I’m sitting on a bench, looking out at the deep blue waters of Panama Bay. A row of tall palm trees lines the walkway in front of me. To my left is a small marina, and further off, the twinkling lights of the city’s impressive skyline. To my right, I can see the stately colonial facades of the historic district known as Casco Viejo. Little boats dot the waters by Casco’s famed fish market. Food stalls serve fresh ceviche and grilled fish to the many locals and visitors that come here to walk, jog, or just sit and enjoy the view.
When I lived in the States, I filled every minute of every day. I remember eating on the go more often than not, seeing family and friends too infrequently, and feeling stressed out. I had a junky diet, lower back pain, and got headaches all the time. Then, in 2005, I moved to Panama City. And living here forced me to learn some valuable lessons. Forced me to learn to slow down and take deep breaths.
These days I go with the flow and give myself permission. Permission to just sit and gaze out at the bay. It’s what I call my new “zero-stress” lifestyle—a term I learned here, as well. It’s a common refrain amongst Panamanians. Cero estrés. It can mean all sorts of things: Don’t stress about being a little late. Don’t worry if it doesn’t get done today. The message is always the same: there’s no point in getting all stressed out.
Granted, people here have grown up with the cero estrés attitude, while I had to learn it. It took me time. My first year here I would get frustrated if a taxi didn’t “follow the rules” or if the electrician “didn’t understand punctuality.” But over time I saw how much happier locals and longtime expats were. It’s not that they never got anything done or were never on time. This country is surprisingly First World, for all its Latin flair. But people here don’t sweat the small stuff. They go with the flow and make plenty of allowances.
Now I have a new group of friends that let me be myself. When I go out to run errands, I encounter patience and understanding. Take for example the most popular local bank, Banco General. When I don’t understand something, my banking rep sits with me to explain. She even gave me her personal cell phone number…imagine that happening in North America. Not likely!
The same is true of my chiropractor and my dermatologist, who both speak perfect English. Most of the people I have to deal with on a regular basis are generous with their time and happy to chat with me. I’ve also found that schedules and rules can be a little more flexible here. I can’t tell you how many times people have waived small fees or let me off with a warning instead of a parking ticket. All it took from me was a smile and a polite hola, gracias, or por favor. (Or disculpe…that’s for when you want to apologize for speeding.)
So I’m happier, they’re happier, and so it goes, round and round. That’s my zero-stress lifestyle in Panama City. Sure, no place is perfect…Panama has its faults. People here aren’t quite as patient when they get behind the wheel of a car. But over the past few years my back pain has diminished. Headaches are occasional nuisances rather than frequent visitors. I feel good. Really good. And that’s all that matters.
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