Cell Phones

May 31, 2011

Panamanians are always on their cell phones; the young ones at least. It’s taken some getting used to, and I still don’t like it, but they always have their Blackberrys out texting, calling or googling things. It’s apparently just gotten to be the fashion. I don’t know whether it’s worse than in the United States or not, but I think I just don’t notice it as much because they people I hang out with at home tend to be quasi-luddites. I just don’t understand what they all have to say to each other all the time. It seems like you’d run out of things to talk about, but I guess not. Or maybe they just all have that many friends. Who knows. Even at parties or clubs people are on their phones constantly. Two or more people will inevitably be standing around “talking” to each other, and at least one of them will be on the phone, texting or otherwise. I have noticed that since I have been here, in the last week in particular, I’ve gotten slightly more dependent on mine as well. I am the only person in our group however, that didn’t play the video game on the phones. Everyone else was constantly on the phones playing Jewel Quest, or whatever the name of it is. It’ll be interesting to see if I continue to be as attached to it as I have been here. I hope not, but the need to be in constant contact because of the lack of strict planning may be something that continues to play a significant role in my life.


San Blas

May 31, 2011

A small group of us went to San Blas this past weekend to visit the Kuna in Kuna Yala. We had a great time, despite the serious sunburn I managed to get. I’m still in awe of the fact that there are 365 islands in the archipelago. It seems impossible, even with as small as they all are. That’s a lot of islands. I’ve never been any place like that before. Tiny communities exist on many of the islands, all of which interact with one another by boat, constantly traveling back and forth from island to island in order to go about their daily routines. The hotel where we were staying was previously a Smithsonian research site for marine biology. It’s a tiny man-made island owned by Juan, a Kuna that we met during our stay. The Smithsonian used his island and built various structures on it for their researchers, and once they had finished with their project returned the island with all of the new structures to Juan and his wife Tina (and their mean parrot Flammy). Fabio explained to us how they create these man-made islands, planting palms in the shallows and waiting for them to slowly push the sand up from the sea, a very long process. It was very interesting to spend time with the Kuna, observing how they interact not only with one another, but also with tourists and with their environment.  I have to say the tiny sailboats on the open ocean make me a bit nervous, and I don’t think I could handle having to travel that way all the time. We watched a couple of them get caught in storms also, which I found pretty nerve wracking. The men sailing them didn’t seem too phased though.

Their ability to keep track of which island is which is incredible to me. With 365 islands scattered throughout the Caribbean Sea along the coast, it would seem almost impossible to remember exactly where they all were. Some of them obviously don’t know where all of them are, but many of the older Kuna are extremely knowledgeable about the geography of their comarca.


May 31, 2011

Something that I’ve noticed in the last week as I was riding around more in some of the neighborhoods in Panama City is the preponderance of fences and gates. Nearly every house has a fence around its lawn/patio, and many of them have full fences with gates. My first assumption would be that this was for security purposes, but it seems to be more of a phenomenon than that. Everyone has them. Perhaps because they houses are all so close together (essentially town houses, all connected to one another) they needed some definitive way of distinguishing between patio areas. I’ve also noticed a lot of fences up in the slightly more urban areas of the city, surrounding churches, restaurants and so forth. Here again, the purpose seems kind of ambiguous, whether because the neighborhoods are dangerous, just to separate property or purely for architectural fashion reasons. I can’t imagine that everywhere is so dangerous that people have to have gates around their houses. I’ve also noticed the windows in many houses around town, but especially those in more rural areas. Often there are not panes, just shutters, grates or carved concrete. Many stores (again particularly those outside the city) keep bars and grates over the windows also. They appear to be permanent too, not just security grates that they put up after business hours.

