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


Happy holidays to all!  It’s that time of year when holds their annual blog contest.  This year my topic is The Top 12 Surprises of Panama’s Three-Ring Circus.

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

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 to 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!

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