It’s Been A While

It’s been a while since we’ve talked!

I appreciate your comments and emails and I do try to respond although not always as quickly as you or I would like.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlanting Coffee Trees & Wondering “Where’s the rain?”

This is weird weather … we’re into the rainy season which should mean glorious sunny mornings, followed by cloud build up, and predictable rain in the afternoon.  What do we get?  Seattle-like cloudy mornings!  OK, Ventura-summer overcast mornings.  In the afternoon we get some flash and bang and a little drizzle, but not the tropical rain we expect.  And this is the time to plant coffee trees, so we need the rain!

We’ve been planting, Nikki and I in the dirt, coffee trees.  600 little black bags with two year-old trees in a bag, each about a foot tall.  When we have over 4,000 trees why would we plant more?  Although coffee trees last a long, long time, after about 15 years their production declines and you need to pull out the older trees and replace them.  With a little extra care and babying, the new trees will start producing in three to four years.

My coffee guy has been convinced by the local curandera that he has a brown thumb and that whatever he plants will die … this makes a lot of sense since he works on a coffee farm! … and there either appears to be an element of truth in this, or he just doesn’t like to plant.  So, like most things in Panama, we adjust … and get down on our hands and arthritic knees and plant.

This is also the time when the baby fer de lance snakes are born, and yesterday I said to Nikki, as we were on the ground in the leaves digging and planting, “Be careful of snakes!” She replied, “Listen, if I get bit just leave me here to relax and die in peace!”

I told her not to worry about dying since the local Indians haven’t heard the birds singing at night recently.  When the birds sing at night someone is going to die … and it happens!

Panama Relocation Tour

One of the folks on the June tour send me this great photo of the whole group!  Nice bunch of folks!  Folks always ask, “Do you know how many people who take the tour actually end up in Panama?”  According to Jackie Lange, who runs Panama Relocation Tours, 37% of the tour participants from the past four years are actually now living in Panama.

june 2014 tour

Thank you for your comments about THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA!

“Just finished your book, THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE and having been meaning to write you. I have to say that what and how you laid out the details is outstanding. You covered the reality of pros and cons. It is by far the best book out there for folks that want to relocate to Panama. We will arrive in April and rent for a year or so. Thank you for all the great advice and saving us some mistakes and money! Cheers, John & Susan Pazera”

“Great book, especially helpful if you are considering moving or retiring to Panama. I loved all the insight to their experiences and can’t wait to experience the country myself. Joan”

“I gave this book a 5 stars because it answers all the questions about living and retiring in Panama with the pros and cons. Gilberto Smith”

“An outstanding, insightful book about the author’s experiences in Panama. It is a very sobering look at his and his family’s experiences, both the good and the not so good. The reader can tell they’ve landed in their paradise. My wife and I are considering relocating to Panama and we’re using Richards book as one of our primary sources of information for an anticipated visit to the country next year. Because Richard does not sugar coat life in Panama, rather he tells it like it is, we feel like we have a more realistic expectation of what life is like in Panama. He most definitely has us studying up on the many aspects to be considered. Daniel Bridges”

“Extremely helpful. No bunnies and rainbows here, both sides of the coin are exposed. Like any country, Panama has it’s issues and beauty and Richard gives insight to the reader/expat on both so we don’t arrive and end up shocked to find bugs in our paradise. Good job. Dorothy”

“Richard really knows what he’s talking about. Down to earth, no sugar coating. The book lays out both the good and not so good of living in Panama. I highly recommend it. Steve Mc Vicar”

ReadersThank you all so very much! I appreciate your comments and I REALLY appreciate it when you review the book on Amazon. The number of reviews helps push a book higher … so if you do a search on “living in Panama” or similar, the number of reviews, good or bad (!), helps push a book to the top of the list. And now that I have two grandsons to send to college … it helps!

The Big Finish & The New Start

The big finish … as usual in Panama the outgoing President pardons everyone and his brother who had anything to do with his administration.

IN HIS LAST last public act as president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli On his last day as president, Ricardo Martinelli yesterday pardoned or gave sentence reductions to 660 people.
368 were pardoned , conditional sentences were awarded to 276 prisoners and sentences of 16 inmates were reduced..
The Government Gazette published the pardons in five digital editions, some of which were released after 8 p.m. The majority of the pardons bear the signatures of Martinelli and acting Minister of Government Alma Cortés. Minister of Government Jorge Ricardo Fábrega signed two of the decrees, including the one that granted pardons to the defendants of the 2004 case involving the flooding of Prados del Este.
The pardons include those given to political allies of Martinelli who have been accused of using state resources for political means. They include Small Business Authority Director Giselle Burillo, Secretary of State Communication Luis Eduardo Camacho, Molirena Party President Sergio González Ruiz, Molirena official Janón Gabriel and National Council for Sustainable Development Director Danna Harrick.
Also pardoned were former Municipal Engineer Jaime Salas, former presidential candidate Gerardo Barroso, former PRD presidential hopeful Honorio Vega, former Deputy Francisco “Toto” Ameglio, lawyer Sidney Sitton, and several journalists, such as Rafael Berrocal, Julio Miller, Alfonso Zamora, Carlos Zavala and Alfredo Prieto, who was also the former Secretary of State Communication under Martinelli.
Last week, Martinelli awarded 15 pardons. The beneficiaries include Tribunal Electoral President Erasmo Pinilla and former Director of Civil Aviation Eustacio Fábrega. The two publicly rejected the presidential pardons, saying they had done nothing wrong to be pardoned for. [NEWSROOM PANAMA]

And the new President Juan Carlos Varela promised … a chicken in every pot, or at least price controls on chicken, and the favorite words in Panama politics … “honesty and transparency.” Hmmm.

Conservative Juan Carlos Varela took office as Panama’s president Tuesday pledging to finish a troublesome canal expansion, stamp out corruption and get more people out of poverty.

