Tales from Panama – a Life Enriched

-Ellen Fritz, TEA Volunteer

At the ripe old age of 45, I became a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I left behind my job in criminal defense, my partner, and my gay life in San Francisco. I came to Panama last year as a Tourism and English Advising (TEA) Volunteer. The TEA group was the first of its kind in Panama, and was formed to help Panama’s poorest populations capture some of the opportunities afforded by the burgeoning tourist industry.

Panama, while beautiful and incredibly diverse, is a country of stark contrasts. A significant part of the country’s wealth lies in the hands of a few, while a large percentage of the population lives in poverty. Panama City is a world-class city with luxury condominiums, skyscrapers, one of the world’s largest banking industries, nice shopping and expensive hotels. However, once you leave Panama City for the interior of the country (the “campo”), the disparity between city life and campo life can really shock the system.

In the campo, the average Panamanian lives on less than $300 a month. Many live without adequate clothing, housing, and clean water. A typical house is constructed of cinder blocks with a zinc roof, or a thatched-roof hut with no walls. The normal campo diet consists of rice, beans and local vegetables, and there is rarely a change in that diet. The indigenous groups have fared the worst under the current system. They remain extremely poor, isolated and largely neglected. Many of them toil in the fields under the hot sun, or torrential rains, for less than $10 a day.

After finishing my 10-week training outside Panama City last June, I set off for my site in the province of Veraguas. Panama has nine provinces, with Veraguas being the third largest. Veraguas is interesting in that it is the only province that touches both coasts. It is also very diverse. We have beaches, mountains, rivers, jungles, rain forests, a large urban center, and two indigenous population groups, the Ngöbe and the Buglé. These people, as mentioned, are the poorest people in Panama. I regularly see them walking down from the mountains to the health center in my town, oftentimes a 14-hour trek (many of them shoeless and dirty, but never complaining).

Photo by Ellen Fritz

I live in a tropical rain forest in the northern part of Veraguas, about 30 miles from the Caribbean Sea. There are many rivers and waterfalls in and around my community, hundreds of species of orchids and birds, and boundless organic agriculture (e.g., coffee, yucca, plantains, bananas, citrus, papaya, mango, beans, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and cucumber). Most of the farmers grow crops for their own consumption and then sell the remainder to local markets. The town has a local coffee plant run by the farmer’s cooperative. The actual population of my site is about 2,800, while the entire district has about 14,000 people. It extends north to the Caribbean. That being said, I am in a rather large, developed community by Peace Corps’ standards.

 

Because of its natural beauty, climate, and still relatively undiscovered nature, my site has become a serious tourist attraction (and many foreigners are buying property here). In 2006, the community formed a tourism cooperative, whose goal is to operate local tourist businesses for the benefit of its members and the community in general. The cooperative currently has 34 members, all local Panamanians.

My primary assignment is with the tourism cooperative, assisting them with improving tourist services in the area and promoting it as a tourist destination. When I arrived, the cooperative was fairly unorganized and dysfunctional. Because most of its members had never traveled outside of Panama, or Veraguas, for that matter, they were unable to see things from an outsider’s point of view. For example, the importance of maps for trail hikes, the importance of a sign telling tourists where the restaurants were located, the necessity of menus – things that are so simple to us, but yet are things that would never even cross their minds. It is not for lack of brainpower, but, rather, for lack of never knowing anything differently, for never having the opportunity to experience something outside their world.

Since I began working with the tourism cooperative, we have finished our eco-friendly event center (“Rancho), where we hold meetings, workshops and cultural events. The rancho has been the pride of the cooperative and has already housed a mountain of events. In September, I invited three other volunteers to my community to build an earthen stove (“Estufa Lorena”) for the tourism co-op’s restaurant. These stoves are made of clay, sand, water, and straw and use half the amount of wood as other stoves. Hence, they produce much less smoke. Probably the best part is that they really cost nothing to make. The stove is alive and cooking!

Over the last several months, I have been working with the co-op to begin tours of the area. Our most popular tour is our coffee tour. This tour includes a visit to a local farm up in the mountains, where all the crops are organically grown. While the farm has a fair amount of coffee, it is not the primary crop. So, in addition to coffee, tourists can see how other local vegetables and fruits are planted, grown, and harvested. In addition, there is a wide variety of orchids growing on the farm, some native to our area. At the end of the tour, visitors are taken to our local coffee plant to see how the coffee is finally processed and packaged. To date, the tours have been a huge success.

