Part III Panama Expat Lifestyle interview with Chad Darroch

Panama expat interview Elizabeth Vance
Panama expat interview Elizabeth Vance

This is not a carving of Panama expat Chad, though he did take this photo….somewhere in Panama.

It’s not every day one gets to do a Panama expat lifestyle interview. But last month – in August – the Panama Gringo Guide was fortunate to have a lengthy conversation with expat Chad Darroch of El Valle.

Chad has lived in Panama now for almost ten years. Wow! He’s seen a lot of changes in the country during that time, no doubt. So, you’re hearing from another guy here who really has a feel for life in Panama, beyond the hype.

This post is actually the finale of Chad’s interview about his life in Panama. If you haven’t already seen parts one and two, you’ll probably want to read those first.

Panama Expat Lifestyle: An Interview with Chad Darroch (Part I)

Real Expat in Panama – Interview #2

Without further adieu, let’s wrap up this very interesting conversation with Chad!

Meet Expat Chad Darroch of El Valle – Part III

Elizabeth Vance Panama underwater photo

A great underwater shot by Chad here in Panama

Elizabeth: Chad, what are the best things about Panama from your viewpoint?

Chad: Panamanians, freedom, and nature. Here’s what I mean:

First, Panamanians are awesome: a people strong, proud, and courageous enough to stand up and fight to make things better, even if the methods and initiatives are sometimes not the most effective or organized. Panama is surging forward in many respects as a result. By contrast, my country-of-origin – a former world leader in many respects – is backsliding dramatically (a la USA) and its people generally either pridefully deny this or defer to the ‘wait and see’ approach, both of which I’ve always found excruciatingly frustrating.

Elizabeth: I agree with you that people of Panama are a very proud people.

Chad: They are, and as a result Panama is moving in the opposite direction of much of the world in many ways: forward. That’s pretty awesome. And worth standing up for. I am proud to call Panamanians my friends, family, and neighbors.

Yes, the self-centered consumer-culture is making inroads in Panama, and there’s a whole world of social problems to fix here; starting with systemic inequality, abysmal education, and corrupt cronyism. Problems that sound familiar; sure. But there’s a crucial difference: in Panama, fix them we shall. I love the powerful optimism for the future I’m able to feel here. And that comes straight from the people.

Elizabeth: This country certainly has enjoyed positive economic growth in the last few years, which is one reason why so many North Americans are now looking to move to Panama. But, carry on with your second Best Thing about Panama, please.

Panama provides a lot of Personal Freedom

Panama bird watching Elizabeth Vance

For any of you birdwatchers, El Valle – where Chad lives – should be your first stop in Panama.

Chad: Second, I love the freedom I feel living in Panama. Here you really can live as you like, provided you do no harm. I had never known that feeling before (in Canada) and I could never see giving it up now. Life is lush here – and it’s easy compared to the struggle of carving out a position in the rat race.

Elizabeth: I agree with you that the lifestyle in Panama can be less restrictive than in parts North. I would say it’s generally assumed that people will take more personal responsibility down here, and there’s less crazy litigation.

Chad: I agree – and that makes our society much more flexible, dynamic, innovative, and progressive in general (for better and for worse).

Third, I love Panama’s natural abundance. There are at least a dozen species of birds – probably two or three times that – nesting in our yard. Flowers and butterflies are everywhere. Everything’s so verdant; so colorful; so alive… and the climate is perfect [El Valle’s average daytime temperature is about 75˚F]. I see new wildlife on at least a weekly basis; realistically much more frequently. Fruits, roots, and veggies grow nearly everywhere, all year round.

Elizabeth: The tropical landscape does hold its own beauty, there’s no doubt. I’m personally quite fond of Panama’s toucans. I did a post on them a few weeks ago, which you can refer to here.

Chad: You know, before this year I’d never seen a wild toucan! They’re everywhere this season though. Panama’s natural diversity is truly spectacular, and I am strongly concerned about the carelessly unsustainable Western-style development I’ve seen happening here. Many regions have experienced severe ecological damage/stress and some may never fully recover.

All politics aside, I am personally thrilled that the new government [under Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela who took office on July 1, 2014] cites reversing this trend as a top priority. Panama deserves to stay clean and green.

How Sustainable is Panama right now?

El Valle Panama Elizabeth Vance

El Valle is a small country town in the mouth of an extinct volcano crater in Panama.

Elizabeth: Certainly, Chad, it’s true that Panama is a long way behind the U.S. in terms of sustainable practices – whether in development or something as simple as recycling or even taking care of its trash properly.

Chad: The trash sure is an issue. Recycling here in El Valle is all done on a volunteer basis – to their credit the “Green Team”, as they’re called, saved over 67,000 lbs of stuff from hitting the landfill last year alone. That’s something I’d really like to see instituted on a large scale, whether private or state-subsidized (along with a stronger focus on renewable energy that’s not hydroelectric).

These, along with fixing education, inequality, infrastructure, and cronyism, are absolute imperatives in the immediate future. On that note I’d like to mention two hand-cut-and-painted signs here in El Valle that I truly admire:

The first one reads “La cultura de un pueblo se mide en su amor por los arboles.”
Translation: The culture of a people/ place is measured in how it takes care of its trees.

The second sign reads “Por favor, cuida nuestros rios. Nuestros ninos tambien los merecen disfrutar, y los van a necesitar para sobrevivir.”
Translation: “Please take care of our rivers. Our children also deserve to enjoy them, and they will need them in order to survive.”

Oh – and for the record, Panamanians participating in the local recycling program reportedly outnumber us expats by almost 50 to 1. Like I said, I am deeply optimistic for Panama’s future.

Elizabeth: I’ve seen both those signs, too, Chad, and it’s great that you see these values reflected in the part of Panama where you live (in El Valle). We can both hope that with Varela‘s well-known commitment to eco-friendly practices before he came to be Panama’s new president, that we can see more of that kind of thing in more places in Panama in the years to come.

Chad: I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed! You know how ‘flexible’ politicians can be, though, whatever their country of origin. All of us, Panamanian and expat alike, must take responsibility and “be the change”. Money talks. But it can’t walk.

Chad’s Top Three Recommendations for Someone Moving to Panama

Panama underwater photos Elizabeth Vance

Chad takes some amazing underwater photos in Panama, as you can see!

Elizabeth: Chad, what are the Top Three Recommendations you would make to someone considering moving to Panama, or retiring in Panama?

Chad: I actually have four – can I do four? I’ll list them out for you:

* Visit first. The vibe, the people, the environment, and the lifestyle vary widely even within small geographical regions. There are places here you will love and there are places you won’t. That’s totally subjective (one man’s trash and all that). Clearly define what you want versus what you’ll sacrifice – odds are you’ll find a match, and maybe not in the first place you consider.

* Sell your things. Don’t lug them down here or keep them in storage once you’re sure you want to stay. They will either get ruined from humidity and/or salt, or will just keep costing you money. I kept a whole house’s worth of stuff in storage for years, bringing bits down a suitcase at a time and always thinking I’d want the bulk of it ‘someday’. What a waste. The stuff I brought is 90% gone now, and I don’t even remember most of the things I used to own or why they seemed so valuable/important at the time.

* Take off your glasses. You will go through a honeymoon period where everything’s just flawless. But when that’s over your whole world will come crashing down – you’ll hate this place because it’s not what you’re used to and cannot possibly meet your ingrained cultural expectations. You’ll find negatives everywhere and start to compare the Panama you’re experiencing now with whatever world you left behind. Of course with your rose-colored glasses on, most of these comparisons won’t be favorable. Remember why you’re here – keeping things in perspective can be challenging at times.

* Run toward something. That’s always better than running away. But many expats seem to fall into the latter mindset; always seeking out the next best thing; the next cheaper place; the next undiscovered paradise. It never ends: perfection is a false ideal and “leaving” is a pretty weak justification for “arriving”. Once you’re here, take a few minutes every day to enjoy the things you ran toward… but don’t forget to reflect on what you’re not doing right now, too!

