Panama Diary Chapter 3...Part 3

The new Museum of Biodiversity, with Panama City in the background. 
The fascinating Frank Gehry building is said to look like a giant bird from the air.

Last weekend we drove over to get a look at the Museum of Biodiversity, a colorful, multi-faceted jewel of a building by Frank Gehry, beckoning across the water since we arrived but to which we’d never yet figured out exactly how to drive. It’s perched on the Amador Causeway, a beautiful strip located at the Pacific entrance of the canal. They’ll rent you all kinds of wheeled contraptions for enjoying the scenery along the waterfront. It looks like there is a splendid museum for local crafts, designed in the style of the lovely old buildings of Casco Viejo, being built in the area as well. 

The whole thing will be really swell, if it ever gets finished. Getting things finished seems to be kind of a problem here though.

For all the skyscrapers going up, there may be an equal number that are stuck midway and going nowhere at all. We walked past a site that we thought was active the other day and noticed that all the materials on the site were actually covered with vines. To be fair, that might have happened within the past week. If you fall down in Panama, you’re likely to be covered with vines before someone can help you up. If the ants haven’t carted you home first.

I believe the Biomuseo is finally open, despite not being finished. It’s been on a rolling delay for years.  An article I read about it described it like this: “…the architect has had to come to terms with the local limitations and adjust expectations. And the effects of the tropical climate, which would slow down even the most energetic worker, cannot be underestimated. ‘Panama has a different expectation of construction practices and procedures,’ acknowledges Gehry’s office. ‘This naturally leads to a slower cadence.’”
They do stuff their own way down here. Plus, if you sit down, there’s the problem that things start growing on you.
I think that’s basically what Gehry’s people were saying, although not expressly, don’t you? But then that’s probably part of what makes Panama the place for a biodiversity museum to begin with.
The country is home to over 10,444 different plant species, 1200 of which are orchids. In addition, there are 678 types of ferns and 1500 kinds of trees. There are also 255 species of mammals and 972 different indigenous birds. I wrote previously about the remarkable and energetic growth of Panama City, but it turns out that Mother Nature is also remarkably alive and kicking up a storm. The whole place is bursting with itself. I’m in love.
We experienced a bit of trouble getting stuff done just this week, however, when notices went up in the building that the city had scheduled work on the main valve and we’d be without water the next day from 8:00am to 7:00pm. We were urged to take necessary steps to ensure that we would have adequate water for our needs, so we did. We filled up all the glasses, because the only other container in the apartment was the blender which had already been called into use to hold a bouquet of flowers on the table. We had some bottled water for drinking, but I wanted to have a bit to at least wash my hands, even if I wasn’t going to be able to flush the toilets.
Then we made sure we were up and dressed with the dishes washed before the appointed time…and at 8:00 nothing happened. We had water all day long.
About 8:15 am the internet went out for awhile, but then we never get an announcement about that, it just happens. Ditto the electricity. The water flowed without a hitch. The only reason that worried me is that the fact they didn’t show up to do the work doesn’t necessarily tell me they’re never coming, it just tells me they haven’t come yet. One of these days, I’ll surely get my hair full of shampoo 15 seconds before the city reports to turn the water off for twelve hours. So for the time being, we have a lot of glasses of water around.
That’s almost the kind of Panamanian pragmatism that I’ve come to love and appreciate, however. The motto seems to be, just do what you need to do. 
You certainly see it in the driving. There’s no road rage going on. A person merely assesses where they need to go, and then takes the steps necessary to get there. Other drivers on the road seem to respect the fact that the guy in the next car needed to turn left despite being in the right lane, and they give a honk that is basically as menacing as a shrug and let him go. It’s quite refreshing.

Taxicabs don't have meters. You just tell them how much you want to pay, and they tell you whether or not they'll take you where you're going.
They have figured out that everyone needs health care, so they provide it. You can buy more expensive insurance if you like, but if you don’t, you’ll have a basic plan. 
Everyone in the country gets 4 weeks of vacation. You don’t earn more, you just get 4 weeks allotted the first day you report for work. They seem to understand that a worker at McDonald’s needs a vacation as much or more than the CEO does, so they make it happen. 
Every worker in the country gets paid once a month, but everyone also gets paid for 13 months. The 13th month’s salary is divided into three equal payments that are given at different points during the year. These coincide with things like Carnival and Christmas – times when they seem to understand that everyone could use a bonus. I think there’s something to be said for that kind of thinking.
But for an American, Panamanian thinking does not necessarily come naturally. 
Russ had been trying to find a place to buy a tennis racquet for months. Every sporting goods store we tried directed us to another store, but none of them seemed to carry anything for tennis. Finally, he asked his instructor, who told him that we would find them at La Nota and gave us directions. When we pulled up in front of the store, we could see that there was a large treble clef on the sign. Also an advertisement for music lessons. That, in conjunction with the name of the place, made me think we’d been sent on a wild goose chase yet again. And a strange one.
When we got inside, we found a beautiful music store, packed to the rafters with instruments of every kind. 
And yes, also tennis racquets and golf clubs and swimsuits. Next to a grand piano, there was a punching bag. The saxophones were hung on a post they shared with a kayak. It may be the oddest, most unexpected thing I’ve seen in Panama so far. But as I’ve thought about it, I suppose sports and music are both hobbies. We like both things too. Makes perfect Panamanian sense.
And just like Frank Gehry, it’s really good for me to be forced to come to terms with local limitations and adjust my expectations. It also gives me a renewed appreciation of some of my significant personal limitations. I'm not a person who "just rolls" with any kind of ease at all. But the fact that I don’t yet know enough Spanish to order my meat well done or my dressing on the side requires me to put away some of my thousands of rules for daily living and just get along with whatever they bring me. And I manage to survive, and even thrive. Which makes all the personal stretching feel worthwhile. 
Panama is making even me grow.
Thanks, Panama. I’ll miss you, but please leave the light (well, lights…and water) on for me. Because I’ll be back as soon as I can.



