The Top 12 Surprises of Panama's Three-Ring Circus

By: Laura Guy

A year ago, I wrote a grandstanding post called The Top 8 Ways Living in Panama Can Make You Sexier. Still slurping the tropical Koolaid as a newly arrived expat, I highlighted the sultry and magnificent aspects of our Central American spectacle.  The beaches, the weather, the thriving capital metropolis -- this was a place to be considered.

Fast forward one year and I urge, "Hold your horses!”  Having moved past opening night glee, experienced both rain and shine, today I’m dishing the real deal, the nitty-gritty every guide book omits in order to convince you to join the circus. The truth is that Panama is not a developed country, rather it is developing. Between the "ed" and "ing" lurks a world of difference and a level of chaos often beyond comprehension. Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages, prepare to be surprised.

12. Leaping Prices

Panama concession prices are high and year after year they rise like helium balloons.  Dinner in the Pie Car costs just as much as in any American city.  Rent does, too; the one-bedroom apartment next to mine is on the market for $1400/month. We just paid $250 reupholster 2 chairs; last week I paid $80 to attend a tango show; and a small container of spinach dip at Deli Gourmet costs $4.95.  Regardless of what anyone tells you, you will want to bring extra moolah to this show.

11. Unlikely Mafia Artists

Of all the mafias a country can have, we have a dentist mafia that keeps service prices tight wire high, enough make you gag.  This troupe can be shrewd, diagnosing you with a dozen phony cavities in order to meet their monthly ring payments.  Be prepared to pantomime “No, thanks” several times during your next dental cleaning.

10. Boss Clowns

Instead of ringmasters, boss clowns run the show.  At each mall corridor turn, store managers create and enforce zany rules to keep us amazed and entertained. Even though I've paid my cell phone bill in full and on-time via credit card for 18 months, Cable and Wireless boss clowns still demanded somersaults in order to renew my contract: provide a copy of my mother’s ID and personal letter from her authorizing me to make changes to our family account. I would try to talk the junior juggler of this hassle but I know he will only repeat what he’s been told without considering any workarounds.

9. Five for Two and Three to Get One

For two weeks, five acrobats came to our home to install double-pane windows.  For most of the time three remained balanced on the ground while the other two performed.  When you want something done and ask for a referral, be sure and gather at least three names.  That’s how many it will take for just one stunt guy to appear and get the show on the road.

8. The Wonderful Walkaround

Honestly, we have the worst customer service of any city you've ever visited. When you enter a big top, someone will approach you.  But instead of offering assistance and then going away when you say, "Just looking," they will follow you around the store like a suspicious Bengal tiger, hovering close by, softly but steadily breathing down your neck to make sure you stay in line.  The best is when they follow you around an appliance store as if you're really going to steal something.  If you actually ask them a question, they won't know the answer since they receive little or no training from their boss clowns.

7. Excuses Flow Like Canal Water

Each performer has one at the ready.  "I'm busy" es la classica for not showing up, "tranque" is the most popular for being late.  Other time-tested reasons for flakiness -- new cell phone, lost your number; ran out of saldo, couldn't call you; car broke down, I can't meet.  Our aerialists will offer an excuse before offering a solution or giving you what you want.  I tried to order a combination of squash and lentil soup in the same bowl at Crepes and Waffles but the waitress denied my request.  When I asked why she just said it wouldn't taste good.  Must have been too complicated, not worth the cherry pie.

6. It's Freezing!

Regardless of the tropical climate, your costume will often require a jacket.  Banks, hospitals, theaters, and restaurants all love to crank up the A/C.  It's almost as if there's no setting between 18 and 30, no room for variation or calibration.  If you're stuck under the Teatro Nacional’s big top without a scarf, you will shake miserably like you've been pushed onto a double-decker wire without a net.

5. Franchises on Clown Alley

Franchise operations are often totally slacking.  Mailboxes, etc. runs out of copy paper, Subway runs out of bread, and Baskin-Robbins runs out of ice-cream.  According to another expat circus-goer, the post office in Bocas del Toro does not have any stamps and has not had any for a long time. “They do not know when they will get more.  But there are still two performers there doing whatever the post office does without stamps.”

4.  Muy Sucio

Our three-ring circus is quite dirty.  Not only does the trash pick-up process leave full bags along the road for a day or so before being picked up, but folks here haven't been taught not to litter.  Styrofoam and pizza boxes fly out of moving car windows, soda cans and water bottles dirty our beaches, a menagerie of filth ruins our natural beauty.  Send in the clowns --  and make sure they have brooms and trash bags.

3. Crooked Cops

If a cop actually stops you for breaking the law on the road, you can bribe him him with cash or a kazoo to avoid a ticket.  But don’t worry -- they'll only catch you if they're not already occupied by texting -- so your chances of escaping sin boleto are quite good.

2.  The Circle of Death

Most circus-goers are not violent but they are certainly overly aggressive bumper car drivers.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were trying to push me off my trapeze on purpose.  They brake with their horns and make right turns from the left lane.  Give them one inch and they’ll take a mile; if you let just one clown car merge, you’ll remain stationary forever.

1.  Everyone.  Loves.  Living.  Here.

Yes, regardless of the each and every surprise, you will be alone if you don't believe "Panama es una maravilla."  If you don't give this show a standing ovation, others will be offended.  They will try to convince you to stand, to sell you on its grandeur.  And eventually you will be sold or at least jaded.

You will get used to the mediocre performance, the big top’s disarray, and the general chaos.  After about one year, the circus will be old hat.  A friend was eating lunch at a busy cafe last week when another customer walked through the door and it fell off the hinges.  The customer caught the door.  My friend just kept eating.

Another friend drove through dicey Chorrillo one night and witnessed a totally naked woman breaking car windows with a baseball bat.  Surprised by this behavior, he retold the tale to local talent, his teenage sons. They both just looked at him like, "Yeah, and then what happened?" as if a naked, crazy lady with a bat wasn't sufficient to impress them.

Prepare to be surprised -- and after a while you won’t be.  Welcome to Panama!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLaura Guy is an American expat living in Panama. Blog description: Originally from Panama, Laura moved to the United States with her mother, father and sister Michelle at a young age. Her blog contains stories of Laura's Life in Panama
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Contest Comments » There are 42 comments

Rachael wrote 10 years ago:

It sounds great to live in Panama...thanks for describing it in more detail and how things work there. Note to self: pack a jacket.

Ron Brown wrote 10 years ago:

good to hear a comedic take on the gritty underbelly of a city that's been on my list. . . maybe this summer?

Matthew Doherty wrote 10 years ago:

Very well told! I'm not sure, but I dopn't think you missed anything. Funny thing is ,despite all this I DO love it here.

Rolanda Taylor Enroth wrote 10 years ago:

Laura's observations on life in Panama are as sharp and precise as a surgeon's scalpel. Yes, you will receive major side-eye from those who are drunk from the kool-aid (it's watered down) and are blind to the unbelievable shenanigans of the circus performers. What, you don't like the circus? It's set in paradise? What is wrong with you Nothing. Clowns ain't my thing and I'll gladly relinquish my seat to the next sucker. This post should be mandatory reading for ANYONE considering moving here.

Darryl wrote 10 years ago:

Funny and interesting take on Panama. I would have had to include the clown cars/taxis, and Panamanians particular brand of Spanish. I believe you can enjoy and appreciate a place and its people and still be critical of real issues. Thanks for the article.

Amy Doherty wrote 10 years ago:

Love the circus idea! As I watch a lizard walking up my den wall in a 13 floor flat in the middle of very urban Panama city I think, "Oh, Panama!" And in the end we DO love it here!

CJ Callen wrote 10 years ago:

What a super look at live in a place unlike our own here in the US. Made we want to go live in the place where the post office runs out of its most obvious product.

EUNICE FOOTE wrote 10 years ago:

Being from an Island myself, I find none of these happenings strange.I must say though, the stampless Post Office takes the cake!. All being said, I LOVE IT HERE.

Brendan wrote 10 years ago:

This was great! Panama is like a box of chocolates....

Chris wrote 10 years ago:

I totally get the comment about the air conditioning. Austin is crazy hot, often over 100 degrees but you need a sweater in the middle of the summer if you're at an indoor mall.

Becky wrote 10 years ago:

This is a great list of surprises, Laura. It is a real skill to describe these circus details of life in Panama, without ever sounding like queja-queja-queja, complaining. There is always a positive spin of wonder and laughter in your posts.

Anne Walton wrote 10 years ago:

Your 'wicked good' sense of humor comes through 'loud and clear'.Some experiences happen everywhere: the retail sales help seems to happen everywhere. Loved the included stories, such as the teenage sons asking "So . . .?" these stories and the circus imagery brought vitality to the article. Very enjoyable.

Bobbi wrote 10 years ago:

Not only is Laura's blog informational, it's written in an interesting and creative way!

Jess wrote 10 years ago:

Accurate and sadly true. I was born and raised here in Panama and I often say: "I am a bad Panamanian", I complain about the same things you mentioned and people usually look at me like: "you must be talking about somewhere else, not Panama". You make me feel I am not alone!!! I refuse to get used to the mediocre performance, to the circus, to the filth, to the "juega vivo", to the rudeness, and will never understand why nobody knows how to set air conditioner's thermostats! I truly believe that to improve something you have to make changes, starting from pointing out what is wrong and offering a solution. Changing the perception of what is acceptable and what is not; and leading by example.

Dave DeLew wrote 10 years ago:

Just in time, I'll be drinking the coolaid this Saturday, but only for a week :)

Michelle wrote 10 years ago:

Funny, funny. Nice job LG. I enjoyed your circus metaphor.

Playful Karen wrote 10 years ago:

It is so fun to see how your experience gets more real and has more depth. Makes me want to come visit you!!

Sarah McAchran wrote 10 years ago:

As it is -5 and snowing in Wisconsin today, I'm not sure I'm buying the frigid climes of Panama, but the rest is hilarious. We hope you win!

