A strange fact is that I have dated more Latinas than Gringas in my life. Spending the better part of my promiscuous 20’s in Latin America has facilitated that.
Maria is my girlfriend for this story. We’ve been dating for a few weeks by now. I met Maria through a mutual friend on a chiva party bus. One weekend she invites me along to San Blas to camp with her and a group of friends. I will be the only Gringo there.
Our group of 10 people arrive at San Blas in a couple 4x4s. Lanchas captained by an elder Kuna man take our group and its camping supplies to one of the few remaining island spaces. The national holiday has packed San Blas with PTYers.
My first order of business in this tropical paradise is to set up Maria and I’s 2-person tent under a palm tree. While I’m setting up, Maria’s girlfriends lay out beach towels in a picnic style circle. The guys begin juggling a soccer ball on the beach.
Maria ask me to help her apply sunscreen. As I rub the SPF 8 tanning lotion in between her shoulder blades, I can’t decide if I’m more aroused by her rich mocha colored skin or her bootylicious backside.
Out of courtesy, Maria invites me to tag along with her group of girlfriends (and the one gay best friend). She knows that I don’t know any of the guys juggling the soccer ball. I decline her offer. I need to at least attempt to friend these guys.
American football was my sport in high school, not soccer. I would jump at the chance to toss around the pigskin with a few of the fellas. Yet, I hesitate when it comes to juggling a futbolito. I’m not that good at it. After 30 minutes of embarrassing attempts to juggle, I retire from futbalito for the day. Lets try chit chatting with the chicas.
The girls are discussing the latest bonchinche (gossip). Even though I have zero frame of reference regarding their conversation, I listen attentively. I see this experience as an extended Spanish immersion class. If it were offered at a university, it would surely be called, “Panamanian Spanish 401”. I understand about 77% of it.
Maria: “Ebans, que te pasa mi amor?” (Evan, what is wrong my love?)
Me: “Me? Nada. All good.”
Maria thinks I’m bored. This is because I’m laying on the outside of the circle with my head resting in my Panamanian sombrero. I am not bored – far from it. Underneath my closed eyes, my mind is active. I’m keeping score of who says the Panamanian’s favorite transition word “Osea” the most. The race is close between Maria’s gay best friend and the most princesa girl I have ever met.
After Maria mentions something about my being bored, I sit up. I feel an urge to contribute to this conversation. Groups that speak only Spanish turn me into a wallflower. This is because the conservation moves quickly and is loaded with cultural references.
Living in Panama for 5 years, I feel knowledgeable in some areas of Panamanian culture. I’m knowledgeable about local politics because I read La Prensa. I’m knowledgeable about Plena (hip-hop) music because I have met the rapper El Boy C. And, I’m knowledgeable about the national soccer team because I can say with certainty that Blas Perez is the best player and dances “Movin like Bernie” after he scores a goal.
Sadly, these are not the topics of conversation. Maria’s body language is telling me that she is starting to regret inviting me to San Blas. I know this feeling. I feel the same way when I invite her to Gringo dinner parties in Full English.
With Maria’s regret weighing on my mind, I motivate myself to speak up. This is not going to be pretty, but here goes nothing:
Me: “Oh yeah, Gringo-Spanish, Gringo-Spanish, Gringo-Spanish.”
There is an awkward pause. Maria’s friends all have confused looks on their faces. They turn towards Maria in order to translate my heavy accent. She is accustomed to deciphering my garbled Spanish. The awkward pause combined with not being clearly understood makes me feel like an elementary kid with Downe’s syndrome.
The sun starts to set on San Blas. Our group’s small boombox gets turned up (way too loud). Maria brings me a bien fria pinta (cold beer) without being asked. I slip her a kiss on the lips. Her body lotion/hair product fragrance is intoxicating. Her thrown-together bathing suit wrapped in a colorful sarong flatters her womanly figure. Maria has been swimming in saltwater and sitting in sand all day, yet she always has a distinctly feminine appearance.
One beer turns to three or four. I’m convinced that my Spanish improves with alcohol consumption. I am speaking Spanish with passion. The group’s attention has centered on me. Not because of my improved Spanish, rather because everyone wants to show off their English. They all learned it in grade school. Spanglish is the language for the rest of the night.
