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Penny Barrett, Boquete’s Liaison Extraordinaire

In every stage of her life, it seems that Michigan’s own, Penny Barrett, always seems to be the intermediary between parties, the go-between that facilitates and makes better communications between interested entities.  Read about how Penny's skills with everyone from corporate heavy-hitters to her own dating service / magazine / 900 number company makes her the natural liaison to expedite fund raising for this expat community and help it to thrive. But first, Jet and Penny discuss a colloquial misunderstanding about her name.Penny Barrett and Johanna in Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
 
Jet Metier: Hi.  Shall I call you "Penelope" or "Penny?"
 
Penny Barrett:  In Spanish, "Penny" means “penis.” So, it's "Penelope" to the Spanish-speaking people, but English- speaking people call me "Penny."  Now you know the story. It took me a year to figure out why I would get these double-takes from Panamanians when I told them my name was Penny.
 
Jet Metier: It shows what good manners they had.
 
Penny Barrett: A double take is nothing. At least they didn’t fall down laughing.
 
Jet Metier: So, Penny, have you read any of the interviews on Best Places recently?
 
Penny Barrett: In fact, I was just looking at it about 20 minutes ago and I see my friend, Phil McGuigan, answered several questions that were on the front page. Phil runs a charity that is totally funded by his family and his old legal partners in Chicago that feeds all of the school children in Boquete; perhaps seventeen elementary schools. What they found out (and I don’t know if he talks about this), is that after they did this, school attendance went up like about 30 to 40%. The indigenous kids who didn’t always go to school started going, just so they could get the hot meal at lunch time.
 
Jet Metier:  That's a great story.  We've got an interview coming up with Phil soon, so I'll ask him about it.
 
We've heard from many in the Boquete community that you’re the "go-to person" because you get things done. So, let’s start from the beginning to find out the genesis of this. Where were you born, Penny?
 
Penny Barrett: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the boonies.
 
Jet Metier:  What was that childhood like for you?  I hear it’s beautiful there.
 
Penny Barrett: We played with the bears and the deer. No actually, we did have a lot of wildlife. Our entertainment consisted of going to the dump to shoot rats on Friday night.
 
Jet Metier: I understand that that part of Michigan is a sportsman’s paradise. Could you describe to our visitors what the landscape was like? What was the community you were raised in like?
 
Penny Barrett: Woods. Lots of woods. In fact, my grandfather and my father were lumbermen. They all had lumber mills.
 
Jet Metier:  Oh, I see. So what was it like to be the daughter of the owner of the mill?
 
Penny Barrett: Well, we got to play among the stacks of lumber.
 
Jet Metier:   What kind of games would you play in the stack of lumber?
 
Penny Barrett: Hide and seek, and we learned to drive the jeep through the lumber yard, through the stacks of lumber when we were about twelve.

Jet Metier: Were you joyriding or were you helping your dad locate pieces of wood?
 
Penny Barrett: Oh, no. We were joyriding.Stone cutter's cottage by Rudy Denge – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living(Watercolor of a stonecutter's cottage by artist Rudy Dengel, featured on Bid 4 Boquete.)
 
Jet Metier:   So, tell me about your siblings. What number are you and what's the spread in age?
 
Penny Barrett: Well, I’m the oldest of three. I have a brother who’s three years younger than me. He’s a retired attorney who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. I have a sister who’s 11 years younger than me, who technically is a retired pediatrician, but she goes all over the world to very dangerous places to do medical work.  She’s on her way to Africa in a couple of weeks, to fight Ebola.
 
Jet Metier: So we are looking at family members that are very far-flung. What was it about your upbringing that your brother thought it was possible to move to Alaska and you thought, "yeah, Panama."
 
Penny Barrett: When I think about it in that context, I guess we’re all a little adventurous. The day my brother graduated from law school, he loaded up his car and drove the Alcan Highway, which was quite an ordeal in those days.  He drove from Michigan to Valdez. Everybody knows Valdez because of the oil spill. Well, that was the boom days of Valdez. It was an oil town. It was the wild west frontier.  This would have been in the 70s.
 
Jet Metier: What was it about the way your parents raised you that all of you moved so far from home? Was there a family member who talked about exotic places?
 
Penny Barrett: My dad always wanted to travel, so when the lumbering business got a little slow, when he was probably in his late 40s or early 50s, he joined the Air Force as a civilian, so he could go all over the world. He was stationed in Germany and had two different tours of duty in Spain. He really loved to travel. And then every weekend, when he was in Europe, he would go somewhere.
 
Jet Metier: So tell me, what were the kind of things that you studied in school?
 
Penny Barrett: I went to law school, but I didn’t practice. I practiced for a year and it was awful. I didn’t like it and I was no good at it.
 
Jet Metier:  Who gave you the idea for law school?
 
Penny Barrett: Everyone in the family is a lawyer. My maternal grandfather, several of my uncles, my brother; everybody was a lawyer or an engineer.
 