In addition to my duties with the co-op, I teach English, computer, and cooking classes. The English classes have been somewhat challenging in that participation is not always consistent. While I have a handful of students who regularly attend, many of the students give up after figuring out they cannot learn English in a week. I particularly like the cooking class because it provides the opportunity to bond with the local women in the community and show them that there is food other than beans, rice, and chicken!

Photo by Ellen Fritz

The computer classes began about three months ago after the government of Panama donated seven new computers and satellite internet to my community. My classes are pretty basic and I have a regular number of students who come every week. The biggest challenge for them so far has been getting used to the keyboard and mouse – something I really did not anticipate since we take so much for granted. My classes are always full, and we always manage to laugh.

Other random projects I work on are: writing tourism articles, updating travel guides, developing tourist brochures, trail signage, and reforestation. And I am always acting as a resource to the community one way or another, whether it is helping kids with their English homework, translating, or just giving some advice from an American’s point of view. I truly enjoy what I am doing. The only disadvantage of being here is that life in the interior of Panama as a gay person can be very lonely and isolating. I have chosen not to reveal my sexual orientation as I do not want that, in any way, to interfere with my experience here. Panama is a very conservative, Catholic country where being openly gay is not particularly accepted. The idea of gay marriage is truly frowned upon.

My lessons learned are many. My main take-away, however, is that the Western way of doing things is not necessarily the better way of doing things. This is cause for great reflection as it has, at times, made me question why I am here. The Panamanians live a very peaceful, solitary existence, where getting ahead and making money are not a primary focus. While we define “rich” in terms of money and status, their richness comes from within. For them, things that matter most are family, community, and the overall appreciation of all that surrounds them. So my challenge is to keep that richness intact while helping them seize the opportunities that tourism has to offer. It is not always easy. But in the end, if I have enriched them culturally by exposing them to something different, I will have succeeded.

Although I miss my openly gay life in San Francisco every day, I have no regrets about leaving that existence to undertake this incredible journey. So far, it has promised to be so much more than I expected. It has not only given me a greater appreciation for my roots and my country, but innately, I feel so much richer, so much stronger, and so much happier for having taken this risk and undergone this hardship. Unlike something tangible, material, it is something that can never, ever be taken away from me. And, for that, I am forever grateful and lucky. And for that, I gain my energy to continue along this amazing life path.

You can contact Ellen at ellenfritzsf@gmail.com.

Out and About in Panama

-Janice Jorgensen, Country Director & Karen Rosenbaum, Partner
Editor’s note: In 1997 Janice Jorgensen and her long-time partner Karen Rosenbaum went to Panama, Janice as the Country Director and Karen as the “partner of.” They stayed five years. Here’s their story.

I had the fortune to be a “straight” Peace Corps Volunteer and an “out lesbian” Peace Corps Country Director. I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic between 1966-68. My group was tight like many of Peace Corps groups. In 1996, a fellow member of my group working for Peace Corps at the time asked me…”Have you ever thought about being a CD?” I replied…”Of course not, and I can’t remember what a CD does.” He remarked, “Well, Peace Corps is looking for women managers with business backgrounds.”

Talking to Karen, my partner of ten years, I said, “What would you think of going overseas with Peace Corps?” She looked shocked. (Karen: I thought to myself– ‘she must be crazy – leave our home – my dog, my cat, my garden, my friends, my security…. I do not want to turn 50 overseas!’). That ended the conversation and processing. Two months later I said to her, “You know I need to respond to my friend. “ This time Karen said. “Go for it.” (K: I had a bad day at work).

Once the interviews in Washington started, I knew that I would come out to the Regional Director. At 50, I had been out most on my work life. No way would we go to a country where homosexuality was illegal – or our lives were in danger. Coming out to the Regional Director, I told him that we needed to go to a country where homosexuality was legal. He took in the information and replied he didn’t have that information but that he would inquire and look for appropriate countries where there were openings for a Country Director. Panama fit the bill – others seemed more “iffy.” While I was being cleared for security, I had my final interview with the Peace Corps Director – again I “came out.” I stressed I did not want any problems with my appointment – no surprises, and that I would work as a professional as I have done all my life. He called me 10 days later to offer me the CD job in Panama.

I felt really great that everyone was in the know, and was confident there would be no problems with Peace Corps because of my partnership with Karen. And there weren’t.

