Panama is for Lovers
A week before I set off for Central America, I met a gentleman in the most unexpected place and in the most unexpected way. He was a Silicon Valley techie on business in my hometown of Miami. I just happened to be home for a rare month before leaving the country. He was reflective, straightforward, and intelligent- a breath of fresh air from the kind of men I've dated in the past. Our first date was quickly followed by a second date, which lasted an entire day. Neither of us could recall the last time we spent the entire day with someone we’d just met and still wanted to see more of them. Thus, the second date turned into a NYE weekend trip to his hometown of San Francisco.
I had already dismantled my life in the U.S. on the quest to put the the pieces back together in Panama. All the plans had been made, the one-way ticket already purchased. However, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if this could be the proverbial ONE at the most inopportune time. When he finally asked if he could come see me in Panama, I nervously agreed. There were so many “what ifs” running through my mind that I practically drew a flowchart outlining every possible outcome of what would essentially be our extended fourth date.
Six months after we first met, he arrived in Panama on an evening made muggy by the strength of rolling afternoon thunderstorms of Panama’s rainy season. In typical fashion, I’d put together an itinerary for his entire 10-day trip. However, while he was here to experience Central America for the first time and to see me, my own agenda consisted of trying to answer all the big questions I had lingering.
He was interested in experiencing the great outdoors so we began the first full day with a hike through the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a jungle 10 minutes outside of Panama City that felt like a world away from the city’s heat and traffic. A wrong turn put us on the “difficult” trail as we made our way to the top to see the view of the city below. The well-kept trail wound through majestic trees bearing branches that stretch down, reaching for us like the gnarled fingers of wicked witches in fairy tales. Brightly colored flowers and mushrooms also dotted our path during the pleasant hike.
We'd worked up an appetite following the hike and we went off to the Mercado de Mariscos after freshening up. There were many places that I could have taken him for lunch, but the fish market is a good introduction to the real Panama City. Although the bustling indoor market is where the fishermen bring their day's catch to sell, much of the action goes on outside as the waiters call out to passersby, hoping to charm them into having a seat and trying the seafood from their stall rather than the next. The outdoor seats are set close together to make room for large and small groups alike, forcing you to get to know your neighbor. Street vendors also expertly weave through the diners, eager to sell roses to a pair of lovers or toys to a squirming child. It is a slice of the causal chaos that is Panama City.
He struggled to remember what he learned in Spanish class in high school so I had to be the translator throughout the trip, ordering food, asking for directions, and making the necessary small talk that Panamanians adore (Where are you from? How long have you been in Panama? How do you like it?). However, when we finished our meal of fried fish, rice, and plantains stuffed with seafood and headed to the Panama Canal, I got to sit back and let him take the reigns. The feat of engineering that is the canal can be understood and admired in the universal language of nerdinness that made his eyes light up!
It was a rare beautiful day in the swampy canal and he practically ran outside to watch a ship make its way through the Milaflores Locks. We weaved our way passed the crowds and through the museum once he’d had his fill of the mechanics of the ship’s crossing. As the sunset, we ended his first day in Panama with a stroll through old city of Casco Viejo, getting lost in the architecture while sipping mojitos.
Throughout the first day, I’d been quietly observing how he reacted to the daily inconveniences of the developing world: the endless traffic, the boisterous crowds, the scheduled times and appointments that merely served as the marker of how late things would commence, and the insignificant comforts of home that become coveted solely because they are now in short supply. When we left the next morning for San Blas, I was worried that he wouldn’t enjoy the remote, autonomous islands, which boast little more than white sand surrounded by ethereal blue ocean- a world away from the technological wonders of Silicon Valley.
My life has necessitated that I be type of person that can easily adapt to any situation. I’ve advised world leaders and dodged pepper spray in the midst of political unrest. I’ve descended into the murky waters of bat caves and dined at 5 star restaurants atop booming cities. I’ve been lost in the sugarcane fields where lives and limbs were sacrificed as well as in the long hallways of the White House where power and progress often clash. Although we had a cabana above the water- a marked upgrade from the thatched hut I’d stayed in during my 30th birthday on a nearby island- it was obvious that he was initially shocked and completely out of his comfort zone.
He took in what little there was to take in of our cabana on the island of Wailidub. While it was sinking in for him that we had no hot water or AC, and were reliant on a single solar panel for intermittent energy, I had already been eagerly changing into a bikini in order to go greet the starfish clustered at the base of our cabana.
To be honest, it was important to me that he could “survive” three days completely disconnected from modernity because I’ve often had to work for long stretches in places that were remote or difficult, a source of tension in my previous relationships. Basically, however, I wanted to see if he could make it the "wild" without whining…
To my relief, he quickly got over what we lacked to enjoy all the beauty around us and the fact that we had an entire island virtually to ourselves. We spent our days eating seafood, reading, swimming, snorkeling, napping and exploring a few of the other islands of the San Blas archipelago.
Swinging in the hammock above the ocean as we watched the sunset that first night, I asked him what he liked about me. I was fishing, trying to extract him from the quiet contemplation that I recognized as a sign of a fellow introvert. He seemed surprised at the question, as if all the reasons he flew thousands of miles should be obvious to me. He rattled off a list of answers with ease before asking me the same question. In those intimate moments, I thought that this could be it. Perhaps it was finally time to "hang up my jersey" and type a text to every guy I used to see saying that I chose this cutie pie with whom I wanna be…
When we returned to Panama City three days later, tanned and relaxed, the first thing he did was check us into a five-star hotel and turn the air conditioning on before taking a hot shower. It had been some time since I’d taken a hot shower, fixed my hair, and put on a nice dress, jewelry, and high heels. Thus, I took my time and enjoyed the art of preening before we went to dinner at what has been hailed as Panama City’s finest restaurant, Donde José (it lived up to it's reputation).
“Well, you look nice,” he said glancing up matter-of-factly when I exited the bathroom with much fanfare. The same honesty and intelligence that I liked about him at times could come off as cold and direct. Somewhat deflated, I was beginning to realize how accustomed I’d become to the extroversion and open affection of Latino men. Although, those guys rained compliments upon me, few of those whirlwind romances ever survived past the “mi amors” and “mi reinas” they so casually laid at my feet. In contrast, this guy was as cautious with his words as he was with his heart, and mine.
When he left Panama, I was left thinking about what love actually meant. Could it be captured in the passion of Saturday night? Or was it the ease of Sunday morning? Could it actually be both? Would I have to choose between the France of wild Caribbean islands and the France of gourmet dinners? Where do fairytales end and real love begins...?
For now, the answers still elude me…
Want to plan your own romantic getaway in Panama? Find our itinerary here.