David, Panama

Panama – Part II. I flew from Panama City to David and rented a car. The plan was that I could then go where I wanted, when I wanted and not have to get off and on a bus when a tour guide told me to. Also, I might see more of the authentic Panama. Well, good plan anyway. And, of course, I had a Panamanian woman sitting next to me on the plane who wanted to practice her English (thank God) and told me I definitely didn’t want to retire in David – too hot and humid, she said. Boy was she right. I could tell that from the moment I stepped off the plane. Mind you, I’m from Nevada so I’m accustomed to 115 degree heat but humidity? Nope, can’t handle that along with heat. One or the other, thank you – not both.

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I picked up my rental car and since I had installed Waze on my phone, the directions to the Gran Nacional Hotel were very good. I was not, however, overwhelmed by the look of the city. Low, squat buildings and scaffolding and cranes surrounding every view. I didn’t know if that was a sign of prosperity and the city was growing or a sign of decay and everything needed propping up. I kept seeing lovely pictures online of manicured parks with modern sculptures and fountains. Damned if I saw any of that anywhere near the Gran Nacional.

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I arrived at the hotel, lowered the air conditioning in my room to a comfortable non-sweating-sitting-still temperature and strolled back downstairs to the front desk. I told the girl on duty there that I was interested in a tour of the city. She asked me what I wanted to see. I told her I wanted to get a feel for the city as a possible retirement location and to see the sights. Her response? “Oh there’s nothing much to see here.” Terrific. I had arranged my flight to arrive early so I would have a full day to explore the city. It was suffocatingly hot outside and, driving in, I hadn’t seen anything within walking distance that warranted a second look so I decided I’d get directions to my next stop, Boquete, and make sure I could find the main road the next morning. Surely that would also afford me the opportunity to see some of the city.

I found a young woman in a travel agency on the main floor who spoke English. “Easy” she told me and drew me a map, explaining that I would drive about 12 blocks and turn right onto the road and then just drive straight. “What’s the name of this main street?” I asked. She didn’t know and wasn’t even sure it had a name. Wasn’t this looking promising?

I decided to give it a go and see what happened. The problem was that the directions to my rented casita in Boquete were that I would turn left just past the main bank near the main park once I started downhill into the valley where the city is located. Now how could I possibly miss that? Here’s the problem. Waze wants a better description of the destination when calculating the trip. For some odd reason, it likes street names and house numbers. I tried several ways of finding directions from 1 Calle Central Avenue in David to either a bank in Boquete or a central park in Boquete. Waze gave me two separate sets of directions going in totally different directions.

I drove 12 blocks (many with no name at all that I could find) and ended up at a T intersection. Well, this must be it, I reckoned. I turned right and as I drove out of town and began to climb to a higher altitude, I hoped I was headed in the right direction. I passed very few signposts and of the ones I saw, none mentioned Boquete. After an hour of driving and having reached a point where there was nothing but land and an occasional cow grazing in a field, I decided I must not have found the road and turned around.

About halfway back, I noticed what looked like a huge cloud of yellowish smoke across the road ahead and began to smell smoke in the car. Should I stop? Was this a wildfire? The car in front of me had Panama plates and they weren’t hesitating so I decided to follow their lead. Someone had set a brush fire and it was right by the side of the road. Remember my Panama City driver, Sinar? When I finally got back to Panama City at the end of my visit, I told him about the fire and pulled up the photo I took from the car while approaching the cloud of smoke. He was laughing until he saw the picture and then he became very serious and said, “Oh no, no.” Too late. I had plowed through like the idiots in front of me and was lucky the fire hadn’t decided to jump the road and take me with it in the process.

The next morning, I was trying to get the wait staff in the little dining room to determine which set of directions on my phone would get me to Boquete when two gentlemen, who spoke English and overheard the conversation, said, “We’re going to Boquete if you’d like to follow us.” Why, yes, I would, thank you very much.

My right turn, as it turns out, was not 12 blocks up but the next block up from the hotel at the first stop sign. From there, it really did go straight to Boquete and the entire drive took a half hour. It was lush and green and I got to see how locals lived and the care they took with their tiny but colorful flower gardens. I was encouraged. But then, I hadn’t met the expats in Boquete yet. That’s Part III of my Panama adventure, coming up next post.