Working in Panama was super. At various times I came out to everyone on staff. No one said anything derogatory to me ever. No offhand comments, nada. I felt they loved Karen maybe more than me. (K: Hmmm…. I doubt that. But staff became good friends to both of us. We still e-mail.) Karen is a psychotherapist and trainer and staff would casually consult with her on personal issues. (K: Sometimes someone would stop me in the office and ask about their four-year-old. Or their anxiety. Or their boyfriend.) She also volunteered several hours a month working with PCVs. (K: I loved it all. It kept me in the loop and I got to meet dozens of PCVs.)

I came out to PCVs just by mentioning something about myself and Karen – what we were doing that weekend, or where we were going to have dinner, or to invite them to a party at our house. I truly never felt that our partnership was an issue. Beside PC business, PCVs talked to me about just about anything – boyfriends, fiancés, girlfriends, should they get married, should they go on vacation, you name it. A few spoke to me about “coming out” in Panama and the U.S.

Being a lesbian couple living overseas but tied to the U.S. was fascinating. (K: Interesting choice of words…. I might say challenging.) I was unable to get Karen on my travel orders, which meant she had only her tourist visa, her plane ticket was not paid for and our baggage allowance was for one person. So we go from a long-term couple to a non-couple. That was very difficult. Karen had no status, didn’t have a focus when we arrived, knew no one, didn’t speak much Spanish, and was living in a city for the first time in her life. (K: As a workingwoman who had strong bonds to my family of friends – the impact for several months was overwhelming. I was not at all prepared for the hours Janice worked and the isolation I felt.)

Karen would go back to the States to renew her tourist visa. (K: At our expense.) At one point we were able to get a one-year working visa. (K: Oh my, that is a story in itself…a hoot to tell, but not much fun to go through. Later in our stay the tourist Visa was extended from one to three months with a three month extension and by them my good lesbian friend helped me get through the process – previously like most foreigners I paid a “lawyer” 50 bucks to get me through the process.) Peace Corps was not able to help us, so we were on our own.

While in Panama there were two different U.S. ambassadors. Both of them and their wives always included Karen and me as a couple. Embassy staff who I worked with were friendly – a few couples and individuals became friends. There were times when Karen was not included in the official invitation to embassy functions when the other spouses were. This depended on the individual in charge – specific people had issues and let it be known by not including Karen. (K:The first time, frankly I was relieved that I didn’t have to go to another function. The second time we both were annoyed – on principle. Janice refused to go to one party after calling and asking why I wasn’t I invited …I don’t remember the answer – but it was lame.)

My Panamanian co–workers always recognized us as a couple. (K: I think they were frozen on the spot at first – there we were – a real couple – the fact that we were in our early 50’s, educated, open, and fun helped a great deal. A few times, when Janice was on PC business in the countryside, staff called me at home. “Karen,” they’d say, “Do you know when Janice is coming back?” I’d say something clever like, “Gee, No I don’t.” They’d say, “Well, why don’t you? You should. You’re her partner, aren’t you?” I’d say, “yeah. You’d think I would know.” They’d say, “When I see her, I’m going to tell her that she has a bad partner.” And we’d laugh ourselves silly.)

For me, it was the most difficult time in our relationship; we were unprepared for our struggles. We were no longer equal. Every person Karen met through the Embassy would ask, “What does your husband do?” She’d say, “She is the Peace Corps Director.” It was not easy on her. (K: I believe I “came out” at least four times a day for a while…. Once I went two weeks without announcing my “lifestyle.” Because I was a foreigner, people were curious why I was in Panama – I developed a little repertoire of responses – based on age, nationality, ethnicity or maybe religion. I enjoyed telling my story and expanding people’s points of view. I think I am probably that, “I have a lesbian friend,” in a few people’s lives.)

In Massachusetts, we left our community behind. It was not easy developing friendships. We were our own best friends. (K: This was a bit more intense for me since I didn’t have steady work relationships.) We met some gay professionals and gay contemporaries. But it took a long time to develop close lesbian/gay friends. We loved telling them about Provincetown and Gay Pride Parades, – lesbian/gay babies, domestic partnership insurance, public places filled with “la familia.” (K: Whenever talking about people – the ‘code’ was always “ Are they de la familia”? We laughed a lot. Hearing their stories in turn took me back in time – fear of losing jobs, coded words for lovers, biological families who didn’t “know” or who abandoned them.)

I know my greatest contribution was that all those Peace Corps Volunteers, some of their families as well as our staff and their families, learned about queer couples in a very positive way. I could never have educated that many people in any other work.

