LIGHT OF PANAMA
They say there is no sunset in Panama; that its nearness to the equator creates an oddity that causes the sun to disappear almost unnoticed. Those of us who have enjoyed the beauty of those supposedly non-existent sunsets would beg to differ.
It was twilight, my favorite time of the day. Standing on the bow of the tall ship, Mandalay, I watch the shifting light show that spreads across the horizon. First, the placid sky fades to multi-toned peach and apricot, reflecting liquid gold on the water. The colors morph. Soft oranges become amethyst, then purple. Before long, blackness begins to envelope everything.
Captain Matt interrupts my reverie when he announces it’s time to set the sails and head for San Blas, a group of over 360 islands off the east coast of Panama. As crew and passengers tug on the thick lines, a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace reverberates from the loudspeakers. The evening wind catches in the enormous sails, and the Mandalay picks up speed. Tonight, the moon is as bright as a new quarter, glimmering across the sea in a choppy silver line. I drink in the moment, hoping to find a way to vividly recall every detail when I return home to California. I decide this will be my new “Happy Place,” that memory of a special situation or scenic spot where we can mentally escape when we’re under too much pressure.
I watch patches of reflected moonlight rise and fall on the waves, as the mighty schooner slices through the inky swells. The moist, tropical sea air is so heavy that I can taste it. While the cool, misty spray moistens my face, the wind presses against my body, raking back my untethered hair like warm, unseen fingers. Oh, yes. This is my happy place. Feeling a bit like Leonardo de Caprio on the Titanic’s bowsprit, I fight the urge to throw my arms into the air and shout, “I’m the king of the world!” Somehow it seems fitting.
Minutes later, the escalating wind pushes clouds overhead, until the moon disappears. Though they have heavy, leaden centers, the clouds are illuminated around the edges as if the heavens have switched on a fluorescent light. After another few minutes, they become a boiling mass, releasing their pent up moisture on the 280-foot schooner.
I scramble for the protection of the deck below; to enjoy another delicious meal prepared by Master Chef Bourbon, a young man from Trinidad, who was trained in one of New York’s finest cooking schools. “Pumpkin,” one of the crew, explains that in true Windjammer Barefoot Cruise tradition, the company’s owner, Mike Burton/Burke, had paid for Bourbon’s education. He explains that Captain Burke does that for many of his “family” of employees. I begin to think I want to work for Windjammer.
By morning the clouds and rain have been burned away by hot sunshine. The water glows like pale blue topaz; so clear that I can see yellow, silver and white fish flitting past the ship.
The daylight constantly shifts in this land of endless summer. One moment, it’s so bright that even sunglasses can’t prevent a squint. With little warning, the sky can turn gunmetal gray, as a tropical storm sweeps through.
Taken by tender boats to a private, postcard-beautiful island for a day of snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, picnicking and just being lazy, one of those sudden squalls makes an appearance. The rain is almost as warm as the ocean, so we pay it little heed. But when lightening crackles in the distance, we swimmers scramble back to shore, seeking shelter in one of the thatched huts used by Kuna Indian fishermen. As the wind picks up, palm fronds thrash together making a loud, rattling sound. Coconuts loosened by the trees’ movement topple to the powdery white sand with a dull thud.
The storm quickly passes. Sunlight filters through the thick grove of coconut trees, inviting everyone back into the water. Rays of light stab into the depths of the fragile coral gardens, spotlighting the brilliant purple, fire orange, and white skeletal growth left by millions of the tiny creatures.
Tired now, I sit, neck deep, along the water’s edge. Strangely, a small fish has followed me to shore. His scales are pearly white, giving him a translucent appearance. Hovering near my right shoulder height, he stares up at me with his opal blue eyes. Apparently curious about what I’m doing in his ocean, he brushes against my arm several times, and then begins to investigate my back. His silky body and tail, and fluttering fins actually tickle. Startled by his interest in me, unsure as to what he is doing, I rise and walk toward the beach. The parrot fish swims round and through my legs, rubbing against me like an affectionate cat. I wonder if I remembered to shave my legs last night; if he was enjoying my lower limbs because he wanted a good scratch. No, I thought. My legs are smooth today.
Laurie, the ship’s pretty cruise director, notices my concerned expression, asking if there’s something wrong. Pointing down at my new friend, I explained. Laughing, she assured me that the little guy was harmless, and apparently, a bit overly affectionate.
A sociable fish, huh? This required further investigation. Lowering myself, I take a breath and put my head under the water. Because the ocean is extra salty in this part of the Caribbean, my eyes sting so badly that I can barely focus. And yet, there he is, nose to nose with me, seemingly enjoying the experience. We swim together, “Nemo” and I, for most of the afternoon. After leaving the water, I vow to never eat fish again.
That night, as the Mandalay makes her way toward our next destination in the San Blas Island chain, Panama provides another magnificent sunset. Once again standing on the ship’s bow, I wish the trip would never end; that I could somehow capture this time and place and put them in a bag to take home. Better yet, I vow to return next spring to live it all over again.