Jet Metier:   So when you found out you didn’t like law, what about it you didn’t like?
 
Penny Barrett: The conflict. Being in the middle of everybody’s fights. I was pretty good with math, and before I went to law school, I worked for IBM as a systems engineer.
 
Jet Metier:   What is a systems engineer?
 
Penny Barrett: A systems engineer assigns computer systems and provides assistance. I left IBM in ’72 to start law school, so I must have been there from like from ’68 to ’72, in that time frame.
 
Jet Metier:   I see. What did you learn from IBM? Don’t they have a very corporate culture?
 
Penny Barrett: You have to be a logical thinker, you know, because that’s just the design of the system, to be elegant and efficient.
 
Jet Metier:   Were they using terms like that, “elegant and efficient?”

Penny Barrett: "Elegant" has often been a word used to describe software code. You can tell elegant code because it is simple and it functions well. I don’t know if I ever learned it there or not, but it’s a good way to describe it. Back in those days, you actually wrote programs. Nowadays, you buy them.
 
Jet Metier:  During this IBM time, were you wearing suits and high heels?
 
Penny Barrett: It’s hard to imagine now because I haven’t worn anything aside from blue jeans and tennis shoes for a long time. Yes, I wore "dress for success" suits with heels and nylons, and the whole bit.

Jet Metier:  So what were the skills that you learned at IBM that later translated or helped you when you wanted to help run a charitable organization?Bid 4 Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
 
Penny Barrett: I didn’t start Bid 4 Boquete. But when I took over five years ago, we quintupled the amount of money that we were bringing in. We invented a lot of new ways to make money.
 
Jet Metier:   What was the amount they made originally and what did you quintupled it to?
 
Penny Barrett: It was originally about $20,000 USD, maybe $18,000, something like that, gross. Last year, we took in about $103,000.
 
Jet Metier:   Good for you! And that was how long a time period again?
 
Penny Barrett: That would be one year. Every year it got better, and now we are on our fifth year since I started as president.
 
Jet Metier:   What I’ve heard is that when you want to know about Boquete, people say, “Go talk to Penny.”

 Penny Barrett: Because I’ve been here longer than most of them.
 
Jet Metier:  You're very modest.  You're also doing a lot, from what I hear from everybody. So what I’m trying to do is trace back your life with you, because I have a theory that people who retire want to bring their skills they've developed earlier into this stage of their life to share freely with others. Let's talk about the skills that you brought from your former life that has been helping you in Boquete.  So you left law school and practicing law, and then what did you do?
 
Penny Barrett: I worked for two different material handling companies in their computer section. It was a different kind of computer work at IBM because it controlled machines.  It controlled conveyer belts and big warehouses and that sort of thing.
 
Jet Metier:   Penny, how did you get in that line of work?
 
Penny Barrett: I guess I just applied for a job. Actually it was managerial, I didn’t code. I was a project manager.
 
Jet Metier:   How did you gofrom writing codes to being a project manager?
 
Penny Barrett: Well, you have to have a little entrepreneurial spirit. When you had a client at IBM, it was like you took over their business as if it were your own. I mean, it’s the way you thought about it. You wanted them to succeed, you wanted them to make money, you wanted them to have an efficient, well- running system, and the same is true about being a project manager. These were your own little, tiny businesses. Although some of them weren’t so little, for example, the warehouses we did for Ford Motor Companies. I did a warehouse for RJ Reynolds Tobacco. So overall they weren’t little businesses, but you’re helping with a little segment of the overall business. What you are doing was a business, like it was your own business.
 
Jet Metier:   Sounds really exciting. Let's change topics.  How did you meet your husband?
 
Penny Barrett: Both of them? I met number one in college and number two many years later, like 18, 20 years later.
 
Jet Metier:  Did you have children with your first husband?
 
Penny Barrett: Yes, I have two children. My son lives in San Francisco and my daughter lives in Louisiana.
 
 Jet Metier:  Where did you raise them, mostly?
 
Penny Barrett: Michigan, mostly. Mostly around Ann Arbor, Michigan.
 
Jet Metier:  Hey, Penelope, I have a joke for you. What is Michigan’s greatest export?
 
Penny Barrett: The people that moved to Florida.
 
Jet Metier:   That’s true. I have friends from Michigan who used to say there’s no such thing as an atheist driving in Michigan when it snows. It’s, “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” praying they get home safely. 
 
Penny Barrett: There are a lot of white knuckle drivers. That’s the thing I like best about living here, is I never have to drive on ice again in my life.
 
Jet Metier:   Oh yes. Or even start your car in a cold garage or so forth.  When you were working, were you thinking of retiring? Were you thinking about living to some place outside the United States?
 
Penny Barrett: I knew I wanted to get away from the cold. I hated the winter, so yeah, it was probably in the back of my mind.Penny Barrett of Boquete asleep on boat – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
 
Jet Metier:   What places have you tried that were warm?
 
