My Expat Adventure Began, not with a Bang but with a Whimper
Leaving the USA
After years of planning, months of selling off our possessions and weeks of camping out at a friend’s house while we made ours welcoming for a tenant, our Panama adventure was finally underway.
The plan was for me to go on ahead and find a place for us to live while my husband wrapped things up in Florida with our three dogs. Once I found a house to rent, he and the dogs would join me.
We were aiming for a small town on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula.Finally, the big day arrived – the day when I would officially become an expat.
My husband got me to the airport, along with my small mountain of luggage. After a goodbye laced with equal amounts of tears and excitement, I headed for airport security and on to the gate.
Fortunately the flight was uneventful.
A few minutes with Immigration and Customs and a $35 cab ride later, I’d made it to the hotel. I was in Panama!
After a day in Panama City, I was off by cab to the Albrook Bus Terminal.
Arriving in Las Tablas
The trip to the interior (that’s all of Panama outside the Panama City metro area) was uneventful and I arrived at the Piamonte Hotel in Las Tablas in the late afternoon.
My husband and I had stayed at the Piamonte the previous year when we’d come to Panama on a scouting trip. The location is excellent, right in the center of town. The hotel also has its own restaurant, a big plus.
On the minus side, there’s no internet and no phones in the guest rooms, which are across the street from the restaurant and the office.
Feeling tired and travel worn, I took it easy that first night – dinner in the hotel restaurant and early to bed.
The next morning began my first full day as an official resident of Las Tablas, Panama. Picture me springing out of bed, eager to greet the day and house hunt.
That’s what I had pictured anyway. The reality was just a bit different.
At 6 AM I woke up feeling sick. Not a little off, not “a bit queasy” but really, really sick.
I don’t know if it was something I ate or drank in Panama City, a poor choice at the cafeteria where the bus stopped for lunch the previous day, or even maybe something from the Piamante’s restaurant.
Whatever the source, I had a raging case of Traveler’s Tummy, Montezuma’s Revenge or whatever you want to call it.
It wasn’t pretty.
So, there I was, sick as could be, with no way to communicate with the outside world unless I actually went out into the outside world.
If I’d had a phone I’d have been on it whimpering to my husband, “I can’t do this. I’m coming home. Yes, I know we have no furniture, dishes, pots, pans or anything else any more. No beds or sheets to put on them. Too bad, at least I’ll die someplace where I can explain how awful I’m feeling.”
Our Panama adventure nearly came to a screeching halt right then and there. (In retrospect, it’s a good thing I had no in-room phone and internet service.)
The morning and early afternoon passed in a blur of misery as I alternately rested and rid myself of the bugs that had taken over my digestive system.
By early afternoon I felt as though leaving the room was possible. Maybe a cup of tea would help settle things.
I made myself presentable and staggered across to the restaurant where I ordered tea, drank it (slowly) and managed to keep it down.
After a bit, I decided to tackle something a little more solid. Something chicken soup-like, I thought. Some nice clear broth would be just the ticket.
I spotted won ton soup on the menu (many restaurants here serve Chinese dishes like chop suey and chow mein). Perfect.
Eventually the waitress – an elegant young woman who glided around looking supercilious – placed a steaming bowl in front of me.
Now, I’ve been eating won ton soup for more years than I care to admit to. The won ton soups I’ve encountered in the past feature a pale yellow broth with a few noodle pockets, little islands floating gracefully in a sea of broth.
This wasn’t pale yellow, it was a deep reddish brown. Instead of little floating won ton pockets, it was jam-packed with some sort of green, leafy vegetable and an entire chicken leg. And that was just what I could see on the surface!
One whiff did me in. Hurriedly throwing some bills onto the table I fled back to the privacy of my room.
It was not my finest hour.
After wallowing in misery for a while, I steeled myself to venture out again. The grocery store was only a block down the street. Maybe they’d have some crackers.
I found something called “digestive biscuits” (which turned out to be graham crackers). While standing in line at the register, I heard a few words of English. In front of me were a woman and a teenage girl and, yes, they were speaking my language.
I struck up a conversation and learned that the woman, a Panamanian, was practicing English with her foreign exchange student. She was very sweet, gave me her phone number and offered to help with anything I might need. She’s become a friend.
The next day I set up my cell phone and started looking for a house. I still felt a little fragile, but no longer ill.
What is it they say? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? My tummy hasn’t bothered me at all since that day, and I’m eating and drinking whatever I want here in Panama.
I also met my first local friend on that miserable sick day.
My rocky start in Las Tablas helped me establish a habit that has served us well here – talking to strangers. People are friendly, welcoming and helpful and they appreciate it when we make an effort to reach out.
When you move to a foreign country, you’ll find lots of things are very different from what you left. In the US, “strangers” are the boogey man. We keep our distance and we certainly never talk to them. Here in Panama, you’re expected to talk to people you don’t know.
It’s a difference I absolutely love.
Susanna Perkins always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks.