Driving around town the other day, (with two smelly tanks of gasoline in the back of my car, yuck!), I was navigating the traffic in the tight little intersection where the gas station is located. As I sat at the stop sign waiting for my turn I was thinking about this little town and about how much I’ve grown accustomed to the rythym of how things work here. We’ve been living in this beautiful little mountain town for nearly three years already! Sheesh! How the heck does time fly by so darn fast? It seems like it wasnt all that long ago when I was writing about feeling a little bit of culture shock living in Panama. I remember feeling sorta outside myself for a little while in the early days of my move. I was in such uncharted territory and feeling out of place.
My entire life I had only ever lived in Northern California. Unlike so many others who have moved a lot in their lifetimes, I never had the opportunity to move someplace new. I never had to adjust to finding my way around a new town, never experienced the unfamiliar feeling of being a total stranger in a place that I called ‘home’. Before I made the move to Boquete I had done my fair share of traveling and seeing the world, so being in an unfamiliar place while touring around was always really exciting and fun. I loved the thrill of exploring a new place and figuring out where to eat, where to stay and where to shop. It’s always an adrenalin rush when first arriving in a new country and all the sights and sounds even the smells, language and customs are totally different from what your used to from home.
Its an alltogether different feeling when you decide to make a foreign place your ‘home’ and not just a vacation destination. For me, when I started my new life here in Boquete, Panama it was an adjustment the likes of which I had never experienced before. It was a gigantic mix of emotions for me. Some days I was thrilled beyond belief with each new experience. Then there were the days when I just craved ‘familiar’ and mourned all I had left behind. And there really wasn’t much at all that felt ‘familiar’ here. Well, aside from Scott and the cats, who we brought with us. Every single thing about this new home was so very different and much of it totally foreign. The language, the customs, the food, the grocery stores, the weather, the landscape, driving, banking, I had wanted change….well, I got change in epic proportions!
In the begining I remember having days when I felt so free and so energized, ready to start the day and anxious to learn what new adventure I’d face that day. Then there were days when I felt sad and frustrated and missed the people and all that was familiar from my former life. I can remember days when I felt exhausted by the constant input of new information. Of always trying to have a smile on my face as I walked through town. And trying not to be an ‘ugly American’ while shopping in the market. Or just trying to figure out how to be polite or to communicate my needs or to even say ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ when inadvertently walking into someone. Ugh!
I think my lack of having any ability to express myself was the single most frustrating part of my early days of living here. I always love to connect with people around me, wherever I am. For me, being able to say a kind word or just make a witty comment to anyone who I have an opportunity to chat with gives me great pleasure. It’s my thing! Not being able to do these things made me feel so lonely and so ‘un-me’. Not seeing any familiar faces when I was out and about was isolating but also served as strong motivation to learn to communicate.
I can remember in my early days of living here there were times when I would dread going almost anywhere. But I took that dread and I forced myself to do things that were hard and uncomfortable. I hated every minute of it many days, but I knew in the end doing this was making me more comfortable with my new surroundings. I remember feeling so drained at the end of many of those early days, even though It seemed as though I hadnt really done much at all! Sheesh! In my former life I used to do so much more in any given day, but these days were feeling draining in a different way. I was on a steep learning curve as I was slowly adapting to my new surroundings with every move I made throughout each day. Learning how to get places, how to drive, where to buy certain things I needed, how to ask for help, where the banks were and what the processes are here in the bank, where to buy gas, where to find the best produce, how to ask the pharmacist for a particular medicne, how to get a cell phone account, get my ipad hooked up with a data plan, what the customs were in terms of tipping, turns out tipping the bag boy at the local grocery store and the attendant at the gas staton is customary.
My gosh, I remember a couple of times at the grocery store while doing my shopping in the morning the security guard come over to the checkout and he took my wine away! He and the teller tried to explain something to me (in rapid Spanish), and I smiled and tried to decipher what was being said, but, of course I got nothing! And then the next week the same thing happened again….that darn security guard walked over and took my wine again! Humph! It took me awhile to understand that they have a law that alcohol is not sold until a particular time, I was trying to purchase it too early in the day. OKAY! well, now I get it! Until I understood what was going on I was always kinda nervous about buying wine from the grocery store. Oh, and there was the time that the teller and the bag boy tried to stop me from lifting one of those huge water jugs out of my cart, apparently I didnt need to do that, I spied some eye rolling going on between those two! Darn it! Dumb Gringa!
