The Homeless Traveler

I’m back in Panama, reflecting on my bicycle tour, and sorting out thoughts that I’ve had for a while now. I knew I would see beautiful places, face physical challenges, and be alone but I never expected to feel such loneliness. I’ve been alone on the road in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and felt fine, so why was it so different in the US?

We know that vast majority of people in the US are good people – kind, helpful, and respectful. But I was ignored even when I was requesting help. Have things changed in the US, or have my perceptions changed? Or, is it people’s perceptions of me? If I sat outside a store drinking coffee it was rare that someone would notice me, let alone return my greeting. If I was walking my bike no one asked if I was ok. I felt invisible, like I didn’t exist. When I mentioned this to a few people they said I probably looked like a homeless person. I don’t look like a typical bicycle tourist at my age and size, and my clothes and bike probably don’t look typical either.

I did approach many people and found a few willing to talk. The main things I heard were fear and drugs. As a tourist you see the beauty but you don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. I was surprised to hear of drugs, mostly meth, in the beautiful rural areas and touristy beach towns. You would think a gray haired lady on a bike is hardly threatening but everyone is looked at with suspicion. Even the people who talked with me were very hesitant at first.

I’m sad to see that this state of fear is so common in the US. It isolates, separates, and stresses people. Is it driven by reality? By the media? By what? When I lived in the US I knew people through work and other activities, but I remember it wasn’t common to interact with random strangers (though I don’t remember it being fear based, just the way things were). I was surprised and uneasy in Panama at first when people were so giving of their time and attention. It was so different and I couldn’t believe they didn’t expect anything in return. Now that I’ve become used to this culture, and then went traveling in the US where I didn’t know anyone, the contrast was astounding.

There are a lot of homeless people in the US and I saw them everywhere I went. Is this how they feel every day? No one wants to talk to them? No one wants them around? How sad. I had a choice. I could get off the street at any time. A homeless person usually has no choice. If it’s cold they still are in their tent, or if they are lucky in their car or RV (which no one wants parked in their neighborhood). How far are any of us from being in their shoes if our source of money dried up? How sad to be in such desperate circumstances and then be made to feel invisible as well. I know there are programs and people are trying to help but the problem obviously is far from solved. Of course there is poverty and people in desperate circumstances here in Panama as well, but there isn’t the social isolation which I think can be as damaging as the poverty.

I’m really glad I did my bike tour. I did see amazing places. I was happy I held up well enough physically. I didn’t like the cold, but as the days went by I got better at managing in spite of it. It was the loneliness that did me in. There are other places I want to see and I will probably set out again at some point, but not in the US. I am not happy with extended periods of solitude.

I am SO SO thankful! I am healthy, I have resources, I have family and people who care about me, and I am part of a community. It could easily be me living in a tent under a bridge where no one wants to talk to me. Of course I have done things to help myself but the vast majority of it is just circumstances, and somehow I got incredibly fortunate. Who would have thought it wasn’t the beauty, the challenges, the freedom, or any of the expected things that had the most impact on me, but it was the importance of community and connection.

 

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About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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38 Responses to The Homeless Traveler

  1. Reblogged this on The Panama Adventure and commented:

    A few thoughts from my bicycle tour before I get back to living and writing in Panama again. Now I am doubly happy to be living here!

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  2. oldsalt1942 says:

    I HATE the thought of returning to the States, and a lot of it has to do with what you encountered there. It certainly isn’t the country I grew up in, and it sure isn’t anything like Panama. If I was in better health I wouldn’t even contemplate the move….BUT….

    I was talking to a friend in Kentucky yesterday about how I wasn’t looking forward to the move, but I said, “if The Donald” gets elected I’ll move back to Panama and I don’t care if I have to go to the Regional Hospital if something happens to me. I’d rather die poor here than live poor there. I have my cedula which says, ‘Residente Permanente’ so there’s no problem coming back if I have to.”

