573 days en route; 208 places stopped overnight
Map points created by Tripline
Bubbe and Abuelo's New Frontier
573 days en route; 208 places stopped overnight
Map points created by Tripline
More than a month ago, we started a draft of this post during a time when we were entertaining friends at our home for dinner parties and happy hours as well as hosting guests from Canada, New York and Austria. In between then and now, we have had many lunch, happy hour and dinner outings, enjoyed the Boquete Jazz Festival Garden Party, visited a local orchid finca (twice), played Team Trivia and bridge card games with friends, traveled to Panama City and camped in Wolfie both to and from, celebrated a birthday, taken thrice weekly yoga classes, continued our Spanish language studies and more. While we are beyond the time of the year when Panama celebrates its independence, when the roads are filled with the traffic of visitors who come to see the parades and the Boquete Flower and Coffee festival and more, there are the usual special events as well as the weekly events that make life in Boquete as rich and busy as one cares to makes his or her life.
As we have noted before, life here in Boquete is easy for us. The climate is incredible, the roads are good, the infrastructure works reasonably well and the cost of living is affordable. The scenery is breathtaking, even during the dry season, the flora and fauna is diverse. Food selection is broad and many foods are grown and sold locally. People, locals and expats alike, are friendly and helpful. There have been moments that have challenged us — and there have been tasks that have nearly brought us to our knees. But, our time here in Boquete has definitely allowed us to return to a state of plenty that was not usually possible on the road. What we felt we lacked the most on the road was a sense of community; here in Boquete, the sense of community is strong and vibrant.
We have settled so well and so completely into our expat lives in Panama that we sometimes have a difficult time remembering “those people” who took that epic 20 month, 60,000 mile journey through 10 countries before landing here. It is impossible for us to see if the trip changed us in any sustaining way. But we do believe that with every mile driven and with every waterfall, shoreline or glacier viewed, we found the inner parts of us becoming untethered from the roles of our earlier lives.
For us, the journey in and through different places becomes more than the observation of new vistas since it importantly allows for views inside us as much as outside. Perhaps this is the essence of the feeling of wanderlust. Our yearning for discovery – inside and out – pulls us in the direction of the road again and so we are leaving our easy life in Boquete for a trip to Southeast Asia for the next several months. Now that we have established our residency here in Panama, long-term house rental in hand, and vehicles imported, we have our home base from which we can resume our travels. At moments, it does seem a bit soon to leave the comfort of our home and community here in Boquete, but we vowed when we retired to continue our travels while we had the stamina, patience, health and excitement to do so. And so, we are off again – first to the US to visit with friends and family and then from there to Thailand, where we will launch our SE Asia travels.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” And so, we return to our nomadic lifestyle again, in search of new stories, new views of the world that humble and inform us, and to allow the experiences to make their marks upon our memories, and our bodies and our hearts.
We arrived in Panama on July 21, drove to the town of Boquete, parked Wolfie at Malu, a beautiful full service campground downtown, and nearly immediately located a house to rent as of September 1. When we took possession of our rental house at the end of August in Hacienda Los Molinos, just to the south of Boquete, we began what is our longest time in one spot since we left the US in 2016. As we approach the 2 month mark in our house, we are sharing here some of our reflections on how it feels to be still in one spot.
First, let’s put Panama in some perspective —
With a land mass of about 29,000 square miles, this country is roughly the size of the state of South Carolina. With a total population of approximately 4 million people, it contains as many people as Oklahoma or Connecticut. The vast majority of Panama’s population lives in Panama City. Panama is the only country in the world where you can see the sunrise over the Atlantic and see it set over the Pacific from the same spot and it is the only country in the world where the capital city contains a rain forest within it. The country boasts of 1500 miles of beach on both Pacific and Caribbean sides and the town where we are living — Boquete — sits at an elevation high enough to allow for spring-like temperatures year round (60-80F daily) and has access to either coast within a 2 hour drive in either direction.
Panama is a country of huge population diversity with 67% of its population being mestizó (mixed indigenous and European) and 16% being Afro-Panamanian or mixed Afro-Euro. It is the only country outside of Israel that has elected 2 Jewish Presidents in the 20th century and boasts of a sizable Jewish population, mostly located in Panama City (where there are two large kosher grocery stores). Its population diversity is immediately apparent when you enter the country and is unlike what we observed elsewhere in the portions of Latin America in which we traveled. These were some of the reasons why we were attracted originally to Panama since we wanted racial, ethnic and religious diversity and acceptance.
This backdrop is important to the story of our journey because it shares some of the characteristics of the country that drew us here and against which we evaluate our choices. We have friends or know people who have expatriated from the US or left their homes upon retirement that chose to live elsewhere within the US or outside the country and they, like us, have made their lists and checked off those factors and characteristics that are the most important to them. When we met up with them along our travels, we always asked them about their choices and what drew them to their place. Through this, we saw the obvious: there’s a seat for everyone’s tush and beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.
It is clear from the the conversations we’ve had, the blogs we’ve read, and the stories we’ve heard that the decision to expatriate is often very difficult and becoming acclimated to one’s new home can be challenging. It is not uncommon for people to re-patriate to the US for numerous reasons. Still others, having once left the US to live abroad, expatriate from their first new home country and move on to another. Among those expats from the US, many places rise to the top of the popular expat location list: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Medellin, Columbia; Quito and Cuenco, Ecuador; and San Jose, Costa Rica to name a few. The conventional wisdom of expats we’ve met believe that if you pass the 5 year mark in one location, there is a good chance you will stay.
So, our 2-3 month mark shows that we are in the infancy of our expatriation process and we are sure that our preliminary reactions will change over time. However preliminary, we wanted to share some with those of you who have followed our journey because, if for no other reason, we will enjoy reading this post in the future to see how far we’ve come. In no particular order:
Panama is an Easy Place to Live
Whether because of the influence of the US during the Panama Canal years, whether because of its prosperity relative to other Latin American countries, Prosperity Index, whether because of the economic interests outside of Panama in maintaining safe transit through the Canal or other factors, life in Panama resembles life in the US in many favorable ways.