Penny Barrett: The first time I got an idea of leaving the United States to retire, I was in San Diego.  Ihad a weekend free and I decided to take a tour down to Tijuana. It was only like 25 miles south of San Diego. I knew the cost of living in San Diego compared to Tijuana, and I thought, “Whoa.” And you know, San Diego supposedly has the best climate in the United States, so Tijuana can’t be that much different. And look at how cheap it is. I got the idea that “Hey, maybe this won’t be a bad idea.”
 
Jet Metier:  So what other places did you think that might be good?
 
Penny Barrett: BeIize, because they speak English as a leftover from being British, since I’m horrible at learning languages.
 
Jet Metier:  Did you actually visit Belize or did you just hear about it?
 
Penny Barrett: I’ve never visited Belize. I started doing little Internet in 2002, poking around and Panama kept bubbling to the top, like it does for anybody.
 
Jet Metier:  What was the information that came from your search that appealed to you?
 
Penny Barrett: I guess that there was a growing expat community, and that it was financially stable. You know a lot of Central American countries have horrible inflation, not all the time, but when it happens, it gets really bad. Panama was politically a democracy and had been for a long time, and it was stable. Other things that make a country stable is a good, strong middle class, with home ownership, and Panama has a really good middle class and a lot of home ownership, so there’s not a lot of revolutionaries running around.
 
Jet Metier:  What kind of people were on the tour?
 
Penny Barrett: Many of them were retirees. Some of them were younger. I actually ended up rooming with a woman who came by herself and left her husband at home to take care of the baby. Obviously, people who were at retirement age were thinking of moving here. And of the eleven people in our group, six ended up moving to Boquete, and the other five didn’t move to Panama, to the best of my knowledge. Boquete got 100% of the people who moved to Panama.
 
Jet Metier:  So how did you come into Boquete? Did you drive in or fly in?
 
 Penny Barrett: We flew to Bocas del Toro and spent like a couple of nights there.

Jet Metier:   What was your impression? What was Bocas del Toro like in 2003?
 
Penny Barrett:  It’s like Key West. Very laid back, very Caribbean, lots of drugs and alcohol, a lot of people trying to hide out from whatever reputations they had back where they came from. There was not a lot of infrastructure.  You can’t drink the water, the mayor’s in jail.  There was trash all over the beaches. But the ocean view was beautiful.
 
Jet Metier:  Tell me about Boquete during 2003. What was it like? Was it love at first sight?Branding Iron restaurant between David and Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living (Branding Iron restaurant between David and Boquete, featured on Bid 4 Boquete, pictured.)
 
Penny Barrett: It was love at first sight. I’ll tell you the story of what happened. There’s a development in Boquete that really put Central America on the map and specifically Boquete on the map. It’s called Valle Escondido. It’s a gated community. It is very beautiful. It’s multi, multi millions of dollars in development.  It was just starting in 2003. There was a couple of what they called villas or duplexes. The developer was from California.  He was really in a sales mood and he would entertain these groups that came in.
 
Jet Metier:  What was his name?
 
Penny Barrett: Sam Taliaferro. He’s dead now, but you could Google him. He really put Boquete on the map.
 
Jet Metier:  What was Sam like?
 
Penny Barrett: He made millions selling some Internet company. He had married the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen, who happened to be a Panamanian from David, which is the closest larger city to Boquete. Sam "discovered" this valley that was a coffee farm and he thought it was beautiful. So he decided to put all his money into making a development. He was really into a marketing mode to these different groups that would come in, and he put our group in the hotel he owned. And then when he had a wine and cheese party for the group, I started to think, “Well, you know, I’m not a 'development person.'”

I can’t do it. I have mongrel dogs and junk cars and paint my door red. Although, when I lived in Grand Rapids, I lived in the most exclusive neighborhood. But I always said that I was the Beverly Hillbilly in the neighborhood. So I didn't go to the party.
 
There was a young woman who had a husband and a child back in California who was my roommate, so she and I went into town and saw a real estate office. We went in, and a young Panamanian lady who spoke English came over to us and said “You want to drive around and look at some of these places?” We were killing time, so we said “Sure.”
House in Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
She took us to two houses.  The second house we walked into had this bougainvillea covered fence across a little bridge with a little gurgling river that crossed into this wonderful two-story house.  I fell in love with it and made an offer that I thought they wouldn't accept. The Panamanian woman who built the house actually lived a lot of years in New York, so she kind of knew how to build an American type of house. That means it’s got closets and kitchen cupboards. A Panamanian style of house does not have any of those.
 
Jet Metier:  Was it made of cement or stone?
     
Penny Barrett: Everything was cement block, but they built some in wood. I’m looking at that very same house right now because it’s right next door to where I currently live because, now, I rent it out. It’s two-story with the master bedroom and the living room upstairs and the kitchen and the gorgeous view of a front balcony.
 
Jet Metier:  Do you enter the house from the first floor?
 
Penny Barrett: Down below and on the ground level, there are two bedrooms and another bath and a laundry room, and you can enter exterior doors through there, but you climb the stairs. That’s the house.
 
Jet Metier:  And the reason the living room and the master are on the second story is so you can look at views?
 
Penny Barrett: Yes.  It's a beautiful view.  You can see lots of green, and our big mountain, which is called Volcán Barú, and is actually a volcano. It’s just all green and beautiful.
 
Jet Metier:  That sounds wonderful. When you made the offer, did you just pull a number out of your ear?
 
Penny Barrett: They were asking $100,000 and I offered them $80,000. She took it. That’s what scared me. So, I inadvertently bought a house.
 
Jet Metier:  Have you ever bought a house like that?
 
Penny Barrett: I always buy them at the spur of the moment, so that wasn’t new to me. But I will tell you this: for three nights running, I woke up in cold sweat thinking, “Oh my God, what did I do?”  I went back to Michigan, and I came back to Boquete six months later, and didn’t know how to find this house!
 
Jet Metier:  When you bought the house, did you go back to look at it again with an inspector or anything like that?
 
Penny Barrett: No. My group was leaving the next day. So I bought a house, and I didn’t know where it was. It turned out okay. I did take some photographs.
  
Jet Metier:  You say that you've been self-employed for much of your life. Give us an example of what you've done while being self-employed?
 
Penny Barrett: For 13 years, I owned and ran the biggest dating service in Michigan.
 
Jet Metier:  Oh, my gosh. How did you? Put the pieces altogether for me. How did you start this dating service and how did it become the most successful? What was the name of it? 
 
Penny Barrett: The name of it was Single File.  We (basically, me)  published a monthly magazine with personal ads and some other articles and some paid advertising for different things. Mostly people would buy it for the personal ads that they could answer by writing a letter and we would forward the letter to the person who wrote the ad.  As technology evolved, we had a phone system with a 900-number. 900-numbers have bad reputations now, but this was a very nice 900-number where the person who bought the ad would call up and record their ad. They could say whatever they wanted, but basically they read what they had written on their ad into a telephone answering type system and people could call up and listen to it.  If they liked what they heard, they could leave them an answer with their telephone number or their mailing address or whatever.  All of this was at $2 a minute, which back on those days were quite lucrative, especially if you got somebody with obsessive compulsive disorders who’d make 14 or 15 calls every night.

Jet Metier:  And marriages? Were you successful?
 
Penny Barrett: Lots of marriages.
 
Jet Metier:  Beautiful.  What was it like saying goodbye to Michigan?
 
Penny Barrett: I didn’t even look at my rear view mirror.  The only family I have there anymore is my sister.
 
Jet Metier:   Did you sell your house there?
 
Penny Barrett: I sold my house.
 
Jet Metier:   Did you sell your car or did you bring your car?
 
Penny Barrett: Sold my house, a couple of cars. I had a huge house that was probably 7,8000 square feet and sold almost everything in it. I had many, many garage sales, and lots of activity on Craigslist.
 
Jet Metier:  What did you keep?
 
Penny Barrett: I kept enough stuff to fill a 20-foot container. I kept some of my family antiques, stuff that my parents bought and furniture and pots and pans and other stuff that are expensive to replace, if they are good quality. I brought all my dad’s tools. Quality tools are hard to come by in Panama because everything comes from China.
 
Jet Metier:  So, if you were to look back on what you brought and left behind, is there anything that you can tell people, besides the tools that are very hard to get here, what else should they bring to Panama that would be useful?
 
Penny Barrett: I think the common knowledge is bring your good kitchen stuff because the pots and pans here are not as good quality as what you probably have at home.
 
Jet Metier:  Anything else?
 
Penny Barrett: And treasures that you don’t want to get rid of.
 
Jet Metier:  When you first came to Boquete, did you know anything about the weather?
 
Penny Barrett: I didn’t know about the misty wind, the bajareque, the winds blow that are really strong in January and February, but I knew basically that the weather was very temperate, between 65 and 75, day and night.
 
Jet Metier:  Do you wear a sweater?
 
Penny Barrett: If I go out at night, I wear a sweatshirt. A lot of times, if you have people over for dinner, you eat at the back patio, instead of the dining room, and I generally wear a sweatshirt.
 
Jet Metier:   When you went up to your house, did you have neighbors nearby, and did they notice that you moved in? What was your first night like there? Do you remember?
 
Penny Barrett: The toilet didn’t work. This was ten years ago. My memory’s fuzzy.Penny Barrett in Boquete with friends from elementary school  – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living (Penny and friends from elementary school, pictured.)

Jet Metier:  Are you telling me that toilets didn’t flush?
 
Penny Barrett: I've got a river. We can throw a bucket in the river.
 
