Paying utilities tends to fall into the doldrums of life anywhere. And so it was upon our arrival in Panama. After spending 11 months figuring out the various ways paying different utilities can or might (or might not) work, we have added all our utilities to our bank account for online payment. Accounts we set up ourselves, such as cable/internet with Cable Onda and Brian’s cell phone with Claro, gave us no trouble paying online. In fact, in addition to sending us invoices by email, once we entered our account numbers, we were able to check utility account balances through our bank’s online bill pay even without the invoices in hand. Initially, though, we found paying the electricity and the sewer/water bills challenging for several reasons.
First, we receive no utility bills in our mail at home because…well, frankly, because Panama does not have a system for delivering residential mail. Of course, that stands as an issue with much greater breadth than receiving (or not receiving) monthly utility bills. When Brian served on a virtual accreditation visiting team for a school in Africa last October, the school’s Head asked visiting team members for their addresses in order to send suitable-for-framing “Thank You” cards, hand-painted by one of the country’s artists of note who also happens to teach art at the school. With Audrey’s permission, Brian gave her ISP’s address. Postmark stamps on the envelope show that the card, stuffed with pages of appreciative “Thank You” messages from stakeholders at the accredited school, finally arrived in Panama at the end of March…six months after his virtual visit to the school…and then took another six weeks to make its way across town to ISP for Audrey to receive it and bring it home to Brian.
Second, while our landlord sent us the electricity bill (from ENSA, or the Colombia-based company Elektra Noreste S.A.) by WhatsApp, initially we could not pay it without the personal ID information for his wife (who holds the account and did not want us to switch it to our names). Once the landlord shared his wife’s cédula and passport, Brian could set up an easy electronic payment through our Panamanian bank account, like with Claro and Cable Onda; so the only obstacle to keeping our electricity running was the frequency with which our landlord might send the bill to us via WhatsApp. Usually he did this monthly; but sometimes he did not. Now that Brian has figured out how to check the invoice balances through our online banking, even that should not be a problem. But for a while the best we could say is that we paid our electricity bill frequently enough that ENSA threatened to shut off our power only once.
Third, without residential mail delivery, our water/sewer bill from IDAAN, el Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarriados Nacional (the National Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers) mysteriously gets delivered to the garita (the guard house at the gate of our neighborhood), and the guard on duty then comes to our house either to put it in our hands if we are home or to leave it in the door for us to find. Throughout our first year here, we have not determined whether we get invoiced by IDAAN only every couple months or if some invoices simply never get to us for payment. More challenging still, the first IDAAN invoice arrived without explanation of what it covered or how to pay it. Eventually we learned that we could go to a Super 99 grocery store to pay it; but when we tried the clerk would take payment only for the water portion of the bill, saying we had to go to the IDAAN office to pay the sewer portion. Needless to say, we had no idea where to find the IDAAN office, and at the time Brian still did not have a Panamanian phone to facilitate search and navigation.
After a few months, our landlord told Brian (approximately) where to find IDAAN, so he went with house helper Iris (for language support) to find it and pay. They hopped into our car and drove to the expansive labyrinth of Centro Comercial Los Pueblos (an outdoor shopping center spanning many blocks of crowded streets and busy buildings here in San Miguelito), finally finding IDAAN after stopping three times to ask people where it was. Then they had to find a place to park amid a scene that reminded Brian of a Casablanca traffic jam, with multiple lanes of cars turning in all directions from any lane at each intersection within Los Pueblos. At last they found a spot on the third pass by IDAAN about 50 meters away from its door. Getting out and approaching IDAAN, they encountered a looooooong line of people waiting to get in. Iris, a woman of action with a gift for making things happen, told the security guard at the door that her “gringo” was old (see https://wordpress.com/post/expatexpedition.com/1197 for Brian’s benefit of having white hair when getting his driver’s license) and only needed to pay a bill. So the guard let Brian in and he went to the back of the office to join the line of people only paying invoices, bypassing the outside line and the front-of-the-office line queued to take up other water and sewer challenges. With successful completion of the bill-paying task, Brian told Iris that henceforth he would know where to go and could pay future invoices by himself like a big boy.
Of course, that required actually receiving the IDAAN bill, which did not arrive at the door again until after a couple months. Brian went by himself to pay, driving to Los Pueblos and looking for a place to park. Parking was again a challenge, with people double-parked and long lines of vehicles not moving quickly. Brian feared another long queue to get inside at IDAAN. But then he saw two things that made him happy: First, he saw a parking space across the street from IDAAN. Second, he saw that all the people trying to park, letting out passengers to stand in line, and double-parking their cars, were getting in a very long line for the National Lottery next door to IDAAN instead of for IDAAN itself.