Most of Panama’s major roads are good, modern and free and are well patrolled by traffic-rule enforcing police. Panama’s electricity, water and communications infrastructure is also (mostly) modern and similar in quality to that of the US. (Fussier expats might object to this description for various reasons but in our travels throughout the US, we learned that US infrastructure differs significantly depending on where you are.) We’ve been told that because of the expense of building a telecommunications infrastructure that involved installing land lines for telephones throughout the country, Panama (likely like other developing countries) largely skipped over this process and migrated more toward spending its money on erecting cell towers and creating wireless communication networks. Consequently, free wifi is often available in town centers and other open space areas within Panama and the costs of phone and data is much lower than in the US. We are now using Panamanian SIM cards in our iPhones and are paying half the cost of our former US plan for the same service (unlimited data, texts and phone calls) and friends here who arrived several years ago are paying even less than us. Credit cards are widely available here and can be used nearly everywhere and most household bills can be paid online (at least for those who live in Panama City according to my immigration attorney).
For such a small land mass, Panama boasts of enormous and ecologically important biodiversity as well as geographical and temperature diversity. It has mountains, rain forests, cloud forests, beaches, cities, island archipelagos and vast tracts of undeveloped land. It is a beautiful country with views that often change from one minute to the next, where hummingbirds can be seen at our feeder as well as in our lime trees and our heliconias.
While Spanish is the official language, many Panamanians speak English and while we believe that learning the local language is important, many might not think it terribly essential. Health care is reputed to be good. Many streets and major roads are lighted at night and major brands with which we are familiar are widely available, as are mail and shipments from the US, organic food products, some of the world’s best coffee and beautiful, lush gardens.
City versus Country
Panama City (simply “Panama” to locals) is a major metropolis that buzzes with energy and activity at all hours of the day and night. Its breathtaking skyline is remarkable for a city of its size, with more skyscrapers than a city of equivalent populations in the US, a broad and actively used waterfront walking/biking/skating/running path called the Cinta Costera, a charming old town (Casco Viejo) with hip bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs, a huge banking center, many malls and shopping centers, a modern (and expanding) subway system as well as many traffic jams. Panama is filled with residential areas mixed with retail and commercial businesses, with huge and stately single family homes and towering condo and apartment buildings.
Once outside Panama, the country becomes a string of smaller towns that mostly lie along or near the Pan-American Highway or, as it is known locally, Ruta 1 or the Interamericana. Developed or developing beach communities such as Nuevo Gorgona, Coronado, Santa Clara and Rio Hato lie along the Pacific Ocean and are an easy driving distance from the city (an hour and a half or so in non-rush hour traffic) and many expats are drawn to these communities for their proximity to the city. Costs of living in the city can be fairly high, not only relative to the rest of the country but compared to many areas within the US. Costs in the interior and western areas of the country are less and draw expats who are looking for affordability and more quiet than the city affords.
Boquete has become popular with expats for many reasons – many are drawn because of the abundance of outdoor activities and its natural beauty. Expats who love to garden find Boquete to be a gardening nirvana; those who hike and bird can fill every hour of the day with only these activities. There are more clubs and organizations here than you can count and one can play golf, or bridge, or pickle ball, or learn to knit, participate in animal-rights related organizations, help teach local children English, spend time with the local photography club, or local playhouse, join an drum circle and more. There are coffee plantations and honey bee farms to tour, a weekly farmer’s market to visit, and cinema clubs to try. It is a town of roughly 30,000 residents spread out through a mountainous area that includes something like 18 micro-climates over a number of communities where most of the homes sit perched on one of the incalculable breathtaking vistas for which the Boquete area is known, many accessible only on nominally improved, impossibly steep, winding mountain roads.
One friend describes this area this way: where can you live in the quiet mountains with incredible vistas of mountains, rivers, tropical foliage and fruit trees and be a 10 minute drive from a store with caviar and champagne? Another US expat friend exclaims that this area allows for a sense of community for a person with any interest imaginable, where you can build a beautiful home with a modest sum of money and thereafter live on just one’s social security benefits. To be clear, there are communities here that are host to homes costing $750,000 and more and we’ve seen more than a few properties for sale that exceed $1.5 million, many with guest homes, swimming pools and more. At the other end of the spectrum, there are apartments here to rent that could house a couple comfortably, even if modestly, at monthly rentals below $500. Most expats here fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
What you cannot find in Boquete can likely be located in nearby David, the capital of Chiriqui Province, with an urban feel and a population of about 150,000. But to experience a major city, one must travel about 6 – 7 hours by car (or the local plane shuttle from David to Panama).
It’s hard to beat the climate in Boquete. And where in the world can you find spring-like temperatures all year round, micro-climates that allow for homes to be surrounded by coffee plants, hummingbirds, heliconias and lime trees within a 2 hour drive of tropical beaches on either the Caribbean OR the Pacific? But, if you are a city person, or if you are the kind of retiree who longs for hours of access to lifetime learning opportunities at a local college or university, Boquete will not likely be the place for you.
It seems to us that life in Boquete will largely be what we make of it. This doesn’t mean that we need to create things from whole cloth but it does mean trying things on for size, joining clubs or activities or groups that are engaged in things that appeal to us and searching out people or things that call to us. And all of this requires time, and patience and sitting still for a long enough time to listen to our inner voices.
When we were on the road, every day allowed for endless stimulation. Even the sameness of the road yielded to differences in views, cuisines, climates and populations. While on the road, it was far more frequent that we would have to admonish ourselves to slow down and to spread out the experiences we wanted to have so we wouldn’t burn ourselves out. Now that we are in a home, we have to begin the task of slowing down in a different way. We need to commit to learning more about this new place in the way of a resident rather than a tourist and to take stock of the way we may want to live as expat retirees.
The busyness of the 19+ months on the road did what we wanted it to do when we began our retirement: it allowed us to go from the fast lane of our career and working lives into the slow lanes of retirement without a jarring, screeching stop and to transition into a new budget and lifestyle change in a gradual sort of way. Upon arriving in Panama, the need to start the immigration and importation processes (tourist visas for people and vehicles are of limited duration) caused a mini-frenzy that involved trips back and forth to the city but resulted in progress on both fronts. Now, we can begin the task of settling in finding routines that work, rejecting those that do not and discovering ourselves in our new home in a way that will help guide us here and elsewhere.
