Reprinted with permission from Bob Adams of Retirement Wave
Why Did You Choose Panama?
That is a question I have been asked more times than I could possibly remember. Sometimes in emails, but it is simply too time-consuming to do more than share a couple general thoughts in response. The majority of times, it is asked by members who I meet face-to-face. That allows a little more detail, but still falls far short of a good explanation. So, finally, I have decided to put something up here at the Members section.
First, let me quickly state the obvious. What worked for me may not work for you. My reasons may not include yours or be relevant to you. There is no answer to this question that is not personal, thus often not too practical for others. With that out of the way, let's move along.
In my professional career now spanning some 43 years, I have lived and/or worked in more than 40 nations in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and, of course, North America. I say "more than 40 nations" because I gave up counting a long time ago. I did not really care. All I remember is that some 20 years ago, I happened to have all my old passports in front of me one day and I sat down and counted the number of nations I had visited. I did not take vacations outside the US, so they were all "work" nations. There were 36. I have never bothered to do that again and I am not sure I could even find all my old passports, so I just say "more than 40 nations" and leave it at that. For all I know, 50 might be more appropriate, but I do not know and it continues to mean nothing to me. It was the work and experiences I had in these nations that I remember and that I want to remember.
What Were You Looking For?
I have looked at every nation I have ever visited as a possibility for living, not just visiting. When I decided in January of 2004 that the time had come for me to look seriously, I set personal requirements.
It had to be a tropical country. I am a "temperate climate" kind of guy, born and raised in upstate New York in the US where winters are cold and spring and autumn cool and lovely. But I have also studied the aging process ("ageing" for my British cousins) for nearly three decades and am keenly aware that older people handle temperatures differently than younger people. This was strikingly true of my mother who had spent her whole life in the temperate climate of Canada and the northern US. She lived to 91 and prior to that spent several years in assisted living and finally a nursing home.
Every time I visited her, as was true of most older folks I met, she had the temps up high in her room and I felt as if I would suffocate! She felt exactly the same way when she visited her mother many years before in a home for the elderly, but now it was her turn. The result was that she lived her last decade or so in familiar territory, but spent more and more time each year locked up in her apartment. She just hated the cold and damp of winter, later fall, then spring as well. She only went out when I or my brother visited and took her out. Each year, the time spent inside went up and the time available for being outside fell. Eventually, she was truly a prisoner and it took a great toll on her emotionally and physically, and on all her family and friends just seeing her go through this.
I swore I would not allow this to happen to me, if I could avoid it. I want to be able to go outside year-round, even if it is only to a patio or balcony, and feel comfortable. I never want to lose my connection with the living world around me. I know the day will come when "hot" will become "warm and comfortable". I knew from decades of travel that this is best found in a tropical or semi-tropical environment, so that became a major factor in my planning.
I am an American, so I was fortunate. I had all of Latin America from Mexico to Argentina readily available to me. After years and years of slow recovering from crossing multiple time zones, I was also glad that nearly all of Latin America was never more than one or two hours different from my home in the US. I had more than my fair share of waking up at 2 am because my body thought it was 8 am or 10 am or, god forbid, 2 pm! It was nice to take that out of the equation.
I first eliminated South America. Trips back and forth to the US would be too long and too expensive for my taste. I have taken many long air trips and I knew my tolerance for flights longer than 3 or 4 hours was very limited. And my tolerance for flights costing me more than 1K was extremely limited! South America also failed for other reasons I will discuss later, but it was never in contention.
I considered the Caribbean islands. I knew several of them and loved them for vacations, but I was looking for a place to live. They were not ruled out, but they were low priority for two reasons. One was the sense of "isolation" that can occur after living there for awhile and the other was the simple fact that most of them depended on imported food and goods that could be very expensive without locally-produced alternatives available. Finally, too many were "tourist" countries and I knew from my experience that a wonderful "tourist" country was one where many people had been professionally trained to be polite and kind, for money. They were good at it, but some would not be so friendly once I was just another resident. I have had friends go through that and I can do without it.
