Panama Expat Living – Don’t Scream, Adapt!


expat living, panama, travel, tourismPanama is where you have decided to relocate. Good for you. It’s actually a great place to live. But, to be honest, a large percentage of people can’t successfully adapt to life in a new country, even though they try and mean well. So, especially if this is the first time you’re living in Panama, I would like share some advice.

When it comes to Panama, listen closely. Panamanians do things their way. You cannot change or beat that, period – nor can you hide. The culture doesn’t care if you like this or not. Screaming, threatening, complaining will get you absolutely nowhere fast, even if you speak Spanish. The only way to truly adapt to Panama – and enjoy what it offers – is to take several deep breaths and learn to go with the Panama flow.

Before I continue, let me tell you where I’m coming from on this post. I have been a full-fledged expat for over 20 years. (Defined as living in 15 countries for more than a month without being sent as a U.S company employee.) I finally settled in Panama. Here I have somehow become a Panama Expat advisor and speaker.

I could write a book about specific cultural irritants that may make you crazy, but  here are some of the majors.

Punctuality. Being late or not showing up without notice is perfectly acceptable. You can do this to Panamanians too without repercussions.

Truth. Telling a small ‘fib’ is not considered outright lying. If you don’t train yourself to ask the right questions, any bad info is your fault.

Borrowing. In some ways the locals are like children. In this case, they see something that is nice, decide that they want it and take it. This can be anything from a pen to a potted plant. Getting angry and accusing is suicide. Ask around nicely about the missing items or buy a new plant. If it is any comfort, Panamanians will borrow from their own family and friends, so you have actually become part of the inner circle.

Persistence. The typical Panamanian can peacefully outwait you forever. If someone comes to your door and says “Buenas” (“Hello”), it’s best to respond and get it over with.

Visitors. If someone shows up unexpectedly, or you invite someone to your home, you will be expected to feed them. Period.

Telephones. You will receive calls where the caller says “Quien habla?” (Who is this?) When you ask who they are, they won’t say. You have a missed call on your phone, so you call to find out who it was. Often you will get the “Hallo” (“Hello”) syndrome. Whoever is on the other end of the line will continue to say Hallo, Hallo, Hallo… If you ask anything, you will get another Hallo…

Driving. No road courtesy, no turn signals, getting cut off, accidents with uninsured drivers or someone driving way too fast on suburban roads? Expect all of these and more. You should also familiarize yourself with the ‘beep’ code.  One beep, I’m close. Two beeps, I’m coming through. Three beeps, watch out. During traffic jams, drivers will blast their horns forever even though it is obvious no one is going anywhere soon.

Business. Don’t trust anyone – from your lawyer to your contractor to your janitor. If there is a dispute, you will lose. Best to get good advice and references from other Expats who have gone through what you expect to encounter.

So put your machete and acid tongue away. Kick back and live life the Panamanian way. If you don’t want to – go somewhere else.

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8 thoughts on “Panama Expat Living – Don’t Scream, Adapt!

  1. Merely a smiling visitor here to share the love , btw outstanding style. Audacity, a lot more audacity and always audacity. by Georges Jacques Danton. fefckeddgeda

  2. As I am currently in the process of moving into my new home in Panama, your article is timely. I have already experienced a few of the nuances you mentioned, and will be prepared for the rest. Thanks!

  3. Hello Dennis, thanks for the info. I am stuck in the USA and doing everything I can to leave and go to Panama. I have some loose ends that I must tie before I can go. I want to reach out to the expat community there and make friends before heading out since I have til the end of the year (that is my goal for departure). Any advice on the best way to approach making friends? I am fluent in English/Spanish.

    • Hello Nora. My suggestions for reaching out are joining my BOOM Panama group on Linkedin and Expat Exchange (Panama section). There are a lot of helpful people who will answer your questions in these groups. For specifics, feel free to contact me at dennis.dean.smith@gmail.com too. Am a little curious. Why did you pick Panama for your escape route? Best of luck. Dennis

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