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Sunday, October 28, 2007

PANAMA -- Chapter I

PANAMA: Chapter I

The subject of this Blog is simply: PANAMA. It is the first installment of a series of articles on life as an expatriate (expat) in Panama. I would like to share with my loyal readers how much better my life has been since relocating to Panama. The lifestyle is basically much slower than it is in the US. As a result it is considerably less stressful. That is not to say that, if you desired a faster nightclub-style lifestyle, you could not find it here. You can. But most individuals, the so-called “expat” who come here want to leave behind the stress and fast paced life they experienced in their native homeland. Do not believe all the expats are from the United States. Since moving here to Panama I have met individuals from the US, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and others. They are all looking for a country who is friendly to foreign-born people, a country with comfortable weather, a place with friendly natives, and a country which is affordable – all found here in Panama.

Panama does have its down sides, but by and large, the up sides far outnumber the down. I will describe Panama as I see it with the up- and down-sides. You can make your own decision. But, my readers know that I am a tell-it-like-I-see-it-kind-of-guy.

You do not need to be rich to move here. In fact, I have met many retirees from other nations who are unable to live in their native countries because it is too expensive. If you fulfill the qualifications of being considered a retiree with a pension you can live here as a so-called “Pensionado.” The benefits awarded a Pensionado are numerous. I will describe the program briefly here.

Panama's pensionado program

Once you become a resident "pensioner" of Panama under the Tourist Pensionado Visa, you are eligible for the most appealing program of benefits for retirees available anywhere in the world right now.
Now, you may be thinking: "Pensioner? Retiree? That leaves me out." Not necessarily. The rules for becoming a "pensioner" and qualifying for this visa program in Panama are probably not what you'd expect.
At one time, anyone over the age of 18 could apply and qualify as a pensionado in Panama. But because of abuses, requirements have recently changed. Women are eligible at age 68 and men at 62. All you need is a guaranteed pension income of $500 per month ($600 for a couple). It must be a pension from a government agency (e.g. Social Security, disability, armed forces, etc.) or a defined-benefit pension from a notable company such as IBM or AT&T. Sorry, but an immediate, fixed annuity doesn't qualify.

As a qualified pensioner in Panama, you would be entitled to:
* 50% off entertainment anywhere in the country (movies, theaters, concerts, sporting events, etc.)
* 30% off bus, boat, and train fares
* 25% off airline tickets
* 50% off hotel stays Monday through Thursday, 30% off Friday through Sunday
* 25% off restaurant meals
* 15% off at fast-food restaurants
* 15% off hospital bills (if no insurance applies)
* 10% off prescription medicines
* 20% off doctors' consultations
* 15% off dental and eye exams
* 20% off professional and technical services
* 50% off closing costs for home loans and more

This is an impressive list of benefits. Additionally, a visit to a private clinic can cost about $7.00 for a doctor’s examination. Shortly after moving here I went to a private clinic – I emphasize private because it is like any doctor’s office in the US. I was examined by a competent physician – and being a physician myself, I am qualified to make such a judgment – had two chest ex-rays, and laboratory work. The total bill was $45.00. Why back in the US with insurance I would have paid as much just for the out-of-pocket co-pays. The total bill in the US for which insurance would have to pay, if you had insurance, would have been over $600.00: 60-90 for a doctor’s exam; several hundred dollars for the two x-rays and with a radiologist report, and another several hundred dollars for the laboratory tests. I am not saying one should not consider health insurance here in Panama. Adequate health insurance at an extremely affordable rate can be purchased to cover catastrophic-type illnesses.

The benefits of the Pensionado program is a great incentive for a person on a limited income.

This is not to say that only individuals with limited incomes come to Panama. Many well-to-do individuals also come to Panama to conserve their wealth and to buy property and enjoy a life style not available in their native countries.

