Category Archives: Panamanian Culture

Guinea Pig in a Paper Thong


This morning I was a guinea pig and wore a paper thong.  Mom and I made massage appointments at Estetica Corpural in Galeria Balboa to cash in on OfertaSimple coupons that were about to expire.  When I called about a month ago to make two back-to-back appointments I was told this wasn’t possible — that there was only one masseuse and that they don’t schedule her back-to-back, that she needs an hour break in between.  Mom calls a few weeks later and gets what she wants.  When I hear this I give myself the experience of being given the shaft as a *gringa* in Panama.  I know others complain about unequal treatment towards non-natives.  Now  I may start to complain about it was well.

Mom offers to drive so I pack her scooter in the car and we head off down Cinta Costera.  At some point, she asks me for directions, if she should u-turn or keep straight.  I tell her to u-turn since I think it’s shorter.  Unfortunately, it’s not; we’re forced by a policeman to go left when we want to turn right and travel in 2 huge circles to finally reach the clinic.  I admit that the other route would have been faster and Mom responds with an unexpected “I-told-you-so” type comment.  “When I leave the house it’s almost like I need to have an internal map in my head of where I’m going” she says.  Um, then next time, please don’t ask me for directions and them blame me when we get re-routed.  Deal?  Deal.

We finally arrive and I unload Mom’s scooter.  It’s dead.  She forgot to charge it last night — although she never forgets to charge her iPad — so I put it in neutral and push her into the building.  This is kind of fun until I drop my beloved green glass bottle from Uruguay and it shatters into a million little pieces.  The fun is over.  We’re late, I’m now a bit frazzled, I just lost my bottle and I can feel my blood sugar dropping from skipping breakfast.  Suddenly, 9:00 am on a Thursday is the perfect time for a massage.

Once inside Mom says I can go first.  I’m escorted to my room, told to get undressed and to put on the paper thong lying on the bed.  I’ve never used a paper thong in a massage before — only in waxing appointments — but I have to say it’s a nice touch.  I mean it’s always a bit weird to have that area totally exposed.  Am I right?  With my thong on, I start climbing onto the bed.  The masseuse enters mid-climb catching me naked.  This is a little bit uncomfortable but fortunately, I’m not a shy person so I recover quickly.

Masseuse is nice but the service is terrible.  She rubs me — spending a lot of time on my ankles — rather than really massaging me and then places warm rocks on my back and legs.  She then leaves the room — for, like 20 minutes.  Once the rocks get cold, I decide this is weird, not what I signed up for or got naked for so I start to shout “Hello” from my head-down position on the table.  After the fifth “Hello” Masseuse re-enters the room.  “Where did you go?” I ask in Spanish.  She says something about having to clean the rocks.  I’m glad to know the rocks are clean but mention that it would have been nice if she’d stayed in the room to attend to my feet, arms, hands, head or any other part of my unexposed and uncovered body.  She does not respond.

After a bit more rubbing and before I know it, my *massage* is over.  Humph.  I head back to the waiting room and report to Mom that it was weak.  I tell her about the rocks and that, supposedly, that’s the type of service the coupon entitles us to.  Mom is no stranger to massage; she has her own table here at the house and her therapist Aurora on speed-dial.  She is also very good at getting what she wants — in a very pleasant way, of course.  Thirty-five minutes later, she returns to the waiting room and thanks me for the heads-up.  She told Masseuse she didn’t want to use rocks and received a deep tissue rub — still not a massage — instead.

“What did we pay for those coupons?” Mom asks in the car.  “Eighteen dollars,” I respond.  “Well, that’s ok but it was worth about eight.”


Update on My Love Life


Now that Matchmaker is gone, I’m having to search for and try to attract my own men here in Panama.  In an attempt to use my resources, I browsed the online dating site Badoo a few times but thought it was awful.  I had never been on a site where men post pics of actors or other celebrities as themselves with such frequency.  Like playing Whack-a-Mole, I report abusers to site administrators and block the likes of Johnny Depp, Nelson Mandela (interesting choice), Matthew McConaughey, a Spanish telenovela star and other handsome men standing in place of men who hide and pretend behind stolen pics.

Sadly, even though they’re fake, these photos are much better to look at than many real pics of *eligible* men, most of whom have round faces and even rounder bellies, the product of too much rice, platanos y cerveza I imagine.  I spent one evening showing pics to a friend who was equally horrified – photos that look like mug shots, pics taken in such exotic places as the public restroom and practically every other shot of someone holding either a beer or a shotgun.  Needless to say, I have very little confidence in finding a mate on this site.

But since I’m curious – and honestly a little desperate – I pay the nominal registration fee which elevates my browsing options from freemium to premium.  I am now able to conduct advanced searches for men who speak English, are actually single and have at least a college degree.  One guy’s pic stands out so I take the bait and check out his profile.  He’s a gym rat with an 8-pack on display in each of his 6 profile pics.  But he also has tattoos and doesn’t seem like my type so I move on without leaving a message.

