Settling In – The Good, The Bad and The (Not So) Ugly

Although this blog is titled “2 Kids No Itinerary”, in truth we DID vaguely plan the first six months or so and those plans included staying in one relatively comfortable spot and focusing our energy on learning Spanish. The reasons for this “soft landing” (as I came to describe it) at the start of our travels were many. First, we discovered quickly that it really freaks out your friends and family when you say, “We are going to be traveling for the next 15 months, but we aren’t really sure where”. It quelled everyone’s fears (maybe even ours) to be able to say, “We are planning to stay put for a few months, learn Spanish, and then decide where to go from there”.

My husband and I always had a vague idea of where in South America we wanted to go (relocating our long and initial stop in Central America came later in our planning sessions), but we were also very deliberate in not wanting a firm travel itinerary. This was never intended to be a vacation with tightly scheduled stops. I didn’t want to become the trip dictator, reading out “must sees” from a travel book and forcing my idea of what is important on everyone else in the family. We envisioned the trip as more of a journey, and “journey” implies a slower pace and more of a transformative experience. By staying in one spot for a period of time initially and allowing ourselves a chance to slowly adjust to a completely new environment we thought we might be better able to enjoy (rather than fight against) the culture shock that total immersion inevitably brings about. We also wanted to be really flexible about planning the rest of our trip based on what the kids were interested in then. I’m sure I’m not alone here in saying that my kids acquire and discard new interests and curiosities daily, sometimes hourly. It would have been pointless to craft our plans in Argentina around the Dinosaur Museum for our daughter, when that obsession quickly became “so last week”.

Second, we needed a “soft landing” so that all of us could have a firm grasp on Spanish before we went traipsing off through South America. The whole point of our family journey was to experience a new culture, and frankly, that’s hard to do when you can’t talk to the locals. That motivated me to find a family-friendly language school in a family-friendly town utilizing a budget that was pretty small. “Family-friendly town” by my definition meant a place with access to health care in case one of us got sick or hurt, low crime, reasonable cost of living, decent transportation options, and a chance for all four of us to learn and practice Spanish.

Boquete fit the bill on every level. The language school here (Habla Ya) had great online reviews and classes for my husband and I and our eight year old daughter. While not cheap, the school was more reasonable than a lot of the other places we initially considered going to. They found a preschool nearby in town for us so that my two and a half year old could also learn some Spanish while we were in class. There is a modest health clinic here in town, and a Doctor who makes house calls (and speaks English). There is a hospital less than an hour away for emergencies. Crime here seems pretty limited to theft or property crimes, and we have felt very safe walking around just about everywhere. The bus system, while confusing for us so far, seems pretty expansive, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. The town itself is rather small so we have discovered that we can walk just about anywhere we need to go, unless it is pouring rain (which it does a lot), or we are saddled with heavy grocery bags and/or whiney kids.

So, after these basic and initial observations about our soft landing spot, how have we managed to actually “settle in”? Pretty well, I would argue. Here are some of our more specific adjustments and surprises.

Life in Boquete with a Toddler – Pros and Cons!

I’m putting this first because while he is the smallest member of our family, everything we do seems to revolve around him. Toddlers just have this way of making themselves the center of your universe (and decision making). Pros so far would include how generally friendly Panamanians seem toward kids. No one frowns when you walk into a restaurant with one, or seem offended when they are making a lot of noise (except maybe a few grouchier Gringos here, who seem to think this is a giant American retirement village – but I digress). People have gone out of their way to ask about the kids, engage the kids in conversation, and generally acknowledge that the kids are an equal part of our family unit. Our son especially, who has blond hair and blue eyes, seems to attract a lot of positive attention. Strangers have walked over to us to compliment his eye color and tussle his hair fondly (and not in a weird, creepy way).

Another pro? Daycare prices. My son had never been to a preschool in the States because we really just couldn’t afford it. I’m a big fan of preschools and I think that kids learn so much from other children and early socializing, but it just wasn’t an option for us. The preschools here in town (and I have priced a few) cost roughly $100 a month for full time care. Seriously. That’s $25 a week, people! The preschool my son is enrolled in is a friendly little place just a short walk from downtown. It was recommended by our language school, and seems pretty popular with locals and the few Gringo families in town who have young children. It’s staffed by quite a few nice ladies, and overall we’ve been pretty happy with it. The strict laws and rules that govern daycares in the US obviously don’t apply here, so you might be alarmed by some differences, but generally speaking we are quite satisfied and our son LOVES going to school.

