While sitting in the conference room where I had been keeping my computer I decided to start a journal of my Panamanian adventures.

I didn’t have internet connectivity because even though they enabled the network for me, they didn’t give me the password. And although I was able to connect on Tuesday, I was unable to connect Wednesday. So I sat there, in the conference room waiting, waiting for something to do. It’s what I did for the five workdays I was there. Wait.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not complaining. I had a great time here in Panama. The clients that worked with are incredible people. They welcomed me with not just open arms, but with open hearts as well. They saw that all my wants and needs were met. They paid for my flight, and my hotel, even allowing me to stay two extra days so I could explore a bit on my own. I was told to order whatever I want at the four-star resort and charge it to the room. They picked me up and dropped me off, bought me lunch and worked hard to make accommodations for my American ways…even though I preferred otherwise. I truly had a wonderful time; I just wish I felt like I had “earned my keep”.

Three out of the five workdays I was there, I was picked up at about 11:30am- even though the scheduled time was 11am on Monday, 9:30 on Tuesday and 9:00 on Wednesday. In America, if you were two hours late for anything, especially if you didn’t call to tell the person you were running late, you’d be considered a failure, or at the very least, rude.
So when David (my ride) was running two hours behind, I felt like I was running two hours behind and therefore felt responsible for my tardiness– even though no one cared.

I had heard that Latinos are typically more laid back than us uptight Americans, but I had never really experienced it first-hand. The thing is, it’s not the tardiness that is funny, it’s what comes after the tardiness—at least here in Panama, with these specific employees at this particular company with which I am working.
Like I said, I get picked up at about 11:00am, from there we drive. And drive and drive and drive. Until today I was pretty sure we had been driving in circles, after today, I am positive! I really paid attention this morning. Right turn, left turn, right turn, left turn, left turn, left turn, right turn. It’s like we’re making a really bad etch-a-sketch drawing with the city as our board. The best part is that going home is much different. Going home, we make about four turns. And it takes a quarter of the time to make the trip. Now you might be thinking that this is just because of traffic, but you’d be wrong. On Monday, I had forgotten something at the hotel but it wasn’t until we were about 20 minutes into our drive that I realized it. So I said to Aritza, she’s the one that was driving, “oh no! I forgot the power cords for the ticket printers”. So she said, “okay, I’ll take you back to the hotel.” We were there within five minutes. I asked her why it took 20 minutes to get where we were and only five to get back to the hotel and she just laughed.

Funny stuff, no?

So Monday, I got picked up at 11, get to the office about 12. Then I stand around, sit on the couch, stand around, sit on the couch for 30 minutes—while the boss, Marilyn stand in the middle of the office talking very excitedly on the phone, pacing back and forth with quick little steps while her high heeled shoes clicked on the tile floor in a room with absolutely no sound absorption what-so-ever. Click, click click. Click, click, click. “Muy para donde esta bien importante” I had NO idea what she was actually saying and it was all I could to not bust out laughing at what I was witnessing. It’s not that she was being funny, or like I wanted to make fun of her it was just the entire situation. There I was, sitting in a strange building in a strange country watching my new friend have a very passionate conversation about SOMETHING that sounded very dramatic which abruptly ended in “ciao”. Then she announced something about David and cumpleanos! A minute later Aritza, turned to me and said, “come, we’re going to the store”.

On our way to the store, which is in the same shopping plaza as the office, we ran into Jose. He was coming to tell them that his boss wanted to meet me. So he and I went on and Marilyn and Artiza went to the store.

Jose, is a Chinese-Panamain, who it turns out, speaks Spanish first, then Cantonese and then English. Cool, yeah? Anyway, he takes me up to the top floor of the high-rise next-door to the plaza where I meet, “the boss”. His immaculate office was decorated in a modern fashion and showed not one sign of any actual work being done. I found this even funnier than Marilyn’s click, click, clicking. In fact, I was having a hard time concentrating on my conversation with this guy because all I could think was, “what do you do all day?”
Fortunately, he also spoke English.

