Occasionally, like just about everyone, one of our friends gets married, and we have a wedding to attend. Like just about no one, this usually means international flights have to be booked, vaccinations need to be up to date, and passports need to be checked to ensure there is free space for entry visas. Our friend Maaret’s wedding was no exception to this, although the fact that it was in Panama made the logistics much easier. We met her years before, fresh from graduate school in the Basque region of Spain and part of the newest group of interns working at the UNDP. This group became the core members of our circle of friends during our time in Panama City, and we spent our weekends together at parties and dinners, barbecues and beach houses. The city threatens to be tedious and boring, but our friends made it wonderful.
These are the sorts of friendships that last long, but are never united for long. Being young and just entering their careers, we were all bound to be pulled to different places. We moved to New York. Maaret moved to Switzerland to work with the ILO, leaving behind a boyfriend who would soon become a fiancé, and then a husband. Others moved to Peru, Colombia, and Spain. Other stayed, and began to replenish our friends who had left with their own laughing children. The circle never broke, but it expanded geographically — until it encompassed the world.
So when Maaret returned to Panama to be married, it was a tremendous opportunity for the circle to shrink one last time to the point where we could be together again for a final weekend. We could all catch up with each others lives without having to repeat ourselves to new audiences, we could tell inside jokes and be sure that everyone would understand them, and we could simply exist united in each other’s presence knowing that there were no empty seats at the table or shadows representing a friend who we wished was with us, but couldn’t be. Most importantly, it was the opportunity to bear witness to our friend’s newest and greatest step in her life.
We left New York late on a Thursday night, hoping to sleep on the plane and be fresh enough to spend some time on the beach with a few friends before the wedding party had swollen to the point where any attempt at logistics would explode into a hurricane of impossibly incompatible agendas. There was a sense that this organizational entropy had already begun to take shape before we’d passed through customs. It had been decided that we would be going to Taboga — an island separated by Panama City by the tiniest cut of ocean, but requiring a machine that could either float or fly to reach it. Our friend Rodrigo’s boat had filled up fast, leaving us to chase after them by way of the local ferry, which leaves at 8:30 on weekday mornings. We had only a few minutes to drop our bags off somewhere safe, but we managed to make it to the pier on time. We were pleasantly surprised to find that round trip tickets were slightly cheaper than expected. Unexpectedly, the vendor said:
“Are you okay riding with a body?”
We looked around and noticed that many of the other passengers were well-dressed and carrying flowers (which was definitely not normal Panamanian beach attire), and understood that we would be traveling with a funeral procession. After giving each other a surprised look, we paid for our passage and joined the rest of the group.
We’d traveled half-way to the island when the thunderstorm hit, forcing us all to crowd into the sheltered part of the ferry, leaving barely any room to stand or breathe. We were still in the front, hoping that we could see our destination approach, but the dark clouds and heavy rain shrouded the island. More alarming, the large cargo vessels waiting to pass through the canal, which we’d spent the last half-hour zipping between, were invisible as well. This caused a certain fear to creep up, conjuring images of a towering ship’s bow appearing suddenly out of the downpour and crushing us. The rest of the passengers didn’t seem particularly worried — possibly because they were more confident in the experience of the pilot, or perhaps because they were more concerned with the tiny waves of water entering under the ferry’s door and creating an inch-deep lake on the deck where they stood in their dress shoes. Eventually the shadow of land began to take shape in front of us, and we chugged our way to the dock where we all scrambled along to minimize the time we had to spend between the ferry and any shelter that could protect us from the sheets of falling water.
We were lucky enough to find shelter at a small bar near the pier that had a kitchen and happened to be open in the morning. And while we took breakfast there on a covered patio, we were depressed by the thought of spending our first day at the beach cowering from the rain. We’d forgotten about the capricious nature of Panama’s weather, and our spirits improved as the rain abruptly stopped and the strong sun began to burn away the clouds. After a mere fifteen minutes, they only evidence that they’d lived above us at all was the condensation that still formed a film over many of the bar’s windows. By the time we’d finished our breakfast, we saw that the boat containing six of our friends had landed on the beach.
Maria passed the day on the beach catching up with Barbara and the others, while David and Rodrigo headed back out on the boat with rods and lures in an attempt to troll for the group’s dinner that night. The fishing expedition was fruitless, as the seasonal change in water temperature that causes nutrients to churn to the surface hadn’t hit yet, leaving the more edible fish on the ocean floor and safely out of reach of their lines.