Elizabeth: Wow, Chad, you have been so forthright, and so open about what you’ve learned here in Panama. I’m really excited to share this with the Gringo Guide to Panama readership! Thank you so much!

I also appreciate your candor since I’m known to be pretty straightforward myself (and sometimes get dinged for it). Plus, I have no doubt that your insight will come in handy for a lot of future expats who are considering if Panama is right for them.

Chad: Thanks again for the opportunity, Elizabeth. I definitely enjoyed it. And I hope our readers did, too!

* * *

Pretty cool, huh? A very special thanks to Chad for sharing his story – or what turned into three posts, because of length! I’ve already heard some very positive comments back from readers who have enjoyed the first two parts.

By the way, Chad is an accomplished writer, who works remotely from Panama for a number of clients across the globe. You can check out his work and his Google+ profile here.

Chad, thanks for sharing your personal photos with us!

Is Panama on your horizon?

If so, be sure to read as much as you can about Panama – my two books are a start – and definitely set up a trip to come and stay for a number of weeks. That way, you can be sure that Panama is right for you before you come, lock, stock and barrel. It’s a wise approach.

My very best to you wherever your journey may ultimately lead you!

Funny Things that make you go Hmmmm….in Panama

Bad English translation in Panama

Little things you notice along the way when you are living in Panama

Life in Panama often has its idiosyncrasies, just like everywhere else in the world. And, on any given day, there will be things you will encounter – on the street, in your home, at your office, in your friendships – that will actually make you go Hmmmmm…….not that’s interesting.

But that’s what makes expat life in Panama so intriguing, beguiling, nutty and frustrating, depending on the moment.

So, below, I’ll be sharing with you some photos that were born of just a few of those moments I have had over the past several weeks.

And, all of this is, of course, in good fun.

Things that make you go Hmmmm….in Panama

Panama wildlife butterflies Elizabeth Vance

Does this little guy know that he changes to blue and black when he’s not sitting on a window?


Panama traffic mishaps Elizabeth Vance

Are the dings on this car from another time when he was carrying a couch around?


Dogs in Panama Elizabeth Vance

Is it the price of the poop bags here that keep so many people from picking up their dog poop?


Yoo Building Panama Elizabeth Vance

When you live in this building and the lobby is this ornate, how much does it affect your HOA fees?



Bad construction Panama

Did the guys who installed this sit down on it before they set they finalized its final location?


Jungle vines Panama

The jungle vines Tarzan used really DO exist. Who knew?


Panama customs Elizabeth Vance

Why can’t the customs line coming IN to the country ever be this empty?


Kids ride in Panama

So, THIS is where they sent all these cool kids’ rides from my youth!


Panama customs Elizabeth Vance

So…when the guy that operates this mobile lunch cart wants to go to lunch himself, where does he go?


Public transportation Panama

Do the passengers of this Diablo Rojo public bus in Panama care that they can’t see out the back?


Panama phone booth

So, public phone booths DO still exist somewhere outside the movies!


PriceSmart Panama standing in line

Why is it that the lines only get backed up when you’re ready to check out?


Panama farmers

Does this farmer count his vegetables when he gets to his destination to be sure none of them fell off during his drive?


Panama wildlife

Is the Panama neque fall into the rabbit family or the rat family?


Bad English translation in Panama

Did anyone actually read this headline before it went to print? Yikes.


Snippets of Panama life

Well, that’s it for today, folks! I hope you enjoyed this pictorial review of the strange little things I see from time to time that make me actually think “Hmmm….I wonder….”

Wishing you a great Labor Day weekend from the Tropics!

Real Expat Life in Panama: Interview #2 with Chad Darroch

Chad Darroch Panama expat Elizabeth Vance interview
Chad Darroch Panama expat Elizabeth Vance interview

Chad looking down on the El Valle, Panama valley

It’s always a joy to bring you the personal stories of other expats from North America that have moved to Panama or retired to Panama. I personally believe that hearing from others about their real expat life in Panama experiences can help you decide if living on the Isthmus is something that is right for you, or not.

