BY LENA KAZER
The accident happened while Wendy and I were driving from the southern Chiriquí region of Panama to Bocas del Toro, the archipelago on the Caribbean coast. We decided to skip the flight, rent a car, and drive so that we could see more of the country, and experience Panama in full for our guide. We were two hours into the drive as I wove through the mountains at full speed, anxious to get to the water taxis in Almirante and meet our contact on time. As Wendy slept next to me in the driver’s seat, the sky turned a dense solid gray and rain began to pour down in sheets.
The rain got heavier as I passed over a wooden bridge, and we began our ascent toward a cliff that circled the mountain. There is one Pamamanian tradition that I will always wish I had never picked up, and that is their driving culture. Drivers in Panama take lanes as suggestions, and passing slower drivers is extremely common. Irritated with the red SUV that kept stopping abruptly in front of us, I accelerated to pass it before a curve that was a few hundred meters ahead. As the rental finally began to rev its engine, which consistently required me to floor it, we approached the SUV and I maneuvered into the left lane to pass. Just as I reached the red car, I realized we were getting too close to the curve, so I braked to slow down. The road was too wet, and I was going too fast. The car made it through the turn but hydroplaned, and slid left toward a cement ditch that guarded the road. In seconds, greenery surrounded the car, whipping against our windows and snapping around us. Then, just like the end of a rollercoaster ride, the rental car slid to a lopsided stop, my hands still holding the steering wheel at ten and two.
Wendy and I looked at one another, holding our hearts and checking one another for injuries. My brain kept replaying the last few moments, desperate to rewrite the story, to take back time and ensure this moment will be a fuzzy dream montage, not real life. Our first miracle was that neither of us had any injuries, not a scratch. We had slowed down so gently that the airbag didn’t even activate, and the body of the car was completely unaffected. Suddenly, there was knocking on Wendy’s window and yelling. Through the droplets on the rear windows I could see several cars already parked on the side of the road, hazards blinking in the rain.
Soon, gentle hands were opening our doors and pulling us out of the car. Struggling to shift languages from English to Spanish while still in shock, I explained to the gathered drivers what had happened. Soon, we had our own team of impromptu mechanics, insurance agents, chauffeurs, and translators. Four men used their shoulders to push the car out of the ditch, while Alex, the man who could best decipher my broken Spanish, spoke to the rental car company on my cell phone. A police officer arrived, who was patient and had a sense of humor as we explained our story and filed a report. He felt a bit like an older brother that had found his sisters drinking underage.
In any other version of this story, when the report was finished, Wendy and I stood in the rain waiting for two hours for the rental car company to arrive from David, back where we came from. Whether it was good karma, or faith, or the particular decision of the Universe to be generous that day, I was astonished as I began to translate for Wendy the conversation between our team of guardian angels. “Who is taking the girls? Where are you guys headed? Can you take them to Bocas del Toro? The water taxis stop at 6, you’ll have to hurry.”
The taxi driver who closely resembled a meatball patted his chest and smiled to reveal two missing front teeth, while his older and soft-spoken friend began to roll our luggage to the taxi. We thanked the police officer and hugged Alex, telling him he was our “ángel” as he wrote down his number, just in case. Just an hour after our rental car slid to a stop on the side of a mountain, Wendy and I sat in the back of a taxi, reggaeton blaring en route to Almirante.
When we finally arrived at the hotel after two boats and a terrifying ride through a mangrove, Wendy and I sat at dinner counting our blessings. The day had been traumatic, and terrifying, and exhausting, but there we were, safe together at the Dolphin Bay Hotel. The owner, Erika, was another one of our guardian angels. We arrived soaked in sea water at the main island of Bocas del Toro after dark, and received a phone call from Erika that she was sending another boat to bring us to Isla Bastimientos, the island on which her hotel is located. Moments later, a boat that looked more like a chubby canoe pulled up to the dock, and the driver handed us his cell phone. Erika’s voice came over the line, “You made it!” and told us she would meet us at the dock when we arrived. As we dove into our dinner of fresh lobster and vegetables, our survival-mode slowly began to wear off. We sipped beers and told the three other guests our story.
Wendy and I witnessed the most magnificent generosity and patience from the Panamanian people. While the car accident will undoubtedly inspire feelings of regret and disheartened guilt in me for a long time, our discussions of the many angels who protected us that day remind me to contextualize the experience in the light of lessons. I made a dangerous mistake that jeopardized one of the most important people in my life, but I was lucky enough to be given a second chance. Not only were we physically spared, we were offered the most beautiful view we beheld in Panama: that of strangers offering everything they could for two foreigners they’d never met.
We dream and work for Jetset Times to inspire others to travel the world, and see all of the spectacular gifts that exist beyond our comfort zones. On that rainy afternoon in the mountains of Panama, in the most abrupt and terrifying of ways, Wendy and I were reminded why we do what we do. It is these moments of others’ pure generosity that inspire us to be better people, better travelers. We never stop learning as travelers, we never stop growing, and we never stop moving forward. Most importantly, the two of us will never stop believing that the love and empathy of human beings is limitless. It will always be there, in the most remote landscapes of the world, waiting to reveal itself to a wayward traveler.