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Friday, May 23, 2014

Battling Depression in Panama

Hey everybody,

Awhile back, before he actually moved to Panama, an online buddy of mine (we need to get together for a beer soon, Todd) asked in an expat forum, how expats deal with depression. It wasn’t that he was depressed himself (he’s an ex-military guy and moves around a lot), but since he was planning a move to Panama, he wanted to know how foreigners in Panama deal with this oh-so-real situation. It was a great question, and it has stuck with me ever since. Depression happens. I’m here in Panama with my wife and 4 kids, and it has happened to me, so I’m sure for those people moving here alone, depression is a serious condition they battle from time to time. And if you’ve ever gone through depression, it can be debilitating if not dealt with properly and immediately.

Now, I’m no web doctor, and I don’t want to scare anyone who's considering a move to Panama. In fact, a move to Panama is probably much easier than a move to many other countries (considering you’ll be using the U.S. dollar, you'll be in the same time zone for the most part, and you can communicate and get back to the U.S. or Canada relatively easily). But it’s not Kansas anymore, Toto. You might experience a little bit of culture shock and even if you don’t, you might at some point ask yourself, “What the hell was I thinking?” If you hang in there long enough, and fight off that urge to pack up and go home, you’ll probably find that a life in Panama is quite rewarding. There’s a reason you considered moving to Panama in the first place. Remember that. You know the saying, The grass is always greener on the other side. Giving up will only make you happy when you first arrive home. Then, maybe a year later, you’re going to be wondering why you didn’t stick around a little longer.

Some of you reading this may be going through a little bit of depression right now. Hopefully by reading this article, you’ll realize that you’re not alone in this, and there are some things you can do to help you battle this feeling.

Feeling down? The first step to battling depression is 
to smear cupcake on your this!

As I write this, I’m sitting in New York Bagels in El Cangrejo, munching on a honey wheat bagel with jalapeƱo and red pepper cream cheese. I see groups of people gathered together gossiping while eating a light snack. I can see five people with laptops open, using the restaurant’s free Wifi (free with a purchase of any kind). Usually I visit this place to meet one of my friends for breakfast, but today I have no meeting planned. So why am I here? I’m here because I need to get out of the house. I’m starting to feel cooped up. And to beat any of that anxiety or depression that might start rearing its ugly little head soon, I’m getting out in public and feeding off of the energy around me while writing this article. Getting out of the house and around people is one way of beating depression. Let's talk more about what you might experience here in Panama. 

At New York Bagels in El Cangrejo

When you first move to Panama, you’re going to be filled with an electricity, an excitement about ignoring all those people back home who tried to stop you from making this decision. You'll be proud of yourself for finally making the leap. It's a great feeling. You did it. You’re in Panama. It might take a little while for the normal worries to finally sink in, but at some point, some of the following might cross your mind.

My family is so far away – Many of the people trying this retire overseas lifestyle will have children and grandchildren. More than likely, the children are grown, but not hearing the laughter of your grandchildren can be tough. Unless you live in Panama City, you’ll probably find that Panama is a quiet place. If you’ve ever had children running around your living room and climbing over your lap and leaving the toilet seat up (remember I have 2 boys so I hear about this one all the time), that lack of wild energy might be overwhelming. Silence is extremely loud when it’s all you hear. Marlene reminded me of this often when we lived in our little apartment in Anchorage, Alaska. She missed the sound of car horns and birds and noisy neighbors. So for many people living in the interior of Panama, this may be a lot to bear.

How do you deal with this?

Well, if you need any immediate being-around-kids fix, take a walk. Go somewhere you know children will be and get some exercise. Just take a stroll past a school or go to a park. If you’re in Panama City, Parque Omar in San Francisco is an excellent place to go. Kids are everywhere playing on jungle gyms and running and tumbling. You’d be surprised. The lively sounds of kids at play might help a little bit, and getting out of the house and enjoying some fresh air will definitely make you feel a little better.