In The Gringo Guide to Panama II: More to Know Before You Know – published in January 2014 – you’ll find four other interviews of some other Panama expats, ranging from a retiree to an entrepreneur and three different parts of Panama.

This post is Part II of an interview with Canadian expat Chad W Darroch of El Valle, Panama. (Part I of Chad’s interview with the Panama Gringo Guide can be referenced by clicking here.)

* * *

From Chef in Canada to Scuba (and Writing) in Panama

Elizabeth Vance: Chad, it’s obvious Panama made quite an impression on you. Especially your time on Panama’s Caribbean coast in Bocas del Toro.

Bocas del Toro diving Panama Elizabeth Vance

Underwater reefs in Panama are one of its undiscovered pleasures

Chad Darroch: Did it ever. I’d never seen a place; a people, so vibrantly alive before. As I mentioned, on my last day in Bocas I had the first of three thoughts that would eventually inspire my permanent move [“how long will it be until I see something like this again; until I feel so clean and free? How many years? …ever?”] That’s one jarring thought, and it made returning to Canada from this vacation particularly unsettling. But a few months later, working a sweet position at a prestigious resort, I started thinking maybe the grind wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

Elizabeth: What kind of work do you do, Chad, or did you do back then?

Chad: I was a chef. These days I’m a commercial copywriter and non-practicing SCUBA instructor.

Elizabeth: Please continue your story.

Chad: It didn’t take long to realize that some job, no matter how sweet, wasn’t going to provide true happiness or contentment. If there are any chefs reading this, they know the drill: you get off work tired, stressed, and late – every single holiday and all weekend long. Your friends are all asleep by the time you’re home, and your family feels like strangers.

But one night (or early morning, depending how you look at it), halfway through my wind-down beer, I realized “I am going to have to get up in just a few hours and do this all over again tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. This is life now.” That was the second of my three Never-Forget-It thoughts.

The 3 thoughts word-for-word are (I really never forgot them):
1. “How long will it be before I see this again? How long til I feel so… clear? How many years? …ever? …F***…”
2. “I have to get up in 4 F***ing hours and do this S*** all over again tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. Every day. Forever. This is life now.”
3. “No. This is not life!”
Err… pardon my French! :)

A life-changing moment that led to Panama

Elizabeth: I think sometimes it’s easy to think that the life of a chef is kind of glamorous, with all the chef shows out there. But it’s really not. It’s tough.

Chad: Indeed. It’s an awesome career, but it’s a ton of work for very little reward. You get hooked on rush of a Saturday-night-gone-right: 100 covers and everyone happy. Lots of money in the business’ bank account. “Success”, right? Ha.

Anyway, before I even finished that beer – my third – and most important – Forever Thought hit me: “This is not life.”

Elizabeth: Wow, that was an intense realization, it sounds like.

Panama expat and author Elizabeth Vance

An interesting angle of Panama in the natural environment…

Chad: Absolutely. A literal life-changing moment, since about 6 months later I packed up and shipped off to then-deserted Bluff Beach (in Bocas del Toro, Panama), where I was to manage a small eco-resort.

Elizabeth: Is the eco-resort still around?

Chad: It’s been closed since about 2006, actually – a long and colorful story, like many of Bocas’ tales.

Elizabeth: Chad, what kind of research about moving to Panama did you do before you decided to actually come?

Chad: Unless you’ll credit me for hunting down the best airfare, I did zero research. And I didn’t speak a word of Spanish when I arrived, either. I knew from my previous experience what I was in for, more or less, and that I would enjoy the adventure even if it proved difficult (which it has been at times).

Elizabeth: Because I’m a big promoter of expats moving to Panama (or retiring to Panama) making a commitment to learning some Spanish, I’m curious how you made it work without it?

