‘Where Could I Live Like This in Israel?’: The Israeli Couple Calling Panama Home

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Scenes from the Sivans' new life in Panama.
Scenes from the Sivans' new life in Panama.
Kenan Reuveni
Kenan Reuveni
Kenan Reuveni
Kenan Reuveni

Life in Israel is expensive. And living by the beach can be really expensive. So what’s an Israeli to do if they want to live the good life by the sea, commune with nature and escape the stresses of everyday life?

Well, one Israeli couple, Sara-Lee and Gilad Sivan, embarked on a life-changing adventure that saw them move nearly 12,000 kilometers (7,460 miles) and begin life anew in Central America. The good news is that the views are spectacular and the sea turtles are friendly. The bad news is that paradise doesn’t come cheap, even in Panama.

Haaretz spoke with Sara-Lee Sivan to find out the pros and cons of their new life.

How did you end up in Panama?

Sara-Lee: “I worked in a bank for over 18 years, but wanted to be free and close to nature. Gilad was a director of films and commercials, and one of his films was about opportunities in Panama – and that’s how we were convinced to make the move. We arrived here three years ago. Gilad arrived before me to check out the best place to settle down, and when he came to Playa Venao it was clear that this was the place.

Members of the Sivan family and a sign for Gilad's hummus eatery.

“There’s an international community here of people who chose to leave the rat race – mainly surfers – and to live their dream. It was clear to us that if we were leaving an entire life, it would only be in order to live by the sea. Our house is right at the edge of the waterline. It’s old, big and the roof leaks, but we’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to live this way. I always laugh and tell everyone I have a villa on the sea and a jeep. Where could I live like this in Israel?

“I do therapy here with a breathing technique called rebirthing. I have a clinic at home, and lots of young people who travel here come to discover the world of the subconscious by means of this technique. Gilad has a lovely restaurant, and he prepares the best hummus on the continent and other comfort foods that remind us of home, so he also takes care of people. We call it ‘hummus therapy.’”

What’s the best thing about your life now?

“We have the pleasure of watching and enjoying the wild animals that live alongside us in harmony – monkeys, deer, turtles, whales, parrots in a variety of colors, beautiful white squirrels – and we’re teaching our daughters how to respect and preserve nature. We make sure to take care of the tiny sea turtles who hatch on the beach: we collect the eggs that the females lay on the beach and transfer them to a safe place, where the turtles will hatch and be released into the sea.

The Sivan family home at Playa Venao, Panama.

“Our daughters study in an international school in the middle of the jungle, with a waterfall and monkeys on the trees, and they’re very satisfied. All the children here play together; people don’t judge by appearance, color or age, and that’s wonderful.”

And what are the disadvantages to living in Panama?

“Of course the move brought a lot of challenges too, such as sorely missing family and friends, lots of humidity (my hair looks scary); lots of insects and bites (not for the fainthearted). In addition, there are language difficulties for those who don’t speak Spanish: the locals find it difficult to understand you if you aren’t precise, and it takes about a year to understand what’s what and to learn the local vibe.

“Panama is also very expensive, and that’s why you need at least two active sources of income in order to support the family – and that’s not easy. You have to come with a few hundred thousand shekels, for a start.”

A family outing, Panama-style.

What are your insights from the move?

“Living in a Third World country sounds scary, but I found my freedom here and relief from pressures of Israel. I remember how I sat on the floor with my daughters by the door in our apartment in Ramat Gan during a siren, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t let them live in this difficult situation of sirens and traumas – the kind I have from the first Gulf war. After the coronavirus era, I’m really happy that I decided to leave.

“Many friends thought we were crazy when we left everything and decided to live in Panama. Now, after three years, they’re already asking me to examine options for them and to invest their money. That’s how I started getting involved in real estate too here, because everyone wants spaces for the family – to grow vegetables, to feel safe. They turned to me constantly.

“My next dream is to build a farm to care for and rescue all the animals that can’t speak for themselves.”

Chickens enjoying a rest on the porch at the Sivan family home in Panama.

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