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ten things i learned in panama.

November 21, 2011

1. A few bugs in your cereal are nothing to worry about.

If you wake up one morning and find that seemingly overnight your tightly packed bag of sugar has miraculously been penetrated by a colony of ants and has since become their new breeding ground, it’s probably time to cut your losses and toss it; however, if you find the a couple of them crawling on and around your $7 box of Froot Loops, you can breathe a sigh of relief and reach for the milk. So literally applied to food in Panama, this idea can also be aptly transferred to representing lifestyle changes that I forced myself to make while living in Bocas.

Let’s face it: I’m a total control freak. Perhaps not so intensely as some people, but I admit that I frequently find it hard to keep from berating the Subway sandwich maker as he/she so carelessly crafts what could be a perfectly delicious lunch. […and that’s just one illustration!] In traveling to Panama though, I quickly found that I didn’t have the time or energy to freak out over everything: noisy sleeping situations, lost shoes, constantly being sweaty, the same spatula being used on the vegetables and [gasp!] chicken on the grill and began to see the “big picture”. Whenever I felt my internal frustrations nearing eruption I would take a deep breath and remind myself that I lived in a tropical paradise—a very clear step up from the misery of the desk job I previously held.*


2. Trust yourself, take care of yourself and have faith in the universe.

When you’re adventuring thousands of miles from any sort of familiarity, these are three rules to live by. Take care of yourself by eating fruits and vegetables even if they cost more than fried patacones, wear sunscreen, get some sleep every once in a while and try not to be a total jack*ss while out drinking or you might land yourself in an underfunded hospital or foreign jail—wahoo?! As a solo traveler, you’re all you’ve got! [She exclaimed.] Despite all the friends you’re making, when your body or mind takes a spill, you can’t necessarily assume you and your friends will still be traveling the same path and that they’ll able to run to the store for that Gatorade or Cipro that you desperately need.

When at home, keep a focus on revitalizing yourself through nutritious food, adequate sleep and EXERCISE. I let work run me into the ground, which is easy to do in the DC area. So caught up in my financial needs, I completely disregarded that my body and brain were calling out for attention. If your inner voice throws up a red flag, don’t let these cries go unanswered.

Additionally, let universal energies and that nagging feeling in your gut tag team as your guide. Maybe your body isn’t calling out for exercise, but you feel compelled to capitalize on an opportunity that crosses your path.


Whatever it is, do it.** Since quitting my job I’ve become a big believer in the universe sending us messages, but we have to be open to these messages and ready to receive them. I had felt the pull in the past, but it wasn’t until May when I received a metaphorical smack in the face that I really started listening and appreciating what I was being told to do.

3. Scuba divers have more fun than normal people.

This one is really quite simple: scuba diving is fahhhking awesome. There’s a whole entire world beneath the sea just waiting to be explored and discovered, and if you dig at all on nature, it’s a world you definitely don’t want to miss. With that said, the people who seem drawn to diving are perhaps a bit competitive and sometimes quite arrogant, but overall total gems—they seem to share an appreciation for life and learning and seek to inspire others to find that same passion in the underwater world. Think of diving and divers as the six-year-old backyard explorers—totally giddy on the discovery of a new secret hideout.


4. Love as hard as you can.

Months ago a friend told me that this is what life’s about: loving as hard as you can with the time that you are given. Since that conversation, the phrase has struck a chord in my life and inspired me to love with my whole heart, everyone, every place, everything, all of the time. And so far on this path I have found that staying present and opening one’s self to experience brings contentedness, which in turn facilitates happiness. [Talk about a mouthful.]

I quit my job and moved to Panama [and now Spain] with the intention of seeking knowledge and on a path of self-discovery. I wanted to learn whom I was when stripped of the comforts of home: my family, my friends, my things, my language. I had found at home that on my darkest days [or even merely gloomy days] I sought comfort and happiness in the wrong places, namely other people, and I hoped that this move would be the first step in learning to rely on myself.