Parque Omar is a colorful and lively park full of children's laughter

Make sure you have Skype installed on your computer and have frequent Skype meetings with your family members. If you both have Skype installed, it’ll be free. We do live video chats with my mom every Sunday. She sees the kids and they see her as if they’re in the same room. It definitely helps us keep in touch. If we didn’t do this, my kids would have a hard time remembering Grandma. If you’re not sure how to do this, just go to the following link and download the program to your computer. Then tell your family to do the same. Just go to

If you really want to feel in touch with your family, make sure you have Whatsapp installed on your phone. Your family members and friends will need to download it too. It’s free, or I think actually $1 per year. Make sure they put your phone number in as +507 and your number. My mom and brothers have Whatsapp and we chat on our phones as if we’re all living on the same block. Another cool app a friend recently told me about is Glide. With Glide, you can video chat on your phone the same way you’d chat on Whatsapp. You set it up pretty much the same way, and you can video chat right on your phone, sending messages back and forth with your loved ones.

Also, with devices like Magic Jack (I know there are many others out there, but I have a Magic Jack thanks to my good friend Michael Drouillard) you can call and receive calls as if you’re in the same country as your loved ones. I have a Miami phone number hooked up to it. I think it’s only like $30 a year to be able to do this. What phone company would let you make unlimited calls to another country for only $30 per year? The last time I was in the U.S., I saw Magic Jacks in stores like Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS, so I know they’re easy to get. You can check out their website too at

I just want to feel self-sufficient – One thing that I’m sure all expats deal with, is the feeling that you can’t get anything accomplished on your own. If you don’t come here knowing at least a little bit of Spanish, you may have even more trouble with this one. I speak very little Spanish and I battle with this a lot. 

I think, even for Spanish-speaking expats, learning to adapt to the Panamanian way of life will still be a challenge. For example, a Venezuelan couple at my kids’ school seemed to have a bit of a hard time when the folklore teacher sent out a note saying that all kids must bring cutarras and a sombrero for boys or the pollera and babuchas for girls (for more on these Panama items, read my article on Panama school tips and pointers here). 

My kids modeling the congo-style folklore clothes

Being new to Panama, they had no idea where to get these things. Everyone told them to go to Sal si Puedes, which is a shopping area on Ave. Central (near Casco Viejo), but since they didn’t know their way around, even though they spoke Spanish, this was like Greek to them. So, feeling that you can’t accomplish things on your own might make you feel a little bit down.

Sal si Puedes is the shopping area to the left and right of that stoplight

How do you deal with this?

First, it’s not a fix-all, but it will be tremendously helpful if you learn to speak Spanish. Enroll in a local class (which will also help you make friends here). If you can speak the language, at least you can ask questions when you don’t understand something or know where something is. Duolingo is a great app for your phone and a great program to have on your computer. It’s free and is kind of like a social media (ish) kind of language learning program. It’s like a mix between Rosetta Stone and Facebook. The website is I've tried it, it seems pretty cool, I just haven't had the time to devote to really using it as a learning tool. You guys will have to let me know if it works for you.

Take classes to meet people and get out of the house. I saw this sign in the city.

Something else that’s great to do is get involved with the Facebook and Yahoo groups. I usually stick with the Facebook ones as I’ve run into a lot more negativity on the Yahoo ones (not saying everyone there is negative, guys). By getting involved in the Panama Facebook groups, you can learn so much. People there are so helpful. There’s so much free info online right now that you don’t need to pay the big companies for packets and reports. Just ask the people already living in Panama. If you need to find out how to get your registration renewed on your car, ask in the Facebook groups. If you need a recipe or need to find out if anyone is selling a piece of furniture you're looking for...ask on Facebook.

Something else you should definitely do is read the local blogs. So many people have moved here and started telling people about their adventures. What better way to find out how to accomplish things than to read the tales of those who’ve done it? I’ve seen blogs from people living in David, Pedasi, Boquete, neighborhoods in Panama City, and in many other places. Just go to the Panama For Real, Other Panama Blogs page to see some of the blogs from Panama bloggers. Click here to go to that page. 

