San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

On Which Side of the Fence are the Plantains Greener?

There are always subtle differences between countries that, to an outsider, appear otherwise identical. This is why Canadians become enraged when people think we are “Americans,” or make the claim that Canada is just like the United States.

Canada is not the United States, and Panama is not Nicaragua. I have lived in all 4 countries. And while I have been in Panama for just less than a year, I feel I can make some comparisons for those who think the grass may be greener on one side of the fence or the other.

I will preface all of my comparisons by saying that I continue to love living in Central America, and find the challenges that it brings invigorating and entertaining on a daily basis. And well, for the sake of full disclosure, the grass is – quite literally – greener in Panama, I will admit that. It rains here. A lot.

Arriving in Panama City after living in Granada and Managua for three years was a reverse culture shock. I grew up in a city with sky rises and a fast-paced life – that’s my world. But after living in Nicaragua for a while, I wasn’t used to that anymore. And not being around all of those things is part of what made me adore living in a Central American country.

There are cultural differences between Nicaragua and Panama that most likely can be attributed to wars, foreign occupation and military rule – things that both countries have experienced, but have reacted to entirely differently.

While Nicaraguans remain more open, jovial and light-hearted, Panamanians seem slightly more suspicious and closed to outsiders. In Panama, there is less curiosity about others, and less compulsion to help them, foreigners or locals alike.

Common courtesy and manners leave a little to be desired at times – a common response to “gracias” from a cashier in Panama is, “OK,” versus in Nicaragua, where they always answer with a much more engaging, “a la orden.”

In Panama City, if you are lucky enough to have a taxi driver agree to take you to your destination and you ask him how he’s doing, the answer is usually something like: Aqui, luchando. Loosely translated that means, “Here, fighting it out.” A Nicaraguan driver, whose car is most likely not air-conditioned and usually missing working door handles, will answer, perhaps with a touch of warranted melancholy, “Bien, bien, gracias a Dios.” In a competition over who has it worse, the Nicaraguan will win. Every time. But there is a realization that everyone has problems, so why complain?

Bureaucracy seems to be the same in both countries – long lines, frustration, forms, and more long lines. But in Central America, these are things that can always be aided by a friendly attitude and the flexibility and privilege that money provides.

Still, be prepared to hear a longer speech and pay a lot more money as you move south. The “cost of doing business” is much higher in Panama, and the rules are much more enigmatic and “fuzzy.”

Immigration fines for overstaying your tourist visa, for example, are completely flexible, from what I hear. However, when I committed this sin in Nicaragua, there was an established table of fines that airport employees knew how to navigate. So, too, did the woman in the office in Granada who helpfully told me that, based on my situation, it benefitted me to just skip the renewal with her and head straight to the airport. She did all the calculations for me, and she was right.

Another big difference between Panama and Nicaragua is that the country with the canal has a lot more consumer goods. Visitors arriving in Panama from Nicaragua are astounded by all the choices in the grocery stores and restaurants.

But I don’t need to have the option of selecting from 100 different types of jarred olives at the grocery store, where they play the same bad, piped-in music you hear in U.S. supermarkets.

I miss the music from the Nicaraguan grocery stores – I much prefer dancing bachata through the produce section, or salsa near the paper products.

Similar to Nicaragua, Panama still has the markets and storefronts with speakers the size of houses, loudly announcing sales and promotions. And I like it! If the music is too loud for you, go somewhere else.

But when it comes to the latino culture of music and alegria, Nicaragua has the edge over Panama. It’s a constant feeling that runs through the streets and the people.

The restaurant options are more abundant here in Panama, this is true. But the food is not better.

Health and hygiene are far more important in Nicaragua. And in one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, people also eat healthier, with a wider variety of slightly less-fried street food and ‘whole food’ options. (And just as a side note to Panamanian restaurateurs: tostones or patacones, as Panamanians say, should be made with green plantains. Otherwise you end up with a deep-fried plantain cookie).

It’s true, Panama offers 100 kinds of olives and more chain restaurants, but is that really why you want to live in Central America? Just to replicate the way you lived in your native country?

For those who think that working or living abroad would be easier with more infrastructure and access to supplies, you might find more of what you are looking for in Panama.

But if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford living abroad, regardless of which country you are in, you are mostly likely able to procure many of the creature comforts you crave without too much effort.

Yet surrounding yourself with the stuff of home will not necessarily make living abroad a more familiar experience. You can always expect cultural differences and new obstacles here that make life harder – eliminating the frustration and challenges is a dream you will continue chasing and paying for.

But that’s part of the expat experience. And if life was so much easier and better where you came from, maybe it’s time to go back.

Christina Myers is a freelance writer and editor living in Panama.


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