Soft Landings and Protests

Many times we have told friends and family what a soft landing Panamá is, especially after living four years in Morocco.  It is much easier than in Morocco to find products and other creature comforts of life from the U.S. here in Panamá, and easier (and cheaper) to ship them from the U.S. to Panamá than to Morocco.  Not that we want our life in Panamá to be simply a remake of U.S. life.  If that is what we sought, we would just go back to living in the U.S.  We love our Panamanian life.  At the same time, we appreciate the ease of traveling to the U.S. for professional conferences or for family ties, as we also value having access to familiar things from the U.S. here.

Sometimes people mistake our “soft landing” description either to mean that we never encounter challenges that expats may confront elsewhere in the world or to reveal a blindness in us to the realities that exist in Panamanian life.  (Granted, we tell visitors that our very modern and convenient Costa del Este neighborhood is not the “real” Panamá they will experience when they go to particular areas downtown or, especially, when they travel into the Interior.)  Neither is the case, as evidenced by the impact of protests across Panamá that started at the end of June and expanded nationally in early July.

A mix of labor unions, indigenous peoples, educators, students, and other groups mobilized to conduct demonstrations and create road blocks across the country to protest the spike in gas prices and the general inflation that have wracked Panamá (as they have globally) over the last several months.  Protests are not new to Panamá, but these had a more menacing feel of determination to elicit action by the government that provides relief.  Initially a mix of disparate efforts by separate groups, as they continued through the month the groups met to hammer out a coordinated list of demands that included acute items like subsidizing gas and food prices, as well as broader policy and reform expectations of increased investment in education and addressing government corruption.  As days progressed into weeks, the government yielded on various demands, but the protesters remained unsatisfied and continued to hold hope for seeing their list of demands met.

While protests here are not new and tend to be peaceful, people who find themselves stuck in a protest blocking their travel are encouraged to stay in their cars and keep a safe distance from the heart of the protest.  The longer the July protests continued, the more spontaneous incidents of violence were reported, both as aggressive action by protesters against drivers or police and as action by police to shut down protests with tear gas and other means.  One Panamanian friend told us, “If you get too close to them, they will throw rocks at your car.”  Indeed, isolated reports of rock throwing came out over the weeks.  And when protesters threw rocks at trucks in a humanitarian convoy carrying food to the Capital, a pickup truck carrying food ran over two protesters after a rock went through his windshield and he sought to flee.  (The driver was arrested.)

The U.S. Department of State issued a couple advisories to expats and tourists in Panamá:

Situational Awareness on Recent Protest Activity 

In recent days, there have been multiple anti-Government of Panama protests in response to rising cost of living and gas prices.  In light of ongoing protest activity, the U.S. Embassy Panama City reminds U.S. Citizens in Panama to exercise caution near any large gatherings or protests and maintain situational awareness.  @TraficoCPanama on Twitter and local news outlets are good resources for the latest information on protest activity and impact to traffic.  Please contact local authorities (311) if you have any immediate health and safety concerns. 

Unfortunately, protests and road blockages are a part of life in Panama. There may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-U.S. sentiment.  While most demonstrations are non-violent, the Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or riot control munitions in response to demonstrations, particularly when roadways are blocked or aggression is used against the police.  Please read the Panama Country Information for additional guidance from the Department of State for U.S. Citizens in Panama. 

Actions to Take: 

  • Monitor local media for updates. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Avoid demonstrations.

The protests’ impact varied across the country.  In the Capital, where nearly half the nation’s population lives, protests flared up to block traffic in different places and at different times.  Other than a few days of heavy protest activity, the city remained fairly well travelable most of the time, with stalled traffic occurring when and where protests flare up.  The heavier impact was through the Interior.  Because the Pan-American Highway that runs through Panamá serves as the one conduit for transporting people and things from the west end by Costa Rica to the east end by Colombia, roadblocks on this arterial can shut down transportation with crippling effect.  Such was the case through much of July.  With supply trucks unable to travel to and from the key agricultural areas in Panama’s western half (especially Chiriquí Province), people in the Interior suffered from shortages of fuel while people in Panamá City found produce sections of grocery stores near empty.  After a few weeks, a humanitarian convoy of 100 trucks made it to Panamá City with loads of fruits and vegetables.  For a couple days, the grocery stores had produce, but they emptied out again.

We lucked out one week into the protests as we started a beach escape in Santa Clara with friends visiting us from abroad.  When Brian mentioned to a Panamanian friend that we were bound with our visitors for the beach, he said, “I hope you don’t get caught in protests on your way back.”  We hoped that as well, but we had planned this trip for some time and decided to take the risk.  While our friends currently live in the U.S., they spent three years with us in Morocco and understand the nuances of our “soft landing” description more fully than others who have not lived abroad may.  So we figured we would all make the best of whatever ended up happening.

