'Teddy Roosevelt': this was the correct answer in 5th grade to all pop quiz questions that included the word Panama. If memory serves, Theodore made his debut in my life as a postage stamp-sized face leering from the corners of a social studies text book, his pince-nez and walrus mustache recalling the Hindenburg-Bismarck era. Alongside this miniscule photo was a badly rendered illustration wherein the great T.R. - dressed like a plantation owner with white suit and walking stick - personally supervised the digging of, what appeared to be, a mid-sized trench. The crew consisted of a shady group of Mexican railroad workers and black slaves with picks, snow shovels, and hammers - a vision of Panama that xenophobic Tea Party members would be proud of to this day.
Clearly, scholastic illustrators in the '70s were no wiser than their creationist counterparts today. The particular period piece in question was embellished with a lovely stucco green chapter heading that read simply, The Panama Canal. To my greatest pleasure, a former year student had left his artistic insights into female anatomy all over the page. Panama was a name I would confuse for years with the confederacy, free love, and a place where gauche white hats were made.
Even by the late '80s when Bush senior decided Noriega was a menace, the only thing I knew about Panama was that its canal connected the Pacific and the Atlantic while the country itself lay between Central and South America. Little in my reprehensibly limited scope could have prepared me for the astonishing beauty found on Boca Brava, a virtually uninhabited island in the Chiriquí Archipélago.
Set on Panama's pacific coastline amidst the palm-lined beaches of a marine national park with over 100 islands, lies Isla Boca Brava in the Gulf of Chiriquí. With howler monkeys, anteaters, ocelots, margays, jaguarundis, dolphins, giant turtles, and an endless variety of birds, the repertoire of species is both atypical and dazzling. Renting a horse from any number of different ranches, it is easy to saddle up and ride across acre upon acre of rolling hills only to find oneself on a seemingly uncharted beach. Each ivory shore holds the green lands in its white palms like jade encased in rice.
Standing on the unblemished sands, the warm turquoise sea appears to spill into the navy blue sky - the crests of waves becoming indistinguishable from the clouds dipping into the horizon. The coastal waters here are among the most temperate in the world; and the pristine landscape makes it easy to imagine what this place must have looked like to the Pirate Henry Morgan as he first sailed by. This is a realm of endless mangroves, jutting ridges and green fields.
"Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground", Theodore Roosevelt once advised. But then again, Teddy had never really seen a Panamanian sunset first hand. Still, staring at the stars shuddering on the surface of the Gulf of Chiriqui, I would like to think the conservationist minded President understood more than our text books give him credit for. He may have dreamt of that other Panamanian Canal - one that connects our aspirations for a utopian future with the many lost Edens of our past.
By Rory Winston
Rory Winston is a published author/poet/playwright/TV comedy writer/columnist who serves as the Feature & Art Editor for the NY Resident Magazine.