Hola from Panama City, Panama —
We arrived in Panama 2 weeks ago and it’s been a busy time for us. Having established a plan to try various locations in Panama before we figure out where we might ultimately want to settle, and since we entered Panama from its western boundary, it made sense for us to start our residency in Panama in the area of Boquete in Chiriqui Province. Boquete makes sense for many reasons aside from the proximity — for starters, it is beautiful. Set in the mountains of western Panama, the Boquete area is very popular with expats (mostly from the US and Canada) because it IS so beautiful and because the weather is described as “eternal spring,” with temperatures between 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit daily, year round. It is a place of many micro climates and Boquete is where the country’s coffee is grown as well as where a large variety of fruit and vegetables thrive. Boquete also appeals to expats because it is a smaller town where people can develop a sense of community. It appeals to us for those reasons and more, not the least of which is the friends we made there 4 years ago when visiting who have been invaluable in terms of their support, their encouragement and the giving of their time and familiarity with the area. We might have survived without Holly and Scott (and Luana and Bond) but it would not have been as rich an experience.
Once we arrived in Boquete and rented a storage facility to use for the goods that had been piled in truck and trailer for the 60k miles of the journey here, we set about to lighten our load, repair things on the truck and in Wolfie, and to start to establish our first 6 months in Panama. We traveled to the nearby city of David to join the local warehouse club called Price Smart, traded in our “Central American” SIM card purchased from Claro in Guatemala for a Panamanian phone SIM card from the same company, purchased auto parts needed for brake work on Gertie, scouted out major grocery stores to get a lay of the land, took a road tour (led by Scott and Holly) of the various Boquete-area micro climates, celebrated Roque’s birthday, responded to real estate advertisements and after visiting several possible rentals, committed to a lovely single-story home in the community of Los Molinos in Alto Boquete for 6 months, had meals out in Boquete in restaurants and at friends’ homes, got the bikes repaired and more.
At the end of the first week, we had a 6 month lease in hand starting on September 1 which gave us several weeks to start the legal processes necessary to make Sharon, Gertie and Wolfie permanent residents and so, we headed to the capital city. We learned quickly what we intuitively believed before we got to Panama City: things take longer than we might have hoped and we needed to take things one little step at a time.
Here’s an example of one day in which we accomplished one tiny bureaucratic step toward permanent residence. To get the pensionado visa that Sharon hopes of have, she needs a FBI background check newer than 18 months old. Because of the 18 month requirement, we knew we could not bring an FBI background check along on the trip since it was likely to be “expired” by the time we arrived in Panama. Step 1 to obtaining the background check is to obtain fingerprints to send to the FBI (again, no older than 18 months). The good news is that we can get fingerprints done in Panama without returning to the US and we set out to do that on Tuesday but the long line at the DIJ (the local equivalent of the FBI) dissuaded us and we decided to return later. We couldn’t return on Wednesday and so we got up early on Thursday so we could arrive at DIJ before its 7 am opening time, at which point we were told to return at 8 when the fingerprinting office opened (the long lines being for other things that didn’t apply to us). When we returned and were escorted to meet the fingerprint tech, she asked if we brought the fingerprinting form we needed. Of course we didn’t have the form! (Later, it clearly made sense that we would have to bring our own form – how first world of us to thing that Panama would have the FBI Form FD-258 on hand). So, back to the hotel during rush hour we went – first to print the form and then to make sure that the form on plain paper — rather than the standard blue cardstock — was acceptable. We printed the form, traveled back to DIJ and were finished with the fingerprinting part of the exercise by 11:30. All good. Well, except that we cannot pick up the form until the Police Chief signs it and that will take at least 3 business days, taking us to Tuesday, at the earliest. Once the fingerprint card is ready for pick up, we must bring it to the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs who can authenticate the signatures. Once this is done, we can then forward the card to the FBI and the process will continue from there. Thus, one set of fingerprints will take us about a week to accomplish.
This is not anyone’s “fault.” Had we known what we know now, we could have taken care of this on the first day we arrived in Panama City and likely, we would have accomplished this task by the time we were originally scheduled to leave. But, as many wise people have said before me, sometimes you don’t even know the questions to ask let alone how to get the answers that you need. Our story of the fingerprinting is like tons of stories that we’ve heard from people we’ve met along our travels such as people from outside the US who cannot get a “transit visa” to travel from Mexico City to Australia via LAX requiring rerouting around the world, literally, to get where they needed to go (a transit visa is a special visa required simply to enter an airport in the United States which, in this case, was denied to a Nicaraguan youth who was traveling to Australia to attend school); Europeans whose US visas would expire before they could drive from the lower 48 to Alaska and back (the visas continue to run while they are in Canada which makes travel to Alaska virtually impossible); a German couple whose German-prescribed medicine sat in Canadian customs for so long that the cost to obtain the prescription medicine (banned in Canada but legally prescribed in Germany) was greater than a trip back home to get more; a Dutch couple who had US permanent residency cards that they could NOT give back no matter how many US officials and offices they tried. Bureaucracies exist everywhere and we are pretty certain that all can be excruciatingly difficult and tedious.
Notwithstanding the small bureaucratic headaches that have been a part of our first couple of weeks in Panama, our time here has been wonderful. For such a tiny country, Panama has amazing diversity – of races, of religions, of cultures, of geography and biodiversity. There are many things here that are new to us (or new again) and that we like: cafeterias that serve a lovely and wide variety of Panamanian dishes at inexpensive prices; this delicious Panamanian fried bread called hojaldras; inexpensive bottles of wine; good (and free) highways; Aleve; Kosher grocery stores with speciality food items, potable water in many locations, really nice grocery stores with huge selections of local and international products; the best and fastest cell and data service that we’ve had on this trip; inexpensive cell data plans, places where you can literally see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean at the same time; the best bagels we have had outside select locations in the US; restrooms with both toilet seats and toilet paper, no headaches converting currency and discounts for jubilados (retirees) at museums, restaurants and more.
