Ham & Eggs

pig-and-chicken2-250x187-1You remember, or you should remember, the story of the pig and the chicken who were discussing their various contributions to the traditional ham & egg breakfast.   They were arguing about who was most responsible for the delicious and nutritious breakfast staple.

The chicken bragged about the delicious eggs she produced, with their beautiful yellow yoke which, when cooked exactly right, ran all across the plate.  The pig was not impressed and responded, “For you it involves only a contribution, but for me it is a commitment.”

OK, I guess after 16 years in Panama I’m somewhat of an “old timer” when it comes to being an expat in Panama.  Please forgive me and let me say upfront that I have no intention of demeaning anyone, but this is just an observation.

aeropuerto-internacional-de-tocumen-panamaWhen we got off the plane in Tocumen International Airport in Panama City sixteen years ago, you knew you were landing in, if not a third world country, certainly not a first world country.  Land at Tocumen today and you could be at any massive airport anywhere in the world for Tocumen is now the “Hub of The Americas.”

tocumen-airport-information-499847

Driving from Panama City to Boquete was a near-death experience, particularly at night.  You had to zig zag to avoid cows that had broken out and the road from Santiago, about half-way, to Chiriqui was two-lane through very geologically unstable territory.  Which mean you were dodging semi-trucks and taking your life into your hands when you passed.  The pavement was always severely cracked and always under repair.  In the period right after the Turnover of the Canal, before Canal money started flowing, money was very tight for the Panamanian government.  So the construction repair and replacement of broken segments of cement on the “Pan American Highway,” which back then could better have been called the “Pan American Goat Trail,” was often very improvised.  They would tear out a section of highway without any warning signs that a section of highway two feet deep was missing up ahead.  Sometimes, but not always, there would be an upended oil barrel in the hole to serve as a warning of sorts, but nothing else.  No flashers, signs, florescent strips, cones, nada, nada, nada.

Panama was definitely an adventure for expats and very, very different: but that’s why we came!   You could find a few things in Boquete, more things in David the nearest large 001 (2)city to Boquete, but if you trekked to Panama City you could find almost everything.  So we made do, celebrating a lifestyle that in many ways reminded us of the 50’s back in the States.  We loved the tropical foliage, the warm days, and chilly nights with no need of heat or air conditioning.  And the beauty of the landscape and the people, and the friendliness of the locals … it’s still, for me, best captured by John le Carré’ in THE TAILOR OF PANAMA who has one of his characters say of Panama, “We’ve got everything God needed to make paradise. Great farming, beaches, mountains, wildlife you wouldn’t believe, put a stick in the ground you get a fruit tree, people so beautiful you could cry.”

Horse Competition Parita

Back in the day there were still a few hitching posts in town, where people could tie up the family horse when the came in to purchase supplies.  As more expats came and locals started selling property at prices they never dreamed possible there were fewer and fewer horses.  Eventually you only saw horses on Sundays when people rode in basically to see and be seen.  Then it seemed that the horses were replaced by locals driving brand new SUVs.  And for a long time now the only time you see horses in town is for our annual Horse Parade, which is a fantastic, fun event.

If you’ve read my NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE book you already know we came down to visit Panama just to see if it remained on our list.  We fell in love with Panama, and Boquete specifically.  We saw what we liked and we bought it.

We didn’t rent.  I know some folks preach “rent first, don’t buy.”  But people are different and one size does not fit all.  I would be foolish to say, “Do what we did: come down and buy.”  Or “Everyone should build” or “No one should build.”  [Although if you do decide to build you are risking  your sanity!]  Different strokes for different folks.  Besides, there really weren’t any rentals, certainly not what North Americans were looking for.  So you either hoped to find an existing place to buy, or build your own.

august-2011-068.jpgMost people ourselves included, ended up buying in Valle Escondido, a planned, gated, guarded community, the first of its kind in Panama.  We bought a beautiful two-bedroom house in Valle Escondido overlooking the 9th hole of the golf course.  Yes, the homeowners, as is frequently the case, had some issues to work out with the developer, but as a group, mostly expats but with a few Panamanians thrown in, everyone knew everyone and got along together as we collectively adjusted to a new country and a new lifestyle.  We came here to escape to paradise, to live the adventure in a new, different and welcoming community.  People would drop in for coffee, or a neighbor would call and say, “We got fresh tuna {Ahi-grade, then $4 a pound all nicely trimmed], why don’t you make a salad and come over for dinner.”  Although some of the folks who came when we did have since moved on to other adventures, but some became, and still are, lifetime friends.

