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Unexpected Moments of Magic Panama is dedicated to empowering individuals worldwide through the encouragement of self-exploration through social entrepreneurship, volunteerism, philanthropy and education as powerful forces for worldwide change. Be the change!

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Social Customs, Culture & Religion

Social Customs & Culture
In Panama, Indigenous groups make up 5.3% of the total population of the republic. The most commonly known tribes include the Kuna Indians, Ngobe Buglé, Emberá and Wounan. The Kuna Indians can be found of the magical islands of San Blas, and in the jungles of Chucunaque and Bayano, while the Ngobe Buglé, or otherwise known as Guaymíe, live mainly in the mountainous areas of Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui. The Emberá and Wounan live in the Darién jungle towards Columbia and in Teribe and Cricamola, in the province of Bocas del Toro. Each tribal group is different and distinctive by their apparel.

The Kuna women are wrapped in colorful sarongs and adorned beautiful beads wrapped on their wrists and calves. The women also cover their heads with bright yellow and red bandanas. The Ngobe Buglé women on the other hand wear brightly colored long dresses. The Emberá and Wounan women normally are topless and covered in a paint extracted from a fruit plant in the jungles of the Darién.

Advice for Those Arriving in Panama
Etiquette:
  • To greet someone, a handshake is given or one kiss on the right cheek. Also give them a handshake or kiss on the cheek when you say goodbye.
  • If people call you by the way you look (e.g. chinito, gordito, flaquito) - the "ito" means that they are being affectionate, not insulting in any way.
  • If someone gives you some food or a present, you should always accept or provide a good reason why you cannot have it.
  • Don't be offended when people arrive late! This should be expected in Panama.
  • Always ask for people's permission when taking their photo.
  • Wear relatively conservative clothes.
  • Women should expect to get whistled at. Please do not react to it.
Life as a foreigner in Panama
Foreigners are plentiful in Panama, so you will not feel too out of place as you are not alone. Within Boquete alone it is said that there are over 2,500 foreigners! Boquete even offers many of their social events in English, for example community theatre, yoga and movies. Some locals think of foreigners to be wealthy and so people may ask you for money or possessions when in hard positions in their lives. If you desire to give, do it and if not, a simple and polite refusal will not offend anyone.

Traditional Panamanian Food
You will not go hungry here and you may expect to put on a few pounds, as the food is superb and very much a part of the cultural experience! Boquete is an area with rich soil, so the variety of fruits and veggies are cheap and delicious! There are also a number of good restaurants, which serve an array of local and international specialties. Fish and chicken are plentiful. Plantain bananas are used in a variety of tasty ways.

Traditional Panamanian food is heavy on meat and seafood dishes accompanied by rice and beans (gallo pinto). The national dish is sancocho, a vegetable and chicken soup. Rice with chicken, fried chicken, green salad, potato salad, and meat stews are among some of the local favorites. In Panama, there is not a real concern about the water and is drinkable from the tap, although many still choose to purchase bottled water to drink. Soft drinks are plentiful, along with many other drinks such as Gatorade, fruit juices, V8, chocolate milk, etc. Rum and beer are abundant in Panama, but wine is not commonly drank among locals, as the imports are expensive. Boquete is said to have some of the best coffee in the world, and we think you will agree! To fully enjoy the coffee here, consider taking a coffee tour to learn all about the process and the coffee plants. The majority of Panamanians are meat eaters, but vegetarian options are available.

Religion
The Constitution of Panama prescribes that there shall be no prejudice with respect to religious freedom, and the practice of all forms of worship are authorized. Panama is predominantly Roman Catholic, but there are sizable Muslim and Protestant minorities, indigenous belief systems, and small numbers of Hindus and Jews.

The Constitution recognizes the Roman Catholic faith as the country's predominant religion and contains a provision that it be taught in the public schools. Roman Catholicism permeated the social environment culturally, as well as religiously and baptism is generally considered the most significant religious rite. Religious attitudes, customs, and beliefs differ somewhat between urban and rural areas. In rural regions folk beliefs are more common.