In Panama City, we have eaten Popeye’s fried chicken and Vietnamese pho and Japanese sushi and we just missed dim sum today by a half an hour. We’ve also had sancocho, and arroz con pollo, and ropa vieja and patacóns (the Panamanian version of tostones). And we enjoyed some of the most innovative cuisine of the whole trip at lunch on Wednesday at Fonda Lo Que Hay in Casco Viejo – a restaurant offshoot of Dónde Jose (where we dined 4 years ago) which is a funky casual restaurant where former local gang members are taught to cook and run a restaurant. Oh, and of course we’ve had great coffee.
We have seen many changes in Panama City in the 4 years since we last visited and have enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods of El Cangrejo, Avenida Balboa, Casco Viejo, Paitilla, Amador, Albrook and Costa del Este. We visited Roque’s home in Las Cumbres and the spot (now vacant) where his primary school was located and the Rio Abajo neighborhood that was home to family members when he was a youth here. We’ve walked the Cinta Costera for miles and enjoyed the incredible vibrancy of Panama City’s “malecón,” with soccer courts, weight lifting stations, bike paths and playgrounds – a sort of Venice, California meets GW Bike Trail meets Washington Square Park kind of place with huge sweeping vistas of the city from pedestrian walkways that cross from Avenida Balboa to the Cinta Costera.
We learned, at the Biodiversity Museum – a gorgeous Frank Gehry designed museum – that there is more arboreal diversity in 1 hectare of land in Panama than in all of North America combined and that the isthmus that is current day Panama was a literal land bridge that formed millions of years ago, closing the gaps that existed between the continents of current day North and South Americas, allowing flora and fauna to move north to south and south to north in ways that are unique on the planet. We also learned that Panama, in addition to being nearly hurricane proof is also nearly earthquake proof because of the way that the tectonic plates have formed around Panama.
From our friends who have expatriated to countries outside the United States, we have oft heard the mantra that there is no perfect place and we this has echoed in our heads as we have wandered along the 60,000 miles of this journey. In our earlier blog posts, we described why we decided to expatriate to Panama and what we hoped we would find there. Along the road, we evaluated spots in the US outside our last home in Washington, DC to see if there were places where we might enjoy if we decide to return to the US. Through Canada, Mexico and Central America, our antennae were tuned to signals that called out to us in a “pick me, pick me” voice. While our list of “must haves” was, in many respects, rather generic (safety, proximity to loved ones, stability of governance and economy, etc) we also had specific requirements that were more challenging to meet. Our comfort as an inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious couple who have retired from the work force is, we realize now, a profoundly more difficult thing than we might have thought when we set out 19+ months ago. For those of you who have ever watched the HGTV show called House Hunters, you know that when a family has 4 “must haves” on the list, it is inevitable that the family will find 3 but rarely all 4 of its essentials. Maybe that’s another way to describe the fact that there is no perfect place. A wise person once told us that one’s life is like a table and that the legs of a table represent various aspects of one’s life: one leg might represent career, and another might represent family with the other 2 representing social and health. A table is most stable with 4 legs but can stand solidly with 3. Fewer than that, the table topples. Maybe we can only ever get 3 out of 4 legs on solid ground but fewer than that, we know we gotta keep moving. The criteria are rarely literally limited to 4 and it is a more intuitive than analytical process oftentimes. But you know it when it’s there, when it’s solid enough, or when it’s not. And perhaps that will be our definition of “perfect enough.”
Stay tuned as we discover more about our new home and whether it will be our “perfect enough.”
Our departure from Mexico was as sweet as its entry, with a beautiful camping location at Misión Surf Mexico on the beach at Puerto Madero in Chiapas. Misión Surf Mexico provides a loving, secure home for children of all ages who have been abused, neglected, orphaned or abandoned. The beach front property where we stayed was built to create a surf and swim school for the children in the care of Misión Mexico and the small hotel was built to provide a source of funding and skills training for the kids. Alan and Pamela Skuse, the Misión’s directors, left their home in Australia for a year of volunteering at a the orphanage and that year turned into 18 spent in service to the abused and neglected children in the care of Misión Mexico. It felt like kismet led us to this place, where we could speak, from experience and knowledge, about potential resources for the Misión to explore to further and aid their mission. Purpose-driven people are always inspiration for us (particularly those oriented toward the care of children) and we left Mexico to cross into Guatemala filled with hope and a feeling of well being that caring people are still making a difference in this world.
Our 7+ months in Mexico were wonderful and it appears that our experiences and complete enjoyment are in sync with those of every overland traveler we have followed. Pan American Highway travelers write glowingly about their experiences while in Mexico and many, like us, seek more time in Mexico than the initial 6 month visa permits. Once in Mexico, it is easy to see why: the people are warm and friendly, the food is fresh, delicious and inexpensive, the sense of history vast and the culture of its indigenous people rich.
Leaving Mexico to enter Central America gave us a perfect opportunity to reflect on what we have learned since leaving on this road trip and how the trip may have changed us. Our reflection was aided, we think, by our return to the US for a week in June and 5 weeks spent in a brick and mortar condo while in the Yucatán— experiences that shone a light on our nomadic life in Wolfie. However you lead your life – whether in an apartment in a high rise building in New York City or a condo in a sunbelt state or a house in a suburban or rural setting – one’s life in one’s home becomes so familiar that it can feel that everyone lives the way you do. The same is true when living in a 16’ travel trailer. When juxtaposed against life in a condo in Playa del Carmen, a very gringo-friendly community in the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as life in the US, particularly as we were leaving Mexico to enter Guatemala, we were able to see, in a fresher way, how our current life compares and what we have learned about ourselves and the world along the way.
In no particular order, here are some of our reflections –
We really love our nomadic life. We love that we have the opportunity to change our backyard every day if we want. While in the US and Canada, the change of backyard idea reflected the immense natural beauty of those two countries and our ability to experience that beauty in many up-front-and-personal ways, stopping at night along a rest stop that allowed for 360 degree views of glaciers or along a stream with a waterfall framed in our picture window or on a bluff on California 1 listening to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. While in Mexico, the concept shifted to references oriented more to culture and history. For us, it is endlessly stimulating and fascinating to learn new things – not just the learning that comes from visits to museums and exhibits but from absorbing the local culture through all of our senses — how a place smells and sounds, the way that people interact with each other on the road, on the street and in their neighborhoods, the individual character each community exhibits — all of this is food for the brain and for the soul. Life on the road is undeniably challenging even if we have gotten used to many of the challenges. But we haven’t really tired of it — generally– and wonder if once we reach Panama, we will be feel comfortable settling down. We don’t think that this is because we cannot sit still – rather it feels like it is an experience more like reading a great book or listening to a beautiful piece of music. You just don’t really want it to end.
