Reflections on Panama

“If we’re really going to start a new life, we have to kill the old one. That’s why most people never really start anything new. They’re claimed by old lamps and bureaus left to them by their grandmothers.” — Betty Wilson-Away From It All

So now that I’ve received my Pensionado I’m back in the States and involved in the process of ridding myself of those old lamps and bureaus to start my new life. My One More Good Adventure.

Actually I don’t have any old lamps and bureaus. I do have a picture, a pencil sketch of a painting by a marginally famous relative, Richard Morrell Staigg, and was probably the study for this painting:

I am Richard Staigg Philbrick. I remember this pencil sketch from the time I was very young. But there’s no way I going to take it with me to Panama? There’s no place for it on the houseboat I hope to build and live on down there. It will be going to a niece who is the only other person, as far as I know, to carry the name Staigg. There is also an heirloom silver tea pot that I will be sending to a nephew. All the rest of the detritus I have accumulated will be sold or given away. I really don’t intend to take much more than some clothes, my cameras and my computers to Panama.

I readily admit that my personal knowledge of Panama is very limited at this point. I’ve only been to a few towns and cities, Santiago, Chitre, Los Santos, Pedasi, Bocas del Toro and David.  But my three trips to the Republic have left me with several impressions,..

So far I have found the Panamanian people to be nothing but friendly, kind and helpful. I have not met the least bit of animosity towards my “gringoness.” My Spanish is far from fluent, but I can hold a basic conversation with people who don’t speak any English. It’s rough Spanish and filled with grammatical mistakes, but the essence of what I’m trying to express comes through and that goes a long way.

Much of the country are breathtakingly beautiful. Just as long as you don’t look at the side of the roads. If you do you can almost imagine Poppa telling Momma, on a Sunday afternoon, “round up the kids and we’ll take the car for a spin and throw shit out the windows.”

On the other side of that coin, I saw young Nôbe-Buglé Indian children leaving shacks that homeless people in the States would refuse to live in wearing spotless, brilliantly white shirts and blouses and pressed blue skirts and blouses as they set off for school.

I’ve met quite a few Americans and Canadians who have retired to Panama and all seem to love it though I know there are just as many who are disillusioned with the experience. But I also have a lot of friends in the States who are so locked into the United States culture they would never be able to adapt to living in the Republic. These are the people who will end up retiring to “creative retirement” communities in places like those Asheville, North Carolina, giving them access to spas, seminars, etc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s certainly not the challenge many of us are looking for.

Retirement abroad definitely has a broad appeal. Many believe they will be able to live in the lifestyle they’ve always had on a much smaller budget. Well, kids, when you move to Panama you’re not in Kansas anymore. Sure, the high rises in downtown Panama City remind you of Miami Beach and everyone’s speaking Spanish like they do in Miami. But it’s different. You get out into the hinterland and you’re living in a land of primary colors. Stores and buildings are often painted with bright, almost garish to some eyes, reds, blues, yellows. The signs on what seems to be the majority of those buildings are crudely hand-lettered. Small cement block houses outside of the towns are only painted on the side that faces the street.

Move to another country and you’re going to be hit hard smack in the face with culture shock. But that’s what attracts many of us. The challenge of it all. That opportunity to have One More Good Adventure.

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