Who are you?
We are John and Susan Pazera, lately of Long Beach, Calif. and currently living the expat life in Boquete, Panama. John is retired, and I’m still working full-time as a public relations writer.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
We arrived in Boquete on May 1, 2015.It’s a lovely town in the highlands, on the slopes of Volcan Baru – Panama’s highest mountain. We’re near the cloud forests and surrounded by coffee plantations.
We had been talking about living abroad ever since the three years we spent traveling aboard our 42-foot sailboat in the early 2000s. We traveled down the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America and went through the Panama Canal on our own boat, an unforgettable experience. That’s when we discovered Panama, and we realized that living abroad would give us new horizons and broader opportunities to travel that we might not have otherwise.
Another big driver for us to move to Panama was the cost of living. We came from Southern California, one of the most expensive areas in the US, and we realized that we both would have had to work for many more years if we’d stayed there.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Getting rid of our “stuff” was not easy, but was incredibly liberating. We moved here with six pieces of luggage and two dog crates, and figuring out what to bring down and what to leave behind took a lot of soul-searching.
Another challenge was making sure we got our two dogs – our kids – moved down here safely and legally. It took some work and planning, and a few anxious moments as we waited for those crates to pop out of the conveyor at the Panama City airport, but it all went smoothly.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Boquete is an area with one of the highest concentrations of expats in Panama. There are many, many foreigners here from countries around the world. It’s the place to go if you want to be surrounded by like-minded folks, but that can be a double-edged sword (see below).
What do you like about life where you are?
We have made wonderful friends here, the best we’ve ever had. Other expats have a shared experience and the same love of travel and adventure (for the most part), so it’s easy to find kindred spirits and build connections. As a case in point, some of our closest friends are fellow dog owners, and we all take turns sitting each others’ dogs when their parents head off on a trip.
We chose Boquete because we don’t do well in extremely hot weather and the year-round, cool, rain-forest climate suits us perfectly. But we can get to the beach in an hour if we need an ocean fix. Plus, we’re only a half-hour from David, Panama’s second-largest city, where it’s possible to find just about any type of shop or service we need, and the David airport gets us quickly to Panama City where we can fly anywhere in the world.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
We wouldn’t trade our expat friends for anything, but honestly, we expected more of a cultural experience. We are working hard to learn Spanish and make more of a connection with Panamanians, but with such a large expat community, it’s too easy to fall back on “hanging out with the gringos.” I think if we could do it all over again, we would choose an area that would challenge us a bit more culturally and force us to work harder to integrate with the community.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The pace of life is much slower here. We’ve come to expect things to happen in their due course, and we’ve learned to slow down and smell the roses. The handyman didn’t show up when he said he would? No hay problema – it’s nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow. You start to realize what’s really important in life, and what isn’t, when you’re not constantly on the go or trying to stick to a schedule. We haven’t worn watches since we got here.
Also, in general there’s less of an emphasis on material possessions. The Panamanians take great pleasure in life’s more simple things – spending time with family, taking fun outings to the beach or the mountains, or enjoying the many fairs and celebrations. Sadly, this might be changing as the middle class continues to rise and accumulate more wealth.
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
The coffee, of course, is to die for. We live in one of the premier coffee-growing regions in the world, and we can’t get enough of it. This area is also near the “bread basket” of Panama, so we are never without a huge variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. The typical Panamanian cuisine is very simple – rice, plantains, beans, and some sort of protein. We’ve found the local beef to be pretty tough, usually, but the chicken is excellent, and it’s easy to get fresh-off-the-boat seafood.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
* Don’t bring your stuff. We have heard countless stories of people who shipped down 40-foot containers of furniture and every belonging they had, and even cars and motorcycles, and then decided Panamanian life wasn’t for them. Honestly, you can buy everything you need here, including a good used car. And it’s a simpler life – you won’t need a lot of stuff anyway.
* Visit your intended country a few times. Spend a few weeks living in different areas and experience the place in different seasons. Don’t make a commitment to a place unless you’ve really spent time there.
* Rent a home first – don’t plunge into property ownership until you’re sure your new country is a good fit.
* Keep an open mind. Let’s face it – the expat life isn’t for everyone, and if you come here with a lot of preconceived notions or expect everything here to run as smoothly as it does back in your home country, you might be disappointed. Patience and a smile go a long way.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re rolling stones. For now, we’re enjoying our Panama chapter but we’re beginning to look ahead to the next one. We have no desire to live full-time in the U.S. again, so we’re exploring becoming professional house-sitters and going wherever those opportunities might take us. We’re especially interested in Portugal or Spain as possible future places to hang our hats.
You can keep up to date with John and Susan's adventures on their blog, Latitude Adjustment.
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