Sipping a cooled pipa (coconut water served in the coconut) in his hotel, Banana Azul, Colin Brownlee is very much at peace with himself. “How many people can have their morning cappuccino on a beach?” he asks, smiling. Brownlee smiles and laughs a lot these days. “I came back to Canada a few years ago for work. But I can honestly tell you my heart just wasn’t in it. Here I see my life as half full, and back in Canada it felt half-empty.” It is clear that Brownlee is living the pura vida.
(A suite overlooking the lush gardens of Banana Azul. Courtesy bananaazul.com.)
In 2004, after years of working in marketing and media, Brownlee took the plunge and left Canada for the warm and green climate of Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast. He decided on Puerto Viejo de Talamanca because of its “funky bohemian vibe” and because “it’s very up-and-coming and has a diverse culture.”
Located on Playa Negra — just minutes from the town proper — Brownlee’s hotel offers spacious rooms amid luscious greenery and blooming flowers (tended to by an in-house gardener) and a truly relaxing atmosphere. It’s hard to believe that about a decade ago this blooming paradise was a cow pasture.
(A pathway through the lush grounds leads to a prestine beach. Courtesy bananaazul.com.)
Brownlee is always looking for ways to improve his clients’ stay, insisting, “The client’s experience is what matters to me. I tell my staff that the people coming here have very stressful lives. It’s true you [his staff] have stressful lives, but so do they. When they come here they want to relax. And that is what we offer them.”
(Tranquil Puerto Viejo is located on the Southern Caribbean Coast of Costa Rico. Courtesy bananaazul.com.)
More than just a business venture, he built the hotel as his home, though he now lives just across the road. As he makes his morning rounds, his two dogs (an inheritance from local friends) follow him around peacefully while he talks to the guests. Sometimes the friendly chitchat turns into prolonged conversations, adding to the welcoming atmosphere.
The hotel’s guest book is filled with glowing reviews that mention tranquil vacations and the hotel’s attentive staff, with the name Franklin popping up repeatedly. Like most staff members, Franklin was hired as a novice but eventually accepted a job in a Hawaiian hotel — Banana Azul doesn’t just hire locals, but offers opportunities for skills development, preparing its employees for work in the burgeoning hospitality business that is Costa Rica’s biggest industry.
(One of the relaxing pools at Banana Azul. Courtesy bananaazul.com.)
Under the thatched roof at the end of the pool, which also includes a Jacuzzi, our conversation ranges from personal development (more than 20 years sober, Brownlee is a high-school dropout with an impressive CV) to American gun policy to current LGBT politics, sex, business, intergenerational relationships and the dangers conservative families and religion pose to LGBT youth. Brownlee often repeats the phrase “Be the change you want to be,” underlining the power of the self.
It is clear that Brownlee is a passionate man with strong ideas about the world. He is in a non-committal relationship with a man 20 years his junior and fully understands and accepts the limitations of such a relationship.
“I’ve been in long-term committed relationships. I started to build this hotel with my boyfriend and our dog. Now I have the hotel,” he laughs. This doesn’t make him a cynic but rather a man open to the possibilities offered by life.
“Now I have a hot house-boy — okay, ‘an assistant’ — when we travel. And it’s good. We both have an open attitude to the relationship. We go to San Jose, and Luis takes care of things, boys, et cetera. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. How many men my age would love to have a house-boy?” He laughs again, but it’s clear that he knows what he’s talking about.
(Colin Brownlee with his personal assistant Luis. Courtesy Colin Brownlee.)
Brownless feels that intergenerational relationships needn’t be sexual but can provide a meaningful exchange. As for being gay in Costa Rica, he recognizes the special status awarded to him as a foreigner but says, smiling, “Ticos look at homosexuality with a mild amusement. There’s no army here, none of that macho bullshit.”
Though removed from North American queer politics, it doesn’t mean those matters aren’t still close to his heart. Talking about how things have changed for gays over the years, we come across the topic of teen suicide, and Brownlee gets serious. He mentions the name Hamed Nastoh, a 14-year-old boy who jumped from the Pattullo Bridge, just outside Vancouver.
“His parents’ first words to the press were, “He was not gay. It goes against everything we believe in and taught him.” Angry and upset, Brownlee wrote an article for Xtra Vancouver questioning who killed Nastoh — bullies or his parents. The content seemed too controversial and angry and was eventually published after major editorial changes. “It was angry. … Because after being bullied and ending up in the hospital at an age of 14 after a group beating … I was angry. A quote from his suicide note asked his parents to visit his grave often as he did not want to be lonely. … Religion and conservative parents are poison.”
Brownlee believes in helping the LGBT cause abroad, in countries that don’t have the same laws and structures that we have in the West. Understanding that not everyone can go abroad to fight the good fight, he believes Western, established gays should help foreign LGBT organizations financially so they can equip themselves with the necessary tools.
“And do you?” I ask.
“Yes. A project I donated to is a gay project listed on GoFundMe. The guy who runs it is named Fred, and it is helping the LGBT community to organize in Uganda,” he says.
Relaxed and friendly in the shade of the thatched roof, Brownlee looks toward the future. A Costa Rican resident and a member of the local business association, he envisions local improvements, which include walking boulevards along the beachfront. Brownlee sees the bigger picture. Over the years he bought adjoining plots of land to build private time-share development called Villas Banana Verde, and he is involved with local development. The first building is complete, and about 20% of the timeshare purchases have been bought by gays and lesbians.
(Architectural rednering of Brownlee’s future development plans. Courtesy bananaazul.com)
“We’ve held a six-part course for the locals on how to promote their business online via Trip Advisor, et cetera.” And he knows what he’s talking about, given that the majority of Banana Azul’s promotion is done online.
“What do you think about the name ‘Life Beyond the Village’?” he asks. “I just think too many gay men are stuck in the ghetto. They’re afraid to leave it.” He is speaking about a column he would like to write based on his life. When I suggest that it would find readership in his generation, he retorts, “I don’t think it’s just for the older generation. I think younger people can find something in it, too. It doesn’t have to be just about sex, though that would be in there, too,” he says with a laugh.
Given Brownlee’s approach to life, it’s no surprise he has many projects still cooking in his mind. Perhaps most notable, Brownlee would eventually like to develop a gay retirement home — he’s toying with the name “Happy Endings.” Knowing Brownlee, I’m sure the focus will be on happy.
(Pura vida in Puerto Veijo. Courtesy bananaazul.com)
Read our feature Sex and the Single Tico