I met Ingrid Senne in her charming language school on a side street of the off-the-beaten path Pedasi, a little town in southern Panama.
I’m always interested in meeting people who have broken out of the box to follow their heart, so I was naturally curious when I bumped into Ingrid’s website online. I contacted her and asked if we could meet when my husband and I were traveling in Panama.
When we arrived, she met us at the door and warmly greeted me with a hug. Her smile was genuine and seemed to come from deep within. After offering us cold glasses of water and food, Ingrid was eager to answer my questions.
It turns out she grew up in a small rural town in South Dakota, but knew early on her life would not follow the “normal” path of others she grew up with. After attending college in California and traveling around Central America several times in her 20s, she knew she would never sit behind a desk for a traditional 9-5 job.
It wasn’t until she met her husband, Roy Caduri, on the beach in Panama that she knew where her life would lead. They did the long distance thing and kept in touch back and forth. Ingrid ended up moving to Pedasi, Panama in December 2009 without a clue of what she would do for work there.
Armed with degrees in both linguistics and Spanish, Ingrid wondered how her skills would fit since it was already a Spanish-speaking country. Then the light bulb went on: she would teach Spanish to expats and vacationers who are traveling and want to learn the language.
She started teaching. One thing led to another, and now she is the proud owner of the increasingly successful Buena Vida Language School.
“I don’t want to be normal!” Ingrid laughed, during our interview. “I never really had the plan of checking out of the United States and living the good life in a tropical country. But I always knew I’d do things differently than other people.”
Ingrid said she’s often surprised at how many people seem to want to leave the United States and Canada to move to Panama.
“I guess because I relocated out of the United States in my twenties, I never realized how much better it is to live here for a number of reasons,” she explained. “In Panama, we have no cold weather, there is fresh fruit and fish all year round, and I enjoy a much slower pace of live and a much lower cost of living. I could go on and on, really…”
Some of the people back home don’t get it. Her grandma, for instance. “Every time I call her, she asks me, ‘How’s Jamaica?’” Ingrid told us with a smile. “Any place other than South Dakota is Jamaica to her. It took awhile for her to get used to the idea.”
One of Ingrid’s favorite things about Pedasi is how the culture is slower than in the United States. People have the attitude of ‘manana,’ which according to Ingrid doesn’t even mean ‘tomorrow,’ but simply ‘not today.’
“I feel healthier because I’m not working my tail off and can live a more balanced life than I may have been able to at home,” Ingrid explained. “I do yoga every morning and afternoon and walk the beach every day with my dog.”
“People just generally have a more relaxed attitude than in the United States. When I’m upset about people in Panama taking too long to do something, they look at me like, ‘Why are you freaking out, you gringa?’ They’re just not used to moving fast at all. It’s refreshing.”
Now that she and her husband are expecting a baby girl in February, life has slowed down even more.
The couple just built their first home, where Ingrid is excited to finally have a dryer after several years of living in a local-style rental house. They lived in the middle of Pedasi in an open-air style home with a metal roof, no finished ceiling, cement floor, no hot water, no air conditioning, and no screens on the windows. A huge switch for an American, but the monthly rent was only $250US a month.
As Ingrid settles into her marriage and looks forward to her first child, her business is ramping up. The school now offers both Spanish lessons for expats and travelers, as well as teaches English to locals.
Ingrid believes that Panamanians can make double the salary if they can speak English. She says that a laborer who only speaks Spanish can make about $350/month. But if a person speaks English, they can easily make over $600/month – a good wage for a Panamanian – as a secretary, tour guide, or hotel worker.
Ingrid was excited about being in negotiations with the University of South Dakota in Vermillion (her hometown), who offered to buy laptops for her school and do Skype lessons with English teachers in the States.
“More than anything, I want to target the local kids rather than adults because they’re more formable and can be influenced more than the adults,” she explained. “The University of South Dakota is in the process of forming their ESL degree program and needed a place for students to do their practicum.”
As Ingrid said, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for teaching Spanish in South Dakota.
One of the main thrusts of her business has become a study abroad opportunity for American students. College students can earn credit while teaching English as a Second Language classes in the local schools, while at the same time perfecting their Spanish at Ingrid’s school.
In addition, Ingrid recently partnered with the Casco Antiguo Spanish School in Panama City, which is located in one of the most attractive neighborhoods of the city, Casco Viejo. This allows students coming from the States a chance to split their time in the cosmopolitan city of Panama City with time in the rural countryside and the beach areas of the Azuero Peninsula.
“We try to refer students to each other’s facilities as much as we can and also share information about what that student has been doing at the other school,” Ingrid explained. “This can create a more stream-lined experience for the student as they travel through Panama.”
Pedasi is a small town five minutes from a deserted but beautiful beach that hasn’t been totally ruined by tourism yet. Some expats do live there, but it’s not as Americanized as one could argue neighboring Costa Rica has become. And it’s certainly not as expensive.
One great benefit to students coming to Pedasi to volunteer with Ingrid is that she can act as a one-stop service trip. She does intensive group Spanish classes, offers opportunities for people to volunteer in the schools teaching English, and sets up tours like surf lessons, horseback riding, yoga, paddle boarding, hiking, snorkeling, or deep sea fishing.
One of the notable parts of the experience is the home stay, which is a great way for students to experience the local culture first-hand. Ingrid charges a small placement fee of around $30 to link the student with the family, as well as a nominal nightly fee of around $15. This money goes directly to the home stay family. Students get their own private room.
“Most homes are not as luxurious as what people are used to. Dinner is whatever on the table. No air conditioning. It’s an experience,” Ingrid says. “The students get to practice their Spanish, get to know the locals a little bit.”
For those who aren’t interested in the home stay program, there are a lot of hotel options in Pedasi for all budgets.
This upcoming high season will be one of the school’s busiest, with their largest group of students coming in. Fifteen high school students from the Boston area are coming to do a total immersion Spanish and science course in March.
“I just want to help people bridge linguistic and cultural gaps so we can all communicate,” Ingrid told me with a smile. “If we can’t talk to each other, how will we get along?”
For more information on the Buena Vida Language School and how to apply for a study abroad opportunity, check out Ingrid’s website at www.pedasispanishschool.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Domini Hedderman is a travel writer and traveler living currently in Belize with her husband and four kids. She is working on a book about their adventure and blogging their journey at http://www.renaissancehousewife.com.