In a town full of travelers it is easy to remain distant from people—making lots of acquaintances, but less often true friends. And sometimes the transient nature of Bocas muddled my understanding of relationships and friendships—I felt that every time I started to develop something with another human being, that person would move on to his or her next destination. This was beneficial in helping me along my own path, though quite honestly was also exhausting. Though I started to rely on myself for smiles, I frequently found that I had my guard up, wanting to avoid the hurt of losing another person I cared about.

Then I started spending time with a Bocas local, Alex. In the beginning I found it difficult to allowing him to share in my life; I was focused on the future—my inevitable flight home on September 21st marked the expiration date on my life in Bocas—and didn’t want to become absorbed in another at such a selfish point in my life. However, spending time with him helped to refocus this original consideration. My days in Panama were limited; why would I waste even a single minute outside of living in bliss if I didn’t have to?

And with that I allowed myself to love more than I had in my first weeks there: the people, the island, the food, the lifestyle—everything became richer, more colorful, more spectacular than it had before. He helped me open my eyes to a Bocas I had failed to see previously—through the eyes of a local, someone who knew and could share with me the ins and outs of my then home, instead of a backpacker who was merely passing through.

ImageIn theory, this one is easy. In practice?—Perhaps not. I’m not saying I get it quite right all the time, but taking a few deep breaths every so often and reopening myself to loving energies has definitely allowed me to stay present in this goal.

5. Dance as if no one is watching.

As a silly Gringa in a Latino country I couldn’t hope to impress many on the dance floor with my general lack of grace [and comparative lack of curves]; however, I didn’t let that stop me from dancing all over town, alcohol induced or not. Furthermore, regardless of my barely functioning knowledge of the national language, I didn’t let the inability to roll my “R”s or properly use the subjunctive stop me from trying to communicate in the local language.

Initially I was apprehensive having forgotten the vast majority of Spanish I learned during the eight years I studied it. [Did I sleep through my entire high school and college education?…Possibly.] Most intimidating was facing the relentless teasing from my then boyfriend*** and his family, who were fluent in not one, not two, but three languages.

But faced with the dilemma of potentially acting like a fool and embarrassing myself or regretting never having tried, thoughts of my future in Spain started creeping up and I realized I had to start somewhere. Driven by happiness [and sometimes booze] I dove into the language head first, learning some key Panamanian phrases and body parts…none of which serve me any purpose here in Spain seeing as no one is Panamanian and I don’t have a boyfriend. But that is clearly not the point…


6. There is no such thing as a nomadic packrat.

I have the clear markings of a future packrat [though am in complete denial]. I claim that I can throw things out, and I do the occasional major overhaul when the clutter becomes too much, but for the most part, I like saving “things”: books, articles, clothes, ticket stubs; anything that I associate with a particular memory.

But even if I were the offspring of Chuck Norris, Hulk Hogan and the Jolly Green Giant [yes, all three], or a super-mutant human-sized ant, it would still be impractical [though great exercise] to lug around a growing pile of “things” with me everywhere I traveled.****

For the first time in Panama, the impossibility of holding onto EVERYTHING was more than apparent. I left clothes, bed sheets, books and even many of my precious hula hoops in Bocas, and surprisingly, I don’t miss them [okay, maybe I miss the hula hoops].

7. Every place has its beauties and its faults.

Beach-bumming it full-time in a tropical paradise is what most people dream of [I know I did]: I was minutes from uninterrupted stretches of white sand and crystal clear water, wore a swimsuit to work, woke up to the most amazing fruit smoothies and coffee and was rarely seen without a flower in my hair.

During my time abroad however, life wasn’t entirely papayas and mangos. I rode a roller coaster of emotional extremes, frequently trigged by my constant inner battle of being present, content and therefore able to seize the amazing opportunities I was faced with everyday, while simultaneously fighting a constant frustration with those elements of life and Panamanian culture that I did not appreciate or understand.

