The Floating Merchant and The Sea of Tears

Chapter 7: The Pearl Islands, Pacific Coast, Panama, Summer 2013

Wide-eyed and smeared in neon paint, I emerged from my tent famished. I wandered around the open green glade, where behind tumbled a waterfall into an inky lagoon. I approached a fellow festival-goer who was leaning against his car. ‘Oh, you’re a sailor, really?’ I said as I munched on his packet of digestive biscuits. ‘Meet me tomorrow at Panama City marina,’ he boomed in a thick German accent.

My eyes were circled with purple clouds. I was beyond tired, tired of fleeting romances, endless landscapes, secret passages and dirty hostel floors. I needed endless blue.

We left early, the sun was rising and the sea looked calm. It would be some hours before we arrived at the first set of Islands, so I immediately set about my duties, which included preparing lunch. As the waves swelled, the teapot began moving from side to side. I was trying so hard to keep my balance as I precariously cut sandwiches with a large knife. Soon after eating, the motion of the boat got too much for me. The waves looked like they were getting larger. Suddenly feeling worse for wear, I went below deck and stumbled to the toilet. The curtain partition swung side to side, giving the concerned Merchant a glimpse of me, knelt down, hugging the toilet which later that evening I would deny, preferring to be seen as brave and more experienced, as opposed to having seasickness, being completely out of my depth, and afraid of being shipwrecked. After temporarily anchoring beside uninhabited islands, I made my excuses and retired early for the night.

“Come see the fireworks, Lucy!” He lit one after another, lighting up the little islands that circled us that night. He had been saving them for a special occasion, along with magic mushrooms.

“No, it’s ok!” I bellowed from my porthole. “I’m too tired”. I sobbed quietly into my pillow. After the explosions outside subsided, he came into my cabin, delved into a large box, which was stored under my bunk bed and produced one of his Japanese-made disco radio clocks that he sold on the side.  Giving me a sympathetic look, he handed it to me and told me to concentrate on the changing colours which he thought would have a soothing effect. As the hues changed from red, orange, pink to blue, I began to feel calmer and gently drifted off.

I awoke with a thud. The Merchant had set off early that morning and decided to let me sleep in. I climbed the little ladder, looked out from the top deck and shrieked with glee “Land!”. I leapt into the water, waist-deep I waded my way to the shore, scurried across the sand, and disappeared into the thicket of trees, wondering if I would be lucky enough to find a store to buy smokes, only later to return with a handful of odd plastics that I found washed up on the beach. The island was deserted, and we were so far away from civilisation that it seemed so sad to me that we’d found such a pretty little place with so much rubbish collecting around it.

We explored more of the island, hacking our way through the wild thicket, pushing vines and unrecognisable plants aside to create a path that would finally lead us to a little clearing that was arranged like a Wendy house. Plants were sprouting out of an assortment of brightly coloured containers sitting at various heights, on shelves made of driftwood, a small fire pit and a seating area. It was cozy. We sat on broken plastic crates, played house and rearranged things to our liking. Satisfied with our efforts at Feng Shui, we returned to the boat. After the excitement of finding the secret encampment had faded away, a long heavy silence crept in.  ‘Do you need to smoke?’ he said.  “No, I´m fine”, I replied whilst thinking to myself how clearing a wild space to make it liveable was much easier than trying to clear the clutter that resided within.

As the boat swayed, the weight of the baggage I was carrying troubled the merchant. He said with a furrowed brow ‘You must throw it overboard. It won´t do if your mind is elsewhere.’

Before setting off on this voyage he had warned me to bring enough cigarettes with me, but I mistakenly thought I could detox. After quietly observing that my mood was changing to a tense one, the next island we found, he haggled for a few smokes for me from some inquisitive fishermen. 

The Merchant wasn’t much older than me but we were a world apart. He towered over me with his giant-like frame. He had his own floating home where he ran his successful clock trading business and had once invented a navigating operation system that helped people find their way. No one had been lost thus far. He was one-hundred percent self-sufficient, very logical and practical, but could be spontaneously silly and childlike. After safely returning to Panama, he was very keen to organise a second trip with me but made it very clear that he wished I cleared any outstanding debts, that I had no obligations and was completely prepared to embark on a voyage far beyond where we had been so far for an indefinite period of time.

At first, I entertained the idea. Why not another grand adventure? I could easily drop my job back in the jungle, cross the Panama Canal and see the other side. However, I had already spent three weeks with him, with little to no contact with family or the outside world. Quite frankly, I felt a little stranded. In the end, I´d be trading more than I´d get in return. I needed more than a platonic friendship and I certainly didn’t want to drift further away into the unknown. It was time for me to return. He pulled the anchor and I grabbed a bus headed elsewhere.

Written and illustrated by Lucy Lilley. All copyrights reserved.

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