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September 8, 2009

Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays: Natty Boh in Panama

soberana I had no idea how wild Panama was until I read this week's guest column by Owl Meat. Wow. I've learned something today: Don't go to Panama. Here's OMG: 

Because I was stuck in Panama City, Panama, I considered  forgoing this week's post. Then circumstance and isthmus weirdness intervened to blow a chunk of Charm City my way in the Land of Unpleasantly Hot Living.  
When you've got mad tech skillz, opportunities sometimes plop into your lap. It helps to be genuinely uninterested in any such opportunities.

In a country where businessmen have armed body guards the rules are topsy-turvy. That's why I wear a plastic watch to disguise my American thousandaire status. Despite my reluctance to throw in with shady bankers and ex-black ops wannabes, I will still hang out with anybody with a good story and a drink. ...

I was killing time in a cheap hotel playing nickel slots. A waitress brought me a local beer ironically named Soberana. In Panama City, a Cuba Libre is made with real Cuban rum. For one American dollar you get a pint glass of rum on ice with a splash of Coke, except in the Hotel Guadalupe where it's free with nickel slots. I left there with half a buzz and an extra thirty five cents in my pocket.
I heard that the interesting ex-pats hung in one place. I was expecting a dive bar in a treacherous barrio. The name of this Mecca of mercs and maenads, this cathedral of covert? TGI Fridays.
My friend Sergeant Chuck, a former Green Beret and now struggling real estate agent, met me at TGIF. It's a surreal time travel experience back to a lame future. Set your Cocktail clock to 1988 and your Cruising altitude to bizarre.
TGIF Panama looks like every other TGIF – fake random junk and olde fashiony signs on the walls. The first departure from Kansas: our bartender Onan. Yes, Onan, like the auto-erotic Old Testamentor or Dorothy Parker's canary, who spilt his seed upon the ground. Add bartenders tossing bottles in the air like they just don't care for extra weird.
The principals in TGIF held court at the bar with pot stickers and wings, while their "drivers" lingered nearby with shiny unhappy Glocks and Ruger Centerfires. There are few bar fights in Panama with all the legal strapped heat. It's a disquieting kind of safety. There is a kind of fake Fonzie vibe going on. Aaaaaaayyyyy ... let's all be cool. The whiff of possible assassination and kidnapping is the garnish to your Cuba Libre that even Onan can't supply.
When I went to the bathroom, I noticed a huge four by ten foot metal sign outside the men's room for Natty Boh beer. What message was the Universe sending me?  It was so obscure. I decided it might be time to come home. Do I wish I had a photo of it?  Yes, but taking pictures outside Panamanian restrooms inhabited by hombres with guns is so ... estupido.

(Photo by Owl Meat)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 10:57 AM | | Comments (36)
Categories: Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays


I'm not sure I would want someone named Onan touching my food or drinks.

For those unfamiliar with the biblical story of Onan, why not say it with Lego's:

Also the root of the word onanism.

Great article. I love these kinds of light and funny travel pieces. But one little element of your story caught my eye, and I wanted to take the opportunity.

The name of the Panamanian beer "Soberana" is actually derived from the Spanish adjective "Soberania" which means "Sovereignty" in English - the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a territory.

In Panama they named this beer in a reference to the existence of the former Panama Canal Zone, the fact that normal every day Panamanians could not enter the Canal Zone which was considered to be US territory, and their desire to take over control of the entire territory.

The Torrijos-Carter treaty was signed on 7 September 1977, and it went into full effect at noon on 31 December 1999.

So, while it "sounds" like a reference to "sober" in English (hence your reference to the "ironically named" Soberana) - in fact the name of beer has a different meaning for Panamanians.

And without even knowing it, your reference to the "ironically named" beer is actually quite accurate after all. In English the word "sober" is derived from the Middle English, eventually from the from Old French sobre, which came from the Latin sōbrius - meaning that if you're not drunk then you have control or "Sovereignty" over your own body. So, the Spanish "Soberania" and English "Sober" are derived from the exact same Latin roots.

Go figure... Notice I didn't say anything about the guys with guns...

Check out

This might be one of the most ridiculous I have ever read.

Businessmen with bodyguards? Drivers with guns? Come on.

Of course Panama City has its dangerous parts but no more so than any other big city in the US, Europe or Asia.

I have no interest in promoting Panama...I'm not even from here but the only accurate part of this article was the description of the TGIF.

I enjoyed it. Feels a little like reading one of Somerset Maugham's short stories.

Thanks for the background on Soberana. I was just being a dumb gringo. I never looked up the roots of the name. It's not a great beer.

Jason, go visit. Not ridiculous at all.I cut out any identifying details of individuals, which would make it more interesting.

