If you have, you probably learned not to mess with Mother Nature. I learned this just recently.
Let me start at the beginning. I’m an American who lives in Playa Bonita, an idyllic beachfront resort community just outside of Panama City in the Central American country of Panama. There’s no crime, no natural disasters, and no big surf in our protected bay.
One day I said to my Latin husband, “I wish our beach had big crashing waves.” He agreed, and on a lark, we drove to Pedasi, a small town on a Panama peninsula about four-hours from where I live. Pedasi is known for its surfer beaches and big crashing waves.
We got to our beachfront hotel late in the evening, and my husband was too tired to go swimming. I had been dreaming of the water for the entire drive, so I donned my bathing suit and went out to the beach on my own, excited for the refreshing feel of the cool ocean water at night. Within a few minutes, a huge wave picked me up and threw me down, and then the undertow scraped me along the ocean floor.
I’m not a glutton for punishment. The ocean had won.
Ocean — 1, Gringa — 0.
I dragged myself back to our room, feeling like an almost-drowned cat and looking like a ten-year-old who had fallen off her bicycle. I had angry red sand scrapes over my entire legs, arms and hands. Sand isn’t some soft powdery substance; it’s tiny pieces of rock and glass.
I had gotten used to living in our Disneyland-esque community, where even the waves behaved.
I told my husband the story, and he laughed at my folly. “I’ll go with you tomorrow,” he said, as if the presence of a man would quiet the waves. “It’ll be okay.”
The next day I put on a dry Tankini bathing top with matching skirt and followed my husband outside. We went past the outdoor beachfront restaurant where all the other guests were having a civilized breakfast — white tablecloths, coffee with saucers, toast with jam — you get the gist. We were hungry but we wanted to earn our breakfast.
The beach was deserted. Since the restaurant was full, we thought we’d picked the best time.
The waves didn’t seem so intimidating in the light of day. My husband skipped into the surf and dove under the waves with the nimbleness of an athlete. While I was still getting my legs wet, he was already hundreds of feet out.
Okay, I thought, today I will conquer the ocean.
Right about then a big wave came out of nowhere, knocking me down. Before I could stand up, the undertow pulled me out, scraping me along the sandy ocean bottom in a nasty bit of deja vu. I fought the undertow with my fingernails in the sand, but I was no match for its strength.
The ocean laughed at me, pulling off my bathing skirt until it was down around my ankles. Before I could regain my footing — or pull up my skirt — another wave knocked me down again. Then the undertow pulled me the opposite direction. I struggled to get my footing with my bathing suit bottoms wrapped around my ankles. The struggle caused the tankini portion of my bathing suit to get tangled around my armpits.
This was not a sexy removal of clothing. This was a hazing.
With every wave, more sand found its way into the seams of my bathing suit. The more I struggled to pull up my skirt, the heavier it got.
In some corner of my mind, I knew that the Panamanians we had passed were watching this very white-skinned Gringa rolling naked in the ocean. I struggled to cover myself, but for several minutes, I wore nothing more than sea foam as I was battered with wave after wave.
When the ocean had had its fun, it released me from its vice-like grip. I tried pulling up my skirt, which now had several pounds of sand between the fabric layers. I felt like a toddler with a very dirty diaper. Because of all the sand, the skirt wouldn’t pull up in a normal way, and I had to hold it in front and in back like two cement blocks while I crawled out of the clutches of the sea. I untangled the tank-top portion of my bathing suit, which also had its share of sand, and I waddled to the hotel’s outdoor shower.
As fate would have it, the only beach shower was at the front of the breakfast area. In my worst nightmare, I couldn’t have thought of a more humiliating place for the shower to be.
As I pulled seaweed from my hair, I saw the adults smirking at me, trying not to laugh as I attempted to dislodge the sand from my bathing suit. I watched with horror as the little kids pointed at me with long outstretched fingers, as if I were a strange creature at the zoo. My nightmare was real; they had seen it all. Literally.
Their smiles said the show had been better than Comedy Central. And why not? They’d had front row tickets while a naïve Gringa had tackled the sea…and lost. Like the Roman mob that had watched gladiators fight tigers in the Coliseum, my audience had calmly eaten breakfast while watching the show. Now I realized why none of them were swimming in the ocean. They knew better.
Ocean — 2, Gringa — 0.
As I struggled to rid myself of a few pounds of sand at the outdoor shower, my husband came up behind me. “I think you should shower in our room,” he said. “You’re the only American woman here, and everyone is staring at you.”
I gave him a soggy look, trying to burn him with my laser eyes. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t save me from the ocean — and the humiliation — but the irrational-wife-voice came out, dripping with sarcasm.
“My love, “ I said in the most unloving tone I could muster, “they are not staring at me because I have white skin. They’re laughing at me because they just saw me butt-naked while the ocean tried to drown me.”
My husband gave me a blank look. He had no idea what I was talking about. He’d been too busy swimming with the innocence of a child to notice there was a problem with his sweet bride.
By the time I managed to tell him the story between gulps of air (I still hadn’t caught my breath), he was glaring back at the people when they stared. He might not have saved me from the ocean, but he could save me from further embarrassment.
Gladiator Husband — 1, Panamanian Mob — 0.
When I got home, I walked on my gentle beach, grateful for my calm waves at Playa Bonita Resort. I promised my sweet ocean I would never again take her for granted.
If you’d like to know what it’s like to live in a beachfront community in Panama, click here to request a complimentary copy of my book, “Panama Uncorked: Everything You Need to Know to Visit, Live and Invest in Panama.” It’s my gift to you.