That left Mexico, Central America, and Panama. By the way, folks, that is what this region has been called for a very, very long time, both informally and formally by regional and global institutions. Panama is not part of Central America, despite the fact that foreigners assume this on the basis of a map. Mexico has always been separate, not just because of its size, but due to its history of economic and social connections to its northern neighbor. It is now usually accepted as part of North America. Panama was always separate from Central America due to its 500 year history of economic, social, and political ties to South America. After all, Panama was part of Colombia until the early 20th century and its capital was in Bogotá. The gold carried across the isthmus was not from El Salvador, it was from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and surrounding areas. Like Mexico, Panama stood apart from Central America – Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras.
Okay, so I had chosen Mexico, Central America, and Panama for these general reasons, now for the details.
Ignore the Gift Wrapping, Check the Contents
These are the factors that took a nation off my list.
I will not choose a nation that has large-scale criminal organizations (cartels) resident in that country. That eliminated one of my favorite Latin American nations, home to about 750,000 Americans (by US State Department estimate) and far more if you count people with vacation or part-time homes, plus 100,000 Canadians or more. That nation is Mexico.
I first visited Mexico 47 years ago when I moved to Tucson, Arizona to attend university and have visited it on several occasions since. Throughout that period, right up until today, I have many Mexican and Mexican-American friends who are dear to me. It is a wonderful nation, but it is a nation with a huge cartel problem, far greater than Colombia's at the moment. The final number is not in, but 2009 will have seen some 7500 DRE's (drug-related executions) in Mexico, the result of this war. That is more than the total losses suffered by all US and allied forces in Iraq since that war began in 2003. And it follows some 5800 DRE's in 2008.
I am amazed how many Americans and Canadians are completely unaware of the war between the Mexican federal government and the Mexican cartels that has been underway for several years. If it is of interest to you, the folks at Roubini Global Economics provide a brief, but clear, summary report. Although prepared in mid-November of 2009, nothing has changed to improve the picture. Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, a group of highly respected global analysts) provides a brief video update on recent (mid-December 2009) events that gives you a small taste of the situation.
And here is a map they provide showing areas of Mexico where various cartels are active.
I am not the least bit "anti-Mexico" and hate to appear as such, but the ignorance of the on-going war is so wide-spread, I feel I have to mention it. I have great faith that Mexico will eventually take care of this terrible situation, but until then, it cannot be on my list of places to live. This is also true for any nation with a traditional war underway, but that is not a problem in this region.
I am not interested in living in a nation that is still recovering (socially, politically, and economically) from a long and deadly civil war. I love Guatemala and have visited many times for more than a decade, but it may take another 36 years to fully recover from its 36-year civil war that officially ended only in 1996 after approximately 200,000 people were killed, plus it has a sky-high crime rate. Civil wars have had a huge impact on some other Central American nations as well, notably Nicaragua and El Salvador.
I want a nation that allows free speech, a free press, and is democratic, but I avoid nations whose political life is largely determined by an extreme right and an extreme left. These nations can be extremely unstable and what is true in the treatment of foreigners today may not be true a year from today. As far as I am concerned, Honduras is, most unfortunately, a recent example of the problems associated with this kind of "face off" between political extremes. Which "side" I prefer is not important. I simply do not want to live in a nation that faces this sort of continuing political conflict.
I prefer a nation that does not depend on agriculture and/or tourism for its economic growth. Weather is always a potential problem for farmers and a graph of the prices they can get on the international market for their food often looks like the Himalayas, too many "peaks and valleys" for sound and steady economic growth. Tourism can be suddenly and devastatingly interrupted by a hurricane, for example. And, in both cases, these nations are in constant competition with neighboring nations for the attention of buyers or tourists. When that is all you have to build an economy on, then that is what you have to do, but it is not anywhere near as nice as a steady source of income that does not depend on the whims of weather or tourists. I looked for a nation whose economy was based on products and/or services whose markets are relatively stable when compared to others in the region.
I want a nation with a dynamic economy that grows at a rate in excess of its population growth. In other words, I want a nation whose economic "pie" is growing fast enough to allow as many of its citizens as possible to benefit. I did not want a nation whose economy was stagnant or declining in the face of an increasing population. That is a recipe for big socio-political trouble, the kind that I have personally and professionally encountered in too many nations, the kind I wanted to avoid in a place to live, not just work or visit temporarily.
