A Visit to Panama and My Friend Carlos
May 29, 2000
-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.•