Jet Metier:  Did you really throw a soup pot in the river and use it to flush the toilet?
 
Penny Barrett: Yes. You got to flush the toilet.
 
Jet Metier:  Were your girlfriends in the US happy for you? Were they fearful for you? What did they think?
 
Penny Barrett: They were just happy for a little vacation coming to Panama.

Jet Metier:  What did you do to preserve the view from your home?
 
Penny Barrett: About a year or so after I moved in, the seller tried to sell me the adjacent lot next to the house.  It slopes downhill going into town, so there’s an angular slope. I had said no. Then later, the people that owned the lot tracked me down and said they needed some money and they really would like to sell it to me. I started thinking about the view and a new building would probably obstruct my view, so I decided I had better buy the lot to protect my view.
 
They had a law in Panama at that time (I think they fazed it law out since) that said if you built a house, we will exempt you from having to pay property tax on that land for 20 years.  So a couple of years later, I built a new house on the lot which I live in now.
 
Jet Metier:  What did you want to put in this new house? 
 
Penny Barrett: I put some thought into it because, I figure, I would be living here for a long time.  So I designed it basically for my old age. I have an efficiency apartment on the side that I currently rent for a nice little income, but in the future that’s going to be for my caretaker when I’m old and feeble.
 
All the doors are one meter wide, that’s three and a half feet; wheelchair access; levers instead of knobs.  There are walkways around the house and you’re not in the rain. We get a lot of rain during the winter season. You can walk all the way around the house and not be in the rain.
 
Its one story and I have a view. It’s not up high, but I can look out in the back lot which hasn’t been built on and there’s lots of orange trees and lots of green and stuff like that.
 
I bought a book at Home Depot of a 101 floor plans and I basically picked this floor plan out from that book and modified it somewhat.
 
Jet Metier:  How did you modify it for living in Panama?
 
Penny Barrett: We have the covered walkway because of the rains.  People don’t think of that.
 
Jet Metier:  Is your roof different? What kind of roof do you have?
 
Penny Barrett: I have a very expensive roof, but it’s worth every penny. I have antique handmade, not ceramic tiles. Clay tiles. They’re the kind that the women made in Panama by folding them over their thighs. Then they would kiln them somehow and bake them, I guess. They are all a little different because people had bigger and littler thighs. And the color is wonderful. But the best part is you can’t hear the rain. People usually do tin roofs or they put fake tiles made out of plastic, and when we get rainstorms, you cannot have a conversation, you cannot sleep. In my home, I cannot hear the rain.House in Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

Jet Metier:  The first house you bought, was it noisy when it rained?
 
Penny Barrett: It doesn’t have this kind of expensive roof with it with clay tiles and it’s noisy.
 
Jet Metier:  What about your flooring? I hear you can’t use carpet.
 
Penny Barrett: It’s humid here, so everything else is tile.
 
Jet Metier:   What other things that makes it a traditional Panama home, with your variations to make it better?
 
Penny Barrett: Unlike a traditional Panamanian home, I actually have closets and kitchen cupboards.
 
Jet Metier:  So what do they have for kitchen cupboards? Just open shelves?
 
Penny Barrett: A lot of Panamanians go to the grocery store every day. They don’t have a refrigerator, many of them. They go to the grocery store, they buy that day’s food, they eat it and they don’t have any storage.
 
Jet Metier:  Your first day in town as a new citizen, how did you introduce yourself to the community there?
 
Penny Barrett: Before I moved on permanently, I rented the house out and I had a property manager who took care of the rental for me, so I knew her. And then I also had interacted with the woman and her husband who rented the house for six months or so, and she introduced me around. Turned out my neighbor across the street was a young woman who speaks English, just had a baby, and she’s become a very, very, very good friend. And remember, there were six people from my group who moved to Boquete, so I knew them.
 
Jet Metier:  What was in Boquete in 2003? I’m sure it’s changed a lot.
 
Penny Barrett: There was only that one real estate office.  Now there are 12.
 
Jet Metier:  Restaurants?
 
Penny Barrett: There were very few restaurants. Very few.
 
Jet Metier:  What kind of food did they serve?
 
Penny Barrett: There was only one American-style restaurant owned by an American woman. The rest were all Panamanian style restaurants, which usually wouldn’t be open at night. They would be open for lunch. For Panamanian lunch, it’s chicken and rice and beans. There’ll be a little salad, a potato salad or a green salad.
 
Jet Metier: And what else was there only one of or a few of when you got there?  
 
Penny Barrett: Shortly after I came, maybe in 2005, there really was a big rush to come down here. There weren’t a lot of rentals available, so people would build, and there was a lot of construction. The people that did come did not find any places to rent, so they had to build.
 
Jet Metier:  So when you came into Boquete and you looked around, how did you think you were going to spend your day?  Were you thinking of doing volunteer work? Were you thinking of doing a business? Were you thinking of doing anything?
 
