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A More Affordable Paradise: Hawaii Is Dead, Long Live Hawaii!
Lifelong local Mark Heilbron says he has found a "New Hawaii" that is even better — and cheaper — than the real thing. It just took him a while to say where it is.

About the Author

Mark Heilbron bailed on Hawaii.

In describing his departure, he uses the sort of language usually reserved for war zones. People were under such pressure in his hometown, Honolulu, he asserted, that it had become a “hellhole.”

Heilbron got in touch with me after reading Civil Beat’s ongoing coverage of the high cost of living in the islands, to encourage other people to follow his lead.

The cost of living articles, he wrote by email, continue “to point out what everyone who lives in Hawaii already knows, but only the smart decide to do something about it. There is only one way to remove yourself from the financial hellhole of Hawaii, and that is to move.”

“What most people born and raised in Hawaii fail to realize, because they are too busy struggling to live in what they think is paradise, is that there are other places in this world that are what Hawaii used to be over 40 years ago: A real paradise.”

Mark Heilbron's view in Panama

Mark Heilbron’s view from his mountain home down to the ocean.

Courtesy of Mark Heilbron

When he was younger, Heilbron, who is in his early 60s, recalls, fewer people in Hawaii had to struggle financially the way they do now.

In deciding where to move to, Heilbron contemplated his past travels to parts of the world that are so amazing they “make Hawaii look like it is on the paradise critical-condition list.”

About a year ago, Heilbron left the islands for a location that “is what Hawaii was 40 years ago.” He moved to a place with a leisurely paced life that, he says, only people over the age of 50 are likely to really remember in Hawaii. “The local people here are warm and friendly to all outsiders and always treat you with respect and a warm smile,” he said. “Something that has been lost long ago in Hawaii.”

It is a place where monkeys, parrots and other friendly critters live in the trees around his second home in the mountains.

I gradually realized that Heilbron wasn’t going to just tell me where he had moved. I was supposed to guess. We were engaging in a game of ‘Name That Paradise!’

He went on to do what some people on Oahu often do, talk real estate. He said he lives in a two-bedroom, 2,600-square-foot home on a beautiful tropical beach that he bought for $235,000. To many people on Oahu, that’s a down payment.

Heilbron’s home is on a sprawling 32,000 square-foot plot of land. And it is built of “concrete blocks, not wooden matchsticks, like the homes in Hawaii.”

Mark Heilbron

Heilbron gets his oranges and the rest of his regionally grown food at prices that are unimaginable to modern customers in Hawaii.

Courtesy of Mark Heilbron

He relished details about the quality of the work inside the house, citing the “solid teak wood doors and window frames with “open beam ceilings.”

Heilbron offered another hint: he lives in a festive place. At one point, he wrote to apologize for the delay in responding, but that “the country is in the midst” of a massive week-long celebration similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The festivities shut things down for an entire week.

He also noted that the country he lives in ranks very high for the quality of its health care, and that his health insurance costs him and his wife just $362; about three times less than his HMSA coverage in the islands did.

As he gushed about fresh ahi that sells for $1.25 a pound — when he doesn’t catch it himself — and filet mignon for $1.99 a pound, I began to contemplate whether people who leave Hawaii for more affordable places suffer from consumer trauma.

In contrast to the many checks he wrote to HECO, Heilbron’s monthly electric bill is just $45, although it rises as high as $100 when he goes crazy on the air conditioning. Food, he said, is about 75 percent cheaper than it in Hawaii. “Yesterday I purchased a 60-pound bag of oranges from a vendor on the street for $5,” he bragged. Yes, 60 pounds.

On another day Heilbron explained that he had just bought a large bag of Kahuku prawn-sized fresh-caught shrimp from a passing truck for $17.50 — “for the entire five pounds, not per pound.”

As he gushed about fresh ahi that sells for $1.25 a pound — when he doesn’t catch it himself — and filet mignon for $1.99 a pound, I began to contemplate whether people who leave Hawaii for more affordable places suffer from consumer trauma.