I made a lot of silly mistakes and I gotta admit I still occasionally do my fair share of dumb things. But now I’ve noticed a shift in how I feel about my new home here in Boquete. As I was saying at the begining, I’ve been noticing lately that “I Get It”…I have a much better feel or understanding about the ebb and flow of how this place works. Does that make sense? I think what I’m attempting to process with this post is that I’m noticing a change in me. Thankfully after nearly three years of living here in Boquete its really starting to feel much more like home.
One thing I’m really enjoying is that I’m beginning to recognize faces that I see everyday . People wave or smile as I make my way around town. Scott and I both have become familiar to our neighbors. When we drive into town people wave and smile as we pass by. I occasionally offer a ride to Panamanians who I know, like Edgar, who used to work for us. We chat about the day, his job, his kids and his wife then as he gets out of the car he always tells me to say hello to Scott. Or my neighbor Alejandro , who is the father of the kids who I have become good friends with. He’s always very appreciative of the ride, asking me to wait as he runs into his house to bring me Avocados as a thank you. So sweet. Then there is the ‘watchy-man’..(this is what they call a care taker or security guard ) , of our other neighbors, Orlando is his name. This guy is a chatty one! I’ve given him rides into town before and he’s all smiles and chatty chatty chatty alllllllll the way down the hill. I think he knows I don’t really understand everything he says, but it doesn’t stop him, he is so freakin’ friendly and happy….or, shrug, he could just be drunk,Hah! I’m going’ with happy. One time I was walking Scruffy and Orlando called my name and came walking over to me with a paper plate outstretched to me , and a big smile on his face. He had grilled me a hot dog, which was what he had made himself for dinner….so sweet. With a big smile he handed it to me, I accepted this generosity with much grace. This was a touching expression of such kindness, and made me feel so happy. I’m constantly blown away by the generosity and kindness of so many people here in Panama. Yes, there are some that are not so kind, but isnt that the way it is anywhere in the world? I much prefer to focus my thoughts on the good people who brighten my life here and who make me feel glad to call this place my home.
As I drive up and down the hill every day at the same time I often pass the same farmers and neighbors each day, and they know me and always smile and wave to me as I go by. We also often see the delivery guys from Ivan, our local construction material store, they know us well and always honk or flash their lights at us as a hello, and wave with smiles on their faces. The Dump truck driver , Rigoberto, who has saved us so many trips up this hill by delivering sand and dirt, he’s so friendly and always gives us a honk and a smile. Everyday I pass by groups of kids playing soccer in the road, they know me and they wave and smile as they step aside and wait for me to pass.
I can really feel myself settling into life here in Panama. I can feel myself becoming more accustomed to how they do things here . I no longer feel tears beginning to well up in my eyes as I navigate unfamiliar territory. I know how to make myself understood so much better than I ever did when I first moved here. As I build relationships with my neighbors and other Panamanians around me I feel more and more like this is home. I know I’ll always be a foreigner, but I’m slowly beginning to have a small sense of belonging and I’m settling into this life here in this little mountain town. I think the single most important thing for me has been learning to speak and understand Spanish. In my opinion its crucial to be able to connect with those around you if you really want to feel like you belong. I never wanted to move to Panama only to socialize with other English speaking people. I always knew I would not feel like I had truly integrated into my new home until I could express myself to my neighbors and to the local people. My Spanish speaking skills are still pathetic, and I have many many years of study to go until I have mastered the language. But, I feel so good about where I’m at with my learning and I know the people I attempt to speak with , appreciate my attempt to learn their language.
I bet every expat who has made a move such as this can relate to this feeling or realization when you finally feel like you ‘get’ it. You look around you and begin to realize that everything isnt so foreign anymore and that you’ve finally managed to feel like your home. The timing for feeling this sense of having adapted to your new home is different for everyone, depending on so many different variables. I bet if you’ve moved around a lot in your lifetime or if you have a propensity for language or have studied a language in your life before your relocation it must be so much different and maybe not nearly as discombobulating as this transition has been for me. All this to say, I love the life Scott and I have managed to carve out of this wonderful community here in Boquete. I feel myself settling into all that was so new and different three short years ago. Those terrible feelings of being untethered and of feeling like I’m lost in a sea of strangeness has gone away. The passing of time and a strong desire to integrate myself into our new community as well as a concerted effort to learn the language and customs here have helped to give me a comforting sense of belonging.