My name is Giselle and I have been a runaway for 12 years.
Well...at least according to some of my stateside friends.
It all started innocently enough (as most adventures are want to do): My husband and I had begun to contemplate our retirement options. We were living in Florida at the time. He was a doctor and I was a Real Estate Agent. We talked up a storm about places we would like to see and destinations that would be good fun to wake up in. Of course, this being a marriage, we went from a discussion to a debate and from a debate to an argument about these places, their relative prices insofar as living there, the crime rates, and their relative proximity to outlets offering comfortable shoes at reasonable prices (the important stuff, as you can plainly see). This went on for a good few months before my dear husband, in his typical fashion, grew frustrated with our continual deadlock and shouted out the first thing to come to his lips, "Fine! Why not Panama?!"
To hear him tell the tale now, you'd think he had been carefully planning this turn of events like he was channeling Machiavelli by way of Ricky Ricardo. But the truth is, Panama? Neither one of us had ever visited Panama at length (and the only times I had set foot there was during layovers). But the idea stuck with me. So much so that we bought tickets to come down and stay in Panama for a month. That month turned to twelve years. The phone calls I got from my friends were understandably apocalyptic:
"What?! Panama?! Why are you in Panama? You'll get robbed!"
"It's a third world country! Disgusting!"
"You'll be back in a month. Why are you wasting your time? That place is too rough for you."
...and of course, they all ended their calls with the ever popular "How can you live there?!"
The calls kept coming in, seemingly without end. But I did not pay them any heed. They didn't know. How could they? They had not seen the beauteous rivers coursing through moonlit mountains, nor the cliffs which beheld both Heaven and the sea. They had not heard the grand symphony of rain through the jungle canopy , nor the soulful aria of a humpback whale mere inches away from the boat. They had not felt the sand from deserted islands at their feet, nor tasted the powerful, life-giving bitterness of coffee so fresh that the flower's subtle perfume still clings to the bag. They didn't know about the lower crime rates, they didn't know about the wonderful people, and they didn't know how much this place reminded me of my Cuban homeland.
The first place we put up our feet was on Isla colon. Bocas del Toro Town was (and still is!) a fun place and we quickly found a spot to call our own. It was unique. So unique that I did not know quite how to explain our residence to my son.
"Where is it?"
"Close to the hospital, very peaceful neighborhood. The ocean is right in front of our door."
"How are the neighbors?"
"They are quiet, hijo. They spend all day and night lying down, not bothering anybody."
My son visited us from his University two months after we had gotten settled in. Imagine his surprise, when he came to our house in the afternoon and saw that we were (literally) ten steps away from the entrance to the Island's Graveyard! Well, they did make for quiet neighbors (fortunately) and crossing the cemetery takes one right to the beach, so I still hold it was a fair statement on my part and not (as my flustered son would accuse), a "bald faced lie".
Years passed and the restaurant we had opened on the island was really piping hot. The real wonder here? Neither of us had ever run a restaurant before in our lives! My husband and I attribute this success to three important factors. Firstly, we served genuine Cuban cuisine, and as much love as I may have for the peoples and gastronomic delights of the world, there is nothing that compares with lovingly made Ropa Vieja (in my 'humble' opinion, of course). Secondly, we treated our customers with respect and listened to their concerns. Thirdly? We were the only restaurant which remained opened on New Years Day. Every year, the dawn of January 1st saw my doting husband preparing his special variant of "Llevanta Muerto" (a thick stew given to those awakening with hangovers) to serve to very appreciative customers who would leave, only to come back later in the day when they realized that we were the only show in town for miles
It was hard work, but meeting people from all over the globe and hearing their tales made it very rewarding. However, over time I began to long for a life in the mountains. So eventually we were attracted to David, Chiriqui and I grew so enamored of this province and its beauty, that we sold the restaurant and I opened up a Real Estate office (thus returning to my former profession ) here.
A few months ago, I visited the United States. My youngest son had been collaborating with other Mental Health Professionals in Panama and had been given offers to work here. After five years, he eventually agreed. My visit was to help him pack, but I could not leave without saying hello to my old friends. So party arrangements were made and we all met. It was a grim meeting.
"I can't afford my house!"
"It is so stressful around my neighborhood!"
"I have not been on vacation in 10 years! "
They all brooded and sighed and consoled each other in their mutual misery. Then, they all turned to me and one of my closest friends asked, the smell of guava and wine on her breath "Gise, you are STILL in Panama?" she shook her head, "How can you live there?".
I remembered this question being presented to me before and after twelve years, I finally gave them an answer: "Happily. How about you?"
Their calls finally stopped coming.