What I learned on my summer vacation…

When I was 9 my family went on a vacation, driving from Seattle to California. I don’t remember much about the trip, but I do remember the awe of walking amongst ancient Sequoias, and looking up those huge trunks to see the treetops melt away in the mist. I remember eating pizza in a motel room, and hanging on a trolley car in San Francisco, of having to be convinced that Abraham Lincoln and the Swiss Family Robinson tree weren’t real.

So what did I learn on that vacation? I doubt that I was able to put it into words at age 9 or even that I really knew what I was feeling, but seeds were planted on that trip. Travel became a part of me, a way to experience different places, different feelings, and discover how I fit into them. Travel can be a journey of discovery, or just a way to check items off your bucket list – either way, it’s personal. How a person travels, whether you adapt and meld with a new place, or just watch from the outside looking in – we each have our own reasons, our own levels of experience.

I read somewhere that “you can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth”. I’ve been blessed with many wonderful adventures in my life, having lived and traveled in different places that brought out different parts of me. My travel now is different, because I am different. Being loved and having someone to share my life with has made travel even deeper, more freeing, with less looking through windows and more diving into the depths.

Travel buds

Arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, we were immediately immersed in noise, heat, crowds, traffic moving at breakneck speed, and lots of barbed wire. It was a bit of a shock to our systems after our quiet town of Coupeville, and we quickly agreed that San Jose was not on our list of places to return to! It was interesting though, and we were amazed at how people are able to live and enjoy places that we found so offensive.

Wave gaze

Leaving the hustle of San Jose, we traveled to a remote beach oasis on the Bay of Nicoya. This was to be our “unwind” week, where we planned to do nothing but relax and get into retirement mode; as though we needed any extra incentive to do that! We walked into our third floor room that looked out to the waves crashing on the beach below and giggled in amazement; a great spot to simply enjoy the beauty all around. We had two mini-adventures while in Tambor; hiking through the jungle to a nearby waterfall and boating out to Isla Tortuga. Both gave us a better sense of the area and the people, the flora and fauna. I was able to practice speaking Spanish a bit, but we both agreed that it’s time to get serious about becoming fluent in the language!

The red rooftops of San Jose

Bocas Archipelago

From Costa Rica we flew across the country to the Caribbean side of Panama and landed on the little island of Colon. The flight was bumpy and beautiful, changing from the expanse of San Jose’s red tile rooftops in all directions, passing by the smoking volcano poking up from the clouds, to seeing the colors of the Caribbean and the islands of Bocas del Toro. After landing we waited in line while the immigration agent pulled each of us into his cramped office where he wrote down our passport numbers longhand, in a spiral notebook. In a short distance we had traveled from civilization, “a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities” (Mark Twain), to a sandy town full of sights, sounds, and smells that were all right in our face, waiting to be enjoyed.

Bocas is primitive, beautiful, and unforgettable. We lived in Bocas during a month where the weather was full of extremes; torrential rain, hot sun, angry seas, calm bays, starry nights. The rains took on a life of their own, and we spent many hours just listening and watching rain come down with an intensity we’d never seen before. When the sun came out the ground would start steaming and off we’d go on our bikes for a ride to town or to the beach, trying to avoid the mud puddles!

Riding home in the rain

We learned to gauge when it was “time to go” based on the winds and the smell of rain in the distance, so that we often arrived home just as the skies opened up. Sometimes we got caught out in the rain, but that was part of the fun too, getting soaked in the warm rainwater and laughing along with everyone else.

Our backyard was a private little nature preserve for us to enjoy and I was constantly running for my camera. Sloths, monkeys, reptiles, and a gazillion birds we’d never seen, all within our reach; what a treat! I learned the calls of many of the birds and also discovered that I want to know more! I’ve always enjoyed nature, but the feeling there was so stunning and full of life, something much more intense than I’ve ever seen.

