Next month, my high school graduating class will be celebrating our 40-year reunion. Many of us entered kindergarten together. We started reconnecting on Facebook and are enjoying reminiscing about the good times we had. I have many good memories peppered with a few not so good ones. I remember getting my first pimple. Pimples always seemed to find their way to the middle of my forehead or the tip of my nose preceding the big school dance. I also remember the time a wart appeared on the top of my toe. I didn’t do anything about it for a year. In time I had it removed through a slow, slightly painful process. Pimples and warts are easily covered up or removed. But the one thing I will live with forever is the downright ugly scar that remains on my right knee. Preston Johnson, the meanest boy in my third grade class, pushed me down on the playground, inflicting a permanent scar.
I can hear you mumbling, “What does this have to do with Panama?” Stick with me on this one. The decision to retire and relocate to Panama creates many of what I call Clint Eastwood memories – the good, the bad and the ugly. With the right temperament and exposures you will experience more of the good and less of the bad and the ugly.
Let’s take a look at a pimple you will experience during your first few months in Panama. Arriving during the dry season, the first pimple will be caused by the loss of water. This is the same pimple you will experience if you arrive during the wet season. There’s just no way around it. You’ll get up early one morning deciding you don’t want to rush to proceed with household chores like cleaning up the breakfast dishes or washing your clothes. It’s only 8:30. You’re retired. No more rushing. No more schedules. What you fail to realize is you and IDAAN (water company) are on two different schedules. Their schedule says the water should come to a trickle ending in a complete halt early in the morning, not to return until late in the afternoon. No washing today. This pimple is easily handled by storing water in gallon jugs for washing the dishes, your hands and other small chores. A large pail of water should be on hand for toilet flushing. This is a pimple. Like the mountain that rises on your forehead before the big school dance, the first time you experience the loss of water you are caught off guard without a reserve; and there you sit. Fool me once IDAAN, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
You won’t experience a wart until a little further down memory lane. This wart will rear its ugly head as a result of you trying to be kindhearted. One thing you learn as you befriend Panamanians is even though their earnings are paid in U.S. dollars, they don’t get a lot of them. Average salaries run from $500-$800/month unless they are professionals or work for the Canal. As you make friends, the perception of your being Daddy Big Bucks Foreigner will creep to the forefront in the form of a request for a loan. Understanding the Panamanian meaning of the term “loan” is important. There is a slightly different connotation from which you are accustomed. The more appropriate term is “gift.” In order to avoid becoming Boo Boo the Kindhearted Fool but not appearing to be Gringo Scrooge you must set firm limits on what you feel comfortable in giving. This is a wart because at first you don’t seek a resolution but the condition remains. The good news is the situation can be resolved with a minimal amount of pain but you will be required to be diplomatic.
Now, let’s talk about the downright ugly scar – the border crossing at Paso Canoas. Every 180 days, North American expats who have not acquired a cedula (permanent residency card) must make the trek to Costa Rica, or somewhere else, for 72 hours. Panama has several borders crossings but Paso Canoas is the most heavily traversed. My husband and I took a trip to Belize in January via Tica Bus in order to experience the scenery of Central America. We passed through the borders of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize; but our worst border experience occurred at Paso Canoas. The bus arrived at 5AM and hundreds of people were waiting in line for the one immigration officer to open the window at 7AM. The outbound trip took 7 hours to get our precious exit stamp; coming back we endured 6 hours without a decent bathroom or other life-sustaining accommodations. My husband almost lost the will to live. We were amazed at how Costa Rican immigration was able to handle the same amount of people in a fraction of the time. This is a downright ugly scar that has taught us never to leave Panama via Paso Canoas during the holiday season.
Pimples, warts and downright ugly scars are found in all aspects of life. Life in Panama is no different. The key to happiness is to not let any scar become permanent.