Milk, he added, costs about one-fourth what it does in the islands, except when you can just take an empty jug to a local farmer and have it filled up for 25 cents.

So where could Heilbron’s affordable tropical paradise be? I needed some more helpful clues than oranges, shrimp, Mardi Gras and monkeys.

That’s when he noted that while Spanish is the primary language, he gets by in English due to long-term American influence there. The Monroe Doctrine screamed: Latin America.

The view from Mark Heilbron's oceanfront home

The view from Mark Heilbron’s oceanfront home in Panama.

Courtesy of Mark Heilbron

Ecuador, El Salvador or perhaps Panama were the frontrunners, although plenty of other countries also fit his descriptions.

Heilbron also noted that he doesn’t have to deal with foreign currency because, while he lives in a foreign country, it uses the U.S. dollar.

Yes, Panama; four hours drive from the massive canal that crosses the country, he finally clarified.

I have been to Panama. I traveled across Central America just four years after President George H. W. Bush an invasion force to oust Panama’s leader, Manuel Noriega, in 1989. The Panamanian dictator transformed from Washington’s anti-communist ally into a prisoner behind U.S. bars in a remarkably short period of time.

Rural Panama was a lush, gorgeous place, but the nation’s capital, Panama City, was divided in a surreal way. I walked through a wealthy business district that included shiny skyscrapers, later exploring a completely separated area of slums that had been a bastion of support for Noriega. It was still an edgy time. In that neighborhood, two young men with a very large knife asked me for some money. OK, they did more than ask. I gave them five dollars and the wallet that I carried so that I would have something — anything — to give to muggers, if necessary. A thoughtful young kid in the neighborhood later returned my wallet.

More than two decades later, Panama is a very different place. Stability came and the economy boomed. Heilbron chose the country that the U.S. helped to break off from neighboring Colombia in 1903 over a number of places that rival Hawaii in natural beauty.

“You can have the beauty of Hawaii for a fraction of the price that you pay for paradise … in many other places in this world,” Heilbron said. “My only regret is that I did not leave Hawaii 20 years ago.”

Several things swayed him. The  economy, which generally thrives as long as ships are paying to pass through the Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was a big factor. He was also seduced by the weather, miles of unspoiled tropical beaches and surf that is good enough for world-class contests with sponsors like Billabong and Quicksilver. Heilbron also enjoys the fishing and the safe environment where he lives.

But the main practical reason, he says, is that a middle-class family can live “very comfortably” in Panama on $30,000 per year and a nice sturdy three-bedroom, two-bath home goes for about $70,000.

To clear up any possible misconceptions about him, Heilbron wanted to make something clear: “You may be thinking that I am just a disgruntled local haole” who could not afford to stay in Hawaii.

“No, I am part-Hawaiian and my family has been in the islands for centuries. And I certainly had the financial resources to stay. But I saw a way of life that was deteriorating for myself and most of the people of Hawaii, so I decided to find a place to live out the rest of my days in the way that I grew up — in a place that is what Hawaii was before the corporations and the politicians destroyed it.”

The coast in Panama

The coast in parts of Panama looks a lot like it does here in Hawaii.

Mark Heilbron

Heilbron foresees a difficult future for Hawaii, given the unfunded state employee retirement fund and its potential impact on current and future retirees.

He wants his former neighbors in the islands to “see the writing on the big pineapple in the Pacific.”

In fact, he adds, “We even have pineapples in Panama that are just as good as the ones that Hawaii used to grow, and I can buy a whole pineapple for 50 cents.”

“You can have the beauty of Hawaii for a fraction of the price that you pay for paradise … in many other places in this world,” Heilbron said. “My only regret is that I did not leave Hawaii 20 years ago.”

Civil Beat readers who are interested in having the adventure of a lifetime in a place similar to the old Hawaii, he added, should contact him at heilbronm@gmail.com.

“Aloha,” he signed off, “from a real paradise.”

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, share it through Connections by clicking on the red pen, or drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to discuss this article, as well as practical and political solutions to the state’s high prices.