Having people know your name in a place far from home is always a plus. We quickly became “regulars” in town, at our favorite watering hole, The Rip Tide,

Rip Tide

and we enjoyed plenty of time with our new neighbors. There are a few different communities within the overall community, and all are welcoming and friendly and we felt at home wherever we went. The expats welcomed us with open arms, the locals were friendly and cheerful, the cruising community was informative, and the tourists were annoying! It’s a place with a blend of many cultures that all seem to work very well together. I’ve no doubt that we’ll return to Bocas, hopefully for a longer stay.

Bocas houses


View of Bocas from The Rip Tide

We decided that after a month near the water we should investigate the mountains of Panama, so we headed to Boquete, located at 3200 feet above sea level. Boquete had a different feel to it than Bocas; there was an obvious division between the different groups of people and the cultures didn’t blend as well. The expats had more money and seemed to have isolated themselves more. One of the locals we spoke to explained that some of the coffee plantations are being turned into gated communities. Walking through town we passed ladies in high heels and fancy clothes next to Indian families who had come to see the Flower Festival. The highlights for me were our trek through the bird filled jungle to a 200′ waterfall, and hanging on for dear life while Marty drove us around the mountains on insanely steep, narrow roads!

They aren't kidding!

Roads that disappear from view

There are many theories on the origin of the name Panama, but the underlying theme is “abundance”. That’s the sense that I came away with; the abundance of different kinds of people, exotic plants and animals, and the blending of tastes. It’s a place where we were able to find our own niche, and feel very welcomed.

In a bit of a culture shock, we spent a day traveling from the little towns of Panama, through the huge metropolitan areas of Panama City, Dallas, and Los Angeles, and across the Pacific to Maui. We found our way to a little hotel on the beach in Lahaina where we spent a day recuperating from the journey. After spending the last month on bikes or walking dirt roads, Lahaina was like the big city to us. The differences were huge, but it was sure easy to sink right in and enjoy the ride!

Mom and 2012 model under the raft

Our favorite mode of transportation in Maui was on our little yellow rafts while out watching whales. We were incredibly lucky to see whales in all their glory, breaching and blowing, twisting and tail slapping. I’ve always wanted to spend time on a raft with whales slipping under the boat and we were rewarded on our last trip out with a momma, baby, and some escort males all swimming around and under our raft for nearly an hour. The water was calm that day and the visibility into the water was amazing. The pictures don’t tell the story on this day; the sounds, the sun, the colors, the awe, it all made for an experience never to be forgotten.

Our time in Maui was perfect; spending time with family sharing days of sensory overload. We learned the artistry of creating the perfect shave ice and became part of the Ululani’s faithful. We learned how a 60’s beach hut can become a 5 star restaurant named Momma’s, where we were treated like Hawaiian royalty by Ron and Cindy. We learned that whales have a song all their own and if you’re very lucky you’ll have time to listen.

Paia Bay

We didn’t want to leave paradise, but the day finally came when it was time to pack up and head toward home. We stopped to spend a few days in Hermosa Beach, Redondo, and Oceanside to enjoy some time with family before making the final trip North. Landing in Seattle was kind of surreal, as we had been away so long that even though it all looked the same; “Mt. Rainier is out!!”, it just didn’t feel quite the same.

Travel changes you. It’s not always noticeable immediately after returning home, but the changes are there. Travel makes you richer. Obviously I’m not talking about our bank account, but rather in the richness of understanding; ourselves, other people, cultures and history. Travel heightens your awareness. Senses are more awake when you are in a place that is foreign to you. You test and taste each sight and sound, feeling them out to see how they are to become a part of you.

I’m sitting here now looking out the office window at the familiar sights of Coupeville, where four deer in fuzzy winter coats just walked by. We haven’t been out to our beach at Ebey’s yet, but I’m sure we will go soon and I’m also sure it will evoke memories of the many beautiful beaches we’ve enjoyed over the past 2 months. We have so much to do now that we’ll be very busy for awhile, but as usual we’ve already started planning future adventures! I am so very thankful for my husband and travel partner, for the fun and adventures we’ve shared, and for all our future escapades!