To get a Pensionado Card, get a good lawyer. Nothing can be done in Panama without a lawyer. Lawyers can range in cost considerably, but if you contact me by email I can refer you to lawyers who are competent and reasonable. A lawyer can work you into the system and qualify you within a period of 10-14 days, a temporary Pensionado Card good for three months. After this period you will be issued a card which will say “Indefinido” which means indefinite, but your passport will be stamped for three years. After this period there will be an automatic renewal for 5 years, provided you are in good standing and without a criminal record here in Panama. It is all very simple and easy with a good lawyer.

Cars, taxis, and busses (The Red devils)

Although I am describing life in Panama as relaxed and casual, Panama can be as stressful as any other country if you wish to purchase and drive a car, especially in Panama City. Put a Panamanian behind the wheel of a car and they are transformed into Mr. Hyde’s. It took me about a year to understand the unwritten rules of the road which I will not share here. To know this most valuable information will have to cost you money! And the so-called “Red Devils” will test anyone’s endurance and patience while driving in Panama. The Red Devils are the busses which are everywhere. When I first came to Panama these Red Devils were everywhere, but I have noticed that now many are being painted blue, yellow, and white. But do not be confused. They are still Devils in masquerade. My advice is not to challenge these monsters. Parenthetically, I have recently developed a philosophy not to ever challenge two things here in Panama: the police who are also everywhere and the Red Devils – the police because they all carry “pistolas” and the Red Devils because they are bigger that I!

Joking aside, Besides driving in Panama, life is a joy here. I love the people because they are friendly and, believe it or not, they like Americans and other expats. It is refreshing to know this since in many other countries of the world, Americans are disliked – except, of course, their money which is liked everywhere.

If you decide to take a taxi, that is very affordable. To get to most places in the inner city would cost only a dollar and to get across town probably 1.75. Shortly after moving here I had to go to Philadelphia. A taxi from the train station to the building housing the Italian Consulate cost me $6.75. A similar trip in Panama would have cost $1.75.

The Food

Meals in a restaurant without the Pensionado discount are extremely affordable. In the city of Panama, breakfast can cost less than $2.00; their main meal which is consumed between noon and three can be in the range of $6-8.00. If you decide to eat your main meal in the evening, it can cost about the same. There are more expensive restaurants, some being as expensive as in the US. If you travel into the countryside not very far from Panama City, there are roadside eating places where a full meal can cost about $1.50. Pensionado discounts do not apply in these mom-and pop places. The food here is very basic: rice with lentils or beans, a small salad or cole slaw on the same plate, and a piece of meat such as chicken, beef, or pork.

In most Panamanian restaurants, the beef is should-I-say “hard as a rock.” Their major source of beef are from Brahman cows which eat grass which is quite often dry. These cattle are not grain-fed like in the US, and their meat reflects this. In some restaurants, you can get imported beef, sometime advertised as USDA Choice. Although US beef is more expensive, it is not nearly as expensive as in the US. Chicken is always tender. Pork can be tender, but quite often hard because of their tendency here to overcook all their meat until it is hard as wood. Having owned a 4-Star restaurant for twenty years in the US I might seem critical of the food here. But most food in Panama is fresh and can be prepared as you like it, if the proper instructions were to be given. The average Panamanian is a proud person who likes to help.

Just last night I brought into the restaurant of my hotel a 6 pound fish I bought at the Fish Supermarket on the docks. I paid 6.50 for the fish, gave it to the chef at the hotel who cooked it for me. The waitress brought me 6 large pieces of fish on a tray from which my friend and I ate one piece each. Then the waitress came again to bring me another 6 pieces. We had enough fish to feed 6 people. I gave a piece each to the chef, the two waitresses and, a taxi drive friend who was in the restaurant. I brought the rest to my apartment. My entire meal cost me 2.00 for the two orders of French Fries. My friend brought a bottle of Sauvignon Blank for which I was Not charged a “corkage fee.” Can life get any better than this?

