On Saturday night, I got a call from my flatmate:

Him: “Hey, I’m at a rooftop pool party, what are you up to?”

Me: “I’m also at a rooftop pool party!”

What’s still surprising to me after a few weeks of living in Panama City is that there’s nothing particularly unusual about this exchange. I did my two years of Peace Corps service here in Panama and rarely visited the capital city (which was eight hours from where I lived); when I did, I never attended rooftop pool parties. In fact, I remember walking by the very building on top of which I took that phone call and thinking “man, I bet there’s a great view of the ocean from that roof!” Then I would walk for another 30 minutes, because I considered $2 cab rides expensive.

Cinta Costera, Avenida Balboa

La Cinta Costera and Casco Viejo from a rooftop in Panama City

Now a young American living and working in Panama City, I’m getting consistent exposure to the expat lifestyle, and while it’s fun, it’s a strange and at times uncomfortable contrast from my previous life in Panama.

The first contrast is the jump in economic classes. Even a quiet weekend’s worth of activities would have been beyond my Peace Corps budget, and are completely inaccessible to the people I lived with in the countryside. Restaurants, bars in the trendy Casco Viejo historic district, day trips to the beach, pool parties – in a country with extreme inequality, these are essentially elite leisure activities that most of the people I lived with will never experience in their entire lives. Not that I’m criticizing anyone for going to the beach, it’s just strange to go from laying in a hammock on a Friday night, reading a book by the light of a kerosene lamp, and going to bed at 10, to drinking wine at a rooftop pool party.

beach volleyball san blas panama

Another strange contrast is being in the expat bubble. This is not a new concept for me, I grew up part of a diplomat family overseas and very much had my own bubble life – housing compounds for embassy people, international school in English, social events with exclusively Americans in attendance. The difference, again, is that I’ve lived in Panama like a local, which meant I looked at expats with a mixture of envy, condescension, admiration, and contempt. Now, I frequently attend parties with exclusively other expats and wonder if it’s some kind of betrayal of my former “local” status.

I realize this blog post makes the experience sound confusing and introspective, but it is also, without a doubt, fun. I like going to social events where the first step in a conversation is to figure out which language you’ll be speaking. Being in a conversation with people from, for example, Sweden, France, Panama, and the U.S. is common, and there’s always a quick check to see if English or Spanish is the best compromise. I’ve also had many, many conversations comparing cultures, which is one of my favorite things to talk about. And really, if I can’t get over myself for long enough to enjoy a rooftop pool party, I’m obviously doing something wrong.

expats in panama

A diverse group of expats at a house party

What it comes down to, is when living overseas, there’s nothing wrong with carving out a life that heavily incorporates your own culture and countrymen, but it’s important not to forget that you chose to come live in a foreign country and it can offer you more than just novelty and convenient exotic gateways. There’s a whole country to discover, and sometimes it pays to come down from the roof and walk outside your bubble.