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In this Ariose Note, I share a very different passage. It’s been an emotionally wrenching and healing voyage these last 3 months, but not of the sailing sort. Well, that’s not quite true. Sailing has played a part, but not the lead role. In April, for instance, I sailed for an afternoon along Panama’s lush Caribbean coastline. I don’t remember many details. My heart and mind were elsewhere.
So, if you follow Ariose Notes as an Alberg fan, or for the sea adventures (& mis-adventures), this may not be the post for you. If you have other motivations for following, do read on.
As you may recall from the last post (Winter Update), I was invited to be one of two crew, helping a single-hander move her boat from Panama to Guatemala, to safely wait out hurricane season. I’ve long wanted to sail the western Caribbean. Mary, a qualified captain and instructor, has lived aboard for most of the last 15 years. There was so much I might learn from her. And as I consider the possibilities of giving up Ariose but still sailing, I could test out if joining others’ boats might be something I would enjoy. What an opportunity!
I chose the cover photo of this Ariose Note, a rainbow captured mid-flight – it seemed the perfect illustration of the good fortune and positive energy I anticipated the adventure ahead.
The day before leaving, I was walking along the road bordering our property. Tim and I are so fortunate to have this land, a diverse piece of northern Ontario woods. I love it all, but in particular, am drawn to 2 ancient white pines that soar above their neighbours. They survived storms and disease, and were probably just a bit young to be taken when the mass logging of white pine for tall ship masts and new cities’ construction decimated Ontario’s forests. I looked up to take in the silhouette of the one with asymmetrical swooping limbs, the one that I think of as the dancer. It wasn’t there! I made my way in to verify what I already knew must be true. It had come down. As I looked at the rotted hollow core, I, too, felt gutted. Even the seemingly immortal, aren’t. All that lives, dies.
The next day, I was off to Panama for a month or two of sailing, but that’s not how it turned out. Life doesn’t necessarily follow the plan.
Descending into Panama City afforded a good view of Panama’s claim to fame, the canal. Dozens of freighters looking like no more than toy boats, were anchored awaiting their turn to take the Pacific-Atlantic short-cut. Upon landing, I was hit by a wall of heat. From sub-zero snowy surrounds to 38 degree humid heat. This was going to take a bit to acclimatize.
I stayed a few days in Casco Antiguo, the historic part of the city, also known as Casco Viejo. A near-ideal B&B had a collection of bins out its front door… which resulted in some interesting neighbours.
It’s a fascinating neighbourhood. This barrio has been revitalized, and deserves its UNESCO designation.
On my second solo day there, I ventured out, to a less fascinating destination: the MultiPlex. It’s one of the largest malls in Central America. Shopping, especially in malls, is one of my least favourite activities. But there were a few items needed for the boat and crew, so off I went.
Mary had suggested I take an Uber, but the prospect of stretching my legs after the previous day and a half of travel, and taking public transit to soak up the flavour of “real” Panama City en route, was more appealing.
A walk to the Mercado Marisco, a fish market and major bus stop, then a short ride, and I was there. Navigating in the shopping centre, I must say, was more challenging. As is typical for Shirley-in-malls, I got immediately disoriented. Before I left the wifi of my B&B, I took note of the stores I needed, but unable to find a map once there, asked employees. Each provided directions with confidence. Most, however, contradicted each other. This wasn’t a language barrier issue. Izquierda/derecha, arriba/abajo … these are words I know, and the emphatic arm gestures made their directions exceedingly clear. They were just wrong. Is it a cultural thing that Panamanians don’t just fess up and say “no se”? Or maybe a mall employee cultural thing? And so I went, round and round in capitalism’s purgatory, albeit a comfortably air conditioned one. Hours later, I finally found what I needed, backpack full, and was pleased, mission accomplished, to head back to my B&B.
