seems everybody thinks Panamanians are lazy, even other Latinos.  So, it must be true.”.

Throughout the Canadian’s time in Panama, he will have subsequent conversations that continue to reinforce the Panamanians-are-lazy stereotype.  Then, he too, will use it.

The Panamanians-are-lazy stereotype effects how foreigners interpret situations and the people of Panama.   Foreigners (being cognitive misers) will disregard actions contrary to the stereotype.  10 lazy actions will be cognitively absorbed because they coincide with the Panamanians-are-lazy stereotype.  Yet, 10 energetic actions will be disregarded.  Mentally, they’ll consider the action of a Panamanian being energetic to be an outlier.  They’ll say, “Well, this is different because…..”.

For example, a friend of mine recently imported a car.  The process of getting the car through customs took a long time.  According to her, the reason the car took so long to clear customs was that the people working at customs were “unorganized and fucking LAZY!”.

During the prolonged process the car suffered extensive damage.   My friend called a local repair guy to fix them. Immediately, the OWNER of the repair shop personally came to her apartment and picked up the car.  He repaired the car quickly and for a reasonable price.

This was an example of both a lazy event (3 months in customs) and an energetic event (the owner of a repair company’s personal and speedy service) occurring in the same day.  Yet, that night at the Lebanese restaurant, Beruit, the lazy-3-month-custom process dominated the conversation.   Her other foreigner friends chimed in with their similar Panamanians-are-lazy stories like, “Oh yeah, you think that was bad, listen to this ….”

Rarely (if ever), in these conversations do foreigners holistically consider the numerous inputs affecting work ethic.   Seemingly unrelated details like a person’s climate and cultural legacies affect behavior.  People in Northern climates are evolutionarily adapted to use movement as a mechanism to elevate body temperature.   Rice patty societies of Asia have a reputation of possessing a solid work ethic.   Experts partially attribute this to the tremendous amount of labor required to successfully cultivate rice.   (The Chinese have a proverb that attests to this fact “The man who rises before the sun 360 days out of the year will be rich.“.)

****  A great book to read on this topic is Outliers: The Story of Success.

Studies have shown that thousands of details like a person’s upbringing, surrounding culture, geographic location, social/economic standing and many more factors affect their behavior.   They are like tributaries that feed into a river.  Foreigners in Panama rarely consider any of them.   Taking all these details into account would be too mentally exhausting.  After all, we are cognitive misers.

To recap, our minds take shortcuts in order to process information quickly (cognitive miser).  Stereotyping is the cognitive misering of people.  Foreigners use the Panamanians-are-lazy stereotype to vent and as an icebreaker with other foreigners.  Freshly arriving foreigners (being cognitive misers) adopt the Panamanians-are-lazy stereotype because they hear it repeatedly.  Once the stereotype is in place, contrary information will be disregarded (Think 10 energetic acts).

I ask my fellow expats to fully consider the negative consequences of their stereotypical belief that Panamanians are lazy.  If we don’t occasionally take a step back and question our personal beliefs, we end up with a stereotype that is both unfair and counterproductive.

Contributing Factor #2 coming soon…..

Where is Eye?

“Where is Eye?”  is a game we like to play on our Facebook wall.  We post photos from unique locations all around Panama and quiz our Facebook friends.

We would like you to participate.  Simply upload a photo below.  Be sure to note the photo’s location in the description field.  We’ll be sure to post it!

How To Explore Panama’s Restaurants

Exploring new restaurants in PTY is a challenge. Only with a STRONG recommendation from a foodie friend or an OfertaSimple coupon will I venture out. Let me tell you why….

Panama City constantly has new restaurants popping up. Some are good. Most are not. The majority are overpriced for the dining experience you receive. I’m not very critical. On the contrary, I’m pretty easy to please. Heck, I didn’t learn how to cook scrambled eggs until I was 20 years old.

In Panama, it’s hard to find professional waiters. Someone who acts as a representative on behalf of the restaurant. Their job is to guide you through the evening by offering suggestions and even upselling when it’s appropriate. Their service helps ensure that you’ll properly experience their restaurant and that you’ll be returning soon.

Even Panama’s best restaurants rarely staff professional waiters. In Panama, waiting table is not a profession. Unlike other Western countries, tipping is not customary in Latin America. A waiter in Panama asks himself, “Why should I bust my ass when nobody tips?”.