Why did I not include "cost of living" or "cost of housing" in the above list? Because experience has taught me that, important though both are, I can find something affordable pretty much anywhere I go. Good heavens, I can find a cheap cost of living and housing in the US, if I wanted to! It is easier to find cheaper living in some nations than others and Panama is not the cheapest place to live in this region, but I often have found that the living is cheap because other factors are missing or are negative. Those "other factors" can really make life miserable if I do not consider them. So I focus on the other factors first, then I look for what I can afford. No one factor makes my decision for me. Every nation is a "package" of factors, so I do my best to look at all those that are important to me, not just one or two.
When all was said and done in February of 2004 when I set off on my search, I had already reduced my list to three nations: Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. For the reasons I wrote above, Mexico was barely on the list. It has one big advantage known to most northerners. You can get in a car and drive there more quickly, cheaply, and easily than to any other Latin American nation. It may be the single most important factor in attracting Americans and Canadians and I could not ignore it, plus I like Mexico. However, although the current drug war was not to break out until 2006 and I was making my decision in 2004, the cartel problem and the potential for major violence were evident to anyone carefully considering Mexico. It was on the list, but only as a "last choice", if Costa Rica and Panama did not work out.
If there had been no Panama, Costa Rica would have been my choice. It has much of what I was looking for, but not everything, and its attitude and treatment of northerners, retirees included, was less friendly than in the past, from what I heard. I will not take up a lot of space here with this as this is not a "Why I didn't move to Costa Rica" essay. Let it suffice to say that, in my mind, Costa Rica had "peaked" as a nation for relocation in the late 20th century and its past reputation still carried it in 2004, as it does to a lesser extent today. Despite the assumption made by many RW members for lack of information, Costa Rica and Panama are very different nations, historically, economically, politically and socially. Costa Rica was "okay", but it did not compete well with Panama in 2004 and even less so today, in my opinion. It was my #2 choice. Panama was my #1 choice and it was where I went to first visit. I ran Panama through my list of requirements. It passed with flying colors. I chose it and I am here today as a result. Using the above list, let me summarize Panama briefly, as I see it.
Panama has no local cartels. Yes, many drugs pass through here on their way north, but that is true of every nation, mainland or island, between Colombia and the US. If I had to find a nation totally unaffected by the drug trade, I would not only have had to ignore the entire region, I would have had to leave the US! Going to Canada would not solve the problem. The drug trade is ubiquitous, found everywhere. I cannot avoid the "trade", but I definitely wanted to avoid a nation with its own cartels. Panama has no civil war history. Panama is a free and democratic society, but its politics are not dominated by extremists of either the right or the left. Panama does have agricultural and touristic segments to its economy, but it does not depend on them for its economic growth. Above all, Panama has the Panama Canal, a very steady source of national employment and income, and the world's second-largest Free Trade Zone, also a wonderful source of employment and income that exists because the Canal exists. Trust me, there are plenty of other nations who would love nothing more than to trade their bananas, pineapples, tourists, even their oil, for the Panama Canal. Panama's economic growth has been very positive and it’s the only nation among those I considered that has not gone negative due to the global financial crisis that we are living through now. Even last year, when we had a slow-down due to the global crisis, our GDP growth exceeded our population growth. Our "pie" is growing faster than its consumers.
So, Bob, here it is, six years later. Do you still feel you made the right decision? Yes, absolutely. If anything, I feel more strongly positive today than I did six years ago, on the basis of my own chosen criteria. Is Panama "paradise"? Of course not. Are there things I do not like? Sure. Any really big ones? No. If you actually believe you can find paradise on this earth, you should read my essay in the public section of the site, Paradise is for Dead People.
What about the future? I feel very positive about Panama's future. If you know me, you know I do not make specific predictions, but I do make general forecasts, open to modification when facts, not opinions, require it. Once I have made the immediate decision of where to live and have settled down, my focus shifts to a three to five year period. That is why I am so interested in eastern Panama and Lake Bayano.
If one thing distresses me about many North Americans and Europeans, it is a piece of excess baggage they carry to Panama and, sometimes, hang onto for years. It is short-term thinking. The horrible financial mess that makes nations on both sides of the North Atlantic look foolish (and that is the nicest way to put it) is closely related to an excess of short-term thinking. It has been a problem for at least a couple decades and it is the source of a lot of pain.