While this lesson is not so much to say I didn’t fully appreciate Panama—trust me, I did. It’s only to say that Washington DC isn’t quite so bad as I once made it out to be. It has its hidden gems just like any place on earth, though having spent twenty-some odd years there, I was numb to the brilliance of the place I called home. It took being thousands of miles away for a few months, finding another place worthy of being “home”, to re-fall in love with everything DC has to offer.


8. There are few things that can’t be solved by a day spent on the beach, a yoga class and lunch with SBK or passion fruit pie.

Find outlets for stress before you hit your breaking point. When you’re surrounded by exotic beauty, this isn’t hard to do, but is sometimes more difficult in a concrete jungle of schedules, deadlines and voicemail. Whether it’s a cup of tea, a new lipstick, a manicure/pedicure or a McDonald’s Big Mac, allow yourself to indulge when you’re having a particularly rainy day. Don’t let any of these things become crutches to your daily or even weekly well-being, but if calling out sick and going to yoga class and lunch with one of your best friends is the only fix to whatever your ailment—this is one of those times where you definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about faking it.

9. When you walk and bike everywhere, you don’t have to deny yourself…ever.

Despite an ever-growing fear that I was packing on the pounds in Panama, I miraculously ended up losing weight. Surprised at this upon returning to the states, it dawned on me [Eureka!] that while I loaded up on carbohydrates and ate a pack of peanut M&Ms or a cup of ice cream drowned in sprinkles almost every day, I was also exercising nearly non-stop. Welcome to the wonderful world of NOT HAVING A CAR. Forced to rely on these things we call legs, I’ve developed a new love for movement and who’d have thought it—my body too!

10. Order off the menu.

This lesson is an extremely important one and was unfortunately, in my case, not realized until my OCD tendencies and control issues were quieted back on my home turf [where I was thankful to be able to order whatever I wanted however I wanted—amurukuh: fahk yah].

According to my own studies, statistics show that redesigning something on the menu to fit your needs or wants causes your meal to end up sucking 100% of the time. [To put it bluntly…] Assuming you are a gambler, you might enjoy partaking in so risky a game. However, as a strict vegetarian with a lack of patience, I quite often found myself nearing a temper tantrum when presented with my lunch of lettuce-stuffed enchiladas or cabbage-filled vegetable sushi.

Order what’s offered and suck it up if it’s not exactly what you’re in the mood for. There’s a reason that something gets put on the menu—it’s a dish that is prepared well and tastes properly. Be adventurous in your decision-making, just leave your creative juices to building sand castles.

*Note: Though surprisingly successful, this tactic did not always work as I still resent being charged the “gringa” price for boat rides all summer despite my residency on the island.

**Note: This does not include accepting rides from strangers, cliff-diving into shallow water or participating in any other completely idiotic and life-threatening activities.

***Note: Furthering my confidence, this same wonderful boyfriend told me I was a terrible dancer [except when I had a hula hoop in hand]. Pffft.

****Note: On my Christmas list this year is a bag under an Undetectable Extension Charm. Preferably beaded just like Hermione’s, but I’ll take what I can get.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 6:39 am

    I know when you’re in a place like Thailand it’s silly to get travel envy, but after reading this (and Señor Nice by Howard Marks) I think I really really really need to get to Panama. Soon-ish.

    Also this was so insightful! I hope you make more than a once-every-six-months appearance :). Buena suerte in España… there goes the travel envy kicking in again!

  2. January 12, 2012 2:50 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree about ordering off the menu. I’m not a vegetarian, but a frequent picky eater, and asking something to be changed or removed can throw off the whole balance of the meal. I really just have to suck it up, try something new or order something else.

    P.S. This blog — and you! — are amazing, dear. Not nearly as exotic, but I wish you’d visit me in Richmond!

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