The 50-year-old rum maker donned the presidential sash in a massive ceremony at Rommel Fernandez stadium in the capital attended by a handful of world figures including US Secretary of State John Kerry, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

“We’ve got plenty of laws. What we need are men and women who respect them; that’s what I am here for,” Varela said to large cheers, warning: “Corruption will not be tolerated in our government.”

Varela, who was elected to a five-year mandate in May 4 polls, replaced Ricardo Martinelli, a supermarket magnate who leaves office with high popularity despite corruption allegations.

Panama’s vice-president and a former Martinelli supporter, Varela was the surprise winner in a three-way race. Final results put him seven percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Martinelli loyalist Jose Domingo Arias.

Varela has called for a national unity government to sustain economic growth, reduce inflation, combat violent crime and strengthen democracy.

Venezuela broke ties with Panama in March, when President Nicolas Maduro slammed Martinelli as a corrupt US lackey. But Varela has set dialogue with Caracas as a priority.

And just as Varela was sworn in, Venezuela announced it was restoring bilateral ties. These had been severed when Martinelli sought a meeting at the Organization of American States in Washington to discuss the death of 43 anti-government protesters in Venezuela.

Canal priority
Topping Varela’s weighty agenda is finishing an expansion of the Panama Canal, a massive project which is a year behind schedule and has been mired in controversy.

The vast construction project was to have been completed this year, but delays and cost overruns have pushed back the schedule to early 2016.

“We are blessed to have the canal, a major piece of infrastructure which serves our nation, and world trade. As president, I will make sure the expansion is completed successfully, while protecting the state’s interest,” Varela pledged in his address.

The construction to add wider locks and channels capable of handling much larger container ships is one of the world’s most ambitious civil engineering projects.

The 80-kilometer (50-mile) long canal was completed by US interests in 1914 to provide a shorter, safer route between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Work to expand it was interrupted earlier this year over a dispute about who would pay for an estimated $1.6 billion in cost overruns. It was also hit by a strike by workers demanding higher wages.

The stakes are high for the project, with five percent of the world’s maritime trade already passing through the canal. The expanded waterway will be able to process 12,000 container ships in its first year of use, triple the current capacity.

‘Empty coffers’
Analysts warn Varela has his work cut out. “There are empty coffers, there are pending disputes between different unions and the canal work is overdue, such that the money that was counted upon is not coming in, and this will affect how he governs,” market analyst Jaime Porcell told AFP.

“Varela has to clean up the mess Martinelli left behind and keep the broken promises of other administrations” to lower the prices of basic goods, control crime and punish corruption, lawyer and political analyst Mario Rognoni told AFP.

Varela though takes office amid a huge economic boom in Panama, a small Central American nation of 3.8 million people focused economically on trade, tourism and services.

Panama saw breakneck 8.4 percent growth in 2013 but 26 percent of people live in poverty, according to the government.

Varela has said that his first act as president will be to sign an executive order to control prices of 22 products to lower inflation, his main campaign promise. Price controls are not often on a conservative’s policy plan.

He also pledged drinking water for the entire country.

Varela on Monday reached an agreement with the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) guaranteeing him a majority in Congress, which will make it possible for him to pass laws and nominations.

Varela’s Panamenista Party holds only 13 of the 71 seats in Congress, but the agreement with PRD creates a 38-seat majority. [Associated Press]

Varela also held out an olive branch and a promise of a new life to members of Panama’s estimated 200 gangs: amnesty if gang members turn in their weapons by August 1st and choose to lead a “normal life.”

As Varela well knows, given the alliance he had with Martinelli as Vice President, “things change” in Panama.  Alliances can be made … and broken.

The Biggest Challenge for The New President

The Most Important Person In Panama

Well the most powerful may be the President of the Republic, which, starting today is Juan Carlos Varela, but the most important person in Panama may not be the President, but the Administrator of the Canal de Panama, Jorge Luis Quijano.

While readily admitting that he is an engineer, not a politician, Quijano says, “Panama has to strengthen its education,” which is rated among the world’s worst.“There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”

And it is this that is the biggest challenge for Juan Carlos Quijano!

Panama education sucks!

In my humble opinion, from the top down, Panama public education sucks.

Like many things in Panama, the education system seems to focus on externals, going through the motions, without understanding or focusing on a goal.

Take our tiny town and the school up the street.  The important things seem to be pretty bulletin boards, morning flag raising (not that there is anything wrong with patriotism), children neatly dressed in white shirts and uniforms (never mind that almost nobody has washing machines or clothes driers and that putting your kid in a $150 uniform when your take home pay, after required social security deductions, is only $54 a week!), and … most importantly, playing drums or cheap glockenspiels and rag-tag marching in preparation for the national holidays and parades in November.

That’s what school is all about!  Forget books!  Panama schools have never had books.  Usually the teacher has, illegally, made copies of printed books and materials.  Usually the teacher has one or two ragged copies which are loaned to students so that they, or their parents, can pay $2 to go to Boquete to make, again illegal, copies of the materials at 10 cents a page.  Martinelli was going to skip the “book phase” entirely and give students the world library of books and resources by giving kids computers.  Great idea.  Except some of the kids don’t have electricity at home, to say nothing of Internet access, and our little town has no wi-fi Internet, despite the past government’s hype of Internet access for all.  Plus, how many parents understand how to help their kids unscramble lap top problems?

Yesterday the kids practiced drumming at school for two hours!  This in preparation for parades in November!  This is much more important than math, reading or writing.  The teachers get to visit and chat and don’t have to worry about lesson plans.  ["What's a 'lesson plan'?"]

One of our local kids came asking for help with an assignment.  Seems the teacher assigned the kids to go online – OK, this is a tiny town where hardly anyone has Internet access, let alone a computer!  Yes, there are a few computers at the public library in Boquete a $2 bus ride away, but how many of these kids know the first thing about using a computer, let alone finding anything?  So the kids are supposed to go on-line and research the World Cup.  The World Cup!  OK, great possibilities for teaching geography here, so that’s not such a bad idea.  Anyhow, being the helpful neighbor, I sit down at my laptop with the kid and show him how to get to the FIFA site, in Spanish.  So what is the assignment?

