He’s seen locals jump off a bus to chase down large iguana, a favorite delicacy in the country. He’s heard large howler monkeys screech from treetops and chased a huge boa constrictor off his lawn.
He’s watched flocks of colorful parrots fly from the rivers to mangroves, passed on eating the world’s largest rodent (the 100-pound capybara) and gotten used to seeing three-toed sloths cling to telephone wire.
A 1956 Fairfield High School graduate, Jensen served with the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office from 1969-1972 as a dispatcher/jailer and attended college in Great Falls while raising four children.
He went on to graduate from Washington State University and taught criminal justice at Walla Walla Community College in Washington state.
In 1997, he bought a new truck for a “hobby job” hauling cars on a 50-foot trailer as an independent contractor.
“For the next three years, I drove in every state, including one trip to Alaska, and most of Canada,” he said. “While driving long hours, I had ample time to think about where I might retire, and I was being given a view of every possible location in my travels.”
He was taken with northwestern North Carolina, southern Tennessee and parts of New Mexico, Georgia and Louisiana. The most spectacular was “picture-perfect” — but way too expensive — Sedona, Ariz.
But instead he returned to “beautiful and scenic” Montana, retiring to a mobile home in Libby.
“I loved fishing the Kootenia and picking berries in the recent forest burns,” he said. “But I had always dreamed of living in the tropics in place like Bora Bora or some other romantic island.”
Then in 2004, a chest X-ray showed Jensen had an enlarged heart. He was sent to Kalispell for surgery for a triple aortal aneurysm.
“As soon as I got home, I was on the ‘net looking for retirement destinations in the tropics,” he said.
“Often aneurysms are only found in an autopsy. I had two close friends die of aneurysms to the brain,” he said. “I guess I considered that I was very lucky to have a new lease on life, so why not pursue a lifelong dream living in the tropics?”
At the time, Forbes Magazine ranked Panama as the No. 1 spot for retirement.
Though he’d never before been out of North America or south of Laredo, Texas, Jensen said “the hell with it” and flew with his miniature pinscher Rocky Balboa to Panama in May 2004. He sat with Rocky in a Panama City sidewalk cafe when a young Panamanian, Ricardo, stopped to say hello to the dog and, to Jensen’s delight, spoke in English.
Jensen told Ricardo he was going to travel by bus along the Pacific to find a place to settle.
“Why not the Caribbean coast?” Ricardo asked.
Jensen had read numerous warnings about the dangers of traveling anywhere near the city of Colón, located near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. However, he was intrigued by Ricardo’s description of a small village 30 miles west of Colón along the sea.
Jensen, Ricardo and Rocky traveled in one of Panama’s colorful old buses, stopping in Colón, which Jensen called a ghetto compared with the tall buildings and flashy SUVs of Panama City.
They crossed the Panama Canal at the Gatun Locks and traveled through jungle and ranch land to Palmas Bellas, where the Alligator River enters the Caribbean, practically at the end of the highway.
“Crossing the Gatun Locks is interesting, watching all the large container and cruise ships pass through,” Jensen said. “While waiting for the draw bridge, I often waved back at the cruise ship passengers, thinking: they are only viewing, while I’m experiencing.”
About 90 percent of people on the Caribbean side are of African descent, and one of the first people Jensen met in his Palmas Bellas was Ceballo, a 70-year-old black Panamanian who operated a small hillside cafe.
Ceballo spoke excellent English and offered lodging at a friend’s seaside house because the town had no hotel. The next day, Jensen asked Ceballo to find him a place to rent.
The three-bedroom furnished house a block from the river for $65 a month suited Jensen and Rocky just fine. He was the first “gringo” to live in the village, and Rocky “became an instant success and loved all the attention he would get from the children.”
A few months later, Ceballo told him of an ocean-front property for sale with a tiny, damaged cottage and nine coconut palms. He landed it for only $5,000, the “very best I could offer.” With a loan from his brother, he spent another $5,000 rebuilding the cottage.
“Four months later, Rocky and I moved in,” he said. “It was an unimaginable dream come true. With my limited income and little cash reserves, I had no idea I would ever be able to buy any home, let alone an ocean-front property.”
However, salt water carried on ocean breezes rusted his Ford Ranger in only three years and his computer was internally corroded in only a year.
