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Expat Kids

Candidly Yours

Why Raise Kids in Rural Panama?

April 20, 2015

“You’re making a big mistake, Elizabeth. Your son is only nine, he’s just started third grade and he’s still learning to read in English. If you move to rural Panama, you could really mess up his entire educational future. Think twice, girl.

I thought more than twice about this big step. And I knew my friend Valerie’s concerns were valid. After all, she was a veteran mother of four terrific boys; she was also a specialist at the master’s level, teaching reading to young children. I had to ask myself: Did I want to jeopardize my kid’s formative learning years in exchange for a life that I hoped would be freer—a lifestyle less available to a society that was becoming increasingly dictated by technology? Was trading in a good education, in his native English, for the possibility of a richer cultural education a fair swap?

In 2006, when my family was still in Florida and my son was eight, I had begun to feel I was fighting an uphill battle against forces that weren’t evil, but that were intruding from all sides on my vision of how I wanted to bring up my child. My stepson, a terrific kid,  was eight years older an college bound. I had my youngest all the time, and I didn’t want to screw motherhood up.

Our society seemed to be changing at a pace I couldn’t manage. The increasingly ubiquitous electronics devices, (remember, this is 2006), seemed to be overtaking the social interactive development of our children. And I consider social development equally important to academics..  Kids would sit next to each other, each with his or her own Gameboy in hand, sometimes paying separate games, sometimes together. They were mesmerized and hardly able to pull themselves away from the rapid and seductive images  before their eyes.  I wan’t sure what was going on, but I knew one thing: I wanted my boy outside, playing, wondering, letting the world happen, awaiting the next surprise adventure.

Then there were the loving and very well-meaning parents anxiously imposing over-managed, highly structured schedules that kept their kids running all day from one organized activity to the next. The children were distracted from dawn to dusk, leaving little time for relaxing into a natural rhythm of play. Often the parents themselves were tethered to the cell phone as they walked their grade-schoolers, hand-in-hand to class, yet oddly detatched from the present moment.

I was hardly without guilt! I had been increasingly sucked into the need to stay connected by cellphone to my job, at all times. My son felt frustrated by his inability to either get my attention or by the constant interruptions. “I hate that cell phone, Mom!”  So, one day, I went “cold-turkey” on the thing. I turned it off when we were together or work hours were through. I figured the world would indeed turn without me.

I imposed other rules: only enroll my son in one extra-curricular activity at a time; leave my brief case locked in the car after work; allow no incoming phone calls at story/bed time. I was no longer tied to the outer world but connected to what was directly around me. But it felt like I needed more.

Most weekends I was hoping to arrange a simple“free-play” play-date for my son, and this I was  finding increasingly difficult to attain.By this, I am thinking of the summers of my own youth spent languishing with my best friend in the woods on moss-covered rocks, climbing trees, building forts, swimming in the pool until we our little bodies were wracked with shivers, running through a sprinkler, swinging on swings, and coming away only when our mothers hollered for us.

Meanwhile, my husband was beginning to tire from decades of managing night shifts at a busy tourist restaurant. Having spent a good amount of time in Costa Rica, in his twenties, he had long harbored a dream to live once again in a Latin country. We enjoyed our life in Florida, and we happily managed the usual responsibilities of adulthood. But life ticks on, one day runs into the next, years pass and dreams become an occasional whisper in the back of your mind “one day, one day soon.”

We were an extremely hard-working couple and our collective jobs supported a decent—but less than extravagant—lifestyle. We had a mortgage we could afford; we didn’t own a big screen television; we drove small, used cars. We belonged to no clubs and had no expensive hobbies. We paid our bills on time and only twice in ten years of marriage, did we take a family vacation lasting more than a few days. Together, we earned over six figures, yet as is true for many couples, there was little left over at the end of the month for little luxuries.

Still, it wasn’t my husband’s dream alone that propeled us toward the move abroad. I had traveled in my youth, once as an exchange student to the Southern Philippines during high school and later to Mexico. I had come to see travel as one of the best teachers and I wanted our son to have a broader world view. I also wanted him to speak another language.

In 2005, we took a rare family vacation and visited some neighbors who had moved house with their young daughter to Boquete, a town in rural Panama and currently high on the list of “hot picks” for retirement relocation. We stayed nine days, impulsively purchasing a small but lovely lot near town.