After this brief, like five minute encounter, Jose returned me to the ticket office where we quickly decorated David’s desk with the balloons and banners that Marilyn and Aritza had purchased from the, earlier mentioned, store. We finished just in time, because as soon as the last Hershey’s Kiss was strategically placed on his desk, he came sauntering in. We all (the three of us) sang Happy Birthday and giggled like three school girls then Artiza said, “Now you go to lunch with Marilyn”. I thought to myself, what? I’ve only been here 45 minutes! But, okay, I do what I’m told. Besides, I still wasn’t sure what I was in Panama for anyway.
Lunch was at Stizzoli, a small, modern Italian restaurant that offers brick oven pizza. The lunch was a sending-off for a co-worker that was leaving the company. The night before, when Marilyn, her husband Jorge and I were eating a VERY late dinner she asked me my nationality. I told her Italian, but that my family had been in America for several generations. I told her that I didn’t speak Italian and that I had never been to Italy, but she was so excited to introduce me to the owner of the restaurant, telling him that I was Italian. He of course asked me what part of Italy and expected me to speak the language. I just shook my head, laughed and explained. I teased Marilyn for falsifying my culture she just laughed. That led to much more laughter and my “being Italian” has since become an ongoing joke as she thinks it’s funny to introduce me that way.

Speaking of Marilyn, the first night I met her was Sunday when she and her husband picked me up from the airport. After going through immigration and customs I walked through a set of doors to a room full of people waiting to pick up arriving passengers. I scanned the dozens of people and quickly spotted a woman standing with a sign that said, my last name and under that, my company’s name. I made eye contact with her, waved and began to approach her. She looked behind her thinking that I was waving at someone else. When she looked back I waved again, that’s when she realized that I was me. A big smile came across her face as she leapt towards me to give me a big welcoming hug. She called her husband over, who had been standing at the other entrance, introduced me to him as Jorge and then asked me if I spoke Spanish, to which I replied “muy piquito”. (I have no idea how to spell that or if it’s even proper Spanish)

“Ahhhhh! No Espanol?”

“Piquito, muy, muy piquito”

“Jorge speak English”

“Ok, good.” I felt a bit relieved.

The introduction continued as we walked from the air conditioned airport out into the thick, balmy, humid, words cannot describe, outdoors. We yammered on for the next 30 minutes in the car then at dinner in the hotel restaurant– Jorge translating whenever necessary. Talk, talk, talk- much like the clicking of the heels. It was truly delightful. We were having a great time, learning about each other- mostly learning about me. I was asked several questions about my life and my trip and where I’d been and do I have children and what do I like to do for fun and…we just talked, talked, talked. The only difficult part of the conversation was when Jorge asked me what was going on with Arizona’s government. That was a tough conversation to have with the language barrier. Even with Jorge’s good English, I knew some of what I was saying was completely going over his head.

When I got back to my room I was beaming with joy after spending two hours with Jorge and…? Jorge and …? It was then that I realized I didn’t know who had picked me up! Through emails that I had exchanged over the previous months I knew that there was a Kari, a Marilyn and an Aritza, but I had no idea which one I had just met. She didn’t introduce herself, and we got so caught up in our conversation that I didn’t even think to ask. It wasn’t until the next morning when she and Aritza picked me up that I was able to find out who this mystery woman was!

So here’s a funny little, “you know you’re not in the US when…”story for you… When I arrived that the hotel to check in, the front desk attendant informed me that they had assigned me a cabana room that was pool-front but the electricity was going to be turned off at 2am that evening for a couple of hours. I was given the option to move to a standard room if I preferred. I’m pretty convinced that if this was the case at home, I would not have been given the option. I would have just been moved automatically. I, of course, opted to go without power for two hours for one night and enjoy the pool-view the rest of the week. At that point, I didn’t realize just how nice the “pool-view” would be—complete with a private patio conveniently located next to not only the pool, but both within eyeshot of the two restaurants located on the property. It turns out, I really couldn’t have asked for a better room so it was certainly worth sleeping through a power-outage that would take place that night.
Unfortunately, as it was, I wasn’t asleep when the outage took place. I had been Skyping with Brett, telling him about my adventures when all the lights went out. Seconds later my computer died (because the battery sucks) and we were disconnected without getting the chance to say goodbye. I felt my way around the room, using my cell phone as a flashlight and eventually made it to bed; exhausted after a long day of travel and excitement.

By the end of my first day “working” I had sat around, eaten a delicious margarita pizza drizzled with pesto, met dozens of new people who spoke little, if no English at all, and sat around some more.

