I’m waist deep in water that’s brisk only in contrast to the sultry air of a 90-degree day. The sea is the color of the sky, a pale wash of blue, and clear to the sandy bottom. But I can’t see my feet. They’re obscured by my pregnant belly, which is round and taut and frighteningly large. As I stand, acclimating to the faint chill of the Panamanian Pacific, a school of tiny, transparent fish moves toward me like a stampede of Pamplona bulls. Thousands of see-through fish in a see-through sea.
I slowly lower myself into the shifting, undulating cloud of marine life, letting the buoyancy of my belly pull me to the surface, where I bob like an apple in a barrel.
From sea level, I look up at the nearby hillside—steep and cluttered with small, Easter egg–hued homes—and imagine my mother here, in this water, on this island, 35 years ago. At the time, she was 28 and several months pregnant with me, her first child. Her hazy accounts of traveling in Central and South America before I was born—“with you in my belly,” as she invariably puts it—were among the defining origin stories of my childhood. And Isla Taboga, a 50-minute ferry ride from Panama City, was her first stop on a spontaneous, multimonth journey that shaped my perception of travel as much as any of the family trips we would later take. I’m now six years older than my mother was then, a travel writer by profession, and seven months pregnant with my own daughter, who is the size of a papaya, according to my smartphone app.
When my mom learned she was pregnant, a casual late-’70s encounter morphing into a lifelong commitment, my dad was not immediately enthusiastic. It was unexpected, and it took him a while to get used to the idea. Never one to sit around waiting for a man, my mom bought a plane ticket: first from the Bay Area to New York City, then to Panama, then to Ecuador. I’ve always assumed the trip was a simple escape—a sun-seeking last hurrah before single motherdom, a way to show my dad that she didn’t need him.
But during my own pregnancy, I’ve thought often about her months traveling in Latin America as a young, pregnant hippie and wondered what that time might have meant to her. A beautiful and creative but intensely volatile woman, Mom struggled with motherhood. The extreme highs and lows that define her temperament were not easy for me or my brother, who is three years younger and has a different father. My relationship with her has been one of the challenges of my life. It is this messiness that has made identifying with my mom now, as I prepare for motherhood myself, feel all the more urgent.
Though Mom talked about her trip often when I was a kid, it is now more than half her lifetime ago. Her memories, understandably, have become fuzzy and unreliable. My two days on Taboga were less a recreation of her travels than an extrapolation, an exercise in empathy.
My parents never did become a couple, but my dad soon devoted himself to fatherhood, and the two of them raised me together-but-separate in rural Northern California. Both were travelers. My mom loved road trips through the American West with unplanned stops at kitschy roadside attractions, Native American powwows, and undeveloped riverside hot springs. Dad’s adventures were fewer, farther between, and more ambitious. When I was 11, he and I spent more than two months traveling in Southeast Asia. Later, during my sophomore year of high school, he bought a sailboat, took me and my brother—who needed a father, so my dad treated him as a son—out of school, and cruised from San Francisco to the Panama Canal with us in tow. In the 20 years since, my dad has spent half of each year on that same 44-foot sailboat, Coyote. Having circumnavigated the Caribbean, he is now—coincidentally—back on the Atlantic Coast of Panama, in Bocas del Toro. So in addition to retracing my mom’s steps, I’ve come to see him.
The trip began with a two-leg flight from San Francisco to Panama City via Atlanta. Tucked into my passport was an official-looking midwife’s note scrawled on a prescription pad: “Freda Moon is pregnant and healthy. She is able to fly without problems.” But on six flights in two countries over 10 days, my permission slip was never needed. What was needed, though, was a sense of humor.
At the SFO security check, I zeroed in on the closet-size cylindrical scanning device, eyeing it with a skepticism and concern I’d never had before. When the machines first appeared post-9/11, I’d been interested in their safety, long enough to do a Google search and never think of them again. Suddenly, I felt insufficiently informed. Erring on the side of extreme caution, I asked for a patdown and waited for a “female assist.” When the middle-aged screener finally waved me over, she briefly examined my belly and announced, “You’re having a boy!”
She’d had three. She could tell.
“A girl, actually.”
The screener’s face turned sour. “But you’re so...” she trailed off, shaking her head in disbelief as she slid the back of her hands over my breasts, pausing at the seam of my bra, scrutinizing the wires below my armpit. “Is that your bra?”
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“I don’t think you need that much support,” she said, giving me flashbacks to my flat-chested adolescence.
She moved down, patting at my growing middle.
“Are those maternity pants?”
“No,” I said. “They’re just stretchy and rest low on...” I stopped mid-sentence. How did I end up here, I thought, justifying my wardrobe to a stranger as she gropes my crotch?
