Graduating from Quarantine to Lockdown: First Glimpses of Panama

MINSA released us from our mandatory quarantine on August 12, sending us our “certificación de culminación de cuarentena domiciliaria” decrees – or, more colloquially, our “Get Out of Quarantine Free” cards – by correo electrónico (email) after a final call to us that morning to confirm that we had gone two full weeks without leaving home and without contracting any COVID-19 symptoms.  As much as we celebrated this new freedom, we knew also that it marked our move from COVID-19 “solitary confinement” into the “GenPop” nationwide restrictions.  For months Panama’s lockdown has allowed women out for two hours a day on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, with each woman’s designated release time dictated by the last digit of her official ID (and Audrey’s passport allowing her to go out 4:30pm-6:30pm).  Men originally had the same two-hour “yard time” on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday, but at some point lost Saturday privileges, leaving them with only two two-hour breakout times each week.  (Like Audrey’s time, Brian’s passport allows him out 4:30pm-6:30pm on his designated days.)

On Thursday, August 13, Brian occupied himself through the day until he could hop in our car and venture out to drive for the first time since leaving Morocco a month ago and to go anywhere outside our house since we arrived in Panama two weeks ago.  With only two hours allowed for his allotted time, he could not spend the day touring himself around the city.  Instead, as the daily rainforest thunderstorm started dropping buckets of hard rain, he exited the gates of La Montañesa and set out on the first outing either of us had taken since we arrived.

He approached his maiden voyage with more respect than he would an affront, but still flush with a healthy supply of caution as he traded flip flops for actual shoes for the first time in two weeks, donned his REI jacket, grabbed his most comfortable mask, and decamped to the car in our driveway with both excitement and nervous trepidation.  The total cloud cover and driving rain made it very dark for 4:30 in the afternoon, consequently also making it hard to see markings in the narrow two-lane road.  The lack of anyone in the rear-view mirror gave some relief as he crawled slowly along the roadway.  He found road signs in Spanish better for him than in Morocco’s French, Arabic, or Berber.  Yet they still necessitated an adjustment and required extra processing time that – along with processing new traffic patterns, how stoplights organize traveling through intersections, and whether other drivers follow Panama’s rules of the road – engaged his full allotment of RAM available.  If his brain connected to a monitor, it would have displayed a “spinning wheel of death” while buffering.  He likened his hyper-cautious driving to that of a 16-year-old new driver.  In reality, though, he probably resembled too much the opposite stereotype as the grandfather our new grandson, Adam, made him earlier this month.  Fortunately, for the most part, Panamanian drivers seem more courteous and more inclined to follow road rules than Moroccan drivers (even though some people with whom we have spoken in Panama describe the masses of drivers less graciously).

Our first outings have reinforced for us our need to build our Spanish skills.  Interacting with people by text or email lets us check what we try to say against Google Translate and either make corrections to our bad Spanish or completely replace it with what Google offers.  Interacting in person or on the phone makes this harder to do in real time, so it helps to write out questions or issues in advance; but after firing off those initial questions with lingual bravado, we get lost in the white noise of Spanish spoken too quickly.  In those moments we can sense, in out-of-body experience, our pupils dilating and mouths hanging agape while our interlocutors tilt their heads slightly forward and to the side while raising an eyebrow in encouraging-but-unfulfilled expectation.  Especially then, whether from our bad Spanish or Google Translate’s less bad Spanish, we hope not to botch things too much.  Otherwise the desire to say, “I am tired of being embarrassed by my poor Spanish” may come out translated best as something like “I am married because a bad Spaniard is getting me pregnant.”  (“Estoy casada porque una mala española me está embarazando” instead of “Estoy cansado de estar avergonzado por mi pobre español.”)  We need to move past mnemonics to remember vocabulary like, “What color ice do you not want in your glass?”  Needless to say, we have started individual study time and look forward to when we can work 1:1 with tutors to get our language skills up to speed.  

