Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Could you handle composting your own bathroom business? What about doing away with the convenience of the supermarket and growing, sometimes killing, all your food?
Choosing a life that’s more sustainable and self-sufficient is becoming easier and more realistic for many of us, and living off the grid can also be super-affordable in some parts of the world, once you get past all the up-front costs.
Ian Usher is the co-publisher of Housesitting magazine. He also once sold his whole life on eBay and scored a movie deal with Disney. But the chapter of his life that we’re going to dive into today is the one where he lived off the grid, on his own Caribbean island, off the coast of Panama. Ian, right now you’re a nomadic expat with your partner Vanessa, who I interviewed for the Expat Focus podcast about housesitting, but just a few years ago you were living off the grid in Central America?
Ian Usher: Yeah, this is actually where I, this was the time of my life in which Vanessa and I met, in 2011 through to 2014 I was off-grid on a tiny little island off the Caribbean side of Panama.
Carlie: Why Panama? Why did you, why did you end up in Panama?
Ian Usher: Well, it was really a little bit random for me. I was actually living in Canada, in the far north-west of Canada before, and I’d just spent the winter, and the temperatures are so cold, and I thought right, it’s time to move, I want to be back somewhere warm again. So I actually came across an article, I was doing a bit of research online. I found this article called The Top 10 Cheapest Tropical Places in the World to Live, and Panama was number 1 on the list. Tropical, cheapest, I thought, that’s, that’s the place, that’s the place for me, I’ll go and take a look at Panama. And, I’m a fairly impulsive person, and I found myself making a, what I thought a ridiculous offer on a piece of property, the seller was a very motivated seller and before long, oh, I’m the owner of an island, now what, what do I do now?
Carlie: So, it wasn’t just property in Panama, it was an island (laughs) in Panama?
Ian Usher: It was an island, yes, so it’s in, it’s in the area of Panama called Bocas del Toro, which is on the, the Atlantic side, or the Caribbean side of the country, and it’s very close to the border with Costa Rica, so as you come down through Costa Rica you cross the border, the first place you get to is this little coastal archipelago of islands called Bocas del Toro.
And, it’s a beautiful, beautiful little sort of, pretty much unspoilt place, where there’s quite a little expat community growing and thriving as well, so, we looked at the Pacific side of Panama, and Panama City, and a couple of other places, and when I got to Bocas I just thought yep, this is the place, I like this place, out of all of them we’ve seen, this would be the place I’d buy if I was going to, and little did I realise, two or three days later I was going to be buying.
Carlie: So what makes Bocas del Toro and Panama so attractive for expats? You say you bought an island, are we talking like multi-millions here, or is it a little bit more affordable than that?
Ian Usher: No, way, way, so number one on the list, what makes, what makes particularly this part of Panama attractive, I would say prices, you know, you can buy some amazing little properties down there for less than the price of the standard US or British home, you know, you could sell your home in England and buy an amazing place in Bocas, for the price, and still have money left over. So, prices first of all. And the place I bought was completely overgrown, it’s, it’s two acres, or 10,000 square metres. You could just about fight your way around the edge to, to sort of see how big it was, you couldn’t walk through the centre without chopping and hacking, so, I sort of bought it a little bit blind, without knowing what was, what was in the middle, and I had a lot of work to do afterwards.
But, that’s also part of the appeal. This area’s a bit wilder and more remote, so that there’s a sort of great sense of freedom down there, you really are off, off the beaten track and off the grid a bit. But also, as I you know, as I lived there, and found out more about the place, it was the real sense of community as well that became the real attraction to the area, it’s such a fantastic little community.
Carlie: So you bought this island, it’s overgrown, it’s off the grid, had you any experience living off-grid, or is that something you had to work out?
Ian Usher: No, this was, this really was, I hadn’t! (laughs) I suggest people really considering an expat lifestyle do, do a bit more planning than I did, this was all very [unclear word 00:04:56], an impulsive thing, and I wouldn’t suggest people necessarily follow and do it the way I did. So, I, I had ahead of me a huge steep learning curve of, everything about building houses, about off-grid living, about water-based living, highland living, all of this was ahead of me, you know, it really was a, a long long list of challenges.
Carlie: Could you move straight in? Was there a house there?
Ian Usher: No, there was literally nothing there. I had to start with three months of preparation. So I had to live in the main town, which was about 20 minutes away by boat. I stayed in the main town, and I travelled to the island each day with a team of workers that I employed from, you know local guys, to help. And we spent three months just chopping and clearing and, and then I had to go through the process of planning for the house, sourcing the materials, finding someone who could help me build, and really start from zero, from a piece of land that had nothing, to build in the space of, over the course of maybe a year, a home that was, was a comfortable and liveable place.