    Another thing that worries me is I’ll be spending my time in the south, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my mouth shut. It could be dangerous.

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    • I wish there was some way you could have it all, the health care you need and the Panamanian life you want. But you have also wanted to live on the water and the US has that possibility as well. It could be good! Just don’t mouth off to the wrong people and get yourself shot! LOL

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  3. Kris,
    Welcome home! Very well written and thought provaking.
    ” Who would have thought it wasn’t the beauty, the challenges, the freedom, or any of the expected things that had the most impact on me, but it was the importance of community and connection.”
    That last line says it all.
    And to Richards point:
    http://www.vox.com/2016/3/15/11233676/move-canada-poll

    We are glad you are back!
    John & Susan

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says:

    I know exactly what you mean by invisible. I used to think it was the gray hair. Striking up a conversation here is the norm, but in Idaho, you would think you had an extra head by the way folks look at you. It’s sad because I think it’s stress and fear creating those reactions. I’m glad you’re back and look forward to getting together. You are certainly not invisible to all of us who love you.

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    • Maybe it is the gray hair because I have heard different stories from other cyclists who have come through here. But, they are mostly all young guys or occasional couples. I don’t know how they manage to meet interesting people on the road because that sure wasn’t my experience. But, I’m home again now where I never feel invisible, and I really like that. 🙂

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  5. Laureen says:

    Very insightful, and very sad that the US has become. I think you’ve been ‘spoiled’ by the wonderfully friendly and caring Latin American culture, and I can’t wait to move myself. I know I speak for Jan as well. If Trump becomes the next POTUS, then it will only get worse.
    We will be ready to pick you up at the Guadalajara airport when you come to Mexico!

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    • I know I have been spoiled! I am terribly spoiled and I love this culture, and don’t want to leave it.
      We will see you in Mexico! When you get moved and settled in, we will make plans 🙂

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  6. Wow! I knew things had changed in the almost nine years I have been in Costa Rica! I never dreamed how much? I am going back to the Pacific Northwest for the 1st time at the end of July, for ten weeks! I lost my husband a little over 2 years ago now. I am feeling lots of pressure from family members to come home to live, now! Didn’t sound like a good choice to me, even before I read your blog! Now, I am even more sure! Growing old alone here, doesn’t seem so bad, now! I could be in the USA and grow old, alone, sounds like! In the country of my birth where I am a native speaker!

    I have put down deep roots in the nine years I have lived here! I am considered to be an important part of my little tico community! In spite of the fact I am a Gringa!

    Thanks for posting this article!

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    • I biked through Washington state and Oregon, probably where you are going to be so it will be interesting to see how it goes for you. I think I’ve done OK on previous visits because I was with family, but being out there solo can be a lonely thing. My husband and I have talked about what we would do if something would happen to one of us. I would definitely stay here. I have more support and care here than anywhere else I’ve ever been and I know this would be the best place for me. Family can’t understand this though if they haven’t lived in this culture. It’s one of those things that has to be experienced. Of course they want the best for you and for you to be close to people who care about you, but its hard for them to understand that the care you feel from your tico community is very strong too.

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  7. AnneliseD says:

    Powerful, powerful post….so glad you found your paradise and so intensely proud of you, amiga mia!

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    • I think the main praiseworthy part was just taking the leap of faith to try this out. Otherwise it has been surprisingly easy and the benefits have been enormous. Thank you amiga mia 🙂

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  8. Kat McKay says:

    I am always amazed at your inner strength! You make me feel like a slug! I am glad you had a safe trip but the reality of how we used to live there is very sad. My friends stateside still think I’m crazy, but I know what a wonderful life I have here and so many friendly people! It’s easy to smile when you’re on cloud nine! Welcome back Kris!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t always have inner strength. There was a lot of whining, especially on the cold nights! 😀 But when you’re out there there is nothing to do but get back on the bike and move forward.
      People who haven’t lived in this culture and experienced this cannot understand. People tried to explain it to me too and I didn’t get it all all until I’d lived here a while. But, once you know this life I think it’s very hard to go back. They can think you’re crazy all they want, but you know you are happy!

