Going Local Vs. Expat Communities

Gringos Go Local?

One of the most important choices you have to make as you think through your options for launching a new life in a new country overseas is whether you’re more comfortable moving to an established expatriate community, a place where you’d have no trouble slipping into the local social scene and finding English-speakers who share your interests…

Or whether you want, instead, to go local, immersing yourself in the new culture completely.

This important early decision may not have occurred to you. 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.

It can be easier, frankly, to seek out a place like Ajijic, Mexico, or Boquete, Panama, where your neighbors would be fellow North Americans, where you’d hear more English on the street than Spanish, and where you’d have like-minded compatriots to commiserate with over the trials and tribulations of daily life in a foreign country. 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 a terrific first step, a chance to dip 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 Americanos 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? Be honest with yourself as you consider your response.

There is no right or wrong reply, and there are pluses and minuses either way.

During our 15-plus years living outside the States, we’ve gone local, first in Waterford, Ireland (where we had no choice; there’s no established expat settlement in these parts), then in Paris, now in Panama City.

Here in Panama, we settled first in one of the most “local” neighborhoods in the city, Casco Viejo. Life in the Casco is about as far from life in a private gated development community as you can get. This is a neighborhood in transition that is home to some of Panama City’s poorest residents. English is spoken almost nowhere, Latin music blares from open windows, and children run barefoot in the square. The Catholic church on our block was full every Sunday morning with the local faithful, who, after Mass, congregated on the corner to share gossip and pass the time.

Living in a gated community, we would have missed all that.

Living in a gated community, the streets would be kept clean, the landscaping manicured. You could expect access to a swimming pool, a clubhouse, maybe riding stables and a tennis court. Security at the gate would keep out anyone without permission to pass, roving guards would keep watchful eyes over your property, and your neighbors likely would all speak English just like you.

That could be great.

Great, but different.

I was reminded of this important retire-overseas decision by Overseas Retirement Letter Managing Editor Lucy Culpepper, who wrote this today to describe the content of this month’s ORL issue:

“This month’s feature is Loja, Ecuador (written by Latin America Correspondent Lee Harrison), a place that’s really off the gringo trail. However, the Property Picks section is about immersing oneself in all that is gringo–i.e. living in a gated community. I’m trying to represent the two extremes of living/retiring overseas, because each option appeals to a very different kind of person…”

Lucy is finalizing the issue now, which is expected to be in subscribers’ e-mailboxes by Monday.

Kathleen Peddicord

Continue Reading: Getting A Tourist Visa For Travel To Ecuador


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