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The Little Things In Life – Receiving Your Mail In Panama

Moving to a country without a postal service can be challenging. Expat writer Lee Elliott explains how you can still receive your mail in Panama.

Panama, I can’t believe I am still in Panama.

When I moved here last year everything seemed so difficult. Some of the simplest things to solve back home would become huge obstacles that took days to overcome.

Not speaking Spanish didn’t help but remaining calm and adaptable did. Apart from not putting the heating on and jumping into the pool rather than the shower, my basic morning routine stayed pretty much the same. Slippers – check. Coffee – check. Leftover pizza on the counter – check. A sheet of paper with no envelope pushed under the door – wait…

When this first happened I wondered whether this was a ransom note or a complaint from a neighbor. Had I put the trash out in the wrong way again or something?

But this is how I receive my utility bills now. Slipped under the door by a custodian. This is the only thing that gets delivered to my address, by hand, and pushed under the door.

This is one aspect of living in Panama that takes some adjusting to, having an address but no postal service.  

Meanwhile, some buildings don’t even have addresses. Auntie Nel may send you a birthday card every year but even if you have a Panamanian address, it will not reach you.

Photo credit to Noricum / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

The mere concept of a country without a physical mail system is hard to grasp for many.

But upon reflection, this shouldn’t seem to be so strange. It has been a long time since our mailboxes back home have contained anything but bills and circulars. No-one writes personal letters anymore, and only a few send cards. The mailbox is becoming redundant in our countries before it even had its debut in Panama.

To be honest, I don’t miss receiving snail mail. It wasn’t fun anymore, anyway.

What I miss is sending mail. I miss writing letters of complaint, thus curtailing an organization’s phone system run-around and creating a paper trail for some mandarin to deal with. To do that in Panama would involve handing over a letter in person like a subpoena – more effective, I reckon.

Another thing I miss is not being able to receive orders made online. I remember being able to peruse Amazon from an armchair and receive almost anything within a day or two. That memory is frustrating now I need it more than ever.

There is nothing more annoying than spending an hour in a Panamanian home improvement store trying to translate a need for some obscure item you don’t even know the name of in English. And the only English-speaking staff member is a teenager who only works weekends and isn’t even aware such an item exists.

Back home, with a mailbox, you could have done all this from your armchair or bed.

But I found a solution!          

Several private mailbox companies operate in Panama. They provide a proxy address that will enable you to receive mail and online deliveries. This includes online deliveries that will deliver only within the US.

You need to physically collect your mail from them, but they are in malls and places you visit, anyway. You can include picking up mail with your grocery shopping. Also, they deliver heavy items if they won’t fit in a cab.

They give you a personal address in Miami that gets routed to them. I use Mail Boxes Etc. which doubles up as a Grekos of sorts, offering printing and imaging services.

I receive an email whenever a letter or package arrives and pay per item on weight for the transit between Miami and Panama City. If you receive mail on a regular basis you can subscribe to a cheaper plan, but the as-and-when payment system works for me.

So with a coffee in one hand and a slice of last nights Papa John’s in the other, I look down at the utility bill. Damn! I need to ease off on the AC.

I also need to brush up on my Spanish and work out how to pay these things online.

It is still a little annoying to line up in the supermarket to pay utilities each month. No payment slips and return-envelopes here.

Knowing my superpowers of remaining calm and adaptable will get me through this – I head off to jump in the pool.

Lee Elliott spends his time homeschooling his youngest children with his wife in Panama City, Panama while lying around in bed trying to get published to retain his international press card. Follow more of his musings on his blog

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