I didn't consider it a negative take on Panama. I actually love a lot about Panama. The "driver" is always armed since he is the bodyguard. It's all pretty discrete since you don't want your bodyguard to stand out. You can carry guns openly in Panama.I felt safer there than in many parts of Baltimore where I am vehemently against guns.

Jason, get off the tourist grid and the world is full of strange and interesting people and stories.

Unless you get to know locals, you won't notice the colorful underbelly of Panama, but it's there. By businessmen, I mean bankers and by bankers I mean Panamanian bankers, and by that I mean money launderers. Remember they border Colombia. A lot Americans try to hide cash there. Good luck getting back.

A number of years ago I was offered a job in Colombia and part of the benefits package was an armed driver. I declined the job.

This is really not that interesting a story about Panama. Going "down range" with Sgt Chuck was where the real Casablanca stuff happens. I just thought the TGIF/Boh aspect was amusing. I do look for this kind of stuff when I travel.

Hey, free mixed drinks and beers at nickels slots is a positive plug, plus $1 Cuban rum and rum and rum and Cokes is good too.

Interesting read. It kind of sounds like a sarcasic J. Peterman.

sarcasic J. Peterman.

LMAO. I was going for more realistic than the romanticized J. Peterman. I love that character's stories.

Seriously, Panama is a natural magnet for interesting people. The key is to act like you have no agenda, are not a tourist and never ask personal questions.Scribbling in a notebook can be a provocative activity. I do and don't recommend it. Almost nobody spends more than a day in PC unless you're working, looking for trouble and/or a good story.Some people like beaches; I like hanging out with scary/fun people.

I've got way better stories than this and since they almost all involve alcohol in some way, you never know when one might pop up. ¡Olé!

I have lived here for 8 years so I don't consider myself to be on the tourist grid.

I know the "bankers" you are talking about. They are very few and far between and they don't hang out at TGIF. I visit both the TGIF's in Panama City a couple times a month and can tell you that that crowd just isn't there.

Here in Panama, the image of success is very important. Many businessmen do hire a chauffeur as they're so cheap and it adds to the successful image that they crave. A lot of them call them guardaespaldas (body guards) but they are no more than an unarmed guy in a suit who has never been in a fight before and wouldn't know what to do if the mierda hit the fan.

The story gave off (in my opinion) a very dangerous/wild west feel which just isn't accurate. It is not legal to carry an exposed firearm here so I'm not sure how you saw the shiny Glocks. The amount of bar fights is on par with any other country. You never see these ever-vigilant body guards spring into action...Although sometimes a shootout does occur between some punks who barely know how to pull the trigger.

When I moved here from the US, I didn't know what to expect and I did have a false image of a "wild" and unlawful place. This was quickly reversed.

Again, I have no interest in promoting Panama; I’m not a big fan of the country myself. (Business brings be here as well as many other countries in Central and South America) The negative view isn’t what I had a problem with. It was the false statements that contributed to it.

Truth isn't found only in facts.


Panama has private firearm ownership. As a resident or citizen you can get one too. If you can purchase the gun you can carry it concealed on your person in your car etc. This is a typical scenario in several countries. ... In Panama it is nice to not have to carry a gun - not needed. If you want a gun you can readily have one in Panama.

You sound a little negative about Panama, I spent 3 months there from January - April and had the best time of my life. Did you checkout the causeway?

Taboga Island is a great way to get away, I think it cost me $10 a person to get there and back by ferry... (gos past all the ships waiting to get in the canal) drops you off on a nice little island. $5 for a days rental of an umbrella, and then another $10 on food.

$25 got me a great day drinking beer on the beach.

Also the vip theater in multiplaza is somthing I will never forget... maybe you just need to find the right side of town?

I lived about a block away from TGIF... check out sushi express :-)

Truth is a shiny object in the rear view mirror.

Drock (rhymes with Glock),

I'm not getting the negative stuff you seem to be picking up on. Drinking Cuban rum among assorted characters with interesting tales of intrigue... Where's your sense of adventure?

Must've left it with your $5 umbrella on a tourist beach.

I love Panama. I love interesting places; I hate boring places. You guys are not getting me. Panama is exciting; it's just not for everyone. Frankly I felt very safe in PC all the time, much more so than in Baltimore. I had biz in the city, I never got out into the tourist areas and beaches.

What you're not getting is that I tried to get into the underbelly of the urban economy and life that tourists never see.

Go to the beach, have fun be thankful you're not me. My fun is not your fun.

I love PC except for the weather and mosquitoes that nearly murdered me. I hate the weather in the tropics, but the people were cool.