Not so quickly! A bus pulled up indicating it was going to Panama Viejo. Sounds like Casco Viejo, I thought, so as I hopped on, I asked, Va a Casco Viejo? Driver nodded. Mercado Marisco?, I pressed on, trying to confirm. Another nod.
Door closed, and the bus lurched forward. After a bit, I realized we weren’t just heading in the wrong direction in order to turn around in these one-ways, the bus was heading in the wrong direction, period. It would likely turn back shortly, wouldn’t it? At least it would get to the end of its route, eventually, and then return, wouldn’t it? Through the ultra-modern downtown, then to the increasingly deteriorating, some would say seedy, neighbourhoods. I saw desperation but resilience, in the lives of the people who called this Casco home. No other outsiders on the bus, heat climbing to high 30s, and I felt like I was melting. Guide-book precautions came to mind, about areas of the city where tourists should not go, or if they do, should not stand out. Gulp. I was rather conspicuous with my pasty Canadian winter skin and traveller backpack and nervous aura.
Finally, I was the last person on. Soon, certainly, it would loop back, and return me to the mall. Nope. No, senora, the bus driver said, you must get off, or something like that, and he waved over to the next block, where a line of buses waited. There, though, taffeta’s are needed, but not sold. Everyone, magically, seemed to possess a pass. I was regretting not following Mary’s advice and grabbing an Uber.
A helpful transit security senora motioned for me to jump the turnstile. I pushed aside memories from years ago, of scolding one of my kids for pulling this very same manoeuvre, and climbed over, glancing back to offer a muchas gracias. I hoped being in the system, ticket-less, would not come back to bite. She then shouted to the waiting crowd, asking who was going to the fish market. An older fellow, hand up, was instructed to make sure I got there. He seemed nonplussed to be assigned me as his charge, and took the responsibility seriously. Some time later, after another interesting drive-by tour of parts of Panama City, we arrived. When I began to head toward my B&B, not the market, he was somewhat distressed and insisted I go the way he was pointing. I relented, walked to the market, snapped a photo of the fish. Their expressions likely resembled mine from earlier that day.
Having satisfied my guardian, I turned and headed home
Gina, the 2nd crew person, arrived, and we jumped into an accelerated getting to know each other process. We had much in common, and much to share: recent relationship endings, caregiving aging parents, future dreams, recent retirement (Gina from a fascinating career as a military lawyer/teacher), and more. It had been years since I talked so much – a little overwhelming! I wondered how I would do with TWO other people in the confines of a small boat.
One of the highlights of our few days in Panama, the Canal Museo, was just a block from our B&B. Gina and I visited, and I appreciated the added perspective she was able to offer from her career. It was so well curated, a moving presentation of engineering success at horrifying costs. The drive to connect the Pacific and Atlantic, avoiding the perilous shipping route around the tip of South America, would certainly mean world domination for the country that achieved it. For over a century, money, power, and ego fuelled proposals. Then, in the late 1800s, a French entrepreneur, who was behind the construction of the Suez Canal, whipped up investors and began.
The local Indigenous people (wisely) were not interested in the work “opportunities”, so labourers were recruited internationally. Many blacks from Caribbean islands, less than a generation out of slavery, were hired, and joined others from around the globe, at reduced wages and harsher conditions, though. Accidents took their toll – impossible to know how many gave their lives – but the majority of deaths were due to disease. Malaria and yellow fever, whose transmission was not understood until years later, devastated. There were many hypothesized causes: diseased “putrid” air, living an ungodly life, associating with “whores”, and more. A remarkably progressive hospital was built, but ants were pervasive. To ward them off, all the palm trees in the beautifully manicured courtyards were encircled by pots of water, and in the wards, bed-legs also sat in bowls of water. Stagnant water. Mosquito breeding pools of water. If patients didn’t arrive already infected with the dreaded diseases, they contracted them while there. Most people hospitalized, regardless of the reason for admission, did not survive.