The Dreaded Senior Pap Exam

Pap exams are something every woman hates. Actually, I think I might use the word “detest.” Just choosing a subtle but accurate photo to go with this post was somehow embarrassing because, although we women can discuss it with each other, I don’t know anyone (at least in my age group) who wants a visual of the whole experience. Personally, and I’d never have admitted this years ago, I have to squash the feelings of embarrassment and degradation that popped up every time I made that appointment to get this test done. I can’t help but feel horribly vulnerable and, regardless of whether I have a male or female doctor, it’s embarrassing to expose your most private parts to a stranger. It’s also silly, I know, but I often wonder if they come away from the exam comparing me to other women. Why should I care? I can’t answer that but it does add to that feeling of dread beforehand. Seriously now, doesn’t this picture make you uncomfortable?

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I even found myself making the picture smaller – maybe trying to minimize the whole thing.

Six years ago, having gone through menopause, I found myself in the position of having to choose a new gynecologist and ended up with a very friendly, try-to-make-you-comfortable-with-lots-of-conversation female doctors who used a speculum that I later found out might have been perfect for a young woman with, shall we say “plumper” tissues, but hurt this senior with drier, shriveled (my word) innards and caused me to bleed. The comment at the conclusion of the exam was that I should tell anyone I saw in the future to use the smallest speculum they had. Ya think?

But the result of this exam was that I put it off for the next six years. As I’ve pointed out, this whole blog is about senior retirement issues and this is one of them. Hoping to be able to retire in the next few years, and not having a clue how my Medicare insurance may stack up as far as my costs are concerned, or even if I can afford a non-emergency doctor visit living off social security, I decided I needed to do as many recommended health exams before I retire as I possibly could. That was the sole incentive for screwing up my courage and scheduling a pap exam.

Fortunately, I ended up with a Nurse Practitioner who was sensitive and gentle and made the whole experience as comfortable as possible for such a personal exam. And it’s funny the things I realized had played into the decision to wait for six years. It wasn’t just the discomfort of the previous exam. It was also about the fact that I weigh probably 30 pounds more than I did last time I went for an exam, and who wants someone, especially a young woman who hasn’t had to experience dimpled thighs and saggy skin with liver spots, to see those things? Measuring up. That’s something that never quite goes away, no matter the age.

Mind you, I don’t give off these insecurities outwardly, but they’re there right under the surface. Perhaps they’re a by-product of the years I spent as a professional dancer with a svelte body, smooth skin and a slightly unrealistic view of how a woman should maintain her physical appearance (based on a nightly comparison to dozens of other women’s faces and bodies in this highly competitive field). Nevertheless, it’s an odd dichotomy for me: I’m pretty comfortable aging – don’t pursue any wrinkle-free beauty routines, own my facial wrinkles and laugh lines, and don’t bother with coloring my gray – but that doesn’t keep me from subconsciously worrying about how the younger generation perceives me based on my appearance. In the end (no pun intended) I suppose some of the discomfort is not wanting to reveal my older body’s secrets. Surface is fine; underneath is private.

All that introspection aside, I survived the exam and the best news was that, after 65, women my age don’t have to do this screening any more. I’m glad I went back for one after six years, but I’m equally glad that I don’t have to go through it again.

The Panama Adventure – Part I

In typical senior fashion, I’m unable to transfer any of my Panama photos from my phone and downloading photos from Google Images is resulting in gibberish codes and no pictures. I seem to only be able to add this one “featured” image. This, however, appears to be almost the exact view I had of the river and the nursery on the right when I walked across the bridge dividing the main town from the local Tuesday market on the far side of the river. In any case, here’s my tale of the Panama adventure and what I learned about retiring in a foreign county from this little jaunt. I’ve divided it into three parts because I spent time in three different cities and had challenges everywhere I went. Please note: when reading these adventures, you should keep in mind that I was a 63-year-old woman travelling alone.

The first thing I did when I arrived was promptly lose my passport. I arrived at night, it was dark in the taxi and I think when he asked me for the address of my hotel, I must have dropped it on the seat and not in the bag with my other documents as I was retrieving the piece of paper with my hotel’s address on it. Imagine the panic at walking up to a hotel’s front desk, realizing your passport is missing, the taxi has disappeared and you don’t know a single human being in this country. Fortunately, the desk clerk was very helpful in telling me how I would need to proceed.

I spent the next morning at the embassy getting a new one (which you pay for again, by the way). I walked out of the embassy to discover nary a single taxi waiting for customers and the only people around me spoke Spanish (I don’t) and didn’t want to be very helpful. The driver who had taken me had given me a business card, ostensibly from the hotel, with his “personal number” on it. However, when I called it, a woman answered who didn’t have a clue what I wanted. I then tried the hotel number on the card and, in the meantime, found an English speaker who told them to send a taxi. What a great relief to have an English speaking driver show up who not only took me downtown to the police station where I needed to file a report about my passport, but came in with me, played interpreter and then helped me fill out the form. Getting back into his taxi, he casually asked if I planned to call taxis the whole time I was in Panama or if I’d like for him to be my driver. I followed my gut instinct about him and hired him. It was probably the best thing I did on the whole trip to make things feel more comfortable and manageable. So, if he ever happens to read this, I need to stop and say, “Thank you Sinar!”