Our trip westward on Saturday to the Río Hato corregimiento of the Antón District in Coclé Province was smooth and uneventful.  Normally it takes us about two hours to get there.  Not counting the time to stop for lunch and then to do some grocery shopping along the way, it took us two hours.  Our friends found the beauty of the drive into the Interior interesting.  Once we arrived, they were wowed by the beach, the water, and the calming view over the ocean from the flat where we stayed.  All good.

But all was not good throughout Panamá as protesters ramped up the force of their activity.  Had we continued driving along the Pan-American Highway out toward Chiriquí Province, we would have introduced our friends to quite a different Panamanian experience.  Protesters had established numerous road blocks along the Pan-American Highway as it runs deeper into the Interior.  Cars and trucks heading to Chiritquí were stopped for miles, and people were stuck in their vehicles for as long as 18 hours before blockades were removed and traffic flow resumed.

Brian reported this to our vacationing group, but was optimistic that we would not have difficulties getting back to Panamá City a few days later.

As we learned to say when we lived in Louisiana, “Bless his heart.”

We planned to return to the Capital on Tuesday because Audrey had kidney stone surgery scheduled for first thing on Wednesday morning; plus our painter was supposed to start painting our apartment then as well; and our friends had a flight out of Tocumen Airport leaving Wednesday afternoon.  After a morning of swimming and relaxing at the beach condo where we had stayed and a great Panamanian lunch at Los Camisones 15 minutes away, we started toward home around 2 pm on Tuesday afternoon.  

We got as far as Chame when traffic suddenly came to a stop.  We could not see why, but the stoppage seemed to begin only a few cars ahead of us.  Soon police worked their way through the line of stopped vehicles, and a few minutes later traffic began to move, if slowly.  Very soon we passed by smoldering trash blocking one of the two eastbound lanes of the Pan-American Highway.  Presumably the police had put out the flames of burning trash that spanned both lanes and cleared one lane so traffic could move through.  We felt relief in being caught in the protest for only a few minutes.

“Bless their hearts.”

We made it only a few more minutes past Chame into Bejuco before traffic halted again.  This appeared to be a longer line of cars, with nothing budging, and no police coming to clear the way for progress to resume.  We checked Waze, the GPS digital driving app, and saw ahead of us multiple stoppages marked with cautionary red on the map.  But we also saw an alternate route that teased the possibility of taking us on smaller roads through less dense and more isolated territory seemingly without protesters blocking traffic.  Fortunately we had reached our current stoppage while in the left lane, and there was no oncoming traffic, so we decided to hop the curb, drive across the median, and pop down into the westward lanes to try that other route.  

“Bless their hearts again.”

We drove back a couple minutes and started our detour that we thought would take us up into the mountains and reconnect with the Pan-American Highway about one-third of the way back toward home.  We did not get far.  Not one minute along this route, traffic halted once more.  We could see ahead of us a group of 25-30 protesters who had dragged a fallen tree across the roadway to block both directions of the two-lane road.  They chanted and sang and drummed on the roadside, and no cars passed.  Surveying our options, and considering that if by some chance we could get past this roadblock we did not want to get caught in another protest up in the mountains for hours, we decided to head back to Santa Clara and hope the roads would clear in time for us to drive back home before our important Wednesday activities.

So we did a 23-point turn to reverse course on the narrow roadway and headed back toward Santa Clara.  As we returned past the spot where we encountered our first roadblock, we saw that the dozen protesters there had pulled their smoldering trash back across both eastbound lanes so that no vehicles could pass in that direction.  The police were gone.  Those folks would have to sit and wait.  We felt quite fortunate to have a more comfortable “sit and wait” option back at Santa Clara.

Once we got back to the beach condo, we relaxed again…as much as we could while feeling the angst of pressing times approaching.  The boys of our friends swam some more.  We scrounged a dinner from leftovers and snacks we had picked up on a grocery stop heading back to Santa Clara.  Everyone except Brian napped, while he checked Waze every hour for the locations of protest activity.

A few minutes past midnight, protest spots on Waze disappeared one after another as if by magic.  Brian woke everyone up, we reloaded our things, and hit the road again, hoping the route would stay clear.

“Bless their hearts once more.”

Traffic moved along pretty well until once again we reached Chame.  In the time since our re-departure from Santa Clara, another protest had materialized.  We were stuck.

Fortunately, we remained stalled on the Pan-American Highway for less than an hour.  Promptly at 2:00 am the protesters blocking the roadway climbed aboard their large construction truck and departed with its horn blaring, bright lights flashing, engine revving, and people yelling proudly as they drove away into the night.  In a moment, the horde of stopped vehicles began creeping forward en masse.  We hit no more blockades for the remaining 90 minutes home, but traffic remained heavy all the way across the Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) over the Panamá Canal.