If you’re thinking of working overseas with Peace Corps go for it. I had some personal requirements. Figure out what yours’ are. You can make an impact by just being yourself. There are lots of GLBT staff in DC. The Peace Corps needs more “out” staff overseas. Know that it will be the toughest job you have ever had and possibly one of the most rewarding. It was for us.(K: Yup. I agree.)

By the way, there have been policy changes that let embassy staff (including Country Directors) with domestic partners enjoy more household member rights. It’s called DMOH (Designated Members of Household).


Janice Jorgensen has just returned from a short term Peace Corps staff assignment in East Timor and can be contacted at janicej@sinfo.net. Karen Rosenbaum has been busy reestablishing her professional life and their American domestic household in Massachusetts. You may contact them at Janice Jorgensen to janicejorgensen@charter.net and Karen Rosenbaum to krsaboga@gmail.com

A Visit to Panama and My Friend Carlos

-Kevin Webb, RPCV, May 2000

I remember it as though it were yesterday. I was finally moving into my own mud hut after living with a Panamanian family for the first eight months of my Peace Corps tour. They were wonderful people and their kindness and generosity had enriched my life. I left their home with a new Panamanian mother and father and four brothers who would forever have a place in my heart. But it was time for the gringo son to branch out on his own. As I carried my last load of goods down the road to my new home, I passed a group of men sitting under a large mango tree relaxing and drinking the infamous corn alcohol called chica fuerte. I had observed that when the local men drank, they would often become loose tongued and their otherwise quiet and conservative demeanor would be replaced by loud and obnoxious behavior. I tried to quietly steal my way past them, but a gringo carrying a box in small Panamanian village was like a Rolls Royce driving past Homer and Marge Simpson’s house.

I knew most of the men and met their semi-focused stares with an appropriate greeting. They called me over to join them. I was immediately filled with a sense of dread. How could I get out of this one? I made a lame excuse that I had to do something at home and continued walking. One of the men, Carlos, whom I had not yet met, stared at me intensely. I knew Carlos was my new neighbor, but I decided this was not the time to introduce myself. As I nervously walked on, I heard him call out, “Hey, maricon!” I had just been called faggot in Spanish. I felt my blood pressure rise and my face turn red. Most times I am able to hold my tongue, but this time my temper got the best of me. I turned around and in my best Spanish replied, “the same to you Senior.” I immediately regretted my response, but the damage was done. I continued walking home.

As I approached my new home, I sensed I was being followed. Once inside I set the box down on the table and turned around to see a very drunk Carlos stumbling up the path. Carlos was silent but his eyes were intent on me and I could see he was seething. I met him at my front door. He struck with a solid punch to my stomach. I was able to push him away and slam the front door. I heard him stumble away, cursing under his breath. I was not hurt except maybe for my pride. I also felt a sense of dread because I knew this would be front-page news in my little town, and I was concerned about my credibility as a volunteer. I decided I should talk to someone about the incident. I went to my landlord who was also the grandfather of Carlos’s wife. I don’t know what Abuelo (grandfather) said to Carlos, but the next day he was at my door with a sincere apology. I was stunned. Men in this culture are proud and often stubborn, and do not apologize so quickly.

I accepted Carlos’s apology, but decided to keep my distance for the time being. Carlos had a reputation in the village as a heavy drinker and fighter. He sometimes beat his wife when he was drunk. Still, there was something intriguing about him. He was different from the other men. Carlos exuded intelligence and self-confidence. He seemed to see the world from a different perspective. Carlos and his wife had two boys and two girls, three in elementary school. From the moment I moved in next door, they became permanent fixtures in and around my house. One day when the children and I were talking, Carlos stopped by. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I remember thinking, “this man really loves his children.” And they adored him. Carlos continued to visit, often times in the evening when we could talk alone. He was hungry for knowledge and would ask me questions about politics, religion, and philosophy. He was a man who thought about his life. “I am poor and not very well educated,” he once said, “but I have faith in God and I know he will take care of me and my family.”

As days passed into weeks and weeks into months, my friendship with Carlos grew. Sometimes our schedules did not allow us more than a morning greeting, but other times we would spend hours talking and passing the time. On occasion we’d share some of the local chica fuerte or some Panamanian rum. We drank moderately though. I tactfully brought up the subject of his violence when he was drunk, and how his wife and family suffered from that. He came to realize the consequences of this drinking and he made some changes in his life. Never again did he raise his hand or voice to me. In the early days, he would return to my house after one of his drinking sessions with his friends, and I would see him the rest of the way home.

