As kids we fantasize about becoming firemen, super heroes, actors and artists. Ah, to be young and dream. We start our adult lives and imagine great success and a prosperous retirement. All too often, “Reality” sets in and one by one we put those dreams on a shelf. We have great intentions to keep them polished and ready for “someday” but little by little they start to collect dust and lose their shine. Still, it’s good to keep them around, however dusty, because sometimes you’ll find them coming back to life in unexpected and amazing ways.
Two years ago, my husband Doug and I shocked our family and friends by announcing our plans to relocate most of the year to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We’d once dreamed of a jet-set retirement, complete with multiple properties in places like the Amalfi coast in Italy, the South coast of France, the coast of Portugal and perhaps New Zealand…
When the economy crashed, we put those dreams on hold. As the years went by they seemed to fade more and more until one day they surprised us by taking on a new shape.
We had enjoyed successful careers in Colorado, lived in a beautiful country home, and managed investments that were propelling us rapidly toward our retirement goals. Then the Global economic tsunami struck. Almost overnight our real estate investments and IRAs all tanked. The following summer, I found myself with a quarter of my previous income.
Because of our skill sets, neither of us had ever really had to look for a “J-O-B” in many, many years. It did not take long to discover that lucrative opportunities for the “over 50” crowd were virtually non existent. We tried a few entrepreneurial ideas that did not work out and after a few months were compelled to accept unrewarding jobs that did not even cover our then current bills. We were definitely losing ground. Finally, when I was falsely accused by a supervisor, 30 years my junior, of failing to limelight her in her superior’s eyes, Doug and I decided enough was enough. Rather than endure years of mediocre wages and challenging work environments while we tried to recover our finances and rebuild our retirement, we chose to explore options that would allow us to start living the retirement life we dreamed about without any further delay.
We had traveled extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean. One country always seemed to stand out to us; Panama. It had many of the things we were looking for in a retirement life-style. Happy and friendly people, a beautiful environment surrounded by clear blue Caribbean water, year-round warm weather and a great retirement plan for foreigners. We had spent considerable vacation time on an island called Bocas del Toro off the coast of Panama in the Caribbean Ocean, twenty five miles from the Costa Rican border. The quaint, colorful downtown reminded us of Key West, Florida in the old days before it was developed. We made a list of pros and cons of living there and the pros won by such a large margin we decided to take the plunge.
So, two years ago we sold everything except what we considered absolutely essential, put our house on the market and bought a round-trip ticket to Bocas for 180 days. ( The maximum you can stay on your passport in one trip.) We had no specific plan, only to rent an apartment for 6 months and see what interesting opportunities presented themselves.
My best friend, Donna, had moved there 9 years ago, so we had at least one friend to help us as we began our adventure. Having successfully started a Salon/Spa, she was happily supporting herself in the island community. She had easily made friends with both locals and Expats for a lively social circle. Doug and I had both filed for our early social security and hadn’t really planned on jumping back into business, but Donna needed help developing a rental clientele for an ocean-front property she and I had bought together 15 years before. So we followed our instincts and became enthusiastic partners. Doug’s past home-building skills would serve as a valuable asset to improve the property at low cost. My organizational and marketing skills would be used to the fullest in fun, creative ways to market the property. A match made in heaven! Donna was the people person, meeting and greeting the clients, checking them in, while I did booking, collected deposits and Doug and I kept everything in tip-top shape for when the guests arrived. Best of all, our involvement doesn’t require any clock punching J-O-Bs.
While we were spending our second winter in Bocas, absolutely loving being away from all the snow in Colorado and being able to spend every spare moment on the water in our small 25 foot panga, another opportunity came up. I am now part of a small real estate relocation service and real estate company with a Panamanian partner named Walter Kawano.
Sure, as of yet, Doug and I don’t make as much money as we did in the states, but the potential is there to grow into that. Now our lifestyle in many ways exceeds the lifestyle we enjoyed in the US. We have a lovely apartment right across the street from the bay that our vacation rental property sits on. We eat fresh fruits and vegetables (not to mention freshly caught ocean fish) for a fraction of what it costs in the states. Our monthly grocery bill rarely exceeds $300. We enjoy luxuries we could no longer afford in the states like pedicures, massages, daily fresh flowers and even a cleaning lady. We go out to dinner twice a week and can afford gas for our boat. The boat itself became affordable since we lowered our monthly bills so much by selling all the items we no longer needed and shipping all our remaining goods down here.
We no longer need a car as everything on land is easily accessible by foot, bicycle or taxi which is $.60 per person to go almost anywhere in town. We live very comfortably within our means and have paid all our credit cards off since we no longer use them here.
In exchange for leaving behind a culture with impressive efficiency and virtually unlimited choices, (as well as the feeling of running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off just to keep up with the bills), we have relaxed into an unhurried, stress-free flow of life that is simpler and less all-consuming. We do not miss not having a clock to watch or a rigid schedule to maintain.
With the free-time once devoured by work, commutes, chores and errands, we now pursue hobbies and interests that nourish our souls, minds and bodies. At a point in life when many are worried about retirement, we feel we have achieved a fresh start where we can be excited about our future and the possibility of new adventures.
One never knows what life has in store. Forty years ago I studied four years of Psychology and Doug has a BA in Engineering. Yet both of us went on to career paths that had nothing to do with our degrees. Today, Doug has time to pursue his love of writing, drawing and fishing. As for me, I am happily engaged in helping people who think Panama just might be the place for them to relocate to fulfill their own dreams. With my contacts all over the country, I can save them the time and money they would usually spend searching for the perfect place and make sure they avoid all the common mistakes along the way.
As I reflect on the many twists and turns that eventually lead me to achieve my own dreams, I’m thinking that where you end up is less important than the value of having the intention to end up somewhere around people you like and love. So if you have an old overseas dream that’s been sitting on a shelf far too long, dust it off…you never know where it might take you.