Sunday, June 5, 2011

8 Startle Factors to Consider Before Relocating to Panama
You haven't even unpacked the suitcases from your sun-drenched vacation to Panama and a still, small voice is tickling your imagination, whispering, "I could live there." Who hasn't experienced drifting off to daydream of residing in a tropical paradise where everyone is tanned, laid back and friendly? Visions of being liberated from hip-confining stockings or neck-stretching ties appeal to your senses. Emancipation from raking fall leaves or shoveling winter snow drifts arouses your emotions. You even begin rehearsing your retirement speech which begins with the words "take this job and..."

This may be how you envision your newly transformed life through the pina colada colored eyes of a turista. (tourist) But before you take the relocation plunge you must first consider what I call the "startle factors" (aka the unanticipated but well documented factors) and explore rational ways to overcome them.

Will you be able to adjust to a foreign environment?
As your life stands today, you get in your car and drive out of your neighborhood waving to people you have lived around and socialized with for years. You find comfort in knowing exactly where every product is located in your favorite grocery store and how to ask for items in the local hardware store. Before deciding to make a move to a Spanish-speaking country you must determine how adaptable you are to the changes you will experience in a vastly different social environment. Will you miss that over-the-fence chat with your nosey neighbor? Will you get frustrated if you cannot find that special food item you are used to eating? Can you handle walking into the hardware store without knowing how to ask for the simplest item? Can you overcome this first startle factor? Begin by meditating on releasing everything you know about the life you are currently living. Your mantra will be, "things will not be the way I'm accustomed to. Things will not be the way I'm accustomed to." Even though it is bad grammar, repeat it 50 times, then wake up and realize that Panama ain't Kansas and prepare your mind for a culture adjustment.

How much of your "stuff" can you live without?
As you are deciding to relocate, look around your finely appointed home. One of your biggest startle factors will be to decide what to take, what to sell and what to give away. Years of collecting what I call "dustables" stand in between you and the reality of a simplified lifestyle. The truth is you can't (or shall I say "shouldn't") bring all your things with you. So, long before the 40 foot moving container is dumped in front of your door you will need to make your list of "must haves," and "can't bear to part withs." Then do like Santa Claus. Make your list; check it twice, then three times and up to ten times. Then be nice to yourself and decide to move with only what will fit comfortably in the container.

How much do you really like hot weather?
Everyone loves to get away to hot weather and the beach, especially after being beaten up by a severe winter. But if you love having seasonal wardrobes you will want to know that in Panama there are only two seasons, dry and wet, which means you will need to exchange your spring coats, your fall sweaters and your winter jackets for ponchos and umbrellas. Since the temperature remains steady and comfortably warm throughout the year you can keep your summer wardrobe as long as it is cotton and doesn't require ironing. After all, ironing is over-rated. And if you are in the hot flash stage, be sure to bring a couple of nice hand fans. That way you will look chique instead of sweaty.

Do you like open air markets?
Personally, I find no greater thrill than going to the open-air markets on the weekends. It is certainly one way to become wholly immersed in the culture. You will see fruits and vegetables that you never knew existed, let alone know how to prepare. But it is not Kroger's. The aisles are not clean and wide, the sprinklers do not come on to lightly mist the produce, there is no hypnotizing background Musak and nothing is pre-weighed and wrapped in clear cellophane packages. There are no check-out registers, no coupons to redeem, you don't get a receipt and you will be wise to bring your own environmentally-friendly bags. There are, however, three really good things about the market: there is never a monotonous moment; there is always a delightful delicacy to discover; and even often-hurried husbands enjoy the market! These three factors make for an enjoyable market experience.

How much do you like your spouse?
Take note. I did not ask "how much do you 'love' your spouse?" I know you love him/her, but how much do you LIKE...? I think you get my drift. A solid relationship, a friendship, must exist with your spouse because you are going to spend more time together than you ever have before. No room for ennui in Panama. You are going to go to the market, to the bank, to do other shopping, to the restaurant, touring, even to the hardware store, (yes, to the hardware store) TOGETHER! You will realize that one of you will speak better Spanish than the other, hence, will be needed to translate and carry on vital conversations with vendors, taxi drivers, waiters and just about anyone you need to do business with while the other one stands around looking like window dressing. My advice if you need help in this area is to download multiple family self-help books for your Kindle and read them together.

Can you handle "bad hair" days?
This may sound shallow, but is there anything worse than a series of "bad hair" days? The good thing about Panama is you will soon learn that your bad hair day is just a normal hair day and you look like everyone else. I'm not being chauvinistic because men and women suffer equally from the bad hair syndrome. The secret is to get a good haircut/style that falls back into place when the wind blows or the humidity steams the freshness out of your coif and then go about your business. After all, you're retired now, so who cares?

Can you drive like a mad man/woman?
When I moved from Atlanta I figured that I could handle anything when it came to craziness on the road. Was I wrong! What I knew in the states as "road rage" I exchanged for the term "road insanity" in Panama. Take comfort in knowing the difference between road rage and road insanity. Road rage is personal and someone could end up seriously hurt. Road insanity is random. You just happen to be there when someone else is doing what they normally do. Yes, you could still end up getting seriously hurt, but at least it was not personal. The secret to preparing for road insanity in Panama and all of Central America is to practice playing video games that will sharpen your reaction time. Learn to aim your car where you want to go and then don't hesitate. Don't expect the other driver to be courteous. Anticipate what I call "what the h..." moves. And by all means, don't get angry because it won't change a thing. Just do as the locals do. Blow your horn, wave your hand (no one finger salutes, please), shout something inaudible out your window and go about your merry way. Once again, this ain't Kansas and "we are not used to driving like this" doesn't work here. Look at it this way. You're no longer watching NASCAR. You are actually on the track.

How often do you "need" to see your grandchildren?
The key word here is "need" not "want." If you are the kind of Nana and PeePaw who just can't live without the constant slamming of the screen door, the commands to turn off the lights and the demand of "stay out of the refrigerator until I finish preparing lunch" then the other seven startle factors don't even matter. But, look at it in a new light. Imagine how enjoyable it will be to introduce your grands to all of the fun and excitement that is Panama: from the contemporary, fast-paced Panama City to the colorful, laid back Caribbean style of Bocas del Toro; from azure colored oceans teeming with whales, dolphins and other ocean life to emerald mountains rich with tropical flora and fauna; to friendly children who love to play outdoors to diverse surroundings that beg to be explored. You and your grand kids will realize a new meaning to quality time as you create lasting memories. And, they will think you are the coolest grandparents ever (this may be the biggest startle factor of all). The cost of being elevated to such high esteem? Priceless!

If you scored between 6 and 8 in terms of things you can handle you are ready to take the relocation plunge. If you scored 4 or 5 rethink your life and pray over it before making the move. If you scored lower than 4 consider vacationing in Panama a few more times before making a decision.

Panama is a wonderful place to live but first you must acknowledge the startle factors and adjust your mind to accept the situations. Participate in the lively online forums where you can chat with expats who have taken the plunge. Review the forum archives and discover threads that discuss the many lifestyle differences. Give yourself at least six months to live in Panama to experience first-hand if you can make the mental adjustment. Do all these things with an open mind and in time the startle factors won't seem as startling.

Ellie Wharton is an international traveler and writer who has lived in various cities in the US, Jamaica, Mexico, Belize and is currently living in Panama. For more information about activities in Panama go to
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