Carlie: What were some of the skills that you picked up in that time, or had to learn?
Ian Usher: The first skill I had to develop was, was boat-handling really, I had to buy a boat, which was gonna be my, my workhorse boat and my staff transport, and my own transport. You know, parking a boat at a dock, when you’re not really sure what you’re doing, can be quite comedic, and for the first couple of weeks you are a source of entertainment to others, until you start to understand, aaah, I see, I do it this way, and, you know, read the water, and understand what the wind’s going to do. One of the guys who helped me was a Canadian builder, who said “Let me teach you a couple, you obviously need some skills here, let me teach you a couple of things about handling boats”, and his best piece of advice was take everything as slowly as you can, until you figure out how it all works, so.
Boat handling, I had to learn to speak some Spanish, obviously Spanish is the main language there, and to work with the local guys you’ve got to be able to speak Spanish to most of them. I have sort of functional Spanish, I can talk about wheelbarrows and hammers and nails and stuff, but …
Carlie: So useful, yeah!
Ian Usher: Yeah, so, in day to day life I struggle a bit, unless we’re in a hardware store, then …
Carlie: Then you’re fluent!
Ian Usher: Yeah, no, I [unclear word 00:07:23] haha I know everything here. But, you know, people management skills, and then all of the building stuff you know, I had to learn what works in Panama, and what works in the islands, and then learn about solar power and rainwater collection, and all of the systems that, that really you need to manage in an off-grid property, so, yeah, a steep learning curve of many different skills that had to be developed. But, a lot of fun as well, I do like a challenge, and they were just some of them that had to be overcome.
Carlie: What would you say was your biggest of all of the challenges, and all of the new skills that you had to learn in order to set up your island?
Ian Usher: Well, I wrote a book about this, I wrote a book called “Paradise Delayed”, and, in which I sort of wrote, sort of semi-amusing essays about some of the challenges, and I think the worst thing I ever did was, I needed a bigger boat, and I borrowed one of my neighbours’ boats which had a bigger engine for shifting some stuff, and I had it parked at my dock overnight, and it rained overnight, and I thought, the boat’s OK, you know, it’s sort of under the roof and the boat has a, its own little roof on, and I was appalled when I came out in the morning to find the boat on the bottom. It had sunk!
Sunk to the bottom. And the top of the engine was just out of the water, and I thought, how am I going to tell my neighbour I just sunk his boat? His very expensive boat. So, we bailed it out, and we got it up to the surface, and we had to pull the, pull the engine out and dry everything out, and, fortunately the top of the engine had stayed out of the water, and my neighbour was incredibly understanding about the whole thing, and he, he said, you know really, you can’t consider yourself a local here till you’ve sunk at least one boat, he said. Now, now you’re a local!
Carlie: It’s a rite of passage!
Ian Usher: Yeah, it is, exactly, and there’s a few rites of passage I guess, so, that was my, my biggest drama, I think.
Carlie: So once you got over the hurdles, you learnt how to handle a boat, you built your house, and then you were settling in to your new off-grid life in Panama, what was day to day life like?
Ian Usher: There’s always something to do when you’re living off-grid. There’s always a little job or a bit of maintenance, so, in terms of the house, you know you maybe have to check the, the levels in your battery, the acid levels, and monitor your power. You’ve got to be aware of how much water’s in the rain tank when, when you think it might rain again, when your water might run out. The island itself, too, you know, I’d changed it from this overgrown jungle almost into a, a place where I wanted to plant things and grow things and I had chickens for eggs, and I occasionally ate them with the chickens, so you know you’ve got to look after the chickens, and you’ve got to trim the grass down and keep, keep things growing, and plant coconut trees and plant other fruits and so on, so. You think, you know, it’s all gonna be sitting in a hammock and sipping margaritas, but it, there’s an awful lot more work than you ever imagine there’s going to be.
Carlie: I was going to say it sounds like there’s so much day to day general maintenance to keep your home running and making sure you’ve got fresh water and fuel and food sources – is there time to relax and enjoy your island life?
