The College of Saint Rose and UDELAS in Panama

A partnership about education, culture and the exchange of ideas

Transportation in Panama City

LAUREN KALBFELL

So getting around is an entirely different experience aquí en Panama. We noticed that when we pulled out of the airport, and haven’t stopped noticing it since then.

At any rate, getting around in Panama City requires guts! It is not strange to find someone pulling out in an intersection while cars are going, and slowly nosing their way into the lane until the driver they’re in front of is forced to stop and there’s enough room for them to drive. Driving is fast, and sometimes haphazard. If signs or semaforos– streetlights- don’t exist, make up your own. And something intensely popular in Panama City- even more so than New York, I dare say- if someone gets in your way, honk. Loud, long car honks pepper every morning, afternoon, and evening, even right outside our hostel. Which brings me to the next noticeable thing about Panama City, you can’t get around without traffic. We need about 5-10 extra minutes to go anywhere we need to go to accommodate the traffic. An example of some of the traffic around the city:

I’ve noticed that some of the cars are quite the same as what you might see in the states, and some are much more compact versions of what’s in the states. Nissan, Suzuki, Toyota, TONS of Hundai, and a unique addition- these small Chevy vans and trucks with flat little noses. I hate to say this about cars- or anything without a pulse- but these little Chevy vans and trucks are so cute. I feel like I could hug them.

An example of the vans that serve as trucks and buses all over the city.

There are police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, just like the states, but everything is on a much smaller scale. Most cars are manual, including big vans and buses, which is a strange thing to find. The roads are also rife with motos, motorcycles that weave in and out of the congested streets.

A cart attached to el moto, vending food and drinks on the street.

An example of the motos around the city

We witnessed a bike get completely run over and the driver just stand up and walk off. Roads have food stands attached to motorcycles that sell lemonade, iced tea, sometimes hot dogs or churros (like fried dough).

Un choque- a minor crashed we witnessed that didn't seem to phase most Panamanians around.

And all of these exist on the road together- cars, trucks, bikes, moving carts- in something I wouldn’t exactly call harmony. They duck and weave around each other and honk loudly and get close- and I mean CLOSE. U-turns are made literally anywhere there isn’t too much congestion to do so, and missing hitting something by two hairs means you still didn’t hit it, so it’s fine. At first being on the road with these kinds of drivers was terrifying, but it seemed it was a matter of embracing the culture and trusting your driver. You’ve gotta get around, so I suppose this is as good a manner as any.

So how do we get around in all this? Well we’ve got a few options. Our host university, UDELAS, has a small van that they use to take us to our placements and on trips that they’re hosting for us. Our driver, Castillo, an older gentlemen, is a champ and is very patient with our Spanish and very kind and respectful. Every time he drops us off somewhere, he exits the passenger’s seat, comes around, opens the van door, and offers a hand to each one of us as we exit the vehicle. The first day in our placements, when we were all incredibly nervous and didn’t know what to expect, Castillo walked us inside and brought us to our appropriate profesores enlaces– our placement supervisors, I guess. Too kind!

The UDELAS van...or shall I say, our personal car service...

UDELAS speech-language and audiology clinic (la clinica) actually has a truck to travel around to bring services to schools and neighborhoods- hearing screenings, etc.

In our tiempo libre, free time, our mode of transportation is public transportation. Now here it gets interesting. There are two kinds of public buses, el Diablo Rojo, as it’s affectionately called by Panamanians, and the municipal public bus. El Diablo is a sight to behold. These buses cost $.25 for a ride wherever you need to go in the city. Diablos all seem to be older school buses like you can see in the United States. They are privately owned by whoever drives them, and they are usually packed full. But the most noticeable thing about them- the owner has the privilege of decorating his bus to the nines. There are colors almost like graffiti all over the buses, tributes to religious figures, words with meaning, pictures of nothing, but LOTS of color. You can find the route of the bus in the form of two words tagged huge right on the windshield- where the bus came from and where it’s headed. If where you’re headed is en route and you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you’re in luck. But don’t try to look for a schedule or timetable for these buses, you will get laughed at. We haven’t been able to take el Diablo, only ask about it and observe it from afar. But it’s really something else.

The municipal public bus cost $1.50, and is much more reminiscent of something you might find chugging along in Albany. It’s a orange and white somewhat clean small bus. They have digital signage to indicate their routes, and run on a somewhat predictable schedule. It’s more filled with professionals and working people with enough money to afford a ride for that much more than El Diablo. People have told me that the city of Panama is trying to phase out el Diablo and increase the presence of municipal buses, but that started in the early 2000’s. I suppose it’s been a long process. We haven’t been able to take the public bus, either.

