397: Panama versus Morocco

As an international teacher (at least since I sold out and left the USA) I have lived and worked in two lovely countries in different parts of the world: Morocco and Panama. While each country is unique, worth seeing and visiting for its own special reasons, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two as I move through the routine of daily living and working.

Living and working breaks down into several distinct categories for comparison. Housing, transportation, utilities, food/shopping entertainment and income are all important to living, and are different experiences in each country. So, which is “better?” Your answer and my answer might not be the same, depending on a lot of things. Our situations are not the same, nor are our resources. If you are Bill Gates, you are pretty much going to have a darned good time, no matter what country you are in. I am not Bill Gates, so my experience of each country varies significantly, partly in relation to my resources – which vary according to the country and the work I find there, and partly because the countries are just plain different.

Plus, your experience of each country will be affected by what you want and are willing to accept. If you live more like a native to the country, your expenses will plummet. If you live like an American in either country, your expenses will rise considerably. Central heat and air don’t come cheap anywhere – but usually, the natives have figured out how to live comfortably using fewer costly resources. And I like the smell of line-dried laundry, anyway, compared to tumble-dried.

HOUSING: My apartment in Morocco had two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a ginormous family room, a den, a kitchen, a balcony AND a rooftop terrace, for 176 USD a month. My four BR, 2 bath Panama house with a tiny living room and an eat-in kitchen (galley style) with a front porch costs 800 USD a month. Approximately the same size apartments in square feet. Yes, the complex in Panama has a pool, an exercise room (sort of) and it is located on a polluted beach, and the apartment in Morocco adjoined a mosque, so we got the call to prayer five times a day, starting at 4:30 am. In Morocco, I was robbed three times in three years by maids my husband hired, and in Panama I have been robbed twice (once in the house and once on the street) in the first year. Points to Morocco.

TRANSPORTATION: In Morocco, you can travel in a taxi 80 kilometers for about five bucks. In Panama, you can travel in a taxi about five kilometers for five bucks. The bus in Panama is cheaper – and safer. Morocco has trains that are pretty cheap, Panama does not have trains. Both countries have cheap buses. Both countries have good airport services – about the same.

UTILITIES: Moroccan veterinarians are FAR less expensive than Panama ones – and doctors and dentists compare about the same: Panama costs FAR more. Morocco wins HANDS DOWN for cost and quality of medical and dental care. Total utilities in Morocco are also far cheaper than Panama, and they work better, too, with fewer outages in services. The one thing you need in Morocco that you don’t need in Panama is firewood during the winter, which Panama does not have. Points to Panama on that one. Water quality in either place is good, but Morocco water tastes better – at least in the mountains. Overall – Morocco wins.

FOOD/SHOPPING: In Morocco, produce and limited meat for two people for a week costs about 12.50 USD – 20 bucks if you want imported things, or fancy meats. There is no way in the hot place you can buy food in Panama, anywhere, for that kind of money. Food in Panama is three to five times as expensive as Morocco. Restaurants are similar. I could eat at a local restaurant in Morocco for three dollars or less. Only at a street stall (quality and sanitation iffy) can you do that in Panama. Points to Morocco. Shopping is pretty amazing in either country, but then, I am female…….

ENTERTAINMENT: Where we were in Morocco, there was little entertainment you didn’t make yourself, or that was not sponsored by the local University. In Panama City, where this school is located, entertainment abounds – if you can pay for it. I still end up watching movies online, mostly, and popping my own popcorn. It’s a wash.

INCOME: Morocco paid less on paper, but I had more money. Panama pays more, but the costs of living are correspondingly more, so I have less available cash, even with greater income. It is a wash, pretty much.

Final judgement? I don’t like Panama nearly as much as I liked Morocco. I will finish my contract here in Panama, and start looking for another place to go and see. That is why I became an international teacher – to see some of the world!

354: Retiring…..in MOROCCO????

Morocco 078

Published February 25, 2014, in the Herald Leader, Fitzgerald, Georgia (USA) weekly newspaper.

Lately, most Islamic countries have been pretty much OFF the list as desirable places to live, work and retire. Political unrest is not attractive for those in the market for a place to live. This black eye, however, is undeserved in several cases, and Morocco is close to the top of the list as a pleasant place to consider living. Morocco is located in the upper north-western corner of the African continent. Morocco and the United States share a companionable history – did you know that Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the fledgling USA as a nation? Morocco is an Islamic country in that Islam is the official state religion, and the majority of its citizens are Muslim, but there are people of other faiths here as well, and tolerance is the theme, espoused and endorsed by Morocco’s progressive king, Mohammad VI, as well.

