So, you know, there was that….toes in the sand, drink in hand, tropical breeze and endless sea. Juxtaposed against the four seasons, high mountain lakes, clear blue sky reflecting off crystalline snow fields. It had always been assumed that we would remain a mountain guy and gal. Yet after repeatedly shoveling a path to the propane tank, satellite dish, hot tub, dog kennel and a lengthy driveway, as the snow continued unabated, scraping ice from windshields and idling engines until it was tolerable to get into the vehicle and inch on down the road to a trail on which to bundle up and partake of one of several snow or ice related activities, the mind began to drift back to the place of flip-flops, tee shirts and swimming trunks.
The decision to part with the north and relocate to the tropics was both easy and a struggle. The mountains have their own allure and mystical attraction, but wanderlust and a sense of wanting a new adventure while capable of embracing it became an overwhelming drive. Yes, friends and family were left behind. We recognized that a piece of our hearts would remain where those folks lived, but it was also understood that nothing is static and should we stay for family and friends, if our family and friends were alive and growing, many changes would occur in their lives as well and that change is the only permanence. The effort to hold it in abeyance is a woeful enterprise.
So after more challenges than anticipated, we were afoot in our new country of choice, Panama. It was always a bit of a mystery to understand the attraction of this little isthmus between two continents and seas. There was garbage, poverty, stifling heat and uncertainty, yet there was enchantment with the place and with the life we intended to create here. It should be made very clear before going further, that relocation, lock, stock and barrel, is nothing like visiting for extended periods of time. Under the latter circumstance there is always awareness of the return to where all the comforts and normality of home are known, and unless deprived of, underappreciated. No amount of reading, imagining, or foresight prepares you for the completeness of pulling up all roots and setting down in a new culture, language, customs, climate, government and sky.
Panama is still in the northern hemisphere but the night sky is different at 9 degrees north than it is in the mountains of Idaho. And it cannot be understated that the degree of change is complete, not simply the difference between 9 degrees and 45 degrees north. Super markets, when they exist, are different, food items are different, hardware stores are different, construction materials are different, business practices are different. Even the form of law practiced is different. I had never even heard of common law versus civil law and the differences. There is no such thing as a postal service and it appears that law enforcement is a welfare program. If there was advice to be given it would only be to realize that one simply won’t know, won’t understand and will not be able to comprehend the breadth and depth of the lack of tangible and safe harbors. Yet people are people, so values, dreams, hopes, suffering, loss and fear are anchors that tie us to one another…even if language keeps us somewhat at a distance.
Initially, in spite of longing to finally be residents of this piece of the world, the adventure challenged us. From being stuck more than once in rain swollen mud holes to recognizing that with the good in people comes the dark side and there were still people in this part of the world who prey on individuals who do not yet have their feet firmly on the ground.
For an individual accustomed to business practices and customs of the United States the manana culture can be exasperating and stressful. It is cliché to say that manana does not mean tomorrow, it means not today or perhaps, ever. We may have relocated entirely, but we had a long way to go in adoption of the cultural norms. Any stress experienced was largely a function of this one incongruity: our expectations and anticipations were rarely, if ever, realized. Having said that, it should be noted that in hindsight, the rigorous standards often imposed on activities in the United States and other supposedly developed nations are not necessarily healthy or life-affirming. This was made evident to me in a recent conversation with an indigenous man living on our street, if living is understood as sleeping wherever there is a roof, with or without walls, plumbing or electricity, a man whose family remains in the comarca (Central American reservation) in the mountains some distance inland, who washes his clothes and bathes in a concrete sink with cold water and who works tirelessly each day for $3.50 per hour as a laborer.
I had made some rudimentary comment about working and sleeping but he stopped me and enthusiastically told me in a considerate and slow Spanish, that he had his health and life and then he raised his hands to the sea and sky and said that he had all this, and with the same smile he always has on his face, he offered his well wishes to Kim, my wife, and walked on down the beach. This conversation silenced me. It was a startling reminder why we chose this country, community and location. And it was a stark lesson that perhaps manana is a good idea for just about everything except being aware of how simple life should be.
Fourteen months into our new life we are about to break ground on the home we thought would be nearing completion some time ago. We have chilled a bit and are becoming more Panamanian in our routines and expectations. We have adopted a small green parakeet, and have two of our three old dogs that came with us. We have seen plant life, birds, lizards, snakes, and fish unlike any found in or near a high mountain lake. We have met many fellow travelers detached from their comfort zones. We allow the breeze to caress us from time to time and regularly have a late afternoon toddy in our chairs by the beach where we spend a great deal of time staring. It is possible to project that we have become more contemplative and serene and that is why we are here, but in reality, the rum and cokes are spectacular and the dress code is nada. Oh, and there is that absence of snow thing.[Cover photo: The author and his wife enjoying a Panamanian sunset. All photos courtesy of Rick Eardley.]