Today Union Fenosa arrived to cut the electricity to my apartment. It was the same three-man crew that came out last week: one guy who was stoned and stood off by himself a lot, another heavyset supervisor type who spent most of his time on his green cell phone, and lastly, the guy I think was the driver, who was nothing if not a social butterfly.
We create jobs, pay more than we should in taxis, and bring with us new DVDs before they’ve hit Panama theaters.
In the States, they warn you before cutting the electricity, but down in Panama first you have the option to pay a bribe. “You can’t take this heat in the day with no fans or electricity,” they say. “No sir, it’s gonna be a hot day tomorrow, I’ll tell you that.”
The first time, a week ago, they came to shut it off because my business partner was traveling and had forgotten to pay the bill. “For the next week I’ll be in Tibet herding yaks,” he had told me, “so I won’t be able to pay the bills.” My eyes read the entire sentence of the email but my mind had stopped abruptly at the yaks part, so when the guys arrived, I was momentarily confused.
“You all will not cut anything until I speak with your manager,” I told them.
This is a technique I use a lot in Panama. I call it, the authoritative gringo. The ideas is that, if done correctly, addressing a problem with some nerve can be interpreted as the beginning of an international crisis. That if, for example, your credit card is not refunded or your food is not brought out soon, you will be taking your issue directly to the nearest embassy and it will likely end up as a headline in La Prensa the next day: Mass Foreigner Exodus Sparked By Incompetent Electrician, it might read.
This works because for the most part, Panamanians, at this moment in time, really appreciate the increase of investors and tourists in their country. We create jobs, pay more than we should in taxis, and bring with us new DVDs before they’ve hit Panama theaters.
The man said he was only doing his job and when he asked where my receipt for payment was – something I knew we did not have. But I told him we made the transfer online, that it was all electronically filed away. The look I received was like what you’d get after telling a caveman you’re about to send him a fax: utter bewilderment.
“Go ahead, call your supervisor and check.”
The man called and was put on hold for about twenty minutes, after which the line was accidentally cut. He tried twice more being routed and re-routed, and when he eventually got through to someone, she told him the supervisor in question was on lunch. I was listening to this and enjoying it immensely: as if, for the first time in history, I have actually benefited from Panamanian incompetence.
Eventually, the men left saying that, if I made the transfer, the money must be somewhere “in transit” and that I shouldn’t worry. This was not without them asking how to say "fat greasy boy" in English. We then called Keenan immediately and had him pay our bills before the men could fully investigate. He had just returned from herding yaks all week in Tibet and sounded justifiably exhausted.
“They didn’t even have cell phones out there,” Keenan said. “It was like stepping hundreds of years back in time.”