Tropical storms, mosquitoes, power cuts and gun wielding teenagers, not exactly the makings of a tourist brochure, nor what immediately springs to mind when you think about the expat life. Imagine being given a weeks notice that you are about to move your family from Europe to Central America, no one speaks a word in your native tongue, you are in fact living over an hour from the nearest capital city with a new baby to care for and no support network.
Catherine and her husband Ivo were thrown into this situation not long after their daughter Olivia was born in 2010 when his employer posted him to Colon, Panama. Catherine (C) shares their unique expatriate experience with Our Globetrotters (BG).
BG: What is your background and how did you end up in Panama?
C: I met my now husband when we were both working in Dubai. I am originally from England and he is from Belgium. He was working for a large infrastructure company and when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, we had to leave Dubai in a hurry. We had a very difficult 18-month posting in Romania where my first daughter was born so we were very pleased to be offered another posting, this time in Oman, but there was an unexpected change of plans last-minute and we were shifted instead to Panama with our four-month old daughter.
BG: What were your first impressions on arriving?
C: The countryside was very beautiful, very green from all the rain but there was clearly a lot of poverty and crime. The houses were run down and it looked like a shanty town. Our new home was not in Panama City but the Caribbean coastal town of Colon, at the entrance to the Panama Canal.
We did not receive any cultural training or immersion, not even a small handbook or guide on getting settled so there was a big culture shock when we first moved. We did not speak a word of Spanish and there were was a prevalence of crime and violence around the city which was quite shocking and hard to get used to.
C: After a long hotel stay waiting for our goods to arrive by ship and problems looking for housing, we finally moved into a villa inside a gated compound with an armed guard. We felt safe in our home but there were a lot of security measures. There were no other British families to be found in Colon but we did make friends with some other families from Belgium.
Due to safety concerns there were only limited parts of town we could go to and shops and restaurants available. There was one Blockbuster store, I think by the time we left we had rented every DVD they had.
We had a local lady do our housekeeping twice a week; she would sometimes assist with child minding as well. If she was with us we could go to certain parts of town but otherwise it simply wasn’t safe to be out.
BG: What facilities and activities were available for young children?
C: Colon had no parks, no soft plays, not even toddler classes or playgroups; it is not a city designed for families whatsoever. Twice a week I would make the one hour and 15 minute drive to Panama City to join a 30 minute music class frequented by the nannies of Panama City’s elite, there was no socializing to be had with other mums.
To help Olivia socialise, at 18 months old we enrolled her in what was considered an international nursery. It was not the standard you would like, cramped and they only spoke Spanish (she was learning English and Dutch at home). The children all had to wear a uniform, however the reason for this was to make sure the children had clean clothes on every day, so each day the uniform colour was different. It was far from ideal but the only available option for her meet other children.
I wasn’t terribly creative so to keep Olivia busy at home I would look up a lot of crafty activities on the Internet for us to do, but it was very lonely and isolated.
BG: What can you tell us about health and education in Panama?
C: All the doctors are trained in the U.S. The locals are fastidious about seeing a doctor for everything and put a lot of faith in everything they are told, but I feared they were over prescribing. As a new mum I had to make a lot of judgments whether it was appropriate to give medicines or not; being unable to speak much Spanish also did not help. In addition my housekeeper was always very persistent in trying to give my daughter tonics to ‘make her better’ – these politely ended up down the drain!
When I feel pregnant with my second child the doctors always wanted to take blood tests, every 4 weeks. They used it as a cash cow as they knew we were able to pay and had medical coverage but seemed very unnecessary.
As for schooling, in Colon there was only one English-speaking international school but even then it was really Spanglish that was spoken, not pure English. There were American school options in Panama City and a British curriculum school was due to open. Children are expected to be in school until age 18 and parents want better for their children, but in reality a lot of them just hope their children will survive the teenage years and not get pulled into crime and violence.
BG: What were the working hours and lifestyle like?
C: Ivo worked 5.5 days a week, 12 hour days. I spent a lot of time at home alone with the baby and there really wasn’t much for us to do. On weekends we would go and watch ships come through the Panama Canal but the novelty does wear off and this became boring. We would try to do things with the few Belgium families we knew.
Religion is a very big part of their lives, they are a devoutly Catholic society with Easter particularly being very important to them; we did not attend church but sometimes it was just easier to say that we did. They are a very proud country too; Independence Day is a big event for them with lots of parades and marching bands. (BG – November is known as Independence month with four big celebrations including independence from Columbia – 3 November – and Independence from Spain – 28 November)
Driving was difficult but necessary, you certainly wouldn’t walk around the streets and risk getting mugged and driving to Panama City for food and activities was necessary, the condition of the roads was dreadful though, a lot of damage from the rain and no one would use indicators making it quite hazardous.
We had to learn basic Spanish pretty quickly in order to get by day-to-day life. We also joined a club with a pool which was a lifesaver, we spent a lot of time there.
BG: Tell us more about local families? Are there any differences in how they raise their children?
C: The Panamanian people tend to live more with their extended families. It was quite common for the grandmother to raise the grandchildren while the parents worked.
They all thought our daughter was a boy because I hadn’t had her ears pierced. Even if I dressed her in pink they couldn’t tell she was a girl. The locals also found it very unusual that I did not put shoes on my baby, well before she was walking. Even a six-day old newborn we saw with shoes!
We also learnt that toys hit the shelves only once a year in September. If you wanted to buy presents for Christmas and birthdays, do it straight away as by mid-November the shipments have already sold out, we learnt this the hard way.
BG: What did you like about the posting?
C: Not a lot!! It was better than living in Romania but only just. It rained a lot, black-outs were frequent and there was nothing really for families to do.
On the plus side they had good coffee, lovely beaches and national parks, rain forests which they work hard to protect and you are near to visit Costa Rica. The canal is interesting and will draw tourists, but there are always safety concerns, tropical conditions to deal with, insects, snakes, and a lack of appropriate schooling opportunities.
We felt alone and isolated. We would fly home twice a year but there was an eight-hour time difference back to the UK and no direct flights so it took over 12 hours to get home twice a year, the flights were a killer and horrendous jet lag would follow.
BG: You left Panama in 2012, what ultimately drove this decision?
C: It was time for family to come first. Certain expat roles are fine if you don’t have family; there is good money to be made and adventure, but once children are in the mix it’s a different ball game. There are certain things you could put up with if you are travelling on your own, but your children’s health and safety have to take priority.
We had the choice of moving to Panama City or Ivo seeking a new job in another country. I was pregnant with my second child at this stage which also weighed heavily on the decision. We missed our time in the Middle East so ultimately made the move to Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. with a new employer, our lifestyle now is significantly different.
BG: What advice could you give to any families looking at moving to Panama?
C: Live in Panama City if possible rather than Colon! There are more family friendly activities available and access to American branded foods and restaurants, at a cost. Also if your children are school age it might be easier to meet other parents. Learning Spanish before you arrive would also be hugely beneficial. We were paid well but there was no amount of money that could improve the lifestyle.
Many thanks to Catherine for sharing her story with Our Globetrotters.
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