Two years ago, I arrived in Las Tablas, Panama, with statements like that ringing in my ears.
Moving abroad was a rocky road, for us. Something I’d always wanted to do – live overseas – became an urgent necessity after the US financial meltdown in 2009. While we were planning our move, family members and friends reacted in wildly different ways. On one extreme was my mother, who told us that she was proud of us for finding an interesting and creative solution to a very difficult problem. She admired our bravery. Most people fell in the middle, not really understanding but trying to express support.And then there was the other extreme. The “you’re unpatriotic and you shouldn’t even think about leaving the US” extreme. From a family member (a member of my husband’s family, not mine, I’m happy to report). So why am I revisiting this reaction now, after two successful years of overseas living?
We’re getting a lot of pressure to return to the US to live. My husband’s brother has come up with an idea for a business partnership, and to sweeten the pot, has offered us his vacation home to live in for a time.
He’s doing it because he doesn’t understand how we can live in Panama. He wants us back in the States, and he’s very up front about it. We spoke with him on Skype recently, and it was fascinating to watch his assumptions at work. He just knows that our life here is awful, you see, and he wants to save us from it.
How does he know for sure that our life stinks?
Because we have no hot running water. “I want to see you guys move back to the US, where you’ll have hot water. I can’t imagine living without hot water,” he told us.
Frankly, if I lived where he did I wouldn’t live without hot water either. Fortunately, we’re not there, we’re in the tropics. Even a “cold” shower these days is pretty warm. There have even been a few times recently when I’ve had to step back quickly from my “cold” shower because I didn’t want to get burned.
But that’s beside the point.
Today I was thinking about his attitude. I know there’s no way to persuade him that our life here doesn’t suck, but since you’re reading this and he’s not, let me explain to you why I think we have a pretty good life here.
Our social life here is busier than it ever was in Florida. We see more of our friends more often, and it’s easier to get together. (It’s a lot easier to make friends, too.) People here – both expats and local folks – are helpful, kind and generous with their time. I can probably count on my two hands the number of times friends just casually stopped by during the 25 years we lived in Florida. In the two years since we’ve been in Las Tablas, it’s happened more than in that 25 years in Florida.
I meet with an informal group several times a week for water aerobics. The visiting is just as important as the exercise. When I lived in the US, I exercised by myself because everyone was too busy with the rat race to get together.
The Pace of Life
Life here is “muy tranquilo.” Sometimes a little too tranquilo, actually, but after the frenetic pace we used to keep up it’s mostly welcome.
This afternoon I needed to pay a couple bills and get my hair cut. Salons here don’t take appointments. I walked in and saw a bunch of people waiting. So I and asked my stylist how much time it would be before he could take me. An hour? Fine. I left, paid my bills, and came back without losing my place in the queue.
When you eat out, you have to request the bill when you’re ready to leave. Otherwise, they’ll just let you sit there all afternoon or evening (or both). Newcomers find it annoying because we’re used to US restaurants whose mantra is turnover, turnover, turnover. I rather like it.
Compared to the high-stress life we had before, it’s a very welcome change.
Our Money Goes a Long Way
Our basic budget here is about a third of what it was in the US for a painful, bare-bones existence. We live pretty comfortably. If we don’t feel like cooking, we can go out. We don’t have to stop and think about it. If we want to go out with friends, we don’t worry about what it will cost.
We rent a comfortable house in a good neighborhood, for a measly $400/month. If I wanted to hire a housekeeper, I could have someone in for a half-day each week for about $15.
Fresh fruits are abundant and inexpensive. Beer is cheap.
We Don’t Give a Thought to the Polar Vortex
While our families and friends back in the US and Canada were struggling with one of the coldest, nastiest winters on record, we were enjoying the sunshine in our shorts and sandals. The weather is warm year-round, which we like.
This is not true throughout the entire country, but in our little piece of it, violent crime is pretty much nonexistent. During my two years here, I’ve never felt a moment’s unease about my personal safety. Because it’s a relatively poor country, crimes of opportunity happen. We try to be sensible – we don’t flaunt expensive jewelry or wads of cash, and we tuck high-tech gear out of sight when we leave the house.
My husband’s a cyclist, and he feels much safer riding here than he ever did back in the States. Even though the roads are narrower, with little or no shoulder, it’s less of a problem. That’s mostly because lots of folks here use bicycles as a means of transportation, so drivers are more tolerant and alert for them.
We’re Close to the Beach AND the Mountains
It’s about a 10-minute drive to our favorite beach. We like to take the dogs several times a week so they can run around. It’s usually deserted.
If we want to cool off a bit, we can head for the hills. They’re a little farther, but not much. I can see mountains when I look down my street.
We’re Experiencing a New Culture
Our Spanish is still pretty basic, but we’re learning more all the time. We get to look at ourselves through the lens of another culture, and we get to immerse ourselves in a way of life that’s different in a lot of ways.
Now, I’m not going to try to kid you that our life here is perfect. Hey, it’s life. . . And Panama has some warts, just like everyplace else.
Am I Tempted to go Back? Sometimes
I admit, sometimes the sheer convenience available in the US is tempting. Our favorite foods, easily accessible. Huge, fully stocked stores of every description. Movies that aren’t dubbed in a foreign language. Being closer to our kids and other family. That last one exerts a strong pull. I have to admit, we miss the kids more than we expected to. If I could wave a magic wand and create my ideal life, part of it would involve summers in New England. It’s where I grew up, and where four of our kids have landed. Life here is pretty darn good, though. I’m not at all tempted to trade it for full-time living in the US.
by Susanna Perkins.
Susanna 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
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