The orphanage

May 31, 2011

We took a trip to the Aldeas Orphanage during our trip and it was one of my favorite excursions by far. I love kids anyway, but it was a lot of fun to spend the day with these children (not to mention moving). What I found most interesting was the organization of the orphanage. Unlike orphanages in the United States (at least the orphanages that come to mind when we hear the word), the Aldeas Orphanage is a much more stable and homey environment in which these children can live. It is a compound instead of an institution-like building, with several houses on the property organized in a village-like manner. Each house has a “mother” and a small group of children  that live in it. This way they are more able to maintain a familial structure in order to promote healthy growth and development in the children there. We were told that they all attend regular public schools also, instead of going to school within the orphanage. Again, this way they are able to preserve normal relationships not only among the children there but also in society as a whole. They are not growing up in an isolate community, but participating as fully as any other child in the community’s social development.


They didn’t all speak english, in fact most of them didn’t speak it at all, but we had a great time showing them how to do things, how to use the toys we brought them and chasing them around the yard.

Discussing gender relations, roles and sexuality in reference to our experiences in Panamá is a bit more difficult than many of the other aspects of culture that we’ve experienced. It’s not as simple as recording observations about how people drive, how they behave at sporting events or how they shop. Perhaps it would be best to begin with the standard subject: cat calls. We’ve all heard that this is a normal practice throughout Latin America and were all “warned” to be prepared for it, since it’s not something that happens in the U.S. The first day we were here we all walked as a big group to the University for our orientation. The entire walk was peppered with whistles, honks and comments from the surrounding construction areas, traffic and local pedestrians. Part of this was due to the fact, I think, that we were obviously a large group of Americans, including at least four blondes. Avoiding that kind of attention was impossible. When we walk in smaller groups it’s much less noticeable, and if I’m by myself it’s usually just a handful and nothing particularly invasive (I have noticed that walking with just one blonde elicits exponentially more shouts and whistles). When I was in Spain I managed to avoid calling too much attention to myself because I looked and dressed relatively European. Obviously in Central American my biscuit dough skin color makes me stand out a bit more, but I frequently get mistaken for a German tourist, so my interactions with locals are often a bit different. Back to the subject at hand though: cat calls. They are indeed a normal part of gender interactions on the street. There is no denying that. There are three standard MOs that I’ve observed: the whistle, the hiss and the comment.

The first and last are things that I was previously familiar with, since they happen with relative frequency in the States also. It shocked me how many people were surprised by it, acting like they’d never heard it before, but I suppose that’s a result of they neighborhoods we all live in. I grew up essentially on Bardstown Road where honking and whistling is pretty normal (although admittedly not as frequent as it is here). I didn’t notice the hissing at first, either. I think I was hearing it and just thought that it was some sort of automotive noise, which is pretty funny I guess, but that’s what it sounded like.

This sort of cultural practice would seem to indicate a subjugated position for women in society as a whole. However, from what we’ve been told Panamanian women occupy a different position in society. They are purportedly highly independent and strong willed, with single mothers often priding themselves on the fact that they are both mother and father to their children.

Spanish Mass

May 30, 2011

I went to mass with one of my roommates on Sunday morning. I had wanted to go to mass in the Cathedral in Segovia when I was there, but didn’t manage to make it out of bed after a trip to Valencia and missed out on my chance. I decided that while I was here I was going to go to mass and see what it was like in Latin America. We went to the church around the corner from our hotel, Nuestra Señora del Carmen. I don’t know how old of a church it is. I can’t seem to find the information anywhere, but it’s a pretty traditional building.

The church itself is much more intricate than most Catholic churches in Louisville, at least in its exterior decorative program. They keep the parking lot roped off outside of church hours, which is kind of interesting. I walk through it every day on the way to class. However, during mass there is no room to move there are so many cars, and everyone double parks. Watching people back out of this side lot onto the street was a bit nerve wracking, I have to say. I wouldn’t want to do it. The inside of the church is beautiful. The reredos is entirely covered in mosaic, and its bright colors are striking against the off white pillars and crystal blue ceiling.

