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Making Friends in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 26 June 2007 19:14

“Talking to strangers is bad” my parents used to say, pharm “because there are predators out there and they might try to nab you.” I found myself often drawing up on sketch pads what these so-called predators might look like and then trying, decease at all costs, to stay away from anything that fit the part. People in wheelchairs and people with skin diseases were automatically out and strangers for me were purely associated with bad things like kidnapping and bank robberies and poisoned Pez candy.

But upon arriving in Panama with no friends, strangers somehow became my only hope. Hypocritically in this time of need, I came to rely on a group of people who, for the better part of my life, I had always turned my back on. In grocery store lines, on elevators, in the park: I began to pitifully toss myself at them, trying to make the same sort of small talk that I’d always hated so severely. But through some magic show of faith, some special display of the alien spirit, strangers in Panama welcomed me with open arms.

When you have no friends, at first you’re forced to reduce your standards significantly. The brain, desperate in this new phase of loneliness, becomes almost irrationally optimistic; always looking for the positive characteristics of a new friend and equally discounting any possible downfalls. OK, so he used to sell drugs for a living, I would think to myself, but at least he’s got a real nice cell phone. Anything me and my potential friend might have had in common was considered a mysterious and grateful twist of fate. You like strawberry fruit roll-ups? I like strawberry fruit roll-ups too!

Children were easy targets because they don’t care if you’re cool or not, as long as you are old. And because age was something I had on my side, lots of kids wanted me to play on their soccer teams—my on-field presence usually something close to dominance.

I quickly, in my first week or two, acquired a team of what I like to call minor league friends: the kind of people whose phone number I’d keep, but never actually call. Taxi drivers, secretaries, security guards. I’d meet them randomly in bars or stores or offices and when we’d see each other, we’d talk enthusiastically about grand meetings where we’d drink wine in plazas and go to beaches with friends, but in my heart, I always knew the plans would never materialize.

In reality, I only needed my minor league friends to fulfill basic tasks, like run into me every now and then or drop my name in socialite conversations, and I didn’t ask for that much more. Hell, I didn’t even really care to waste my cell phone minutes on them: instead, I’d text. “How r u?” I’d send. “Good u?” would be their response. I’d usually leave it at that.

I'm not in the business of offending people, but some say it comes to me naturally.

Being friendless in Panama, it most certainly helps if you speak Spanish or, at the very least, know a couple of entertaining phrases. In attracting women, I made sure I was well-versed on several cutesy pickup lines and in trying to build a decent group of guy friends, I unveiled my mastermind-like knowledge of futbol, the beautiful game. I hung out in local joints and was welcomed warmly.

Slowly, I began to make some real friends: the kind that I actually enjoyed hanging out with and the kind—less importantly but still a factor—that didn’t think I was a tool. My new friends were all good looking and all made fairly decent wages at work. We’d spend evenings around large tables doing the things that cultural exchange programs dream about. Trading vocabulary, giving social narratives, and consuming the one thing every young professional the world-over has in common: cerveza.

In the entire scheme of things, it’s probably the minor league friends (the ones I never kept in touch with) who are the most memorable. Take my friend Pastor, the cab driver with an affinity to large breasts. He’d stop anywhere necessary, even in high traffic, to open his door (the window never worked) and ask a girl on a date. If she turned him down, he’d take a picture of her breasts. Or perhaps Annie, a sad, smurf of a woman who worked at a store which specialized in two things: plastic bracelets for nightclubs and fixing broken windshields.

Making friends in Panama is really not that hard. Sure it takes some effort and maybe a little bit of courage, but that’s part of the fun. Learn yourself a funny phrase or two or better, learn a specific craft to teach locals like meat smoking or magic or karate or magic karate. Many expats have come down here with nothing so surely they’ll help point clueless little you in the right direction. And hey, if you can’t make any friends, there are plenty of women (and men) who’ll give friendship to you for a small fee.

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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:08