Friday, May 30, 2008

More on Unrealistic Expectations

I'm working on another post about ticks and Erlichiosis, but thought I'd write further on scaling down expectations, thanks to a comment from a dear Irish Internet correspondent.  Will and I  have never met, but still, given this wonderful day and age of instantaneous communication over large distances, we're Internet buddies, so to speak.  He always brings up interesting points, and I want to address one of them.

Scale down your expectations of services here.  You MUST do so or you risk being really unhappy.  Will's biggest concern is Internet access and he remarked that he hoped through rapid advances in technology, cheap Internet access would be planet wide pretty soon.

For first-world countries, such as Ireland, Canada, Germany, Japan and the US, just to name a few?  Without question.  For Panamá and other 3rd world countries?  I sincerely doubt it. 

 Is there Internet access here?  Yes.  Is it reliable in the way first-world countries are used to thinking about reliability?  No.  Is it cheap?  Except for dialup, which can be expensive for extended use, no.  Is it going to be cheap in the foreseeable future?  I'd say the probability of that is vanishingly small, always allowing for the fact that the Age of Miracles may not yet be in the past.

I'm one of those perverts who finds statistics interesting so long as you don't believe that they're the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Because I want to make a point, I'm going to bore you to tears with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the final value of all goods and services produced domestically for 2007.  This data comes from the CIA World Factbook.  Hey, why not use them?  I should get something for the taxes I'm still forced to pay.

Oh yes--all US citizens are required to pay Federal income tax except for very restricted circumstances.  Speaking from personal experience, the IRS dearly loves to harass you, because you're so far away so that you're not likely to go to Philadelphia for an appeal, and you have no real representation in Congress any more.  Welcome to the life of an American ex-pat.

OK--back to my list, in trillions of international dollars for 2007:

World economy:                              $65.8
European Union:                                14.4  Next, by world ranking:
1.  US:                                                   13.9
2.  Peoples Republic of China:           7.0
3.  Japan:                                               4.3    
4.   India                                            3.0   
5.  Germany                                      2.8
6.  UK                                                     2.147
9.  Brasil                                           1.838   
13. Canada                                             1.274
97. Uganda                                       0.31
98.Ghana                                          0.31
99. Nepal                                          0.31
100.Bosnia and Herzgovinia             0.31    And finally
101. Panamá                                     0.29

If you're interested, the complete list can be found here.

I've listed these only to show the HUGE difference in economies.  Panamá ranks right down there with some very poor countries.  Of course the GDP is not the only measure.  An ok one--but one that does NOT take in the disparity in income between rich and poor--is the per capita income.  For Panamá, that's about $4,600/yr.  (The US, by the way, is 7th at $45,000). Ghana is around $700.

You figure out what the monthly average income is here in Panamá:  not quite $400/month.  This number also includes the income or lack of it of the official 25% living below the poverty level as well s the incomes of some very, very rich people here.  According to the UN, Panamá is a country with one of the greatest inequalities of income in the world.  The richest 20% earn an annual family income 32 times that of the poorest 20%.  Panamá in the pst 6 years or so has seen a rise in chronic malnutrition in children under 5.  Over 50% of children under 5 live in poverty and 20% in conditions of extreme poverty.  Courtesy of the World Bank and UNICEF.

Average income for the middle class is considered to be between $12,000 and $18,000/year, or $1,000 to $1500/month.  At the moment, you can still live comfortably on the middle to upper range for the middle class income, although it's now getting much harder at the low end.  But that's a Panamanian style of living comfortably.  Yes, you can afford a car, nice furniture, a TV (but I doubt a 60" plasma, for example), probably a low end computer--and dial-up Internet access.

So?  Tell me, Will, where is the customer base, with these kinds of numbers, for your cheap Internet access?  It'll be cheap for first world with a large base of paying clientele so that volume will drive prices down.  It will NEVER be as cheap for those countries that don't have the base to pay for that access. And you will have to pay.  Maybe in Ireland large communications companies are willing to carry for next to nothing those who can't pay, but I guarantee you the US is not one of those countries.  Any US company is going to have its hand out for payment for services provided to other countries.  Period.  "Cheap" depends on volume, always.

Let's look at Internet access prices right now.  In the US 4 years ago, we paid $37/month for excellent Internet service.  That was a little high because we lived on an island, and things were more expensive there than on the mainland.

Here, Internet access--if you have a landline phone--used to be--I don't know what it is now-- $10.95/month for dialup, with an additional amount--I think 3 cents--per minute of time used.  You could get a contract for unlimited time, but I believe that used to be about $35.  And those were very, very slow speeds indeed.  Very slow.  You can get DLS in many areas, such as Boquete and of course David--even in Potrerillos, it turns out--but I have heard nothing but gripes and grumbles about it here in Potrerillos.

For us, it's not even an option.  I emphasized if you could get a landline because we and almost anyone who is building a new home now (and in the past 4 years) can NOT get landline service any more.  Cable and Wireless is the main communications provider here as they are in the Caribbean.  They are a British-owned company, and they have a monopoly here.  Just to give you an idea about what the general opinion of them is--in the American ex-pat community, Cable and Wireless is referred to as Clueless and Worthless, and they fully live up to that reputation.  The problem is that Cable and Wireless refuses to lay down any more cable (then, shouldn't they change their name?) and therefore new fixed line connections are not available.

Sure, cell phones are available, and we have two.  But it limits us and most others to wireless Internet service, which is incredibly expensive.