So he sold his home to a wealthy Panamanian and traveled up and down the Pacific coast looking for a place to land.
He stayed in Aguadulce, a city of more than 30,000.
“It had all the goods and services I had sorely missed,” he said. “I rented a nice, unfurnished three-bedroom secure home for $150 a month and lived there for a year while locating and then rebuilding my new home in nearby Capellania.”
Jensen forked over $9,100 for a nice lot with a rundown two-bedroom home. He spent $26,000 to remodel and expand the house.
“I have lived here for a year and a half and keep busy tending to my 400-plus tropical plants and riding my motorcycle all over Panama and some of Costa Rica,” he said.
The cost of living is one of the best aspects of retiring to Panama. With an average family income of less than $600, Jensen lives comfortably on less than $700 a month and banks the rest.
A lean steak is less than $2 a pound, ripe bananas are 5 cents each and sugar and rice are only 50 cents a pound.
“Coffee is very nice and grown locally as are melons, pineapple, yucca, plantine, true yams, coconuts, papaya, bananas, rice, sugar cane, star fruit, oranges, lemons, bread fruit and mangos,” he said.
Jensen has seen Kuna natives diving for octopus or lobster just offshore, too. They work from a small dugout canoe with one diving and surfacing with an octopus, which his partner beats to death with a paddle.
“Shrimp farming in this area is big business. And is only second to bananas for export,” he added. “Wherever they can’t raise rice, sugar cane, pineapple, or melons there are cattle ranches.”
Jensen bought a Panamanian indefinite tourista visa, which cost him $600 but has now doubled in cost. Another friend who is younger than 65 and thus ineligible for the visa, travels back and forth every few months to Costa Rica to renew his passport stamp.
“I’m afforded the same privileges as any Panamanian pensioner,” Jensen said.
That equals a 25 percent savings on medicine, electrical bills and bus fares, among other bonuses.
The biggest savings, though, is making use of government health care.
“Every community has a government clinic, which is virtually free, even to me,” he said. Private general practitioners charge $5-$10 a visit, and a specialist costs $25.
In March, Jensen had first-hand experience with the state-run health care system after he contracted Dengue fever from a mosquito bite. He suffered for a few days until a neighbor took him to the ER with a “horrific leg infection.”
He spent 13 days in an almost new hospital, with an excellent staff and doctor.
“My total bill was $139,” he said.
A recent minor motorcycle accident involved an ambulance ride to the hospital, four X-rays and wound dressing. He paid nothing for any stage of care.
His neighbors picked him up after someone called to say, “The old gringo is down and on his way to the ER.”
He doesn’t pay for any insurance since he doesn’t need it for health care and with cement construction, fires aren’t a problem.
The Panamanian economy is faring better, too.
“There is no recession here, no bank failures and unemployment is steady at 5 percent,” he said.
Jensen has ridden his motorcycle to Boquete, a favorite of ex-pats living in Panama.
“I had a latte and left,” he said. “I thought I was in a subdivision of California.”
Jensen instead generally has avoided Americans, who seem more interested in status, wealth and past successes.
“They attracted the wrong kind of attention and who needs problems from thieves and drug bandits?” he said. “Being light-skinned is enough of a hazard.”
Still, Jensen figures he has less chance of encountering major crime in Panama than he would in the U.S. Petty theft is the exception.
“Everyone, including me, has iron bars over all windows and outside doors, but if people want to get in they come through the metal roof,” he said. “The bars keep youngsters honest.”
Jensen has a concealed weapons permit, but guns are scarce and expensive.
“The only reason I bought one was for peace of mind,” he said.
Jensen’s Spanish skills aren’t anything to brag about, but English serves as a second language in the country.
“I seldom have problems. When I do, I call a friend to be my interpreter,” he said. “If I learned Spanish, then I would have to listen to everything everyone is saying. No thank you.”
His housekeeper, who once a week cleans his entire house, mows, rakes and pulls weeds, is another who speaks little English, but they get on fine. He feeds her lunch, offers her Coke at breaks and pays $7 for 3 to 5 hours of work.
But the tropics aren’t for everyone.
“There are only two seasons, wet and dry,” Jensen said.
This time of year is the dry season, but it has been an unusually wet December.