Our preferred mode of transportation is the taxi. Taxis drive along the road and you hail them like New York cabs. Tell them where you’re going and they will say “Ok” or “demasiado lejos” – too far.  Now here’s the tricky part. We’ve learned through trial and error to say “Cuanto cuesta?”, How much will it cost?, because there are no meters or tickers.

The cab of a taxi

There aren’t any certifications or licenses in the car anywhere. Usually it’s very clear to Panamanians that we are not one of them, so they have no problem ripping us off. Once we got a ride to a mall down here for 8.50 and the cabbie on the ride back charged us only $4. They tell us the charge is variable, depending on the time of day. The later at night, the more it costs. During rush hour, forget it, we took a normally 6 dollar cab ride for $10 on our way back from the beach. But compared to what we’re used to where we’re from, almost all of the cab rides are cheaper than what we’d get in the states, even when we are ripped off.

A taxi outside of the school where a fellow student, Christina, is doing her field placement.

Getting a taxi is tricky for Americans. We’ve learned from talking to many cabbies, one nice one in particular, Rolando. We’ve learned that it can be dangerous, and you have to trust your gut. If you come out of a crowded place and people call at you “taxi! taxi!”- don’t take those taxis. Rip-off. Always pick your own, another nice cabbie, Romilo, told us. Don’t choose a cab driver if they’re young. Everyone- the older and younger cabbies alike- have told us that. They’re not to be trusted. Ramilo told us to be picky about the fare and the driver, safety is more important than the destination. Some of these cabs are OLD little tuna cans, and some are nicer newer cars. It isn’t strange to find an older taxi that has their check engine light on, and when you hit bumps, you find their suspension has probably been shot for the past decade or so. Ouch! We’re still mastering the art of hailing and taking cabs, hopefully by the time we leave we will be experts.

As I mentioned before, the streets are very congested. I assumed that was because of the large number of people living here. The population is large and rapidly growing. Many are finding Panama a nice place to move and stay, and Panama as a country is developing rapidly. However, something you would also notice being here in Panama is that there is construction on every street. High rises, re-furbishing of old, abandoned buildings, new architecture, always construction. I wondered what was being constructed and if this additional construction would further stress the congestion on the roads, so I asked a Profesor Jaime Cornejo, a professor at UDELAS responsible for the students studying la guía turístico bilingüe – bilingual tourism. I found from speaking to him that transportation ties into economics and politics here in Panama in ways I never thought of.

                                        

An example of the gas prices and license plates here in Panama!

Profesor Jaime explained that the construction is mostly apartments and hotels for tourism. I asked him if that would effect the congestion on the streets, and he said of course. Most of the highways of Panama City and the surrounding areas are being stretched from 4 lanes to 8 lanes. This increases the amount of construction going on, creating further jobs and making a stronger economic Panama. “But will the environment suffer?” I asked him. He told me in Spanish, “The environment will always suffer.” He explained that there are many political groups that believe in Panama’s environment and want to see its conservation. Being Costa Rica’s neighbor, it makes sense that there is rainforest, beaches, tropical species and marine life that are in scarce supply everywhere else. Jaime also explained that sources of potable drinking water are at risk due to all of this development. Being able to build, include sewer systems, systems of rainfall run-off, keeping the energy use minimal, and reducing the amount of consumption is a hard balance to achieve, but “Panama is trying”. He told me that environmental engineering is a quickly growing field, as well as environmental architecture and conservation sciences. Jaime had faith that the future of Panama is promising and the country’s development holds a lot of progress. And who am I to disagree? ¡ Viva Panamá!

A fire hydrant close to the UDELAS campus.

What one of those cheesy “Baby on Board” stickers look like en Espanol.

An example of a street sign in Panama City.

A stop sign

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3 Comments»

  cziamandanis wrote @

Lauren, this is a great snapshot of cars/traffic/city life in Panama! What a great description!

  Bob Kalbfell wrote @

The cautions that your nicer cabbies are telling you to use aren’t Panama specific. It applies with all the interactions you have in any city anywhere in the world. Just because you speak English in NY doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be on your toes. Ultimately your best bet is safety in numbers – always have someone who’ll watch your back.

  Amanda Forget wrote @

Lauren! This is amazing. I hope you’re having a great time. It sounds like you are learning a lot. I can’t wait to hear about it in person!


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