Panama Diary...Chapter 3, Part 2

(pretty much year-round)

and the Livin' is Easy 
(for the most part)

There's a lot to love about our lifestyle in Panama. Our apartment is just a few blocks from Russ's office, so he walks to work. We meet for lunch in the middle of the day, and there's a wide and growing assortment of really good places to eat right on our street. The only drawback to this arrangement is that it's not always easy to navigate even the few blocks between here and there. With construction and traffic, one never knows what to expect. But one should always expect something.

One of the reasons I almost get killed on my run regularly is that I haven't really figured out the rules of the road. As a pedestrian at home, when I make eye contact with a driver before I venture into the street, it serves to reassure me that they see me and that they will observe the crosswalk. In Panama, when I make eye contact, I've come to realize that the driver is equally as likely to hit the gas as to hit the brake. This morning a courteous driver flashed her lights at me, which I took as a signal that she would remain stopped and I should proceed to cross. However, at lunchtime a driver flashed her lights at us as a signal that she was going to plow through the crosswalk and we'd best let her pass. You can see the problem.

It's equally difficult to understand the rules of social engagement. In an elevator, one should acknowledge all other passengers, both as they get on and as they get off. On the street, it seems one shouldn't acknowledge anyone, even if you see them every day. I've got as much to learn about the non-verbal communication here as I do about the actual language. It's all clear as the river outside my window, which when the tide goes out is basically a menacing ooze of smelly mud.

Russ has recently found a tennis academy where he plays weekly. Judging from the big-ticket vehicles and the beautiful high-rise buildings in Costa del Este, one might expect tennis here to be a swanky affair. One would be mistaken.

The great thing about the Academia de Tennis is that it has a roof over the court. Roofs matter in the rainy season. The scary thing about it is that staircase on the left that you have to climb to get to it.

He wasn't sure he could get in, because the roster was completely full. Then he learned that a lesson cost $20. By offering $25, he was able to magically secure a permanent spot during a very prime piece of weekend real-estate. I have a feeling this anecdote could have broader implications. 

For instance, people carry cash here. That's because apparently, car accidents cost $100. I'm not sure who set this agreed-upon price, but the prevailing wisdom is it's a good idea to always carry $100 because if you have an accident, that's what the other party is going to expect you to hand over to make them go away. These are the things they never print in guidebooks, but should. Especially because every time you don't get in a car accident in Panama, it's a pleasant surprise.

There is no test to qualify for a driver's license, you need merely request one. And it shows. (Side note: Florida did not require Driver's Ed, which explained a lot, but they did at least require a test. I believe my daughter passed it with her parking brake engaged, however....which come to think of it also explained a lot.) 

On the other hand, any written test of Panamanian road rules would only have one answer, so I can understand why they don't bother. To most any question, the correct answer appears to be, "Do whatever the hell you want or need to do to get where you're going."

The buses are mostly unofficial vehicles that appear to run without schedules or published routes. But that's probably okay, because there aren't really addresses. 

Yet somehow it works. 

Perhaps America needs to relax a little, and just enjoy more fresh pineapple.

The view from our hotel room at sunset. You can see ships lined up for the locks all along the horizon. They're there 24 hrs a day. Getting through the Panama Canal is actually a long process. 

To that end, we're doing our part. We spent the past weekend at one of the beautiful Pacific resorts on the other side of Panama City. It was only about 10 miles from our apartment, but seemed a world away. We saw an iguana that was a good 2.5 feet long, skulking around a lava flow after the tide went out. It was one of those moments where you have to keep reminding yourself you're not in an engineered habitat at the MN Zoo. You're just out for a Saturday morning walk on the beach. 

The rules for growth here seem to be just about the same as the rules of the road. Nature is neither disciplined nor polite.

It's also full of surprises! There are cacti, and in fact, there was an enormous one growing right on the beach. (Maybe you knew that, but I didn't.) This one grows right outside our apartment. I believe they've put it there to make me feel more at home, which was most kind of them. It's working.

Those moments happen a lot here, and it amazes me when I remember that I'm hanging out in Panama's "parlor"...the fancy part of the house where they entertain guests.

I'm eager to get a glimpse of some of the other rooms, parts of the house where Panama actually lives. I can't say for sure yet, but I have a hunch I'll find...it's a jungle out there.