The teacher wants them to print out information on ALL the teams and countries in the World Cup, a list of all the players on each team, AND biographies of all the players!  By my quick count you’re talking about printing out 750-1000 pages!  Insane!  And this is typical of the crazy assignments these kids are given.  It’s nuts!

Kids always want help with their English assignments.  Panama, to its credit, wants all students to learn English starting in primary school.  The only problem is that the teachers don’t know English and the government has no plan to teach them or give them the time and money to learn.

Setting kids up to fail

We have a Gnabe Bugle neighbor kid who finished secondary school, what we would call high school and wanted to go to university to become a lawyer.  Wow!  A lot of these Gnabe Bugle kids who finish high school do so without any encouragement from their parents, who in many cases are just asking, “Why?”   He walked from the campo housing supplied by a neighboring coffee farm, 2 hours down the mountain to our little town, then another 45 minutes walk down the hill to catch a bus for $2 to the university in David.  Thanks to the government, tuition was almost free.  After a few semesters of D-F grades, the “system” managed to beat the lawyer idea out of him, and he decided to learn to become an English teacher at the local branch of the university which meets at the secondary school in Alto Boquete.

He would stop by our farm after hiking up the mountain, with 2 hours more to go after leaving our house, for help with his English.  Nikki and I would both read over the assignments, written in English, by the English professor, and just shake our heads.  Neither of us could understand what she had written!  He stuck with it for a full semester.  It’s really hard to beat these kids down!  When he went back to register for the second semester, they got him.  He could only register online.  He had to “go home and register on the Internet.”  No electricity.  No Internet.  And he didn’t know the first thing about using a computer although he graduated from the local high school.

So they beat it out of him.  Not quite.  He heard an ad on an Evangelical radio station for someone who wanted a gardener in Panama City.  This kid, who’d never been further in Panama than Boquete and the Comarca, called the people on the phone, took the job, and headed to Panama City!  His employers are a couple of physicians, who helped him enroll in the university in Panama City and are helping him with his education.

“Just Indians”

Another Gnabe kid … well, in his twenties, but a kid to me … finished high school despite his parents protests and wanted to be an English teacher.  When that didn’t work, decided to go into tourism.  A couple of semesters in they were going to do a field trip to an eco lodge near David.  $120.  The guy works full-time, hikes down the hill to school to save bus money, takes home $48 a week to support himself and his family.  So we give him the $120 and a bag for his meager belongings and loan him some money for food.  When they get to the eco lodge the Latino kids all whip out their brand-new pop up tents and camping gear or slept in facilities provided by the eco lodge.  There were three Indian kids in the group who were sent to sleep by the river, away from the rest of the students without any shelter and never having been told what to expect.  It rained and the Indian kids made do the best they could under garbage bags but they were “just Indians” and should be used to that kind of thing.  So they managed to squelch that dream.

I was sitting at a tiny restaurant in Boca Chica, really just the porch of a woman’s home, but she makes a great hamburger.  Up the road come 30 or so Panamanian kids and a few older adults and they take over the restaurant.  A university field trip of students studying tourism.  Hungry kids, having just come from spending several nights at a resort on Boca Brava.  But nobody bothered to tell these kids to bring money for food and the professors of tourism who organized the trip never realized that basically there is no place to eat in Boca Chica, at least no place with cheap food that can serve 30 plus people without a lot of advance preparation.   After they left and I was finishing a second beer the lady who owned the tiny restaurant said, “They are supposed to be teaching tourism, yet they do this all the time.  They have no idea how to plan anything.”  She just shook her head.

It makes no difference at what level … it sucks.

“The Singapore of Latin America”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Panama’s economic success is sometimes compared to that of Singapore.  Both countries by virtue of their locations have great strategic advantages.  Both are building soaring towers.  Both have shown remarkable growth.

But, long-term, Singapore’s prospects are brighter.  Why?  Because of education.  When Singapore looked at its position int he world it realized that while it had the advantage of a strategic location, it could never compete with China on the basis of cheap labor.  So Singapore decided to invest in education and creating an educated and skilled labor force.

Varela has a lot of challenges … how to keep Panama’s economy growing, and keep the engine of change a progress moving full speed ahead, while at the same time bringing inflation into check.  The gap between rich and poor in Panama has increased, not decreased, over the past years.  Panama’s Indigenous population deserves respect and more than just lip service to equality.  But most importantly, the educational system in Panama needs reorganized and revitalized from the top down.  If you fail to invest in the young people of a country, what good are all the improvements to infrastructure?  Varela should listen to Quijano’s advice, “Panama has to strengthen its education … There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”

“TIP” = “This Is Panama”

This has been a busy weekend in Panama.  All the heads of the myriad of government agencies and their minions, which is about everyone but the janitors, were packing up and clearing out their offices in preparation for the new government which takes office July 1st.

The challenge for ordinary citizens is that if you had an issue with a government agency, a file in the pile on the desk of one functionary or another … everyone likes to leave a clean desk behind … so get ready to start all over again.

The newly elected president, John Carlos Varela, has been busy announcing who is taking over what positions, which is harder than it may sound. With a population of 3.7 million, and a somewhat neatly divided political structure and election, that leaves the incoming president only 1.2 million people from which to choose. Since the election was close and Varela’s party lacks control of the Assembly, like it or not, there has to be some horse trading. Since the dictatorship, fearing any concentration of power, Panamanians have switched democratically elected governments every five years. “TIP” = “This is Panama.” It’s the way it is done and although to an outsider not always the most efficient way, it seems to work.

Panamanians say that politicians are like the big vultures that fly over Panama [a/k/a "The Panamanian Air Force"]. What they mean by this is that “during the day they fight over the same road kill, but at night all go home to the same tree to roost.” These folks all come from the same old, powerful families that control much of Panama, and all belong to the same clubs and high society. Outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli appointed the incoming President Varela as his Vice President. Although they had a very public falling out and Varela defeated the candidate of Martinelli’s party and Martinelli’s wife who was running as Vice President, Martinelli and Varela are partners in a number of huge businesses ["Welcome to Panama!"] and will eventually find a way to work together for a better Panama, as will the rest of the country.