The mass schedule was the first thing that I noticed. Mass is held on Sunday mornings from six to noon; every hour on the hour. We went for the 10:00 mass and got there about ten minutes before since I figured it might be kind of crowded. They still hadn’t finished the nine o’clock mass though. Just a few minutes before 10:00 they wrapped things up and went almost directly in to the next service. There were no hymnals, but they had printed programs with the day’s readings, etcetera. The music was a bit different than I had anticipated, although I’ve never been to a Spanish mass, so I don’t really know what I was anticipating. I think it just sounded more contemporary than I thought it would. The priest spoke slowly and distinctly, so I found it very easy to understand everything, although being familiar with mass protocol in general went a long way. It reminded me very much of mass at St. Joseph’s church in Louisville. The pastor there is hispanic and has a very different style than that of pastors at many other parishes. Being familiar with hispanic culture to a certain extent, I was aware that some of his manner was a result of his cultural background. After sitting through mass in Panamá though, I realized just how very Latin American Fr. Sanchez’s masses are. What really struck me about the service was how child oriented it was. I don’t know if that’s standard, but Fr. Sanchez displays a similar focus in his involvement with the congregation, allowing the children to participate as fully as possible.


May 24, 2011

I’ve been to two different groceries, one Mini Super and the mall since I’ve been here, so I feel like I’ve seen a relatively wide range of shopping environments and processes. Grocery shopping is what I’ve become most familiar with of the three, so that’s what I’ll focus on first. The two large groceries that we go to are Rey and Riba Smith. Where the name Riba Smith came from I don’t know, but it’s a nice grocery. There seems to be a relative consensus among the students the Riba Smith is the favorite. The store itself is very different from the stores you see in the United States. The outside doesn’t even look like anything really, let alone a grocery, and the entrances are small, inconspicuous and slightly oddly placed. The first couple of times we went we accidently passed up the door. One of the first things that struck me after walking into Riba Smith for the first time was the number of employees that they had working. Every checkout lane had at least three people manning it, and there were no U-Scans. I don’t really like using the U-Scan at home, but it is frequently faster. There were a couple of people slightly perturbed by the lack of U-Scan lanes though (which I found amusing).

The organization of the store was odd at first, and I still haven’t really figured it out, but I kind of like it for some reason. Aisles aren’t strictly organized like they are in the U.S., but you’ll find things in multiple places, or next to completely unrelated items. It made it hard to navigate at first, but I’ve gotten more or less used to it. The other thing that struck me was the preponderance of U.S. brands. There doesn’t seem to be a very large selection of local products when it comes to anything other than produce. Because of that most prices seem to be comparable or higher than those in Kentucky. As I said, produce is one of the few exceptions here. Mangoes, pineapple, bananas, and so forth are dirt cheap compared to prices in Louisville (or anywhere else in the U.S. I’m sure). I had good intentions of cooking frequently to save a little money, since we have a kitchenette, but that hasn’t worked out as well as planned. I’ve been working on a big pot of rice and vegetables for about a week, but other than that I haven’t had much success. We keep finding new places we want to try, or we go out for something else and end up eating out. On top of that our cooktop is really slow, which makes cooking a chore.

Buying produce itself is also a bit different, at least at Riba. You pick out your produce, bag it, etc, and then have to take it to the designated “weigh station”. There’s an employee who weighs and prices all of your produce before you take it to the checkout. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in the U.S. They usually weigh it in the checkout line itself. There are people to help you unload your groceries onto the belt, as well as bag them for you, and the deli is always fully staffed. This is probably a factor in Panamá’s low unemployment rate.

