One month ago, my husband and I were dealing with a drinking water crisis in Las Tablas, Panama.
We had chosen to move to Panama in part because we’d have access to potable water. So when we learned the drinking water supply for most of the Azuero Peninsula was contaminated with Atrazine, we were pretty upset.
At the same time, we’d recently returned from a five-week visit to the US where we got to see lots of friends and family and attend the graduations of two of our kids from college. My husband’s family has been exerting steady pressure for a while, wanting us to return to the US.We were also feeling some parental guilt because we couldn’t give our youngest child, one of the above-mentioned new college grads, the option to move “back home” while she established herself.
When the water crisis hit, we’d been methodically weighing the pros and cons of a return to the States. We were figuring out a likely monthly budget, and being very deliberate. To add to the confusion, out of the blue a former boss called my husband and offered him a job back in Orlando.
It seemed like the stars were aligning, so we decided to leave Panama. It took us 12 months to leave Orlando for Las Tablas. It took us one month to leave Panama.
There were some things we had to sell before we left. The car. I had estimated it would take two or three months to sell the car. Panama doesn’t have an organized, developed used-car market. New car dealers don’t handle used cars at all, and outside of Panama City it’s managed like everything else – by word of mouth.
We did some research and figured out a price. I made some flyers that we placed around town, and we let friends know that we were looking for a buyer. Three days later, I met a new expat, arrived the month before from Texas. He mentioned he had bought a scooter, but was realizing he needed a car. “Well,” I said, “ours is for sale.” He looked at it, then contacted me the next day to say he’d buy it.
Best of all, we worked out the payment so that he transferred funds directly from his US bank account into ours. He understood that we needed to use it until the last minute, so we arranged a closing date for July 30.
Furniture. We had rented our house fully furnished. After the first year, when we decided to renew our contract, we bought our own living and dining room furniture. We also had a computer desk and chair, some electronics that didn’t make sense to bring back, and a lot of kitchen stuff.
I posted some information on online forums, and got the word out to friends. Before we knew it, we had sold all the furniture, almost all the kitchenware, all the electronics, and a few other odds and ends. Our landlord bought the washing machine for the next tenants’ use.
We did have one big stumbling block.
Moving the dogs out of Panama turned out to be a big pain. For one thing, there’s not really any information available about what to do and how to do it. I learned that we needed an export permit, but couldn’t find out how to get one.
My husband went into Panama City, leaving Las Tablas at 6 AM and getting back around 9:30 that evening. He took the dogs’ health certificates with him and headed for the address our veterinarian had provided. He found out that office had moved to another location about three years before.
He spent the rest of the day going back and forth, by bus and cab, across Panama City. When he arrived home that night, he had a set of beautifully apostilled documents. It just didn’t include an export permit.
At a get-together with about 40 US, Canadian and Panamanian friends the next weekend, we were describing our predicament. Our friend Lee recommended a man he’d been dealing with. Jose Saenz runs a business in Panama City
called Golden Frog where he handles pet transport. He’s been in business for years, and has a good reputation among the expat community.
I contacted Jose. He got the paperwork we needed – including the export permit – and agreed to take the dogs to the airport and put them on the plane for us, all for a reasonable fee. We had to make the flight arrangements ourselves, though.
That proved to be another headache.
We wanted to send them on Delta as we were flying into Atlanta and Delta offers climate controlled petmobiles to get the animals onto and off of the planes. But we got no response from the folks at Delta
Baggage in Panama City.
Finally, in desperation, I called the US number for Delta Baggage customer service. A very helpful rep explained that they couldn’t make the booking for me, but they could call the folks in Panama and ask them to get in touch with us.
“Yes, please,” I said.
A few minutes later I had a phone number and a name to call, with the rep in Panama awaiting my call. Sure enough, I was able to get through to Lorriet. She gave me the information I needed, and a few days later we booked the flight for the dogs.
On July 29, we drove into Panama City, delivered the dogs to Jose, and drove back to Las Tablas. At 5:45
AM on July 30, he texted me that they were at the airport. He let me know when they went through security, and then confirmed they were on the plane. At one o’clock that afternoon, I met with our car buyer to handle the paperwork, and turn over the car to him. At about four o’clock, my husband’s brother emailed to let us know the dogs had been picked up safely in Atlanta.
On August 1, various people came to our house to take possession of the items they had purchased. On August 2, after a lovely lunch organized by our friends, we donated the few items we hadn’t been able to sell to a local pet rescue organization. On August 3 we took the bus into Panama City with way too much luggage, and on August 4 we flew to
Our pups were very happy to see us!!!
We’re staying temporarily at my brother-in-law’s vacation house in South Carolina. We’re not sure how long we’ll be here, and with some new developments we may or may not end up in Orlando. Whichever state we stay in, we’re looking at being here for a couple of years.
So am I still an expat?
I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. In the process, I went back and reread some
of the articles I wrote before we moved to Panama. In one The Untethered Expat Life I outlined what’s important to me:
• Affordable, good quality health care
• Language (English or Spanish preferred)
• Someplace our kids will visit
• Warm climate year round
• Small or medium-sized city with walkable neighborhoods
Included in that list, I wrote, “We need to be able to take our dogs. (We have three adorable Papillons.)”
If I knew then what I know now, I would never have moved the dogs to Panama. Our oldest died last fall, and their stay was plagued by one massive tick infestation after another. My husband is convinced the ticks caused Woodstock’s death. We are hoping the two we have left will be healthier here. The dogs are elderly now, and before we venture overseas again they will have departed this world.
The other items on the list are still important to me.
Will we go back to Las Tablas or Panama? It’s quite possible. It’s also a big world out there, and we’d like to explore more of it before we settle down completely. My husband has a long-time friend who winters in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. That might be our next destination, at least to visit. I’m interested in looking at Granada, Nicaragua, and parts of Asia as well as Europe. In other words, we’re not ready to settle down anywhere just yet.
To me, being an expat is a state of mind. As I wrote previously:
“It’s a place where:
“… you are firmly grounded in reality, but allow your vision of what your life could be to soar.
“… you recognize what’s important to you, and focus on that while cutting away all the clutter.
“… you explore new possibilities, unafraid.
:… you’re open to new experiences and adventures.
“… you can laugh at yourself when something doesn’t go quite right.
“… you can find enjoyment in the little things.”
I joke that the culture shock of living in the Deep South might be greater than any we experienced in
Panama. So, yes, I think I’m still an expat. What do you think?
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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