About an hour later, he sends me a chat.  He probably noticed that I looked at his profile and thinks I might be interested.  Because I’ve got nothing to lose, I’m friendly and respond to his message.  Here is my conversation with Ellis – not his real name.


Ellis — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:03 AM


Laura — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:10 AM

Hola. Como estas?

Ellis — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:12 AM

Bien gracias y tu

Laura — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:20 AM

Muy bien. Parece que te gusta ir al gimnasio. Yo tambien pero no tanto como tu.

[Great.  Looks like you like to go to the gym.  I do, too, but not as much as you.]

He responds by telling me he works out compulsively.  He also states that he’s “preso.”  I’m not familiar with this word so I jump on Google Translate.  Really?  Does this mean what I think it means?


Laura — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:30 AM

Mi espanol no es muy bueno. Que significa “estoy preso?”

[My Spanish isn’t very good.  What does “estoy preso” mean?]

Ellis — Friday, 30 November 2012 06:36 PM

Estoy en la cárcel

[I am in prison.]

Yep, he’s chatting with me from jail.  I suppose he’s using his iPhone?  At least he was decent enough to tell me off the bat, I figure.  I also figure I’ll be emailing Badoo at some point and suggesting their terms of service should prevent inmates from using the site.  I thought online dating stunk in the US.  In Panama it’s a little bit worse.

Keeping It Real


One thing I find interesting here in Panama are the frank comments people make about each other in the absence of both political correctness and phony attempts to be overly polite.

When I saw a neighbor’s dog on the loose a few weeks ago, I went to a couple of nearby building security guards and asked them if they knew the owner.  “La China,” they both replied, one pointing me in the direction of the house on the corner.  After meeting her the next week on the street, I learn she’s not Chinese, she’s Korean.  I mention this mis-categorization to my Mom and she’s not surprised; apparently the same term — China/o — is often used to refer to Asians in general.

Thrilled with Obama’s victory, a Facebook acquaintance posts, “Ganó el Negritooooooooo! Yes, Adios Republicanos…”  I’ve never heard Obama referred to as “el Negrito” before but then I’ve never been here during a US election.

During a TV morning show taping a few weeks ago, a group of cooking contestants and I were interviewed live by the perky, Panamanian host.  We each told our name, what we planned to cook and where we were from.  When the host reached one contest who is quite large he mentioned something about the fact that he likes to cook.  Her response: “Si, se nota.”  Fortunately, he was a good sport and chuckled.  Considering he lives here, it’s probably not the first time someone has commented on his size.

And he’s not alone in receiving gordo comments.  After returning from my Vegas trip, Dad’s very observant assistant took one look at me and said, “Something is different.”  I start to tell her that I got my haircut and she asks, “Did you gain weight?”  Um, actually, yes, I did.  But I got my haircut, too.  For some reason, I hoped she would notice that first.

Milk Crates in the Road


Saturday night, a couple of friends and I agreed to meet on Calle Uruguay, a popular area filled with restaurants, bars and clubs.  I arrived around 9:45 pm, before most partygoers arrive, which means I can take advantage of free street parking rather than pay a valet.  However, a few *industrious* men have another idea; they’ve blocked a number of rockstar spots and are charging folks to park there.  I think this is BS and park without paying, which upsets the man who works this part of the block.  As I walk away, he shouts, “Joven!” and recites the unwritten rule of milk crates in the road — that everyone pays, that I owe him $4 for parking there, that in exchange he will watch my car.

I’m sufficiently miffed by Schiester and decide to find a police officer.  At the other end of the long block, I spot four of them together.  I explain my experience to them — that as a woman alone at night, I don’t appreciate aggressive Schiester coming up to my car window, hovering when I don’t immediately exit, and demanding that I pay him to park on a public street.  The officers ask me a few irrelevant questions — like what kind of car I drive and where I’m going.  They don’t seem that interested in helping me, but finally give in and two of them walk with me back to my car.

Once there, I identify Schiester.  The officer jots down his ID number and asks him what happened.  Now Schiester’s story has changed; he claims he doesn’t obligate anyone to give him money, that they can freely choose to do so in exchange for him watching their car.  Of course, I’ve encountered people doing this before, but I really didn’t appreciate Schiester’s bullying and shouting; it was simply too much and robbed me of any compassion I may have otherwise had for him since this likely how he makes a living.

As we leave Schiester promises nothing will happen to my car.  I head back to the bar, meet my friends, and stay out until 3:00 am.  When I finally return to my car, Schiester is still there.  Again, he asks me to pay him.  I remind him I’m the one who called the police and that he should leave me alone.  I drive away with him shouting, “Joven, un dolar!”  Gotta hand it to Schiester — he is relentless.

