Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why and Why not

Back from Panama and full of informations to be discussed, explained, weighted and digested. No decision should be taken without every consideration. In the mist of all the activity, the running to the hospital (more about this later!!), the bank, the construction site, visiting friends and Holy Week celebrations, I took notes, made small lists and took pictures of this new and exciting place Panama had become.

So here are the major issues I could come up with. The country is beautiful, lush and far! There are flowering trees and bushes everywhere. I hardly can name more than a dozen flowers anymore. Years abroad, where I learned different names for the same flowers, others I never learned to begin with and the sheer numbers, make me wonder if I ever will!!! It is beautiful and it's what catches your attention first.

The coastlines run a gamut of sizes, water color, sand quality, waves, marine life and more: from the Caribbean like beaches in the Atlantic coast in Bocas del Toro, to the churning, roaring waters in the Gulf of Panama. There are unexpected clear blue coves everywhere and the islands are breathtaking: from San Blas to Contadora to Coiba. Absolutely not to be missed!!

Is it mountains and valleys what make you sigh? well, Panama has those too in abundance from El Valle, close to Panama City to Boquete and Volcan close to the border with Costa Rica. There are small valleys and cool rivers and streams all ever the place. And if you are looking for the lushness of the will not be disappointed. Starting with the natural reserves around the Canal, with its wealth of birds, monkeys, flowers and reptiles, to the jungles close to the Colombia border and National Parks in every part of the country, you'll think you have died and gone to Heaven.

People from all over the world have come and most have bought property already. Still, there is enough land out there to be had at reasonable prices. A cottage industry has sprung in every part of the country to help you find, buy and settle in the home of your dreams. The laws are very favorable to foreign investors and everyone will go out of their way to help. Which takes me to another wonder: here service is a matter of pride. Banks work like clockwork, no difference with any banking institution in the US or Europe. Everyone from waiters to maids, to vendors to salespersons are there to help. Have you ever heard of people stationed in supermarket alleys just in case you have a question? Well, here that's standard. Everyone is so friendly!

Health care is excellent, world class and cheap. The latest treatments are available and doctors are up to date in the latest trends. Dentists can provide the best service and have the best equipment. You'll be in the best hands, in any part of the country, not only in Panama City. I should know, my mother suffered a stroke and was treated successfully in a small regional hospital, about three and a half hours away. Even her physical therapist did a fantastic job. Right now, she is been cared for by round the clock nurses at a ridiculously low cost.

Which takes me to another good point: cost of living is very reasonable. No, it is amazing! and you can find anything from anywhere and will not miss much from your home country. Household help, a most in the Tropics..... trust me!! is cheap and very good. A maid will become like a part of the family, stay in the house if you travel; it is possible to get a gardener, a woman to wash and iron your clothes, a nanny for your children, a chauffeur. Life will indeed be a lot easier and you'll be helping the local economy!!! So, yes, Panama can be a wonderful alternative for retirement.

BUT, and you knew this was coming, right? There are disadvantages to this paradise. First and foremost: the climate. No matter how much fun I was having imagining all these delights, the heat always brought me back to Earth. There is no escaping it; it is like a woolen blanket that covers you from about eleven in the morning to around five in the afternoon. This would be the perfect time for a siesta. Unfortunately, in Panama, people are not used to this very Latin custom. I can't imagine absolutely need it. During the dry season, from December to May, the afternoons are breezy and much cooler. The evening can be lovely, with the Northern wind blowing sometimes really strongly. Perfect for entertaining outside and socializing with friends.

During the rainy have read about my experiences during this time. I have dreaded many times that I would grow gills or feathers!! Mold becomes your constant companion and you have to air out everything or have a central air conditioning unit install. You might say, that I love Curaçao, which is also in the Tropics. Indeed I do, but there the heat is dry, desert-like. Big difference!!!

Next, there is the traffic.....believe me it is madness! especially in Panama City. Not many roads have been constructed since I left, but the city is much, much bigger. Congestion, long commutes, aggressive drivers and old buses and taxis can make for a disagreeable drive. If it is raining, you don't want to be out! And it rains a lot in this part of the world. The construction boom has turned large sections of the city into no-man's land. The streets run with mud at times, or the cement dust hangs in the air when it's dry. High rises are taking over the city and views are being obstructed by huge blocks of concrete. If possible, go to the smaller cities and towns!!! Now, you'll miss in entertainment, restaurants, movies, etc. but life can be very pleasant.

There is one highway that goes from East to West and that's it. Small rural roads make up for the rest, so the go can be slow when you travel the country. Accidents are as common as in any other Latin country, so not to worry. There is a relatively good transportation system to the interior of the country and it is reliable and cheap.

Lastly.....utilities. Tell me about them. While visiting this time, we had on and off water service in the small city my mother lives in. At one point we were without water for two and a half days!! Getting a trickle in the evenings, rushing to fill containers for cooking, drinking and basic hygiene for the next day; taking a shower before bed. The good news is that water is abundant and safe to Montezuma's revenge here. Electricity is just as unpredictable at times, but it is also abundant since the rivers can provide massive hydroelectric power. Telephone service is good and getting better now that the government has opened the market to competition: Cable & Wireless from the UK, Radio Holland from the Netherlands, the Slim group from Mexico, among others, are already there. Still there are areas where there a no land lines or where mobile phone signals are very weak or non existent.....Such is Life in the Tropics!!!

So are we moving or not. Have we decided we can go back to my roots instead of Frankie's? Too early to tell. We need more fact finding trips, Frankie needs to spend time there; we need to find a place we like to settle down in for the long run. We need to find our beach!!!!

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