Fourteen hours later, I arrived in Panama City, where I was greeted with a simple but glorious sign: a stick figure with a bowling ball belly and an arrow pointing toward an empty lane. I was entitled, it seems, to bypass the snaking customs line—to stroll past the elderly couples with onerous luggage, the exhausted-looking families with small children—and enter a special aisle reserved for diplomats, the disabled, and pregnant women. As I slipped through international immigration and out of Tocumen International Airport in under five minutes, I felt like I was getting away with something.
When I stepped off the ferry in Taboga the next morning, it was barely 9 a.m., but the sun was already pulsing overhead. I was greeted at the dock by a sullen young man in a glorified golf cart. Taboga’s only town, San Pedro, is patterned with a web of paved footpaths, and only a few are wide enough for these comically compact vehicles. After a silent 15-minute ride, I was deposited at Villa Caprichosa, an Italianesque seven-room inn incongruously terraced into the hillside above a tangle of clapboard homes.
My driver handed me his cell phone. On the line was a woman named Margaret, who explained that she was a friend of the owner, who had to go away unexpectedly. I was given the Wi-Fi password and told there would be no other guests that night, and I was welcome to use the private pool in the upstairs suite. I had the place to myself. It was thrilling, as if I’d stumbled upon an abandoned château, front door ajar. But I felt something else too—something out of character and embarrassing: I felt vulnerable. What if I go into early labor, I thought, flashing on a “Signs of Pre-Term Labor” checklist my midwife gave me during my most recent visit. There wasn’t a landline in the room, and my cell didn’t have service. If I shouted for help, would anyone hear? Would someone come?
Mostly, though, what I felt was hunger. Other than an energy bar I had brought from home, I’d barely eaten since the day before. It was the Monday of Semana Santa, the Holy Week preceding Easter, and San Pedro was sedate. I opted for food at the first open restaurant I saw, the bougainvillea-draped Vereda Tropical, where I had the dining room to myself and was served a tortilla-less rendition of huevos rancheros. Afterward, I climbed back uphill to Caprichosa. It was almost noon. The sun scorched, and each concrete step felt like a hurdle. By the time I made it to my room, all I could do was change into a bikini, guzzle water from the mini-fridge, and collapse on the bed beneath a ceiling fan. Two hours later, I woke without having realized I’d fallen asleep. It was my first taste of the tropics as a pregnant woman, and I’d been defeated by a 10-minute walk in the midday heat. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between a miniature faux–infinity pool and the shade of a red umbrella. From the heights of Caprichosa’s plant- and sculpture-filled terrace, I could see the beach, a narrow shard of sand that at low tide joins Taboga with El Morro, a small, rocky mound just offshore.
I made my way down to the ocean and am now bobbing like an apple. In the distance, there is a field of freighters that recall childhood games of Battleship. Hulking, rusted beasts with stark paint jobs—black, white, red, and blue—the ships look like floating factories, wrapped in industrial pipes and chugging exhaust. Beyond them, the skyline of Panama City is a metropolitan landscape of jagged jack-o’-lantern teeth. Though Taboga’s beaches are immaculate, it is hard not to think of that field of working ships, that ugly urban runoff. The pool, I tell myself, poses no such risks, and I return to my aerie.
I wouldn’t say I’m lazy on Taboga so much as purposeless. Twice a day, I walk to one end of town and back again. I stroll the paths and climb the stairs and sit on the beach and register the details of the place: the Catholic altars embedded in concrete walls, the large frogs that startle at my feet, the particular way the evening wind off the water rattles the bougainvillea vines. They’re the kinds of things you notice when you’re alone. Then I think, This is probably the last time I will be alone for a very long time.
But I don’t feel alone. Not in the way I used to. I now understand why every story of my mom’s time in Central and South America included me, as if I were a companion, a fellow traveler. What I’d always seen as one of her many eccentricities has revealed itself to be a bond I didn’t know we had. Not the bond of mother and daughter, but the bond of mothers who travel—who insist on traveling even when we are told again and again that having children means our days of travel are behind us.
As a rule, I don’t think men should receive special praise for being parents to their children. But my dad was an unusual father. A single dad in the late 1970s, before it was cool, he shared me with my mom—an equal parent, by his telling, caring for an infant by himself for days at a time. We’ve always been close, but in recent years we’d lived on opposite sides of the country and I’d seen him less. My pregnancy, and his impending grandparenthood, compelled me to close that gap. Spending more time together became a priority. All the better if I could see him while also being weightless in a warm ocean, drinking maracuyá (passion fruit) juice, eating just-caught fish, and revisiting a place, Panama, that has played a recurring role in my life since before I was born.
By the time I step off the prop plane and onto the blazing runway in Bocas del Toro, my dad has been here for two months, working on getting Coyote ready for another Canal crossing and its next ambitious passage: a single-handed transpacific sail to Hawaii, perhaps. At 70, he is recovering from his fourth hip replacement. Meanwhile, his dinghy, the small inflatable motorboat that is a cruising sailor’s primary local transportation, was stolen last year and has yet to be replaced. In every way that matters to him, my dad is less mobile than he’d like. When I arrive, he seems restless but eager to introduce me to his friends at the marina, excited by the prospect of me planning and being in charge of our adventures for once.