After a while we decided that nice as Valle Escondido was, it was just like any gated, guarded community in California or anyplace else, not what we moved to Panama to enjoy.  We had a little piece of property about 10 minutes from “downtown” Boquete, up in the hills, that we enjoyed going up to.  It had once been a coffee farm and was in a very Panamanian little town, really just a crossroads. We came to Panama for Panama, not a perfectly landscaped, gated, guarded community of expats and wealthy Pananamians who used the grand houses they built in Valle Escondido to occassionally escape to in order to get out of the rat race of Panama City.  So after three years in Valle Escondido, we “escaped” what has sometimes been called the “gringo ghetto” and designed and built our home in Palmira Central.

At the that time there were very few homes that were built to North American standards in and around Boquete.  We had sold our home in Ventura, California before coming to Panama in a good real estate market, so we could afford to build.  Today I don’t recommend that anyone try building in Panama!  There are many existing homes available, beautiful places, that can be purchased for far less than it would cost to build.  If you don’t like something you can change it for far less than attempting to build and you will preserve your sanity, save your relationship and avoid a whole lot of grief.

Boquete Christmas Parade 2When we came the ex-pat community all got along with one another and worked together to achieve the common good.  Working with local Panamanians, and getting along with one another, folks joined together in everything from participating in the annual Christmas parade, to working with the local orphanage, beginning a spay & neuter program, developing programs and getting needed equipment for locals with special needs, starting a community theater and the famous Tuesday Morning Market where Panamanians and expats could share goods and services.   Because most of us purchased or built homes in our new chosen community we all had “skin in the game” and had made a commitment to be long-term contributors to the community.

Yes, the cost of living in Panama was less than the cost of living in some places in the US.  We lived in Southern California and initially our cost of living in Panama was 30% less, and the lifestyle was better.  The cost of living in Panama is still lower than many [but not all!] places in the US.  But as the U S Dollar has devalued, costs have gone up in the US and since Panama uses only the US Dollar, costs have gone up here as well.  Plus, Panama has been in an economic boom which naturally has pushed prices up.

Nelson 056Sixteen years ago the folks from the US who were moving to Panama to enjoy an expat lifestyle had cashed in and had the money to build the North American style homess they were used to “back home.”  There wasn’t an inventory of North American style homes availabe, so we built our own.  That required making an investment in Panama and having “skin in the game.”

Things changed as they always do.  The great recession in the US caused many people to lose retirement money and the equity they thought they had in their homes.  Many had borrowed against their equity and found themselfs upside down owing more on their homes than they were worth.  The promise of retiring abroad with a less-expensive cost of living was enticing.  A whole industry evolved with publishing and seminarss offering “investment opportunities” in Panama.  The Internet exploded and everyone and anyone could publish anything online, sosme of it was accurate and some was just hype.  The big promise was “Panama is cheap(er),”  Of course “cheaper” meant renting, so a variety of rentals were created.

Folks came here to retire based on the promises of the Panama Promoters that life was so much cheaper.  We actually knew a couple who managed to eke out a living on $700 a month, renting, working off-the-books and illegal jobs when they could … and they managed, for a while … and then moved back to the South East US where life was cheaper and easier.

Unfortunately, some, but not all, of those folks who moved to Panama believing it to be “cheap” couldn’t afford “skin in the game” and so had a different attitude.  They wondered why Panama couldn’t do things “The way we did in Miami” or Chicago or LA or East Podunkville, USA.  Instead of focusing on what they could contribute, some looked only at what they could take … adventure, a new experience, friends, etc.  Nice stuff to be sure, but nothing to tie them to a new community.  So when they got tired, or bored, or their feelings hurt, without skin in the game they could just pick up and go on to the next adventure.  In essense they were just long-term tourists, not real residents.  So there was a subtle, and at times not so subtle, change in the expat community.  People competed in some of the organizations expats had created to benefit all, and struggles emerged for leadership roles, who could be the biggest fish in a very small pond.  Where in the past people had worked together, suddenly there were competing boards of directors, and in Valle Escondido one board actually locking the other board out of their offices.

There is real value to having skin in the game, whether the investment is big or modest.  Owning a home means making a commitment to be part of a community.

If you just want to be a tourist on an extended visit, wonderful!  There is a lot to see and do in Panama.  But if you want to have a home and be part of a community, come on down,  If you’ve really done your homework, visited a couple of times, come down and rented for a few months to “test drive” living in Panama, then come down, make a commitment, buy a home, and be part of the community.  We now have a wonderful variety of homes available from $200,000 to over $2 million … put some skin in the game and make Panama your new home.  Make a commitment, not just a contribution!