My Own Machete


Day 3 of my 10 day juice feast caught me grumpy and understocked with produce.  My solution: to treat myself to fresh coconut goodness — first water and then homemade milk — by buying coconuts at the farmer’s market.  A half hour after leaving the house, I arrive at the market even grumpier than I left.  I stopped at the gas station since my tank was nearly empty but could not buy gas; I only had coconut money with me and the station could not process credit cards.  I can’t say I’m surprised.  The last time I stopped at this Puma station, they only had diesel and no gas.  Pretty standard.

I head to the area where the coconut man usually plants himself but don’t find the dry coconuts I prefer, just the green “pipa” that doesn’t have nearly as much meat for making the delicious milk I crave.  So I make a huge loop around the market in my SUV, a vehicle type that is both necessary and tricky to manage along the small, unpaved streets of the market filled other cars, trucks and people coming and going in every direction.  I finally find a dry coconut stand in the corner.  I ask the vendor if he’s willing to open the coconuts for me once I buy them.  Without negotiation he says no.  His answer is so definitive and dismissive that I don’t even bother asking again.  What he doesn’t realize is that I would easily pay double, even $1.00 a piece, for him to provide me with the service I seek.  I’m bummed but also desperate for what he’s got so I buy 3 coconuts for $.40 each.  Maybe the pipa vendor will open the green cocos of I buy them from him?  So I maneuver through the market maze to find him.  Again, my request is denied.  I buy three pipas for $.40 each and listen to incomplete directions of where to find a man who opens coconuts by the platanos.  He points and I head off “over there” still committed to getting what I want.  I once again cross the dirty market, at one point on foot, but never find him.  In total, I spend about an hour and a half trying, and partly failing, to get what I want.  Today chivalry and good business sense are dead.  I come home and Naya helps me open one of the pipas.  We ruin a kitchen knife in the process.  Tomorrow I head to Do-It-Center to buy my own machete.

A Night at the Casino


Because our plans fell through a couple of times last night, a friend and I decided to head to a local casino for a few hours. I don’t really go to casinos, except when I’m in Vegas and only to pass through, but Friend is an avid slot machine player who likes to visit Hotel Panama and Veneto a couple of times a week, which means free valet parking for us.

Once we arrive, Friend heads to a row of machines and plants herself in front of her favorite. I proceed to walk around, buy an expensive glass of (cheap) red wine and get a lay of the land. Apparently, Veneto is known for the abundance of women — prostitutes and sugar-daddy seekers alike — who hang out looking for men. It’s kind of creepy to see so many women sitting in slot machine seats, not playing, but rather surveying the crowd for Mister Moolah. In my purple sundress, cropped sweater, ponytail and size B cup, I stick out like a sore thumb amidst the too-tight tube dresses overflowing with cleavage. Of course I’ve seen women with boob jobs before, but the women who tend to get them in the States look different. There women are more apt to be a size 2 or 4 with huge boobs. Here they’re more of a size 12 or 14 with naturally ample breasts; augmentation takes them from big to OMG.

Anyway, I’m kind of shocked as I walk around the casino, checking everything out and looking at various machines. At one point, I pass a Wheel of Fortune machine and happen to notice that there’s a credit on it. Strange, I think. Perhaps someone forgot they had money in it and left. I look around and don’t see anyone. So I hit the “cash out” button and take the ticket over to Friend. “Hey, I just made $43.50 and I didn’t even gamble anything.” “Great,” Friend says focused on her machine. “Where is the cashier?” I ask. Friend points me in that direction and I cash out. Free money is great.

But as I head back to Friend, two women approach me. One of them points right at me and tells the other one, “That’s her.” At this point the other woman proceeds to yell at me. I know what’s happening right away and don’t even try to play dumb. The money I took from the machine belongs to her and she wants it back. I apologize — a few times — and explain that there was no indication that someone was still using the machine. Four security guards surround us and Victim explains that she went to use the bathroom and that I robbed her while she was gone. Whatever. I return her money right away and split, heading back to Friend. I tell Friend what happened and she explains that people usually do something to show they’re returning to a machine, like tilt the chair to lean on it. I tell her I didn’t see any sign.

I think the situation is over until Security Guard Enrique approaches me and asks me to leave the casino. I try to defend myself in Spanish but lack full self-expression so I ask him if he speaks English. He says he does a little bit at which point I which languages and sternly repeat that I didn’t know anyone was using the machine. I promise that he won’t have any more trouble with me and tell him leave me alone. Enrique replies, “Ok” and goes away. Phew, totally embarrassing moment — wherein Enrique has to drag me out of the casino — avoided.

Truth be told, I thought it might not be ok to take the money when I saw the machine. But sometimes I like to see if I can get away with stuff. I did look around, walked slowly over to my friend, had a short conversation with her and then meandered to the cashier. I figured I was giving someone ample time to come up to me. Well, obviously not enough time for someone who was using the restroom. Next time, I keep my hands on my own machine and order a gin and tonic instead.