Sometimes you feel like this (this is a real medicine I saw at the pharmacy here)

Lastly, you just have to force yourself to try. I know, it’s tough, and sometimes I just don’t feel like struggling through a task, but I’ve had my car stereo changed out, I’ve had tires plugged, I’ve gotten my driver’s license, I’ve traveled around by bus, and rode the Metro. So sometimes you just have to do your best to take care of things. And if all else fails, ask around until you find a bilingual person because usually, those Panamanians who can speak English, will be happy to help you.

I’m not sure I fit in here – If you had a large group of friends back home, went out to a bar after work with coworkers, or got together often with neighbors to have barbecues, you might feel a little bit lonely in Panama. Panamanians are super friendly for the most part, but you might not know that if you’re locked up in the house all the time. You might be feeling like Panamanians want nothing to do with you and you can’t seem to find any of these expats in Panama you heard so much about. Trust me, I know. I’ve walked through areas that I heard were crawling with expats, and didn’t see a single one. When I did my report on Volcan, I saw not one single foreigner (at least not one obvious foreigner). I take that back, I did see two backpackers walking through town, but I mean I didn’t see anyone who lived there. And I’ve always heard that Volcan has a sizeable expat community.

And finding a fellow foreigner doesn’t always mean they’ll be nice to you, lol. It’s sad, but true. Many people move to Panama to escape their fellow countrymen and you might bump into some of these unpleasant people. There are some people hiding out in Panama’s little towns, who aren’t very nice. Don’t get me wrong, there are friendly foreigners all over the place. Just hop on the Internet and check out any of the Facebook or Yahoo groups. The people sharing info are the nice ones. The ones that simply tell you to pick another country, with no explanation…those are the ones you don’t want to bother with. 

How do you deal with this?

I’ve already mentioned taking classes, but it applies here as well. If you enroll in a Spanish class, you’ll not only learn the language, but you’ll meet people as well, people who, like you, are doing what it takes to get by here. You’ll also feel more comfortable speaking with Panamanians. Panamanians are great people, but many of them don’t speak English. Plus, many who do are usually embarrassed to try to speak English, so if you want to make friends with Panamanians, speaking Spanish will help a lot. Panamanians appreciate it when we try.

Join other classes too. This will help immensely when it comes to fighting off boredom, which I’ll talk more about in the next topic. If you want to meet people, you have to get out of the house. Join a yoga class, a martial arts class, or any other kind of class you find available. Go to a gym. Casco Viejo/Casco Antiguo often has stuff going on, like salsa classes or martial arts classes.

I’ve mentioned the Facebook groups already, but check there too. You’ll find groups like YEP, Young Expats in Panama, which is always holding get-togethers in local bars and restaurants.

This is tomorrow, so short notice, but Roba Morena puts on these things all the time

You might even find clubs to join. I recently saw a book club meeting where club members were getting together to read Game of Thrones. I love Game of Thrones, but I’ve already read the book and not sure I can sit through it again (it’s a long freakin’ book, man). Things like the Roba Moreno recycling fairs are great chances to get out and meet people too.

I just need someone to talk to – You may find yourself just needing someone to talk to. It’s not quite the same as needing friends to hang out with at the bar or people to get together with to watch the Super Bowl. Sometimes you just need a shoulder to cry on. You just need to talk to people and vent your frustrations.

How do you handle this?

One good way to handle this, and it’s kind of like old school diary writing or keeping a journal, is to start your own blog. Why not? Everyone else is doing it. It doesn’t matter how many readers you have or how many visitors you get on your blog. It matters that you have your own story to tell. If you want to talk about your trouble finding toilet paper that doesn’t cut your rump, just do it. I have to tell you, when you have something to say, speaking to someone, even when it’s writing it out on a blog, can feel great. And it's free unless you go the difficult route. and and many others offer free blogs. You’ll just have to play around with it until you figure it out. Who knows, maybe you’ll help someone else with a problem by writing something you’ve gone through.