We have learned that it takes a while to get comfortable with new places and to find our sea legs. Leaving the US for Canada was just as unfamiliar as it was for us to leave the US to enter Mexico and once in Mexico, leaving the Baja for the Mainland of Mexico. Despite the language similarity between the US and Canada, traveling as we are traveling meant adjusting to many new things in Canada (roads, camping, technology, systems of measurement, etc.). The same was true when we entered Mexico, Cuba and again in Guatemala, where we have only spent several days as of this writing. On more than one occasion, while things felt largely unchanged just over a border, it wasn’t long before subtle differences manifested — road signs, road conditions, crowding, parking conditions and customs, language usage differences, and scenery are just some of the small things we see changing as we enter a new place. Perhaps this is different for overlanders who have crossed many more borders than us but we doubt it — no matter where you go, even within a single country, it takes time to get comfortable and we have learned to be patient with ourselves as we stumble through and develop a new awareness.
We have learned to trust in ourselves and to be open to discovering that our experiences may be different than others who have gone before us. The trip has reinforced to us who we are and what we hoped to gain from these travels. Many of the Pan American Highway travelers (we call them the Travelers) are very different from us – they are generally younger (and mor fit), generally traveling on a budget more restrictive than ours, often traveling with rigs that are more Mad Max than I Love Lucy, with an orientation toward adventure and off-road travel. Many have a timeline for travel (or budget) that may require a faster pace or a travel orientation toward South America that is missing from our itinerary. We have gained invaluable amounts of information from fellow Travelers and it is likely that we would never have visited some of our favorite places in Mexico had it not been for the suggestions of many — Zacatecas, Patzcuaro and Zihuatanejo among them. We have listened to various recommendations of what to do and what not to miss, where to eat and what to avoid but we have learned that we have our own tastes, our own sensibilities, our own budget and our own lens through which we experience life and we need to honor our differences. Our favorite foods and restaurants might be different than those loved by others who we love and respect. Our sense of adventure may mean less mountain climbing, off road travel and beach camping than others but may mean more time spent in urban environments and inside museums. We have learned that we need to respect our instincts and our internal voices and be true to that over what might be expected of us.
We have learned so much more about the world than we knew before we left. It is not just a matter of seeing more with our own eyes – it is also a matter of consciously making it a priority to gather information about the places where we are visiting that is both historical and current. The history of a place gives context and greater understanding while contemporaneous information gives us the means to travel safely as well visit places that will interest us and expand our understanding and knowledge. There are so many times along this trip when we have looked at one another and said “I had no idea.” We visited numerous places while in Mexico with populations over 500,000 which names we had never heard of before entering Mexico, many of them hundreds of years older (in terms of European settlement) than any part of the US. We had no idea. We learned that 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US-Canadian border. Again, we had no idea. We now know that in the highlands of Guatemala, people living at elevations higher than a mile need to dress for cool weather, no matter that Guatemala is thousands of miles closer to the equator than the US. We know as well to seek out all forms of information – US newspapers and media outlets, travel books and country guides often do not provide enough information for us to understand what we want and need to know.
We have learned that we can lead a simpler life, in a smaller space than we ever thought possible, in constant 24/7 company with each other and yet not get on each other’s nerves. We have learned how to create personal space when only several inches are between us. We have learned how to navigate the art of navigating in foreign countries without completely melting down. We have learned that we love the time actually on the road as much if not more than the time when we are not driving. We have learned that we can make friendships along the road and maintain relationships with our friends from “back home” and our family. We have learned that our love and respect for each other has grown deeper because of the shared experiences and feelings of accomplishment we have developed along the way. We have learned how to share the responsibilities of our travel life and how to modify and shift those responsibilities from time to time so that no one task ever feels like it is a burden on the other. We have learned how to be strong for the other when one of us is weakening and then how to flip it around when the roles change. We continue to learn how to be our best selves with each other and for ourselves. In short, we have learned that we continue to learn every day and that this process is at the heart of what is making this trip more uniquely special than we could ever have imagined.
Let the dancing lessons continue.
Happy (belated) Mother’s Day from Playa del Carmen, Mexico!
We returned from Cuba on Friday, retrieved Wolfie from storage near the airport and moved into a lovely 2 bedroom condo in El Cielo in Playa del Carmen where we will stay until we return to the States in late June for a wedding. Since campgrounds in the areas near Cancun/Playa del Carmen are pricey and because we decided to extend our stay in Mexico in order to accommodate our travel plans for the wedding, we decided to stay in a brick-and-mortar home here after we learned we could do so nearly as affordably as staying in Wolfie. In our condo, we have all the comforts of our former home in the States (internet, satellite TV, oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, ac) plus swimming pools and nearby beach. With apologies to Wolfie, she just didn’t stand a chance by comparison. So, we will see how it feels to stay put for a little more than a month as we live the gringo life here in Playa.
About our time in Cuba — Spoiler alert: we were not huge fans. For those of you who have been and who loved it, we will try to explain more about our reactions and why ours might differ from yours.
It is important to understand how we decided to travel to Havana and how those decisions may have affected our time in Cuba. We chose to stay in an AirBnB in a private room with a Cuban family. Ordinarily, we select AirBnBs only when we have the entire place to ourselves but for Havana, we thought it would enrich our experiences to have access to the insights of locals. We selected a neighborhood called Vedado based on our research. We think that both of these decisions were good ones for us. Our AirBnB host turned out to be a real gem – she is an 86 year old who has clear recollections of time before and after the revolution and who inhabits a grand home of many rooms and a gorgeous back yard on a street where the late Fidel Castro once lived. Her home was very large and several family members lived with her, as well as a couple of household staff members. The home now boasts of 2 AirBnB rooms, each with a private bath and a tiny kitchenette. Our hosts did everything they could to make our stay comfortable.
