Cities can be like trees: in temperate climates they grow up, intricate and dense. In the heat and the humidity they sprawl outwards, spreading their leaves wide to catch the sunlight. The pace is slower too, in these tropical cities, Latin music seeping through barred windows and dust kicking up from the roadside. A while ago, I tried to walk from David to the beach – Playa La Barqueta, in case you were wondering. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it there. The seven hours of following a road south and back, (approximately, judging by the sun after forgetting to ask directions), were hot and chalky and repetitive; the same farmland going past behind makeshift fences. It’s pretty, though, and the sky is much bigger than in the UK – if not as vast as in Kansas or as unbroken as in Texas – but the coast turned out to be somewhat further away than anticipated.
A week later, actual beach time. Playa Las Lajas has 12.5 kilometers of sand and palm trees, clear ocean, and very few people. It also has a flock of roaming dogs, who, unlike most, generally have homes but give the impression of being wanderers; and is eight kilometers from the small town of Las Lajas. (Not to be confused with the Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia, which looks breath-taking and hopefully somewhere to stop at if I cross the Ecuador-Colombia border.) This turned out to be an easy hitchhiking route, and the drive is a good opportunity to practise Spanish with a resident – unless you accidentally caught a tourist, in which case the conversation would be more awkward and you’retravellingalone?-based. (Yes, I’m travelling alone. Yup, single female. Am I scared? Not until you started asking me unnerving questions about my travel arrangements.) My favorite was a Panamanian guy named David, who was super-motivated and talked about his work for a reforestation program in the area. The town itself is tiny, with artsy fish-themed bus stops, and every household appears to own a horse. They’re mostly tied up on the grass in front of the houses, just chillin’, and fit in with the western-style hats favored by the male population.
I loved the solitude of the area, and the tranquility. If you lie on the sand so that your eye line is as flat to the ground as you can manage, it becomes easy to imagine the world is a two-dimensional melding of sand, sea and sky on one sweeping plane. And at the horizon, a clean line on this surface, the ocean allows itself to run in an infinite waterfall cascading over the edge. It feels primal, like the birth of humanity: weak, watery first breaths emerging from the brine. Early in the morning, your footprints are the first to mar the untouched serenity of the beach that was washed by the sea overnight; and running on sand is completely different to running on road. The brink of the ocean and the lines of the palms are so endless that it seems you could keep going forever and nothing would change. I always wondered why, if heart muscle is so tireless that it would keep expanding and contracting for the entirety of a person’s life span, were all our muscles not constructed from the same material? We could spend our lives in motion, and traverse every continent on foot.
The hostel I worked at was fairly unique – the owner is an incredibly strong woman who built the place from scratch, ran the restaurant and garden as organically as possible and with an insistence on Spanish being spoken, and stuck to her principles against every opposition. Even when I disagreed with some of her opinions, her independence and determination – her commitment to her chosen lifestyle – were impressive. Inspiring people take unlikely forms, and I wish I could have spent longer at the playa, to learn more from the people and the place.
Panama City is very different again, being metropolitan, skyscraper-ed and bounded on one side by the Pacific ocean. I was only there for one evening, sadly not in time to make it to the Panama Canal and back in daylight – but I took the bus at night with three Israelis and a German guy, from Panama Viejo further into the city for Carnival. It was somewhere between a street parade or event and a music festival, with three huge stages blasting different genres of music and directionless groups of bodies waving lights and cups of beer. Even without drinking, it was one of those nights when the dark and the people around make you feel wide awake against Panama’s lethargic heat; when you can feel your pupils dilating and want to dance and be part of the crowds.
The bus trip from David to Panama City, as with most long ones, meant another over-extended period of thinking time. I came to a concept that I never understood before and am only a little closer to understanding now: when Christians say you have to ‘let Jesus in’. The inner monologue that starts up at moments of apprehension, the instinctive conversation that disappears with thought-out reasoning. I’ve been struggling with something for a long time: how easy it is to believe in Something Else when you’re lonely, sad, or – most of all – scared; and yet so difficult when you’re just … existing. Hard too, because a person’s faith, or lack thereof, is intensely personal. And there’s also an effect that comes from the sublime, that takes you closer to a new sense of proportion. It’s impossible to stand at the top of a mountain, see the world opened out beneath you and feel the wind catch under your arms like wings, and not be certain and thankful that there’s some greater existence. Something bigger and better and wiser and more beautiful than the flawed creatures that crawled on their bellies from the ocean.
Someone likes to quote Douglas Adams, with: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” It’s a great quote, but perhaps some people need the fairies’ light to guide them to the beauty. And that’s okay, as well.