Don't Drink The Lemonade

Matt Landau - The Panama Report February 13, 2007

My college years were spent dreading the day I would be released into the American workforce, an act in itself a forerunner to despair. Although my experience and GPA may have looked good on paper, I knew in my heart that my employer, the keen eye that he’d have, would invariably figure out that I had learned nothing over my four years and kick me to the curb, asking me politely—as if a restaurant—never to come back to blue-collar America again. My colleagues would stand there, in their pressed suits and shiny shoes, looking out over the walls of their cubicles and whisper amongst themselves. “He wasn’t cut out for this,” they’d say. “The guy never even wore a suit”.

I’m 24 which, although it may seem young is over one hundred in dog years. I originally came to work in Panama after graduation because, as most innovative decisions are made, there was nothing better to do. I wouldn’t have fit in working nine to five and I certainly could not tolerate another Jersey winter of frost on the windshield or ice on the driveway. Panama was just a country with a Canal to me back then—every one of its people, in my vision, with the pock-marked face of Noriega and the bat-swinging ability of Rod Carew. The moment I stepped off the airplane though, realizing that none of my preconceived notions were true, I knew this country was the place for me. I knew this because in the airport terminal I found a folded up twenty dollar bill which, on its most basic levels, assured me that I didn’t need to find a job.

There’s a very defined gap between knowing you don’t want a traditional office job and actually knowing what kind of job you do want, and it appeared that my foot was stuck in it. When it came to figuring out what I was going to do, nothing was clear-cut. “Anything’s possible” my parents used to tell me “if you put your mind to it”. But after a number of broken limbs and about forty five cents in loose change wandering through the tubes of my digestive track, I realized this wasn’t so true. The circumstances I found in Panama though, were to give credence to my parent’s metaphorical advice.

The opportunities that I came across seemed to be about. Because the country’s tourism and real estate sectors were (and still are) so young, they seemed to be the perfect avenues to explore. With a background in internet marketing and long-fantasized career as a travel writer, my options in Panama became about as vast as the gulf that separated me from my home. Several other expat friends I know occupied various jobs, from the pool business, to real estate, to restaurants, to hotels.

Having noticed a lack of written information on the country, I set out to do something different. Over the exciting course of my first year, I spent every waking moment documenting the isthmus. I wrote about the people, the provinces. I wrote about the food, the flowers. I wrote about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Too often, I feel, travel information is not real enough, it’s not entirely honest. Sure the guidebooks and the websites will tell you about the cupcakes and the birthday parties, but what about the kid who peed in the lemonade cooler? They never tell you that stuff, being the bona fide things that you may encounter upon traveling to a new country. I set out to create a website to reveal all pieces of the puzzle. From hotels, to restaurants, to real estate, to tours, I set out to create a website to warn people about the proverbial lemonade.

My creation, The Panama Report was a modest hit right off the bat. People enjoyed the fact that the site was up-front, no strings attached, not overly salesy or negative as some other sites tend to be. Eventually over time it earned a reputation for being something unique and today, my consulting work for various tourism and real estate enterprises is a testament to its success. Could I every have made it this way at home? Maybe. But it would have definitely been a lot harder: more competition, more investment, more luck. But I prefer the way I live down here. Maybe my friends were right, that I wasn’t cut out for the hustle and bustle of nine-to-five office life. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the cubicles or struggle or even life in the States at all.

I’m sure I’ll make it home some day. But for now, traveling around this amazing country and sharing my travels with others is good enough for me. Because after all, isn’t work for people who have nothing better to do?