Unlike the US, this is not a country divided by “red” and “blue” but a country of Panamanians. The election is over and there is work to be done, and it will happen. But first … the party! Just to be sure everyone gets off on the right foot, Tuesday, the day the new President is inaugurated is a national holiday! Just what is needed, another day off!  And since Varela’s family owns the largest rum distillery … what’s good for the country is also good for the new Chief Executive.

Not really comforting …

This picture isn’t really comforting if you’re shipping all your worldly goods in a container to Panama or elsewhere!

The ship in the photo ran aground which caused this grand shift in containers, and lost about 900 containers off the coast of New Zealand The average number of containers lost may be higher, or lower, than what you’d expect. According to the World Shipping Council …

Combining the results of the two WSC surveys over the six year period from 2008 to 2013, the WSC estimates that there were on average 546 containers lost at sea each year, not counting catastrophic events, and on average a total of 1,679 containers lost at sea each year including
catastrophic events.

The data demonstrates that container losses in any particular year can vary quite substantially based on differences in weather and based on the extent to which there may be one or more catastrophic vessel losses. For example, in 2011 (the year of the loss of the M/V Rena) there was a total annual loss of 1,514 containers. In 2012, there was a total loss of 958 containers. In 2013, there was a total loss of 5,578 containers – 77% of which occurred with the sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean.

Some folks when they move to Panama pack up much of the furniture and stuff of their lives, shove it into a container and bring it along. We did that because it was “our stuff”, stuff we liked, and things that had symbolic importance. Nikki and I brought most of our professional libraries which we have since dumped, sold, or given away, knowing that twice as many books as we brought with us can now reside on Nikki’s Kindle. When we came it was tough to find the type and quality of furniture we were used to in the States. It’s different now. One of the things we do on the Panama Relocation Tour is to spend an hour at one of the malls in David, not to shop, but to do a quick walk through and see that most of what you’d want if you moved with just a few suitcases, is now available in David. And anything you’d want is available in Panama City.

Panama Relocation Tour?

I received this email from Stan …

Hi Richard, I am Stan from Memphis, TN USA. I am 99.9 % sure that I will be moving to Panama by end of 2014. I am planning to attend the 2014 Panama Relocation Tours this July 12 – 17. I usually don’t make it a habit to pay money up front before services. I understand for a trip they required a down payment and I understand that, but this is something I ran across on the internet and the name isn’t exactly a well known name like Disney World. I like you hire people who has been referred. So my question to you is, have you heard of this tour and the 2 ladies running it, Jackie & Melissa Lange of Panama and Dallas, TX? I have seen your name on their website and seen pictures of your house with the coffee plantation. If this is true, I can’t wait to see it in July. Their website and other websites are very convincing, anybody can take your video and your picture and make their own convincing website as a scam. I just need a little verification that this tour guide is real and honest, can you help? Hope to really see and speak to you soon. Thanks, Stan

Hi Stan! Jackie and the Panama Relocation Tour are legit! It’s a great tour because it gives you a boots on the ground look at Panama and you get to meet and talk to real folks, expats who are living here. I’ll be coming along on the July tour and, by the way, I see there must have been a cancellation because as of this morning there are two spots open, so tell your friends! There was a lady who has a travel agency in Arizona who was attempting to run copycat tours, using Jackie’s trademarked “Panama Relocation Tours” name and, get this, even using the videos of people endorsing Jackie’s tour or her Web site! Believe it or not this gal had actually come on one of Jackie’s tours last fall, kinda held back, aloof, and didn’t really connect with others on the tour … guess what? Well, I guess it takes all kinds. Stan, Jackie is legit, and it’s a great tour!

We’re just finishing up the June tour, so here are a few pictures …

Here we are with the gal who's the bartender at one of the bars at Sheraton Bijao, an all-inclusive resort right on the Pacific ocean.

Here we are with the gal who’s the bartender at one of the bars at Sheraton Bijao, an all-inclusive resort right on the Pacific ocean.

The folkloric show at the Sheraton Bijao

The folkloric show at the Sheraton Bijao

Meeting with Bob Adams of RetirementWave.com a great site.  Bob brings a world-wide perspective and is a great source for understanding the economics of various countries folks consider as expat destinations.

Meeting with Bob Adams of RetirementWave.com a great site. Bob brings a world-wide perspective and is a great source for understanding the economics of various countries folks consider as expat destinations.

We try to eat in a variety of restaurants that reflect the real Panama since this is a boots on the ground tour.  This was a $3.50 lunch at a fonda typica in David.  A fonda is a place where the food is cooked over a wood fire.  There is no menu, English or Spanish, but the waitress just tells you, in Spanish of course, what the choices are for lunch.  Ordering itself is great fun.

We try to eat in a variety of restaurants that reflect the real Panama since this is a boots on the ground tour. This was a $3.50 lunch at a fonda typica in David. A fonda is a place where the food is cooked over a wood fire. There is no menu, English or Spanish, but the waitress just tells you, in Spanish of course, what the choices are for lunch. Ordering itself is great fun.

The heart of the fonda ... the wood-fired stove!

The heart of the fonda … the wood-fired stove!

Jackie forwarded me an email Melissa [Jackie's daughter in Texas who handles a lot of the tour logistics] received from a lady cancelling the July tour – probably why we have two spaces available. Here’s the email …

HI Richard

we had a cancellation for July tour. This is the reason they gave

Melissa, Too much going on in July. And, the houses we saw in the last newsletter for Coronado cost more than they do in Phoenix. Some of the houses in Boquete also list for more than an equivalent house in many parts of the U.S. do, although the rental amount is seems reasonable. And, it appears from other readings that Panamanians are beginning to resent gringos.