It’s likely that most US citizens who have traveled to Cuba have visited on an organized tour or by cruise ship – in fact, this was the only way a traveler from the States could go during the “early” days of the Cuban Thaw. For those, the charms of Old Havana (Havana Vieja) are obvious – the old architecture, the charm of the horse drawn carriages and the convertible antique automobiles, the gorgeous, gleaming white Capitol building and downtown museums are undeniably captivating. Restaurants in Old Havana are cheap by US standards and serving sizes are almost embarrassingly large. The areas near the Malecon (waterfront walkway), the old forts, renovated train station and cruise terminal are walkable and lovely.
When you move just a couple of feet beyond this area – in fact, just a couple of blocks within Old Havana, you begin to see the deterioration and decay of this once obviously-thrilling city. Buildings are literally crumbling and streets and sidewalks are pocked with large gaps, holes, cracks and more. And while there are clearly new building or renovation projects underway (or so it appeared from the signs displayed on scaffolding), much of what we saw all over Havana looked like it had not been touched since 1959 — everything needed a coat of paint, some significant patching, replacement window panes and more. The furnishings in our AirBnB house and in the places we visited were similar – kind of frozen in time. Things were old and out of date, and out of style and often in need of significant repair. This is not the “fault” of our hosts or the average Cuban. We learned that nearly every space is furnished with something recycled and the Cubans impressively recycle everything from furniture to linens to plumbing parts and clothes. In the end, the “your junk is my treasure” approach results in an aging and tattered sort of ambiance to nearly everything.
US citizens traveling to Cuba must do so with cash only – US credit cards are not accepted and banks and ATMs will not dispense cash so we needed to take what we thought we would need for the week. (Beware, as well, that when we attempted to access financial information from our Charles Schwab account, our account was locked, apparently required by US regulations rather than in reaction to a fraud concern). We found this to be a significant challenge, at least emotionally, since we didn’t want to run out of money and our budgeting was based on scant information about how much various things would cost. Our budgeting concerns were exacerbated by being thwarted from some of our standard travel practices such as making our own breakfasts in the mornings; typically, we go to a market and pick up fruit, eggs, coffee, etc. and eat and sip leisurely in the morning as we consider the day ahead. But shopping in Havana in local markets is unlike anything we have experienced over our time on the road. In Cuba, families are given rations for many food staples (eggs, sugar, rice, beans, milk, etc.) and sources of those kinds of food do not appear to be available for sale to tourists. The markets had little on the shelves other than jars of instant coffee, cans of beer and lentils, Barilla pasta, rum and cigarettes. Panaderias (bakeries) existed but the bread and “pastries” were flavorless even if cheap. In short, we were out of luck with an attempt to cook breakfast in our room, despite the thoughtfully provided kitchenette there. We opted instead to pay our AirBnB host for morning breakfasts consisting of coffee, reconstituted powdered milk, eggs and ham.
Our need to budget our cash affected our choices while in Havana. While we were offered overnight trips to the countryside, the $60 an hour price tag for a car and driver or the $180 a day rental car rate meant that we yielded to our concern about running out of cash. Additionally, in a country where the average person earns about $20 a month, we couldn’t help but be concerned about whether these touring options would isolate us from real Cuban life. So, we stuck to exploring Havana only. And nearly all of it by foot.
Havana has a bus system but no published bus routes or maps or signs at bus stops. Further, while we told that while the bus was a cheap travel option, they were so jam-packed that many passed us at bus stops. It seems that Cubans deal with this frequently – we saw huge numbers of people waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) at bus stops (and nearly everything else). Lines are omnipresent — everywhere and for nearly everything. So, off on foot we went, walking an average of 7-10 miles a day, leaving droplets of perspiration from one end of Havana to the other. It is, after all, tropical and hot and humid. When we had walked our last centimeter and our legs could barely carry us onward, we did relent a couple of times and took cabs – because they are unregulated, we learned quickly (after one disaster) to negotiate an agreed upon price before we entered, whether it was a tiny mototaxi, antique convertible, or falling-apart Russian made taxi.
Other things that we have come to rely upon on our travels were also largely unavailable to us in Cuba. Access to internet is very limited and quite expensive. Whether tourist or local, one must buy an internet card from the national telecommunications provider, good for an hour of internet ($4.95 an hour) and usable only at designated wifi spots in the city (mostly near hotels and public parks). Those spots became instantly recognizable because there were always large numbers of Cubans glued to their phone screens, gathered in these locations. We learned that Cuban cell phone “plans” do not include data – only voice and text; to use them for access to the internet, Cubans need to purchase internet cards at the same price as tourists. For us, not having the ability to use the internet or phone data for research, museum addresses and hours, cultural events or just random questions felt isolating. We have to admit that we have become, like nearly everyone we’ve seen along our travels, from large Canadian cities to small Mexican towns, reliant upon the information superhighway and we didn’t love being virtually without this resource.
It was, therefore, little surprise seeing folk clustered around wifi spots, eyes glued to screens. We are not sure how many bona fide TV channels exist on Cuban televisions but we saw only 2: one with general programming and the other with sports (including, on one night, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). The general programming station had some children’s entertainment, some Cuban history, a Fred Astair-Ginger Rogers movie on one occasion, and some of what seemed to be “news” programming. We never saw a news stand or a magazine and we saw only one Cuban newspaper being sold on one particular morning at one particular bus stop. Clearly, information is at a premium. When we did access the internet, we were able to read the Washington Post, NYT, and other news outlets so we assume that Cubans may as well, but we are not completely sure. When we went to buy a local SIM card to have in our spare unlocked phone for emergencies, Roque waited in line for over a half an hour, was put through a rigorous set of questions by the national phone company worker, had his passport photocopied and the SIM card registered to him as well as the phone with strict instructions limiting outgoing calls to one a day. We tried using it once but the call failed.
