In one month, we’ll celebrate our second anniversary as expats.
Two years. . . sometimes it feels like a very short time. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been here forever. As I round off the second year of our living overseas, I find myself asking, “if I knew then what I know now, what would I have done differently?” I’m not talking about “if circumstances were different” types of pondering. But if I were moving to Panama today, with a full understanding of the life I’d lead here, what would I do differently?
I came up with three things, of very unequal importance.
Bring fewer clothesI packed way too much.
Before we left the US, I donated massively to Goodwill. I emptied my closet (I thought) of all but the most essential clothing. I must have given away 20 or more large garbage bags filled with used clothing – some of it very lightly used.
Still, I brought too much. Somehow I was laboring under the mistaken idea that I would wear long sleeves here, ever. Or jeans. Or dresses. Or shoes. . .
One solitary long-sleeved shirt would have been enough for the handful of times I’ve wanted it (usually when I was going to a place with too much air conditioning). The only time I’ve put on a pair of jeans was when I tried them on before last fall’s trip to the US to make sure they still fit. And dress shoes? Ha. I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve had anything on my feet besides sandals or crocs.
Now, granted, I need a little cool-weather clothing for trips back to the States, but not nearly as much as I kept.
Bring a Can Opener
Sounds stupid, but we have not been able to find a can opener that works here. Shortly after I arrived, I bought a cheap hand-crank can opener at the grocery store. It wouldn’t even pierce the can lid. So I found a better one, which worked. Sort of. But not very well. Then my husband splurged and bought an electric can opener. That one didn’t work either. A can opener isn’t a big deal until you’re hungry and you have no way to get into that metal canister. . .
Don’t Bring the Dogs
In the overall scheme of things, packing fewer clothes and tossing in a can opener are not very important. It’s very hard to admit this, but if we had it to do over, we would not have brought the dogs with us.
Americans have a complicated relationship with pets, and we’re no exception. I love my pups, and they’re part of the family. There are probably a lot of countries where the dogs and we could have lived happily.
Unfortunately, Panama isn’t one of them.
Some of that is purely practical. For example, ticks are a big problem here. Several times a year the ticks come out in force. For weeks at a time, we spend huge amounts of time every day inspecting the dogs for ticks. Even when it’s not tick season, we still have to keep checking them for the odd straggler. We’ve finally found a treatment that works pretty well, but we need to maintain constant vigilance. The dogs don’t like it, and neither do we.
Even more important than the ticks and diseases to watch out for, though, is the way the dogs tie us down. It’s much harder here to travel with, or leave, the pets than it ever was back in the US.
First, there are almost no pet-friendly hotels in the entire country. In the US, traveling with the dogs was easy. Here it’s pretty impossible.
Second, there aren’t any boarding kennels in our part of the country. (There are a handful of good ones in Panama City, but we’re 4-½ hours away.)
So if we want to go anywhere, we have to find someone to come and stay with the dogs. During our first year here, we dealt with it by not going anywhere – not an option we were happy with.
Then we staggered our trips. I went back to the US for a couple weeks while my husband stayed at home, then I came home and he went. Also not ideal. Last fall we were able to go on a trip together, but only because our wonderful friend Marianne flew down to pet sit for us. She stayed for a month, and took super good care of our dogs.
Sadly, despite the excellent care, our oldest died while we were away. He’d been having a few problems before we left, but it never occurred to us he wouldn’t be here, tail wagging to greet us, when we returned. It was hard on Marianne, hard on us, and hard on the remaining two dogs.
In May, we’re heading back to the US for three important family graduations. I started searching for someone to come and stay with the dogs over a month ago. I think we’ve finally found the right person. While I’m confident the pet sitter will take excellent care while we’re away, making the arrangements has taken a lot of time.
Usually my husband and I work well together as a couple. I’m the more impulsive, and he’s the one who takes time to analyze and ponder. That mostly leads to good decisions, but not always. . .
About six months before we planned to move, I suggested it might be smart to find new homes for our furry family members. He couldn’t even contemplate it. So we continued with our plans, which included bringing the dogs with us. In March, I traveled to Panama to find a house to rent while he wrapped things up back in Florida.
Our son was getting married, so I flew back for the wedding in April. The plan was that my husband and the dogs would fly to Panama as soon after the wedding as we could get all their paperwork done. The day before the wedding, my husband suggested that maybe we shouldn’t take the dogs with us.
They say that timing is everything, and in this situation our timing was way, way off. Even though I had originally suggested doing just that, I felt like we’d run out of time. I couldn’t agree to handing off our dogs in a headlong rush and we had a big fight over it.
If I had it to do over again, about six months before our planned departure date, I would have started looking for new homes for our beloved pets (and my husband, knowing what he knows now would have agreed). Re-homing them would have been painful, and we’d probably still be feeling guilty about it.
Only you can decide what’s best for your family, including your pets. Sometimes the right decisions are the toughest.
As for us, I really wish we’d decided not to include the dogs in our overseas adventure. We’d have missed them like crazy – just like we miss our kids. But we’d have the freedom to go spend a night in Panama City once in a while, or visit nearby Costa Rica and Nicaragua – or even other parts of Panama! Considering how long we’ve been here we’ve seen very little of the country.
At this point, we’ll keep our furry family together. But when they move on to their happy hunting ground, we won’t be replacing them.
Ah, if only we’d known then. . .
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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