5 ‘American Habits’ I Lost While Traveling In South America

Flickr / Joao Carlos Medau
Flickr / Joao Carlos Medau

At some point in our lives we travel, whether to change who we are, to see new places, or simply to go on vacation. This past summer I spent my time in Panama, a beautiful country that has created an eccentric relationship between nature and urban living. Like many people who travel, I experienced new traditions and in return lost some of my own habits. But what were some of those habits?

1. I stopped worrying about time

Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA (and really any suburb for that matter), there seemed to be this constant sense of urgency. Everyone was being timed and in order to feel successful, a multitude of things had to be completed. There was no time to relax. It was all about what needed to get done next. We were, and still are, looking to the future.

It’s quite the opposite in Panama. Instead of being rushed and constantly worried about the future, I experienced a culture that relaxed and existed in the present. Everywhere I traveled, the atmosphere was laid back and friendly, this is especially true for rural communities. In the beach town of Santa Catalina, I relaxed with locals on the black sand beaches, went surfing in the Pacific Ocean, and met a spear fishermen who took me to a few great spots for shell hunting. Throughout the day I realized that while I had things to do, there was nothing more important than taking my time and enjoying each moment for what it was worth.

2. I lost my ‘personal bubble’

In the US everyone talks about needing their “personal bubble,” an imaginary boundary between them and everyone else. Before Panama, this was definitely the case for me as well in certain situations, especially on modes of public transportation like the subway. In Panama, however, personal space isn’t all that available when travelling to Panama City.

Throughout Panama they have a vast connection of public transportation called Diablo Rojo’s. Using uniquely designed retired US school buses, drivers pack as many people as possible onto the bus. Sometimes this amounts to three people in each seat plus people standing in the aisle. Needless to say it gets pretty stuffed.

On a hot day in the middle of June I was running to catch the Diablo Rojo after a day in the dusty shopping hub of Veinti-Cuatro de Diciembre. As I made it onto the bus I realized it was standing room only. Twenty or so people came on after me, effectively pushing me towards the back. The bus rumbled down the road and seemingly hit every possible bump. I uttered “lo siento” to those around me every time I accidentally bumped into them. As people got off at their stops, shifting positions was at first hard but eased as the bus became less populated. At one point I was nearly sitting on one woman’s lap. After two hours, our stop arrived and exited the bus thanking the driver as we exited, paying him a dollar.

3. I quit worrying about what to wear

Since Panama is located near the equator, the weather averages between 70 and 90 degrees year round. Now compare this to the Northern United States where I’m from and temperatures can range anywhere from below 0 to the mid-90s. So it was easy for me to accept the idea of wearing t-shirts and shorts all year. This was especially nice when I stayed in the rural towns like San Miguel where the people are more focused on your genuine enjoyment of the area.

While on some days I wanted to take my shirt off because of how hot it was, in Panama that’s frowned upon especially in Panama City where it’s illegal not to wear a shirt. This is one of the few etiquette rules that is specific to Panama. At first I thought the no-shirt law would not be strictly enforced, but luckily for me a friend of mine warned me before I learned the hard way.

4. I stopped being a picky eater

This was a big one for me. Before I went to Panama, there were certain foods I just did not eat, like beans or strange foods I couldn’t pronounce. Being a picky eater is common for a lot of people in the US, notably among the younger crowd. Growing up I had afflictions towards everything from spinach and Brussel sprouts to fish and potatoes (luckily that list is now only down to Brussel sprouts, and even that is growing on me).

Living in Panama the first thing I remember eating, and the most regular occurring, was rice and beans. At first I thought to myself “oh god what am I doing here,” but I realized that’s what I was eating for dinner so I might as well stomach it. To be quite honest, it wasn’t that bad.

Later on in my experience, I had the fortune of eating a guanabana fruit. Guanabana is this green, leathery, melon-shaped fruit covered in nubs. When cut open it could honestly be described as looking like snot and goop, those words exactly. However, if heaven tasted like anything it would taste like the sweetness of a guanabana. After those two experiences I began to try different foods left and right, and my life as a foodie has exploded ever since.

5. I quit fearing the locals

As I prepared to travel to Panama friends and advisors told me not to trust anyone because they would in some way scam you or waste your time. When I first arrived in Panama I believed this, but then realized how much easier it was to ask a local for directions to a restaurant or if they had seen any gringo’s around.

One of the most intimidating places I can think of dealing with someone in a foreign country trying effortlessly to speak their language, especially in the city of Veinti-Cuatro de Diciembre. This happened to me several times as I had gotten lost in this dusty shopping hub. Standing confused outside of a Super 99 grocery store, a local woman helpfully shouted “gringo” and pointed towards a group of people that I recognized. These occurrences were all too often for me, but allowed me to trust the locals more knowing that they could help me in what I saw as ironic, strange, and sometimes comical situations. TC mark

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