I'm sorry if it sounded negative. I never felt safer than in PC and I lived in a really shady area near the bus station. I was just tryin' to tell a mildly interesting story with a Bmore tie-in.

I stand by everything in my story. My only agenda is recounting an anecdote. I don't work for any interest group or PR group that spends its sad days hunting Google Alerts for mentions of corporate mentions.

Viva Panama! ¡Olé!

golfer boo weekley uses listerine topically to ward off sceeters. dr gott advises brewers yeast pills...

OMG, isn't kidding about the armed guards. The two times I've been down there (once for business, and once for pleasure) I was assigned an "armed driver" as well, for the duration of my stay.

How did you get stuck in Panama? Did someone drag you here? The definition of Soberana is sovereignty and the beers was created as the Panama Canal treaties of 1977 went into force. And contrary to what Don Winner and many others say, Panamanians were not denied entry into the Canal Zone during the US presence here. There were no fences except on military bases which are even off-limits to Americans in the US. Panamanians enjoyed the civilian facilities of the Canal as did all who actually lived there. I am very tired of reading B.S. about Panama and the CZ.

"What you're not getting is that I tried to get into the underbelly of the urban economy and life that tourists never see."

- Owl Meat

I think that's the problem. You can't get to the underbelly if you're hanging out with expats and going to places like TGIF.

"OMG, isn't kidding about the armed guards. The two times I've been down there (once for business, and once for pleasure) I was assigned an "armed driver" as well, for the duration of my stay."


You got ripped off. Please tell whoever footed the bill that I have a bridge for sale.

I was about to get angry about how ridiculous and fake this article was except for the occasional retired US military guy hanging out at a bar in Panama (usually losers) when I saw the picture of Sam Sessa to the top right. "Good article" writes that con man living in Panama-Don Winner- so I decided to laugh it all. Guns, money launderers...hahahhah, I never doubted we had our share of them but enough of them arrive because of preconceptions reinforced with ignorant and childish articles just like this one. So, yeah senorito Sam, you probably helped convinced some ignorant unsophisticated idiots believe what you write is reality in Panama plus a few other crooks running away from the lam...please, dont ever come back. Go go Cancun and Disney, those are places you belong.

"you are not gettng me"

If I were tor write an article about Baltimore and to go its "underbelly" and was "lucky" enough to find and hang out with the johns and the local hos' and even found myself in the company of some local "big shot" drug dealers and try to pass that as the Real Baltimore you and others would laugh at me.

TGIF is a place you might find a local escort looking for some horny gringo but that is much exciting you would ever see. Someone once brought me there and we found just one table away around 25-30 girls between the ages of 11-13 years old celebrating one of their birthdays. With that memory i have to say that TGFI fridays asa dangerous place is ridiculous. I also have to say that yes, since we dont have a red line district per se escorts do wonder into different places looking for clients. Even places where little girls celebrate birthdays.

If I were tor write an article about Baltimore and to go its "underbelly" and was "lucky" enough to find and hang out with the johns and the local hos' and even found myself in the company of some local "big shot" drug dealers and try to pass that as the Real Baltimore you and others would laugh at me.

Actually Rey, Anthony Bourdain already tried that.

Sounds like what Panama City needs is a Ride the Ducks tour.

Does anyone know the way to the underbelly?

I wonder if they had any surveillance cameras in that TGIF.

I have TGIF written inside each of my shoes.
Toes Go In First.

I work for Marriott and all the execs have body guards. So why is that so dubious? Rich people get kidnapped Jason Castro.

Jason Castro, are you trying to lull us into a false sense of security so when we come to Panama you can kidnap us?!?!?!

Jason Castro, are you trying to lull us into a false sense of security so when we come to Panama you can kidnap us?!?!?!

Best comment yet, Sam. LMAO

Who knew Midnight Sun had so many Panamaniac readers? Your reach is truly mighty.

I can't wait to see the response to next week's post on the secret endangered species menu at a Ruby Tuesday's in Mombasa.

You wanna experience Panamanian culture. Learn Spanish and go to the campo.

If you think that TGIFs is dangerous, try heading to Chorillo, San Felipe or San Miguelito after dark.

Silly gringo.

Where's the campo?

Actually Daywalker, I probably spoke Spanish 95 percent of the time. It's the only way to really learn about people in other countries.

I can't wait to see the response to next week's post on the secret endangered species menu at a Ruby Tuesday's in Mombasa.

Been there, OMG. I recommend the Wyoming Toad burger. Be sure to order it "animal style."

Another typical ignorant, "ugly American" take on a foreign country. And we still wonder why other people don't like us...

Reality is not always probable, or likely.

Don´t goto Panama? That is your conclusion? Panama is a wonderful country. One of the best that I have lived in actually.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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