Rey is a different experience. When I went to the Rey by our hotel I was struck by how dark it was inside. The tiles and everything were all dark and it wasn’t very well lit. A torrential downpour also started after we got inside, which may be why it seemed so particularly dark. There wasn’t a whole lot of natural light coming through the windows or the skylights in the roof. The selection at Rey was a bit different, but still boasted a surprising majority of U.S. products. It’s organizational system takes the cake though. The arrangement of things in the aisles and the order of the aisles themselves was almost impossible to figure out. Neither store has very prominent signage, but the signage at Rey was even worse. It made it extremely difficult to navigate. The selection was also a bit more limited. After having gone to another Rey in a different part of town last night, however, I think that a lot of this may have to do with this specific store and no the chain itself. The other supermarket was brighter and marginally more organized looking. I did only get a limited look at it though, since we were doing a rush job prepping for a party. In and out with two cases of beer, vodka, juice and ceviche.

The manner in which people shop doesn’t seem too much different than that of the Unites States. People tend to meander through groceries no matter how they’re organized, so the bizarre organization of items doesn’t seem to make much difference in overall shopping style. There is a stark contrast in the overall appearance of the shoppers. Not only do Panamanians dress up much more than us for their daily lives, but the vast majority of them are much more dressed up at the grocery than we are accustomed to seeing. It looks like a lot of people are coming from work, either on their way home or during lunch, which would explain why they are dressed up. I’ve also seen greater numbers of women shopping together. In Kentucky it’s usually a solo job, unless you have your family with you. Some of the stores ask that you check your backpacks and things when you enter, to prevent shoplifting, which is something I also encountered at a couple of stores in the mall. I’d be curious to know how this actually effects the incidence of shoplifting, or if there was a problem with it before and so stores have become more wary in recent years.

Moving on to other shopping experiences, the prevalence of the Mini Super (like Mini Super Frank next to the hotel) is interesting. They are essentially like Save-a-Steps (not that we actually have any of those anymore). They’re small convenience stores, like CVS or Walgreens, but without all the pharmaceuticals, etc. Just basics: snacks, liquor, phone cards, and the like. They all have really funny names too: Mini Super Frank, Mini Super Hong Kong, Mini Super Angel. I can’t remember any others off the top of my head. They’re everywhere though.

I’ve only been to one of the malls: Allbrook. It’s absolutely immense; much bigger than the malls in Louisville. I don’t even know how far I made it through it’s so big. The fact that it was built from old airplane hangers is pretty interesting, and also something that one wouldn’t likely see in the States. It’s so big it’s organized into wings essentially. We recognize our mall entrances according to which store they’re next too, but the entrances at Allbrook are coded by letter, each with a different animal. The first time I went we got dropped off at the Cebra entrance. Most of these also have corresponding animal statues inside the entrance just to clarify further where you are, including giraffes, an elephant and a Tyrannosaurus. It houses a movie theater, numerous department stores, countless small shops, and an extensive food court; not to mention the full size carousel in the middle (at least I think it was the middle. I got kind of lost). Most of the stores are fairly similar to those in the U.S., at least in overall content and price. There are also multiples of certain stores, which makes it even more difficult to figure out where you are, hence the need for the giant animal statues.

The shopping experience itself is somewhat different. Employees are much more attentive to shoppers than they are in the U.S., unless you’re in extremely high end stores. It was explained to us that many of them work on commission so they tend to follow you around the store and help you with everything. When we asked the panamanians in our class, however, they said that a lot of that is because there had been so many complaints about customer service in the past that now everyone tries their hardest to be extremely attentive. In a couple of the stores we went into the sales people would literally follow about 18 inches behind us and wait for us to ask questions or want to see something. They wouldn’t let us get things down off of racks, but would ask which thing we wanted to see and in which size and would get it down for us. Then they walk you to the dressing room and hand you each individual item to try on. At first the close following can be a bit jarring when you’re not used to it, but I have to say I really like having someone carry everything for you and hand you things in the dressing room. It makes for a nice shopping experience in my opinion. It’s also beneficial for them since you tend to feel bad about not buying anything after someone has done all that for you. Even if you just end up making one small purchase, that may still have been more than you would have bought had  you been left to your own devices.

