I stood on the deck of the houseboat with a boa constrictor draped around my neck. Her tongue rapaciously darting in and out, the snake slithered down my arm. Then, unexpectedly, she turned to look at me, and her head began maneuvering back towards my face.
“Hurry up with the picture!” I croaked, beginning to panic. A couple of quick shutter clicks and Captain Carl relieved me of my reptilian friend.
I hadn’t had an inkling that the serpent had slept aboard the houseboat last night with the three of us — my husband, son and me — anchored in a remote cove in the wilds of Panama’s Canal Zone.
“Aw, Candy won’t hurt you,” Carl said, assuring me about the submissiveness of his pet boa. I smiled, but was not placated. That’s what he’d said last night, too, when we were canoeing in the darkness, and he’d bailed halfway over the side of the dugout, only to come up out of the water with a baby spectacled caiman in his hand.
“He’s not gonna hurt you. You can pet him. Trust me.”
Sure … an infant croc grunting for his mother, smiling for us with dozens of sharp teeth on display.
We did, however, run our fingers over his scaly tail and on the soft underside of his belly, and live to tell about it. We even snickered when our capitán gently tossed him back into the murky waterway. For a second, the little caiman had lingered there, bobbing like a fisherman’s plumb, before diving below the surface.
So I decided to put some faith in Captain Carl, with his grizzled beard and ponytail, and let him hand over the snake to her next potential victim — my 10-year-old son, Nicolas.
A few more snapshots, then we loaded up our gear, left the harmonious cadence of the rainforest and headed back to the boat ramp at the Gamboa public dock.
Less than 20 minutes later, we were back in the throes of civilization — downtown Panama City. With its glitzy high rises, hustle-and-bustle, and the braying of music from the diablos rojos, those garishly-painted buses that cruise the congested capital’s streets, it was the perfect base camp for our two weeks of vacation. Our overnight houseboating exploits were merely the first stop in an action-packed fortnight of adventure.
And what an adventure it had been so far — 24 hours of non-stop activity and sometimes, heart-palpitating excitement. Plunging through narrow waterways lined with palm fronds to discover another hidden inlet, our launch had cut a swath through the thick foliage enveloping both sides of the channel. It had dumped us out in a tree-enshrouded enclave, where we hiked through pristine wilderness to the base of a small waterfall. We were completely secluded from the outside world.
Amid the steaming humidity that clung to every branch and vine in the tropical forest, the unexpected chill of the cascade was invigorating. Naturally, Nicolas had to be the first to brave the torrents; he pressed his shoulders against the smooth rock and let the pounding cataract buffet his upper body.
Back at our “safari hotel” — equipped with kayaks, kitchen, dining area and a small souvenir shop in addition to sleeping quarters — we had dined by the glow of tiki torch lamps. A pair of bats had descended out of the darkness and swooped across the lake. We had fallen asleep to the rhythmic swaying of the houseboat and the nighttime lullaby of droning insects, chirping crickets, and the muffled whine of monkeys, high up in the treetops.