Living

Change your life: Taking the plunge to Panama

A high-flying Ivy League grad, Gobi Kim was a diehard urbanite fixated on her career. Then she met a surfer, traded her Louboutins for flip-flops and moved down to Panama.

Gobi Kim and her family

Photo: courtesy of Gobi Kim

Sometime in my late 20s, a close friend confessed to fantasizing about having someone to fold laundry with. Me? Not so much. Room service was more my speed. In my world, a partner was someone who managed business, not a man to come home to. The maternal bone was missing from my emotional makeup. My picture-perfect future had little to do with cottages, Range Rovers and cherub-faced little mini-me’s. I was more interested in spending time coddling words for a new brand name or tag line and committing to a parade of interesting men, with trips to exotic cosmopolitan corners of the globe mixed into a glittering never-ending party.

So at 33, when I decamped to Central America, laptop in hand and six months pregnant, to live with Piers, my surf-obsessed new husband, jaws dropped in my circle. What’s more, we weren’t even moving to a big metropolis but to a tiny isolated island an hour’s plane ride from the nearest city.

But the reality was I wasn’t only moving for love, I was searching for meaning. The madcap whirl of parties had lost its lustre and work felt stale. From college to my early 30s, my career was my life: first as a magazine editor, then as a partner at a content-development studio. After weathering the dot-com crash, we had a portfolio that landed us work with coveted brands and agencies. But it was feeling empty and increasingly repetitive. Life was all about briefs, strategies and objectives. What was I adding to the world?

My parents had raised me to believe accomplishment was a duty and preferably in some way that gave back to society. While I was dealing with these big questions and what was next for me, Piers suggested we move to Panama and raise our baby there. We both wanted a less toxic, more sustainable way of living for our family.

After Pado was born, the three of us settled into an idyllic routine, which was mostly made up of Pado and me chilling at home or venturing to the beach, and Piers surfing. By the time our second son, Taj, came along, the backyard jungle provided an endless playground in which to spot sloths, brilliant blue morpho butterflies and white-faced capuchin monkeys. But paradise can be deadly, too; when we taught our boys to put on their shoes, there was the added step of checking for scorpions and spiders. The upside is the kids are growing up with a healthy knowledge of the natural world and a love of animals.

The urban party girl in me gradually disappeared to reveal a laid-back island girl: I lived in flip-flops, cut-offs and summer dresses. I learned to make things from scratch (fermenting cacao beans for chocolate is much harder than it sounds) and do more with less (when you pass impoverished indigenous villages and watch the dump spill into the ocean every day, you lose your taste to consume). We lived off filtered rainwater, raised chickens and built furniture from a giant laurel tree that had fallen in a storm. I mastered non-chemical ways to kill fire ants, the bane of my paradise.

Our little casita is a serene distance from town, on a hilltop hidden by red hibiscus and palm trees, and soundtracked by howler monkeys and duelling hummingbirds. (Just a bit of a departure from my downtown Toronto third-floor walkup — frequently the scene of impromptu parties after last call.)

Now I pick and choose clients that I have an easy bond with or champion social causes close to my heart. Piers does the same. Because we’ve pared back and built our home in a place where the cost of living is low, full-time work doesn’t have to be our priority.

Mostly I find joy in the simple, the bare: the tangle of pink-and-yellow heliconia that is the view from my ‘office’ (the kitchen table), the dog at my feet and the rev of the motorcycle telling me my family is ready for an afternoon dip at the beach — at least until it comes time for our little Tarzans to learn about other jungles if the universe decides to throw a new irresistible adventure our way.