Boquete’s is known for its lush beauty. Peppered with gated neighborhoods, Boquete is nevertheless a farming town. It is nestled in the mountains of the highlands, and in what is often referred to as “the valley of the eternal rainbow: or “the eternal spring.”  Even the heart of downtown is rich with flowers, rivers, little farms, and livestock.

Life appeared simpler. There were uniformed children walking hand-in-hand to school; a farmer chasing after a small herd of stray cows in the heart of town; chickens and goats and dogs and children were everywhere. And, as with most small towns, everyone knew everyone, which felt safer.

Oh, I thought, as we signed on the property, only two days before returning to Florida, This is where I want to raise my son!

Over the next two-plus years, and largely from a distance, my husband oversaw the construction of what was to be a dream home. I stayed somewhat removed from the project, involved with mothering, work, caring for my beloved dad (who had become ill), and feeling torn about leaving. I wanted something different, but it is not always easy to give up a settled life.

My breaking point came one day after school. My son was now beginning third grade in Florida, a confident and happy little kid just getting a grip on reading. One afternoon, he stepped down off the bus looking all long in the face. “Mom. So-and-so said he’s in the ‘gifted reading program’ and he said that I’m dumb because I’m not in the gifted reading program.”

My heart sank. “Hey, buddy. You can be in the gifted reading program, if you want to. But they give way more homework and I just didn’t think you wanted extra homework.” He perked up. “Oh! Okay, Mom. Want to go skating?” And as soon as we were in the door, we snapped on our skates and glided

Three months later, (by this time, my father had passed away), we were on a plane to Panama, just two suitcases each, one of mine packed with clothing and the other stuffed with a purchased distance learning curriculum. Larry was in luck. Despite being a nester at heart, I am highly adaptable, which means I can make my nest just about anywhere.

My son, then nine, spent mornings working an accredited distance learning program with his dad, and three hours in a local parochial school, just a kilometer from our house.  He played with the neighbor kids, all local, and on weekends he saw children from the handful of expat families around us.  After ten months in Panama, we distanced him completely from expats so that he could blend even more, and the Spanish really kicked in.

Guari and Dance 020Life was indeed simpler. Most of my son’s friends lived nearby and played outdoors every day after school.  All the children wore uniforms to school, the boys sported the requisite buzz-cut hair, and these were great equalizers, eliminating any battles about what to wear or whom to keep up with.  If neighbor kids had electronic games and such, they were usually broken or quickly lost or stolen. Skating rinks and skate parks were missed, but these were exchanged for soccer and basketball.

Birthday parties were a welcome family affair, and not only for younger kids, but also for the famed “quinceañera” or “sweet fifteen” birthday parties attended by peers and parents alike. Sundays were also family days.  All this family time and the fact that children are not permitted to drive until age eighteen, rendering parents the chauffeurs, seemed to keep family ties strong.

There were little things that made life simpler, such as being able to make and take baked goods to school my son’s classmates, or to any school event, without issues. (This was not the case back home, where the school board had ruled that parents could not take home-made treats to school. All treats had to be store-bought and presented in their original wrapping.)

When my son was eleven, we moved to the center of town and I broke down and purchased a cell phone for him, as this was the best way to locate a kid running free with his posse of friends as they gathered up empty soda cans and bottles to trade in at the local store for treats. Sometimes they spent hours playing soccer, or rummaging the nearby river for errant golf balls for resale.

When he turned fourteen, I buckled and gave a green light for my son to get his first “Play Station.” (I regret this decision to this day!) And, despite my earlier vow to wait until he was sixteen, I gave the “okay on a Smartphone. Like nearly all kids and grown-ups today, this device has become my son’s lifeline to his inner and outer circle: as with most teens, he’s never without it.

Still, I had him close for a long time, longer than I suspect I would have if we had remained in Florida. He is completely fluent in Spanish and moves easily between the two cultures he embodies.  He wants to return now to the United States for his last two years of schooling and also to reconnect with his cousins, and just be a regular American high school kid.

I doubt my son will be quite the regular “American” kid he thinks he is simply because he now and forever, bicultural. Will he need to catch up, academically? Time will tell. He son has navigated some tough waters in order to blend in, make friends, and learn a language. I trust he has the skills to face whatever comes next and certainly, we will be there to guide him, whether it be here in Panama, where we remain until the summer months, or back in the United States.

