This presentation was given by Elizabeth Worley a friend and neighbor in Boquete Panama at a presentation for International Living in Panama last week. It is worth reading and I thank Elizabeth for her permission to reprint it here.
“Mis amigos, bienvenidos a Panama. Soy Elizabeth Worley desde Boquete, Chiriqui. Yo ha vivido aca hace mas de 5 cinco anos.
Oh. First issue…Spanish. Some of you may not speak Spanish.
Let me start over.
Welcome my friends to Panama… My name is Elizabeth Worley. I have lived in Boquete for the past 5 years. Panama, as you have been told repeated for the past several days, is a very small , beautiful country with a very large heart, with very generous and kind people. I love living here. If you have no interest in living in Panama—and are only here for investment opportunities, my presentation is not really for you and I will not be offended if you leave now.
Let me tell you a bit of my story.
In the US I was a practicing psychotherapist, specializing in helping people cope with major life transitions. I taught at a University, I was a social activist in the areas of women’s rights and domestic violence, I had an active, full life raising three children and a solid support system of family and community. However, as I approached my 50th birthday, I found myself asking, Is this all there is?
After the debacle of the 2000 election—which I have always seen as a judicial coup d’etat—my then husband and I began to look around. We both had traveled extensively in Europe and that was where our sights were originally drawn. But…it was expensive, the bureaucracy was not welcoming, etc. Then one day on the internet I came across the link for International Living and they were promoting Panama. I thought, Panama? Panama??? What’s there besides the Canal, mosquitos and what’s his name…right, Noriega (nevermind he was actually in Homestead, Fl). But as serendipity would have it, shortly after 9/11 I found myself on a southbound plane. It was a vacation, a lark…I loved Panama City, found Bocas del Toro to be a bit much of a hustle for my tastes, but after 48 hours in Boquete, I was in love. When we came, we had absolutely no intention of buying property, but everyone around us was caught up in land fever and we caught it, too. So we started going out and looking at real estate. We looked at gated communities—not my personal style. We looked at planned neighborhoods that were no more than four color drawings on glossy paper, and we looked at raw land out of town, including a small very neglected coffee and citrus farm high above the town. Finca Luz. It is 4.3 hectares and the moment I stepped onto it I knew I had found my home. The weeds were head high, the jungle had engulfed the view of the ocean, but I got goose bumps all the way down to my toes and just knew. I want to thank the people of International Living for opening the door for me here—I became an avid reader of their emailed newsletters, purchased their informative books. You are in good hands with IL.
It took two years for us to make the move down here. When we first went back to the US, and told our family and friends what we were doing, they were appalled. Panama? Panama?? I can still remember my elderly mother shaking her head and saying to me: “Child, you have lost the godly light of reason!”
During those two years we made 5 more trips down here and each time, my passion for the place and the people grew. During that difficult waiting period, people back home in western North Carolina would ask me, “How are you?” And I would say, “Fine, fine, but I’d rather be in Panama.” Today, I can best sum it up by saying, Life is good. But, for me, it is better in Panama. I am home.
Since I have been here I have reclaimed my little coffee farm from the jungle, remodeled an old Indian barracks into a unique, hand crafted casita and art studio, developed gardens, learned the business of growing and processing coffee, (in Spanish!) and…that brings me back to my original point: I have learned Spanish. I am not fluent by any means. I still can’t tell you the difference between a subjunctive and conditional verb tense, but I can make myself understood in any environment where NO one speaks ANY English and I understand, mas or menos, most of what is said to me.
If you are thinking of living here, and don’t want to exist solely within a gated community of other expats—Learn Spanish. Why? Because your experience of the place and the people will be immeasurably richer. And because you will save yourself from untold amounts of frustration and many embarrassing moments.
Let me illustrate:
In the first few months of living here I was riding around with my farm manager and he was assaulting me with lightning fast Spanish about needing “bolsas”. I knew he wanted something, something he needed for the farm, but I didn’t know the word. Bolsas? Que es bolsas? And so, like many of us do when we are in a foreign country and someone doesn’t understand us, he just kept saying the word, louder and louder, as if by sheer volume he could make me understand. I started to cry I was so frustrated—and he was horrified. He had just made La Jefa cry—an unpardonable offense. At that moment we reached an understanding—he would slow down, and I would learn Spanish.
A short time after that I was proudly talking to someone about my new farm project of making organic fertilizer from a complex recipe of minerals, rice hulls, molasses and chicken manure. Now, many words in Spanish sound similar. Abano versus abono. I thought I had it right, but then as I kept telling people, in my infant Spanish that I was making organic abano at my farm from the above ingredients, I started getting really strange looks, and politely smothered laughter in response. It was weeks before I figured out that fertilizer is ABONO. ABANO is a cigar—so I was extolling the virtues of making Organic Cigars from Chicken Shit!
And just last night while sitting in the dark by the pool, a lovely young man came and pointed to my shoes while also pointing to the grass around my chair. Now, the Panamanians speak rapid fire Spanish, and I got that he was saying something about shoes and the grass…and my brain attempted to fill in the gaps and I decided he was telling me, “Don’t walk on the grass in my high heeled sandals”. So I obligingly took them off. Wrong. He was actually helping another guest look for some LOST shoes. We all laughed and I learned a new word—chancletas is another word for sandals. Learn Spanish.