What the heck is a SPOT?

The Power of Asking Questions When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

As I contemplate our next Boots and Coffee post about gear, I have stalled because I am not sure how to describe the unbelievable amount of research that seems necessary to decide on the proper gear for our journey. Choice of gear involves many decisions and a lot of exhausting thinking:  it’s not just what gear do I need because decision-making involves consideration of how MUCH gear can be taken and how costly will that gear be if we opt for it.  So, what to do first?  Make a “wish list’ of desirable gear and then research the best choices within these items, followed by an accounting of the cost?  Or do we decide on “essential” gear, figure what that will cost (if we need to add purchases to our supply), and then figure out if we have the space?  It often feels like it is a sort of a chicken-and-egg thing – and I’m sometimes immobilized by how to approach these questions.

There are many bloggers on the road who have considered these questions and I would be remiss if I didn’t, once again, acknowledge the hefty assistance of resources such as Life Remotely, which blog contains a gear section with 3 subsections: choosing gear, packing advice and packing lists.  Similar lists exist on many other blogs and Overland websites.  They are wonderful starting points but one soon realizes, as one reads through these sites, that there is clearly no “one size fits all.”  First, space is a real limitation for us since we are not traveling in a RV with oodles of storage.  Obviously, finances are another real limitation.  And you can fill in the blanks about the other criteria that you might consider if you were in our boots.

One of the more formidable tasks for us is in knowing the right questions to ask about gear.  Here’s an example:  Roque and I have traveled outside the country on a number of occasions and struggled with the issue of cell phone and data connectivity.  There are scores of words written on this subject and, sadly, every country seems to present it’s own challenges.  When in Canada this summer, having done a hefty amount of research before we crossed the border, we spent a couple of hours on our first full day in Nova Scotia, hunting down prepaid sim cards to insert in our (then) unlocked iPhones.  (I won’t bore you with the details of why this took hours rather than minutes).  Sim card in hand and iPhones with data in our lap, we navigated beautifully to the spots where we wanted to go. It all worked swimmingly until 2 days later when we found ourselves in the middle of Prince Edward Island with no data connection and no cell service to help us navigate through the problem solving.  We sought out a place with WiFi and made a series of calls only to find out that 1) we had already blown through $100 worth of data and 2) we could have added a Canadian plan to our Sprint plan at a very inexpensive rate that would have been tons easier than our sim card purchase and time spent in cell phone stores and in trouble shooting through the data dilemma.

Clearly, my research was not thorough enough. Continue reading “What the heck is a SPOT?”


Reflections on Life and Lemonade

Why Move Abroad?

Among the more frequent questions posed to us is why we are interested in living outside the US and how we will feel about living far away from family and friends.  At the moment, the best answer to the second question is “We are not sure.”  Roque and I have 3 living children between us — the loss of one of our children, the brilliant and beautiful Sophie, who passed away while home for Thanksgiving her freshman year at Drexel University, is certainly among our lives’ wake-up calls and part of our inspiration for retiring as soon as we are able.  When life sends curve balls like losing an 18 year old child, it’s hard not to take stock of where you are,  where you want to be and how very precious life is.

Neither Roque nor I are the kind of people who live recklessly and with wild abandon – we are uber responsible, honor-driven, professionals who have, for the most part, taken care to travel through life conscientiously, taking minimal risks, and leading lives where following the law and, for the most part, the rules, are hallmarks of our existence.  We have both owned homes in suburbia, have been soccer coaches and soccer moms, planned celebration parties for loved ones and have more than several suits apiece in our closets. Underneath these exteriors, however, live a couple of free-spirits who have big-world views, enjoy traveling off the beaten path, love tent camping, experiencing new foods, new landscapes, and new stuff.  Continue reading “Reflections on Life and Lemonade”

Creating a route and discoveries along the way

Road Trip Planning

I’ve been working with My Scenic Drives for the past couple of years when planning road trip itineraries.  It’s a comprehensive website that allows you to choose destination points from which it will calculate directions, points of interest, total miles, fuel consumption and more.  The site allows you to make infinite changes so that you can add and subtract destinations as you refine driving plans and contract or expand a travel schedule. Since you can adjust the route to expand or contract the length of the driving day (the preset default is something like 6-8 hours of driving a day), it’s a great resource that we have used primarily for planning a course and making make that the route makes sense. The site also has recommended scenic drives throughout the country (and likely elsewhere) that you can reference for ideas.  For daily navigational purposes, we tend to rely on Waze, Google maps and our vehicle’s navigation system to make sure that the day’s destination is within reach.

