Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bloom Off the Rose

We moved to Chiriquí four years ago, in the middle of what I like to think of as the second wave of gringo immigration to the area. The first stage included all those who came on a wing and a prayer, willing to live really simply because for various reasons they wanted to live in the tropics, probably the stereotypical misfits. Also included those who immigrated, bought land and started cattle or coffee businesses, for example. A few others. We have a few here in Potrerillos who have been here more than 10 years. Land was cheap, life was pretty basic, nobody had ever even heard of Potrerillos, Boquete was just a small pueblo in a rural area whose major claim to fame was coffee and one of Noriega's homes. I wish I had a dollar (inflation being what it is) for every house we were shown that Noriega was supposed to have owned.

Then came the 2nd wave, which as far as I can tell started about 5 years ago or so. Retirees and others who were fed up with the US for wildly different reasons and wanted out, a smattering of Europeans and Canadians, others. Land prices were still low although climbing, especially in Boquete. International Living "discovered" Panama. Sam Taliaferro had just begun developing Valle Escondido. There was exactly one Internet forum about Panama, Viviendo en Panamá. Real estate speculators began buying up land in Boquete at dirt cheap prices and were just starting to roll it over. I know of land near friends of our in Jaramillo Central, where speculators bought for $.50/meter who then turned around and sold it for the ridiculous price of $2.00/meter. We were absolutely scandalized at the greed. Ah, innocence.

Then came the third wave, people with a great deal of money from inflated house sales in the US. We started seeing "large" houses, costing--heaven preserve us--$125,000 to build. Having just built our own for about 25% of that price, we couldn't even imagine how anyone could spend that much money on a house here in rural Chiriquí. We found out some of the details and marveled at the need for ostentation.

We watched in amazement as the really wealthy started moving in. We watched as Boquete converted from a more or less shabby but real Panamanian town into what it is now. Having seen such transformations where I lived in western Washington, just north of Seattle, all I could do was fervently thank whatever gods were listening that we lived in this humble little valley with no mountain views and no cachet as THE "smart" place to live.

Real estate hype segued into hysteria, land prices skyrocketed to $80/meter and more, Internet forums erupted full blown for various areas in Chiriqui, Boquete.org started up (a really useful forum, by the way, for information), other lists emerged--and we began to hear stories.

We are really a modern version of hermits. Our lives are centered on our land, our animals, and living quietly. We're not terribly social--for one thing, we don't have a lot of free time and what we do have, I prefer to spend reading, taking pictures or videos of our lives. We're fairly well integrated, for gringos, into the pueblo life--we have Panamanian friends who don't speak English, attend Mass in Potrerillos, for example.

As a result, we really are about the last ones to know what's going on. So if we're hearing stories, it has to be a full-blown movement.

Now, I don't know a thing about David. I discount the Boquete Rumor Mill, which is the worst and most inaccurate I've ever known, and I've lived in small towns for most of my adult life. I'm talking about verifiable stuff, such as what we hear from our Panamanian friends and from reliable ex-pats. What we hear is mostly about Boquete and here in Potrerillos.

I could write screens worth of stories coming from the most naive people I've ever heard of in my life who moved here thinking they were entering Eden, and forgot that even Paradise had a serpent. People who didn't lock doors, who didn't have verjas or puertas (I know someone who didn't do it because he didn't want to live in a prison-like atmosphere--but he does have razor wire mounted on his fence after being robbed three times), who fell for outrageous scams, who were indignant because they couldn't find cheap laborers who spoke English (duh!), who bought land that had no water access, etc., etc. and so forth. They came because they thought they were getting the US on the cheap and surprise, surprise, they wound up in a foreign country! Amazing. They came during the drought season, bought land, moved--and then discovered the reason why there's a tropical jungle in these parts--it's called rain, lots of it. I know. Exactly the same thing happened in the Seattle area during that land boom. Actually the climate here is a good deal like western Washington except the rain is a lot warmer and I'm cutting grass or weed eating nearly all year round.

Things get done here in Panama, but so much more slowly. You have to have patience, NOT an American cultural characteristic. Panama is a typical "developing" country, just like Brasil, where I've spent a good deal of time. Superficially, it looks the same as the US--maybe a little shabbier but that's "cute"--you can email your friends back in the US about it what an exotic place you live in--but it's not the same.

For example, another friend who gave us invaluable advice when we first moved here described the people in the area as being one generation removed from the Stone Age, when the latest technological advance was the wheelbarrow. He's not being disrespectful at all--has a Panamanian wife, has lived here for 15 years or so and loves the country and its people. It's a useful analogy.

When we first moved here, there was literally no traffic on the carretera from Dolega to Potrerillos except buses and a few produce trucks. Plenty of times we drove from Dolega to Potrerillos and saw not one other vehicle.

While the traffic on the road to Potrerillos is still not like that on the road from Dolega to Boquete, there are quite a few new cars on the road, and they're being driven primarily by Panamanians, most of whom, quite frankly, do not know how to drive. sure, they can manipulate a car more or less but they have not grown up with the automobile the way the rest of us have in the "developed" countries. Potrerillos, for example, didn't even have a paved highway until about 15 years or so ago. There was a railroad, a story in itself, but you went to David on horseback or driving a wagon. The woman who sold us our land, a Panamanian who has lived in the area for 30 years, has lots of colorful stories.

As a result, most Panamanians don't understand that you can't stop a car instantaneously, that you really have to look where you're going, that automobiles are moving infinitely faster than a horse or bicycle, and that driving is not really a macho game of chicken. I'm generalizing, of course. We have middle-class Panamanian friends who are even more careful than we are.

Just try to get a weed eater fixed. For that matter, find a worker who knows how to operate one without damaging it in some fashion or another. It's symptomatic of what's underneath the veneer.

Panamanian culture is like other cultures in Latin America. Family based and strangers better watch out. It's called "playing the game", and since I don't want to get into trouble, really, I won't be too blunt about it. However, those of us who have tried to deal outside the large stores, etc., know perfectly well what I'm talking about. You have to watch out in everything, from land purchases through construction through dealing with tallers (workshops) through hiring people to work for you. I resign myself to being cheated although the percentage is decreasing as time goes on, as we're better known and better accepted in the area, and as I know what really should be the prices and where the worst nidos de ladrones really are. We take precautions, major ones, against theft (although Panamanians are children at it compared to Brasilians).

You have to accept this and much more. You have to. And if you don't--as many can't--then don't come here. Or move back. If you can. As many people are doing or trying to do but can't because there are so few coming in to the country now due to the housing crisis that is occurring in Europe as well as the US. I don't know what the return rate is, but I do know of people who have moved to other Latin American countries (going to be so much better, so much different, you know) or back to the US. I personally know of three people in this valley who are desperate to get out of the country--they hate the realities of Panama and can't stand Panamanian culture--but who are having a hard time because they can't sell their houses.

I know this sounds harsh but it's a face of reality. Me, I would rather die than move back to the US. In fact, I do intend to live the rest of my life here. Yes, I get frustrated from time to time, but frankly, I used to be frustrated nearly all the time in the US. And Panamanians get frustrated with the system, too. But I love it here. I really like the people--although I absolutely do NOT romanticize them--I enjoy the culture, and I love my home.

But I don't kid myself about the price. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. For me, however, the price is ridiculously low.


Don Ray said...

Well done and balanced picture of Chiriquí.

La Gringa said...

What an excellent article. As Don Ray said, well balanced. Central America is not for everyone, and it's hard, even when you do love it overall.