September 24th, 2013
This Blog Post was first written on September 24th, 2013. The website Phylonthego.com was hacked and destroyed. Fortunately one of my friends had saved the original blogs written at that time and the article was recently re-constructed.. The momentum of the economy in Panama has slowed very little and the country continues to advance. The post may not be current with today’s Panama, but I have left the article intact as of September 2013 to keep its authenticity.
Before the growth spurt that began after the turn of the Century, gaining momentum especially in the last ten years, Panama City was a Central American town with low rise buildings and narrow roads built for a few vehicles, pedestrians, horse drawn carriages and donkey carts. Fast forward to today: there has been a huge influx of people and a surge of development that was on steroids. Hard to believe, but seeing is believing and trying to get around Panama City is not for the fainthearted. Many roads are over a half century old and city planning is trying to keep pace with the fastest growing economy in Central America. The number of cars on the road is a reflection of the economic upswing, competing for their place with scooters, buses, cars and the yellow taxis – an essential part of “public transportation.” There are new ring roads, wide boulevards and modern bridges, but several minor streets feeding into them cause blockages and slowdowns.
How do I get around ? I use the yellow taxi’s. They are inexpensive and for a few dollars, I can travel from one end of the city to the other. As a Gringa, I had to learn the “system”. The City is divided into zones and crossing from one to another increases the price of a ride, As a foreigner, I was open to exploitation and had to take time to learn the nuances of the system. The taxis are communal. They are hailed at set places on the sidewalks and collect and drop off fares along the way. I also had to quickly learn the road map so that a journey that should take ten minutes was not expanded to thirty minutes while the driver did a scenic tour of the City on my dime, hoping I did not realize what he was up to !! Rather than get agitated, I keep the camera handy and regard this as a photo op. Passing a Church, the driver may pause to cross himself and say a quick prayer – I already started praying the moment I got into the taxi. !!
It is also helpful to learn a few basic words of Spanish to negotiate the price. Try and confirm and finalize the price before getting into the taxi. A two tier pricing system exists, one for “us” and one for “them. ” How do I know ? I watched some of the locals pay for their ride and observed they were paying less than I for the same route. Know the price and when the driver stops at your requested stop, exit the car quickly handing over the exact change and leave the scene before any discussion can take place. This indicates you are a “seasoned” Gringo.
In Panama City, the drivers drive offensively and not defensively. Cutting in and cutting off are expected forms of driving. Traffic signals are only suggestions that one should stop and allow the “go” traffic to go and the “stop” traffic to stop. Intersections are there to be blocked, because this can be guaranteed to create a traffic snarl that will set off an “orshestra” of honking. Radio, tuned into the local music station in the public yellow cabs is played loud and everyone in the car can participate in singing along and keeping rhythm with the driver. Salsa can be “danced” with the driver in the driver in his seat, moving to the beat, using the Salsa hip movement, feet and hand action while driving the car – no hands on the steering wheel except when to be as drums. Not many places where this sort of impromptu entertainment is available for a couple of dollars.
Most public taxis (yellow cabs) are small, about the size of a compact car, can squeeze one passenger in the front seat and three at the back, plus bags and packages. Panamanians are on average smaller than North Americans especially the men. It is important to learn how to negotiate getting in and out of a taxi especially if you are six feet tall.and want to keep your legs inside the car. If you are lucky, you may find a taxi that is equal to a midsize car.
The Metro is under construction and will be ready next year. When completed it will only serve part of the City until the second phase gets under way. The present President, Ricardo Martinelli has been the main instigator of the Metro System. When completed it will ease the congestion. However, he needs to get it completed before the end of his tenure, so that he can “cut the ribbon” and be memorialized for completing the Metro. Construction of the Metro has caused even more chaos in an already chaotic city, as streets are excavated and blocked off without warning, forcing more cars into side streets built for horse carriages. Don’t try and estimate the time it will take to get from point A to Point B, because there is no daily bulletin to consult about which streets will be closed and under construction. The public is accepting of the chaos either because it is all they have ever known or because of the ultimate reward of the Metro system.
There are also private taxis. These are new and spotlessly clean cars or SUV’s. They have shock absorbers, the gears work, all windows close, no cracked windscreens and they are air-conditioned. You will find them lined up outside the better hotels or they can be called. Most of the drivers speak good English and are well informed and I enjoy talking to them. They have opinions on life in Panama, the politics, corruption, education, where the salaries have not always kept pace.country is going and what can be done to improve it. As interesting as these are, I would not give up using the yellow cabs for their essential local cultural or surprise value,
While I may be approaching the subject of taxis in Panama City lightheartedly, being a taxi driver in this chaotic City is not a job that I envy. The traffic is horrendous. These drivers work very hard for not much money and many are doing this as a second job to make ends meet or give their family a better chance in life.. Add to the equation that not everyone on the road possesses a legal drivers license, smaller roads are potholed and in bad repair, and many roads are without white lines or clearly marked..
As a visitor to Panama, I can honestly say I have been welcomed and never made to feel uncomfortable, no matter how strange I may appear or behave as a foreigner. I always try and follow the local etiquette and to be as inoffensive as possible. After all I am a guest in this land and the Panamanians are my hosts.