Panama Road Trip Continue reading “Creating a route and discoveries along the way”

Global Entry Program

A short shout-out to the Global Entry Program of the US Customs and Border Control, which offers an applicant who is considered a “trusted traveler” a 5 year pass that allows expedited entry into the US through Customs without waiting in the traditional lines at airports or, I’m told, through border control entry points by motor vehicle.  The Global Entry pass includes TSA Precheck Logoas well, which allows expedited screening at airports without having to take off shoes and remove computers from bags.  If you fly often enough, no doubt you have drooled with envy at the TSA Pre lines which are shorter, faster and less cumbersome than traditional TSA screening points at airports.

Domestic travelers may find it more convenient to apply for just TSA Precheck Logo since it is less expensive than Global Entry but at $100 for 5 years, anyone entering the US from out of the country a couple of times over the duration of the GOES pass, especially if you fly domestically from time to time, may find that applying for Global Entry has its benefits.

The online application is easy and painless and in our case, our conditional acceptance into the program was communicated to us within 2 weeks of application and our interviews with US Customs and Border Control were scheduled shortly after.

Passes in hand, we hope that our travel to the US for semi-annual visits when we expatriate to Panama will be as easy and painless as obtaining the pass.


Getting ready – Part I

This is How We Will Roll

Having decided that we would embark on this road trip en route to Panama, and having rejected the idea of taking one of our Audis, we began to consider what kind of vehicle we wanted to drive.  Studying postings by Overlanders revealed a stunning array of exotic vehicles selected for this massive road trip.  There are Overlanders on bicycle and motorcycle, in motor homes and in antique cars, in modified ancient VW (and similar vans), in trucks, in SUVs and in contraptions referred to as “Global Expedition vehicles,” which are like motor-homes on steroids.  Much as Roque, like many men, might secretly pine away for the testosterone-charged Earth Cruiser or something similar, I waited for his fiscal prudence and common sense to kick in (since expedition vehicles start at a whopping $175,000+) so that we could talk about something a tad more affordable and, for me, easier to climb into.

Overlanders use all kinds of vehicles (ambulance conversion anyone?) and many seem to favor older-model Toyota Highlanders (ca. 1980’s) apparently due to the early generation Hilux truck body on which the Highlander was built.  As you can see, I read enough to sound like I know what I am talking about but frankly, this is all way beyond me and I was NOT enticed to start looking on Craig’s List for 30 year old trucks with which to take this trip. Continue reading “Getting ready – Part I”

Getting to Panama -The Road Trip

The Road to Panama

While visiting with expats in Panama, one frequently-asked question focused on whether to move with all, part or none of our belongings.  The temptation was strong, at least initially, for us to sell or give away everything we owned, pack a couple of suitcases of essentials, and start anew.  New life, new things.  No baggage with no baggage.

We learned that expats take all approaches. Our friends Holly and Scott packed and shipped a HUGE shipping container of items, including loads of tools and equipment that Scott knew he would need and want for the construction of their casita, home and to use daily in his workshop in Boquete. Others started virtually from scratch.  Still others suggested a middle ground approach of leaving much and taking some things, particularly those of sentimental value. The things that would make us feel at home in our new home.

The middle ground approach appealed to us as we thought about our new start.  We knew that some things are inexpensive in Panama and worth replacing; other things were going to be harder or more expensive to replace. So we met with an international mover (recommended by others in Panama), got estimates and proceeded with the plan to pack much of our house for shipping to Panama once we settled. Continue reading “Getting to Panama -The Road Trip”

Deciding to Expatriate to Panama

Las TablasNo brainer decision?

It now seems like a no brainer that we decided to expatriate to Panama in our retirement. After all, Roque is a dual US-Panamanian citizen.  But this was not where we started.