His new preschool - which he seems to love!

His new preschool – which he seems to love!

As for cons, there a few. Diapers are relatively pricey compared to other household items, and I have been vexed by the fact that my son is HUGE compared to Panamanian kids. I have only found one brand of diapers sold in this town which are big enough, and those only come in packages of 16 diapers for nearly $8. Wipes are also kind of expensive, and I have yet to locate any that I like as well as the brand we used at home. We have been working on potty training for many months, but frankly, the prices and the fact that if he gets any bigger he won’t fit into any diapers AT ALL motivates me to speed up the process.

Seat belts – or lack of – are another big con. I realize I seem to harp on this subject in every post (one friend recommended we re-name the blog “Travels with a Carseat”), but it is huge deal for us and very worrisome. We obviously don’t have a car here, and so rely on a combination of walking, taxis, and buses. I prefer walking, and we’ve always done a ton of it as a family even before our travels, but there are times here when it’s just not feasible. We are about to enter the rainy season and nearly every afternoon it rains. Hard. Like most people, I have an umbrella and a raincoat, but we live on a well-used road that only has sidewalks every so often.

Walking home
Walking with your kids along the side of a road without a sidewalk can be dicey at the best of times, but when it is pouring rain and the visibility is quite reduced, well, it’s just not a great choice. We therefore have attempted to utilize buses. There is a bus which runs through town and will stop literally right in front of our door, but there is no schedule and we often find ourselves waiting, waiting, waiting. Standing in the rain at the side of the road for 40 minutes with 4 bags of groceries and a kid who is having a fit is not awesome. I did this last week, and finally out of desperation I hailed a cab. With no seat belts.

Unlike our experience in Panama City, it would seem that roughly 0% of the taxis here in Boquete have seat belts. This is annoying, frustrating, and scary, and so generally I just avoid taxis when I’m with the kids. But there are times when it is not feasible or even safe to walk with the kids on the roads or use a bus, so you are faced with that choice. I’ve noticed that local families who have their own cars also either do not have or do not use seat belts. I watched a young woman get into the front passenger seat of her car with her toddler on her lap the other day while the back seat remained empty and unused. This is one cultural difference I could do without.

The lack of parks or playground here is my final “life with a toddler” con. The central plaza in town is referred to as the “Central Park” here, and we love to go sit down there and people watch, but it’s not what you might think of as a “park”, and it’s definitely not what my kids think of as a “park”.

Central Park Boquete
Central Park Boquete

We are lucky that the yard at the apartment we have rented is beautiful and has a grassy area that the kids can use, but they have continued to ask us to find a park for them that is more like the ones at home. We have tried to locate any playgrounds which might fit the bill, but that just doesn’t seem to be part of “kid life” here. We did find a playground down by the river which we can walk to pretty easily, but it isn’t maintained or even, really, safe. When we first wandered into it, completely by accident one afternoon, my husband muttered that it looked more like a terrorist training camp than a playground. We have started referring to it as “The Playground of Certain Doom”, and for the time being, it’s just going to have to do.

The Playground of Certain Doom

Eating in Boquete

I hesitate to even post about this, because what families eat and our perception of “good food” is so varied and relative. If you look up other people’s posts about food in Boquete, you will either conclude that it is an amazing oasis or that there is nothing worth tasting here. I will start by saying that we are a family of food hippies. At home, organic locally grown unprocessed food graces our table most of the time. We abhor fast food. We avoid meat, usually. I personally cook three meals a day, nearly every day, and always pack lunches when my kids need them. With that in mind, we have been really happy with the food here. Things like fresh fruit and vegetables, local eggs, beans, rice, and fresh baked breads are plentiful and cheap.

About $4 worth of fresh fruits and veggies

About $4 worth of fresh fruits and veggies

We are spending maybe 1/4 of what we spent on food in the US, and at least the fruits have been a major improvement over what we ever got at home. We have been eating things like pineapples, avocados, and mangos daily because they are so delicious and cheap! The rum is also (fortunately/unfortunately) very good and inexpensive. Coffee is, of course, amazing, and actually kind of expensive. We are from Wisconsin, so I will just say that the cheese is predictably disappointing to us (it is wherever we go, though) – can’t be helped.