We also want to look at Nicaragua when those tours start in January. Appears to be a lot more potential there than Panama or Costa Rica.

Of course this gal got a complete refund. I wish her well. I’m sure, since obviously she’s done a lot of research, or just swallowed hook line and sinker the glowing reports from the several companies who specialize in providing relocation information, investment opportunities, real estate tours (some of which are like timeshare presentations where you are a captive audience) … but when I read this I just shake my head.

First, “Panamanians are beginning to resent gringos.”  Really?  Not my experience, although I suspect, given this gal’s know it all attitude, that she could engender some resentment.

Nicaragua: good luck with that!  You can find houses in Boquete in all price ranges … from $40K to $4 million.  It just depends on what you want.  Big difference in a place like Boquete, from Arizona … you don’t need air conditioning or heat here!  Water costs $60 A YEAR unlimited amount.  Home insurance, car insurance … a fraction of Arizona!  Sometimes it scares me when I see how some people investigate and make decisions for major changes in their lives!  That’s why I wrote ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA which is the textbook if you will and provided as required reading for everyone of the Panama Relocation Tour.

While I don’t go on every tour, I do go on as many as I can, and all of the tours stop and visit our home.  So here’s just a random collection of photos of some of the tours I’ve been on.  You can see we have great, small groups, and we really do have a lot of fun.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Flip Side of Paradise, Part II

Can the Panama Canal expansion help Panama’s poor? NPR reports

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Panama’s Canal Divides A Country Into Haves And Have-Nots
by Tim Padgett, WLRN Miami, National Public Radio

 

Jorge Quijano has one of the coolest office views in the Americas: the Pacific port entrance to the Panama Canal. The panoramic vista seems to help Quijano, who heads the Panama Canal Authority, see the bigger picture.

On the one hand, Quijano understands why Panama has run the canal so effectively since the United States handed it over in 2000.

“When the United States built the canal, it was treated like a noncommercial utility, like a water filtration plant,” Quijano said in an interview at his Panama City headquarters. “We’re running it as a business.”

One that’s expected to rack up revenues of more than $2.5 billion in 2014, and which moves 330 million tons of cargo in and out of the Western Hemisphere each year.

But Quijano, while stressing that he’s an engineer and not a politician, also concedes that more Panamanians need to see more of that wealth.

For starters, he says, “Panama has to strengthen its education,” which is rated among the world’s worst. “There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”

This year marks the Panama Canal’s 100th anniversary. Panama is nearing completion of a more than $5 billion expansion of the waterway, and it recently elected a new president, Juan Carlos Varela. There has never been a more critical moment for the country to see the bigger picture Quijano warns about.

Glaring Inequality

If Panama doesn’t start addressing the inequality that keeps almost 40 percent of its population in poverty it may well threaten to turn the boom into bust.

To Panamanians, what the U.S. did in handing ownership of the Panama Canal to Panama is as important as the maritime marvel the U.S. built in 1914.

And Panama has made the most of it. In the past five years, its economy has grown faster than any in Latin America. Panama City has a new subway. Its waterfront skyline now sports the region’s tallest skyscraper, the Trump Ocean Club.

In fact, Panama today rivals South Florida as a prime shopping destination for many in Latin America.

“When you go to Miami, you will see a lot of people with luggage in the malls buying things,” says Carlos Urriola, executive vice president of the Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT) next to the canal’s Caribbean entrance. “Today you see this in Panama.”

The MIT, now one of Latin America’s largest ports, handles 20 times more freight than it did in 2000.

“It’s amazing,” says Urriola, “that a small country of 3.5 million people has so much influence in what happens to world commerce.”

009

Many Haven’t Seen The Benefits

Yet it’s just as astonishing that so few of those 3.5 million seem to feel the benefits — especially Panama’s youth. More than half the country’s children are poor, and almost a fifth suffer malnutrition.

That weighs heavily on Panamanians like Eladia Córdoba, a widowed, unemployed mother in Panama City’s El Chorrillo slum. Given Panama’s prodigious new resources, she says she can’t understand its glaring lack of a social safety net, although the government has recently begun more serious social welfare programs.

“All that canal wealth isn’t getting to poor people or the barrios,” Córdoba says inside her tiny walk-up apartment while feeding her four young children a lunch of pasta and ketchup. “It’s not coming to anyone’s rescue here.”

The canal expansion will accommodate more massive vessels known as Post-Panamax ships, and it should almost double the canal’s revenues over the next decade.

Panama hopes the project will also propel its bid to become the Hong Kong of the Americas, a global maritime and financial hub. Quijano believes Panama is already “the gateway for Latin America and even the United States.”

Panama City’s Prosperity Vs. Colon’s Struggles

But can that stature really last long and meaningfully if Panama doesn’t also narrow the chasm between rich and poor? Between, especially, a Panama City-based white elite known as los rabiblancos and black Panamanians in communities like Colón.

That port city, Panama’s second-largest, sits next to the canal’s Caribbean entrance. But it has been largely left out of Panama’s prosperity. Unemployment there is about 50 percent, and in recent years the frustrations have boiled over into deadly street protests.

Roberto Darkins has taken part in some of those demonstrations. He sells clothing — some of it he proudly shows off as his own brand, Que Jeans — on Colón’s main street. But he laughs when someone mentions Panama as a banking center, given how hard he says it is for small businesses to get even microloans.

Darkins also scoffs at Panama’s celebrated building boom, which he says has made housing less affordable for families like him, his wife and four children, who share a one-bedroom apartment on the eighth floor (no elevator) of a decaying 19th century building.

New apartment complexes, he says, “charge $500 or $700 a month, and the salary here is like $200 or $300 a month. Who do you expect to go and live in those buildings?”

He also says he fears Panama’s notoriously corrupt political system will devour the fruits of the canal expansion: “The more money you make, the more corruption they’re gonna do.”

Consider a legal case that played out recently in Panama:

The dispute involved a deceased U.S. millionaire who’d left $50 million in his will to a trust for impoverished Panamanian children.