At dawn, I wake up with a splitting headache. It feels like someone has shoved a sword into my skull. The last thing I remember clearly was plotting my midnight romantic rendezvous with Maria in our tent. Then Maria’s guy friend interrupted us. He had been eyeing her all night (I’m used to guys hitting on my girlfriend). He tells me, “Chupa el guaro, Gringo!” (Chug this, Evan!) as he hands me a bottle of warm rum. The night was all downhill from there.
Burying my head in the sand like an ostrich seems sensible in order to rid me of a hangover. I softly un-spoon Maria in the tent and sneak to the beach. Minutes later, she sits next to me and gently rubs her fingers through my hair. In her other hand, are two painkillers and a bottle of the most quenching water that I have ever had.
Maria frequently takes care of me without even being asked. For example, she will stay the night at my apartment. When I leave for work in the morning, she will stay and straighten up. I tell her that she doesn’t need to do that. I pay a maid to come twice a week. She tells me that is just part of her personality.
Maria is 26-years-old and still lives at home. Everyday her father comes home at 5 PM. Maria gladly serves him a tall glass of milk and two slices of toasted bread. Indeed, being attentive to men in her life is just part of her personality.
In Maria and my’s relationship, the gender roles are very distinct. I am the male. This makes me provider and protector. I have paid for the entire San Blas trip. When we go out to discos, I pay for all the tabs. In a crowd, I’m expected to protect her bubble butt so stranger’s hands can’t take a squeeze.
On the other hand, Maria is the female. Her priorities are her vanity and my needs. Maria always looks pretty. She takes pride in organizing/supporting my life. Maria outwardly states her loyalty to me. On multiple occasions she has told me, “soy tuyo” (I’m yours). This strictly defined masculine/feminine gender role relationship is old-fashion to me. I’m just starting to warm up to it.
I’m not sure why Maria is attracted to me. She doesn’t share my interest in traveling. Maria doesn’t read my blog or book. To be honest, I think Maria is only interested in me because she is attracted to fulitos (white boys) and my eyes. Everyday she will say, “Me encanta tus ojos verdes” (I love your green eyes).
My lack-of-depth relationship suspicion will be confirmed in a few weeks. Maria and I will break up. She will say that I’m demasiado frio (too cold). One re-occuring frustration for Maria is that I do not call her enough. This is true, I’ve never really adapted to the Latin relationship norm of multiple phone calls a day. I thought entrepreneurs would be given more slack.
If you have not discovered by now, both Ms. Luna and Maria are fictional characters. I created them to help me accentuate the dating differences between the Gringas and Latinas in my dating life (To be politically correct, not every Gringa is nomadic and independent, and not all Latinas are dependent, shallow and feminine – so chill out on the comment box).
Ms. Luna and I’s one-night stand highlights the easy way in which I build rapport with Gringas. We share a common first language, culture and interests. The drawback is that these roaming Gringas don’t stay in Panama for long. It’s hard to construct a long term future with someone who leaves the next day, next month or next year.
The successful Gringo-Gringa relationships that I have seen usually see Panama as a chapter in their life. Panama is not their final destination, rather just a stop on their long road together. They’re travelers/expats – staying still is not in their DNA.
While Maria represents an uber feminine Latina. Maria is a local that will be in Panama long term. My physical attraction to her is tremendous. And immersing myself in the local culture and language is good for my personal development (travelers underestimate how hard local immersion is). The drawback is that Maria and my’s relationship lacks depth. This isn’t helped by my inability to fully articulate myself in her native language.
Successful Gringo-Latina relationships that I have seen place a priority on mutual cultural participation. Each partner participates (or at least tries to) in their partner’s native culture. This includes holiday trips to visit Panamanian relatives in the interior as well as beers with the Gringos while watching Monday Night Football.
As for me, my success with women remains mixed. The romantic relationship road has been diverse and educational. Now if I can just find that elusive bi-lingual, independent, optimistic, family-oriented, feminine girl that dances salsa, well then I would be content. In the meantime, my journey continues…