If you read about Panama over time, you will read some very positive comments and some very negative comments. It is the same with every nation on earth. If you focus on each comment or anecdote or statistic and allow it to change your opinion of Panama, your opinion is going to resemble a yo-yo quickly. Avoid that, please. I do not know how you feel now, but I suspect that all or nearly all of you have lived in some nation for years happily. I can assure you that, at any point during your stay, an outsider could find stories, anecdotes, statistics or whatever that indicated that you lived in a dangerous or unstable nation. You may have read or heard them, but you dismissed them because you took a broader and longer-term view. You realized that they were just pieces of a much greater story. It is no different here.
I sometimes tell people that I can either be a hummingbird or an eagle. A hummingbird knows that flower he is drinking from in intricate detail, but it is the eagle that sees the whole area from thousands of feet above. Every morning I wake up in Panama, I know I have to be a hummingbird, dealing with whatever requires attention that day. But I also know that I have to be an eagle from time to time and get up in the air far enough to see the forest, not just today's flower.
Choosing the Right Box of Chocolates
As Mrs. Gump told Forrest, "Life's a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you're gonna get." So true, but your "box of chocolates" is not a gift someone else chooses, you get to choose it. So choose a box that has as many of your favorite chocolates as possible, before you buy it.
I often mention here at the site that you should not choose a vacation home if you plan to live in that area. You should choose a home that fits your needs and desires for the day-to-day business of getting on with life. Yes, you want it to be as pleasant as possible, but do not choose a location primarily because the view is beautiful and you "fall in love" with it from first sight, unless it meets your other needs as well.
If you are a very social person who likes to go to movies, the theater, restaurants, and so forth on a regular basis and you know that is important to you, then only look at areas that provide those amenities. If isolation is important to you, then use that as a guide to choosing the area. If you have to have a super-fast Internet connection, than look for that first. If access to good hospitals or an international airport is really important, then start with that. You need to know yourself well enough to be able to identify those things that have nothing to do with your emotional desires, but which are critical for you to live happily for an extended period of years. Once you have identified areas that meet your critical needs, then look within them for those homes that satisfy your emotional needs.
So what did I want in my box of chocolates? When I looked for a location in early 2004, I wanted two things: 1) stable access to a high-speed Internet connection due to all the Web work I do and the importance of email to me professionally, as well as personally, and 2) easy access to Tocumen International Airport. For the first years I stayed here, I traveled to the US nearly every month for business reasons. I was not interested in driving two or three hours to get to the airport, always worrying that a traffic accident or some other obstacle awaited me down the road. Those were my two critical "chocolates", so I rented in Panama City where I live today. I would have preferred living elsewhere, but "elsewhere" did not meet those two basic requirements. There are always a few chocolates in every box that I do not care for, but that is life. I focus on the getting the box with the best selection for me.
Pick your box of chocolates carefully. Be sure it includes the pieces that are essential to successful living, not vacationing. One of the joys of Panama is that it is small and stretched out. It is very difficult to live much more than an hour and a half, if that, from the beach or from the mountains. In other words, from the areas most of us enjoy for recreation. But for living, Panama City met my needs best in 2004. What area of Panama meets your needs best in 2010 is for you to determine, but you really need to give it serious, non-emotional consideration before choosing your new home. That is the basic point. Most of us have to make a compromise of some sort in choosing our home, but we must be careful that we do not give up something we know we will truly need, once we live here.
So why did it take you so long to tell us, Bob?
In the last six years, family, friends, and Retirement Wave members have asked me, "Why did you choose Panama?" hundreds of times in emails and conversations. Each time, I winced. It is simply not possible to sum it all up in a couple paragraphs or a couple minutes of conversation. Writing it up was going to take a lot of time and, believe it or not, the above is a summary of my thinking.
The second reason was a very important one. The question asked is personal to me and my response is just as personal. I am absolutely not interested in "debating" or, worse yet, "arguing" with anybody on this topic. No one should waste their time on emails telling me that "Mexico is really very safe" or "Nicaragua is a beautiful country" or whatever. You ask me for my reasons and here they are. They are not recommendations, just my personal comments and they only relate to me. Now it is up to you.
You have full responsibility. You have to determine your list of factors. You have to decide their priority and importance to you. You have to make your decision for yourselves. You will have to live with your decision, not Bob. Honestly, I do not care where you relocate or even if you relocate. The only thing that matters to me is that you make the right decision for you and no one else.
As you continue your personal journey of discovery, I hope these comments are of some small use, but it is your journey, not mine. As we say in Spanish, "¡Buen viaje!" May it be a good journey!