Expat Communities Vs. The Locals

Invigorating…Or Terrifying?

Go local…or not?

I have to admit, we didn’t address this question before our first international move about a dozen years ago. It didn’t occur to us. We were moving from Baltimore, Maryland, to Waterford, Ireland. How different could Ireland be from the United States? My husband, my daughter, and I, we’ll slide right into Irish life–at least that’s what I thought at the time.

I discovered quickly, though, that I’d been overly optimistic. The Irish speak English (sort of), but they operate differently from Americans. In truth, adjusting to life in Ireland was more difficult than we ever could have predicted. We discovered that launching a new life on the Emerald Isle was in some ways more challenging than it would have been in Ajijic, Mexico, say, or Boquete, Panama.

Ajijic and Boquete are established expat communities, home to thousands of foreign retirees who speak the same language, share the same interests, and approach life in the same way. There are no expat communities in Ireland. In Waterford, we settled in among the locals and embraced Irish country living. We had no choice.

Our Irish neighbors were friendly and welcoming, but, sometimes, we longed for American company. For fellow Yanks who’d appreciate our offhanded cultural references, understand our slang, and laugh at our jokes.

In Paris, we had a different experience. While you won’t find established expatriate communities in the French capital, you will find lots of expats. Living in Paris, we made new friends who were Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Argentine, and, yes, to our relief, American. We made many French friends in Paris, as well, but we had no trouble finding American company when we wanted it.

Now, in Panama City, we’re again living among the locals. We’re not the only gringos on the block, as we were in Waterford (our next-door neighbor hails from Arizona), but we’re not living in a gated community of fellow foreigners either.

This is one of the fundamental choices you must make as you survey the world map in search of the overseas retirement haven with your name on it: Would you be more comfortable retiring to an established expatriate community, a place where you’ll have no trouble slipping in to the local social scene and finding English-speakers who share your interests? Or do you want to go local, immersing yourself in a new culture completely?

This important early decision may never have occurred to you, as it didn’t initially occur to us. But I encourage you to consider the question directly, for the answer sets you on one track or another, and they lead very different places.

In places like Chapala, Mexico, and Boquete, Panama, for example, it can be possible to live the retirement life you may have dreamed of for decades, just exactly as you dreamed it, only in a different country. You could have a beautiful home of your own, brand new, with all modern conveniences, by a lake or on a lush highland. Many houses in these two towns have been built to American standards, even by American builders. You could be an American retiree first, an expat in Mexico or Panama second.

Ajijic and the area around Lake Chapala, Mexico, is the most organized, developed expat community in the world. The Lake Chapala Society reports about 4,000 American and Canadian residents in Chapala proper. The Mexican government, meantime, estimates that nearly 20,000 expats reside full-time in the state of Jalisco, the region where Lake Chapala sits.

In other words, the path has been cut. Moving here, you could slide into a way of life not dramatically different from the life you left behind in the States. You wouldn’t have to worry about learning the local language if you didn’t want to. You wouldn’t have to work to make a place for yourself among the local community, because this isn’t a “local” community. This is an entire community of non-locals. You could wander into the restaurant down the street anytime and find English-speaking companionship, someone to complain to about the bureaucracy at the department of immigration or the challenges of studying to take a driving test in Spanish. Retiring to Ajijic and Chapala, you could make a comfortable life for yourself in a place that’s exotic, beautiful, safe, and very affordable.

Mexico Correspondents Akaisha and Billy Kaderli have taken this path. They’ve been in Chapala for years, where they live comfortably on less than US$50 per day, including housing, food, transportation, entertainment, and in-country travel. They eat well, play tennis, socialize, and travel comfortably. As they put it themselves, they want for nothing.

Don’t misunderstand. Ajijic, Lake Chapala, isn’t a retirement village. This isn’t Sun City South, at least not formally. This is a legitimate Mexican town that, over the past three decades, has attracted such a volume of foreign retirees that it’s become less Mexican and more foreign resident-friendly.

Boquete, Panama, is this country’s gringoland. According to Boquete’s information and tourism office, some 3,000 foreigners live in this colorful mountain town. Migration continues, and the number of foreign residents in Boquete is expected to increase to 10,000 by 2016.

What’s the attraction? Beautiful setting, good climate, Gold Standard pensionado rules (for all Panama), yes, but, mostly, the draw in Boquete, as in Ajijic, is the established gringo community. This is a place to come to enjoy many of the benefits of being retired overseas without leaving behind too many of the comforts and conveniences of American suburban living. In one private, gated, residential community development I know in this region, for example, amenities include a golf course, stables, even a small, central town created specifically for foreign residents, and construction, for both the shared amenities and the individual homes, is to U.S. standards, with U.S.-style finishes, fixtures, and fittings.

In Boquete town itself, more shops and services cater to the ever-growing foreign retiree population than don’t. It’s become a retiree boomtown, with U.S.-style restaurants serving American-style menus (featuring scrambled eggs for breakfast and cheeseburgers for lunch) and where you’ll hear all-English conversation at the tables around you and all-American music coming from the speakers above the bar. People you pass on the street will greet you with a wave and a casual “hi” or a “hello,” assuming that’s how you’d like to be addressed and that you’ll reply in kind.

It can be easier, frankly, to seek out a place like Ajijic or Boquete. Ajijic, for example, could as easily sit north of the Rio Grande as south. It can seem like a transplanted U.S. suburb. This can make it a terrific first step for some, a chance to tip your toe in the retire overseas waters rather than diving in headfirst. In Ajijic, you’re living overseas and enjoying many of the benefits (great weather, affordable cost of living), but the surroundings and the neighbors are familiar in many ways. You can shop at Wal-Mart, meet up with fellow Norteamericanos for Bridge on Thursday evenings, and never have to travel far to find English-language conversation.

On the other hand, life in Mexico would be a very different experience residing in a little fishing village or a small colonial city in the mountains where you’re the only foreigner in town. Settling among the locals means you must learn to live like a local.

Is the thought of that appealing, exciting, and invigorating? Or terrifying?

Kathleen Peddicord