Hello everyone and greetings for Panama City, Panama.  Although I have only been in Panama for two weeks, I feel I have experienced so much.  The way of life here, the people, the traffic, and the food may seem extremely different to someone who is not open to learning or fully immersing themselves within the culture.  There are many differences between Panama and the United States however; I do not think these differences are as prevalent as people may think.  By observing and speaking to the locals, I have come to realize they are trying to get out of life the same things people in other countries are only they have a different approach on how to achieve it.

I have met many Panamanians who attend UofL Kentucky and have talked to them about their country and some of the similarities and differences between the two.  I do not know if it’s because I already had an idea about what to expect when coming here or because I am a very open minded person but I am surprised I do not (and have not) had a huge feeling of culture shock.  Because I tend to hang out with the Panamanians in Kentucky, I am used to not understanding much, if any, of what they are talking about and therefore it doesn’t bother me when I am surrounded by it here.

I am surprised at how Americanized Panama city is, especially the supermarket.  It was not hard to find what I was looking for.  Even if I didn’t understand what the entire label said, I knew and recognized the brand so I could figure it out.  The amount of fast food and common restaurants (what you see in the States) also surprised me a little.  I think I expected more local restaurants.  The other “shocking” thing that I have experienced (even though I was told about it ahead of time) was how nice and friendly complete strangers are to me.  The people here are willing to talk to you and get to know you.  They do not make fun of the way I speak Spanish, especially since I do not know that much.  On the contrary, they are quick to help in correcting my grammar so I don’t continue saying it incorrectly and are willing to teach me more of the language.

I think the worse thing about Panama by far is the traffic.  Not only are there an incredible number of cars and taxis all trying to drive down the same stretch of road at the same time but the way in which these people drive on an everyday basis is typically not seen in the United States.  I have heard many Panamanians who I have talked to say that if you can drive in Panama you can drive anywhere.  I used to think rush hour in Louisville was bad but the three different rush hour times they have here are much more congested.  The drivers here do not give pedestrians the right away and do not abide by the road signs (although I have notice there really aren’t that many street signs compared to the US).

A huge difference between drivers here and in the States is the frequency in which people here use their horns.  Every hour of every day you can hear horns being honked.  This is a form of communication, not only between the drivers themselves but between the drivers and people walking along the sides of the roads.  If a taxi driver sees you walking along the street (especially if you are a Gringo) he will honk his horn to let you know he is available to take you wherever you want to go.  While this is the case, most tend not to slow down and therefore pass you before you even have a chance to hail them down.  In the US, I have noticed that when someone honks it’s usually to get the attention of someone else.  I have a habit of waving to whoever honks, just to be friendly.  The first time I heard a car honk I just absentmindedly threw my hand up in the air to wave and a taxi pulled over to the curb.  I didn’t need a cab and was just trying to be friendly but I’ve realized this is an inefficient way to do that.

Honking is also a way for a driver to let another driver know he is passing him.  I have noticed Panamanian drivers are very impatient.  For example, if one is stopped at a red light with someone in front of them and the light turns green, that driver better put the pedal to the metal if he/she wants to avoid being honked at.  While the honking system of communication seems to work fairly effectively in Panama, it tends to get obnoxious to people like us who are attempting to sleep and all we can hear is beep, beep, beep.

The phrase “time is of the essence” does not seem to resonate with Panamanians.  “Panamanian time” is much different than what I am used to.  Here when someone tells you to meet at a certain time they usually mean about an hour or more later than the specified time.  At home, when people specify a time they mean show up at that time and being late is frowned upon.  The people here are much more relaxed and go with the flow a lot better than majority of the people in the States.  The best example of this is when I told a Panamanian to meet me at 8ish, which in US terms means give or take ten to fifteen minutes.  In Panamanian time it means at least a half-hour to an hour later.  Luckily the plans we had made did not need to be at an exact time or else we would have missed them.

Another thing I have noticed is that people in the United States tend to always be thinking about the future and don’t really live in the present.  Panamanians, however, look at the here and now.  This isn’t to say that they don’t think about the future, but they seem more concerned about what’s going on today and not a couple years from now.  One possible reason for this may be because of all the family businesses that are in Panama (this is just a speculation).  Many of the Panamanians I have met all have parents who own their own businesses and therefore a lot of them will be taking over the family business when they finish their school.  Most of them therefore will not have to worry about finding a job when they graduate because they are almost 100% guaranteed to have one in the future.  This is not necessarily the case with all Panamanians and is definitely not the case with US students (at least the people I know).  There are many people who have graduated with good degrees and are still having problems finding a job which is why people in the States start worrying about getting a job before graduation.

I was really excited to come to Panama, not only for the experience of being in a different country but getting to play soccer with people who actual care about and follow the sport.  Soccer is becoming more popular in the States but it is still really behind compared to the rest of the world.  One of the big things I noticed when playing soccer down here is females do not play.  The first time my friend and I showed up to the field we received funny looks from the guys because they are not used to seeing girls walk in with soccer cleats in their hands ready to play.  Most females sit on the sidelines and act as cheerleaders instead of playing.  I think they guys were also unsure about whether my friend and I were able to play and keep up with them.  Since we both have been playing soccer since we were little, we were able to play alongside the guys without any problems and they realized this because they have invited us to come back and play with them on a couple different occasions.

Another thing I noticed that is different about playing soccer here versus the States are the fields they play on.  Because Panama doesn’t really have any state parks with soccer fields, the fields are synthetic and enclosed.  If you want to play you have to sign up for a time and you pay to play for an hour.  This keeps the game moving at a fast pace because you want to get as much playing time in as possible.  The fields are also smaller than regulation fields and therefore they play with 6 people on the field including the goalie.  The rest of the people sit out and switch in when a team scores two goals or they have been playing for ten minutes.

Panamanians are very individualistic soccer players, meaning they have a lot of foot skills and want to challenge each other one on one and school each other.  I am used to passing the ball and making give and go runs so sometimes it gets frustrating when they don’t pass or include others when playing.  I love playing soccer with people who are passionate about the sport though and I’m glad they recognize that my friend and I are decent players who play for the love of the game.

Panama is a wonderful country, full of friendly and welcoming people.  I will be very sad when I have to leave but the friendships I have made while being down here and the experiences I had been a part of are unforgettable.

-Kerry G.