His rabiblanca [RD: "rabiblanca" literally means "white tails" and refers to the old, mostly white, Spanish families that have historically controlled wealth and power in Panama] Panamanian widow and her children fought to annul the will so the money would go to them instead. Panama’s lower courts ruled the will valid — but the widow and her kids got the Supreme Court, whose corruption has been a target of U.S. State Department complaints, to overturn them.

That’s a big part of Panama’s bigger picture. And it will still be right outside everyone’s window when the bigger canal locks open next year.

The Flip Side of Paradise, Part I

What once was “The Happiest Place on Earth”

Having fun yet?

The “happiest place on earth” used to be Disneyland … back when it wasn’t an endless day of lines circling endlessly and you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to enjoy an “E-ticket” ride.  Now with a day ticket running $96 for adults … not to worry here, folks, the kids age 3 to 9 are a real bargain at only $90 each.  Parking is another $17 and we haven’t begun to add in overpriced food and everything under the sun with Disney’s myriad of names and products all creatively marketed to your dear children. So what to do? Forget about college, or go to Disneyland?

The Second Happiest Place on Earth

Each year the Gallup people surveyed 1,000 adults in each of 138 countries asking five questions: “whether people felt rested, felt they were treated with respect, laughed or smiled a lot, whether they experienced enjoyment and whether they had learned or done something interesting the day before.” Gallup then makes up a Positive Experience Index score for each country. The survey finds that most of the happiest countries are in Latin America, so maybe there is something to the laid-back manana attitude!

Drum roll! The five top countries all are:

Paraguay 87
Panama 86
Guatemala 83
Nicaragua 83
Ecuador 83

Why Panama?

013 (2)There are different rankings based on different ways of calculating happiness. I like Gallup’s because they just don’t ask “Are you happy?” but ask substantive questions about things that lead to happiness.

Why Panama? Here are a few of my own thoughts.

  • Panama is a beautiful place and the people are beautiful. I think it’s easier to feel good and happy in a beautiful place with beautiful people.
  • We don’t have a military and we’re not a warlike people, something which sometimes gets exploited, but is still basically good. Peace is good. It’s easier to be happy when you are at peace with yourself and the rest of the world.
  • Although it’s changing, Panama still isn’t ruled by things and consumerism.
  • Almost the way I remember as a kid in the 50’s, the family is still important. Real family values dominate without necessarily imposing anyone’s own definition of family on everyone else.
  • The church is still important. We don’t bend over backwards to go through all kinds of gyrations, kissing our own asses, to keep absolute separation between church and state. There is no separation. A verse from Psalms painted on the wall of the local police station, or a cross on a hill, or a manger scene in the town plaza, doesn’t send everyone into a flurry of lawsuits. You are free to be an atheist, evangelical, Roman catholic, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Bahai, or nothing.
  • The “manana” attitude, although frustrating to type A gringos used to everything happening on schedule, avoids a lot of stress. Stress equals unhappiness. As my banker once said, “Don’t worry: live long!”
  • Our air is cleaner and clearer: how happy can you be breathing smog?
  • We live longer and better because we eat healthier. A ripe Panamanian pineapple: what could be happier, or sweeter?
  • Until recently there has been generally a lot of “flexibility” in rules. You can’t be happy with a tight-ass attitude to life.
  • There is a harmony with nature largely learned from a strong Indigenous population. One of the first cultural challenges I faced was to learn to throw my banana peel out the window, into the garden or jungle and not carefully put it in a trash can. I remember my Indian worker pointing out that God designed that all things should return to the soil to give nourishment. Somehow I’d missed that simple fact of life in 27 years of schooling.
  • Every day is a new adventure, sometimes just tiny “adventures” and sometimes grand adventures.
  • It’s warm here: in Boquete it is a perfect climate. It’s easier being happy when it’s warm than when you are freezing your butt off!
  • Tough times never last: tough people do. And adversity may, once you’ve come out on the other side, breed confidence, optimism and happiness!

So … yes, it’s a happy paradise.

The Flip Side

But the flip side of paradise is that there is a great gulf between the filthy rich, old-time families that control everything, and the rest of the country. And there is a gap between the just rich and middle class, and wannabe middle class. But the most glaring gap is with the truly poor of Panama.

Many Panamanian retirees live on as little as $300 or $400 a month! 75% of the households supposedly live on less than $1,000 a month. Yet Panama has one of the few booming economies in the world! One of the challenges of a booming economy, along with a falling US dollar and high oil prices, is that Panama is fighting inflation. The price of food has doubled since we moved here 10 years ago.

This is from Lee Zelter’s BoqueteGuide.com …

The President elect was a surprise to the 61% of the electorate who voted for other candidates and he made some massive promises bout food, water and housing. One promise had a date and value, on 1 July when he takes office he pledged to sign an emergency executive order stabilizing the prices of the Canasta Basica and saving families $58 a month. It does not take a majority of the Assembly to sign an executive order but an executive order needs some basis in law to function. How do you force private business to freeze prices without a law to do it.

I believe this promise and the pain of  increasing food prices was one of the major reasons JC Varela was elected President of the Republic of Panama.

The Canasta Basica consists of the following food items:
Beef: Babilla, Bistec de Cinta, Ground Beef. Jarette, Pecho
Pork Chops
Chicken and eggs
Tuna
Hot Dogs
Bread, Rice, Macaroni
Onions, Ñame, Potatoes, Tomatoes, Yuca
Lentils, Red Beans
Dried milk, yellow cheese

Considering the reality of world wide food price increases, coupled with late rains affecting local production of staples like rice, this freezing of food prices is going to be difficult to impossible to achieve. I wrote in detailabout this before, before the election.

If JC Varela, the incoming President of the Republic of Panama can find a way to freeze food prices on staples and keep them on the shelves, without subsidies from the government, he will deserve the Noble prize in Economics. If he fails to deliver I wonder how many thousands will take to the streets in Panama demanding he make it happen.