*** A slight digression: As a college bartender, an unassuming man once tipped me $100 on a bill of $50, a 200% tip! From that day forward, I had to assume that everyone could potentially leave me my next whooping tip. As a result, I gave my personal best to everyone, even perceived cheap asses. This story would be rare in Panama.
Secondly, the restaurant owners don’t typically feed their wait staff from the restaurant menu. Waiters bring their own food. What better way to educate your team than by having them personally try every dish on the menu? A more educated and confident wait staff leads to a more satisfied customer. How can your server recommend an entree or desert if they have never tasted it?

Instead, it is customary for restaurants here to employee “order takers”. A person designated to simply take your order, bring you your food and then hand you a bill. You would expect this from the Costa Azul’s types in Panama (A late night Denny’s style restaurant). But, not from anyone who offers entrees for $10 or more.

Can you see why I’m so nervous about trying random new restaurants? My dining budget is limited. Without guidance, I fear that I’ll have a mediocre meal for 2 people totaling upwards of $80.  Yikes! As a result, I stick to my Go-To restaurants (and, no, this does NOT include Beruit!).

Wait. There is good news for PTY restaurant goers. First, more restaurants in PTY translates to more competition. In business, more competition forces companies to become more creative and offer better service as a way of distinguishing themselves from others. Lets hope the same holds true here.

Second (and ready today) is my culinary savor, OfertaSimple.com. Their coupons allow me to explore new restaurants with confidence. They save me anywhere from 50% to 70%. Because of their coupons, my restaurant exploration regime has been revitalized.

I’ve been to 10 new restaurants in the last 5 months. Some have been excellent. Some have been mas-o-menos. Yet, the coupons saved me money. So, even if it was the worst place ever (has not been the case thus far) then I would have said to myself, “Bummer… Well, it was worth a shot to try something new.”.

Most importantly, it is the act of exploring new restaurants with friends that’s the best part. It is an excuse to get out of the house. Explore your city. Be social. Using the coupon is the adventure itself. I’m not embarrassed to say using coupons is cool.

P.D. (P.S.) Here are some of the restaurants that currently excite me:

Sabor de India: As my friend said, “I dare you to spent $40 there.”.

Manolo Caracol: Expensive, but not really because it is a fixed menu of $30. No surprises. Anyways, Manolo mismo (himself) is the reason you go. He is either the most loved or the most hated man in Casco Viejo, depending on who you talk to.

Las Clementinas: It’s like a small Panamanian history museum and restaurant rolled into one. Attention to detail and solid service.

Brochettas in El Valle: The service stinks. Yet, it is affordable. It features freshly picked vegetables and the portions are giant. Good value.

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Helping Casco Viejo’s Disadvantaged Mothers

Fundacion Calicanto

One of the most common frustrations among those that have moved to Panama from other countries is a lack of customer service.  Individuals who have taken same day service and strong work motivations for granted, are frequently dismayed that the same standards are not universal values in Panama, nor frankly, in other tropical destinations.  While many of the expats that I have met are vocal about the tropical work ethic, seemingly few look to the underlying reasons for the difference in standards, and almost none set out to create a remedy.

The CAPTA Program of Fundacion Calicanto in Casco Viejo is a shining example of a group heeding Marcus Aurelius’ famous advice to “look to the essence of a thing.”   Hildegard Vasquez, the foundation’s president,  and her team intend to create a stronger workforce from what many would consider the country’s toughest raw material–under-privileged women from urban slums–by going to what they believe is the root cause for poor service: lack of self-esteem.

Most of the women selected for CAPTA have little or no work history, training, or education. They are women who live in deplorable situations.  They have been ridiculed, scorned, used, abused, and exposed to nearly every vice.  To say they have crippling issues, is less insightful than an obvious fact.  What is insightful is that those accepted into the program have a sliver hope. Hope that they can provide provide a better life for their children and themselves.  It is a place to start.

During my visits to Panama, I have been concerned about the plight of the poor that live in Casco’s old buildings that by any civilized standard are an unfit residence.  I have also wondered, what happens they are kicked out of these buildings which are their home?  Is there any opportunity for them to become part of the emerging new Casco community?  Has anyone thought about what training will transition those who have lived in Casco’s rubble to be its  workforce?  Would solutions to these issues be found that did not simply displaced the individuals, I wondered  with a concern based on a long career in developing training programs for disadvantage populations.   When Evan sent me the Fundacion Calicanto video, my interest was peaked.  I was anxious to learn more about their hotel maid training program for the women of this neighborhood.  The time I spent getting to know the CAPTA program with Evan and Fundacion Calicanto board member and local entreprenuer, KC Hardin, turned out to be a highlight of my stay in Casco.