El béisbol

May 22, 2011

I’ve been to two baseball games in the last week. I’d been itching to go to a game for over a year and just never seemed to find the time, so when Roly told us the National Championship finals were happening and he wanted to take us I had to go. I don’t care about sports at all, but for some reason I just really love going to baseball games. Go figure. I knew that any sporting event in Latin American was going to be more lively, shall we say, than any in the U.S., but I didn’t really know what we were in for. Los Santos and Bocas del Toro were playing, and Bocas hasn’t won a championship in 53 years. Driving to the game was an experience in and of itself. We crammed way too many people into three cars, and then we parked said cars on the side of the highway near the stadium. Apparently Rod Carew Estadio Nacional doesn’t have a very big parking lot, so this is a completely normal practice. This was the first time in my life I’ve ever walked on the expressway (with traffic still moving in particular). We made our way through the throngs of orange and green clad fans, and waited about three different places for our “chaperones” to get the tickets sorted out. When we finally made it inside the stadium we found ourselves in a sparsely decorated concrete maze, following closely behind our local hosts trying not to get lost in the crowds. The stadium didn’t have actual seats, just concrete risers, which I thought was actually kind of nice. It made moving around easier at least.

The first game we went to was crowded, but the Bocas side of the stadium was a bit sparse, so we had plenty of room. The second game, however, was absolutely packed. There was barely room to move once we got inside. It was the final game of the National Championship though, so that’s to be expected. It was interesting going to a baseball game with people who know all of the players, getting the inside scoop on who played for who, who went pro, etcetera. One of the most interesting (and different) things that I noticed was the musical presence at the game. There was a band, with drums and horns, and a small dance troupe as well. We all got up and danced with them at one point, which was fun. That is something that you never see in the States (unfortunately). Beer at baseball games is also cheap; $1 beer all the time. That would also explain why they’re all so willing to throw their beer at the drop of a hat. I doubt they’d be so eager to chuck it into the air if it cost $3 or $4. Since our side of the stadium wasn’t as full during the first game we didn’t really get to experience the beer shower at its best, but the final game was another story. We’d all been pretty well doused by the end of the night. It’s light beer at least. I can’t imagine getting showered with Guinness. Bad calls, runs, anything can instigate a beer shower. You just have to make sure to dodge the plastic cups that follow. There wasn’t quite as much dancing during the final game, probably due in part to the density of the crowd, but it was still a much livelier audience in general than those you find at the games I’ve been to in Kentucky.

We also had an interesting bunch of beer hawkers around us. From what I could tell there were about three of them working one section of the stadium and getting into frequent arguments about something. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on, but it had something to do with getting the best price for a cooler of 14 beers. These were the only ones who seemed to be having issues, though, so they may not have been directly associated with the stadium. I at least assume that food/beverage venders are working for the stadium and therefore not in competition with each other. Maybe these were “black market” beers, unlicensed beer hawking gang wars if you will. The cops did have to step in once or twice at both games, although not because of the beer venders. There were a couple of fights that broke out among the spectators in the stands.

Los Santos ended up winning in the final game, continuing Bocas 53 year losing streak, but being in the middle of such a big game was pretty incredible. I just don’t think I’ll be able to feel the same way about North American baseball games again.

On Tuesday night, our first real night here, we all went out on the Chiva Parrandera. We’d been told about this Chiva by numerous people, all of whom said it was pretty amazing, but I still wasn’t really sure what to expect. At 7:00 pm when I looked down from our fifth floor balcony to the street in front of the hotel, the I was confronted with it: a painted bus covered in racing neon lights. Now, I’ve been in limos with crazy lights on the inside ceiling and all that, but never have I seen a bus that looked like one of those bizarre deep sea fish; just like the ones on the t-shirt I had when I was six, a big, bioluminescent land-fish. And who can resist the enticing lighted lure of the angler? None of us. We all piled onto this bus donning Chiva Parrandera t-shirts and mylar masks, pressing ourselves like thirty sweaty sardines into this tin can (I’m on a roll with the fish metaphors right now).

