Monthly Archives: March 2009

Why Panama?

Previously I wrote about that the idea of living south of the border grew from my experience of spending five months in Belize and Guatemala. To me it seemed like an almost perfect area in which to retire. The natural beauty of the countries, the relaxed lifestyle of a cruising sailor and how relatively inexpensive it would be to live there considering how little I would have in the way of retirement income. What could be more appealing than to live on the Rio Dulce with its easy access to the lower cayes and clear waters of Belize when one wanted a break from the rain forest.

I dove into the web and found out that while Belize has a program allowing resident status for retirees the requirements were beyond what I would be able to put together, but it was still possible to spend a good deal of time there without major hassles. Guatemala, though it didn’t have a system specifically geared to retirees, still made it easy to spend the majority of the year there. When I arrived in Livingston I was automatically given a three month visa both for myself and my boat. If you wanted to stay longer all that was necessary was to go to Guatemala City and you could get a nine month visa for the boat. You, on the other hand, had to leave the country for 72 hours and then could return for another three months. A bit of a hassle, but not excessively so…take a side trip to Copan to visit the Mayan ruins “et voila” as they say in Antibes.

I did extensive research with the idea of compiling an e-book about retirement in Mexico but with the amount I would be receiving from Social Security would barely meet the Mexican requirements for their visas allowing gringos to stay year-long. On the other hand, you can spend six months of the year there simply on a tourist visa without hassles but then you have to go somewhere else for the rest of the year.

El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras held no appeal and Costa Rica isn’t much less expensive than here in the US. But for some reason I didn’t even consider or look into Panama. That is, until I was talking to a friend about future vacation plans. I’ve spent much of my life on the water and it came to me that I’d like to go through the Panama Canal. I knew, from reading, that each yacht going through the Canal is required to have, in addition to the captain, four people to handle lines in the locks one on each corner fore and aft. In a lot of transits the line handlers come from other yachts waiting to make their passages for the experience when their turn comes. If the yacht owners can’t scrounge up free help then he must hire someone from between $50.00 to $100.00 each.

I thought it might be a fun vacation to fly down to Panama City and hang out at the Balboa Yacht Club with a tee shirt saying “I Can Handle Lines.” I’m sure I could connect with someone within a week to ten day vacation.

That, of course, led me to a Google search for line handlers and got hits like this: http://www.escapeartist.com/efam20/line_handling.html. When I worked as a freelance writer one of my favorite things was the research I’d get to do at the library. I absolutely loved thumbing through the card catalog. As my fingers would flip through those small pieces of stiff white card stock searching for some subject books and themes would jump out and grab my attention leading me down a completely different path precursors to URL links. ( A little sidebar: Cut and paste comes directly from the old days of being impaled on my own freelance. In order to keep a train of thought going when writing first drafts I bought rolls of newsroom teletype paper and run it through my typewriter. That way it wasn’t necessary to stop regularly to put a new sheet of paper in the machine. If a new idea leaped to the front of my mind I could simply keep on going after making a quick mark in the margin and keep pounding away. It made me more productive doing a 10-page draft by not having to stop nine times to put in a blank sheet. With that done I’d then sit down with a pair of scissors and a little jar of rubber cement and cut and paste away.)

It didn’t take long before I’d burrowed into “Retirement in Panama” and discovered the Pensionado Program. The fiscal requirements were minimal for a single person. Simply prove a minimum monthly income of just $500.00 a month, since increased to $1,000 a month. That meant I easily qualified. Through a mutual friend I was introduced to a couple who had recently purchased property in Panama and was fortunate enough to spend a day with them and gaining from their first-hand knowledge.
In just about every blog written by people who have successfully moved to a foreign country the writers recommend that those considering such a move spend at least six months in the country before moving there. Since I believe that’s excellent advice why am I considering going down sight unseen? I think that my approach to retirement is a bit different than most. I intend on buying a sailboat and living on it rather than going somewhere and renting a stationary house or apartment. The beauty of this sort of arrangement is that if you don’t like where you’re at, or simply want a different view of the world while you’re making your morning coffee you simply get up and move to a different location. In 1992 I left Fort Lauderdale and went to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala but I spent every night at home.

