Patience and Panama

Count to 10. Take deep breaths. Remember to laugh. Is it life and death?

“They” say that Patience is a virtue. Well, it’s definitely a good quality to have, for lots of reasons. I think it’s very important when visiting a foreign country. It’s far more important if you’ve decided you’re going to actually live in a foreign country.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often lacking in this area. Just ask my husband…and my children. I am particularly short on patience with myself, and with technology. Yes, inanimate objects have been known to make me swear more than just a little. They’re supposed to work, and work correctly, damn it! More on that later, in another post.

Living in a foreign country, where ever you are originally from, is challenging. Maybe the biggest challenge is to not allow the challenges to become obstacles. In Panama some of the challenges are, in no particular order:

1. The language barrier if you are not a Spanish speaker. I mean a true Spanish speaker. High school Spanish is not going to cut it. Even if you consider yourself fluent in Spanish, what you learned was not Panamanian Spanish. There is a difference. Not to mention the dialects of rural people, who are probably going to be doing your yard and pool work, cleaning your house if you have a maid, running road side vegetable stands, etc.  I AM working on shrinking this barrier, but I don’t think I’ll ever be fluent.

2. Understanding the laws and regulations that affect every day life. Don’t expect to walk into the municipal office and get a permit to build a house, or start a business. Let alone dealing with immigration, or simply getting a drivers license. Even if an attorney isn’t required, expect that what ever task you are trying to complete is going to take much longer than you would expect “back home”.

3. Going along with number 2, if you have to go to a government office or a bank, double and triple check the hours before you go. After you’ve confirmed the hours as best as possible  , make sure it’s not a holiday.  Panamanians love their holidays.  Wasted trips are exasperating, and will try the patience of Job.

4. What ever the rules are, they are probably going to change. Or at least not be applied consistently. For instance, you might be able to walk into a pharmacy and buy antibiotics one day, and a few days later be told you need a prescription. Go a few kilometers down the road, to a smaller town, no problem. What’s the difference? Who knows! See numbers 1 and 3.

5. Lack of road signage. Directions are given with landmarks, and time frames of driving in minutes. Because there are so few road signs! This may be a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Road signs, particularly street signs in Panama City, would make life so much easier.

6. Hurry up and wait. One of the reasons you moved to a Latin country, right? It’s amazing how quickly we forget that, and our North American need for speed, in everything, comes to the fore. Bureaucracy is not the only culprit here. See number 2. Contractors and laborers have their own time tables. Is this really any different from “back home”? Not really. I think that numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 contribute to this perception.

Most days, I think…I hope!, I have learned to take this all in stride. To be patient, to relax, to give things extra time. Then there are days, when no matter what I do, everything conspires against me and what ever patience I do have. There were recently two such days in a row. The evening of the second such day a friend asked if I was OK, and I told her that it was one of those “Panama” days. The next morning, in the light of a new day, I realized that Patience is really MY problem, not Panama’s. Patience really is a virtue, that I will renew cultivating today.


May Rains Bring…

Insects. Lots of them. Flying, swarming, insects. Of all kinds.

OK. I know we’re in the tropics. I’ve seen, or thought I’d seen, all that our part of Panama had to offer in insects. “June” bugs, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, screaming cicadas, beautiful butterflies, and various sizes…shapes…and colors of moths, praying mantis, dragonflies, centipedes, ants, spiders, etc. Dry season and rainy season insects.

What we didn’t know was that the first rains “wake up” a whole other set of insects. What we didn’t know was that our veranda lights…our new outdoor veranda kitchen lights…would attract thousands of these tiny flying insects. Multitudes in a number that it is a black cloud for several feet around the lights. The ones that aren’t flying are crawling all over the counter. The number of flying beetles has increased tremendously. My dislike for these is strongest, as the damn things are so big and hurt when they fly into you. Yuck!  Although that’s really not what I say.

The evening after our first rain I went to the veranda to prepare supper, after dark, as usual. Well, that wasn’t going to be possible! The aforementioned swarm had appeared. I must admit that I was more than a little frustrated and upset. Had we made a tremendous mistake building this outdoor kitchen and eliminating the indoor one? Jay calmed me down. For supper that night we made do with cheese sandwiches and mangoes. The gecko over the front door feasted.

That first evening was the worst. We’ve managed to cook supper since then, but we’ve realized we need to make some adjustments. Like changing our routine and preparing supper before dark, switching to yellow light bulbs where possible, and we’re going to see about having mosquito screens installed on the veranda. Jay had talked about it before, to keep mosquitoes out, but I was afraid it would ruin the look of the veranda grills and I thought the mosquito coils worked fine. Well, looks, schmooks! If we want to be able to use our kitchen, and we do!, we need screens.

Other adjustments include keeping the front door, not just the screen door, shut after dark. Which means running the air conditioning more than we’d like to. My morning routine of sweeping the floors also now includes using a whisk broom to clean all the previous night’s insects from the counters. This is just a small sampling. I didn’t think to take photos the first “morning after”.

Insect Swarm 1

Insect Swarm 2

So, life in Panama is a continual adjustment. Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, the season changes and reminds you that you still have a lot to learn.

Panama, People, Pets

Yesterday Jay and I volunteered for the second time at a spay/neuter clinic here in Panama, the first since returning to Panama in August. It was a rewarding and heart warming experience. Not to mention the fact that it is always great to be with a group of like-minded professionals who are obviously skilled and passionate about they are doing. If you want to know more about Spay Panama and the work they do, you can go to their website,


What really struck Jay and I today, more so than at the March clinic we volunteered at, was how much the people of Panama care about their animals. We hear from expats about all of the “stray” dogs and cats, and about all the puppies born that will never have homes. People say that most of these dogs are sickly, skinny, mangy dogs wandering the road sides. We constantly hear that Panamanians don’t care about their dogs and cats, and basically that they are ignorant and uneducated about the basics of animal care. Well, here is our take on all of this, trying to sort rumor and emotions from what we have seen with our own eyes.

