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Renting a place in Panama

   Sep 23

Renting a place in Panama

Living in hotels gets old fast for me. I need some room to unpack my stuff and to be able to cook my own meals. Finding a place to rent became a first order of priority for me once I was back in Panama in late March. This post describes my experience finding a rental place near Penonome, in the interior of Panama, and living in a Panamanian house.

I wanted to find a Panamanian house for rent to learn the do’s and don’ts of the local building style and methods. This is important for me because I plan to build my house in the interior. The available help knows how to build in the Panamanian style. I need to know what they can do for me, and what I should find workers from elsewhere to do. I also wanted the rent to be cheap, because I will be renting at least for a year, but likely longer.

Finding it
I started searching the Internet and bought newspapers for classified’s. I found a lot in Panama City (PC), and beaches, but nothing in Penonome nor in any of the surrounding villages. People in the interior of Panama rarely use web sites or newspaper classified’s to advertise the rental properties. If advertised, the owner is targeting tourists and foreigners and therefore expecting much higher rent than a Panamanian would pay.

So I started asking locals. I asked (and left my phone number) in hotel, with restaurant waiters, gas station attendants, and new friends. It wasn’t difficult to ask using Google translate to formulate the question. Difficult was to understand the reply. This was specifically true when asking on the phone. In face to face conversations I could always ask them to write their answer down for me, then go home and translate it online. I had to rely on friends to make some phone calls for me, but I managed some myself as well. Meaningful responses started coming back after I was specific about the price I was willing to pay. Whenever I gave a price range the upper one was used exclusively. The main limitation for me was availability of Internet.

Advertising and finding rental properties both use the “word of mouth” method in the interior of Panama. It isn’t very fast, but it works. It took few days to find a place in town of Penonome. The first viable place was a 2 bedroom Panamanian house in a newer neighborhood at the outskirts of Penonome.

The House
Vast majority of Panamanian houses are concrete block painted walls, metal roof, concrete floor, and no AC. If the house has windows then they are the tilting clear or secure glass strip kind. So was this one. Since the windows can not be closed tightly, the roof is directly exposed to the interior, and the concrete walls have no insulation installing an AC would be a meaningless waste of energy. Therefore, few houses have AC.

Rental House in Penonome

Rental House in Penonome

This house had two 12′X12′ bedrooms, one bathroom with shower, toilet and a sink, a 12X18′ living room and a kitchen. Both bedrooms had a niche where a pipe was fitted between the walls to hang clothes. There were no doors for these “closets”. The counter tops in kitchen were poured from concrete and tiled. The space under the counter tops was closed with wood doors, but there was no shelving on these, nor was there shelving in the cabinets above the counter top. There was a niche for a refrigerator and a range, but no appliances. The house was rented furnished. The furniture included two beds with linens in bedrooms, a TV, radio, couch and eating table with uncomfortable chairs in the living room.

The lot was surrounded by a chicken fence and there was a car port behind the house. It was a corner lot on an unpaved residential street. A number of large trees had recently been taken down outside of fence. There was a very small lawn area in front of the house. Rest of the fenced in area was gravel and dirt. The car gate lead to narrow passage between the house and the fence that ended in the car port. There was no way to turn around even with a small car. Hence, one way driving had to occur in reverse.

Car port behind the house

Car port behind the house

The car port was too narrow to cover my truck, but a small car did fit. Behind the carport, in a separate building, was a outhouse with a toilet and a shower.

I noticed lack of a hot water and a ceiling in the house. I negotiated rapid installation of hot water in bathroom and kitchen. The owner threw in installation of the ceiling without deadline. I did not understand the urgency for this and failed to pay attention to other, much bigger drawbacks of this property. We signed a contract for 6 months with one month security deposit and 30 days advance notice for cancellation. Everything appeared in order.

Life in Panamanian House
I did buy a range and a small refrigerator. There is no home delivery, so I had to count on my own lifting and carrying capability. With my Appliances installed, my truck offloaded, and computer unpacked life turned closer to normal, but soon other problems started to trouble me.

To keep the house cool the windows had to be open all the time – meaning tilted to the maximum so that the air flows freely. Luckily it was usually windy. Unfortunately many window screens had significant rips and cracks. They did not prevent the bugs coming through.

A sizable team of lizards controlled the bug population. I don’t mind lizards otherwise, but to my dismay they had established themselves in the kitchen cabinets. The lizards were not potty trained. I had to evict them before the cabinets could be used for their purpose. Testing various non-violent methods to communicate the need to move out I discovered that they did not like the smell of vinegar. Neither do I, but it is better than frequent cleaning of sh… from the cabinets. It took a week or two for them the get the hint. Keeping the cabinet doors open prevented the re-invasion. Apparently, these creatures appreciate privacy.

The glass-strip windows with “privacy glass” are private when closed. One does not need curtains to block anyone peeking inside. The situation is different when you have to keep the windows open to the max to cool the house. Being of “third age” (that’s how they refer to the people in my age in Panama) I personally do not mind being seen without clothes. I’d rather feel proud that someone is still interested in how I look like. My wife visited me two months into my venture. She is far from the “third age”. Once the landlord was walking into the yard unannounced while the windows were open and she wasn’t properly dressed. She took a strong and unambiguous position on the privacy issue. By our contract the landlord had to prearrange his visits to the rental property. I brought the invasion of privacy up with him In his opinion this section of contract only applied to the house and not to the yard because yard maintenance was his responsibility. Next time I have to make a special unambiguous point in the rental agreement. With a bit more intelligent people than my first landlord that probably would not be needed, but how would you know.

