We are now in our 10th month of living the expat life in Panama. It seems like a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned. Did we prepare enough? Do we have any regrets? And what does the future hold? For our family and friends and especially folks following in our footsteps, we’ll try to answer some of these questions. Here’s some insight into our experience so far as Panama expats.
Home is Where You Hang Your Hat
A few weeks ago, as I drove Susan down to David early to catch a flight back to Austin for some family time, she said to me as she looked out at the beautiful Chiriqui countryside, “Finally, I feel really at home here!” (Boy…was I relieved to hear that!) For me, Panama started to feel like home when we returned from our first border run in July, and especially after returning from the States after this past Thanksgiving. I don’t really miss much about life in the U.S. except for Susan’s great family and our wonderful friends. Well, and maybe Oregon pinot noir and Trader Joe’s! I feel relaxed and at peace here, living the tranquilo life.
Not everyone reaches this comfort zone; in fact, the percentage of expats that don’t last a year in Panama is pretty high. It all depends on what you’re looking for and how you define “home.” Susan and I had an advantage in that we’d already spent three years traveling in Latin America aboard our sailboat, carrying our home with us. We realized how few creature comforts we need to keep us happy, and how experiencing different cultures – the good and the bad – can broaden your outlook. Gringos that come down here expecting to build a life just like the one they had in the “old country” are in for a rude surprise, but isn’t traveling all about new experiences and expanding your horizons?
If home is a place where you feel safe, secure, comfortable, and loved, then we’ve definitely come home to Panama.
90% Preparation, 10% Perspiration
We continue to be amazed when we hear of folks that pack up their 40-foot containers and ship down all of their earthly possessions without a real understanding of what life is like here (and sometimes having never visited here before). We believe we’ve had an easy transition because we did our homework and made several visits here before finally making the move. We also tapped into other blogs and learned from folks that had paved the way for us (thank you The Panama Adventure, Let the Adventure Begin, and Chapter 3.)
As for the move itself, many months of research and planning paid off with a fairly simple process. The things we worried about the most – getting rid of our stuff and moving our dogs down – fell right into place.
Never Say Never
The expat lifestyle is all about flexibility. For instance, we always swore we’d only rent housing and never buy – but we never expected the Boquete rental market to be so tight. On the advice of some of our best friends here, we made the plunge and bought a house in November. Yes, it felt soon, but (see Home is Where You Hang Your Hat) we didn’t need much time to realize that we’d landed in the right spot. For us, the pros far outweighed the cons: no more throwing away money on rent, dealing with landlords, or having to look for the next place when the lease is up. And we’re really enjoying painting and fixing up our new home; we just replaced the front door and soon we’ll have a rebuilt kitchen.
And after we lost our sweet Maggie to a snake bite, we swore we’d not get another dog. But if you’ve been following our blog, you know that we have a new kid, Tango, a sweet, well-trained, and mannerly seven-year-old cocker spaniel. Tango has eased the pain of Maggie’s loss and filled our hearts with joy, and he’s brought our other dog Rosie back to her old mischievous self.
This is Panama
We norteamericanos can learn a lot from the Panamanians – how to chill out and go with the flow, and to never be in a hurry (for anything). Conducting any kind of official business here takes patience, persistence, and understanding. If we think a task will take one or two hours, we build in double the time and expect that everything won’t be completed in one trip. Case in point: because Panama has been trying to overcome its reputation as a tax haven, the banks are anxious to block money launderers; therefore, foreigners looking to open a bank account have to go through a rigorous approval process. We had to supply tax returns, bank statements, and letters of recommendation from two of our U.S. banks. After four separate visits totaling close to 11 hours sitting in the bank office, we finally got our coveted account. You would have thought we were borrowing money, not trying to give it to the bank!
On the flip side, the Panamanians are some of the most kind, generous and resourceful people we’ve ever come across and they’ll go out of their way to be helpful. An example: we were driving around in David trying to find Dekora, a company that makes steel doors and windows. Finally we stopped at a hotel and Susan (who speaks more Spanish then I do) asked for directions. A wonderful Panamanian lady said she had overheard and spoke English, and could she help? This lady not only called Dekora and got directions, but she hopped in the car with us and showed us where to go!
Another time, a big tree branch fell in the road, blocking it (traffic jam, Boquete-style!). No problem – several Panamanians got out of their cars with their machetes and in five minutes the limb was all hacked up and pushed to the side of the road. Back in the states it would have taken… oh, never mind.
Spanish is a Must
Don’t believe what certain expat relocation companies say – most Panamanians speak little or no English. You can probably get by without any Spanish, but your life will be so much easier – and your experience so much richer – if you learn some. We have a long way to go, but we’ve found that it hasn’t been that hard to pick up enough “survival
Spanish” to get by (especially for Susan, who’s a language buff). We’ve both benefited greatly from lessons with our tutor, Lisa Bruña, but lessons will only take you so far – you have to immerse yourself and try to use your Spanish on a daily basis. And it’s really true that if you at least try to speak some Spanish, the Panamanians are super appreciative and encouraging.
You’ll Find Everything You Need – and Then Some
Figuring out where to buy stuff was a daunting task at first. Like a lot of expats, we were relying on PriceSmart and the couple of large supermarkets in David for just about
everything. But soon, finding new sources for food and supplies became a fun voyage of discovery, and we’ve found some real gems that are off the beaten path. There’s the pork store, the beef store selling awesome aged beef (it’s called Su Carne or Your Meat, which cracks Susan up), tons of hardware stores, the Chinese groceries and kitchen supply stores, and of course the WINE SHOP, Felipe Mota – yea baby! Don’t forget the wonderful fresh produce stands galore. And just the other day, a truck driving around in our neighborhood was loud-speakering a bunch of Spanish words, one of which was “camarones” (shrimp). Turns out he was selling fresh-out-of-the-water shrimp at an amazing price!
Don’t Jump to Get Your Visa
Since we don’t qualify for a permanent “pensionado” (retiree) visa until I start collecting social security (in about a year and a half), we’re doing the mandatory border crossings every three months to keep our driver’s license valid and renew our tourist visas. It’s no big deal; in fact, our first two trips (described here and here) were enjoyable because we turned them into mini-vacations by crossing to Costa Rica at Rio Sereno, a gorgeous drive that takes about two hours from Boquete.
Even if we had qualified for pensionados when we first got here, we would have waited. We know newcomers who start the visa process right away, and some who even start it before they leave their home country. Honestly, it’s a time-consuming and expensive process, and our advice is to get your feet on the ground for a bit before you jump into the visa pool.
So…how do we feel? Except for the huge loss of our precious Maggie, we are in a good space and have adjusted well. Many times during the week we say to each other: LOOK Where We Are! We live in a visually stunning country, with incredible weather, warm and wonderful locals, fresh local foods, and many great expat friends. In a month, I’ll pass my one-year mark of retirement and it feels GREAT. We feel very blessed with our home sweet home, our pups and the beautiful nature that surrounds us!