On Wednesday all went well with Audrey’s surgery.  Our painter arrived at our apartment and started his multi-week project.  And our friends made it to Tocumen Airport without incident for their flight back to the U.S.  Then, two days later, grandson Adam and His Parents arrived from Morocco in order for him to have adenoid surgery the following Tuesday.

On Sunday morning, Brian and Charlotte brought Adam to Pacifica Salud Hospital by Über so that Adam could get his requisite pre-surgery blood and COVID tests.  The Über driver said there was no protest activity over the weekend. The third week of protests in the City would start on Monday.  Big relief.

But then there was Tuesday, with Adam’s surgery scheduled for 7:30 am.  Brian drove Adam, Charlotte, and Zak to Pacifica Salud Hospital, leaving home at 5:30 am with little concern that protesters would halt traffic en route.  After all, protesters need sleep like everyone else.  But he worried about getting stopped later in the day after Adam’s discharge from surgery.  Protesters do not make allowances for medical issues to let certain cars pass, and he did not want to be stuck in a line of vehicles for hours with a post-surgical toddler freaking out in the car from the aftereffects of general anesthesia.  Fortunately, though rumors had flown around that protests would start that day in Panamá City at 10:00 am, they all got home without incident.

So it was, also, when Brian drove Audrey back to Pacifica Salud later that week to remove a stent the doctor had inserted during her surgery the week before.  While protests remained rampant in the Interior, in the city they merely flared up periodically.

While Charlotte and Zak held down the fort with Adam in Costa del Este, we spent that third weekend of July in Casco Viejo at a hotel where Audrey hosted her annual school leadership team retreat.  With rumors that protests would ramp up again over the weekend, Audrey considered changing the retreat format to online.  In the end, though, she decided to stay with the on-site plan.  But we opted to leave our car at home and Über to Casco Viejo 20 minutes away just in case protesters went through the Old City and vandalized cars while we were there.  They did not.  But on Monday morning Brian had to return home to buy some supplies with our painter.  The Über ride back to Costa del Este took more than an hour as Brian’s driver took multiple detours to avoid road blockages and protesters marching in the street.

In addition to our various road issues, the other primary impact of the protests we felt was in the grocery stores.  The longer the protests continued, the more stores in Panamá City ran out of fruits and vegetables.  Aisles of canned, boxed, and other non-perishable foods or household goods remained on store shelves.  But produce aisles became micro food deserts.  Initially, while Panamanian produce ran out, stores continued to have imported produce that came off ships in port at the end of the Panamá Canal.  But eventually those imported produce stocks also ran low when that was all people could buy.  Next, with frozen vegetables being the only vegetables available, that supply depleted as well.  Needless to say, this made shopping for our visiting vegetarian daughter and our broccoli-loving grandson rather problematic.  Shelves magically restocked after the convoy of 100 trucks carrying produce finally arrived in Panamá City, the magic lasting a few days before emptying out again.

But finally, after nearly a month of protests with varying strengths, the unified determination of the protesters seemed to dissipate as the coalition of protest groups splintered.  Still, individual protests continue to appear.  Son-in-law Zak passed one just today as he took an Über home to Costa del Este from downtown.  But travel in the area has returned to the expectation of normal-unless-otherwise, rather than the avoid-going-out-if-you-can condition that existed for a while.  And grocery stores once again are well-stocked with the magnificent produce to which we are accustomed in Panamá.

As residents, not citizens, we seek to avoid getting mired in the politics of the country that has welcomed us.  We have enough politics to follow back in the U.S. where we continue to vote as expats.  In this case, the impact of the politics between the protesters and the government was impossible to circumvent in our daily lives.  That is expat life, no matter the country in which one lives.  And while the protests added challenges to our life here, six years living abroad has taught us that while plans are good to have, keeping healthy doses of patience, creativity, and flexibility in reserve allows us to stay sane and unruffled (or more truthfully “less ruffled”) when plans go awry due to things beyond our control.  In our world travels, we have lost water or electricity for days.  We have been stranded in airports.  We have had to get creative with food (always appreciating that “get creative” means that we still HAVE food when so many in the world do not).  We have had to get creative with money in order to buy what we need when accessing cash becomes difficult.  We have endured bureaucracy, traffic, bias, and other things that stall our doing what we plan to do.  We have become much more deeply aware of what privileged lives we led in the U.S. and continue to lead abroad.  And we appreciate the blessings that we enjoy and that we can share.

All things considered, Panamá is a soft landing.  We have already booked our first friends on the “Visitors Calendar” for 2023.  Lucky us.

On your mark, get set, here we go!