Sara wrote 10 years ago:

laura, my compliments, panama is nice and crazy at the same time and you sure knew how to notice and describe some of the less obvious things in every day's life here. id love to read more.:)

Donald Inniss wrote 10 years ago:

I love Laura Guy's posts. Like this one, they are interesting, entertaining and well written. They also capture the imagination. I recommend that Ex Pat readers read her posts.

Tarvo wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Laura, I love your wittiness. It's quite amusing and telling at the same time. It seems that you have the skills to become an excellent writer, someone who's stories reach far and stay in their readers minds for long. Between the "ed" and "ing" lurks a world of difference and a level of chaos often beyond comprehension. Not only I find it well said, but it opens up a world of possibilities that you fill with grace and ease and colour. Really well written blog!

Stephen Orem wrote 10 years ago:

A sense of humor and accompanying detachment serve Laura well in these great vignettes, requiring an addition to my travel itin. Many thanks.

Pat Staude wrote 10 years ago:

Totally enjoyed reading about Panama. Have never visited there but have been so interested in visiting since meeting Dr. Cynthia Guy, Laura Guy's mother, in 2003. Dr. Guy is one of the most amazing people I have ever meant, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me. I do not know where my life would be today if not for the guidance, education, love and direction this woman of Panama, native and now returned there, has provide to me. I will always be grateful to Panama for this wonderful, beautiful person and woman.

Yolanda Monteza wrote 10 years ago:

You have captured and articulated with wit and clarity some of the essence of the three ring circus that is Panama City. Oh, the humanity!

Cindy wrote 10 years ago:

Nice work Laura! What a great way to share your amazing adventures and channeling all your energy! I'm looking forward to visiting Panama one day!

Jenny wrote 10 years ago:

This is so entertaining and funny! I'm coming to visit soon!

Jenny wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for the funny, insider's view that we definitely wouldn't get from a guidebook.

Chris B wrote 10 years ago:

i always look forward to lg's posts. her writing is funny, insightful, quirky, and personal. what's not to like?

Stefanie wrote 10 years ago:

Laura's well written and wry stories about life in Panama fill me with wonder and leave a smile on my face!

Warren wrote 10 years ago:

Wonderful perspective of what it feels like to be living between the ed and the ing. Congratulations Laura on surviving and thriving in the Circus. I make the big differentiation that I love my life I've built in Panama. The country itself I could love it or leave it depending on the day.

Johnson wrote 10 years ago:

A year after Laura's "sexy" post, the reality's starting to sink in. The "circus" post shows a trajectory that many of us have been through in Panama. Both posts are equally valid; I'm eager to see the 3 year mark post, and - in true time lapse dichotomy of grinding frustration and grudging acceptance - how the joys of Panama may or may not outweigh the reality of living here.

Starla wrote 10 years ago:

Your unique perspective, keen attention to detail and use of metaphor helps me imagine what it FEELS like to live there. Excellent writing and humor. This sentence made me laugh out loud! "They both just looked at him like, "Yeah, and then what happened?" as if a naked, crazy lady with a bat wasn't sufficient to impress them.

Vince wrote 10 years ago:

One year may have changed your tune, but I still think you're sexy in Panama! Thanks for keeping us all entertained.

Tom wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent article. Every time I read Laura's writings, I discover something new about a country I would love to visit someday.

Cynthia wrote 10 years ago:

Laura's creativity and writing are right to the point of the three-ring circus. I was born and raised here and participate in the circus daily. I commend her on her comments. Bravo!

Linda wrote 10 years ago:

Is it wrong that I agree with the teenage sons? So, then what happened?! :) Thanks for making me laugh tonight.

Johanna wrote 10 years ago:

Despite all the circus - I can't wait to come and visit!

Phyllis So wrote 10 years ago:

I thought Laura's comments were well thought out and humorous. If you live here we must laugh or be depressed. I have been out with her and have experienced the circus with her. We laugh and wonder what driving school taught them to drive. Everyone who moves here needs to hear both sides of the story. As many negative things there are there are just as many positive things and in the end, it is your choice. Everywhere has its pluses and minuses. Choose. and then laugh.

Paul Kim wrote 10 years ago:

Fun read! It's cold and wet in the midwest right now. I want to be in a place where the AC being turned up too high is a problem!

Lori Balkin wrote 10 years ago:

After a full year in Panama, I have to agree with Laura on most accounts! It's one thing to be a tourist or go to a relocation seminar, another to try to get your hair cut, AC fixed or a hundred other things you take for granted just because you speak the language. Love the humorous satire on Life in Panama. Look forward to more! I have some topics to suggest !!

Aynur Girgin Westen wrote 10 years ago:

Love reading all these! Makes me even more curious about Panama! Some similarities with Turkey! Thank you for the insider's view!

MGCB wrote 10 years ago:

Wao!... Great post. Im Panamenian and i admit that you described it perfectly right. I love my country, but it has many things to improve. People must educate themselves to create a better place. Stop with the "juega vivo" and blaiming the goverment for all their problems. Typical. The AC thing.. Omg i suffer from it! Thats why everybody is always sniffing. Definetly is a great place to visit, just hope one day people wake up with a better mentality and appreciate it more.

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