Life observations from Panama Canal

The Great Outdoors

SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF BAJA,  MEXICO — Greetings from the MS Maasdam, where it’s the final night of our 14-day Panama Canal cruise. I’m on deck 6, staring at yet another gloriously magnificent sunset while pondering life’s important questions: How did God create such expansive beauty? What is the meaning of life? How can I possibly pay off my huge bar tab?

We boarded two weeks ago at Fort Lauderdale for this luxurious adventure. Expensive? You bet. But it’s easily within grasp of anyone willing to save, sacrifice and work very hard. Or you could do like I did and have generous in-laws buy your trip.

Unlike many cruises, a party boat this is not. Mostly it’s an older crowd of passengers. If forced to guess, I’d say the average age is “deceased.”

That’s OK. Everyone is nice and having a blast, even the mostly Indonesian crew members. Wilbur, with his permanent smile, is one who stands out. I run into him five or six times a day. It may just be a coincidence. Or it may be because he’s positioned at the buffet’s dessert table.

One afternoon, I order my usual banana ice cream and ask Wilbur how he’s doing. I’m struck when he tells me with sincerity: “Every day is a gift.” It’s something you usually hear at a cheesy motivational seminar, but Wilbur really seems to mean it. This is a man who literally works from sun up to sun down, for little pay, away from his family, halfway around the world from home. His next day off is in October.

Every day is a gift indeed.

I’m reminded of this the following night at the ship’s poker table, where I meet an energetic, happy-go-lucky L.A. resident named Dwight. I like him, even after he takes some of my money. It’s a big ship, yet for the next 10 days I see Dwight everywhere: at the March Madness party, entering the blackjack tournament, cruising the marina on Aruba, ordering cocktails at happy hour on deck 12. He tells me this cruise is fun, but he’s really looking forward to skydiving in November.

Did I mention Dwight is a quadriplegic?

It’s a few days later, and nothing memorable has happened, other than my daughter taking her first steps while in the Panama Canal and my wife almost dying. But those are stories for another day. What I happily recall now is an adorable little girl of around age 6 who sells wooden trinkets on the dock at the small Mexican town of Huatulco. She seems so sweet and in need, but I’m out of cash. Digging through our beach bag, I find a lost dollar, but I don’t want the souvenir. “Para usted” I say, which means, “For you.” Or it could mean, “I find your goat to be very attractive.” My Spanish is a little rusty. Anyway, I hand her the crumpled bill, ashamed I can’t do more. Judging by her reaction, you’d think I gave her a million. “Gracias!” she shouts with the happiest, most appreciative grin you’ll ever see.

It’s certainly a nice contrast to Acapulco, where a taxi driver shows us the sights. We cruise Miguel Aleman Boulevard, past an intersection where — in less than 48 hours — six people, including a taxi driver and two innocent bystanders, will be shot and killed.

And yet it’s still a gorgeous place. I guess even Mexican drug war battlegrounds can have their charm.

I think about this back on deck 6, where I sip my Pacifico and stare off at pink clouds hovering above the tranquil sea. I think about the white sands of Aruba, and the green Panamanian countryside, and magnificent colorful sunsets over Mexican waters. And I also think about Wilbur, and that little girl in Huatulco, and about Dwight.

I come to the conclusion that traveling is good for the soul. It helps remind you that for all the ugliness out there, there is immense beauty in this world. Sometimes you see it at the places you visit.

And sometimes you see it in people you meet along the way.

E-mail Steve Beauregard at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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