Ian Usher: There is too, it, I guess it sort of sounds like a lot of work to do. First of all there’s a lot of satisfaction in creating that life where you really aren’t dependent on anyone or anything else. And it, yes, to, even though community-wise there are neighbours all around the archipelago, and every now and then there would be a party or a birthday, every Sunday was the sort of neighbourhood get-together, there was a little restaurant way down in the jungle, the only way you could get to it was by boat, and every Sunday from midday onwards was the big neighbourhood gathering, and you’d go down and have pizza and beers and catch up with all your neighbours and it was like a little swap meat and eggs and bananas and coconuts and fruits. So yeah, there was a lot of socialising too, and you could spend time, you know if you wanted, sitting in your hammock sipping your beer or your margaritas as well, you could make the time to do that too.
Carlie: So who were your neighbours? Were they fellow expats, were they other people that were passionate about living off-grid, or wanting somewhere affordable, or what led them to Panama?
Ian Usher: There’s just such an amazing mix of people. I think that’s what made it such fun and made it such an interesting community. Some were, were retirees who just wanted to make their retirement funds go further, you know they’d bought a place and just sort of wanted to sort of live out their retirement in, in a bit more peace and, you know a bit less stress perhaps than the States. Some were people who, who did want to be off-grid and wanted to shun the materialistic, the more materialistic side of society. Some were adventurers, you know, some people you thought I’m not really sure why you’re here, or, the best thing is everyone just accepts you know that we’re all in this together, we’re all enjoying this, these challenges and this adventure together.
Carlie: Were there any hairy moments in your off-grid life? I imagine it’s quite isolating when something goes wrong.
Ian Usher: Most of them were boat-related, and (laughs) again I wrote about one in “Paradise Delayed”, it was, I had these big logs I had to transport, which were gonna be part of a dock. We had to pile them all into the boat, and set off across quite a large expanse of open water from one side, from one side to the other, and we set off and the weather was getting worse, and we could see this storm coming in, and we got halfway across and the boat just sort of chugged to a stop. One of the guys looked at me and he said, he said “you have got the spare fuel, haven’t you?” And I said “yeah, yeah”, and then I thought, “ohhhh, no!” The spare fuel was under the locker up at the front of the boat, and the locker had about twenty big logs across the top of it. And it was, my friend had said, “so where’s the fuel?” I said “It’s in that locker there”. And he just looked at me and he said “What?!” I said “Yep, it’s in there”.
So we had to, four of us had to do this sort of jiggling dance of balancing these rocks on the edge of the boat and put one out to the right, one out to the left, one out to the right of these logs, until we could open the locker, and the boat was teetering and tottering precariously and the storm was coming in, the waves were getting higher. I just thought, if this goes over, you know, you’re going to be underneath these lots as they, these were heavy logs, they’re going to sink to the bottom and you’re gonna be under all of them. And, we got a few, we carefully put all the logs back and topped up the engine with fuel and got going, I was so relieved. That was, I think, one of the, the worst moments.
Carlie: Ian, you said the way that you went off-grid, you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to other people. If you had your time again, how would you possibly do it differently, or prepare differently, for island life?
Ian Usher: I would certainly suggest that, that someone would go and spend some time there, before diving into buying. And really look at what other people have done, and visit other people, and look at their houses, and see what’s involved, and what their lifestyle really is like. Because I had no idea before I started, I just jumped straight in, and I would suggest anyone take a little bit more time, just to research and spend some time. Vanessa and I produce the Housesitting magazine, I think housesitting is one of the best ways you can go and immerse yourself in an area and live in an area without that commitment to buy. Housesitting is the perfect try before you buy option. And in Bocas there’s, people are often going back to visit family in the States or going somewhere else, and they’re always looking for a housesitter.
Carlie: Vanessa did mention that, that you couldn’t go away for a while and just leave your island empty.
Ian Usher: Yeah, because there, there was the expat community, and there’s also a big local indigenous Indian community, who, who’ve always been there. And they, I guess they don’t quite get the concept of someone going on holiday for two weeks or a month. You know, if you, the gringo, leaves the island, as far as they’re concerned that’s it, it’s gone! To them, I guess he doesn’t want this house any more, so, those roof panels would be useful, and that, that, you know the electricity stuff, all the solar gear, or the wood here…
Carlie: Everything you’ve worked so hard to get there! (laughs)
Ian Usher: Yeah, and it, exactly, and it’s not, it’s not really a malicious thing, it’s just practicality, like you know, obviously this guy doesn’t need this any more, well we may as well use it! There is a bit of petty theft, but a lot of it is just recycling of, and you know this does happen, people go and build a property and start to live there, and then think aah, maybe this isn’t for me, and the property gets abandoned, and over a period of months it just disappears again as the roof goes, the walls go, the wooden supports go, and eventually there’s just a concrete foundation left. So, yeah, I have a [unclear word 00:16:58], I have a sleep necessity. As well, you know, you have a solar system, so the batteries need maintenance, and your water system needs some maintenance, so…
Carlie: If you’re totally green, like you were Ian, are there people that will take you under their wing and, and show you from scratch, or as you said, as a housesitter are you expected to already know some stuff?
