Being a blond haired blue eyed gringo living in Panama has its advantages and disadvantages. No matter where I go I draw attention which can be for the better or worse. On the positive side I find people are often interested in starting conversations with me, girls stare at me and it’s easier to find work teaching English because I’m clearly a native speaker. Now these are all pretty swell advantages, but what about the negative aspects of being a Panamanian gringo?
The first and most annoying thing is the fact that many Panamanians think all young Gringos are only in Panama for a short time looking to spend as much money as possible on drink, drugs, hookers, casinos and taxis. As evidence of this let me briefly describe to you my morning walk to a friend’s house who drives me to school everyday. Every morning around 6:30am I force my body on a bleary eyed, half-awake walk down a street containing one of the most popular casinos in the city which is known to be a beacon for prostitute activity in Panama. As I am a strong advocate for a law being passed that nothing happens before 8am so I never have to be awake during the hellish hours containing the numbers 6am or 7am in them, I am not usually in the most cheerful mood on these morning walks of necessity. The only thing that keeps me going is the Colombian food vendors who sell coffee and Arepa out of a van across from the casino. Now I’m not saying I’m the only gringo on this street during these terrible hours of the day as there are often drunk gringos just leaving the casino amazed that the sun has already risen, but I am certainly the only gringo on his way to work. As these vendors are used to serving the drunk and hungry tourists they automatically charge over 3 times the price for their simple cart food, and not knowing what the prices should be, gringos almost never complain. Now paying 3 dollars for breakfast seemed like a great deal to me, until I started noticing the locals forking over small handfuls of change for the exact same meal. Even funnier is the fact that these vendors seemed to be slowly lowering the price for me as they realized I wasn’t just your typical tourist gringo, in fact after a month of eating out of the same van everyday my price eventually went from $3 to $1. A couple seconds after putting some coffee in my body so I can function like a normal human being I am usually hollered at by a group of taxi drivers asking me “Where you go man, you want lady?” Mystified by their sales tactics at such an early hour I keep walking and down the street I see a scantily dressed prostitute desperately trying to make eye contact with me. As she approaches she finds it necessary to grope me and ask if I like her. When I try to explain in broken Spanglish that I’m just on my way to work, but thanks anyway she gives me a sad and confused look and releases me from her grasp so I can continue on my way to work. This funny, yet routine situation was quite comical for the first few weeks, but you can imagine that over time it begins to become annoying. You start to get sick of everyone automatically charging you extra and having to take the time to explain every time that you actually live in the city and know what the actual price should be. Being from a rich country this is always going to be standard when visiting countries with less money, but the treatment of foreigner still confuses me. In the United States if you decided to charge someone extra money, point and laugh at them on the streets, or refuse them a taxi fare because of their skin color you would most likely be looking at a pricey lawsuit and be labeled a racist. For some reason this concept doesn’t apply in Panama as being charged extra for everything is a daily occurrence for me and I often find myself wondering why random people on the street are staring, pointing and whispering about me to their friends.
Sometimes these situations can make an expat very annoyed and angry at the locals, but to live happily in a foreign country one MUST not let these minor annoyances get to them. In comparison to most Panamanians we are much richer than they are, so it’s not a surprise that they are looking to take an extra buck off of us. The best strategy is not to act hostile and demand the fair price exclaiming that this person is being unfair. Instead, just smile explain that you live in that country and know the fair price. Next tell him how much you are willing to pay and just offer that amount. Don’t haggle down, just stare them in the eyes with a genuine smile and let them know that this gringo isn’t down for any nonsense and they can take the money or you’re out of there. Among friends I’m considered to be an expert in the art of the haggle, but the funny thing is that the reason I am so successful with it is that I don’t even bother. I hold out the money I’m willing to pay and allow one minute for the vendor to take it or leave it…. The secrets out!