A True Sophisticated Traveler I am Not

Matt Landau - The Panama Report March 27, 2007

I would be lying if I told you that in Panama, I fully immerse myself in the culture the way they recommend you do in study abroad info sessions. Unlike those who move fulltime into remote Indian villages and drink solely from the petrified shells of the coconut, I believe that my status in Panama, as well as that of many expats I hang out with, still and may forever fall under the category of tourist.

Because I do in fact enjoy socializing with expatriates such as myself, I have become, in a way, a tourist savant. My neighborhood plays home to several large and glitzy hotels frequented by travelers the world over. Large busses line up outside these hotels, loading and unloading what I can only describe as sightseeing cattle—hundreds and hundreds of similarly-pale individuals who, like mosquitoes, appear to be drawn to bright lights and sweet beverages. Seeing these groups day after day—in restaurants, around offices, at the bar—I have learned to make a number of subtle distinctions that I once quite naively overlooked.

Americans are unmistakable. We’re usually the fattest of the whole bunch and enjoy being loud enough so that in case you did not see our hefty guts, you will most certainly hear them. We generally make little effort to learn the language past the words “hola”, “gracias”, and “cerveza” and when do make the effort to put together phrases, they usually leak out of our mouths sounding butchered and maimed, like they’ve been passed through a hand-powered meat grinder. We bathe in the tubs of excess: our burgers stacked extra high, our digital binoculars donned with super zoom.

In El Cangrejo, hungry taxi drivers love to prey upon American-looking folks such as myself. Beyond just driving taxis, these entrepreneurs are also concierges of sorts: able to point you to the finest strip clubs and massage parlors the city has to offer. They’ll present me a smorgasbord delights as if my simple walk to the grocery store was a jaunt through Sin City. “Hey brother,” they always say. “You want to see some beautiful ladies fighting in oil right now?” As I graciously decline, commenting that it is only ten in the morning and I have some grocery shopping to do, they often go for a last ditch effort: “Brother, I can get you all the beer you ever wanted!” Things like ladies fighting in oil and all the beer I ever wanted, are all at the drop of a dime for a tourist like me, and for this luxury, I feel extremely fortunate.

To blend in a bit more, I made myself a list of things which, if avoided, can spare me some embarrassment and help assimilate quicker. First off, asking where another tourist is from is a no no. The second someone says to me “and where are you from” or “so how are you enjoying your vacation”, they have given themselves away. They refuse to acknowledge that not everyone, even if it may look that way a lot of the time, is down here on vacation. Wearing anything obnoxiously touristy, such as mola-stitched shirts or the all-too-original Panama hat is just asking for it as well. Oh, and if you’re from Europe, please don’t wear your Capri pants or racing style velcro shoes, because they’re just about as obvious as strapping a Guinness to your head and singing football chants.

Panama is also seeing a lot of Canadians, whose “ehs” are really getting under my skin. They take up all the space at the bars asking for Labatts and requesting that the bar back change the channel to some meaningless hockey bout. Busloads of Canadians come in everyday asking if it’s OK to eat the lettuce, a question I’ve now come to respond to with “actually no, it’s not OK to eat the lettuce here. It contains salmonella and will start humming away at your intestine if you ingest even a single leaf.”

Having been in Panama for some time now, most would think I’ve become a local. Most would think I’ve developed a taste for fried hotdogs for breakfast and pickled quail eggs at soccer matches. Most would think I would’ve made lots of Panamanian friends by now, my skin thought to resemble a light beige horse saddle. But none of that is true. I may be considered a Panamanian in some respects: but truly, I’m a tourist at heart.