A lot of Morocco is hot, often too hot to be comfortable without expensive air conditioning. After all, the Sahara Desert begins in eastern Morocco, and hot was invented there!  However, Morocco has mountain ranges that run lengthwise down the middle of the country like a backbone: the Middle and High Atlas Mountains. In the Middle Atlas, you will find the lovely little city of Azrou. Azrou is a little less than a mile high in elevation, and has a comfortable climate that is much cooler than other locations in Morocco, even seeing some snow during the winter months. There is a ski resort in the neighboring town of Ifrane (10 miles away), which incidentally, is home to Morocco’s only English-speaking University (Al Akhawayn University). For those who enjoy winter sports, there are African slopes waiting!

And, unlike some other places, Morocco enjoys excellent water. Several brands of bottled mineral water originate near Azrou, and water here is delicious straight from the tap. Being in the mountains does no damage to the views, either! There are lovely, rolling hills all around Azrou, and the drive to either of the larger cities nearby, imperial Meknes (UNESCO World Heritage site) or imperial Fez (UNESCO World Heritage site) includes some breathtaking scenic spots begging for your camera. Meknes is surrounded by vineyards, and local wine produced there and elsewhere in Morocco is both tasty and relatively inexpensive.  There is a good selection at prices less than 10 USD a bottle. The extensive Roman ruins of Volubilis (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site) are a little over an hour’s drive away from Azrou.

Morocco 034Azrou adjoins one of Morocco’s National parks, and there are Barbary Macaques (monkey), that make their home there who are accustomed to being fed by park visitors, though for your safety consider photos only. Hiking, biking and camping opportunities abound nearby in nearly any direction, including being able to explore some nearby extinct volcano calderas and some lovely waterfalls. Outdoorsy people will find plenty to do.

My husband and I moved to Morocco knowing not a word of Arabic or French, the two most common languages spoken in Morocco, and we have done just fine here for three years. The Moroccans are lovely people, helpful and generous, and many speak enough English to be able to transact business, even for us Americans, and are appreciative when you do your best to learn and speak Arabic. Azrou is primarily a farming community, with a few tourist shops featuring handicrafts thrown in for good measure.  The weekly souk (farmer and flea market) here is on Tuesdays, with inexpensive,  fresh produce, all manner of household goods, clothing and livestock sold weekly, but anything you might want is also available from small shops all over town any day of the week. There is also a fish farm in town that sells smoked or fresh fish, dressed fresh to your order. Restaurants in town range from inexpensive sandwich shops (where you can eat for less than two dollars USD), to dining experiences featuring the finest in French cuisine, without the expensive European price tag.  Medical care and dental care both are good and inexpensive. My husband’s recent oral surgery cost us 125 USD, and his bridge will be made by a Boston University-trained dentist, for thousands less than what the identical services would have cost us back home.

Our two-bedroom, two-bath rooftop apartment, with a balcony and a private roof terrace, sets us back 1,500 Moroccan dirham a month, which is 176.50 USD.  Water, gas, electricity, phones and Internet run about 500 dirhams more a month: 63 USD more. We can do just fine here on much less than a thousand USD per month – our living expenses alone run about 650 USD, without including the costs of our small car, which accounts for the rest of the thousand per month. We bought the used car for our occasional trips around Morocco and to Spain, which has two toeholds, nice little cities, five hour’s drive away from Azrou along Morocco’s northern coastline.  Morocco has excellent, inexpensive bus service and the trains are quite nice, too, as well as inexpensive, for those who’d rather not maintain an automobile.

For those considering locations around the world for potential retirement, Morocco has a low cost of living, a good standard of living even on a limited budget, and a very nice proximity to vacationing in Europe, while not paying Europe’s often higher costs of living. A small, but efficient, regional airport in nearby Fez serves cities in Spain, Italy, London, Paris and more, on one of several low-cost carriers. Seasonal fares can be so low we can actually afford to fly to Rome for just the weekend, occasionally. Try THAT in the US! We had high hopes for Morocco when we made the decision to move, and it has certainly fulfilled them. If you are looking at international locations, consider exotic Morocco!