That night, I returned my hotel around 8pm, ate dinner, a lovely buffet at the restaurant, drank a local beer called “Panama”, talked to Brett on Skype and went to bed, when suddenly my uterus decided to give way that resulted in my waking up in a puddle—it was the disastrous cruise all over again.

Or was it?

Just like the rest of my golden trip to Panama, by the time I was ready to go to work the bleeding had subsided. So although I had a stressful early morning, worrying that I wasn’t going to make it through the day, it turned out to be okay. But I packed two extra changes of clothes, just in case.

That day, I got picked up at 11:30 (it was supposed to be 9:30) and when I got to the office I decided to go up to the IT department to see how things were going. When I got there, the two IT guys I had been working with were trying to trouble-shoot an issue they were having with the system. After much convincing I finally got them to call our IT department to resolve the issue. This was how much of my actual working-time was spent there. The IT guys would talk about something, a lot, for a long time, in Spanish, while I sat there, grasping at familiar words, knowing that they were beating a dead horse, convinced that there was nothing they could do to fix it. When I would ask if there was something I could do to help, they would say “no” and continue their conversation…they are a very passionate people.

This would go on a few more times- me asking if I could help and them saying “no” until finally I would ask what they were talking about and they would tell me, and ta da! I was able to help!! It was borderline hilarious!

Everyone was very stressed out this day because we were meeting with the CEO of the Panamanian equivalent of Wal-Mart that afternoon. This chain of stores had been contracted with to act as remote outlets for ticket sales.

At about 1:30, I was told that I was going to lunch. I was taken to a Brazilian restaurant where I had delicious mystery food and sangria. We finished lunch at 3:30—our meeting was scheduled for 4:00, it was a ten minute car-ride away. We left at 4:08.

The meeting, it turned out, was just with the accounting person at the chain since the CEO had to go to another meeting, because we were late. She didn’t speak any English. They showed her some reports on the system and then they suddenly packed up the laptop and the projector and we left. I had no idea how it went…turns out, it went well. But the best part for me was the ride to and from the meeting. I got to sit in the back seat with Jose, the English-speaking, Chinese, Panamanian. He told me all about their government. About their socialized medicine, government mandated employee benefits and social security. Turns out, everyone insured. There are very few, and I mean VERY few, homeless people. Pregnant women cannot be fired from their jobs while they are pregnant, nor can they be fired for one year after they give birth. They are given three months of FULL PAID leave- one month before the due date and two months after. Employers have to pay their employees for 13 months of work. Everyone is paid on the 1st and the 15th of each month and the 13th month of pay is paid in three installments: 1/3 in April, 1/3 in August and 1/3 in December. This helps boost the economy every four months. Fascinating stuff I tell you, fascinating.

Jose also mentioned that he does not use public healthcare, and although he is taxed for it, he still uses private doctors and hospitals…

The live test, the reason I was there (even though I didn’t know it until two days after I had been there) was to start the next day. Everyone was very nervous about it. My client built a pretend concert event in the system so that the outlet stores could practice selling tickets. At 5:30 on Tuesday they were frantically trying to find 100 people to go to the stores located around the city and buy tickets for five dollars to a fake event.

Tuesday night, I returned to the hotel at about 9pm, ate dinner- a delicious steak with coconut rice and beans, talked to Brett and at midnight I went for a dip in the pool. I had to the whole place to myself. It was delightful.
After a long hot shower, I curled up in my comfy bed, in the chilly air conditioned room under the warm down comforter and slept like a baby.

Wednesday morning:

Up at 7:30, dressed and ready to go by 9:00 for my 9:30 pick up…David arrived at 11:00. This day I brought my camera. I started taking pictures as we pulled out of the hotel, just to document the route to the office. David decided to take the scenic route. We passed by the Pacific Ocean, went through a private gated community, stopped by his house to pick something up, drove through the ghetto (a neighborhood where even the police won’t go after dark) and finally arrived at the office at 1:00pm. When we got there, I was told to go over to Quiznos to have lunch with Aritza. So I did. I thought I had ordered a spicy chicken sandwich with pepper-jack cheese (based on the picture) but it turned out it was a chicken sandwich with honey mustard. Good thing I like honey mustard.

