David A. Bandel
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People who love to shop will love Chiriqui Province, Panama. Particularly if the hunt is the part they cherish. Now it's not that I don't enjoy shopping, but like most men, I know what I want, I go in, I get, I get out. The "joy" of the hunt is lost on me. Sorry, ladies, but I just don't get shopping for hours just because. It's just that I haven't figured out what you're looking for or I'd just go find it for you. I can hear the "men" comments now.
Anyway, shopping here, even grocery shopping, can be a bit of an ordeal. My wife has her favorite grocery store, Romero (although recently bought out by Rey it retains its typical campecino inventory and Chiriqui flavor). While she gets most things there, there's lots that's not available.
One things folks have to learn when they arrive is -- a lot of things are available, but never in one place. Historically, things only left Chiriqui (beef, fruits, vegetables, etc.). The supply chain ended in Panama City (yep, folks, we're off the end of the supply chain here). That supply chain, while still not making it to Chiriqui, in recent years has at least become a supply thread. So that between several stores it is sometimes possible to find what you're looking for. The rest can be gotten with a monthly "Riba Smith run", a store in Panama City stocked more like a US grocery store.
So first, we hit Romero. What we can't find there, we head down to PriceSmart/Costco for. PriceSmart is a real crap shoot. If you see it, buy it, because tomorrow it will be gone, and no one, not even the manager can tell you if they'll ever have it again. Prices are great, but inventory control is non-existent. Once upon a time I could buy Mountain Dew soda there. They've not had it for years. The short list would be the stock they do manage to maintain. Fortunately, one of the items they do get in (by gringo demand) is real orange juice, you know, the fresh squeezed kind. All the local OJ is nothing more than colored/flavored sugar water. Ditto for all local juices. No wonder the kids here are all hyper. They're on continuous sugar highs.
After PriceSmart, we usually hit Rey, a store that thinks it caters to the Gringos in the David-Boquete area. While they do better than the Romero they bought out, and their fruits are better looking, their prices are significantly higher. They carry a number of brands I look for, but they don't carry the best stuff, like their selection of Breyers Ice Cream. They carry the mundane flavors, but forget Minted Chocolate Chip.
If we still haven't found all we're looking for (usually the case), we head across the street to Super Baru. This was the Gringo specialty store before Rey hit town. A few items can often be had here that no one else has. There is one more store, Super 99, but as we've never found anything there that the other stores don't have, we don't waste our time. Now, anything left on the list goes onto the Riba-run list. If I could convince one store to open here, it would be Riba -- and they'd be overrun with Gringos. But that's likely a pipe dream. Although stranger things have happened.
The strangest of the strange is the sudden arrival of the Arrocha drug store chain -- although now more like a K-Mart than a drug store. Here you can find a number of items previously unavailable. And apparently, they found sufficient clientele in David that in just six months they closed one store to move into a building over four times larger.
Trips to Panama City become less and less frequent thanks to all the attention the national chains have been giving. I can tell you one thing, though, the number of folks here in the last census surprised everyone. I anticipate a shift from an agricultural economy to a service economy sometime within the next 20 years. One and two story buildings are rapidly being replaced by 8+ story buildings. But the fire department here hasn't kept up, so be sure to request a room on the 4th floor or below.
Yes, things are improving. Chiriqui is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 19th century at last (much to the chagrin of the locals).
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