How A Cheap Soccer Ball And A Boy In Panama Changed My Outlook On Life

By Peg Fairbairn (Teacher, traveler and Panama expat)

A $20 soccer ball changed my life. Or at least my attitude toward life.

Here’s how: My partner April and I moved into a tiny rental house in rural Panama about 10 months ago. As is common in these parts, the neighbor’s kids were on our doorstep introducing themselves and asking questions before we had even unpacked the car. They were (and still are) delightful. Irisbel, the girl, is 13, and her brother Jonathan and Abner are 12 and seven respectively. All are healthy, happy, bright and inquisitive.

The three of them and their mother, Iris, quickly became a huge part of our lives. We all live about three miles outside the town of Mariato, on the western side of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula. We are about an hour-and-a-half drive from the nearest shopping mall and four hours from the nation’s capital. We live in what is known as el interiorin Panama. The sticks.

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Iris comes to visit often. After she finishes her housework and before the kids get home from school, she plops down in a rocking chair on our patio and schools us on the art of survival in rural Panama. From her, we have learned of the bounty lying literally at our feet (yucca roots, cilantro, and peppers) and in the trees (plantains, bananas and papayas) here. She even showed us how to cook up the crawfish that crowd the nearby streams and combine them with rice and herbs for an amazing supper.

For us, these novelties are a choice. For Iris, whose husband works hard for the state and even picks up odd jobs on the weekends to make ends meet, these things are a necessity. Not once have we heard her or the kids complain, though. About anything. They embrace life as it is, and find joy in every day.

When April and I moved to Panama more than a year ago, we certainly did not consider ourselves well-off. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we moved to Panama. As it is for more and more Americans our age, retirement on a schoolteacher’s pension and a bookkeeper’s meager savings simply wasn’t an option in Texas. We were both going to have to continue to work in order to get by. Work not because we wanted to, which is as it should be, but because we had to.

So April and I decided to embark on an adventure. Our “retirement” was going to be more than just shuffleboard and bridge clubs. We were going to make the most out of the next chapter in our lives, and we were going to do it in a way that made some of our friends and family fall out of their chairs. Even though neither of us spoke Spanish, we bought an ocean-view lot in a tropical paradise and are seeing our dream home go up. Within a year we will be watching the sun set over the Pacific from lounge chairs beside our pool, margaritas in hand. Travel is our passion, and now all manner of curious and wonderful places are at our doorstep just waiting to be explored.

Until that day comes, we are really getting to know Iris and her kids. Our households have become irrevocably intertwined. We cried along with the kids when their dog was run over. They watch over our menagerie of two dogs and two cats when we have to run to the capital. April helps Irisbel with her math homework, and we both help Abner with his rapidly improving English-language skills. They all, in turn, are helping us immensely with our dreadful (but improving!) Spanish.

Birthdays are a shared celebration now, and that’s where the soccer ball comes in. For Irisbel’s recent birthday, we gave her a second-hand Android tablet, the sort of gadget phone companies seem to be giving away in the States these days and that probably would be scoffed at by the average American teen because it doesn’t have an Apple logo on it. You would have thought we presented her with the Holy Grail.

Abner turned seven in March and got a remote-controlled car. Jonathan’s special day followed just last month, and for him the obvious choice was a proper soccer ball (futbol around here). When he saw his gift, complete with a pump, his face lit up like Christmas. He ran to us with tears in his eyes for long round of hugs and gracias. He’s been kicking that ball around the yard ever since.

April and I both learned something from Jonathan, and from everyone in this special family. There is no correlation between the price tag of something, whether it’s an automobile or a soccer ball or a way of life, and the happiness it can bring. It’s a very un-American outlook. One that we have been happy to leave behind.

Peg Fairbairn, a former middle school science teacher, is the author of In Focus: Panama, a weekly newsletter published by Access Panama and Live and Invest Overseas LLC.

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