Penny Barrett: It wasn’t long after I moved down here that I decided to build my second house, so that occupied me for like nine, ten months. And along the way, I got involved with the handicap foundation and volunteered for them.  It’s a Panamanian foundation. One of my friends who is an expat runs it. She’s been here for forty years.
 
The name of it is Fundacion Pro Integracion, which loosely translates to what they call in the United States, ”‘mainstreaming.” It’s the Foundation to Integrate the handicapped into society. It’s a Panamanian charitable organization, started in Panama City. My friend runs the Boquete branch, which is really the most active branch in the country. They have a large building. They planned activities, food service, physical therapy, and no other place in Panama has anything like it.
 
We have a lot of cerebral palsy here in Boquete.
 
Jet Metier:  Why do you think that is?
 
Penny Barrett: Probably lack of pre-natal care.
 
Jet Metier:  Do they have a lot of women who have babies at an older age?
 
Penny Barrett: There are women who never stop having babies. When they get up to twelve and thirteen babies, they get to be pretty old. But I would say, probably, if they could figure out how to prevent the cerebral palsy, they’ll be way far ahead, but that’s the big one.
 
Jet Metier:  When you were working for them, what did you do?
 
Penny Barrett: I was a volunteer. I started out with a girl with cerebral palsy who had no family.  Her mother had killed herself, and her siblings had scattered.  She was 16 and she was living with an aunt who happened to live a little ways up there in the hill from me. So they tapped me to kind of look over and take care of her and drive her to their programs every Saturday, so I started doing that eight years ago and I still do it. I go get her for Christmas dinner.  That’s my main responsibility with the handicapped, but I do a lot of other little things.
 
Jet Metier:  Alright. I want to hear about them. What is the young lady’s name?
 
Penny Barrett: Her name is Joanna.Penny Barrett with Johanna – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living (Johanna pictured with Penny.)
 
Jet Metier:  How’s Joanna doing these days?
 
Penny Barrett: She’s 24 and she’s in home school because she never had the chance to go to high school for the last couple of years. She goes to night school. A bus comes and picks her up, they carry her into the bus and they carry her wheelchair. So everything is difficult for her.
 
Jet Metier:  But she’s going to school. That’s wonderful. Is she able to graduate?
 
Penny Barrett: One more year of school.
 
Jet Metier:  That’s great. And she’s still living with her aunt?
 
Penny Barrett: No, thank God. Actually this is one of a combination of wonderful things about Boquete. The Panamanian people that developed one of our big shopping centers had a lot of surplus material, and the city will give lots to very poor people to build a house. This shopping development gave a lot of surplus material for building a house for her. The rotary club pitched in with some labor and there’s a whole bunch of people that contributed.  Now Joanna has her own two-bedroom home.
 
Jet Metier:  What other kind of things, when you first got there, you thought; this is something different from my life before, that I want to do now that I’m retired in Panama? Did you have any new hobbies or did you take up different activities or sports that you couldn’t do in Michigan? 
 
Penny Barrett: Not really. I kind of just segued into life in Panama and it’s not that much different than what I did in Michigan. I did projects, and for the first couple of years building the house.
 
Jet Metier:  How did you get to meet people? How does everyone know you, Penny?
 
Penny Barrett: Well, I started a couple of groups. I started a bridge club. I played bridge in Michigan. We have about twenty people in our bridge club now.  We play at a local restaurant once a week, every Wednesday afternoon.Penny Barrett of Boquete with Chiriqui Storage owners – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living (Penny pictured with Chiriqui Storage owners.)
 
Jet Metier:  How did you get the word out?
 
Penny Barrett: There are sites devoted to Boquete. There’s an email service that I run now.  I didn’t start it and I didn’t run it back then, but I run it now that sends out local announcements.  It's called NewsBoquete.  People send in the announcements they want to be disseminated and I send them out on the subscription list. We have approximately 1,700 people on the subscription list.
 
Jet Metier:  What is the last charity benefit that you guys had that worked really well?
 
Penny Barrett:  Bid 4 Boquete had one last Saturday for the library in which we sold plants. We sold what we call our boutique, which is high end donated clothing and Christmas decorations and little trinkets that people can buy for Christmas gifts. The plant sale made US $503. And the vende de patio, that is what we call a rummage sale, made exactly $1,400.
 
Jet Metier:  What will the money go towards?

Penny Barrett: Bid 4 Boquete. In March we will distribute to different charities around the area.
 
Jet Metier:  Tell me about Bid 4 Boquete before you got there and how you got involved with them.
 
Penny Barrett: It started after I got here. The guy who started it was actually part of the Rotary Club and in those days, and I was a member of the Rotary Club. I was one of the assistants to run it. We started out, and for three years, somebody else ran it, but I was always involved. After a few years, they wanted new people, so I got two other people.  We went in as a threesome and we said, “This is really a big job, too big for one person.”   So we proposed that three people do it.  They made me president and the other woman is the secretary and the other one was a treasurer. The treasurer has changed over the years, but Bonnie Williams, who was the secretary, and me are going into our fourth year.
 
