Traveling by Bus, Truck and Foot to Be Together
Vicmar Carolina Flores Hidalgo and Cullen Joseph Heater first crossed paths at a hostel in Panama City in late 2017. Mr. Heater, a Peace Corps volunteer from Milton, Mass., was recuperating there after ankle surgery. Ms. Flores, who moved to Panama from her native Venezuela a year earlier, was teaching yoga at the hostel.
They caught glimpses of each other, but didn’t speak until the end of Mr. Heater’s monthlong convalescence, when they learned they would both be attending a concert of a mutual friend.
After a night of communal drinking and dancing, they decided to stay in touch, despite the difficulties posed by Mr. Heater’s return to his Peace Corps community. He lived in Boca de Cuiria, a remote village without electricity, in the province of Coclé, about six hours and two river crossings away from Panama City.
The two made plans to meet in January 2018, and at a friend’s suggestion visited Isla Taboga, in the Gulf of Panama.
“We fell in love with this island,” said Ms. Flores, 30. They have returned there every year since that first visit.
Unlike many other tourists who lounged on the popular beaches, Mr. Heater and Ms. Flores opted to explore less-trodden corners of the island, where they discovered what became one of their favorite places: Playa de las Piedras or “stone beach.”
“It’s all rocks so nobody ever goes there,” Mr. Heater said. “But it’s beautiful because the tide will come in and you won’t be able to see the beach. And then the tide will go out and there’s all these beautiful shells and rocks.”
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For the next year and a half, the couple traversed great distances to be with one another. The long trek between Mr. Heater’s Peace Corps community and Panama City was often challenging. They had to rely on multiple buses, sometimes hitch rides in the back of trucks and then hike a couple miles from the road to the village.
“It has been a theme throughout our relationship,” said Mr. Heater, 32. “‘Go on this adventure with me.’”
Ms. Flores, who studied agronomy at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in El Limón, Maracay, is currently a self-employed yoga instructor. Mr. Heater, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from McGill University in Montreal, works remotely as a writer and editor at the Rainforest Foundation, which supports Indigenous groups in Central and South America.
When his Peace Corps service ended in September 2019, Mr. Heater decided to stay in Panama to be with Ms. Flores. In January 2020, the couple moved to a small apartment in Panama City. An eight-month-long pandemic lockdown followed, during which the couple realized that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
In August 2021, Mr. Heater proposed on their beloved stone beach on Taboga. They came upon a rare patch of sand amid the rugged shore.
“Hey, look what I found here,” Mr. Heater said to Ms. Flores. It was common for them to show each other colorful debris, like an ornate shell or pretty rock, churned up by the ebbing tide. Ms. Flores turned around to find Mr. Heater on one knee with an uncut diamond ring in his hand.
The couple hoped to settle in the Boston area, but the plan came with complications. Ms. Flores had been denied a tourist visa to the United States. The couple then decided to apply for a K-1 fiancée visa, which would allow her to come to the United States and marry Mr. Heater within 90 days. It took two years for the visa to be approved.
“We planned four weddings for four seasons,” Ms. Flores said, laughing.
In March, Ms. Flores acquired the visa, and over the next 40 days, they planned their wedding.
The couple were married May 13 in the backyard garden of Mr. Heater’s parents’ home in Milton, where they are currently living until they find their own place in the Boston area. The wedding was officiated by Lisa Ward, a local Unitarian Universalist minister.
Forty-two guests attended, most of them family members. Ms. Flores’ parents were unable to attend, though many of her other close relatives did, including two of her three siblings. The ceremony was livestreamed over Instagram in English and Spanish for friends and family outside the country.
“He truly cares about other people,” Ms. Flores said of Mr. Heater. “He truly wants to save the world.”
Mr. Heater said he admires the passion Ms. Flores brings to her career and her willingness to uproot her life in pursuit of a new adventure. “She does it with a grace that I could never manage,” he said.
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