Public Holidays/Festivals In Boquete, both Panamanian and North American holidays are celebrated due to the large number of expatriates. The following National Holidays are observed by the UMMP in Panama: *These dates may change from year to year
  • January 1st, New Years Day
  • January 9th, Martyrs Day
  • February 15th-16th, Carnival
  • April 1st, Good Thursday
  • April 2nd, Good Friday
  • May 1st, Labor Day
  • August 15th, Panama La Vieja
  • November 3rd, Independence Day
  • November 4th, Flag Day
  • November 10th, Grito de la Villa
  • November 29th, Separation Day
  • December 8th, Mothers Day
  • December 20th - 31st, Christmas
Some of Panama's most spectacular annual events include Carnival, Semana Santa Parades, Christmas Celebrations and La Feria in Boquete. Traveling can be busy during these times, so booking in advanced will ensure your travel plans to go on schedule. Most projects are closed during special holidays such as Easter Week, Christmas and Carnival.

Language
Knowledge of the Spanish language will greatly enhance your overall experience in Panama. UMMP can assist you in organizing spanish lessons, simply get in touch with your Volunteer Coordinator to find out more. The predominant language spoken in Panama is Spanish, with English coming in second. So, it is very likely that you will find many English speakers to chat with and many Spanish speakers to practice with, unless you are hopelessly lost in the mountains somewhere where other tribal languages are spoken. Regardless of your Spanish level, an honest effort is always appreciated.

Dealing with Culture Shock
Cultural shock can be a challenge for anyone. Whether you are coming to Panama for a week or a year, you will go through this. This is our small attempt to prepare you as much as possible prior to your arrival, but in the end, this is only something you can learn through experience. Language

For most people, language is the most challenging aspect of cultural shock. It will take back in time to your infancy when you did not know how to communicate your needs, and you may want to respond by crying. If you are not fluent in Spanish, you will have to adapt & learn new ways to express yourself and you will be surprised at the number of ways to communicate without speaking.This aspect will also test your patience. It is frustrating wanting to say something very simple & not having the slightest clue on how to do so, it can make you feel quite dumb to say the least. But you are not dumb, you speak other language. Our best advice, laugh at yourself and do not take it personally when others laugh with you.

Time
Time is an interesting thing & is unique to each culture. In Panama, time just slows down a bit. You will not see people running on the streets looking at their watches, racing to their next appointment. Rather, you will see people sitting at the park, people watching and enjoying the moment. If you are a go go type A kind of person, this may be a bit confusing and maybe even frustrating for you. If you are a bit more relaxed, you will love this about the culture. Either way, the best thing to do is to be flexible and go with the flow. With events, although they say they may start at 5 p.m., they may not actually start until around 7 p.m. For most of us, this is totally unacceptable, but this is actually quite normal in most developing nations. Also with your placements, they may have activities scheduled and something may come up, and they just change it for another day or time. This is very normal and quite admirable. The people have mastered the art of flexibility. The best thing we can do, is learn from them and with them. 

Our advice, be in the moment. Go through the process. And enjoy it while doing so.

Greetings & Goodbyes
Everywhere you go people greet each other in different ways. In Panama, the first time you meet someone, generally speaking they will shake your hand, but if they feel comfortable, they may kiss you on the RIGHT cheek. Generally speaking during this kiss, your lips do not actually touch the other person. Rather, it is more of a cheek kiss with the sound. Another greeting many people find to be very sweet is that when you walk onto a public bus, people will greet everyone with a buenos dias, buenas tardes, or buenos noches. With goodbyes, it is the same as a greeting.

Comfort Zones
Imagine yourself walking on to a public bus. There are 50 seats open and 5 with one person on a seat that sits three. What do you do? Do you take on of the empty seats? In Panama, they are very comfortable with being close to one another and they will most likely come sit next to you. After Latinos are all about relationships and who wants to be alone?

You may also be surprised at the level of trust people have in one another. For example, you may meet someone for the first time and moments later they will invite you to their home to share a meal. They are interested in learning more about you, and desire to build a friendship with you. They are a very trusting culture that is quite admirable. Open yourself beyond your comfort zone, and respond with the same trust they have given to you. With that being sad, follow your best judgement.