Life in Bocas del Toro: Relaxing into Cultural Differences

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In this article, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk some about what it is like to live in a foreign country based on my personal experiences. I think everyone has some concerns about living in a place where customs, traditions and language are different from what you are used to in your home county. Panama and especially the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro are somewhat unique because of the historical influence from many diverse cultures. The impact that several generations of interaction with industrial and commercial enterprises spearheaded by English speaking populations is that it is possible to communicate with relative ease in English in many communities.

However, if you truly want to experience living to the fullest extent in any foreign environment, I think it is necessary to acquire at least a working knowledge of the native language. The more you know and the more effort you make to relate to the local residents in their native language the more you will be accepted as a part of that community. It is no different than what you feel when people immigrate to your country and can’t speak your language. It does take some effort on your part and I wish there was a pill that I could take that somehow magically allowed me to speak and understand a new language. Unfortunately I don’t know of such a thing yet. However, “there is an App for that” and my modern cell phone has helped me out of a blank communication spot on several occasions. Meanwhile I continue to learn. After several years of residency, I’m now really starting to have fun and enjoy talking with people in their native tongue.

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It is good to be aware of some of customs and traditions of Panama as you travel and live in your new country. Panamanians take pride in their appearance and dress codes. Almost always, men will wear jeans or slacks and very rarely don shorts in public. Going without a shirt in public is not allowed and will prompt a visit by local authorities. In most business dealings and with any formal or official situation, it is considered disrespectful for both men and women to wear shorts or sandals and in some cases will limit your access. For going out on the town, slacks with an open-collared shirt for men and for women, nice pants with a trendy top or preferably a dress are considered appropriate. For me, it is refreshing to live in an environment where personal appearance and hygiene holds a high priority with the majority of the population. In even the poorest of communities, I have never seen anything that compares to the typical USA Walmart crowd on a Sunday afternoon.



Something else that I found to be a bit confusing was the inconsistency in customer service in almost all service oriented businesses like restaurants, hardware stores or grocery stores. It is not uncommon to stand waiting for service long after your presence has been acknowledged even though there are no other customers in sight. Conversely, it is not uncommon for other customers to try to crowd in ahead of long lines of other customers at checkout lines or service lines. At first, I took it personally and thought it was due to a language barrier or the obvious fact that I am a “non-native. But now, I am more inclined to believe these discourtesies are the product of lack of competition in some areas and some industries. I have noticed that within the last two years there have been some dramatic shifts in customer service attitudes as new and competing businesses come on line. This is especially true especially in the more populated or forward-thinking areas of Panama such as Bocas del Toro. However, there is one consumer-related practice that will leave you scratching your head if you are not aware.

At almost any restaurant, you will not be presented with a bill unless you ask for it. This is true even if your table has been completely cleared and cleaned while you are seated there. In Panama, it is more about the socializing that it is the meal, so they do not want you to feel rushed. The idea is for you to have a total experience centered around your personal desires. So when you are ready to leave the proper thing to do is politely request the bill from your server. In Spanish the correct way to ask is “La cuenta, por favor.” Otherwise you may be able to get breakfast at the same table where you ate supper and spent the night. Just kidding!



Panamanians have a great sense of humor and love a good joke. Maybe it’s rubbing off on me. Yet another great thing about living in Panama is the predominance of happy people of many races, backgrounds and economic status. Where I live in the islands of Bocas del Toro it is even more fun since the general population is still small enough that there is a community bond and everyone is always ready for a good time with lots of story-telling, music and laughter.

So to sum it up, what works for me, is that I don’t necessarily focus my life here around “fitting in”. I’m probably never going to be mistaken for a native Panamanian even if I learn to speak Spanish fluently, suntan until I melt and figure out how to fit into jeans three sizes smaller than what fits comfortably. For me, it’s more about recognizing and respecting cultural differences and national pride. If I demonstrate that by my awareness, and an attitude of respect, tempered with a willingness to share in and support local traditions and feelings, it is always reflected back to me by helpful and accepting people in a community where I enjoy living and working.

In my next article, I want to tell you some stories about my personal experiences living a life in Panama on the islands of Bocas del Toro. Oh, and I have yet to complete the series about building and working with local labor forces. If I wasn’t so busy exploring these wonderful tropical islands, maybe I could find more time to write. ??? It’s all great fun! See you soon!

Article by: Anne Michelle Wand, United Country Bocas del Toro

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