Another One Bites The Dust

In the last month I’ve encountered three people (that includes a couple) who are packing up and returning to the Great White North. Their stories illustrate some of the common things that happen to people whose retirement dreams turn sour.

The three came to Panama and settled in Boquete on the other side of the valley from Potrerillos Arriba. In the last couple of years Boquete has been heavily promoted as being one of the premier spots for people to retire to when the wish to retire outside of the United States. It’s a place that was described by a sixth grader at a school in David as “Gringolandia.”  There are a lot of expats who have settled in and around Boquete many of them in gated “communities” where they are insulated from the reality of Panama and way too many of them don’t learn Spanish and are often an embarrassment when I see them in the local stores pissed off that the locals haven’t learned English so the expat’s lives would be easier. They’ve been taken in by the misinformation publications and sites like “International Living” who say “many of the locals speak English. NO THEY DON’T! Nor should they. The language here is Spanish and YOU should learn THEIR language, not the other way around.

Dealing with the language for the monoglots who only operate in English is one of the biggest reasons so many people leave. Of the three people mentioned earlier not learning to speak Spanish played a great part in their decision to return north of the border. I talked to the single man who was leaving. He is doing it for health reasons which is a valid excuse but part of his problem is he “can’t find a doctor, here, who speaks English.” Well, MY doctor here speaks near-perfect English. Also this gentleman is from Mississippi and his accent is so thick you can, as they say, cut it with a knife. Now, not to put down anyone from the great state of Mississippi, I had a problem understanding his speech and I’ve been speaking English since I was able to speak at all. He said he’d tried to learn Spanish but he was too old, which is another weak excuse although I’m sure that with his accent no Panamanian would have been able to understand his Spanish anyway.

The couple fall into the biggest category of quitters. Though they say they did all their “due diligence” before committing themselves to living here I think they deluded themselves. They read all the propaganda about how this is a paradise. They came down, looked around, found “Gringolandia” and bought a house. Then, not speaking the language, they became disenchanted and when “culture shock” landed on them with both feet they succumbed and are selling their house at a loss. Besides not learning to speak the language they didn’t do one of the most important things of all which is to have come down here and rented a place for at least six months to see if they could actually make the transition.

Not everyone can, nor should they, pack up their old way of life and move to a different country where the customs and language are so different. It takes a special kind of person to pull it off. It take a commitment that most people don’t possess. Of all my friends, relatives and acquaintances in the States I only know ONE who could pull it off and that’s because he has at various times in his life. Because of circumstances beyond his control he’s living in the States now, but in the past Bill’s lived for at least six years in France, three or four in Spain and spent, literally, years in Mexico and Guatemala. He speaks both French and Spanish. He’s a few years away from retirement age but it wouldn’t surprise me that when he hits the magic number he’ll drift south of the Rio Grande and be successful at it.

The big hurdle for everyone who leaves their comfort zone in the States is, of course, culture shock. It WILL hit you. Just how long that will take before it hits varies from person to person but it is inevitable. Your success depends on how you cope with it and whether you can work your way through it or not. It hit me in France at about the six month mark and that’s about when it gets most people. I really wanted to leave, but I’d committed myself to doing a job and so I stuck it out and am glad I did. In fact, I was hit twice with culture shock. When I returned to the States after being abroad for nearly four years again at about the six month mark I wanted to clear out and thought seriously about returning to France. I didn’t, of course, but the determination to leave the States stayed with me until I could actually get things together and do it. I haven’t had a problem with culture shock here in Panama and I don’t think I will, having gone through it twice I know how to roll with the flow now and deal with things as they are.

It isn’t just moving to another country that can be a problem for people in their retirement years. Want a great deal on a nice sailboat? Go to places like the Virgin Islands, the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and other “destination” ports. There are plenty of boats there that are owned by people who dreamed of sailing around the world, bought a boat, sold everything and took off only to abandon their dream at their first distant port of call. Reality bit them in the pooper and they discovered that the “cruising life” is little more than repairing broken gear in exotic locations without the proper tools or the skills to actually do the job. Usually, though not always, it’s the woman who gives up first. I remember one woman in Guatemala who was forcing the end of the adventure because she couldn’t cope with the lack of shopping malls and places to get her nails done. I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Of course I think that’s stupid, but for her it was a valid reason for going back and who am I to ridicule her reasons. There hers and not mine.

I feel sorry for those people whose dreams lie ship wrecked on the bleak shores of reality but that’s how life goes sometimes.

Things are changing here in Panama recently. The 29th of this month will mark my first anniversary. The seasons are changing. After a long dry spell we’re starting to get rain on a nearly daily basis now. Not the drenching frog-choking gully washers of last year, but a couple of hours of the wet every day. Gas prices are over $4/gallon now which is driving up the cost of transportation and as a result food prices are rising and it’s hard for the ordinary Panamanian. Yesterday I took the bus down the mountain to do some grocery shopping. What used to cost 90¢ for the one-way trip is now $1.05.


Filed under Culture Shock, Living Abroad, panama, Retirement, Retirement Abroad, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Another One Bites The Dust

  1. How interesting to read your blog, Richard. Found you through Linda Leinen’s, The Task at Hand blog. On the 19th of this month, I will have been in Chile for a year, although my experience is different, having been here on extended visits over the last 20 years. Furthermore, it’s my wife’s country, and I’ve been speaking the language for the last 24 years on a daily basis. Even so, I was not immune to culture shock this time on returning to stay permanently, so I can well imagine how some in the category that you’ve mentioned must suffer. (There are plenty of malls here, though…)
    Muchos saludos…

    Linda writes one of the most literary blog I’ve found and it surprises me that she finds my first-draft posts interesting.

    Making a permanent move is altogether different than “extended visits” and I think part of the culture shock comes with the acceptance of a permanent change in one’s status.

  2. This is one of those entries that really should allow for a sit-down and some story-telling. Whenever fantasy and reality collide, it can look like a six-car pileup on the highway of life.

    One of my favorites from the sailing world involved a guy I knew only as Teacup. He built a ferro-cement boat in a yard bordering Galveston Bay, and intended to circumnavigate. Eventually he got out the Galveston jetties, discovered seasickness and rough seas. He turned around and came in to a small anchorage outside the Galveston Yacht Basin. He never moved again, except in his rowboat.

    Every time a norther’d come through he’d land on the rocks. The Coast Guard, whose station was right there, got tired of hauling him off, so they tied him up to a huge concrete block or some such. Then he really was stuck. The last time I saw him he gave me a ride in to shore in his row boat. He was engaged in learning Japanese from audio tapes. I don’t know why – pure curiosity, I suppose.

  3. MrBill

    When you mentioned you had ONE friend who could make it in a foreign coountry, I immediately thought… what about me? Glad to see as I read a little further down that you still have all your faculties. I just may join you down there one day.

    MOST of my faculties, not ALL and I’d love to quaff some suds with you here.