From Toronto To The Sun-Drenched Azuero Coast
Valerie Longstaff was born in British Guyana (now Guyana) but grew up in Flushing, New York. From Flushing, Valerie moved with her family to Toronto, where she spent most of her life.
Today, though, you’ll find Valerie in Pedasi, on the east coast of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula. Valerie loves Toronto and has retained a home there, but she’s in no hurry to return. She’s too busy with her new life at the beach and the thriving bakery business she’s established in Pedasi.
Panama Letter Editor Jocelyn Carnegie connected with Valerie recently…
Valerie, what drew you to Panama in the first place?
I was born in the tropics, and I knew I would always return. I’ve spent most of my life being cold, between New York and Toronto. Finally, I just needed to feel the sun again!
And you chose Panama?
It wasn’t that easy, I can tell you. I wanted somewhere with white sand and Caribbean water. I was specifically not looking for darker sand beaches (not black), so it’s funny I have ended up here on the Pacific coast of Panama where the sand is glorious but not bright white as in the Caribbean.
Which other countries did you consider?
I considered Venezuela, but I wasn’t mad about Chavez. The situation in Venezuela all seems a little too crazy.
Mexico was out of the question for me. It’s too close the United States. I wanted something farther afield. I went to Argentina several times, and I even considered New Zealand because it’s English-speaking option, but I decided both those countries were too far from Toronto.
Did you have any other criteria that contributed to your settling on Panama?
Yes. I wanted to be within a day’s travel of home—preferably less than six hours away—so I could leave in the morning and be back in Toronto the same afternoon or early evening.
Another of my main criteria was government stability—no coups in recent times anyway. I discovered that Panama uses the U.S. dollar and that it seemed to be much more Second World (as opposed to Third World) than I imagined.
I found that Panama ticked most of the boxes. I came here seven times before deciding to give it a try on a more permanent basis.
Why Pedasi specifically?
One of my loves is sailing. Pedasi is a fishing and coastal town with nice beaches and a boating culture. The focus, though, in Pedasi, I’ve found, is sports fishing. Sailing is actually in its infancy along this country’s Pacific coast. It’s much more popular on the Caribbean side in Colon and Bocas del Toro. There are so many islands and archipelagos off Panama’s Caribbean coast that offer wonderful opportunities for sailing.
Did you come here with the intention of working?
Not specifically, but I am very sociable and active. Can’t stand being sedentary. I can fly planes. I had two restaurants in Sarnia and enjoyed that business, so I thought about starting a small hotel. Having had experience in the catering and hospitality business, it was a natural first step.
Everything I do is considered, so I looked at what was missing in Pedasi. I came up with a shortlist of businesses: a fresh food market, a bakery, and a fish market. Pedasi is too far from the main sources for daily produce deliveries, and I am not sure I could handle the fish market smell every day. I found there were quite a lot of small hotels in the town already.
That left me with the bakery idea. There is nowhere like the shop I’ve opened in town—healthy breads and US$5 lunches!
Business is good and getting better every day. My clientele is 90% expats and 10% locals, but this side of the business is growing.
I do what’s called the second rising and have a range of healthy, German-style breads—multigrain, several cereals, light and dark rye. I cook all the pastries, cakes, and dulces (sweets) myself.
What was your main barrier to entry?
Really, it was skepticism among fellow expats and suppliers. For example, my supplier of bread mixes is German. His only outlet outside Panama City is in Coronado, which is getting very populated now. He was downbeat and unsure of Pedasi and my plans, but I said, “You have to come and see the community down here.” He came. He saw. He agreed. I ordered.
Now, I look forward to every day with too much to do. My chocolate cake is popular, made from 100% cocoa. I also do a mean carrot and orange cake and cinnamon bun.
One of the most popular things I do is a US$5 dollar lunch package. Locals and expats love these, as they do my breakfast muffin with pepper jack cheese, bacon, and egg.
Has Pedasi changed since you arrived?
Yes it has. There are many more restaurants and hotel rooms. I supply a few of them. One of Panama City’s most colorful Spanish restaurateurs, Manolo Caracol, has just opened an organic place here.
Do you miss anything living in Pedasi?
I have a grown-up daughter and two grandchildren. Of course I miss them a lot. I get back about two or three times every year.
As I mentioned, I am a very sociable person, and I miss the parties I would throw back in Toronto. There’s no comparison down here I am afraid. Although one of the reasons I chose Pedasi was for its tranquility, that sleepy coastal town feel. As it turns out, the community here is very vibrant, and I have made some great friends.
I am an avid theater-goer, so I do miss that.
How did you settle into the local community?
I rented a place for three months to orientate myself. Then an opportunity presented itself to buy my home from the Canadian couple who owned it, so I took it.
Really the local and expat community has been so kind and welcoming. I like to get involved in things, and we do things like organized litter pickups. I am surprised and pleased to see that many more Panamanians are joining in.
If you had to name a worst part of living in Panama, what would it be?
The terrible discourtesy of driving here. Even if you show them another way, they won’t do it. There is no system of priority. “It’s all about me” is the only driving code of conduct in Panama.
Bureaucracy is a pain, and it’s irritating that it’s all geared toward the government being able to squeeze a little more money out of us. Police corruption is also difficult to deal with, but it’s a lot less prevalent now, and I know this is a focus of the new administration. I am involved with a “vigilante” group (neighborhood watch) trying to make a difference to community security. The local police has been nothing but supportive to the community.
Then there’s the garbage problem. It’s endemic everywhere, up and down all the highways. People never seem to learn that their actions are having a direct effect on other people’s lives and health. We are trying to educate, and it is finally beginning to get through.
What’s the best thing about living here?
I would not have stayed if it were not for the people here in Pedasi. They have been so helpful to me. The Panamanians have been incredibly welcoming.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing what you did?
Plenty of people said, “A bakery in Pedasi? How stupid can you be?”
Actually, I hadn’t asked for their opinions. My attitude was always build it and they will come. I did it, and they are coming.
For me there is no grey area. One of my mottos is, “Because I can and I want to.” So I suppose my advice would be to follow your passion. There is a very good book called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.” Anyone thinking of making a move like I’ve made should read it.
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