Vancouver
4 min

Escaping the rat race

Gay innkeepers left behind city life, offer you the same

WHEN IN PANAMA. Gorgeous rainforests, warm waters and laid-back unwinding greet the visitor to momentum gay resort in Panama. Momentum is owned by former British Columbian Ken Neal. Credit: Xtra West files

In his affecting travel memoir, A Different Person, the poet James Merrill devotes an entire chapter to explanation-why must he travel? Where does the lust for something new begin? For Merrill, as always, the answer is internal. Only by the shock of the new can he hope to improve upon himself.



“Was I ever coming back?” he asks. “Yes, yes, one of these days. But of course I would be a different person then.”



And can a vacation really alter a life? Can we grab hold of holidays and continue to live them forever? We spoke with a few brave souls for whom the call of foreign lands was just too tantalizing to ignore (and too lucrative to pass up).



At age 50, the executive director of the British Columbia Electrical Association left his previous life behind and became a tour guide in southern BC. Some would call this a bizarre loss of clout. Not Ken Neal. “Being a tour guide provided the flexibility I wanted, and exposure to plenty of interesting people with different ideas about life. In fact, it was a fellow tour guide who planted the seed that got me travelling to Central America.”



And something about those sweaty, lascivious, Panama nights just got to him. “I liked the lack of routine, and especially the warmth.” By 1997, Neal had met so many new friends and was so taken with the splendor of the landscape that his mind was made up. He sold his Vancouver house and got the move underway the following winter. At the time, Panama’s tourism business was a fledgling enterprise. But you don’t get to be an executive director without recognizing golden opportunities.



In the seaside town of Boquete, Neal took advantage of incentives the government offered to foreigners building tourism facilities. The Cabañas Bed and Breakfast Momentum was born.



As a member of the IGLTA (International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association), which held its convention in Vancouver last year, Momentum is a resort keenly aware of queer needs in a social climate that Neal likens to Canada 20 years ago: “Gays and lesbians are begrudgingly accepted but outwardly shunned…sort of snickered at.”



Hightail it into Panama City, however, and you’ve hit a veritable hotspot of underground gay action in Central America. “At last count,” says Neal, “I visited six different gay bars.” Bars in Panama open at 10 pm, close around dawn, and charge 75 cents for a beer.



“You’ve never lived ’til you’ve attended a beach party at Club BLG,” Neal chuckles. “At 2 a m, one morning, the bartender turned the water hoses on the crowd-in less than five minutes, there wasn’t a dry body in the place!”



Wet T-shirt contests aside, the majority of Panama’s gay workforce still live in constant fear of losing their jobs. Human rights legislation does not yet exist to prevent firing based on sexual discrimination. The Momentum B&B, then, “provides a respite” from the slow pace of liberation in Panama.



And what a respite it is. Located a short distance outside of town, on 4.5 acres of green property, Momentum overlooks Panama’s highest point of land, the dormant Volcan Baru. The property includes space for outdoor concerts, picnics and camping, and has played host to fashion shows, pool parties and Valentine soirées. “When we do have events at Momentum,” says Neal, “guests get to know just how ‘friendly’ those tan-skinned Panamanian boys and girls can be!”



Boys may decide to hop over to Mexico for a little more skin. Vallarta Cora is an exclusively male resort where nude bathing is de rigueur. With a poolside bar open from 3 – 11 pm, “you have to hurry to get laid” warns owner Mario Lavoie. Sex tourists have long marked Vallarta Cora out as a haven and the celebrated (infamous) resort marks its 10th anniversary this November. “We’re the busiest place in town at times,” says Mario, adding with a wicked giggle, “because I have a dark room.”



And what inspired Lavoie to take the plunge into paradise? “I was diagnosed with HIV. I was watching all my friends drop. And I took off for Mexico-a permanent vacation.” Lavoie has been positive for 15 years now without meds. Now, dealing with a compromised immune system, he’s in Vancouver for a brief reverse vacation-getting his meds and catching up with old friends. “I don’t regret it,” he insists. “I’ll be going back to Mexico once I’m set up.”



But you needn’t travel as far as Panama or Mexico to walk on the wild side. BC boasts B&Bs that encourage guests to saunter in the nude as well. When relaxing in Gary and Alan’s hot tub, overlooking Okanagan Lake, “we prefer it when people don’t wear bathing suits,” says Gary. “The water stays cleaner that way.”



Little hints like that, plus the offer of over 100 XXX videos, mark The Eagle’s Nest as a B&B that doesn’t behave by the rules. But longtime couple Alan and Gary Warren (married this year) aren’t your ordinary hosts. Formerly a DJ of Celebrities fame (and Neighbors in Seattle), Alan now eschews the nightlife buzz for oven-baked bread and views to die for.



The change of lifestyle “was terrifying,” admits Alan. “But life forces you to always find out about yourself-this move was another part of that.



“It changes you for the better. People come back from Europe a different person-and this is the same. You come across even more of those challenges being gay outside the urban centre.”



With five luxurious rooms nestled amongst a cherry orchard above Okanagan Lake, it may be hard for guests to remember their being challenged, though. The Eagle’s Nest allows visitors to partake in the Okanagan Wine Festival (Oc 1 – 10) as well as outdoor activities year round.



Little hints like that, plus the offer of over 100 XXX videos, mark The Eagle’s Nest as a B&B that doesn’t behave by the rules. But longtime couple Alan and Gary Warren (married this year) aren’t your ordinary bed-and-breakfast hosts. Formerly a DJ of Celebrities fame (and Neighbors in Seattle), Alan now eschews the nightlife buzz for oven-baked bread and views to die for. With five luxurious rooms nestled amongst a cherry orchard above Okanagan Lake, The Eagle’s Nest allows visitors to partake in the Okanagan Wine Festival (Oct 1 – 10) as well as outdoor activities year round.



The Eagle’s Nest only opened in May, but already guests are booking several weeks in advance-poor Alan and Gary have only had one day off so far.



Back in Panama, Ken Neal’s Momentum resort celebrates its first anniversary this November. His vacation, it seems, is well on its way to becoming a lifetime passion. It’s comforting to report that these forays aren’t just extended holidays, either. There’s a political edge, palpable as the rimmer on their margaritas. Plans for 2005 include pulling together gay and lesbian communities from Costa Rica and Panama for an “international” Pride celebration in June.



“It’s time!” says Neal.



BLACKBOX:

Momentum, Panama.

www.momentum-panama.com.

Vallarta Cora, Mexico.

www.vallartacora.com.

The Eagles Nest, Okanagan.

www.theeaglesnestbandb.com.