Resources:

Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook (2nd ed.), Bacon, Andjar and Benchehda, 1999. Lonely Planet Publications, ISBN: 0864425864.

Moroccan consulate in New York: http://www.moroccanconsulate.com/, requirements for Moroccan visas and other information for travelers to Morocco.

US Embassy in Casablanca, Morocco: morocco.usembassy.gov/news.html, has hours of operation, directions, visa, passport information and more resources.

Friends of Morocco website: friendsofmorocco.org/, friendsofmorocco.org/

Above: Site has MANY useful links all about Morocco, in English – including links for learning Moroccan Arabic.

Learn Arabic free online: learnarabicfree.info/, learnarabicfree.info/

Above: Free Arabic lessons online. For beginners – starts with the alphabet!

Learn French free online: www.lsfrench.com/beginners2.html, http://www.lsfrench.com/beginners2.html

Above: Free online French lessons for beginners.

Map of Morocco: http://www.journeybeyondtravel.com/news/travel-morocco-map

321: Luggage

imagesThe airlines are in a war, and not with each other this time: with US. This war is over the issue of luggage. If you are somebody who can travel with your toothbrush in your back pocket, this is not an issue for you. For everybody else in the UNIVERSE, it is a huge issue.

They (the airlines) keep looking for ways to gouge a few extra dollars (or rubles, or Euros, or yen, or dirham, or WTFever) out of their customers. Carriers with airfare in the affordable range allow you 5-10 kilos, depending, and the BAG weighs that much, much less putting anything IN the bag.

Airlines that cost your first-born GRANDchild graciously allow you to take a real, life-sized suitcase with a change of clothes so you don’t stink too badly when you arrive at your destination. Gee, thanks.

I moved country to Panama from Morocco. I needed maximum luggage allowance, and paid for extra. I even took the WHEELS off my luggage so that I had a few more ounces of actual STUFF I could pack. I wore multiple layers so I could get one or two more items on the plane. Still not enough. *sigh*

I did my best. Infantry private, economy class Dianne – that’s me.

313: Cavalry

I am still stranded in Orlando, but not at the Orlando Airport any longer – heartless place. One of my three cats: 48 hours in a small carrier kennel: cut his neck and I had to leave and take a taxi to the nearest vet’s office. Six miles = 15 US dollars. In Morocco, you can travel in a taxi 70 kilometers for 50 dirham: 6.25 US dollars.

A visit to our vet in Morocco (neuter surgery) is 400 dirham – less than 50 US dollars. This little trip – not that I am not EXTREMELY grateful to the vet who took us and cared for my fur child – was 350 US dollars.

My dinner at McDonald’s was eight dollars – I can feed my husband and myself on 100 dirham a week  – 12.50 US dollars – in Morocco. Understand why I went there, and why I am toying with the idea of retiring there? I can afford to live there!

Even though I was not able to take my scheduled American Airlines flight to Panama City, Panama yesterday, to my new job, and I spent the night on a bench in the airport with three cats in small crates who needed food, water and walking so they could go potty every few hours, I am stuck THERE no longer. Because I had to go to the vet on an emergency basis, Fluff appears to be OK (even if it’s not pretty), and the cavalry is on the way to get me. My mom and my daughter are driving to Orlando from Athens, Georgia to rescue me. I will probably cry when I see them – it’s been that bad.

Thank God for family who love you, and who come and rescue you when there is a s&^* storm.

312: Euthanasia

I am stranded in the Orlando airport, a full day after I was supposed to already be on the ground in Panama.  I was refused boarding by American Airlines because they decided I did not have sufficient documentation for my cats to fly: after telling me that they could not fly because their kennels were too big (not) and that they could not fly because the temperatures on this early morning flight would exceed 85 degrees F at their destination (Panama) where they will be living for the next two years.

See, you have to have a veterinarian health certificate (done), within ten days of the scheduled flight (done), authenticated by an office of the USDA (done), and then apostiled by EITHER the Panamanian Consulate/Embassy (in Washington, D. C.) OR the Foreign Office in your state, Georgia (done). Then, you have to e-mail these scanned documents to the Panama Embassy in Panama to let them know the cats are coming (done) three days in advance in order to request that they have home quarantine (done). Oh, heck, no. American Airlines said that I needed additional documentation from the Panamanian Consulate/Embassy that the cats were good to fly. One eensy-weensy little problem: the Panamanian Consulate/Embassy does not provide any such certification, which would essentially be clearing the cats through their customs even before we board a flight to get there to submit ourselves to their customs. Not happening – either on the Panama side or on the American side.