One need not live long in Panama before understanding that la Loteria Nacional de Beneficiencia, or LNB, is a very big deal. While the current lottery was established in 1919, its history traces back to 1882 before Panama existed as an independent republic, when the Colombian government issued a charter for the lottery in its Panamanian province. In 1910, the Los Angeles Herald published an article (“The Panama Lottery” by Frederic J. Haskin: Los Angeles Herald, Volume 37, Number 139, 17 February 1910) noting the trouble American authorities in the Canal Zone had keeping American workers from crossing the border of “The Zone” into Panama proper to buy lottery tickets:
“The Panama lottery has its home in the bishop’s palace and is within a stone’s throw of the cathedral itself. In fact, one can stand in front of the counter at the Panama lottery and look into the sacred precincts of the cathedral when its doors are opened. . . . Their lottery is a legacy of the French regime on the isthmus, it having been chartered at the time when [Ferdinand De Lesseps, leader of the failed French effort to build a canal 1881-1891] was there. Speculation and gambling were everywhere in evidence then, and it had a prosperity that rivaled the old Louisiana lottery in its palmiest days. . . . They are held on Sunday at the lottery headquarters. Forty little ivory balls are placed In a box. These balls consist of four sets numbered from zero to nine. A child is called to do the drawing, and the mayor and two witnesses chosen from the crowd assist. The child draws out one of the forty balls, and the mayor posts it on the board. Then another ball is drawn out, and the result is posted. This is repeated until the drawing is completed. Thus, if the first number drawn was 2, the second 7, the third 9 and the fourth 6, the ticket calling for the grand prize would be numbered 2796. It will be seen that by this system there is no chance for crooked work.”
Notwithstanding technological and other updates, today’s lottery keeps a bit of the same flavor from over a century ago. Though there are several ways to play with different payouts, the basic lottery remains a speculation on a four-digit draw, with a large proportion of the population paying close attention to the numbers drawn when they get pulled live by children every Sunday and Wednesday. Unlike in the U.S., with no limits on how many people can buy chances on a certain number, because LNB tickets are preprinted in ticket books, someone wanting a particular number must hope the books at their location still have tickets with their number available. The greater the number of people buying tickets ahead of you, the greater the chance of your number being sold out before you can buy your tickets.
And so people queue up to wait in long lines snaked down walkways across shopfronts. In this case, the line moved away from IDAAN’s entrance instead of blocking it. When Brian parked, hopped out, and walked across the street, he nodded politely at the throng of hopefuls holding steadfastly to their places in line. He entered IDAAN without a wait, went straight back to the cajeros (cashiers) to pay, and was out again all in just a couple minutes.
Then he saw that in that brief time a taxi had double-parked behind our car, leaving it running without the driver inside. Brian deduced quickly that this was not a driver waiting for a fare, but rather a driver popping out of his taxi to buy a lottery ticket. He looked around, saw the crowd lined up to buy LNB tickets watching him as entertainment during their long wait, and saw a security guard at the LNB door point to a particular guy in the lottery line. Brian tried signaling the taxi driver from where he stood across the street from the line, but the driver pretended not to notice by staring at his phone. So, spectators’ eyes following him to keep watching the unfolding telenovela (soap opera), Brian went over to the guy and asked politely for him to move his taxi because he was blocking in Brian. The guy ignored him, pretending to be lost in his phone, as he chuckled and stayed in line so he would not lose his place. Other people in line rallied to Brian’s cause and urged the driver to move his taxi instead of being obstinate, some gesticulating with some gusto, but he ignored them as well. With his gaze fixed on his phone’s screen, he smiled sheepishly and tried to play it cool despite being busted by his queue-mates for his rudeness. So, deciding to give the audience a bit more drama, Brian went to the Lottery security guard at the front of the line and told him he was going to move the taxi (remember, the driver left it running) back 10 feet so he could get his car out. The security guard just smiled, raised an eyebrow, and tilted his head as if to say, “As you wish, my friend.” So Brian walked back across the street to the taxi. Opening the driver’s door, several of the spectators raised their arms, nodded their heads affirmatively, or otherwise signaled their approbation for his problem-solving action. The driver initially broke character from his calm bravado, then decided Brian getting into his taxi was less important than staying in line to buy his lottery tickets. Dropping in behind the wheel, Brian stuck the taxi in reverse and moved it back 10 feet, then got out and left it running again…tempted to lock the doors with the keys inside, but opting instead to keep to the high road. The crowd in line continued endorsing his solution as the taxi driver kept one eye on his phone screen and the other eye on his cab. Brian got into our car, pulled out of his parking spot, and drove away pleased with being able to find a creative solution to a problem inflicted on him by someone a little too fixated on the National Lottery.
Now that we finally have added all our utilities to pay online from our bank account, we expect paying bills to offer far less drama.
On your mark, get set, here we go!