I’ve been in Panama for about a month now, with a few weeks left to go. As usual, I haven’t “conquered the country”, in an attempt to cover all the tourist hot-spots (although I suspect in the coming weeks I’ll do my best). Instead, I’ve done something else – something that few tourists ever get to do, but something that feeds my consistent desire for slow travel year after year.
Let me explain.
This post was originally published in 2013. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
When I first arrived in Panama, the drive to my home-to-be from the airport was full of wonder. Everything was different. Nothing was familiar. I was completely overwhelmed, and thus transferred my overwhelm to anybody who would listen with a barrage of questions.
Where does this road go?
How do I buy fruit at the market?
Is this beach safe?
What happens if the police pull us over?
How do I catch a bus?
Where can I buy a SIM card?
…and any other random musings that arose as I tried to take it all in, knowing that in just a day, my local guide (being the homeowner) would be long gone and I’d be on my own to figure everything out.
That scares me a little.
Being supplanted somewhere totally foreign is not natural. It’s difficult. Suddenly the daily functions of life are challenging because you don’t know how or where to accomplish tasks that are done differently at home. If language is a barrier, now your local intellect is reduced to that of a toddler as you struggle to communicate and understand even the most basic things.
But then something happens.
You lean into the discomfort. You go out every day – often out of necessity, discovering one tiny new thing; a side street that leads to something interesting; a local ceviche restaurant, the pet store (to get supplies for the dog), the petrol station, the licensing station in town (to pick up new plates), and other places of either interest or errands.
One day, you realize something has changed.
That initial overwhelming drive from the airport feels like it was years ago. People in the area now recognize you and wave. You know what’s around the next corner. You have more courage to get lost searching out new places. You acquire enough basic phrases to get the message across and even inject some humour into it.
And then you feel proud.
You feel proud of this new place you’ve “discovered” (and for having acclimatized to it), and you want to show it off to friends and family. Hey Mum! Look where I live!
This place that was so incredibly foreign when you arrived starts to feel like….home.
Of course it’s not home, nor are you a local after just a few weeks (or even years) of being there. But you’ve conquered the discomfort, and turned the unfamiliar into the familiar. You can actually say you’ve “lived” there (for a while).
A formerly foreign and exotic locale is now a place where you have friends, routine, and comfort. What a transformation!
That moment of transformation; the regular pangs of wonder that this place is your back yard (for a time); and the constant state of discovery.
This….this is why I love slow travel.