I looked into renting yet ANOTHER car to drive to Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, so that I could have my existing paperwork apostiled in Florida, like I already had it apostiled in Georgia, but I don’t have enough room on my credit card, since another rental car company (rentalcars.com) refused to refund my pre-paid rental online when the pickup was refused in Orlando because I have a USA driver’s license, meaning I had to rent another car for 600 dollars cash (plus the 400 dollars they would not refund). Because of this, there is not room on my card to book another car, and they won’t book a one-day rental for cash, even though they were perfectly willing to book an eleven-day rental for cash. Obviously, if I can’t afford to rent a car, I also can’t just bypass American Airlines and book tickets on another carrier, either. I thought of that, too.

It does not matter anyway, because even if I went to Tallahassee to get this Florida apostile, since I am departing from a Florida airport instead of a Georgia airport, I would still only have a STATE apostiled health certificate for my cats (like I have now), not a PANAMANIAN apostiled document, which is what American Airlines is demanding.

I have one option left. I do have enough money to book a cab to the nearest veterinarian, and I can ask that my three beloved pets be euthanized. I cannot just turn them loose to scrounge a living on their own in Orlando, and I won’t take them to the animal shelter, because that is where adult cats are most often euthanized anyway: kittens get adopted, not adult cats. I am out of options, and I am already a day late getting to Panama for my new job – which I have to have. I’ve already notified them that I will be late reporting to work, and I can’t take much more time. I am not independently wealthy such that I don’t HAVE to work. I am already in tears as I write this, and I have been in tears on and off for the last thirty-six hours. I’m out of ideas. I did my best, and it was not good enough.

Meanwhile, I am here in the airport, sleeping on a bench with three cats in small crates who need to be walked and relieved every few hours, fed and watered. The wifi works here only on the third floor, and I have to go to the first floor (with them and all my luggage for two years’ stay) to take them outside to pee. And every few minutes, an announcement is made at this airport not to leave your luggage unattended. I am here alone – I have to pee sometimes, too. Oh, well.

And people wonder why I left America.

309: Panic Time

People panic for various reasons. Usually, panic accompanies some life-threatening event, like the time I looked up to see a Rottweiler (BIG, bad dog) in full charge at me across a back yard, snarling, fangs visible. I did not know he was safely chained until he hit the end of the chain and flipped over in the air. It took a good half hour to get over the shakies after that one.

People panic understandably when they perceive that their lives might be in danger. Everybody understands that. Paramedics are trained to recognize the signs of shock when they arrive at an accident, because panic is expected then. Some people, however, panic over things that are not exactly life-threatening. Things like a spider. Or a mouse. Or a snake – OK, that one could be life threatening, I’ll grant you.

Some people panic even when there really is nothing whatsoever to panic over: like getting into an elevator or other confined space, like a MRI diagnostic machine’s patient tube. Or a visit to the doctor (or the dentist). Even though you know you are very unlikely to die, the panic reaction still sets in, complete with full adrenalin rush.

I am having panic symptoms over a non-life-threatening event coming up: I am going to be boarding a plane (with my three cats) to leave Morocco on my way to Panama City, Panama.  For weeks now, I have packed and re-packed, looking for one more crevice where I can stuff one more item. It’s not like other vacations, where I know I am coming home – I am moving home, so what I can’t pack and take with me is getting left behind. Apocalypse.

My husband will remain in Morocco for a few weeks, settling the last items, closing the bank account after insurance reimbursements and selling the car, finishing off the last items of furniture, etc. Then, he will get to have his OWN panic attack as he boards his flight to Panama City, too.

 

 

308: They Grow ’em BIG in Africa

Dandelion seedhead

Dandelion seedhead

I know gardeners who have personal vendettas gainst crabgrass and dandelions. It’s time for dandelions to be seeding here in Morocco, and I thought I’d let you guys in the USA know how blessed you are – these babies are huge.

Crawdad

Crawdad

And, Africa grows some grandaddy crawdads. Lunch today should be particularly good……