Written by: Byron Edgington
Date: May 24, 2016
My wife and I made the decision a while ago to consider moving out of the U.S. We’re not concerned about the current political drama, not evading bill collectors. We’re not running away from troubles, debts, worries or kids. No, we just realized that, as recent retirees, and now on the proverbial ‘fixed income,’ our finances didn’t match up with our plans.
There are health care concerns, too, that forced us to seek a warmer climate, but other considerations added to our effort. We’re both completely over Ohio winters, see the photo below, and also, wishing to travel extensively, we need more discretionary income than staying in the U.S. allows.
We researched several possible offshore destinations: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Belize, even Nicaragua. We checked into Portugal, which is too expensive and far from family, Ireland, ditto, plus too chilly & raw, Thailand, too unstable, though very tempting, and again, too far away.
Then there was Panama. After asking several folks, reading various blogs, checking with a myriad of sources, we chose the Republic of Panama for many reasons.
It’s very stable politically, the currency is the U.S. dollar, it’s much safer crime-wise than most parts of the U.S., healthcare is excellent, Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport is as close to friends and family as LAX, ORD or MIA, there’s already a sizable expat community in Panama.
Plus, it’s a serene, laid back country that’s proud of its calm, courteous reputation. So, Panama seemed like a good choice, and to find out we hopped down to visit.
Here’s what we can report thus far, a rudimentary report, five easy lessons for anyone considering becoming an expat, general comments, and not specific to Panama.
1. Be very honest with yourself and your mate about what it is you want.
It’s too easy to talk ourselves into something, and to fool ourselves into believing we’ll love a place, especially if it’s exotic and different. If you’re thinking of moving anywhere, especially across geographic, language and/or cultural boundaries, this is a good time to be very selfish, and very sure of what your needs and wants are. And speak up about them. If your gut says ‘I can’t live without a hot shower every day,’ listen, and heed the message. If you and your mate don’t get along all that well, moving offshore won’t fix that – it will make it worse.
Indeed, if your expectation is stability, creature comforts, predictable & familiar things, then a move to a new country and culture may not be to your liking. In fact, you could be miserable. If you’re convinced you can’t learn a new language then you’re probably right. An aside: Even if you’re convinced you’ll never speak the language, try anyway. Learn a list of everyday expressions: ‘good morning/afternoon/evening; I want/need/have/lost/see…(fill in the blank); ‘do you have/see/make/do/accept…? etc. And very important, of course, ‘please/thank you/sorry/excuse me/it’s okay.’
We’ve found that the local people are incredibly gracious when we try to speak Spanish, and they go out of their way to help us learn. I include this as a separate item simply because language is critical. We feel truly inadequate and helpless in our inability to speak Spanish, and we’re determined to change that. No endorsement of products, but Duolingo helped us learn a lot of useful Spanish, and it’s free: duolingo.com.
2. Don’t just dip a toe in the water to see what your potential new home is like.
Don’t, in other words, take a ‘vacation’ to that place spending a week, two weeks, or even three. Plan to spend a couple of months there to allow the newness & thrill of being far away to wear off, then see how you feel about it. This plan has the added benefit of showing you various weather patterns, cultural distinctions such as festival observances etc. and the true nature of a locale, as opposed to what tourists see and experience.
We’d heard from local people that Western Panama has a ‘wet season.’ Does it have a ‘wet season’? Boy, howdy. Biblical. Gushing, pounding, torrential rain every afternoon. We’re glad we stuck around to witness the deluge, otherwise we might have resented the not knowing of it.
One other note here – snowbirding. We considered it. But after careful thought, we decided that moving away was an all or nothing for us. Having one foot in the states, one foot somewhere else was too precarious, too much like not having a settled home so we abandoned the idea. Plus, the ‘snowbirds’ we interacted with seemed to be always halfway between, always a bit aloof to the local situation and populace. It’s just our perception, but it’s there.
3. Do your due diligence beforehand
Consider what the place of your choosing is like, the experience of others there, various day-to-day aspects such as grocery shopping, mail delivery, health care access, restaurants, public transportation etc.
Keep in mind that you’ll hear varying opinions and explanations about what it’s really like. We were told so many stories about acquiring a vehicle for example that we lost track of them all. ‘Insurance? Oh, talk to you know who,’ registration? Oh, you have to go to Panama City for that. Registration? Oh, just go to City Hall, no problemo,’ and on and on.
The bottom line is, form your own opinions based on what you find and you’ll be better off. If something requires interaction with legal authorities, don’t hesitate to hire an attorney. It could be the best money you’ve ever spent.
4. Mix with the local populace
In our case this means shopping at mom & pop tiendas & small mercados for our groceries, pharmaceuticals, toiletries etc. Not that there are a lot of choices in many parts of the world, but the reach of Wal-Mart and such mega-stores is enormous, and patronizing large chain stores is counterproductive to our effort to learn about a new place.
We shop local, supporting small merchants whenever we can. The added benefit in doing this, for us, is the chance for a quick Spanish lesson, and to shed for a moment the sticky film of Gringo-ness that adheres to us, the patina of wealth that local people assume about us, true or not.
To avoid the perception of wealth we try to dress simply, with very little jewelry, learn the customs of what to wear and when, and to not flash wads of money around. This is not out of wariness or fear of assault, but a simple courtesy to people who are, by monetary measures at least, less fortunate than we are.
We try to spread the perception that we’ve moved to their country because we can no longer afford to live in our own, and that is at least partially true. Like them, we’re struggling a bit, albeit on a whole different plane.
5. Last but not least, assimilate
The simple fact that we Americans live in a fast lane of our own making, and that pace may not be found elsewhere, at least not in Panama.
There’s no sense of urgency, no deference given to the ‘hurry up’ god. Things happen when they happen here.
The best advice is to go with the flow, slow down, listen, pay attention to minor cues and realize that most of the irritations found in the new home of your choosing are what a friend of ours refers to as ‘first-world problems.’ No hot water for the shower? First-world problem. No electricity/internet/water pressure/? Too many bugs, trash on the sidewalk, dogs running loose, noisy buses & people? First-world problem. Traffic light stuck on red? First-world problem, because there are no traffic lights.
This is a short, rudimentary list, and I could expand on it by several paragraphs.
Here’s the bottom line: No matter what you decide about becoming an expat, it helps to realize that you can always come back, and you’ll be happy you tried a new way of life.
For more on Byron’s journey to becoming an Expat check out his previous blog posts, Downshifting Abroad and The Expat Life.