The outgoing President, Ricardo Martinelli, the owner of Super 99, a major grocery chain in Panama said if he knew a way to reduce of freeze food prices he would have done it. He said it cannot be done.

The image from below is from La Prensa and shows the reason this is so critical to the many Panamanians who work for minimum wage.  I would have put up a newer chart but I cannot find the raw data anyplace. The authoritative source is ACODECO but they only have some recent surveys and they do not correlate at all to the numbers below. Based upon the Acodeco numbers something was changed in the Canasta Basica but i cannot find anything detail on the why they show a current cost of about $180. Regardless the cost is going relentlessly up.

1671270b

We have an incoming President, elected by 39% of the voters, who made promises about cutting the cost of living that may not be possible to keep. An Assembly that has about 20% of it’s members being contested and no party with a majority of Diputados. Add a strong opposition that has no personal or political love for the incoming government and we have some real issues that might spark after 1 July 2014.

The Panamanian people have no problem taking their grievances with their elected governments to the streets. I hope this does not come to that. Nothing is more important to people than food, water and roofs. This government promised them all and I hope they can deliver. Time will tell.

The biggest challenge faced by Panama is education. Essential to Panama’s long-term growth and success is an educated population. At the present time Panama’s educational system … in a word … sucks! The real challenge of Panama’s new government is to totally rethink and restructure Panama’s educational system, investing, not just in buildings, but in people.

Catching Up

At least with paper snail mail you had a stack of paper on your desk as a reminder that you needed to catch up. Now, although it’s not mail, I still have stacks of stuff … have no idea what’s in the stack, but I guess it just makes me feel comfortable!

I appreciate your comments … I really do! And I read and enjoy them all and eventually do get around to doing something with them … all.

It’s a party weekend!

OK, it’s a cultural difference! It’s 2:42 a.m. in Panama and competing parties are still going strong … and noisy.  I can hear the party with the music “typica” blasting away at the community center from one direction, and from the other direction the sounds of clapping and praise coming from the little charismatic evangelical church in town.  So, since I can’t sleep …

Thank you for your comments on Amazon!

If you’ve enjoyed my books, please comment!  Even if you didn’t enjoy them, please comment.  Why?  In part the way Amazon determines position of books is by the number of comments so even if it isn’t a five-star comment, it helps position, which helps sales.

Thanks for these comments about THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA …

“An outstanding, insightful book about the author’s experiences in Panama. It is a very sobering look at his and his family’s experiences, both the good and the not so good. The reader can tell they’ve landed in their paradise. My wife and I are considering relocating to Panama and we’re using Richards book as one of our primary sources of information for an anticipated visit to the country next year. Because Richard does not sugar coat life in Panama, rather he tells it like it is, we feel like we have a more realistic expectation of what life is like in Panama. He most definitely has us studying up on the many aspects to be considered. Daniel Bridges”

“No bunnies and rainbows here, both sides of the coin are exposed. Like any country, Panama has it’s issues and beauty and Richard gives insight to the reader/expat on both so we don’t arrive and end up shocked to find bugs in our paradise. Good job. Dorothy”

“This is the perfect book to read if you are considering a move to Panama or just want to know all about Panama from an insider. After living in Panama for just a few months, this book addressed aspects of life here that I am experiencing or will experience as times goes on, giving me insight as to what to expect. For my friends who live in Panama vicariously through me, I have highly recommended they read this book. Lorelei”

Fake vs. Real

The world is full of fakes! Be it watches, boobs, medicine, fashion items, currency, get rich quick schemes … even people!  So, hopefully we’ve all learned to beware.

Items can be advertised and packaged to look like the real deal, but when you look closely you discover they’re not the same and the quality is far different.  And in many jurisdictions even possessing a counterfeit product can get you arrested.  Unfortunately someone is even trying to counterfeit the Panama Relocation Tour.

From Jackie Lange …

If you thinking about signing up for Panama Relocation Tours make sure you are getting information and a phone number from http://www.PanamaRelocationTours.com web site. Call 972-496-6032 or 972-496-4500 or email info@panamarelocationtours.com. Otherwise, it is not MY company. Beware of the imitators.

I tell you this because

This is my 4th year of doing all-inclusive tours in Panama. As you can see from http://www.PanamaRelocationTours.com web site there are many photos of our tour groups and many testimonials from customers who said the tour exceeded their expectations. These are real photos taken during tours (not photo shopped) and real testimonials from people who have been on my tour.

When people sign up for our tours we deliver!

More proof….

Richard Detrich often joins me on the tours and has written about the tours on his blog at http://www.RichardDetrich.com

Bob Adams of http://www.RetirementWave.com usually meets with the group and my tour company is the only one he endorses because he knows I deliver what I promise and we do not sell real estate or have any other financial arrangement with the places we go during the tour or the people we meet with the tour.

I tell you this because…

Unfortunately, last October a travel agent out of Arizona started advertising ‘Panama Relocation Tours’ on her web site and all over the internet. She is also working with a guy in Panama to do marketing for her and a guy in Canada to do marketing for her. They both have Panama Relocation Tours on their web sites, social media sites and other places online.

They are all using MY tour company name, Panama Relocation Tours in their marketing.

They have even used my video testimonials and my tour pictures on their web site.

I have contacted these imitators many times to ask them to stop using my tour company name to promote their tours. Finally after no results, I had my attorney in the USA and in Panama send them a Cease and Desist Notice.

But they have not backed down. In the last couple of weeks, I discovered why…

Last week I got a call from two couples demanding a refund for the tour they never got. I had never heard of the people before.
They did not sign up for MY tour.

Panama Escape Artist told me about another guy who had the same problem, he signed up for a tour but a week before the tour was told it was postponed because not enough people signed up.

Today, I learned that a couple came in to Explora Ya in Boquete complaining that they paid thousands of dollars for Panama Relocation Tours but a week before the tour were told that the tour was postponed because not enough people signed up. Since they already had their airplane tickets, they came to Panama anyway. They, like many others, paid for a tour they did not receive and never got a refund for.