Once back at the hotel, I had just enough time to book an afternoon bus tour that stopped at numerous tourist spots where you could get off any time you liked and jump back on another bus an hour later. I would have time for one stop and the concierge suggested I choose the market in the old town. I bet that would be great if I were younger and travelling with friends but when we pulled up to a warren of dilapidated stalls meandering up dark alleyways, I opted to sit it out on the bus. I reckoned I would have made a perfectly delicious target.

So – dinner time. I thought I might pick a local restaurant outside the hotel to get a bit more of the flavor of the city until I was told I probably didn’t want to choose the one across the street from the hotel (a Marriott, by the way) because the second floor was a brothel. Just driving through the heart of the city, it seemed there were modern, clean office buildings side by side with Neolithic-looking stores and houses. Figuring that might also mean a varying level of trustworthy people wandering the sidewalks, I opted for the hotel dining room.

The next morning, Sinar picked me up and drove me to the airport. I flew to David, planning to try and get a feel for this recommended city as a possible retirement site. I had already marked Panama City off the list. I was not encouraged to have both Sinar and the Panamanian woman sitting next to me on the plane tell me I definitely wouldn’t want to settle in David. Well, I guessed I was about to find out for myself but too bad I didn’t have their advice before spending one of my few days in a city that even the locals wouldn’t recommend.

I’ll tackle David in Part II.

Fixer Upper?

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Knowing I would have very limited funds once I retire, I dreamed up all kinds of scenarios in which I could plunk down my 401K and walk away rent-free. Then I would be able to live off my social security and not feel like I had to go back to a living style that was acceptable back in my college days when everything in life was a big adventure. Since I know I won’t have enough money to buy my dream home outright, I came up with the idea of purchasing a cottage in a foreign country at a ridiculously low price so I would have enough left over to develop a backyard hideaway garden.

I turned my attention to a show that would help me do that in a foreign country where the cost of living would stretch my retirement dollars far farther than I can do here at home. That was the basis for that first trip to Costa Rica and the one the following spring to Panama. Not having any idea of safe areas to check out or how to find a reputable realtor and being a fan of all the shows that appear to help you find a home, I sent an email to see if I qualified to get on it. Stupidly, I thought they actually found a reputable realtor for me and then I’d just have to make a decision based on the choices that were presented to me. What was I thinking? The response I got said, “I just wanted to get an update on your moving situation. Do you still have interest in being on the show? I ask because we are currently looking to cast people who are very close to closing on/renting a home or are already living in one.” He went on to say, “Furthermore, you would receive monetary compensation for appearing on the show ($1,500).” Say what? So the real incentive would’ve been $1,500 and the opportunity to see myself on television? I crossed that one off my list.

Then I turned my attention to domestic fixer upper shows, figuring maybe I could afford a cheap Craftsman that could be renovated within my budget to look like a new home and I’d still have some left over to plant that garden. I found tons of great bargains but then the problem was that I didn’t know what sort of neighborhood they were located in. Solution? I decided to take three days of PTO from work, fly to the city and have a realtor show me decent fixer upper areas. What could go wrong with that plan? Well, I’ll tell you. I found a realtor online and sent an email. She answered me by telling me what the average fixer upper in the city sold for which, of course, was contradictory to what I was finding online. I replied that I had found lots of affordable properties online and she didn’t bother to answer me again. I guess she wouldn’t have gotten as much as she was accustomed to by helping me out so I wasn’t worth her time.

Ok, I thought. I’ll rent a car, take a list of the neighborhoods with me and just start asking around in the hotel and restaurants. The only other issue is that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to live the city I was contemplating. As it turned out, one of my cats got violently ill the day before I was due to fly out and I ended up cancelling the trip to care for her. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in coincidences and decided that city wasn’t meant for me.

I have a co-worker who tells me I’m over thinking things and I just need to decide on a place and go. I might have done that in my twenties, figuring everything would turn out alright, but I’ve lived just long enough to know that the devil’s in the details and things don’t always work out well. And, if I can make them turn out better by doing some research and planning ahead of time, why wouldn’t I? I think it’s important for me to look at what the weather’s like most of the time wherever I go (I’ve lived in Vegas long enough to hate too much cold weather). Is the property in a safe area? Am I close to good medical care? Do I know anyone there? Is it a green part of the U.S where I can develop that dream garden? What’s the cost of living in that state? Can I afford to live off my social security? And, maybe a stupid concern but, what sorts of insects and bugs are there? How much rain will there be?