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  9. Great post Kris … great post … very provocative … we will be in Panama again first two weeks in July and your post is just helpful and confirming for me … in a good way, as I listen internally to what is best for us, and look to the outside world, for “signs” … ❤

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  10. Excellent post mi amiga. It is thought provoking. I feel the same way when we go back to the states. We lived in the same house for over 20 years and really didn’t know our neighbors. Our doors were always closed and we seldom socialized with the neighborhood. Never any neighborhood gatherings. So glad to hear that you are back home. Now, when are you planning your next adventure? We will be leaving for the month of November. We’re going to New Zealand and looking for house sitters. Hint…hint.

    Liked by 1 person

    • House sitters? November? Hmmm….. I could come back to that beautiful island for a while, and see the great people we made friends with…. yes, I could do that. 🙂
      I will have more adventures too. Mexico and Central America is at the top of the list, see the places nearby that I need to visit.

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  11. Sunni Morris says:

    Kris,

    Glad you’re home safe and sound. Sorry you felt so lonely on your bicycle tour. I have to agree that times have changed since I was growing up in the 50’s, but life is what you make it a lot of the time. I probably socialize more now than I did back then, but we grew up in a remote, sheltered farm existence. It’s nice to have neighbors for a change and we do get together – not with every neighbor on the block. I can understand some hesitation from people to get involved with strangers because of all the unknowns today. That’s certainly a problem we never worried about as kids.

    I believe you that people in South America are probably more friendly towards strangers. I think times there move slower and they are behind the US in that regard, but that isn’t a bad thing as drugs probably aren’t as rampant there (or at least in some areas) as they are here. Drugs are responsible for a lot of the crime and causing people to go off the deep-end. The world has gotten to be a scary place.

    I am a Trump supporter (I probably shouldn’t say that too loud), but I really believe we need an outsider to straighten things out here. The same old politics and the good ole boys aren’t going to change a thing. Of course that’s just my opinion, but I think Trump is the only one who turn things around and get things back on track.

    Welcome back, Kris.

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    • I don’t know the roots of the problem or how to fix anything. I just know it didn’t feel right where I was and I didn’t like it. I’m too used to the open and friendly manner here. It especially made me feel for the bottom rung of the US society and how they are treated.

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      • Wayne Fulford says:

        Enjoyed your story and agree people are very hard to talk to in the US. I was in Panama last year and really liked David and Chiriqui. I don’t know what Donald Trump has to do with your experience, he’s not the one that has been in power for the last almost eight years!

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        • Trump? I don’t know either. I noticed a big change in the tone of the country in the Bush years, and some even before in the Clinton years. But I think the fear levels have been rising world wide and it goes far beyond the White House, to world politics and down to how each individual chooses to relate to their neighbors.

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  12. Mike Rains says:

    Great reflection of your wonder-filled tour! Cheers 🙂

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    • Thanks! My experience was different from what I’ve heard from many other cyclists, which was surprising to me. Now with my experience it will be very interesting to talk to others and see if I can figure that out.

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  13. Sally Reed says:

    Kris—Elizabeth keeps me up dated on your whereabouts and directs me to your blog from time to time so I’ve been able to follow your comings and goings including events on this recent bike excursion. I am feeling this very same sense of loneliness right here in Venice, Fl where I moved to over a year and a half ago after spending a full year in Bangor after my mother who I had been caretaking for 13 years passed away. (As did several of our life long family friends). It was too sad there for me to stick around and have to pass by every place and every house that I used to be able to stop & visit and to get together with old friends to play bridge or go out with for lunch. I somehow deluded myself into thhinking moving to a totally new place would allow for starting life anew- but just as you are commenting, things in the US have really undergone noticible changes in this past ten or twenty years. The “open door”policy that used to exist between friends seems to have disappeared. Yes. drugs and crime have contributed to this barricade and it not only extends to total strangers but is also penetrating social interaction between all kinds of people who once were very open and wanting to participate in social interaction. I think aging does contribute to this retreat from interaction but I find the changes rather dramatic in contrast to the many years of an entirely different approach to life with most people I ever interacted with. It is a sad state of affairs. 9-11 made a huge impact on the vulnerability this nation now lives with on a constant basis and the paranoia of when will it happen again is ever present in most people’s heads. The political arena is in an upheaval and the foundations of many systems that used to work well for the majority of law abiding citizens have been eroded bit by bit so that most of the mores and standards that once served as guiding forces have been all but derailed. We are in a period of transition and everything is under scrutiny as never before in our lifetimes. But don’t give up on your US identity entirely. You did get much of your character from the advantages that living in the US afforded you and we all must focus on the positives and seek to correct the negatives we see unfolding.

    I’m happy to learn you are safely back to your home ground and know Eliz is very much looking forward to Joel’s visit soon. Keep hope high and vision in perspective. Glad you got to see all your family Stateside while on your journey. Sally Reed

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    • Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. It is interesting to hear your perspective, and I’m sorry to hear you are finding similar problems in FL. It especially concerns me because one would think there are many in your age group with similar needs for friends and social interactions, and who hopefully would be less affected by the changes of the last decade or two because you lived in a more open manner for most of your life. You aren’t housebound because of winter part of the year either. But, unfortunately, I am hearing that the changes pervade every location and part of our society. As a nurse I was very concerned with older people who had trouble leaving home and who became very isolated, which is bad mentally and physically. How much worse is it for them as this social trend continues? Here in Panama also, older people are highly respected, something that is sorely lacking in the US, yet another problem to add to the growing list. *sigh* You too, keep hope high! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts 🙂

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  14. ME BE in Panama says:

    Sorry we missed each other. Things are looking good for our return date of September. We’ll get together this fall! Hugs, Mariah & By

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  15. David says:

    Hi. Chris I read your posts from time to time and I’m also glad you are back I miss the pictures, I noticed a lot of the people posting live there in Panama and still have ties to the USA , how do you make the transition , ?? Do you keep a bank account in USA and live in Panama ? If you are a USA citizen you can’t keep more than 10,000 us in a bank, per the IRS .how does one get citizenship , and are the banks safe in Panama, I’m on SS and I have money saved , and would like to move and live there, and like the rest of you I feel the USA is not a happy place anymore ,just tuned 65 and health is good so how do I do this ?? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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    • Pack a suitcase and buy a plane ticket!
      I think it’s easier to have a USA address, maybe a family member or trusted friend. I have my main business in a US bank, pay most bills on line, and get cash from an ATM her as needed. I also have a Panamanian bank account but could easily get by without it. It’s just handy for an occasional thing. Yes, the banks are safe. Banking is one of the major things here, mostly in Panama City. First you need to get residency here, which involves some documents, money, and a lawyer. Then after five years you can apply for citizenship but you really don’t need to. You can stay permanently as a resident.
      It’s really not as complicated as you think. First you need to plan a visit here and see how it feels to you, and start working on your Spanish.

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  16. I too, feel the same way when visiting the US. I’m from a small, perhaps overly friendly, city in Eastern Canada. I completely understand how you felt lonely among crowds of people. One of the times I felt it the most was in New York City! Everyone has a place to be, a cell phone in hand, and no one wants to chat with a stranger on a park bench anymore, even though they could have a great story to tell.

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    • Interesting that you felt so much the same. I don’t know if I am no longer used to that sort of culture, or if things have gotten worse over the years, or a bit of both. I’m from NY but of course back then I had my own circle of friends and things to do so I never felt lonely. I’m sure I would feel differently now if I went back by myself.

      Liked by 1 person

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