Having spent a few warm days in the house I understood the need for a ceiling. The sun heats up the metal roof by mid-morning. There is no escape from the radiating heat inside the house. I felt like my brain is boiling. A frequent cold shower gives relief, but it is temporary. Soon I discovered why some cultures wrap a towel around their head. A wet towel around my head and a fan blowing directly at me made it tolerable when I needed to work in house during a sunny day.

The other problem with metal roof is the mind blowing noise it makes while raining. It feels about like your head is inside a giant drum during a wild pop concert. It is so loud that it is hard to hear your own thoughts, let alone have a meaningful conversation with someone on the phone or otherwise. Both problems showed significant improvement after the owner got the ceiling installed. Its impact on rain noise is less than on radiating heat, but the improvement is unquestionable. This improvement does come with a substantial drawbacks though. I will describe them in a separate post dedicated to the Panamanian building style.

There was another kind of noise that the ceiling had no effect on. The lots in towns are very small. Houses are close together. Each family has a dog or two, handful of chicken and a rooster. Roosters in Penonome woke up exactly 3:00 AM every night. When the first declared his sovereignty in brief, but loud statement then the neighbors rooster had to do same. This woke similar urge in the next rooster etc. The rooster concert moved through the whole town in waves bouncing back from edges, merging with other waves. Irritated dogs expressed their dissatisfaction in their own, parallel doggy concert. This nightly entertainment lasted until the traffic noise subdued the rooster’s need to respond to each neighbor’s call and the concert gradually died without applause.

Frustrated with the situation, but no way to change it I researched and found that by recent discoveries roosters are, in fact completely unnecessary. They do not improve chicken’s egg laying productivity. Roosters are feed wasters, useful only in a pot. Must be this fresh knowledge has not reached Panamanians yet. Nevertheless, it was not in my power to send all (or at least most) Penonome roosters into a pot. For a realistic solution I re-discovered bee wax earplugs. I had used them long time ago when a baby, my youngest son, did not let me sleep. He is 19 now. The earplugs were old, but did let me sleep through the night despite the ongoing concert.

During the first weekend in the house I discovered that my next door neighbor was a serious music lover. He liked to sit and sip beer on weekend on the porch at his back door. It was at most 10 yards from my bedroom window. As a generous man, he shared his love to instrumental and vocal Latin music with all neighbors. His comprehensive audio system with a sub-woofer and 6 powerful loudspeakers was moved out to the porch and the volume turned to the max. The glass strips of my windows were trembling. Luckily none broke. He liked to sleep late, so the free Latin concert usually did not start before noon. Frequently it lasted well into late evening unless the poor guy dozed off early after consuming couple of 12-packs of beer.

The richest Latin concert happened on the first day of May. Workers solidarity day is a big thing for working people in Panama. All three neighbors around me competed with the power of their audio systems. Each, of course, liked slightly different tunes and generously shared what they had with everyone.

My landlord came once the weekend concert was going. He wanted to talk to me about something. After several attempts to hear himself what he was saying he gave up and left. I had no choice but leave for weekends as I did not want to turn to police. According to my lawyer there is a law in Panama prohibiting this kind of artsy abuse of neighbors, but the police rarely do anything about it.

My landlord offered a cleaning lady for additional $10 per month at the contract signing. I refused because I do not like strangers in my house touching my things. I’ll rather clean myself. The house was dirty when I started with it, so a thorough clean-up was one of the first tasks. I had to buy a vacuum cleaner because the concrete floors had cavities the brush did not reach. After a week I noticed a layer of dust on everything, including computer. That is not good.

I started dusting every other day and paid attention to the origin of dust. It all came through open windows with wind. The yard was dust, the street was dust, no wonder. Raising the dust issue with the landlord did not help. I asked to install grass on the yard and shrubs along the perimeter to keep down the dust. His replied that I accepted the house the way it is and he is not going to do anything extra. Concerned about my computer I told him that I will start looking for another house to rent.

Few weeks later it started raining and the dust issue turned into mud issue. Yet, damage to the computer was already done. With rains came moisture and it corroded connectors inundated with dust. One morning my computer simply did not start. Took me half a day to find and clean the corroded on/off switch connector. Next device to go was the CD drive. It simply stopped responding. Cleaning connectors did not cure the problem, must be something internal. I had to replace it.

Dust or mud

Dust or mud

With rain the grass started growing. Some wild grass was even growing where there appeared to be nothing before. Because of hilly terrain most grass in Panama is cut with weed whackers. There are few mowers in Panama. By our contract outside maintenance was landlord’s function. He hired a worker to cut the grass. Being cheap the landlord instructed the worker to cut grass low. Cutting grass low on gravel with a weed whacker makes the little stones fly everywhere including into to open glass-strip windows. The windows were full of gravel, some stones flew through the holes in the screens.

I pointed out the unfortunate side-effect of grass cutting. The landlord hired another worker to clean and wash the windows. That task took this guy 2 days to accomplish and probably cost landlord few times more than the grass cutting. Next time the grass grew higher he was searching for a push mower to avoid paying for window washing. The search wasn’t too successful, grass was growing and he had to come up with a different solution. His “out-of-the-box” thinking led him to hire another guy to round-up the whole yard with exception of very front. There was only one window to the front and that was behind couple of shrubs. Surely, dust and mud were not his problems, they were mine.

Finding an House in the Village
With the understanding that I could not resolve the noise and dust issues in Penonome I embarked to search for a house in a village. It took much longer to find one because of my need for broadband Internet and a large house. There are not many large houses in villages and only few villages have reliable broadband Internet. I needed a large house because the container with my things, tools, and few pieces of furniture was to be delivered in two months.

What happened and how this worked out is a subject for the next story in this thread. Stay tuned.

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