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.
Without further adieu, let’s wrap up this very interesting conversation with Chad!
Meet Expat Chad Darroch of El Valle – Part III
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
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?
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
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.
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!