Jet Metier:  What kind of skills do they say, “Oh this is perfect. Penny will get this right.”? What kind of things land in your lap?
 
Penny Barrett: I’m the one that sells most of the stuff. We get donations from individuals and businesses, and sell them for a few months, and we take bids. It’s kind of like eBay. eBay has a "buy it now" or you can bid. If you truly want it, you can buy right now and pay full price.
 
Jet Metier:  So you take pictures of these items and put it on the website?
 
Penny Barrett: Yes, we have pictures of 400 or so items on the website right now and probably sold 75 of them already, something like that.  Every hotel and restaurant gives us stuff, like two nights in their hotel or a $40 gift certificate for their restaurant.  Most of the tour companies gives us items. We have an African safari. We have a house not in Key West but on one of the other keys that will sleep eight, and we have it for a week. We have a house in Bonaire that will sleep two people that we have for a week. (Villa Kokolishi, Bonaire – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingVilla Kokolishi, Bonaire, pictured from Bid 4 Boquete)
 
Jet Metier:  What are the most popular things that people snatch up at full price?
 
Penny Barrett: They love the restaurant coupons because they go to the restaurant, anyway.  Private dine in. Someone who fancies themselves a good cook and they donate a dinner for six or eight at their own house. People love that. They get to see other people’s houses. They want to see how they decorate their houses.
 
Jet Metier:  Have you attended one of those?
 
Penny Barrett: Oh, yeah. Usually somebody buys them and then invites me.
 
Jet Metier:  How nice. What kind of houses?
 
Penny Barrett: Usually they bid for dinners that are from people who live in really nice houses because those are the ones that people want to see. The very popular one, which we’ve had probably for four years, goes anywhere between $600 and a $1,000. It’s a dinner at the castle, which I believe is for six people.The castle boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living (The "castle" pictured.) 
 
We've sold everything. We’ve sold a horse. Every year we sell baby cows because they are donated by the dairy farm that only wants females, so we get three or four of the males, and we sell them. We’ve sold original artwork. We’ve sold antique Korean paintings.
 
I’m the one who's taking the bids and dealing with the people that want to buy them; meeting the people and collecting the money. That sort of thing.
 
Jet Metier:  What do you enjoy about Bid 4 Boquete?
 
Penny Barrett: I like raising money. I’ve never had too much interest in having it or spending it, but I do like making it.
 
Jet Metier:  What would you use the money for in March?
 
Penny Barrett: We support a various number of small charities. Last year there was a total of eleven local charities that we supported.  For example, there's the handicap foundation that I spoke about, and there's a group called Buenos Vecinos  (Good Neighbors), that feeds the poor and handicapped people.
 
Jet Metier:  What is the charter of the organization?
 
Penny Barrett: They deliver dry and canned food every month to the handicapped and elderly; people who cannot afford to feed themselves. They have a list of 105 people that they distribute food to.  These are indigenous people.

Jet Metier:  They have reservation in Boquete?
 
Penny Barrett: Yeah. In Panama, probably half of the territory in Panama is a reservation.  They call it a comarca.Ngobe woman washing painting,  Sally Zigmond, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living  I have not been deep into it because there are no roads, but I’ve been to the fringes of it, the outskirts.  The people live very, very poorly.  They live in shacks, made out of maybe little pieces of tin and other items.
 
Let me tell you about this family that I brought into the system. The woman's husband, the father of these children, had left. This woman got four children in the house.  I think the eldest is maybe ten or eleven.  There are exterior walls, but no rooms inside; just one room. The floor is dirt, there’s no running water, there’s no electricity. ( Watercolor painting of Ngobe Woman Washing by Sally Zigmond, pictured.)
 
For their water, they probably walk to the neighbors and get a bucket.  They don't light their home.  They go to bed when it gets dark. Maybe they light a candle or maybe they have a kerosene lamp.
 
Jet Metier:  What about the attitude of the children? Do they know they’re poor? Are they unhappy?
 
Penny Barrett: They are pretty much in the same boat as everyone else there, so the kids are happy. They get a soccer ball that they can kick around, so they are happy.
 
You won't believe this, but the mother sells Avon. Now there’s not many indigenous women living in conditions that she lives in, who can afford much Avon.
 
Jet Metier:  How did she find work to be an Avon representative?
 
Penny Barrett: Avon is all over the world. It is in the poorest spots, in the deepest, darkest forests of Africa. It is everywhere.

Jet Metier:  It’s so amazing. How does she put the orders in? Does she go to town?
 
Penny Barrett: They all have cell phones. They don’t have electricity for charging them. They have to go to the neighbor’s house to charge their phone, but they all have cell phones, so she calls in, I guess.

