We are on a catamaran named Chewbacca, Captained by Marcel and his wife, Tennille. Seriously.
The boat backs out of its slip, chugging gently south through the gap between Isla Carenero and Bocas Del Toro. Fourteen of us, mostly Americano, sprawl across the deck and nets of the vessel.
Twenty minutes out, the water shifts between patches of postcard blue, dark green and the sandy brown of coral reef. The Captain drops anchor, tosses some bread into the water, it is consumed by swarms of yellow and black striped reef fish.
Beers are consumed at a torrid pace. The smoke of dirt weed billows out from the hold below. I pass, preferring to stay hydrated, hoping to avoid being too baked by the sun or otherwise.
Out comes the snorkel gear, we dive into the warm, clear water. Travel can take you to your edge, forcing you to confront insecurities. I am gringo blanco, much whiter than my tropical compatriots, thinner than those bulked up by months or years of surfing and swimming, perhaps in need of some manscaping to boot. It is at first uncomfortable to strip down, then liberating. The alternative is to deny oneself a life experience, to fully enjoy the pleasure of being in a tropical paradise.
Below the surface, the reef is dotted with anemone, anchored plants, colorful fish. Small schools swim amongst us. I climb onto the boat, my foot is bleeding a bit. Warrio says that if you float too close to the reef, a small fish may dart out and take a nibble. I’m given an antiseptic swab, no worries.
It is time to move on. The Captain checks the plastic fuel tanks – they are empty. Siphoned by thieves the night before. He mutters curse words, knows of a dock nearby where he can buy gas, raises the sail to conserve.
We re-fuel, make our way back to deeper waters between the islands. I increasingly feel the sloshiness of the modest swells; the low-grade seasickness abates as I move to the front of the boat, but never entirely leaves.
The Captain drops anchor off the mangroves. We don snorkels and masks; the cloudy water clears as you approach the mangrove reef. The more adventurous float close to the mangroves in two feet of water, I stay at a depth of six feet.
Tens of thousands of small slivery fish congregate below. They move in whorls, in spirals, expanding and contracting as if taking a collective breath. Their organic movement adheres to a cosmic algorithm, stunning as it manifests inches below me.
Our final stop is Dolphin Bay. A school surfaces thirty yards off the rear of the boat. Two, then ten, travel together. No playful acrobatics today, simply the gentle rise and dive of the rhythmic dolphin.
The ride back is long, much more than an hour, somewhat less than two hours. Tan bodies stretch across the catamaran’s nets, some take a pause between day beer and night beer. I wear a hat and shades and cover my arms and head with a light sarong Ali Sun hands me; I have had enough sun for the day.
We drop our stuff off at the house, walk five minutes to Bibi’s, dine on whole fish, coconut rice, fried yucca. Back home, my laptop remains unopened. I apply aloe, drink water, drift off into a deep sleep.