So the bottom line is that I’m still toying with ideas on how to accomplish my goals on very little money and getting nowhere fast.

 

Gnawing Doubts

HobbiesAs much as I hate to admit it, work had become ingrained in me. It’s become the way I see myself – a person whose routine for decades has been to get up, put on makeup, get dressed in clothes I’d just as soon trade in for sweat pants and T-shirts and haul myself off to work for the better part of the day. It may not be as easy as I’d like to think to flip the switch to total leisure time.

It sounds great on the surface and I’ve spent several years talking about how I can’t wait to have all my time to myself – the do what I want when I want and sleep late to boot thing – but when I really think about the fact that those things will no longer be for a short week or two each year but every single day, I start to wonder if things will lose their luster. I’ve read all the studies about the seniors who couldn’t wait to retire and had big plans and then died within a few months of doing so. I sure as hell don’t want to be one of those but what makes me any different? Not all of those people retired and then became sedentary around the house. I figure it must have to do with the mentality. But what about the mentality?

It’s difficult for me to imagine a day when I might be bored or depressed. I just have too many interests. Here are some of the things on my to-do list (in no particular ranking). Of course, the problem with many of them is that they’ll require money, something I may have in very short supply once a retire, unless I find a part-time job but then doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of retirement? Anyway, here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head list:

  1. Cooking classes so I find a way to focus on nutrition and yumminess instead of the chore of chopping and slicing (which, of course, feels like work)
  2. Visit Machu Picchu
  3. Take voice lessons
  4. Finish my play and get it published (that’s the one I really want)
  5. Finish my novel that ambitiously hopes to be the first in a series based on my years in show business in Las Vegas surrounded by the “old days” when the mob was here – the Tony Spilotros and Lefty Rosenthals and my subsequent years in casino marketing
  6. Learn to distill my own essential oils and hydrosols
  7. Plan, plant and maintain my dream garden – a sort of hideaway from the world in my own backyard (competes with my play for first place on the list)
  8. Put more time and energy into my essential oil company so it finally takes off
  9. Increase my menagerie to include my two cats and maybe a dog and a bird
  10. Discover a cave
  11. Travel around the U.S., stopping when I feel like it and taking in all the tucked away, hidden spots that are spectacular and only a few people know anything about them
  12. Read all the books and magazines piled all over the house
  13. Become fluent in a foreign language. Although I loved my semester in American Sign Language, it’s also the hardest one I’ve tried to learn but it’s beautiful
  14. Take a pottery class

The bottom line is that I can’t imagine a time when I’d be bored but even though I’m a pretty social person, I’ll need to make an effort to meet people. I won’t be surrounded by conversation all day long any more. I tend to think I’ll like that, but who knows? Maybe that’s the mentality thing I mentioned earlier that eventually gets to you. If you have the answer, please enlighten me. I don’t want to be part of those statistics.

 

Costa Rica Anyone?

Since I’ve lived in apartments for decades and won’t have a huge 401K saved up (savings is a whole other issue), it occurred to me that having rent (or even a mortgage), might drain what I’ve accumulated rather quickly. My thoughts turned to living in another country, one where the cost of living is considerably cheaper. I browsed through lots of issues of International Living magazine, and decided to start early and visit one country each year – Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.

The idea was to put my 401K down to buy a small cottage, but one with land for the garden retreat I covet, and then live off my social security. I have an aromatherapy company that I could put a lot more work into once I retire and pursue some writing goals but I certainly can’t count on that as a steady or even satisfying supplemental income. I have to look at retirement as being solely social security and 401K. Not good. I retired today, after the government takes out its 20% from the 401K, I will have a little over $100,000 and that’s it.

It’s also a little different looking for retirement destinations and homes when planning to buy as a single woman. I have to think a lot about location, not only for being close to healthcare but also for safety.

The next consideration is where to go once in the country when you don’t know anything about it – the weather, food, touristy or liveable, beautiful but isolated, travel methods, etc. For my first destination, Costa Rica, I relied heavily on International Living magazine and Frommer’s Easy Guide to Costa Rica. With limited funds available for the trip – I used my income tax return), clearly the amount of time I stayed was also limited. So the next question is: How do you decide where to go within the country and how do you get from Point A to Point B? Taxi, bus, car, fly? I booked a hotel near San Jose and a car and then got online in search of expats in Costa Rica who might respond and offer some tips. I found a couple relatively near where I would be staying and asked if I could buy them coffee and sit down for an hour or so to ask some questions. Without hesitation, they responded that, yes, they’d be willing to meet and I should have my driver follow the directions they gave me. My driver? I thought it was telling that it never even occurred to them that I might be driving so I decided to do more leg work about driving conditions. I decided to cancel the car and use an in-country company to hire drivers to get me from one location to the next. But that ruled out the trip to meet the expats.