Dr. Juha Lehti, the Net Psychiatrist at

Another great resource for helping you combat depression and to help you just get things off your chest, is my good friend, Dr. Juha Lehti. Dr. Juha Lehti, is a psychiatrist from Finland, living here in Panama, and since he knows all about being an expat, he's literally been there. Now he’s running a web psychiatry site. He can help you with depression and a lot of other issues, all without ever having to leave your home. He’ll meet with you over the Internet through live one-on-one chat sessions, kind of like Skype. It’s something new that he’s doing and I think it’s an awesome idea. He speaks English, Spanish, and of course, Finnish. He’s offering free consultations to our readers, so if you need to speak with a specialist, check out Dr. Juha Lehti's website at:

I don't know if I can handle the boredom – You can definitely find things to do if you live in the city, but if you’re like me, and have lived in places like Chicago or New York City, you might find life in Panama to be a bit boring, especially if you live out in the interior. I used to take my kids to the Naperville Children’s Museum in the Chicago area or to the Seaquarium or to Navy Pier. We’d go for a walk down Michigan Ave. When I first moved to Panama, I felt really bored. I couldn’t really just walk somewhere. It’s not like that here. Not unless you live in downtown Panama City, and even then, Panama City still isn’t really a walking town (cracked sidewalks and crazy traffic might make you think twice about hoofing it).

This kid's not letting boredom get to him

If you live in the interior you might hit the beach, go walking on a mountain trail, or swim in a river. You might fish or get together with others at an expat or local hangout, but you can only do those things so often before you might find yourself bored again.

Go to the mall and do some climbing like Nico and Matteo

Or maybe it’s not finding something fun to do that’s got you bored in the first place. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re no longer working. Think about it, you’ve probably worked most of your life. You had to get up to that dreaded alarm, shuffle through your daily get-up-and-go routine, then spend 8-10 (maybe more) hours of your day trying to earn a paycheck. You don’t have to do that anymore. We spend most of our lives dreaming about the moment we no longer have to worry about working, then, when the time comes to retire, the lack of daily responsibility can be almost alarming.

What do you do when you no longer have anything to do?

How do you deal with this?

Let’s start with that last problem first. As difficult as it might seem (and it is difficult) you have to remember why you moved to Panama in the first place. It’s time to relax. If you’re not still working here, you can finally just chill out, and not worry about having daily duties. Allow yourself time with a book in your hammock or time to just walk the dog around the block. Allow yourself the freedom you waited all this time for.

Allow yourself time to relax

Do some tourist activities. You’re in a foreign country. Panama has a lot to offer if you just get with the program. Look online on websites and in the Facebook groups. You can go river rafting, visit some of the indigenous tribes, take a tour through Panama City, or go on a walking tour through Casco Viejo. My friend Sharon is taking people on tours through the old town. Check out her website at Go ziplining or spend the night in an all-inclusive resort. Go dancing. You’re in Panama, so get out and act like it. If you don’t know how to dance, just do the gringo rock, the gringa sway.

Go see a movie. At the time of writing this article, the Cinemark theaters have an awesome deal. Every Thursday, if you show your PriceSmart shopping membership card, you get two tickets for the price of one. Wednesdays are the regular discount day when tickets are just over $2.

If you live in or around Panama City, start going to some of the conventions and fairs that take place at the ATLAPA Convention Center. I plan to start doing this myself. They’re usually free and you can gather a ton of info from these things (and usually take home free samples and all kinds of other prizes). The following link will take you to a web page that’s great for keeping up with events going on in the area:

If you’re still bored, take a trip by bus. Just ditch your car and hop on a bus. It’s incredibly cheap and will give you the chance to discover the small towns in Panama. Go horseback riding in El Valle de Anton, take a small boat over to Isla Iguana from the beach in Pedasi, go fishing in Volcan, hang out with other expats at a restaurant in Boquete. You don’t have to live in these places to enjoy them. You’re in Panama. The entire country can be your backyard (it's only about as big as Rhode Island). You’ll have a lot of fun, I’m sure of it.