Bocas Marina is separated from town by mangroves and saltwater channels and is accessible only by boat. Dad relies on water taxis, which charge one dollar per person, to get him back and forth. But, he tells me, he rarely makes the trip to town. I can see why. In recent years, Bocas has become a stop on the international backpacking-and-partying circuit. Its waterfront is lined with stilted buildings in Caribbean-pastel tints: hotels, tour companies, and dance clubs that advertise “Nasty Monday” specials ($1 beer bong and $1 tequila shots) and Organic Trance, a genre of music that apparently makes heavy use of the didgeridoo. Restaurants have slogans like “No Place Like Om” (at an Indian vegetarian spot) and “Store in a Cool Place” (at the Super Gourmet kosher deli). Between the dreadlocked travelers selling handmade jewelry and the blonde revelers in short shorts dancing on hostel balconies, Bocas could just as easily be Thailand or India or anywhere else on the sun, surf, and cheap drugs itinerary.
None of that is my father, but not because he’s 70 or because he’s stuffy. A believer in the enduring power of the counterculture, Dad is not uncomfortable with eccentricity or queasy at the spectacle of youth. But he’s also not overly enthused about spending time in a crowd of strangers. While I travel for culture—for food and architecture, history and art—Dad travels, above all else, for nature. Sailing, and seeing the world at eight knots per hour, appeals to him because it means experiencing places that aren’t accessible to most of us. Dad doesn’t dislike Bocas, but for him it is a means to an end. That end is the hundreds of largely uninhabited islands that lie just southeast of here, in the San Blas archipelago.
For me, on the other hand, this trip has taken on a weight and meaning beyond its scope. After years of being told that having children will change everything (a truism that, when spoken by people with kids to those without them, can sound like a threat), this is my last chance to travel as the person I’ve been.
Being my father’s daughter hasn’t been my primary identity for decades. But as I prepare to become a parent myself, I’m acutely aware of the anchor he has been in my life. My dad becoming a grandfather makes him mortal for me in a way that he has somehow escaped until now. He’s not a religious man, and when he talks about having a grandchild, he seems more at ease with aging—and with death—than I can ever remember him being. “It’s a total trip,” he tells me. “Becoming a grandfather puts me in touch with something cosmic—something beyond my everyday life. It plugs me into something greater and beyond any of us.”
My first full day in Bocas is Good Friday, which the mayor has declared a dry holiday. There is to be no alcohol sold anywhere, and the sailors of Bocas Marina are not happy. But they have a plan. A small group arranges for two pangas to shuttle them to the Blue Coconut, a bar-restaurant built above the water off Solarte, one of the outlying islands. Dad and I decide to join—though more for the company and the easy access to a clean, swimmable bay than for the bar’s signature curaçao cocktail. We sit for hours that afternoon beneath the thatched roof as a half-dozen sailors drink Balboa beers and trade stories. At one point, dad rolls out one of his favorites from Southeast Asia: the time I befriended a small, cheerful monkey, spending every moment I could with it over the course of weeks, only to have it turn one day and bite me.
When I was a kid, our adventures were big. I snorkeled with sharks in Palau, stumbled upon massive anti-American protests in the Philippines, and stepped up as a vital crew member as we sailed into drenching, violent rain. But our four days together in Bocas are made up of smaller, sweeter moments.
I know the packaged nature is underwhelming for Dad. But his spirits are high. He seems to relish his role as a father, talking me up to anyone who will listen. When we meet parents traveling with young kids, it takes him back. “Remember when...,” he says. Or, “Where was that?” Or simply, “That was such a great trip.” Will I have the guts to take my kid out of school to go sailing? This, I realize, is what I had come to Panama for. I wasn’t here for the beauty of the place, though it is stunning. I’d come for the concentrated time with my dad. Just him and me. The last time we’d traveled alone together was 14 years before, when I was in college and had just met my now-husband, Tim—and any traveling we do together from now on will almost certainly be as a larger, noisier family. For me, this trip was a bookend. But it was also a much-needed reminder of the joy Dad took in traveling as a parent and, therefore, what I might hope for—and aspire to—myself.
One morning, we take a water taxi into town, curious to see what tours might be within reach of a very pregnant woman and a soon-to-be-grandfather recovering from major surgery. We walk up and down the main drag, but I’m irritated by the hustling salesmen, and, since taking a tour was my idea, I feel the pressure of choosing the right one. So I procrastinate, and instead of buying tickets, Dad and I end up at the Super Gourmet, where we find our favorite ice cream, Häagen-Dazs coffee, buried deep at the bottom of the freezer case. As we sit on the sidewalk outside, the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” hums through the market’s speakers. Plastic spoons in hand, barely saying a word, we devour the entire carton.
>>Next: What Happens When Life Turns You Into a New Kind of Traveler?