During the first week here we hired a driver to go around. Now that we know a little bit the city (and bought a local sim card to have Google Maps and Waze up and running on my smartphone…), we rented a car and started driving around by ourselves.
I have driven in countries such as Belgium or Germany, where people are disciplined, courteous and traffic signs are clear and always where they should be, to more crazy or aggressive places such as Lyon and Marseille in France (where someone granting you your way is unheard of) or Morocco (where I was literally bumped and then pushed by the car behind me not to give way on my way out of the airport parking lot – it was a nice start). Some places are even so empty (i.e. Namibia) that it doesn’t matter you drive for hours on the wrong side of the road (they drive on the left side like in England…) because for hours you won’t cross any other car.
But I still haven’t seen nothing like Panama.
Traffic signs here are almost inexistent (and if there are any, I guess drivers consider them as elements of urban decoration). Many crossings in have no traffic lights or roundabouts (where common sense dictates there should be one). If there are traffic lights, it doesn’t matter – many drivers just do not respect them (and here’s the funny thing: sometimes even if the traffic light is green, sometimes people do not move! It’s more important to finish that phone conversation…). Taxis can go from 80km/h to a full stop in order to pick up someone even in a highway. Same for buses (there are few marked bus stops). Roundabouts have no clear priority rules unless it’s a huge truck or a bus (you don’t want to find out you didn’t have priority so you just let go).
There are lots of buildings under construction, so many already too narrow two lane streets become one lane streets, which, combined with “I don’t care I will block a crossing” panamenian drivers attitude makes traffic jams (a.k.a. “el tranque”) ubiquitous during rush hours (from 8 to 11 and from 15 to 19 +/-), even though Panama city is actually a relatively small city. A drive that could last less than 10 minutes with normal traffic may turn into a 1h30 journey quite easily. Here’s where the smartphone WAZE app really brings value to a driver: it takes into account real and live data on traffic speeds of its users, accidents and police controls (also courtesy of free crowd-sourcing) and different routes and suggests sometimes intricate itineraries – it actually works wonderfully here!…
… if you know how to tell it where to go. Here’s another local idiosyncrasy: addresses in the world usually include a street and a number. Some countries tweak it and make it even easier to find like having all streets organized as a grid and naming them in alphabetical order or with numbers, and then numbering according to avenue and street crossing (“3205, M street” in Washington DC is located near the crossing of M Street and 32nd street – and it’s the third house on the odd side of the street). In Guatemala, neighbourhoods are called “zonas” and are numbered. Within each neighbourhood streets run vertically and avenues horizontally and are numbered sequentially. The house number is actually the distance measured in meters from the street/avenue crossing so addresses always mention a crossing of street and avenue. In Brasilia everything is very logical but addresses look like a military code (SHIS QI2 C4B = Setor de Habitações Individuais Sul, Quadra Interna 2, casa 4, porta B).
Forget about all those rational schemes for address definition. This is for boring, non-social people. Panama is more humanistic: there’s only an indication of the street name, eventually the closest crossing and… the name of the building/tower, or an indication to some point of reference such as “in front of Papa John’s pizzeria” or “next to the Arrocha pharmacy”. No numbers, no ZIP codes. What for anyway? With the information you have at hand you are able to triangulate on google maps / waze and then start asking when you get close… Surprisingly, you end up finding places pretty quickly after you get used to it!
With so much traffic jams, it is considered very acceptable by locals to arrive late. But actually people don’t come late because they are in a traffic jam. They come late because they first do everything they need to do close to where they are before they move to close to where you are. It doesn’t matter you agreed to meet at a specific time (to be fair, this does not apply to business meetings… as far as I know so far). We agreed to have our bed delivered at 9am last friday (first delivery in the morning should be on time I guessed…). The delivery guy called me at 11am to tell me that he was “about to” arrive. He actually arrived at 3pm. Fortunately we’re already getting used to not getting sucked into the local time elasticity vortex, so we just kept on shopping nearby for all the stuff we needed and got home to open the door when the delivery guy called saying that he was ringing the door bell and no one answered. Hey, better him waiting 15 minutes than us waiting 6 hours right?