Chad: I’ll second that – learn some Spanish. And not like this: for the first four months or so, I walked around with a little notebook pointing at things and asking my staff “y esto? Que es?” [translation: And this? What is this?] We got by. It was fun. But I definitely spoke in nothing but nouns – plus charades with sound-effect accompaniments – for quite a while. I cannot guarantee that everyone was always laughing with me.

I never did take a lesson; apart from speaking half-and-half at home, the most helpful learning tool for me has been watching movies in one language with subtitles in the other. Also, beer can triple your Spanish vocabulary as a Gringo, even if you don’t know what you’re saying. Promise.

Acclimating to the Panama lifestyle – how he did it

Elizabeth: (Laughing) Well, that’s one strategy, I guess! Tell me a bit about what it was like for you as you acclimated to living in Panama. Were there rough patches? Was it all smooth sailing?

Chad: Well, it’s been quite a bit smoother for me than many of the tales I hear from other expats. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of stuff to complain about around here: rough infrastructure. Poor customer service. Downright strange bureaucracy. Inefficiency. Racism. Extreme inflation. And so on. But the water and air are clean. The food is fresh (as long as you stay away from the imports). The sense of community is amazing. This may not be a perfect paradise, but its positives far outweigh any negatives of it being a developing nation.

Elizabeth: Now, you and your wife live El Valle, which is one of my favorite weekend retreats. But what’s it like to live in El Valle all the time?

El Valle Panama photo Elizabeth Vance expat interviews

Chad takes some lovely photos of El Valle in Panama, where he lives

Chad: I feel a genuine sense of well-being in El Valle. We live a natural, healthy, and simple life surrounded by friendly neighbors in a clean, fantastically abundant environment.

Of course, it rains a lot, our utilities often come and go, the place fills up with obnoxious city kids (and their parents) on weekends, our stuff gets all moldy, and every critter under the sun is just waiting for us to ring the dinner bell… for starters. I could complain all day. But that’s humans for you: always something to whine about. These ‘problems’ truly feel minuscule compared to the challenges of convenience-based living in a Western society.

Elizabeth: A lot of websites about Panama taut that it’s a ‘cheap’ place to live. Do you agree with that, having lived here for so long?

Chad: I agree less every day. Life here is still relatively economical, but those sites don’t tell the full story: people used to come to Panama looking to get rich by running a business on the cheap, or expecting to continue their consumer lifestyles while simply paying less for more.

Those are two great recipes for one very bad time. The cost of living in Panama is very different than what it was when I first arrived eleven years ago: inflation runs astronomically high here, mostly due to the past decades’ influx of greedy glad-handed folks and their fast new friends who have showed no shame in abusing this place and its people. Recently, free trade is also driving up cost-of-living, hurting everyone here either directly or indirectly.

Missing your home country of Canada?

Elizabeth: Do you ever miss North America, or living in Canada?

Chad: Unequivocally no. Canada no longer feels like the place I grew up in, and I’ve lived most of my adult life here anyway. Panama is “home” to me. Friends and family visit when they can, as do I, but I suspect they enjoy relaxing in the sun more than I enjoy the bustling about in the cold (and yes, guys, it is cold. Even in the summer).

Elizabeth: Chad, what are the best things about Panama from your viewpoint?

Chad: Panamanians, freedom, and nature. Here’s what I mean…

~ ~ ~

Installment #3 of Chad’s Panama Expat experience Coming Soon

And, yes, on that note – which is the beginning of a very insightful comment - I’m going to leave you hanging.  Until the next (and final) installment of Chad’s interview with us, which will be published soon.

You won’t want to miss it, I can guarantee you that!

If you’re interested in more on life in Panama, be sure to:

Follow us on Twitter: @PanamaGGuide and Elizabeth’s Official Author Account: @authorevance

Add us to a circle on Google+ at: TheGringoGuidetoPanama so that you get the first notification of the next installment (in the next few days or so).

Check out the live Google+ Hangout last week that we did on that most interesting topic: Panama Expat Lifestyle.

~ ~ ~

And, as always, I wish you the best on your journey – whether it leads you to Panama, or some other destination.