Charlotte Van Horn leads her first tour in Panama
Charlotte Van Horn never dreamed of being a world traveler. Quite the contrary. Years ago, when her husband expressed an interest in returning to his home country of Panama once he retired, her initial thought was, “Well, I guess that’ll be about the time we break up because I am never leaving the United States.”
Fortunately for Mr. Van Horn, his wife eventually had a change of heart.
The couple first traveled to Panama together in 2004 and Van Horn says she fell in love. By February 2019, she was celebrating her official residency status there. She commemorated the occasion this way:
“I celebrated getting a residence in another country because I officially became a resident of Panama. The celebration [was] on the last day of Black History Month and I talked about how my ancestors couldn’t cross the tracks. So when I tell you that we can go from country to country and even set down roots and get an ID in another country, it is huge. It is not to be taken for granted.”
What travel means to Van Horn as a Black woman
When I asked Van Horn about what travel means to her she told me it’s liberating. It’s relaxing. It's a luxury.
Her reasons, however, may differ from what you’d expect. Because while most of us think of travel as a way to escape the everyday stresses of work and life’s responsibilities, she told me it also has a lot to do with escaping the indignities she experiences as a Black woman in America. Indignities like these:
“I drove to North Carolina from Virginia recently. And because I do everything at the last minute, I didn't have the [registration] sticker for my car. I left in November and I came back on December 1st, so the decal on my [license plate] actually expired. I had something in my glove compartment to show any officer that stopped me ‘yeah, I just ordered my registration at the last minute, but here it is and the sticker is in the mail.’ But my experience living in the United States is that even though I’m this older lady in a fine vehicle, I felt like I needed to put my driver's license, my registration, the paper that I had printed out for the registration, and my insurance under the visor on the passenger side so that any officer who stopped me can see my hands. And I thought to myself when I did that, ‘it’s a shame.’ But it is my life.
“And I’ll give you another quick story. I love going into Walmart and one of the reasons I love going into Walmart is because there is not one damn thing at Walmart that I cannot buy. On any given day I can buy anything. The highest price item they’ve got in that store I can buy without a problem. However, when I go into Walmart, if I need mascara, or if I need a lipstick, or if I need— God forbid—an eyeliner, I have to buy that last. Because even though I’m a 57-year-old, sophisticated Black woman, I’ve got to worry about somebody following me around the store because I have a small item in my carriage. I have to get that last, right before I go to the register. It’s stuff that people never have to think about. That is just my life. It’s a lifetime of conditioning.“
This is what causes her to feel anxiety when it comes time to return to the US.
Does prejudice and racism suddenly disappear when she travels? No. But she says, “When I’m in other places I feel more relaxed. And I guess a lot of times when you’re a tourist it doesn’t really matter what color you are because people are just looking for your money.”
Sharing travel with the Black community
By late 2019, Van Horn was splitting her time between the US and Panama. She was also working to bring her Sisterlocks® business to her new country, which is what inspired her to host her first tour, Sisterlocked In Panama 2020.
Van Horn wanted to invite clients of her Locks 4 Ever hair salon to Panama so they could see her new country and so the Panamanians could “see a bunch of Black women with amazing, natural hair all together in bright yellow shirts.”
To plan the tour, Van Horn teamed up with Christopher De Pew of ITA Global. Together, they developed a four day tour of Panama that highlighted Afro-Panamanian culture. Forty women joined them on the excursion.
One of Van Horn’s prerequisites for the trip was a visit to the Afro Antillean Museum. As a seasoned tour operator, De Pew had taken dozens of groups through the traditional Panama Canal tour. But he’d never even heard of the Afro Antillean Museum. When they got there he says:
“It's an entirely different story. It's like a completely different canal. But it’s just a tribute to the people who were actually in the trenches versus the commercial story, which is ‘the French failed, the US completed it, and here's our grand shrine of a museum in honor of the US that got the job done.’”
It was a moving experience for the women on the tour. According to Van Horn, some of them “were in tears because they'd never recognized their Caribbean background until they saw their Grandmama’s kitchen table set up in that museum. The museum shows what a typical bedroom would look like or a typical kitchen. And some of [the women] were able to connect [it to] things that they’d seen in their childhood.”
And that is what motivated Van Horn to plan more tours “I think that’s when I was really motivated in the sense that we need to go other places and connect with Black culture and how much we have in common. Learn how we’re really interconnected all over the world.”
Identifying a need among Black Americans
Back in the States, Van Horn had been searching online for a community of US expats living in Panama. She says there were plenty of “expats In Panama” groups on Facebook, but she couldn't relate to any of them because none spoke to her specific concerns.
“I didn't see anything on expats in Panama that talks about where the hell am I going to get my hair done? When is Black History Month in this particular country? Where can we get the sho’ nuff Caribbean food?”
“I kept looking everyday as if something was going to appear that was better suited for me and it didn't. So I just created my own. I created [a group] to share my experience and to connect people to the Black culture in Panama.”
It took a year for Van Horn’s group to grow to 300 members. Then, in the last six months of 2020, it blew up, adding more than 1300 new members. Suddenly, she was the head of a community of Black Americans who were interested in leaving the country and eager for information on how to do it.
The birth of Black Expats Worldwide
Once again, Van Horn reached out to De Pew at ITA Global for help planning tours that would connect her community to Black culture in Panama. They planned two trips to Panama for May (which is Black History Month in Panama) of 2021. The tours were designed to showcase places where people could live in Panama City and it’s suburbs while also providing local cultural exchange.
But they didn’t stop there.
Black Expats in Panama, LLC officially partnered with ITA Global to create a collaboration called Black Expats Worldwide. The goal is to help Black Americans who are interested in leaving the United States safely explore and learn about Black culture in countries such as Panama, Nicaragua, and Belize.
It’s quite an evolution for the woman who thought she’d never set foot outside the United States.
A Black woman’s advice for the travel industry
The travel industry would be wise to take note of groups like Van Horn’s because they are an economic powerhouse. Black US leisure travelers spent $129.6 billion on domestic and international travel in 2019 alone. But historically, the industry has done little to support or market to them.
So I asked Van Horn what can the travel industry do to better connect with, empower, and serve the Black community? Here’s what she says:
“I think just being genuine and not coming at the Black community like ‘all we want is your money.’ If you want us to be your clientele, come at us and say ‘I want you to experience this in a way that is meaningful for you’... [And] recognize that we need something different. What we’re thinking about are different things."
She says there’s been a groundswell since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“All of a sudden now, you got Black people that are looking for Black businesses. We are tired of spending our money in groups that don’t represent us. We are tired of seeing travel ads that only show black people serving and white people being served.
“We are vacationers. How do you think you’re going to attract us when all of your ads show nothing but white people? And when you do see Black people we’re serving, we’re not on vacation! We can’t see ourselves in that space.”
She stresses the need for diversity and representation.
“Who is at your table? When you’re making these decisions about how you’re going to set up a trip or anything that you do, who is at your table? You best believe that if your table is filled with no one of brown or black color, you’re missing the mark. Because nobody at that table can share with you the experience that I share being a black woman traveling. So you’re not going to be able to get my money. You’re not going to be able to attract me.”
But sometimes it’s as simple as making sure you provide excellent customer service. That’s what De Pew says his team has done for Van Horn and her guests. “It’s all about making sure the customer is happy and doing little things that make them say ‘wow.’”