While not technically a work trip, this journey to Guna Yala (also known as the San Blas Islands) was work-adjacent. My friend and colleague Justin Malan had a catamaran in Panama and wanted to do something about the plastic littering the offshore islands; he invited a team of experts to come down for cleanup, research and figuring out how to best support local efforts. The crew included Emily Parker and Laura Rink from Heal the Bay, translator and Panama resident Iliana Sam, and me.
Romanticizing life on a boat is easy when calm seas, a steady captain, joyful crew and the shore are close at hand. Still, whenever I’m on a boat, happiness floods me. The expanse of ocean and sky, the aligning of balance with the swells underfoot – I’m reminded how the only stuff we need is that which keeps body and boat sound. By the time we returned, I’d mentally mapped out plans to jettison everything unnecessary from my life, buy a boat and rent out the house. (Then I arrived at the hotel and took a shower longer and hotter than I had in a week, willing the pleasure to not wash away my resolve.)
Guna Yala consists of more than 300 islands, some tinier than a city block, about 50 inhabited, off the northwest coast of Panama in the Caribbean. I’d never been to the Caribbean – and no prior snorkeling excursion or NatGeo documentary had prepared me to be immersed in that bath-warm turquoise water, hundreds of fish flashing green, silver, pink, blue, red, an endless kaleidoscope of color as the sun glittered gold across the surface. My delight at the sights emanated out loud underwater in bursts of “Ah!” “Oh!” “Ha!” On one dive, a spotted eagle ray flew along the bottom. On another, a squad of reef squid hung out staring at us as if we were the curiosities and a nurse shark ignored us as we pointed her out to each other in delight.
In addition to visiting different islands for Emily’s research project, we also returned to the mainland for a jungle tour with Mola Lisa (see: Guna Yala: The islands where women make the rules). We trekked past plants said to open one’s mind and alongside Guna burial grounds to where the path ended at a waterfall. I’d been told we’d be leaping off the rock into the river and had tried to mentally prep myself, but once there, my (involuntary) fear of heights sent my pulse racing and legs trembling. I redirected myself down a muddy path to the river instead. I think if I’d been able to work up to it without the pressure of people waiting, I’d have jumped; I’ve spent some time this year at the local climbing gym breathing my way up the wall as practice to overcome this acrophobia. But no matter – the moment of weakness evaporated quickly in the relentless sunshine, beauty and rush of the river. We swam and hiked our way back to the panga, another adventure in the books.