Don't be afraid to take the bus (but try to get on the nice air-conditioned
ones you see at the top right of the photo

If traveling isn’t your thing, and you still feel the need to work, why don’t you volunteer with one of the churches, schools, or charitable organizations? Panama definitely has no shortage of places to volunteer. If you have musical talents, help teach music at one of the schools. If you’re a basketball coach, help teach basketball at a camp. I was asked to help coach flag football. If you're a pro, share your knowledge.

Living  in Panama, you can either choose to enjoy the boredom and immerse yourself in total relaxation, or don’t do that at all. There’s plenty to do if you look for it.

Sensory Overload – Panama can be a lot to take in for some people. Everyone thinks they’re ready to move to a warm, tropical paradise. Leaving the snow behind (the constant shoveling and scraping of ice off the windshield) sounds like paradise. But Panama is hot. It’s really hot and humid. I sweat a lot naturally, and I drink a ton of water which probably only makes me sweat more, lol. I’ve been here 5 years and I’m still trying to adapt to this. Let me say this again, Panama is hot and humid. You are going to sweat when you come here. Don’t be shocked by this. You’ll eventually adapt to it. I remember feeling miserable at one point. Now, I just feel sweaty. And I try to stay near a fan or an AC vent if possible.

Bugs are something else you may not be used to. Again, this is the tropics. I’m not trying to be sarcastic. People seem to forget this. They come here and they say, “Hey, I wanted the sun and the beach, but what’s with all the heat and humidity and mosquitos?”

If the heat really bothers you, you might want to move to a higher elevation town. Boquete has nice crisp evenings. So do the other mountain towns like El Valle de Anton and Volcan and Cerro Punta. The gated communities of Cerro Azul and Altos del Maria are also known for having cooler temperatures. Mosquitos are pretty much everywhere, as with most other bugs, so you’ll need to keep a can of Off around or some other kind of repellant.

The traffic is something else that will drive you mad, and if you live in Panama City, you won’t be able to escape it.

How do you handle this?

Unfortunately, the only real way to handle this is to give yourself time. You’ll need time to adapt to Panama’s heat, humidity, pesky little creatures, and the traffic. You can ease the traffic situation by getting the heck out of the city. Or buy a motorcycle. But for the most part, you’ll just need to give yourself time to adapt.

Focus on the good instead of dwelling on the bad, like your ability to 
buy fresh coconut water (known as pipa here) from this guy for $1

For an immediate fix, try to find places that remind you of home, like maybe a nice, air-conditioned cafe. Sometimes this can lead to some unnecessary spending though, as my home-away-from-home was Riba Smith when I first moved here. The Riba Smith supermarket in Costa del Este has wide aisles and tons of imported goods. Every time I enter that store, I lean on my grocery cart, and just relax. Multiplaza Mall is another spot that might make you feel a little closer to home as you'll recognize so many of the stores there. They even opened a Chuck-E-Cheese and a Ruby Tuesday recently. 

I think I’ve made a mistake – As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you might find yourself thinking that you may have made a mistake. It’s normal. I’ve been through it and I’m sure many other readers have been through it. This is a foreign land and for everything that’s easier, there’s something else more difficult. The trick is to give yourself time. Don’t give up. Don’t you dare! Not yet! 

If you give up too early, you might not have the chance to be
this excited about slices of fresh mango

Try some of the things I mentioned in this article. If you haven’t tried them all, then you can’t give up yet. You owe yourself more time. You spent a lot of time considering this move, I’m sure. I don’t want to get all religious on you, but if nothing in this article helps, try to find a good church. That might even be your first step. Praying might help lift your spirits, and being around others might help you fight boredom, make a friend, learn a little Spanish, and could definitely help you feel like you fit in. Chances are, you didn’t make a mistake by coming here. You’re here. So rather than undo all the hard work that brought you here, find a way to make this make sense…or you’ll be kicking yourself later when you’re back home scraping ice off your windshield and picking up another DVD out of the Redbox at your local supermarket. Yup, I’ve been there J

Thanks for reading,