We took the ferry back to the city later in the afternoon, and met up with the group at Rodrigo and Barbara’s house, were we were also staying the night. A few additional friends who we’d missed at the beach had joined us for a barbecue, and although David and Rodrigo didn’t have any luck fishing, we still managed to have a wonderful dinner of sausage and tri-tip. We were particularly happy to be able to spend a little time with the kids, Santi and Adrian. They’d practically doubled in size, as young children do, since the last time we’d seen them. And we were especially happy to see that they remembered Maria, and were excited to play with her. Barbara and Rodrigo had both commented that there is a certain unique sincerity that Maria manifests when playing with children, one that can’t be forced, replicated, or synthesized. And children pick up on it. It feeds their energy and enthusiasm, making them appear to glow — although it can make them a little unmanageable at times. So when the evening died down, we retired to the guest room happy and well-fed.
Sleep was brief though, because there were kids who needed to play, and that sort of pent up energy tends to explode the moment the tiniest amount of light enters through the windows. As soon as the dark air in our room and lightened to a bluish grey, it was invaded by laughing faces floating above arms filled with toy cars and trucks. David wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as Maria, but the excitement caught up with him soon enough, and he quickly fell into the playful rhythm of the morning. We spent a few more hours dividing our time between play and preparing for the rest of the day before finally having to say goodbye so that we could meet our friends Anderson and Diana at their house nearby.
Anderson and Diana are an example of how working at the UN can make the world seem so small at times. We’d met them in Brazil nearly ten years ago, and were lucky enough to attend their wedding in Brasilia. Years later, they ended up working in Panama. Since then, we’ve not only known them socially, but we’ve even worked with them at one time or another. We try to visit whenever possible, and whenever one of us travels to Panama — or when they visit New York — everyone can count on a place to stay if needed. Friendships like this are common among people working with the United Nations. Careers often bring people together briefly, while the bonds created last long after they part ways. Sometimes it seems like no matter which country we go to, there’s always a friend or two waiting to greet us. Recently, some of them are beginning to find their way to New York as well.
Anderson and Diana have a daughter, Valentina, and another named Lara on her way, so we thought that it might be a good idea to spend some time at the swimming pool near their house. This would give Valentina something to do and allow us to gain some relief from Panama City’s humidity, which pulls the energy out of a person with a heavy efficiency that feels like being washed with hot tar. David, Diana, and Anderson passed the time drinking fresh pineapple juice under the protection of a large umbrella while Maria and Valentina played with in the pool, with the others joining them on occasion to cool their skin.
After our time at the pool, we needed to do some shopping for appropriate wedding attire, which on this occasion were guayaberas for the men. So, we called for a car to take us to the nearest mall. Uber, it should be mentioned, is a lifesaver in Panama, as the company’s appearance has eliminated the need to deal with the headache of taxi drivers. Because there are no meters in Panamanian taxis, all fares must be negotiated beforehand. If you don’t appear to be a local, most drivers will try to charge you up 20 times the standard rate. As a result, we would often have to hail multiple taxis in order to find a price that wasn’t completely insulting to our dignities. With Uber, no money changes hands, and fares are either determined by the distance traveled or they are fixed rates. The Uber option is also significantly more secure, as it’s easy to identify your driver, whose face, car, and license number appears on the application before he/she arrives. The fact that a driver can be tracked down if necessary provides considerable peace of mind, as we’ve had several friends who were robbed in taxis.
After a brief stop at the mall, we returned to Barbara and Rodrigo’s apartment to pick up our things and headed out to the Westin Hotel in Playa Bonita, which is a resort just outside of the city. The wedding was originally planned to be outdoors at in the garden area, which would have been beautiful if Panama’s weather hadn’t struck again. It rains in Panama nearly every day for about nine months out of the year, which is one of the main reasons why building the Panama Canal was such a challenge — any progress made during the day was quickly washed away by the pouring rain: excavated dirt was returned to the holes it came from, fresh canal walls collapsed, during especially strong rains equipment was sometimes even destroyed. However, it’s natural to have a backup plan for events such as this, and a nice room inside the hotel had already been reserved in case it was needed.
The ceremony itself was brief and beautiful, with stringed instruments accompanying the bride as she marched down the aisle. Afterwards, we all went to the reception hall, where we passed the evening eating and dancing with our friends. The entire night was filled with music, laughter — and even a few tears — as we celebrated Maaret and Jose Carlos’s Union and our enduring friendships.
The next day was spent at the Westin, where we all enjoyed a large breakfast buffet before moving down to the swimming pool, which had (as swimming pools at tropical paradises tend to have) a bar where one could order food and drinks at the pool level. The pool itself was large and labyrinthian, wrapping and twisting around the various buildings behind the hotel’s main building. We had set up our camp at the narrow strip of green grass that separated the pool from the sandy beach, where we spent hours talking, and relaxing. After that, it was a matter of saying our final goodbyes and heading off to the airport for a quick return to New York. The entire trip, a mere three days, had passed way too quickly for our liking. Still we were grateful for the time we were able to spend reunited with one of our dearest circles of friends.