Needless to say this was NOT MY Panama Relocation Tours.!

I would never do that to anyone. And I have never, ever cancelled a tour because not enough people were signed up.

There is no telling how many people have been hurt by this unscrupulous travel agent from Arizona and her marketing partners. Plus this travel agent is doing “tours” in Belize and Costa Rica too so her scam may extend way beyond Panama.

I need to figure out how to stop them before more people are hurt and my excellent reputation is damaged. That is one reason for this post.

Many expats, and would be expats, have a tendency to think they can trust people from their home country more. That is not necessarily so in Panama or other countries. Trust but verify before you do business with anyone. Con artists come and go in Panama too.

The big event for gardeners …

If you are a gardener in Chiriqui the big event every one looks forward to is Carla Black’s Annual Heliconia Plant Sale, July 5 & 6th in Volcan. Carla is the expert on heliconia. These “typical” tropical plants have an amazing variety and just to visit Carla’s beautiful finca is a worthwhile experience. She has other plants for sale including beautiful tropical water lilies. Other years she’s had friends and neighbors who bring orchids for sale as well. This is the rainy season in Panama, the really fun time for gardeners and the time to plant and replant.

Rent First?

Generally I advise folks to come down and rent a place in Boquete for 3 to 6 months before deciding to make the move.  However, that’s not what we did!  We came, we saw, found a place we loved, bought it and have been happily living in paradise for ten years!

Hello Richard, This is Richard & Ofelia from NJ. Hope you remember us from the Panama Relocation Tour last September. We’re looking for a nice fully-furnished rental within a Mile & Half from Boquete center starting in January 2015 for six months or even longer. We started looking on the websites i.e: VIVUIN to find a suitable rental but as of now we’re having a difficulty. What’s the best way to secure a good rental property? Should we just fly down for a week and look around or do you have a reliable Real Estate Agent you could recommend? Just to let you know, this is our wish list for rental property: Fully furnished House with a modern kitchen & Bathroom, 2-3 Bedrooms or 2 bedrooms with a small den ( computer room will be fine), a nice view & reliable internet & water supply. We’d like to keep our rental budget about $1.200/month. Any help you could offer is greatly appreciated. Looking forward to having a reunion dinner with you guys.

One of the best resources for finding rentals is Boquetening.com which functions as kind of classified bulletin board.  A real estate agent is generally going to jack up the price for a rental as their fee.  If you have a week, come down and look around.  A lot of rentals are found by word of mouth.  It’s easy to take what you find on-line, and weave your own dream around the property description, which may or may not end up as accurate.  Right now is off-season so there is good availability for rentals, often at discounted rates.  January is prime time.  For what you are seeking I’d think of a budget more around $1,500-1,800.  You can also put an announcement on Boquetening.com for what you want..

Speaking of Boquetening.com…

One of the folks on the May Panama Relocation Tour who has been following Boquetening asked me “how indicative are the comments on Boquetening of the expat community in Boquete?”  These folks worried that the felt some of the discussions were “catty, rude, sometimes vindictive and reflecting a lot of petty bitchiness.”  They wondered if that was typical of the expat community here.

I think Boquetening plays an important role for our expat community.  I know Lee Zelter and he attempts to keep things open yet civil.  As the expat community has grown we have attracted more “types” of people.  A lot of folks who’ve been here for a while don’t engage in the fray of who said what to whom, yada yada.  I occasionally look at the discussions on Boquetening but mostly use it when I’m looking to buy or sell something.  I read Lee’s blogs and it is sometimes helpful to get news, or just unsubstantiated “news”, that’s too local to find elsewhere. Yes there are some folks who hang out maybe too much on Boquetening and may need to get lives. And there are a few who’ve never mastered the art of thinking before posting.  But, as the expat community has grown we get all kinds of folks.  We’re not all the same.  We don’t have the same political and economic views or even the same lifestyles.  I think that’s healthy.

On two different Relocation Tours I met folks who have expressed similar concerns.  They have asked me privately and nicely, but what they were really asking is “can we find our kind of people here?”  In one case they were looking for people who perhaps were more intellectual, educated, whatever … the kind of folks who would spend Sunday morning reading the entire NEW YORK TIMES.  And the answer is yes!  Another couple, maybe reacting to the fact that many US tour participants seemed to be looking at Panama as a place to live cheaper, said, “We don’t want to throw money away, but we have money and we like to live nicely.”  And the fact is that in Boquete you can find a beautiful little home to rent for $800 a month or a mansion to buy for $2 million.  Panama has poor, middle class, rich and VERY rich folks.  You can enjoy Panama on a range of vastly different budgets. Another couple was concerned about finding an English-speaking, evangelical church. Through the years we’ve had a number of fledgling groups and fellowships, but now we have a “real’ full-fledged, organized church, even with a nice, little building, not that you need a building to have a church.  Another was concerned about how they would fit in as a gay person.  Panama is officially a Roman Catholic country and although sex between persons of the same sex is legal, not everyone in the Catholic church has gotten the Pope’s “Who am I to judge?” message.  Boquete is not Panama City, so no, even small, gay PRIDE parade.  But we do now have a Gay Community group in Boquete of local Panamanians and expats.

Panama is a very diverse country, and so is Boquete, and so is the expat community within Boquete.  You can find “your kind of people” here, regardless of “your kind.”  More importantly perhaps, you have the freedom and opportunity to cross cultural barriers and embrace the variety of Boquete.  We’re not all the same!  Get used to it!  Embrace it!

It’s 4:01 a.m. and the party and fellowship is over …

So long, farewell
Auf Weidersehen, goodbye

(Kurt)
I leave and heave
A sigh and say goodbye
Goodbye

(Brigitta)
I’m glad to go
I cannot tell a lie

(Louisa)
I flit, I float
I fleetly flee, I fly

(Gretel)
The sun has gone
To bed and so must I

(Children)
So long, farewell
Auf Weidersehen, goodbye