So, by leaving, did we do ourselves a disservice, or did we enrich our lives? This is something we will find out in time. I think that if you want to move forward, or find out what stuff you’re made are made of, sometimes you might want to step away from the herd. And that is just what we did.

You can read the first few chapters of  “Helping Expat Kids survive Thrive: Advice on schooling, on Kindle,  Free, by clicking HERE.

Candidly Yours

Interview with Jackie Lange

April 20, 2015

An interview with Jackie Lange, owner Panama Relocation Tours, January 29, 2015

I met Elizabeth Ballard the first time I went to Big Daddy’s in Boquete.  They have the best fish tacos and margaritas!

Elizabeth moved to Panama about 7 years ago with her husband and 9 year old son.   As a Mom, one of her biggest concerns was how to get a good education for her son and how to help him thrive in a foreign country where, initially, he did not even speak Spanish.  With Elizabeth’s help her son William made a smooth transition, is fully bi-lingual, and has both expat and Panamanian friends.

We have monthly internet marketing meeting in Boquete and I made a presentation about writing books for Kindle to make extra money.  I encouraged Elizabeth to write a book about how to move overseas with kids and how to get a good education.    PanamaRelocationTours.com gets emails often from people who are considering moving overseas with kids so I knew there would be a big demand for the book.

Elizabeth’s book Kids Helping Expat Kids survive Thrive is NOW available at Amazon Kindle.    Click on the link for instant access to order.   If you don’t have a Kindle.. no problem… because Amazon has free software you can download to your computer to read the book.  The book tells the story of how one Mom helped her son not just survive but Thrive in overseas.

Even if you don’t have kids, it is a good book to read about expat life in Panama.

Here is one of the reviews:  “Wow, I am so incredibly thrilled I came across this book. As a mom who is considering an extended stay in Latin America, I really needed the guidance and assurance that I wasn’t making a terrible decision for my kids. I had been going back and forth wondering if our family was making the right choice, and after reading this book, we are going to do it! Elizabeth Ballard’s book provided me with invaluable advice that put me at ease.  Her family survived, no THRIVED and ours will too! THANK YOU for this terrific book!”

See the Elizabeth’s interview below.
I’m encouraging her to write her next book about starting and selling a business in Panama.

When did you move to Panama?

I moved to Panama in February, 2008, so I’m coming up on seven years

Where did you move from?

We moved from Sarasota, Florida.

Where do you live in Panama and why did you pick that area?

I live in Boquete, a small but thriving town in the Chiriqui Highlands. I moved here in 2008 with my husband and our youngest son, who was nine.

I think sometime in 2005 we had taken a family trip to Boquete, visiting some neighbors who had already moved there with their daughter. And we were charmed. So before we left, we purchased a lot and over the next few years, built a house on it, from afar.

Tell us about your business and how you got started.

Well, initially my husband moved to retire from the restaurant business. I retained a part-time job online, with an insurance agency. But that year the housing market in the USA crashed and then the stock market took that terrible dive.  So all our plans went down the tubes, along with that sweet part-time job.

We ended up selling our dream home in exchange for a modest, Panamanian fixer-upper.  After about a year, we realized we needed to start funding our life. And since we really understood the restaurant business, we thought that is what we would do.

Also, my husband had been paying attention to the food industry here and noticed that fish was an item not easily acquired in our mountain village.  We started a restaurant that specialized in the freshest fish. (Big Daddy’s)

Was it difficult to set up your business in Panama?

Well, “tricky” is the better word. First, we were not fluent in Spanish and also we were not well-versed in the laws around the restaurant industry. So it was important to have good, solid legal advice and also a good, local accountant.

We took our time and proceeded at the pace dictated by the paperwork. This could be frustrating because there were times when we had all our ducks in a row, but were stalled, awaiting a certain official to give us the required stamp of approval.

Do you have a web site or blog?

Well, that is no longer relevant as we sold the restaurant recently, in August, 2014. However, rather than maintain a blog, I primarily marketed our business via word-of-mouth, which today translates to Online.  (the older blog is active:  www.mypanamalife.com).