One of the most impressive elements of the Fundacion Calicanto’s CAPTA program is that it is far more than a hotel maid training program.  Rather than ignore the plight of their candidates, CAPTA begins by taking on the issues the women share.  The first 4 weeks of the program are spent developing personal skills. They learn about  nutrition, hygiene, first aide, household budgeting, appropriate dress, and personal safety.  They learn to learn,  gain self reliance, and developed leadership skills as they become knitted together as a support group that reinforces expectations of attendance and participation.  At the end of these weeks, they are  are prepared to complete the second phase which is the Bern Hotel Training Program in Panama City confident of success. There they will learn housekeeping techniques and customer service.  Those completing this phase will find a waiting job market for their new skills. It is impressive that  nearly 90% of the women that entered CAPTA complete the entire program and find permanant employment.  Each worked hard to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of their success and gain new skills.  All should be very proud of the accomplishment.

Page 2

Helping Casco Viejo’s Disadvantaged Mothers – Part II

One of the most daunting problems in the world is poverty. Poverty is a robber of human potential and health. It destroys ambition, creates hostility, promotes crime, instills discrimination, and enslaves generations. Few born into poverty are able to escape its binds. Those creating the opportunities are rarely appreciated by those who have been spared any portion of the same fate. Those that attempt the escape will be surrounded by those who believe it is fruitless to try. Both the individuals that create opportunities to allow individuals to escape poverty and those that attempt the escape deserve admiration. Neither is a small feat.

Many fail to grasp the real threat of poverty. Poverty through its lack of opportunity creates desperation. Desperation can be manipulated. It is the fuel for revolution and the natural enemy of progress which requires stability to thrive. More than one dictator has been able to seize power through the successful manipulation of desperation and ignorance. This is a potential risk that K.C. Hardin as a business man and community leader takes seriously. He fully understands that much of the success of Casco’s restoration and Panama’s political stability will be determined by how effective it can be at reducing poverty from the current staggering 40%. Beyond being the right thing to do, K.C. believes it is as critical to protecting his investment here as insurance. More business leaders like him are needed.

In the world of philanthropy, there has been significant effort to break the cycle of poverty through investment in programs that target women. Foundations are supporting efforts in several countries that provide income to mothers to support child nutrition, education, and medical services. The programs are having significant impact because they are both making it more profitable for a family to educate their children than to have them work or beg. There are also programs similar to CAPTA that are combining parenting, counseling, and training that proving effective. Other efforts are helping women start cottage businesses. What is generally agreed by experts is that there is greater impact poverty when efforts focus on women.

As a employment and training expert, I agree programs targeting women are effective. I also believe that the next step is to address youth. Virtually all of the women in CAPTA have children within an age range of 3 to 16. The younger children will benefit most from their mother’s training. Stronger efforts, however, are needed for the teens. There is discussion about what those efforts may include and even, attempts by a few businesses to hire teens. I applaud these efforts but also understand, that the initial step that is making CAPTA successful is also needed with the teen population to significantly impact poverty. A teen program that encompasses a choice of professions would be most desirable in order to connect with aptitudes and inspire skill development I was glad to learn that this area is being considered.

It is true that both the current CAPTA program and any future expansions cost money. The current per participant cost of CAPTA is $900. A very small amount when measured against impact. There are several initiatives launched to raise these funds to allow more women to participate. Hotel guests are asked to consider a donation in establishments with CAPTA trained staff. Community members and businesses are encouraged to give. Both foundations and the government are solicited for support. All of this funding is critical and more is needed.

New programs capable of including teems will also require funding. Perhaps more importantly, programs for teens will benefit most from willing mentors and apprenticeships that allow a teen to both earn and learn a skill. It costs nothing but a few hours a week to tutor and make a significant difference. Moreover, it is wonderful experience that I have been thrilled to do as an English tutor to the teenage daughter of a maid. Elena is polite, very bright, eager to learn, loves science, and dreams of becoming a doctor.

I am certain that there are many more opportunities for volunteers to make significant contributions to Fundacion Calicanto and the efforts that are underway. Please take a moment to reflect how you might help. Small or large, service or contribution, it all adds up. You may just find that what is frustrating and grumbled about, is in your power to change.

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