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Driving in Panama - Not So Bad After All

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 03 February 2009 10:14
Driving in PanamaLying in bed the other morning, capsule I realized that during the years I've been visiting Panama, illness I've never seen anyone doing their makeup while driving a car. While it may seem like an odd observation to someone from, say Europe or Africa, it is an entirely rational coming from the United States, where simultaneous activity while driving has become par for the course. Cell phones, eating, watching flip-down DVDs: it wouldn't surprise me to come across a headline someday reading, BMW Driver Ticketed For Playing Cello On Route 1.
It was some time back in the 1990's that I was driving behind a beat-up Lincoln sedan wandering from lane to lane on an empty evening highway in Duluth.

"OK, let's see if we can guess what he's on," suggested one of my friends in the car. "I'm gonna say he's been smoking weed. The way he's swerving like that: it's like the bass line to a Grateful Dead song."

"No, this guy's definitely been drinking booze," another friend chimed in, pointing out a bumper sticker on the Lincoln that read, Beer: It's Cheaper Than Gas.

As we cautiously passed the man, I realized what was causing his intoxicated movements and announced it proudly to the car. "It's the journal!" I said. "Can you believe that? The guy's driving seventy miles an hour and reading the Wall Street Journal."

It was weird at the time, but what struck me about this incident was not that the man was reading a full sized newspaper which screened the entire windshield, but rather that he hadn't thought of a solution, such as, perhaps, cutting two eye holes in the middle to see the road. Looking back at the man, his knees in blunt control of the wheel, I would have preferred sharing the road with a panda, considering, at the very least, it could be trained to sit up and look straight.

When visiting the USA, it's easy to see why Americans are so often though of as idiots. Not unlike a professional juggler adding into his act a set of flaming machetes, American's find it necessary to overindulge in whatever it is we do. Food is supersized, houses are mansionified, and cell phones with the capacity to make three-course dinners have been reduced to the shape of matchboxes. We consume all these things not because they are things we necessarily need, but rather because we are dedicated gluttons, experienced and passionate in the craft of making use of the useless. Give an American a 92" plasma TV and the response is likely to be, "They didn't have the 100" one?" We are not satisfied with one luxury or two: we need to have all the luxuries working simultaneously like a well-oiled cruise ship. Perhaps it is this facet of multi-tasking that comes off as most pretentious.

Drivers in Panama are often ridiculed by foreigners, but having learned to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike, a place where the first words in the driving handbook are, "No matter what anyone tells you, IT IS A RACE," I tend to find them less offensive than most. Traffic lanes are rarely observed in Panama, especially on long stretches of road where you can virtually pass anytime if you want to. Traffic lights are generally respected, as are most signs, one-way streets, and sidewalk space. Turning signals aren't used much but honking is. Just as mute people develop creepy moans to communicate, Panamanians practice a series of different honks that run the gamut from "please, enter the lane ahead of me kind sir" to "why the fuck are you trying to barge into this lane asshole? Wait your fucking turn!"

Driving in Panama certainly requires an aggressive mindset which goes against every defensive driving tactic you ever learned in class. I remember taking my Driver's Ed test back in high school and being approached by a series of cheating underclassmen afterwards who wanted to know all the questions. I was hard-pressed to think of much, but one that did stick in my mind went something like this: You pull up to a four-way stop, with the other three lanes occupied by an ambulance, a police car, and a United States Postal Service truck: who has the right of way?

Before even considering the right answer, I found myself enamored with the job of whoever put these questions together. Not only would this scenario never play out in real life, but it must've required a Jeopardy-like genius to even come up with such a dilemma. The puzzle's answer was the mail truck due to it's federal governmental status: retaining right of way over all the other state run vehicles. I knew the answer because my teacher, a full-blown midget named Mr. Wilkenson, mentioned it in one of his lectures and I remember firming it up in my memory with the idea that, just maybe the mail truck was carrying a declaration of war?
Many of the other things I learned in Driver's Ed would be hazardous if I were to exercise them here. Accidents can and do happen in Panama: were I in the States, I'd pull my car over to the side of the road and wait for assistance. In Panama, the proper conduct is to leave your car exactly where it is, whether it's blocking traffic or not, and wait for the police. If you do move your car, you risk losing insurance money.

While Panamanians catch a lot of slack for their poor driving, they are generally focused on the activity at hand, which is far more than Americans can say. Panamanians may be accused of cutting you off, driving through red lights, or using the shoulder when no other lane is available: but they haven't yet adopted the hobby of introducing chores to the car, and when a Panamanian comes to a four-way stop it's every man for himself.
Comments (3)Add Comment
written by tejano , February 07, 2009
Another funny thing, you mentioned never using their blinkers yet they use their hazzard lights or "flashers" like its going out of style!
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This was oh so true
written by panajanetherecanonlybeone , February 11, 2009
But I must say, when I was working as a flight attendant I learned how to apply makeup while driving on the corredor sur towards the airport.

Also, I have been seeing more and more cases of Panamanians on: cellphones, changing their iPod music, watching things on their little TV's, etc.

I think if you can drive in Panama, you can drive anywhere in the world, though to be honest it could be a bad thing to drive like a Panamanian somewhere else in the world.
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written by Silverfox , February 21, 2009
driving in Panama difficult? The drivers are bad? Whaaaaa? They all drive so slow. Try North Africa, France, Italy and plenty other places around the world (close to home....try Venezuela). Panama, bad. Nope. Makes me laugh when North American Gringos say that. Says more about your driving than Panama.

Yeah, buses are pricks but same same all over the poorer areas of the world (more passengers = more money)

And where are the 4 way stops? I ain't seen any, not even in the various Little Gringovilles dotted around.
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Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 February 2009 10:22