Panama – Part III

Boquete

Keep in mind that this little Panamanian adventure was taken when I was 63 years old, traveling alone and in search of a retirement location that would be more affordable when living off nothing but social security. The goal was to cash out my 401K, use it to purchase a small cottage with a backyard suited for establishing a lush garden to revel in on a daily basis and yet still be close to decent medical care.

So I drove from David, Panama to Boquete, where the instructions were to turn left just past the bankĀ  and before the town square as I was descending into the valley. Now really, how could that go wrong? However, as you can see from the photo above, you can’t miss the fact that you’re traveling down into a valley. And here was the town square:

boquete-town-square-3-7-2016-2-50-58-pm

I quickly found my host’s house and settled into the one-room casita in the backyard – right next to a babbling brook that attracted all sorts of birds throughout my stay. It was an idyllic setting: perfect temperatures in the day – t-shirts, sweat pants and sneakers – but cold enough at night to sleep with the window open and a blanket pulled up under my chin. The morning bird calls would wake me and I’d make a cup of coffee and sit outside the front door and watch the resident creatures come to life and dip in and out of the backyard.

Cottage

The first thing I noticed was that the town seemed to be more expats than locals and that most of them made little or no effort to talk to the locals (at least that I could see). I didn’t like that. My stay overlapped a three-day celebration on the founding on Boquete and there were “parades” daily. I use that term loosely because the first one was a constant stream of men on horseback, interspersed by pickup trucks with women freely pouring booze into plastic cups for anyone who walked up to them as they passed by. I watched one horse, made to lift his knees and prance down the street, foaming at the mouth and no none seemed to mind a bit. These same horses paraded around in a giant square for the better part of 5 hours. I sort of wished we’d made the rider prance around like that for hours with no water and see how much he liked it. And then there was the public drunkenness. When I returned to my casita, the owner asked about my day and when I told her the public drunkenness concerned me, she responded, “Well, there is that.” Hmmm. How safe would a lone foreigner be in the city with drunken men routinely tottering around the streets?

I took a tour of a coffee plantation, enjoyed that and booked a tour that only had three of us and a guide, walking uphill in the forest in a light drizzle for the better part of two hours. They may have seen this tour as “an easy uphill walk” but as a senior, there were times when I thought that if we didn’t stop for breath, I wouldn’t have any left.

I used my time in Boquete to walk some of the back streets to see what the houses looked like and how the locals lived. The houses were dilapidated but the locals were friendly. I also asked my host lots of questions. I thought maybe I could make herbal and essential oil products from my company, Scentsibility, and sell them but her response was, “Who’s going to buy them?” When I said “hopefully the locals,” she responded, “They grow herbs in their backyards and wouldn’t have the money to buy products.” She suggested I check out the weekly open market to check out the competition and so I did.

boquete-tuesday-market

I was mostly struck by the fact that this was the height of entertainment for the locals. There were no department stores, no big grocery stores, no library that I could see, and television programs in Spanish. I started to realize that although this would be wonderful for about a month, then what? I found the local doctor’s office and decided I’d need to head to David or even back to Panama City for health care and that would certainly not be convenient.

I talked about buying a small house and my host discouraged it. She (as well as all the expats I talked to) said I should definitely rent for six months to a year before settling there. That would mean I’d be depleting my funds for a purchase. She added further fuel to my thoughts by asking me who would buy my little cottage if I decided after a year or so to leave? The locals couldn’t afford it and the expats tended to band together in gated communities on the outskirts of town so they wouldn’t buy it.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Boquete, I realized that I probably would not want to settle there. So I flew back to Panama City for my last night’s stay in the country and was picked up by my trusty driver, Sinar (see Part I).

So it appears I’m back to square one – where to go and how to live on social security.

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.

1732479-david-locator-map

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.

gran-hotel-nacional

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.