As I promised, here are a few more of my personal observations about Panama:
Security – When you announce to people, prior to coming to Panama, and that you are going to actually live here for awhile, the first advice is to watch out for your safety. The protection here is kind of interesting. It is mostly private security. You do see police officers, police cars, and tourist police at the various visitor areas. However, the predominant police presence is the ubiquitous private security guard in front of various buildings and stores. I don’t know about their training but many of them carry weapons. The guard will be by the door even though you have to be buzzed into the store! Go figure? Such protection is kind of unusual, in that some stores that don’t even handle cash, like Hertz, have a guard and a buzzer locking system. However, a half a block away will be the Avis store with their door open. I suspect it is more for the personal feeling of safety for the gringos, rather than for any other reason. Your biggest risk here is being run over by a car! Oh, our condo building has a 24 hour security guard.
How formal should you dress? – We assumed that because we were coming to a very hot humid country, near the equator, that everyone would dress for the climate. I guess they either are really acclimated to the heat or just like to dress well. Rarely during the week do you see anyone wearing shorts, unless they are a gringo. All men wear tasteful dress or sport shirts and long pants. Most businesses have their women employee’s either in suits or uniforms of matching golf shirts. Panama reinforces my opinion that the United States is one of the worst dressed countries in the world.
Geography and destinations – I have alluded previously to the difficulty of getting around Panama City. There are really no addresses, few street signs, and fewer stop lights. If you are going to tell a cab driver where you want to go you just give him a geographical reference. For instance, if you want to get back to our condo, you just say “via Argentina – del Prado restaurante”. You will then be deposited a half block away from our condo. If you tell him our actual street number or the name of the condo you will get a blank stare. Therefore, a little prior planning is required. Write down the name of where you want to go, or some large building or site nearby, i.e. Casco Viejo, Miraflores locks, via Veneto, etc.
Canal Expansion Referendum – As I understand it, the Panamanian government dithered for several years about authorizing the expansion of the canal locks. Presently many of the super freighters are too big to go through the locks and so they are off loaded at one side or the other and the containers are shipped by train across the isthmus and reloaded at the other end. Finally in 2006 President Torrijos presented the expansion proposal to the citizens in a referendum. This was a big financial deal as the expansion will cost $5-6 billion dollars. The plan is to add a new third lock at Miraflores and Gatun which will be large enough to handle the larger ships. The new locks will be handled by water from holding bays and the locks will be large enough that ships can be moved in and out with tug boats, thus speeding up the transit process. The current locks can handle a ship with 5,000 containers. The new lock will be able to take a super ship with 12,000 containers. Amazingly the referendum passed with a 78% approval vote. The politicians were off the hook and the work could proceed. The website for the Canal Authority, which shows interesting photos and information about the expansion, is: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/index.html