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First Anniversary

   Mar 08

First Anniversary

Today is the first anniversary of my Panama adventure. March 8, 2010, early morning, I finished packing my truck in Sarasota, Florida and headed toward the highway to drive to Panama.

Leaving the home

Leaving the comfort zone is not easy for anyone. It was not for me either.

Eleven days later I reached the destination full of hope that in a year I have my home built and life all set up. Those, who have followed my progress, know that it has not worked out like that. These plans where probably unrealistic in the first place. They could have worked out if everything would have happened exactly as planned. “Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” usually does not work in life. It did not for me either. Independent, an anniversary is always a good time to take a look back, summarize and learn for the next period.

In brief:

    1. Was it a good year? We learned a lot and accomplished few things in our agenda. Mainly learned to live in piece with ourselves and the environment – without stress. It was a good year.
    1. Would I do it again now that I know what it takes? No doubt, just avoiding the mistakes.
  • Stress free

    What's missing here is stress. Click for better photo.

    The past year

    I drove two cars from Florida to Panama. Would I do it again unless needed? Probably not. I got this “exiting” transportation method out of my system, so did my wife. Not sure about my youngest son. Yet, if the world terrorism advances and TSA intensifies and deepens the screening then I know how to get from here to there without all my body cavities being examined in the airport. So, this experience may come handy one day.

    I imported my truck to Panama and registered. The car is in this process since last days of December. In Panama this can only be done by a customs agent. The process for truck was intense and taxing because I set my deadlines to get it done. Some unpleasant interactions with consequences came out. I will never use same agent, but I also learned what I did wrong. The process with car is gorgeous and relaxed. I do not push her and she does take her time as well. We’ll see how long it all takes, but there is nothing I have lost so far because once the importation process has started I can drive the vehicle without license plates. Probably not forever, but few months or longer obviously does not matter.

    Found a finca of my dreams — virgin jungle, waterfalls, incredible views.


    Jungle and waterfalls. Click for a better photo.

    Large, very private, excellent Internet and very good price. Sounds too good to be true. As expected, it took long time and lots of effort from all people involved to close this transaction. There are also “strings attached” to it. It is in a “protected area”. For any construction (I do not know yet what else) we will need permit from Panama environment protection agency (ANAM). The application for construction of an access road and living quarters is in process since mid December and there is no end in sight yet.


    A view from the future house site. Click for a better photo.

    From my interactions with ANAM officials, I understood that a small tourist outfit my wife wanted to build in the future, would be a really tough call to get a permit for. Yet, this facility was one of our top reasons to buy the large piece of land (~50 acres) in a remote area surrounded by reservations of sacred mountain Guacamaya.

    The access road to the entrance of the finca is a “public street”. It is about half a mile. Years ago people had hastily cut a path into the steep clay slopes without any consideration for use. Over years this “road” served as a drainage ditch for the tropical rain that pours during the rainy season. It was not passable going up the slope when it was raining even with my 4X4 pickup truck. The clay base was covered with water and turned slippery like ice. There was no gravel on the road. Independent of the season, there was no way to get any trucks with building materials to go up this slope. It had to be built properly.

    Access road is bad

    Access road needs work. Click for a better photo.

    It took some effort to find a contractor offering reasonable price. Could be Panamanians have learned that gringos are very dumb in spending their money. If they deducted this from the way we spend our foreign aid money, then I can not blame them – hard to imagine anything more idiotic With the help of my good friends I got the price of gravel way below what even Panamanians pay. I ended up going with a very young road company for whom this was their first meaningful project – the lowest bidder. The operators of the machinery had many years of experience and I counted on them to teach the owner – I was wrong.
    It was a struggle to complete this project mid February. This road became the cemetery of the contractor’s heavy equipment. There was none that did not break multiple times.

    Equipment is not maintained and old

    Cemetery of heavy equipment. Fixing the machines. Click for a better photo.

    I am not happy with many things they did, but more with the things they refused to do as agreed, but not written clearly into the contract. I wrote the contract, no-one to blame. At this time the road is a major improvement from what it was. I can only hope that it lasts through the rains as well and learn from the mistakes I made.

    Found a rental property in a little and relatively quiet village very close to the finca. Rent is so low that there isn’t much financial incentive to build fast. The older Panamanian house is on a hill overlooking a river, part of the village and road. The 4- 5 acres surrounding it are populated with large variety of tropical plants, fruit trees, ornamentals and just large trees.

    Here we (my wife joined me in this house early Aug) have learned to enjoy the incredible rich and colorful tropical nature. The views of the mountains from the valley and views to valleys, other mountain ranges and the ocean from the mountain tops. The gusty winds, sun and even tropical rains.

    We have renovated the house (mostly my wife’s effort) and set it up to make it livable for conveniences pampered gringos. We have learned to cool the house during hot days without cost with the abundant natural resource here – water and few other clever constructs. We have learned to cope with the largest nuisance of tropics – the bugs. Mostly by keeping them out of the living area.

    The Bugs

    The bugs of tropics. Click for a better photo.

    We have not figured out yet how to discourage the neighborhood dogs to stage noisy fights in our back yard during nighttime.

    People here are friendly and helpful even though we are at best very beginners in their language. They invite us to their festivales, carnavales, fiestas and birthday parties. There are many of these here in Panama. We learn their culture, language and best ways to live in tropics. Some things are expected, others come as complete surprise. Some are very enjoyable, others not so. Most importantly, we have learned to understand their nature. Much better than most expats, living in Panama many years, but keep complaining about the locals. This helps to enjoy working with them when we need their muscles for our projects.

    From locals we have learned to eat like kings for less than $200 per month for two. We eat lots of fresh fish, meats, eggs and tropical fruits.

    The Penonome fish market

    The Penonome fish market. Click for a better photo.

    Some are free – just go and pick, others do not cost much.

    The Penonome meat market

    The Penonome meat market. Click for a better photo.

    The fruits of tropics

    The fruits of tropics. Can you carry enough? Click for a better photo.

    Many dishes in our new diet, if prepared properly, leave highest ranking restaurants in dust. One reason we do not eat out much – the food is better at home!

    The food

    The food. We both like our meat bloody! Click for a better photo.

    From locals we have re-learned to dance again. A standard feature in any fiesta, festivale, carnavale or birthday party. Even though the music they like is not among our favorites it has a rhythm. After few beers (or shots of rum) dancing with it is a pleasure.

    The dance

    The gringo dance. Can you keep up with me? Click for a better photo.

    We have made a handful of friends by helping them to do few things better than they knew how to. We have also made few enemies by disappointing them in their aspirations to milk us.

    Most importantly, we have learned to relax and enjoy the wonderful moments of life the way they come. I must admit, this has probably been the most difficult lesson for me. Thinking about, it seems like a no-brain-er, but implementing in practice has been spotty at best. I keep getting “carried away” and pay for it with aching joints and muscles because most of the work here at this time is physical. The previous life, where “make more money” to make the ends meet was the purpose of existence, does not appeal at all. Life without stress is good.

    What’s next?

    1. Have to get the permit from ANAM. Other permits (from municipality) appear simpler and faster.
    1. Have to build the access road to the construction site of the new home (another half a mile) that includes a bridge over a little lively creek.
      Have to construct the buildings for the living compound.
  • Can this all be done by the next anniversary? I do not know. The rainy season may start in May. Depends when I finally get the permits, how intense is the rainy season going to be first months and when the rainy season ends this year.

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