Ian Usher: As a housesitter you, a homeowner would want you to be able to come in and, maybe one or two days with you to show you everything, and they’d hope you’re going to be able to get on without any dramas. As someone moving down there, then yes, people will help you, people will sort of take you under their wing and, you know, there’s always, there’s a guy who’s a solar expert and a guy who’s an electrician, and a guy who’s a builder, a guy who’s good with water systems, and a guy who can set up your internet, there’s always the people there who can help you.
But, you almost have to, to sort of earn it as well, you have to sort of earn that, I remember when I was very first there I, I suggested to someone who was going to become one of my neighbours, and I said “ah, I wish there was a, a Panama or a Bocas for Dummies book that I could just read, that told me all of this stuff”. And she looked at me horrified, and she said “no Ian, no, that would be the worst thing!” She said “You have to go through the same learning curve I’ve gone through. You have to figure this out for yourself. And that way you earn the right to be here, you earn the respect of your neighbours. And that’s when you become part of the community, when you’ve experienced this learning curve like we’ve all had to do”.
Carlie: It gives you more credibility, and more, yeah as you said, respect.
Ian Usher: You know a year later, I said “you were absolutely right”. You know, I would hate to give out a Panama for Dummies, anyone can come and do this, ‘cause you can’t. You know, you can’t learn it from a book, you have to go and live it, and, I just thought, she was so spot on, you have to earn the right to be here.
Carlie: Ian, after living it for a while, you decided to leave. Now, what was your thought process in deciding to give up your island and your off-grid life in Panama?
Ian Usher: So, I met Vanessa during my time of living on the island, I was passing through London and Vanessa and I met, we were both staying at a, we had a mutual friend and we met there. And then Vanessa came and joined me at the island, and we lived there together for a year, for both of us really, we’re both adventurers and we’re both travellers, and we both like the challenge of something new. For me, after three years at the island I felt I’d overcome all the challenges, I’d got past the learning curve, and you know life was pretty comfortable, everything at the house worked, I knew how to do everything, I wasn’t getting into dramas and misadventures any more, because it was all just part of my day to day life.
And, Vanessa and I couldn’t afford to both keep the island and go and travel as well, and go and look for new adventures, so we had to make that decision. And Vanessa sold her property in the UK, and I put my place up for sale, and it was time to look for a new life together.
Carlie: Do people successfully move to Panama and find ways to earn an income while living a lifestyle like you did?
Ian Usher: You could do, and we sort of made our income while we lived there, we did, we did a bit of online work, we would make websites for people, and do that sort of thing, and a lot of people found their own little niche of, you know, become the guy who helps people set up their off-grid internet, or become the solar expert, and we sort of became the, the website people, so yeah, and it, really you know, you don’t need to earn a lot, because I bought the island outright, once you get rid of your mortgage and once you don’t have car payments, there’s really very little you need to support yourself, you know, sort of $100 a week will buy your food and put fuel in your boat and buy you your beers, so, you know it’s not like you have to find a, a high-paying 40 hours a week job.
Carlie: So Ian, while you have moved on now from Panama, and yourself and Vanessa are running Housesitting magazine, and you’re travelling the world housesitting and having an amazing time by the sounds of it, what advice would you give people who are looking at Panama right now and might be considering setting up a home, whether it be on an island or a little bit more on-grid.
Ian Usher: To repeat what I said before, do your homework, definitely do your homework first, and really decide if it suits you for the long term.
Because being on holiday somewhere for a couple of weeks is a very very different experience to actually living there, and that being your life, and your neighbourhood, and your neighbours and so on, so. Yeah definitely take a try before you buy approach. But for anyone with a spirit of adventure, who really does want a, I don’t know, get a bit closer to nature, and live a life that, that is a little bit more challenging, but a lot more rewarding, then I think it’s a, it’s a great adventure, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and I do look back on it with a lot of fondness. You know anyone who thinks maybe, maybe this is for me, I’d definitely say go and check it out, because it is an amazing place.
Carlie: Well that’s it for today. If you’d like to discuss this episode, ask Ian any questions, or share your own experiences living off-grid or in Panama, maybe both, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and facebook groups. Remember to check out our previous episodes at expatfocus.com/podcasts, they are also on iTunes, and I’ll catch you next time.