Beating the Queue in Panama City
5:40 a.m. The iPhone alarm was redundant. I was already up, sipping my coffee, getting ready for my early trip to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an office about 5 miles (ca. 8 km) from my apartment. You’ll find it tucked away on the second floor of one of the countless strip malls on Tumba Muerto, or Grave of the Dead.
I needed to have my embassy-issued, non-Panamanian driver’s license authentication certified by Panama authorities to get a Panamanian license. By law, anyone who has legal residency in Panama, or anyone present in the country for over 90 days, must show a Panama license when driving.
The embassy chore went without hassle. But I was to experience Panama’s proud public servants in a way I’d rather have avoided.
Panama City’s roads fill up after 8:00 AM, unforgivingly, adding sometimes 30-60 minutes to the trip. Even though I was taking a convenient bus, they don’t escape the daily traffic jams.
The Foreign Affairs office was to open its doors at 8:00 a.m. I wanted to avoid long queues by showing up by 7:30. So I did.
When I arrived, only a handful of people queued up, promising my bureaucracy chores to be done by 10:30 at the latest. Great!
What They Don’t Tell You About Getting Your Panamanian License
They gave me two payment forms, and I headed downstairs to the Banco Nacional de Panama. With good cheer and after paying some 10 dollars in fees, I headed back upstairs, grabbed a number, sat down and waited. Within five minutes, an official called me over and said in broken English: “Senor, must leave office. We not tolerate short clothes. Must wear long pants. You come back when dressing long pants!”. It flabbergasted me. The scenario of having to go back home, change clothes, getting back on the bus and back in the queue played out in my head. By that time, the waiting queue would be insanely long. My heart sunk. “Senor, por favor, ask your supervisor if he could make an exception, because I have a long way home.”
He graciously did, and after 2 minutes came back: “No senor, must wear long pants.” I was distraught and called a friend who lived nearby to present my papers for me. She wasn’t home. I resigned myself to my misfortune and left. As I did, I stumbled and fell half-way down the stairs, hurting my leg somewhat. Compassionate standers-by helped me up. Bruised and scratched, I made my way to the bus, limping and feeling lonely at that moment.
About an hour and a half later, dressed in jeans, I grabbed a number again. This time, the waiting area was cramped with expats from every country imaginable. The AC was working overtime with little effect on the stuffy hot air in the office. It was 10:15 by now.
At about 12:30, they called my number. I presented my papers and receipts. The clerk took it, smiled, and asked me to come back at 2 p.m. to pick up the certificate.
I spent the time browsing shops in a mall nearby and ended up at an Italian café, stretching my legs. When I got back to the office, I took another number, a different color for pickup this time. The room had filled up to capacity, and stale air was lingering in the room. About 40 minutes later, they called my number, and I received the precious certificate for the Panamanian DMV, called Sertracen.
Panamanians are proud and dignified people. Showing up at a government office in shorts is seen as disrespectful, though I meant no disrespect. From the first day I arrived in Panama, I had worn nothing but t-shirts and shorts; my days of fancy suits left long behind. It’s a good idea to check customs, culture, and specific requirements before heading out.
Remember rule number 1: Never show up in shorts at a government office, no matter how hot it may be in Panama City.
Next time, I will tell you all about my experience at Sertracen, the Panama DMV for expats. Follow my blog and catch the episode of trying to get my Panama license. Only this much: It didn’t go without a hitch either…
By: LP Wirth