I was very active on Facebook, regularly, keeping copy and specials fresh, photos, etc. I was also active on Trip Advisor, which is an important site for helping to put your business on the map. A lot of business are frustrated with this site, but I got to know it and made it my business to monitor and reply to comments. I think this really gave us a great presence. Also, it was one way to note suggestions and take feedback into account.

If you could relocate to Panama all over again, what things would you do differently?

Knowing what I know now about how the restaurant industry works here, I would probably open a food business that was geared more toward take-away items and also required fewer employees.

But I wouldn’t trade in what we did or what I learned for all the tea in China.

What are your favorite things about living in Panama?

If you see beyond the gated communities, Boquete remains a small town, a farming town. I love that. I love raising our son in that environment. It feels like the 60s to me in many ways. And I love the climate we have here in the mountains, the extreme beauty,

What do you like least about living in Panama?

As a mom of a school-age kid, and I tend to view life through that lens. I definitely feel the absence of organized sports programs, a skate park, a teen center, and activities for kids in the summer. And better, much better schools.  Also, I dislike the public littering, the garbage.

As an adult, I miss being able to visit museums or go to really good theater. Panama has all this, but in the larger cities. So those things have to be planned for.

Do you have any tips for someone considering relocating to Panama?

Yes, of course. Come visit and rent. Don’t rush into purchasing property until you have had a real taste of all Panama has to offers. In our town alone, there are so many micro-climates, depending on your neighborhood. I’ve seen people come here, spend big bucks on a home, and then come to the conclusion they can’t stand the rainy season.  There are so many wonderful towns, villages, beach towns, mountain areas, and there is Panama City. I think it is definitely best to rent and travel before you buy.

In conclusion:

When we first arrived, I thought we’d stay about a year. Now, I can’t imagine living elsewhere and I don’t want to go back, except to visit family. I love my Panama life. I’m presently finishing up a book for parents who are considering moving overseas with kids. You can keep up with my progress by googling www.mypanamalife.com.

 

Expat Kids

Educating Expat Kids

February 19, 2015

book cover 1

The above photo is of my son as he receives his 9th grade graduation certificate from AIB, an international school in Central America. But we are not from here, we are from the United States of America. For our first six years abroad, there was no so-called “bi-lingual, international” school, so he attended school in a second language, while we did some supplementing with some home-instruction and other methods.

How will you manage your children’s education if you go overseas?
If  you’re a parent considering a move abroad with kids, this is the big question, the thing that nags at that back of your mind in the middle of the night, or holds you back from going, or  stops you altogether from taking the leap.

Perhaps a big move overseas is just  a big dream, or maybe you and your family don’t have a choice about moving. Either way, concerns about how your children will adjust and stay happy is often the source of the most pressing questions parents have when facing this kind of chabge.  Let’s face it. For any caring parent or guardian, a happy kid equals a happy parent.

Before we pulled our son out of the tender third grade to move to rural Panama, I was frantic with just these questions. I had all the worry and little guidance. How in the world was I going to  1. continue with his education and 2. help him assimilate, make friends, learn the language, in other words, keep on being the fanstastic, curious, funny, interested and sweet kid he was?

It wasn’t easy. At the time of our move and for many years, there was not an international school in our little farming town destination. Heck, there wasn’t even a movie theater or a skate park and … we didn’t speak the language. But, step by step, day by day, little by little, I helped my son to continue his education,to  learn the language, to make friends, fit in and fully assimilate into a previously foreign culture, and in a rural, remote area. Take heart! If  we could do it, so can you!

I admit that my back ground in School Psychology & Counseling didn’t hurt — but the truth is, when it comes to parenting — I’m just a regular mom with the same fears, concerns, anxiety, hopes and dreams you have for your treasured child.

Today, my son William, only nine when we began our adventure, is now sixteen. He truly moves easily between the two languages and cultures he embodies and trade-offs notwithstanding, he has enjoyed a happy and full childhood.

Our journey was both difficult and easy. It was an adventure that throughout and ultimately brought us joy and personal growth, as well as collective growth as a family. It was a brave move,  but looking back, I would not change a thing. Was it worth it? Yes. Yes. Yes.

“Moving & Educating Kids Overseas: How one mom helped her child Thrive: is a primer full of tips, suggestions, check lists, sound advice and  ideas for making your overseas journey with your kids fruitful and joyous.

My child thrived and so can yours!

To read the first few chapters FREECLICK HERE.

 

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