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 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.
Patience is a Virtue
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.
Tiny but Mighty
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.”
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”→