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“We were doing it all,” says Museri. “We were buying land, we were dealing with zoning, we were handling architects, we were putting in electricity, sewage systems, we were doing the sales, property management, everything.”
They roped in friends back home: On one trip to Tel Aviv, Rudasevski reconnected with Natalie Libert, whom he’d had a crush on since high school. He convinced her to follow. She helped design their coffee shop, Pedasito, which quickly transformed into a bustling hotel and restaurant.
“I fell in love instantly,” she says of Pedasi (and presumably feels similarly about Rudasevski; the two are marrying in May). “It’s a really special place.”
On another trip back home, Museri had a spectacular massage. He offered the masseuse a job in Pedasi; today she runs a spa there. Rudasevski’s army buddy, 29-year-old Adi Shlush, came to visit. He promptly packed up all his stuff and moved to Panama, too.
“I saw the opportunity here,” he says. Panama, with its 10 percent annual economic growth, dollar-based economy, and relatively stable government, has sought to entice foreign businesses and visitors. The government makes it relatively simple to maintain residency and work permits and offers tourists free health insurance for 30 days. Last year, about 2 million visitors came to this country of barely 3 million people. The New York Times rated it 2012’s best place to visit.
But it’s not just that, Shlush says: “I feel comfortable here.”
There are about 8,000 Jews in Panama, and Jewish immigration here has tripled in the past two decades, according to the World Jewish Congress, an international federation of Jewish groups. The organization notes Panama is also the only country outside of Israel to have had two Jewish presidents in the 20th century: Max Shalom Delvalle, in 1969, and Eric Delvalle Maduro, from 1987-1988.
“There’s a big Jewish community here,” Shlush says. “We have a very good group. We’re like family.”
Today Dekel has about 12 projects in the Pedasi region — all in various stages of development — including an eco-lodge, Pedasi’s first large-scale shopping center, another giant resort community, a bakery, the hotel, a coffee shop and a wine bar. More is planned. It all raises the question: aren’t the friends endangering the very qualities they say they love about Pedasi, the untouched beauty, the simplicity?
No, says Museri. He notes that though their zoning permits allow them to build seven-story buildings, none are higher than three; most are just one level. They say they are going beyond environmental stipulations, incorporating twice the amount of green space than required, for instance, and using the highest quality sewage systems available.
“Pedasi is one of the most amazing places in the world,” David says. “We want to keep the nature as it is.”
Moreover, by now, most of the beachfront property has been sold and is under development: “It’s already happening,” Museri says. “We’re just trying to do it well.”
Lomi Kriel’s work has appeared in the Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She lives in Panama City.