A lot of people tried to talk us out of it. Most people, in fact.

“Too hot!”  “Too far away!”  “Too dangerous!”

These overly generic, not fully-informed responses, were offered to me by the “threshold guardians” in my life. Joseph Campbell talks about the phenomenon of the threshold guardian in his writings on the hero’s journey. In brief, threshold guardians are forces or people that stand in the way of your journey, keeping you from crossing over thresholds that they perceive as dangerous for any number of reasons. Threshold guardians can be jealous rivals – or friends, gatekeepers, or even one’s own personal fears and doubts.

We encountered more than a few when we made the decision to sell our house and move aboard our sailboat. And again when we decided to buy property on a small island in Panama. The resistance was effective in that it shook me up and created doubt and fear within myself. Most of the guardians in my life at the time were people who loved me. As well-intentioned as they may have been, they were ultimately unimaginative and fearful. I learned during both of those times, that my true friends were the ones who took the time to understand and to support our decisions. The ones who actually helped us to cross those thresholds into our next adventure.

With regards to our move to Panama, a widely agreed upon (and more informed) piece of advice was to rent something for a time before buying. Check it out for a while. Make sure we really liked it before sinking money into it.

I know we probably should have heeded that particular advice. But we didn’t. Had we listened, we would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. But we would also have missed out on all the fun.

Dan had been looking at offshore retirement options for a while. Panama kept popping up to the top of his list for all sorts of reasons that made sense. Aside from the obvious – warm weather and lower cost of living – there were also the practical and very attractive incentives for expats such as:

  • excellent and affordable health care;
  • the U.S. dollar as currency;
  • political stability;
  • ability to own titled property
  • ease of acquiring permanent residence status and all the benefits that go along with that.

Despite this, I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes and thinking that my husband – who was driving this particular bus –  was completely out of his mind. (Hmmm… who was the threshold guardian then?!) We had fantasized about living on an island for many years. In my imaginings, though, it was in Washington State or Canada. Someplace with a fireplace. And pine scented woods all around. But Panama? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t embrace the notion of someplace so far away, so tropical, so foreign and worried that if this idea didn’t go away soon, we’d be heading for a giant, miserable check mate.

In an attempt to mitigate the tension that was building, I suggested we go down there and look around, secretly believing that a brief trip would rule it out.

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Ngobe Bugle women in Western Panama

With one caveat.

“This will NOT be a real estate trip,” I stated. “I won’t be able to tell if I like the place if all we do is look at houses.”

Dan resisted. “But we’re going to be there,” he reasoned. “It’s a long way to go and not see what’s for sale.” I folded my arms and stared him down. “Who knows when we will get back down there again?” he said, ever relentless. “We should take advantage and look at a few places.”

When he finally agreed to my conditions, I unfolded my tightly crossed arms and booked our tickets. We researched for months, planning our two week trip to be as efficient and informative as possible. Roughly the size of South Carolina, seeing a good chunk of the country is relatively easy to do but we kept things simple, dividing our time between Panama City, El Valle de Anton, Pedasi and the Azuero Peninsula and, finally, Isla Taboga.

DSC07453We chose Isla Taboga, the Island of the Flowers, despite what the guide books said about there being nothing to do there. Usually we like places like that because they are more authentic. And this instinct proved correct. One needs to be someplace, to settle in, to build time for wandering, discovering, spontaneity. To allow the place to call to you and see what it has to say.

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Arriving on the island the first day, the ferry bounced off the dock a few times before the men tied off the lines and began helping to unload the boat. A cacophony of voices greeted one another and shouted instructions to the guys on the dock. Dogs barked and ran happily up and down the pier, happy to have their owners back after a day in the city. The island taxis – all three of them – circled around the area by the pier and people lined up to wait their turn. We ended up in Segundo’s truck, a rickety old thing with a sign on the door asking customers not to slam it. “No tire la puerta, por favor!” Flowers were blooming everywhere, kids were playing in the streets, one or two jumped on the back of the truck and rode with us for a bit. The place was completely and utterly charming. And so the adventure began.

We began to meet people immediately, some of whom invited us for a beer at their condo complex…

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I think I knew from the minute I stepped in the gate that the no-real-estate agreement we had made was about to be broken. Especially after Dan started asking the manager/owner pointed, specific questions and then began poking around in the condos that were for sale.

There was no denying that they were well-constructed and so, so pretty. That the neighbors were lovely. That the island was sweet and relaxed and, a truly authentic, small Panamanian village. Roughly 1,000 folks live on the island, 30 of whom are expats.

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See the place on the far, lower left? Red roofs? Blue awnings? That’s us!

Had we found our island home? No fireplaces, and no pine woods. But the price was right and this was one of those “meant to be” moments. The threshold guardians were nowhere to be found…

And so, here we are. Island dwellers for part of each year. In Panama. On Isla Taboga.

Island culture is unique. It must be experienced and felt to be understood. A friend who also lives on Taboga recently sent me this which, in part, explains it:

The specific of islands is not escape, but return.
They are no longer so much a means of getting away from it all, 
 as of getting back to it all,
Of returning to man's natural measure, free from things
  
Too big,
          Too fast,
                      Too material.                  

William Sanson
Staniel Cay Yacht Club
Exhuma, Bahamas
1988

The Threshold Guardians didn’t stand a chance on this one. Not even the one named Irene Panke Hopkins. Dang it.

I've got my eye on you...

Watch out threshold guardians. I’ve got my eye on you…