When we met, at the ripe young ages of 55 and 51, Roque was the Commissioner of a major metropolitan child welfare system – a BIG job with BIG responsibilities and the attendant stresses. We had both been married before, had children, struggled financially and personally and had experienced the kinds of blessings and challenges of people who had been working and living for decades.  We were overwhelmed with the blessing of finding each other and shortly after falling in love, began to talk about  how we could retire and dedicate our time to being with each other and experiencing the world together.

From my admittedly unscientific polling of many retirees, it became clear that most approach the decision of when to retire from a magic-number perspective: when will we have enough to allow us to continue our current lifestyle in our home.  Roque and I didn’t have decades of life and community-building together, which, we realized, freed us to consider all options for retirement. Also, untethered from a particular place, we could feel free to find someplace where we could live comfortably on what we projected for retirement income without the magic-number target being our primary focus.

Roque grew up overseas, the son of a World Health Organization public health physician, and moved every couple of years and didn’t really ever settle in one place until fairly recently. I grew up in one home for my entire childhood, moving away only when I went to college, after which I returned to the mid-Atlantic region where I have lived most of my life.  Despite these differences in our backgrounds, our experiences have taught us that friendships are enduring whether they are decades-old and separated by miles or and that friendships can be formed at every stage of life.  Neither of us was particularly daunted by having to start afresh somewhere outside the DC metro area and neither of us had developed roots that we believed we could not reconnect in a new place.

Affordability was, of course, a key element of evaluating options.  So was climate. But, as an inter-racial couple, we were extremely mindful of finding a place to relocate that we believe will be hospitable to us as an inter-racial, inter-religious and politically progressive couple. Evaluating options with these criteria in mind, we began to cross out major swaths of the US.

Inspiration struck one night while I watched an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters International which, that fateful night,  featured a young family searching for an affordable, family-friendly alternative to their home in Texas.  They landed in Pedasi, Panama and my eyes were open to a completely different option than we had considered before.

When I excitedly shared this idea with Roque, he was intrigued. When I set about to research retirement options in Panama, the pieces started to fall into place.  Nice climate? Check. Reasonable proximity to family and friends in the US? Check. Stable government? Check. Stable economy? Check. Access to modern medical care? Check. Access to beaches and mountains and biodiversity? Check.

Benefits of Panama

Affordability was among Panama’s prime attractions because, among other things, Panama’s pensionado program was created specifically to attract expat retirees to settle in Panama during retirement.  And while other countries, primarily in Central America, have created similar retirement-friendly pensionado-type programs, none seemed as advantageous as that offered by Panama.

Further intrigued, I focused my reading on blogs and websites written by expats in Panama.  When I started to explore whether Panama was truly as affordable as some suggested, I discovered wonderful blogs rich with detailed budgets shared by many who had made the move to Panama.  The more I read, the more I became convinced that Panama might work for us.

Clearly it was time to put our boots on the streets of Panama to see if it looked as good as it sounded.  While Roque had returned to Panama over the years, he never visited with the purpose of seeing the country through the lens of a potential US expatriate.  I had been through the Canal but that counted for, well, zilch.  Time to book tickets.

After booking our tickets but before departing, I continued to read blogs, convinced that I would locate a “how to expatriate” site that might help provide a road map to making such a move.  I was right – there WAS such a blog and I hit pay dirt when I found “Let the Adventure Begin.”  I read, entranced with the intimate and detailed writings that shared, on a nearly daily basis, steps taken by Holly and Scott when they decided to ditch their American work-a-day existences for a new life in Panama.

Holly provided the road map I sought.  And more importantly, when I contacted her through her blog, she wrote back and then began a pen pal relationship that opened a new world to me.  She was generous with her time, her advice and her support, and it soon became clear that we were kindred spirits.  We agreed to meet when Roque and I traveled to Panama in the summer of 2014.

Holly and Scott, like many US expats, have settled in Boquete, in the mountains in the western provinces of Panama, where the city boasts of “Eternal Spring” weather.  This Brigadoon-sounding place seemed ideal.  Beautiful countryside. Temperate climate. Affordable housing. Sizable expat community. Proximity to beaches.  Abundant food produced locally. I was hooked. Continue reading “Deciding to Expatriate to Panama”