There were some things we liked about our time in Havana. Inexplicably, we ate an amazingly delicious and completely authentic-tasting French croissant that we bought at the Union Francesa de Cuba, a gathering place and series of French eateries staffed by Cubans of French origin. We loved the Cuban art on display at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and that there was a whole national museum dedicated to Cuban artists, even those who had painted anti-Revolutionary works. We loved our hostess, L, and her “daughter,” M, together with their staff, Miriam and Maria, among others – warm, lovely and generous people who shared friendship, hospitality and some information with us during our stay. If we were to ever return to Cuba, it would only be to visit again with these wonderful people. In addition to our hosts, we befriended a waiter at the local corner Cuban cafeteria, who shared more information about life in Cuba with us than everyone else combined, as well as a waiter (likely related to the owners) of Beirut Schwarma, the surprisingly authentic and tasty Lebanese restaurant near the Melia Cohiba. We loved the sounds of the school children in the yard that bordered one of the walls of our AirBnB garden and their noises were as energetic, lively and unguarded as any would be in an elementary school in the States.
We also considered thoughtfully the idea, shared by nearly all the Cubans with whom we spoke, that while life in Cuba is not necessarily easy, it is sufficient. They are clearly proud of the fact that there are no homeless people in Cuba – everyone has a place to live and a subsistence level of food rations, as well as free medical and dental care and free education. Most expressed that they prefer the simple life in Havana to the lives they observe in the US where it’s all “keeping up with the Joneses.” We take them at face value when they talk about their travels to Mexico, the US and even Russia but have a difficult time wrapping our heads around how the average Cuban could afford a $1000 airline ticket to Russia.
Cubans boast that Havana is an extremely safe place and indeed, we walked on abandoned, often dark streets at night with little concern for safety. But we were scammed a couple of times on the street – once by a taxi driver and once by a woman who implored us to buy milk for her baby (which we did) only to see her reselling it minutes later on the street. The Cubans with whom we shared these stories just shook their heads knowingly – they’d heard these and similar stories before and acknowledged that tourists are often targeted by locals.
It was difficult to tell whether life is really “sufficient” for Cubans. While medical and dental care is free to all Cubans, we were told that pharmacies are without even basic analgesics, all surgeries other than essential ones are basically nonexistent, and doctors are leaving the country in droves. We are not sure how work works in Cuba – we saw a lot of idle people and those who seem engaged in work were those working in entrepreneurial activities, the economics of which are still unclear to us, since we were told that the government receives all income from all activities and distributes only 20% of the entrepreneurial fees to the worker (as in the AirBnB fees). And while our hosts made various restaurant recommendations and even made reservations for us, we later learned that our hosts have never eaten out at these places and cannot afford to dine out except at the local cafeterias.
How will all of this work out for Cubans? We have no idea. Cuba was certainly neither the first or last place we’ve visited where there is a significant divide between the life of the average citizen and that of the average tourist. Perhaps what makes Cuba different from these other places is that in Cuba, this divide is necessitated by its economic/political system and to us, it seemed that the Cuban people would not experience personal gain with new enterprises. Time will tell.
But it is not likely that we will be returning to see how the story unfolds.
* the phrase Cubans use when answering the phone, often said with the accent on the first word/syllable
This week, by pure chance, we ended up stopping at an ecolodge in a somewhat off-the-beaten-track location en route from the town of Bacalar to Valladolid. The ecolodge, Selva Bonita in Spanish (Beautiful Jungle in English and Kiichpam Kaax in Mayan), turned out to be a very special place. The lodge sits on property owned by a Mayan family that has been developed, over the course of the last decade, into a beautiful eco retreat, containing a restaurant, a number of cabins, swimming pool, nature trails and more. Selva Bonita’s website describes it as a “family run co-op centre, commited to the rescue and care for culture, nature and family relations of our community . . . to share with our visitors a new type of experience in which they will be able to interact with nature through a sustainable type of turism with activities that promote respect to the environment and Mayan cultural identity.”
We arrived, hoping for a meal and a place to park Wolfie for the night. We left with a greater understanding of Mayan culture, considerable appreciation for the enormous work and dedication that the family — Damian, Margaret and Juanita — has put into developing Selva Bonita, and an enormous respect and admiration, nearing awe, for the traditional beliefs of the Mayans. For the 48 hours of our stay, we were a part of this family. And these 48 hours exemplified, perhaps more than any other experience we’ve had in the past 16 months, the reason for this road trip.
During our time at Selva Bonita, we spent a day on a “tour” of the jungle, oriented toward identifying the many plants that the Mayans use (past and present) for medicinal purposes – plants used for venomous snake bite antidotes, for the treatment of asthma, diabetes, dysentery and more. We saw monkeys, turtles, the web of a tarantula, and more birds that we can mention. We tasted bark of various trees and several types of flowering plants. We saw how the Mayans harvest the chicle from the sapodilla tree from which chewing gum is made and tasted natural chewing gum made with this chicle. We learned of the predictions of the ancient Mayans of many things that are occurring to our natural world now and their philosophies concerning stewardship of the earth and conservation of natural resources. After our time in the jungle – a long, hot, sweaty 5+ hours of walking – we visited several traditional Mayan homes owned by relatives of Damien including a home owned by his aunt who, at age 72, boasts of a marriage of nearly 60 years, since she was married at 14 to her husband, who was 15 at the time. Under the protection of a traditional Mayan “palapa-style” roof, they sleep in hammocks and raise most of their own vegetables. Their home is equipped with electricity and they do enjoy modern conveniences such as a refrigerator and television (for watching telenovelas, Damian’s aunt confessed, with a twinkle in her eye) but their lives are simple and humble. They shared stories of their grandparents and of their culture; of the Mexican government banning Mayan language books from their schools and of bullying by others for being Mayan. And so it ultimately came as little surprise that Damian and family have dedicated their lives and their work toward sharing their Mayan cultural identity with others.
During our time in Mexico, we have visited many Mayan archeological sites and spent many hours combing the exhibits of museums dedicated to the history, culture and lives of the Mayans, past and present. but nothing compared to our experiences with the owners of Selva Bonita. It was the kind of immersive, albeit short, experience that sets apart the way we are traveling with the kind of vacationing we have done in the past. Of course, the two styles are not mutually exclusive. At Selva Bonita, we were joined by a French couple on their honeymoon who were on “vacation.” We learned that they sought out Selva Bonita because they wanted to experience an ecolodge environment. We are fairly certain that they, like us, learned that they had little idea of what they were about to experience. It is likely that they, like us, left Selva Bonita as changed people.
