Noisette always accuses me of reading too much. I accuse him of reading too little. And yet it is he who often comes across exquisite nuggets of writing about life or travel overseas.
So it was with “A Move to Panama” in The Wall Street Journal on December 1.
At first, I wasn’t sure why I should read it. Panama isn’t one of the countries on my radar. If there is a country we’ve got our eyes on in terms of retiring, as the writer of this article has done in Boquete, a small rural Panamanian town almost equidistant between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it is South Africa. Or perhaps even Botswana or Namibia.
But then I was struck by the similarities. He and his wife had been looking at countries in search of “a simpler life” and were immediately captivated by Boquete on a two-week vacation: “The weather is ideal; the countryside has spectacular views; expenses are moderate; and Panamanians are gracious and tolerant of outsiders. Some call this paradise.”
I don’t think many would call South Africa a paradise, mainly due to its persistently high crime statistics. And one could argue that not all outsiders are tolerated, given some of the nasty excesses of xenophobia that occasionally flare up across the land (though of course never directed at us). But weather and countryside do come close to my definition of paradise, as does the part about the simpler life.
Why does the promise of a simpler life sound so alluring? Are our Western lives so complicated?
At first glance, you’d rather think the opposite. I mean, where else but the U.S. can I sit in my central-heated and perfectly comfortable home all morning, order everything that I need by button-click from Amazon (and I do mean, everything!), drive a short distance (without encountering any broken traffic lights, nor much traffic) to the library to pick up my pre-ordered books that I get to read for absolutely free, and pick up the mail at the end of the driveway which arrives automatically and without fail every day of the week?
Complicated my life is not. And yet we seem to all yearn for something simpler, easier, more down to basics.
I think it has to do solely with pace. By streamlining processes, by building better infrastructure, by making everything convenient, we’ve gotten so good at getting stuff done that we are constantly adding more stuff to our list. The more we accomplish, the more we want to tackle. It’s like a drug that stimulates you for a short while and then burns you out.
Africa, and apparently, Panama, are an antidote to that. It’s like going cold turkey on your workaholic ways. At first this can be extremely uncomfortable. The writer of the Panama article describes it this way: “If you’re thinking about a move to Latin America, it’s best to leave type-A expectations at home… The dictionary translates the Spanish word mañana to mean tomorrow; here they translate it to mean not now, but sometime in the indefinite future. That is a cultural reality and, for some expats, a difficult transition.”
Ha! I have just such a word (2 words, actually) for “not now but sometime in the indefinite future.” You can read all about it in “Just Now” or “Now Now”?, one of my early blog entries on Joburg Expat. And I’ve also written about the need to shed your type-A personality in Welcome to Type-A Remedial School, just as above writer recommends. Surprisingly, it often turns out we don’t grudgingly surrender it as much as willingly embrace a life freed from it. “Living in Africa,” I wrote, “will infuse you with a healthy dose of humor, if you’ll only allow it. You will laugh about things you used to frown at, you will forgive where you used to hold a grudge, and you will find beauty in everything, from the toothless smile of the street vendor to the fat bum on the sidewalk in front of you blocking the way.”
In short, a simpler life.
All you need is patience and an open mind, and the reward might be something close to paradise.
Maybe this is true wherever you might live?