Eventually, in a story full of drama, conspiracy, and greed, control moved from the French consortium to the US government, who oversaw the canal’s completion and maintained authority over it and all within a strip on either side. It wasn’t until 1999 that the canal and the 10 Kim wide Canal Zone, an unincorporated territory of the US, was handed back to Panama.
Here’s a few more images before we leave Casco Viejo.
Then, Saturday morning arrived. Mary had hired a driver for Gina and me, and we were picked us up and whisked us across the isthmus to the Caribbean side of the country. From major freeway to 2 lane high-way to narrow paved road hugging the scenic coastline, to a dirt track, and we arrived at Panamarina. This small boatyard/marina, is tucked in the mangroves, just down road from the fishing village of Cacique.
It was great to meet Mary, and settle in to life aboard Glass Slipper. She provided a thorough orientation, and we enjoyed a few days acclimatizing to the heat, the boat routines, and each other. Glass Slipper is a 31 foot Allmand, with shoal draft keel so able to get into skinnier water than Ariose. With an extra foot length, and an 11’4” beam (compared to our Alberg 30’s 8’8” beam), GS had a remarkably spacious, and well layed-out interior.
Every aspect of boat design is always a compromise. This shape that allows a comfortable home reduces sea-kindliness. A couple months later, I got to experience how challenged GS was sailing into the wind. If we were not on a beam reach or the wind further aft, the motor’s help was needed to make headway. But GS is first and foremost a home, and as such, offered much more comfort than Ariose.
I felt a little unsettled being on an unfamiliar boat. I hadn’t realized what confidence came with knowing Ariose so intimately. In worst-case scenarios, I could reach into lockers, in the dark, and lay my hands on whatever was needed. I felt vulnerable being dependant on another person’s maintenance and on their direction where to find things, what to do. I may have pushed Mary’s patience a little when, with still vivid memories of water rising above Ariose’s floorboards (last fall, as hurricane Fiona approached), I asked her for the 3rd time to walk me through the locations of all the thru-hulls.
We rented kayaks one day, and spent a glorious afternoon paddling through (and taking a cooling dip in ) the mangroves, with howler monkeys growling their calls from the treetops above. Magical.
Tuesday, our day to set sail, arrived. I turn devices off at night to conserve electricity, so upon awakening, I powered up my phone. Ping. Messages came through, all from my brother, sent through the night. Ping! Shirl, call me. Ping! Shirl, when you get this message, call. Ping! Mom’s had a stroke. She’s in hospital. A major stroke. Call me.
The next 3 days are a blur.
My grandmother lived with us though much of my teen years. A series of strokes had robbed this fiercely independent woman of her ability to care for herself. My mother had shared that such a fate would be her nightmare. She was consistent over the years – should she experience a debilitating illness, she would not want to live. When my father requested medical assistance to die as he neared his life’s end last year, my mother made sure all were aware that in such a situation, she would make that choice, too. I appreciated Mary and Gina’s hugs and efforts to be supportive. My mother may recover, they offered. I knew she would not. I needed to get back to be with her before she died. Now.
We did sail that day to our intended first anchorage, the lovely little town of Portobelo. Not only was it a good place for Mary and GIna to provision (they would continue on), but it was a better point for me to secure transportation back to Panama City and the airport.
It was a blue sky day, with perfect wind and sea conditions, along a lush green coastline. I knew in other circumstances, I would be appreciating the sail, but I wasn’t able to focus. I didn’t feel safe at the helm. I handed it over. My mind was thousands of miles away, in an intensive care unit. There was some solace in knowing that one of my kids was on their way to be with my Mom, my nephew was also on his way, and my brother would be arriving the next day. She would not be alone.
Gina had kindly offered to find a flight home for me. As I was about to pay for the one she recommended, I noticed a much better option, so booked that instead. I noticed a bit of a puzzled look on Gina’s face, a bit of a why-hadn’t-I-noticed-that-flight look, but paid without questioning, and moved on with getting Mary’s help booking a driver to get me to the airport early the next day. W head into town for pizza an a stroll. Then I packed. And slept. Sort of.
