Having spent far more than vacation time in Panama (two years) and Ecuador (one year), there is no comparison. People have asked me to rate my experiences on a scale of one to ten but I ask if I have to rate Panama or Ecuador with a positive number? At best I would not give them more than a two and that would require me ignoring all the terrible things that happened in both countries.
Panama was not at all as billed. I headed for Boquette mostly because it was in the mountains and for the climate. When I first arrived in Panama City it was a very humid 98 degrees despite being ten o’clock at night. My first introduction to the culture was when the customs official scanning my documents, including the form that asked me how much money I had with me, got on the phone. I thought there might be some problem and was very worried, but he told me to go ahead.
When I got outside I had a few hours to kill before my bus left so I asked for an English speaking driver. My driver was great and we spent a most enjoyable three hours touring around, having dinner and discussing all things Panama. I asked him about what had happened at customs. He said the customs official was on the phone with his driver buddy waiting outside, telling him how much cash I had on me. The driver would take me to some disreputable area of the city, rob me and dump me out. Of course, the customs guy got a cut. Welcome to Panama!
When I arrived in Boquete I quickly learned how important it was for the locals to know I was Canadian. They sure didn’t like Americans, mostly because of the infamous invasion of Panama by Bush Senior. Four thousand people went missing and the troops burned down twenty-five percent of Panama City. I met a guy in the street whose brother had been roused from home in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. The other issue with Boquette was the fallout from Noriega’s rule. When he was deposed all the people who had dogs that were trained to kill just let them loose in the streets. The place was overrun with street dogs so you never knew when you came across them if they were the ones trained to kill. I also had a guy ask me for a smoke when I was on my way to my favorite bar, Amigos. We started talking about Noriega and he lifted his shirt and showed me all the scars be had on his back from being beaten and stabbed. It was an unreal experience for me.
At Amigos I met a girl, Verushka, who would literally change my life. She was only twenty-one but very cute and her English was perfect. We became instant friends, at least I thought so. Long story short she told me her mother was losing their house and asked me for money, which I didn’t have. That ended the friendship for a few months. Then we reconciled when she started working for me on my websites. Before I knew it we were spending every waking minute together. After working all day she would stay for dinner and we would drink and watch Two and a Half Men, a program she loved. Then she showed up for work one day looking very sad. I asked her what was wrong and she said they were getting kicked out of their home and had nowhere to go for two weeks until they could move into their new rental. I was in the middle of renovating the penthouse of the place I was working on so I told her the family could move in for the two weeks. Biggest mistake of my life.
The next day they showed up. Mother, two sisters, two kids, three parrots, and two dogs, plus about a hundred cartons of stuff. I wondered what I had let myself in for. Next, I learn they have no food so I go to David and buy seven hundred dollars worth of food for them. Mom starts cooking dinner for me, which was nice. They also offer to do some painting for me. The two weeks comes and goes and I ask Verushka what’s going on. She says there’s been a delay with the rental place but they will be moving “soon”.
Two months later I’ve had enough. My worker and I devise a scheme to tell them that we need to fumigate for ants so they need to leave for five hours and take their animals. As soon as they leave we change the locks on the gates. They return and all hell breaks loose. I told Verushka the only way they were getting back in was to move out. An hour later she comes back with the police in tow. The very big officer demands I let them in and demands my passport. Verushka has told them she has paid rent and will get the receipt. First lie. She says I am a drug dealer and in the country illegally. Second lie. Then the worst one, that I had sex with her! Next thing I know I am handcuffed in the paddy wagon waiting to spend time in Panama’s deplorably overcrowded prisons.
My Spanish isn’t good enough to explain to the officer that Verushka is lying through her teeth about everything. Suddenly another officer calls up to him and says something I didn’t understand. The next thing I know I am being released and the officer is apologizing like crazy. I think what happened was that my worker, Amilkar, told the other officers that Verushka was lying about everything. After some discussion, it is agreed that they will come back the next day to move.
The next day they show up to move. I am watching at the door to the penthouse because I am not allowed to go in. I ask to inspect the first box coming out and it’s my microwave. That starts a huge argument with her mother which gets pretty confrontational so the officer tells me to go down to my apartment. Later he asks me to come back up and sign the list of what they have moved. It’s in Spanish so I don’t understand it and I refuse to sign. After they leave and I get my penthouse back I discover that they have stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down. Everything is gone from the kitchen. They even stole the batteries out of the TV remote! Took all the lightbulbs in the place too.
I then went through days of pure hell digging up receipts for everything I had bought for the penthouse, getting everything translated and meeting with the court official to make my claim. I went with the police to their new place but they just denied stealing anything. I could see my brand new four hundred dollar cell phone in her back pocket but the police wouldn’t do anything. She also stole my brand new Panasonic camera that I had bought to take photos for my websites.
The only funny part of this experience, if there can actually be anything funny, is that the police became my best friends. The day of all the turmoil I had given them coffee with Bailey’s, which they loved. They started coming back every morning for more. My neighbors must have wondered why there were police cars parked up on the road every day. The police chief even came to apologize for how I had been treated and told me his office door was always open for me.
Another funny part of this thing with the police was when there were major floods which wiped out one of the only two bridges connecting the two parts of Boquete. My friend, Adrian, and I visited one of the sites so I could take photos for the website. As soon as I got out of his truck all the officers hollered hello to me like I was somebody really important. I hoped that all the locals standing around didn’t think I was a major drug dealer or something.
After Verushka had ripped me off for everything I found myself with only twenty-eight dollars in the bank. I had no choice other than to return to Canada where my darling cousin had offered me refuge. So much for Panama.
Again searching for somewhere to live that had a lower cost of living, especially because I was about to receive my pathetically low Canadian pensions, I researched Ecuador and decided to give it a try. Yet another country not as billed.
I’ve gone into great detail about all my horrible experiences in Cotacachi on my personal website, garycjones.ca, so I won’t repeat everything here. Among all the things that happened was coming as close to dying as I ever had. I got carbon monoxide poisoning in my cabin and was rushed by ambulance to the local hospital. I still remember waking up some three hours later and hearing the doctor say I was minutes from death. Scary experience.
Just like Panama I got ripped off left, right and center in Ecuador, the worst being the highly recommended lady who was handling my visa application. She stole the three hundred and fifty American dollars I had given her for the required deposit for the government. Not only that but she refused to return my passport which caused me untold grief when I had to leave the country and limp back to Canada. So much for Ecuador.
By comparison, I would rate my experience so far here in Lakeside at an eight at least and that is only because of some of the infrastructure issues and being ripped off by someone I trusted and only tried to help.
Naively I was hoping that Mexico would be different. More honest people and less crime, but it’s no different than my experience in those other Latin American countries. You’ve got it. They want it and they will take it. These are all countries with a lot of poverty and people need to do what they need to do.
From petty thieves to hardened criminals none of them understand the damage they are doing to the country’s reputation which results in millions of lost tourist dollars. The crime stats for Mexico have never been higher and this scares a lot of people off visiting here or moving here. Bad news travels fast and social media and the press never fail to spin the terrible news about Mexico. Good news is very rare, despite the fact that there is a lot of good news here.