A Disabled American Makes a Home in Panama

My childhood friend, Federico, was a Cuban exile who could never go home again. I was a Georgia boy with a Tom Sawyer fantasy. Stay with me, this beginning is not as crazy as you might think.

I dreamed about building a raft, floating down the Chattahoochee, and following the coast down to the tropics. When you’re 10 years old with an overactive imagination, this sounds possible.

Usually, life takes us on a route that rarely fulfills our childhood dreams.

It didn’t look good for me, from quite early on. A spinal cord injury at 15 changed my life. To be honest, it didn’t kill my dreams nearly as much as the typical American Dream struggle to work, save, prosper, and conform did. I knuckled down to a conventional life. No rafts.

Thirty-five years later, I reached a point where I was looking to make a major change in my life. What could be better than making my childhood dream of running away to the tropics come true?

The idea first came up in conversations when Federico was my employee. Several years later, we both ended up on Social Security disability payments. He was looking for a more affordable cost of living. While that appealed to me too, more strongly, I felt the spirit of adventure calling me. The thought of living in a new land and experiencing a new culture is what motivated me most.

Our original plan was put on hold by the 2008 recession. A year later I called Federico to wish him a merry Christmas. He had just come home from the hospital. It was the third time that year his asthma had landed him there. He put it straight: “If you want to have this adventure, we need to do it while we’re still able to enjoy our life.”

Federico died later that night.

His statement put me on a mission. We had been researching Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica. My financial adviser sent me an interesting article about Panama. A little follow-up research immediately pushed the country to the top of my list. Three visits prompted me to attend a relocation conference in Panama.

In the space of two years, I went from doing research to preparing to spend a year in-country, evaluating Panama. A Colorado man agreed to lease me his house for a year.

I leased my house in the States to a couple who were both graduate students. This was my safety net. If things didn’t work out, I could return home in three years.

I arrived in Santa Clara, Panama at the beginning of February 2012. It took me just 10 months to decide Panama would be my home for life. I bought a car and began looking for a wheelchair-accessible rental property, or a house to buy. In November 2013, I moved into my current home in Penonomé, Panama. Ten years in Panama is a nice round number, a good chunk of time to reflect on.

Why I Moved

There are two distinct elements you must look at when you’re an expat. The first is the attraction of the country where you choose to reside. The second are the factors that contribute to your desire to leave your home country. Pull factors, push factors. I moved mainly because of the attraction. The pull.

The two main pulls were the weather, and my sense of adventure. I was ready to live in a land without winter. It took me a while to recognize that the climate truly is ideal. No winter, no hot sticky summers, no hurricanes, no tornados, no real bad weather at all.

Santa Clara is near the beach. It was a little too hot and humid there, but the rolling hills of Penonomé reminded me of Georgia. The difference in elevation from the coast is just enough to make it a few degrees cooler, year-round. Finding a home on a cliff above the river provided good breezes and added a bit more cooling. The year-round temperature range of 92 F to 70 F is perfect for me.

Traveling extensively before I moved had allowed me to view many different cultures. I wanted to experience a new one. This meant living in and embracing a new land. The casita I lived in when I first arrived was next to a restaurant popular with expats. It colored my decision about where to live permanently.

I found myself listening to groups of expats complaining about what was better about things back home. It reminded me of the columnist Lewis Grizzard writing about Yankees moving to Atlanta and complaining. His famous line was “If you think it was so much better back there, you can go back anytime. Delta is ready when you are.”

Expats who embrace the culture, though, become part of the community. Panamanian locals are generous and forgiving about poor language skills—they genuinely appreciate your effort to speak Spanish, if you make it.

It takes some effort to learn how things are done here. I realized quickly that I’m a guest and I need to learn the culture to become part of the community. My efforts have been recognized. The workers in the stores I frequent and the businesses I use treat me like a friend. Things like this are what give me the feeling that Penonomé is my home.

Why I Stayed

Tony built a home for himself in Panama.

Over the years, the attraction of Panama has grown, and the appeal of returning has diminished. I will be staying in Panama for the rest of my life.

The biggest negative about moving to a new country is missing your friends and family. It takes an effort to remain connected. To keep up with everyone when I first moved, I would write a letter and send it out as a group mailing. It evolved into a full-fledged monthly newsletter complete with photos. It has become a lasting pleasure to write my monthly ramblings and to look for photos to include.

A VOIP phone lets me make free phone calls to the United States and Canada for a small annual fee. I make a conscious effort to randomly call at least one friend every week. This process works so well, I find myself reconnecting with friends I have not spoken to in years. Free online video services let me see friends as we talk. Distance no longer matters. Even through the pandemic, I didn’t feel isolated. I never think about moving back.

Living here, I choose to filter out much of the U.S. news. The TV isn’t constantly screaming at me about what someone else thinks should be important. Sure, I can’t block out all the news, but I can decide what I want to know about in detail, and what to ignore.

Why did I stay in Panama? I feel safe here. Changes, like new stores opening, roads being paved, and a new hospital being built, are important to me because I am a member of this community. Births, marriages, deaths, job changes, and other events in the lives of my friends matter to me. These things are what make a house a home.

This is why Panama is my home.

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