We were up early, to allow plenty of time to get to shore to meet my 7am ride with Christian, the same driver who only a few days ago, had brought us to this side of the country.
There had been an incident a few weeks previously where a pair armed with knives had swam out and boarded/robbed a boat in this very bay. Just to be safe, we anchored well beyond swim-distance, so had a longish row to shore. As I pulled at the oars, Mary read aloud that morning’s messages from Christian. There was only one road between Portobelo and the major (only) highway to Panama City – and – it was blocked! A protest was underway, a common means in Panama of people making their needs known. As much as I respect those trying to better the world, did they have to do so today?? He assured us it seemed peaceful, but there was no way through. My already heavy heart got heavier. He agreed to wait at the blockade.
We wandered the streets of Portobelo, and soon found a cab, whose driver wandered out from the shop where he was enjoying a morning coffee. Initially, he refused to take me. Why would he be interested in taking a frazzled grey-haired gringo chick to a protest? We were able to connect him with Christian, and although most of the conversation was well above my Spanish comprehension, I did hear several reassurances of No violencia, muy pacifico. Reluctantly, he agreed. Upon our arrival, Christian crossed the blockade, grabbed my pack, and I stuck close to him as we made a bee-line through the protesters and police to his waiting car. It looked like we would still make it the pre-flight deadline. And we did. Relief.
That relief was short-lived. I easily located the check-in counter, the one that, at 2 hours pre-departure, should have had a long queue. No one there. No passengers, no airline employees, no one who could help other than a cleaning staff who advised me of the obvious. No hay nadie aqui, she said.
I logged on to the 30 minute free wifi to contact the airline, and once I got through the mandatory questions and Expedia’s well-hidden support channels, the allotted time was up. I would have to wait 24 hours for the next 30 minutes. No problem, I thought, I’ll buy a SIM card. Alas, none would work in my phone. I had been certain it was unlocked, but perhaps it wasn’t. I watched the clock. Less than one hour to departure, and I wasn’t checked in let alone through security. Yikes.
After repeatedly pestering the SIM card senora, she finally demanded my phone, extracted a promise that I would need no more than one hour of wifi, and turned her back as she tapped away. I assume she entered her own wifi code . She handed the phone back to me. Gracias! I’m not sure who was more relieved – me that I could deal with this situation, or she, that she was now rid of me!
As an aside, I had met Dave Carroll a few months previously. He’s a Canadian east coast artist whose whose poor customer service with this very same airline lead to him penning United Breaks Guitars. The song’s video rocketed him to fame. His tune played in my head as I waded through United’s support line, finally reaching a real human. Not only did she solve the mystery, but I now understood why Gina had not seen this “better” flight. As I stood in Panama’s international airport, I was informed that I had booked a flight from Panama City, FLORIDA. Unbelievable! Well, with the shock and worry, maybe not so inconceivable that I’d make such a mistake.
I rebooked for early the next day, thanked the agent for correcting my error without charge (You sound like you’ve had a difficult morning, ma’am) and thanked Dave for whatever role his shaming had played in improving United’s customer service. I then found a cheap and unexpectedly charming hotel close to the airport. I tried to relax for the evening. There was nothing more I could do.
I flew home the following day, stopped briefly to pick up clothes, and drove a further 2 hours to my mother’s bedside in intensive care. For a few precious days, she remained conscious. As the days passed, it became increasingly clear that recovery was not going to happen. It was obvious to her medical team and obvious to family, that is. Not to her.
Unable to swallow, efforts to get sips of liquid or the tiniest spoon-tip of medication-laced applesauce triggered bouts of choking. One incident in particular remains with me. After several minutes of coughing subsided – the kind of wracking cough that seemingly threatened to end her life – my Mom’s head sunk into her pillow. She looked fully spent.
