|PARQUE NACTIONAL ISLA DE COIBA, PANAMA|
Just after sunrise the tips of the four tall palm trees climbing out of the sand on the volcanic protrusion called Granito de Oro are lit up like Hollywood halogens. We are in the heart of the 300-island PARQUE NACIONAL ISLA DE COIBA and will spend the day 'exploring' the paradisiacal two-acre lump of sand and rock by foot, snorkel and fins. Other than a handful of park rangers on the main island of Coiba, there isn't a significant human population for a couple hundred miles either way up or down the jungle coastline. Rather, in the shade of those sunlit palms, we find tens of thousands of tiny hermit crabs - shouldering every imaginable shape, size and color of portable shell - trundling back and forth, busy for a Saturday morning.
Sitting on a black volcanic rock on the eastern side of the island, I find myself wondering if there is anyone alive who isn't made blissful sitting at water's edge staring at the horizon, hypnotized by that delicate, nearly imperceptible-yet-somehow-distinct line where blue meets blue? Who among us doesn't count those solitary, sunset-washed moments - whether afloat on a boat or feet dug deep into the sand - as among the favorites in a lifetime?
Sounds like a cliché, doesn't it? Maybe it is. But if the views off the edges of the globe are not the most soothing, the most renewing on the planet, why do so many of us flock there to live, work, rejuvenate. (And why do we insist on calling it Planet Earth anyway, when 77 percent of our home base is covered by ocean rather than terra firma?) Put me on the edge of a sea, ocean, or big lake at sunrise, sunset - or nearly anytime in between for that matter - and I'm content beyond words. For the past decade I've managed to put myself in that place countless times, exploring the world's coastlines from sea level.
At each stop during the past ten years I have paused for long minutes, sometimes an hour, occasionally more, often far off the coast, to ponder the horizon, watching the sun fall into the sea or rise. I find an incredible renewing energy in each of these scenes. And it is the memories of those horizon lines - and the people met along the globe's edges - that keeps me going back out there.
Watching those hermit crabs beneath the shade of tall palm trees, feet dug deep into the white sand, reminds me of a question I've often pondered and have posed to others in recent years. Define Paradise? Man has been searching for years. Christopher Columbus, when he first-sighted the Caribbean islands on the opposite side of Panama, was convinced he'd found it. British explorer SAMUEL WALLIS was the first white man to land in Tahiti, in 1767 and his sailors were the first to become "madly fond of the shore." A naturalist aboard the ship of Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville, PHILLIPE COMMERSON was the first to label the South Seas "utopia." In the two-and-a-half centuries since, sailors - and now tourists - have scoured the globe searching the same thing, Heaven on Earth.