Jet Metier:  But they have cell phone service in the middle of the forest?
 
Penny Barrett: She does. She lives just outside of Boquete.

Jet Metier:  Do you speak Spanish at all now?
 
Penny Barrett: After being here eleven years, I speak "Spanglish." I get by.

Jet Metier:  What do you think is the perception of the native people and the more local Panamanians to what you are doing?
 
Penny Barrett: Most of them don’t know about it. Middle class people don’t know that all these programs exist, really.
 
Jet Metier:  Why do you think they don’t know?
 
Penny Barrett: They’re all involved in their family, unless they have a handicapped child, or unless they know someone who’s dirt poor who gets food delivery.
 
The other programs that we support are the local hospice, the library. One of the schools is trying to do an orchestra program. We help them buy instruments. Summer camp for some of the kids in the orphanage, we pay for them to go to summer camp every summer. Oh, and the animals… the spay and neuter clinics.
 
Jet Metier:  What area the things that Boquete is number one in?
 
Penny Barrett: It’s got the only lending library in Panama. We have a multi-million dollar library, three stories, WiFi, books in Spanish and English.  You can take the books out, which is unheard of in Central America. You could never take the books out of the library before. We have the biggest spay and neuter clinic with their own facility.

Jet Metier:  Are there stray dogs in Boquete?
 
Penny Barrett: Not as many as there used to be.

Jet Metier:  Is there a dog catcher?
 
Penny Barrett: No, not really.

Jet Metier:  So how do you get the stray dogs off the street?
 
Penny Barrett: Well, dogs are owned. The Panamanians bring them to be neutered. It’s relatively cheap.  Ten dollars for a dog, five dollars for a cat. The animals that the volunteers discern are homeless, they pick them up and bring them in. There are probably ten people in this town who bring in a whole bunch of dogs for every clinic. And then, afterwards, they put them back on the street.  They still are strays. But it’s hard to tell a stray here because people will say "this is my dog," and they may or may not feed it, and they don’t put a collar on it.  The whole concept of having a pet is something new to Central America.
 
Jet Metier:  How do you know it is Christmas time in Panama?Chopix chocolates in Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living (Choix chocolates, available on Bid 4 Boquete)
    
Penny Barrett: Oh, we have Christmas carols, they put up the lights. There are lots of parties.

Jet Metier:  Caroling? House to house?
 
Penny Barrett: I guess they would downtown.  There’s a group that assembled to do Christmas carols. Christmas Eve, there’s a big Christmas carol concert in one of the local places. Actually, it’s a skating rink that is just getting ready to open. They have tables and chairs and lights.  I think there’s probably thirty of them in this chorus and they have been practicing for a couple of months.

Jet Metier:   Are they painting the signs on the windows?
 
Penny Barrett: All kinds of Christmas decorations.

Jet Metier:  That is great. Are there going be big get- togethers, a dance, or something like that?
 
Penny Barrett: There’s tons of parties. For example, tomorrow night, Christmas Eve, I’m going to a fundraiser for this group called Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors), and there’s approximately 150 people invited to this big country club type of thing and they’re cooking steaks and bringing potluck. It’s an older housing development that has a swimming pool and some tennis courts, like a restaurant type of facility, a pavilion with tables and chairs.

Jet Metier:  Are you going to wear your elf cap?
 
Penny Barrett: No, I’m going to wear my blue jeans. The other Christmas thing is I'm going to my Panamanian neighbor’s house for ron ponche (rum punch).  We would call it eggnog with rum in it.  It has a lot of rum, so its very potent.

Jet Metier:  How else do your Panamanian neighbors celebrate? Do they put up lights?
 
Penny Barrett: Yeah, they have a Christmas tree and lights and Santa Claus comes.
 
Jet Metier:  Before we go, what is New Year’s like in Boquete?
 
Penny Barrett: Lots of fireworks. Panamanians and all of the Latino culture love noise, and they particularly love firecrackers and fireworks.  The more religious the holiday, the more fireworks. There are fireworks going off every night.
 
Penny Barrett with Panamanian neighbors in Boquete – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingJet Metier:  I appreciate so much that you have given me insight into your life and life in Boquete  I want to wish you a Merry Christmas.
 
Penny Barrett: You guys, too.
   
Jet Metier:  And please give my regards to your lovely neighbors. Tell them we've been hearing about them. (Penny pictured with neighbors.)
 
Penny Barrett: Alright. I’ll tell them that.
 
Jet Metier:   Tell them Merry Christmas for me.
 
Penny Barrett: They have two young children. I have to bring the presents over tonight.
 
Jet Metier:   That sounds lovely. Thank-you very much, Penny.
 
Penny Barrett: Okay, good night. Talk to you later. Bye bye!
 
Editor's note: Paintings, professional photographs, and other goods and services available as of this printing on Bid 4 Boquete.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Posted in  My Life In Boquete, Chiriquí Province, Panama
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