The Selva Bonita experience made us want more of the same and we were fortunate enough to find another unique eco camping experience near our next stop in Valladolid. At Ecocamping Valladolid, our host, Ramon, has created a self-sufficient, eco campground that he built from scratch, including several VW Beetle “bedrooms,” solar powered electrical systems that run his refrigerator, water heaters, lighting systems and more. We are awed by his ingenuity and continue to discover his various inventions throughout his campground. Ramon boasts that everything thing in his campground was created of recycled items that he (later joined by a few friends) created from the ground up.
We know that sleeping in the cavity of a vintage VW Beetle or in a cabin in a jungle rich with Mayan traditions and culture is not necessarily for everyone. But we are loving these experiences and have added these to the very top of our “favorite road trip experiences.”
Both Roque and I come from families who valued travel and what they learned through their travels and it is possible that we would not have considered a lengthy road trip such as this had it not been in our “familial DNA.” No doubt that our exposure to travel whetted our appetites for the kind of exploration we are undertaking. As a bit of an aside, this is particularly noteworthy given our families’ modest backgrounds. In both of our families, neither Roque nor I have a single grandparent who attended college – in fact, we are not certain that any of our grandparents even graduated from high school. And nearly all of the miles traveled by our grandparents in their lifetimes were used in traveling from their countries of birth to the United States when they emigrated. Yet in the single generation between our grandparents and us, all of our parents not only graduated from high school and college, but also earned graduate degrees as well. Both of our families demonstrate some of the best of what was possible for immigrants to the US in the 20th century including home ownership, educational advancement, financial stability and securing enough free time to be able to vacation and travel.
We are fairly sure that we never really spoke to our parents about the value of “recreational” travel to them but from their examples (and the thousands of slides that we watched upon their return from their travels), we inferred that their lives were enhanced from the knowledge they gained from their travels. Clearly, we grew up wanting some of the same (as did our siblings as well).
We’ve given a fair amount of thought and more than a few hours of discussion to the subject of the value of travel in our lives – particularly in the style of this epic road trip. Our experiences this week have reinforced many of these thoughts and while there’s more that we will learn as the lessons percolate through us, we share some of them with you:
We travel because we don’t want to just observe the lives of others – we want to experience and understand as much of the lives of others as we can. Entering cathedrals in every city exposes us to architecture and history but walking through a local shopping mall exposes us to manners of dress, and how people spend their consumer dollars and how they behave. We have watched how families in Mexico honor family — bringing elders and youth with them everywhere they go. They sit in multi-generational groupings in restaurants and parks, in theaters and at swimming pools, taking turns caring for those who need care and seemingly never getting ill tempered or impatient with each other. We have listened to the cacophony of car horns blasting the instant a light turns green but nary a sound when a man is helping his elderly mother (or mother-in-law) across the street. Shopping at the markets exposes us to the kinds of foods they eat and the way they shop. Eating at small roadside stands allows us to create a list of favorite foods that include things we couldn’t even (accurately) understand through Google. There are a thousand and one similar experiences and we haven’t even experienced Central America yet!
Whether within the US or outside, we have learned that not all “universal” experiences are universal. We’ve learned that it is customary to tip the grocery store bagger and the gasoline pump attendant in Mexico because often they are not paid and rely exclusively on tips. We’ve learned that sometimes, U-turns are made from the left lane and sometimes, the right and sometimes, there are dedicated “returno” lanes for just this purpose. We’ve come to understand that traffic rules are largely unenforced throughout all of Mexico and yet traffic accidents are remarkably rare. While waiting to see a doctor, Mexicans always allow the elderly to advance to the head of the line and rarely are prescriptions necessary to refill maintenance-type medicines largely available at prices that are cheaper in Mexico that standard prescription insurance co-pays in the US.
It’s unusual for a week to pass – throughout the US, Canada and Mexico parts of our travel — where we don’t see something that makes us say “wow – wish we had THAT back on the East Coast or in the US. ” This is part of the reason for this trip – to see the US and our lives there through a different lens, for better or worse.
Living on the road requires us to live outside our comfort zone nearly daily. The challenges we’ve faced have made us recognize that we are stronger and more resilient than we may have thought, and that we possess the ability to make decisions that require us to trust ourselves in ways we have not tested before. We have kept ourselves safe and we have overcome fear and learned that challenge is healthy. It keeps us aware and alive and alert, constantly resourceful. We have experienced simplicity and the beauty that comes from it. Along the road, we have finely tuned whatever patience we previously possessed, and have become people with infinitely greater abilities to see beauty in seemingly mundane experiences and things. We have become grateful for tiny things and have fewer expectations than in the past.
Simply put, our travels have humbled us and permitted us to become more accepting, particularly of ourselves and our limitations.
Some of all of this is summed up perfectly by friends of ours, Vanamos, who recently moved from the Washington, DC area to Mexico, following a year of overlanding travels from the US to Panama and back. In Vanamos’ blog post called “Our Mexican Revolution,” Paul wrote that:
When we told our friends and family that we were packing up the homestead and moving it south, we heard a lot about how brave we were. We discounted that sentiment. When we thought about what it means to be brave, we considered feats of strength and courage on the battlefield. Quitting a six-figure job, uprooting your family, and voluntarily leaving a country where you can safely drink the water from a gas station lavatory wasn’t brave, it was slightly irresponsible and dumb. But in a way we’ve come around to the idea that we are brave. Having made the move overseas we realize that brave doesn’t have to mean a tally of how many men we’ve killed with our bare hands. It can mean having the courage to change the path of your existence from a fine and comfortable but less than fulfilling lifestyle to something that is uncertain and sometimes difficult, but, hopefully, better.
Reading Vanamos’ blog was an “aha” moment and helped us understand more about the significance of the decision we made to move to Panama and to take this path there. Our lives were rich before we left on this trip but they are richer for having followed our dreams. And we believe that living a life knowing that dreams can come true gives us purpose and hope. Everyone deserves this and we are grateful for these opportunities, over and over again, to experience these lessons.