Yes. There are lots of dogs wandering the road sides of Panama. In the city, the villages and towns, along the highway, and in rural areas. No. Most of them are not sickly, skinny, and mangy. Most of the dogs are well-fed, and happy. Plenty of them have lived to a ripe old age. Most of the dogs have homes, as we observe the same dog(s) in the area of the same houses that we drive by on a regular basis. If not at a house, they are in the same small geographic area. We see dogs following a person who is obviously their owner, at the least the dog thinks so (and isn’t that what counts?). It is rare, at least in the semi-rural area where we live, to see a dog on a leash. Does this bother us? Yes. We worry about them getting hit on the road, and sometimes it happens. We see plenty of dogs with obviously old breaks or dislocations that have healed on their own, but they’re getting around just fine and are obviously happy. We see surprisingly few dogs, or cats, dead on the side of the road. Honestly, I find myself more and more thinking how lucky Panamanian dogs are to be allowed to just be dogs. Maybe we North Americans and Europeans have confined and restrained our dogs too much.

Yes. There are lots and lots of puppies and kittens born that will never have a “home”. Just like there are in the first world countries of North America and Europe. There are plenty of pet owners in North America and Europe who don’t see the need to spay or neuter the pets. They have what they consider to be legitimate reasons. They need cats to kill rodents. They don’t want to mess with nature. They don’t want to take their male dog’s “manhood” away. Education is needed every where, so that people understand the public health issues and expenses involved with pet overpopulation.

Unfortunately, even with all of the dogs and cats, young and old, that need homes, there seems to be plenty of people in Panama who are breeding “purebred” dogs for sale. Because there’s a market, just like in North America and Europe. Middle and upper class Panamanians want purebred dogs, just like their first world counterparts. We also see plenty of middle and upper class Panamanians with rescued, mix-breed dogs, for instance our physician neighbors across the street. We also see plenty of expats with purebred dogs that they bought in Panama. It cuts across the board. One thing that makes it easy for “homeless” dogs and cats to survive in this country is the amount of trash available for them to eat (Panama hasn’t yet reached whatever the economic tipping point is that makes a litter-free country important), and people seem to feed animals at restaurants.

Yes. Panamanians care about their animals. At least as much as first world pet owners. We’ve seen middle and upper class Panamanians buying frivolous toys and clothes for their dogs (yes, I’ve done the same for our dogs) and paying first world prices for veterinary care and foods, just like first world pet owners. They pay for the veterinary care and food because they can afford it, but are the toys, clothes and beds proof of caring? We see poorer Panamanians who don’t spoil their dogs, because they can’t afford to, but obviously love them just as much.

Today, and back in March, we saw the true meaning of caring in the actions of the owners who brought their dogs and cats to the spay/neuter clinic. “North Americans and Europeans take their dogs and cats to be spayed” you say. Yes. They do. Many of them, even middle and upper class, take advantage of low-cost spay/neuter clinics, berating veterinarians in private practice for “overcharging” for their services. Today we saw people who truly wanted to prevent further puppies and kittens from being born, people who were grateful to the veterinarians and staff and volunteers who worked the clinic. People who were willing to wait, literally for hours; standing in line to pay what they could afford, or pay nothing if they couldn’t, some of them bringing payment in the form of plants, fruits and vegetables. Waiting for their pet’s turn for pre-anesthesia. Waiting and watching while their pet fell asleep. Waiting and watching, often sitting on the floor with their pet, until their pet was taken to pre-op. Waiting and watching their pet in pre-op. Waiting while their pet had surgery, which was sometimes quite a wait, because of complicated surgeries such as an infected uterus, pregnant dogs, undescended testicles, and patients requiring emergency attention due to respiratory arrest, and by puppies and kittens being allowed to jump the surgery line to prevent them from needing additional anesthesia. Waiting and watching their pet in post-op. Waiting and watching, again often sitting on the floor with their pet in recovery. Finally, sitting on the sidelines with their pet until they were told it was safe to take them home. I know there were people who were there from 10AM until after 4PM.

SONY DSC     It can be a long wait, so you might as well be comfortable. 1:14PM

SONY DSC     Waiting for her dog to be awake enough to go home.  2:32PM

Granted, this was not the same as our private practice back in the States. We instructed clients to bring their pets in the morning for surgery admission, and then we instructed them to leave and return 8-9 hours later. Honestly, very, very few owners asked why they couldn’t stay. They had places to be and things to do. On the rare occasion when an owner would sit in the lobby and wait, there were constant questions as to why things took so long. No one today asked why things took so long. No one today asked why their pet was skipped over. What we saw was an owner who wasn’t insulted when a pre-op assistant recommended a better fitting harness for his dog. What we saw was an owner who was concerned about the maggot wound on his dog’s leg and how he should care for it at home. What we saw were owners willing to stand in line and sit on the ground or on metal chairs to make sure that they did what they thought was the right thing for their pet. Sometimes whole families. What we saw was true caring, by people who clearly love their pets. What we didn’t see were people who could afford a private clinic (except for a couple of expats).

Finally, what we saw today, and not for the first time, was the contradiction of the expat mantra that essentially says “we” are better than “them”. “We” are not better. “We” see things differently. “We” live here now. “We” don’t need to make “them” the same as “us”. “We” need to learn to accept and appreciate the differences. “We” need to realize that there are things “we” can learn from “them”.