There are two main wireless ISPs here, both, as I understand it, costing the same; the more commonly used one is MobilNet, a company based in Panama City but with extensive services here in the province.  We pay $75/month for 256K service.  You can get faster, but the price goes up practically logarithmically.  Thanks to limited access to the country itself, the speed is often much slower.  There are plenty of interruptions in service.  One time we went nearly a week without Internet because the tower for our area, located at the summit of Volcan Barú (11,398 ft), had been struck by lightning during an electrical storm and the necessary parts had to come from the capital.  I might add, that no sooner had they fixed it, the tower was struck again by lightning, and we were down again, but for a much shorter period of time.  Interruptions are frequent whenever there are electrical storms, which in the rainy season is just about every day.

I think in April, when I went in to pay our bill, one of the managers told me with a smile that our bandwidth was going to be increased for the same rate.  She said she'd call us the following week to let us know when a técnico would be out to instal the new antenna.

Anyone who believes the ETA of any service or goods here in Panamá is insane and should be locked up for their own good immediately.  We were told not more than 2 weeks ago about Canadians who live in La Barqueta who really believed what contractors told them for dates of completion for housing, I think.  The Panamanian woman who was telling us the story just shook her head.  "I keep telling them," she said, "not to believe a word they say.  Just relax, take it easy, or you're not going to live long!"  But, she said, they still get angry.  They don't understand.

Mary and I always add 1-3 months, depending on what it is, to any date promised on a stack of Bibles by a Panamanian.  It just doesn't happen that way.  Needless to say, it's more than 1 month later, and we haven't heard a word.  Since we never expected to, it doesn't bother us.  

MobilNet, by the way, is one of the better-run companies we've encountered here in Panamá.

You must scale your expectations back.  You must face the reality of what it's like to live in a 3rd world country.  If you don't, you raise your probability of being unhappy here to near 100%.

Please don't bank on pipe dreams that are based in first-world reality.  If you're depending on technology making your life happy here, you're making a huge error.  

We're happy here because we don't have the same expectations that too many gringos do.  We like the life style, we enjoy Panamanians, we knew what we wanted and knew what the price would be.  For us, it isn't high.  But then we both knew from the start what we were getting into.


Richard said...

I have no experience with the third world reality of Panama, but I do have experience with Guatemala. Every once in a while, though, you get surprised by a native who decides to show some initiative.

I was on the Rio Dulce when a friend of mine needed to buy a new outboard motor for his boss's dinghy. He specifically wanted a 25hp Yamaha long shaft engine with oil-injection.

Surprisingly enough there was a Yamaha dealer right there in Fronteras which, at that time, was simply a bunch of buildings strung out for about a half a mile on both sides of the road leading to Tikal. I went with Bill on a Monday morning when he dropped in on the Yamaha dealer. The exchange went something like this:

"I want a 25 hp, oil-injected long shaft. Do you have one available?"


"Can you get one?"


"How much are they?"

"I don't know."

"Can you look it up?"

"Yes, but not today."

"Well, if it's reasonably priced I'll buy one."

So we left and returned the next day. Still didn't know how much the outboard would cost. Same thing on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings. I don't mean they didn't have the motor, they hadn't even looked up how much the damned thing COST!

Our next stop was to the Mariner Outboard dealer who, unlike the Ladino at Yamaha, was a Mayan Indian. Mariner outboards are good, but at that time didn't have oil-injection. The dealer didn't have the desired motor in stock, but he DID KNOW look up how much it cost right then. It was actually less expensive than it would have been in the States.

Bill asked him when he could have one in the shop. The owner said he could have one by the following Wednesday and Bill told him if he got it he would buy it.

We left the dealership and the owner was right out behind us putting up the "Cerrado" sign and locking the door since it was getting late in the afternoon. We really didn't expect a whole lot as we wandered back to the marina to get a cold Gallo lager.

Sunday afternoon in the middle of a game of Trivial Pursuit on Bill's boat there was a knock on the hull. We looked out and there was the Mayan and a brand new 25 hp long-shaft Mariner.

We're sure that the Mayan considered the situation for a second and thought, "hey, I have to go up to Guatemala City sometime soon to get something or other, and if I go now and get the Gringo's outboard I can kill two birds with one stone and make a bunch of extra money without much additional effort."

Just for the hell of it we dropped by the Yamaha dealer's place a month later and they STILL hadn't even found out the price of the engine in question.

I've often wondered in the years since how many more Mariner outboards are running around on the Rio Dulce compared to Yamahas.


P.S. A little Spanish lesson...
Manana DOESN'T mean "tomorrow." It means NOT TODAY!

Joyce said...

Hi, Richard,

Loved your story! There are a few people like the Mayan in David. Most Panamanians are somewhere in between the Yamaha dealer and the Mayan.

I do thank you for the spanish lesson--you're absolutely correct!! :-)


Anonymous said...

Love the blog. Anyone reading this cannot say they wern't warned.

Joyce said...

Hi, Anonymous--Thanks for your kind comment. Lately I've been wondering if I've been too heavy on reasons not to move here--beginning to think we look like idiots for having done so! (grin). But mainly what I seem to get is the reaction here is "Yes, but it's not going to happen to me". Because we were blessed with wonderful advice from several ex-pats here in Potrerillos (as well as absolutely critical help from a Panamanian), we in tern decided we would repay these people by helping others who either have moved here, were in the process of moving here, or were inquiring. I never expected the reactions I got (I've talked about those sufficiently) from all but one couple. Our last attempts to help another couple who will be our neighbors possibly as soon as next year were met with such blindness (the husband is an arrogant know-it-all, especially when it comes to advice from women) and--again--arrogance that we both swore never to try to help anyone new again. This blog is my attempt to get the news out to those who may be naive but still open to what I--and others like La Gringa from Honduras---have to say about our experiences


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