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The Bull Pen MAG
I was standing waist-deep in lukewarm water, my fingertips gently grazing the surface, creating ripples that encompassed me. My hair formed a veil around my face as I gazed into the clear water and dug my toes into the off-white sand. A soft breeze broke my focus. I glanced around the cove and noticed a subtle shadow fifteen feet away, swimming in a zigzag pattern. My entire body froze; my eyes locked on the shadow as it moved closer. The urge to run was overwhelming, but after years of watching Shark Week, I knew I should stay put.
I discovered on the plane that this trip to Panama wasn't going to be easy. The screams of crying babies pierced the stale air. I sat with my eyes closed, my fingers strumming my thigh to pass the time. My left eye twitched as the anxiety built in me. I had never minded flying, but the thought of sitting in an uncomfortable seat for six hours (not to mention the six-hour car ride that would follow) set me on edge.
I looked for distractions, anything to make the time pass more quickly. The Panamanian couple next to me caught my attention. I had tried to listen in on their conversation but their combination of English and Spanish baffled me. The stewardess reminded me of Rosie from “The Jetsons” the way she instructed everyone how to put on a seat belt and use the oxygen mask. I glanced back at my friend, Victoria, who was engaged in conversation with an American woman. The plane vibrated as it lurched into motion and continued to accelerate until the wheels lifted off the ground. I plugged my earphones in to drown out the noise, closed my eyes, and drifted off to sleep.
We landed in Panama at noon, and my friend's mom picked us up. I sat in the back seat of her small pickup, listening to music, surrounded by containers of condensed milk and other canned goods. I stared out the window at the looming skyscrapers, the smell of low tide seeping in the cracked windows. The air conditioning didn't work, and my shirt was clinging in the intense heat and humidity.
Across from the skyscrapers, the ocean was filled with garbage and sewage. There were run-down shacks with naked children playing with dolls that had missing limbs and the occasional missing head.
As the hours passed, the scenery began to change. The houses dwindled and cows could be seen grazing on the cliffs. After five hours, we pulled over and my friend took out her camera and got out of the truck. I didn't realize why we had stopped until I noticed my friend aiming her camera at a tree on top of a hill. It looked as if it had been bent in half by the wind, its limbs stretching to the side, grasping for whatever sunlight it could find. The sun had begun to set, casting an eerie glow on the strange tree. Blaring tones of red, orange, and pink shining through the branches put me in a trance. My friend climbed back in and we continued our drive. We traveled up and around mountains, where the only houses we saw were small shacks. Finally, I saw a sign for Cambutal, Panama.
The little town had dogs running everywhere. Chickens picked at bugs on the side of the road, and there were no other vehicles. A lone man on a horse traveled toward us carrying a bag of goods. The only businesses in town were a dried goods store and two bars. The house that Victoria's family owned had recently been built and was located right on a river where many horses roamed.
Many days during our stay we would lie in the hammock and listen to the river lap at the rocks. Other times we took the quads down to the ocean and explored the caves or swam. When we went it was always at low tide, or we faced the risk of being swept out to sea by the current. In order to get there we had to climb a series of cliffs, an adventure in itself.
When we finally reached the entrance to the cave I could instantly smell the bat feces that covered the floor. When we flashed a light on the ceiling we found thousands of eyes staring back at us.
One night, as we all sat in one of the restaurants in town, a local suggested going surfing the next day. My smile instantly turned into a frown; I am one of the most uncoordinated people I know. I said I had no interest in surfing but would be happy to go with them. At five the next morning, we went.
Equipped in flip-flops and a bathing suit, I set out to climb a mountain. Victoria, four locals, and I trudged up the steep path that had been created by dozens of surfers on their way to the same destination. The locals balanced surfboards atop their heads; their feet seemed to have memorized the path. Victoria awkwardly alternated the arm carrying her board to keep her balance.
“Where exactly are we going?” I asked Victoria, who could speak Spanish well enough to communicate with the locals.
“It's called the Bull Pen. It's a cove in between two mountains.” She almost lost her footing and started to tumble backwards, but I put my hand on her back, managing to hold her until she caught a branch.
“Why is it called the Bull Pen?” I asked. We had finally reached the top, and I looked down on a large beach that formed a river in one area. It was much larger than I had expected.
“Because it's a popular hunting spot for bull sharks. It's close to shore and they have the river. Best of both worlds.”
She began to climb down. All I could think about was what my grandmother would say if she had any idea what I was doing. When we reached the bottom, the others instantly paddled out with their boards, leaving me alone with my towel.
I fell asleep for a while, and when I awoke they were far away. I stood and brushed the sand from my burnt legs and walked toward the water to stick my toes in. I crushed tons of tiny shells beneath my feet as I walked. The translucent water sent a calming sensation through me that touched me to the core. I let my body go limp in the water and steered my thoughts to the birds calling to one another and the gentle nudge of the tide against my body.
When I opened my eyes I noticed a subtle shadow fifteen feet away, swimming in a zigzag pattern. If I moved, the bull shark would become aware of my presence. I knew they have poor vision and hunt by using their hearing. I tried to focus on what to do, but my thoughts kept leading back to my fear. I could feel sweat trickling down my face, not just from the heat but also from the anxiety. I knew if I kept calm I might be able to think of a way to get out of the water. But I was too scatter-brained to come up with anything.
I dared not move a toe. I could feel tears building. My fear was so strong that my mind became fogged and blocked all my senses. I could hear faint voices of my friend and the locals, the waves breaking at the shoreline, the birds chirping. It all seemed tranquil and unrealistic. The gentle water pushed at my sides, a reminder of the reality in front of me. The shark moved closer – from fifteen feet to ten.
I made a drastic decision and dashed for the shore, the weight of the water slowed me, and it seemed to take forever. Finally I felt the hard shells under my feet, a sign that I was getting closer. My feet broke from the water, touching the scorching sand. I stopped and rested my hands on my knees.
“No way,” I muttered under my breath. I couldn't believe what had just happened. The others were completely unaware. I turned to face the shark, which seemed unaware as well. It continued swimming in zigzag motions. I returned to my towel and collapsed, breathing heavily. I had never felt fear like this – such a real, unique experience. The birds continued to chirp, the waves still crashed, and somewhere beyond the beach, the shark continued searching for its next meal.
During the flight home I thought about whether I would tell my grandmother what had happened at the Bull Pen that day. I thought about telling her I had a life-changing experience and encountered a side of nature I never thought I would see. I might tell her that my life could have changed in a split second.
In the end, I decided to keep the story to myself. Instead, she heard about the caves, the waterfalls, the locals, and the horses. I told her the glamorous parts, the exotic stories. I told her of the cultural and economic differences between the U.S. and Panama.
Everything in my life could have changed in one instant. It brought me together with nature in a way I know I won't experience again.