After lunch I sat around and waited until David said, “let’s go!”. I was told that I was going to one of the stores to buy some tickets. I asked if I should help the sales person if he or she had any trouble processing the order. I was told “no, this is just for practice.” When we got to the store, David went behind the counter, messed around with the computer, processed an order, printed a ticket and we left. I had done nothing and I was confused. When got out to the parking lot I asked David what had just happened, he tried to explain but I wasn’t sure I understood. It seemed like he was saying that they could not use the system because there was no icon on the desktop. I told him I could fix it, but he said no, so we left.

Turns out, there was a virus on the computer. I guess that makes sense.
That night, Aritza took me out for dinner and a show at a Panamanian restaurant. We ate yummy appetizers and I ordered chicken which came with a side of coconut rice sprinkled with black beans. She ordered the Yucca Pot Pie (at least that’s what I’m calling it) and it was out of this world! It was chicken and vegetables in a gravy covered with mashed Yucca and baked. Kind of like a shepherd’s pie. If you’ve never tried yucca, I highly recommend it. So good!

Got back to the hotel, called Brett and went to sleep. The next day was going to be a busy one, full of meetings about how the live test had gone the day before.
Thursday morning, I woke up, showered, got dressed, ate breakfast and wait for the phone in my room to ring telling me that David was there to pick me up. He was supposed to be there at 9. When he hadn’t arrived at 11, I wasn’t too worried, I assumed he was just running later than usual. I decided to just lie on the bed and wait. At 12:30, I woke up from an unexpected nap, looked and the clock and thought, hmmm…guess he’s running especially late, but I still wasn’t too worried. Come 2:00 I decided it was time to be a little concerned so I called Jose (because he speaks English) and told him that I hadn’t heard from anyone yet today and asked if he knew what was going on. He was very surprised and extremely apologetic. I told him there was nothing to apologize for, I just wanted to be sure everything and everyone was okay. He told me he’d find out and send me an email to let me know. At this point I was starving, so I went to lunch and when I came back to my room I had a message that said, “I’m so sorry we were not able to pick you up today. I will call you later if we can pick you up.” I took this to mean that they may still pick me up, so I sat in my room and waited.

At 6:00 I decided they probably weren’t coming and that it was safe to leave my room. So I did. I went for a walk around the block. A miserable walk around the block. It was so hot and the air was so thick it was all I could do to get back to my room. I hung around in the AC for a bit then went to the bar, had some sangria, ate an empanada, came back to my room, Skyped with Brett and went to bed.
Friday would be last day working with my client and I was sad. I had made new friends with people who really touched my heart. Their warmth and hospitality made me feel like I had known them forever. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, we managed to communicate. In this short period of time we had establish inside jokes, were able to tease each other about our inability to speak the other’s language and we managed to get stuff done- working as a team despite our vast differences. And although I didn’t feel like I had done much to help them, they were very pleased with what we were able to accomplish.

I was planning to be picked up at 9:30 because that’s what time I was told, which by this point I knew actually meant 11:00, but only seconds after my alarm went off at 7:30, my phone rang. It was Marilyn calling to tell me she was going to be there at 8:30. Crap! That was NOT enough time to get ready and eat breakfast!! So I rushed. I had just finished doing my hair when the phone rang. It was 8:40 and she was in the lobby waiting for me.

When we got to the office, we sat around and chatted for a while, I went next door to Subway and got a Veggie Delight for breakfast and then we headed to the main building for a meeting with the CEO.

Jorge was incredibly kind, well spoken, and surprisingly calm and level headed. We (they) discussed the live test and talked about ways to make their process better. I was able to offer some assistance and everyone seemed pleased with the results, knowing that it was not quite perfect yet, but with time, it would get better and easier. I was amazed. For some reason, I kept thinking that there would be some kind of drama, but there wasn’t. It was just easy. Everything had been easy.
After the meeting, the girls I had been working with so closely throughout the week, took me to see the Panama Canal. We got there just in time. A huge ship was actually moving through the Miraflores Lock, and I got to witness it! We dined in the classy restaurant located on the viewing deck and I got to see firsthand just how the Panama Canal worked. It was incredible. I felt very lucky.

When we returned to the office we had one last meeting to go over some reports that showed the data from the last two days and then I had to say goodbye. Hugs and kisses all around.

I was dropped off at the hotel at about 6pm. I ate pizza for dinner that night and enjoyed the amazing dessert buffet, called Brett, painted my nails, took a nice hot shower, watched some TV and went to bed– ready for the next day’s adventure into the rainforest to spend the day with the Embera Indians.