Fortunately, Brian averted a major linguistic catastrophe on his first time out.  Driving less than 10 minutes along Vía Club de Golf and Avenida Manuel F. Zarate, he arrived safely at PriceSmart, Panama’s Costco or Sam’s Club, in Brisas de Golf.  He found the parking lot already packed, but eased into a spot close to the loading zone for pick-up orders.  Not knowing where to go from there, he hoped he would find signage easy to follow.  It proved different from what he hoped but still very easy to follow, because he realized quickly the mass of people through which he had cut to grab a cart actually were a very long line of people snaking back and forth through the parking garage while waiting to get into the store.  Taking his place at the end of the Disney-esque line, his brain buffered again as he grasped the newness of standing in line with about 150 men and no women anywhere in sight.  During the 30 minutes he spent moving incrementally through the line’s switchbacks his brain buffer ended and he thought briefly about a dystopian world in which women had disappeared before turning his thoughts more productively to how as his first task upon getting inside he had to find Customer Service, show his membership email, and secure his membership card.  With bad Spanish, he accomplished that in about 10 minutes.  Better still, no one thought he was pregnant as a result of his efforts.

With membership card secured and roughly 75 minutes remaining before his two hours expired, he set to racing through the aisles with a mix of 60 percent Guy’s Grocery Games; 30 percent “Dorothy enters Munchkinland” in awe over the broad array of products and no shortage of supply; and 10 percent The Hunger Games, making sure to get in the check-out line with enough time to get out, load up, and drive home before returning to lockdown.  He bought a rolling mop bucket, 409 cleaner, Tostitos, wine, and some produce items including something we could not purchase during four years of life in Morocco:  Russet Potatoes so we can make baked potatoes!  Then he emerged at 6:20 into the dusky, drizzling rain to load the haul into the car.  At first he thought the darkness came from the continued cloud cover, but then he remembered that being only 1000 km (just over 600 miles) north of the Equator the sun will rise around 6:00 am and set around 6:30 pm year-round.  He headed back home, and Audrey swooned at the thought of eating baked potatoes for the first time in four years.

The next day Audrey took advantage of her first chance at an outing to go to Riba Smith and see how shopping in the store compared to our experience having our online purchases there delivered.  Like Brian, she had not driven since before we left Morocco, so she mimicked his “first time driving in a while” trepidation and asked Brian for the most detailed directions to Riba Smith that he could provide.  He told her, “Turn left out of La Montañesa and keep going until you see Riba Smith on your right.”  Following his precise routing, somehow she succeeded in getting to her destination without getting lost.  Even better, she found a covered parking space close to the entrance.

In contrast to Brian’s PriceSmart introduction, when Audrey arrived at Riba Smith she walked right in to do the obligatory temperature check before grabbing a cart.  She had expected a huge line, but apparently the three minute drive from our house allowed her to get there before other women driving longer distances in their time slot could get there.  Indeed, the longer she stayed, the more and more women arrived to fill the aisles and lines.  Her first lesson in shopping at Riba Smith during two-hour “yard time,” learned too late in this first visit:  Go straight for the meat counter before the long line forms, or you will not have time to shop for anything else.  Instead, with shopping list in hand, she wheeled through aisles that filled her with amazement at such a variety of goods stocked on the shelves that she felt almost like she had wormholed back to the U.S.  Usually not one to shop off-list, somehow things like organic steel-cut oats, Cream of Wheat, frozen hash browns, cottage cheese, sour cream (instead of Morocco’s plain yogurt), spring onions, corn tortillas, and more found their way into her cart.  Even more than buying these grocery cart stowaways, she imagined what we COULD buy in the future as she drove her haul home with veteran confidence.