“In this part of Panama, the normal rainfall is 12 feet in six months,” he said. “I bet it exceeded 14 feet this year.”
But, Panama is out of the hurricane zone and — except for a few slight tremors — suffers no earthquakes, tsunamis, active volcanoes and certainly no blizzards.
“Just rain and lots of sunshine,” Jensen said.
Some goods and services aren’t easily available, and life in Panama requires patience, he said.
No one in Panama seems to be in any sort of a hurry. The locals have a different sense of time, too.
“A Panamanian might saythat they will meet you at 3 p.m., and you should ask what day and week,” he said. “I’ve invited friends for dinner to start at 4 p.m. and they showed up at 7 without any explanation.”
Perceived as rich, Americans often are singled out to pay more, though.
Low-key graft and corruption plague the country.
“Police readily accept bribes and sometimes even ask for them,” Jensen said.
When he wanted a driver’s license but couldn’t speak or read enough Spanish to pass the test, he paid $300 under the table. When he sold his property on the Caribbean coast, the mayor wouldn’t transfer the title until he paid a $1,500 bribe.
In Colón, he was approached by a young street beggar who asked in perfect English for a dollar.
“He said that he needed a cheap cocaine fix,” Jensen said. “Being a little surprised at his honesty, I mistakenly gave him $1. After that, he would spot me every time I was in Colon to shop and always was there with his hand out.”
When Jensen refused to give him more money, the boy followed him shouting obscenities until a taxi driver with a baseball bat chased him away.
He’s had a hand reach into his pocket after his wallet, too, but quick reflexes paid off.
“Those were the only experiences I have ever had with threats to me, my property or my safety in six and a half years in Panama,” he said. “Not too bad for a 72-year-old gringo.”
And despite the minor hiccups, there’s the benefits, like the “women here who love gringo blue eyes,” he said. “All races are accepted and there seems to be little prejudice and none toward native Panamanians.”
Thinking of spending your golden years somewhere warm and far away?
Fairfield native Ray Jensen, who retired to Panama, offered some advice based on lessons he’s learned in his six years in Central America.
1. Only bring two suitcases of causal summer clothing and maybe enough medication to last a week.
“I shipped a pickup and household stuff that cost a lot,” Jensen said. “I could have saved that money and sold everything at home easily and then purchased new here for less than what I had paid in the U.S.”
Another acquaintance shipped his expensive antique furniture to Panama City, where he lives in a high-rise condo.
“What is his family going to do with all that expensive furniture after he is gone?” Jensen said. “Ship it back to the U.S.? It won’t sell for much here unless another dumb ex-pat wants it.”
Jensen said Panama has lots of choices of beautiful locally made furniture and appliances are reasonably priced.
2. Don’t live in a ex-pat community.
Leaving the United States to live among Americans may seem like a safe or culturally easy thing to do, but Jensen said it’s too expensive.
“The locals there are used to charging all gringos the same high prices,” he said. “Explore small villages where land and home prices are dirt cheap. The locals will love and appreciate the money you spend, and you will soon have lots of friends.”
3. Treat all Panamanians with due respect and courtesy.
Remember you’re a guest in their country, Jensen said. He makes a point of greeting others in Spanish with a “Como estas?”
4. Don’t call attention to your self by wearing jewelry or flashing cash.
“Try to keep your wallet buttoned up and keep enough cash in your front pocket for minor purchases or use a bank debit card,” he said.
5. Buy from local stores.
“It’s surprising how many nice neighbors you will meet and see often,” he said.
6. Be a gracious guest, not a critic.
“Don’t fall into the trap of criticizing local customs that should be of no concern to you or many of the small inconveniences that Panamanians take for granted,” Jensen said. “Or, you soon will be with out friends when help is needed and no one will listen to you anymore.”
7. Try to hire as much local help as possible.
Jensen recommended hiring someone to wash your car, clean your home, mow the grass and take care of the yard.
“The going rate for this type of work is $7 a day and you feed them lunch,” he said.
“In doing so you will gain the respect and friendship of your neighbors,” he said. “No one looks down on a person working for another, no matter what the task is.”
Jensen’s neighbors keep a watchful eye on his property and dog when he’s gone and have come to his aid repeatedly without him having to ask.