I found that my hotel was not the optimum location for seeing the city so I hired a driver to take me around San Jose. I did some sightseeing and quickly decided I would not be retiring in San Jose. Then I had him drive me around an area that’s supposedly popular with expats and didn’t like it any better. So now what?

I booked a tour to see one of the volcanos, an artisan community and a coffee plantation and discovered that, although I’d figured it would be an interesting day but wouldn’t give me any information I’d need about retiring there, I was wrong. Driving through the local towns and the countryside, gave me a good idea of the types of homes that were common and a sort of “feeling” about the lay of the land and the sort of community where I might want to settle.

There are numerous beaches around  Costa Rica that most expats tend to flock to. Not me. I’m more a mountain, birds, butterflies, babbling creeks type of girl so I had my eye on the mountain areas. I loved Monteverde and its lush hillsides but ultimately figured it wouldn’t work for me. It’s a steep location and the older I get, the harder that would be and a local driver told me they have one pharmacy and one medical office but the nearest hospital was about a 2-hour drive down the mountain. If only I were 20 years younger. I’d jump at the chance to live there. But I’m not 20 years younger and I can’t afford to be blind to the consequences of my choices.

That apparently didn’t apply to my decision to zip line while there. I’ve always thought I might like to do that and so I took the plunge and booked a zip line tour. I was the only person signed up that morning (maybe that should’ve told me something?) and discovered that even though the little practice run at the bottom of the mountain was fun and thrilling, it was an entirely different picture when we took a tram up through the clouds to the top of the mountain where, I discovered, I would need to traverse 7 different lines to get back down to the bottom. Walking out on a platform above the cloud line where it’s completely silent and you can see some sort of village wwaaaaayyyyy down at the bottom is ever so slightly more intimidating than a practice run where you’re at treetop level. Nevertheless, I went for it and it was exhilarating.

I discovered that most of the Costa Ricans I met spoke pretty decent English and although I like the idea of a country with no army, when I asked one of my drivers what would happen if Costa Rica were ever attacked, he laughingly responded, “Hello America.”

So many things to consider: how long would it take to build a cottage if I just bought the land? How long to clear the land? Where are the optimal areas for nice breezes, mild “winters” (a term they don’t really use) and great temperatures? What sorts of insects might take over my home? How will my two cats acclimate? Do I need to learn to drive a stick shift? Am I in a safe area but not close enough to my neighbors that they can see what I’m having for breakfast?

I loved Costa Rica and had a wonderful 5 days but I didn’t want to make a rash decision and anyway, hadn’t thought to hire a realtor to show me around. I figured I’d need more than 5 days for that so might have to return. But that’s how you learn, right? Lots of things I accomplished but lots of things I didn’t.

The next year would be Panama. I’ll tackle that fiasco in the next blog post. In the meantime, I’m no closer to a decision about when or where to retire.

 

 

Retirement Considerations

First and foremost is the decision of when to retire. Here are the financial considerations I’m juggling:

a) If I quit before I turn 66, I won’t be able to collect my maximum social security benefits. I can work part-time, which certainly gives me more freedom, but there’s a limitation in how much I can earn and when I finally reach 66, the social security benefit does not increase to the maximum I would get if I waited. Yes, once I hit 66 I can work as much as I want but then what was the point of retiring?

b) If I quit when I hit the magic 66, I get the full amount of my social security benefits and I can supplement them by working as much or as little as I like. That’s very, very tempting but they make it even harder to quit by offering increased benefits each year I continue up to age 70. Having more to live off of is attractive but do I really want to work until I’m 70? No, not really. And the fact that I work in hospice and see lots of people in their 50s and 60s dying makes me realize I can’t know how much time I’ll have to enjoy that time off so why wait?

Just writing this down makes me realize I’ve already crossed the work-until-you-hit-70 scenario off the slate. Of course, it’s nice to think about other things I might be able to do to earn money – write the play I’ve been dabbling with, pen the series of novels I have in mind, spend more time on my outside company and try to build it up, etc. – but I can’t depend on those outlets. I have to assume I’ll be living off social security and that’s a shock to the system (hash tag: why didn’t I start saving sooner?).

The next post will discuss the challenges of finding a retirement destination and whether or not to purchase a house or condo, rent or buy some land and build a cheaper, smaller place to live.