Shirley, she slurred from her half-paralyzed mouth. I expected her to tell that it was time to die. Instead, she whispered, I’m so lucky this stroke isn’t much of anything. Some people are really affected. I laughed and cried, and held her close as she drifted off again.
Was it her lifelong optimism, and ability to will herself out of depression by just not thinking about things that made her sad, that had kicked into high gear? Or was it anosognosia, the fancy medical term for not being able to perceive the realities of a situation, likely related to the stroke’s brain damage? Whatever the reason, my mother, who was fully orientated to where she was and why, to the date, to the whereabouts of her widely spread grandkids, and more, had no awareness of the impact of the stroke she had suffered.
Her physician talked with her about speeding up the inevitable. What irony. My mother pre-stroke would have gratefully accepted medical assistance to end her life easily and with dignity. My mother post-stroke did not understand why it was even being offered. All she needed, after all, was her hiking poles so that she could head right home. It was only one kilometre, and she had done so almost daily for the 40 years she volunteered at this very hospital.
Instead of walking home with my mother, we moved down the hall into a comfortable palliative care suite, rearranging the furniture so she could watch the birds on the feeder outside her window. We brightened the room with flowers and cards from well-wishers, and art from her great-grandkids. So began a 24-7 vigil, shared with my brother. For 2 long but cherished weeks, we witnessed and hopefully offered comfort to my mother on her final passage. Her spirit slowly withdrew, and eventually, her body realized it was no longer needed. She was just shy of reaching her 90th birthday, an ancient dancing white pine of the human sort. I’m grateful for her well-lived, long life, and for all she has given me and my children. As with my father last year, it has been such a privilege to have been at her side on her end-of-life voyage.
The strain of those weeks was eased by the warm embraces that were the many kindnesses of friends and family, of my parents’ neighbours who have now become friends, and of the many others who cared. My kids came from across the country to join me for a bit. Such precious time together.
After a few days’ break, I launched into the physically and emotionally demanding work of emptying my mother’s 1970’s shag-carpeted home of a lifetime’s worth of memories. Incredible how many memento-filled shoeboxes one person could tuck away into the back corners of every closet.
Some examples? Scrapbooks of the 59 “trips” taken over the course of her life, a ticket stub from 70 years ago – the first date with my father, tailored jacket sewn for my brother with its drawn pattern in her hand, report cards, correspondence, fancy clothing finely crafted for her by her mother, the receipt for my oldest brother’s crib, every wedding invitation ever received, magazines and of course photos. So many photos. There was a shockingly thick stack of newspaper clippings, obituaries of those she had known and loved who had preceded her. On top of that stack was my father’s; there were no further additions to the collection. Maybe this record no longer mattered. It was heartbreaking to have so many of the things my Mom had saved for decades now fill recycling dumpsters.
In the midst of this turmoil, I received a message from Mary. Glass Slipper had made it to Honduras, but with many bureaucratic and weather delays, her crew needed to jump ship. Gina’s 2 months were up and she needed to head home.
Would I consider returning? The timing seemed terrible. Or was it? I chatted with my brother, and he firmly directed me to “GO!” . He was happy to pick up the executor baton and complete the process of preparing my mother’s house for sale. I always listen to my big brother, or at least, to advice I agree with, so “go” I did. Three days later, I closed the door to a nearly bare house, and 2 days after that, found myself at the airport. It was a strangely deja vu trip, flying off to Central America for another take at this sailing adventure.
As I held my mother’s hand through her final days and nights, I had much time to reflect. I’m grateful that she passed on her curiosity to me, and it pains me that in looking back on her life, she had regrets. Beginnings & endings … she encouraged me to take opportunities to embrace the life in between.
I’ll get another post out within a week or so to share my Honduran-Guatemalan adventures (spoiler alert: fui una experientia muy rica!) Tim and I would also like to let you know what’s up with us, with Ariose, and Ariose Notes. Until then…