Due to Panama’s lockdown rules, neither Audrey nor Brian had “yard time” through the weekend; and ISP’s work day consumed all of Audrey’s Monday so that she could not go out again.  So Brian had the next outing on Tuesday afternoon, with an ambitious itinerary featuring quick stops at Banco General and Novey (like a True Value Hardware Store), and concluded with his own on-location introduction to Riba Smith to explore and to pick up something for dinner.  Just like we learned from our early outings to shop in Morocco, though, reality loves to check such aspirational itineraries, and everything takes more time than one would expect.  Shooting through the the Brisas de Golf neighborhood’s main strip, lined with stores and restaurants (including American chains like Dominos, Little Caesars, Papa John’s, KFC, Subway, Popeyes, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, and Pizza Hut), he took a left turn and then pulled into the Banco General parking lot and promptly found himself stuck in a drive-thru banking line of unmoving cars.  It took him 10 minutes to extricate himself from the line and find a parking space on the other side of the lot.  He assumed his place in line with about a dozen men in front of him waiting to get in while an armed guard worked down the line checking IDs to ensure no one had come outside their designated time.

When the guard got to Brian, the aforementioned language issues manifested.  He had three objectives for the bank visit:  to get online access to the account that ISP opened for Audrey; to add himself to the account and get another tarjeta de cajero automático (ATM card) for himself; and to get a letter from the bank that we need for our Panamanian residency.  In addition to checking his ID, the guard asked something about whether Brian was going to a teller or had other business at the bank, but gave up quickly when Brian said his Spanish was bad and asked him to repeat more slowly.  When Brian got to the front of the line, he heard the guard tell the other guard marshalling temperature checks and entry into the bank that Brian did not speak any Spanish.  This led to what international travelers, expats, and immigrants encounter often in their new countries, whether in the U.S. or Morocco or Panama or elsewhere in the world:  the need to respond to patronizing treatment with gratitude for the good intentions behind it and appreciation for the help it provides instead of by taking offense.

Getting through the line to enter the bank and then another line for Customer Service, he navigated through his three objectives with his bad Spanish and the bank employee’s bad English.  All three met the same result:  Audrey has to do it because Brian does not appear on the account.

Stop One finished without success…with 75 minutes of the two-hour block remaining.

Stop Two, Novey, conveniently stood next to Banco General.  Brian left the car by the bank and walked next door, and shot in – another temperature check, disinfecting mat for shoes, and hand cleaner – for rapid shopping.  Keeping a close check on timing, he sailed through aisles to get an iron, ironing board, push broom, kitchen wastebasket, extension cords, and other home items.

Stop Two finished…less than 45 minutes left.

Stop Three, and Brian grabbed a parking space right by the entrance of Riba Smith.  If his run through PriceSmart was like the starting romp of Guy’s Grocery Games, this 30-minute sprint through Riba Smith was like each episode’s 30-second finale trying to grab everything he needs before time runs out.  The optimistic itinerary got all boxes checked, but barely.  The lesson:  Do not overreach.

On Wednesday Audrey went to Banco General to do what they would not do with Brian.  While she shopped only with women at Riba Smith, the appearance of several men in the bank line surprised her.  We figure they must have been couriers with salvoconducto paperwork, the “safe conduct” permission that allows essential employees to travel freely on any day instead of abiding by Panama’s lockdown protocols.  Going inside, she had written out all her questions and issues in advance, and presented them at the Customer Service desk with mixed results.  She got online access to her account, and she got the bank letter we needed for our residency.  When it came to adding Brian to the account, though, they told her that both she and Brian had to come into the bank together.  When Audrey pointed out that Panama’s distinct Women and Men days for “yard time” meant that we could not come in together, the woman responded with an “Oh well,” shrug.

Our adventure in Panama has just begun.  So far, our Latin American life exists between our house and a few business establishments.  We have many things to experience and much to learn…like why we had a printed phone book delivered to our house the other day.  Who still prints telephone books?

Lockdown eases next week, with women able to go out all day M/W/F and men able to go out all day T/Th/St.  That will not help us add Brian to Audrey’s bank account, but that will come in time once we can go together to the bank.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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