Our bond became stronger. Our friendship was very special. Carlos once told me that he never imagined that he would have a friend from another country, once more a gringo. It was a gift for me to have connected with Carlos in such a profound way. Most volunteers spoke of their high regard for the Panamanian campesinos they worked and lived with, but that cultural and economic differences made it difficult to relate beyond a certain level. It seemed as though Carlos and I had broken through these barriers. Or had we? I knew the real test would come if I told him I was gay. I thought he probably suspected this about me, but it remained a topic we did not discuss.

When I did finally tell him, my worst fear was realized. Despite the bonds that had been built, the cultural stigma was more than Carlos could handle. For three months he did not speak to me or acknowledge my presence. I felt sure that our friendship had come to an end. It was one of the most painful situations I have ever faced. Ironically, Carlos’s children continued their daily visits. His son continued to help me make breakfast and at night climbed up into my lap while I was reading to fall asleep. I would then carry him to Abuelo’s house next door and put him to bed.

Later when Carlos was gone from the village for a couple of weeks working, I became aware of a family problem. An uncle who was staying with them was mistreating Carlos’s children. He yelled at them and hit them frequently. I was outraged and knew I had to tell Carlos when he returned. The next week Carlos returned. I told him that I knew he didn’t want to be friends anymore, but that I loved his children very much, and I knew he would want to know what happened while he was away. Carlos was surprised. He thanked me and walked on.

The next day he appeared at my front door and greeted me as if nothing had ever happened. Later he told me that he needed time to think through what my sexual orientation meant. His religious and cultural upbringing had taught him that homosexuality was wrong. Homosexuals in his culture were scorned and not tolerated. Carlos concluded that I was a good person despite this “problem.” He said I had proved my friendship by standing up for his children and that he would never forget that. By the end of the conversation we were in tears and embraced.

My Peace Corps tour ended rather abruptly after I was assaulted in another town. The attack left me with two fractured arms and cuts on my head. Peace Corps decided to medivac me to Washington D.C. for emergency surgery. Because I had already served two years and was on an extension, I would not be coming back after my recuperation. At first Peace Corps didn’t want me to return to my village before I left, but I insisted that I must go back to say goodbye and dispose of my belongings.

It was late at night when I arrived in a Peace Corps vehicle with staff. I woke Carlos and his family and the family I had first lived with to tell them of my misfortune. I was tired and in great pain. The look of horror on their faces said it all. This was not the way I had fantasized saying good bye. Carlos was silent the whole time and his eyes were the saddest I had ever seen them. The next morning after everyone else had left, I walked with Carlos up the path to his house one last time to say goodbye. Tears flowed. We hugged. There are no words to describe the emotions I was feeling.

The story, however, does not end there. Our friendship continued. Carlos and I promised to stay in touch. I don’t believe that he thought he would ever see or hear from me again, but that was not to be the case. We’ve stayed in contact during the four years since I left Panama. Last September I returned to Panama and to the village where I lived. As I walked up the path to Carlos’s house, I could hear him talking to his wife and children. The children saw me first. They ran toward me, screaming my name. Carlos was clearly pleased to see me, but in his best Panamanian machismo kept his emotions in check. My short visit in the village was filled with visiting friends and family. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I invited Carlos to come traveling with me for a week and we visited parts of his beautiful country where he had never been.

We flew to the semi-autonomous region of San Blas controlled by the Kuna Indians. We stayed on a little island at a hotel made up of individual grass huts with sand floors. We sat on the beach and swam all day and ate lobster at night. On our last night in paradise, we lay in hammocks and talked. Carlos told me about each of the children and what they were doing. He then began to talk about his life and how it had changed since I had left. He said he only drank occasionally. He had become very involved in the community and was helping out at the local school, and serving as president of one of the local associations. He told me he had started reading more and was interested in learning English.

Earlier that day we had taken a boat trip. The water was rough and the swells began to grow. I got scared. Carlos sensed this and asked me what was wrong. I told him I was afraid we would tip over. He remained very calm. I asked him if he was scared. He said no. I asked him why. He said, “because I have faith in God.” I realize how much had changed in the five years since he had punched me in the stomach. For so long I had tried to be the role model, but now the tide had turned. That last night as we talked, I wished I could be more like my friend who was strong in faith and at peace with his world. Carlos has become my role model. How fortunate I am to have him as a friend.•

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