We have sampled from a few restaurants, and have been impressed with the fresh fish. Prices for eating out are just slightly cheaper than home, so we haven’t been doing too much of it (kids put a damper on that as well). The fairly large Gringo population has contributed to Boquete’s food scene with their own restaurants, some artisan bread bakers (who are wonderful), and a farmer’s market every Tuesday. There, we have found things like fresh tofu, yogurts, cream cheeses, wines, salsas, and lettuce, which we haven’t seen much of in the stores.

Overall, we have “settled in” with the food in that we have easily located the stuff we like to eat and it has been cheap, but what I really would like is to learn how to make Panamanian dishes. I am on the lookout for a cooking class, or at least someone who is willing to take me under their wing and teach me the basics. If anyone knows of anyone locally – please let me know!

The Gringo Population

It almost goes without saying when discussing Boquete, now one of the most popular retirement spots in the world for American expats, but there are lots of foreigners here. Mostly Americans and Canadians, but also a fairly large group of Europeans, and people from other Central and South American countries. Foreigners make up roughly 20% of the resident population here. Boquete is a small town, so us Gringos stand out, and that is both good and bad.

On the plus side, we almost never have to tell taxi drivers where we live now (a difficult thing because we don’t actually have addresses here) since they all seem to have either dropped us off at home themselves, or have heard from other drivers where we live. The bus drivers also know us now, and almost always honk when driving past us to make sure we don’t need a ride (we often do). I think because we have children – once again setting us apart from the “typical American” retiree here in town, and our kids are really light in coloring, we stand out more than most Gringos.

Surprisingly, and fortunately in my opinion, most of the locals do not speak English. We are using Spanish everywhere, even in the restaurants owned by Gringos, because most waiters, clerks, etc.. do not speak English. Despite being able to hear English constantly here because of the number of foreigners talking to one another, you can still go about your day practicing Spanish as if you are in a Panamanian town, because, you are! I will also add that the locals have been very patient with us and our learning of their language. It makes me wonder how people from my own country would react if their small town were to be adopted by a large group of foreigners who arrived, mostly speaking very little English, and driving up real estate prices beyond the reach of locals?

The streets of Boquete

Honking in Boquete

A weird thing to discuss, no? This was one of the first things that struck us as different here. At home in the States, I rarely honk. Maybe if someone cuts me off, or does something overtly dangerous, I might give a honk, but this is rare, like maybe a once or twice a year thing.

Here, honking is just part of the whole driving experience. I’m not even sure that someone would dare drive in this town if by chance their car did not have a horn. This isn’t because the drivers of Boquete are rude or aggressive drivers (New York this is not), but because honking seems to be a language all its own conveying a myriad of different messages. I haven’t actually learned all of the intricacies yet, but here’s what I’ve figured out so far.

If you are a driver in Boquete, you MUST honk if…

You spot your neighbor, or your friend, or your friend’s friend.
You aren’t planning on stopping at that stop sign you are about to pass.
You wonder if these people want to ride in your taxi?
You aren’t going to stop for that person backing up into traffic.
You ARE going to stop for that person backing up into traffic.
You are saying hi, even though you have never met that person in your life.
You don’t want that pedestrian to walk in front of you.
You DO want that pedestrian to walk in front of you.
You are going to pass through this busy intersection without yielding to traffic.
You cannot believe that guy just passed through the intersection without yielding to you.
You see a cute girl.
You have pineapples for sale from your truck, and you want to make sure everyone see them.
Etc….

My husband swears that he has sort of figured out the “language” of honking here, meaning three short honks for a “hi”, one for a “are you kidding me?!”, two for “hey, look over here!”, but I’m not convinced. If I can get a local to explain it to me, I’ll update here.

One of our buses that we often take

So, to summarize, we are settling in just fine, but Boquete still manages to make us laugh everyday. In our family, that’s a good thing!

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One thought on “Settling In – The Good, The Bad and The (Not So) Ugly

  1. Hi, Thanks so much for sending your blog to me! I am looking forward to following your adventures! I am glad that you are settling into your new town. Have lots of fun!
    Enjoy,
    Mrs. Bartels

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