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What is an adventure?

nancy-dawson
One of the Merriam-Webster definitions is “an exciting or remarkable experience.
It  doesn’t have to involve great peril. In fact, for an adventure to be successful according to the definition above, it should avoid peril as much as possible.
So, what do I mean my one MORE good adventure? Well, having recentlystarting to collect my Social Security benefits it means I’m free of having to worry about the weekly pay check and health care (Medicare, the first health care I’ve been able to afford in a dozen years). The SS income isn’t a whole lot. In fact, if I were to stay in the States I’d have to work until the day I die so I wouldn’t have to end up eating cat food and living under a bridge somewhere. I intend on moving out and moving on.
On my last good adventure I had bought a beautiful 26′ sailboat. A Kaiser of which only 26 were made and I had hull #24. I bought it for a song and took off from Fort Lauderdale for nine months and single-handed my way down to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Even though I had lived out of the country for several years prior to this cruise, it was always on somebody else’s boat somebody else’s schedule. The good part was it was also on somebody else’s dime and they paid me every inch of the way. I spent 2-1/2 years living and maintaining an 85′ sailboat on the French Riviera and the Costa del Sol and the owner was never once there and the only guests that were ever aboard were there at my invitation. Since nearly everything was provided for me, a rental car, food that I ate on board, etc. it really didn’t matter a whole lot when I’d drop in to Monaco to watch the power boat races that a can of Coke from a machine cost over $5.00. And that was back in ’89.
But the perspective changes when it’s now MY dime. I spent three months on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and it was there, 16 years ago, that the germ of the idea of retiring south of the Rio Grande started to germinate. I “lived on the hook” (at anchor) except for one long weekend when I put the boat in Mario’s Marina for a trip up to Guatemala City to pick up a part for my outboard engine. Life was good there. Like the Mayan Indians do you get up with the sunrise and go to bed when it gets dark.
There were several marinas on the Rio and most had a restaurant with water you could depend on not to give you the “trots.” I’d eat my main meal of the day at whichever one advertised the most tasty dish of the day over the morning cruiser’s net. A specified time during which interested boats and shore stations would listen in on their VHF radios. You could generally get an excellent meal with perspiration dripping down the sides of your ice cold Gallo lager all for about $3.50 and tipping is pretty much unknown.
In town at one of the houses of ill repute, the beer bottles were dipped in water and then put in a freezer and when the temperature is around 95F with 90% that first near-slushy Gallo goes down easy. Beers there were 35 cents. Outside there was a little stand with the most outstanding tamales you’ll ever find anywhere. Wrapped in a banana leaf they were about the size of a paperback book and in the center there’d be a huge chunk of chickem (I’m assuming it was chicken) with maybe some kernels of corn or peas and a nice sauce that saturated the whole with flavor. One of those would fill you up and they only cost $1.00.
There was a good deal of free or low cost entertainment. Mario’s Marina had “movie’ night on Wednesdays. Pretty much a DVD run up on a big screen tv. It was set up under a large palm thatched hut and you could order food and drink from the bar and restaurant a few steps away. There was no charge for the movie, but they made up for it with their sales. Suzanna’s Laguna would bring in a live local band once a month and the Nirvana Express Bar sponsored cruising sailboat and cayuca (dugout canoe) races every other Sunday with a party afterwards.
And to highlight how inexpensive things were down there, a friend of mine who I had met in France, was the captain of a 65′ custom catamaran. They were at a dock at one of the best resorts on the Rio (coincidentally called the Catamaran Club). It is as nice a place as you would want to spend a vacation in the world. Bill was there at a dock with water and 220 volt electricity for the princely sum of $5.00 US a day. In contrast, when I spent a night at a marina in Key West on my way south it cost me $95.00.
I estimated that if I was able to have $5,000.00 a year I could have had a very nice life. But that wasn’t going to happen right then and I had to return to the States to build up a new cruising kitty. I never did rebuild the cruising kitty and the money that my father left me when he died pretty much disappeared in the Republican Depression,

So now I’ve applied for a Pensionado Visa which will allow me to be a permanent resident in Panama. I’ve completed all the paperwork a I’ve been told it’s been approved. Now I’m simply waiting for it to be signed and then I’ll be packing up my life in the U.S. and moving down here permanently.

I think that qualifies as an adventure.

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