As an aside, my health has improved considerably since moving to Panama. I attribute this to the food being more natural than in the US and, of course the lack of significant stress. The only stress I experience is when I need to contact individuals back in the US – something I must do only because of some unfinished business there. As soon as these challenges are resolved, I will have little need to continue these contacts and I can really enjoy my tropical Paradise – PANAMA.

The Police

As mentioned earlier, the police are everywhere, on almost every corner and frequently on the street. There are several types of police persons. First, there is the regular Traffic Cop who wears an orange vest. They are at almost every intersection sometimes directing traffic, sometimes not. They do not seem to want to look for traffic violators unless the infraction is severe, such as ignoring their hand signals. If they know you are a foreigner, they my stop you and give you a hard time, but they can be bought. I am sorry to say that here in Panama almost everybody can be bought.

I got stopped once on a highway doing 20 kilometers over the limit. The policeman said: “ tickete, tickete” which is not a Spanish word but he knew what he meant and so did I. I told the cop: “Io soy un estupido Americano, puedo pagar la tickete ahora?” – I know it should have been “Americano estupido” – (I am a stupid American, may I pay for the ticket now?” I was careful not to just offer him money which is the US would be considered a bribe. I just asked if I could pay for the ticket. His response was an expected “si.” I offered him $20, and he took it. You might consider this a bribe and in the US the shackles would be on your hands immediately. But let us analyze this another way. In the US you would have to hire a lawyer and you might be lucky to get away with spending $600. The $20 fee looks differently now. When one considers that a policeman here in Panama makes less than $300 a month, at least, you know your donation helped a Panamanian feed his family!

The second type of police is the National Policeman who wears a different darker uniform. Quite frequently, you might see two of them on a motor bike in the city both with pistols and one carrying a semi automatic rifle. Outside the city they are usually in well marked white cars. But they are also everywhere. An American friend, originally from Great Britain, but who had lived in the United States for many years – now notably another one of those Bush haters – was complaining to me about the ever present police. He was very disturbed about this. I told him to relax. “Why do you think it is so safe here” was my reply. And it is safe – usually. There are areas in Panama city which are not safe. If you attempt to enter these areas, people will stop you and tell you to leave because it is not safe. Sometimes it would be a policeman, other times it would be common people on the street. The bad elements stay within their territory and do not venture outside. Compare this to Baltimore or Washington, DC – two cities I know much about – where dangerous streets are almost contiguous with so-called safe streets, and where the dangerous people leave their areas for more lucrative victims in the relatively safe streets. Give me Panama any day.

Third, there is the presidential guard police who, as the name implies, guard the presidential consort. One will see many of these police in Casca Viejo, the old city of Panama where the Heron Presidential palace is.

Fourth, there are the private security guards hired by businesses such as banks, and hotels. At almost every bank there is a security guard who frequently opens the door for you, but he also may use his wand to check you out. I once entered the motor vehicle office with policemen at the door. He used his wand to check my entire body. The large pocket knife in my pocket was not detected. Back in the US it would have been confiscated. But here in Panama I can only assume that the volume was turned down in his device.

As a side note, I once took a small plane to one of the local islands. I forgot that I had my pocketknife. They confiscated it and gave me a receipt. When I arrived at the island, my pocketknife was returned to me. Now is that not class? Back in the good ole USA, my trusty pocketknife and I would have parted forever.

The private security guards surely tend to inhibit crime and enhance safety. The police do not bother me as they did my friend. I feel safer with them around.

If any of my readers wish to know more about the Pensionado program here, continue to read my future Blogs on Panama or email me and I will be happy to forward information about it.

Soon I will describe my adventures traveling into an area referred to as “The Interior.” The people of The Interior are different from those in the city as are their customs and way of life.

Eat your heart out thinking of me living relaxed in PANAMA!

nicola michael c. Tauraso, M.D.
Director, Tauraso Medical Clinic
www.drtauraso.com

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