In 2001, Stefanie Viola became pregnant. Scott was born in 2002, and the Kimballs' intention to wait for children crumbled shortly thereafter. In 2003, Renée gave birth to a son, Tres. Three years later a daughter, Boty, was born in Panama. With construction nearing completion in 2004, Renée and Tres finally joined Jim in Panama. A few weeks later, Stefanie and Scott arrived, and the couples celebrated their reunion by switching on the island's generators. The families were together at last, and they had refrigeration to boot.
On a rain-fresh afternoon in February, Renée and Jim Kimball emerge after lunch onto a wooden porch that wraps around the second-story dining room of the main lodge. A rare white hawk swoops past, and Jim rambles off to get a better look. Renée watches him go, then shifts her gaze to the canopy of coconut palms and banana trees rolling down to the sea. "When I'm the first one up, I come up here to make coffee, and I see the sun rising and look out over all of this," she says. "And I'm like, 'Pinch me.' "
Indeed, there is a dreamy quality to life at Tranquilo Bay. One day is much like another: the normal crises of business softened by the Zen-like stasis of the natural world. The families wake around 6:30. Before breakfast, nine full-time employees wander up to the main lodge from their dormitory. Several Indians float up to the dock in dugouts; they will spend the day beating back the encroaching brush and performing other outdoor chores. The jungle orchestra tunes its instruments.
During the day, Jim and Jay lead tours to other islands and hike, snorkel, swim, dive, and fish with their guests. "I spend about 75 percent of my time doing things that most people do on vacation," says Kimball. At the resort, Stefanie arranges stalks of deep-pink and red ginger in the cabanas, chitchats with guests, and pitches in where needed. Renée handles bookings, manages staff, and works on Tranquilo Bay's multiple websites.
All day long the children, under supervision of an employee, wander in and out of their parents' presence, pausing for a kiss or to exhibit a captive lizard or frog. Most afternoons, one of the men takes the boys swimming. All three children are bilingual; the families plan to educate them first in Spanish, later in Spanish and English. (They are hiring a tutor to live on the island.) "It's such a healthy way for them to grow up," says Renée. "They're outdoors so much. They're attuned to nature. I'll be walking with Tres, and he'll hear a bird and say, 'Mom, is that a red-lored amazon?' "
In the evening, after cocktails, guests gather at long wooden tables to dine on seafood chimichangas and chayote, a Latin squash. As they eat, Jim and Jay regale them with stories of Tranquilo Bay's founding. Jim cheerfully explains his process for extracting caimans -- the caiman is a relative of the alligator -- from the trenches they dug for the septic system: "Grab a stick. Torment the thing until it locks onto it. Then walk it like a dog off to the side. Let go of the stick. Get another stick. Tap him on the butt. He'll run into the bush and you can resume work." Everyone, from the sedate couple in their 60s to the 14-year-old amateur herpetologist, is agog.
The entrepreneurs call their home paradise, but doing business here still requires patience and a taste for the absurd. Although Panama's government is increasingly business friendly, many local services remain quaint. To pay their taxes, Tranquilo Bay's owners must travel to town once a month and hand their paperwork to an official who meets them at a hospital. Despite Panama City's status as a banking epicenter, Bocas has just one antiquated bank branch. Getting a replacement ATM card took much of a year.
Meanwhile, the residents of Bocas -- locals and foreigners alike -- can be colorful to the point of exasperation. Jim Kimball recounts how he loaned his canoe to an expat bar owner who told him he needed it to build a dock. Returning from a business trip a week later, Kimball saw the new dock from his airplane window -- and realized that his boat had been incorporated into the structure. (He never got it back. The bar owner apologized and offered to comp the families on beer.)
Still, like boa constrictors in egg-carton cups, these irritations have their charms. Even with the frustrations, the Texans say they wouldn't trade this life for any other.
Their first Christmas in Panama, four years after Renée's sad, solitary holiday in Houston, the Kimballs climbed into a boat and rocketed through the chop to the Zapatilla Cayes, a pair of islands that are part of the barrier reef guarding Bastimentos. On the deserted beach they built a racecar out of sand around 13-month-old Tres, for whom automobiles were as scarce and exciting as howdah-bearing elephants. Later, the three sported like seals in the 80-degree ocean. "White beach, turquoise water, warm breeze, family," Jim recalls fondly. "How's that for merry Christmas?"
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large.
Leigh Buchanan is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan
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