All of the seats had been replaced with narrow metal benches running along either side of the bus, and a DJ booth had been set up in the back. We started moving. As we pulled away from the curb the music started blaring and the hot, sticky dance party began. We toured the city, stopping for a bit in a large parking lot (for those of you who have never had a parking lot dance party, try it), and then made our way back to the hotel. The whole thing lasted about three hours, and I pride myself on the fact that I never stopped dancing the entire trip… stone cold sober.

Obviously the idea of a mobile dance club is a strange one for us to begin with. This is not something you see roaming around the States. I really think we should though. It’s a great concept. It was interesting watching the reactions of passing traffic also. In Louisville, when the Pool Party Express (a horribly deceptive party bus) drives down Bardstown Road people react, whether out of amusement or with disapproval. The passersby here were remarkably unfazed. They didn’t even seem to really notice the busload of raucous youth in the lane next to them. Later in the evening we got a little more reaction from people in other cars laughing and honking (of course) but that was about it.

The other thing of note was the dancing ability of the few panameños that were with us. Now, of course it’s expected that latin americans dance better than those of us from the States, but the combination of standard club dancing and things like the Pasa Pasa or the popularity of the Electric Slide, yes the Electric Slide, were interesting. I’m interested to see what the dance floors at the clubs look like (plus I’m ready for a little participant observation). The standard schedule for going out is not one I’m cut out for though. Much like Europe, no one goes out until 10:00 or 11:00 at the earliest really, and then they stay out until the wee hours of the morning. I’ve met those hours a couple of times and we are not good friends. The lack of siesta really makes that schedule untenable as far as I’m concerned. The Spanish know what they’re doing on that score.

Llegamos el lunes por la noche, muy tarde. Ya en estas tres días cortos que he pasado en este país he observado varias cosas interesantes, y lo disfrutaba mucho. El proceso de analizar una cultura o una sociedad nueva es una compleja, que requiere que pase mucho tiempo dentro de ella, observándola. En tres días ha sido difícil formar una comprensión fija de como funciona la sociedad panameña, pero no obstante, intento recordar lo que ya he experimentado y observado durante mi viaje.

The first thing that hits you upon leaving the airport terminal are the cars. It’s not as if there aren’t cars in the United States of course, but the overwhelming smell of exhaust hanging in the weighty, humid air was incredible. Un aire pesadísimo nos envolvió inmediatamente.

The next morning we walked to campus for our on site orientation. The amount of traffic was staggering really; easily rivaling any major U.S. cities congested motorways. Driving styles are not all that different from those in the United States’ larger metropoles, boasting just as many hurried and apparently self-important drivers. They drive fast and with a purpose. Not even the sudden collection of water at least six inches deep on the main thoroughfares impedes them from reaching their destination (or at least not many of them).

According to los panameños con quienes tenemos clase, the road laws are not necessarily ignored by many drivers, they are simply unknown. The percentage of drivers that bypass driver’s ed and just buy their licenses (along with those who simply drive without a license at all) means that a great many of them don’t even know what the traffic laws are, making them all the easier to ignore. The most distinctive driving behavior displayed by Panamanians is their liberal use of the car horn. A perpetual symphony of honks (in the key of Toyota and Kia) resonates through the streets at all hours. Our Panamanian professor and fellow students can’t explain that one to us, but it’s a fact they all recognize and admit themselves. It’s just the standard for negotiating the road with other drivers. If someone stops on the side of the road, you honk. If they are driving too slowly, you honk. If they cut in front of you, you honk. If they’re in your way at all, you honk. Sometimes it seems like they just honk for the hell of it. Despite that, I haven’t seen a single wreck yet; much more than I could say for Louisville drivers. People obviously like to make it clear that someone is doing something they don’t approve of, but they seem to leave it at that. Everyone knows what to expect from everyone else on the road and are apparently aware enough to keep from constantly rear-ending each other.