A: The very very short answer is: in October, 2014 we left the USA for Panama. But everyone who travels knows that nothing ever starts when you leave the country. Technically, you could trace our journey beginnings back to 1961. I (Allison) wasn’t born yet but my mother was participating on a program through American Friends Service Committee (after which the Peace Corps would be modeled some years later). She lived in Mexico for 2 years, assisting villagers with life-improvement education, including vaccinations for their children and farming chickens. She learned Spanish and periodically I would hear her speak it when I was growing up. When my parents would discuss Christmas presents it was always in Spanish. Maybe that why I’ve always loved Spanish!
Fast forward to 1983. I was 13 years old living in Anchorage, Alaska with my mom and step father. My step father was a professor at the local university and he arranged to take a sabbatical for 6 months. My parents decided that it would be good for us to live abroad and they chose Spain based on my mother’s language skills. So for the second semester of my 7th grade year I attended a local school in Campello, a small fishing village on the east coast of Spain. I did no homeschooling but my junior high school in Anchorage was confused enough with the school transcript in Spanish that they just passed me on to 8th grade without much fuss.
My 4 months in Spain was enough to begin learning the language and made all future Spanish classes much easier for me than for most kids in my class, but I was far from fluent. My Spanish classes continued at college, where it became my minor.
Fast forward to 1991 when I was attending college at Oregon State University. My adviser saw my minor in Spanish and suggested I take advantage of the exchange program to Ecuador through the university. So for the first semester of my senior year in college I lived with a host family in Quito, Ecuador and attended the university there. I was there for 4 months which, again, was too short for full fluency. It whet my appetite for the language yet again and I desperately wanted to stay and change my major to Spanish but logistics and lack of money got in the way. I had to get back to the USA and graduate from college and move on with my life (read: get a job and start paying off the student loans accumulated getting a degree in something I no longer wanted to do). For this reason I am a strong advocate for getting out and travelling early in life, when you still have a chance for it to change your future career.
But upon returning to the USA not all is lost. I graduated from college and got a job in Portland, Oregon working for AFS-USA – a high school student exchange organization. I always planned to return to Ecuador and further cement my language but until then it was a good job. I got to work day in and day out with people from other countries and preparing teenagers to live overseas. Uprooting yourself out of your own culture and immersing yourself in the local culture felt as natural to me as breathing. If I couldn’t do it myself at least I could help others to do it.
Once again life happens and I never got back to Ecuador. I met Dan, who shared my love of travel (his 12 year career in the military took him all over the world). We got married in April of 1997.
Fast forward to 2011. I had quit my job at AFS after 13 years to stay at home after having our second daughter. We were living in a fairy tale little subdivision in Wilsonville, Oregon. It was perfect except for the fact that it was in Oregon. Dan was tired of the Oregon rain and I was tired of hearing him complain about the Oregon rain so we sold our house and moved to Arizona. Zoe was 5 and Haley was 9 at the time. When we were planning our move, Dan suggested we take the opportunity of the transition to live overseas for awhile. We had always talked about giving the girls an international experience. At that point I wasn’t on board yet. I felt that Zoe was too young to remember it, and I wasn’t comfortable not knowing the place that we would eventually return to. So off to Arizona we moved.
Gilbert was another amazing community. The weather was downright amazing, the town itself was extremely well planned out, it had great school, eventual friends, a great church, the list goes on. But it’s possible that it was a little too perfect. We found themselves talking about our need for a bigger pool, a bigger storage unit to hold all of our ever-increasing amount of stuff and of course the Christmas lights on the house needed to be synchronized to music. You know… AMERICA! At one point we talked about living “off the grid” at a ranch property in Eastern Arizona, in order to give the girls an experience different than the middle-America mall life. We wanted the girls to experience something very different. That didn’t pan out for logistical reasons (construction is very difficult out there and Zoe and I needed more social interaction) but it was the beginning of our search for something outside the box.
One night we were watching the movie Million Dollar Arm. The scenes filmed in India made me long for an authentic vacation. We had been doing waterparks and Disney for years and I started to want something a little more genuine and real. I told Dan we needed to plan something overseas for an upcoming trip. A few months later we were watching House Hunters International and the family featured was looking at homes in Pedasi, Panama. I announced that the Panama Canal had always fascinated me and that someday I wanted to go there.
What Dan said next really started this whole adventure: “Then let’s just move to Panama,” he said. I remember it very clearly. It was late May, 2014, the kids were just getting out of school for the year and we were in a bit of a transition. We had been in Arizona for 3 years. We had not purchased a house, so we were still renting. The lease was up in June. After the House Hunters episode we started talking in earnest about living overseas and we really couldn’t come up with a reason not to. Zoe was finishing 2nd grade and Haley was finishing 6th. If we left soon, they could get back before Haley started high school.
Based on my two 4-month experiences that were too short we decided on a time frame of 2 years. We would go to a Spanish speaking country, live for 2 years and then return to our perfect hometown of Gilbert in time for Haley to go to her perfect high school and we could hang those perfect Christmas lights synced to Christmas music. We’d pick up right where we left off and all would be right with the world. Best laid plans…!
Dan started doing what he does best: detailed research. Panama was at the top of the list but we had to rule out other places first. He looked all over Central and South America for the right spot for our move. In the end we stuck with Panama for all kinds of reasons: economy, stability, location, weather, expat communities, infrastructure and no natural disasters to speak of. Belize, Ecuador and Costa Rica were all on the final list but Panama won out in the end. We set our departure date for 5 months later in early October and began the long process of Sorting Stuff. What to keep? What to sell? Before we left for Panama we acquired yet another very large air-conditioned storage unit for the “keep” pile. Little did we know a year later we’d be back to sell it all, dramatically alter our plan of being abroad for only 2 years and set off on an indefinite adventure all over the world…